(published in Wild Cards: Lowball, a sequel to “Sanctuary”)
Detective Michael Stevens walked into the Jokertown precinct and paused, blasted by noise that didn’t help his pounding head. It had been a shitty day even before he came into work. Michael had woken with a raging hard-on, but he’d somehow slept through his alarm. Both of his girlfriends were already up and dressed, and his daughter was up too and hollering for her breakfast, so there was no chance of persuading one of the women to come back to bed, even if he hadn’t been late. And then Minal had gotten distracted by Isai pissing all over the kitchen floor, so the eggs had gotten overcooked, and if there was one thing Michael hated, it was dry eggs. Also, piss on his kitchen floor. Isai was supposedly done with potty training, but sometimes, she got distracted. He’d finally escaped the family drama and taken the subway to work, jammed between a guy covered in spikes and a woman who smelled like rotted meat. Michael had entered into the precinct with a sigh of relief, only to be greeted by this wave of noise slamming at him, like a steel spike jackhammering on his head.
Not a wild card-powered wave, just the normal Monday morning frenzy at Fort Freak. What you’d expect in a station where a handful of underfunded cops tried their damnedest to keep the peace in an increasingly strange and difficult borough of New York City. Perched on the front desk, where she had no business being, Apsara leaned over, making sure that the desk sergeant had a full view of her generous assets. Hey, sweetheart. Got something for me? Her voice loud enough to carry over the noise. Darcy the meter maid was just leaving the room, thankfully — he didn’t need to hear her ranting about law and order and a civil society again.
Sure, that was why Michael had become a cop, to protect and serve. In the deepest parts of his soul, that desire was what pulled him through his days, the need to be a great cop, to prove himself. He’d grown up watching his folks struggle just to make ends meet; he’d promised himself that someday he’d have a job that was more than just a way to put food on the table and clothes on your back. Michael had never loved school, but he’d gritted his teeth and plowed through. He’d spent late nights over his books at the scarred Formica table in his mother’s kitchen, while she cooked bi bim bop and they waited for his dad to come home from his second job. Michael’s folks had skipped vacation, skipped meals, even skipped Sunday church sometimes because they were embarrassed by their threadbare clothes. Clothes they hadn’t replaced because the money had gone to pay for Michael’s grammar school uniforms, his high school books, his college application fees.
He owed them so much that it stuck in his throat, love and gratitude tangled up with resentment. Michael had been determined to pay them back for it, and eventually he had, at least a bit. When he’d made detective, the pay bump had been enough that he could finally put the down payment on a condo for them, and help them out every month with the mortgage. He’d worked as hard as he could to rise above, to be better than everyone else — a better student, a better cop, and now, a better detective. Michael Stevens was determined to be the best damn cop on the force. But unlike Darcy, he didn’t need to talk about it all the time.
The door banged open and a kid scuttled in, shrieking. Really shrieking, in a voice pitched three octaves above normal. The hammering in Michael’s head escalated along with it, and he fought the urge to cover his ears with his hands. That wouldn’t look professional, but damn, if someone didn’t shut that kid up — oh, thank God. Beastie had him, and was covering that horrible mouth with one warm furry paw. There were days when Michael wondered why he didn’t just walk away from all the crazy here. He was a nat — untouched by the virus, at least so far. After the success they’d had a few years ago in taking down the Demon Princes, he could have transferred to any other city he wanted, left the freaks and weirdos behind to protect normal citizens instead. Michael could have risen through the ranks, become a captain, maybe more. He’d thought about going to D.C., applying to join the C.I.A., or S.C.A.R.E. But in the end he’d chosen to stay in Jokertown.
Michael slipped a hand into his jacked pocket to reassure himself that it was still there — yes. The visible manifestation of his reason for staying. A small, red velvet box, holding a bit of captured sparkle — two of them, in fact. One box with two rings, for the two women who drove him crazy on a nightly basis. They were the ones who held him here — one joker girlfriend, one ace, both of them happy to share him, which was perhaps the strangest of all the strangenesses in his life. Minal, with tiny nipples that covered her torso, front and back — she looked ordinary enough when dressed, and walking the street, she could pass for normal. But her wild card burned within her, and just a brush against her torso was enough to set her simmering. No wonder she’d been such a popular hooker, back when she’d made her living walking the streets. Any other woman would have been insanely jealous. But his girlfriend Kavitha just smiled, and dragged Minal off to bed, sometimes inviting him along. Maybe it was her ace powers that made Kavitha so self-confident?
When she danced, her brilliant illusions turned real enough to walk on, real enough to fight with. They’d learned that the hard way, two years ago, when their daughter had been kidnapped by a Jokertown gang. Kavitha had been a pacifist — she still was, in most ways. She did work for the Committee on occasion now, always stipulating that she would only use her powers for peaceful endeavors. But Kavitha had fought like a tiger that day, when their daughter was at risk. Michael didn’t know if being an ace had anything to do with her welcoming attitude towards Minal; he was just grateful. In another city, their family would have garnered way too much attention. In Jokertown, Minal was just one freak among thousands, and their threesome was unconventional, but more the kind of thing that got your harrassed by your buddies, rather than get you fired.
Besides, where else would they raise their ace daughter? Where else could Isai fly free when she transformed into a giant creature with the body of a lion, the head of an eagle, and a wingspan wider than six parked cars. Cleveland? Last year, Isai had started kindergarten, and had become the public school’s problem for seven straight hours of the day — and somehow, the school had coped, which was a minor miracle in itself. Michael didn’t know how they’d manage otherwise, with Minal finally in culinary school, and Kavitha performing most nights and leaving town periodically for the Committee’s bizarre projects.
Michael had never asked for so much strangeness in his life — he’d just wanted a great, normal life. Solid career, beautiful wife, a couple of kids and a house of his own. That would have been plenty for him. But having found love, twice, how could he walk away? He was lucky, as the guys at the precinct kept reminding him. Today was a stunning April day, the prettiest they’ve seen in months. The perfect day for a proposal, the back of his brain whispered. Michael was a half-black, half-Korean tough guy who’d fought his way up from the wrong side of town; he could handle a proposal. The question was, could he handle two?
“Hey, sweetie — you forgot something!” Minal had come up behind him, was tapping him on the shoulder and handing him an insulated bag. He felt his heart thump hard, once, at her wicked grin. That grin wasn’t going to cure his headache, but if Michael could get half an hour alone with her, he was sure Minal would be able to help him out. Sadly, that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. The inevitable chorus of hoots and catcalls rose from the guys (and some of the gals).
What’d you bring for me?
Something hot and sweet, I bet!
I need something spicy!
Usually Minal would banter back, but today she was already late for her culinary school class. She smiled at the gang, dropped a kiss on Michael’s cheek, and then was out the door again. She let the battered wood slam shut behind her, leaving him to face the music alone.
Michael knew how to handle this. It’d been two years since he’d come out to his old partner and the rest of the precinct about the threesome; he had this down. “Aw, you guys are just jealous,” he said loudly. That quieted them down, because it was true. Not only due to the sexy bi babe whose curvy body had just walked out the door, but also due to the incredible scents rising out of the little carrier. The insulation might keep the rice and curry warm, but it wasn’t nearly strong enough to keep the scent of Indonesian rendang padang trapped inside the bag.
