Peripheral People (A Ylendrian Empire Novel)
This title is part of the Ylendrian Empire universe.
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Corwin Menivie and Nika Santivan are decorated veterans of the Imperial Enforcement Coalition, and are perfectly capable of solving cases the old-fashioned way. When they’re paired with Westley Tavera and Gavin Hale, the most powerful Reader/Ground team to emerge from the Psionics Academy, it could either be the best thing that’s ever happened to crime fighting, or the makings of a quadruple homicide.
During a routine investigation, West’s talent puts them on the trail of a brutal serial killer who traps his prey in a deadly mental playground. Then the killer starts baiting the team, laying psychic landmines at crime scenes and exposing IEC secrets. The strain of the case binds the agents closer together—so close that Nika and Gavin start sharing a room, and even the curmudgeonly Corwin finds himself as occupied with West as he is with the murders.
But as West’s visions of death grow more violent, the only way out for all of them may be straight through the mind of a monster. If they’re not careful, they may forget which side of the hunt they’re on.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Inspector Corwin Menivie surveyed the wreckage of the victim’s living room with a jaundiced eye. He had his orders, but if the Imperial Enforcement Coalition was going to call in a fly-by team for the death of every imperial counselor's maiden auntie, they were going to have to run a lot more recruits through the academy.
As he glanced through the front windows, he caught sight of the newest additions to his team, and his eyes narrowed. On second thought, maybe they should raise the standards at the academy before choosing that new crop. From what he could discern, fellow investigators (and he used that term lightly) Westley Tavera and Gavin Hale were outside sniffing the rosebushes. Tavera spotted him through the window, and the bout of waving that followed was extravagant in its enthusiasm. Like almost everything Tavera had done since their first meeting, the expansive gesture set Corwin’s teeth on edge. He swallowed his annoyance and turned back to the misplaced couch and overturned knickknacks. His partner, Inspector Nika Santivan, was checking upstairs for any further signs of a struggle or break-in, and team building be damned, he wished he could find an excuse to join her.
A minute later the front door opened, hitting the wall with a loud thump, and Agent Westley Tavera sailed into the room, followed by his Ground, Agent Gavin Hale. Tavera hovered in the wide doorway, eyes sweeping the room before they settled on Corwin. “Someone had a wild party.”
Corwin took a deep breath, his eyes firmly on the wall to the left of Tavera’s head. “You are aware that a woman died here tonight, aren’t you?”
“Very.” Tavera turned and picked up a picture from the mantle.
“That could be evidence, Tavera.”
“Wearing gloves.” Tavera lifted a hand and wiggled his fingers at Corwin. “It’s not actually my first crime scene, you know.”
“Then treat it with the respect it deserves.” He was going to regret snapping, but not enough to stop him from doing it. “A life ended here. The least you could do is act like that matters, instead of skipping around the yard smelling flowers and invading the privacy of someone’s home.”
“Hey, back off.” Gavin’s folded arms and glare were clear warnings, although his voice was even. “You want to talk about respect, try not picking a fight with a colleague in the middle of the crime scene you’re so worried about.”
“It’s fine, Gav.” Tavera set the picture down and turned to face Corwin, then began ticking off points on his fingers. “First, I’ve got nearly as much field experience as you do. Second, we were trying to get a look at the flower beds surrounding the house to see if anyone had been near the windows. She wouldn’t have stepped on her own flowers, would she? Third, I’m not invading her privacy. She’s dead, in case you hadn’t noticed, and I doubt there’s anyone in the room more qualified to tell you that she is absolutely not here anymore. She has no privacy to invade, and looking at a picture of her isn’t likely to cause her unrest in whatever afterlife she may or may not have believed in.” Clearly wound up, he stepped closer. “And finally, I’m a Reader, and that means sometimes I touch things to find out what happened to their owners. No matter how much you hate us, you can’t be totally ignorant of how it all works, Inspector.”
Corwin’s blood pressure spiked with each digit, and he felt damn near rooted to the ground, inches from Tavera, the tension between them a prickling sensation on both his skin and mind. It didn’t break until Tavera frowned and shrugged.
“Although apparently I’m not a very good Reader, because I’m having a really hard time picking up anything from this room.”
Corwin stepped away under the pretense of scanning the bookshelf, grateful to defuse the moment. There were a few spots of blood, but nothing like the huge pool by the window, where she’d finally died. “It looks like the struggle, such as it was, began here. Maybe the impressions will be stronger in this area?”
He had been around enough Actives to know that hand flapping and squinty eyes were an unnecessary affectation, but he’d expected nothing less from PsyAc’s most infamous Reader. Tavera’s questing mind glanced off Corwin’s defenses, and he pushed back without hesitation.
Tavera went stiff and silent for a moment before turning in place, gaze raking over the room. Corwin turned away and began rifling through a stack of invitations and letters on the desk with more force than the task required. Light footsteps across the carpet gave ample warning before Tavera invaded even that small corner of sanity.
“I can’t get anything here.” Tavera said, too close by Corwin’s estimation, but there wasn’t a way to gracefully escape. “It’s like the entire room is full of white noise, and I can’t read anything from the objects in it. I need to see the body to give you anything useful.”
The same tentative brush of inquiry hit his walls, and Corwin responded with sarcasm verging on outright hostility. “Well, that will surely prove to be an invaluable addition to the case file. Thank the stars you were here to offer the insight of the Imperial Psionics Academy.”
“I’m sure it will be easy to slip into your report, Inspector. ‘She died of blood loss. The end.’ Did I piss in your porridge this morning, or did you forget to have a wank last night?” West’s expression betrayed none of the venom clinging to the quiet words. Corwin, who knew full well that he looked perpetually annoyed, almost envied someone who could convey their dislike with laughter.
“Fine. We’ll go to the morgue next. Try to refrain from turning the rest of my crime scene into some poor attempt at a joke.” He spun on his heel and marched toward the stairs, intent on finding Nika, and any measure of calm left to him.
* * *
West glared at Gavin’s hand on his elbow as they descended the stairs into the morgue. When they reached the bottom, he moved aside so Corwin and Nika could pass. Nika stopped to give them a questioning look, but Gavin offered her the quick balm of a smile, and she headed toward the coroner’s office at the back of the hallway, leaving them alone.
