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 tongue 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 of 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 bx of copy 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.”
I’m not proud of what I did next, which was to yelp in dismay while slapping the flaps of the shipping box closed like I’d just seen the slavering face of an ogre and not the comely visage of a kidnapped scion. I’d knelt on one knee to start clearing away the packing peanuts, and what I’d seen so took me aback I was robbed of my balance and tossed indecorously onto my butt—and as I was already near the edge of the stoop at the time, falling back almost sent me tumbling ass over teakettle down the cement steps. Instinctively I’d grabbed hard onto the iron railing boxing in the sides of the porch, just to keep from reenacting the old Jack-breaking-his-crown scenario first detailed in that early eighteenth-century pioneer of true crime and adventure reporting, Mother Goose Detective Stories.
For a few deafening heartbeats I stared at the innocuous-looking box sitting pertly on the stoop’s undressed cement, at once agitated and chagrined. The area was lit only in the borrowed fringes of my own exterior porch light fifteen feet away, lending the whole scene a kind of twilit, transient unreality, like I was immersed in a half-lit borderworld where creeping strangeness-escalation might make anything happen. I had to consciously reassert the prevalence of reason and causality onto my own jittery imagination—and that in itself bothered me. You’ve managed to acclimatize yourself to a wandering finger embedded in your own hand so well you jerked off with it, I berated myself. What’s so strange or unexpected about a head in a box?
Thinking about my guest digit made me realize it was my left hand that had flailed out and grabbed so violently onto the unforgiving iron railing. I quickly let go and, steadying myself on the porch lip behind me, brought the hand in front of me, jittery with concern. The extra finger seemed okay, though, and I stroked it a bit with my thumb in apology. It nuzzled back, keen to reassure me, I thought.
“It’s fine,” said a slightly muffled voice, disrupting the relative silence and startling me all over again. It came from the box, and flicked my gaze to it, weirded out all over again. Sure, its tone patient and sympathetic, but amazingly I still wasn’t used to finding variously packaged body parts in my mail—it’s hardly an everyday mundanity, even in the FBI. My pulse picked up again, filling my ears with the pounding of my own blood.
Seconds passed. Finally, after a lot of internal chastisement and imploring myself to toughen the fuck up, I slowly climbed back up on my knees and bent over the box a second time. Willing my fingers not to shake, I pulled the flaps open and stared once more into the concerned, whiskey-brown eyes of Aramis Berlinger. Maybe it was the vivid, warm hue of his eyes, or maybe the cautious half-smile, I don’t know; but somehow at this point my brain shifted gears, subtly recategorizing what it was seeing from “creepy animated severed head” to “handsome and potentially kissable human face.” Having Aramis merge a bit of himself onto me had been erotically charged in ways I could never have imagined, and now, seeing Aramis’s face? Once the first shock was passed, I realized the main thing I was feeling was a dark, churning lust.
I managed a gruff “Sorry,” even as my cheeks warmed for reasons that had more to do with Aramis’s compelling beauty and my reactions to it than shame at my rude behavior on first discovering him.
Aramis was having none of it. “It’s I who should apologize,” he said gallantly, as though being a living head in a box were no big thing, barely worth mentioning. “My appearance must be somewhat… shocking and unexpected.”
I considered this. “Maybe,” I said noncommittally. After the finger, maybe I should have anticipated more body parts. Though… perhaps not the head. And likely not until after the Sunday night deadline had passed. Still, using body parts to goad the authorities took on whole new dimensions when the severed extremities were capable of things like assisting in smutty bathroom orgasms.
That got me thinking along several tracks, not all of them lascivious. I frowned into the box before me. Only the oval of Aramis’s face was visible, like he was immersing himself in a bathtub, or the opaque waters of an old swimming hole. I cleared my throat slightly. “Er—any more of you in there?” I asked awkwardly. “Any other boxes I should know about?”
Just then a stiff breeze buffeted me, slipping into my suit jacket like a handsy lover before rattling the big sidewalk elms as it pushed down my sleepy side-street. I was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that I was conducting this line of questioning in public, on the porch of an abandoned duplex, in full view of any night-owl neighbors and random passersby. I need to take this indoors, urgently. The only problem was, I was acutely aware of the fact that my new and still-tender ability to relate to Aramis detached head face to face, as it were, hadn’t yet inured me to things as they stood enough to be able to actually pick up the box containing said disembodied head, or feeling its weight and realness under my arm as I took it into my dreary demesne…
Took him, I corrected myself. This is your victim. Your job is to help him.
