The building which held the Northwest Division of Metro was an old building, built in the early fifties. It was carved from stone and faced St. Augustus Park, the largest park in the city. If there was one thing John would always love about his job, it was the fact that he worked in this particular building instead of in any of the other precincts. He'd visited the other precincts for various case-related reasons. While those other buildings were newer and cleaner and sported more high-tech equipment, they were also depressingly sterile and strangely dark. Northwest was built like a school. It was all windows, and all of them faced the tree-lined park.
Admittedly, some days, the influx of so much light onto his desk was a curse from Hell. The blinding sunlight inspired vows not to touch another drop of alcohol for as long as he lived. Most such vows were conveniently forgotten by lunchtime and after six aspirins. Today, John was actually appreciative of the bright sunlight as he studied his battle plan for the day. He felt awake and determined as he hadn't been in a long, long time.
Benji's desk was pushed against his, placing her back to the windows, which she didn't seem to mind. She currently munched on a croissant as she leaned back in her chair.
"So what's the plan for today?" she asked around a mouthful of buttery pastry.
"You'd look a lot tougher if you ate jelly donuts instead of croissants, Benj. Think of the image you're projecting," John remarked absently, as he made a few notes in his notepad.
"I'm a woman, Stone. I can look like a wuss and it's okay. If you were more secure in your sexuality, you'd eat croissants, too."
John raised his head, eyebrow arched, to find Benji laughing at him.
"I don't like croissants," he muttered, returning to his work.
John smiled slightly and tucked his notepad into the inside pocket of his suit. He grabbed his coffee off the desk and took a large swallow, savoring the bitter, black brew.
"I think it's time we hit the roommate," he said to his partner. "Everyone else we've talked to has been a waste of time."
"As to be expected," Benji agreed. She set the half-eaten croissant on a napkin on her blotter and brushed her hands off before flipping open a file. "Coroner says the victim -- Miss Victoria Gonzalez -- showed blunt trauma to the throat before being stabbed once through the heart with a large knife, possibly a butcher knife. Victim was a fairly large woman at 5'10" and 185 pounds, and her neck didn't show ligature marks -- only bruises on either side of the throat -- suggesting she'd been restrained with a choke hold from behind. Her killer was probably strong. Wound was at a forty degree angle left to right, which suggests that the killer was most likely right-handed." She looked up expectantly.
"We don't know what Finn's mysterious roommate looks like, yet," John pointed out.
Benji pulled out her notepad. "We do have the statement from the manager of the Baltic Arms -- a Mr. Oded Faradid. He said Finn's apartment is rented out to a Jeremy Strummer. I quoted Mr. Faradid as saying, 'He's a big man. Kind of like a bear. Not too smart, but he pays his rent on time every month. I don't care what he does or who he has living in there as long as I get my money'."
"He said he'd seen Finn and thought he was a hustler," John said, finishing off his coffee. "Said he saw the kid in crazy clothes."
Benji rolled her eyes. "He didn't say that. He said, and I quote, 'The redhead walks by my door sometimes. He wears a bunch of black, like those reject kids that sit in the dark smoking pot all day. Thinks he's a vampire or something. I saw him once or twice in girl's clothes, too.'" Benji snapped the notepad closed. "The kid's a Goth. It doesn't mean he kills goats in sacrifice to the Devil. Or that he encourages his big bear of a roommate to kill hookers."
"Finn lied about his occupation. Why can't he be lying about his roommate?" John tossed his empty coffee cup into the nearest trashcan and checked the clock above the windows. "Our elusive roommate should be finishing up his bus route. Let's go pay him a visit and found out what kind of a bear he really is."
"So what's your deal with labeling Finn a hustler?" Benji asked minutes later as they climbed into their sedan and pulled away from the station.
John slipped his sunglasses on, blocking out the early morning sunlight. "I like to know where everyone stands. This kid's pretending to be something he's not, and I don't like that. A duck's a duck and that's all there is to it."
Benji looked out the side windows. "Uh, huh. Even if he is a boy whore, that doesn't make him a killer. Or evil."
pulled out his first pack of cigarettes for the day and tapped one out.
He didn't like the implication that he was out to get Finn. He took a
drag off the cigarette to relax.
It was no surprise that when along came Finn, tricking John into believing he was a woman, of course John's hormones would have a difficult time putting on the brakes and shifting into reverse. His body wanted something warm wrapped around it. Finn was the closest thing to an appealing partner that he'd seen since his wife died.