“West, what the hell?” Gavin’s voice was quiet enough not to carry, but still demanded West’s attention. “Corwin already thinks you’re a screwup. Why are you swanning around a crime scene like you’re an actor in a third-rate vid?”
He shrugged, his eyes drifting to the office door. “Corwin hated me for what I could do before he ever met me, so I don’t give a shit what he thinks about me now.”
“Well, I can see how pissing him off during a case will totally fix that.” Gavin jerked his head in the direction of the office. “Can we go do our jobs without the dramatic flair this time?”
“Anything to make you happy, oh friend of friends. Do I get to point out that you’re the one who stopped for this lovely little interlude?” West sauntered into the morgue, and got maybe five steps past the door before the blast hit him. There was nothing showy about the way he missed a step and nearly tripped over his own feet. Gavin caught him, and the familiar buffer of his Ground eased the screaming in his head, providing enough of a barrier that he could take a deep breath and shield himself against the maelstrom. He walked unerringly to the morgue drawer, and pressed his hands flat against the cold steel front.
“She couldn’t get away.” His eyes fluttered shut, and he let himself fall into the vision. She tried, and she ran, but it was all inside, and there was no outside, and it kept hurting her, even when she ran, it hurt her and hurt her and the sky was made of claws, and fuck—
He dragged himself out of it, Gavin’s hand on the back of his neck an anchor as he tried to hang on to the world around him in the face of the dead woman’s distress. It wasn’t even her, just the psychic undertow left behind in the wake of her death, but it was so strong . . .
“Come on,” Gavin was saying, over and over, and the familiar repetition helped as he fell back into himself, feeling the tears on his cheeks like raw shame, even though they weren’t really his at all. “Come home, come home, it’s okay.”
West was down, knees up to his face as he pressed into the corner, and if he hadn’t spent the last twenty years dealing with moments like this, he might have been embarrassed over the worried and slightly pitying look he was getting from Nika. The vision had clearly gone on for longer than he’d been aware of, and in the meantime Corwin, Nika, and several morgue employees had gathered around, all staring at him with varying degrees of concern. Corwin hadn’t even been in the room when they’d walked through the door, so the commotion must have been enough to attract everyone’s attention.
“Do you need anything?” One of the morgue employees came closer, and West did his best to push up a shield before he could see too much.
“Don’t,” he begged, grateful when Gavin jumped in to explain.
“Agent Tavera needs a moment to get his mental barriers in place again,” Gavin said. “He’ll be clear in a minute, but until then, he’s going to catch anything particularly strong from the people around him. You might want to give us a little while, unless you want to be accidentally Read.”
West got back to his feet, using Gavin’s hand as leverage, and found his smile somewhere as he brushed off his clothing. He could flake out in a minute, but he wanted an answer now, while her pain was still fresh. Trying to play down his reaction seemed silly after the floorshow he’d just given everyone, but he struggled to keep his voice even nonetheless. “So, could someone fill me in on this woman? Please?”
“She’s not our case.” Corwin’s comment seemed mild, particularly since their last conversation had ended in him stomping off. Then again, Corwin had never made any effort to hide the fact that he resented having a psy team on his precious ship, so he was probably getting a kick out of West’s apparent lack of control.
“Yes, well, she should be.” Though West didn’t remember looking up at the ceiling, he tried to force his focus away from mapping the gridwork, but only managed to switch his attention to the floor. There were four tiles under Corwin’s shoes, three under Nika’s, and fourteen between them. Corwin was saying something else, but West got lost halfway between Corwin’s blue eyes and the matching sliver of sky visible through the window just behind his head.
“Our victim is over here.” Corwin’s tone implied he was repeating himself, though West had been staring at his mouth and hadn’t heard him.
“Give him a minute,” Gavin said again, a protective arm wrapped around West’s shoulders. “If it’s a strong vision, he doesn’t come back right away.”
“It’s okay.” West wiped his cheeks with the heel of his hand. “I promise. Wasn’t expecting that. Show me the victim we’re actually here for.”
Corwin nodded slowly, eyes not leaving West for several long seconds. “Why don’t you take a breather? I don’t think our victim is going anywhere.”
West took the unexpected reprieve, centering himself in the quiet space Gavin provided, and working to filter out the other people around them. Yes, he could tell the two night-shift techs were sleeping together, but it was a violation of the PsyAc ethics code to mention it. Nika was focused on the case, with a side dish of appreciation for the way Gavin looked in uniform pants, and that should have been easy enough to ignore. Better to ignore, kinder, safer, all of it, but it wasn’t anything he had a choice about at the moment.
He hated that everyone wanted a piece of his head, except Gavin, and apparently Corwin. His discovery that the inspector was a null had been welcome, and one of the few things that made being around the man tolerable. It was hard to put into words, but Corwin felt nothing at all like Gavin’s soft cotton-wool blankness. More like a screen before a vid started, or those blue projection walls they used for the news background. Maybe that was the difference between a null who’d trained to be a Ground and one who hadn’t—who just felt like a blank spot in the world to a Reader. Corwin was a solid wall of not-there, and when West tried to investigate, he found himself blocked by Gavin and Corwin.
He realized that he’d gotten lost again when Corwin raised an eyebrow, meeting his gaze head on. “I can assure you I didn’t kill Ms. Evanston.”
“Huh?” Probably not the best rejoinder, but it was the first one that came to mind.
Corwin actually cracked a small, easily disregarded smile; if West hadn’t been looking, he would’ve missed it. Corwin made a vague gesture between them, offering another moment of reprieve in their battle of wills. “The way you were staring. I figured either I had something on my shirt, or you thought I killed her. Neither is true, by the way.”
“So you say, Inspector.” West managed a grin of his own, and next to him, Gavin relaxed. “I think you’re functioning as another Ground at the moment. Maybe that’s what happened back at the house, too. If you’ll step back, I’ll see what I can get.”
Corwin looked chagrined, but did as he was asked, and the fuzzed-out feeling faded. “I didn’t realize that I had such an effect on you, Agent Tavera. I’ll be sure to keep my distance.”
