Vacant: A Mindspace Investigations Novel by Alex HughesVacant: A Mindspace Investigations Novel by Alex Hughes

Vacant: A Mindspace Investigations Novel

byAlex Hughes

Mass Market Paperback | December 2, 2014

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Nothing ruins a romantic evening like a brawl with lowlifes—especially when one of them later turns up dead and my date, Detective Isabella Cherabino, is the #1 suspect. My history with the Atlanta PD on both sides of the law makes me an unreliable witness, so while Cherabino is suspended, I’m paying my bills by taking an FBI gig.    
 
I’ve been hired to play telepathic bodyguard for Tommy, the ten-year-old son of a superior court judge in Savannah presiding over the murder trial of a mob-connected mogul. After an attempt on the kid’s life, the Feds believe he’s been targeted by the businessman’s “associates.”
 
Turns out, Tommy’s a nascent telepath, so I’m trying to help him get a handle on his Ability. But it doesn’t take a mind reader to see that there’s something going on with this kid’s parents that’s stressing him out more than a death threat…
Alex Hughes is the author of the Mindspace Investigations Novels, including Clean, Sharp, and Marked.
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Title:Vacant: A Mindspace Investigations NovelFormat:Mass Market PaperbackDimensions:352 pages, 6.8 × 4.2 × 1 inPublished:December 2, 2014Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0451466942

ISBN - 13:9780451466945

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Reviews

Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not The Best I liked it, but thought the other books were better. Adam was complaining way more than usual, and I felt like more could have been done for Cherabino, who is moving at a snails pace in their relationship. But, the mystery and twists were great, and the ending was really exciting.
Date published: 2016-12-15