Slow-cooked beef, simmered in coriander, curry leaves, ginger, cloves, lemongrass, coconut milk and he wasn’t sure what else, but he didn’t care. Minal was taking a Southeast Asian class this semester, and Michael was grateful. Her curries were almost as good as his Korean mother’s, and the rest of the precinct was jealous. Any cop knew that while it was nice to come home to some sweet loving after a long day, it was more important to keep your stomach well fed — that’s what would keep you going when the night got long and crazy. Donuts could only carry a man so far.
Finally, his day was looking up.
He carried the food over to his desk, and almost dropped it when he saw Franny sitting across from him, at his partner Sally’s desk. “Hi, Michael!” the kid said, his voice just a little too cheerful.
Two minutes later, Michael was in the captain’s office, wondering how hard he’d have to beg to fix this. “Captain, please. You have got to be kidding me? The kid?” Just yesterday, life had seemed so good. He’d been happy enough to propose, for gods’ sake; he’d gone out on his lunch break and bought the rings, with Sally giving advice. He was finally making some progress on his smuggling case, and he had a smart, sexy partner to work with him. Last week, Sally had taken down a mugger with a sneaky jiu jitsu move that might not be academy-approved, but which was nonetheless impressive. And even though she was tough as hammered nails, Sally was also willing to flirt with the nerdy art insurer if it would get them a lead for their case. She had been the perfect partner — and now she was gone, and Michael was about to be thoroughly screwed. Not in a good way.
Maseryk frowned. “This isn’t your decision, Michael. And it’s not up for debate. Sally deserved that promotion to One Police Plaza, and I’m sorry for the short notice, but they needed her on something urgent. We’ll throw her a party at the bar Friday night; you can say your goodbyes then. I’m promoting Black to be her replacement.” He shrugged. “The truth is, the brass uptown dictated his promotion, and I don’t like it anymore than you do. The kid doesn’t know shit. I’ve sidelined him on a dead-end case; you focus on that art ring you and Sally were handling.”
“But Captain — ” Michael knew he was pushing, but he couldn’t just let it go.
But Maseryk was already turning away, back to the mound of papers on his desk. “Enough, Michael. End of story. You can shut the door on your way out.”
Michael just barely managed not to slam the damn door. He came perilously close, though, shutting with a solid thud.
“Whee-oh! I remember that sound.” His father was in the hallway, up on a ladder, fixing a light and grinning down at him. “What crawled up your ass, son?”
God, not this too, not today. When would the old man retire? “Dad. I don’t need this right now.”
His father peered down at him through thick glasses. “You mad ’cause the kid got promoted?”
“You know?” Shit. It would’ve been nice if the captain had told him first, instead of informing his dad the janitor. The old man should just retire — he was old enough now that his dark skin stood out shockingly against the pure white of his bushy eyebrows.
“Son, you know how fast gossip moves through this place. Everybody knows, and I can tell you that no one is happy about it. Poor kid.”
Michael snapped out, “He’s jumping the queue. He’s too young. He’s a goddamned smart-aleck who is completely full of himself.”
His father cackled. “Reminds me of someone else I know.”
“We are nothing alike.” That would have come out better if it hadn’t sounded quite so whiny. Michael bit his tongue.
His father nodded serenely. “Yessir, whatever you say, sir. I know better than to argue with my superior officer.”
There was nothing to say to that.
The old man continued, “When you are bringing those three pretty girls of yours over for dinner? I haven’t seen my granddaughter in four whole days. Your mama was thinking Saturday would be nice. She’s got plans for jambalaya, and she wants to teach Minnie the recipe.”
Michael sighed. “Don’t call her Minnie, dad. You know that’s not her name.”
His father frowned. “I’ll call her what I like; I’m old enough, and I’ve earned the right. She don’t mind. When are you going to call her your wife, that’s what I want to know. You ever gonna put rings on those gals’ fingers?”
Not him too. It was bad enough listening to the voice in his own head. His parents had been harassing him to marry Kavitha, before Minal moved in — they’d been blessedly quiet on the subject for the past two years. But apparently, his grace period had ended. “I can’t marry both of them, not legally.” He wanted to, though. He was pretty sure.
The old man snorted. “Did I ask what you could do legally? Do you think we give a damn what the law says? Your mama is dying to throw a wedding for her only child, boy, and if you know what’s good for you, you’re not going to make her wait much longer.” The old man hesitated, and then said, in a softer voice, “Her heart’s been acting up again, you know.”
Michael’s own heart squeezed once, painfully. “I can’t talk about this now, dad.” He had a case to solve. Now wasn’t the time. He wasn’t sure when it would be the right time. “We’ll come for dinner Saturday, okay? Tell mama.” Maybe he’d propose this week; maybe he’d be bringing two fiancés to dinner on Sunday. Michael loved them, he did. But two wives? It wasn’t the life he’d planned for.
His father shook his head. “All right. You be nice to that kid. The whole station’s going to give him hell, he doesn’t need to get it from his partner too.” Then he turned back to the light above their heads, leaving Michael to face the long walk back to his desk. No more Sally at the desk facing his; that was Francis Xavier Black’s desk now.
The rings were still in Michael’s pocket when he walked in the door at home, exhausted and late for dinner, to be met with chaos. Happy chaos, for the most part — Kavitha had her latest show mix blasting, and was slowly twisting in the living room, sending out happy sparkles, rainbow coruscations. She must have just gotten back from the studio; she was still dressed for rehearsal, in a black leotard and long flowing skirt, her eyes darkened with kohl, hair piled high, in elaborate braids. Kavitha looked gorgeous, like an Indian queen from a storybook, and once again, Michael wondered why she’d picked him. A woman that beautiful could have had her pick of guys — a doctor, a lawyer, a Wall Street trader. But instead Kavitha had gone for a skinny black cop. He should count his blessings. Isai was dancing around her mama and laughing, trying to catch the lights. Minal was, for a change, not at the stove — dinner was clearly over, with a clutter of dirty plates still on the dining table and the scent of curry lingering in the air — but was sprawled across the sofa instead, smiling and watching the show. And, surprisingly, they had a guest.
Some guy was in the easy chair, his back to Michael, so that for a minute, Michael couldn’t place him. Was it unenlightened of him, that for that minute, Michael’s pulse rate quickened, and he felt a surge of possessiveness? A strange male in his territory, among his women. The adrenaline rushed through him — and then drained away a moment later, as the boy turned. It was only Sandip. What was hedoing here?
“Brother!” the boy said, enthusiastically bounding out of his chair to wrap Michael in a hug. Michael hugged back, wincing a little.
Why did teenagers have so much energy? He was tempted to correct Sandip — after all, the kid was Kavitha’s brother, not Michael’s. But on the other hand, the boy was only jumping the gun a bit — if Michael actually managed to propose, then Sandip would be his brother, in law at least. Frightening thought. Did that mean he’d have to take on familial responsibility for this wild child? Kavitha smiled approvingly at him, still twisting in the center of the room, her body a long, lean poem of grace and beauty. His throat tightened. For her, okay. He could watch over Sandip. And he was honestly fond of the boy — Sandip had some of the same passion that Michael had felt at that age, the same need to prove himself. Although Sandip was more culturally directed, towards his own Tamil Sri Lankan people. Not the safest of passions.
