Outlier Prophecies Book Four: Standard Deviation of Death – Chapter One

If I’m dead, this is purgatory.

Worse than purgatory. I stand in line in the pit of government hell: the Angel’s Peak Department of Predictions Victims’ Center. An older gentleman covered in sores and smelling of urine is in front of me, and a woman dressed in an outfit entirely made of duct tape is behind me.

The office is set up with help windows surrounding one large waiting area. There are thirteen windows, but there are never more than three open at a time. And to be even more torturous, usually at least five of them have employees sitting behind the glass, and a hand outstretches every so often just to lead you to believe a fourth window could open at any moment.

The line to get a number wraps around the room. The lucky few who have numbers sit in the center of the rows of plastic chairs, watching reality TV shows on any hundred different channels to choose from. One guy who obviously doesn’t give a shit is openly enjoying porn on his phone. Not even on mute.

Normally I wouldn’t be here, but the little scrap of paper with my predicted death, fondly called a death certificate, says I have to register and meet with my assigned case worker because I don’t have an exact death date and time. According to the notice I have a week—give or take a few days.

As a fateless, I’ve never stepped foot in one of these offices except on official duty. As an investigative actuary, I’ve never had to work a window either. I calculate the numbers. I don’t have to stick around and explain them.

I clutch my death certificate, reading it over again to be sure there hasn’t been some mistake. But there it all is, my address, Angel’s Peak and a northern California zip code. It has my name at the top: Kate Hale. Somewhere around a sixty percent chance, give or take a dozen percentage points in either direction—perfectly formulated to put me out of commission, but not enough to warrant an investigation.

In my last case I’d gotten too close to the anti-fate group that had been messing with predictions all around Angel’s Peak. I’d stopped their plans and laid them bare. Some offshoot Norn group using the wyrd symbol had been making accidents look like chance predictions or ripples from changed prophecies. I’d exposed it. They obviously didn’t like that and found a way to silence me.

Or my death prediction could be real because I’d also touched a death oracle. Gods, I was so stupid.

I grit my teeth.

So this is how the other half lives.

I’m bumped from behind. “Oh sorry! I just get a little excited.” The duct tape woman holds up her summons. A yellow form. Death notice. “My twenty-first death notice and it’s just like the first time.” The woman giggles with a weird lilt that could be mistaken for glee.

A baby, somewhere behind me, wails.

I turn back around, counting how many people are ahead of me. Three. The exact number it was twenty minutes ago. Some lady is arguing with the employee at the window.

The duct tape woman keeps talking as if we’re buddies now. “Work at Milton’s as an accountant. Gets a lot of death threats.” She shimmies her shoulders like this little tidbit is somehow exciting. “It might be because when I get bored I fill in all the columns with whatever the hells I feel like. Some people don’t like being told they owe more than they’d been expecting.” She shrugs. “Oh well, am I right?”

Lady arguing up front finally takes her number. Two to go.

“So what you in for?”

I ignore her, hoping she’ll go away.

One more person ahead of me. Sore urine dude makes his way to the window. Grabs his number.

My turn. The window snaps shut. Shit. It’s another ten minutes of chatty line buddy before the window opens again. It’s getting weird to ignore her; people are staring at me.

I rush to the counter. “I’m not sure I need to really stand in line. If you’ll just let the guys in homicide know that Kate Hale is—”

“Take a number.”

“No, you don’t understand. I work for Death Predictions. I’m supposed to be meeting with my caseworker. I’m one of you, see,” I hold up my ID badge.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Well, not exactly. I guess I could have called ahead.” My gaze lowers to my shoes. I didn’t want to call ahead because I used to work for Homicide and it didn’t end well. I’d been involved with my supervisor, uh, make that married supervisor, and when we’d been found out—wait scratch that—when he decided to come clean and throw my name under a bus in HR, I’d been reassigned to rot my brain in Traffic.

Her eyes remain fixed on me, lids half-mast, lips pressed in a tight unimpressed line. “Take a number.” There’s a brief pause and then she taps the ticket machine with her long green painted nails. My receipt prints out with a hum and shimmy. Number B48.

