The metal was coarse against his back and, even though it was only October, his breath was coming out in desperate white puffs, which dissolved in front of his eyes.
He should be frightened. He was lying in the dark hull of a ship, with no one aware of his whereabouts. There was iron everywhere – his nostrils seemed to be filled with it. There was no reason why the smell of his own blood should be discernible, but it was, rich and scarlet in his mind, painting the entrails of the ship red.
Even so, he was calm. He had been a detective in Westchester for most of his life; he had accepted a long time ago that he was going to die this way.
It didn’t mean was going to take it lying down.
In the end, he didn’t even have to swallow his pride, as he looked up at the man who had long forgotten what mercy was. Charles loved living. He wasn’t too proud to beg for his life.
For an institution suffering from severe under-staffing, the amount of noise and sheer chaos in the bullpen was staggering. A robbery was being reported, one that resulted in a pool of blood on the floor of the convenience store. A missing car. The rattle of a keyboard, struck at the rapid pace of a hundred words per minute. Charles glided smoothly through the crowd – how did it get to be a crowd, they barely had enough officers to pick up the phones – carried by the noise and hundreds of little lives which intersected with his daily routine. It was a precarious dance on the edge of the cliff in the blowing winds; if he kept his trot and put his feet down just so, the torrents would keep him upright, would balance him and let him walk the very edge. If he didn’t, then the noise and chaos would pour into his head, taking him over, all the way down. The free-fall would certainly be a treasured experience, and hitting the ground might snap him out of it. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe there was no ground to hit; maybe he would just keep falling, forever, with the rushing wind howling in his ears.
An officer rushed past a desk, out of balance on the high heels she wasn’t used to wearing every day, and bumped into a stack of files, upsetting the precarious tower. Charles caught the top folder as it slid off the edge and returned it to its rightful place.
“Good catch,” Moira told him.
“I live to serve, my dear.” He smiled cheekily and bowed, because Moira was looking exceptionally pretty today – she finally found the time to deflower her new bathtub, by the subtle cloud of luxury bath products that followed her every move – and hope sprang eternal, even if he didn’t need to look to know that her face immediately became serious. She still smiled, but there was a polite edge to the curve of her lips. Flirting breached a certain barrier, even with Moira, whom Charles counted among his closest friends.
He was about to regale her with the tales of his current case, when a particularly vibrant noise caught his attention. It was a sharp intake of breath, echoed by a gasp of surprise. He recognized Angel’s voice easily enough. The clatter of her manicured fingers against the keyboard tended to clutter up the atmosphere in the station, partly because it was off beat; she always hesitated before she hit the letters Q and L, but the clicking was absent now.
There was a man standing in front of her, the kind of man who instantly commandeers the focus and attention of the entire room. He wore a poorly concealed gun in the small of his back; it was a weapon as much as it was a comfort, not even to the man himself, but to his audience. Its edge stood out through the leather jacket, but the man’s back was curved around it comfortably, like his every breath took its presence into account, like his every move was made around it, showing it off and hiding it from sight in a genial sleight of hand, designed to trick the audience into believing they had the upper hand by noticing the danger he posed. He carried no other weapon, but that didn’t really matter. Charles’ eyes followed the stance of his body, the way it was taut and comfortable in the rigid set of muscles; this man was acutely aware of his surroundings. He was aware of its dangers, aware of the offbeat clatter of Angel’s keyboard, of the dismissible voices which carried through the phone lines, of the more immediate shouts of the officers on phone duty.
His head turned minutely towards the source of louder noises and his fingers, loosely held against his thigh, would hold perfectly still. The stance implied military training. The lack of obvious physical reaction to aural stimuli implied a mind honed in battle, a mind which held the body it was given to command in an iron grip. This was a mind which suffered the presence of people, as long as they were neither an obstacle, nor a target.
Charles concluded that this man was a serial killer.
“Excuse me,” he told Moira, who waved him off and retired to her office, and walked across the bullpen. He entertained the notion of tapping the stranger’s shoulder, but of course it wasn’t necessary – he turned before Charles was within touching distance. “Hello,” Charles said, smiling the easy smile of a man born into money, who knows no hardship and no defiance. “I’m Detective Xavier. Are you here to turn yourself in?”
The gaze the stranger regarded him with was in equal parts annoyance and amusement. The latter won out as the gaze traveled down and then back up. Charles was not surprised. He spent a fair amount of time each morning picking out the least threatening cardigan-shirt combination, to compliment his open smile.