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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF ALEX HUGHESALSO AVAILABLE BY ALEX HUGHESCHAPTER 1A sea of thoughts crashed into me like a tsunami, chaos given form with impossible force. I focused on the back of Isabella’s sweatshirt as I followed her through the crowds, past the food on the outside rim of Phillips Arena.She finally moved into one of the alcoves with the big sign—a something and a number. My eyes were in slits, focused only on her to block out all those damn minds. She stopped against the concrete wall, pulling me out of the way. The crowd pushed against my shoulder periodically anyway, bursts of particular minds striking mine as their bodies ran into my shoulder.She said something.“What?”“This was a terrible idea,” Isabella said, in the tone of someone repeating herself. “You’re not—”“It’s fine,” I said, through gritted teeth. “You paid all the money for the tickets. You begged me to come. We’re here. Let’s see the show.”“But—” Isabella waffled. Isabella Cherabino was a senior homicide detective for the DeKalb County Police Department, and as such was normally decisive. She must have had strong emotions about this concert, which I’d know if I wasn’t spending every spare bit of my energy shielding against the crush of minds all around me. There were times when telepathy was more of a curse than a blessing.“It’s okay,” I said. It wasn’t, of course, but I was here, damn it. Might as well get through this.She pulled me farther down the hall and waved our tickets again at new people, who pointed her down a set of stairs. I followed behind her, entire vision focused on the back of her shirt.The ancient twice-remodeled stadium hosted hockey games, so it wasn’t exactly gorgeous, and the floating screens overhead looked like they’d fall down at any time. The whole place smelled like fried food and beer—old beer—but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the people. Maybe a hundred thousand people were jostling and yelling and talking and thinking around me, loudly. Their mental waves in Mindspace—groups upon groups of thin, normal mind-waves—added up to an ocean of force that overwhelmed all of my senses.She found our seats and pushed me into mine. I gripped the ancient wooden armrests with shaking hands.I had no idea how she’d talked me into this. Telepaths did not like crowds. I hadn’t had to deal with this level of overwhelming mental force since my final testing, more than twenty years ago now, and I strained under the pressure like a piano suspended over a cartoon character’s head. I swallowed, forcing myself against it.My old teacher’s voice in my head reminded me that strength didn’t always get the job done, no matter how manly it felt at the time. Sometimes you had to be the duck, swimming with the current while the rain slipped off your back. I tried that, focusing on moving through the pressure cleanly rather than blocking it. A surfer on the edge of the sea, pushed along but not fighting. It helped, but only some.Then Isabella reached over and took my hand, and warm feelings leavened with a little guilt rolled up my arm.“Thank you for coming, Adam,” she said quietly. With the physical connection, I could feel her even through my shielding.And I looked over and remembered why I’d come. I was with her.Isabella was a beautiful woman with strong Italian features, thick, slightly curly hair she usually wore up, and a curvy body well worth a second look. She was in her late thirties, had a black belt in something Asian and deadly, and was one of the smartest people I knew. Her sense of justice in working with the police had been one of the things that had kept me on the wagon these last four years. Her strength of character and huge work ethic had been an inspiration for far longer.It was impossible for me to believe that she was willing to date me; I’d been in love with her for years, and even though I couldn’t say it out loud yet, and even though we hadn’t had sex—she hadn’t been willing to make the nearly permanent commitment that sex with a telepath implied—we were dating. Four months and change now. And she’d been falling asleep in my arms nearly as long. She’d even filled out the official relationship form with the department, calling me boyfriend in plain text where anyone could read it. It was a miracle, as far as I was concerned.So if I had to stand in the middle of the worst press of minds in my life, I would. I’d do nearly anything for her.After ten minutes or so, the lights dimmed and the crowd roared. The minds roared too, pressing against my consciousness like a hand squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the lid still on. Like that lid, I felt under pressure, impossibly strained. I wondered whether I’d really be able to survive this.The screens came on, and the image of the aging rock musician Cherabino liked came on in a still photograph. Then the image fractured to be replaced by the concert logo. The crowd roared, and Mindspace trembled with pressure and interacting minds. Only two hours until it was over. She’d spent a fortune on the tickets, I told myself.A manufactured smell—of volcanic gas, engine oil, and ozone—flooded the stadium, and the roaring of the crowd grew louder. Then the lights dimmed, and green spotlights flooded the empty stage floor in front of us. The smell of deep woods added to the mix in the air, growing things and moss and sunlight cutting through the darker smells of civilization. The smell came back to me from the minds around me, lessening the pressure with pure sensation.A trapdoor opened in the middle of the stage, and a figure was slowly raised into the green light. The rocker’s peaked hair caught the light with glitter and phantom holograms, and the clothes were not much better, tight-fitting to a fault, glittering. She slung her spiky guitar in front of her body and strummed.The noise filled the stadium and every mind in it, shaking our seats with pure sound. Isabella next to me was transfixed, her focus coming through our psychic Link.The minds around me echoed the sound of the opening bars of the song, echoed the lights now turning red as the rocker screamed about dropping bombs, about bursting minds in the sixty-years-ago Tech Wars. And as she quieted and sang intense notes about a child growing up in a shattered city, every mind in the place cried with her.I dropped my shields, dropped them entirely, and pulled my hand away from Isabella.“What?” she said.“Shh,” I said. The band was rising up at the back of the stage on more platforms from the floor, the lights ramping up, but I didn’t care. I closed my eyes.The music swelled in screams again, drums coming in, and the beat fell into the minds of the crowd. The vision of what was happening onstage came through a thousand minds, an overlapping kaleidoscope vision of one idea, one experience, one moment. And it continued. It continued.No one was here who didn’t love this band. No one paid who didn’t live for this moment. And here, in the middle of all of it, I felt like a feather flying in the wind, a glider sailing on the sea of emotional high. The music swelled again, and my heart with it. Sound and vision and fury and a thousand happy minds crashed into me, and I breathed them in.Sometime later, the world dissipated into a sea of clapping, and I came back to myself. I built shields, slowly, to block out the Mindspace now fracturing into chaos. The pressure, the unpleasantness returned, and I returned to laboring against it, but left in my mind was that one, pure note, the note that had started it all.Isabella poked me.