There was too much to choose from, too many ways to take the words, and West wasn’t up to it yet. “Just while I’m working.” He wondered if he’d always find himself at a disadvantage with Corwin.
The screech of the metal drawer sliding open called his attention back to the task at hand, and he watched as the body came into view feetfirst. Though her impression was clearly less volatile, he was already bracing himself. The overwhelming feeling this time was disbelief, rather than the fear and pain that had floored him, literally, moments earlier. He leaned over, elbows resting on the edge of the table as his mouth worked over soundless words, and let the Read come to him, rather than seeking it out. He could see her as she tried to reach the comm station on the table near the window, and though his feet twitched, he was able to maintain enough control of himself not to follow her movements and flail around the lab.
“She tripped over her rug and fell on the letter opener.” Attention elsewhere, his voice was monotone. “Got to the window, pulled it out, like a stopper in a wine bottle, pop, and then blood everywhere.” Maybe it was the accidental nature of Ms. Evanston’s death, or the sharp contrast between her bewildered displeasure and the frantic terror of the Read he’d stumbled into before hers, but coming up for air was easier this time. He still felt spacey, but that was the nature of the beast.
He glanced briefly at Nika and Corwin, and rubbed a hand across his eyes. “It was just an accident.”
Nika confirmed his impressions with a brisk nod. “That fits with the total lack of evidence that anyone else had been in the house recently. Nothing obviously stolen, no forced entry, and Gavin was telling me that the perimeter of the house was undisturbed as well.”
“Then it sounds like once the coroner has finished their report, we can file this one.” Corwin’s eyebrows twitched, and he inclined his head. “Good work, agents, Inspector.”
Nika hid her smile quickly, but her eyes sparkled nevertheless, and Gavin looked pleased as well. West didn’t really need the praise, but he wasn’t going to deny that it was a nice gesture, and one he hadn’t expected from Corwin. “Thanks.”
Corwin went to talk to the coroner about getting the final report done, and Nika pulled out her notebook to start the reports for the case. Gavin was messing around with a squishy stress toy that had been left on the corner of a lab table.
West stopped one of the morgue employees as he came back in from the smoke break he wasn’t supposed to have taken. The smell alone would have alerted West, even if the guilty cry of the man’s thoughts hadn’t given him away.
“Can you tell me about the woman in drawer sixteen?” He tried not to get too caught up in the memory of the first puff, the delicate burn of smoke and spice made illicit by its proximity to the hospital, as he flashed a smile he knew was falling on a totally uninterested audience. The last thing he needed was a craving he refused to satisfy; he’d tried riskier things for less enticing reasons.
“Brought in yesterday morning. Someone found her in a park nearby, dead under a bench. At first we thought it was heart failure, but her heart’s fine, and she’s completely healthy.”
“Except for being dead.”
He got an owlish blink in return for his dry remark. “Well, yeah, except for that. Basic tox screens don’t show anything, so we’re running a more advanced one, but she’s got no identification, and nobody seems to be missing her yet. She’s not top priority.”
He’d been in law enforcement too long to be bothered by simple statements of procedural fact anymore. Someone would try to figure out what had left her on a slab, but she was going to fall by the wayside as more pressing cases came in. West glanced at the drawer, contemplating lowering his shields enough to try the Read again. Gavin would kill him if he didn’t anchor first, and it wasn’t their case, but the sense-memory of her pain tugged at him. It always cost him more not to use his gift, and now was no exception.
He reluctantly pushed it back, headed for Gavin, and Grounded out with a brief touch. Like a junkie’s fix, it was just enough to wipe it all away again. “Hey. Want to get out of here?”
Gavin stopped his subtle surveillance of Nika long enough to give him an assessing look, and then nodded. “You bet. Where are we headed?”
“I saw a grocery store a few blocks away on the ride over, and it’s my night to cook. I thought maybe I’d grab something so we could celebrate another successful case.”
“I demand ice cream.” Not a request, but it wasn’t like he’d ever say no to such a basic dietary requirement.
“Sure you don’t want to ask Nika?” He was teasing, sort of, but Gavin smacked the back of his head, and West ducked away, laughing.
“Rule Number Two. And no. We’re not ready for ice cream.” Gavin looked serious, as though chocolate sprinkles were something he only ate after a third date.
“Whatever, dude. You’ll be settled down and raising waffle cones one of these days.”
Gavin shook his head, faking an expression of pity. “It’s sad to me, how weird you are. I really feel for you.”
“No sprinkles for you.” West poked the tip of Gavin’s nose, his tone arch. Gavin scowled, eyes crossing, and West smiled at Nika as she came up behind him. “We’re going to do a grocery run, then head back to the ship so I can make dinner. Is that okay? Did you need me for anything else?”
“Just your reports.” Her gaze darted down, then back up again, obviously trying very hard not to look at the way West was touching Gavin. Or maybe she was looking at the ugly pink scar that ran the length of Gavin’s forearm. Out of respect for her privacy, and a healthy dose of trepidation about possible Rule Two violations, he wrapped his fingers around Gavin’s wrist, keeping the pleasant blankness between his mind and hers.
“I can do mine before I start dinner.” He already knew she wasn’t a stickler for immediate generation of paperwork, and he had every intention of creating a meal that would hopefully serve as a bit of a bribe. If he could soften up Nika and Corwin with food, there was a chance they’d forgive him for trying to get clearance to do another Read on the woman in the morgue.
“Sure, that’s fine. Corwin will probably be happy to trade a few hours of paperwork lag for food that doesn’t taste like the inside of a plastic pouch.”
She glanced around for her erstwhile partner, and West noticed that some of her golden-brown hair had come loose from the clip at the back of her neck. Gavin had noticed as well, if his blatant staring counted, and West hid a smirk.
Satisfied that Corwin wasn’t within earshot, Nika continued. “He has kind of a sweet tooth, if you’re in the market to suck up.”
“I prefer to think of it as making a friend through the application of baked goods.”
“What about you? What can we bribe you with?” Gavin’s question didn’t even approach subtle. If subtle had taken out an ad on the nightly news stream announcing its intention to blow up a star, it would still have been less painfully obvious than Gavin.