“No,” the man said. “I work here, detective.” His was a face that went well with leather and guns, Charles thought immediately. His reddish hair was short and neatly combed back; there was a small scar on his temple, innocuous enough to escape attention, but to a trained eye an obvious sign of a fight with the use of a serrated edge. His eyes were pale gray, cool and hard in the station halogen lights, despite the open amusement displayed in the quirk of lips.
Charles found himself smiling back, just as dry and suspicious. “Do you now. I find that a little hard to believe.”
“Do you memorize the roster?”
“It saves us from the embarrassment of handing over detainees to random passers-by,” Charles said and spared an apologetic glance at Angel. She offered a wry smile and fluttered her eyelashes, challenging and rueful at the same time.
“Does that happen often?”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Interesting.” The serial killer looked Charles in the eye and grinned. Or rather the corners of his mouth curved upwards and his teeth became visible.
The noise in the bullpen, constant like the tidal waves, crashed into a concrete block and Charles’ mind was blissfully silent for five precious seconds. The stranger was sharp in a way knives could only dream of imitating; his handsome face hid a mind as keen as Charles could ever dream of encountering and it was focused wholly on him. In those five seconds they were the only two people in the room, the only two people in the world. Charles certainly could hear no one else, could see no one else.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed and then the crinkles in the corners relaxed. The noise slowly poured back it, filling the spaces which hadn’t been empty a moment before. Charles didn’t sigh in disappointment, but he did exhale in defeat, calling forth his more welcoming smile. “If you work here, you must be new. Can I offer you a tour?”
“I was about to meet the commissioner, actually.”
“Excellent starting point. Shall we?”
Charles pivoted on his heel and started to walk, certain that he would be followed. He was not wrong.
“Ah, Mr. Lehnsherr,” Moira said as soon as the two of them walk through her door. Someone was around to oil the hinges, Charles noted, because the rusty squeak was missing from the symphony of entering the office. “You are late.”
“You lied to me about directions.”
“I did no such thing.”
“I’m here now,” Lehnsherr said, and gave Charles a very pointed look, to which he replied with an angelic smile.
“You can’t be too careful,” he said and, anticipating Moira’s invitation, took his customary seat on the right side of her desk, face to face with a folder of incoming mail. The mayor was writing again, the poor luddite, probably to command the efforts of the dedicated force in their Sisyphean struggle. One had to admire his devotion to the written word and maintaining of the better parts of the nineteenth century mentality. Charles found the man rather charming, if vacant.
“I bet,” Lehnsherr was saying meanwhile, as he took a seat on Charles’ left.
“Good, you’ve met.” Moira sat down behind her desk and crossed her legs. “Let’s get down to business, then. Charles, how are you doing with the double homicide?”
That in itself was an easy question, so easy Charles was finding it hard not to shout the answer from the rooftops. If he abstained, it was because of the ridiculous connotations. “The butler did it.”
Moira understood the connotations well, because her mouth crinkled even as she leaned back, to accommodate the disbelief. “Excuse me?”
“I’m sure he is our murderer.”
“In other words you have no evidence.”
Charles winced. “Not as such, no. But there is some, and I will find it, if I haven’t already. Hank is still going through the evidence collected from the scene. Unless I’m wrong, there would be a blood sample on the carpet by his bed, that should prove my timeline is correct, and if it is correct, getting a confession should be reasonably easy.”
“Pinky swear?” Moira asked, pursuing her lips in what Charles knew was a grin. There was, after all, no such thing as a perfect crime; it was a question of looking underneath enough stones, and the butler was hardly a master criminal.
“Absolutely.” He extended his hand over the desk and Moira curled her pinky around his. Definitely the new bath, Charles thought. Her hands were usually slightly coarse, not silky smooth, like they were now.
“I’m sorry,” Lehnsherr said and moved to get up. “I was supposed to start work in the police, not kindergarten.”
“Sit down.” Moira rubbed her temple. “This is highly unorthodox, I trust you are aware,” she told Lehnsherr. She turned to Charles next. “Charles, Mr. Lehnsherr has unparalleled experience with every kind of weaponry and an even more impressive military service record. I’m sure we could use him on the team.”
Moira was giving him her best doe-eyed look, but even the moist brown of her irises couldn’t distract Charles from what was running through her head as she stapled her fingers and looked at him imploringly. “He wants to work here, for some reason,” were the unspoken words, evident in the straining muscles of her face, which shuddered to maintain the encouraging smile, “because he took the ridiculously low salary, and we don’t have enough detectives as it is; I understand he is a little strange, which is why I’m assigning him to you, because you of all people are best equipped to handle weird. Please play along.”
The man was a serial killer, obviously. Who else would choose to work in Westchester police department?
