OF ALL the things I thought I would see on my drive home from the fire station, a naked old man stumbling down the middle of the road was the absolute last.
Normally my response would have been immediate: I would have been out of my truck and over to him without even turning off my ancient Dodge Ram pickup. But I was tired—I had just come off double shifts—and so was not thinking as clearly as usual. I veered slowly around him, and he was framed in my rearview mirror before I realized what I was doing.
I slammed on the brakes, jolting awake, having been half-asleep behind the wheel. What the hell was I doing? I couldn’t drive around a staggering grandfather and leave him all alone on the two-lane road. Firemen didn’t do that. We helped people, even ran into burning buildings to get them out. We didn’t leave people behind.
It was so late, or early depending on how you looked at it, but either way the old man should have been home in bed. Putting on the hazard lights, I grabbed one of the two thick wool blankets I kept stashed behind my seat for not-quite-this-sort of occasion and got out of my truck. Firemen carried all sorts of emergency items in their vehicles just to be on the safe side, and I was no exception. As I jogged back toward the old man, I grew more and more worried the closer I got. He looked really confused.
He was looking around like he was trying to get his bearings, and when my voice reached him, he turned fast and snarled, eyes wide, hands curled into claws, baring his teeth. It was strange, and I took a step back but raised my hands to try and soothe him. When he lunged forward, I took several more steps back as he growled, swiping toward my face, trying to reach me.
“Please, sir,” I said, lowering my voice, making it soothing. “Let me help you. I wanna help you.”
His eyes were huge, the pupils completely dilated, and he was panting with his mouth open. He looked feverish and he was trembling, even though in the warm, sticky summer air, he should not have been cold.
I held up the blanket. “Sir, please, lemme help you… I really wanna help you.”
He closed his eyes tight for a moment, and when he opened them, I was struck by the milky-blue eyes studying my face. I smiled at him with my brown ones, hoping that they conveyed the warmth everyone always said they did. After several long moments, he bowed his head as though accepting his fate. It was almost as if he thought I was going to hurt him instead of help him.
Slowly, gently, I put the blanket around his shoulders, stepped closer, and wrapped it around him so he was underneath it, covered up. I smiled wide and noticed his answering shiver. I gently rubbed his upper arms and stared into his face.
He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.
“How ’bout some water?” I suggested, leaning close to him, easing my arm around his back, prodding him forward, back toward my truck.
As we walked slowly together back the way I had come, he withdrew his left arm from the blanket and curled it around my shoulders. Only then did I notice that he was bigger than me, taller, and when he leaned a little more heavily, I struggled for a moment before I found my stride again. I was used to carrying people, so I just had to find my balance.
After I got him tucked in on his side of the truck and ran around the front to the driver’s side, I explained that I was going to take him to the hospital.
He shook his head no.
“Sir,” I began, pulling a bottle of water from the small cooler I kept beside the blankets stashed behind the seat of my truck. “You need to be seen by a doctor to make sure—”
“No.” He shook his head. “Home.” He pointed down the road.
But I didn’t think he was in any shape to be making decisions. He looked so out of it. I made my voice soft, soothing, coaxing. “I think you—”
“No,” he cut me off the second time, again gesturing ahead of us at the pavement.
I pointed down the road and only then realized that I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be. I must have taken a wrong turn.
“Shit,” I groaned. I had to be on the other side of the mountain. Not that Wyndam, Kentucky, was a big place. I just had to double back and go down the road, and I would be close to Winchester, which was just half an hour or so out of Lexington, but still… it was late, I was exhausted, and now I was playing taxi for a clearly impaired old man. It was possible that he had dementia or Alzheimer’s and had no idea where in the world home was.
“Home.” He pointed again down the dark two-lane road.
“Okay,” I sighed heavily as I put the Ram into drive.
After a while, the old man started speaking softly in French, which I recognized from high school but couldn’t remember enough to answer him back. The words I did get were “friend” and “good.” When he reached out to pat my thigh, I smiled over at him.
I glanced back at him before turning again to the road. I didn’t want to hit any furry creatures skittering across the pavement. “Pardon me?”
“You… fear me?”
“Uh, no,” I said, grinning, “not so much.”
He banged the dashboard hard with his fist, and when I looked back at him, his pupils were dilated again, and he was growling.
“Calm down,” I soothed him, reaching out to pat his shoulder, wanting him relaxed, not flinging himself at me while I was driving. I did not need to end up in a ditch because I swerved off the side of the road. “Please, sir.”
After a moment, his shoulders slumped, and he closed his eyes.
“That’s it, just breathe,” I coaxed, rubbing circles on his shoulder.
When he opened his eyes, they were pale and milky once more.
“There you are.” I smiled, and he nodded slowly, reaching out for my hand.
Old people, dogs, kids, they all loved me. It would have been nice if hot men did, too, but you couldn’t have everything.
“Romanus,” he said softly.
“Is that your name?”
He shook his head, put a hand over his heart. “Fabron Chaloner.”
