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I


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, slowly, 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.

There was that hunting cat again. I reminded myself for maybe the hundredth time that I never wanted to become her prey. Cash was just about the best cop I knew, the best I'd ever known, smart and tough and dedicated, with that twisty edge to be able to follow twisty minds and catch them, able to step back from a problem and tell where the "book" would work and where it wouldn't. She made me proud — I'd helped train her, the first couple of years out of college and the police academy, before she moved on to the state force. Yeah, if she thought she needed me on a case, I'd go.

She'd parked her cruiser at the curb, smack in the middle of a no-parking zone, but the meter-maid would ignore it. Professional courtesy. I relaxed a touch — the Professional Regulation unit still used those big old-model Crown Victorias.

The rest of the State Patrol had switched to downsized cruisers, but I guess some rare genius remembered just what "Professional Regulation" did and who they worked with. The shotgun seat up front was a custom job and sat on extended rails, enough room for a big butt and big belly, and they'd mounted the radio head clear of my knees.

She cranked it and pulled out into thin traffic, windshield wipers thumping, left and right and a couple of blocks and right again down toward the waterfront, she stopped at a light and turned to me.

"You and Sandy still getting together?"

Odd question, no context. I nodded. Sandy. Sandra Cormier, classmate to Maggie and me at college, roommate of Maggie's. The funny thing was I started out dating Sandy and ended up with Maggie in the silly bed-hopping of our freshman and sophomore years. We'd eased back to being friends again after a period of Category 5 hurricanes, practically a three-way, but Maggie was just more comfortable to be with. I never could have lived with Sandy, even though the sex had been good.

Couldn't live with her now, but the sex was still good, even at our age. Wizards and witches usually live alone — that mental noise thing, again. Anyway, Sandy showed up at my apartment door one evening a week after Maggie's sentencing. She told me she was taking me out for drinks and she'd lay a compulsion on me if I didn't come along quietly.

I didn't argue. A drink or two or ten sounded like a good idea. We ended up in bed, of course, crying all over each other. She filled a hole in my life, if you don't mind cross-gendered innuendos.

II


We pulled up to that crime-scene tape, went inside, and I found a bunch of nasty memories risen all too solid from their grave. I sniffed along Kratz's trail through rat-piss shadows and trash in the warehouse to another kicked-in door that led out into cold drizzle and a dark musty alley, the sort of place your mother warned you to stay out of. I could feel that the place was empty, safe except for the chance of breaking an ankle in a pothole hidden by the shadows.

One thing caught my eye, out of place, a bit of red spray-paint graffiti next to that door. It looked fresher than the rest, almost new, and splashed a Russian Orthodox cross over the grime, the one with the extra cross-bar at the top and a third one lower at a slant. It didn't fit. I stepped over to it and sniffed. Yes, fresh paint, day old or less. But I didn't sense magic involved, no signature, just paint. I waved at one of the forensic photographers and pointed at the cross. She gave me a thumbs-up back. Either they already had it or would get it, no sweat. They knew their jobs.

So I headed out. Cash followed me, a ghost in the twilight, keeping well back beyond the edge of my space, my touch. She knew how far — we'd worked this two-legged bloodhound bit a dozen times before. The buzzing residue vanished into wet night air. No surprise there. Kratz had been crazy, but nobody ever claimed he was stupid. He could break his trail just by climbing into a car and driving off.

A big car, probably, like my old Lincoln, which didn't narrow the search a hell of a lot. He'd been just as fat as the average high-powered mage. We'd guessed that was why his miserable carcass had burned as well as it had.

Or hadn't, it seemed. Maybe he'd soaked some graveyard bone in his own blood, to provide that DNA for the lab-rats to tease out of the ash. Other tricks he could have tried, now that I had to think about it, wizard tricks. We'd been so sure . . . .