But it wasn't going to happen, because there was no way that John was still interested in Finn now that John knew he knew he was a man. No way.
Add to that the fact that Finn and his roommate were possible suspects, or at least worth checking into, and John would sooner sleep with Benji. Benji's husband Rob, not to mention the woman herself, would be all too happy to knee John in the balls to prevent that from ever happening. The image made John grin.
"That's twice," Benji said around a yawn.
John glanced askance at her. "What's twice?"
"Twice that I've seen you acting abnormally during your shift. The first time was when you laughed when Finn was teasing you. Your mood's improving."
John's smile fell off his face. "It's called dementia. I just turned forty, remember?"
Benji picked up his grin. "Sure it is. You can't fool me, Stone. You've just hit your prime, and you're finally realizing it. This is when all the young girls swoon over the experienced older man that you are. It's time for you start hitting the dating scene, Stone. You need to get laid in a bad way."
"That obvious, huh?"
Benji smirked. "Yeah."
They approached Standard Elementary School and pulled around to the back, where the bus yard was. Only one bus was parked in the lot. Three more were due to dump their loads of children at the front of the school before pulling around back.
John pulled their car up to the sidewalk along a chain link fence that separated them from the soccer field. From their position, they had an unobstructed view of the buses pulling in. Shutting off the engine, he took a puff off his cigarette.
"So what kind of girl do you think I should be hunting for?" he asked, pretending to seriously consider the idea. He had no interest in dating any woman after his wife, but he could play along with Benji. "Some bimbo with big tits who wants me for my money?" He tried not to grin as he remembered his latest bank statement. He was thinking his new initials should be NSF, for Non-Sufficient Funds. "Or do you think I should hunt up some shy, innocent type who's looking for an older man to be her teacher?"
"Gah, the way you say that sounds utterly creepy," Benji said with a shudder. "Especially while we're sitting in front of a school."
John smiled. "Come on; tell me who you think my type should be."
Benji tapped her chin with her forefinger, pretending to think. Like John, she wore a suit, though hers was tailored for her feminine curves. Unlike John, she looked freshly groomed and taken care of, her brown bob shining in the light bouncing off the hood of the car.
They'd carpooled this morning, and for the first time in a long time, it had not bothered John to watch Benji kiss her children and husband goodbye before hopping in the car with him. He wasn't sure why he was feeling better this last week, but he had a hunch it had to do with the latest murder. Morbid as it sounded, the victim's death had spurred John to renewed vigor.
"I don't think you want a bimbo," Benji declared after much circumspection. "I know all the guys think you need to go hang out at nudie bars and sleep with the girls there, but you're not that kind of guy, Stone. It'd just make you hate yourself in the morning."
"Why can't I be that kind of guy?" Stone protested, feigning insult. "Are you implying I'm not manly enough?"
Benji snorted. "Whatever . . . And I don't think you need some little virgin-type, either. You can't even take care of yourself, much less someone else."
John's smile wavered.
Benji half-turned in the seat, her eyes crinkling at the corners. "You know who I think you need? You need someone completely different. Someone bright and alive. Someone who doesn't need you to watch out for them." Benji smiled brightly. "Someone fun and completely spontaneous."
John shifted in his seat, uncomfortable as an image of Finn flashed through his mind. "You sound like you have someone in mind."
"Maybe I do." To John's annoyance, Benji turned back around and began to hum pleasantly to herself.
"Well, don't tell me, because I don't want to know," John told her, flicking his spent cigarette out the window. "Keep your female scheming to yourself. This isn't 'A Dating Story'."
"That's my favorite show," Benji sighed. She laughed and snorted. "Yeah, right." She spun back around on the seat. "I was serious about the type of woman I think you need, Stone. Just consider it, would you? You don't have to meet her right away. Just chew on it for a while."
"Sure, Benj. I'll do that."
He wouldn't do anything of the sort, of course. He didn't want a girlfriend. Hell, he planned on being six feet under as soon as he wrapped up this case. The only woman he wanted to kiss again was his wife, when he was reunited with her in Heaven. Or wherever it was that she'd gone.
Yeah, except you don't believe in God. That might be a problem later on. His thoughts took a downward spiral. Even if he were religious, didn't people who committed suicide end up somewhere else?
