When the call comes in the middle of the night — disturbing what had been a hot, sticky dream — Chris’s troubles should have been over. The bad guy who was responsible for a series of late night attacks is dead, the waiter a hero. Everything should have been over except for the paperwork. But the young waiter, Gregory, is the one who’s been making Chris’s dreams very hot and sticky. Gregory is on the run from a hypocritical television evangelist who removes the will of people and turns them into mindless slaves. He wants Gregory back – and he’s only getting stronger.
The dream started out any number of ways, from a nightmare of a test not studied for to running through fields. The threat always remained the same. Something heavy wanted him, and Chris never needed to know what it was. He’d seen enough darkness in his life that he didn’t have to name it.
Then, the rain came. Not real rain, cold and unforgiving, but dream rain. Chris felt it on his skin, but the wetness didn’t chill him. A fog followed, and rather than being threatening, it enveloped him. Anticipation replaced breathless fear.
And, eventually, he came. The young man was naked, as always, except for the knife belt around his waist. The blade was almost the full length of his thigh, more of a machete than a knife, and the leg strap was down by his knee. There things in this dream that clawed and bit, but the young man kept them away.
Chris had been having these dreams for over a year, and he’d seen the young man’s body fill out. He had lost the last bit of coltish length to his arms and legs. He’d broadened considerably across the shoulders, and today he appeared without a single scar marring his perfect skin. Chris had seen such horrible scars crossing his chest and belly, marks so deep they didn’t seem as though anyone would be able to survive them, and then the next night, a week or a month later, there’d be only a ghost of a scar.
His black hair was slicked down from the rain. His green eyes were bright, despite the apparent lack of sun. His lips were full — that had never changed — and when they kissed, those lips always felt bruised. Chris’s cock stirred as the young man emerged from the mist, but he kept his arms by his side and didn’t stare too long. There had been more times than not that he’d come this far and then something had spooked him. He’d withdraw as quickly as he appeared, leaving Chris with a raging hard-on and the feeling of rain on his skin.
They never spoke, either. Not that Chris could. He would open his mouth, ready to ask a million questions, but in the logic of this dream, in this place, no words would come. Or could come. That would ruin the whole thing. In the beginning, the young man played along, giving him a smile and pressing a finger against Chris’s lips. The smile seemed forced somehow.
They circled around each other. That much was allowed. The knife should have been a threat to Chris. As a police officer, being unarmed in front of the young man with the huge knife strapped to his thigh, naked though he was, should have raised every bit of instinct for self-preservation Chris had, but it never did. When he was on his knees in front of the young man, his hands on the narrow hips as though he could pull him deeper down his throat, Chris would occasionally hook his fingers into the belt.
The young man would always, without flinching, remove Chris’s hand, moving it up or down, and Chris would let it be. It was only a dream, even if he could taste the salty residue of semen on his lips for hours after he’d woken.
Tonight, this night, the young man was especially skittish. Chris knew he wouldn’t stay. They circled around each other one more time. Chris held out his hands, beseeching. The young man glanced over his shoulder as though someone were speaking to him. A moment passed, then two, and the young man nodded, taking a step closer to Chris.
The young man’s skin was the temperature of the rain. Again, in fuzzy dream logic, one moment Chris was wearing his uniform, the next he was naked as well, naked and on his back in the loam. It shouldn’t have been comfortable. It should have been wet and cold and crawling with insects, but it was soft and dry, despite the rain. It seemed the most natural thing in the world, dream logic or not, to spread his legs, grip his knees, and let the young man push inside him.
There was no burn and no discomfort. The rain was still falling — now Chris felt it running over his shoulders as he was pushed back into the ground — but it fell silently. All he heard was his own breath, and a part of him realized that he was alone in his bed, and not flat on his back, that the hand gathering up his cock was his own. The constant pressure, exact and perfect on his prostate, was nothing more than a distant memory spliced into the dream.