“What?” I said, reluctantly opening my eyes.“I said, did you like it?”“That was . . . that was great,” I said. It was the understatement of the century.“Are you okay?” she asked. Then she wondered if she needed to call Swartz, my Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. “You look . . . high.”“Just the concert,” I said. I stood then; someone pushed by on their way to the aisle. “Can we hang around until most of the people are gone?” I asked. I’d rather not deal with all those minds wanting so desperately to get out of here; I was already feeling the edge of that flight response and didn’t want it intensified.“Sure,” she said, but she looked at me suspiciously.As another couple moved out of the row, squeezing in front of us, I realized I had to make an effort at conversation now. I really wanted to sit down and process what I’d just experienced—something I’d never, in my forty years, even dreamed of—but this was Isabella.“What did you think of the ballad about the miniature giraffe?” I asked her.“That was hilarious,” she said, still looking suspicious. But she sat down, and I sat down, and as people moved out of the old stadium like ants and strange smells moved through the concert system in front of us, we talked.After a while she was even smiling.I’d done well tonight, I thought to myself. But at the back of my brain, I wondered. Did I really need something else in my life that was that . . . addictive?*   *   *We waited over an hour, until the majority of the minds were long gone. When we walked out of the arena building, it was dark, and the street was nearly deserted, just a few clusters of people here and there. Our breath fogged in the late-February air, the winter on its last greedy weeks of cold. Bioengineered trees with luminescent glowing orbs illuminated the sidewalk in dim blue light, which stretched farther than you thought it should, beautiful and simple, feeling artificial and natural all at once. They held up well to the cold, I noticed, as I huddled in my jacket a little deeper.A small group of guys stood about a hundred feet away, their body language tense and confrontational. Cherabino’s hand moved toward the gun on her waist she wasn’t carrying.Then one guy yelled, and the group turned inward. The dull slap of repeated fist blows hit the air.Cherabino considered whether to get involved.I turned—but it was too late. A man stood there, at least fifty-five and thin. He was short, balding, with dark skin that caught up blue highlights from the bioluminescent streetlight. In Mindspace, his presence had wiry strength and desperation mixed. He held a pole as tall as himself, maybe fifty T-shirts hooked into loops on the pole, shirts with a cheaply copied logo of the band we’d just seen.“Buy a shirt. Just ten ROCs,” he said, but his tone was angry.“No, thanks,” I said.“Keep moving, sir,” Cherabino said, a little of her cop voice leaking into her speech, moving toward a defensive stance.Another guy came up, behind us, one of the ones from the group who’d been fighting. The others held back, working out their aggression, close to leaving. I moved around to look at him.“Buy a shirt or my buddy and I have something to say.”“No way those are official shirts,” I said. “You’re stealing from the artist.”I felt the first guy’s decision, but Cherabino was already moving.Pain from behind me. Cherabino in judo mode.The buddy charged me. I went to get a grip on his mind—and failed.He punched me in the jaw. I saw stars, and my legs went out from underneath me.I blinked up, trying to get my bearings, but he kicked me. I whimpered. Not the most manly moment, but it hurt, damn it. I pushed back up.Cherabino was over me then, badge out in the guy’s face. “Police,” she said.She went flying and somebody kicked me back down again. I put my hands over my head to protect it and tried to get a grip on the guy’s mind one more time. Slippery fellow—we had bad valence, terrible valence, and I couldn’t get a grip.I went for the first one—and him I could grip. I hit the center of his mind, knocking him out. He slumped down, landing on top of the abandoned T-shirt rack.I got up to my knees just in time to watch Cherabino punch the buddy in the face. “Police,” she said, standing over him. “Don’t ever let me see you around here again.”“Shouldn’t you arrest them?” I asked.She considered it, then gave me a hand up.The buddy took off running, and she let him go. “Not worth interrupting my date over,” she said. She glanced back at the guy I’d knocked out. Then sighed. “Is there a way to wake him up? Leaving him unconscious probably isn’t the best of ideas.”I took a look at my handiwork in Mindspace. “If I wake him right now he’ll have the world’s worst headache.”“Serve him right. Do it. Then let’s get out of here.”*   *   *We walked back to the parking garage across the street, her feet moving faster than I preferred. Her anger was still in play. Mine too. We shouldn’t have gotten involved in a stupid fight outside Phillips.She found her car, an old beat-up sedan, where she’d left it on the fourth floor. Her parking job was crooked, which was typical for her. She unlocked the car and let us in.“You sure we shouldn’t have arrested them?” I asked as I swung myself down into the seat.“We’re in Fulton County and off-duty. More trouble than it’s worth,” she said, but wasn’t exactly happy about it. She turned on the fusion engine, it slowly warming up with a whine.I closed the door. My body was calm by now, my heartbeat more settled, but I still felt jumpy, still felt too sensitive. I was open to Mindspace, monitoring what was going on, which was why I felt it.All at once, I felt a shift in the world, a collapsing in, a hole disappearing into the fabric of Mindspace. A cold wind across my sense of the future, itching and then gone. A mile away, perhaps, just at the edge of my senses for even the strongest signal. A mile away behind us.My stomach sank. “Someone just died.”“What?” she said.“Someone just died behind us. Violently, to be that strong.”“Murder?” she asked.“Or they fell off a building and impacted the ground. Strong, violent stuff.”She sighed. I felt her considering.“Go ahead and turn around,” I said. She was a workaholic and obligated to the department. Getting in the way of her job wasn’t going to get me anywhere. And the feeling of that death bothered me. I wanted to know what was going on.“But—”“It’s fine,” I said. “Let’s find out who died.”“Okay.” So she turned the car around.CHAPTER 2I gave her directions, eyes closed, a macro game of hot and cold as we got closer to what I’d felt, back and forth along streets.“Right,” I said, and a few moments later she turned right.“I see it,” she said, and slowed the car.We parked a few hundred feet away, engine settling and then turning off. On the sidewalk was a scatter of T-shirts like molted feathers, a metal pole with cloth loops now dark with blood, and a man who had clearly been beaten to death. Beyond it, a pay phone under one of the arena’s lights.