“Oh, I already like you. Wait to bribe me until you’ve pissed me off.” She raised an eyebrow at Gavin, quiet humor lurking in her expression, and West could see where maybe someone could get a little hung up on the crinkles at the corners of her eyes.
“I’ll keep something suitable in reserve. For West, I mean. I plan to stay in your good graces, if I can.” Gavin looked way too pleased with the smile she gave them in return, and West coughed to cover his laughter.
It just figured that along with his passion for being annoying and his relentless need to touch people, Westley Tavera had found the time to learn how to cook. Pasta and bread was simple enough fare, but it was far beyond the meager talent Corwin had for reconstituting ready-meals, and probably outstripped Nika’s repertoire of things that could be made in a slow cooker.
If forced to offer his opinion, under a no-doubt-inhumane form of torture, Corwin might have admitted it was one of the best meals he’d eaten in years. Thankfully, nobody had a gun to his head, so he settled for sneaking a second helping while Nika distracted Tavera and Gavin by recounting the time she’d had to dive into a goldfish pond to apprehend a suspect. Aside from having been unsure of where to look while her wet uniform had plastered itself to her skin, he’d been rather amused by the incident, and he cracked a smile as he stabbed another chunk of tomato. There were real vegetables on his plate, grown sometime in the past few weeks, and they hadn’t had every ounce of life sucked out of them and then been shoved into a bag. It was such a nice change that he kept smiling, even when he glanced up and found Tavera watching him.
“This is really good.” He didn’t even sound grudging about it, and for the love of all that was holy, there should have been sunglasses issued with the beaming grin he got in return for the compliment.
“There’s dessert, too,” Gavin said, but it was clear from Nika’s so-innocent face that she’d been telling tales. Corwin could endure a little teasing at his expense for the prospect of dessert, though.
“Cookies!” Tavera’s excitement would have better served a small child or a large puppy. Corwin wondered how much effort it took to be that happy all the time, but the meal was pleasant and the company tolerable, so he didn’t ask.
And Nika said he didn’t pick up on social cues.
The cookies turned out to be chocolate chip, a little gooey and completely perfect, and he ate three of them without shame. Then Nika handed him a fourth, and he didn’t refuse, even if he did roll his eyes a little when Tavera proposed a toast.
“To yet another successful case together,” he intoned, holding up his cookie to touch the rest of theirs. Corwin tried not to imagine the germs involved as he tapped the edge of his sagging dessert to theirs, and then fumbled it into his mouth as it started to crumble. A few stray bits got caught the wrong way, and he coughed as he swallowed.
“Whoa there. You can have another.”
Tavera slapped him lightly between the shoulders a few times and he froze, teeth involuntarily clenching, ready to jerk away. It had taken almost a year before Nika could touch him without a similar reaction, and even now, he preferred to be the one initiating contact. She, at least, didn’t feel like a rubber mallet pounding on his brain, unlike everyone else in the ’verse. As obnoxious as Tavera was, he should’ve felt more like a pickaxe. It was a disturbing revelation when the contact came over like a pleasant caffeine buzz. Too much would make him twitch, but the first frisson was actually invigorating.
Tavera must have seen him tense up, because his hand fell away quickly and he dropped back into his chair. Closest to Corwin’s own, because of course Tavera couldn't sit next to Nika, or even the moderately more tolerable Gavin. No, it had to be Tavera, who’d spent the meal fidgeting, playing an annoying tune with toes that never stopped tap-tap-tapping. It was undoubtedly a game to Tavera, using his abilities to dig out what would irritate the most, and because Corwin couldn’t be Read, he was a challenge. A shiny new toy wrapped in psychic-proof paper that Tavera couldn’t wait to tear open.
Gavin watched them, picking at a cookie that didn’t deserve the treatment it was getting, but saying nothing. Nika understood that Corwin didn’t enjoy being touched, at least as much as she could based on his reluctant explanations, and she was giving them a look that hovered between disapproving and concerned.
The conversation limped back to life when Gavin asked Nika what kind of vids she liked.
“Gavin likes monster vids,” Tavera told her.
Gavin scowled at the disclosure, at least until Nika asked about doing a marathon some night. Having seen her collection of gory, violent bloodbaths with bad special effects, Corwin suspected she’d be thrilled to have someone to watch them with. The stars knew it wasn’t going to be him.
There were still cookies left, but reaching for another seemed like it would attract attention. Better to just remove himself from the situation before Tavera pinned him in his sights again. He hadn’t cooked, so he figured cleaning was his job for the evening.
Tavera stopped him when he moved toward the galley. “Before you go, I wanted to talk shop for a second. I need to ask you a favor.”
Corwin sat back in his chair, waiting for the punch line.
“I don’t think the woman I Read by accident this afternoon died of natural causes. I want to ask for the case, but it means you’ll be stuck with it too.” Either Gavin was already on board with the idea or Tavera didn’t think his partner’s opinion was worth considering, because he was only looking between Corwin and Nika for approval.
“She’s going to be written off as an unidentified death by exposure.” Corwin wasn’t trying to be a bastard about it, but he was stuck on the practicalities. “I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve justice if she was murdered, but you know regs require physical evidence of a crime. Nothing you said could be used to provide us with that.”
“That’s why I need to Read her again.” Tavera was watching him, and Corwin forced himself to meet the intense gaze. “But I can’t do it unless the case is mine. If I ask, Ning will let me at least go back for a second Read to see if I can find something viable, but it’s your caseload too, and I wanted to clear it with both of you first.”
Gavin seemed subdued, but he wasn’t arguing with Tavera, and Nika looked intrigued by the idea. He really didn’t have anything to lose by agreeing, and probably a decent amount of goodwill to gain. “If Ning clears you, and Nika doesn’t have anything against it, I’m okay with taking on the case. Or at least with you going back for a second Read. But if you can’t come up with anything solid, you know you’re going to have to let it go, right?”
Tavera didn’t seem the type to smirk, but the hint of arrogance in his expression hit Corwin just the same, even masked by his smile. It didn’t help that the sudden trill of satisfaction under his skin resonated from Tavera, rather than the enjoyment of a good meal.
“Don’t worry, I’ll find something.”
