The sun rose over the city that never slept, gilding its crowded urban streets with a veneer of warm light. In the heart of the coastal city veins of traffic pulsed, delivering commuters to their destination. The sleepless night had ended, and the day had only just begun.
It would be a day of triumph!
Detective Leon Orcott slapped the second page of the news section on his Chief's desk and leaned over it with a determined expression. "I think this is it, Chief. Did you read the morning news? We've really got him this time."
The Chief leaned back in his chair and steepled his dark fingers, sighing deeply. "Leon," he began.
"Don't 'Leon' me!" Leon overrode him hotly, eyes flashing. "This has D's fingerprints all over it, I can tell! A mysterious narcotic-like substance found in the house...testimony from the neighbors that the man had bought an exotic pet recently, one he refused to show...not to mention the details of his death, which were fortunately kept from the press! The man had a great big rip in him from jawline to crotch! It's D, Chief, and this time we're going to nail him!"
"All right, Leon, all right, calm down," the Chief told him, waving a hand in a placating gesture. "Look, the detectives on the site haven't ruled it as a homicide yet, you get me? They still haven't puzzled out if it was murder or some...some rampaging pet. And we haven't gotten the tests back from the lab yet that would tell us if this case falls in our jurisdiction or not."
"Let me go question him," Leon begged. "I'm off duty in fifteen minutes, Chief, come on, I could see if he says anything suspicious..."
"Hey, Leon! Catch!"
The blonde cop swiveled from the desk and reflexively caught the square missile hurtling his way. He blinked down at the bakery box in his hands, then read the elegantly-scripted lettering on the side. "C-Cake? Oh, great, from some French place...I'll bet this was expensive." Perfect, he thought, for baiting the Count. He peered inside the box and his mouth watered.
"Yeah, you owe me thirty dollars," Jill called.
Leon's eyes bugged out. "For a custard cake?"
"It's creme brulee!" Jill said reproachfully. "The best in town, you uncultured lout."
"I think D called me something like that, one time..."
"Get out of here," the Chief ordered him gruffly. "You're not going to be any use around here until you get to question your suspect. Just don't try to arrest him before you ask any questions, all right?"
Leon gave him an injured look. "Please," he snorted.
"Hey, try not to do something stupid, Leon," the Chief called after him as he turned his back and made a beeline for the door before Jill could try to get him to open his wallet. "Go over there informally, you here? Don't try to pull a gun on the Count or put him in handcuffs or anything..."
Leon could feel the back of his neck turning red. "As if I would!"
As he left, he heard Jill murmur, "Oh, he's tried...but with the handcuffs thing, I don't think he asked him properly."
Ignore. Leon had gotten very good at selective hearing.
"Why, Detective Leon." D gave him a coy look upon opening the door of his Chinatown shop, looking fresh and cool as if he hadn't been woken up by the persistent banging on his door.
Which, Leon pondered, he may not have been. He was wearing one of his standard cheongsam outfits with what looked like a dressing gown thrown over that. As far as he knew the count didn't sleep; he certainly seemed to be awake no matter the hour Leon dropped by.
"This is coming to be quite a regular date...you brought me a gift, too!" He clasped his hands together upon seeing the box. "Madame Cherise! Ahh, this must be the famed creme brulee cake I've yet to taste! Detective, I take back one third of the terrible things I've ever thought about you."
Leon deposited the bakery box in D's fine-boned hands, giving him a cross look and slouching past him without invitation. "Here," he said grudgingly.
"Some tea, so that we might enjoy our cake?" D asked demurely, following him into the subtly-scented, hazy interior of his sitting room area.
"Sure, why not."
It was to Leon's credit that he put off business long enough to enjoy a slice of cake and cup of tea, acting casual as the Chief had directed him to. "A man was killed," he began, swallowing a mouthful of cake and custard and admitting that it was, indeed, worth the price. Well, probably. "Did you read the news this morning?"
D gave him an offended look, cradling his teacup between his long-nailed fingers. "Please. I try not to read the news before I've eaten, it might ruin my digestion."
"Sorry if I'm a trial to your delicate constitution," Leon began sarcastically. "I have questions, if you don't mind. This man was one of your customers."
"One of mine...?" D trailed off and his eyes gazed off into the distance. His strange little creature, Q-chan, flitted up and settled on his shoulder with a chirp. "I see. What has happened, detective? Please."