The young man shifted, pulling Chris’s hips to him. He grabbed Chris’s thigh, leaning forward, and his arm came down beside Chris’s cheek. The muscles were tight and sinewy, and Chris, for the first time, saw how callused his hands were. He’d used the knife for more than just show. Chris grabbed onto it, digging his nails in. The young man hissed — making the only sound Chris had ever heard from him.
Chris ran his hand down his own belly. His cock was so hard that at even the brush of his — dry! — fingers against his length couldn’t stop his shudder. The young man pushed him, riding him hard. But as much as Chris felt their bodies moving together and, the sting against the back of his thighs as their wet skin slapped together, he could still feel the sheets wrap around his legs and tangle hopelessly, sweat the only slickness on his skin.
“No,” he said. Actually forming the word woke him up. The young man’s face was sad, even as the ghost of his weight over Chris’s body followed him back to the sound of the ringing phone.
Ringing phone. The dry heat of the bedroom, the sounds from the street outside his window, and the soft whomp from the ceiling fan brought him the rest of the way out of his dream. Phone. He groped for it, bringing it to his ear even as his other hand was still desperately moving against the hot, sticky sheet over his cock. He stopped, shame-faced, and pushed the talk button.
“What?” he demanded.
There was a pause on the other line, and Chris immediately regretted his outburst. He rubbed his face. “Hello?” he asked, instead.
“Did we catch you at a bad time, lieutenant?”
Chris recognized Jamie’s voice even through the static. It was a bad time — the only night off he’d had in three weeks. He was bone tired and his body suddenly reminded him of all the neglect he’d been forcing on it. But there was only one way to answer the question. “Of course not,” he said. He was the officer on call during the night until the other lieutenant, Niles, returned from his sabbatical, and as much as Chris hated being woken up for wild goose chases most nights, it was nice not to have to hear Niles’s thinly veiled dislike for Chris’s particular tastes. “What is it?”
“The Owl’s struck again, sir. Betty’s Kitchen on Fourteenth.”
Chris shook his head. “How many?” he asked. The Night Owl had been holding up late night diners for weeks, herding the staff and what few customers remained into the deep freeze or storage area and killing them all. Deserted restaurants kept the number of deaths down, but they hadn’t a single shred of physical evidence against the guy. Cameras, panic buttons, it was as though he knew what was there, disabled it, and was out before the cups of coffee on the tables lost their warmth.
“No one died. Well, besides him.”
Chris sat up in bed. “He’s dead?”
“We assume it’s him, yes, sir.”
“What brought him down?” Chris asked. Sometimes it came down to that. An off-duty cop who was still packing, an irate owner with a sawed-off shotgun, it wasn’t as though the Owl had tried to keep a low profile.
“One of the staff. He’s here with us now.”
Chris threw his blanket off. “Don’t let him go. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Of course, sir.”
Getting dressed when he felt as though he were moving through mercury wasn’t easy. He had to unbutton and rebutton his shirt twice to ensure that both ends met evenly, and even with the last bit of stone-cold coffee from the pot in his system, he was still groggy. Luckily the wind was cool, bordering on brisk, and the green lights ahead of him spanned as far as the eye could see. By the time he pulled into the small parking lot, full of emergency vehicles and a lone ambulance with its lights turned off, he felt human again.
The diner had originally been painted in pale yellows and pinks, but now was so grimy it looked more like darker and lighter patches of dirt. The neon light, announcing it was open twenty-four hours, gave off the same snapping sound as the average bug zapper. The bricks of the small walkway were broken and uneven, and the abandoned lots on both sides said that this had been a bad neighborhood for a very long time.
Stepping into the diner, Chris was surprised by the difference. Inside the diner, every surface was clean. The floor was polished and even, and the tables that hadn’t been occupied were spotless. In the past few months, Chris had resigned himself to see the abandoned seats where the dead had sat, little bits of their life, a key ring here, a cell phone or a purse still waiting for its owner to come collect it. There were no remains here. The dishes had the familiar hardened food on them, the coffee cups were still cold, but the people who’d been sitting at the tables were wrapped the requisite gray blankets kept on hand by the paramedics. They sat at one of the empty, clean tables, the night’s trauma making them all suddenly closer.
