I stretched at my desk and hit save on the computer file I'd been reading. The dull, boring police files could have used some imagination but then crooks often lacked common sense, let alone a flair for larceny. I picked up my coffee cup and frowned at the brown sludge in the bottom. How long had it been since I'd poured that? Glancing at the clock, I sighed. Too long. I was going to be late ... again.
Powering off my computer, I grabbed for the phone. It was my turn to cook so hopefully Peter wouldn't mind if I stopped and picked up something.
"Hi! You have reached 334-2789. We can't come to the phone right now but if you'd like to leave a message, feel free to wait for the beep."
Where the hell was he? I hung up and slipped my jacket off the back of my chair to carry over my arm. Checking for my keys, I headed out after turning off my lights. The shift had changed and I waved goodbye to Chief Strenlich. The poor bastard had drawn the short straw and had to try and keep a lid on the holiday madness. The moon was just rising overhead, playing peek-a-boo between the heavy clouds and I automatically checked its size. Unless I was seeing things, it was full to bursting. Suppressing a grin, I thought about how appropriate a full moon was on All Hallows Eve.
Unlocking the car, I checked to see if Peter had left me a note. Nothing. I wondered where he was while I backed out of my parking space. Slamming on the brakes, I avoided hitting the black cat that shot across my headlights. Oh great, just my luck it had to be black. Chuckling a little, I thought of Mary Margaret and her fear of superstitions just like that one. The heavy mist was enough to make the intermittent wind shield wipers a necessity.
Looking both ways, I pulled out into surprisingly sparse traffic only to slam on the brakes again as a skeleton dashed out between two parked cars by the side of the road. He was followed by a little girl in a pink tutu who waved her fairy wand at me happily and an adult with a rather harried look on her face. I waved back and kept my comments to myself. I realized that Peter and I hadn't had the candy versus apple discussion so I turned towards the neighborhood grocery to pick up some of each.
I wasn't the only one doing a little last minute shopping so I waited as patiently as I could while juggling three plastic bags of assorted sugary treats and two pounds of apples. I lost the battle just as I got up to the counter and had to bend over to retrieve the Tootsie Rolls. So, when the guy pulled out a gun and started waving it at the only cashier, I had plenty of time to take aim and pitch an apple deflecting his shot. I was too busy tackling him to the ground to notice where the bullet had gone. In fact, it was only when the squad car had come and taken him away that I noticed the broken shards of the surveillance mirror.
Whoa, seven years bad luck for him, I thought while tucking my bag away in the back seat. The manager had insisted that my money was no good. He was almost tearful in his thanks, telling me that the cashier was his daughter and more dear to him than any amount of groceries. Heading for the loft, I decided that it would be safer to just stay home tonight. Too many weird things were happening to suit me.
I parked behind the old warehouse that was now home and grabbed the bag of groceries. The mist of the day seemed to curl and twist into a cold fog that chilled the breath and froze you to the bone. It rose from the pavement and eddied about the objects between the buildings, first masking them from view then clearing enough to reveal them. Starting down the alley, I suddenly came upon a ladder stretching up to the second floor. My path led directly under it. Continue on or play it safe? I actually stopped and thought about it. Me, Mr. No-Such-Thing-As-A-Superstition was really thinking that maybe just this once, it couldn't hurt to give it a miss.
Especially after the other events of the day.
So, I detoured around it and over by the dumpsters, which served
both buildings. I was almost too busy chastising myself to hear the
pathetic little cry but something caught my attention and I stopped again. Five feet away and I'd have never heard the tiny little squeak. The
alley was totally silent and I set my sack down, stepping quietly over
and throwing back the metal lid.
The garbage moved ominously in the fogged glow of the street light at the end of the alley. Sending up a prayer that I wasn't about to find an expiring body or a big nasty rat, I found my gun in one hand and my key chain flashlight in the other. A paper bag seemed to be breathing on top of the normal bags of kitchen waste and used newspapers. Putting my gun back in my shoulder holster, I gingerly opened the bag to find a pair of tiny kittens barely moving except for an occasional shiver.
