ROMANCING THE NULL

There are three kinds of lies. 

Lies the fates spin as half truths.

Lies of destined love.

And statistics. 

 

As a fateless, Kate Hale is immune to the first two, but the third kind of lie is her profession. After spending years as an actuary for the Traffic Department, Kate is promoted to Accidental Death Predictions. It’s all she’s worked toward, and her career is finally on track. But when an oracle delivers an impossible death prediction and insists on her help to solve the case, she might lose any chance of impressing the brass.

Her only hope comes in the form of the police liaison assigned to her department, latent werewolf Ian Becker. Becker can grant her the clearance to find answers, but he’s a wild card with a shady past who doesn’t play well with others.

Every prediction has a loophole, but if Kate can’t solve the case before the crime is fated to occur she won’t just lose her job–she’ll have the blood of an oracle on her hands.

CHAPTER #1

The oracle walks into my office ten minutes before I’m set to go home and I know by the not-so-casual glance at the name on my door that he isn’t here for me. He couldn’t be. It’s not my name on my office door.

He fiddles outside my door, waiting to catch my attention. I slouch lower into my chair, wishing I had something to hide behind, but my new office is still barren. Just me, my cheap ergonomic chair that is set to someone else’s height and weight, my laptop computer, and a desk. There’s a pile of broken office supplies, hinting that my office had been used as the junk room before I’d inherited it. I do have a dusty twig that may once have been alive, reaching like a skeleton hand from a chipped pot, but nothing that indicates a homey work space. No glass-blown paperweights, no books aside from the outdated actuary procedurals, not even a scatter of papers and files neatly grouped on my desk. I don’t have enough assigned cases for that yet. I type up the last of the reports from this afternoon, emailing the proper department copies. If I play dumb maybe the oracle will go away.

Week one of working in the Accidental Death Predictions Department was as uneventful as promised.

“It’s not even homicide,” my cousin-next-door, Ali, moaned when I had told her the news a few weeks ago. “So they transferred you from traffic predictions to accidental death?”

“As an actuary for predictions, the more experience I have in multiple departments, the better for my career.” I picked up her scarves and gloves she’d littered around my apartment living room and hung them on the rack. “This transfer is a step in the right direction.”

“It’s not in any direction. It’s a side step, it’s a getting-out-of-the-way step.”

I didn’t understand her lack of enthusiasm until now. Anything would be better than traffic. Considering my two-year stint in traffic was the result of a major mistake, one I’ll never repeat.

Now, at this moment while I’m bored as hell going over the latest oracle recordings and sending out the percentage forecasts that I think could save lives, I see what my cousin must have meant.

Nobody ever thanks their actuary. Everyone glorifies the oracle.

Excuse me, that’s wrong. Some people do love the actuary. Some actuaries. One actuary. Michelle Kitman—rose through the ranks of our profession and became a world-renowned celebrity. She went on several talk shows and spoke with the clients she saved by delivering accurate assessments and statistics of their death predictions. Colleges still use her techniques to teach young mathematicians, called the Kitman Method.

The oracle brushes his hand over her name above my door. Kitman retired a few years ago and her office sat empty. Nobody wanted to take her place or pretend to fill her shoes. I don’t. But due to a severe shortage of office space I was assigned to her old room. The chilly office atmosphere let me know that if I tacked up a “Kate Hale” sign and claimed this office as my own, it would not be a welcomed move.

I should have been honored, except it was a lot like knowing you were a number away from winning the lottery, being born a minute too shy of claiming the “New Year’s baby” title, coming in fourth place at the Olympics. Nobody notices the people who were almost amazing. My history of fuck-ups confirms this theory. And judging by the glares I’ve gotten from my colleagues, I’m not going to rise to Kitman levels of fame anytime soon.

I clear my throat.

The oracle’s hand flutters from the door to his comb-over. He smooths an errant grey hair among a few light browns into place. The hair springs out again as soon as his fingers leave his head. “I’ve never been to the actuary offices. Forgive me for my indulgence.”

I can’t help but smile. I sort of geeked out at her nameplate too the first time I opened that door.

“This isn’t where the magic happens.” I tip my head to the third-eye pin on his lapel designating him as an oracle. “You know that.”

He holds out his hand. “Jack Robert.”

I don’t take it. Don’t touch the oracles is hammered into us from the moment we sign up for a career in predictions. Experts claim it can interfere with their visions. “Can I help you?”