John pulled out his cigarettes again, his good mood flushed down the toilet.
"Don't go setting me up with anyone, Benj. I mean it."
"Not until you're ready," Benji replied placidly.
She was impervious to John's glare.
A bus slowly pulled around the corner and drove into the bus yard. The two detectives had been staking out the school buses for the past few days in hopes of finding Jeremy, but the man had apparently been as sick as Finn claimed and hadn't made an appearance. They recognized the driver who climbed down from the large yellow bus and relaxed. It wasn't Jeremy.
Another bus drove into the lot, and was followed minutes later by the last bus. The last bus driver was the one they wanted. A large man stepped down to the asphalt, dressed in baggy jeans and a light blue sweater. Jeremy Strummer. John and Benji waited as Jeremy grabbed a hose and began washing off his bus.
"Party time," Benji said excitedly as they exited their car.
Walking into the bus yard, John noticed what a large man this Jeremy was. As large as himself. He was a man fully capable of subduing a victim long enough to murder them.
Grimly, John stomped out his cigarette before stepping ahead of his partner. "Let me handle this."
The man's back was to them, bent at the waist as he hosed off the bus' undercarriage. John took in the wide flare of Jeremy's trapezoids and the flex of his triceps. John cleared his throat.
The man whirled, water shooting in an arc that just missed the detectives' shoes.
Strands of thin blonde hair fell into brown eyes. Jeremy had plain, but bold features: a powerful nose, and a clefted chin balanced by small eyes. The features settled into a curiously uncertain expression that made the back of John's neck tingle.
"Jeremy Strummer? I'm Detective Stonebrook and this is Detective Holloway from Metro. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Y-you're p-police!" Jeremy exclaimed. The hose that hung neglected in his hand began to curve beneath the water pressure, threatening to spill water over his paint-splattered work boots.
"Watch yourself," Benji warned.
Jeremy looked down and jumped -- literally jumped -- making a small yelp of dismay before turning the hose away. Watching him, John frowned.
Jeremy raised his head, looking childishly guilty. Again, John's gut feeling sent him a message he didn't want to hear.
"Mr. Strummer, we wanted to ask you a few questions about last Thursday. I'm sure you heard that there was a murder across the street from your apartment?"
Jeremy looked sick. "Y-yes. That p-poor girl. She did-didn't deserve that."
"You knew her?" John asked.
Jeremy shook his head desperately, blond hair whipping about his eyes, threatening to poke them out. "N-no. J-just heard about her."
"Where were you that night, Jeremy?" John was beginning to realize that this was not the man he had assumed him to be. "What were you doing at two thirty that night?"
"S-sleeping!" Jeremy said, backing up. He looked around frantically for help, but the bus yard was empty. The children had all entered the school to begin class. "I was s-sleeping. S-sick. I don't know n-nothing!"
Benji suddenly stepped in front of John. "It's alright, Jeremy. No need to be scared. We're not going to hurt you. We just want to help find that girl's killer. We were hoping you could help us help her. You want to help her, don't you?"
Jeremy relaxed slightly as he looked down at Benji. Her kind expression helped to calm him. He even smiled a little crookedly.
"I d-don't know anything. I w-want to h-help . . . b-but I don't know how t-to. F-finn s-said you wouldn't c-come talk to m-me. He said you w-wouldn't."
"Who's Finn?" John asked quietly, watching Jeremy closely.
Jeremy's smile widened in pure pleasure. "F-finn's my g-guardian angel," he declared proudly.
John flipped his notepad closed. Shit.
"Jeremy, honey, what sort of work does Finn do?" Benji, at least, was still doing her job.
Jeremy's confidence faded. "He s-says he s-serves p-people food. F-finn's so p-pretty, he m-makes us m-money. B-bought us a new T-t.v!"
Benji smiled gently at him. "Finn takes care of you, doesn't he?"
Jeremy nodded enthusiastically, his head bobbing like a horse's.
"Did Finn tell you that he'd heard anything funny on Thursday? Maybe he'd seen someone walking around that night? Anything?"
Jeremy looked like he was going to cry. "He d-didn't. I'm s-sorry."
"That's alright, Jeremy. You've helped us a lot. We'll come visit you again if we have any more questions, okay?"
Jeremy nodded hesitantly. "Okay."
"Bye, Jeremy." Benji smiled reassuringly at him before taking John by the elbow and guiding him out of the bus yard.
