Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Forest of Corpses


Nobody died today.

That's a good day in my books, but I knew it wouldn't last.

Westside had a major hard on for Eastside. War was brewing. Fideo and his WS crew shot up the East Beach, then a week later, on Memorial Day, did the same at a market on Anacapa Street. That time their aim had improved. They dropped two Eastside bangers and a ten-year-old boy out buying milk for his grandmother. Both OGs made it. The kid didn't. Chalk it up to collateral damage from the drug war.
We canvassed the market and caught a couple of witnesses who saw the whole thing. So we nailed Fideo along with two members of his posse, and tossed their cholo butts in jail. Fideo lawyered up with a good uptown legal beagle, but still sat in lockup, no bail. Then another drive-by took out witness one. Suddenly our only remaining witness "made a mistake." The paperwork wasn't dry before the scrotes were back in the hood and the witness was in hiding. Fideo rode with his ese through his hood, crowing how he beat 5-0. His street creds firmly embellished by his latest exploits, he was back, and he was stronger.

And took up his business of dealing drugs, death and taxes without losing a night's sleep.

Miguel, my new partner, snapped his frustration. "How can we stop these people if no one will testify against them?"

I shrugged. "It bites, I agree. But look at it from their side. Hard to testify from a pine box."

"God will take care of them."

"Right." I rolled my eyes, making sure he couldn't see the gesture. "I'm sure Mr. Gillespie's family feel the same way." Gillespie had been witness number one, a businessman leaving a wife and two young kids behind. He told me when I interviewed him the first time he had to talk. That it wasn't right that these men could terrorize a neighborhood and get away with it. What kind of example did that set for his kids? Well, I guess his kids learned a valuable lesson there. But probably not the one their old man wanted to give. We had gone to Gillespie's funeral yesterday, per department regulations. Not surprising, no one from Westside showed or sent their condolences. Not that there was much we could have done if they had. As usual, we had no proof that put any Westside banger anywhere near the vicinity of Gillespie's untimely death. What we had were two bullets from a 9 mil that couldn't be tied to any other crimes. A clean gun for a clean hit.

There was a time when my frustration level would have surpassed Miguel's. Those days are long gone. First thing you learn on the job, leave it at the station. Taking it home with you is the surest way to give yourself high blood pressure and a date with your own duty weapon, or your cardiologist.

There was a time I used to share my world with dead people. The homicides I couldn't solve would follow me home and make me hold them in my memory. The more brutal they were, the more they clung to me, needing closure I couldn't give them.

Then Jason burst into my life, unasked and unlooked for. I hooked him up and tossed his ass in jail for the murder of a man it turned out he'd never met. A lot of people would have flipped me the bird for what I did, but Jason wasn't like that. There wasn't a vengeful bone in his perfect body. Instead, once he was released from jail, we'd gone out to dinner, ended up back at my place with my dick up his ass, and my heart in his hands. I realized then I never wanted to let this guy go. It took me months to be able to admit my feelings to myself, let alone to Jason. Then, I damn near fucked what we had up permanently when my petty jealousy turned me into a dangerous fool. It probably would have served me right if Jay had told me to fuck off when I got up the nerve to follow him to Los Angeles. He didn't, and here we are, two months later, sharing a bed and a bath, and hopefully, a future.

Sometimes my dead people still come around to stalk my dreams, but now there's an anchor to hold onto when I wake up in a cold sweat, with my heart pounding and my mouth dry with unspoken fear; there to whisper soothing words, not press me for explanations I was loathe to give anyone. Even for Jason I didn't show weakness.

He gave me back my life. So why can't I give him the one thing he wants? Because I'm a fucking coward who's afraid of losing control again? Afraid? Fuck that. Alexander Spider isn't afraid of anything. Or anyone.

The morning after Gillespie's funeral I got up before Jason. Dressing after my shower, I stood over our bed, studying him while I buttoned my shirt. Sometime during the night he had kicked his covers off exposing his delicious butt, and all I had to do was reach out and stroke the peach soft skin. I knew my touch would instantly wake him up, and I had no trouble imagining those sleepy eyes falling on me and that slow, sexy smile he only gave to me. We'd both been too tired last night to do anything but fall into bed. There was nothing sleepy about my body now. My dick pressed painfully against my briefs and I shifted, trying to ease the sudden constriction.

