Jack and I reported the murder to the police. They dispatched officer Flynn, the same cop Beau had already talked to, the one who hadn’t believed him. Great.
We had to wait a half hour before he got around to even showing up. I guess a murdered homeless man wasn’t high on his priority list. Beau had managed to get himself under control by then, but it still broke my heart, seeing him sitting there alone, his best friend dead beside him.
Guilt ate at me. I hadn’t healed Pete properly. That’s why he ended up blind. If he’d been able to see, he wouldn’t have been such an easy target. Maybe he’d still be alive.
Jack put a hand on my shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault.”
I shrugged. Jack was sweet, but he was also wrong.
When Officer Flynn finally showed up, I recognized him. The last time I’d seen him, he was burned over a fair amount of his body from trying to take on Mr. Flame. He pulled a notebook out of his pocket and said, “All right, what cock and bull story did that old kook feed you?”
All the guilt and sadness I was feeling disappeared in a wash of pure anger. Jack looked at me funny and Flynn rolled his eyes. “Oh great. You’re one of them.”
I was all set to rip him a new one verbally, and confusion took the wind out of my sails. “One of who?” I looked at Jack. “What’s he talking about?”
“Your eyes glowed red for a second there,” Jack told me. “It was pretty weird.”
I’d seen Vlad’s eyes do that when he was mad, but I didn’t think mine had ever done it before. Just what I needed, another flashing sign on my forehead that said, I’m a freak. Gotta love dragon puberty.
Flynn tapped his pencil on his notebook impatiently. “Look, I’ve got other things to do.”
That got my hackles back up. “Sorry for pestering you with a measly little serial murder by the Death Dealers. I’m sure you have some traffic tickets you need to write.”
Flynn rolled his eyes again. “The Death Dealers, two of the highest paid mercenaries in the world, have been hired to kill some random old homeless guys. What brilliant bit of detective work led you to that conclusion?”
“How about an eye witness that saw them at the scene of the crime?”
“What, old Beau? He sees unicorns and angels, too. He’s not what we real police call a ‘reliable witness.’” He did air quotes with his fingers. “I know you ‘heroes’ can’t be bothered with such mundane matters.” He did the air quotes again. Wow, that’s annoying.
“Well, since you’re a brilliant police detective, and I’m just a dumb EMT, then please, explain to me medically how a 35 year old man in perfect health died of old age overnight?” Without realizing it, I’d gotten closer to him until I was violating his personal space a bit.
Flynn blinked and said, “I never claimed to be a detective.” He took a half step back.
“I never claimed to be a hero.” I backed up a little, too.
Jack stepped between us, and crowded me back more. “Glad we got that cleared up. Now, let’s get to reporting the actual crime.” His tone lost all emotion as he faced Flynn. “We treated the victim less than a month ago. He was in good health aside from blindness, and in his mid-thirties. Two people matching the description of the Death Dealers gave Mr. Grimsby money. He left the victim alone to go buy food. When he returned, the victim was dead, apparently of natural causes due to extreme old age. Since other homeless men have died recently under similar circumstances, we suspect the Death Dealers are targeting younger homeless people with some sort of weapon or super power that causes sudden aging. We don’t have any theories yet as to their motives.”
Flynn blinked again. “You sound like a cop.”
Jack grinned. “Thank you.”
Flynn’s stiffness broke a little, and he almost smiled back. Jack’s smile is kind of infectious. Flynn sighed and put away his pencil and pad. “All right, I’ll report it, but if what you say is true, they’ll just bump it up to the Protectors. This is their kind of weird. And who knows when they’ll get around to checking it out. A bunch of them are in Joplin helping with reconstruction after that big tornado.”
“That’s just peachy,” I sighed. Why is it the Protectors were always somewhere else? I looked over at Beau, sitting in the gloom under the bridge, alone in the island of light Jack’s lantern gave, holding Pete’s cold stiff hand. Jack and Flynn saw what I saw. “It’s not like they’re going to make any headlines saving homeless guys.”
“How many more people will die before they get around to it?” I wondered.
Flynn’s blue eyes narrowed and he nodded, a short, sharp jerk of the head. “None, if I can help it. I hate having to call in kids in spandex to do my job, anyway. If you got an idea how to catch these guys, I’m in. Unofficially, of course.”
“Should be easy enough to catch them,” Jack said. “We just need to give them a young target, someone they don’t think anyone will miss. And wait for them to show.”
Simultaneously, all three of us said, “I’ll be the bait.”
Jack and Flynn both looked at me and shook their heads. “No way,” Flynn said.
My turn to roll my eyes and be pissy. “What is this? The poor fragile female can’t risk her pretty little neck?”
Jack chuckled. “That’s not the problem, Dee. I hit you with a car this morning, remember?”
“Right. Forgot about that. So, why can’t I be the bait?”
