Aspen Wolfe inched closer, all too aware of how high they were. She hated heights. Always had.
“Stay there, or I swear I’ll jump.” The kid scooted along the building’s ledge and peered down onto Boston’s busy Tremont Street with a look of wonder, fear, and longing. Winds from an approaching storm swiped the gray hoodie from his head and tossed his shaggy brown hair from side to side.
Aspen listened to the sound of passing traffic on the city street below. The feel of solid ground beneath her feet was definitely preferable to being up here. As a beat cop in Boston, her unconventional methods had earned her begrudging respect from fellow officers over the years. Due in large part to her success, dispatch usually saddled her with all the crazies.
She studied the boy and pulled her shoulder-length silky black hair into a ponytail with the elastic on her wrist. He couldn’t be more than twelve or thirteen. Black eye, bruised cheek, split lip. She had no other information, not even a name. He was tightlipped, giving her nothing with which to establish a rapport.
“Tell you what,” she said, putting her hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I’ll stay right here until you give me permission to come and sit with you. I’ve been on my feet all day and could really use the break.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the two Snickers candy bars she’d grabbed from her patrol car on her way to the call. She spent a small fortune on candy bars each year, but they’d gotten her out of more than a few dicey situations. Who could resist chocolate? A candy bar took down the defenses. Instant friend-maker. She was considering starting a class at the academy on how to use chocolate as a defense tactic in law enforcement.
“You hungry?” she asked, tearing the wrapper and taking a bite.
The kid pulled the hoodie over his head and looked back at her like she was nuts.
“If you’re gonna jump”—she held up the extra candy bar—“you may as well go down with some chocolate in your mouth.”
“I hate Snickers.”
“Copy that.” Aspen tossed the Snickers on the ground and reached into her other pocket, still munching. “Butterfinger?”
The kid shook his head.
She dug around in the cargo pocket of her pants. “Kit Kat?”
The kid turned away, resuming his scan of the busy street below.
“Not a chocolate fan. Okay. No problem.” She was running out of pockets. Last chance. She pulled out a Skittles bag and held it up. “Taste the rainbow?”
The kid turned. “Toss it here.”
“Not with you sitting on the ledge like that. Do me a favor and step down. Just for a minute—long enough to enjoy your last bag of Skittles. Then you can climb back up there if you want. But every man deserves a decent last meal.”
This elicited a small smile. “You’re not like any cop I met before,” he said, finally meeting her gaze.
“And you’re not like any kid I’ve met before. Guys who think about taking the plunge into rush hour traffic are usually older, grayer, and fatter than you.” She took another bite of the Snickers. “You’re a few decades too early, kid.”
She held her breath as he spun around and effortlessly hopped from the ledge down to the roof. True to her word, she tossed him the bag of Skittles.
He tore the bag open and popped a few in his mouth, eyeing her suspiciously. “Officer Wolfe,” he said, studying the nameplate on the breast pocket of her uniform. “Cool name.”
“Mind if we sit?” Aspen lowered her body to the ground and rested her back against the rooftop wall. They sat there and snacked together in silence. Savoring the last chocolatey mouthful, she crumpled the Snickers wrapper and tossed it aside.
The kid stopped chewing and stared at her. “You’re littering.”
“What do you care? You were on your way out.”
“But you’re a cop. Don’t you arrest people for littering?”
“Cops aren’t perfect,” she said, rising to retrieve the offending wrapper before joining him once again. “By the way, I was saving those for later,” she admitted, casting a glance at the bag of Skittles. “Came from my personal stash. Care to share?”
He handed her the bag. “Your dentist must love you.”
She poured some in her palm and handed them back, digging into another pocket to pull out a travel-sized toothbrush. “Good oral hygiene is important.”
“Want to talk about what’s going on?”
“I know the drill. You ask me my name and age and all that. When I refuse to tell you, you haul me down to the station, call Child Services, and send me off to another crappy foster home.”