Leon frowned at D's sudden quiescence. "Does the name Zack Ames ring a bell?"
"Mr. Zachary?" D's eyes widened and he set his tea cup down with a trembling hand. "Go on, detective, go on. He's...dead? Are you sure?"
"Sure as I can be about anything," Leon said grimly. Those crime scene photos had nearly made him spew the coke and fries he'd wolfed down an hour before Johnson from homicide had come over. "He was split from throat to cr--uh, abdomen."
A most peculiar expression crossed the Count's face.
"You know something," Leon said, pouncing on the possibility. "Spill it, D."
"Detective...you wouldn't believe me no matter how much I said," D said patiently, a faint smile crossing his pale face. The concern, though, was gone.
"Try me," Leon said, determined.
D shrugged as if to say can't be helped, may as well humor idiots and children. "Mr. Zachary had been a client of mine, on and off throughout the years. Exotic felines were to his taste..."
"Good afternoon, honored customer..." D began his spiel, straightening and turning for the shaft of light that informed him a customer had entered the store.
"Count," said the handsome customer, a tall, broad-shouldered young man with spiky dark hair that trailed over his shoulders. His eyes were penetrating, a curious shade of amber. He looked melancholy, borne out by the defeated slump of his shoulders.
"Mr. Ames," D greeted him. "Is something wrong? Your cats, they are all right?"
"The cats are fine," Zack replied, attempting what was surely intended as a reassuring smile. "I just..." He closed his eyes and turned away. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to bother you with my problems."
D was quick to assure him, "It's no trouble at all." His eyes focused on the young man, assessing, unreadable. "Has something happened?"
"My lover..." Zack swallowed, his throat working. He shook his head. "He left me, dropped into a bad scene. And then he was killed. I feel...like I failed him."
D shook his head slightly, giving Zack a slight smile. "Why should you feel responsible, Mr. Zachary, for the regrettable choices of others? It certainly is sad, but..." His eyes were probing, fixed on the young man as if he saw a great deal more than Zack was telling.
"I cared for him too much," Zack said hoarsely. "At least, that's what he said when he left me. That my love was smothering him, pushing him away. He blamed it on that...but really, he couldn't stand my cats, either. My darlings." He glanced away, his eyes dwelling on the rich furnishings of the shop.
"Now that he's gone, I...it seems horrible, but I thought I might see if there was anything new."
"And your steps brought you to my shop," D said. He glided closer on soundless feet.
Zack lifted his head with a distracted air. "Yes...yes, I...I don't know why. I don't expect a new pet to replace Seth, but..."
"It's a common reaction to the loss of a loved one," D told him, tone sympathetic. "You think I don't see a progression of people in my shop, seeking some kind of warmth and solace after the death of someone close?"
Zack swallowed. "Forget it," he said, shoulders tensing. "I--I'll just take the usual, D. Some of your special cat food."
"You do love those cats," D said, almost tender. Then his voice sharpened. "If you were to have one wish granted, Mr. Zachary, what would it be? At this instant."
The young man's head snapped up at the unexpected tone of command. "I want someone I can protect," Zack said staunchly, balling his hands into fists, a look of resolve crumbling into something gentler, more vulnerable. He shook his head ever so slightly and lowered his head until the ink-dark strands of his bangs obscured his eyes.
"No," he said, soft, approaching inaudible. "I want...I want someone I can love."
"I see," D replied, his eyes focused on the young man so abruptly humbled by the intensity of his tangled feelings. He saw, then, how it must end and he touched a hand to his brow, releasing a brief sigh. For Zack's sake, he summoned up a smile. "I believe I have just the thing for you, then, Mr. Ames. Please follow me."
He hesitated, then led Zachary Ames into the inner corridors of his shop, heavily ornate, exotic draperies veiling the alcoves that lined the corridor, until they came before the exquisitely detailed panel of a door, laquered red wood painted over with geometrically-patterned frescoes.
"You're one of my valued customers," D told him, pausing with a hand on the black handle of the door. "I will entrust you with one of my finest specimens, if the two of you take to one another."
"What do you mean, D?" Zack asked him, looking up and down the corridor, then examining the door. "Wow, I've never been this far into your shop before. I didn't know a place like this existed..."
