Outlier Prophecies Book Six: Correlation of Fate – Chapter One

There shouldn’t have been anything significant about the dead woman hanging upside-down from a clothesline over Market Street, yet according to my calculations there is.

Maya scrunches her face at the scene. “Gods, how are they going to even get her down?”

I pull Maya, my trainee, out of the way of police officers, oracle representatives, and statisticians. “Not our problem. You hear me? They ask what department, you answer with anything other than Accidental, got it?”

She frowns at the woman swinging gently above the crowd of emergency personnel. A crane beeps as it lifts a firewoman to the victim. “But Kate, it’s clearly an accidental death.”

I make a zip-it motion with my fingers over my mouth. Last thing we need is this case on our backs. Okay, last thing I need. I’m not the praying type, but I whisper a few words to the old gods. One of them has to be listening.

She shakes her head. “We should at least call Officer Becker. He’s our liaison and he can get the case details quicker and more efficiently. Otherwise we’ll be here freezing our asses off for another two hours.”

Gods damn it. That’s what I’d been trying to avoid. Calling Becker, not freezing. Though in a perfect world I didn’t want to do either.

My ex, Kyle Dillingham, saunters over with a half-grin on his face that means anything but good. “Witnesses are saying the vic, Ms. Crow, crawled out to get her favorite cashmere when the line got stuck. Accidental, not Homicide. I’m out.” He hands the file over.

I smack Maya’s hand that stretches out to take the case. I take a long step back pulling her with me. “My witness says she’s been receiving multiple threats from her neighbor regarding a barking Banshee Terrier. He has a list of priors and a high prob for murdering her.” I hold up the tablet with my secret weapon. “We can’t take it until you rule out foul play.”

His lips purse and his eyes go hard. “Did Detective Lipski release those stats to you?”

I hug my tablet to my chest. Yes. He did. But…“No.”

Kyle’s eyebrow perks up to his hairline. “Your new boyfriend teaching you to lie? You would never have said that obvious bold-faced fib as definitively a year ago.” He grumbles a few more choice words and types furiously on his phone.

Maya’s eyes go big. She’s too young to know about the past drama between me and my ex. I’m betting she’ll get an earful of gossip from the office once we return and she asks about it.

Ladonna from Health, and Nyla from Low Prob join us, squeezing their jackets over their middles.

Nyla hops up and down to keep warm. “Goddess, the windchill has got to be below freezing.”

Uncharacteristically chilly for Northern California in late September, but not so uncommon we need to freak out and call Weather. It at least had been predicted to drop temperature this morning and into the next week. I envy the weather actuaries for two seconds before I remember I’d tear my hair out from boredom if I worked there. Plus, I’d used Weather as my absolute low career point to get me through five years assigned to Traffic—thanks to the asshole glaring at me currently.

Kyle breaks his periodic glaring and flashes me a charming grin. Oh great.

He opens the case and taps his fingers to his chin in fake thinking mode. “Well, I see here that the victim had been contacted by our department about the dog issue. She moved her precious pooch to her mother’s yesterday. And had plans to rent a house outside of the city to lower her future risk of homicidal neighbors.”

Shit. I bite my lip. There are a hundred reasons Becker shouldn’t come down here and I’m staring at seventy percent of them. Not to mention he’s taking his detective exam this evening. He can’t get involved in a case, and if he does it will ruin all my plans for a certain side investigation.

“She’s at twenty percent probability of an aneurysm,” Ladonna supplies helpfully. As a Babalu Aye and Osanyin Orisha that specializes in mental health, Ladonna may sense the strong conflict between Kyle and me. “I can run point on the case until we get confirmation.”

My shoulders lower in relief.

Maya’s gaze bounces between each of us. “But…”

I squeeze her upper arm.

Nyla jumps in. “But…as I’m sure Maya was about to say, this whole accident was originally filed in Low Prob. It’s one of the last suspected tampered files we have outstanding.”

Kyle’s eyes don’t leave mine. “Which is why this is all Kate and Officer Becker. They’re heading the investigation from the anti-fate infiltration. If they’d wanted help, they wouldn’t have shut everyone else out.”