I knew he didn't have any classes until ten, so unlike me, he didn't have to get up at this God-forsaken hour. For one hot minute I almost gave in, ready to tumble him over onto his stomach and spread his legs, no questions, no words. It would take me two seconds to pull my cock out, another two to be inside him. It would be rough, but rough didn't bother Jason. Neither did the bareback sex we now indulged in since our last tests had given us both clean slates. Just the thought of my naked dick inside him made my balls ache and tighten. I knew he'd submit to me willingly, hell, eagerly, but a part of me always held back. When I was tempted to let go, like I knew he wanted, all I could do was see him hanging from my straps, barely conscious as I punished him for a sin he never committed. I had done us both harm that night. I was still paying for it.

I let my hand fall to my side, then with a muttered curse, spun around and left the room, carefully shutting the door behind me. Tonight, I'd make sure I wasn't too tired when we went to bed. Then I'd do it right. Something we'd both remember in a good way.

As usual, I beat Miguel in on Monday morning. I guess Bible study kept him up at night. I barely glanced at my newly assigned, wet-behind-the-ears partner when he arrived, and still managed to think black thoughts. Though I kept telling myself my former partner, now boss, Nancy Pickard hadn't deliberately assigned Miguel Dominguez, savior of sinners and sodomites alike, to me for some do-him-good-reason or, God forbid, do-me-good reason. She would never be so cruel. So far I'd kept him at arm's length, and he seemed content to read his Bible to himself during coffee breaks. But ever since we had been assigned as a team, there had been a growing furrow between his eyes that deepened every day. His brown eyes had a decidedly hornet-mad look, as though he wondered just what that brown stuff was he had landed in, and how much longer he'd have to put up with it. I'll give him one thing, he was too professional to voice his feelings aloud. Which is about the only thing that made me think this partnership might work. I didn't want to get into a pissing contest with the guy, but I was the boss here, and he'd better not challenge that.

I pulled a nine-day-old blue crime book out from under a stack of files folders and unfiled reports, and opened it to the first page. I tapped my booted foot on the scuffed linoleum floor while I studied the chrono report, which included the transcript of the original 9-1-1 call. The call that had brought out the first uniformed cops early one morning nine days ago, and marked the beginning of our, so far fruitless investigation, that had come in at oh-four-fifteen. An hysterical woman, later ID'd as Rebecca Long, had called from Milpas Market, reporting shots fired.

I flipped through the CR, the one I put together from the reports I had collected from everyone involved in the case, from the first responder who had answered the original 9-1-1 call, to the second one that had come in last night.

First officers on the scene after that first call, a rookie and his training officer, had discovered a cooling corpse in the back stall of an East Beach rest stop, where the homeless often hung out during the day. It was the first call Miguel and I had gone on together. Our third homicide to date. It was our first unsolved. The other two were down as closed, but with no convictions in sight, not very satisfactory. Not exactly an auspicious beginning.

I flipped the page. A booking photo of the old, dead black man, from a previous arrest for vagrancy, stared up at me, showing serious signs of the chronic alcohol abuse and malnutrition that marked him even then as one of the multitude of Santa Barbara's homeless. So what had possessed someone to put a pair of slugs into a man who had nothing and whose biggest offense was probably his hygiene – or lack of it? I'd probably never know what was behind this senseless killing. But I'd be happy tossing the mutt who was responsible into Pelican Bay for the duration of his miserable life.

Of course I had to find the guy first. And the problem with crimes that had no obvious motive, was there were also no obvious suspects.

I dragged a yellow legal pad over and dug a Bic out of the chipped coffee mug I used as a pen caddy. Chewing on the already battered end, and tapping my restless foot on the floor, I read through report after report, studying the crime scene photos and scene sketches, notes I had jotted, notes from Miguel and everyone we had interviewed. Finally I scanned the twenty-page autopsy report, trying to niggle out the one overlooked detail that would give me the lead I needed to clear this case. It wasn't there. Or maybe my mind couldn't focus.

Against my wishes, it kept going back to this morning's missed opportunity. I had met Jason seven months ago. After a rocky beginning, we had become lovers and, I thought, friends. Then a couple of months ago we'd taken the next step and moved in together, something I hadn't done with anyone in over five years. Something I gather Jason had never done. We were still feeling our way around that. Still in the honeymoon phase, I guess you could say. I only had to remember this morning to bring that home. I couldn't remember a time or a person who had made me feel the way Jason did. Sometimes that made me nervous. I had one failed marriage behind me. I wasn't sure I was ready for another one, even with someone as perfect as Jason Zachary. I also knew there was no way I was ready to send him away. By this time I sported a low grade, painful erection as I thought about the sounds he made with my prick down his throat, or pumping up his ass. I shifted in my chair, trying to give space to my swelling dick. I tried to concentrate on the words and images in front of me, using the tip of the pen to guide my wandering eyes over the pages of the murder book, and the excruciatingly detailed coroner's report. Hard to believe more detail could go into a man's death than he'd ever earned in his life.

