Special Agent Greg Simmons receives some surprising evidence in the mail in relation to the Berlinger kidnapping case, which he’s not even on yet. Intriguingly, not only is it a piece of the puzzle—it’s also a piece of the victim.
Despite what I’d told Kent, I didn’t head straight over to SPD from the field office. It wasn’t because I was a rulebreaker, scornful of sticklers like Misha. I was fine with rules. And I didn’t hate on cops like my abrasive first partner, Lou, who’d gotten a transfer to Tacoma after he’d found out I’d been a beat cop back in Chicago and then defended my uniformed buddies against his bullshit about endemic incompetence and corruption.
I knew the detectives handling the Berlinger disappearance urgently needed this evidence and the new angle it imposed on the case. I just wanted to spend some time with it before I handed it over. More than that, I knew I needed to decide what I would tell local law enforcement about exactly what was in that envelope.
I didn’t make for home, either. I was still renting half of a narrow, soulless duplex that was almost too far a walk from the office but too close to drive (and I didn’t have a car yet in any event, despite being on the left coast a whole year by now). The duplex’s other half stood empty owing to a legal hassle over the previous tenant’s will, and the awareness of the cold, vacant half a house conjoined to my own cheerless demesne made me reluctant to turn my feet that way anytime I wasn’t absolutely desperate for sleep—and there’d been more than one occasion when sleeping in the couch in the team room had ended up seeming preferable to my own unwelcoming home and bed.
I—we—had had a nicer place, before. Cheery and vibrant and full of color, a lot like the guy I shared it with. I didn’t need a Bureau shrink to tell me I was having trouble letting go, or (perhaps more importantly) that I was hanging back from starting a new life, at least outside of work. I knew it was unhealthy, but, heck, life is unhealthy, sometimes.
I wasn’t thrilled that this new evidence had roped Cam into the mix. And yet the latent masochist in me appreciated the pretext. I wanted to talk to him, to feel that sharp pang that came with a phone call to the past.
I stood on the sidewalk, irresolute, as a few lone cars rolled by under the glaring street lights, the tall, dark buildings around me looming over the little scene, pockmarked with the lit windows of obsessives working late, cleaners resetting the corporate landscape room by room, and morons who left their lights burning for the dust and plastic plants to enjoy. I realized I was absently caressing my new, extra middle finger with my thumb, up and down, up and down, and the finger leaned into it, happy to be touched and stroked.
I wondered if Berlinger craved being touched as much as his wayward finger did.
My empty duplex was to the right, ten longish blocks away. I should go home, I thought. No, I should go to the precinct, then home. I wasn’t ready to do either. Not yet.
I turned left.
Josie’s Café was a twenty-four-hour coffee shop and diner tucked into short side street a couple blocks down from the office. I went there a lot: breakfast to go in white paper bags, greasy meals talking over cases with Kent, and, like now, the occasional late-night procrastinatory cup of Joe before the long walk. It was the only one-story building on a block of shiny ten-story-plus glass and chrome corporate beehives, and I assumed there was a story there about stalwart owners refusing to sell to heartless developers, or cursed land the suits wouldn’t touch, or something along those lines. More power to ’em. I felt at home there, which was more than I could say for the place where my credit card statements piled up on the parsons table by the door, along with a metric ton of come-ons for a fiber-optic internet service I already subscribed to and way too many overexcited mailers for the local tire outlet (“Buy four radials—get the spare for free! Come to our tire blow-out before you have one of your own!”).
I took a seat in the back of the otherwise empty restaurant, waving to the cranky dark-haired twenty-year-old in the dirty undershirt wiping down tables as I passed. His name was Will, and as a rule he ignored me, which I was more than fine with. Nights like this, I came here to be ignored. I settled in, loosening my tie and pulling my laptop out of my bag, opening it on the table in front of me like a sea-wall between me and the world. Then I paused and considered my left hand.
I wasn’t stroking the strange finger anymore, so as I watched the digit curled down, seeking to feel the base of my palm with its pad. I observed it, perplexed and fascinated, as it began slowly tracing a line back and forth across the lighter skin of my open hand. As if I’d already developed a conditioned response, my dick stirred in my pants, remembering the feelings of pleasure I’d gotten from detaching and reattaching the errant digit, and the knowing strokes it had given my meat when it had suddenly ended up pressed against my crotch, hiding from Kent.