Duct tape lady elbows me and holds up her own: N48. “What are the odds! We can be death twins.”

It’s like a bingo hell theme for my life. Great.

I manage a tight smile and pretend to be busy with something on my phone while she finds a seat. The chairs are set up in rows of fifteen by ten, an aisle and then another block of molded blue plastic chairs. She sits in the center. I snake around and find one in the far back corner.

“Kate? Kate Hale?”

My head snaps up at my name. I do a double take on my number, which has at least a hundred people ahead of it.

“Kate! It is you.”

I look around to see who’s calling me. There’s a goblin woman with her head poking out of the door. Short, round face, long medium brown hair in a loose bun. Her mustard cardigan sweater is buttoned all the way to her chin and it gaps at the chest, but she has a white blouse under it, a taupe calf-high skirt, and red flats. She doesn’t look familiar.

“Oh my goddess, Kate.” The door swings closed as she jogs out to meet me. “Kate.” Hands on hips, she inspects me. “Beth Ormenhisser.”

“Beth. It’s nice to, uh, see you.” I hope my face isn’t as blank as I expect it is.

Beth frowns when she realizes. “You don’t remember me. It’s the contacts.” With her fingers she makes rings and puts them over her eyes. “I had glasses as thick as coke bottles.” She carefully looks at me and plasters on a joking smile. “And I put on some weight.”

It hits me. Elizabeth O. Because nobody could pronounce her last name. But I’m surprised she remembers me. I was an intern and she was one of the senior actuaries. She didn’t take investigative cases; the others usually shoved off the work they didn’t want on to her and she’d gladly take it. Never one to risk anything or put her neck out.

“Oh my gods! Beth. Yes, yes. Of course. Are you still in homicide?”

“Naw, they transferred me out about two years ago. I’m much happier in Finance. I was here delivering some paperwork. What are you doing here? How’s Traffic?” She carefully doesn’t meet my gaze.

Ah, right. She remembers my little drama with Kyle. “I’m in Accidental now, actually.”

She perks up. “Wonderful!”

“Not really. My last case got me in a little hot water with an anti-fate group.” I wave my death certificate.

Her eyes widen. “Oh dear. Wow. Yeah. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not a high probability. Just enough to warrant a really annoying vacation.”

She shakes her head. “But still scary. What are you doing waiting out here?” She grabs my hand and hoists me from my seat, pulling me along behind her. “We should get you going on the paperwork. Sooner they can register you the sooner they can start solving the case.”

We slip through the door to the back offices. She drops my hand.

“That’s just it.” I jog to keep up with her. “It’s not high enough for an investigation.”

“Oh, I don’t think the rules apply when it’s one of our own. I’ll see what I can scare up.” She disappears around the corner. I hear the elevator ding as she hops inside and rides it to the seventh floor.

“No wait. Elizabeth. Beth!” Shit. I slow my gait. My legs become cement the closer I get to the elevator that will bring me to Homicide Predictions. It’s not that they hold the keys to my death. It’s more like the last time anyone saw me here I’d been escorted out by Human Resources with all my possessions in a cardboard box.

My palms sweat. My heart pumps blood a little more forcefully through my arteries at the memory of that humiliation. I swallow, but my throat is completely dry. I check the time. It’s not even noon.

My panic attack is interrupted by a booming, gravely laugh. A laugh I recognize, but it’s usually after he’s told some joke about me or Becker. I frown, going toward Lipski’s voice.

The door to the conference room is open. The woman Hank Lipski is meeting with carefully organizes all her papers into her laptop bag, winding the cord and computer in last. It’s my old boss in Homicide, Etta Grayson of the kishi Graysons.

“Not an issue,” Lipski says to my ex-boss. “I’ll have the report in by the end of the day. I’d be honored to work as one of the liaisons for your department.”

Etta smiles, smoothing out her really flattering, no doubt really expensive teal and grey dress and matching blazer. Her silver and gold eye makeup compliments her darker skin tone. She keeps her black hair with only hints of grey cropped short to her skull. I don’t think she’s changed her hairstyle in the last decade. But heck, if it works, don’t mess with it.