Nyla bites her lip and her eyes flutter as she taps through the file. “It seems we put out a fix on this one with the original tampering. So it’s not necessarily still a tampering concern.” Her tone isn’t confident though.

Kyle refuses to let it go. He angles his body, re-reading the file again, zeroing in on his next attack.

I cross my arms and scowl at the woman now being lowered to the ground for medical evaluation. If she wasn’t dead already, I’d kill her. Really? She couldn’t wait at least twelve hours before cashing in her death notice?

“I’m fine with Nyla taking this one,” I say. “We’ve got plenty to deal with back at the office.” I scan the crowd of Emergency Magical Technicians, finding one that fits my needs at the moment. “And, heh, look, there are Detectives Maddoc and Emerson. We’ve already got a Health and Low Prob liaison here. Why add to the confusion?”

Gods, these tampered cases from Wyrd and New Karma had been a tangled mess to deal with. And a distraction from my real goal: bringing down Michelle Kitman. I tap a few files on my screen and send them Nyla and Ladonna’s way. They both look down at their tablets together.

I force a grin. “All set.” I prod Maya to get her to move away from the scene before Kyle thinks up his next move.

“Kate,” he calls after me anyway. “Kate Hale, I’m not done discussing this with you.”

Maya licks her lips and stares at me openmouthed. Yes. I’m ignoring the highest-ranking actuary in Homicide. She can go ahead and pretend my behavior might affect her chances of a promotion into their department one day, but the reality is Kyle won’t ever remember her.

“Damn it, Kate!” Kyle smacks his open palm against the brick of the nearest building. “We have to work together eventually. You can’t keep ignoring me. There are at least three cases marked as tampered in our outgoing mail for the last month—”

“I’ll send Maya over,” I call over my shoulder. “I’m taking the afternoon off.” I hug Maya across her shoulders. “You’re ready for a solo run at the tampered cases. This is a perfect opportunity to get some experience in Homicide. You want to work there eventually, right?”

She nods her head emphatically.

We duck into an alley and I head a few blocks west. It’s a blessing and a curse when cases are within walking distance. I still don’t like to drive if I can help it.

“Don’t ruin this for me and it’s yours,” I whisper to Maya and fling open the door to Pia’s Pastries and Coffee. I twist around to Maya. “Head to the office and when Kyle catches up to you, you don’t know what direction I went.”

“But—”

“Text me any questions you have about the cases he gives you.”

“What about Sunday?”

Her question throws me off. “Sunday?”

“Miles’s retirement party?”

“What about it?”

“You’ll see him there.”

I wave away her concern. “I’m going to have it all figured out by then.” I swing the door shut before she can respond and make swishing motions with my hands. “Run along now.”

Her eyes dart around until I see them land on someone marching up from behind. Kyle. I can tell by the recognition on her face. I slink behind a booth, scooting as far down in the seat as I can.

Ali walks out from the back kitchen area. She takes one look at me and then out the large windows at Maya and Kyle. Maya is pointing down the street with a shrug. Good girl.

“Fucker.” She shakes her head. “Let me at least get you a coffee.” She pours me a small cup. “Cream and sugar?” She giggles. “Just kidding. I’ll keep it as black as your ex’s heart.”

“Don’t let him see you,” I hiss. “He doesn’t know you started working here. I can use it for a hideout for at least another few weeks.”

She digs into her back pocket and pulls out a beanie and shoves it low. Her short, straight black hair spikes out under the bottom. “Incognito it is.” She scoffs at my eye roll. “Oh? Should I put on the glasses too?” In her apron pocket she has my old glasses. She puts them on. “You know, I can see better with these? Do you think I got your bad eyesight? I thought being in a wolf pack would keep that from happening. I probably need to do the snuggling thing to get the benefits. Think Dalia will let me at least snuggle the baby when she pops it out sometime in the next hour to two weeks?”

“The baby is predicted early next week. Tuesday.”

Which is less than four days away.

“Please. The baby is due when it’s the most inconvenient for all of us. Which would be right in the middle of Becker’s test tonight.”

“Don’t say that. Don’t even joke it.”