My efforts to forget Jason weren't working. They rarely did.

I squinted and stared harder, as though I could force some meaning to come from the combination of words in front of me. A shadow fell between me and the nearest light source. Even before I looked up, I knew who it was.

I glared over my glasses at Lieutenant Nancy Pickard, my boss and ex-partner.

"You ever consider getting reading glasses there, Detective? Or maybe bifocals?"

"I don't need no fucking bifocals," I snapped, since the same thought had been going through my head. But that would mean admitting I was getting old, and I wasn't ready to go there. I was barely thirty-three—hardly old, right? "Did you want something, Lieutenant?"

"What are you looking at?" She leaned over to study the pages of the murder book. I leaned away from her, my arms crossed over my chest. "Which one is this?" she asked.

"The Isaac Simpson case."

"The homeless guy in the john?"

"That's the one."

"Any new thoughts on it?"

I braced my booted feet on the floor and unfolded my arms to lean toward her. "No." I tapped my chewed up pen on the page we were both staring at, the one that detailed the autopsy report for the hapless Simpson. "This might give us something." I pointed to the recording of the 9-1-1 call. "Not sure what this is yet." I filled her in on the circumstances of the call.

"Let's hear it."

I signaled Miguel to come around and join us. Once he was standing behind Nancy, I punched the on button. A scratchy smoker's voice barely identifiable as female came out of the speakers. The voice was low and indistinct. I'd have to send it down to the lab to see what they could do with the quality. But for now all three of us strained to make out the mumbled words.

"They're the devil, Momo. He didn't have to die. It wasn't right. He promises he stop them." The voice went off muttering and mumbling into incoherence. Then, "Stop them." A wail like a thousand cats being tortured made me wince and pull back. Nancy did the same. Only Miguel didn't react. His eyes narrowed when they met mine.

"Who is Momo?" he asked.

"The victim?" I said. "Isaac Simpson? Her invisible playmate?"

"Any idea who the caller was?" Nancy asked.

I shook my head. "Call came from a payphone near Milpas Market. Maybe another witness? I was going to head out there this morning." I threw another look at Miguel, who watched me without blinking. He nodded once, then spun around and returned to his desk. "You and me," I said across our desk.

Nancy looked pleased. "See that I get a report ASAP."

Since I doubted anyone higher up was breathing down her neck on this DB, this had to be personal. Face it, Mr. Isaac Simpson would barely register on any one radar in city hall. I knew for a fact none of the local news media had gone beyond a mention of the homicide on their back pages. Simpson, one of the homeless nobodies, came and went in the city's awareness.

"Will do," I said, more determined, like Nancy, to find the man's killer. I don't like it when people die in my city. I like it less when no one seems to notice, or care, about their passing.

"Well, I hate to be the one to say it, but don't get locked too tight into this one. How many others are you working on?"

I glanced over at Miguel, who I knew was still watching us and listening in on our little tête-à-tête, like any good partner would. So I directed my next question at him. "How many we on now, Miguel? Total."

"Eleven, including that one. Most ag-assaults, four rapes, one attempted rape. A failed drive-by. Only three homicides – our two drive-bys and this one."

"You wish it was more?"

"No!" He looked furious as though my question disgusted him. It was the strongest emotion I'd seen from him since we'd been partnered. He threw his hands up as if pushing me away. "How can you say that?"

"Just wondering." I threw Nancy a look and found her frowning at me. Okay, baiting my new partner wasn't cool. "I'm going to keep looking at this one for now. It is our only active homicide."

"Just don't neglect your other cases, okay?"

"We wouldn't dream of it, would we?" I directed that to Miguel.

"No, we won't, sir. We'll take care of all our cases, Lieutenant."

Nancy looked amused. "Carry on, then."

She returned to her office and shut the door. Nancy practiced an open door policy most of the time, but when it was time do the political dance with her bosses, she kept the rest of us out of the loop. For which I was very thankful. That was her game. Not mine. I threw a shrewd glance at Miguel, who watched me with that hawk-like gaze of his that looked a lot like the one I used. I wasn't too sure about the loyalties of my newest partner.

In fact, I was beginning to suspect he was a very political animal, with about as much loyalty as one, which was going to make an interesting partnership in the weeks and months ahead. How much could I trust the guy?

