Erik rummaged in his pocket and took out the last coin from the meter-money. He pinched it between thumb and forefinger and with a nail from his other hand began to peel the metal off in a thin curl. He honed his entire focus into keeping the curl even and intact. The coin got smaller and smaller. When it was nothing but a long, twisting spiral he tossed it down on the kitchen bench and picked up the phone.
Speed dial four.
Erik opened his mouth. For a moment he could conjure neither voice nor breath. He swallowed. “It’s me,” he grunted. “I’m gonna be a bit scarce tonight.”
God-fucking-dammit Moira, with her damn instincts. But if Erik had ever been a good cop, he’d been a good liar first. “Yeah, fine, I think seeing the media frenzy tonight did my head a bit. I’ll turn off my phone and be in at nine.”
“Alright, Erik… keep it sharp.”
“When am I not?”
He hung up before she could give some smart-alec answer about Mondays. He couldn’t deal with bad jokes right now, he couldn’t deal with Moira being familiar or comforting. He needed to stay on edge, or he’d end up screaming and wrenching every piece of metal within a mile, his psyche nothing but a thin, fragile spiral like the coin.
He flicked through the contacts on his phone, selected one and cleared his throat.
“Hank? Hey, it’s Erik Lensherr. Can I get a favour? An off-the-books kind of favour? I need to know if you can track an email address.”
Thirty-six hours earlier
“Coffee and a cigarette,” muttered Erik, a moment after the EMT had lifted the sheet from what remained of Angel Salvadore, twenty-two, dancer at Sins ‘n Embers strip club, not four blocks east. She’d been missing for approximately three days, give or take a handful of hours after she finished her last shift. Erik hoped the newspapers didn’t pick up on the dancer bit, they'd immediately assume sex worker. He hadn’t known Angel before she’d popped up on their possible victims list two days ago, but she deserved better than to be labelled as just another murdered hooker. They all did.
“Since when do you smoke?” Moira asked, crouching down beside Erik. The EMT had handed him a pair of gloves; he took off his wedding ring before he slipped them on to examine the gaping hole and protruding ribs in Salvadore’s chest.
Three days. She didn’t look as bad as the others. Maybe the killer had been in a hurry. Maybe only the autopsy would clue them in on how much she’d suffered.
As Erik peeled off the gloves and stood up, a forensic boffin handed Moira two steaming cups of convenience store tar. She passed one to Erik and he sipped with a grimace.
“Charles isn’t home ‘til Thursday, I’ve got until then to get the smell out of my clothes,” Erik answered her question at last. He’d quit years ago – Charles’ mother had succumbed to the combined forces of throat cancer and liver failure, and Charles had spent three years battling the demon drink in the early part of their relationship. They had mutually agreed to no more addictions in their house.
He hadn’t taken his eyes off Angel Salvadore’s arms, laced with a delicate tattoo of insect wings, still sharp black against the blood-drained sallow of her skin.
He glanced up at the beat cop who was sidling towards them, his thumbs in his belt.
“Tell me she’s not…?”
The beat cop nodded. “My partner’s just tracked down the boyfriend. They’re both mutants – he’s finishing his masters in ornithology, just got back from a week-long field trip. He’s pretty shaken up, you need to talk to him soon?”
“We’ll have to,” Moira sighed, looking down at the dead girl. “That’s the third of five victims to be a mutant. Whoever killed her knew about her power or I doubt he’d have caught her.”
“It could be a coincidence,” the beat cop suggested. “Mutants got worse employment and health stats, don’t they? Could be he’s just targeting the bottom rung of society-“
“Excuse me, did someone promote you to detective in the last five minutes and I missed the ceremony?” Erik growled, waving his coffee. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Moira twitch as she barely resisted putting a warning hand on his elbow. When the beat cop muttered an apology, Erik cut him off. “No, I didn’t think so. Go pin up yellow tape or something, go on.”
As they headed back to the car, Moira said, “He’s right, though. Dukes was bouncing from job to job, Worthington had just been thrown onto the street by his father, and Angel was probably living by the pay check. It could be a coincidence,” the tone of her voice clearly declared, don’t-start-that-temper-with-me-mister.
“No, the two humans, the call girl and the burger flipper, they’re the exceptions,” Erik sliced his hand through the air. “They were practice. We’ve got to get a shoulder into him before he starts really building up steam.”
Four murders in less than a month. Prolific but not exceptional, the victims different enough in every way – place of death, backgrounds, occupations, social circles, age and ethnicity – that even Moira and Erik, the best homicide detectives in the city, might not have picked up on the connection. Except for the way they’d died.