"Few do," D replied, and opened the door.
A thick incense wreathed the air, dense and laden with a heavy fragrance. Zack trailed behind D apprehensively, then gaped at the sofa in the middle of the room.
"He is the last of his kind," D finished for him, brushing past the dumbstricken man and seating himself on the arm of the sofa. One hand reached for a spiky-haired golden head, which butted against his fingers in an imperious command for a caress.
"His kind reproduces in a most curious fashion, and so I have not dared to give him to any of my customers since his arrival in my shop. I had been holding onto the hope that I would find a suitable mate for him, but he is most particular. I fear..." D's oddly dual-colored eyes turned toward Zack. "His tastes are more specific than I'd thought."
Zack was rooted to the spot, staring open-mouthed at the delicate golden-haired boy on the sofa. "He's...a cat?" He reached as if he couldn't help himself, fingering the edge of one of the upswept, silken-furred ears that jutted from the crown of his head.
"He is a cat," D affirmed with a slight smile. "A very rare, exotic breed of cat. You like the exotic ones, do you not?"
The boy looked up at Zack with wide, endlessly blue eyes. Then, unexpectely, he burrowed his face against Zack's stomach, hooking his arms around him. With a look of wonder on his face, Zack stroked his hair.
"Is he to your liking?" D prompted.
"You know he is," Zack said absently, caressing the side of the cat-boy's face. He nuzzled against Zack, then levered himself to his knees on the couch and twined, rumbling forth a throaty purr.
D observed them with a curious expression, not quite a smile. "You would do well to beware if he takes to you well...too well," he murmured, a speculative expression crossing his face.
"What was that?" Zack looked up from petting the cat-boy. "D, let me buy him. Please. I don't care about the price. I just..." He trailed off as the golden-haired one rubbed happily against his fingers.
D chuckled. "Then the matter is settled. I'll go draw up a contract."
Zack followed him from the room with the cat-boy clinging to him, purring in the most ecstatic fashion imaginable.
"The conditions are simple," D told him, expression grave. "Firstly, you must never let anyone see him."
"I have no problem with that," Zack replied, petting down the cat-boy's spine, making him arch luxuriously against Zack.
"Secondly, you must always burn the incense I provide," D continued. "It won't harm your other cats, but it is needed for this little one's metabolism."
"Thirdly, never feed him after midnight."
Zack frowned. "That's an interesting one. I'll have to be careful." He looked down at the golden-haired cat boy, who was ardently rubbing his cheek against Zack's arm.
D's mouth curved in a not-quite-smile, almost a grim look. "Love him, Mr. Zachary, but remember...it is best to love not well, but wisely."
Zack shook his head, smiling. "You say the strangest things sometimes, Count."
D lifted one slim finger and fixed him with the peculiarly compelling gold of that one eye.
Zack reached for the pen.
"A cat," Leon said flatly.
"Yes," D replied, and sipped his tea.
"You sold him a cat."
"Let me get this right...it was a homosexual cat?"
"There's no need to be so crude."
Zack stroked the side of his prize's face as the beautiful boy licked the last drop of cream from his lips. "You like that, my darling?" he murmured, rubbing the exposed strip of bare belly that flashed at him as his cat boy's shirt rode up.
The golden-haired boy regarded him with a satisfied expression. "Mrr?"
Zack laughed, delighted. His arm went around his darling as the cat boy butted him enthusiastically, nuzzling against his face and throat.
It had been quite some time since he'd taken his darling home, and Zack still didn't have a clue about that ominous advice that D had given him after spelling out the conditions of the contract. His cat boy, his sunshine, was taking to him just fine. There was nothing to worry about.
Sure, he'd lost his job, but that had never really mattered to him. Being home gave him more time with his darling, and now his darling, and all his little loves, were what mattered to him more than anything in the world. He could always find a new job when he was ready to leave the house.
He'd stay home forever if he could, though. Who cared about the money? Just so long as he could be with his cats forever...and now, he had more incentive than ever to stay home. Zack shifted, reaching for the empty bowl on the bed to return to the kitchen. The house was dark. He wondered, briefly, if the power had been shut off. It had been weeks since he'd lost his job...he hadn't really thought about it. It was warm, though, a beautiful spring season and candles would do if he needed light.
What time was it?