Nancy came out of her office. She bent down and spoke briefly to Miguel, who nodded and picked up his phone. She came around to my desk, looking pensive. She leaned toward me, her feet planted wide. Her look was grim. Had she figured out what I was thinking? Sometimes I swore my newest boss was a mind reader. Not a pleasant thought.

She jerked her head at her office. "Can we talk?"

I followed her in and watched pensively as she shut the door.

"Something up, Lieutenant?"

"You could say that," she said, then fell silent. She stared at the stack of papers on her desk beside the phone that could connect her to every division and half of the city's emergency services, if the need arose.

I waited, standing at parade rest. Watched her scribble a signature on a form and shove the paper into her out basket. I waited some more. Finally I glanced at my watch. It was nearly four-thirty.

Even though I swore she wasn't looking at me, she saw where my eyes went. She instantly straightened. "Got a hot date, Spiderman?"

"Jesus, didn't I ask you not to call me that?"

She fiddled with the papers on her desk, shuffling them in some order that didn't mean anything to me, but must have been important to her. She put them back down decisively. "And don't I usually ignore you?"

I knew Jason would be getting home from UCSB soon, and would be getting supper on in anticipation of my arrival. He might be getting something else on too, like the skin-tight leather pants I had recently purchased for his last birthday, along with some other gear, so maybe I was going home to a hot date. Not that I'd ever tell her that. There are definitely some things your boss should not know.

"What I've got is an empty stomach," I said to fill the silence and keep her talking. "And I have a yen to fill it."

"Gotcha. I just got off the phone with the University. They're looking for a guest lecturer to give a series on crime scene processing for their first year criminal justice students. They asked me to see if any of my men might be interested."

"And you thought of me? Why?"

"Since Robertson retired, you're my most experienced detective. There's Paige, but he's more of a gang expert. These people want an all around investigative pro. I agreed to find someone. Plus, I thought it would be good PR for us."

It never hurt to have someone in the public sector look positively on our little corner of the world. I could see where her devious mind was going. But did I want to follow it?

"Me, teach?" I thought about it and frowned. "Me?"

"You're personable, behind that stone wall you put up to keep us all out. And you're professional. Both good qualities. Besides," she grinned, relaxing into the Nancy I had partnered with for so many years before her promotion, "Don't you want to influence the next crop of LEOs?"


"Good. I'll let them know you'll meet with their department head tomorrow to plan out your curriculum. I'm sure she has some ideas she wants to run by you."

"Oh does she? Lucky me." I knew it was a done deal and sighed. I guess I was going to be a teacher. "God help us all."

I was thoughtful on my way home. It wasn't something I would have sought out, but now that it was in my lap, so to speak, I was intrigued by the idea of teaching.

By the time I pulled into the drive behind Jason's Honda, there was a bounce in my step. Jason was in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on chicken mole, grilled potatoes and asparagus. My boy had gotten a lot more adventuresome in the kitchen of late. I patted the soft mound of my belly and knew I was going to have to do something about that. Maybe start spending more time at the station gym, or join Jason on his numerous walks through the back hills above our place.

I came up behind him, took a moment to admire his trim ass encased in hot black leather, remembering what it had looked like this morning, and slipped my hand between his legs. I grabbed his balls at the same time as I pressed my lips on his neck. He smelled of herbs and apple and tasted just as good. A pulse jumped like a skittering mouse under my lips, and I licked him.

He jumped and spun around, holding a potholder in one hand, his face suffused with a flush.

"Alex! I didn't hear you."

"Good." I hauled him against my chest and went in for another taste. My own pulse thundered as our tongues tangled in a deeply satisfying kiss. We were both breathing hard when I broke away. "So, when are you going to feed me, boy?"

"Twenty minutes."

I swatted his butt. "Good. Time enough for a shower."

Dinner was excellent, as I'd come to expect. Jason had selected a fine Syrah for our dinner wine. We both had one glass. I no longer overindulged; a promise I had made to myself and Jason in the aftermath of that violent explosion fueled by jealousy and alcohol. It was hard enough controlling the jealousy, I didn't dare add booze to the mix anymore. Jason always followed my lead in everything we did.

I spent most of the meal with a swollen dick pressed against my thigh. The remainder of the evening we lounged on the leather sofa in front of the TV, watching Lauren Bacall films. Jason nestled, half asleep under my arm, his hand firmly planted between my legs as Bacall and Bogart found their way in a hostile world.