I duck away from my ex-boss’s sight, keeping Lipski in view, and wave my arms to get his attention. If he sees me he doesn’t let on to the fact. I try one last time to get his attention before getting too nervous. Plus, Etta might see me. I huff as I back away from the scene, glaring at Lipski.

His face remains neutral as he listens to the last bit of information for whatever case he’s taking. It must be his practice assignment for Homicide. He’d passed his detective’s exam and now he’d be allowed to “try out” for each department that had an opening until his superiors found a good fit. Homicide had a high burn-out rate, so it’s likely they have an opening.

He clears his throat and says his goodbyes. I tiptoe around the corridor to an empty waiting area, flattening myself against the wall and praying Etta doesn’t come this way.

I breathe a sigh of relief when Lipski pops around the corner.

“Lipski,” I hiss out his name in a loud stage whisper.

He jumps back, hand on heart in fake surprise. He must have seen me. “Katie Cupcake. What are you doing here?”

“I’m…” My words hitch. I still haven’t called Becker. I haven’t told him about the death note. Crap, this is getting messy, but if anyone can give me advice on how to break this news to the most temperamental werewolf in Angel’s Peak, it’s Hank, Becker’s partner. And yeah, Becker’s kind of the only werewolf in the city. There might be more, but with not as much wolf blood in them. Not the kind of wolf that travels in packs or needs to have a pack, because they don’t have enough werewolf DNA.

Unable to verbalize my predicament, I hold up the note. Lipski lets out a little grunt-laugh as though I’m setting him up for some sort of joke. It’s not until Lipski’s smile fades from his face that I know he’s read it.

He snatches it from my fingers and holds it up like it’s a used tissue. “What the fuck is this?”

“My vacation notice.” I cross my arms. “I can’t report in to work until the death notice is resolved. And with no end date on the occurrence, it means I’ll finally be able to take that backpacking trip across Europe.”

He reads it again. “Where’s Beck? Don’t tell me you let him go off on his own after reading this shit.”

“I haven’t told him.”

“You haven’t…?” He straightens, folding up the death notice. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Fuck.”

My shoulders cave into my chest. “It might not be horrible. He’s a lot better than he was before. He’s got a pack.”

Lipski’s eyes narrow. “And who exactly is that, Kate? Closest werewolf pack is in Turmoil and a few days ago you were all wound up that he couldn’t join them. I doubt he’d have joined and had enough time to regulate himself in that amount of time.”

“He has me,” I say in a very weak, very small voice. It’s not a true confession that I’m Ian Becker’s sole pack member, but it might as well be.

Hank gives me the up-down-all-around once over look. “You’re sleeping with him.”

I place my finger over my lips, tapping. I’m not sure how to handle this statement. “Not exactly. We’re not sleeping together, sleeping together. But we’re, uh, sleeping together. Just sleeping. Together.”

He balls his ham hands into fists and his teeth clench. He lets out a growl. “That’s even worse.”

“I thought that you wanted this,” I mumble.

“To date him! Not…not this!” He flings his arms around as if to refer to all of it. The whole world of shit around us. Kinda hard to narrow down exactly what is the most distressing news about this situation. And I don’t really care to ask at the moment where he might tell me more than I care to know.

He shoves the death notice back at me. I catch it with a clumsy sort of grace. Hank had accused us of forming a pack before, but neither Becker nor I would confirm it. Becker probably wouldn’t be pleased to find out I gave his nosy partner, soon to be ex-partner, so much personal information, but Becker had told my cousin Ali. I guess that made us even.

Hank smacks his palm against his forehead a few times, pacing the waiting room that looks miniscule with his large body taking up most of the space. “Let me get this straight. Becker and you have formed your own little pack.”

I nod.

“He’s attracted to you.”

I can’t really answer that for Becker, even though we had just decided to try at a relationship a mere six hours ago. I stand still and follow Hank’s progression around the room. He’s pacing in more of a triangle pattern around me. Likely because the chair set-up is too tight for him to circle me like a lion about to rip out my guts.

He pauses, points an accusing finger at me. “You’re attracted to him.”