If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people who think that small animals are disposable. Gently, I lifted the damp bag and cradled it against my chest. Picking up my original sack, I hurried to the alley door that led to the back staircase of our building. We were still the only owner/inhabitants so I keyed open the lock rather awkwardly still juggling my two packages.
Remembering that I hadn't seen Peter's car, I hesitated before locking back up. There had already been several acts of vandalism in the neighborhood and since Halloween seemed to bring out the nuts, I couldn't be sure that an unlocked door might not be an incitement to riot. The squeaks were rather more pronounced now and I hurried up the stairs to our third floor loft.
That lock was a digital keypad and I set my grocery sack down and punched in the number sequence that unlocked the door and turned on the light nearest the door. A little innovation that a friend of mine had come up with. I dragged in the groceries just far enough to let the door swing shut then I crossed to the kitchen island to set down the torn wet paper bag. The kittens seemed to sense that relief was near and the little mewling sounds increased in volume when I gently ripped the bag open.
Their eyes were open so I estimated their age at about six weeks. Their fur was matted and soaked in something that smelled suspiciously like kerosene. Black fur. If I ever got my hands on whoever had doused them and then left them to die, I was going to break some heads. I breathed a sigh of frustrated anger while trying to gently move them to the sink. Tiny little kitten claws scrabbled at the stainless steel sides while they shivered in the chill air of the loft. I set the kitchen towel over them gently and tried to think what I needed to do first.
I made a mental list in my head of all the things I had to do while I removed my jacket and slung it over a dining room chair. We had some baby shampoo in the bathroom so I got it and a couple of towels we normally used when we washed the cars from under the sink. I turned up the heat then hurried back when the squeaks started to sound frightened. Checking for a note from Peter, I found nothing.
Picking up the kitchen phone, I hit the speed dial for Caine. Peter had finally talked him into getting one for emergencies. The Ancient usually answered but this time, the man himself picked it up.
"This is ... Caine."
"Caine, Kermit here. Is Peter with you or did he call?"
"No. Is there something wrong?"
"Um, not exactly." The squeaks were getting louder. "I seem to have picked up a couple of new room mates."
"They sound hungry. Also frightened."
I told him the story and asked his advice about cleaning the kerosene off of them. He approved the baby shampoo and volunteered to come over and help. I accepted his offer with a sense of relief. They were just so tiny in my hands. I felt like I'd break one without meaning to. I know cats are resilient creatures and always land on their feet but these little guys hadn't had enough time to learn those coping skills.
The knock on the door heralded the arrival of the calvary. I let Caine in with a kitten in each hand, handing him one of them immediately. Peace seemed to enter with him and we set about getting them clean. He washed one in the left side of the sink then handed it off to me for rinsing in the other side while he repeated the process. Their indignant meows echoed in the still air of the loft and each towel quickly grew wet as they mopped up the sodden fur.
Caine had brought some milk with him and a baby bottle from a child's doll set. I didn't even try to figure out why he had one of those, I just put some milk in the microwave and nuked it until it was warm. Then Caine and I settled in on the sofa, taking turns at feeding the kittens. Their fur was drying quickly and as their tummies filled, they slowly fell asleep. The one I held curled up in my hand fell asleep in mid-slurp with its tail over its eyes.
Moving very gently, I handed the little guy off to Caine and went to get a bed ready for them. Peter had gotten a new pair of sneakers and the box was still in the closet. The flannel covered heating pad for my aching joints was in one of the bathroom drawers and once I figured out where to plug it in, their bed would be complete. After a low voiced discussion with Caine, I set it down near my side of the bed half under the carved oak stand that served as my bedside table.
Setting the pad to low, I layered two of Peter's clean sweat socks over the flannel. That looked like a soft enough nest for a pair of foundlings. A whisper of sound announced Caine's soft-footed presence. He laid them gently down into their new bed and after some minor squirming, they were out like a light. I slid the lid part way over the box to keep in the heat. We watched them for a moment before heading back to the living room.
Just as we got there, the lights went out.
"You know, Caine, this has been a very odd day."
He chuckled and I heard a match scrape just before he lit the candles on the dining room table. "All Hallows Eve is when the wall between the worlds grows thin and mischievous spirits wander the earth."
