Bargaining, Day 3

The situation was bad. Not just the standard localized-apocalypse-bad. No, more along the lines of impending humiliation of the career-ending sort bad.

To help you understand exactly why the situation was so bad, I first need to tell you about dragons.

Dragons are the world’s largest cockroaches. The biggest pain that anyone could have as a housemate. Hoarders like you wouldn’t believe, naturally. Old, powerful, and ornery. Incorrigible cheats at cards. And those are just the big ones.

The little ones are rarer. Unlike their larger cousins, the smaller species of dragon got the short end of the evolutionary stick. Used to be that they were farmed for their skin, unscrupulous companies going out of their way to provide real dragon-leather products. Until their farming practices got out of hand and made national news when one of their factories burned down, releasing a plague of the little buggers all over the midwest.

Long story short, people got outraged, strong words were thrown around, and some famous people threw a metric shit-ton of money at lobbyists. Now, any dragon naturally under fifty pounds is a protected species, which means that if it should decide that, I dunno, your living room is its new lair, you may as well resign yourself to having an unruly houseguest who steals all the silverware.

The little ones aren’t sentient like the larger variants. Like I said, short evolutionary stick. They are about as smart as a clever bird, and can learn to mimic words about as well. So, you’ve got a three-foot-long unnaturally lightweight reptilian parrot, sometimes with the capacity to project a dazzling variety of dangerous substances from their mouths, sometimes merely in possession of inch-long fangs, always possessed of greed that would put an international bank to shame. Make it more territorial than a polar bear and about half as cuddly, and you begin to understand why Animal Control “loses” so many reports of them.

How their biology works is the subject of much speculation, but considering that people have been doing autopsies on them for decades without learning anything new, most assume that they act as portals for malicious forces to throw out whatever caustic garbage they feel like making the dragon spew forth. In other words, the general consensus is *jazz hands* MAGIC.

As a result, most people just accept that the dragon is now a part of their daily routine unless they can distract it with something sufficiently shiny long enough to relocate it beyond its territorial instinct. If that doesn’t work, they’re there to stay until they get bored.

Now, if you haven’t worked out how all of this is relevant yet, let me give you another hint: The ring wasn’t at either of the convenience stores


“Nice dragon… I just need to get some cereal… Not going to hurt you,” I muttered as I edged towards a display of some fruit-flavored nonsense.

The subject of my baby-talk apparently did not approve, as it hissed in a voice halfway between an alley-cat and an iguana. On the plus side, I neither burst into flames nor got covered in acidic bile, so it seemed likely that the array of spines that currently stood at attention in a crest along its back were the biggest threat about Vegas’s own Cereal Aisle Dragon. I wouldn’t know, I hadn’t thought much about it when it had moved in about two years ago. I had payed even less mind when the store made it a tourist attraction. When people actually started to come and see it, I just stopped shopping here altogether.

These same tourists were now gathered at both ends of the aisle, peering in with amusement and taking photos on their cell phone of the scene before them. A pug-sized nightmare of terror and legal repercussions atop a mound of sugar-covered pieces and plastic-wrapped knick-knacks, squaring off against the stupid soon-to-be bipedal hamburger who decided to cross the safety line against the protests of the uniform-clad wage slave. Hamburger played by moi. Shows at nine and eleven.

“Come on, you little,” I muttered louder, making a swipe at an abandoned bag. I managed to jerk my hand out of the way before the jaws of the hellbeast snapped shut inches from where my appendage had just been.

“Nnno! Mmmmine!” It growled, its voice filled with the strange trilling and tongue-clicking of a bird imitating speech. I was honestly surprised that it could talk, let alone use words properly.

“Nice dragon… I don’t want your hoard… Just the useless shinies…” I reached once more for the opposite side of the mound, only to again be driven back in a flurry of violence.

“Mmmine! Tttthhhief!”

“To hell with this,” I muttered, straightening and crossing the safety line again. Sure enough, once I was over the yellow stripe, the beast’s crest immediately relaxed as it curled around its pile once more.

