Sunday, November 11, 2018

Have Cash, Will Conjure Part 1

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My lawyer has a reputation for melodrama, and today he was in fine form.
“Detective Jansen! Why is my client in a prison jumpsuit?” Abraham Greenwald demanded.
Jansen, huge even by troll standards, towered over the diminutive gnome. “Mr. Greenwald, his clothes were soaked with blood. They’re being held for evidence.”
“Evidence.” Greenwald sniffed. “My client’s been here for, what, six hours? Without a shower?”
“We had to take biological samples from his body. Evidence, you understand.”
“You’ve taken your evidence already, yes? He reeks and you won’t let him shower? This is a violation of police ethics. I’ll file a complaint with Internal Affairs.”
“Be my guest. Please, sit.”

Jansen showed him his chair. Greenwald sat on my right, scowling at the handcuffs bolting me to the table.
“Mr. Lee has been very cooperative. Why is he still handcuffed?”
Jansen eased into his tiny chair. It protested. “The District Attorney wants to charge him for murder.”
“Murder? The reporting officer herself said it was clear-cut self-defense.” Greenwald adjusted his spectacles. “Oh, wait. It’s election season, and Vaas Torvale brands himself as a protector of minority rights. What better way than to put humans in jail, eh? Tell me, how long has my client been handcuffed?”
“Six hours.”
“That’s illegal! He could suffer—”
“Nerve damage?” Jansen smiled. “His limbs are biomechatronic. Just polymer and metal.”
“Mental distress.” Greenwald leaned in. “Remember Jack Ostellan?”
“It’s standard procedure to keep cyborgs cuffed during interviews. Remember Cora Kinsley?”
Greenwald curled his lip. “Time is precious. Let’s get on with this.”
“Thank you.” Jansen cleared his throat, turning to me. “Mr. Lee, we are here to establish the facts of the case.”
“I told Officer Bronson everything,” I replied.
My voice cracked. In the quarter-day between my request for a lawyer and the moment Greenwald stepped in, I had said nothing and drunk even less. Jansen had brought in a cup of water, and I sipped slowly at it.
“You told her what happened during the incident,” Jansen said. “What I’m here to do is establish the wider context.”
“Fine. Ask your questions,” I said.
“Let’s get the formalities out of the way.” Jansen set a thick black notebook and a blue pen on the table. He recited the time and date of the interview for the recording devices in the interview room, followed by the usual minutiae of who was present and what they did. He ended it with a boilerplate warning.
“Mr. Lee, you are on record as a Tier One conjurer. You are formally advised to refrain from using magic. The room is warded against magic, and any attempt to break the ward will be viewed as an escape attempt. Do you understand?”
The ward’s energies thrummed in my blood and bones, disrupting the flow of mana. It was an itch under my skin I couldn’t scratch. I could break the ward, eventually, but there wasn’t a point.
“Yes.”
“Excellent.” He flipped his notebook open and clicked the pen. “Let’s begin. Why were you and Mr. Hanson at the scene of the incident?”
“We were fulfilling our contract to your department.”
“What were you hired to do?”
“Solve a murder.”

Violent death leaves a mark. Lingering impressions of fear, despair and anger oozed down the hallway as I approached the victims’ apartment. I didn’t have to see the bodies to know they had died hard.
An achizotz in a gray trench coat guarded the crime scene, pointed ears swiveling in every direction. As he sized me up, his coat parted slightly, revealing a badge clipped to his belt.
“Are you Dominic Lee?” he asked. His voice was unnaturally low for an achizotz, like a boy on the cusp of puberty.
“Yes. You must be Detective Kantun.”
The achizotz nodded tersely, extending his paw. I shook it hard, once. His coat was cut to emphasize his lean musculature, flaring out along the armpits to accommodate the vestigial membranes that, thousands of years ago, could have served as wings.
“We moved out the bodies, but otherwise we preserved the crime scene,” Kantun said.
“You’ve got samples of the people who walked the scene?”
Kantun unrolled a LokSak from a pocket. Inside were many smaller baggies, each holding locks of hair.
“You call that ‘preserved the scene’?” I asked.
“It was messy. We needed more people than usual to handle it. You’re Tier One, you can handle it.”
“I don’t need the additional complications. Your hair’s in there too?”
“Yup.” His eyes narrowed. “And I’ll be taking it back when you’re done.”