“Of course you will.” Corwin debated with himself for a second before he gave in and stood, grabbing Tavera’s plate first. “I’ll clean up.”
He managed to sound polite, or some variant of it that allowed him to make a dignified exit. Away from the table, away from Tavera, everything faded. Thirteen years of daily lessons on the sanctity of privacy meant that even if he was going to be stuck feeling a burst of someone’s misplaced self-adoration, nobody around him would ever be forced to share his thoughts on the subject. It had been a long time since he’d needed to actively push anyone out of his mental space, and he was willing to admit, at least to himself, that the effort of hiding his abilities in plain sight wasn’t helping his mood. His abilities were nobody’s business but his, and if maintaining his privacy meant being a little standoffish, so be it.
It also meant he was doing the dishes because he was sulking over something that nobody could have known would bother him.
There were pots on the counter—they owned pots?—and it was going to take him forever to get everything loaded in the scrubber. He’d barely finished stacking all the plates to scrape them off into the garbage when Tavera hopped up onto a clear spot on the counter, feet swinging back and forth.
“I’m going to contact Ning in a few minutes.”
“I’m sure Chief Inspector Ning will let me know the verdict.” Corwin didn’t look up from the stack of dishes; he had no intention of getting drawn into another moment of self-congratulatory gloating.
Unfortunately, Tavera seemed to have other plans. He nodded, feet smacking against the cabinetry in an irritatingly irregular pattern. Thump thump pause. Thump pause thump thump thump pause. Thump pause. After about ten seconds, Corwin cringed.
“Is there something I can do for you?” He gripped the plate in his hand tighter, then forced himself to set it down. “And where did Nika go? She could at least help me clean up.”
“She and Gav went to look at his vid collection. I’ve talked to Nika about this a little, but it might be worth mentioning to you too.” Thump pause thump thump. “I would never do a Read on you unless it was required for a case, or you gave me explicit permission.” Thump thump thump pause thump. “It seems like that might be an issue for you.”
“Did you come by that knowledge honestly, or did you Read all the people at HQ who think I hate psys?” Corwin asked, not waiting for an answer before forging on. “And let’s be candid, we both know that, ethics aside, that’s not really how it works. You can’t help Reading people, even when you’re not trying to, can you?”
“No,” Tavera said simply, with a shrug that could have meant anything. “I do my best to keep my barriers strong, but no, you’re right. In the end, I pick up things from everyone around me, all the time. It’s never much, but I can’t stop that, no matter how much I shield.” Tap tap thump pause. Sweet mother of stars, now he was tapping his fingers on the metal countertop, and Corwin was going to kill him. “Not that it matters with you, since I can’t Read you.”
“Not the point,” he said, though actually, that was entirely the point. “You’ve got no right to that knowledge. No right to invade the privacy of everyone you come into contact with, whether you mean to or not. You have an unfair advantage over every single person you’ve ever spoken to.”
Tavera leaned forward, looming even closer, and Corwin shifted into the tight corner formed by the sink and the work surface, away from the incredulous questioning. “So that’s your rub? That’s why you won’t work with psy teams? You think we’re cheating?”
“I think you’re using your gifts for the good of the people around you, and I respect that.” He scraped at a bit of something that was stuck to one of the plates, channeling his annoyance into cleaning. “And I think that in your off-hours, the fact that you’ve honed those skills and can’t turn them off is an incredible violation of the trust the public places in you.”
Tavera laughed, and Corwin looked over, trying to get any sense of the man behind the ridiculous clowning. For the moment, Tavera seemed honestly amused.
“You can argue this, I’m sure, but I’m not just a tool, Corwin. The unfortunate thing about using real, live psychics for investigations is that you can’t disarm us and shove us in a gun safe at the end of the case. As convenient as that would be, my switch is jammed at ‘on’ until I croak or pharm out.”
“Ning says you’re not on burnout watch. Is that true?”
If he hadn’t been staring, he would’ve missed the moment when Tavera’s expression completely froze before it reverted back to the ever-present smile. “You don’t trust Ning’s judgment on my stability?”
“I asked you.” Corwin looked away briefly, then back again, more discomfited by the fleeting blankness than he wanted to admit. It didn’t seem like a good sign, but then, he was probably reading more into something entirely too . . . too feely for him to be comfortable with it.
Tavera raised an eyebrow. “Will you believe me if I say no?”
That was the real question, wasn’t it?
The smile lessened somewhat, but was still there when Tavera shrugged again, hands clasped together in his lap. Corwin was more than a little impressed that he could look thoughtful while still grinning like a child with candy. “You can request my personnel files, if you’re that worried.” His hands flew apart, fluttering past his stomach, his legs, before curling over the edge of the counter while he rocked forward a little to watch his bouncing feet. Thump pause thump pause thump thump thump. “I need a break from living planetside. It’s why I requested a fly-by assignment.”
Corwin snorted, covering something too close to a laugh. “Most people wouldn’t call being on duty for five months a break.” He didn’t need to add that no one had ever accused him of having a relaxing personality.
Tavera tipped his head to the side, and the light over the sink shot gold highlights through his messy brown hair. His mouth quirked, finally, into something that wasn’t a smile, his full lower lip caught between his teeth for a second.
“You’re right about me not being able to turn it off. No Reader can. I’m just blessed with an overabundance of my gift, and right now, I need to be in an environment where I can control who I’m Reading. The same three people, two of whom I can’t even feel, cycle after cycle . . . It’s kind of comforting, since I can scan an entire building if I’m not careful.” He didn’t appear to be bragging, although the claim was preposterous. Most Readers could pick up a few people in range, but things went fuzzy when they couldn’t deal with anyone else in their heads. There was no way in hell Tavera was that strong.
Unaware of Corwin’s dismissive thoughts, Tavera forged on. “The thing is, you’re the best. People might not know you personally, but they know your record, they know Inspector Corwin Menivie and his partner always get the job done. Your solve rate is incredible.” He reached up to thumb an eyebrow before dragging a hand through hair that already defied gravity, and now seemed intent on disproving logic.