Of course, the officious part of my brain shot back, if we were talking about my job—my job was to report this to SPD and my SAC, immediately. I was absolutely and unequivocally required at this juncture to turn over both the head and the finger (plus the box, the packing materials, etc., etc.) as crucial evidence in an ongoing kidnapping investigation—one that was not only not assigned to me but from which I had been explicitly excluded as a material witness. I shouldn’t be within five hundred feet of this pretty, peanut-packed face, or of the finger reassuringly snuggling the palm of my left hand.
I dismissed all of that with barely a thought. There was no question of me giving up these detached components of Aramis Berlinger, or even of anyone else finding out about them. It was a visceral, possessive claim, devoid of reason and deeper than any conscious process, a primordial leviathan prowling the blackest deeps of my consciousness far from the more sensible realms of my own existence. This part of reality was mine, I thought, and that was all there was to it. Later I would have to question that possessiveness, maybe even investigate it as a potential clue; but right now it was too strong for any tentatively approaching inquisitiveness, even my own, not to shrivel away into intangible wisps before vanishing altogether.
Unaware of my internal tempest, Aramis shook his head slightly, answering my questions in the negative. The motion dislodged one of the packing peanuts and it slipped onto his cheek, precariously close to his left eye. I gently removed it and set it back with the others. As I did so the pad of my thumb brushed the smooth, tan skin of his face, sending a tiny thrill through me. With a certain amount of embarrassment I realized I was already half hard and getting harder. I remembered the desperate need to cum I’d experienced in the diner bathroom and felt my face heat. Don’t think about your cock, I thought. Don’t think about your cock in close proximity to a detached, living, potentially pleasure-giving head…
I shook myself, mentally regretting the brush of my skin against his. There was a side benefit, though. The touch had further humanized Aramis’s noggin, desensitizing me to the creepiness of a head in a box. I was aware that I was now ready to heft the box and carry it around.
I did the throat-clearing thing—it was becoming a tic. “I need to take you inside,” I said. “Close your eyes and hang on.”
Aramis held my gaze. “Okay,” he said. He smiled slightly. “I trust you, Agent Simmons.”
I studied him briefly, then closed the box flaps and carefully picked the container up with both hands, weirdly aware of the part of Aramis himself that was assisting with his own head’s transport. I shifted the box around, pressing it under my right arm and against my hip, and started down the steps to return to my own place next-door. As I did so, I pondered what he had said from multiple angles. He trusted me, he said. Me, Greg Simmons. And why would that be, Aramis? I thought. Who am I to you, and the people behind this? What’s the real reason I’m a part of your mess?
I was frowning deeply as I traversed the short distance between the two halves of the duplex and trotted up my own steps. It was taking a few moments to find my keys again—after using my deadbolt key to open the box I’d stuffed them back in my pocket at some point, only they’d ended up in the side pocket of my suit jacket rather than my pants pocket. I had to shift the box to the left side and fish them out. I was finally readying my door key for the second time that night when I head a car pull up on the quiet street behind me and a window being buzzed down.
“Agent Simmons!” a clear voice called up to me. “Got a moment?”
I turned slowly through a hundred and eighty degrees, the box with Aramis’s head feeling like stolen booty under my arm. There on the street, not quite in front of my house, was a black unmarked SUV of the sort the screamed “cops” these days as loudly as long, houseboat-sized Ford sedans did in the ‘70s. Detective Figueroa was leaning out of the open passenger-side window, head tilted toward me with his typical sour expression. I entertainment myself for a second imagining himself as a grumpy dog flying down the highway with his head out the window, refusing to enjoy it even a little. Through the windshield I caught a glimpse of the driver—his no-nonsense partner, McKenna.
I wanted to fob them off, but these guys—especially Figueroa—were not the fobbable sort. If I said something like “It’s kinda late, detective,” a bulldog like him was not going to just shrug and tell McKenna to drive off. Plus, an extended conversation between me on the porch and Figueroa in the car did not seem advisable for a number of reasons.
I turned back to my door and unlocked it, mind racing. I didn’t know why they were here, but the evidence under my arm was not something they could be allowed to notice. I had to stow it without them noticing, and then deal with them as if I had nothing to hide. I clicked my tongue in exasperation. With the insights into my unsubs this case would give me, I thought wryly, I’d make the FBI gold star list in no time.