Conjurers could do many things with a lock of hair. Not all of them benign.
“Suits me.” I stuffed the LokSak into my backpack.
“What can you tell me about the crime?”
“Two vics. Male human, forty-eight, and female elf, twenty. He’s Gerald Vandemeer, senior manager at RKC Biosoft’s bionics division. She’s Stella Rowan, part-time actress, third-year theatre studies major in the University of New Haven. The killer picked the door lock—we found scratches on it—and did his thing.” Kantun’s mouth twitched. “Ms Rowan is the registered homeowner, but Mr. Vandemeer pays the bills. Mr. Vandemeer is also married, two kids. You can connect the dots.”
“Cause of death?”
“Exsanguination caused by—”
“In English.”
He chuckled, exposing rows of sharp, tiny teeth. “Someone cut their throats, ripped out their guts, removed their hearts and cracked their skulls. No defensive wounds.”
“Werewolf crime syndicates like to rub out traitors and screw-ups this way.”
It had been hundreds of years since the Cataclysm that had squashed several worlds together into this one, but some cultural practices died hard.
“While the victims are still alive,” Kantun said. “Not here. No way could the killer have done all that damage without attracting attention. He must have killed them quick and clean, and did all the messy stuff later. Oh, before you ask, the killer cleaned up after himself too. Forensics couldn’t find anything useful, not even a hair or fingerprint.”
“That’s why I’m here. Time of death?”
“Eight p.m.”
“Eight? And when did you arrive?”
“Neighbors discovered the scene at eight twenty-three. Crime scene established by nine-fifteen.”
“Detective, it’s close to ten in the morning. I got the call a half hour ago. What happened between then and now?”
His fists went to his hips. “You’re asking the wrong person. I worked the scene until midnight, then went off to handle three more cases before coming back here.”
“Don’t you have in-house conjurers?”
I would have been one of them, but the NHPD took budget cuts shortly after my application. However, the blues are always looking capable theurgists, and the cuts didn’t extend to ‘consultation fees’.
“They caught other cases.” He crossed his arms. “Forensics argued all night before the chief approved your contract.”
I shook my head. “The older the scene, the colder the trail.”
“Hey, that’s why independents like you get paid the big bucks.”
I sighed. “Show me the crime scene.”
He opened the door with a gloved hand. An iron tang wafted out, mingling with the scent of feces and fresh soap. My stomach churned, but I’d seen worse, in another life, in a desert far away.
As I walked in, the detective said, “You’re a cyborg right? I can hear your limbs hissing.”
“I am.”
“And you’re a Tier One? Doesn’t magic screw with tech?”
“Arcanengineering has gone a long way.”
“Still can’t match natural Tier Ones. Why’d you get yourself chromed?”
“Not my choice. Just the best of bad options.”
He looked at me expectantly, as though waiting for an elaboration. Millennia later, he shrugged, and I breezed past him.
The apartment was a mess. Old, flaking blood covered the walls and floor. Most of it was spattered across the futon in the middle of the room. Little plastic tags marked points of interest. But the rest of the house was relatively untouched. The killer came in to do just one thing.
Finding a clean spot in the middle of the room, I sank into a lotus position, closed my eyes, and breathed. When my mind stilled, I opened my eyes, and with them my astral sight.
Multicolored streams and clouds swirled around me, becoming fuzzy figures and objects. The clearest one I saw was a golden-white head and torso, with faint dark arms and legs, striding into the apartment. That was me. Locking on to the door, I looked back into the past, to the moments leading to the kill.
Two faint orange-hued subjects entered the apartment. One tall and soft around the middle, the other svelte and taller. They made a beeline for the bed, dumping their clothes across the floor. The sounds of their lovemaking drifted across time and space to reach my ears. Long minutes later, the door flung open to admit—
Nobody.
I looked at the bed. Nothing. There was no trace of their presence, no record of what had happened.
I skipped forward through the nothingness. The door closed. It opened again, stayed open for a moment, and swung back without fully closing. Later, a human female opened the door, looked in and screamed. Then the cops arrived.
The killer must have used a cleanser, a spell to wipe all traces of an astral presence. Every Gifted individual learns how to cleanse an area in preparation for a magical working, and these days, mundanes can buy one-time cleansers from a talismonger or download a cleansing app on a smartscroll. The killer wasn’t a complete idiot.
