Nothing ruins a romantic evening like a brawl with lowlifes—especially when one of them later turns up dead and my date, Detective Isabella Cherabino, is the #1 suspect. My history with the Atlanta PD on both sides of the law makes me an unreliable witness, so while Cherabino is suspended, I’m paying my bills by taking an FBI gig.
I’ve been hired to play telepathic bodyguard for Tommy, the ten-year-old son of a superior court judge in Savannah presiding over the murder trial of a mob-connected mogul. After an attempt on the kid’s life, the Feds believe he’s been targeted by the businessman’s “associates.”
Turns out, Tommy’s a nascent telepath, so I’m trying to help him get a handle on his Ability. But it doesn’t take a mind reader to see that there’s something going on with this kid’s parents that’s stressing him out more than a death threat…
A sea of thoughts crashed into me like a tsunami, chaos given form with impossible force. I focused only on the back of Isabella’s sweatshirt, as I followed her through the crowds, past the food on the outside rim of Phillips Arena.
She finally moved into one of the alcoves with the big sign–A something and a number. My eyes were in slits, focused only on her to block out all those damn minds. She stopped against the concrete wall, pulling me a bit out of the way. The crowd pushed against my shoulder periodically anyway, bursts of particular minds striking mine as their bodies ran into my shoulder.
She said something.
“This was a terrible idea,” Isabella said, in the tone of someone repeating themselves. “You’re not…”
“It’s fine,” I said, through gritted teeth. “You paid all the money for the tickets, You begged me to come. We’re here. Let’s see the show.”
“But–” Isabella waffled. Isabella Cherabino was a senior homicide detective for the DeKalb County Police Department, and as such was normally decisive. She must have had strong emotions about this concert, which I’d know if I wasn’t spending every spare bit of my energy shielding against the crush of minds all around me. There were times when telepathy was more of a curse than a blessing.
“It’s okay,” I said. It wasn’t, of course, but I was here, damn it. Might as well get through this.
She pulled me further down the hall, and waved our tickets again at new people, who pointed her down a set of stairs. I followed, one step behind her, entire vision focused on the back of her shirt.
The ancient twice-remodeled stadium hosted hockey games, so it wasn’t exactly gorgeous, and the floating screens overhead looked like they’d fall down at any time. The whole place smelled like fried food and beer, old beer, but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the people. Maybe a hundred thousand people were jostling and yelling and talking and thinking around me, loudly. Their mental waves in Mindspace, groups upon groups of thin, normal mind-waves, added up to an ocean of force that overwhelmed all of my senses.
She found our seats and pushed me into mine. I gripped the ancient wooden armrests with shaking hands.
I had no idea how she’d talked me into this. Telepaths did not like crowds. I hadn’t had to deal with this level of overwhelming mental force since my final testing, more than twenty years ago now, and I strained under the pressure like a piano suspended over a cartoon character’s head. I swallowed, forcing myself against it.
My old teacher’s voice in my head reminded me that strength didn’t always get the job done, no matter how manly it felt at the time. Sometimes you had to be the duck, and swim with the current while the rain slipped off your back. I tried that, focusing on moving through the pressure cleanly rather than blocking it. A surfer on the edge of the sea, pushed along but not fighting. It helped, but only some.
Then Isabella reached over and took my hand, and warm feelings leavened with a little guilt rolled up my arm.
“Thank you for coming, Adam,” she said, quietly. With the physical connection I could feel her even through my shielding.
And I looked over, and remembered why I’d come. I was with her.
Isabella was a beautiful woman with strong Italian features, thick, slightly-curly hair she usually wore up, and a curvy body well worth a second look. She was a few years younger than me at just-forty, had a black belt in something Asian and deadly, and was one of the smartest people I knew. Her sense of justice in working with the police had been one of the things that had kept me on the wagon these last four years.
er strength of character and huge work ethic had been an inspiration for far longer.
It was impossible for me to believe that she was willing to date me; I’d been in love with her for years, and even though I couldn’t say it out loud yet, and even though we hadn’t had sex–she hadn’t been willing to make the nearly-permanent commitment sex with a telepath implied–we were dating. Four months and change now. And she’d been falling asleep in my arms nearly as long. She’d even filled out the official relationship form with the department, calling me boyfriend in plain text where anyone could read it. It was a miracle, as far as I was concerned.
