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            “—so then I had to get rid of the body, but I was in the middle of this fancy hotel and there were a lot of people around, so I ordered a steak from Room Service and started hacking her up with the knife they brought,” the man explained dispassionately, watching the detective across from him closely.

            Braxton swallowed back his disgust and scribbled a note on the well-worn pad of paper before him on the table. He had already filled one pad with details of this psychopath’s confessions, and it looked like he’d be starting on number three soon. “Where did you cut her up at?”

            “Well, the bathtub, of course,” Wayland replied easily. “I like you, Detective Braxton,” he added unexpectedly. “You’re not as jaded as your partner. Being jaded is such a terrible thing, isn’t it?”

            Braxton scowled at the other man. “Great, glad you like it,” he shot back sarcastically. “What did you do next?”

            “I sat down and ate the steak,” Wayland told him. “Medium rare. What is that? Oh, yes. A little pink and bloody. Not my favorite, actually, but I wasn’t going to call and complain.”

            That was just what Braxton had been thinking, but he wasn’t going to give Wayland the satisfaction of telling him so. “And?” he prompted instead, trying to be business-like.

            Wayland narrowed his eyes at the detective across the table for a moment. “Oh, then I put the chopped-up pieces in plastic bags and tucked them into the suitcases I’d brought.”

            “Where’d you get the plastic bags?” Braxton asked.

            Wayland blinked at him. “I don’t know.” Braxton gave him a look that conveyed how ridiculous he found concealing that detail, considering the others he’d confessed to. “Oh, of course, I’d brought some with me,” Wayland replied suddenly, which was as Braxton had suspected. You never knew when you were gonna need extra garbage bags, after all, he thought sarcastically.

            “You never know when you’re going to need extra garbage bags, after all,” Wayland added, and Braxton looked up at him sharply. Clearly he’d been spending too much time with this freak, if he was beginning to think like him. “Have you ever considered, Detective, the percentage of cops that become criminals due to their close proximity to the criminal mind?” Wayland asked conversationally, resting his chin on his hand as though he were truly interested in Braxton’s thoughts on the subject.

            “No,” Braxton replied succinctly, wishing his partner would hurry up with whatever he was doing and get back in here. Despite his fairly mild appearance, or maybe because of it, this guy was just plain creepy, and Braxton didn’t think he’d ever get used to him, no matter how much time he spent interrogating him. It had been three days so far, and it looked like they hadn’t gotten to a quarter of the crimes this guy had committed. Or said he’d committed, anyway.

            “Of course, I could be lying about all of this,” Wayland mused. His voice was curiously flat and held no trace of an accent, or rather it sounded far more Midwest, nightly-news-broadcast than anyone Braxton ever heard around Charleston. “Why would I lie about committing terrible crimes? Maybe I just want attention. That happens sometimes.”

            True, but Braxton didn’t believe that; Wayland knew far too much about how the crimes were committed, details that even the biggest, sickest crime junkie couldn’t have read about in the newspapers. Details that only the killer would know. Or someone the killer had told.

            “Or maybe,” Wayland went on, “maybe I just associate with a lot of people who commit terrible crimes, and I get them to tell me all the details! Of course, what are the odds that I would find the perpetrators of every one of these crimes, and convince them to tell everything that happened? I mean, that seems a little unlikely.” Well, at least Wayland didn’t expect Braxton to converse with him—he usually managed to answer all the questions he asked on his own.

            “You sayin’ you didn’t do all this stuff now?” Braxton asked, trying to sound bored.

            “No,” Wayland decided, after a moment. “I don’t think that’s very interesting, do you? Well, perhaps interesting is the wrong choice of word,” he added. “Perhaps it’s not very likely? Because then we’re back to, how do I know these things? That is a puzzle, isn’t it? Are you a clever person, Detective?” Wayland asked suddenly. “I don’t think you are, really. Are you offended by that? It’s just an observation. Anyone could tell you the same.”