“I agree,” Charles said, because she was right – if it wasn’t for the staffing problems, he would be in the cozy walk-in closet masquerading as a laboratory, PCRing the hell out of DNA samples. Instead, he was called to the grimiest possible haunts known to mankind, where people he would hardly classify as belonging to the same species as himself, let alone Moira, were standing over mutilated corpses and lying through their teeth.
Their mouths always lied. Only the bodies ever told the truth.
Moira exhaled and turned to the serial killer, every inch the stern but lovable commissioner. “I expect you will have no trouble fitting in with our lot. You and Charles will be partnered, and for the time being you will be sharing a desk, space is scarce, I’m afraid. I understand you are more accustomed to working alone, Mr. Lehnsherr, but I assure you, Charles is very easy to work with.” One of Moira’s more admirable traits was her ability to tell a complete lie in a way that not only sounded like honesty, but whose truth could not be in any way questioned. Case in point, the ease of working with Charles. He was, objectively, a very good partner – he looked out for his own, he shared the workload evenly, he made the effort to be gregarious in an unassuming way; he had a knack for showing up with extra coffee when his partners were having a lousy day. He had as much stated in writing, often preceded by a thinly veiled “it’s not you, it’s me.”
Thus far, he’d had ten partners. Two of them were dead, which was a reasonable statistic in the whole county, let alone the city itself. Eight, however, transferred out of the district or demanded (begged, really – Charles had witnessed one of the conversations) to be assigned to someone else.
Mr. Lehnsherr was different. He pursed his lips at the lie, but there was gentle amusement, not suspicion in his face, and when he looked at Charles his eyes were unguarded, curious even.
“That’s true, unfortunately,” Charles said and smiled. Again. His mouth was starting to hurt. “Suspecting everyone is a defense mechanism I developed as a result.”
“Smart man,” Mr. Lehnsherr allowed, and for the first time looked at Charles with anything resembling respect. It wasn’t – Charles had merely been upgraded from “who the fuck is this clown” to “desk jockey detective,” which he could work with. Mr. Lehnsherr was sharp, but Charles wore the earnest persona like he wore his cardigans – with relish and honesty. Many people thought him a clown upon first meeting him. Then they started to suspect the existence of hidden depths, the likes of which a man might keep secret, out of fear or shame, or a million other reasons. Then, if they knew Charles well enough, and not many did, they realized that there was no act, that the honesty and earnestness was real and not feigned, that Charles was only ever himself, and no one else. Somehow, that frightened them the most.
Charles already knew Mr. Lehnsherr would be different. He didn’t yet know if it would be for better or worse.
“Good.” Moira folded her hands atop the desk and considered the two of them. “Mr. Lehnsherr, I’ve been informed you are eligible for the badge pending a probation, which I’m at liberty to set.”
Charles didn’t react. He knew, of course, that they were desperate for personnel, but this was pushing it.
“I’m going to make it a year. If you get through that, the mayor will push the paperwork necessary to get you into the exam, and no further. If you pass, you get your shield and a permanent job with us. Does that work for you?”
“Perfectly,” Mr. Lehnsherr said. He probably smiled as he did so, but Charles was watching his hands. His fingers lay perfectly still against his thigh throughout the conversation, moving only when Moira was handing over documentation to sign. Charles found the stillness fascinating.
“I’ll have the temporary badge issued to you as soon as possible. In the meanwhile feel free to delegate identification to Charles. He has seniority anyway, so I expect you to defer to his judgment where protocol is concerned. You will find out sooner rather than later that this district is nothing short of insane, so I won’t be able to monitor your every move, as I rightly should. My decision of what to tell the mayor at the end of the year will depend on whatever Charles has to say regarding your behavior.”
Mr. Lehnsherr nodded sharply. “I understand.”
That was it. Moira threw in a heartfelt “welcome to the team” and dismissed them.
“Interesting,” Charles said when they stepped out into the bullpen. “Well, since we will be working together, my name is Charles Xavier. Welcome to Westchester.”
“Erik Lehnsherr,” the serial killer said, extending his hand. His grip was impersonal, firm and devoid of affection or the desire to impress. He had slender hands, tapered by neat, clipped nails. Very little callouses, discounting the hardened skin on the index finger.
Charles let go of the man’s hand before he could be accused of anything untoward. “Pleasure to meet you. Would you like the grand tour?”
“You mean there’s something here that can’t be seen from where we’re standing?” Erik cast a pointed glance to the open space crowded with desks and
“There’s the lab. The restrooms, possibly. The cafeteria, though it’s mostly a walk-in closet with a vending machine. We generally use the cafe across the street.”
“The lab, then.”