I stood there, staring into the dark drizzle, wondering. Cash came out of the shadows behind me and stood there, doing the same thing. Finally she broke the silence. "Any chance we've got a copycat?"

I shook my head. "After all these years? Copycats usually do current stuff, newspaper stuff. And it'd have to be someone on the force or with contacts inside the force. Details — things about the crime scenes that never made the papers." As if a newspaper would ever print those pictures. Talk about killing circulation.

"More than that, the bastard had one of the most distinctive signatures I've ever tasted — part of being a certified psychopath, I guess. Best I can describe it, he'd set your teeth on edge, sort of like a mistuned violin played by a beginner. Or maybe a twin-engine plane with the engines out of sync — a beat-note that made you want to puke just listening to it."

She mulled that over for a while. I could hear the straight forensics guys and the local force's current mage working inside, pointing out this and that to each other, bagging chunks from the butcher's shop and shining UV light around and placing numbered tags on spots of blood, all the other stuff you do on a crime scene these days. Occasional bits of strobe flash leaked out to us in the alley, depending on their aim. I'd been there so many times, I could see them working just by the sounds.

I broke the silence. "Can you get me copies of the ME's report, the lab work, photos, the whole nine yards?"

"Be a hell of a lot easier if you took the Colonel up on his offer. With the diplomatic courier angle, we can claim an interest. If the FBI doesn't shove us all to one side and clamp down in the name of National Security."

"Forget about that state patrol job. I never wanted to be a boss. Bureaucratic baloney up the ass. I don't even like giving orders to myself."

That drew another shrug, barely visible in the darkness. "Your karma. Like I said, we need you. Last I heard, the state hadn't passed a law that says we can draft you." She stood there in the shadows, silent. Then, "I wonder where he was hiding for all those years."

That question had been bothering me, as well. "Must have been out of the country. Back when, we never went more than a year without hearing from him, seeing his MO. At that, I wonder if we found half his victims. Sometimes the bastard would call one of us up in the middle of the night and tell us where to look. Taunting."

Cash was no dummy, not a thickskulled Watson to serve as a foil for my brilliant Holmes. She'd earned her rank and then some, a black woman in a white-male cop's world. She jumped right over my words and finished the thought.

"To hell with where he went — why'd he come back? I can name a couple dozen places where he could play to his twisted little heart's content and nobody would care. Care? Hell, some countries, the government thugs would hire him."

She stopped and stared at me. I stared back. She nodded as another piece clicked into place. It didn't make the jigsaw puzzle any prettier, though.

"Be real useful if you could find out what John Doe in there was carrying." I was the one who said it, but we both hit the finish line together.

"Anything else I need to see?"

She thought about it for a moment and shook her head. "Nah. The city's latest witch-sniffer knows his stuff. He just doesn't have your memory."

Sometimes I wished I didn't have my memory. "I didn't recognize him. Where's he from?"

"Heard he went to Penn State on GI benefits and then got a job with the New Orleans force. Got tired of his weekly dose of vampire hoaxes and all-too-real Voodoo. Yankee white-boy, never got into that gris-gris world, no taste for gumbo or for chicory in his coffee. Name's Pennington. Been up here for two years now."

Ouch. Two years on the local force, and I didn't recognize him. I'd been living under a rock since Maggie's trial.

Cash read my mind. "Pull yo' head out of yo' ass, honkey." She only revved up that street-jive when she wanted to slap sense into someone. "Your girlfriend screwed up and left her signature on a magical crime. You've been in a funk ever since. Five other mages testified against Maggie Driscoll, and then there was the physical evidence. You didn't put her in the Big House. She put herself there."

I couldn't see any point in arguing, so I started hiking back to her cruiser. Everything else in Maggie's case had been circumstantial. The evidence could have pointed in ten different directions, pointed to ten different people. I had to be the one who tied it all up in one neat package with her name dangling from the bow.

I decided to change the subject. "What's with the super-cop costume? Your colonel's gone all starch and polish? Last time I saw you on a case, you were wearing a track suit and running shoes."