            And why didn’t that addition make Braxton feel better? The detective rolled his eyes, chastising himself for the foolishness of being offended by something a serial killer had said about his intellect. Because one, clearly he was smart enough to become a detective in the first place, which was no small feat, and two, there were more important traits than just being smart. Like, say, not being a serial killer.

            “I expect you’ve never been the smartest person in the room,” Wayland went on, again in that conversational and almost pleasant manner of his. “Even in a roomful of children. Like, I don’t know, at a birthday party. A birthday party. What is that? Cake, presents, a piñata—what is a piñata? Oh, that’s right, you bash them with a stick to get candy to come out. That’s quite violent, don’t you think? That reminds me of someone else I killed, actually, in this alley on Fifth and Dakota—“

            And then of course the door to the interrogation room opened, just as Braxton was about to get some information on the Dakota Basher, which would have closed the book on three more homicides if this guy’s information matched the files. Well, it wasn’t like Wayland was shy about talking, they could just come back to it. Braxton made a note on his pad and glanced up to see his partner return. “Where you been?” he asked with some annoyance.

            “Detective Braxton doesn’t like me very much, I think,” Wayland offered. “He’s very sensitive. Maybe too sensitive for this line of work. You have a much more worldly outlook, Detective Kennesaw. And, you remember things better.”

            “Thanks,” Kennesaw replied dryly. “Maybe you remember our visitor. He says he’s an old buddy of yours.”

            The older detective stepped aside, revealing the blond man who’d trailed him in. The look of recognition—and annoyance—on Wayland’s face was obvious. “Oh. It’s you. That was fast.”

            Braxton looked in confusion at the man who had entered. “Someone gonna explain this to me?”

            “I don’t think your partner thinks you’re smart enough to understand,” Wayland told him instead. “Anyway, I wouldn’t believe this guy, he’s basically a crackpot with a fake badge. I mean, does his story even make sense?”

            “What story?” Braxton demanded.

            “Let’s go back to the piñata people,” Wayland suggested eagerly. “So there I was, on Fifth and Dakota, in this alley, and—“

            “Cut it out, Wayland,” the newcomer interjected, sitting down at the table next to Braxton. Now this guy had an accent, something weird that Braxton couldn’t quite place. British maybe. Some kind of weird British.

            “I knew this really snooty British guy once,” Wayland began, out of nowhere, looking at Braxton, “who was a bartender at this joint I used to go to and one night—“

            “Wayland,” the other man insisted. “Stop messing with them. Now where’s Susannah?”

            “Who’s Susannah?” Braxton asked, thoroughly confused at this point. He had almost wanted to hear Wayland’s British bartender story, in case he killed the guy—Braxton had also known a British bartender when he was in college, a snobby b-----d who had more than once issued the future detective a withering put-down, usually in front of a girl he was trying to pick up.

            “This is Agent McCalder,” Kennesaw finally said, answering one of Braxton’s questions from, oh, ten minutes ago. “Apparently, he and his people know about Mr. Wayland here already.”

            “Agent?” Braxton repeated. “What, like, FBI?”

            “Don’t you hate it when other agencies come in and snap up your suspects?” Wayland asked. “You’ve put three days into working me, and this guy’s just going to flash a badge, take me away, and get all the glory for cracking the cases.”

            “Don’t listen to him,” Agent McCalder advised. “He’s just trying to get an emotional response from you. To mess with your head, basically. That’s what he does.”

            “Mess with our heads? Wait, are you tryin’ to say he didn’t commit all these crimes he’s been confessin’ to?” Braxton asked in disbelief.

            “Be reasonable, Detective,” McCalder replied, a bit rudely. “Do you really think it’s possible for one person to have committed all those crimes? To have never gotten caught? And then to just suddenly walk into the police station one day and start confessing to them? Does that really make sense to you?”

            “Stupid,” Wayland whispered conspiratorially, pointing at Braxton behind his hand. He looked quickly between the agent and the detective, clearly intimating that this was what McCalder thought of Braxton. Which Braxton had picked up on himself, thank you very much.

            “Which agency did you say you were with?” Braxton snapped in response.