Aspen studied the kid as he talked. His red high-top sneakers were obviously too big. His jeans were torn and filthy. Sized for a much larger person, the gray hoodie fell almost to his knees. The hoodie’s thin material provided little protection on this chilly November day. He was pale and gaunt—probably hadn’t eaten a decent meal in ages. Looked like he was living on the streets. She remembered those days from her own youth all too well. “You like pancakes?”
“Do you think about anything besides food?” He looked right at her—through her—his bright green gaze piercing hers. “Whoa, your eyes are…”
“The windows to my soul,” she finished, well aware they perfectly matched her raven hair. She knew little about her parents, but her Native American heritage came through loud and clear.
“They’re so…dark,” he said, staring. “They’re beautiful. You’re pretty. For a cop,” he added quickly.
She suddenly knew there was something special about this kid. And not just because he’d complimented her, though that did score him some extra points. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was exactly, but she was sure of it. Trusting her instincts had paid off more than once in her last nine years as a cop. She checked her watch. Her shift was ending soon. “How about we grab some dinner at IHOP? My treat.”
“How come you’re not fat?” he asked, looking genuinely baffled.
She smiled. “Fast metabolism.”
“Fast what?” He shook his head. “Forget it. You’re trying to trick me. I go with you, and we end up at the station instead of eating pancakes.”
She sighed and decided to come clean. “I got my ass kicked today by a drunk who was twice my age. The guys at the precinct will never let me live it down.” She stood, brushed the dirt from her pants, and extended a hand. “Believe me, I’m not in any big hurry to get back.”
To her surprise, the kid reached up and grabbed hold with a firm grip. Time slowed the moment their hands connected. The kid faded from view like smoky wisps as the image of a huge white owl, wings spread wide, appeared before her. Aspen drew in a sharp breath. The owl had the kid’s unmistakable bright green eyes.
She let go of the kid’s hand, squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them again. The kid was now standing where the owl had been.
He took a step back, a look of surprise on his face. “You’re a panther.”
“I’m an owl. You’re a pan”—he shook his head—“never mind.” He lifted his red backpack from the ground and slung it over one shoulder. “Can we go eat? I’m starving.”
An owl? Aspen stood speechless as she watched the kid hurry off toward the rooftop door. Did he say owl? She couldn’t remember the last time she was rendered speechless. There were two things about herself she knew she could always count on: regardless of the situation, she carried a well-stocked arsenal of clever quips and candy bars wherever she went. What good was one without the other?
The kid swung open the rooftop door and glanced back over his shoulder. “You coming or what?”
Aspen ordered the usual and then handed her menu to the waitress, watching as the kid did the same. She had taken her regular booth in the back corner and requested that the surrounding tables remain unoccupied so she and the kid could talk. “So?” she finally asked as their waitress sauntered away.
The kid stared at her blankly.
“Chocolate-chip pancakes for a name. That was the deal.”
“Fine. It’s Skye. I’m fourteen. And I’m a girl,” she said, her shoulders sagging in defeat. “Happy?”
This bit of news was more than a little surprising. But now that she looked more closely, Aspen saw it as clear as day. “You cut your hair to look like a boy so no one’ll mess with you on the streets.”
Skye looked up, a mix of emotions spreading across her face.
“You’re smart, resourceful. I admire that,” Aspen said honestly. She studied Skye’s black eye, bruised cheek, and split lip. “But somebody found out and messed with you anyway.”
The girl cast her eyes to the floor. “I tried to stop him. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Aspen let out a heavy sigh. “When did it happen?”
“Last night. I was sleeping in the park.”
At least there was still time to get evidence. She’d take Skye to the hospital for an exam and get her statement as soon as they were finished here. “I bounced between foster homes and lived on the streets for a while when I was a kid.” She stood and went to the other side of the booth to sit beside the girl. “Someone messed with me, too. It was the hardest, ugliest thing I’ve ever been through. But it helped shape who I am today. It made me strong. If you give yourself some time and space to get through this, it’ll make you strong, too.”
They sat together in silence. Skye wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of one sleeve. “Did you make all that up just to make me feel better?”