“Hey. You,” I said, pointing at the bedraggled employee. “Can’t you sedate it or something?”

“Sorry sir, that would be against store policy,” The kid drawled in the half-annoyed half-tired dialect of the criminally underpaid.

“Okay,” I said, careful not to grit my teeth. After all, it wasn’t the kid’s fault, and on top of the dragon, he had to deal with crazy tourists all day anyway. I was just on the receiving end of his misguided angst. No sense taking out my own frustrations on him. “So, tell me. How do you clean up the aisle and restock normally? Or even fetch items for customers?”

The employee gestured disinterestedly at a plaque that bore a long-handled stick, with both broom and manipulator attachments.

“Doesn’t it attack that?”

“Better it than us.”

“Fine. Can I use it?”

“Sorry sir, employees only.”

“Alright, fine. How do you suggest I get something from the dragon?”

“Ask nicely?” He said, words dripping with sarcasm. Almost as a counterpoint to his words, the dragon raised its head and growled at a small child walking close to the line.


“Look sir, if you need something, just tell me what it is, and I’ll get it for you.”

“Ok, sure. I need that box.”

He got down the telescoping stick, and retrieved it. One might even go so far as to say promptly. Unfortunately, when I ripped open the box, no ring.

“You’re going to have to pay for that,” He informed me casually.

“Fine, fine. Get the next box.”

“What?” He blinked in confusion.

“Next box please.”


As it turns out, the next box didn’t have the ring either. Nor did any of the three following. This wasn’t working fast enough, and the dragon was getting ornery enough to snap at the stick any time it neared the yellow line.

So, I looked for another angle. My watch was pretty shiny. Maybe not shiny enough to hold the dragons attention for long, but hey. Some of us have better things to do with our time than polish watch-bands. So it might buy me five seconds.

I couldn’t search through much cereal in five seconds, assuming even that the ring was somewhere in its “hoard”. If it was in one of the boxes, I was worse than screwed. So, after the distraction, I needed a trap. Something to hold the dragon without hurting it while I searched. Something like…

“Thank god for velcro,” I muttered as I reached over and yanked the apron bodily off the employee.

“Ow, what the hell?”

I ignored him as I crossed the line once more, to the hissing protest of my quarry. I couldn’t afford to lose focus now. I let the apron fall in a cascade from one hand as I unstrapped my watch from my wrist using my teeth. It dropped into my free hand, where I rotated it slowly to catch the crappy fluorescent light. I almost squealed with glee as I saw the dragon’s head snap to regard the shiny object, following it with his eyes like a cat with a lazer pointer. The hungry look in those malevolent orbs was promising.

“Easy, easy…” I chanted, walking closer. The overgrown lizard flexed its impossible wings, but did not leave its pile or tear its gaze from the watch.

“There’s a good dragon,” I said under my breath as I reached out to snare the spines with the apron.

It was going to work!

Bargaining, Day 2

Alright. I’ll admit it. Taking this case? Probably not the smartest move. In my defense, the money looked good. Really good actually. Stupidly good, when you consider that it was to be my first paycheck in, what will it have been, three months?

Yeah… At that point I was lucky to get by on savings and a few clever investments. All things considered, I wasn’t doing too bad. I could probably have made the money I had stretch another month, but I’d had enough ramen during college that when I wanted a burger, I went out and got a burger. So sue me.

Anyway, taking leave of my better judgement, I missed my opportunity to just pack up and make a dash for the California border. I could have, mind. Let the government deal with the screw-up their bureaucracy had helped make. One might even call it poetic justice, seeing as the same bureaucrats cost me my job. But I stayed. I took the case, not wanting to lose the nice setup I had going, door straight out of a black-and-white-film and all.

And if I’m being honest, the money was REALLY good.

So, right off the bat, I’m sitting there with a folder full of evidence, and what should fall out but a human finger bone in a small evidence bag. Not pulled from a grave, or cleaned for a lab, but looking to be recently and violently severed. Recently being a relative term of course. I did up the preservative spells on the evidence bags myself. It could have been a hundred years old and I would be none the wiser, were it not for the extensive notes by the coroner that came included in the envelope. Ned’s cousin Franklin ran the precinct’s mortuary. Everyone who had never met him assumed nepotism. In reality, he just takes really, really good notes.