So if I had to stand in the middle of the worst press of minds in my life, I would. I’d do nearly anything for her.
After ten minutes or so, the lights dimmed and the crowd roared. The minds roared too, pressing against my consciousness like a hand squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the lid still on–like that lid, I felt under pressure, impossibly strained. I wondered whether I’d really be able to survive this.
The screens came on, and the image of the aging rock musician Cherabino liked came on in a still photograph. Then the image fractured to be replaced by the concert logo. The crowd roared, and Mindspace trembled with pressure and interacting minds. Only two hours until it was over. She’d spent a fortune on the tickets, I told myself.
A manufactured smell–of volcanic gas, engine oil, and ozone–flooded the stadium, and the roaring of the crowd grew louder. Then the lights dimmed, green spotlights flooded the empty stage floor in front of us. The smell of deep woods added to the mix in the air, growing things and moss and sunlight cutting through the darker smells of civilization. The smell came back to me from the minds around me, lessening the pressure with pure sensation.
A trapdoor opened in the middle of the stage, and a figure was slowly raised into the green light. The rocker’s peaked hair caught the light with glitter and phantom holograms, and the clothes were not much better, tight-fitting to a fault, glittering. She slung her spiky guitar in front of her body, and strummed.
The noise filled the stadium and every mind in it, shaking our seats with pure sound. Isabella next to me was transfixed, her focus coming through between our psychic link.
The minds around me echoed back the sound of the opening bars of the song, echoed back the lights now turning red as the rocker screamed about dropping bombs, about bursting minds in the sixty-year-ago Tech Wars. And as she quieted, and sungintense notes about a child growing up in a shattered city, every mind in the place cried with her.
I dropped my shields, dropped them entirely, and pulled my hand away from Isabella.
“What?” she said.
“Shh,” I said. The band was rising up at the back of the stage on more platforms from the floor, the lights ramping up, but I didn’t care. I closed my eyes.
The music swelled in screams again, drums coming in, and the beat fell into the minds of the crowd, rising too. The vision of what was happening on stage came through a thousand minds, an overlapping kaleidoscope vision of one idea, one experience, one moment. And it continued. It continued.
No one was here who didn’t love this band. No one paid who didn’t live for this moment. And here, in the middle of all of it, I felt like a feather flying in the wind, a glider sailing on the sea of emotional high. The music swelled again, and my heart with it. Sound and vision and fury and a thousand happy minds crashed into me, and I breathed them in. I breathed them in.
Some time later, the world dissipated into a sea of clapping, and I came back to myself. I built shields, slowly, to block out the Mindspace now fracturing into chaos. The pressure, the unpleasantness returned, and I returned to laboring against it, but left in my mind was that one, pure note, the note that had started it all.
Isabella poked me.
“What?” I said, reluctantly opening my eyes.
“I said, did you like it?”
“That was… that was great,” I said. It was the understatement of the century.
“Are you okay?” she asked. Then she got that facial expression where she wondered if she needed to call Swartz, my Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. “You look… high.”
“Just the concert,” I said. I stood then; someone pushed by on their way to the aisle. “Can we hang around until most of the people are gone?” I asked. I’d rather not deal with all those minds wanting so desperately to get out of here; I was already feeling the edge of that flight response and didn’t want it intensified.
“Sure,” she said, but she looked at me suspiciously.
As another couple moved out of the row, squeezing in front of us, I realized I had to make an effort at conversation now. I really wanted to sit down and process what I’d just experienced–something I’d never, in my forty years, even dreamed of–but this was Isabella.
“What did you think of the ballad about the miniature giraffe?” I asked her.
“That was hilarious,” she said, still looking suspicious. But she sat down, and I sat down, and as people moved out of the old stadium like ants and strange smells moved through the system, we talked.
After awhile she was even smiling.
I’d done well tonight, I thought to myself. But at the back of my brain, I wondered. Did I really need something else in my life that was that… addictive?
We waited over an hour, until the majority of the minds had left. When we walked out of the arena building, it was dark, and the street was nearly deserted, just a few clusters of people here and there. Our breath fogged in the late-February air, the winter on its last greedy weeks of cold. Bioengineered trees with luminescent glowing orbs illuminated the sidewalk in dim blue light that stretched farther than you thought it should, beautiful and simple, feeling artificial and natural all at once. They held up well to the cold, I noticed, as I huddled in my jacket a little deeper.