Chris looked toward the customers first. Four would-be victims. They’d been sitting apart, it looked like, one just in for coffee and a piece of pie, but the old man had the old woman’s hand in his, and the young man had his arm over the younger woman’s shoulder. Chris didn’t doubt for a second they knew how lucky they were. All were studiously not looking at the draped body by the cash register. The white sheet was still white; it hadn’t been a bloody death.
The cook stood with two officers by the rotating dessert display. That it was still on and still spinning was an affront, but Chris said nothing. The cook was a big guy, easily a head taller than either officer interviewing him, but he was muscular and thin. His white shirt was spotless, unlike any of the stereotypical cooks at a greasy spoon, and there was something about the muscles of his arm that made Chris think ex-con, except for the relaxed way he was talking to the officers. Still, if there was one person in the entire diner who could have taken out the Owl, Chris would have put his money on the big cook.
But Harrison, a cop Chris had worked with since coming to Arizona, looked up from thanking the cook for his time and shook his head. Not him. Who then, he wanted to ask, and Harrison glanced over his shoulder. Chris nodded and walked past the small group.
At first glance, he saw Jamie, his partner, the lone female officer at the scene, her hair plaited back in a thick French braid, her light coffee-colored skin bleached almost white by the florescent lights. Then his glance took in the figure beside her. He was seated and wearing loose T-shirt and jeans so it was impossible to see if his build resembled the young man in Chris’s dream. But there was no mistaking the dark hair and eyelashes or the bruised look to those green eyes. “Lieutenant,” Jamie said, and she stood.
Chris couldn’t stop staring. The young man noticed the look and turned slowly on his stool. But when their eyes met, there wasn’t a second of recognition in his guileless face.
Jamie stood up. “Lieutenant, this is Gregory. He stopped Richard Heath from committing this robbery.”
Chris nodded. He had to lock his jaw so he didn’t ask if Heath was stabbed. Despite the surreal aspect of the moment, he wasn’t going to be accused of leading a witness. This Gregory did not have the calluses that were so familiar in the dream. His hands were smooth. Still, Chris could see the long knife in his hands as easily as he saw the watch on Gregory’s wrist.
“What happened?” he asked instead.
Gregory glanced to Jamie. “Do I have to repeat it?”
“You’re going to have to get used to it, Mr. Edwards.”
For the first time Gregory’s expression changed. It was barely noticeable and if Chris hadn’t spent hours studying his face, he would have missed it. Chris had intended to repeat his question, but he knew that it would spook Gregory back into the mist. So Chris waited, patient as always, and let Gregory come to him.
“The man came into the diner,” Gregory began, hesitantly. Chris tried to keep his face blank, but he couldn’t stop the encouraging sound from the back of his throat. He shouldn’t have done it. Pure panic flared in Gregory’s eyes. “He tripped, hit his head on the counter, and fell.”
Jamie’s smile faded. “That’s not what you told me,” she began.
Gregory didn’t look away from Chris’s face. “I must have been mistaken,” he said.
Chris didn’t let himself react in any way now that the horse had left the barn. He wanted to let a long string of curses out; they hadn’t sequestered the witnesses, and the only other eye witnesses had heard Gregory recant. Chris turned to the cook. “Is that what you saw?”
Nothing passed between the cook and Gregory. If anything, Gregory was staring out the window, but couldn’t have seen anything but his own reflection staring back. “He fell,” the cook said without hesitation. Gregory’s shoulders relaxed.
“And them?” Chris demanded, motioning to the group at the single table.
“They were already in the freezer, sir,” Jamie said quietly. That was the Owl’s standard MO, but she didn’t say that. They had nothing that said the man on the floor was the same perp as in the other crimes. Chris still felt something was off, and it wasn’t just Gregory.
“Can you leave us alone?” Chris asked Jamie. Jamie nodded, touched Gregory on the shoulder over his gray blanket, and left them.