Over a Mexicali beer I ordered him to get, I told him about my offer.

"You're going to be a teacher?"

"Tweed jacket, corn cob pipe and all."

He grinned up at me from the shelter of my arms. "Sexy professor."

"You think?"

"I know." He outlined the shape of my swelling dick though my jeans. "When do you start?"

"I go talk to someone tomorrow. I guess I'll find out then."

"I think you'd be a good teacher." He withdrew his hand and sat up. Then he dropped his first bombshell of the evening. "I'd like us to take a vacation. I'd say we both have lots to celebrate."

I had visions of Vegas or Hawaii. Sun, sand, a little gambling, hot sex. We'd never gone anywhere together. Then he dropped his second bombshell.

"I'd like to go camping. Hiking in the Rafael Wilderness area."

Hiking? Wilderness? That sounded ominous. The wildest thing I'd ever done was at the police softball game years ago between the Santa Barbara PD and the fire guys, where a few of us smuggled in flasks of whiskey, sneaking them behind the outfield bleachers, where we traded war stories between innings.

He seemed to sense my unease. I could see the eagerness on his face, the need to convince me. He really wanted this. Was I going to give it to him? "You're always telling me you want to get more active. It's great exercise."

"Yes, I suppose it is."

"Trust me. It'll be fun."

Anyone else said that and I'd scoff. I knew better than to trust anyone. But this was Jason. He looked so damned earnest. I considered what it would mean to agree. I still had doubt, so I said, "Well, I might consider it."

"At least try it for a week." His eyes were fixed on me. He only dropped his gaze when I frowned. He chewed on his lower lip.

"A week, huh? How about a weekend?"

"Weekend's not long enough to do any real hiking. We need a week at least. What can it hurt?"

At least he hadn't suggested an ocean cruise, knowing how I felt about water. I frowned. Idly, my free hand traced the outline of his ear under his shaggy hair. "Let me think about it."

He knew better than to argue with me.

"Sure," he said. His soft, sexy eyes lasered into mine. "Bed?"

We didn't make it that far. We rarely did.

Forest of Corpses

Friday, June 11, 2010

Fall Into the Night

My latest novel, a science fiction is an epic adventure, featuring Captain Terik u Selhdun, commander of the Necomancer. Selhdun has known darkness all of his life. Captain of the Necromancer, the ruler of Tiamat, his ancestral home, he is coerced into taking a small group of scientists in search of the legendary birthplace of humanity. Earth -- Terra -- was lost to history during the Exodus. From the beginning trouble dogs the expedition, from a failed assassination attempt to the manipulations of a despotic Suzerain and a brutal Navy Admiral who have no intention of letting Selhdun or his mission succeed.

An excerpt:

Fall Into The Night is an epic science fiction, a journey of discovery. Here two parties who will embark on that journey meet for the first time. The Cyxers are from a matriarchal society. Everything on their planet is deadly. They live in isolation on the planet Cyx, trapped in a world they can't fix and they can't leave, hoping some day to have the means to terraform the poisonous world into someplace livable.


The tropical sky was a cloudless blue that hurt Lyssra’s eyes. She let the press of the crowd move her along the broad walkway, and tried to keep Ilesha and Benin in sight. Only when the mass dispersed and the flat walk cleared was she able to catch up to them.

Ilesha and Benin hugged the shade and she saw Ilesha rub her arms where the sun touched her. Goose bumps crowded her own skin where the heated breeze brushed against it. She had to keep reminding herself this wasn’t Cyx. The air didn’t hold anything harmful.

Groundcars and freight trams moved along orderly roads around the base of the massive Ladder that dropped from the sky. Crowds filled the grounds, spilling out of fashionable shops and restaurants that Lyssra knew were beyond her meager purse.

No matter how harmless she knew it was, the sun on her exposed skin made her want to find a shielded building to hide in. She could tell by their soft muttering that Benin and Ilesha shared her uneasiness.

She scanned the crowds. Selhdun had said he would meet them at the dirtside hotel called the Ambassador near the Ladder. She watched a group of children pass, a trio of laughing caretakers struggling to maintain order among the half dozen boys and girls. The children’s high-pitched voices filled the soft tropical air.

She heard one of them squeal, "Oh, look, Theanna, a butterfly. Can we catch it and take it back with us? "

Lyssra looked around. The hotel should be here. The sign was high enough to see over the head of the oversized man who was just climbing out of a small, three-wheeled vehicle.