Figueroa and McKenna must have taken my resuming the unlocking of my house as an invitation, because the snap of my deadbolt was swiftly followed by the sounds of SUV doors being opened and then clacking shut, clear and ominous in the quiet night. Knowing they were seconds behind me, I pushed quickly into my townhouse and hurried through the living room (while trying not to look like I was hurrying), leaving the door open behind me so they wouldn’t end up having to ring the bell like I’d tried to ditch them or something.
The living room had stairs at one end leading up to the second floor, perpendicular to the room like the back of a sitcom set. Behind them there was a short hallway leading to a kitchen/dining room area that occupied the back of the ground floor. Nothing but a bit of that short hallway could be seen from the living room, so the kitchen area was safe.
I set down the box on the round glass breakfast nook table at which I ate all my meals, then started to pull away to return to the living room and my unwanted guests. Only—I couldn’t leave him like that. Right?
“Agent Simmons?” Figueroa called cautiously from the living room.
Shit, they’d better not follow me in here, I thought. “Have a seat!” I called cheerily. “I’ll be with you in a sec!”
As I knew from experience how cold the glass table could get (the whole house was inexplicably chilly most of the trime, something I’d always treated as more of a mood than a matter for an HVAC adept), I shifted around the vinyl placemat I used so that it was right next to the box. Opening the flaps, I reached in and, in a single swift movement, extracted the head and set it on the placemat, brushing off the remaining packing peanuts that were sticking to his face from static cling as I did so. I’d been right about the little guys—they were cotton-candy pink, and, from the looks of it, they were the biodegradable kind that turned to mush in warm water. Good—one less worry, evidence-wise.
Lifting the head out had afforded me a very brief glimpse of the underside of Aramis’s neck, enough to see it was sealed over with lightly tanned pinkish skin the same way the base of finger had been when it was sent to me. That seemed important, so I filed this information away for later. Succumbing to a powerful impulse I did not quite understand, I bent and gave Aramis a brief kiss on the forehead. He seemed… surprised, but pleased. Flustered, I turned my back on him and pushed the kiss out of my head. My guests would not wait long.
I didn’t immediately head for the living room, though. First, I went to the fridge and extracted three longnecks. These would be my pretext for my heading right for the kitchen the moment I got home. I knew it was flimsy, but if I really sold needing to down a beer or two in front of them, I might get away with the brief and suspicious abandonment I’d had to risk subjecting them to.
Passing by Aramis with the beers I gave him a “wait here” gesture with my other hand—my left hand, as it happened. He smiled at that, acknowledging the message that I’d be back as soon as I ditched the cops. Then he was out of sight as I half-walked, half-jogged out of the kitchen area.
I shook my head at myself as I headed back to the living room, remembering to consciously slow my pace a tired trudge and act normal before they saw me. This was ridiculous, I thought. Concealing and destroying evidence? Lying to fellow LEOs? Who the fuck was I? If anyone had told beat cop me all those years ago the kinds of decisions I’d be making now with the Berlinger case, I’d have told them they were crazy.
I snorted. Probably I’d have said Cam cheating on me was more likely. And look how that had gone. Beat cop me wasn’t any smarter than I was.
I reemerged, now slouching and fatigued, into the living room. There I found McKenna and Figueroa ensconced on my couch, looking around at my undecorated abode and bare-bones furnishings. I knew the impression my home gave to visitors—that I was not, even a year in, fully engaged with the concept of living here in Seattle. Which, apart from work, was true. Oh well. This was why I didn’t have people over.
I plunked the longnecks down on the cheap smoked-glass coffee table and dropped dramatically in the armchair that had come with the couch. It might very well have been the first time anyone had sat in it. Certainly my butt found this assessment plausible.
“Help yourselves,” I said, reaching for the nearest of the three tall, brown bottles and twisting the cap free. Figueroa groused that they were on duty, his tone suggesting that the act of presenting them with beer might be construed as a personal and intentional insult toward him, McKenna, Seattle PD, and the profession of law enforcement in general. Ignoring this, I leaned back and took a long pull of my IPA, then heaved a quiet sigh. I regarded the bottle fondly, like I’d been thinking about nothing but this beer for the last several hours. All the while I made sure to keep my left hand closed, but not fisted—no need to give visual cues suggesting outright hostility.