“It’s good to see you, man. What are you doing in town?” Michael hadn’t seen Sandip in months — it only cost a couple hundred to fly down from Toronto, but that was a lot for a seventeen-year-old working odd jobs in between college classes. Although — huh. That was weird. The last time Michael had seen Sandip, he’d been slouching around in torn jeans and t-shirts. Now the kid was sharply dressed: pressed slacks, button-down shirt, and what looked like a very expensive blazer. Nicer than anything Michael had in his closet, that was for sure.
“Can’t I come to visit my sister? See my adorable niece?” Sandip turned and stuck out his tongue at Isai, delighting her — she grinned and returned the gesture. In that moment, he looked closer to twelve than seventeen. Sandip turned and pulled up a leather satchel that had beens slung behind the couch and started rummaging through. “Hey, Michael, now that you’re here, I have some stuff for you guys. This is for the little princess…” He pulled out a Barbie doll dressed in full-on Indian princess regalia. Isai squealed in delight and grabbed it out of Sandip’s hands.
“Oh, that’s too expensive,” Minal said, exchanging a look with Michael. They’d priced those dolls recently, since Isai had been asking for more Barbies, but the Indian princess ones were collector’s items; they cost hundreds each. Not that they’d take it out of their daughter’s hands — she’d already run across the room to the basket that held her other Barbies, and was excitedly introducing the new one to her sister dolls.
“No biggie,” Sandip said, shrugging his shoulders. And then more presents out of the bag, jewelry boxes he hadn’t bothered to wrap. He handed them out — one to each woman, and a larger one for Michael, and then stood there, thumbs hooked into his pants loops, grinning. Sandip looked like the king of the castle, and his grin just got bigger as Kavitha and Minal opened the boxes, letting out tiny gasps as the light caught in sparkling diamond bracelets.
Michael felt his gut churning. He flipped open his own box — a gold Rolex glinted up at him. Real? Fake? The sweep of the hand looked jerky — it was almost certainly fake. But it didn’t matter; even a fake street Rolex typically cost more than Sandip should be able to afford.
Kavitha knew it too. She was biting her lip, staring at her kid brother. But she didn’t say anything, not even when Sandip asked, too eagerly, “So, do you like them?”
Michael was the one to break the silence. “What the hell, Sandip? How does a college student afford this stuff?”
The grin dropped off the kid’s face. Sandip said, defiantly, “Aw, man — they didn’t have anything to teach me there. I dropped out. I didn’t want to just study politics — I wanted to be out there, making shit happen.”
Michael’s pulse quickened. God, if the kid was getting involved with the Tamil separatists — that was fucking dangerous. There were quite a few, up in Toronto; some people just couldn’t accept that the war was over, like it or not, and there was money in it, “donations” collected from the immigrant generation. And yes, the Tamils back in Sri Lanka were getting treated like shit, again, but that wasn’t a reason to return to the killing. On that subject, Michael and Kavitha were in complete agreement. But this hothead — the kid was just like Franny, wanting to skip the work, jump the queue. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair. “You need to grow up, Sandip. Go back to college, learn something about how the world really works.” Michael snapped the words, and laid a warning hand on Sandip’s arm.
The boy hesitated, and for a moment, Michael thought he had managed to get through to him. But then Sandip’s face hardened, and he shook off Michael’s hand. “You’re not my father, bro. And I’m not an American — you don’t need to police me.”
Dammit. He’d come on too strong, as if he were questioning a suspect. Michael gentled his tone. “Sandip, I wasn’t trying to — ”
Sandip flung up a warning hand. “Yeah, machan, I don’t need this kind of crap from you. I just came here to get a meal, see my sister and my niece. Minal Acca, thanks for the food — it was delish. I gotta get going. Later.”
“Sandip, wait!” But it was too late. The kid had already grabbed his leather jacket and was out the door, slamming it behind him.
Kavitha wrapped her arms around her, looking cold, the bracelet still dangling from one hand. “Michael. What the hell just happened? Where could he be going?” Minal was sitting up on the sofa now, and Isai came running up to Michael. He bent down and scooped her up into his arms, bending his head down to smell the sweet child scent of her. Almost five, and she still smelt like a baby, vanilla and cinnamon mixed together.
“Uncle Sandip went away?” Isai asked, her eyes wide and confused.
“He’ll be back soon, sweetheart,” Michael said, forcing a smile. “He just went for a walk.” Typical teenager — Sandip would probably walk the streets for hours, but he’d be back when he got hungry and tired enough. Michael would get to the bottom of things then.
Isai snuggled down into his arms, reassured. Kavitha seemed less convinced, but she let it go for now, and Minal was already up, carefully quiet, busying herself in the kitchen. Tension still lingered in the air. Probably not the best time to break out two engagement rings. Besides, he was starving, and the food smelled great. Michael smothered a twinge of guilt. Sandip would be fine.
They were in bed that night, the three of them, Isai safely asleep, when Sandip’s call finally came. Michael had just shifted over to the middle of the bed, to take his turn for some extra attention. Minal’s mouth was moving on his, her hands tangled in his tight black curls. Kavitha was sliding down the bed, her body slick with sweat. When they were together like this, warm and sweet and hot as hell, that’s when Michael realized how lucky he was, how all he wanted was for this sweetness to go on forever. That was why he’d bought those rings in the first place. But today had been a rotten day — stupid Francis Xavier Black! stupid Sandip! — and right now, he couldn’t think about getting married. Maybe later; proposing in bed could be romantic, right? But right now, all Michael wanted was to forget himself in their bodies for a while. Kavitha was just lowering her mouth onto him when the phone rang. Michael groaned.
“I’m sorry,” Kavitha said, as she glanced over at the glowing numbers. “It’s Sandip.” And she was up, rolling out of bed, picking up the handset and walking out of the room, still gloriously naked. Her tight dancer’s ass lifting and releasing with every step. “Sandip? Where the hell are you?” Michael was relieved the kid had finally called, but damn, his timing sucked.
Minal grinned at him sympathetically. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I think I can keep you occupied until she gets back.” She rolled over so that her body was braced above his, and Michael slid his hands up her hips, feeling his dick get painfully hard. There, just above his fingertips, the nipples started. He’d tried to count them more than once, with fingers and lips, but he never got very far. Tonight would be no different. She was just lowering her lush body down to his when Kavitha started yelling into from the hall. “What? What are you talking about? Sandip, don’t be an idiot!”
Michael groaned, and reluctantly slid out from under Minal. Cop training — respond to trouble. There was a phone extension in the hall; five steps had him there, picking it up, hearing Sandip ranting. “I don’t need school, I don’t need Amma and Appa, I don’t need you! I got a job, sis. I’ve got people who appreciate me and my skills!”
Kavitha spat out, “What skills?”
Sandip snapped, “Wouldn’t you like to know? I’m not a little kid anymore. I can do shit.”
What kind of mess was the kid getting involved in? Michael tried to intervene in the sibling shouting match, “Hey, no one doubts you have skills, Sandip. We just want you to come home.” He’d come on too strong before; Michael tried to keep his voice calm and coaxing this time.