"Well, that was a nice surprise," John muttered when they'd reached their car. At the driver's side, he propped both elbows on the hood and looked across it at his partner. "You think that was an act?"
"Not at all. He's not retarded, just a little slow. He had to pass an exam to get this job from the district, so he's not stupid or incapable." Benji looked sympathetically at John. "I know you're disappointed."
John shook his head. "Such a big guy -- it would have been easy for him to commit the murders." He pulled out his cigarettes again. "Nothing's ever easy in this job, huh? And I still don't know anything more about Finn. I know he had to have been there when the murder was committed."
"Maybe you should start stalking him like you'd planned," Benji suggested, eyes twinkling.
John smirked. "Maybe I will."
Across the soccer yard, hiding behind the sports shed, Finn watched the two detectives drive away. It had been difficult not coming to Jeremy's rescue, but he was glad now that he hadn't. Jeremy had handled himself wonderfully. Finn was so proud of him. The detectives had no idea what was going on.
Jeremy was still safe. Finn would make sure he remained that way.
No matter what Finn had to do.
It was dark when John pulled into Benji's driveway. The light was on over the front porch, welcoming her home.
"Sure you don't want me to go with you?" Benji asked for the third time, her hand poised to open the passenger side door. "Rob would understand. It's no big deal."
John looked up at the yellow house and saw the curtains move in the window. "No, I'm sure he's waiting for you with dinner. I'll do this by myself. Finn's just a kid. I know how to handle him."
"Suit yourself." Benji let herself out, but popped her head back in the car. "Just be careful with him. Don't do anything stupid that'll risk your job, Stone."
"I wouldn't do anything to risk compromising this case, Benj."
Sadness softened the woman's face. "No, you wouldn't, would you?" She forced a smile. "Good luck. Make sure you grab something to eat before you go home."
"Yes, Mother," John sighed.
Benji made a face at him before shutting the door and jogging up to the porch. John waited until the door opened, Benji's husband greeting her with a hug, before he backed the car out of the driveway.
He considered stopping by his apartment for a quick change of clothing, but the thought of returning to his sterile little place after being at Benji's was less than thrilling. Besides, it didn't matter what he looked like. He was only going to The Pump. He'd bet money that men looking ten times worse than he did hung out there all the time.
The Pump was in the same neighborhood as Finn and Jeremy's apartment building, maybe a twenty minute walk away. John pulled into the crowded lot beneath an unlit sign of a fist. Nice and subtle it wasn't.
The entrance was on the side so that patrons wouldn't be gawked at by anyone driving by on the street. John paid the cover to a meaty bouncer who barely glanced at him, then stepped into the darkness.
It smelled like every other strip joint he'd stepped into: a combination of stale booze, vomit, and that musky other smell he didn't want to think too much about. But The Pump was a little different from the other nudie bars. The strippers didn't dance on a central stage. They were on their own little table tops scattered throughout a dance floor that took up most of the room. It allowed the owners to call the place a dance club instead of a strip club, and thus keep their license in an area not zoned for adult entertainment.
Ringing the dance floor was a U-shaped collection of twelve booths. More seating was offered in the form of the padded benches wrapped around the base of each stripper's table top.
When John entered the club, all of the tabletops were occupied with strippers. The dance floor was also covered with several twisting shadows. The Pump attracted a large share of men into the Gothic lifestyle. Most everyone that John could see in the room was dressed in either black or red.
A bar ran behind the back of the booths, and it was here that John ordered a beer for twelve dollars. Giving the bartender a dirty look for the ridiculous pricing and receiving an unconcerned shrug in return, he stood with his beer and looked around for his quarry.
Finn wasn't difficult to find. That red hair stood out like a beacon amidst all the jet black that surrounded him. To John's surprise, Finn wasn't on one of the tabletops, dancing, but was serving cocktails just as he'd claimed.
He still looked like a whore, though.
Finn wore a short black satin top that was opened across the chest and tied closed just above his belly button. Black fishnet arm warmers extended from both elbows to the backs of his hands, where they were looped over his middle fingers and not obscuring the silver rings that graced each finger, including his thumbs. He wore hot pants again -- black satin this time -- over fishnet tights that matched his arm warmers. Black patent lace-up boots came up to his knees and gave him an extra three inches of height.