“I have a case, a unique death prediction that only someone of your caliber can decipher.”

Doubtful. I glance at Kitman’s name plaque. I would have removed it to keep these kinds of misunderstandings from happening, if it weren’t for the fact this office is treated like a national monument.

But an oracle, even as flighty and absentminded as they’re known to be, would remember Kitman’s huge retirement party. Maybe he was sent to me for another reason. Maybe this was one last practical joke from Traffic.

“Why me?” I lean back in my chair, analyzing him.

“Why you?” he asks, but in a way that tells me he’s stalling for an answer. Jack presses his hand over his comb-over again and then pulls on the lapels of his coat. He rocks on his feet. His gaze searches the Berber carpet for whatever lie he’s about to feed me. “Ah, you don’t know yet.”

“What don’t I know?”

His lips flutter into a hesitant but knowing grin. I hate it when people hold back information; I want to know everything they know. And so naturally I don’t like oracles.

He inches forward and cups the side of his mouth like it’s a secret just for me. “You’ll soon be the best investigative predictions actuary in Angel’s Peak.”

I cross my arms, trying my hardest not to sound combative. “Says who?”

His mouth gapes open. “I’m an oracle.” It’s the indignation I’ve been waiting for. Jack has finally lined up with my expectations. Oracles are nothing if not self-important drama queens. They’re rarely questioned and so when they are they don’t know how to react.

“Is this an actual vision or a hunch?”

His eyes go wide. “Uh…”

“I’ll save you the trouble, Jack.” I keep my voice low, not wanting the whole office to know my private problems. “I’m a blank. An unpredictable. Fateless. You can’t know I’m any good at water polo let alone my own job. I’m that big blank spot in the oracles’ net and you don’t know I’m going to be anything in any future. I don’t have one that can be predicted.”

He backtracks, fumbling in his pocket. “I didn’t mean…I wasn’t predicting…are you sure?” He sits, a slow lowering into my extra office chair, waiting for my answer like an anxious pet after a toy slipped under the furniture.

“I’ve never once received a prediction. Once I tried to force it.” I clear my throat and look away. I don’t want to get too personal. My parents’ death, although an accident, wasn’t my fault. Not after all these years. When I didn’t get the death prediction like they did, we all assumed it would mean I wasn’t going to be in the car. They thought they were safe as long as I was with them. That turned out to be far from true. I shove the memory away. It has no place here. “Well, let’s just say they couldn’t get a reading on me.”

“A shame.” His worried expression turns to pity. “But it doesn’t mean you’re fateless. That’s rare, and pardon me for inserting, perhaps a bit unusual given your profession. I’m sure that you’d not want that information to get out into the wrong ears.”

My neck shifts three inches back into my collar. He’s right. I can’t afford for that rumor to go around, especially in the Death Department.

I shrug, pretending it doesn’t matter. “Who knows, then?”

He shakes his head. “A terrible handicap.”

I never thought so, until I realized how much I’d felt left out, but I could never admit it out loud and definitely not to an oracle. There were too many hate groups and anti-prediction groups to share those thoughts in mixed company. I shouldn’t have even told him I was a blank. If the higher-ups got wind of it, accidental death would be the farthest up I could ever hope to climb. “It is what it is.”

Jack rolls his fingers on my desk in a staccato rhythm, crosses and uncrosses his legs. He makes a show of tapping his fingers against his pursed mouth. I lace my hands together and hook them over my knee, waiting.

“I’ll hire you anyway.”

“You do realize that the name on the door is not me.”

He waves his hand in front of his face, his eyes closed like he’s fighting off some invisible fly. I’m not exactly sure he’s listened to a word I’ve said. “That’s fine. I don’t care. I want you to work the case. You’re hired.”

“I work for the government and so do you. You can’t exactly hire me for work that is technically my job.”

His eyes dart to my boss’s door—still closed for her lunch. She’s in heated debate with her wife over holiday plans.

“This isn’t connected to the Oracle’s Department, is it?” I guess.

He shakes his head, confirming this case would require me to go off the books. Off radar. And far off from my goal of attempting to not fuck up my first week in a new department.

“This is something separate.”

He doesn’t nod this time, but his eyes don’t leave mine, confirming my assessment.

Jack pulls out a small square paper from his coat and carefully unfolds it. His hands tremble. “The death I asked you to investigate. It’s—” His voice breaks. He swallows. “It’s my own. Someone’s targeting oracles and I’m first on the list.”

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