But to no avail — the kid was too far gone, practically screaming into the phone, “I’ll come home when I’m ready! When I’ve proved myself. Then you’ll see. You’ll all see!”
Kavitha said, “Sandip, shut up and listen to me!”
“Go to hell, sis!” And then the click — they’d lost him. Well, that was a terrific end to a truly crappy day. Michael stood, naked in the hall, staring at an equally naked Kavitha. This night really hadn’t gone the way he’d planned. Now what was he supposed to do? Wander the streets looking for his girlfriend’s brother? The kid was almost an adult — surely he could manage in Jokertown for one night? Minal came out of the bedroom, wrapped in a blanket, and leaned against the doorway, her face worried.
“Was he calling on his cell?” Michael asked. They could track that at the station.
“No,” Kavitha said, shaking her head. “His cheap phone doesn’t work in the States. He must have used a pay phone.”
Dammit. The kid could be anywhere. “Look, I’m sure he’ll come back in the morning.” He wasn’t actually sure of that, not anymore.
“I have to call my parents,” Kavitha said.
“Of course you do,” Minal agreed. She came forward then, wrapped an arm around Kavitha and clumsily draped the blanket around both of them.
“I thought they weren’t talking to you?” Michael asked, tentatively. It was something they didn’t talk about much.
Kavitha’s face was stark, wiped clean of all expression. “They’ll talk to me for this,” she said flatly.
Michael groaned inwardly. It was going to be a long night. “I’ll make you some tea.” It was something to do, at least. He didn’t know why it was that both women always wanted tea when they were upset, but after all this time, he’d learned that much, at least. Tea wasn’t going to find the kid, but maybe it would give them the strength to start looking.
The condo was normally quite roomy. One bedroom with king-size bed for them, one bedroom for Isai, two large bathrooms, and a modern open-plan layout for the rest. It worked great for their family — or at least it had, until Kavitha’s family showed up on their doorstep and moved in. Two parents, two sisters, and their husbands, all bunking on air mattresses in the living room. Glorious.
“He was here in New York, Michael,” Kavitha’s mother said in British-accented English. “That was where he called us from last. The phone records are clear.”
“Yes, I know,” Michael said, trying to be patient. Sandip’s parents had hired an investigator when the kid had first gone missing, but in five days, the man had turned up nothing. So far, neither had Michael. It wasn’t technically his jurisdiction, but he’d squeezed looking for Sandip into every free minute at work. You did that for family; the other cops understood and covered for him when they could. But phone records, bank records, internet, nothing. Michael had walked the streets, checked his contacts, but with no luck. As if the kid had dropped off the planet. “I know Sandip was here in New York; we saw him then.” Was he still here? Michael had no idea.
“So, I tell it to you again,” she snapped, regal in her silver sari and hair in a perfect bun, despite four nights sleeping on the floor. “And you will listen!”
Michael could only nod in response. He didn’t have a lot of moral ground to stand on, given his living situation, which Kavitha’s parents were handling with a fierce lack of acknowledgement. They had barely spoken to their daughter for years, ever since she’d gotten pregnant by a black guy and decided to keep the kid. But for this, for their only son, they’d finally broken the silence with a vengeance. Family was the most important thing to Kavitha, Michael knew; it had broken her heart when they’d turned so cold. But she wouldn’t betray them now, no matter how they’d treated her. It was one of the things Michael loved about her — he knew that no matter what, she would be loyal to family forever. Which loyalty now included him, Isai, and Minal. And as for her parents, Kavitha might never forgive them, but she’d still feed and house them until Sandip was safely found.
Now Michael stood in front of Kavitha’s mother, trying to swallow his own anger at the kid who had driven the whole family to distraction by disappearing. He was probably running around with some gang, pretending to be a hero. But he couldn’t say that to this tiny old woman, wrapped tightly in her shawl and shivering, clearly out of her mind with worry for her youngest child. When he found Sandip, he was going to strangle him. But he couldn’t tell her that; what Michael said out loud was only, “Don’t worry, Aunty.” She frowned at him, and he wasn’t sure if it was for the fatuous reassurance, or if she thought the ‘Aunty’ impertinent. What was he supposed to call her? He couldn’t use her name — he was sure she’d think that was rude. This whole situation was impossible. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
If Michael was honest with himself, he had to admit that he was worried about the kid too. It was only two years ago that his own daughter had disappeared. Just for a few hours, but he’d thought his heart would stop. If Sandip would just pick up the damn phone and call.
He couldn’t spend all his time looking for the kid, not if he wanted to keep his job. Most of Michael’s days were spent on the street, talking to contacts, trying to figure out how the art smugglers were getting their pieces into New York. He’d nailed down almost every other part of the case — he knew who was doing the smuggling, where the pieces were coming from, who was buying. The one thing missing was the point of connection, the person or place that moved pieces from thief-seller to buyer. As soon as Michael found that link, he’d be able to make an arrest. Not that anyone at the station would care — everyone’s attention was focused on the missing jokers now. His punk partner was getting all the glory, working with the Feds on what had turned out to be a much bigger case than anyone had expected. Michael glared across the desk at Franny, at just the wrong moment — the boy happened to look up, caught the glare, and then ducked his head back down, flushing.
Michael felt a surprising pang of guilt. He had been kind of hard on the kid; Franny wasn’t that much older than Sandip. Children, all of them, playing at being men. And Franny had a massive stack of papers in front of him; that couldn’t be fun.
“Hey — you want a hand with that?” Maybe it was time for a peace offering. They were supposed to be partners, and the truth was, it was Michael’s job to watch over the kid, help him out.
But Franny just spat out a brusque, “I can handle it.”
Not even a thanks in there. Fine. If Franny was determined to drown in paperwork, Michael didn’t need to extend a helping hand. He already had one kid to rescue. When he got off this shift, he’d go hit the streets again. Someone had to know where Sandip had disappeared to. Jokertown wasn’t big enough to hide a kid forever.
They’d cancelled dinner with his parents last Saturday; this week, Minal had decided to invite Michael’s parents over to their place instead. She said it was time the parents met, that since Kavitha’s parents were here, they might as well take advantage. Get some good out of the situation. Neither Michael nor Kavitha were enthused about the idea, but Minal was insistent.
There wouldn’t have been room to seat everyone, but Kavitha’s sisters and their husbands had finally decamped this morning, pleading jobs and other commitments. Her middle sister was just getting to the uncomfortable stage of pregnancy, and had sounded relieved to go home and sleep in a real bed again, instead of bunking on an air mattress on the floor. Kavitha’s father was making noises about work responsibilities as well, but so far, her mother had held firm. And so here they were, waiting uncomfortably for Michael’s parents to arrive. Minal, busy in the kitchen, had banished everyone from her domain, and so they sat, awkwardly, in the living room. Thank god for Isai.
She had started part-shifting lately — just enough to sprout feathers on her head and arms, to turn her nose into a beak. Michael worried that her nose was turning more beak-like with every day, even when she wasn’t shifted — if she transformed too often, would the changes become permanent? But try to tell a five-year-old not to do something fun; it was impossible. And no one had the heart to discipline Isai right now in any case.