            “I didn’t,” McCalder replied smartly. “I’m with the Annalian League Diplomatic Service.”

            “Sounds fake,” Wayland opined, which Braxton agreed with.

            “Your partner has already called over to the Embassy and confirmed my identity,” McCalder insisted. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Braxton without looking at him. “I have authority to take Wayland into custody and… return him to where he belongs.”

            “Those legal documents always have lots of big words on them, don’t they?” Wayland remarked sympathetically, watching Braxton frown at the paper. “I wonder why Kennesaw didn’t just explain all this when he first came in! I think it would have been much less frustrating for all of us. But sometimes it’s fun to mess with people,” he went on, looking now at Kennesaw. “Sometimes when you’re smart, it’s fun to make the stupid people work a little harder, to figure out what you already know.”

            Kennesaw narrowed his eyes at the suspect. “You know what I think?”

            “Actually—“ Wayland began, but Kennesaw didn’t let him finish.

            “I think you got a big mouth,” he continued, stating this as though he had uncovered a secret, a chink in Wayland’s armor. “I think you’re all talk. Some kinda sicko who gets off on talking about crimes. And now your babysitter’s come to take you back to the padded cell.”

            “On the other hand,” Wayland countered, staring straight at the other man, “I might be some kind of sicko who gets off on committing the crimes. What a funny expression, ‘gets off.’ What does that mean, exactly?” He stared between Kennesaw and Braxton in confusion. Finally the light seemed to dawn. “Oh, of course, enjoys. There’s a lot of interesting imagery associated with that expression, isn’t there?”

            “He does have a big mouth,” Agent McCalder agreed. “I suppose he can’t help it, but you people aren’t used to him. I’ll take him back with me, and you won’t have to worry about him anymore.”

            “He’s very kind, isn’t he?” Wayland asked Braxton, clearly meaning it sarcastically. “I guess he thinks you wouldn’t know what to do with a serial killer if you caught one. Well, you didn’t really catch me, did you? I had to walk in and confess. Those cases had been lying dormant for twenty years. You weren’t going to make any progress on them at all.”

            “You’re not confessing to anything you really did,” McCalder pointed out. “Honestly, just think about it logically, Detective. How old do you think he is? Mid-thirties? Was he out slaughtering prostitutes and dismembering housewives at age fifteen?”

            “Stupid,” Wayland repeated with another nod at Braxton, this time not bothering to whisper. “You know, I was a very lonely teenager. Poor family background. My father used to get drunk and beat me—“

            “Wayland, shut up,” McCalder advised, oddly enough not unkindly—more in exasperation. “You see, he reads your minds, and then he just says whatever you’ve been thinking about. So if you’re thinking about a case—“

            “Wait a minute,” Braxton interrupted, “he reads minds?”

            “What is an elephant?” Wayland responded randomly.

            “What?” Braxton asked, utterly dumbfounded by this point.

            “Oh, it’s a large animal,” Wayland decided. “Oh—hey, that’s not fair!”

            Kennesaw looked smug. “Look, Brax, I don’t know what’s going on here, but just now, I was thinking of an elephant. On purpose, to see if he’d say anything,” he explained. “That was Agent McCalder’s idea.”

            “What’s an elephant got to do with anything?” asked Braxton.

            “Stooo-pid,” Wayland remarked, and Braxton smacked his pen down with more force than he’d meant.

            “You, shut up!” he ordered the suspect, whose eyes widened in apparent delight.

            “Detective, you can’t let him get to you,” McCalder advised. “This is the little game he plays. Getting under people’s skin, figuring out what bothers them, hitting all their weak points.”

            “Not that your weak points are hard to find,” Wayland agreed.

Braxton gritted his teeth. “Oh yeah?” he responded to McCalder, while still glaring at Wayland. “How come he ain’t doin’ it to you, then?”

            “Eric’s got too much charm,” Wayland answered cryptically, which hadn’t been what Braxton at least was thinking. “Although it could be because he has the personality of a sardine. What is a sardine? Oh, it’s like a wet, slimy fish. How appropriate!”