Around Finn's throat was the cherry charm, along with a black studded collar and a thick silver chain. Finn's hair was free, framing his powdered cheeks and highlighting his bright red lipstick and black, kohl-lined eyes. Finn looked as beautiful as any stripper that John had seen. And just as trashy.
Shaking his head, John watched Finn move from booth to booth. The cup on his tray was overflowing with cash and John soon realized why. Everyone loved Finn.
The way the kid flashed that pretty smile and batted those baby blues made the cash pour in. And it wasn't as though Finn were fake about it, either. When Finn smiled at a customer, he had that rare ability to make whoever he was looking at feel as though they were the center of his world. The kid was a hell of an actor. His smile appeared genuine, his laughter unforced. Finn seemed completely at ease with the lecherous glances and groping hands that sought to know him. More than one head craned to watch Finn walk away and John grudgingly couldn't blame them. Finn was a pretty piece that seemed to revel in the attention he received.
Except when he came to the middle booth.
John nearly missed it, his eyes starting to skate away from Finn to check the rest of the place out. But out of the corner of his eye, he caught the subtle stiffening of Finn's spine as he leaned over the table. John couldn't see over the back of the booth, but he could read Finn's body language well enough to tell that whoever was there made him uncomfortable.
John took a step forward, then stopped himself when he realized what he was doing. Finn wasn't his responsibility. Hell, he didn't even like the kid. Taking a determined sip of beer, John reminded himself that Finn wasn't innocent by any stretch of the imagination.
Finn spoke to whoever was in the booth, occasionally offering up a dazzling, if strained smile. At one point, a meaty hand shot up from the booth and caught Finn behind the neck, tugging him down. John's hand tightened involuntarily around his beer as he imagined Finn kissing some beefy guy in the booth. His suspicions were proven correct when Finn stood upright again, his lipstick smeared, a shaky smile on his pale face. He shook his head once in reply to whatever was asked of him by his mysterious attacker, and backed away.
By his casual response, it undoubtedly wasn't the first time Finn had been made to kiss a customer. It probably wasn't the worse he had done with a customer, either, John reflected cynically.
Finn eventually moved away from the booth, crossing the dance floor. John started to relax back against the bar when two figures stood up from the booth Finn had just visited. Since most everyone in the club was male, John assumed that these two were, too, though their shoulder length black hair put that in question. Both were dressed in black PVC catsuits that clung to their slender bodies, with long, black fake tails attached to the backs. Of the exact same height and build, John thought they might be brothers.
Both men stood casually from the booth, as if intending to dance. But in a blur of black motion, they suddenly shot across the dance floor, tackling Finn to the floor. Finn's tray went flying through the air, striking the far wall. Glasses crashed over the dance floor, broken glass strewn between Finn's money as the three men went skidding across the floor.
"What the hell!" John shoved his beer blindly at the bar and hurried to the edge of the dance floor.
The dancers had cleared a circle around the three men on the floor, but the music continued without interruption and the strippers who watched the scene from their tables did not stop moving. Crazily, John got the impression that this was something that happened on a regular basis.
Finn thrashed on the floor against the two black-haired men, snapping and snarling like a wildcat. John was stunned. He glanced around the club, trying to figure out if he was the only one who thought it strange to see a cocktail server on the floor fighting with the customers. His eyes lit upon a man in a suit, who was watching the struggle with a tight expression on his face.
John stormed over to him, knowing he must be the club's manager, or possibly even the owner. "This kind of stuff goes on all the time here? Fights breaking out between staff and customers?"
On the floor, Finn had a handful of black hair and was trying to pound one of the guy's faces into the floor. He snarled as he simultaneously tried to fend off the other man, who was trying to put a choke hold on Finn from behind. John couldn't believe it.
The man in the suit barely glanced at John. "You don't like it, you leave."
John yanked out his wallet and held his badge an inch from the other man's nose. "I don't like it, I shut you down," he retorted.
The man turned to look at him fully, a crease denting his forehead. He didn't look as slimy as most owners/managers of these types of places - he was actually kind of handsome -- but John had learned that looks could be deceiving.
"Look, I don't want any trouble with the police," the man began. He glanced at the scene on the dance floor and quickly looked away again. "This looks strange, I know, but Cherry's okay with it. He really is. He's a tough kid."
John heard a howl of pain from the dance floor but resisted the urge to turn to see if it had come from Finn.
"You mean you've allowed your employee to get jumped like this more than once?"