Despite himself, Corwin was flattered, and yes, slightly more interested. “So why, with our record, would you think that Nika and I needed the help of a psy team? Wouldn’t it make more sense for you to work with a less successful team, or are you expecting to coast by on our arrests?” He managed to make it sound like the joke it was, something of an accomplishment for him.
Tavera’s smile softened, eyes flicking to Corwin quickly before the laughter escaped. “Damn, you found me out, Inspector. Gavin said you’d catch on to my clever plan, but I thought I’d get more than a couple weeks out of it.” The dramatic sigh as he slouched back on the counter was accompanied by a hand to his forehead. “You’re far too smart for me.”
“You didn’t answer the question,” Corwin said, more amused than annoyed at this point, but not willing to let on that he’d been charmed. It felt cheap, to be taken in by the smile and easygoing personality, like everyone else. At least Tavera was gone from the edges of his mind now. It was probably making it a lot easier to forget that he wasn’t interested in being friends with the man. He finished putting the dishes in the scrubber and cast a perturbed look at Tavera’s swinging feet and the cabinet they were blocking access to.
“As Gavin would tell me, use your words, Inspector. It’s not like I can read your mind.” The admonishment lost something when he pulled his feet up and folded his legs under him on the counter. “I asked to work with you and Nika because you’re by the book, and everyone knows I’m not. It’s not a problem for me, but it’s not helping Gavin’s reputation, and he’s a lot more worried about his career than I am. I can’t do anything else, but Gavin does this by choice, and he’d like to retire in a better pension bracket than our partnership currently affords him.”
Corwin winced at the feet on the counter, and stooped to pull the disinfectant spray out of the cupboard. He’d wipe that part down as well, once Tavera flitted off to indulge in some sort of after-dinner activity. He turned away to spritz the other surfaces, and froze when Tavera started talking again.
“I also heard that you hated psy agents, and I really, really like messing with bigots.”
“I’m not a bigot.” Harshly said, but he was tired of the word being bandied about with his name. He knew damn well that his reticence to be near psy teams had let the idea spread among his colleagues, but it felt like a sucker punch to hear it in anything but mean-spirited whispers. Apparently he was so far removed from the everyday workings of his fellow IEC officers that nobody saw the need to stick up for him when rumors started. “I don’t hate psy agents.”
Tavera snorted. “So it’s just me, then? You’ve given me nothing but dirty looks and a cold shoulder since you met me, and I doubt it’s all because you’re jealous of my amazing hair. You undermine every contribution I try to make to our investigations with sarcasm, if not outright hostility.”
It was Corwin’s turn for disbelief, and he snapped a defensive answer without looking up. “Maybe I don’t appreciate being made fun of by someone I don’t know. Or perhaps I don’t care for someone cavorting around my crime scenes and treating the work my partner and I do as an addendum to theirs. I might not be thrilled about working with a new team, but don’t pretend our lack of jovial banter is all my fault. You had a preconceived notion of how I was going to react, and you pushed to get it.” He smacked the rag in his hand down on the counter with a wet splat, and repeated himself, more vehemently this time. “I don’t have to like you to prove I don’t hate psys.”
“True, but it would still be nice.” Corwin could almost picture the easy shrug that must have accompanied Tavera’s words: the exact opposite of the tense set of his own shoulders. “You’ll get something out of it too, when I mention how keen you are.” The laughter behind him was inviting, asking him to share in whatever joke Tavera found so funny. “Not to mention all the sympathy when you tell everyone you had to work with me.”
That, at least, was something he could laugh at, even if it was a bark of amusement that stuck in his throat. “I’ve already received cards of condolence.” Trying to unbend a little, he mustered up a peace offering from the depths of his withered patience. “I have a check-in with the chief inspector in half an hour. I could mention that the team was exposed to a case that we feel could fall under IEC jurisdiction.”
“That would be very nice of you.” Corwin waited for the punch line, eyebrows raised, but it never came. Instead, Tavera hopped down from the counter, patting him on the shoulder with the barest of touches as he walked by. “Don’t worry, I’ll grow on you. You’re gonna love me.”
Corwin was pretty sure he’d settle for not wanting to kill him quite as much.
* * *
“Ning, have I done something to offend you?” Corwin asked the question with some hesitance, knowing he was crossing a line and wanting to do it as carefully as possible. “Have I not been living up to your standards? Did I somehow insult your parents?”
Chief Inspector Ning’Hala’Kahiki blinked at him, the sideways slide of eyelids over purple irises a momentary distraction. Of all of Ning’s aspects, Corwin was most comfortable with their neutral guise. When Ning became Ning’Hala—or worse, Ning’Kahiki—he knew they were moving beyond professionally courteous discourse. Ning’s shift into a gendered being made him nervous. Trakorans tended to adopt an aspect based on the needs of those around them, and it was too much like being Read for his taste.
“Corwin, I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The slight tilt of Ning’s mouth was a dead giveaway.
“Tavera. I . . . Tavera. He’s . . .”
“Tavera. Yes, so I gathered from his personnel reports, identification, and medical records. I’m afraid I’m going to need more to go on.”
Corwin tried to keep a lid on his annoyance, holding his voice steady and meeting Ning’s eyes. “Completely disrespectful of my position as senior inspector. Lacking the ability to treat a crime scene like a place of work, not a playground. A bad fit for this endeavor.”
The ridges above Ning’s eyes rose, thin lips pursing. “Can you work with him?”
Corwin drew back in his chair, swallowing a hasty retort. “Of course I can work with him. I feel his personality and talents would be better used elsewhere, however.”
A weighted silence was his only answer, and he couldn’t help but feel that the longer the moment stretched, the worse his eventual repudiation was going to be. Their conversations tended to be quick and concise, largely focused on the details of a case. The few times a year he was on Rogena, they might go out to lunch, remember they were friends, to a point, beyond the specifics of the job, but it wasn’t something they had the time to indulge when Corwin was in the field.
