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Return of the Stone--Chap 1 (3222 words)

CHAPTER ONE 
"AN ACT OF PROVIDENCE" 


"Open, public, crowded with people... Did you ask to meet me here in the park so I couldn't kill you?" Nicholas Grant asked as he tossed his stress ball from hand to hand. Beth frowned and brushed snow from the bench arm next to her. 

"No," she pouted, "I just didn't want to get yelled at. And, honestly, I thought mom would have told you already." 

"So Margot knows, too?" Nick focused on the little green ball oozing into the cracks of his left fist, "How did this even happen? We talked about this..." 

"I know. It's not like we did it on purpose, geez. We had tried right. Is it our fault it broke?" 

"It? What it?" Beth turned away, probably rolling her eyes. 

"You know what it, dad, come on. I'm coming clean here. This isn't exactly easy," Beth said. Because hearing dour, life altering news is peaches. "It just shredded up like a fucking tassel--" 

"Language, Beth." 

"--and I don't understand at all why. It wasn't even uncomfortable or anything. Not to me, anyway. Maybe it was too small?" 

"Could have been too old. I don't think we talked about maintenance when we sat down with you. How long had you had it?" 

"I got it that night out of your drawer, so I assumed it was good." Nick sat up. 

"Wait, that was YOU borrowing them?" 

"I only borrowed that one! Amber was the one getting them first. She only started getting her own because she said you'd start missing them if that many were walking away all the time." A chuckle bubbled up out of Nick through ground teeth, and it took everything in him to wrestle it down. The little ball squeaked pitifully in his tightening clutch. 

"Daddy, stop laughing. I'm being the deadpan-schizophrenic kind of serious right now." 

"Don't be mistaken. I'm not laughing because I think it's funny," Nick said through a tight grin. "This is just a bit much for me all at once. I'm too old for this you know." 

"You're not even that old." 

Nick snorted and paused to fish into his right coat-pocket, then the left; he patted down the pocket on his shirt underneath. But he'd quit again, about three days too soon, it seemed, and there wasn't so much as an empty carton left. Sighing, he asked, "How far along are you?" 

"About five weeks, I think." 

"And have you told Robert?" 

"Of course I told him." 

"Of course you have. How else could I be the last person to know?" 

"Ugh, dad--" 

"And what did Robert have to say?" Beth wrapped up tighter in her coat and watched a jogger as he huffed by. Then she shrugged. 

"He wants to keep it a secret for now. From everyone." 

"Has he told his family?" 

"No. They don't even know we were going out. I think they don't like white people. Robert never wants me near any of his folks." Nick couldn't imagine the Yardigolds that way. He had met them only a few times, but they were a jovial and friendly always. And though they had like five hundred mouths to feed under their shed-sized roof they were always giving to the needy, regardless of skin or creed. Very buddy-buddy. There had to be some other reason. 

"You don't think it's because you're both fifteen, do you?" 

"No. His parents were, like, thirteen and fourteen when they got married, so." 

"Whoa; married?" Nick screeched, "Who the heck mentioned the 'M' word?" 

"Well, Roberts been saying--" 

"Oooh, no. Pause the video," Nick said, throwing up his hands, "I just learned that my fifteen-year-old's sleeping around--" 

"It was one time." 

"--that my seventeen-year-old's been doing it so long, and so often, she had to get a job--" 

"Not even like that, dad." 

"And now I've got a grandkid coming before I could even get both of my own two kids grown and out the goddamned door! No more surprises. I am about ten seconds away from pulling my baton and cracking heads, feet and hands. And don't whine to me about any of that race card shit, either, because you're white and I'm going to both crack you AND break my foot off in your ass when I do." 

"Dad!" 

"Don't 'dad' me, Beth. Don't do it. Not today. This isn't like when you went off and spit on that girl over a game... thing, or that time you hit that boy in the mouth for calling you a girl--" 

"He was being sexist..." 