Notes which, properly applied, could mean the difference between success and failure in this case. I’m a fair hand with basic hedge-magic, but when you’ve seen what a real professional can do, I might as well be a fortune telling machine that eats quarters in front of a carnival.

So, seeing as it was getting to be fairly late, I turned out the lights, hit the bed snoring, and in the morning, went to see Eliza.

Ah, Eliza. Now, if this was a Noir story, she’d fit right in. She has that sort of dark, mysterious beauty about her. Tall, lithe, perpetually in an evening gown of some sort or another with tasteful and complementary jewelry. She’s even a childhood friend of mine, which would make for the perfect inner monologue when she mysteriously arrived at my office door and invited herself in. We would talk, fight, make up, make love, and she would vanish in a haze of cigarette smoke leaving only her constant light aroma of cinnamon and cloves in the sheets to haunt me in the morning.

Of course, this being the real world, I was the one showing up at her office door, slightly disheveled from the morning bus. She and I had grown up constantly fighting, only really connecting when we both went to college. That same college where I introduced her to her wife.

Claire is a real piece of work. We got partnered up in one of the first Minor Magics courses of the year, took one look at each other, each of us in shorts and ratty t-shirts, and both promptly decided that we would be pulling all the weight for the semester. After the initial bumpiness, we hit it off, and since I couldn’t follow her much more advanced magic-lingo, I introduced her to Eliza. Three months later, I was the Best Man at their ceremony.

As I pushed open the door to Eliza’s office to the soft jingling of the shop-bell, I couldn’t help but recall helping her move into this place. Her parents had been less than pleased when I had shown up at their door to help her move out, seeing as they saw the whole situation as my fault. She comes from a fairly traditional Egyptian household, and I was the outsider who led their daughter astray. Sure, I was the one who had first gotten her into magic, I was the one that she trusted enough to come out to, I had bought her the absolutely ridiculous Halloween decorations that had turned her room into something from a haunted house. But the interest in deeper magics? The advanced degree and government certification in necromancy? All her.

Now, you might be thinking, necromancy? Dark robes, blood, and zombies? Well, yes and no. The existence of those sorts were what caused the Postmortem Certification Act to be passed in the first place, but because of the bad rep, few enough go through the bother of getting certified. They tend to just pass up on bone-rattling in favor of more PG-friendly brands of magic.

Practical necromancy usually goes one of two ways. The first is cheap manual labor, usually where the walking corpses in question can’t be seen by the public. Out of sight, out of mind, right? The other, which was the variety Eliza practiced, ended up being part medium, part grief counselor. As it turns out, literally being able to talk things out with the departed can make closure really easy for some. Especially considering that people tend to be a lot less worried about keeping secrets when they are dead.

That was just what I was betting on when I showed Eliza the finger…


“Seriously? That much? The catch being?”

“Well, you see, we’ve got three days. Starting from this morning.”


“Yeah. On the plus side, it means that Uncle Sam is paying your rush rates.”

“Rush rates or no, you are damn lucky that I just happen to have everything I need,” Eliza said casually, flipping the evidence bag from hand to hand. She tossed it to the desk and turned to collect some jars from an old medicine cabinet. “Seriously, do you know how long the waiting period is for blessed embalming fluid?”

“Three weeks, with a one month sentence for bypassing it,” I said through a Cheshire grin, leaning back in the chair.

Eliza turned her head back to regard me with a raised eyebrow.

“Right, Criminal Justice.”

Supernatural Criminal Justice, thanks.”

“And the penalty for breaking the waiting period if the fluid is used for nefarious purposes?”

“Raised to a year, three if harm is caused,” I replied, smile holding. “Give me a hard one.”

“Well I’ll be damned. You were paying attention,” Eliza said with a small laugh. She turned back to her cabinet and began pulling selections from the shelves.

