Chris Howard


Officers in the House

There was a knock on a door somewhere. I wiped my mouth and looked up the basement stairs, trying to pin the sound—sounded like the front door, and someone rapping on it with something hard and wooden. A billy club? Is that what they’re called?

A man’s muffled voice coming through the seams. “Mrs. Gossi? Andrea Gossi? It’s the police.”

Another hardwood rap on the door.

I wheeled to Reed, who was just waking, rubbing his eyes with thumb and forefinger, testing for pain around the bruise on the back of his head. He groaned and blinked at me.

I pointed up the stairs. “It’s the police. Go stall them!”

“But...” He jumped to his feet, arms swinging wide to keep his balance. “But who called them?” He caught the railing.

I jabbed my finger at the head of the stairs. “They may not even be real police. Just talk to them. Tell them your mother went shopping.”

Reed looked back at his mother on the floor, so still and pale, bruises up her arms where she’d tried to break her tumble down the stairs. I jerked my chin back at him. “I’ll be up in a sec.”

I kicked the phone pieces under a bookshelf, and bent to my knees over Reed’s mother. Oh man, I’m in so deep right now, and this is probably going to cost me another thirty-million heartbeats—almost a year’s worth of them. I closed my eyes, reached out, slipped my fingers over the cool soft skin of Andrea Gossi’s face.

It was over in a moment, another heartbeat year of debt to one of the things from the Winterdim that helps me—her name’s Shirley.

I reached the top of the stairs and heard Reed say something about his mother out shopping. I peeked around the corner. There were two of them. I could hear the beating of their hearts. One was wearing cologne that smelled dry with a soft pine edge. Didn’t recognize it, didn’t like it, but that’s all I could pick up in the air. Smelled like everyone had their masks on to me.

“Can we come in?” The officer had his fingers looped through the triggers of a small boxy underarm automatic. He had it pointed down, but he looked as if he could have it up and firing without thinking. He was twitchy.

Reed looked over his shoulder, still holding the door handle tight. “Uh...sure.”

“Anyone else home?”

The officers were in the house.

When I stepped out of the basement, all the way into view, the guns went up.

I held out my open hands. “Hey, I’m a friend of Reed’s. My name’s Theodora Viran.” I pointed vaguely in the direction of my house. “I live up the street.” I opened my hands wider. “What happened? Why are you guys here? We didn’t call you.”

“Someone did,” said the officer who wore the cologne. Officer Duperry. He looked at me as if it was my fault, some sort of crank call.

He pulled out his comm gear, cupping the device in his palm, and thumbed it into play. A woman’s scream, followed by her begging someone not to kill her. It didn’t sound exactly like Reed’s mother, just someone’s pretty good attempt at mimicking her.

Reed leaned against the wall next to the stairs leading to the second floor, and he was gripping the banister with one shaking fist. The officers were enjoying this, a show of tiny smiles, and officer Duperry’s partner even showed some teeth, glistening saliva and something dark and fibrous caught between the canine and second incisor on the left side.

The woman in the recording started choking, the audio cutting in and out as if her attacker had her by the throat, and with the other hand was trying to get to the phone. This was all wrong. There was more than one attacker in the real murder of Andrea Gossi. This was someone’s sham to get us into custody, defenseless and separated. Alone, Reed would be easy meat for the things that were apparently after him.

I laughed, elbowing Reed, and it cut right through the fear. “That doesn’t even sound like your mom.”

Duperry’s partner, officer Dathe, lost his smile and cut in quick with, “It came from your tel number, and this location.” He pointed to the floor to emphasize his point.

“Well, Reed’s mother is out shopping, and we’re the only ones home. We didn’t call you.” Because I knew the family vehicle was in the driveway, I added, “She went with Mrs. Roshe from Hampton. Left about an hour ago.”

Officer Dathe leaned into the comm in his left ear, listening to something. Then he looked straight at me. “You said your name is Viran? Theodora Viran?”

I only paused a moment, then I pushed my shoulders up cheerily and said, “That’s me.”

Dathe glanced over at Duperry. “Voice rec just came back, and it’s not a match. She didn’t make the call.”

“You’re recording this?” Reed’s panicked voice broke in, and both officer’s jumped on the trail of guilt in his tone.