"Or that kid with the slurs--" 

"Oh my god, how can you even stand up for him? You have no idea what he said to me!" 

"I don't care what he said to you, Beth! That's not the point right now!" 

Passersby slowed and watched the two of them there on a bench, yelling in the middle of the public park and eying one another's throats. Some quickly moved on; most never stopped but slowed to see the wreck before them. One couple even jogged in place to get a good, long look. Nick could feel their gutter minds working, calculating how he might somehow be at fault. He wiped down his face and glared off towards the bronze monument glowering down at them from its pedestal a hundred and a half feet away. It was of the governor and entrepreneurial billionaire, Willard Dovesing, who'd made his start selling cigarettes from his 'hovel in the ghetto' back in 1930 or so. Nick would have killed half the park for one of the man's magic sticks right now. 

Blood rushed into Nick's face and neck in a rush that stung against the biting cold in his cheeks. The stress ball had long since strangled to death in his hand so pale now that it was blue. He needed to get himself under control. His old man bubbled just under the surface of him, roiling beneath his skin waiting to boil over and the thought that he might lose it this time squeezed the air from his lungs. And he could feel the demon's heat rising in his daughter, too. Nick could feel the aura radiating off of her. If he crossed the line with her, she'd cross back, and neither of them would ever return. So many had fallen to the monster in his lifetime already. He took several deep breaths. 

Beth sat so calmly, as if unmoved. That was the way his father had been. The man would be so calm on the outside, right up until the rage boiled over and scalded anything standing in the way. She'd never met the man, but had grown to be so much like him. And the creeping, crawling shade didn't bother her in the least. That's what troubled Nick the most. She didn't know the kind of destruction she could cause, the kind of misery she held on to. It was just a way of thinking to her and a justified one every time Nick let his peak to the surface. 

He took a last long, ragged breath, "The point I want to make is that those things came and went. You got angry, you got into trouble, you did your punishment and it was all over. A baby is eighteen years of work. It's diapers and bottles; babysitters and tantrums; it's sleepless nights. It's sickness all the time and trips to the doctor and trips to the principal's office. Do you realize I've only had two, and neither of them are eighteen yet? And one of them was just in the principal's office last week for throwing yet another tantrum." 

"I wasn't throwing a tantrum. She'd earned it, and if I'd had the chance to get at her like I wanted I'd have given her something to really cry about." 

"You were almost suspended." 

"Yeah, well." Breathe, Nick, breathe. 

"Look, I have to get back to work soon," Nick said while settling back again, "I need time to think about this. Have you got a way home?" 

"We don't live that far, dad, I walked here already and I can walk back." 

"You know goddamned... you know how I feel about you and your sister just walking places. Sweetheart it's dangerous." 

"Come on, I can't have my every step babysat. What am I going to do when I'm living miles and miles away from here? Call you up for an escort? 'Hey, dad, I'm going to need a chaperone to the store in about six hours. Think you can catch the morning flight?'" 

"Don't be sassy. You know that I worry. So, here," he reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, "Take the bus. That's at least two thirds the trip with a friend watching your back." 

"How do you know Mr. Kenley isn't a serial-raping bus driver?" she asked as she took the money. Nick shrugged. 

"I don't, but he's gay so at least I'm sure he'll have no interest in you." 

"He's not gay. Is he?" 

"Yeah, he is. You can trust me on that one." Beth laughed. 

"Gosh, wait till I tell Amber. She's been chatting on him for months..." 

"Oh my god, please disappear." 

"Okay, okay, I'm gone. Bye, daddy," she said kissing him on the cheek. 

"Don't think we're through with this. You hear me?" She turned and waved, walking backwards a few steps, then made her way towards the bus stop. She didn't look back. Nick watched her from his perch on the bench. Noting all the eyes that glanced her way, how long they lingered, et cetera; right up until the noon bus came and took her away. He caught his hands going through his pockets again. 