“Is that . . . ?” I asked into the silence of the car.“Yeah,” she said, staring at the steering wheel. “Yeah, it is.”She got out of the car, walking past the body while I sat there, in shock. What had happened in ten minutes? Why hadn’t I felt anything but the death? Why hadn’t my future-sense kicked in a little? We might have saved his life by arresting him.Cherabino picked up the pay phone, and I closed the car door behind me gently.“I need to report a murder in Fulton County,” she said as I stood over the man. She added her police number and additional identifying information.His face was dented, actually dented in a couple of areas, while swelling around his eyes made him look . . . inhuman, like clay formed by a child sculptor, only an approximation of a man. His body looked worse, arm out of socket, clothes dark with blood. His leg was clearly broken, half out of place.I’d touched his mind, just a few minutes ago. And now the absence, the hole in Mindspace that signified his death, was like a fresh wound in the world.She hung up the phone and walked back over to me, hands deep in her coat pockets.“Are we . . . ?” I asked.“They’ll look at us for a little while, but the forensics won’t match up and they’ll let it go,” she said. Her mind added that we might have to spend the night in Fulton County Lockup. Maybe. But running would get us far worse, and professional courtesy should extend somewhat.Distantly, sirens wailed. I shivered in my jacket.*   *   *It was a sad and unfortunate truth that the person to report the crime was often the first suspect. In this case, that meant that Cherabino and I, out of our jurisdiction, were suspects. I wasn’t entirely surprised when they bundled us up and took us into the station. I was surprised when they kept us for hours.I found myself on the opposite side of the interview table, in a strange room, with yet another stranger asking me questions. She was a fortysomething woman with strong features and a hard personality, what my father would have called a battle-ax when I was growing up—and he would have meant it as a compliment. Unfortunately, after three interviewers, I was less than pleased with her on principle.“You lost your job with the DeKalb County Police Department recently,” she began, after the usual softening-up questions. “Tell me about that.”“My job at the DeKalb County Police Department changed focus and hours,” I replied as precisely as possible. “I’m a consultant. I consult. Unfortunately one of the consulting jobs I took outside the department last year made Paulsen—my supervisor—uncomfortable. It was decided to move me more directly to the homicide and robbery squads to work with Branen and his team, who do not have the same concerns about other consulting.” I’d had a few hours to figure out how to phrase that by now. Plus, Swartz and I had discussed the best way to say it for job interviews.“What was the consulting job that made your superior uncomfortable?” the interrogator asked.“I’m sorry. What was your name?” I asked, tired of being played like a civilian. After the second interviewer, they’d already left me alone for an hour and a half with bad coffee and no bathroom; I’d spurned the one because I’d planned for the other, but it had to be two a.m. and I wanted a nap. Another nap, I should say. She’d woken me up once already. Or her predecessor had. I was losing track.“Officer Malone,” the woman said, after a moment of consideration. “I’ll repeat, what was the consulting job that made your superior uncomfortable?”“Officer Malone. Thank you.” I made myself relax my body language a little more . . . more “open,” less defensive. “The consulting job that made my superiors uncomfortable was one with the Telepaths’ Guild. I can’t go into details.”Her whole demeanor changed then, her body drawing back, her lip curling under. “The Guild? You worked for the Guild?”I nodded.Any professional courtesy she’d given me up until that point vanished like a mirage. She peppered me with question after question, hostility mixing with her fear at being alone with a “traitor telepath” until finally she brought in another stubborn-minded male interrogator.I held on to my temper with both hands and answered the questions as honestly as possible, going over what I’d seen outside the concert over and over again. Finally, after two hours, I said, “Are we done?”“For now,” she said, anger in every line. Then they left me alone.Great. It was going to be one of those nights, wasn’t it?*   *   *About four in the morning, I slept. And, miracle of miracles, they actually let me sleep for long enough to count as real sleep.Sleeping outside my apartment was always a risk, since the lack of my specialty telepathic wave cancellation machine meant I felt Mindspace fully even while unconscious. Sometimes that meant I slept badly. Sometimes that meant I saw other minds, or other futures, without control.This time the dream came back, the dream that was a variant on the vision I’d had two months ago.I saw a boy, a boy who was a growing telepath, a boy who felt familiar in some indefinable way.We were in a barn with old, musty hay. Beams of sunlight dropped through rotting boards, leaving spaces in the barn’s walls. The air danced with motes of dust and the smell of fear.A man stood against a wooden beam, holding a long cord. The boy didn’t know who the man was but was terrified of him. I, knowing, was even more terrified; the man’s name was Sibley, and he was a professional hit man. He’d taken the boy for some unknown reason, and he knew I was connected to him.Don’t be afraid, I told the boy. Don’t be afraid. We’re coming.A phone rang. I picked it up.“You shouldn’t have invaded my home,” Fiske’s voice said.A chill of fear ran down my spine, and I knew the boy was going to die.Then the vision disappeared, and I found myself back in the real world. Someone hit my ankle, again, with a booted foot.“Wha—?”“Get up,” Malone said. “Your sergeant is here to collect you.”“What—?”“Get up,” she repeated.So I got up, preceding her and her hostility into the cramped quarters that was this particular precinct of Fulton County Police.But, as we passed more desks for cops, I couldn’t shake the fear. That fear, and a boy who was about to die, and that it was my fault. My P-factor was seventy-eight percent, which meant that my visions of the future—when they decided to work—were right about three-quarters of the time. When they came to my personal safety, they were even more accurate, unfortunately. Unless I could figure out how to stop it, this vision would likely come to pass, and a boy would die. My gut felt empty, all too empty.At the front of the station, I saw Cherabino with deep circles under her eyes, looking haunted. And there, behind her, was Sergeant Branen.I’d never been so happy to see the bastard in my life.But I was also cold now, cold and afraid for a boy I didn’t know.*   *   *Branen greeted me, clearly unhappy, while a precinct full of strangers stared and judged.I returned the greeting. “Sir.”“You okay?” Cherabino asked. I felt like crap, and the vision worried me. But I also didn’t want to stay any longer than we had to, so I said, “Yeah. For now.”