“Ammama! I can’t find the birdie!” She leaned against her grandmother on the sofa, book in hand. Isai’s current obsession was hidden picture puzzles, and Kavitha’s mother was remarkably good at them. She could find any hidden object with just a glance — she was equally good at finding dust. The one thing she couldn’t find was her missing son.
The phone rang, shrill and loud. Had someone turned the ringer up? The sound made Michael’s head ache. Kavitha jumped up and grabbed an extension. “Hello?” Hope in her voice — not that any of them really expected Sandip to call, but you never knew. But then she just walked away, out of the rom, listening to whomever was on the other end of the line. Apparently not Sandip.
And then another ring — the doorbell. Michael’s turn to jump up, this time to open the door. His mother bustled into the room, dripping rain from her coat. He turned to help her with it, but she ignored him, heading straight for Kavitha’s mother, who had risen to greet her. His mother’s wet bulk engulfed Maya in a huge embrace. “I am so sorry,” she said, her voice thick with its Korean accent, but even thicker with sympathy. And Maya’s stiff formality broke down completely; the tiny woman was sobbing now, in his mother’s vast arms. Hugely muscled, from long hours over decades of wrestling wet clothes at her laundromat. Strong and warm, the kind of arms that could hold you up when you were drowning.
Michael’s heart was aching now, along with his head, but Minal had been right to invite his parents here. His dad was slipping off his own coat, closing the door behind him. And even though Michael couldn’t remember the last time he’d hugged his father, in this moment, it seemed natural to rest a hand on the old man’s back, to feel the warmth of skin under the thin shirt, as he ushered his father into the room. Michael knew in that moment that if he were the one missing, even as a grown man, his dad wouldn’t rest until he found him again. He had to work harder to find Sandip. Maybe after dinner, he’d go out again, talk to some more people.
Kavitha came out of the hall, the phone still in her hand, to see her mother straightening up out of his mother’s embrace, tears still running down her face. Kavitha’s face was stricken, and thank god for Isai, bewildered Isai, who asked loudly, “Is it crying time?” And his father scooped her up and leaned his head against hers, saying, “No, sweetheart, baby girl. Crying time is done for now. Now it’s hugging time, okay? And as soon as your Mama Minnie tells us all that yummy-smelling food is ready, it’s gonna be eating time. Sound good?”
Isai loudly agreed. Michael took his mother’s wet coat that she was finally shrugging out of; Kavitha pulled herself together enough to explain that the studio had called to remind her that she only had one more week of rehearsal time before her show was due to start. She had to get back to work tomorrow morning, for at least a few hours. That started her father talking about business again; import / export problems, ever-higher taxes, lying and cheating employees. It was never pleasant listening to Kavitha’s father complain about his work, and Michael caught Kavitha wincing at a few of the worst comments. But it was still a relief to talk about something normal, and at least his mother was happy to join in, commiserating on the travails of the small business owner.
Somehow, the mundane details carried them through to dinnertime, when Minal’s food on the table and their faces around it seemed like a blessing. Michael had never expected to see his parents and Kavitha’s together, not really. But they got along surprisingly well — Kavitha’s mother even laughed at a few of a his father’s wry jokes. If they got married, maybe this would be normal, would happen often. That might actually be nice.
He just had to find Sandip first.
“Kavitha! I need to talk to you!” Minal was hollering down the hall, giving Michael a headache. This was not a great way to start the day. He stumbled out of bed, to hear Kavitha shouting back, “After rehearsal!” and disappearing out the door. God. She’d spent almost the entire day yesterday at the studio, and now she was gone so early? It wasn’t even six a.m. yet. He wasn’t even sure they turned on the AC in her building at this hour of the morning.
“Michael, I know you don’t like dealing with money, but we have to talk about this,” Minal said, walking up to him, frowning, hands balled on her hips. Finances always gave him a headache — maybe the residue of all those years of hearing his parents worry about money, about whether the laundromat would make enough to see it through another month? It had been such a relief when Minal, capable Minal, had taken over the family finances. “She spent way more than her discretionary budget allows for yesterday.”
“Minal, that’s not my problem. Take it up with Kavitha.” Michael was relieved that it really wasn’t his problem. He had enough to worry about. He was going to go back and re-check the docks for Sandip on his lunch break today; he’d thought of a few more places worth looking at.
Minal thumped him gently on the arm. “I tried to talk to her! You saw — she just ran away from me.”
Maya Aunty came out of Isai’s bedroom, the child rubbing sleepy eyes and holding her grandmother’s hand. “What is the problem? Why all the shouting? I would be happy to give you children some money.”
“No, no, Aunty,” Minal said hastily. “We have plenty. It’s just important to stick to a budget, you know? Kavitha has always had trouble with that, but we’ve been working on it — I thought we finally had an agreement. She was being so good, but now — ”
“It’s a difficult time,” Maya Aunty said quietly. Isai let go of her hand and climbed up into Michael’s arms for a good morning hug. He buried his face in her unruly hair and took a moment to enjoy the fierce embrace of his daughter. This part, he loved.
Minal sighed. “I know. She probably bought herself some new clothes to cheer herself up. Although I haven’t noticed any shopping bags.”
Isai slid down impatiently and went to give Minal the same monster hug treatment. Michael said, “Maybe she was embarrassed. She might have left them at the studio.” It was sort of charming, actually — he could imagine Kavitha there, surreptitiously trying on clothes in front of the big glass mirrors. Something red and slinky would look so great on her, although that wasn’t really her style. Maybe when all this was over, he would buy her something she could wear out to dinner, with his ring on her finger. He was pretty sure Minal already had plenty of slinky red dresses. Although it might be the better part of wisdom to get her a present too. A man didn’t survive this long with two girlfriends without learning a few things.
Minal sighed reluctant agreement. “I suppose we can talk about this later. C’mon, sweetie.” She settled Isai more comfortably on her hip. “Time for morning potty and teeth brushing.”
Morning potty was another thing Michael was happy to leave to Minal, along with the financial headaches. Right now, all he wanted was coffee. “Coffee, Aunty?” That, he could take care of.
Yesterday, Kavitha’s mother had finally explicitly told Michael to call her Maya Aunty. It was a huge concession, and won only after her husband had decamped. He had tried to persuade her to come too, saying, “What is the point, kunju? The boy will come home when he wants to come home — it’s not up to us.” She had responded, “You! You are the one who drove him away! Go, go now. I will stay, and make sure that he comes home.”
And so Maya had stayed, moving into Isai’s bedroom, giving them back their living room. A bit of breathing space, and even some grandmotherly babysitting — whatever her prejudices, Maya had been completely won over by her grandchild. And Isai, for her part, adored her new grandmother. It was endearing, if bizarre, to see the old woman crooning over her grandchild, singing old lullabies in Tamil while preening the girl’s shape-shifted feathers.
So things were relatively quiet at home, and quieter at work too — no new snatches. There were reports of similar incidents overseas, but nothing in America recently. Yesterday, he’d found the final link in his smuggling case; it was all over, except for the paperwork. Michael was going to keep looking for Sandip, of course, but he was still hoping Sandip would find his own way home soon. Michael was almost ready to relax — until he was ambushed in his own home.