I nod, because, yes, I am hot for my department liaison.

“So you’re his pack. His only pack. The first pack he’s attempted to form since his last pack was murdered, slaughtered years ago in a crime that to this day hasn’t brought in all the suspects. He’s so attracted to you it’s embarrassing to watch and you like him.”

I shrug. That’s an accurate assessment. But gods, did he have to put it so bluntly?

He flicks the death note in my grip. “And you’re dead.”

I frown. “I’m not dead. It’s a sixty percent chance at best. And I’m…” I catch myself before I say it out loud.

He cracks his knuckles, sucking in his lips and executes the king of all eye rolls. “That is not how Becker is going to read that note, Kate. If there’s a one percent chance he’s going to see two zeros behind it, but sixty? He’s going to flip his lid.”

“But it’s likely”—I glance around to be sure nobody is near or skipping down the hallway at the exact moment I divulge my little personal secret—“fake. I’m fateless.”

He grunts. “Hate to break it to you, Katie Cupcake, but that little slip of paper says otherwise.”

I keep my voice low, inching in close to Lipski. More than anything I don’t want this news to get out. Especially now that the fateless were all over the morning news as being potentially dangerous, because the public was wrongfully led to believe fateless could change an oracle’s vision.

True, I had used my inability to be predicted on by the oracles to get the upper hand while Becker and I were pursuing Liza Hamilton. She’d been using her own seers and abducted precognitives to make a predictions net to use against our oracles. Because I’m fateless, I was able to make a move against her plan without her knowing. There had been a few studies on the fateless, but nothing had ever indicated we could change predictions.

Or they. Not we. I couldn’t get used to the idea that this death notice could be legit. A death oracle had touched me during my last investigation. Being touched by an oracle might lead to personal predictions. Except my death note didn’t have Rosa Germain as the predicting oracle. It had someone named Jayesh Patel. Having only worked in Accidental Death for a few months, I didn’t know all the death oracles. Jayesh wasn’t one I’d worked with or had any memory of on the roster.

I wave my death notice like a flag. “This could be a fake. I got too close to whoever is altering predictions and this is their message to back off.”

Lipski plants his fists on his hips. “Yeah, but their message is a homicide based death prediction.”

Beth walks by, scanning the hallway and waiting room. She stops with a little hop and a smile when she sees me. “Oh! There you are. I’ve got your case floating around. There are a lot of people who remember you, Kate. I’m sure someone will take it.”

“Great.” I bet they remember me.

“You should come up and say hi.” Beth waves me toward the direction of the elevators.

“Well, I…maybe…hmm. I should go—or you could send someone down.” I babble out each excuse, not quite sticking the landing on any of them.

Lipski hooks his arm in mine. “She’d love to.”

He unceremoniously drags me down the hallway to the elevators. Beth runs ahead and pushes the button. It opens instantly. I imagine it’s a large mouth with fangs ready to swallow me and digest me during a thousand years of pure torture.

And I thought the worst that could happen today was a death notice, getting suspended from my position, and contemplating how I’m going to tell Becker about it.

Now I’m on my way to face all my ex-coworkers. When they saw me last I’d been crying ugly tears after my boyfriend broke up with me, went back to his wife, and turned me in to Human Resources as having an inappropriate relationship with a superior.

Which was him. My boyfriend, Kyle Dillingham was also one of my bosses. Sort of.

He got a slap on the wrist and an eventual promotion. I spent years in Traffic Predictions hell. But I already mentioned that. I repeat things when I’m nervous.

The elevator opens and Beth marches us through a maze of hallways, around the outskirts of Homicide’s main hub, and deposits me into the nearest waiting room. Along the way I see faces of coworkers I haven’t spoken to in years. They whisper and follow me with their gaze. Matilda, one of the office managers, glares. Her lips press together and her chin goes up like a toddler refusing the airplane spoon.

Biggs, one of my fellow interns. We had a nice healthy competition and friendship. Until she realized I’d been sleeping with our boss. She blocked my emails and each one bounced back, flagged as spam with a warning. She crosses her arms tightly across her chest as I walk by.