Under my lashes I scanned the detectives. They were both exhausted, and like most cops they responded to fatigue according to temperament. McKenna was even stonier than she’d been in the interview room, her face a mask. Figueroa was angry and uninhibited. Complementary temperaments, I mused. They probably worked well together.
I pretended to pry my attention from the beer and face my guests. “So, what can I do for you, detectives?” I said, and this time I did add, “It’s kinda late.”
“Thank you for your indulgence, Special Agent Simmons,” McKenna said flatly. She pulled something up on her phone and then handed it to me. “I was wondering if you could tell us about this photograph?”
Remembering my cover story, I took another long swig of my beer before accepting the phone. One the screen was a still frame from video, a “play” triangle ghosted over its center. It was a scene I didn’t recognize, apparently showing two shirtless, sun-bronzed men on a pleasure yacht out at sea, surrounded by azure skies, crystal clear waters, and a panoply of half a dozen more impressively hot dudes of various sizes and ethnicities enjoying the on-deck pool and bubbling hot tub in the background.
I frowned at the two figures dominating the image. The elegantly-muscled, sun-toasted blond on the left in the classic Wayfarer sunglasses, laughing at something the other guy was saying, was instantly recognizable as Aramis Berlinger. The one on the right, though, with his arm around Aramis…
I zoomed in on the image, then played the video. It was a short clip, maybe only five or six seconds with no audio, but it sure seemed to show a very buff, Speedo-clad me enjoying a grand old time with my ol’ party pal Aramis.
The hell? How the fuck was I in a fun-in-the-sun video with Aramis? Given that the reality was that I hadn’t even laid eyes on the guy until literally fifteen minutes earlier when I’d found his fucking head in a box, this was… decidedly strange.
“Sure, I can tell you about it,” I said aloud, handing the phone back to McKenna. “It’s a fake.” I winked, nodding at the phone with my chin. “I’m not that ripped.” Actually it did kind of look like my body—I’d been working out pretty hard since I got to Seattle, and had put on a few pounds in places a lot of guys—Cam, for one, and probably Aramis as well—would definitely have appreciated. Unlike yacht-video-me, though, I was also pretty pasty at the moment, because, you know, Seattle. And also, I had no life.
“Oh, yeah?” Figueroa retorted aggressively. “Care to take your shirt off and prove that?”
I gave him a scornful look. “Not for you, sweetie.”
Figueroa growled audibly in the back of his throat, and I had to suppress a smile. To McKenna I said, “Seriously, though, I’ve never met Aramis Berlinger, and I’ve certainly never been out partying on his yacht. Or anyone else’s.”
McKenna held up her phone, screen towards me. She’d gotten the video to play on a loop, and I watched Aramis and the fake me cavort for a second before meeting her gaze. “This,” she repeated dubiously, “is fake.”
I took another long swig of my beer, holding her gaze. I’d almost drained the bottle, and I contemplated what their expressions might be if I went for a second one in front of them—like them being on duty just meant, Hey, more for me. “Yup,” I said shortly. Curious, I glanced back at the video and added, “How’d you get it?” I hoped it wasn’t on social media somewhere, the two of us tagged for everyone to see. That would be a “come and get me” sign for the local news channel sharks. So far I was off the public’s radar, but if the media were tipped off I’d be surrounded by cameras and shouting reporters 24/7. And then where would I find the time to find out if Aramis was as expertly good at blow jobs as I suspected he was?
Shit where the fuck had that thought come from? Maybe this beer was going to my head already. I wasn’t much of a drinker and I did a bit buzzed, but there was more to it than that. For the first time I felt a bead of sweat prickling at my temple. I could only hope Figueroa and McKenna were too knackered to pick up on how guilty I was probably looking.
“Anonymous email,” McKenna answered tersely. She blanked the screen with a click of the side button before stowing it in her inside suit pocket.
“So there’s a video of you and the victim, but the two of you have never met,” Figueroa said. “How do you explain that, Simmons?”
I glanced at McKenna, but she seemed to be done playing UN translator for her undiplomatic partner. I shrugged. “Same as with the mailer,” I said. “Someone is trying to distract you from the real unsub by drawing your attention to me.”
“Or, someone is calling you out,” Figueroa suggested, watching me closely.
I nodded, surprised at Figueroa’s clarity of thought. “Or that. Or both,” I said. “Perhaps there’s some other connection that I myself don’t know about.”