Maya dug into her dressing gown pocket. “I do not want coffee. I want to know, what is this?” she hissed, holding up a little red box, practically shoving it into Michael’s nose.
“Where did you find that?” Michael whispered, with a glance down the hall, to where Minal was in the bathroom with Isai. The door was closed; she shouldn’t hear anything, as long as he finished this quickly. Follow a question with a question, that’s what he’d been taught — keep them on the defensive. Easy to say, hard to do, especially when your heart is racing.
“I wanted to wash your jackets and coats yesterday; winter is coming.”
Not for months! “You don’t need to do that, Aunty,” Michael said, automatically.
She frowned. “If I don’t, who will? At least that girl” — she always referred to Minal as that girl — “can cook, but none of you clean properly. You live in filth.”
Michael was glad neither of the women were home to hear that — Minal would probably shrug and move on, but Kavitha would be hurt. She was just beginning to mend her relationship with her mother, but it was a fragile peace — she wasn’t up to taking much in the way of criticism yet. Michael had had enough of conflict in the last month to last him a lifetime.
Yet here Maya came with more. “So what does this mean?” She flipped the box open, letting the two rings sparkle. One was a vintage ring, lots of tiny little diamonds in an intricate setting; for Kavitha, who loved old things. And the other was a single large-ish diamond, flanked by two tiny rubies — that one was for Minal; he’d thought she’d appreciate a flashy rock to show her old street friends. Neither ring was terribly expensive, but the best he could afford on a detective’s salary.
“It should be obvious, I think,” Michael said, striving for calm.
“For both of them?”
Quiet certainty, that was the tone to use. He needed to sound sure of himself, even if he wasn’t. Maya would leap on weakness like a shark on its prey. “Yes.”
She raised a diminutive eyebrow. “So what are you waiting for?”
“What?” He felt as if she’d just punched him with that tiny little hand.
“How long have these been sitting in your pocket?”
“Umm….three weeks?” Had it really been less than a month since Sally had gotten that promotion? The weeks with Black as his putative partner seemed endless.
Maya snapped, “Three weeks? Do you know how far we could have gotten in planning the wedding in three weeks?”
Michael frowned, bewildered. “You mean — you’re happy about this? You wouldn’t mind if your daughter married a man who was also marrying someone else?” This was not the reaction he’d expected.
Maya frowned right back, and stepped even closer to him. He wanted to step back, but he was enough of a cop to stand his ground. He wasn’t going to be pushed around by a little old lady, even if she was his almost-mother-in-law. Maya said, “It’s not the marriage I would have chosen for her. But the important thing is that she get married. She is so old.”
Michael winced. Another thing Kavitha didn’t need to hear.
Maya continued, “Besides, the marriage is your affair. The wedding is mine. I will have to hurry if we want to reserve elephants for next summer. We cannot get them any earlier, I am quite sure.”
“Elelphants?” Michael felt as if she’d added a set of brass knuckles to the fist she was punching into his gut. Metaphorically.
She sighed. “Well, of course, elephants. In the old days, we would have had to go back to Sri Lanka for a proper wedding, but now, things are advanced. You can get anything you need here. The elephants, thali necklace, saris, saffron and jasmine, a priest willing to perform mixed marriages…”
“There isn’t going to be a Hindu priest,” Michael protested. His parents would freak out if the wedding wasn’t Catholic. God, he hadn’t even thought of that. But Maya just flipped her hands in his face.
“Details, details. You let me worry about that. Me and your mother — we’ll sort it out. Don’t worry about the money — we have plenty saved up. I was going to spend it on a luxury cruise, since I didn’t think the girl would ever get married, but cruises can wait.”
“Aunty — ”
She stopped him, with a raised hand in front of his face. “Michael. Do you love them? Both of them?”
It was so strange — the last few weeks had been so crazy, there hadn’t been any time for fun, or romance, or even sex. And he still couldn’t really imagine the life to come, when he was married to two women, until death did them part. He was pretty sure that wasn’t a wise choice for an ambitious man who wanted to go far with his career. But when she asked the question, Michael was surprised to find that none of that mattered. Because the answer was easy, it just slipped right out, grounded in a bone-deep certainty. “Yes.” Minal with her cooking and sexiness and the practical competence that got the four of them through their days; Kavitha with her beauty and grace, her passion for family and commitment to lofty ideals. Michael loved them both to death, so much that it was easier not to think about it. He wasn’t sure a man should love a woman, especially two women, so much.
“So ask her, kunju,” Maya said, her tone suddenly gentled. “Ask them both. Life is short, and unpredictable. You must take happiness where you can. If the past few weeks have taught me nothing else, they have taught me that.” Her eyes were bright, but her voice was steady. Not a word from her son.
“I’m sure Sandip will turn up,” Michael offered weakly. He wasn’t sure of any such thing.
Maya just pushed the ring box into his hand, shook her head in that strange South Asian gesture that meant yes — no — and it’s in the hands of the gods all at once, and turned away, her shoulders erect and unwavering.
God. Michael swore, if he had a dozen like her on the force, he’d clean up this dirty city in a month.
Just ask them. Okay. What the hell had he been waiting for?
Michael had thought about how to do it for months. He couldn’t ask one of them first, and then the other — that would be too strange, and might lead to problems. It had to be both at once, and the only time he had alone with them both was at night, once Isai and Maya had gone to bed. But he’d also eventually realized that he couldn’t ask them in bed — it would be too weird. Like saying “I love you” right after an orgasm — no one could take it seriously. So not in bed, but after Maya and Isai were asleep. Which meant during dishes, which they usually did at the very end of the day, after picking up the disaster of scattered toys. It wasn’t the most romantic time ever, but it was the best he could do.
Usually Michael washed, Minal dried, and Kavitha put away. It was fast and efficient, but tonight Michael left Kavitha to wash the dishes and disappeared into the front hall. The box was waiting in his jacket pocket, the rings still safe inside. He took it in a hand that was suddenly shaking — it was funny; he’d faced down more than his share of bad guys, some of them with guns, some of them twisted by their wild cards into something scarier than a gun. Yet here he was, the big bad black cop, shaking.
Michael took a deep breath, steadied his hand, and then turned and walked back down the hall, into the kitchen. He’d left the room with everything calm; he came back in to find the women bent over the sink, snapping at each other in lowered voices, clearly angry, but also careful not to wake Kavitha’s mother or the child.
“Are you serious?” Kavitha asked, her hands still furiously washing dishes. “You’re going to abandon me now? We still have no idea where Sandip is.” Her voice was sharper, more shrill, than Michael had ever heard it. He felt a pang of guilt that he wasn’t looking harder for her brother. Although he had his doubts that the kid was even still in New York. Maybe he’d managed to cross the border, go back to Toronto, to hang with his friends. Wasn’t that the sort of thing teenagers did?
Minal took a plate from her and rubbed it dry. “I’m not trying to abandon you. Gods, I know you’re a performer, but do you have to be such a drama queen? Don’t you think it would be easier, if I weren’t here? Spring semester will be over in two more days — I can take the summer off, head out of town for a month or two. It won’t be so crowded here; you won’t be tripping over each other.”