            McCalder glanced over at Braxton, who tried not to look embarrassed. Although it did kind of make the point about the mind-reading, as that was exactly what Braxton had been comparing the agent to in his mind. “I think you’ve wasted enough of their time here, Wayland,” McCalder went on calmly. “So get Susannah and let’s go.”

            “I, um, I don’t really have Susannah right now,” Wayland admitted, and Braxton realized he looked far more guilty as he said this than he ever had confessing to a murder. Not that the emotion was very strong anyway.

            McCalder seemed to find this news very significant. “You don’t have her? Well, where is she?” He began glancing around the room—on the floor, up at the ceiling—looking for what Braxton couldn’t imagine.

            “Who’s Susannah?” he asked again, remembering the question had never been answered the first time.

            “Susannah’s my daughter,” Wayland told him, staring at the detective. “She’s eight. Eight is such a nice age, don’t you think? So innocent.” Don’t listen to him, Braxton told himself. But it was difficult not to picture his own eight-year-old daughter. “Innocent, but on the cusp of understanding. It’s nice, you know, because now Susannah will be eight forever—“

            Braxton started to leave his seat. “You sick son of a b---h—“

            McCalder grabbed the detective and Kennesaw jumped up to help. “Don’t let him get to you,” the agent said again, which was easier said than done. “It’s just what he wants.”

            “Cool it, Brax,” Kennesaw added. “You wanna wait outside?”

            “No, I don’t wanna wait outside,” Braxton snapped. “I just wanna know, who the f—k is Susannah?!”

            “She’s not his daughter,” McCalder assured them, although Braxton felt that was fairly obvious. “She’s more like his—companion. And he wouldn’t hurt her,” he added firmly, conveying to Wayland that no such stories would be tolerated. “So, where is she?”

            “I don’t know,” Wayland finally confessed, and Braxton had a feeling this was the first truthful thing he’d said in three days. “We got separated.”

            “You what?” McCalder exclaimed, aghast. The reaction seemed extreme to Braxton, but then again, this whole situation was getting weirder by the minute.

            “We had an argument, okay?” Wayland explained defensively. “We had an argument, and she got mad at me, and then she turned into a mouse and ran away!” Braxton’s eyes widened. “I put out some salt for her, but she didn’t come back! Finally I went outside to look for her, and I saw the police drive up to the corner and arrest someone. And it looked so exciting, I just decided to go do that instead.” Can you tell I’m thinkin’ you’re a loony? Braxton thought to Wayland. Loony tunes. The other man didn’t seem to be paying attention to him anymore, though.

            “You let Susannah get away from you?” McCalder repeated helplessly. “Here, of all places? Wayland…”

            “I told you, she was mad at me,” Wayland reminded him. “Anyway, she’ll be fine. There’s lot of people here.”

            “That’s the point,” McCalder shot back in frustration. Wayland shrugged as if he didn’t much care about whatever consequences the agent seemed to be hinting at.

            “No, she doesn’t,” Wayland said randomly, looking at Kennesaw.

            “Shut it,” McCalder ordered him. “Detective?”

            “I was just wondering if this Susannah can read minds, too,” Kennesaw commented, watching Wayland closely.

            McCalder shook his head. “No, she’s far more dangerous than that. She—“

            Wayland’s eyes flickered over to Braxton just before the younger detective interrupted. “More dangerous? More dangerous than this guy?”

            “Who’s Hitler?” Wayland asked curiously. He glanced at Kennesaw. “Oh. I suppose that was a tasteless remark, then. Good thing you didn’t actually say it.”

            “Thanks for sayin’ it for me, then,” Braxton snapped.

            “Wayland isn’t really dangerous,” McCalder explained, clearly thinking about something else. “How many times do I have to tell you, he didn’t commit any of the crimes he confessed to.”

            “At least seven more, I think,” Wayland replied innocently.

            Braxton glared at him, then turned to the agent. “Okay, you say he didn’t commit these crimes. But then how does he know all the details? Details that weren’t in newspapers. Details that only the killer would know.”