“I’m Mason James.” I smiled wider. “Mace, okay?”
He nodded, squeezed my hand. “Romanus.”
I must have reminded him of someone else, but that was okay. “How far down this road, Monsieur Chaloner?” I asked, my eyes on the road.
When he didn’t answer, I turned back to look at him.
“Sorry, Fabron,” I repeated his name.
He pointed at a turn in the road, and I saw what looked like runes carved into a sign before I took the left down a dirt road. It snaked deep through a heavily wooded area, the brush so deep that it scraped along the sides and roof of the truck. After a second I realized how stupid I was being and slowed down to a crawl. I was afraid that if someone was coming down the same road to the street while I was coming up that I would be in a head-on collision. I put the truck’s high-beams on, and I stopped every few minutes just to listen. When there was nothing but the buzz of insects, I went forward again. After what seemed like forever, I came to a clearing, and the first thing I saw under the moonlight was a huge bonfire. There were several cars parked in front of the huge Tidewater-style home, the kind with the porch that basically wrapped around the house both on the first and second floors. Seeing all the people milling about, it looked as though Fabron had wandered off from some kind of gathering.
After parking, I darted around to the passenger side of my truck and started to help him out. I immediately noticed that he was snarling again, his eyes jet black from the pupils being huge and his teeth were bared.
“Should I growl back?” I chuckled as I reached in to help him out.
He didn’t calm, but neither did he lunge at me as he’d done before. Instead he continued to softly snarl, almost like purring, as I moved his legs, easing him to a standing position before leaning him against the truck. As soon as I slammed the door behind me to guide the old man to the house, I noticed that we had drawn a few spectators.
“Hi,” I greeted the gathered crowd. “Can someone tell me if this gentleman belongs here?”
No one said a word; everyone was just staring at me with wide eyes. What the hell?
IT WAS a cold and surprisingly wet instead of snowy January night that left the asphalt covered by a slick sheen of ice. It made keeping the wide ass of the tiller truck where it belonged near impossible at high speed. We were lucky to get to the scene in one piece.
Even though we weren’t battling a fire, the captain still required us to suit up. He didn’t want us to get cut up by branches, so it was pants and jackets, helmets, and even face guards. It made sense with what we were doing. What didn’t make sense was us being there to begin with.
I think the people who reported the whereabouts of the body called us instead of the cops because between the two, police or fire, we had the ladder to get up to the body. It was the whole kitten stuck in a tree thing. Firemen got pets down from trees, so a corpse qualified as well. All I knew was it was a gory mess I could have gone my whole life without seeing.
By all accounts, the man had been hang gliding when his equipment failed and he crashed. All of his limbs were broken and twisted at some grotesque angle, impaled by the branches, which in a fall from considerable height had become wooden harpoons into soft flesh. It wasn’t the gore but the sight of the poor bastard’s neck twisted around 180 degrees that made me grateful I’d skipped dinner.
“Jesus, Ty, be careful,” I growled at the guy to the left of me on the platform when he bumped me again, the second time even harder than the first. If I hadn’t kept my balance, he would have knocked me right off the hydraulic lift hovering more than seventy-five feet off the ground. Goddamn rookie. Urgency I respected, but not eager-beaver showboating—especially for a corpse that was just a retrieval job.
“Fuck you, Mace,” he snarled at me. “I’m being just as care—”
“The fuck you are!” I barked. The point was moot as I watched the rookie sail out of the basket into space only seconds later, after leaning out too far.
Of my two choices to grab—the hotshot rookie or the corpse—it was an easy decision. Firemen saved lives, even annoying ones. Tamping down my anger, I lunged for Tyler Cantrell, managing to catch his hand before he plummeted to a waiting death some three stories down.
Time slowed. I heard the cracking of the branches and watched as the blood-soaked body sank through the canopy and out of my view. I yelled for everyone to take cover instead of crying out in pain as I felt my left shoulder wrench violently from its socket when I flipped out of the bucket. My flailing right hand somehow managed to find a hold, saving us both from the concrete below.
I heard yells from underneath us as the platform shuddered and slowly begin to lower.
“Fuck me,” Tyler cried out, trying to reach for the bottom of the basket, but dangling too far beneath it to get a grip on anything but my wrist and arm. “Don’t let go, Mace!”
Like I would let him go. The guy was a fucking idiot for not watching what he was doing in the first place, but good or bad, the job made us brothers. I closed my eyes, ignoring the stretch on my tendons that threatened to give way because of Tyler’s 175 pounds, and concentrated on keeping my grip. There was still enough equipment below that if the fall didn’t cripple us, the gear on the ground damn well would.
What felt like hours blessedly wasn’t longer than a few agonizing minutes that caused me to break out in a sweat. The second I felt hands on my legs, I let go of the thin metal rail I’d been holding on to.
It was a fast tumble down as I was lowered roughly to the ground.
“Goddamnit!” Captain Ryers yelled, and when I opened my eyes, he was standing over me. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
I opened my mouth to defend myself, but my friend Frank Miller put a hand up to stop me.
