Caroled (The Bureau #7) by Kim Fielding

O Come, All Ye Faithful

December 1942

Santa Monica, CA

Charles Grimes rocked slowly on his front porch, his long fingers twitching on the chair’s armrests, and wished his constitution allowed him to smoke. His lungs felt too pure, a definite mismatch for the rest of him. It would be satisfying to create little chemical clouds and watch as they drifted away, maybe carrying and dissipating some of the restlessness that had recently possessed him.

He’d awakened before dawn, dressed, and slipped out of the house, walking the few blocks to the beach. It had been deserted at that hour, even the gulls still tucked away somewhere. He’d walked the damp sand left by the receding tide, a long stretch that seemed neither earth nor water, but some third thing unique unto itself. The salt spray chilled him as the waves filled his ears with their pounding. Even as the sun rose, fog muted its rays. His world was soft grays, steel blues, dirty whites, dark tans.

Then a few other people appeared on the beach with their dogs, and Charles returned to his bungalow. He sat on the porch—a dusty Mexican blanket wrapped around his shoulders—and wished that cigarettes didn’t make him ill.

Soon he would go inside, perhaps spend a minute or two admiring Tenrael’s coal-dark hair fanned across the white pillowcase, and then wake him up with a tender kiss and a hard tug on one of his horns. Tenrael would get up and make him pancakes with syrup while Charles juiced oranges from the tree in his tiny back garden.

Or maybe instead, after admiring the sleeping Tenrael, Charles would take off his clothes and get back into bed. He’d allow Tenrael to sleepily spoon him, to share his natural demon warmth with Charles’s cold body.

He was still weighing his options when a big black Cadillac with a prominent chrome grill turned onto his street and came to a stop in front of the house. It was a shiny vehicle, almost brand-new, probably one of the last cars to come off the assembly line before they started producing tanks and airplane parts instead. Charles knew only one person who would visit him in a car like that, so he wasn’t at all surprised when Bureau Division Chief Townsend got out of the driver’s seat and, smiling, made his way over.

As always, Townsend’s expensive suit was too small for his bulky frame, yet despite the man’s size and apparent age—sixtyish—he moved quickly and lightly, as if he were supported by invisible wires. He wasn’t wearing a hat today, and his thin gray hair was slicked carefully into place.

“I didn’t expect you’d be sitting out here waiting for me, my boy.” Townsend skipped up the three porch steps and, uninvited, settled into the other rocking chair with a sigh, then lit a cigarette with a silver lighter. “Cold this morning, isn’t it? Oh, not by most of the country’s standards, no indeed, but I’ve become accustomed to the balminess of Southern California.”

Charles didn’t answer. He wished he had his pistol on him; not that he was likely to need it. And even if he did, he had the impression it wouldn’t do much good against Townsend. But at least it would have made him feel better.

If Townsend sensed his wariness, he ignored it. “Where’s your demon, Charles?”

“None of your business.” Charles hoped he sounded fierce and defiant rather than afraid. Townsend had promised that the Bureau wouldn’t harm Tenrael, but Charles didn’t know whether to trust him. Townsend had never lied to him, not exactly, but he’d often been less than forthcoming with the truth. Secrets hid beneath his jocund façade, and he seemed to operate in pursuit of goals known only to himself.

Now he simply chuckled at Charles’s terseness. “It is my business, in fact. And yours. I have a proposal for you, and my understanding is that you two are partners. If so, he ought to hear this as well.”

“You tell me. I can tell him.”

“Suit yourself.” Townsend settled more deeply into the chair, removed a flask from his coat pocket, and took a long swallow.

“It’s early for whiskey, Chief.” The title was a habit. Although Townsend undoubtedly remained chief of the Bureau of Trans-Species Affairs’ West Coast division, he was no longer Charles’s boss. Not since Charles had quit the Bureau almost three years earlier.

Townsend set his flask on the little table between them. “For me, it’s never too early.”

In the pause that followed, Charles’s preternaturally sensitive ears heard movement inside the house. Tenrael was padding across the tile floor, likely in search of Charles. He wouldn’t be alarmed to find the house empty, however, knowing that Charles often took an early morning walk on the beach. Tenrael—who had formerly delivered nightmares to uneasy sleepers—was used to staying up late and snoozing away a good portion of the morning.