Without looking away, I slid my phone out of my pants pocket and woke it. “Call Cam,” I told it quietly, putting it to my ear with my eyes still on the newly-acquired passenger lazily stroking the skin of my own slightly beefier hand.
I heard Will approaching and curled my left hand closed just as the phone started ringing. He set down a large, mustard-yellow mug of steaming coffee next to my laptop. I looked up at him, catching his vaguely hostile stare—his way of asking if I wanted any food. I just nodded. He rolled his eyes and sloped off, disappearing into the kitchen without a word.
The phone connected. “Camshaft Auto,” my ex said in a teasing, sultry tone I’d once thought he reserved only for me. That wasn’t the name of his business, either. I’d made a lame joke about his name being short for “camshaft” early on in our relationship—probably the first night I’d seen that prodigious tool of his in all its glory—and he’d answered all my calls that way ever since.
I had another “conditioned response” and grimaced, suppressing an urge to adjust myself with my left hand. Not a good idea at the moment.
“Hey,” I said. I hadn’t prepared what I was going to say, and hearing his low, sexy voice again had momentarily side-tracked me, so I just left the “hey” hanging there as I watched Berlinger’s tanned finger move left and right, stroking my willing palm.
Cam chuckled. “Hey,” he answered back. Then he added, “You’re up late.”
I grunted. Cam was a night owl, usually up to something in the wee hours, unlike me. “New case,” I said shortly. “Listen—where are you?”
“Why? Is this a booty call?” Cam asked, sounding both amused and ready to take me up on it if it were.
I sighed, eyes still on the oscillating finger. “No, doofus,” I said. “I mean, what city?”
“Chi… cago,” he said, as if puzzled that this could even be a question.
“You’re not here? In Seattle?”
“Do you want me to be?” The question sounded surprisingly serious, which took me aback a little. I kept going.
“Have you been approached by anyone strange recently? Anyone asking about me?”
“Greg, what’s this—”
“Just—please answer the question.”
He was quiet for a second or two. “No. No one’s mentioned you or asked about you. Apart from my mom.”
I felt a flutter of old pain at that. Cam’s mom was a nurse and had treated me like a long-lost son. I missed her almost as much as I did my ex. Maybe more, seeing as Cam’s mom had never lied to me about who she was fucking. I tried setting all that baggage aside in my head and got back to the subject at hand (so to speak). “Cam,” I said, “does the name Aramis Berlinger mean anything to you?”
“That… guy that’s missing?” Cam answered. “That’s your new case?” He paused, and I imagined him frowning as he asked, “How does that involve me, though?”
It was my turn to hesitate. “I received a package with some evidence,” I said shortly. “The return address was from you.” Imagine if it had been returned to sender, I thought grimly.
“Greg,” Cam replied immediately, “I didn’t—”
“I know,” I said quickly. “I know you didn’t send it. I just needed to hear if anything out of the ordinary had happened recently on your end that might have a bearing on the case.”
“Nothing new on my end,” he said slowly. He paused, then added, “I’m still me.”
I wanted to grit my teeth at Cam’s relentless veering toward the personal, though my own thoughts were being just as difficult. It was an opening, and a lesser man might have struck back with something snarky about him still being the guy who cheated on me for six months. I wasn’t that petty, usually.
Besides, he knew I’d hear what he’d said, “I’m still me,” as “I’m still the guy you fell in love with”—and he was, damn him.
When I didn’t respond, he said, “Sounds like someone’s dug into you.”
“Yeah.” That much had been clear from the moment I’d noticed the return address. And I didn’t like the implications.
Neither did Cam, it seemed. “Greg—be careful, okay?”
My eyes were on the finger again. It had slowed to a stop, the pad pressing lightly into my palm. I had a weird sense it was watching me. Had it picked up on my mood? Or was it merely pondering its own fate as a detached and singular entity, temporarily fused to a stranger and being drawn into something none of us fully understood? “Uh huh,” I said distractedly.