Each had been missing for several days before the bodies were dumped without ceremony, always in perfect blind spots in the CCTV network. Always mutilated, always missing a couple of small mementos that were yet to be found – an eye, a hunk of skin, a couple of teeth (in Angel’s case, it turned out to be the aortic arch above her heart). And their injuries - even after a decade on the force, Erik didn't like to dwell on their injuries for more than a moment. The fry cook had to be identified by her dental records. The call girl had been brutally violated. Dukes had been pumped of much of his adipose tissue, with no trace of anaesthetic in the toxicology reports. Worthington, the second mutant victim, had been weighted down and drowned. The sick fuck liked to play, whoever and wherever he was. And he liked to boast, or he would have hidden the bodies a hell of a lot better.
“It’s even on the news over here,” Charles said that night. His voice clear as glass down the phone line despite more than four thousand miles of separation. “I’ve been keeping my eye out for your hulking figure. But it’s in French, of course, so I don’t understand – why do they keep flashing Senator Kelly’s picture?”
Erik rubbed the crease between his eyes. “We think he’s targeting mutants.”
“Oh,” said Charles, in a small voice. And then, typically academic, “Ugh.”
Erik smiled despite it all. “The media’s linking it to the rise in hate crimes, you know how they do – though at least they’re not siding with Kelly for once. I just wish they were on our side. The chief designated me spokesman about the mutant slant,” he took a long breath. “If I see another microphone in the next hundred years, it’ll be too soon.”
“You should be the last person put in that position!” Charles cried, the line crackling a little at his raised voice. After a brief pause, he said suddenly, “I’m going to see if I can transfer my flight home to tomorrow.”
“Charles, no, you’re supposed to have another four days sightseeing, you’ve been looking forward to it all year.”
“I don’t need to see the Palace of Versailles, I need to know you’re eating and staying off the fags.”
“It’ll cost a fortune.”
“The grant will cover it, this is practically a family emergency.”
“You’re being precious.”
“Hey,” Charles had his sternest lecturer’s voice on now, the one he used for students who were risking their degrees to booze it up every other night. “What would you do if you saw me tomorrow?”
Erik rolled his eyes.
“Well? What would you do?”
He muttered, “I’d probably pick you up and carry you to the car inside my coat rather than let you go.”
“Exactly. I’m changing my flights.”
“Whatever. I’ll get you from the airport.”
“I can catch a cab.”
“I’m picking you up, send me the details. How did your talk go yesterday?”
“Quite well, actually. I think I’ve convinced a few more dogmatists that it’s worth letting a criminal psychologist into their conference after all. Provided I’m properly corralled, of course,” he chuckled.
“Fucking visa restrictions, I can’t believe the EU,” Erik ran his hands through his hair. “Imagine if they made you take a fucking drug to stop you being too French, huh? Imagine!”
Charles gave a louder burst of laughter, “No, I didn’t mean the serine inhibitors!” these were the drugs that Charles’ visa required he take to dampen his telepathy when he was out of the country. “I meant my collaboration with the genetics lab. Portia introduced me to make sure they all knew I was her pet psychologist.”
“Ah. Well, the drugs are still an outrage,” Erik grunted.
“Course they are, love, course they are,” he could hear Charles smiling all the way from the other side of the globe. The sound of the smile flowed down his nerves and began to unwind his muscles like the warmth of a fresh bath. “I’ll give you a proper run-down when I get back, I’ve been talking shop all day. Where are you?”
“On the couch,” Erik smirked. “The Wolf Man is on TV. The original, black and white and all.”
“Turn it off, you don’t need any distractions,” Charles ordered. Erik grinned and thumbed the remote. “Now,” Charles said, his voice lowered, “I want you to reach down and undo your fly for me. Slowly.”
There was a sixth body the next morning. Erik was brushing his teeth when he got the call. He ate toast in the car and tried to get his hair to stay flat before Moira arrived at the scene, a strip of empty land behind a block of condominiums.
“Rahne Sinclair,” he told her as she approached at a jog, still putting her earrings in. “Another mutant. High school senior with no criminal record and two very distraught, middle-class parents. Still willing to bet it could be coincidence?”
"Not on your life," Moira growled.
Everything was in fifth gear after that. Another victim appearing so suddenly had caught them off guard, and the time Sinclair had been missing overlapped significantly with Angel Salvadore’s disappearance. They had probably been held at the same place, their bodies maybe even snatched or dropped off by the same vehicle. Moira and Erik pushed their team non-stop, looking through security footage around the two sites in search of similarities, while going through interviews with the victim’s families and the circumstances surrounding their disappearance, and fielding potential witness calls from what seemed like half the city. Forensics were starting to come back on the initial tests from Worthington’s body, but once again there were no staggering abnormalities and no trace of the killer left behind.
