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.”
“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 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.”