“It's all true. I swear on my entire collection of candy.”
The girl smiled. “Okay. I believe you.” She looked up. “How’d you end up in a foster home? Where were your parents?”
“They died when I was six. I didn’t have any other family.” She thought back, remembering the feeling of disbelief upon learning of her parents’ death. The hardest part to grasp at that age was the permanence of their passing. She remembered waking up each morning, believing with all her heart and soul that they had magically returned in the middle of the night and were asleep in the next room. It had taken her a whole year to figure out that ‘dead’ meant never coming back.
Aspen realized most people went through life fighting like hell to avoid revisiting the painful memories of the past. She made a point of regularly running her fingers over the old scars in her life to keep herself resilient and strong. “What about you?” she asked, returning to the opposite side of the booth. “Where are your parents?”
Skye looked at her for a long moment before answering. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
She shrugged. “Try me.”
“A few months ago, a man in a black suit knocked on our door. He said he worked with my dad, so I let him in. He shot my dad with a dart, and then he did the same to my mom. He shot at me, too, but he missed. I escaped through the back kitchen door and…” Skye hesitated. “And I ran as fast as I could to the police station. The police went to my house but never found my parents. They said they found suitcases on the bed and that it looked like my parents had packed up all their clothes and took off without me. My parents would never do that. They loved me.” She shook her head as fresh tears welled up in her eyes. “I saw what he did to them. But the cops couldn’t find any evidence of what happened. No one believed me.”
Aspen could smell an omission a mile away. “There’s something you’re not telling me, Skye. What is it?”
“I can’t.” The girl averted her eyes. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“So far, I think you’re pretty amazing. You’ve been through a lot of bad stuff, and you’re still here. That says something.” She sighed, distressed by the obvious shame this girl was carrying. “Look at me.”
Skye reluctantly met her gaze.
“I promise to listen and keep an open mind. You have my word.”
Skye shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “When the man in the black suit darted my parents, they…”
Aspen waited as she gathered her courage to finish.
“They turned into animals. My dad turned into a black bear, and my mom turned into an owl. Before he darted my mom, she told me to fly away and trust my instincts. It all happened so fast. When he shot at me and missed, I bolted out the kitchen door. You know that expression, ‘fight or flight?’”
“Well, I flew. Literally. I turned into a white owl—just like my mom—and I flew into the sky. That’s how I got away. He couldn’t chase me up there.”
Aspen thought for a moment, speechless once again and unnerved by the similarity in their stories. If she didn’t know any better, she’d think someone was playing a cruel joke by getting this kid to recite her own life story.
She was six at the time when she’d witnessed similar events. She had convinced herself over the years that the memories were false, easily explained by a young child’s overactive imagination. But Skye’s situation was different. At fourteen, she was a much more credible witness.
“See? I knew you wouldn’t believe me. Now you think I’m crazy.”
“I believe you.” The words were already out of her mouth before Aspen had time to think about what she was saying.
She met Skye’s questioning gaze with confidence. “I do.”
“But why?” The girl bit her lip uncertainly. “I wouldn’t even believe my own story if I didn’t see it for myself.” She studied Aspen’s face, her green eyes narrowing. “You believe me because the same thing happened to you.”
Aspen said nothing as the waitress returned and set their plates on the table. “What were you doing on the roof?” she asked as soon as they were alone again. The girl watched, seemingly mesmerized as she drowned her pancakes in as much syrup as humanly possible.
“You are seriously addicted to sugar.”
“I know. I’ve been looking for a support group,” she confessed around a mouthful of pancakes. “Haven’t found one yet.” Syrup ran down her chin and onto the napkin she’d tucked into the collar of her uniform. “So what were you doing on top of that building?”
Skye stabbed a fork into her own stack. “I was going to jump.”
“To fall or fly?”
“Fall.” She took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. “After last night, I didn’t want to be here anymore.”
Aspen nodded, set down her fork, and took a sip of coffee. “Do you feel that way now?”
“No.” Skye returned her gaze, but with confidence this time. “If you made it through, then I can, too.”