“Follow me out,” Branen barked.Cherabino glanced at me, then away. She was very aware of Branen’s body language right now, and I didn’t blame her. It wasn’t a good situation for her boss to be dragged out to another precinct to pick us up. I didn’t know what to do, frankly. I hoped she did.Outside, street taxis whirred by in front of the Fulton County Police Building, the dirty road with puddles of unnamed substances. The skyscrapers towered overhead with shining glory of anti-grav-assisted supermaterials, pristine and beautiful above, the dirt and disuse below beneath their notice. The police building seemed an angry troll in comparison, dirty and old, squatting on land that it jealously guarded. The air was warming up a little, at least, and the pollution didn’t seem too bad today.Branen moved to a police car with the DeKalb County logo, currently parked illegally in a loading zone near a neighboring building. He pointed to the back, where I went with a sigh. I didn’t like being treated like a criminal.“You too, Cherabino,” he said.A spike of anger from her, but she complied. I watched the thoughts bubble up in her head like a lava lamp roiling, but none stuck. None turned into words; the car was oddly, starkly silent.Branen drove in silence, pulling out onto the busy street cautiously, working his way through the one-way streets and limited skylane on-ramps with concentration until he settled on the Freedom Parkway airlanes. Behind us, the early-morning commuters in their flyers stretched out like ribbons above the major interstate, ribbons between skyscrapers on all sides. Ahead, the early-morning sun edged above the horizon, soft, beautiful light that promised a new day. It was lying, of course. The vision—and the treatment from the Fulton County cops—still lingered. “They have witnesses that saw you beating up both citizens,” Branen said finally, voice dangerously low.“They started the fight,” I said.“Not you, Ward. I don’t want to hear from you at all if I can help it. You were down on the ground according to witnesses. I’m talking about Cherabino. They said she flashed her badge, apparently, then said some very harsh threats. Threw more than one punch—a few kicks—started the fight and then ended it with excessive force. One of the guys ran away, the other she knocked out and kicked. Then, maybe fifteen minutes later, you both find a body of the same man. On the two-year anniversary of the Neil Bennett beating. Your timing could not have been worse if you’d planned it.” That was right; Bennett had been beaten by three officers in one of the southern metro counties after he talked back to one of them. He’d lost the use of a lung and nearly his life. I’d completely forgotten about it; it hadn’t been my county. Branen had to know, though. Branen was political.He added, “Did you plan it?”Cherabino protested, “No, sir. And I didn’t—”Branen cut her off. “This is a political time bomb. On the two-year anniversary of the Bennett beating. With officer brutality already on every media channel in the city.”Wow. That sounded terrible. But she hadn’t done anything wrong. The witnesses had clearly screwed up their memories of who had done what.I told him, “Sir, that wasn’t what—”Cherabino protested, “I didn’t—”“I have your side of the story in copious notes from Fulton County,” Branen said. “I’m not interested in hearing it again. I’m interested in handling this time bomb.”“Seriously, I was with her the whole time. She threw a couple punches and a kick after they started it, and then they continued after she told them she was police. It was—”“Ward, if I hear one more word from you I will fire you,” Branen said. “You can’t testify in court and with your background your testimony isn’t admissible into Internal Affairs hearings except as a courtesy. Even then, I won’t put you on the stand because the two of you are dating. You have no credibility, and there are three citizens with excellent credibility against you. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen, and I’m not going to play that game. I’d suggest you shut up about now and be grateful you aren’t being brought up on your own charges.”“Ch-charges?” Cherabino asked, for the first time losing her cool confidence.“This department has a zero-tolerance policy for police brutality, and the witnesses say you crossed that line many times over. Your hand-to-hand training—especially the judo—means you have the skills, and you did punch out the rookie last year. And on the anniversary, with the media already involved . . .” He sighed. “Cherabino, you’re one of my best officers, but I can’t play favorites, and I can’t assume your innocence, not under these circumstances. I have my own career to worry about. I can’t be seen to tolerate excessive violence from you or anyone else. Not at all after the Bennett incident, and especially not on its anniversary.” Bennett had gone to every media outlet he could find, and his battered body had played very well on the national news. I’d seen something about that in the paper yesterday.I swallowed. We were really in trouble, weren’t we?“Sir?” Cherabino said, hurt emanating from her in sad waves.Branen flipped on the lights and sirens and changed lanes nearly on top of another car, which moved out of the way with a bob of the antigravity engine.I swallowed my stomach as we fell another five feet in the air, just in time to join the ground traffic below. I could see where Cherabino had gotten her driving skills.“Sir?” Cherabino repeated. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”“The hearing will determine that, not me,” Branen said. “Considering what Internal Affairs already has on the docket, this one is getting fast-tracked. You’ll face both issues together—the trip to Fiske’s house a few months ago and this incident—and you’ll do it this week. I’d suggest your lawyer and you have a long, hard conversation. If your job survives the process, I’ll be stepping up my supervision. You might have the highest close rate in the department, Cherabino, but you are not above the rules. Not for a bad kill. Not for police brutality. Not now.” The last was said with such certainty that she reared back like she’d been hit. He was sure she’d done this, and his disgust at the fact was obvious even to her.She’d never said she was above the rules, her mind leaked into mine. She was overcome with shame that Branen, the supervisor who’d believed in her and been there for her during her husband’s funeral and after, would think she’d beaten a guy to death. That anyone would believe that of her . . .I don’t believe it, I said quietly, with the flavor of my mind so she’d know it was me.Shock and horror. Then: “Stay out of my head,” she spat out loud, and her mind became a wall against me.They left me on the main floor of the police department, Branen telling me to go home.