I was looking out of the window in the dining room and what I saw confirmed my first impression. "It looks like it's bigger than just this building. The glow from the radio station sign four blocks over is gone. Even the fog looks thicker. I wonder just how far the blackout extends. And where the hell Peter is?"
Caine stood silently, his eyes on a distant vision. I moved
quietly to light the gas fire in the freestanding black metal fireplace
we'd installed in the middle of the living room area. Peter had wanted
a real one but after I reminded him who would be carrying up each and every
stick of wood, he thought twice. But since our gas connection heated
our water and cooked our meals, it only made sense to have it provide our
fire too. When the power went out, it came in really handy as a back-up
"He is ... all right. Frustrated but not ... hurt." Caine shrugged.
"Well, I haven't eaten yet. How about you?" I put my worry about Peter aside and moved towards the kitchen.
"I could eat." He joined me and we made scrambled eggs and bacon, toasting our bagels over the gas fire.
Sitting in front of the flickering flames, I stretched out my legs and leaned back against the heavy glass and oak coffee table. Sipping a glass of wine, I bit the bullet and asked Caine the question that had been tormenting me since Peter and I got together. "How do you feel about our relationship, Caine?"
He sat in lotus position beside me with his own glass of wine. "All I have ever wanted for my son is his health and happiness. His spirit has been restless for the last few years. You gave him a friendship unlike any he had known before. You accepted him completely at a time when he questioned all around him. Especially my teachings and my ... presence in his life."
I nodded, remembering the redwood-sized chip on Peter's shoulder when I first met him. Such a driving spirit which never took anyone or anything at face value. He'd reminded me of myself at a much younger age. I had a sudden fear that maybe I'd quenched his fire with my own certainties.
"Nonsense, Kermit. His steel was but tempered by the fire
of his experiences with the Sin Wah." Caine read my mind again.
Like Father, like son.
"I worry that I'm too old for him. That I'm keeping him from finding a nice girl and having children to pass on your family traditions. He's fourth generation but if he stays with me ... it will end with him." That was one of my greatest fears.
"Peter loves with all his heart. Before you, he chose hastily and perhaps ... without realizing the consequences." Caine sipped his wine and seemed to gaze deep into the heart of the flame. "There are always options should the two of you decide to become fathers. Unless ... you have no wish to have ... another."
My past keeps coming back to haunt me. But he and I had never spoken of the time he and Peter had come to my rescue. "Scott was conceived when I was 20 years old and a sophomore in college. She was sunlight and roses. Gentle, sweet, loving. Everything I'd ever dreamed of. We were so in love, it shone from us. But her family was from a totally different class than mine. Suddenly my scholarship was yanked out from under me. I got fired from my campus job and evicted from my apartment. And Tracy left without a word."
I hadn't thought about that time in years. All the old pain rose up from the murky depths of my soul and washed through me like a tidal wave. Gritting my teeth, I let it go.
"I headed for Europe and started on the road that led to my mercenary career. On one of my infrequent trips home to go to my father's funeral, I met up with Tracy again. She told me her father had engineered my dismissal and our breakup. Then she told me we'd had a son." I remembered the shock of it as if it were yesterday. "She'd named him Scott and said he wanted to be a pilot like his dad. She'd married an Air Force captain when he was a baby and he was the only father Scott had ever known. It felt like a betrayal all over again. I had a son but I could never tell him I was his father."
"He still does not know?"
"No. I'm just an old college friend of the family. When he disappeared, she came to me and begged for me to use my contacts to find him. You know the rest of it." I finished my wine and set my glass aside. The loft felt colder to me and I hugged my knees to my chest. "He's a good man but I can't take any credit for that. I'm a stranger and that's the way it is. I keep track of him. He's on the short list to make major next year. And he's engaged to be married to a nice girl named Elizabeth. Tracy writes me once a year and catches me up on his life. And of course, I have my own military sources."
"You are afraid that Peter will miss the chance to be a father but in all ways but one, you have also missed that experience. I think you would both be good fathers, if only because you both know the lack of having or being one." Caine's face showed his own acceptance of the years that he and Peter had been apart.