“Excellent choice.” Charles turned away. He wished turning his back to anyone was a gesture of trust on his part. Oh, he could imagine the dangers well enough, and if anyone chose to attack him, he would be very nearly helpless.
Well, he thought wryly, the extra adrenaline was going to come in handy.
“Detective Xavier!” Angel had risen from her seat and was waving at him frantically. “Fresh body on the rooftop, cooling fast!”
“Which rooftop?” he called back, diving for his desk and the car keys.
“Eastern corner of Main and Third. The Polo building.”
“Who called it in?”
Charles paused. “Do we have a situation?”
Angel’s head bounced on her neck, up down, up down. “We might, yeah. I’m not sure, he was a little shaken up, but if Marvin’s on the roof…”
“Call the fire brigade, will you? The usual set up.” He smiled at Angel and then glanced at Mr. Lehnsherr, who was standing a respectful three yards behind him, his arms folded. “Have Emma and Hank follow, I’m going to need a few minutes alone, first.”
Angel nodded and picked up the phone.
“Well, let’s go,” Charles told Mr. Lehnsherr. A dead body barely stirred anyone in this district, but Charles made it a habit to rush as soon as he was informed there was one. The fresher the corpse the more information it had to share, the clearer the message. He appreciated clarity. The Polo building was only a few blocks down from the station. They probably could have walked there, and still arrive at the same time, but it was generally prudent to take the car – you never knew when it might come in handy.
The elevators were out. Charles sighed. Typical Marvin. At least there was no doubt they had a Marvin situation.
“Stairs?” Mr. Lehnsherr held the door open for him.
“Thank you.” Charles dutifully started climbing the ten flights of ugly, concrete stairs. “Don’t mind Marvin, he does this every few months. Just try to sound soothing, he is generally amenable to reason.”
Mr. Lehnsherr raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. He took the steps one at a time, breathing easily as thought this was a casual stroll in the park. His hands were in his pockets. Charles found it endearing, not that he would ever share the observation with anyone. Mr. Lehnsherr was a sharp knife in a world of easily bruised apples, and he made no attempt to conceal the fact.
“Hello Marvin. How’s your day?” Charles called walking out into the September sun on the very top of the building.
“Good morning, Detective Xavier. Don’t come any closer, or I will jump!”
Marvin was a curious case. Every few months he would climb out of his luxurious leather chair, disable the elevators, then stand on the very edge of the roof and call the police, when he had no intention of following through on the threat. Marvin was a bright person; impressionable and full of fleeting fancies. He dabbled in hobbies of all kinds, and yet somehow he remained convinced the weight of the world should be a millstone about his neck, an unfortunate combination of a wealthy upbringing and a compassionate soul.
So, every quarter of a year for the past ten years he climbed the ledge. It was bordering on ridiculous, the amount of money the fire department and the police had to spend just to convince Marvin one more time that life was worth living and he would benefit from walking away from the jump he didn’t want to make in the first place. Unfortunately, Marvin was ridiculously rich; he would be apologetic and sign over a generous donation to both departments, then call his uncle, the mayor, who in turn would call Moira, who would sigh and release Marvin from the cell and the compulsory talk with the psychiatrist. The money alone more than made up for the alarm – it covered the expense of the exercise and then some. Everyone got used to Marvin’s escapades, especially since he was a good enough sport to come by the next morning laden with Starbucks coffee.
“I would love to chat, you know I would, but the thing is, I was promised a dead body,” Charles said. “Can we reschedule?”
“I’m going to jump! For real this time!”
“The body, Marvin. Where is it?”
“Oh, over there. Poor chap. Anything I can do to help?”
“No, thank you Marvin. I’ve got this.”
Charles followed the direction Marvin was indicating and soon enough he was standing over the body of a young man – twenty-six, perhaps, well bred; unpleasant fellow, very little by way of sense of humor. Unfaithful, divorced, for which he likely blamed his ex-wife, despite the chronic infidelity. Socialite, though recently impoverished, going by the cut and wear of his expensive, though last season, suit.
“This looks like a suicide,” he said over his shoulder, hoping to get a thoughtful hum from Mr. Lehnsherr. Instead he got silence. “Mr. Lehnsherr?”
Xavier seemed to know his way around the body, which wasn’t really a surprise. By the clothes he wore he was a born lab technician, or if Erik was to be perfectly honest, a college professor. What he was doing out in the streets was the greater mystery. Still, the corpse was in good hands. Erik turned his attention to the man on the ledge, instead. He seemed like a flighty sort, eager to please, easily distressed. He was standing over a hundred feet drop, so clearly something wasn’t quite right in his head.
“You smoke?” Erik asked casually, resting his elbows on the parapet a few feet away from this Marvin. In the street below the fire brigade was setting up an inflatable landing spot.