            “The killer, or a cop who knew the reports,” Kennesaw surmised. “This whole time, he’s just been picking the details out of our brains.”

            “How clever of you to suspect that early on,” Wayland complimented him. “Your partner certainly didn’t. You should definitely not voice those crazy theories, though, people might lock you up. Everyone here is so imaginative,” he added, more to McCalder. “So emotional. It’s not like back home. I don’t think I want to go back there.”

            “Well, you are going back,” McCalder insisted. “Susannah doesn’t read minds,” he went on, answering the question that had been put to him. “She projects her own thoughts onto other people.”

            “I’m afraid this is way over your head, Detective Braxton,” Wayland decided sadly. “Your partner is probably going to need to handle this alone. In fact, I think he would prefer it that way.”

            Kennesaw was more successful at ignoring Wayland’s attempts at distraction than Braxton. “How is projecting her own thoughts more dangerous?”

            “Susannah’s thoughts and emotions tend to be… rather unpleasant,” McCalder tried to explain. “Right now, she’s probably upset because she can’t find Wayland, so she’s lonely, despairing, maybe still angry at him. When she unloads those feelings onto other people, they’re going to start acting on them, in ways they wouldn’t normally.”

            “It does sound a little wacky, doesn’t it?” Wayland agreed, looking at Braxton. “Maybe it’s all a giant conspiracy. Like the moon landing. What’s a moon landing? Oh. Susannah and I have been to the moon. Actually, inside the moon, where the rabbits live. What are drugs?” he asked curiously. “Hmm, no, I’m still not understanding.”

            “Sometimes Susannah’s emotions are so powerful they lead people to commit crimes,” McCalder went on, ignoring Wayland. “Maybe we can use that to track her. Let’s get all the reports of arrests from the last three days where the criminals were disoriented and couldn’t explain why they’d committed the crime.”

            Wayland clicked his tongue. “Sorry, doesn’t work that way.”

            “Are you kiddin’?” Braxton remarked to McCalder. “It would take hours to comb through just the reports from this precinct, let alone all the others in the city!”

            “Their system isn’t very good, is it?” Wayland remarked. “You wouldn’t believe how many unsolved crimes they’ve accumulated over the years, too.”

            “Wayland!” McCalder snapped. “I know you have trouble with this concept, but try to wrap your head around it. Real people are going to get hurt here. Maybe even die. Like Sophie. You remember Sophie, don’t you?”

            “Who’s Sophie?” demanded Braxton, frustrated at this new character addition.

            For once, Wayland seemed slightly subdued and fairly glared at McCalder for bringing the subject up. “It’s not like Sophie.”

            “It is to them,” the agent tried to explain, more gently.

            “Who the h—l is Sophie?” Braxton repeated.

            “Never mind,” McCalder backtracked. “Just--try to be helpful, alright, Wayland? Don’t you want to see Susannah again?”

            “Well, yeah,” Wayland decided. “I miss Susannah. I think. But she’ll be alright. I’ll see her again. I always do. Eventually.”

            McCalder sighed, clearly not having gotten through to the other man. “What about suicides?” he asked the detectives. “Can you find out if there’s been an unusual increase in them, and where they took place? Or do you have so many of them in this country that it wouldn’t help?”

            “We can probably get that information pretty quickly,” Kennesaw decided.

            “You’d better do it, your partner would be too slow,” Wayland suggested. “That was helpful, wasn’t it?”

            “No,” Braxton snapped. “I can do it, I’ll just—“

            “I’ll get it,” Kennesaw overruled, heading out the door again.

            “Don’t say it,” Braxton ordered Wayland, who was undoubtedly working up to ‘stupid’ again. “Where do you guys come from, anyway, that some lynch mob hasn’t strung him up already?” he asked peevishly.

            “Ooh, what gruesome imagery,” Wayland complimented.

            “It’s, uh, pretty far away,” McCalder hedged.