“Walk with me,” Chris said. Gregory nodded and stood up. They walked far enough away that they were standing directly in front of the door. With their voices low, no one would hear them. Chris stared at him, expecting some sign that Gregory recognized him, too, but Gregory wouldn’t look past his shoes.
“You look like a good kid,” Chris began. The “kid” got him a frown, one that was achingly familiar. The young man in his dream would look at him like that at the beginning. He wanted to take Gregory by the shoulder and shake him, but he refrained himself. He continued. “If you are in trouble, or were in trouble, and it’s a small thing, we can overlook that. We’re more interested in the truth.”
Gregory met his eyes for the first time, and the remembered dream all but slapped Chris across the face. He almost stumbled. “I’m not in any trouble,” Gregory said, speaking in a whisper. “But you can’t take me in.”
“I beg to differ,” Chris said. “We certainly can.”
Gregory frowned again, obviously angry at being toyed with. Problem with authority, Chris decided. “The man you —” he stopped himself. “The man who died may have been responsible for previous attacks. We just want to make sure we have the right guy.”
Gregory’s face went blank. “You have the right guy,” he said, and his voice sounded older than both of them. “Can I go now?” Gregory shrugged the blanket farther up his shoulders. “Officer?”
The word was only slightly ironic, as though Gregory knew Chris had spent the entire time they were together remembering what he looked like naked.
“He fell.” Chris repeated.
“He fell,” Gregory agreed, but he looked pained again. Chris wanted to touch him, to comfort him, but didn’t dare.
“I’m going to ask you not to leave town, Gregory.”
Gregory laughed, but barely made a sound. “You can ask.”
Chris stepped between him and the diners behind them. “I don’t think you realize how serious this is.”
Gregory looked at him again. And without a word, Chris knew that Gregory had had a gun to his temple. He’d been on his knees, on the clean, tiled floor. He’d grabbed Heath’s pant leg, yanking him off his feet, and the sound of his skull striking the counter had been surprisingly loud. And suddenly, Chris wanted to apologize for being so insensitive. “Come on.”
Jamie was by the table. She was taking notes from the witnesses, diligently, but Chris knew from experience she wasn’t enthused by what she was writing. “Are we done here?” he asked.
Jamie waited for the old woman to stop talking, and nodded. “I think we are.”
Chris dutifully gave everyone one of his cards, in case they remembered anything more. “Thank you so much for your cooperation.” Chris raised his voice so they all could hear. “And if you’re willing, I’d like an officer to escort you all home.”
He was looking at Gregory, expecting him to refuse the ride home. Instead, he went quietly to the car. Jamie stood by his side until the last of the black-and-whites pulled onto the street. “Coroner?” Chris asked.
“On his way.” Chris nodded. They waited for the black wagon to pull up before moving to the body.
“What do you think happened here?” Jamie asked.
“You took the witness statements.”
“None of them saw him approach. He was just in the middle of the diner. After that, it was all so quick. The cook was struck over the head first, and left on the floor. The rest —”
“All comes down to what Gregory saw. Before I showed up, what was he saying?”
“Not much,” Jamie said. She opened her mouth again, but didn’t speak. Chris waited. “He seemed very frightened.”
“But…” he prompted. There was a very big but in her voice.
She hesitated. The coroner’s wagon was pulling up. “He didn’t seem to me to wonder, even once, why him. He looked like he knew why he was being targeted.”
“Of course, sir.”
Chris knelt down beside the body and flipped back the sheet.
The most noticeable thing about Heath was the fact he was dead. It was the only thing that differentiated him from anyone else on the morning commute. His clothes were average, brown suit, brown tie, brown shoes with scuffs polished over, the bald spot on the back of his head just beginning to be combed over. On his face was a beatific smile.
“You don’t see that every day,” Jamie said.
“What do we know?” Chris asked.
“He’s a former security guard.”
“Last known place of work?”
“Brantley Jones Ministry. They let him go almost two months ago.”
“Right when the killings began.”
“Yes, sir,” Jamie said. “Near perfectly.”
Chris signed off the necessary paperwork and was back in his bed an hour before his alarm was to go off. Tomorrow would be a busy day.