“I’ve been known to do that on occasion. But are the extras really necessary? I seem to recall you saying that they were mostly props.”

“Props with symbolism, sure,” Eliza shot back, setting her selections down near the ritual circle. As it turns out, ritual circles are a lot easier to keep permanent and portable if you laminate them. “Frankly, I don’t even know the guy’s name. This would be a hard summon on a good day, and if the government is footing the bill, I’m going to pull out all the stops.”

“Fair enough,” I said, my voice dropping to barely above a whisper as she set to chanting.

As I said previously, I’m just a dabbler. Eliza, as far as Vegas goes, is the big leagues. Watching a professional mage work from my level is like a high schooler being shown the inner workings of the LHC. So I can only roughly describe what was going on. There was a lot of words in some dead language or another, the circle started to glow halfway through, and then the spirit began materializing. I looked away at that point, because the spirit was a jerk and decided to manifest as a ghast.

Quick lesson. The government classification tends to put returned spirits in three categories, based on appearance. A poltergeist, or simply a geist, are invisible, often leading to hack mystics trying to fool tourists into paying them by claiming that they summon geists. A ghost looks like an image of the person as they saw themselves, generally photograph quality looks. A ghast, on the other hand, looks like the person did when they died. It is speculated, but unproven, that ghasts manifest when spirits are feeling particularly aggressive or uncooperative, which has definitely been my experience.

I looked away at this point because our nameless cultist, by the look of his robes, had not died prettily. If I had to venture a guess, blunt force trauma to the knees, multiple stab wounds, and immolation while doused in accelerant. All this from a brief two-and-a-half second glance.

Due to my looking away, I missed the question that Eliza asked it. What I didn’t miss was the sepulchral voice from beyond the grave telling her, using some very offensive terminology that I will not repeat, exactly where she could stick her requests. I was already halfway to the door when Eliza asked me to step out. Funny, how you could almost hear the steel-eyed gaze directed at the soon-to-be unfortunate soul.

Another reason that Eliza would fit the Noir story is that she puts the “Fatale” in Femme Fatale when pissed. She doesn’t anger easily, but the act of performing magic tends to leave one a little emotionally vulnerable during the fact, and to endure the specific slur the cultist used while under the influence of high-class necromancy… Well, I’m pretty sure the Buddha would have been ready to cut someone. In any case I really didn’t need to see the excruciations that a necromancer of Eliza’s skill could dish out on a belligerent ghast, and as such, I was quite thankful that the hall’s soundproofing was effective. Would have been hell on the neighbors otherwise, I’m sure.

After about fifteen minutes, Eliza opened the door, and I walked back in, deliberately ignoring the scorch mark that traced the edge of the laminated circle.

“Well,” She said tiredly. “I’ve got your info. You’re not going to like it though.”

“Try me.”

“The artifact you need to close the gate is a small ring with a colored stone in it.”

“Classic enough. What’s the problem?”

“The cult was holed up in the cereal packaging plant.”


“The stone needs to be within a certain distance of the gate for it to open,” She sat down heavily, rubbing her eyes. “And they needed to keep it in the area discreetly.”

“Still not seeing where the cereal comes in,” I said, taking the seat across from her.

She looked up with an exhausted smile. “Ever get one of those cereal bags with a plastic decoder ring inside?”

Judging by her sudden giggle, the horror of dawning comprehension must have been both visible and ridiculous on my face.

“They didn’t.”

“They totally did,” She said, stifling further giggles. “Plus side, I did pull of a tracker based on description alone. Got you a rough area at least.”

“Cool,” I said, regaining my compose as I drew a map of the city from my bag. “Can you circle…”

She already had the marker on the paper before I was finished, and highlighted three distinct spots in the circle she drew.

“Assuming that it hasn’t already been bought, it’ll be at either of these two convenience stores, or at this grocery store.”

“Great, thanks. I have time enough to get over there and check out the convenience stores today, but the grocery store will have to wait until tomorrow. That is, if I don’t find it today.”

“Here’s hoping,” She said, a mischievous glint in her tired eyes. One that I picked up on of course. I had only known here for our whole lives.