“She really didn’t do anything wrong. And I was there too. Why aren’t I being accused of anything?”Branen stared me down. “Ward, you have to understand. I have three witnesses saying she was involved, and none for you. You got lucky. Right now the less I see you, the better; you understand?” He was worried about possible murder charges, about the family suing the department. He would do everything in his power to keep those two things from happening, but he had only so much control.The police brutality charges—those he believed. Isabella had always had a temper, and he absolutely believed she’d done this thing.Shocked, I stayed behind as they walked into the department. Crap.CHAPTER 3Tuesday morning and I was, two days early, in the old coffee shop to meet Swartz. He was there at our regular (rescheduled) meeting for the first time since his heart attack months ago, and when I walked in and saw him—five minutes before the appointed time—it was like a small miracle, a return to what was and had always been.Swartz had been my Narcotics Anonymous sponsor for years now, and was a good guy and a good friend. He’d also been an early riser for the entirety of the time I’d known him, and seeing him here now was like a return to normalcy. The last of the puffiness in his face from the procedures had finally left, and his color was coming back.A few months ago he’d had a heart attack, a bad one, that had damaged the vessels around his heart bad enough to keep him from being eligible for an artificial heart. He’d come very close to dying. How close still bothered me. I’d made a deal with the Telepaths’ Guild for one of their medics to heal the damage. I’d spent all the money I’d had, and owed a great deal more besides, but it had been worth it. Swartz had been worth it. Even if I was terrified he’d never fully recover, and that I’d be in debt to the Guild for the rest of my life.Here now, he was looking good. He’d gotten a pot of licorice coffee for me and a pot of herbal tea for him, which already sat on the worn wooden table, ready to go.I said hello to the bartender and folded into the leather booth, pulling off my scarf and gloves. I was smiling, really smiling, for the first time in a long time.“You look good,” I said. It was true, and it had the pleasant additional effect of distracting me from the events of earlier.“I’m doing better than they expected. Should be back to teaching by summer.”“Just in time for summer school,” I said. “And all the really difficult kids.” I set my scarf down in the booth and took one of the ugly coffee cups off the tray, pouring a cup of that licorice coffee I associated so strongly with our meetings.“The kids just need a little attention.”“I’m sure,” I said.The vision from earlier still haunted me. I’d seen it over and over, and now we were talking about some of his kids. Worse, Cherabino was in the middle of a political train wreck, and I couldn’t help. I couldn’t help. Even so, something about being around Swartz made the world make more sense. Just sitting next to him made it less overwhelming.I poured the coffee, the strong smell of licorice normal and comforting in context. Today, for once, I had my three things picked out and ready to go, not that it made me feel better about the vision. “I know what I’m grateful for this week.”“Already?” His amusement leaked into Mindspace very clearly.“One, Cherabino took me to visit her grandmother again, and this time she didn’t hate me.” Unlike the last time.“That turned out well, then,” Swartz said, with a nod. “Good.”I wished everything with Cherabino went that well, that easily. I wished the conversation yesterday had gone better. I didn’t know what to do. Often, I didn’t know what to do at all, like now, with Branen so . . . something.But this morning, this moment, was supposed to be about gratefulness. I nodded in acknowledgment. “The second thing I’m grateful for. Having control over my own money again, even if it’s going out faster than it’s coming in while I’m on part-time hours.” I sighed. “I’m getting nervous.” And with the department not wanting me there right now, it was only going to get worse. I was worried about Cherabino too.Swartz held his cup of herbal tea loosely, not sipping, like it was more for the warmth than anything else. “Stay humble. Work the problem. You have a PI license now,” he observed.“I guess I could try to freelance some with that,” I said cautiously. “I wouldn’t know how to start, and anyway, you said the structure of a real job was good for me.”“Sometimes a man needs to make his own way. Seems like this is a chance for you to prove you can,” Swartz said. “It’s good for a man to test his mettle.”“I may not have a choice. I need to do something,” I said cautiously. “My savings is okay for another month or two—maybe three if I’m careful and they give me more hours—but it won’t last forever. I’ve been working for the police department for years. I don’t know how to do anything else. And if my hours are down . . .”“Didn’t you work for the social work office for a while?”“Cherabino got me the job after I helped her with the case, after I got out of that rehab she recommended me to. I can’t say I loved the job, but I did okay there until she came looking for me again.”“You’ve known Cherabino a long time,” Swartz said.I nodded, then sipped the licorice coffee again. “We’re still together.” It still seemed surreal that we were dating. I kept expecting her to end it. She had a long-standing fear of people getting too close, and while I understood it—her husband had died in her arms at a particularly bad time—I kept expecting it to come bite me in the butt. “Don’t borrow trouble. Enjoy what you have now.”“Yeah.” For a man who couldn’t read minds, Swartz had a nasty habit of reading mine. He knew me too well.“What’s wrong, kid?”I found it hilarious these days that Swartz called me kid. I’d turned forty recently. I suppose to Swartz I was a kid, though. He’d been born old, and oddly, that was comforting.“Isabella . . . well, she’s getting blamed for a murder she had nothing to do with. And since we—” I stopped. Took a breath. “Remember how I told you we dropped in on Fiske’s house after I had that vision a few months ago? Well, it was kinda worse than I told you.”“Worse?”“Well. Um, we shouldn’t have done it, but Cherabino thought he was threatening Jacob or something and she didn’t stop to ask questions. So she rides in like a cowboy with nonlethal guns blazing, and I follow her in, because as dumb as this is I’m not going to leave her to get injured. I knocked out, like, six, eight people with telepathy and one of them ends up hitting her head. I . . . I might have killed her, maybe. Maybe just a concussion. Either way, by the time we get to Fiske and Cherabino threatens him, I know it’s going very bad. I mean, Fiske is the organized crime boss of half the Southeast, and there we are in his living room. Cherabino’s on the task force. She knows how bad this guy is—there’s a literal file six inches thick of crimes she’s sure he’s masterminded. Violent stuff.”Swartz glanced around the room carefully, then back to me. “Should you be talking about this kind of case information in a public place?”“Probably not,” I said, and sighed.“You appear to be alive. Why did he let you go?”“I don’t know. That’s the thing. We pissed him off, royally. He did manage to set up a situation that invalidated most of her evidence against him, but there’s still the task force. Which Cherabino isn’t on anymore. She was supposed to have a hearing to discuss the stupidity of it all, but now . . . well, they’re grouping those actions with the murder we found. I get why we’re suspects, or at least she is. I mean we found the body, but you’d think we’d get a little professional courtesy and, you know, them not assuming she did this thing. But they’re making it seem like it’s a pattern, and it’s getting political. It happened on the wrong day apparently. I’m worried.”Swartz looked at me and blinked.I laughed. Had I really found a situation that Swartz didn’t have a wise answer for immediately? Just my luck.After a few minutes, I said, “I’m worried about her.” I wanted Swartz to tell me what to do.Swartz replied with a thoughtful “You think that this Fiske man is influencing the murder charge?”