"A wise man once said that we're the sum total of every experience we've ever had. Good or bad, happy or sad, it all makes us the person we are. Over the years, I've finally made my peace with some of my decisions. Not that I wouldn't do some of them differently if I had them to do over but on the whole, I'm pretty content with life." I looked towards the windows and watched the gray-white fog press against the glass panes like dirty cotton balls. "Peter is the blessing I never expected."
Caine's smile is rare but it lights up his whole face when it appears. "You do not need a father's blessing ... but you have it. Peter has found his balance and because of that, he now can love as I have always wished him to. That equilibrium enables you both to love each other with your eyes open. Such a love is exactly what every parent wishes for their children."
I sighed and relaxed, recognizing my defensive posture for what it was ... a shield to protect myself from the judging words I'd half expected from him. I knew better with my brain, he is the original nonjudgmental Shaolin but my heart ... well, that was a different story. "Thank you, Caine. I appreciate your support."
"You always have that, Kermit."
Who knows where the conversation might have gone but with a sudden crash the door sprang open and Peter staggered in. But it wasn't the Peter who'd left that morning. No, this was a man who looked like he'd been hosed down with cold water, dropped in a pit of mud then dragged behind a truck for a block or two. I was on my feet and headed for him before the door had had a chance to shut.
"Peter! Are you all right?" I searched for signs that he was wounded but the caked mud obscured most of his features. His leather jacket would never be the same and I mentally added it to his Christmas list.
"Kermit." He was so tired he was swaying on his feet and gratefully accepted my arm around his waist to give him some support.
"My son, you are badly bruised." Caine had joined me and together we got his jacket off while keeping him upright.
"It hurts a bit." My lover, the understatement-king.
We steered him into the bathroom and Caine began to run some water into our big tub. I sat Peter down on the toilet lid and told him to stay put while I went to fetch a candle. Caine may be able to see in the dark but I needed light to see what I was doing. Shielding the flame from the moving air currents, I returned to find Caine sprinkling some dried herbs into the steaming water and Peter struggling to get the buttons on his shirt undone with half frozen fingers.
"My job, lover," batting his hands away and undoing them myself. "You want to tell us what happened or should we just make up a story to fit your condition?"
"The truth is stranger than anything you could make up. It all started when they sent TJ and me out to investigate a suspected body in River Heights. When we got there, no body but lots of blood. The trail led off into a small park and I followed the blood spots while TJ called for backup." Peter shivered while I levered his new sneakers off. They were goners for sure.
"Hadn't gone all that far when something started howling. Sounded like wolves or coyotes or ..." he shrugged and winced. "This weird mist kept getting thicker and thicker so I couldn't tell where the howling was coming from or even where I was. I started retracing my steps but somehow I must have gotten turned around because the next thing I know, I'm sliding down a hill, straight into the boat pond."
His feet were icy cold and every bit of flesh had a pale, almost translucent quality to it. "Up you get, Peter. Let's get those jeans off so you can get into the tub and start warming."
He wavered a bit as I pulled down his pants, one hand going out to lean on the sink counter top. Goose bumps rose under my fingers and I gently lifted each foot out from the tangle of wet cotton and denim. Caine steadied him on one side while I took the other. The tub was full and smelled of spearmint. Peter winced when his chilled flesh hit the hot water but I saw the reddening skin as a hopeful sign that hypothermia had been averted.
"Oh, that feels so good." He sighed, sliding down to submerge head and all. The water quickly went gray with the mud. When he reemerged, I had the shampoo ready and kneeling by the tub, I felt his muscles begin to relax under my fingers. "Heaven, Kermit. Feels wonderful. After TJ pulled me out of the pond, he told me the body was a prank by some college fraternity. He'd caught them and turned them over to the squad car. I drove him back to the station and he told me to go home while he wrote up the report."
"Rinse, Peter." I let him go and he submerged again while I tangled my fingers in his hair to get out all the suds. He came back up and I wrapped a towel around his head to catch the drips. "Then what happened?"