“Sensible choice, diving off the roof, then. Much quicker than cancer.”
“What? No, it’s not- I don’t have cancer.”
“Didn’t think you did.”
“Any reasonable person would hoard the pain medication and overdose. Much less splatter than jumping off the roof. Far less to clean up, afterwards.” The bricks were coarse underneath his fingertips. The texture hurt his skin, in lieu of a cigarette, which would hurt his lungs. Major life decisions, Erik snorted.
“I’m sorry, are you a police officer?” Marvin was squinting at his belt, obviously looking for a badge.
“I’m on probation.”
“It’s just, Detective Xavier talks to me usually. He’s very polite.”
“That he is.” Erik considered the state of the inflatable pillow. On its corner one of the firemen was testing it. “So what brings you here, Melvin?”
Erik rolled his eyes. Names hardly mattered.
“It’s just pointless, you know?”
“Life? Oh yes. Very much so.” Erik threw his legs over the parapet and slid to stand on the ledge below. “Your life doesn’t seem that pointless. Detective Xavier was ready to drop everything to come and rescue you.”
“He does that every time. It seems silly of him, but he does.”
“A little, yeah.”
Marvin was in his late thirties, but his face had a very boyish look to it. His cheeks were smooth and his eyes bright. Erik was willing to bet the worst thought he ever had in his life was sneaking three lollipops out of a grocery store for the price of two and yet here he was, staring down a hundred feet drop.
The crowd of onlookers was surprisingly small, considering the two men on the ledge. Erik saw one of the police officers pick up the megaphone and look up. “Hey Marvin, you wanna go out for drinks later? Sean’s buying!”
Next to him the redheaded paramedic took offense.
“I’m going to jump!” Marvin yelled, leaning no more than three inches forward. No way in hell he would upset his balance enough to fall that way. His grip on the ledge was so tight that there was no way even a hurricane would upset his balance enough. Why the hell was he even up here, Erik wondered, when every fiber of his being screamed “I don’t want to die!”
“Why don’t you?” Erik asked casually, gesturing ahead, where the ledge ended and the fall began.
Marvin started. That almost upset his balance. “What?”
“Seems like you’re done with this living bullshit, why not jump? If you’re lucky maybe the Hindus are right and you’ll get another shot.”
Marvin stared at him, open-mouthed. “Are you sure you are with the police?” he asked.
Erik grinned. Marvin shuddered and immediately clung to the parapet. “It’s a beautiful day. Excellent weather for skydiving.”
“Don’t come any closer or I’ll jump!”
“Perfect,” Erik said, took a step sideways, snapped the fingers of his right hand in front of Marvin’s eyes, gripped Marvin’s thin wrist with his left and then took another step, forward.
Marvin screeched the whole way down, but somewhere high above Erik could swear someone else was screaming, too, and they were screaming his name.
It was a short flight, all in all. The fire department had done its job and the inflatable mat folded around the two of them. Marvin kept screeching and, when he ran out of breath, wheezing. He kicked and flailed, but Erik held his wrist until finally the folds of the fabric revealed the sky and the shocked faces of the blond officer and the redheaded paramedic.
“Good morning,” Erik said pleasantly.
“Stay away from me!” Marvin tried to leap away, but his legs got tangled and he fell into a fireman’s arms. “For god’s sake, keep him away from me! He’s insane!”
“Dude,” the paramedic said, grinning broader than his face was wide. “That was awesome!”
“Yeah, but Charles is not going to be happy,” the fireman said. He was grinning too, like this was the best thing under the sun, but unlike the paramedic he looked a little worried. He was wearing reflexive sunglasses, so the fact that the worry was evident made it all the more profound. Clearly, the tiny detective had a reputation.
Right about then Erik heard the distinct footfall of a man running at top speed and then Xavier’s flushed face hovered into view, set in a smile so polite, it seemed carved out of stone. He could see, maybe, where had the reputation come from – Xavier was furious, and by the looks of it he wasn’t going to accept nothing short of an epileptic fit as an excuse.
“Do you mind?” he said to the fireman who handed Marvin over to the paramedic. “I need to have a word with my partner.”
“I love your new approach,” the fireman with the glasses said, holding up both thumbs. “It rocks. I’m gonna call you every time now.”
Xavier grimaced. “You already call us every time.”
“Yeah, but now I’m gonna mean it!”
“Good bye, Scott. Try to accidentally put out any cell phone which might have recorded this, alright? The last thing we need is detectives pushing people off buildings all over Youtube.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
Erik stayed mostly silent throughout the exchange, deigning only to raise an eyebrow when Xavier’s hand twisted around the lapel of his jacket and pulled. “Can I borrow the back of your truck?”