With a sigh Nick raised his gloved hand to his mouth, pressed his index and middle finger to his lips and deeply inhaled between them; then released the breath in a plume of pretend smoke. He'd give his soul for the deep, homegrown wild of a Little Brown, or the warm, jazzy heart of a King's Soul. No... no. Today called for the bustling, smokiness of a Harlem Boy. Or maybe even the exotic, cherry spice of a Janie Crawford. Nick grinned. He used to love the smell of a Janie Crawford when he was a kid. He hadn't thought of those things in years, though. And none of those people either. 

Nick stood and stuffed his hands into his coat pockets. He was an older man now, and Janie Crawford was history. All of that was behind him. Now he lived in a small, one story house in the cul-de-sac; he cooked his own meals, cleaned his own uniforms and washed his own car. He lived a comfortable existence at one-oh-eight Easton Drive; alone at one place, while his family lived in another. Sometimes it made him question the meaning of things other people took for granted. If you lived physically in one place when your hearts lived physically in another, which was home? What is home? 

Another breathy cloud dissipated on its failed flight to heaven. The park seemed so... crowded on Saturdays. Nick shook his head. The truth was that, today, he'd have killed for a menthol Stableman--and that was essentially saying he'd smoke a bowel movement if proffered one. In fact, he'd probably long for the stick-of-ick even as he smoked the Stableman. But he wouldn't turn down the poor man's substitute if given one was the point. 

"All available units near Black February Park, this is Dispatch. Please respond," his radio hissed. Nick rolled his eyes. Even on lunch he can't catch a break. 

"Dispatch, this is car nine-twenty. I am at the park. What's the emergency? Over." 

"Nine-twenty, we have a B-ninety-three about fifteen miles from your location. Requesting all available units to the scene immediately." Nick winced. A robbery homicide. Nick rubbed the cluster-fuck that was still etched in his chest from his last such case. The burn still baffled his doctor. She'd reasoned that, if it wasn't chemical, then it had to be some kind of hot instrument. But the only thing the perp had hit Nick with was his bare hand. He could live with not meeting that guy again. "Dispatch, they sure the seven hasn't three-sixtied this time?" 

"Scene's unconfirmed. Address is six-sixty-six, Intentions Road." 

"That's a real street address?" 

"Out in the sticks, yeah. About three other cruisers are on their way already. Be careful, Nick." 

"Thanks, Clarice." 

Nick jogged to his waiting cruiser in the parking lot. The engine turned over twice before it was warm enough to catch. Then Nick pulled out in a rush to hit the road. 

A few minutes later, Nick pulled off of the narrow, snow-muddied road and into a churned up yard. Four other cop cars were already there, sitting at odd angles in front of a small, dilapidated cabin that hadn't seen company in years. Who'd have robbed a place like that? And who'd have come to find a body? There was no "For Sale" sign and no neighbors. Nothing but bare trees and mucky snow. There was also no yellow tape being put up, no cops staking the outside and no CSI's combing the scene. The air was deathly quiet. 

The snow crunched as loud as snapping branches beneath his feet as Nick made his way, gun drawn, towards the house. He tried to peek in through one of the windows, but couldn't see past dust and black paint. 

"Hey, police. Open the door," Nick knocked. Music began playing from somewhere inside. Something sang in an eerie talking tone. He knocked again and glanced around. Three of the cars were ones he recognized immediately, but one had a number he didn't know. That didn't mean much, since it wasn't like he'd memorized every car in his department, but it also began with a letter. Perhaps a neighboring department was helping out with the case? That unsettled him more than its presence there. He'd seen the cruiser before--somewhere. And why were so many cops called out for a dead body, anyway? 

Nick knocked once more, and midway his third tap Officer Maxwell opened the door. 

"Well, if it ain't the spook cop. Just like I said." 

"Screw you, Maxwell. Where's Lewis?" 