“What is it?” I sighed resignedly.

“It’s in a cereal box, right?” She said, holding in her mirth behind a serious face.

“Yessssssss?” I ventured.

“Take a closer look at which grocery store it is.”

“Which grocery store…” I muttered, turning back to the map. The name sort of rang a bell. Then, looking up at Eliza’s face as she weakly broke into the sort of manic giggles one normally only hears at 4-am after several drinks, the name clicked. I shot my eyes back to the map as Eliza gasped helplessly with suppressed laughter, hoping against hope that it wasn’t true.

No such luck.

“Heeeeeeeee,” Eliza squealed, sticking her face to the desk as her shoulders shook with tired giddiness.

“Oh fuck me.”

Urban Fantasy: Bargaining, Day 1

Before we begin, let me say something: I am not a very good Noir detective.

I don’t own a large coat, trench or otherwise. I’ve always thought that both fedoras and trilbys make the wearer look like they are trying way too hard. I take generally good care of my combination office/apartment. I wasn’t kicked off the force, but rather laid off due to budget cuts and a consultant not really seeing the need for a “Supernatural Crimes” division. I passed on picking up smoking, and don’t own a liquor cabinet. The last time a sultry femme fatale wandered into my office with a sob story that would inevitably lead to us sleeping together was, let’s see, never. The list goes on.

All the same, I do love me a good Noir intro. Which is why it is a huge disappointment, when Ned called ahead, scheduled an appointment, and showed up on time like a normal human being. Admittedly, this also meant that I had time to change rather than literally being caught with my pants down, so, you know, small mercies.

Here’s the thing about Ned. I could go off on the force here in Vegas, how they are all either neck-deep in the casinos’ pockets or just so apathetic that the paperwork doesn’t even get filed right, but Ned has his head screwed on straight. He’s one of the good ones, minding the law and seeing that it is carried out in such a manner that people actually get helped. He follows the law as though it were testament, and expects the same from others. When they inevitably disappoint, he quietly makes sure they meet justice with such efficiency that the overall process is just boring enough to avoid becoming a newspaper headline. Metaphorically speaking of course. I can’t even remember the last time that I saw someone reading a physical newspaper.

Which is why it was such a surprise to me when he brought me this case.


“So, let me just make sure I’m getting this right,” I said, leaning over my desk and massaging my temples. “A cult, which somehow managed to fly under the radar on the Strip of all places, manages to get off a ritual to open a portal to some unspecified Chaos dimension without setting off any of the city wards.”

“Yup,” Ned offered, blowing steam lightly off the surface of the paper cup of crappy office coffee.

“Said ritual happened all of, what was it, a month and a half ago?”

“Mmhm,” Ned agreed through a sip.

“And now,” I said as I looked up, “I, the only person on the force, former or otherwise, who got their degree in Meta-Criminal Justice, am finding out about this a grand total of four days before the portal actually opens up and who-knows-what crawls into our world?”

“Sounds about right,” Ned confirmed as he emptied his coffee into the trash can with a grimace.

“What the actual fuck, Ned?”

“Hey,” he said, putting his hands up defensively. “You know procedure as well as I do. Find that kind of mystic garbage, send for a specialist from the county office, then wait for results. We only get to hire civilian contractors in emergency situations.”

“I would say that this qualifies as an emergency, yeah!” I said, equally irritated and bewildered. “So what happened?”

“Bigwigs at county sent their specialist,” Ned said, casually tossing the crumpled paper cup into the trash. “He dithered around for three or so days ‘identifying the ritual’ before getting busted for cocaine possession. Thing like that causes a lot of paperwork for inter-department scandal.”

“Which, naturally, made county less than pleased about sending a replacement,” I ventured.



“Also that.”

“I can’t do anything about it in four days Ned! This isn’t some high-schooler checking out the wrong book from the library and growing a few extra limbs. You’re talking about some serious magic here!”

“I believe the preferred source of dangerous magic these days is the internet,” Ned interjected mildly, toying with his notepad. “Besides, you have three and a half days. Today counts.”