The door taps shut, but all the windows facing the cubicles alert me to the fact that everyone is openly staring at me like I’m the three-legged unicorn or the giant angus cow that can make a thousand hamburgers exhibit at the circus.

I slink into a chair, which is much nicer than the chair in my office. Figures that Homicide would have cushier chairs for criminals in their interrogation rooms than Accidental had as standard issue. But that’s government trickle down for ya.

“This is a very bad idea,” I say in a very small voice.

Lipski’s eyes narrow. He glares at all my ex-coworkers and flips the blinds shut. “Don’t let them see you sweat, Cupcake.”

Beth, probably sensing the awkwardness, twiddles her thumbs, looking at every chair, wall, and corner in the room except at me. “Well, I should go see if they’ve found anyone to take the case yet.” She pulls down the front of her blouse and wrings her hands. “They’re likely just making sure to get the best actuary in Homicide for the job.”

She darts out of the room.

Lipski snorts and peeks out into the main office through the blinds. “More likely they’re fighting over who gets your wishbone. What the hells did you do to these people?”

“I slept with one of the supervising actuaries.”

He quirks his eyebrows up in question.

“I was going through a really destructive stage.”

He grunts a laugh. “You’re extremely amusing. You and Becker together are fodder for your own comedy show.” He sits down and tips back in the chair, placing each of his boots with a hard thunk onto the marble conference table. No Formica for Homicide. He squints out the one window where he kept the blinds slightly open. “Aw shit.”

The door yanks open and two hundred pounds of very pissed off, vibrating with anxiety werewolf steps through. He points a finger at Lipski. “What the fuck. You knew?”

“I didn’t know. I just ran into her while I was here for my interview.”

Becker shakes his head, hands holding his skull together as though it might fall apart. It’s like he’s trying to compute the excuse. “It’s fine. You can go now.”

Lipski sits up in the chair. “Come on, Beck. You know I’m not going to leave.”

Becker paces, shaking. “You should go.”

Lipski gets up from his chair and quietly closes the last set of blinds. “I know about you and Kate. She just told me. Go ahead and hug your girlfriend.”

Becker doesn’t bite off his usual go-fuck-yourself response. He just continues pacing and pulling at the neck of his police uniform like it’s strangling him. His eyes aren’t gold; they’re dull and devoid of his usual vibrant teal. In its place is a pale blue. That’s how I know it’s bad. Whatever is going on in his brain, it’s not good.

I dig out the note from my laptop case, holding it to my stomach, wondering if it’s a smart move to show it to him or if I should try to distract him. I go for distraction. “How did you find out?”

“I went by your office. You weren’t there. Gretchen told me.” He says each sentence as if it’s shards of glass in his throat.

“It’s fake. You know it’s got to be. We’re getting too close. This is the only way to stop both of us from investigating further.”

He slams his fists down on the table. “But the threat is real.”

“He’s right, Katie,” Lipski interjects. “Even if it’s fabricated, they’re still sending a message of what they have planned for you.”

I pin him with a look. “You’re not helping.”

I turn back to Becker, inching forward. My fingers lightly skim his whitened knuckles, dipping under the hem of his sleeve to his wrist. I’d read in a book on werewolves that certain pressure points could help with emotional regulation. Not that Becker’s behavior follows any textbook in print. “Hey, this isn’t bad. It’s very near a fifty-fifty chance. These kinds of predictions are much easier to break, even if it were real. Which it’s not.”

Beth peeks her head into the room. “I hear we got a taker. I just got a call from Finance and there’s been a tiny little stock market blip predicted. They think because of the Traffic incident earlier, but I have to leave and deal with that.” She balances her card on the window ledge. “Please call me.”

And she bops off.

I watch her leave with envy. “We should go. We can handle this case better ourselves.”

Some of the fire returns in Becker’s eyes. “Agreed.” He pushes himself from the table, snatching my hand.

Lipski stands in front of the door, arms out to stop us. “Whoa, wait a second. There are by far more resources in Homicide that we can’t tap into if we don’t have someone on the inside.”