McKenna said, “What would you say if I were to tell you that we tested the inside of the mailer and found traces of Berlinger’s DNA?”
I eyed her. She was fishing. She knew there was something kinky about a padded envelope and a curled strip of paper—from my perspective the finger-shaped hole in the bagged evidence I’d handed over was almost painfully obvious—but she didn’t have anything.
“I’d say… that Seattle PD forensics sure is a fuck of a lot faster than the FBI lab.” I gave her a bland smile, and only a very slight tightness around they eyes communicated her chagrin at being her bluff being rebuffed. “Now, detectives, it really is quite late—”
I almost winced as I heard myself. Didn’t every bad guy talking to the cops politely usher them out of their homes with clichés like “it really is quite late” and “thank you for stopping by” and “why are you wasting your time with me when the real killer is out there somewhere?” My saying something like that totally entitled McKenna to stop at the door with a “Just one more thing” on her way out.
McKenna and Figueroa exchanged a look, no doubt silently debating whether to press me harder or wait and come at me again when I was more vulnerable. I finished my beer as I eyed them, wondering how I could get them out of my house without sounding like I’d buried Berlinger in my crawl space, when suddenly the problem was solved for me—and by the victim himself, no less.
“Ba-abe, are you coming?” Aramis sing-songed from the kitchen, breaking dramatically into the momentary silence. “I’m all naked in here!”
Figueroa’s face contorted comically as Aramis continued, cheery and relentless. “I got out the scented oi-il you like!” he sang, making the word “oil” into two syllables and suggestive of all kinds of very dirty shenanigans. He was making himself sound subtly different, like a househusband-twink I’d left languishing in our satin bedsheets too long while I attended to more boring things. If they knew Aramis’s voice very well they might recognize him, but chances were they did not.
I straightened in my seat to call over my shoulder, “Be right there, babe!” Conscious of my mortified visitors I added I added with a grin, “Go ahead and start without me!”
“Are you su-ure?” Aramis called back. “If you’re sure, I’ll start prepping myself with that toy Billy sent us for Christmas…”
Fuck, that actually sounded hot. I didn’t have to fake my creeping arousal as I turned back to the detectives, giving them a sheepish, lip-biting smile and a shrug.
They instantly got to their feet. “We’ll be in touch,” Figueroa told me, predictably making it sound like a threat. I stayed seated, lifting my beer in salute, and a moment later they’d let themselves out, closing the door behind them.
I didn’t move until I heard their SUV drive off, then I set down the empty bottle, got up and, adjusting my hard-on, trotted back to the kitchen. As soon as I saw Aramis I picked him up and, again acting on pure impulse born of the strange, sultry connection between us, brought the mouth to my lips for a brief, warm smooch. Later I tried blaming this on the beer, but I wasn’t that much of a lightweight, and the strange, floaty feeling I was experiencing along with my rigid arousal was not born of alcohol.
Aramis responded eagerly, like he’d been waiting for a chance to kiss me. There was more where that came from, I knew.
I pulled the head back and met his vivid whiskey eyes. “That dirty talk was pretty hot,” I told him, as if to explain the kiss. “And very effective.”
“I thought it might be,” Aramis said, his voice back to normal: smooth and intimate and oh-so manly. “Sex makes some people leave, and other people…”
He left off the last word. Stay. I nodded, not saying anything. We would have to talk—about what had happened to him where the rest of his body was, how he did the whole twist and separate thing. And the video, and my being pulled in and implicated, and everything else. But I was tired, and lonely, and horny, and I had that word floating in my head, stay. I’d had enough interrogation—mine or anyone else’s.
I considered him and what he’d been through. His hair was nice and full but a little lank, and there was a smudge along his jawline, half-lost in the bristles of his blond bristles. “How grungy are you feeling?” I asked him. “You need a shower?”
“I… think we both do,” Aramis said, looking me over as well. I did indeed display the signs of a stressful day and night and too many hours in a suit, but… there was a second layer of meaning there, too, and when I gave him a slow, genuine smile, the separated head of Aramis Berlinger smiled saucily back at me. I felt so many confusing things right then, as I tucked him under my arm and started heading for the stairs and the en-suite shower off my bedroom, but one thing I did know: sooner or later I was going to have to track down Aramis’s body and the people who’d done this to him, if only to make sure that me, Aramis, and both our hard cocks were all in the same place at the same fucking time.
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A naked magician performs for an eager bachelor party, and even gets a few surprises of his own.