Kavitha said flatly, “You just don’t want to deal with my mother anymore.”
Minal sighed. “Look, I won’t claim it’s easy talking to her, especially when she so carefully avoids discussing our relationship. But it’s not that. She’s actually kind of sweet, in her own way. I just don’t want to make her life harder right now.”
“You think I do?” Kavitha’s hands stilled in the soapy water of the sink.
“Oh, god. That’s not what I was saying! Michael, will you tell her, please? Can you explain what I meant?” Minal turned to him, finally seeing the box in his outstretched hand. “Oh, shit.”
Kavitha turned too, her open mouth abruptly closing. He didn’t want to know what she’d been about to say. He didn’t know what he ought to say. This wasn’t how he’d pictured this going.
Well, he wasn’t going to put the box away, not now. He popped it open, so the rings were visible, and slightly awkwardly, slid to one knee in front of them. “Umm…I love you. I love you both. Will you marry me?”
Minal looked at Kavitha, then back at him. “You idiot. Your timing sucks. But yes, of course. Yes.” She grinned widely, and reached a joyful hand out to Kavitha. “Sweetheart? Marry us?”
Kavitha swallowed, and took a step back, pressing up against the porcelain sink. It seemed like an endless awful time before she said, “I’m so sorry. I can’t. No.”
Kavitha had said no to his proposal.
“Why the hell not?” was what Michael had said in response, which in retrospect was perhaps not the most tactful way to persuade a woman to marry you. But he’d been genuinely shocked — he’d never actually thought she’d say no. And worse, Kavitha had refused to tell them why, even when Minal had started crying. And Michael had tried not to shout, but the discussion had gotten a little — heated — and they must have gotten pretty loud, because Isai woke up, and then Maya Aunty, and somehow it was two a.m. before they got everybody back to bed, and he’d just given up and collapsed. Minal wore his ring, but Kavitha didn’t, and that was just wrong.
He went into the work the next day still feeling shell-shocked. In no condition to deal with the chaos he encountered at the station.
“Stevens, where the hell is your partner?” Captain Maseryk was standing at Michael’s desk, waiting for him, a nasty frown on her face. “He missed a meeting with the S.C.A.R.E. guys yesterday, he hasn’t shown up today, he hasn’t called in, and he’s not answering his phone. What the fuck?”
“I have no idea, Captain.” Michael couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the kid, but that wasn’t surprising — it wasn’t as if they were best buddies, or even working on the same case. Which Maseryk knew, and with a grunt of displeasure, the captain stalked away. Leaving Michael to stand there, looking, and feeling, like an idiot. Because despite everything, he should have known where his partner was. He pulled open his phone, checked for e-mail, messages from Franny. Nothing. And he could feel the eyes on him, the critical, judgemental gaze from the rest of them. They knew where their partners were. Shit, if something had happened to the kid, he’d feel responsible.
As if to add insult to injury, Bugeye, the asshole, felt the need to add a comment. “I bet Franny’s run off with one of your girlfriends. I knew two women were too much for you to handle.”
“Shut up, Bugeye,” Michael said, casually, his voice calm and even. No need to let the guy know that had stung; it’d just encourage him. Because even though it was utterly ridiculous to imagine Franny could have any appeal for either Minal or Kavitha, the truth was, he really wasn’t sure what was going on with Kavitha. She wouldn’t wear his ring. She kept disappearing, supposedly working, but there was no way she could dance for sixteen hours straight. There was the money thing that Minal had been worrying about. And yes, Sandip was still missing, and she deserved some slack for that. But Sandip being missing didn’t explain the way she’d been acting. Maybe Michael couldn’t find Sandip, and maybe he had no idea where Franny had gotten to either. But he could at least find out what was going on with his girlfriend. If he couldn’t stalk his girlfriend, what good was it being a cop, anyway?
Michael called in sick to work the next day, after he’d left the condo.
It was easy, following her. She might have ace powers, and jet set with the Committee on occasion, but Kavitha was still a civilian at heart. She didn’t even look behind as she left the condo, walking a path that wouldn’t take her anywhere near her studio. And when she finally ended up in a frankly terrible part of town, she headed straight into one of the dingiest motels on the street. Michael waited a few beats, and then followed her in. She might see him, but at this point, he knew enough to confront her if he had to. He was going to get the truth out of her, one way or another.
He was in time to see the elevator doors closing, and to watch the indicator go up, up, up. Third floor. Michael took the stairs, as fast as he could, glad he’d kept up with the station’s physical requirements, and emerged from the stairwell just in time to catch her disappearing into a room. 328. At that point, he abandoned all subtlety — because what the hell? Why in god’s name would his girlfriend be meeting up with someone in a dingy motel? Was this why she’d refused to marry him?
There was just one likely explanation, but it made no sense. Michael found himself with one hand on his door, the other on his gun, fighting a sudden murderous rage. It was one thing to date more than one person — it was an entirely different thing to have one of them cheating on you. If she’d just told him that she wanted to see someone else — well, Michael still wouldn’t like it, but he wouldn’t feel the need to pound somebody’s face in. He didn’t think.
“Open up!” He shouted. “Police!”
The door suddenly swung open, with his fist still raised to pound again, and Michael almost fell inside before catching himself on the door frame. Kavitha stood just a step away, and there, legs and feet hanging off the end of the dingy motel bed was — her brother. His torso swathed in bandages, looking like death warmed over, with terror in his dark brown eyes.
Michael took a quick, steadying breath. Carefully, deliberately, lowered his hand from the butt of his gun, suddenly ashamed of the urge that had put it there. And then he asked, in as calm a voice as he could manage, “Will one of you please explain what is going on?”
They didn’t fall over themselves to explain. Not at first. The silence grew quite deafening, until Kavitha finally said, “Sandip. Tell him.” She moved over to sit by her brother and took his hand in her own slim hand. She petted it gently, reassuring him, and finally, the kid opened his mouth to speak.
“They were killing jokers. Killing people.” The words came stumbling out, and suddenly, shockingly, the kid was crying, big gasping sobs from deep in his belly, tears streaming down his face. Kavitha grabbed a towel, waiting by the side of the bed and started dabbing at his cheeks with practiced motions, as if she’d done this before. As if she’d been doing this for days.
“Tell me what happened.” Michael said, in his calmest cop voice. On one level, he couldn’t believe Kavitha had kept this from him — but he held the anger down, waiting for the facts.
And the story came spilling out. Sandip had been recruited a few weeks ago by the kidnapping squad; one of the disgruntled Tamils he’d tried to join up with had been a joker involved in the scheme. Sandip knew the basics of how to handle a gun, part of his revolutionary aspirations, though he’d never shot one outside the range. He didn’t mind waving one around to scare people, though. Especially given how much money they’d paid him to do it.
“And not just money. Free drinks, as many as I wanted, and women too. Fucking gorgeous women just waiting for us. Machan, you should have seen the set-up they had over there.” The kid’s eyes were wide and glassy.
“Over where?” Michael asked sharply.
Sandip huddled in on himself, and Kavitha put a protective hand on his arm. “I can’t remember. They never really told us anything, but I heard some of them talking about it. Some tiny country, like Kazakhstan, but not that. Trakastan?”