When Erik got a chance to check his emails, he had three dozen to sift through before Charles’ popped up. When he saw the flight details he groaned – Charles was due to land in ten minutes.
“Where are you going?” Moira asked. “I thought we were getting lunch together.”
“I’ve got to skip lunch – be back in under an hour – sorry –“ Erik babbled, trying to put on his coat and text Charles to say he’d be late at the same time. He knew he should just let his husband get a cab, that Charles would not think twice about waiting until the late evening for him to get home, but Charles had been in Europe hopping from conference to conference for almost three weeks now. Right at this moment, all Erik wanted more than anything was to see those baby-blues and kiss that I-know-best smirk off his face. Then he’d go straight back to the office, he promised himself.
But though the flight was quarter of an hour late, Charles was nowhere to be found. Erik spent twenty minutes wandering around the airport with his phone glued to his hand in vain. He got through to voicemail when he called and none of his texts had been answered. Charles must have left his phone at the bottom of his bag and had taken a cab after all.
Wretchedly disappointed but aching to get his teeth back into the work, Erik returned to Moira and the case.
He didn’t get home until nearly ten, but found the apartment dark. There was no lingering smell of one of Charles’ hideously overcooked, underflavoured meals and no keys in the bowl by the door. Erik switched on the hall light and stuck his head into the bedroom, expecting to see Charles dozing, probably with the lamp still on and a book open on his chest, jetlagged out of his skull.
The bedroom was empty and the air cool. With a frown, Erik found himself wandering the length of the apartment as if waiting for Charles to jump out and yell ‘boo!’, while the microwave reheated the leftover tomato linguine he’d made the day before. He checked his phone again. No messages.
Charles had probably missed the flight, that was it. He’d be stuck in airport limbo, determined to get home as promised but struggling to deal with foreign travel agents when he didn’t speak the language and couldn’t use his telepathy to push a few people where he wanted them.
Satisfied with his deduction, Erik sat down at the computer to do one last check of his email.
There was one from Charles’ smartphone, with no subject line. Erik opened it, but instead of explanations or new flight times, there was a single line of text:
>You'll want to see this ;-)
Below that was a link. Erik huffed a laugh. What was Charles playing at? What kind of last-minute diversion could have made him miss his plane? He clicked the link, but as the window started to load, he was jolted by the ringing of the landline. He got up and answered the cordless on the kitchen wall.
"Hi, Mr Lensherr. How are you?"
The tone was light, too familiar for a totally unknown voice. Erik's brow tightened immediately. "I'm fine. Who am I speaking to?"
"Go and look at the link you just opened."
"I'm not sure what you mean," Erik said lightly. Out of his back pocket he pulled his cellphone and started to text the tech team on duty at the station, to get a trace on the call.
"Yes you do," said the voice. "Go and look. I strongly suggest you do so before you call backup."
His cell still in his hand and the text half-composed, Erik went back into the lounge to look at his laptop, which sat on the coffee table between three empty mugs and a pile of Charles' subscribed journals. The link had fully loaded. It was a series of photographs on an empty site background. The lighting was very sharp. Someone had wanted to make sure he didn’t miss a single detail.
Charles, hair splayed across his face, a fluoro-pink ball gag strapped around his head. He was wearing only his boxers, a loose dress shirt and that woollen vest that Erik always complained made him look ten years older. His hands were cuffed to either end of an old-fashioned gas radiator. In the first photo, one leg was crooked up almost to his chin, the other splayed out – a rich purple-green bruise was swollen around that knee. In the next shot he was squinting and turning his head away from the camera flash. In the final one, an extreme close-up, a hand gloved in brown leather had stretched from behind the camera and grabbed his chin, tipping his head and forcing him to turn his profile towards the camera. His eyes were squeezed closed. The ridiculous pink ball gag, the sort of trinket even a sex shop sold as novelty, bulged between his jaws and Erik could see the sheen of saliva in the corner of his mouth.
A wave of impotent adrenaline flooded Erik's veins. He crashed down onto his knees on the carpet just to get closer to the screen. The hand still clutching his cell reached up to hit the arrow keys, searching for some clue as to where the site originated.
His cop's conditioning began to clamp down on his panic. "This is a fucking trick, you pathetic hack," he spat into the phone. "My husband's in Paris. Don't give me this bullshit."
"Don't give me this bull, don't give me this bull," the voice mocked. "No, Mr Lensherr, how about you don't give me any bull?"