A small group of guys stood about a hundred feet away, their body language tense and confrontational. Cherabino’s hand moved towards the gun on her waist she wasn’t carrying.
Then one guy yelled, and the group turned inward. The dull slap of repeated fist-blows hit the air.
Cherabino considered whether to get involved.
I turned—but it was too late. A man stood there, at least fifty-five and thin. He was short for a man, balding, with dark skin that caught up blue highlights from the bioluminescent streetlight. In Mindspace, his presence had wiry strength and desperation mixed. He held a pole as tall as himself, maybe fifty t-shirts hooked into loops on the pole, shirts with a cheaply-copied logo of the band we’d just seen.
“Buy a shirt. Just ten ROCs,” he said, but his tone was angry.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Keep moving, sir,” Cherabino said, a little of her cop voice leaking into her speech, moving towards a defensive stance.
Another guy came up, behind us, one of the ones from the group who’d been fighting. The others held back, working out their aggression, close to leaving. I moved around to look at him.
“Buy a shirt or my buddy and I have something to say.”
“No way those are official shirts,” I said. “You’re stealing from the artist.”
I felt the first guy’s decision, but Cherabino was already moving.
Pain from behind me. Cherabino in judo mode.
The buddy charged me. I went to get a grip on his mind—and failed.
He punched me in the jaw. I saw stars, and my legs went out from underneath me.
I blinked up, trying to get my bearings, but he kicked me. I whimpered. Not the most manly moment, but it hurt, damn it. I pushed back up.
Cherabino was over me, then, badge out in the guy’s face. “Police,” she said.
She went flying and somebody kicked me back down again. I put my hands over my head to protect it and tried to get a grip on the guy’s mind one more time. Slippery fellow—we had bad valence, terrible valence, and I couldn’t get a grip.
I went for the first one—and him I could grip. I hit the center of his mind, knocking him out. He slumped down, landing on top of the abandoned t-shirt rack.
I got up to my knees just in time to watch Cherabino punch the buddy in the face. “Police,” she said, standing over him. “Don’t ever let me see you around here again.”
“Shouldn’t you arrest them?” I asked.
She considered it, then gave me a hand up.
The buddy took off running, and she let him go. “Not worth interrupting my date over,” she said.
She glanced back at the guy I’d knocked out. Then sighed. “Is there a way to wake him up? Leaving him unconscious probably isn’t the best of ideas.”
I took a look at my handiwork in Mindspace. “If I wake him right now he’ll have the world’s worst headache.”
“Serve him right. Do it. Then let’s get out of here.”
We walked back to the parking garage across the street, her feet moving faster than I preferred. Her anger was still in play. Mine too. We shouldn’t have gotten involved in a stupid fight outside of Philips.
She found her car, an old beat up sedan, where she’d left it on the fourth floor. Her parking job was crooked, which was typical for her. She unlocked the car and let us in.
“You sure we shouldn’t have arrested them?” I asked, as I swung myself down into the seat.
“We’re in Fulton County and off-duty. More trouble than it’s worth,” she said, but wasn’t exactly happy about it. She turned on the fusion engine, it slowly warming up with a whine.
I closed the door. My body was calm by now, my heartbeat more settled, but I still felt jumpy, still felt too sensitive. I was open to Mindspace, monitoring what was going on, which is why I felt it.
All at once, I felt a shift in the world, a collapsing in, a hole disappearing into the fabric of Mindspace. A cold wind across my sense of the future, itching and then gone. A mile away, perhaps, just at the edge of my senses for even the strongest signal. A mile away behind us.
My stomach sank. “Someone just died.”
“What?” she said.
“Someone just died behind us. Violently, to be that strong.”
“Murder?” she asked.
“Or they fell off a building and impacted the ground. Strong, violent stuff.”
She sighed. I felt her considering.
“Go ahead and turn around,” I said. She was a workaholic, and obligated to the department. Getting in the way of her job wasn’t going to get me anywhere. And the feeling of that death bothered me. I wanted to know what was going on.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Let’s find out who died.”
“Okay.” So she turned the car around.