“That’s the problem.” Becker lowers his voice to a point I can barely hear him. Both he and Lipski have more advanced hearing, but we don’t know if anyone in the office behind us has that same ability. “The people we’re trying to find also have someone on the inside. We put this case through Homicide we’ve given them everything they want. Kate’s whereabouts. Kate’s status.” Becker taps his ear and points to the office chaos.

Lipski’s eyes widen. “How do you know? We already bagged one. We likely got them all.” He taps his ear, then his temple.

Some sort of communication is going on between them. During my first case with Becker we’d discovered an office manager’s assistant in Homicide that had been holding back predictions. It nearly got an oracle killed and almost brought down the predictions net.

We’ve been working on the assumption that there are still traitors among us.

I grip Becker’s hand tighter. “We can use this.” I motion to my death note. “We can use me to get to them.”

Becker lowers his head, eyes squeeze shut. He knows this is the best plan we have. A little crazy, but—

“No.” He doesn’t say it to me. Becker’s focus zeros in on Lipski. “Move. Get out of our way. We’re doing this on our own, with or without you.”

“I’d rather it be with,” I interject.

Lipski stands a little taller. “I won’t let you do this. Later when you’re thinking clearly, you’ll thank me for pulling you back from the ledge. Look at you. You’re scared shitless that history will repeat itself. You’re in no shape to make decisions right now.”

He lunges at Lipski. “Fuck you.” He grabs ahold of the lapels of Hank’s coat.

Lipski shoves Becker forward. The back of Becker’s leg catches on a swivel chair and he plops into it, sliding back until he hits the table. His face goes red, his jaw clenches, fists ready.

My eyes widen. It’s like watching a train wreck and knowing there’s no way you can stop it. But my brain searches for the most logical solution.

I tumble forward, blocking Becker’s ability to spring forward in counterattack. My hands on his shoulders break my fall, and Becker, unable to allow my head from cracking into the table as momentum pushes me forward, hooks his arms around me and pulls me into his lap.

It’s enough. His grip tightens. He buries his face in my hair, taking in a deep trembling breath to calm himself. My arms wrap around his body, pulling him in close.

I send a flat-lipped look to Lipski, who promptly turns around, giving us privacy.

Several years ago, Becker lost his pack, and I’ve since replaced them. His pack was more than a family, more than friends. They kept him regulated and able to function. As a nearly full-blooded werewolf, he’d suffered from behavioral and emotional issues without the constant reassurances of touch from someone he trusted. Now he was facing the possibility of that loss all over again.

Lipski runs his fingers through his hair over and over. He cracks his knuckles and shifts from one foot to the other. Hank, as Becker’s partner, had been there for the first fallout, and the look on Hank’s face now—he doesn’t think either of us is watching—tells me he isn’t as cool as he pretends. He’s just as scared for his friend. He doesn’t think Becker will make it through that same tragedy again.

“You know,” Lipski says, “although I don’t think it’s smart, I’m willing to do this your way. It’s all about what Kate wants, and if she thinks this is the best option, I’m not going to strand you both.”

Becker shakes his head. He looks to me for confirmation and I nod slightly to let him know it’s okay with me.

His hugs me tight again. “No. You’re right. I’ll step back and let you take point on this.” He chokes on the last words, like it kills a little part inside him to give up that much control.

“Then it’s settled.” I stand and brush my skirt down. I hold a hand out for Becker to grasp and he does, pulling himself up from the chair. “We see what kind of information we can get from Homicide. At worst they can’t tell us anything. We’re no better than where we started.” But my hope is that Beth has secured us with someone trustworthy, someone who wants to break this open and sniff out the leak as badly as we do. Becker will know if we can trust whoever is assigned to the case. He can scent a lie.

And as if on cue, there’s a knock at the door. It opens at the same time as the knock, as if the person behind it knows he will be welcomed. As if he has every right to the space around him.

There’s only one person in my life who ever took those liberties. He appears before I can even accept his presence. That he of all people would be the one to take my case, but you know, it makes sense. He’d never let anyone else have the privilege.

“Kate,” says my ex. “My gods, I came as soon as I heard.”

Kyle Dillingh