The manager looked uneasy. "Listen, Officer --"
"Detective Stonebrook," John said angrily. "And you are?"
The other man winced. "Paul Elders. I'm the manager here." Paul adjusted the collar of his dress shirt. "Listen, Detective Stonebrook, I don't like what goes on here anymore than you do. I like Cherry. I don't want to see him hurt. He's a beautiful kid. I'd love to have him as a feature dancer. He'd fill this place up every night. But the thing is, I don't have any say in what Cherry does for me, or what happens to him. Jack does."
Paul pointed towards the middle booth. A large man sat in the middle of it, arms extended across the back of the booth as he watched the ruckus before him. John stopped breathing for a moment. Blonde hair, slicked back with gel. Big nose, clefted chin --
Paul frowned. "Maybe that's his alias. I don't know and I don't care. Around here, he calls himself Jack. Jack's got a thing for Cherry. He's the one who first brought the kid in to work for me. He also brought in -- those others," he added with a look of disgust for the two black-haired men fighting with Finn. "Jack likes to watch them go at it like this. The first two times it happened, I tried to let Cherry go. I don't need this kind of hassle." Paul's eyes turned bleak and his voice lowered. "Then my girlfriend Carla went missing. The very next day, Cherry asked me about her."
John's gut clenched. "Why is that important?"
"The kid didn't know anything about Carla. I'd never mentioned her name around him. But the day that she went missing, Cherry asked about her. He asked if she was alright, as if he knew she'd disappeared." Paul's face hardened as he looked to the booth. "I don't have any proof, but I know Jack had something to do with it. I know it."
"Did you file a missing person's report?"
Paul shook his head, smiling without mirth. "Carla was a hooker. The cops don't take those kinds of cases seriously. All I can do is hope that she shows up someday." His lips curled angrily as he looked at the man in the booth. "Bastard."
John looked to the dance floor again. He was upset to discover that the two black-haired men had finally managed to subdue Finn and were carrying his twisting body back to the booth, grinning as if they'd just bagged a wild beast.
"And what about the kid? You gave him his job back?"
"I had no choice. I knew Jack wanted him here. Jack's no one you want to mess with. He comes in here almost every night and if Cherry isn't here -- even if it's the kid's day off -- Jack threatens to burn the place down." Paul's look to John was edged with desperation. "I don't know how to get rid of him."
"So you let Finn -- Cherry -- get attacked like this. In front of everyone." John let his disgust for the other man leak into his voice. "This place is going down, Mr. Elders. I'll see to it."
He started towards the booth where Finn was, but was caught by Paul.
"Jack's obsessed with the kid," the manager warned. "Don't get in between them. The fact that you're a cop won't mean anything to Jack. He's dangerous."
"So am I," John shot back, shaking off the grip.
He pushed through the dancers, his shoes crunching over broken glass and alcohol. The other customers had resumed their previous activities as if the violent scene had never happened. John wanted to shut the place down that instant.
What he found in the booth made him want to draw his gun. Finn was stretched across the table on his back, his wrists held to the surface by one of his attackers, his thighs held down by the other. In between them, one hand casually holding a cocktail, the other down Finn's shorts, was Jeremy.
"We meet again," John murmured.
Jeremy grinned sharply at him, the look completely at odds with the stuttering, slow-witted man John had met earlier in the day. This man was someone else, the transformation so complete that John could almost convince himself that he was looking at a completely different person.
"Detective Stonebrook," Jeremy drawled, and even his voice was different -- deeper, confident, lazy. John had to blink twice to be sure he was facing the same man. He still wasn't sure.
"What happened to your stutter?" John asked, his eyes flicking to Jeremy's hand, which hadn't stopped its exploration of Finn's shorts. "Did you conveniently forget it when you got dressed for tonight?"
"I don't stutter," Jeremy replied smugly. He looked down at Finn and did something with his hand that made the redhead gasp. "Do I, Cherry?"
Finn gave him a shaky smile before turning his head to look up at John. The barest hint of shame was in the kid's blue eyes. But only the barest.
"Hello, John," he said softly. "You really shouldn't be here." Finn flexed his wrists, trying to tug them free.