Ali slides my coffee to me, putting a little cream and vanilla syrup in it, my secret coffee comfort add ins. Her gaze stays on my ex who’s scanning the block after letting Maya loose. My co-worker jogs across the street to our offices. I see him narrow his eyes on our floor, obviously contemplating going up there and cornering me. Good thing I’m here. Safe.

“Do I need to call Becker to come in for a surprise visit? Maybe a pretend confidential meeting with you and a few other actuaries?”

“No. Gods no.” I shiver. “He won’t have the self-control. He’s been acting weird the last month leading up to this test.”

“How many times has he failed it?”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s going to pass this time. I’ve been working with him non-stop. He knows every question backward and forward.”

Ali sits with me, inspecting the napkin holder. “I hate working here.”

“You should open your own place.” I construct a fort with the specials menu so Kyle won’t see me from the side. I grab the menu from the table behind me to be extra cautious.

“I’d need the capitol to do something about that.” Ali knocks down my barricade. “Would you stop it? All that does is make this whole area more suspicious.” She sneaks a peek out the window. “He’s headed up to your offices now anyway.”

I lower my shoulders and sit up straighter. “Thank gods.”

She sets the menus back into place. “Hysterical pregnancy.”

“What?”

“Becker. You said he was acting weird. Hysterical pregnancy.”

I massage my temples. “What are you talking about? Dalia really is pregnant. At nine months and multiple ultrasounds it’s a done deal.”

“Not her. Becker.” She plants her hands on her hips. “It’s a common problem with wolves. Becker is nearly full-blooded and his sister—his pregnant sister—is in his pack. It’s like a double whammy. Males get a little testy, a little nauseous. He requested some ginger bars like the ones I gave Dalia for morning sickness a few weeks ago.”

“He’s nervous about the exam is all. And he’s always testy.”

“Are his nipples sore?”

I cover my ears. “Ugh. Stop.”

She giggles. “I’m right. You should give him a foot rub when you get home. You said you’re only taking a half-day?”

I watch my fingers as I fiddle with a loose thread under the table. “I’m not going home just yet.”

“Shit. You’re going for it? Today?” She snorts as if it’s the best joke she’s come up with and then her laugh falls short in her throat. “Oh seven hells. You’re serious.”

“I have to know if it’s a lead or not and I can’t let Becker get involved. This is the most distracted he’s been since…” He’d nearly gone feral. But those words get lodged in my mouth.

“And you think that looking into Michelle’s ex won’t make the tiny hairs on the back of your boyfriend’s neck stand on end? He knows enough to put it together.”

“It was Lipski’s idea to keep Becker in the dark.”

“Keep telling yourself that. That’s not how I heard it.” She laughs and shakes her head. “Michelle can’t do a thing. I’ve asked every witch, every druid with any lick of real talent about the spell. It’s inert. She won’t be able to use it. Most of the ingredients she’d need don’t even exist. You’d be better off heading out to Black Rot Point and talking to that lady who manages the cabins.” She snaps her fingers over and over. “What’s her name?”

“I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole.” I pick at the thread with more purpose. I made Dalia swear to never tell a soul what she’d heard from that crazy lady. The Outlier. Me? Fuck.

Black Rot, however, happened to have a whole community of fateless. And some other mysterious…stuff. I’d found a few research papers from a retired alchemy mineralogist. He’d claimed to know a lot of things about Black Rot and other similar areas—but his unproven opinions got him kicked out of both the magic and scientific community. I dug to see if he had any thoughts on the Outlier Prophecies, but didn’t have any luck.

I’d been avoiding that pile dumped on me by Dalia when she returned from the cabins where I’d stashed her and Abbot, future father of Becker’s niece. Dalia had said that Helen, the caretaker of the cottage, had named me an outlier. Not just an outlier, the outlier. The one prophesized to either destroy or repair the oracle net. Depending on who you asked.

I voted for repaired, but we all know fate doesn’t work that way. Best to stay out of it, find enough dirt to bring Michelle Kitman down, and hand it over to someone who wouldn’t create any damage. As soon as I found a likely candidate. For now I was going with Maya. She’d been dependable so far and she’d probably love the attention. Only problem was she worshiped Kitman the same way I had before I learned Kitman wanted to rip apart our system from the inside.