Jack cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable. “Um, well, the thing is, you’re pretty, I mean, um …no one’s going to believe that you can’t make a living, um…” He looked pleadingly at Flynn. “You want to bail me out here?”
Flynn grinned. “You’re hot,” he said. “If you were on the streets, I’d be arresting you on Sixth street periodically, not hassling you for panhandling the tourists.”
“Oh.” My cheeks got warm, and I was very glad that it was too dark for human eyes to distinguish color well.
“I’ll be the bait,” Flynn said as if the matter were settled.
“No, I will,” Jack said. “You look like a college football star. If you were any more clean cut, you’d squeak.”
“He’s got a point.” I hated to agree with Jack on this, since it meant he’d be the bait, but he was right. Flynn was over six feet of muscular, buzz-cut and square-jawed manliness. Of the three of us, Jack, with his average build and height and slightly shaggy hair, was the most likely to pass as a street person.
“I want to help,” Beau said. I’d heard him walk up, but hadn’t really paid any attention.
“You’re too old to tempt the killers, Beau,” I told him gently.
“Yeah, but I know where they’re likely to go next.”
We looked at each other, and could tell we were all thinking the same thing. Beau knew the homeless community and their hidey holes better than any of us. And it would make him feel better to be a part of finding Pete’s murderers.
“All right, Beau. You’re in,” I told him.
Jack and I both called in sick the next night. The boss was going to have a field day with that one, but it couldn’t be helped.
Flynn put a wire on Jack. Flynn and I both had hearing aid looking things that let us hear what was going on around Jack, as well as talk to each other and him.
Jack barely shaves, so he couldn’t pull off facial scruff, but he used a ton of hair gell for greasiness, ran over his rattiest clothes a few times with his car and put on two different shoes, one with a hole in the toe. We made him a cardboard, “Will work for food, God Bless” sign, and went to the area Beau thought was the most likely to be hit next. Jack sweet-talked the guy who was already working that corner into letting him take the other side by promising to split his take 50/50.
When the traffic died down for the evening, Jack settled in with the other guys, two regulars for that area, and Beau, who apparently knew and was liked by everyone in town. Jack was accepted because Beau vouched for him.
I jumped up into the superstructure of the bridge they camped under, so I could keep a careful eye on Jack, and bumped into Vlad hiding in the same place, trying to watch over me.
“Are you still following me?” I asked him in a whisper.
He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “You seem to have a habit of courting danger.”
“Vlad, you can’t stalk me forever. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”
“And others, it seems. You watch over the dragon lord. Are you now stalking him?”
“Jack knows I’m here. He expects me to keep him safe. We planned this together, as a team.”
“Can I not be a part of your team?”
I sighed. “Vlad, I love Jack. Nearly losing him made me feel like part of me was missing. I’m still fighting to win him back.”
“And where does that leave me?” he asked softly.
“I like you, Vlad. At first I thought it was just that dragon chemistry thing, but even though you’re a bit of a chauvinist, a bigot, and kind of arrogant, I really do like you. I just don’t love you. I love Jack. And, if you can live with that, then yeah, okay, you can be part of the team. But if you’re just hoping I’ll pick you over Jack eventually, give it up, it’s not happening. You might as well go home.”
“I see.” Vlad sat there for a few seconds, a silent black scaly lump. His eyes flickered red a few times, but his face was unreadable. “Thank you for your honesty,” he said finally. “I think, for tonight at least, I will go home. I will think about what you have said. Is it still acceptable for me to phone you?”
“Sure, Vlad. Anytime.”
He managed a slight bow while crouched in the triangular crook of a girder, then flew away.
Nothing happened that first night, except that Jack and I both spent a very uncomfortable and tense night, him sleeping fitfully on sloped concrete, and me fighting to stay awake on six inch wide steel girders. Flynn was only slightly more comfortable in his patrol car hidden behind a nearby strip mall.
I expected Flynn to decide that our plan wasn’t working after one fruitless night, but he said it was normal. Stakeouts were a long game.
So, Jack and I both called in sick the next night. The boss threatened to fire us both, but we ignored him. Hopefully, he was just bluffing, but even if he wasn’t, catching murderers before they killed again took priority.
Beau said we were doing it wrong when we got back the next night. When I asked him what he meant, he pointed out that Pete wasn’t killed until he was alone, and neither were the other men who died.
He was right. If Jack was going to look like good bait, he had to be alone.
Jack gave his whole take from that evening’s time spent walking up and down at the corner holding a sign, about $85, to Beau, and told him to buy dinner for the other guys at the IHOP a few blocks down. He’d stay there under the bridge, making himself an irresistible target, hopefully.
I looked for Vlad, but either he was getting better at hiding from me, or he had decided not to stalk me that night. I felt a little disappointed, and oddly vulnerable. I’d gotten used to having a guardian angel, I guess. Now, I WAS the guardian angel. Beau would love that.