Ning shook their head. “You’re holding your career back, as well as Nika’s, and it’s time you stopped. You’re a decorated veteran with years of solid work on your record, and hers is equally impressive.” This time the pause was short, but rather more pointed. “You can’t be unaware of the way people talk about your avoidance of psy teams. When Agent Tavera came to me, specifically requesting the chance to work with a fly-by team, you were my immediate choice. Personality conflicts aside, Corwin, he’s a fantastic agent. He and Hale have a record that rivals yours, and his selfless actions have saved the lives of his fellow officers on more than one occasion. I know he has a rather effusive demeanor, and a deplorable tendency to push people who don’t care for him. I’ll speak to him about respecting your boundaries, and protocol. I assume that will suffice, since you’re both, in theory, adult representatives of your species.” Ning blinked again, set mouth conveying an unhappiness that tinted the rest of the words. “Unless there’s truth to that ugly rumor about you having a problem with Actives in the field, in which case we have an issue.”
Corwin’s spine felt like a flagpole as he squared his shoulders. “The personal discomfort Tavera causes me shouldn’t be taken as evidence that I have an inherent dislike of all PsyAc field agents. I’m sure this is an adjustment period we’ll manage to survive.” Corwin swallowed around a flood of things he knew better than to share, pressing a thumb to his temple, an old gesture he’d never been able to break himself of. “I’d never considered that my preference for single-team investigations might reflect poorly upon Nika.”
Ning remained quiet, and Corwin shifted topics, veering away from the politicking he’d always hoped to avoid by not actually working in a field office. “You said you’d received our reports for the Evanston case. Have you had time to read them?”
The flash of change across Ning’s normally controlled expression was unexpected, the Trakoran equivalent of a gusty sigh. Corwin had rarely been party to a moment spent with Ning’Kahiki, and suspected the darkened, heavier set to Ning’s features was an inkling of how annoyed they were.
“I’ve skimmed the reports. Enough to give a summary to the family before another counselor’s aide calls my private line and demands answers.” Features blurring again, Ning tapped something out of the vid capture’s line of sight. “I suppose I should be more charitable. It wasn’t a complete waste of IEC resources, since it did lead you to Agent Tavera’s Read on the unidentified woman.”
“What’s your take on that?”
Ning’s sharp focus fell on him, and it was only years of strict religious instruction that kept him from squirming in his seat. “It was within the acceptable scope of his Talent, if that’s your implication. Agent Tavera is granted a certain amount of amnesty because of his psionic levels.”
“That actually wasn’t what I meant, but now I’ll admit to curiosity. What’s so special about Tavera?”
Ning’s amused trill took Corwin off guard. “Minimum psionic level for a field agent is a three. Most PsyAc Actives are within the five-to-seven range. Oracles top out around twenty, but I have a very hard time imagining Agent Tavera taking well to a life of seclusion and meditation. Apparently, he shares that sentiment.”
Circuitous though it was, the route Ning was taking to an answer left Corwin painfully aware that he was being felt out, his reactions catalogued by his superior officer. Smiling would be too obvious a cover, and crawling away from the conversation that was making him incredibly uncomfortable would be a disaster. He settled for waiting out the meandering. “I can’t see that being his preference.”
“Agent Tavera last tested out at level fifteen, but his PsyAc instructors were aware that he was purposefully blowing the test to depress his scores. He was thirteen years old at the time, and has refused to be tested ever since.” Faint smile in place, Ning’s brow ridges twitched again, and Corwin sensed a sort of grudging admiration to the whole affair. “As you might guess, it’s relatively hard to give a pop quiz to a psychic.”
“I see.” And he’d be living on a ship with Tavera for the next five months. Tavera, who thought Corwin was as psychically null as any assigned Ground because he spent far too much energy making sure he was locked down tight against uninvited prying. Corwin just had to keep up the ruse for half a year, two hundred Imperial days of hell, because he’d be damned if he’d let an overpowered psychic menace run him out of the only home he had left.
Setting his teeth into something that he hoped resembled a smile, he waved a careless hand in Ning’s direction. “Well then, I feel better about asking you for permission to pursue the lead Agent Tavera has so generously provided us.”
“Indeed.” Ning’s mouth twitched again, and Corwin couldn’t decide if he was pleased to be included in the indulgent amusement or not.
* * *
Corwin had always believed that when there was something unpleasant to be done, it was best to get to it sooner rather than later.
When he stepped onto the bridge, Nika glanced up from the console, spinning her chair around to face him. “What’s wrong?”
He took a half step back from her vehemence. “Why would you think something was wrong?”
“How long have we been partners? I recognize that whole pinched ‘I need to do something disagreeable’ look when I see it.”
“It’s not pinched; it’s stoic.” Her disbelieving snort made him smile, a quick quirk of the lips that he knew she’d caught when she grinned.
“Right. Now that we’ve established that, are you going to share what that loathsome duty might be?” She sat back and crossed her arms, the picture of tolerant patience.
He stood up straight, squaring his shoulders. “It’s been brought to my attention that my actions have negatively impacted your career, and I want to apologize.”
“Your actions? Corwin, you’ve been nothing but an asset to my career.” She shook her head, obviously puzzled. “Is West yanking your chain?”
“What? No. This has nothing to do with Tavera. Well, peripherally maybe, but it’s not about him.” Frustrated, he forced himself to stop. It had everything to do with Tavera, actually. Without him, this conversation wouldn’t have been necessary. And without Tavera, he would’ve unknowingly continued to restrict Nika’s advancement in the IEC. Really, the only thing worse than having to do something unpleasant was being forced to acknowledge that a blight on his life might be serving a useful purpose.
Nika was leaning forward, the first signs of worry creasing her forehead. “Then would you care to explain to me how anything you’ve done has hurt my career?”
“My reluctance to work with psy teams.”
He hadn’t let himself anticipate her reaction, and struggled to not flinch under her measured stare. “I assumed you had your reasons,” she finally said, voice carefully neutral.
His laugh caught in his throat, trapped by a past he couldn’t share. “Thank you for your trust.” He held her gaze. “I don’t hate them, you know. Psy agents.”
“I didn’t think you did. Although West seems to put a lot of effort toward encouraging that particular emotion in people.” Her laugh sounded as much exasperated as amused.
He grimaced, intent on avoiding that thread. “I want you to know that I never meant to hold you back, or limit your exposure to all areas of investigation. And it won’t happen again.”
