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  A fantasy novel

  James A. Hetley

  Book View Café Edition

  January 27, 2015

  ISBN: 978-1-61138-472-7

  Copyright © 2015 James A. Hetley


  I’ll say it right up front, parts of this story are lies. I’ve left important stuff out and added other things to serve as decoys. I’ve played a shell game with locations and dates so you can’t tie this story down. And, like the bit at the start of that old TV show said, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Or the guilty, as the case may be.

  I did things I’m not proud of, laws broken and promises broken and hopes broken, and the statute of limitations hasn’t run out on any of them. More to the point, there’s this trick I’d rather no bright boy or girl figured out how to do again. It’s dead and gone now, and I’d like it to stay dead. And I don’t have to obey that oath to protect and to serve anymore.

  I did the best I could, with what I knew.


  I sat in the passenger seat and stared out through the rain-streaked windshield, grumbling to myself. Detective Sergeant Cash had a problem. She thought I could help — she’d run into something where memory and a quarter-century of following the nasty twists and traps of criminal magic could be more important than youth and vigor and a sense of invincibility.

  I hoped I’d retired from all that when I handed in my badge. Wrong. So I’d climbed into her old State Patrol cruiser and we went for a little ride.

  We pulled up to yellow crime-scene tape down near the waterfront — a couple of local cruisers, the Medical Examiner’s meat-wagon waiting, a beat cop standing by to keep the civilians moving along. The neighborhood was a dump, old warehouses with the doors kicked in and graffiti kid-gang messages spray-painted on brick walls, broken sawtooth skylights in places where the whole roof hadn’t started to cave in. I heaved my bulk out of the cruiser into the chill drizzle and decaying city stink of a November evening, nodded to the cop, and ducked under the yellow tape.

  He’d wiped the welcome off his face and edged away, trying not to show it, as soon as he’d read the shield decal on the cruiser door and recognized Cash and knew what I must be. I was used to that.

  Cash led me through what had once been an office door. Detective Sergeant Nefertiti Aswan Cash — long and lean and walnut skin and corn-rowed hair under her Smokey-Bear hat, silent like a hunting lioness through the tall-grass savannah of her ancestors. Inside matched the atmosphere outside — dark dusty abandoned rooms with empty desks and overturned, gutted file cabinets, piles of mildewed cardboard and piss-smelling rags for wino beds, a few circles of char through the vinyl tile to cracked concrete marking cook-fires. We followed an aisle of more yellow tape that kept our feet out of the evidence. Around a corner and through a missing door into the main warehouse bay, we found the crime-scene crew and the portable light stands throwing harsh blue-white halogen glare into shadow.

  A dead man lay on the dirty concrete slab, face up. Surrounded by his guts, artistically arranged without benefit of surgery. My own gut lurched. I’d seen that pose before. Photos strobed in my memory, the earliest ones black and white, old Speed-Graphic stuff, the later ones in color and close-up details with the cold clinical lighting of tripod-mounted Nikons with macro lenses and ring-flash.

  I didn’t want to remember those photos and the scenes they came from. I couldn’t forget them.

  Blood puddled around the corpse, around each severed organ, but nowhere near as much as you’d expect. The killer had known the trick of gathering the power around him and reaching inside a man to pull out this and that without breaking the skin. Magic. There were other fluids, too, slowly drying, stiffening, a few hours old.

  I squatted, keeping clear of the mess, and sniffed. This was where decades of tobacco and sour-mash whiskey helped — muting the stink of death so I could reach beyond that into the world between and smell what hid there. I ran my right hand up and down his corpse, not touching, searching for his aura to get a sense of how long ago he’d died. Too long. No trace.

  I touched things, rubbed stuff between my fingers and tasted it — wizards like me don’t need to worry much about blood-borne disease — felt the vibrations. Remembered.

  Albert Kratz. I stared off into the shadows, both the real ones in the abandoned warehouse and those haunting my nightmares. “Bastard. We all thought he died in the fire.”