            “You couldn’t find it on a map,” Wayland added. “How funny! I didn’t actually mean to imply that you were stupid with that comment. Perhaps you should look into getting your intellect augmented, since you’re so sensitive about it.”

            “And people there are more used to him,” McCalder went on. “They have ways of dealing with him that… neutralizes the effect. More or less.”

            “Only the best for intrepid field agents,” Wayland commented cryptically.

            Braxton struggled to ignore him. “Why do you want to see suicide reports, anyway?”

            “Susannah’s been known to induce people to kill themselves,” McCalder answered soberly. “Sometimes the negative emotions she sends out are so powerful, people just don’t know what else to do.”

            “But they don’t bother him?” the detective surmised, nodding towards Wayland, who was trying hard to be quiet.

            “No,” McCalder agreed. “He absorbs them like a sponge. See, when they’re together, they’re not so bad,” the agent went on. “She emits the emotions, he absorbs them, and they don’t really bother other people. Much. But when they get separated…”

            “Susannah can turn into lots of different things,” Wayland interrupted, looking at Braxton. The detective had been remembering his comment about her turning into a mouse. “She can be a woman or a little girl or a mouse or a tiger. Other things, too, but those are her favorites. And she really likes salt. Your thoughts have become very dull and repetitive, Detective,” he complained.

            “Gee, sorry to hear that,” Braxton replied. Apparently thinking over and over about how crazy this situation was did have some positive aspect.

 

**

It was no use telling Wayland to try to act normal while they were talking to a suspect. Braxton had figured that out pretty early on. The best he could hope for was that Wayland would be quiet, unless he had something relevant to add, like the fact that the suspect was lying. Although even then there were ways of conveying such information that were a lot more subtle than Wayland usually employed.

Braxton had grown to fear going into people’s houses now. Wherever they went Wayland seemed to find something to obsess over, like sun-catchers, heating vents, or spoons. Really fascinating things. Today, it was the animal their suspect kept in a cage on a table.

“Ohhhhhhh, a rabbit,” Wayland breathed, with an emotion that Braxton, typically, couldn’t interpret.

“Ignore him,” he suggested to the suspect. “Now, you knew the victim, didn’t you?”

“Well, yeah, I worked with her,” the man replied, distractedly. Not distractedly because he was lying or otherwise had something to hide, but because he was looking over Braxton’s shoulder at Wayland poking his fingers into the rabbit cage. “Hey, man, he bites, you know. I wouldn’t do that.”

“Wayland,” Braxton warned.

“I just didn’t realize there were any rabbits left,” Wayland explained in a reasonable tone. “I guess this one must have survived the massacre and sought refuge on Earth. But how did it get here, that’s what I want to know.”

“Uh, massacre?” repeated the suspect nervously.

“He’s, uh, special,” Braxton insisted. “So, how well did you know the victim?”

“Well, we sat next to each other for about three years—“

“Okay, I guess ‘massacre’ doesn’t have good connotations,” Wayland went on obliviously. “But that still doesn’t answer my question.”

“What question was that?” asked the suspect in confusion.

“How did the rabbit get here from the moon?” Wayland clarified, if such a statement could be called ‘clarifying.’

Focus on the case, Braxton thought to him urgently. “Did you ever go out with her socially?” he asked the suspect, trying to follow his own advice.

“I don’t feel bad about the rabbits,” Wayland mused. “They were mean to Susannah. It’s okay to kill people, or rather rabbits, who are mean to you, don’t you think?”

Braxton was about to tell him to shut up, again, when he noticed the way Wayland was staring slightly cock-eyed at the suspect—and the way the suspect was looking more and more nervous. “Did you ever have any disagreements with the victim?” he pressed suddenly.

“Well, no, never—“

“Never?” Braxton repeated, unconvinced. “Her other co-workers said she could be hard to get along with.”

“No, no, we got along perfectly—“

“The rabbits wouldn’t give Susannah any salt!” Wayland went on randomly. “Susannah loves salt. And it’s such a little thing.”

“What’s this crazy man going on about salt and rabbits for?!” the suspect demanded nervously.