Will was approaching in my peripheral vision, and I quickly curled up my hand again. “Gotta go. I’ll call you if anything else comes up with your name on it.” Before he could protest further I ended the call and tucked my phone in my inside jacket pocket, just as Will set my usual in front of me: a thick, delicious-smelling swissburger on a kaiser, a pile of crispy, piping-hot steak fries, and a tall, unsweetened iced tea. My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten in ages. I smiled warmly up at Will, and he gave me a chin-lift in response before sauntering away, rag in hand.
My call over and Will gone, I focused on my beautiful repast. “Alone at last,” I told it, salivating enough to fill a spittoon. Immediately, though, I realized I had a new problem, and my smile faltered. The burgers at Josie’s were huge and a little messy, with thick, juicy beef patties piled high with lettuce, red onion, dill pickles, tomato, and chives, plus the seasoned mayo, ketchup, and bun. They were not for the timid—and they were not something you ate one-handed.
I looked at my guest finger, then back at the burger. I considered pulling the finger back off, but quickly rejected the idea, strangely unwilling to part with it—though what I told myself at the time was that I couldn’t risk losing track of it if it rolled away (or wandered off like an inchworm).
I considered at the finger a little longer, then shrugged mentally. It seemed friendly. It was pleased enough to be a part of the team, right? Helping me eat would be par for the course. It might feel strange to it at first, but it would figure out what was going on quickly enough.
Having this decided my course of action, I grabbed the burger with both hands, letting the finger get used to its new situation as it pressed against the seed-laden roll, then slowly brought the burger to my mouth and took a big bite. Heaven. I took another couple bites, then set the burger down, gleefully licking the juice and sauce from my fingers, first on my right hand and then—
I froze, my lips and tongue poised a scant inch from the ketchup-and-mayo-covered fingertip of my adopted extra digit. As I stared, it wiggled minutely at me, clearly aware of its current state of extreme lickability and the proximity of my maw as my breath gusted across it. It knew. It wanted what came next.
My dick squeezed, thickening substantially. The hell was my life right now?
I couldn’t just hover like this indefinitely. I could have found a napkin, but the thought didn’t really occur to me. Somehow I felt like I had to take this step. Evenly divided between reluctance and anticipation, I closed the distance, accepting the upper reaches of Aramis Berlinger’s transplanted middle finger into my mouth and closing my lips around it as if, by this one deed, I were irrevocably sealing my own fate.
It wasn’t like sucking your own finger. When it’s one of yours, you feel it from both ends, and you know that that’s you that you’ve got in your mouth. This, however, was not my finger. I was aware of it, and it was connected to me; I could even get it to move a certain way, up to a point, by shifting the muscles of my palm to tell it what I was doing, like how I’d curled my hand to keep Will from noticing it. But this finger I knew wasn’t one of mine. I was licking someone else’s finger, and someone or something—either the finger, or Berlinger remotely wherever he might be—was even now feeling the rough brush of my tongue and the press of my lips around its warm, dexterous length.
Unsurprisingly the finger seemed to revel in the experience, wriggling happily against my tough as I relieved it of the yummy burger discharge coating its smooth, uncallused skin, and my cock unfurled fully in my briefs, straightening out and stiffening against my hip as my mouth and finger enjoyed this strangely intimate moment. I lingered an extra second or two, then, oddly flushed and with my pulse slightly elevated, I pulled the finger out and moved on to the middle finger I’d actually been born with. As I sucked that fingertip clean, the guest finger brushed its back appreciatively against my bristly chin. I just kept going, moving on to the remaining fingers and pretending all that hadn’t just happened, and that I’d been turned on as fuck by it.
I polished off my meal in a fairly methodical manner, determined not to deviate from my customary process of manual nomming. The juiciness of the burger and the saltiness of the fries meant a few more repetitions of the finger-licking gauntlet, and each time, as I got to my guest finger, we were both a little more into it. By the time my plate was clear I was rock hard and in urgent need of a stroke, my condition not having been helped in the slightest by my blushing awareness that the hand I usually jacked off with was the one that was currently causing me all the trouble. It had been a while, too, at least a week. I actually wasn’t sure—which probably meant it had been longer.