  “Yeah.” Cash broke the cycle of memories and then started them up again, picking off points on her fingers. “Bone crumbles, human ash, that platinum bracelet with the Kabalistic bits engraved on it that fit too tight to pull off over his hand. Teeth that pretty much matched his dental records, if you allow for the fillings melting out. Albert Kratz, AKA Albertus Magnus.”

  That was Cash, files in her head from cases older than she was. Kratz didn’t go that far back, but I knew she burrowed deep. And remembered everything. I’d taught her a lot, but pure talent goes way beyond teaching.

  “God damn him straight to hell.” I don’t swear much, not out loud. Words carry too much power in my profession. But that could qualify as a prayer, if you want to get technical. Anyway, this deserved a few choice curses.

  Cash nodded. “I walked in here, remembered the photos in your case files, and knew who I had to call. You’re the only one still around who dealt with him.”

  I stared at her for a few moments, one eyebrow lifted.

  She grimaced. “Okay, okay. But you know damn well Sandy wouldn’t tell me if my hair caught fire.”

  Sandy Cormier had been my assistant on the Kratz team, long years ago. And Cash was right — those two women never did get along.

  I wouldn’t want to drag Sandy into this. She’d left the force even before I had. I shrugged and waved at the mess on the floor. “Who was he?”

  “Diplomatic courier. Name was Robert Smith. That’s what the State Department told us, anyway. Don’t know why they didn’t just use ‘John Doe’ on his passport and make it obvious.”

  Double damn on a silver platter with a side of Jesus Christs. I hate cases where you aren’t allowed to see all the evidence and nobody even whispers about motivation.

  “Any idea what he was carrying?”

  Cash shrugged and looked around as if she’d find answers spray-painted on the walls or burned into the rusting structural steel. Of course, looking around was a lot easier on the stomach than staring at “Robert Smith.”

  Then she focused on me again. “Look, the Colonel wants me to remind you — there’s a set of captain’s bars waiting for you, any time you want to raise your right hand. We need you.”

  The Colonel, capitalized, that was the head of the Department of Public Safety — State Patrol, Fire Marshal, Liquor Enforcement, Marine Patrol, you name it. The Man. And as captain, I’d be the boss of the whole Professional Licensing and Regulation unit. Cash’s boss.

  I shook my head. “Sorry. You need someone who still sleeps at night.”

  She just stood there, spit-shined toe of her boot inches from that butchered courier’s left kidney, scowling at me like I was a captured deserter from a losing war.

  “Someone has to catch this guy. You’re our best bet. The only way he beat you last time was by dying. You gonna let that stop you?”

  I remembered the things Al Kratz had done, twenty years ago. News reports damn near threw the whole state back into the hysteria of witch-hunts and bonfires roasting human flesh alive. I remembered the cop outside, when he realized who, what, I had to be. Wizards and witches still walked a thin line in public tolerance. Wouldn’t take much to cut the thread. . . .

  “I’ll work on it on my own, okay?”

  She nodded, sl
owly, obviously reluctant.

  Hell of it was, Al Kratz had been a total bug-fuck nutcase. I don’t use those words lightly, given the things I’ve seen. But he’d stuck to common crime, stuck close to the money. The Kratz I remembered would only hit that courier if the man was carrying uncut diamonds or bearer bonds or blank passports or the like. Something valuable and hard to trace. Nothing political, nothing like diplomacy or espionage.

  I wondered what the guy had been carrying. And if anyone would ever tell me. “Diplomatic immunity” pops up in some strange places. I remember a car crash that dumped ten kilos of uncut heroin on the pavement. We had to give it back to the embassy involved. That part never made the news.


  Cash had dragged me into this ugly case late that afternoon. I’d just about decided to lock up my office and stop in at Charlie’s for a beer or three on my walk home. If I’d headed out fifteen minutes earlier, the world might be a different place today. Better or worse, who knows?

  Or Cash might have tracked me down even if I’d left. She used to drink in Charlie’s, too.