"He's in Paris," Erik repeated, like a mantra. This had to be a shapeshifter, an illusion, a projected nightmare. Charles' own stepsister, whichever continent she was backpacking across these days, could have executed such a deception in the blink of an eye. Hell, a good graphic designer could probably have whipped something up in Photoshop.
“In Paris?” the voice asked, still mocking. “It is his phone I emailed you from, though, isn’t it? And his flight got in at two-twenty, didn’t it? No, no, of course not – it was fifteen minutes late. Not as late as you, though.”
“Fuck you. I’m hanging up,” Erik snarled.
“I’ll castrate him,” said the voice. Every muscle in Erik’s body rippled, and a quiver ran through the walls as the metal in the apartment, right down to the steel reinforcements, vibrated with his hate.
“You haven’t hung up, Mr Lensherr. Maybe you should? Call the airport. You’ve got a badge number and an authoritative voice; ask them if he came through customs at the US border. Of course, while you’re on hold, gritting your teeth against the elevator music, I’ll be attempting to stem the blood flow from the remains of Mr Xavier’s scrotum. I don’t want him to die yet, obviously.”
“Let me talk to him.”
“Ah, no. You only get rewards for good behaviour.”
“What do you want? Cash? Did I put some buddy of yours behind bars? Because I know a dozen fucking shapeshifters who could pull this shit off, and trust me, the penalties for fraud and lying to an officer can become pretty steep when you throw in a brutal victim impact statement.”
“Mmm, I can smell you pissing yourself from here. Like a cornered dog.”
“What the fuck do you want?”
“I want ears on the inside, Mr Lensherr. I want a spanner in works, if it comes to that.”
“You’re him,” Erik said, half under his breath. “You’re the mutant-killer. You sad sack of psycho shit, we are going to fucking catch you and you’re gonna dance for us on the six o’clock news--”
“You’re not going to catch me,” the voice replied, and for the first time, there was a crimson fringe of emotion at its edges. “You freak, you gosh-darn fairy, I won’t have some mutant pervert like you catch me, you get me? You’re not even worth playing with, every one of you should be wiped from the earth--”
“I’ve heard that from every thick-as-a-brick bully since I was a kid. You’re not even original,” Erik sneered.
“Shut up, scum!” the voice was breathing in heavy, spit-laced gasps. An image flashed through Erik’s mind of Charles cuffed to the radiator and he fell silent. After several agonizing seconds, the voice returned, calm and smooth as before.
“If anyone asks, Mr Xavier is still very much in France. And I will know if you go running to the lovely MacTaggert for help,” and suddenly he put on a poor imitation of Charles’ accent. “Don’t get distracted by The Wolf Man, Erik. Undo your fly, take hold of that big ol’ dick.”
Some part of Erik shrivelled and died. For a moment he thought he might actually be sick.
“You tell anyone about this conversation, I take it out of his skin. You fail to follow one of my instructions, I cut off a piece of him. I might even make him eat it. Are we on the same page, Mr Lensherr?”
Erik stayed silent, his lungs heaving, his teeth grinding together. The voice said with a mocking lick of lechery. “Tell me you’ll play nice, Mr Lensherr. Or you can hear him scream through the gag.”
“I’ve got you,” Erik said in a rush. “Okay? I’ve got it.”
The voice made a kissing noise into the receiver. “Talk to you soon. Bye, bye now.”
The line went dead.
He’s probably the best telepath in the country, Erik punched the thought through his fear, Even with the serine inhibitors, he might be able to project, he’ll call for help without this prick even hearing it. Unless the rest of the world was out of his dampened range, of course. The drugs will wear off. He’ll take hold of this guy’s mind and play him like a puppet. He’ll be okay. Unless the perp was forcing him to keep taking the serine inhibitors. How many pills did Charles have left? Surely not more than four days worth. In four days, his telepathy would come back. Unless that wasn’t a beacon, but a deadline. Without the inhibitors, the only way for the killer to control Charles would be to keep him constantly unconscious. Or dead.
No, no, that is NOT going to happen.
Erik squeezed the phone in his hand so hard his arm began to shake. He stared at the photos sitting on the laptop. The flush in Charles’ cheeks, the needless shame he’d seen on so many beaten and exhausted victims during his time as a cop. The bruising on Charles’ knee, and now that he looked at it, a jutting ridge that might have indicated it was dislocated. He used to leave this sort of horror story at work and come home to Charles. It was the only thing that kept him sane sometimes. Now Charles was on the wrong side of the chalk line between normality and horror. Now there was nothing but willpower between Erik and the void of hate and rage that he’d turned back from so often since his mother died.
He forced himself to put the phone down. He got up, stood staring down at the laptop for several minutes, and finally went to his coat and took out the last coin in his pocket.