“Yeah, but hurry. We’ll be packing up soon.”
“We will only be a minute.”
Erik was shoved into the back of the fire truck by a man who looked like a college professor. It might have been the weirdest thing that happened to him all year, and he had a pretty interesting year.
“What was that?” Xavier asked coolly, like he hadn’t just run down ten stories at top speed. Erik had an excellent internal clock – the time it took Xavier to get from the roof to street level was impressive.
“What was what?”
“You jumped off the roof. You pushed Marvin off the roof!”
“It really was more of a pull.”
“That’s not the point! You’ve recklessly endangered human lives, you can’t do that!”
Erik probably shouldn’t be surprised that Xavier included him. Still, it was a shockingly pleasant thought, all the more moving for its novelty. “The fire brigade was waiting at the bottom, weren’t they? No harm done.”
Xavier frowned. “Mr. Lehnsherr, it is our job to make people feel safe. In the eye of the public throwing a man off a roof which wasn’t on fire at the time achieves the exact opposite effect.”
“It might be good for him. I doubt he’ll get up there again.”
“Why do you want to die, Erik?” Xavier said quietly, as if Marvin’s life wasn’t the issue here. The voice went straight into Erik’s mind, bypassing ears completely, and echoed. This was a serious question, no anger in it, no reproach; just honest curiosity and compassion.
Xavier knew. Xavier knew.
“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“We are going to be spending plenty of time getting into dangerous situations together,” Xavier said in a tepid voice, which was probably the closest it ever got to frosty. “Have dinner with me tonight.”
“You don’t have anyone waiting for you at home. We need to have a talk, if this is going to work in any capacity. I am not opposed to alcohol, but I would rather stay sober for this conversation. A restaurant should be a neutral enough ground.”
Erik took it in. “Dinner then.”
Xavier relaxed back into his professorly persona. “Excellent.” He opened the door of the truck with practiced ease and hopped out onto the street.
“What about the corpse?” Erik asked, when they both snuck around the truck, avoiding the ambulance, where Marvin had his shock tended to by the redheaded paramedic, back into the Polo building.
“We will go to speak with his colleagues, but I think it was suicide. Autopsy will confirm.”
“You seem awfully confident. How long were you on that roof, exactly?”
“There was a single gunshot wound to the temple, at an angle consistent with the average range of a shoulder. His finger was still on the trigger. That man had very recently lost a substantial amount of money, a wife, and much of his social life. Compound that with the fact that he was a trust fund baby and he valued himself on the basis of other’s approval, it didn’t seem like an enormous leap to make.”
Erik raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Not an enormous leap to make indeed. “Did you know him?”
Xavier looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “No.”
“Are you a ghost whisperer, then?”
That elicited a laugh. “No.”
“I’m gifted, shall we say. I notice things.”
“You notice things.”
Xavier hunched in his seat. “Can we do this over dinner? It generally merits a discussion, and I’d rather not have it in front of possible witnesses. It rarely aids the investigation.”
They passed the body bag along the way, but Xavier had the foresight to snap a photo on his phone. They started with the reception, where it turned out the man in question evoked no warm and fuzzy feelings in neither of the two receptionists. The following three people they talked to were the same – no obvious motive and a distinct lack of surprise.
“He was just an asshole, you know,” said the only woman who showed a little positive emotion. Her eyes watered when she saw the photo. “It’s horrible, don’t get me wrong, but… He was a big kid at heart, you know what I mean? Scared to let go of his precious lifestyle, and of course it was an idiotic investment. He hated losing.”
No one was shocked he killed himself. In fact, as it soon turned out, his ex indicated she had insisted on him visiting a psychiatrist. His drinking buddies agreed. Something must be wrong with a man if his drinking buddies think he needs therapy, Erik thought.
Case solved, then. Autopsy report came in soon afterwards, because one thing they were not lacking were capable coroners, and an open-shut case was worth opening and closing quickly, proclaiming that every mark on the body suggested suicide, and that was largely it. Case closed, stamped and filed.
Erik felt cheated.
“That’s it?” he asked when Xavier flipped the file closed and sighed.
“Oh no. Now comes the fun part.”
“Paperwork,” Erik guessed, hoping he’d be wrong. All signs indicated he was right – a form appeared before him as if by magic and right by it a pen.
“Oh yes.” Xavier had the gall to look pleased. “Since you’re the rookie, you shall do the honors.”
“I was busy jumping off the roof in the course of the investigation.”