Jack had been alone for nearly an hour when a black Jeep Cherokee pulled up with mud splashed on the license plates. It stopped in the corner of the strip mall parking lot closest to Jack and two people got out, one big and muscular, the other curvy with hair as shiny black as her patent leather outfit.
“Death Dealers have arrived,” I whispered into my ear thing.
“Hold position,” Flynn said. “I can’t take them in until they make a move.”
“I am not going to let them hurt Jack just to catch them doing it.”
“Shoulda thought of that before letting him be the bait,” Flynn commented.
“Like I could have stopped him,” I said.
“Shut up, you two. I’m trying to look helpless here,” Jack whispered.
Domina Death was carrying a sort of ball, softball size, half brass, half glass, with curved spikes sticking out of the sides. It almost looked like a fat brass spider with a glass belly. Scythe was carrying an assault shotgun. He dropped back and faded into a shadow where he could watch Domina Death and the deserted streets.
I whispered Scythe’s location to Flynn, and could hear him radioing for backup. “You take care of Scythe, and I’ll handle Domina Death.”
“10-4,” Flynn said.
“Hello, sexy lady,” Jack said, as Death stalked him on six inch spike heels. “Am I dreaming?”
Death chuckled and knelt down beside him. “You’ll remember this night for the rest of your life,” she whispered in his ear as she pulled the brass spider from behind her back. She pushed him down on his back with the other hand.
“Now,” I whispered. “I’ll bet you’ll remember it to,” I said as I dropped from the bridge support and landed behind her.
She whipped one of those heels out, fast as a striking snake, and took my foot out from under me. I landed on my butt on the concrete and barely threw up my left arm to defend myself as she followed up with a slashing blade. It cut a big slice in my sleeve and tinged off my scales.
Geez, that woman was fast!
She hit me in the chest with the brass ball with the spikes and it clamped onto my clothes and vibrated weirdly against my skin. All of a sudden, I was so tired I couldn’t lift my arms. I fell back on the concrete and just lay there, weaker than a newborn kitten. Everything ached. My wrist and elbow joints ached the worst and my wings throbbed. The skin on the left side of my body felt like bugs were eating it or crawling in it, or both. I think I made a sound like a lonely puppy.
I heard Jack scream from far away, “Dee!!”
My eyes hurt, but I saw him shove his tazer at Domina Death, the spark jumping and sizzling between the contacts. She danced sideways and kicked it out of his hand, laughing.
“Don’t move, you’re under arrest!” I heard and sirens in the distance coming closer.
There was a loud boom, exactly like a shotgun going off in an echoey place like underneath a bridge. I saw Flynn go down.
It was all pretty distant, hard to focus on, especially when my left hand started turning itself inside out. I screamed then, or tried to, but it’s like one of those dreams where if you can just scream, someone will come and save you. I couldn’t get enough breath to make the scream come out.
Jack grabbed the thing on my chest and tried to pull it off, but Death kicked him in the face.
“No, no, no. My little pet isn’t finished doing its job yet.” She looked down at me. She really was beautiful, like women on TV, even though I guessed her age at late thirties to early forties. It seemed wrong somehow that anyone so beautiful on the outside could be so horrible on the inside, but at least the last thing I saw before I died would be pretty. “That’s odd,” she said, looking at me. “She doesn’t look any older than twenty. Dr White’s machine should have sucked a couple of decades out of her by now.”
“We’d better bail,” a deep voice said. Must have been Scythe, but I didn’t have the strength to turn my head and look. “Cops are nearly here.”
“She should be dead in a few more seconds. She's got enough years in her to make us rich.” She looked down at me again and smiled. “I think I’ll take some of your years myself. Such a pretty young thing. Just think of all the wonderful life you might have lived. Instead, you’ll die tonight, old and wrinkled.”
Go to hell. Wish I’d said that. But I couldn’t really manage to take a full breath, much less tell her where I hoped she’d spend the rest of her years.
The subtle humming vibration from the thing on my chest turned into an angry bee whine.
Just then someone poured acid on my left hand and set it on fire, at least, it felt that way. My hand twitched. Domina Death yanked her arm back from where she’d been leaning by my left hand. I saw the leather on Death’s arm parted in three lines and blood trickling down.
“You, bitch!” She looked down at her arm, hanging limply, and fell backward. “She scratched me!”
Scythe put an arm as big as my thigh around Death’s waist and lifted her strangely limp form. “We’ve got to go, now!” he said. The sirens were louder.
“Wait!” Death said, speech slurring. “Get the device!”
The thing on my chest hit a screeching whiny pitch high enough to make my teeth vibrate, and the glass shattered. Glowing white liquid that foamed into vapor almost instantly oozed out of the broken glass bulb, and I smelled burnt wires.
The pain stopped instantly. One second, my skin was in a cheeze grater and by joints had hot needles in them, and the next, nothing. I blacked out, probably from sheer relief.