“What did you want that the victim didn’t give you?” Braxton asked, catching on to Wayland’s thinking. Which was somewhat scary in itself.

“Nothing, man, nothing—“

“Of course, it’s not like this rabbit is really doing well for himself,” Wayland continued. “I mean, you’ve got him in a cage! Trapped. Why, he might have been a rabbit prince, when he lived inside the moon.”

“Okay, okay!” screamed the suspect unexpectedly. “She was blackmailing me, okay! She made me do all her work for her! I was trapped! I had to get out somehow!”

Maybe there were advantages to working with this guy after all, Braxton decided.

 

**

 

“Now, seriously, please try to act normal,” Braxton begged. “Things are kinda touchy between me and Maxine right now, and I don’t need you freaking her out.”

“Gee, maybe I could wait in the—Oh, that’s right, you didn’t like what happened the last time I waited in the car,” Wayland shrugged. “Oh well. They should really put more signs on fire hydrants to explain what they are.”

“Just—sit there quietly, okay?” Braxton suggested. “Maybe, if you don’t move or say anything, you might be able to pass as normal.”

“But you doubt it,” Wayland finished cheerfully.

The door Braxton had knocked on opened to reveal a slightly wary woman. “Hi, Maxie,” he greeted, attempting to be pleasant himself. This was no mean feat with his ex, but he tried to put on a good face for the kids.

“Hi, I’m his crazy partner, Wayland,” Wayland introduced. “Maybe you’ve heard of me.”

Braxton laughed weakly. “Oh, sure, I’ve heard of you,” Maxine replied politely. “Would you like to come in?”

“I would!” Wayland replied, breezing past her. Braxton caught his arm before he could wander off and steered him towards the couch in the front room. “You should really be careful who you invite into your house,” he went on, even as Braxton took the opportunity to shake him slightly. “Once you invite someone in, you lose your power over them.”

“Really? What an interesting thought,” Maxine replied, sitting down in the chair on the other side of the coffee table. Maybe that was why she and Braxton had broken up: his first impulse was to smack Wayland upside the head, not try to accommodate him.

“I’m going to be quiet now, though,” Wayland assured them both. “This couch pattern is really interesting anyway.” And he leaned over the arm of the couch for a closer view.

“Uh, so… How is Katie’s cold?” Braxton asked, trying to think of safe subjects for discussion as they waited for the girls to get ready. Why they couldn’t be ready and waiting when he arrived, he didn’t know, but they never were.

“I think she’s getting better,” Maxine replied. “But I still wouldn’t let her play outside yet,” she added in a hinting sort of way that Braxton really hated.

“Oh, but we were gonna go ice skating tomorrow!” Wayland interjected. “I think Susannah would have been really good at it.”

“He wasn’t gonna go ice skating with us,” Braxton assured Maxine quickly.

“Who’s Susannah?” she asked in confusion.

“Well, tomorrow she was gonna be my daughter, since kids get in half price,” Wayland replied. This made Maxine’s eyebrows go up. “But generally speaking she’s my companion.”

“He doesn’t mean that like—“ Braxton tried to explain. He wanted to say that it wasn’t meant in a creepy way, but in fact, it was all a little creepy. “Like, uh, Susannah is his girlfriend, but she looks really young. She’s really, uh, short, is the thing. But she couldn’t pass for a child,” he insisted, turning to Wayland. “I’ve told you before that wouldn’t work.”

“No, you haven’t,” Wayland shot back, which was in fact the case, because Braxton was just trying to make him sound less weird. “She’s not really my girlfriend. We don’t have sex, you see. Oh, that’s right, I’m not supposed to mention sex, it’s vulgar. Sorry.”

Braxton could see Maxine’s spine straighten up a little here. “There’s nothing inherently vulgar about sex,” she replied, in an educational tone. Here was another point on which she and Braxton differed—he didn’t want to think about their arguments concerning how and when to deliver the “where babies come from” speech to the girls. “It’s all in the way you approach it. It can be a very beautiful thing.”