I left the apartment. Kantun was stifling a yawn. Achizotzes were nocturnal, making them ideal night-shifters. It used to mean something before the advent of the 24/7 workweek.
“Found anything?” he asked.
“Still looking,” I said, and cast my gaze out into the hallway.
“Looking for what?”
“Traces. Quiet. Need to concentrate.”
He grunted an acknowledgement as I sat down.
It was harder out in the hallway. It was filled with interlocking mana streams, blending into a giant undifferentiated bog. I picked my way through them one by one. Most were too old or too fresh, and those I ignored. Of the ones that fell within the timeline of the murder, I compared against the hair samples Kantun had provided. I parsed out the victims, the cops, witnesses, bystanders, media…
“Detective,” I called.
“Yeah?”
“Four killers,” I said. “Not one.”
“How—”
“Sloppy.” Time was, I could hold a full conversation while maintaining my astral sight. Now I had to strain just to keep the streams from fading from view. “They cast a cleanser inside the apartment. Not outside. Got them coming and going.”
“What do you see?”
“Don’t know, too muddled to make the details. Follow me.”
I followed the astral trail, and he followed me. I lost it inside the elevator. Took a wild guess and headed to the first floor.
The lobby was a chaotic mess of dispersed energies. Even when I was in top form, I would have trouble picking them out. I breathed deep, took my time and…
Found one. More coherent than the others. I could tell he was male and roughly humanoid. I followed the stream out the door and the trail went cold. Between the sidewalk traffic and the sun, the trail was scattered beyond reconstruction.
“Well?” Kantun asked as I backed up into the lobby.
I stretched. “Time for magic.”
I set my bag down and returned the LokSak. Normally I’d cast a cleanser, but I didn’t want to disturb the scene. I used a different approach.
I reached into my pants pocket, unfurled my Samsung Cosmos smartscroll and touched my SpiritCall app. Glyphs crawled across the screen, and the device grew warm. I breathed fast and deep, charging up with mana, and spoke.
“Asahail, ye of the sun and sky! Asahail, ye who fly on golden wings! Asahail, ye who gathers the wind! Come to me and answer my call!”
A loud crack split the air. A sylph materialized above the central glyph. Its mana capacitors exhausted, the smartscroll powered down the glyphs. The sylph darted towards me, her wings buzzing, leaving a trail of pastel sparkles.
“Hiiiiiiiii!” she said. “You called?”
“Yes. I want to hire you and your family.”
“Yay!” she squealed, dancing around my head. “What work you need? Cleaning? Airing? Finding?”
“Finding.”
“Ooh, we like finding! What you want found? We can find it, we can!”
I pointed at the trail I’d found. “You see that? That’s a bad guy. I need him found before he can hurt someone else.”
“We’re on it! Payment?”
I unzipped my bag slowly, letting her peek over my shoulder. From an interior admin pouch I took out a lighter, a tiny plastic plate and a book of incense coils. I set the plate on the floor, and gingerly placed a coil on the plate.
The sylph took a big sniff. “Our favorite! More, more!”
“I’ve got another for you when you’re done.”
“Okay, okay, um, wait! No food and drink?”
“Well, I’ve got water and energy bars in my bag.”
“No, no, no!” she whined. “Wine! Muffins!”
“I gave you some on Monday.”
“Monday is Monday, today is today. No pay, no work!”
“The goods I get for you is top-grade stuff. But you can’t get them just anywhere. I can get them for you, but after you find the target.”
“No, now, now, now!”
I shrugged. “Fine. So you don’t want the incense too.”
“No incense? But—”
“I have incense now. I can give you food and drink later. If you refuse my offer, then I’m not going to give you anything.”
She sighed dramatically. “Okay, okay. Incense now, food and drink later. We have deal.”
I lit the coil. The sylph whooped in joy and spun round and round. Two, five, and then twenty sylphs appeared, swarming the coil and absorbing its essence. Moments later, the coil collapsed into a cloud of inert dust, and the sylphs vanished. I put my kit away, dumping the ash into a trash can.
“Neat trick,” Kantun said. “You can download that app for, what, nine-ninety-nine?”
“That, and four years in the Academy lets you hire spirits without them screwing you over.”
He shrugged. “If you say so.”
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For more tales of magic, fantasy and high tech, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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