"Over here," Officer Lewis said. He stood with four other cops huddling around something sitting in the middle of the room. 

"What is that?" Nick asked, coming over. Lewis shrugged. 

"An old phonograph. It's playing 'I Never Knew You', by Cage; a song about a guy who stalks a woman to her house. Then he kills her." Save for a handful of windows, the record player was the only thing in the rectangular room. That and a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. The disc turned on the player's wheel in distorted rotations. 

"Specific choice of song... a message, maybe? How long has it been playing?" 

"That's actually the creepy part," Lewis said and chuckled grimly, "It turned on right after you knocked on the door, and has been playing since. Before that, we were trying to find the plug so we could juice it up." 

"You mean it's not even plugged up?" Nick asked. Lewis held up the head end of the power cord. He was the only one to look Nick in the eyes. "And that's not all, either. There's nothing here, Nick. No body, no witnesses, no mess. If a robbery went down here, the perps took all but this old thing, and cleaned up all but the dust bunnies. Which are everywhere, and practically undisturbed." 

"And we can't reach Dispatch," Officer Staples commented. "We're not that far out of town but still can't reach anybody. Man, it's some weird something-something going on here." The song repeated. Some of the guys shuffled nervously on their feet. 

"And now the weirdy magnet just happens to show up, all psychic-joe powers and all." 

"Back off, Maxwell. We've all had our share of the weird this month," Lewis said. 

"Yes, I was just thinking that," Officer Callahan said. He ran a hand through his hair, "Out of the department, we're the seven cops who've had unexplainable cases fall onto their desks in the past three months. Many of which were snatched up by The Doozy." 

The Doozy--or Division Zero Zero--was a part of the department that had, for years, just been the enigma that reared its head every few months to steal cases off of other officers' desks. Now it was a thriving entity that hit the department like a leech at an amphibian. Nick was the latest victim, having his and Tom's case taken after they got jumped while chasing clues. The kids from the case were still missing. A whole school bus of them, all vanished without as much as a trail of candy-colored erasers. The weird part of that? Only the bus driver was reported as missing at first. Parents took two to three days to start coming forward. The school had been faster. 

"But nobody here has had more than geezer Nick himself. His itch has been flaming for a good year or so now, huh?" Heat rose into Nick's face and his hands fisted at his sides. But he took a deep, quiet breath. 

"I shouldn't have asked Tom to help me," Nick said. Thinking, he smiled weakly, "To think, if I'd really had psychic powers, I'd have known not to take him to the house that day. Instead I just attract trouble, it seems." He absently rubbed the burn scar on his chest. 

"And Tom could die," Maxwell said bluntly. Which he probably had a right to, being Tom had been his partner the past eight months. But if he didn't shut up soon... 

The room fell into silence, except for the song repeating again on the phonograph. 

Nick grimaced and looked around the huddled group, then to Maxwell. There were six guys there, not counting himself. At two to a car, minus his, that left about two cops unaccounted for. The ones from the fourth car outside. 

"Hey, Lewis, who came in the fourth cruiser?"

"The fourth cruiser?" 

"Yeah, the one with the dee-thirty-one on the side." Maxwell opened the door wide, and each of the men moved over to see out into the yard. "That one there, by your car." Nick pointed, "I think I've seen it once before, but I'm not sure. Don't Doozy cars have that 'D' on them?" Lewis frowned. 

"What are you talking about, Nick? There's only our three cars and yours, and none of the cruisers out there have a 'D' on them." 

"Great, now he's hallucinating," Maxwell laughed.

The record player skipped at the last chorus, incoherently going over some line about God over and over; growing louder each time until the player was screaming it at them. The light bulb above brightened, growing whiter and more piercing until the men had to shield their eyes.

"What the--?" Someone yelled. The skip became a long, shrilling roar, before being drowned out by the loudest thunder clap Nick had ever heard. Confusion's silence rang high in his ears, snuffing even the feel of his own voice.

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