  “John Patterson,” the gold lettering says on the office door. Under it, “Member, ASFT.” That’s all. If a person is looking for my office, he already knows what I do. If he’s not looking for me, there’s no reason for him to find the place. I don’t make my beer money on walk-in browsers, and I can live on my pension. I opened the office to give me something to do with my days.

  The initials stand for American Society of Forensic and Research Thaumaturgists. They left out the “R” on purpose, hoping to avoid the obvious nickname. It still gets called ass-farts in cop-shop slang, or mass-farts if you insist on the “Member” to your title. With the implication that you’re about as welcome as a fart in church. Most straight cops get nervous around us, even when they need us. It’s that magic thing. It spooks people, makes the hair stand up on the back of their necks. Cops tend to be men and women who don’t like being spooked. It messes with their self-image.

  I’m out of that now. I’ve got this one-room oak-paneled office on the fourth floor with a private toilet about as big as phone booths used to be when phone booths still existed, with a view across a back courtyard to pigeons bobbling and cooing on the cornice ledges of an equally-grimy old brick office block on the next street.

  The place offers comforts no cop shop ever gave — a Faraday shield in the walls, for one thing. It blocks most spells and a lot of the mental buzz that guys like me can’t actually listen to but can’t ignore. Then there’s the telephone I’m allowed to turn off or tell to go fuck itself if I feel the urge. And I don’t have to put up with pink-cheeked Detective Newboy farting his lunch chili at the next desk and then having the gall to complain about the Sobranie tobacco in my pipe.

  Plus, I can spring for a chair that fits my butt and never groans like it’s about to collapse under me. Yeah, I’m fat. Three hundred pounds on good days, give or take a few. Most wizards are fat. It’s called fuel. Reserves. Wizards, witches, mages, thaumaturges, whatever you call us, we can’t make something out of nothing. I’ve lost twenty pounds in a single day, not sweat but fat burned up by my work, and damn near stewed my liver with the waste heat. Thermodynamics, entropy, there ain’t no free lunch. Even magic doesn’t change that.

  That heft also comes in damned useful when you need to talk some mass into violating Newton’s Laws. That’s more physics — leverage, equal and opposite reaction stuff. Even the girls learn that, put on weight and say to hell with movie-star skinny, if they ever want to get anywhere in the magic business. First time you have to stop a .44 slug in midair before it musses up your new hairdo, you quit worrying about that big butt.

  I shouldn’t have to worry about .44 slugs anymore. Twenty-some years on the force, I get that pension to go with the bad dreams. I turned in my badge after the thing with Maggie. That was the last straw. I did what I had to do to satisfy my oath and then told them where they could put their issue Colt and tin shield and I didn’t care how much K-Y lube they had to use.

  Maggie, plus I just got burned out tasting crime-scene blood to find the signature of a criminal mage, or sniffing two-week-old sacrifices to figure out who or what had been invoked and maybe why. Cops get a lousy view of the human race. There are hundreds, no, thousands of legal uses for magic — healing people, helping plants to grow, finding things, even the arts. Cop wizards don’t see much of those. Private-detective wizards don’t see much of those. We see the illegal, nasty things.

  Yeah, I get the signature from that blood. It’s like a fingerprint, because every mage leaves a trace of himself in the spell. It’s like the marks on a slug or shell-casing that tie to one pistol out of millions, a wisp of carpet yarn — the things our non-magical forensic colleagues track down. The textbooks say nobody has figured out how to wear psychic gloves. But I also get . . . other . . . things from that blood. Things that show up in my nightmares, ten years after.

  Anyway, I’m in private practice now. I don’t do criminal stuff. I end up tracing the black pubic hair a blond wife finds on her red-haired husband’s Jockey shorts. The answers become someone else’s problem — like the first thing I had to tell her was the hair came from a man.

  That one clenched her jaw and paid my bill. Some of them don’t, but wizards don’t use collection agencies.

  Don’t ask questions if you don’t want to live with the answers. If people need a bottom line, that’s the moral of this little Aesop’s fable. It applies to me as much as it does to anyone else.

  One of the old-school crime novel writers, the hard-boiled detective sort, used to say that when the story started to slow down on him, he’d send in a guy with a gun. Either that, or a classy dame who spelled trouble for any man who caught her eye. In this case, I got both. In one package. That’s how it started.