“No,” I said immediately. “No, that’s stupid. He’s not like that.”“So, what are you saying?”I’d answered quickly, but now I was starting to wonder. Cherabino thought he had a few judges in his pocket here in Atlanta. . . . “I don’t know what I’m saying. She has half a dozen enemies anyway, but nobody knew we were going to be at that concert. The odds of this being a deliberate thing . . .” I trailed off. “The brass is smart. They’ll give her a slap on the wrist and then go find the real killer. They have to, right?” I had to believe that, regardless of the political stuff. The department stood by their officers. They always had, right?After a short pause, Swartz said, “The truth has a funny way of coming out, even if you don’t want it to.”“Yeah.” My brain flashed fuzzily through the interrogation last night and the vision. That vision. I forced myself back. “It feels like I need to do something, but I don’t know what to do. It’s Cherabino.”“If she needs you, she’ll ask for help,” Swartz said calmly.“This is Cherabino,” I said. “You’ve met her, right? She’d say she was fine lit on fire and covered in supercancer. And then she’d work a fourteen-hour shift and close two cases and then complain nothing got done. It’s not me here. I swear.”Swartz thought about that for a moment. “Pushing your way into the situation isn’t going to help anything if she doesn’t want you there.”“It would make me feel better.”He took a sip of his tea. “Even so. What’s the third thing?”“The third thing I’m grateful for? You know, I don’t remember.”“I’ll wait.”I sipped at the coffee and thought. And thought. “I wish I didn’t have the visions,” I said finally, unable to think about anything else.“That’s not something you’re grateful for.”“I know.”Swartz waited, patiently, and after ten minutes of silence he pulled out the NA Big Book, the collection of readings we did for Narcotics Anonymous.February was Higher Power month, where we came to believe in a higher power and being restored to sanity. This time, the sanity seemed a bigger miracle than the God stuff. The powerlessness I felt, could feel all over again. The surrender—and the sanity—were harder.*   *   *I caught a bus back to the DeKalb County Police Department, which took forever. Worse, the mood of the bus passengers was particularly grim today. Traffic was heavy, and I felt the sadness, despair, and frustration of a dozen strangers like they were my own. They worked all day and still couldn’t pay the bills. They despaired. I despaired too, actually, some reflected emotion and some a lack of sleep and a lack of knowing what to do about Cherabino.The ancient stone steps of the department felt almost restful in comparison, despite the officers bustling to and fro inside. Their minds moved in preset patterns like an insect colony in progress, a dance seen a hundred times before. Booking had some particularly loud suspects screaming at each other while the arresting officer tried to keep them apart, but otherwise everything was normal.Cherabino was on the ground floor, unexpectedly, deep circles under her eyes. She spoke with one of the secretaries, the one who handled human resource forms.How are you? I asked her quietly as I approached. She didn’t look good.She flinched and looked up in my direction. “Adam.”The secretary, an older woman with a twin sweater-set, looked between us with full attention, just ready to collect the latest gossip. Since I’d been sitting in the pool here, they thought they knew everything about me, but were always looking for more information. The straightforwardness of that motivation was surprisingly calming, at least on the days when I wasn’t feeling self-conscious.“What’s going on?” I asked Cherabino, ignoring the audience.I saw her close down, her face taking on the blank cop look. “I can’t talk,” she said in that tone that brooked no argument. Her mind was also pulled in, closed, with a sense of urgency.I waited, concerned.“I’m sorry, but I really can’t talk right now,” she said. She thought that it would be a few hours before she got enough sorted out that she could come find me. Her head hurt, the beginnings of a migraine.I realized she had deliberately opened up enough for me to read her so that I’d accept her answer. That was a big moment of trust for her.“Sure,” I said, much to the disappointment of the secretary, who was trying to figure out what extreme thing had happened between us. I turned and went back to my almost-desk. But I watched Cherabino, in Mindspace, for the next ten minutes, until she went back up the elevator and I made myself let her mind go.I sat at my borrowed desk in the secretaries’ pool for another fifteen minutes or more, staring at the phone, trying to decide whether I could handle going home on my own right now or whether I needed to call Swartz. I wanted my drug. Nearly four years clean, and I wanted my drug desperately in that moment. I felt Cherabino’s headache moving across the Link into my head, and I was exhausted. And lonely. And worried. Talking to Swartz might be a good idea before I did something stupid.The phone on the desk rang.“Yes?” I answered.“This is your watcher, Edgar Stone,” came a man’s voice on the other end of the line. Great. Stone worked for the Guild, and while he wasn’t a bad guy, among other things it was now his job to make sure I paid back my debt on time. That made me not like him.I sat back in the chair and rubbed my eyes. Looked like the secretaries would get some gossip this morning after all. “Your timing is terrible.”“I’ve called you three times. Don’t you check your messages?”“I’ve been busy.”“Listen, I’m sorry to tell you, but the Council has changed their mind about the terms of your debt.”I blinked ahead. “What? I don’t think they can do that.”“You haven’t been working your hours consistently. I warned you that could be an issue.”I’d worked out a system to pay back the Guild with labor over time. “I just did that mental hospital job for you.”“That was three weeks ago. You’re supposed to put in hours every week.”“That was over a week all at once. What had to be several thousand ROCs’ worth of labor, even with my Structure training out of date. Don’t I get some leeway? On average, I’m still on track.”There was silence over the line for a moment. “Adam, you have to understand that the Guild isn’t as lenient with subordinate telepaths as it is with its members. I understand that you haven’t dealt with us in a number of years. I’ve tried to work with you. But this can’t go on.”“I paid half of the debt in cash when we arranged for the medic to visit Swartz—on time, I might add. And I’ve been chipping at it when I have time. I have work for the police to do too. I’ll get to the hours when I can, okay?”