Trakastan. That wasn’t anywhere real — but hadn’t Franny had something on his computer about Turkmasistan a few days ago? Michael had barely noticed it, glancing automatically at the screen as he walked past, so deeply trained to gather information even when he wouldn’t need it. At least he’d assumed he wouldn’t need it. But this was important. He had to tell the captain, as soon as he got the whole story. The kid was still babbling. “I don’t know where it was, I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” He kept going on about how cool it had seemed, at first. Sandip had thought he was living the dream. And then they’d let him see the killings.
Now he was crying again as he talked, the words stuttering between jagged sobs. “I mean, they told me what was going on, but it’s different when you see it. They said joker fight club, I figured it was gangsters, big guys, fighting it out to prove their manhood, y’know? Those were the kind of guys I was helping to grab. But the first real fight I saw, it was this little man, with glasses — he looked like a schoolteacher. Like the guy who taught my freshman history class. I kind of hated Mr. Matthews, but I didn’t want to see him ripped apart into little pieces! The other guy started chomping on what was left of his stomach, and that’s when I knew I couldn’t keep doing this. And then the next fighter they brought out was this tiny teenage girl with huge wings, and it could have been Isai, you know? Isai the way she’ll look in ten years…” Now Sandip was crying so hard that he couldn’t talk anymore, and Kavitha took up the story.
“That’s almost all of it,” she said. “When they came back to New York on that trip, he took off. Got shot in the shoulder, but got away. He was too scared to go to the hospital, so he called me. It was the day your parents came for dinner. I snuck out that night, took some of our money, and rented him this place. Got medicine, bandages, dug the bullet out of his shoulder, patched him up and prayed that he’d survive it. You should have seen the shape he was in.” Her voice was high, trembling.
Michael couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “A week. You’ve kept this from us for a week?” No wonder she’d been wound up so tight; keeping secrets wasn’t in Kavitha’s nature. It must have been killing her to lie to them like this. That didn’t make him any less angry. Rage was churning in his stomach.
“Michael.” Kavitha stood up, came two steps closer, close enough that he could smell her fear. Although, perhaps wisely, she didn’t touch him. “I knew you’d have to arrest him, send him to jail for a long, long time. But he’s just a kid. That’s what they do, you know.” Her voice was shaky now, close to breaking. Kavitha took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. “To keep the brutality going — they take children, and make them part of their battles. We can’t punish the children for what the adults have done.”
Michael shook his head. His chest felt as if it were being stabbed with knives. He’d never thought heartbreak could feel so literal, so real. “Kavitha, you know better. He participated. Sandip is old enough to know what he was doing when he took those people to their deaths.” She’d always been so committed to doing what was right. It was part of why he loved her. He’d known how she felt about family, but he’d thought she was better than this.
The boy was quieter now, doubled over and hugging his knees, swallowing his sobs.
She spread out her hands, helplessly. Despite everything, Michael was struck once again by how beautifully she moved. “He’s my little brother,” Kavitha said. “You should have seen him, bloody, with a bullet in him. He asked me to help him. I thought if I hid him for a little while, until it was all over…” She trailed off, clearly not sure what possible good ending there could have been.
If she had only come to him right away — he could have found some way to make it right. To protect the boy; as a juvenile, if Sandip had come in and told his story right away, maybe Michael could have saved him. But now it was too late. “You lied to me for a week. You know Franny’s missing — you’ve kept him in danger. He might even be dead by now. You’ve risked every cop in the department working on this case. You let these bastards continue their operation unimpeded. How many people did they grab, in the last week? How many more teachers and teenage girls?” He could see the words hitting Kavitha, see her bracing against their assault.
How could they come back from this? Michael realized that she was never going to wear his ring, not now. He couldn’t offer it to her after this, even if he understood on some level why she’d done it. He couldn’t keep living with her; he could barely look at her. Oh, Isai. Sweetheart. This was going to tear their little girl apart. And Minal — would she still marry him? Or would he lose her too? If he made her choose between them, Michael didn’t know who Minal would pick.
Kavitha stepped back, away from him. Let her hands fall to her sides. “What are you going to do, Michael?”
She knew the answer; she knew him too well. “What I have to.”
Michael said the words, feeling the weight of them fall like a knife between them, cutting the ties that bound them together. “Sandip Kandiah, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law…”
Michael passed his father in the hallway as he walked Sandip down to the booking room. “Son?” his father called after him, but Michael just lifted a hand blankly in response. Later. He would explain everything later. He felt numb as he walked Sandip through the familiar motions of booking. On autopilot, grateful that he’d done this so many times before. Michael left Sandip locked in an interrogation room, in case Maseryk had more questions, and then went to report to the captain. This was going to be bad.
When he’d finished his report, the captain just looked at him for a long moment. When she finally spoke, the first thing she said was, “You didn’t know any of this earlier?”
“I knew the kid was missing. That’s it.”
“You should have told me.”
Michael supposed he probably should have, although it seemed a little late to scold him for it now. “I was thinking, on my way down here. I’m betting Franny did something stupid. Found out about Turmanistan, maybe decided to play hero, go over there by himself? But the thing is, he’s got too much of a stick in his ass to just go there without someone giving him permission. And if it wasn’t you…”
The captain shook her head.
“…then I’m betting it was that S.C.A.R.E. guy he was working with. Stuntman, right? He must know something.”
The captain’s frown grew deeper. “I’m pulling him in. And his boss. We’re going to figure out what the fuck is going on around here, and who else has been keeping secrets from me in my own damn station.”
I wasn’t — Michael didn’t even bother saying it out loud. It didn’t matter if the captain blamed him for some of this mess. He blamed himself. If he’d been paying more attention at home, he’d have figured out that something was really wrong with Kavitha, something even worse than having her kid brother go missing. What kind of a detective was he, that he could be so thoroughly fooled by a member of his own family? And if he hadn’t known something was wrong, maybe it was because he wanted to believe. Wanted his dreams to come true badly enough that he’d just ignored anything that might have gotten in their way. He hadn’t thought he’d been asking for so much — a good job, a wife, kids, a home. Maybe two wives had been too much to wish for. Or maybe he’d gone wrong long before that.
“Just let me know how I can help, captain. Please.” Michael wanted to be on this case, needed to make restitution. No matter what it cost him.
Maseryk scowled at him. “I don’t even know what I need yet. Go wait with the kid. We’ll meet you there.”
Michael stiffly turned and left the room. His dad was waiting for him in the hallway and laid an urgent hand on his sleeve. “Michael. Was that boy who I think he was? Kavitha’s little brother? Did you really arrest him? What in god’s name is going on?”
“Dad.” Michael managed that, and then stuttered to a halt. It had taken everything he had to make the report to the captain; shame had almost choked his throat closed. Now, his father’s concerned face was just too much. Michael swallowed, hard, and then again, fighting for composure. And then, there in the middle of the station, his dad was stepping forward and pulling him into an embrace. Arms warm and strong around Michael’s stiff body.
Michael closed his eyes and, just for a moment, let his dad hold him. His father’s voice was low and reassuring. “It’ll be all right, son. Whatever it is, just hang in there. It’s all gonna be all right.”
If only he could believe that were true.