Zack stopped in the doorway of his bedroom, shaking with a sudden, brief pain. His stomach hurt. "Uhh..." He shook his head, and returned to the bed and the drowsy form of the cat-boy.
His darling made a disconsolate noise as Zack climbed into bed. The cat-boy curled against him, then he withdrew to the edge of the bed, eyes glimmering at him with an eerie balefire-blue light.
"Wh-What's wrong?" Zack asked, breathless, adoring the way his cat-boy's head tilted to the side quizzically. As if he could almost, but not quite, understand his words. "...Darling?" A quick, sickening sensation swooped his stomach as he remembered the count's words. His kind reproduces in a curious fashion...
A pain rippled through Zack's midsection. "Uhh...aa-ow..." He touched a hand to his chest; his fingers came away bloody.
...it is best to love not well, but wisely.
Blue eyes widened; his mouth trembled. Then the golden-haired cat-boy leapt.
Two bodies tumbled heavily to the floor.
The scent of incense hung in the air long after the house had fallen silent.
"So..." Leon was supremely puzzled. "All you sold him was some incense and the cat. It wasn't drugs that killed him after all, then..." He trailed off, chin in hand. He'd been so certain that the trail led yet again to Count D, but then again, his gut instinct seemed to go haywire when D was involved.
"On the contrary," D corrected him. "I think I do know what killed him. It was an overdose..."
"Oho!" Leon said, groping for his handcuffs. If this was a confession, even the chief would agree he was justified hauling D in.
Without warning a large, slender golden cat leapt over the arm of the couch and settled its front paws on D's lap, kneading, purring.
"Ahh! My little Cloud, you've come back to me!" D said rapturously, running a hand along the long golden fur of the beautiful creature. "Ahh, I was so worried...I needn't have worried at all, am I right?" The cat butted his hand and D began to stroke his head and back.
It was the oddest-looking cat Leon had ever seen. It had very long legs, big ears, and the most enormous blue eyes. They fixed on Leon with an uncanny kind of intelligence. Leon rubbed the back of his head nervously. "He's staring at me."
"Has anyone ever told you, detective, that you are incredibly dense?" D purred, a smile lingering on his painted lips.
"H-huh?" Leon felt as though he wasn't getting enough air.
"Never mind." D shook his head. His elegantly-manicured hand passed over the sleek golden cat's fur. The creature was purring so loudly, Leon could hear him across the table. "Getting back to my point, I believe I know what drug it is that, ah, killed the young man, but it isn't what you're thinking."
The cat blinked its huge blue eyes at him. It appeared enormously satisfied about something.
"It never is, with you," Leon said sourly. He was learning, though the curve was slow.
"It was the most potent drug of all, detective." D's lips curved subtly. "I do believe Mr. Zachary overdosed on love."
Leon regarded him with suspicion and incredulity for a moment, then wild dismay crossed his face. "You're kidding me! Wait, no, you sold him a male cat, right? No, wait, that's still disgusting. We're talking about felines, right? Oh, gross, I need to rinse out my mouth..." He picked up his cooling tea cup and hastily gulped down the contents.
The cat made an odd sort of chirruping noise and leaped down from the sofa.
D raked a hand through his hair again and his smile was equal parts irritation and amusement, mixed. "I see we have a long way to go, detective," he murmured.
"What was that?" Leon swore his eye was twitching. "What? What do you mean by that?"
Shaking his head, D gave him an enigmatic smile and bent over the table. "More cake, detective? They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach."
"Well...I am pretty hungry..."
The cat trilled with welcome as a second, equally exotic-looking cat appeared around the leg of the sofa, one with dense jet-black fur. The first, the golden-hair, leapt down to greet him. It looked uncertain, blinking its amber eyes around the room, then it spotted the beautiful golden cat and twined itself around the other happily.
"I see you brought home a lover, naughty Cloud," D said, looking at both cats with a peculiar expression. "I didn't think you ever would, but ahh, I'm glad! I would have done just about anything to find another of your kind..."
"Cute," said Leon, who was not particularly a cat person. Even he had to admire such beautiful cats, especially when they showed such affection toward one another. Cats weren't normally so friendly, were they? "Are they a kitty couple?"
D gave him one of his enigmatic smiles. "Detective, you have no idea." His eyes were unreadable as he downed his tea. "Yes, love makes one undergo the strangest transformations..."