“Let me be completely plain with you, Adam. The Guild expects their money, and while I’m personally very grateful for the work you did in November—”“As you should be,” I interrupted. “I solved a major case for you at considerable personal risk. Not to mention—well, other things.” I didn’t want to go into too much detail in the department.“Yes, well. You have to stay current on your debt or there will be consequences.”“You used to be nicer to me,” I said.“I’m sorry, Adam. This is policy from the highest levels and I will enforce it. I’ll send you a list of jobs. Pick something or pay the cash. But do it soon.”A chill ran down my spine. He was serious.I made the minimum necessary polite words to get off the phone and then hung up. Crap, what was I going to do? Did I go home, or did I stay here? This was a crap day already, and it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet.*   *   *I finally settled in with paperwork, stupid stuff left over from a previous case with Cherabino, transcribing her stupid half-sentence scrawl into a reasonable approximation of a real report. I squinted at the latest note, written on the side of a napkin in what had to be a crayon. The handwriting was abysmal.The phone next to me rang, again. I put down my pen. Seriously, I didn’t know who was giving out this number. The desk wasn’t even technically mine.“Hello?”“This is Special Agent Jarrod of the FBI,” a deep man’s voice replied.“Thanks for calling me back,” I said. I’d called just last week asking about work. Jarrod had tried to recruit me a few months ago and said there might be consultant jobs available, jobs with real money. Real money sounded fantastic about now, but the timing with this morning and Cherabino was terrible. I probably couldn’t leave town right now. “What can I do for you, Special Agent?”“Our usual telepath consultant has recently been involved in a car accident,” Jarrod said.“Not serious, I hope,” I said, what I hoped was the correct response to bad news. Did this mean . . . ?“Unfortunately so, but it seems to be a completely normal accident and the doctors say she’ll make a full recovery in time. I was calling to see if you’d still be willing to consult on a case or two. We have an urgent need a few hours south of you.” He paused. “You are aware . . . we work under the Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. We don’t get the easy cases. This one’s odd.”“I understand,” I said, but I didn’t.“I’ll need you to be at an address in Savannah no later than four o’clock this afternoon,” Jarrod said.I looked at the clock. It was ten thirty now. Savannah was maybe four hours away by groundcar, and with my felony drug record a groundcar was all I could rent, even with cash in hand. Assuming I could get the cash in hand that quickly. “This is not a good time for me,” I said. Cherabino might be avoiding me right now, but that didn’t mean I didn’t need to be here when she surfaced from whatever she was doing.“I’m out of alternates right now and I’m willing to pay for the inconvenience,” Jarrod said, and then named a number for payment that made my head swim. A number that would let me buy off the Guild for at least a few months, and put me back in the black in my finances otherwise.I winced. There was no way I could turn that down, not with the Guild breathing down my neck. But I’d never worked for the FBI before, or anybody in law enforcement other than the county police department. And I knew that Cherabino would need me. It would hurt—it would really hurt—to turn that down. To keep from doing it for just one more moment, I asked, “What would I be doing, and how long should I expect to be there? Any special considerations?”“It’s an attempted kidnapping of a ten-year-old boy,” Jarrod said flatly. “With threats and every likelihood, they’ll try again. I’ve got every physical guard in place and more than a few equipment safeguards. But I don’t have anybody that can guard him mentally, or anyone else for that matter. Like I said, I’m willing to pay extra if you can be here by four.”I closed my eyes. A ten-year-old boy. My vision played back through my eyes, a ten-year-old boy being threatened by my old nemesis, Sibley, a man who worked for the horrible Fiske. “Is the boy blond?” I asked.“Why do you ask?” His voice was suspicious.“Let me ask another question. Is there any way this case has a connection to Garrett Fiske or Blair Sibley?”A long, long pause. “There was a note on your record that you can do some kind of future-sensing thing. Have you already heard me call you?”“Is that a yes?”“Yes. On the first count. And very likely on the second.”Crap. Crap. Crap. “Give me an hour. I need approval and a chance to get my stuff together. Even assuming I get both, making your deadline will be hard. Also, you should know. I’m not a Minder. That’s not my specialty, and what training I’ve had is years old. You want somebody to protect your crowd, you really need a specialist. The Guild has somebody for a lot less who can show up in ninety minutes.” I’d try to show up anyway, help out somehow. If this was the kid—if this was the vision—I would never, never forgive myself if I didn’t try. “I will absolutely help you in whatever way I can, but you may need to spend your money on the professional here.” I’d do this one for free if I had to. I didn’t get a vision without it being critically important, and this was a kid.He made a frustrated sound. “I can’t do that. The new appropriations rules say I can’t hire anybody who works for the Guild for federal work. We’ve got a judge here with a very sensitive case going on now, and the Irish Telepath Guild won’t be able to send someone for over two days. I’ve got nos from everybody else on the list, and this is not an optional assignment. You’re not attached. I’ll take sloppy over nothing, if you can be here now.”I sighed. If this was what I’d seen, this was going to get bad, and quickly. “How long should I pack for?”“Pack for a week or more in multiple layers. Show up in a suit, and get galoshes. You’ll need them if we end up in the marshes. Also, bring whatever supplies you need to do your magic, get approval, do whatever the hell you need to do, but get on the road. I can’t be vulnerable like this.”“Understood,” I said, but my nerves were itchy. Attempted kidnapping? Something that wouldn’t stay attempted for long, if my vision was any indication. “A judge—?” I started.He cut me off. “We’ll go over the details when you get here. Let me give you the address. Call me back if—and only if—you can’t make it by four. And call quickly.” We took care of the details, and then he hung up the phone.I stood there, staring at the phone. Had I just agreed to scramble halfway across the state on no notice to work for the FBI on one of my weakest mental skills? Was there any chance in hell Branen would approve it? (Probably, my brain chimed in. He wasn’t happy with me right now anyway, and being elsewhere might be helpful.)

Editorial Reviews

Praise for the Mindspace Investigations Novels
 
“Science fiction mixed into an almost pulp-noir setting…a great series.”—News and Sentinel (Parkersburg, WV)
 
“Reminds me very much (and very fondly) of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.”—SF Signal

“[I]ncisive writing, conflicted characters, and strong plotting, this ..solidifies Hughes’ place on the urban fantasy shelves.”—Publishers Weekly