  Like I said, I’d been sitting in my office one afternoon, feet up on my desk, just around the November darkness when you change the clocks an hour back for standard time and suddenly it seems like the sun set just after you got back from lunch. That’s gloomy enough without the weather adding to the darkness, not actually settling down to rain but just mixed drizzle and spit, but I had my pipe lit and could sit there blowing smoke rings without anybody bitching. I didn’t have anybody at home to gripe when I came in stinking like an autumn bonfire, either.

  And the place was quiet, restful, not just the quiet of a half-empty building and the rare car three floors down on a back street, but that Faraday cage I mentioned earlier, copper screening behind the plaster and laminated into the glass and even the old varnished oak of the doors and wainscot, all lapped and soldered and grounded. I didn’t have to filter out any psychic static hissing in my brain, half-heard thoughts and half-felt emotions.

  You only find that shielding in the older buildings or in secure government installations these days — it’s expensive and people don’t worry as much about magic eavesdropping in business anymore, now that we’ve got a handle on tracking and prosecuting magical crime. Or like to think we do.

  I’d just about finished my pipe and was sitting there, minding my own business and enjoying the quiet, and Nef Cash walked in. She didn’t knock, of course, just barged right in, who the hell knocks on an office door. I hadn’t heard her coming down the hall — partly the shielding, but she always moved with that silent deadly grace I’ve already mentioned.

  Classy, like I said, but hard athlete classy rather than movie star looks, like she ran marathons on the weekend. Which she did — finished ahead of a couple of world-class women in last year’s Boston. Cash just shrugged and said they went out too fast, trying to break a rival. Broke themselves, instead.

  She knew her pace and kept to it and ate them alive on Heartbreak Hill. That’s your short-form description of Detective Sergeant Nefertiti Cash. And she probably carried her backup .22 auto and badge in her shorts or her sports bra when she ran. Cops are always supposed to carry, even off-duty.

  She was on-duty now. Her face
said so. So did the knife-edge creased blue-gray state trooper uniform and Smokey Bear hat. She wore the same “Professional Regulation and Enforcement” patch as when we’d worked cases a few years back, same 9mm high-capacity Smith on her belt along with the Mace and the radio and the cuffs and four spare magazines of ammo. I’m supposed to notice details.

  I should have stood up like a gentleman. An attractive young woman walks into your office, even if you’ve known her for years, a gentleman stands up to greet her. Instead, I lifted one eyebrow and frowned. Detective Sergeant Cash, in my office, wearing her duty face, two years after I’d retired, added up to trouble.

  She just stood there and looked around and shook her head. I didn’t need her sympathy. I’m what and where I am out of choice, not chance, years and years of choices taken with my eyes open. Some things didn’t turn out the way they could have, should have, but you live with the dice the way they fall.

  Then the cop focused on me. I’d think of her as Nef, off-duty at the corner bar. Right now, she was her uniform.

  “You got an hour? Something I’d like you to see, need your opinion.”

  “State going to pay?” Silly question. The state was going through its annual budget crunch, actually shut down “non-essential” offices for a day or two the previous month. Like hell her unit had spare bucks for my hourly rate. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had to buy gas out-of-pocket for her cruiser.

  She just grinned at me, white teeth against that walnut skin. She knew that I knew that she knew . . .

  Oh, what the hell. I grabbed my fedora from the rack by the door and shrugged into the gray Burberry — both gifts from Maggie, both still carrying the faint buzz of her touch. She’d said they made me look like a detective. Sometimes asked me to wear them and nothing else. . . .

  To hell with that. Wet day, they kept the water off. And I needed a hat. That bald spot grew larger every year, chilly.

  Walking down the hall, walking down the stairs, I could hear my steps echoing but nothing from Sergeant Cash. No keys or loose change jingling, not even squeaking leather from her boots and Sam Browne belt. She didn’t chatter, either. Anyone listening in the offices we passed, they’d swear I went alone.

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