A piercing scream sent a bolt of pure adrenaline through Lyssra. Spinning around, she got Ilesha’s elbow in the chest, knocking the breath out of her lungs. Ilesha batted at her when Lyssra tried to pin her arms to her side. The younger woman’s panic was contagious; Lyssra heard the high-pitched voices of children yelling nearby.


Ilesha screamed again, and this time Lyssra saw the source of her terror. Something fluttered through the air over the children huddled beneath the protective embrace of their caretakers. It moved over their bare heads back toward Lyssra.

One of the children reached for it. Her caretaker pulled her back, hustling the group away from the Cyxers, and the multi-colored menace.

"Butterfly..." the girl said.

With a shudder Lyssra jumped back, slamming into Ilesha, the two of them going down in a heap of curses and swinging arms.

Cat-quick, Ilesha rolled and came up in a crouch, holding her carryon in front of her as she tore it open and pulled out the short-bladed knife she used in her herbal preparations. She lunged for the attacking creature, connecting instead with a man’s muscular chest. Lyssra sat up in time to see him push Ilesha to the ground and press his booted foot down on her wrist, trapping her knife arm on the hard ground.

Ilesha’s scream of rage could probably have been heard on Cyx.

Lyssra faced the newcomer. It was the oversized man she had seen earlier. He was well over two meters and heavy muscled. He raised his hairless head and met her gaze. His eyes were the oddest silver gray, reptilian in their coldness. He stared at her, ignoring the woman under his boot.

"Tell her to let it go, or I will break her arm," he said. "And if that does not stop her, I will break her neck." He spoke with an oddly accented voice.

"Who are you?" Lyssra said, looking around at the throng of faces taking in the bizarre tableau. Even the children stared; one little girl around Eleda’s age had her thumb firmly parked in her mouth while she solemnly watched. "What did you think we were doing?" she whispered to him, knowing more was going on here than she understood.

"Tell her to let it go," he said.

Lyssra watched the crowd move back as though some force pushed them. She watched a troop of whip-thin armed men she recognized as the cloned type owned by wealthy royal families pour into the gap the crowd left.

"Ilesha, do as he says," Lyssra hissed, never taking her eyes off the guards.

Ilesha released a torrent of curses that curdled the air. The outline of the giant’s boot pressed into the flesh of her wrist.


"Pakal, let her up," another man spoke. "It’s pretty obvious she’s no assassin."

A man sat alone in the three-wheeled vehicle. Lyssra couldn’t help notice the raised tattoo on the side of his head that meant he was a Hegemon pilot, with the neurological implant linking him to a Jumpship’s computerized brain. The nearest guards formed a protective shield around him as he climbed slowly out of the vehicle. Even the bedraggled Cyxers were enclosed in the potentially deadly human ring. The man they guarded wore a sardonic half-smile on his dark, aristocratic face; and, with a sinking sensation, she began to realize just who he was.

"Ilesha." Lyssra watched her sister climb to her feet. She had to salvage something of this fiasco. "For God’s sake, give me that knife."

Lyssra heard a child sobbing loudly. When Ilesha hesitated and opened her mouth to protest, Lyssra wrenched the knife from her and would have jammed it into her own carryon but the big man’s fingers closed over her arm.

"I will take that."

Lyssra had no choice but to release the knife. She rubbed at the numb flesh of her arm when he released her.

The man in the three-wheeler never took his gaze off Ilesha, and Lyssra nearly groaned aloud. Ilesha looked back at him and tilted her head, as though taking his measure. Benin tried to put his arm around her, but he might as well have been hugging wood; Ilesha ignored him.

"What were you doing with that knife?" the stranger said to Ilesha. "You don’t look like a suicide case."

"We were being attacked..." Ilesha watched the creature that had triggered the whole thing flit away toward a bed of glossy white Ishtar’s blooms. The children and their caretakers, Lyssra noticed, were gone. Ilesha’s scowl deepened. "What the hell is that, anyway?"

"That was a butterfly," Selhdun said. "Very dangerous creatures, butterflies. You never know what they might do."

Ilesha frowned. "Why do you let them fly around then?"

Lyssra saw something pass over Selhdun’s face. He was struggling not to laugh. Unfortunately, Ilesha saw it, too.

"You’re making fun of me, aren’t you? Butterflies aren’t dangerous at all." Ilesha clenched her hands into fists. "Who the hell are you?"

"Prince Terik u Selhdun, Ogema of Tiamat, Lord of the Realm." Despite being seated, he gave the impression of bowing and clicking his heels. "And you are the delegation from Cyx?"