“What the fuck did you learn in training? Anything?” Ryers snarled with sufficient rancor to pucker many an asshole.
His tirade was not directed at me, but instead at Tyler, who was panting for breath beside me.
“Aww shit,” Frank groaned as he helped peel me out of my jacket. “Brother, your shoulder is fucked up. I’ll bet you money you dislocated it.”
“That’s a sucker bet,” I said, smiling through gritted teeth.
AN HOUR later at University Medical Center, the ER doctor confirmed Frank’s diagnosis. It was, in fact, a separated shoulder, and it would be at least two weeks before I could even think about carrying equipment, pulling people from burning buildings, or lifting a fifty-pound hose.
“You know, of course, that Ryers is gonna transfer that fuckin’ probie back to fuckin’ Louisville, right? He’s a goddamn menace.”
It was hard to argue. Ty was young, younger than the rest of us, and basically a cocky asshole. I made it no secret that I didn’t like him, but I didn’t want to see him forced out, either. “I should talk to Ryers.”
“Talk to Ryers about what?” The man himself asked as he stormed into the ER cubicle. “The job’s dangerous enough without some rookie running over experienced line men to be first up the ladder.”
When people met Kevin Ryers, they had the distinct impression that he was big. He seemed tall, he seemed loud, and he sort of filled the space around him. In actuality he was shorter than my own six-one frame, and rounder, but whenever any of us, any of his crew, described him, we always started with “He’s really big.”
“That cocky fuck nearly killed one of my best guys,” Ryers snarled at me, tipping his head at Frank. “As it is, his stupidity dislocated your shoulder and made a big mess a fuckin’ catastrophe. With the cold, it took ESU an hour to scrape our vic off the damn sidewalk. No, he’s out. And you, kid, you need to get your ass home and heal up.”
I just stared at him.
“What?” he growled, hazel eyes darkening to olive green as he looked at me.
“I tried to stop—”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, James, give it a rest,” he said, patting my good shoulder. “I saw the whole thing. Goddamn probie leaned way out and lost his balance, pushed the body out of the tree, and almost flipped you right over. If you hadn’t grabbed hold of the rail of the platform, then you’d’ve both taken a concrete dive. I can’t believe you kept your grip with that big dumbass hanging off ya.”
On the surface, it was impossible. But I had more than just human blood running through my veins.
It was a discovery that had made everything in my life more believable.
It was only a year ago that my simple stop to offer a seemingly impaired old man a ride home spun my life into something totally bizarre. The elderly man was Fabron Chaloner; he turned out to be a gargoyle and, lo and behold, told me I was one too. Not that I had horns growing out of my head or bat wings or claws, but what I did have was the ability to move between two worlds: human and goji, or gargoyle.
I was unique among my newfound kind. I was a Romanus, and my job, as far as I knew, was to be the bridge between humans and the chasse, or tribe, of gargoyles I had discovered. I had already introduced my best friend, Finn, to the gargoyles and that had gone exceedingly well. I wasn’t counting Finn as a huge success or anything, though; he was just too weird to let anything throw him for a loop. The fact that he and the Rouen, the leader of the chasse, Raoul Orane, got along so well had not missed my radar.
What I had also not missed was that, to many members of the tribe, I was a disappointment. They were expecting me to do something, be something, but no one could say exactly what that something was supposed to be. A Romanus had a specific purpose within the chasse, but as far as I could tell, even Raoul was fuzzy on the details. It was the blind leading the blind. I was new to even being a gargoyle, and it was similar for Raoul, who’d only just settled into his new position as Rouen. He’d been researching the Romanus and making inquiries here in the US and abroad, but so far, nothing had produced a hit.
It was fine with me. Fighting fires took up most of my available time. I worked double and sometimes triple shifts at the firehouse as needed, so I really had no time to commit to finding out what kind of gargoyle I was supposed to be. There was no instruction manual. Of course, that didn’t stop the tribe from expecting me to do something, and every time any of them saw me… it was like being a headlining magician in Vegas where every person encountered on the street wanted to see a trick. The disappointment when I just smiled and waved was palpable. No one besides Luc understood that it wasn’t some failing on my part.
Just thinking about him caused an ache in the pit of my stomach. Work had taken him out of town, doing consultation on other construction sites for his boss, and I missed him like crazy. Luc was a leon—lion—a soldier of the chasse. He was a big, strong, beautiful man who liked me just as much as I liked him. Despite the fact that my world and most everything in it was upside-down, I had never been happier in my personal life. Luc just got me. We fit. He read me like no one ever had, and I had the same instinct with him. Just thinking about him washed calm through my entire being.
My head snapped up, and I was suddenly back from thinking about my lover to the here and now where I was looking at my captain’s face. He was scowling. “Sorry, what’d ya say?”
“I said,” he barked, “that your ass better be back at work as soon as possible. I don’t have time for this shit.”
I agreed quickly, and Ryers, for once, seemed appeased.