"Recruit graduation at the Academy this morning, putting on a show for the new kids. Boss said we had to look like real cops, even if we think we're prime-time TV prima-donnas. Heard the call for this mess before I got home to change, then headed straight over to your office when I saw what they'd found."

Around the corner of the warehouse, the city cruisers and mobile lab still waited in spitting rain, flashers blinking blue light off the walls and broken glass and wet pavement. It made a depressing scene, one that I'd walked through about a hundred times too many, on my way to or from something Al Kratz or his spiritual kin left behind. Over twenty years of somethings. That was what had really burned me out. Maggie had just underlined it. The last straw, like I said.

Hell, Kratz hadn't even been the worst. Top rank for that went to a perp we couldn't prosecute, a "national security" case where the Feds confiscated our files and damn near confiscated our brains as well. I was lucky to still be walking the street rather than living on some quiet island with a minder from the CIA or the NSA running my shit through a gas-chromatograph to make sure I wasn't slipping out chemically-coded messages through the sewer outfall.

I shook off those thoughts. Cash was staring at me, like she'd read my mind again. I wondered if she actually was sensitive, if the testing had missed something. The answer, of course, was "no" — Cash was just a sharp and observant woman, sharp as a shiny new razor blade.

She lifted a hand off the cruiser door and waved an apology. "Look, man, I'm sorry to drag you into this. I know it hurts. If I could do the things you do, I'd leave you dozing in the sun."

I opened the passenger door and heaved myself inside, settling into that custom seat. "Yeah. And if you could do the things I do, you wouldn't be wearing that uniform. You'd be open to a couple-dozen attacks that won't affect a normal person. And they'd never trust you with anything more important than the access codes to the copier. That's why they ran you through testing until you wept blood before they'd let you on the unit. Your Colonel is blowing smoke rings out his ass if he thinks he could ever get a trained wizard confirmed to captain on the State Patrol."

To most people, we're freaks. That is, if we're not straight-out Spawn of Satan complete with cloven hooves hidden in our shoes and tails tucked down our pants. Wizards, known or latent, make up maybe one percent of the population. They probably always have. Your average John Doe is scared shitless by magic, afraid of anyone who can use it. And fear breeds hate.

Besides, my abilities are a good-news, bad-news joke. You want to live to be eighty, ninety, or die at sixty of a stroke or heart attack or diabetes? That's the average natural life expectancy of a male wizard. Women stretch it another three years or so, just like normal people. Something about the scrambled connections in the corpus callosum or the other screwed-up bits in our brains, the way our bodies handle lipoproteins, other things.

And few wizards or witches reach a natural death.

Hell, if that new mage — Pennington, I glued the name into my memory with his face and "signature" — went to college on GI benefits, he must have slipped past pediatric testing and the enlistment physical or they never would have sworn him in. He probably manifested under combat stress and ended up with an instant discharge "for the good of the service." Army, Navy, Air Force, they're just as touchy about magic in the ranks as they are about homosexuals. Don't want some private getting pissed at his damnfool lieutenant and causing a little accident under fire.

Sure, they have mages in the service. Trained mages, officers in special units with straight commanders who keep a beady eagle-eye on everything they do. They wouldn't touch anyone who might go on to mage training after service.

Yeah, "queers" make a good comparison. Both of us live on the thin edge of what society will tolerate. Which side of that edge can change in a heartbeat. It colors everything we do.

"You want me to drop you off at your office or your apartment?"

Cash broke me out of dark thoughts. She'd driven us all the way back uptown in that little reverie, smooth and competent and silent like everything she did. I could get used to having that kind of woman around. But any "relationship" with a wizard could kill her career just as dead as if she could levitate a paperclip.

"Apartment, please. I was about to knock off for the day when you showed up." And I didn't feel like dragging this mood into Charlie's Bar and Grill — nice guy, he didn't deserve my dark cloud chasing off the paying customers. And I had beer in the fridge.