“Goddamnit Ned!”

“Alright, alright, sheesh,” he said, straightening in his chair. He tossed the notepad onto my desk, where it promptly spun into and knocked over my novelty floating pen. “You haven’t seen what you’re getting paid yet.”

“My rates are on the website, Ned, and even for you I can’t…” My voice trailed off as I turned the notepad to face me. I confess, my jaw went more then a little slack when I saw the number written there.

“Good enough for you?”


“Now, don’t get too excited,” Ned scolded as I wiped away the thin stream of drool that had collected in the corner of my mouth. “That’s not all for you. It assumes you’re going to be sub-contracting, and you’ll pay that out-of-pocket. Which I assume that you’ll be doing due to the rather rushed nature of the contract.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know a ritualist who could help me out. She doesn’t come cheap, but… wow. Where is this kind of cash coming from?”

“Easy,” Ned said, relaxing in the chair once again. “Standard contractor rates, a discretionary bonus for the short time-frame, and the extra-dimensional nature of the threat means that I can tap the Emergency Apocalypse Fund.”

“The what now?” I asked distractedly, still running over what I could buy with that kind of money.

“It got set up after you left. Something the consultant thought would be a good idea since, with your position terminated, the department is woefully under-equipped to deal with large-scale magical incidents.”

“Wait, what?” I tore my face from the notebook to stare incredulously at Ned. “So they cut my job with zero warning, only to put twice, three times my salary into a fund for hiring people to do my old job?”

“Well, not just that,” Ned said, rolling his eyes. “It doubles as petty cash. Better it go to you than another set of the Chief’s golf clubs.”


“Pretty much.”

“Ok, ok,” I muttered around my sudden and throbbing headache. “Fundamental idiocy of bureaucracy aside, what do I have to work with, besides the cash? Did the mystic from county actually do anything useful before getting busted?”

“It’s all right here,” Ned said, drawing a depressingly thin manila envelope from his bag. He set it on the desk, tapping his finger on it once as he withdrew his hand. “For what it’s worth anyway.”

I undid the tie cord and started pulling the few reports out as Ned got up to retrieve his coat. It was a beautiful, light-tan canvas trench, slightly stained and worn, but still nice enough for business meetings. In truth, he looked more the part for my job than I did.

“What, really?” I blurted as the envelope surrendered a few Polaroid photographs. “Has this guy never heard of a cell phone camera?”

Ned chuckled as he tossed on his coat and hat. “It’s alright, just think of it as the setup for one of those terrible black-and-white movies you love so much.”

“Dashiell Hammet is a genius and I will force you to sit through The Maltese Falcon one of these days,” I said without looking up from my desk.

“Eh, I’m not pretty enough to be one of those girls that bursts in unannounced to give you the case anyway,” Ned said over his shoulder as he opened the door. “Maybe another time.”

“Hey Ned?” I called, glancing up to meet his eyes. “I’ll solve this. I mean, I’ll try my best, but this is some pretty nasty stuff. Might be worth looking into taking some vacation time for this week, just in case.”

“What, and miss your triumphant victory over the forces of darkness?” Ned said with a grin. “I don’t think so. Besides, it’s just a small end of the world. No pressure.”

“Right. No pressure,” I said, mostly to myself as the door closed with a click.

My eyes stayed fixed on the door for a long moment after Ned had left. My door, of all things, was my pride and joy. An ancient artifact from a lost time, stained wood with an inset window of frosted glass, the classic detective’s door. I was working on getting the gold-lettered plate for it, but for the moment, it was bare. Still, it was a start.

So, yeah. Maybe I’m not the perfect Noir detective, but I’m getting there. As soon as I could tear my thoughts away from the style of plate I would equip the door with after this payday, I pulled off the collared business shirt, tossing it on a laundry basket, and retrieved a simple white t-shirt. I turned up the A/C, set my phone to vibrate, and sat down with the contents of the folder. As if showing off for a camera, I violently cracked my knuckles, and got to work before the sound of impending arthritis stopped echoing through my studio.