Of course they’re recording this. Reed had looked on edge all along. Now he looked as if he’d gone way over. He was shaking noticeably. I gave his arm a squeeze.

“It’s fine, Reed.” I let my shoulders slump in embarrassed defeat, tipping my chin to officer Dathe. “I trust these guys. They’re not going to tell.” I straightened my stance, took Reed’s hand gently in mine, and said, “Look, me and Reed...we’re going out, and Mrs. Gossi’s pretty strict—she’s out of the house. I mean, we were just...”

Officer Duperry moved to the basement stairs. “Were you down here?”

Reed nearly tripped and fell without even taking a step. I caught him, and gently as I could, rammed him against the banister.

Nodding gaily, I said, “And up in Reed’s bedroom.” I waved and piled on the tease. “Feel free to look for DNA evidence.” But my skin went goosey, terror ridging up my back. We were in real trouble. I hadn’t actually been that clean with the prismdead guy or anyone else.

I turned to give Officer Dathe a friendly smile, and felt it again, something wrong in the air. The smile never materialized, and the officer frowned, clearly catching my last second shift in expressions.

Time to turn it on.

I whispered, “Feel that?”

There was a weird taste in my mouth. I felt the assassins, still in the house, waiting for the officers to leave...just like we were. I stuck out my tongue, sucked in air, and then tasted the residue on my lips and front teeth. Yup, at least four of them, smoke people who could come and go with any breeze, and if they had power—which these did, they could become corporeal; real life tangible things that could push people down basement stairs. I couldn’t see them, but I didn’t get that feathery brush against the ankles, which meant they were off the ground, probably upstairs hiding in the bedrooms, maybe even on the kitchen counters, buckled up against the cabinets.


I was somewhat familiar with Smokes, pretty sure they weren’t from the Winterdim, but creatures from the Rootworld. My mom or my Uncle Theo would know, but who the fuck knew where my mother was at any given time? Probably off in the woods dancing, and my uncle—as far as anyone knew—was still a prisoner of some Queen of the Dead.

I leaned forward, pulling Reed with me, and gave Dathe a serious stare. “They’re still in the house.” I put some spooky into my voice. “Something is here, waiting for you to leave. Then it’s going to get us.” Pull the pitch higher, a pleading edge, drop the volume almost to a whisper. Widen the eyes just a little. “Please protect us.”

I felt Reed tense up, and tightened my fingers reassuringly. Going to a stronger stance, I shifted my feet, and moved closer to Dathe, almost turning my back on him, getting my right shoulder lined up with his chest. It was calculated to make him feel in charge, as if we felt we needed to be under his protection. Put yourself in an obvious vulnerable position, your throat or your back exposed, and they won’t see it coming. Don’t turn around completely, only halfway, then spring it on them.

I lifted my right hand to my mouth as if to cover a frightened gasp, my fingers already stiffening into a jabbing weapon.

Dathe leaned close to me. “What’s that along your jaw? Is that blood?”

Fuck. I looked up at the ceiling, pretending to scowl at something there, maybe blood dripping down on me. Dathe followed, tilting his head back, exposing his throat.

I pulled every muscle in my body tight, ratcheted it down, and let it go. My rigid hand shot out, caught Officer Dathe under the chin, my nails and fingertips stabbing into soft throat tissue.

He went down gagging, weapon swinging wide, his eyes wider, knees bending, legs folding under gravity, and I pulled Reed right over him, stepping on his shoulder and bounding through the front door.

We didn’t look back, running at full speed into the Long Wild—the kilometers-wide stretch of woods between the Exeter River and the Atlantic coast that ran behind our neighborhood.

The police sirens, a shriek of oscillating high-pitched tones, started up a minute later. I looked over my shoulder at Reed and gave him a quick steady glare. “Don’t worry about them.”

Law enforcement of the official government was the last item on a growing list of problems. Like who sent the prismdead guy and his buddies when there were already killers in the house? Who called the police? Someone else wants to wipe out the Gossi family? What for? And where’s Reed’s father? What the hell does he do, that he’s on the road so much? I was already suspicious.

Oh, and there was a calm current in the air, enough of a breeze to wiggle the leaves, enough to carry the smoke people after us. And they would follow. They hadn’t finished their job yet.

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