I glanced toward the narrow hallway behind me, a rush of shame washing through me as I seriously contemplated rubbing one out in the diner bathroom. Jacking off in the toilet felt unbelievably sordid, but walking home with a huge hard-on seemed ten times worse.
You could ask Will for help… came a thought from some debauched corner of my brain.
I shuddered and pushed the thought down. Then I started thinking about Cam’s expert blowjobs, and having just heard his sexy voice the memories came back especially vividly and in luxurious detail. This did not help.
My situation started verging toward the desperate. I would have to take care of this… now.
Checking the restaurant quickly to make sure its one-man sullen youth contingent was out of sight, I got jerkily to my feet and hurried down the short hallway to the unisex customer one-seater, sure that I had never undertaken anything more unlike me than what I was doing at that moment.
Latching the door, I unbuckled my trousers in a rush and shoved down my briefs. My wide, uncut dick immediately sprang out, stretching out its full seven inches from my groin like a pale, vein-traced diving board. I sat on the toilet seat and started to reach for it with my right hand, then slowly lowered it… and, heart pounding raucously in my chest, I very deliberately brought up my left instead.
Well, it was partly the finger’s fault I was in this mess. The least it could do was help.
With heart-thudding trepidation and infinite care, as though no man had ever done this before, I wrapped my left hand carefully around my rigid, flexing cock. I knew the moment it realized what it was coming in contact with, because a quiver of delight rippled through it, and that same grateful blush of pleasure seeped into my hand through the physical connection between us. It clamped hard around my shaft, and I did the same.
We stroked. One pump… two… Fuck, I was already close. I shifted back to make sure I had room to cum into the bowl and started stroking in earnest.
It took mere seconds before the sparks of imminent climax started to hit me. I pushed down, pointing my rigid tool toward porcelain as best I could as I stroked like a fucking teenager furtively getting off in the upstairs john before school, and suddenly I was cumming hard, spraying hot spunk into the toilet like miniature power blasts of pleasure. It felt so good my awareness drifted, and I leaned back against the cold cistern and let myself bask in the heady, incomparable pleasure of a much-needed orgasm.
Eventually I remembered where I was and, with one last squeeze to eke out the rest of my jizz, I got up momentarily to grab some of the brown paper towels from the dispenser to wipe down my hands and dick. I caught a glimpse of myself into the mirror and shook my head, not quite believing the man I saw there was the man who’d just pleasured himself to cumming in the bathroom at Josie’s. It might be a while before I could show my face in this place again. And yet, I already knew I didn’t regret what I’d done.
The trash barrel was in reach, thankfully, so I stretched to push the soiled paper towels in, then settled back on the seat, still bare-assed with my half-hard dick glowing with happiness.
This was all too strange, I thought. I needed to get a handle on things. I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees and tried to sort out my next steps. Out of habit I brought my hands together, left hand cupped loosely in the right, as I considered the clues I’d received, my options going forward, and the possible scenarios that dragged me into a case I was otherwise unconnected to.
Then something unexpected happened, though in retrospect I should have seen it coming. The finger tapped excitedly against the interior of my right hand. It pulled back to the top of the palm, then very deliberately pushed the fingertip in a straight line down the palm to the base, the edge of its well-manicured nail dragging along the skin as if to emphasize the vertical stroke it was making. Then it lifted and repositioned as best it could near the base of my index finger, and dragged its nail across the palm from left to right.
A cold shiver went up my spine as I realized what it was doing. I almost pulled my right hand away in shock, only leaving it in place with an exercise of will. The finger paused, then drew a diagonal across the palm, lifted, then a short branch on the other diagonal, up and left.
T Y. Thank you.
I shuddered hard—partly, to be sure, at the visceral body horror of an unknown entity writing on my palm with a borrowed finger fused to my other hand, but mostly at the game-changing nature of what it had just done. The finger could communicate with me. It could tell me what it knew… and what it wanted.
Well, I knew some of what it wanted, anyway. I actually smiled to myself, though it was a smile of disbelief as much as anything.