Beer, or maybe a shot or five of Jack Daniels. I could still taste Kratz in the back of my throat. That bastard's stink hung around like a skunk's spray.

A couple more turns, and she pulled the cruiser over to the curb in front of my apartment. She'd driven to the precise point where she had to make a choice before breaking into my thoughts. I still wondered if the state testing had missed something.

Not my problem.

We sat there for a minute, then two, then three. I was chewing on bad thoughts and figured Cash was. But she turned to me and cocked her head to one side.

"You ever hear from Maggie?"

Not what I expected. But she'd known and worked a lot with both of us, back when. "You think that's likely? She's doing ten to twenty behind copper mesh and cold iron, and I'm the one who put her there. Sorta drives the nails into the old relationship coffin."

Hell of it was, I did hear from her every few weeks, letters on prison stationery with bits censored and the "signature" of some mage or another on the paper telling me that The Man still felt nervous about her record and her skills. She didn't seem to carry a grudge. I would have.

And she still claimed she was innocent.

I unbuckled the seatbelt, started to hoist myself out of the cruiser, and Cash reached across to touch my wrist. "I'll pass those reports on to you, soon as we get 'em. And about your Kratz MO — someone called that corpse in, anonymous. From a pay phone. Just like you said he used to do, when he felt like thumbing his nose at the cops."

She was strictly business, from the words and tone. Something besides business lurked in her touch and in her eyes. She wasn't afraid of magic.

She'd had a schoolgirl crush on me when I was training her as a rookie cop. Damned if I know why. Totally off-limits in about five ways, and I'd ignored every signal she'd sent. Then she went off to the state unit, and I'd filed it away as a closed case. Maybe it wasn't. She wasn't afraid of the scandal a white man and a black woman would cause, either. But that social stigma had faded a lot since I was young. Maybe the human race was proving it could evolve at least a little.

A fat, balding old man with a skinny attractive young woman of any color, now — that bit of back-biting was still alive and well. She didn't need that. I didn't, either. No way I was going to follow up on what she seemed to be offering.

"Thanks. I don't have a clue how I'm going to move on this. Sit and think for a few days, probably. Took us almost ten years to nail him, last time. The bastard may be crazy, but he's crazy like a fox. He won't make the same mistakes twice."

And then there was the government angle, whatever government it was. I didn't need that complication.

She looked me in the eyes, a slight smile on her lips. She knew what she was doing and knew I knew. A dangerous woman in several senses of the word. "See you around."

Her cruiser pulled away with a growl of muted power and left me on the wet sidewalk in front of my apartment. Left me with the taste of Al Kratz still buzzing in the back of my throat.

I shook my head. I didn't need any of these complications. Maybe enough sour-mash whisky would wash that taste from my mouth. Taste. I shouldn't still be remembering it, carrying it. I stopped mooning over Nef Cash. I sniffed — damp November air, chilly, drizzle still threatening to turn into something else. Wet pavement smell, exhaust from the cruiser, the earthy scent of autumn leaves blown in from the park, a waft of scorched garlic from the Chinese restaurant in the next block.

Al Kratz.

Not memory. Here. Faint, as if he'd passed an hour or two ago. My address was in the phone book. I never saw the need for an unlisted number, even when I was on the force. Now, private practice, I wanted people to be able to call me outside of office hours if they had a problem.

And Al Kratz knew who'd nailed him the last time.

I stepped across to the outer door of the apartment building. His signature polluted the door knob. And you wouldn't need to be a wizard to get through the electric inner lock. Just buzz apartments until someone hit the release, a move straight out of a hundred detective novels.

He'd have more trouble getting into my place, but he could do it. Any security system, electronic or wizardly, just raises the price of admission, slows down or scares off the amateurs. Al Kratz hadn't been an amateur since he was maybe six.