Ali snatches my coffee and takes a sip. “Well, it would be worth it to check the cabins out again. I could go out there for you. Look around.”

“No!” I jerk up. The pleather groaning its protest at my sudden movement. I flatten my hands on the table, taking a deep breath. “I mean. No. It’s a vortex. Really unsafe. If you go in we’ll have no way of knowing your risk level and only a phone to use for communication.”

She stares at me for a long moment. My pulse increases. My heart bangs on my ribs like an unruly prisoner.

Her eyes flick to the cup she’s rolling around between her fingers. “This coffee’s cold, Hale. I’m going to toss it,” she mumbles.

“You talking to me?”

She glares at me. “No, I’m apparently talking to myself.” She lets out a frustrated grunt. “Never mind. At least take this.” She digs into her apron and produces a half-eaten cracker. “One nibble.” She makes like she’s going to hand it over and then pulls it back again. “One nibble. Not a bite. Not a lick. A nibble.”

“I don’t want your leftovers.”

“Fine. Take the risk of getting tracked. Becker’s distracted, but he’s not an idiot. He knows you’re coming home after lunch and if you’re a minute late he’s going to start sniffing around for you.” She runs the half-eaten cracker between her thumb and forefinger. Her eyes zero in on something behind me. “If he hasn’t already.” She smiles at whatever she’s focused on outside the window.

“He’s behind me, isn’t he?” I hold still as if that’s going to make this any less awkward.

She doesn’t answer, just tips up her lip and looks from me to the interesting item behind me.

“He’s not supposed to pick me up from work. He said he’d stay home and trust me.” I pound a fist on the table.

“Maybe it’s his hormones all out of whack?” She provides the best assumption for the situation. “He can’t help his base nature.”

“Fuck.” I twirl around in my seat, ready to rip into my overprotective boyfriend, but see…nothing. I’m confused. It takes me several scans of the not-yet-busy-with-lunchtime-rush side street to realize what happened.

“Made you look!” Ali claps her hands and holds out the cracker.

I snatch it from her. “Fine. Okay. You made your point.” I nibble while she inspects me.

“Not too much. You don’t want it to last too long. Otherwise if he smells it on you later he’ll figure it out and then neither of us will get to have our fun.”

I wrap up the remaining cracker in the plastic as tight as I can. The more I can hide it the less likely Becker will smell it on me later. “I thought you were still doing that low-level magic only thing? Please tell me this is a sign you’re finally giving up that pursuit.”

She crosses her arms, nose in the air. “You’re the most unsupportive cousin in the history of cousins. It’s not my spell. I got it from some homeless guy selling leftover magic.”

I cringe. I knew better than to accept strange food from Ali lately. Especially the stuff that she obviously didn’t bake. Becker went nearly feral after the anti-fate group used Ali’s magic to torture him. The Magic Enforcement Agency hadn’t yet gotten any leads on the gaki who’d taken Ali’s blood without consent. She’s been convinced ever since that if she suppresses her ability then nobody will ever be able to use her magic like that again. Witnessing Becker’s breakdown and knowing her magic had some part, even non-consenting, had knocked her off kilter in a bad way. It worked for the time being. After all, she’d been living with Becker, Dalia, Abbot and me. Werewolves and magic didn’t combine well and with Dalia pregnant we had to be cautious. But after the baby is born, all bets are off. I need to talk to my cousin about her fears.

I take a quick peek outside, deeming it safe from boyfriends old and new. “Okay, if I leave now I’ll be able to swing by the Cruz house.”

“I should go with you—” Ali eyes the clock.

“No.” Another reason I chose this exact time: Ali wouldn’t be able to leave a shift early. Love my cousin, but I didn’t want to deal with the trouble she might bring. I pull out a couple of bills from my purse and set them on the table for the coffee. “If I’m longer than an hour, then and only then, you can send in reinforcements.” I poke my finger at her nose. “One hour.”

She holds up her hands. “Hey, I’m not the one you need to worry about. I’m on the straight and narrow now.”

Right.