I figured it was done with its message for now, so I pulled back my left hand and stared at it for a little while, stroking the extra finger with my thumb again to make sure it was okay. It responded with glee, rubbing back against my thumb energetically. No regrets there either, I guess. Cheeky bastard.
I kept up the mutual petting a little longer as I stood and used my right hand to pull up my briefs and pants, tucking myself away and awkwardly zipping up. In the end I had to use both hands to finish and do up my belt. Then, with a last, guilty check for presentability in the mirror, I slunk out of the bathroom, packed up my gear, left two twenties on the table, and booked it out of the restaurant, not even looking to see if Will was watching me flee his domain with perplexity, disgust, a knowing smirk, or utter disinterest, or even if he knew I was there at all.
As I waited in the precinct briefing room for the detective assigned to the Berlinger disappearance to be rousted out of bed at what was now 2 a.m. on a Saturday, I used the time to examine my two non-body-part clues through the plastic evidence bags I’d shoved them into at the office.
The ransom note was a narrow strip of ordinary printer paper, maybe five inches by half an inch, smoothly cut as if with a paper slicer or an X-acto and a ruler; on it was neatly printed in thin black capitals the name “Aramis” followed by a calm a demand for $50 million in Zygobux to be delivered to a specific account by 2359 PT Sunday. The choice of cryptocurrency and the way the time was expressed might be suggestive, but the fact that it was handwritten was the real surprise, given that it opened up a potential handwriting match at some point. Frankly it was hard to believe whoever was behind the kidnapping hadn’t taken that eventuality into account, and my gut told me any eventual handwriting ID would end up being a red herring. The informal use of “Aramis” might be indicative of a relationship with the victim, but it could just as easily reflect scorn or dismissal of the celebrity scion’s elevated social status. I remembered the scene from the Star Trek reboot where the villain had responded to Captain Pike’s stiff self-introduction with an insolently chatty “Hi Christopher, I’m Nero,” and made a mental note to keep both possibilities in mind.
The other item to consider was the padded mailer. I now saw that the addresses on the label were written with the same fastidious all-caps lettering as the ransom note, and that Cam’s address and that for my own office were both exactly as they appeared in my personnel records, complete with my own personal idiomatic use of old-fashioned state abbreviations (Ill., Wash.) in place of the two-letter post office codes. This suggestive quirk actually gave me an odd sense of relief, as I was sure it confirmed Cam’s lack of involvement other than as a jab at me; though it did suggest a mole or data breach that would have to be carefully investigated. The postage was from an online third-party service, another avenue of investigation; there was a serial number printed in tiny type that should be easily trackable. The postmark was from downtown Seattle and was dated Friday, so delivery had been swift. I thought about the actual process of getting from wherever to my desk. The trip through the mail, with its sorting machines and rough handling, couldn’t have been fun for the wayward digit. It had sure seemed traumatized on its first arrival.
I considered my adopted finger, which seemed temporarily dormant. Perhaps it was resting or sleeping, or its owner was. I really needed to figure out whether this thing was connected to Berlinger or had become a free agent on being detached. I gave it the gentlest stroke with my thumb, not wanting to wake it (or him), and it snuggled closer.
Just then two rumpled detectives burst into the room, throwing manila folders onto the table and looking none too pleased to be there. I quickly fisted my left hand and hid it under the table, like a kid trying to hide his phone from the teacher. Smooth, I snarked at myself. If I were the suspect here and not LEO that would have been pretty suspicious, and I resolved to be more careful with my strange new secret.
The detectives were an older woman named McKenna and a sour but bluffly handsome guy my age called Figueroa. They were grimly exasperated that the Berlinger case wasn’t a walkabout after all, but to their credit they didn’t dismiss the clues or try to cling to the earlier theory—though they were perplexed at a large padded mailer having been used to send a single, tiny strip of paper. McKenna looked up from examining the mailer closely to eye me with a raised eyebrow. “You’re sure there was nothing else in the envelope?”
“Absolutely,” I said, maintaining eye contact and trying not to look like someone who was keeping his left hand carefully hidden under the table at all times.