Like, when he ended up in an orphanage after butchering his parents in a tantrum and burning the house down around their corpses. Of course, we hadn't figured that out until we reviewed the records with twenty years of hindsight.

I checked my left armpit, out of reflex, and found nothing there. I'd pretty much quit carrying when I got off the force, even though I still had the license. I kept one SIG at the office, another in the apartment. When Cash showed up, I hadn't bothered to dig out the shoulder holster and load up. She was a better shot than I'd ever be, and she'd made it plain we were going to a crime scene rather than a crime.

Now I felt naked. In a fight between two wizards, a 9mm slug can tip the balance one way or the other. At times like that, a two-pound lump of metal in your fist or at least hanging under your left armpit feels awfully comforting.

My apartment faced the back of the building, faced the parking lot. If I went back there to get the Lincoln, he could see me. I don't drive much, anyway. When I retired from the force, I tracked down an office within walking distance of my apartment. I need to keep some muscles in working order.

I started hiking for the office and sniffing, watching out for Kratz, thinking. I could call dispatch to have Cash swing back and pick me up.

And have everyone with a cop radio gossiping about how I dreamed up an excuse to have her come over to my place.

I could get another backup, even a beat cop to go in with me and cover my ass.

And add him to the body count. A beat cop, even a seasoned precinct sergeant, against Kratz? Worse than useless. I'd need another wizard, at the least. I couldn't pull . . . Pennington . . . off his crime scene. Didn't know anyone else to call, except Sandy. Wasn't going to drag her into this.

I tested the door of my office building. There he was again, a slight touch of that off-key vibration, older than at the apartment, still enough to set my teeth on edge and make my ass-cheeks clench. Up the stairs, following his trail, my office sat quiet, shut, dark, no sense of tampering with either electronic or magical alarms, but he'd been there too, at least as far as the door. I couldn't feel him inside. I didn't think I could trust that feeling very far, not with Albert Kratz.

I touched this and that before sliding my key into the lock, and still stepped to one side and into shadow when I opened the door. Nothing happened. That was exactly what I'd hoped.

Three quick long steps carried me through the darkness and my desk drawer slid open and I had the SIG in my hand, shoving a magazine home and jacking a round into the chamber and squatting behind the oak desk with its Kevlar panel armor and feeling foolish.

The empty room laughed at me. Foolish beat the hell out of feeling dead. Or maybe not — nobody has ever given evidence on what feeling dead feels like. I'll try to let you know when I get data.

The heavy 9mm auto with the high-capacity "cops only" magazine settled comfortably into my fist and reminded me that I preferred to wait on finding out. I switched on the light and checked all the corners and the toilet before I relaxed. I didn't throw my shadow on the windows doing it. That's how I've lived long enough to get fat and balding and retired.

He hadn't been inside the office. The stink ended at the door, ended at his hand on the knob. I'd have bet good money he'd been checking to see if he could feel me inside.

Or maybe he'd left the traces to taunt me. That's the thing with psychopaths. For some of them, like Kratz, it makes their day to play to an audience. Just being clever inside their own brains isn't good enough.

I shrugged into the shoulder holster and anchored it to my belt, the old routine of buckling a knight into his armor before battle. I checked the SIG before holstering it, and added a spare magazine to each front pocket of the Burberry. And wished I had been paranoid enough to bid on a Kevlar vest at the same time I bought that desk at a police-surplus auction.

Then I headed back downstairs, back out on the cold wet dark of the streets, back hiking through the blocks and turns and blocks and turns, to the side entry of my apartment building. I couldn't feel any touch of Kratz on this one, even after I sniffed my best sniffs just in case he'd left any little presents waiting inside. I took a deep breath, settled my head, and mapped each step of my route through the door and up the stairs to find out what the hell the bastard had in mind.

I'd done that a hundred times, carrying a badge, but this time I didn't have anyone for backup.



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