"I was driving home and the damned world went weird on me. A black cat ran across the road and when I swerved to miss it, the car died on me. Nothing I did would start it back up. My cell phone battery was drained and the pay phone on the corner was broken. I looked so scary that no one would stop and pick me up. I was still about a mile from home so I started walking. Then that weird fog started creeping in about three blocks from here and I said 'uncle' and ran the rest of the way home."
"Bad day all around." I'd rolled up my sleeves and was elbow deep in the water, washing him from head to toe. His feet still felt cold to my touch so I began a deep massage to get the circulation going.
He sighed and opened sleepy blue-green eyes. "Well, at least it's ending better than it began. Thanks, Pop."
Caine handed him a cup of tea and rubbed the towel over Peter's drying hair. "You're welcome. And don't call me Pop. Did you feel anything when you were in the fog?"
Peter drank down his tea and looked quizzically at his father. "Not that I'm aware of. Why? Should I have?"
"No, not necessarily. Some manifestations of the Sin Wah are represented by fog in the paintings of ancient China." He was combing Peter's hair back from his face and I had a sudden picture of him doing that to a very young Peter of two or three.
"Not evil. Just ..." Peter struggled to find the right words while I kept up the soothing caresses to his left foot. "Mischievous. Like the fog was part of a child's game and I didn't know the rules to play. Not safely anyway."
"Ah." Caine's voice told me he understood while I was still puzzling over my lover's impressions. "I was just telling Kermit that the walls between the worlds grow thin this evening."
"Ghosts and goblins," Peter's voice slurred slightly and his eyes drifted shut.
"Something like that." Caine gave his little half smile. "I shall go and make some more tea for the both of you. You should not stay too long in the water."
"Yeah, I feel like going to bed for a week." Peter grinned tiredly.
"Then that's what you should do." Caine said over his shoulder from the doorway.
I laughed and helped Peter upright, loving the sight of water cascading down his sexy body. He read my mind, of course, and leaned into my touch while I dried him off. His arms went around my shoulders and his mouth nuzzled my ear. "Only if you are going to be with me in bed."
"That could be arranged, Peter. Here, put this on before you catch cold." I slipped his robe around him and he let go of me just long enough to belt it securely. The lights bloomed on again suddenly and I shook my head. "Straight to bed with you. It's been a very strange day."
"Tell me about it." Peter didn't seem to want to let go of me and that suited me just fine, steering him to the bedroom took only a moment.
"Here, my son. Drink another cup of this and sleep. Tomorrow will be better." Caine set the wicker tray on Peter's side of the bed. "Kermit has a surprise for you that you will not want to miss."
I'd almost forgotten my kitten rescue. Ducking down to check on them, I surprised one with his eyes open. When he squeaked at me, I chuckled and lifted him out of the nest they'd made. Peter's eyes widened when I put the little guy on the comforter near his right hand.
"Well, it looks like our family just got bigger." He waggled his fingers and the little imp fluffed out his fur, pouncing on the wiggling digits.
A soft meow reminded me that the other one was awake and I leaned down and brought him up to play with his littermate. Caine reappeared with some more warm milk and this time, Peter got to feed the voracious kitten. For a long moment, I just watched while my lover got all maternal over the ball of fur in his hand and my father-in-law poured us both a cup of tea.
"I shall leave you until tomorrow. Rest well, both of you." Caine bowed his head and I walked him to the door.
"Thanks, Caine." I meant for more than the help with the kittens.
"Do not give up the love of today for fear of loss in the future." Those wise eyes gazed deep into mine. "Family comes as it will."
I nodded and closed the door behind him, engaging the extra locks and turning off the lights as I made my way to the bedroom. Standing in the doorway, I watched one kitten try to climb Peter's head while he tried to fend it off and keep feeding the little guy on his chest.
"Ker-r-r-mit! Help me out here." He laughingly plucked the mountain climber off his pillow and put him on mine.
While I strolled over to corral our new 'kids', I thought about the chaos and the love that our new roommates brought with them. Were they tricks or treats of the season? Stripping off my shirt brought a different kind of gleam to Peter's eye and I shook my head at the sultry look he threw me.
Treats. Definitely treats in store.
This is your life, Kermit Griffin. You lucky, bastard.
End part nine