“The evidence was sent to the Bureau,” Figueroa mused, exchanging a glance with McKenna, then addressing me. “You using that to take over the case?”
I gave him a tired look. “What my colleague means, Special Agent Simmons,” McKenna intervened politely, giving Figueroa the side eye, “is that we would appreciate the opportunity to consult with the Bureau on this case. But, as the addressee, and with the use of your ex-husband’s information, you should consider yourself separately involved as a potential witness.”
I nodded. I’d expected myself to be recused but kept in the loop, since my being fingered by the bad guys—literally and figuratively!—meant I might know something about the case I didn’t yet know I knew. “We need to get to work on the data breach,” I agreed. “We’ll send over my fingerprints and DNA for exclusion.” Just the ten, I wanted to add. Man, if they decided to print me now, on the spot… I gave them both a competent, federal-agent-type look. “I’ll have my SAC contact you as soon as possible,” I concluded.
My declaration seemed to end the meeting, and we all stood up, me with my left hand still fisted tightly. McKenna clearly noticed but said nothing as I shook their hands and left. I would definitely have to watch out for her.
On the walk home I called my boss, Special Agent in Charge Jamal Louis, waking him up and giving him my second (fingerless) debriefing on the night. He processed all of what I told him, then confirmed my exclusion from the investigation while promising to keep me informed as much as was possible. Jamal was professional enough not to shy away from the possibility I was actively involved, and I suspected these incidences of “keeping me informed” would feel very much like friendly interrogations. I didn’t blame him—I’d do the same were our positions reversed.
And the truth was I had committed a criminal breach of ethics in withholding evidence. Maybe that had been a mistake, but I was too far past it now to do anything but keep going. This detached body parts things was not something I was entrusting to anyone but myself, and I wasn’t even sure I understood why.
My guest finger stroked my palm, reassuring me, and I had a strange urge to nuzzle it along my face. I tried to push those impulses aside and think practically. After the expression of gratitude in the toilet I would definitely need to take a shot at talking to the thing some more—trying to get it to spell out some kind of useful information. I’d do that as soon as I got home. I was tired but not sleepy, and I knew from experience that I might as well work.
As I unlocked my door, I happened to glance over to the matching porch and doorway on the vacant side of the duplex. There, half-hidden between the gloom of the unlit night on that side and the bright white motion-sensor porch light I had installed on mine, was a large, squat shipping box, the size of a ream of paper or a medium-sized microwave.
I frowned at it, still gripping my keys where I’d been about to unlock my deadbolt. No one lived on that side, and nothing should have been delivered there.
I stepped down from my own little brick porch and approached the other one. My phone itched in my jacket pocket. I should be calling the Bureau or the SPD. I should not be walking up these steps or bending over the thing, or contemplating the sharpness of my keys in relation to the mundane clear packing tape sealing the box closed.
The adhesive label, centered on the left flap, was exactly as with the mailer: it was hand-addressed to me, this time at my home, with the address again exactly as I would have written it, “Wash.” and all. It should have been on my doorstep, so one mystery solved: the carrier had simply misdelivered it next door. The return address this time was even more out of left field than before: it was the house I’d grown up in north of Chicago. That old green and white ranch didn’t even exist anymore—the whole development had been seized by eminent domain years ago, and an interstate went through there now.
I heard my heart beat in slow, steady thumps as I lifted my still-extended deadbolt key and dragged it through the plastic tape along the top seam and across the ends. I lifted the lids, hardly daring to breathe.
Inside, the box seemed filled with packing peanuts—pink ones, I thought, though it was hard to tell in this light. As I watched, a couple of them shot straight up several inches with a puff as if propelled from below, one landing back in the box in a different spot, the other hitting the bent-back lid and dribbling onto the bricks of the porch.
Carefully, I started moving the peanuts aside, up and out of the box, clearing away the top layer until I had an unobscured view of what the box truly contained.
The tan, healthy-looking, and very handsome face of Aramis Berlinger IV stared up at me, eyes bright and clear even in this dim half-light. He blew out a gust of breath to shift a stray packing peanut away from his full, famously kissable lips, then met my gaze with an expression of obvious relief.
“Thank god,” he said. “Thank god it’s you.”