It drew John's attention to the men who held Finn. His gut tightened with unease. The men weren't twins, though they were close enough to be brothers. Their skin was olive-tinted, edging towards yellow, with wide black eyes that were so dark they gave the impression that they didn't possess pupils. Beyond that, the men were young like Finn, and could have been considered cute with their snubbed noses and small mouths. Their shoulder-length black hair fell without any kind of styling around their shoulders, though on both men, their hair was lifted up at the temples as if it had been teased.
They were normal-looking men with questionable fashion sense, but something about them sent chills across John's skin. When the one holding Finn's wrists grinned at him, John had to fight the urge to step back. It was as if a cold finger had slithered up his spine, trailing slime in its wake.
"Let him go," John ordered, more sharply than he'd intended. "Now."
The two men bared their teeth at him, like Cheshire cats, but made no move to release the redhead.
"But he wants to play with usss," purred the one holding Finn's legs.
John shivered at the sound of that hissing voice. "I said let him go."
"It's okay, John." Finn smiled up at him, as if he were sitting there chatting with old friends. "I want to be here. No one's forcing me."
"I'm not fucking blind," John said harshly, his restraint quickly falling apart. "They dragged you here like they were dragging you into some back alley to rape you."
"But he's here and now he's happy," Jeremy said calmly, moving his hand leisurely up and down in Finn's shorts. He looked down when Finn's breath caught on a gasp. "See? He's enjoying himself."
"Yesss," said the black-haired man at Finn's wrists. With one black-painted nail, he scraped a faint red trail down the skin of Finn's cheek, tracing around the other man's mouth. "He likes usss."
Finn's eyes darkened for a moment, filling with a rage so intense that John was convinced he had imagined it. Finn dragged his ruby lashes down over his eyes and when he lifted them again, the cerulean gaze was clear and calm. Finn waited until the finger moved away from his mouth before he said, "I'm fine, John. Please go. You're not needed here."
John felt like he'd stepped into the Twilight Zone. Finn had been fighting these two like his life depended upon it and now he was lying here letting them fondle him. And despite what the two black-haired men said, John could tell Finn wasn't enjoying their touch.
John lifted his gaze to find Jeremy studying him, amused. Jeremy, Jack -- were they two different people?
"Something tells me you're off the clock, Detective." Jeremy withdrew his hand from Finn's shorts and ran his tongue across his palm. John wanted to punch him. "Harassment by the police is a touchy subject these days. I'm sure you don't want to be caught in the middle of such an accusation."
"You can't begin to imagine the sort of harassment I can lay on you," John replied coolly. "But you'll find that out soon enough, Jeremy. Or should I call you Jack?"
The blonde shrugged carelessly.
Frowning, John looked one final time at Finn. The young man's blue eyes were huge within his face and held a worry that John knew wasn't meant for himself, but for John. John hesitated. He knew it was wrong to leave Finn like this, held down on a table for the amusement of these men, but unless Finn asked him to intervene, John wouldn't do anything that might possibly jeopardize his case.
"I'm okay," Finn repeated, reading his reluctance. "You can go. Thank you, John."
The gratitude made him angry. Without another word, John strode away from the booth and out of the club. The minute the door closed behind him, the sensation of creepiness that had been haunting him vanished as if it had never been. But the feeling that he had just abandoned Finn to the wolves wouldn't leave as easily.
It was John's turn to wait. He didn't know what time Finn's shift had started, but he assumed that Finn was on for the busiest shift, which meant he'd be done around five or six in the morning. At 5:20, the employee door opened and Finn stepped out.
He was wearing black pants that ended at the knees, with purple and black knee high socks underneath them. A black denim jacket was pulled tight across his slender chest. Finn had removed his make-up and with his pink, freshly scrubbed face looked like a sixteen year-old boy. His work clothes were stuffed into the plastic garbage bag he held in one fist. He froze outside the door when he saw John.
Finn glanced around the mostly empty lot uneasily. "What are you doing here?"
Earlier, John had been watching the front door for Jeremy and his cohorts to leave, but either they had slipped out the back, or they were still inside. By Finn's reaction, they must have slipped past John's notice and left.
"You want a lift back to your place?" John asked, lighting up his nth cigarette for the night. Tonight, he'd broken his own record and smoked nearly three packs. His car's ashtray looked like a repository for bones.
"No thanks." Finn headed towards the sidewalk without waiting for John. "I'd rather walk."
"I'll go with you."
Finn frowned, but didn't say anything else as John fell into step with him. John felt conspicuously large next to Finn. Hell, he felt like Finn's father and he did not appreciate the reminder of how old he was. Or how young Finn was.