“Which is another reason you are in charge of filling out the forms, as I’m not willing to forgive you yet. I’ll go get us coffee.” Xavier grinned at him and disappeared, making his way through the bullpen as though he was a ghost. He weaved around the people as though their paths were sketched out on the floor for his benefit, whether they were rising from their chairs or getting into them; dropping files or picking them up. Xavier circumnavigated the randomized labyrinth like it was a beaten tract.
Erik helped himself to his desk in retaliation and a handful of half-baked reports already there and if he jotted down a few German swearwords on the margin, well, it couldn’t be helped. The infernal questions kept him busy until Xavier returned, thirty-seven minutes later, two coffees in one hand, a stack of printouts in the other.
“What’s this?” Erik asked, indicating the papers.
“My file. I took the liberty of printing it out. You’re more than welcome to verify online that I got everything, but here it is: everything the police department has access to.”
“You’re giving me your personal file.”
Xavier blinked as though it was obvious. Then he stared at Erik, in what Erik was beginning to associate with his professional mode. It was a long, impassioned, unblinking stare, which, he was willing to bet, few people could stand directed at them. “I have every intention of reading yours. Full disclosure seems only fair.”
“Sensible and shockingly honest.” Erik held his gaze. Let Xavier stare – Erik was world champion at the not-blinking game.
“I’m very honest, Mr. Lehnsherr,” Xavier said, loosing miserably, and clearly surprised by it. “Unfortunately. Let’s get this done, shall we, and head out. Reports are a pain.”
“No fucking kidding.”
They finished in what Xavier told him was record time.
Mr. Lehnsherr did very little, on the first day of their acquaintance, to convince Charles he wasn’t a serial killer. Reckless disdain for Marvin’s life was one thing (even if the shock would likely be good for the boy – coddling certainly didn’t cut it), but the frankly disturbing emptiness that followed, that was something quite different. Mr. Lehnsherr walked away from the hundred foot drop without the slightest tremor to his limbs, as though he found the experience pedestrian. Which, for a soldier, it probably was, but Charles had met soldiers, and even the best of them would experience a surge of adrenaline after such a jump.
Not Mr. Lehnsherr.
His file was, if possible, even less reassuring. It catalogued an exemplary military record of shooting unsuspecting people in the head and planting explosives in their cars. The man was proficient in three forms of martial arts. He had an affinity with projective weaponry bordering on supernatural. While the text didn’t say, “can disembowel a man with a kitchen knife in under a minute,” Charles could read between the lines as easily as he could read body language, and he was certain the file was skirting the edges of Mr. Lehnsherr’s skillset.
Then, following a classified mission in Afghanistan, Mr Lehnsherr requested a discharge. He disappeared from official grids and, after a year of no contact with the outside world, he enlisted in Westchester police force.
Charles tucked the file into his backpack, for later perusing, and ordered coffee from the smiling university dropout, who couldn’t stop thinking about how to break the news to her parents. She loved the city – she had no intention of going back to Iowa.
“Thank you, luv,” he said when she handed him two steaming cups. “Don’t bother with the change.”
“Thanks,” said the girl. Charles nodded and took the coffee across the street, to the station, where his enigmatic serial killer of a partner was meticulously filling out the requisite fields in the run of the mill report.
Along the way he stopped by the printer.
“You’re not going to be a fan of reports, are you?” he asked Mr. Lehnsherr playfully, when the work was done and Moira’s in tray was fed with the appropriate pages.
The man shrugged as he opened the door for Charles. “Is anyone?”
The lights in the staircase were dim, better suited to an unnamed gin joint in north Africa, rather than a big city police building. People skulked through it, a natural form of walking through such ambience. “I don’t mind, to tell you the truth.”
“So why was I doing it?” Mr. Lehnsherr walked just as freely as he did in the street, his back straight, his head high. Charles smiled at him for that reason alone.
“I said I don’t mind, not I look forward to it. We’ll share next time, promise.”
“I will hold you to it.” Once again Charles found the door held open for him. Curious. There was nothing in the file about bodyguard missions, but for persons of high enough standing they would be classified. Charles acknowledged the courtesy with a nod and led the way to the garage.
They were quiet when they got into the car and they were quiet most of the way. Mr. Lehnsherr raised a brow at the opulence of the neighborhood through which they passed immediately before Charles turned into a small parking lot, next to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, invisible to all but those who knew where it was. Charles would forever be grateful that the owners chose to keep it that way.
“Good evening,” he told the barkeep.
“Hello, Mr. Xavier,” he said. “Table for two?”
It was only when they were seated and half-hidden behind the menus that Mr. Lehnsherr started talking.
“You notice things,” he said simply, as though that conversation never got interrupted.
“By things you mean?”