Nika stood and stepped into his personal space, hands on her hips. There was a lot of him; despite being wiry, he was far too tall, and he was always reminded of their height difference at the strangest times. At her imposing best, she came close to at least appearing taller than him.
“I feel like I should be saying, ‘And see that you don’t,’ or something along those lines.” She wrapped her arms around him, laughing a little, but not enough to make him think she was doing so at his expense. “The apology wasn’t necessary, but thank you.”
He pulled away as soon as he diplomatically could, and she smiled, giving his shoulder a final pat. They might tease and argue, but she knew how difficult all the normal gestures were for him, and she’d always managed to let him know she appreciated them without pointing out his complete lack of social ability.
“You’re not half-bad at that,” she said, so straight-faced that she might have been doing an impression of him.
“Well. I’ve been practicing.”
Nika rolled her eyes. “You’re not as hopeless as you seem to think, you know.”
He didn’t bother to correct her, but smiled as she turned back to her console.
* * *
The morgue attendant eyed West uneasily, and he gave her a big, toothy grin. At least he was shielded from her pangs of guilt today.
He knew Gavin wasn’t enthused about getting dragged into this particular Read again, but that was one of the difficulties of his best friend being his Ground. Gavin was frequently less than thrilled with West’s plans to go digging around in the heads of murderers and other criminals, but that was the job, and Gavin always gave him a safe place to return to, no matter how close to broken he was by the time he got back.
“You ready?” He didn’t really need to ask, but Gav gave him that same patient little sigh, and West liked rituals in his otherwise-chaotic existence. Gav’s notebook was on the table next to them, ready to record everything he said, and there was a fresh pad of paper and a pencil in case West’s vision left him enough faculty to draw something relevant. Chances weren’t good, if his brief encounter yesterday was any indicator.
“Anchor, shield, investigate, get out.” Gavin’s directions were part of the ritual as well, though one they let slide sometimes. Gavin offered him a hand, and West tangled their fingers gratefully, fixing the familiar silence as “home” in his head before he let down a layer of the mental protections that he pretended to live behind. The woman’s body was cold and stiff under his other hand, but he settled his fingers at her temple, brushing her hairline.
This time he was prepared for the rush of emotion, enough that he stumbled but managed to stay upright, Gavin’s hand tying him to a tenuous reality. “There was a person . . . Human. I think a man. He gave her money, told her he wanted to help her.” There wasn’t anything after that, as though all the violence of her death had been unmoored from her physical body. It definitely didn’t grab him like yesterday’s Read, and he hadn’t even been looking for it then. Today her corpse offered only a fleeting impression of someone who’d stood so the light wouldn’t hit their face, a dark hat pulled low on their forehead. Money, the touch of their fingers, and nothing, nothing until the final moment when her body gave up.
“Going for more.” His shields were getting in the way, so he let them go, using Gavin’s close proximity as his anchor to the physical world. In he went, searching for the fear and pain he’d seen the day before.
He didn’t have to look far once he’d let go of the idea that her body was the source. It was an echo of what she’d felt, at best, but it was there, and he followed the trail of her fingers, briefly clasped with the stranger’s, to the first moment of terrified dreamscape as she realized that something was very, very wrong.
The crunch of gravel behind them made West flinch, and she let out a tiny whimper, lost as a hand came out of the shadows and clamped down over her mouth. It didn’t do much to stifle her scream as a knife was drawn across her chest, the blade slicing through her clothes and leaving a heavily bleeding trail behind. West couldn’t see who it was, but he could feel the hot line of pain as he settled fully into her experience, and then the hands were letting him go, and he was running as fast as he could, without even knowing where he was.
It was catch and release, and no matter how much he ran, he always wound up in the toxic embrace that hurt him and hurt him. The knife had torn through his hip, across his shoulders, and now made a sharp, deep slash across his stomach. Weak and dizzy, he clutched his abdomen, stumbling every few steps as fear choked the breath out of his lungs. It wasn’t dark, but it wasn’t light, and every time he looked up, all he could see were crooked branches covered in tiny birds . . . claws that would snatch him up if he fell. When he finally did, he kept crawling, even though the darkness was behind his own eyes now, and the gravel hurt his hands, and he knew he wasn’t going to escape. It was almost a relief when the stained, muddy boots appeared in front of him, and he could finally stop. He was still afraid, so very afraid, and his sister wouldn’t know that he’d wanted to come home, but couldn’t find the words to explain why he’d left, and then one of the boots was over his face, dripping mud and dirt into his eyes as it slammed down—
He had to get out, and he rolled, wrenching himself from her mind too quickly, and regretting it as pounding agony filled the space between his ears. Gavin, had to find Gavin, but even that didn’t make the pain recede. Warm hands on his skin while he shook and tried to talk, an arm pulling him close as he struggled to figure out what was left, or what he was, or who he could have been. Gritty tile under his hands, then cloth as he tried to push away, because it was wrong, and he’d just died, hadn’t he?
“West, you’re home. Follow me home.”
He couldn’t, though, because home was under a park bench, or a place where they didn’t want him, but it might have been someone he’d failed, and he couldn’t tell anymore, but they were all in his head anyway, along with the fucking spike someone had driven there. The pain rolled through him, bringing a familiar clench to his gut, and he found words for that, at least.
“Gonna puke.” He choked it out, the burn of acid rising in his throat, and held himself together as vid clips of someone else’s torture cycled past his eyes. It had been someone else. He was at least sure of that much, the closer he got to the surface.
Someone put a trash can in front of him, and he was glad he hadn’t eaten much for breakfast. Except that he could remember how hungry she’d been, the twist not that different from the nausea he was fighting back now. He half expected blood on his hands where they clenched the edges of the trash can, which made him wonder how long his eyes had been open. It hurt too much to move his head, and when he was sure nothing was going to happen, he shoved the can away and slumped back against the wall. Gavin pressed a glass of water against his lower lip, tipping it up slowly so he could drink, and only a little of it spilled on his shirt.
“Hold on to me,” Gavin told him, and he let himself curl into the arm around his shoulders. He knew he should have been building shields again, but he was afraid of keeping any of it inside, so he pushed away everything but the warm, safe person next to him.
“She wasn’t just killed,” West managed. “She was tortured.”