He'd spent a good couple of hours trying to foster the anger he'd felt at finding Finn with those men, and trying not to dwell on the twinge of sexual interest he'd experienced when seeing Finn spread out like a buffet. His hormones were apparently still confused about Finn's sex. They were doing a sad-ass job of telling male from female and it was pissing John off. He was not gay, damn it.
And even if he did decide to bat for the other team -- just for kicks -- he would never do it with a kid like Finn. A kid.
"How was your night?" John asked conversationally as they crossed a street. Now that winter was approaching, the night hung on tenaciously, reluctant to yield to sunlight. He was glad he'd waited to accompany Finn because it was still dark enough to be dangerous to someone who looked like he was in high school.
Finn smiled a little and glanced up at John. "Why don't you just ask what you want to know, Detective? You're not very good at subterfuge."
John laughed. "Of course I am. I'm a cop, aren't I?"
"That just means you're tenacious. And stubborn."
"I don't like to fail." John took a puff off his cigarette, releasing the smoke into the darkness. "Alright, who was that in the booth? Jeremy or Jack?"
"That was Jack," Finn said after a moment. He rubbed at his shoulder. "Jeremy is someone else."
John watched the younger man carefully. "Another person, or another side of Jack?"
Finn began to walk a little faster. "You need to stay away from us, Detective. We're nothing but trouble. My friends aren't always nice people."
"Why aren't they nice, Finn? What do they do?"
Blue eyes swept him before falling back to the sidewalk. "They try to drag others down to their level. You don't want to go there." He shivered and pulled his jacket tighter around him. "You don't want to go there."
John studied his profile, hearing fear and something else in Finn's voice. "Is there something you want to tell me, Finn? Something you can't say while the others are around?" He stopped Finn and tilted the younger man's chin up until their eyes met. "I can keep you safe, if that's what you're worried about."
But Finn didn't look relieved, he looked amused. He cocked his head, making him appear impish. "You're a good man, John Stonebrook. But you don't need to protect me. I can do that myself. You should be more concerned about who will protect you. There are a lot of evil things in this world, Detective. You need to be careful."
"Tell me about them," John urged.
Finn opened his mouth to speak, when a change in the air -- something John couldn't feel on his skin, but felt in his bones -- made them both look down the alley they'd stopped in front of. Somewhere in the darkness, a cat squealed. John thought he heard something dragging over the pavement.
Finn turned to him, his blue eyes wide and fearful. "Go! Get out of here! Leave!" And before John could react, Finn shoved him with inhuman strength, sending the larger man flying onto his back onto the sidewalk.
John hit the concrete hard, his breath pounded out of him. With a pained gasp, he sat up in time to see Finn's lips pull back into a snarl. Finn hissed like a cat and suddenly went tearing down the alley, his bag forgotten on the sidewalk.
John stumbled to his feet and ran to the mouth of the alley. He caught the sight of Finn's slight form as it was swallowed by the darkness at the end of the alley. John started to follow when he heard a great whoomp, like the sound of a giant eagle's wings beating against the air. The trash in the alley swirled as if caught in a sudden breeze.
A screech that resembled a howler monkey's tore down the alley. The hairs on John's arms stood on end and he backed up. Garbage cans crashed against each other as if something had been thrown against him. Another screech flew out of the alley.
Then all was silent.
John stood panting, his blood roaring in his ears. His hand flexed, making him realize that sometime during this, he'd felt the need to draw his revolver. He'd never drawn his gun without good reason. It was always the last resort, because if you didn't intend to use it, it could be used against you.
He flicked off the safety and cautiously stepped down the silent alley. He found the garbage cans that he'd heard, scattered across the width of the alley. One of them sported a large, body-shaped dent. John inspected the rest of the alley and found it empty. It ended it in a brick wall with no other way out.
He must be going crazy. He couldn't see any other way out of here. Where had Finn gone? What the hell had he heard?
He walked back to the garbage cans and knelt down, holstering his gun. Something within the disgorged trash caught his eye. He picked up a single white feather, as long as his hand. It didn't belong to any bird that he could name. It was tipped grey at the end. It was also streaked with blood.
John stared long and hard at it, rattled like he hadn't been since losing his family.
"What is going on here?" he murmured.
He almost expected a voice to come out of the darkness and laugh at him.