“Everything.” Charles considered the carbonara. It would be a crime to have penne without white wine, but of course he was driving tonight. Bolognese, then. His finger twitched on the flayed edge of the menu. They’d been meaning to replace them, curious that it would take so long. They had taken the time to replace the wilting petunias with a fresh batch. No more fresh flowers on the table, though. Charles rubbed a finger against the cloth. The change is new, as new as this morning. Hm. A client had an allergic reaction, perhaps?
Mr. Lehnsherr’s eyes were fixed on him, he knew. Charles waited for the inevitable. “Hyperawareness?”
Well, that was… not unexpected, no, but new. “To a degree, yes, but I have the unfortunate tendency to collect details and draw conclusions from them. Which is quite a serious problem on its own, unfortunately I also tend to mention my conclusions. To most people it comes across as invasive.”
Mr. Lehnsherr watched him over the edge of his menu. “You are rarely if ever wrong,” he said after a moment, without the slightest hint of reproach. “People don’t really talk to you as a result. At least not in any personal capacity.”
Charles allowed himself a small smile, an unexpectedly honest expression of amusement and perhaps a touch of hope. “True.”
“I should ask what conclusions you have drawn about me, but I think it’s fairly obvious.” Mr. Lehnsherr’s eyes narrowed and his features hardened into a mask. Charles didn’t doubt for a second that this was the face he showed to anyone he chose to kill. “Even the parts of my file which aren’t classified are telling.”
Mr. Lehnsherr dropped the mask and returned to his menu. “Do you have a recommendation?”
“I’m a fan of penne carbonara, but they use a very particular type of cheese here, so it is an acquired taste. Anything with pasta is good. I can’t recommend their pizza. It’s awfully heavy.”
Mr. Lehnsherr hummed thoughtfully as they went through the list of the restaurant’s offering. “The thing is, Mr. Xavier, that most people capable of doing what you claim you can do would rather request an immediate transfer than invite me to dinner,” he said in between the fettuccine and the salmon sedani.
“A shame, I think. You strike me as an interesting fellow.”
Charles was rewarded with a smirk and an overt glance of approval, delivered over the fraying menu.
“We live in interesting times, detective.”
“It has been said that one of my greatest faults is that I consider that to be a blessing rather than a curse.”
“Your second greatest, I take it, is telling people the truth about them.”
Charles propped his elbow on the table and met Mr. Lehnsherr’s gaze. “I have been told I have very few boundaries and far less social grace. This is true. I often say things I have no business knowing. Often these are things people don’t even know about themselves.”
“I suppose there is all number of such things you now know about me.” Mr. Lehnsherr’s mouth twisted into a secretive smile.
“No.” Charles folded the menu. “You, my friend, keep no secrets from yourself.” He wished he didn’t sound like a smitten teenager just then, but the unfortunate truth was, this man was fascination itself, given earthly form. The facets of his mind gleamed in the candlelight, each burning with the flames within, every last one sharper then the edge of broken glass and yet this man was whole, a construction of steel and glass, beautiful in the simplicity of its design, marvelous in the complexity of the planes. Mr. Lehnsherr’s mind was transparent right down to its core; if there were any secrets there, they were wired into the construction itself, not hidden.
“Are we friends now?” Mr. Lehnsherr said. Mirth colored his voice.
“I would certainly like to be.”
“How many friends do you imagine I have, Charles?” The soldier in him asked the question, sharp and demanding. Not unlike the discharge of a gun. It was a challenge; that would be obvious to anyone.
Charles was happy to rise to that challenge. “Not many. I imagine you could use some.”
“Perhaps,” Erik said, just as the waitress arrived. Charles could hear her smile all the way from across the room.
“Charles! Oh my god, and you brought someone! Did you lose a bet?” she asked Erik, leaning into his personal space.
“Good evening, Raven.” Charles inclined his head in Erik’s direction. “This is my new partner, Erik Lehnsherr.”
“No kidding!” Raven paused to catch her breath. “Wow. Sorry. It’s just really rare.”
“I’ve gathered.” Erik looked between the two of them with an open question in his gaze.
“I’m Raven Xavier,” she said, holding out her recently manicured hand. Blue lacquer, again, and zirconias. She was in a great mood today. “Charles’ sister. Nice to meet you, Erik.”
“So what can I get you two?” Raven asked, tearing off a page from her pad and posing the pencil over it. “Food? Drink? Sacrificial goat?”
“The goat,” Erik said firmly. “And a black altar to go with it.”
“We’re fresh out of those, sorry.” Raven scribbled the order all the same, then tapped her lower lip with the pen and added, “I could probably manage the goat, though.”