“Like toothbrushes,” Wayland nodded. “Marvels of engineering, but you come at them the wrong way and bam! There goes an eye. All in the approach.”

“Uh-huh,” agreed Maxine with less enthusiasm. “Oh, I’m sorry, would you like a snack?” she asked suddenly, seizing upon hospitality rituals to get things back on track.

“No, thanks, I’m fine,” Braxton insisted. And you’re fine, too, he tried to convey to Wayland.

“Do you have mayonnaise?” Wayland inquired politely.

“I don’t think so,” Maxine replied apologetically. “Would you care for some pretzels instead?” She indicated the bowl already on the table.

“I think I like pretzels!” Wayland exclaimed with enthusiasm, popping one into his mouth. “Wow, they’re really salty. May I take some for Susannah?”

“Of course,” Maxine allowed, and Wayland dropped a handful in his pocket.

For a while Braxton thought he was going to be quiet. He had the couch pattern to look at, after all, and pretzels to snitch for Susannah, who happened to be in mouse form in his jacket pocket. They had just gotten through Laurie’s ridiculously complicated marching band schedule for the week when Braxton noticed him starting to get twitchy. Sit still, he insisted in his mind. Just a little longer! He tried, he really did, Braxton had to give that to him. He tried so hard to sit there, still and quiet. But he couldn’t help his agitated squirming and the frantic looks he was giving to the perimeter of the room. Finally even Maxine couldn’t help but notice.

“Uh, Wayland, are you okay?” she asked.

“Unicorn!” he blurted suddenly, as if relieved to finally get it out. Braxton sighed and slumped a little, completely unsure how to explain that.

Oddly, Maxine seemed pleased. “Oh, you noticed my unicorn collection!” she said happily, and Braxton looked over her shoulder at a cabinet filled with pastel-colored figurines and drawings.

“Oh, you moved them out of the bedroom,” he remarked, trying for neutral.

Maxine ignored him. “Do you like unicorns?” she asked Wayland, eager to find another aficionado.

Unfortunately, her hopes were dashed. “No,” he answered sharply. Then, realizing this might sound abrupt, Wayland forced himself to relax and chuckled rakishly before replying in a self-deprecating tone, “Unicorns and I just don’t get along! Ha ha!” Well, it might have been rakish and self-deprecating, if the sentence hadn’t contained the word ‘unicorns.’

“Oh?” asked Maxine in confusion. Braxton gave up and leaned back against the couch in defeat.

“You see, in many worlds, unicorns are the guardians of justice,” Wayland explained seriously.

“Um, but you work for the police, don’t you?” she countered.

“Well, in this world I do,” Wayland agreed, “but normally I’m the villain in the story.”

The girls scampered out to the car after what seemed an interminable time, although at least Wayland’s fairy-based lore had kept Maxine entertained while they waited. Braxton had always thought that interest was a little flaky, but now it seemed like her knowledge would have come in handy in dealing with Wayland.

If you believed that what Wayland said was true, that is, which Braxton was a long way from doing.

Wayland pulled open his pocket and looked down into it. “Can I have some pretzels?” he asked. “Thanks.”

“Thought those were for Susannah,” Braxton asked sarcastically as Wayland put one in his mouth.

“She already nibbled the salt off,” Wayland replied. “They’re a little bland now, but I like to put my tongue through the holes.”

Braxton shook his head. “Don’t think you need to ever say that again.” He was certain Maxine thought he was weird enough as it was.

“She doesn’t think I’m too weird,” Wayland countered, reading his thoughts. “Not nearly as weird as your brother Joe. What did—Ohhhh, that’s considered a very bad thing here, isn’t it?”

“There’s nothing wrong with Joe!” Braxton snapped, suddenly angry. He always got that way when people mentioned his brother. He knew it was an easy target, but people could be so judgmental sometimes, and it really made him sick. “Yeah, he’s got a few… problems, but hey, who doesn’t, right? He’s working on them.”

“Oh, okay,” Wayland agreed pleasantly. “What’s a restraining order?”