(c) Alan Baxter 2018
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Published Gryphonwood Press 2018 | www.gryphonwoodpress.com
Steven Hines listened to the city and the city spoke.
Its streets whispered secrets its curtains tried to hide. Its walls, damp with rain, hinted at lives their occupants were embarrassed to admit. Hines let the undercurrent of over four million lives piled one on top of another wash through him.
His was a jealous city. He had always loved her, but had no idea until far too late that she loved him back. His city was a psychopath. Death walked its byways, hatred roamed its corridors, murder stalked its alleys. Their closeness afforded Hines unique skills and he was intrinsically tied to Cleveport.
His mind drifted like a dry leaf on a cold wind, searching the buildings and alleyways, as his fingers rubbed the clothing the client had sent him. He sensed hints of people almost like the one he sought everywhere, but nothing close enough to give him hope. From the relative safety of his apartment in a small brownstone on a quiet edge of town, he stared through the grubby glass pane and astrally slipped from window to window, swept the usual haunts, the drug corners and sex worker hangouts. Ten dollar blowjobs and fifty dollar baggies were the currency of the street and if he found this kid anywhere, it would probably be in that economy.
The sprawl of the city was overwhelming, impossible to cover in several nights of searching. But the client had paid and he would do his best. He would seek more as he was out and about, the legwork of the mundane PI tied together with his particular talent.
With the quarry’s psychic signature floating in his mind like a scent he searched for a match in the rain-slick thoroughfares. He toured missions and soup kitchens, trawled a dozen seedy bars and twice as many clubs, and his back began to ache from immobility in the scruffy armchair. His right knee throbbed, the old injury never letting him fully forget its existence.
The phone rang, momentarily startling in Hines’s small, gloomy home. It vibrated insistently across the coffee table.
His voice was rough, like the sleep-thickened tones of a smoker in the morning, though he hadn’t touched a cigarette in years. “Hines.”
“Mr Hines, it’s Mrs Parker. Any news on Grant? Anything at all?”
“I’m working on it right now, but I’m afraid I don’t have anything for you yet.”
“Nothing?” Her tone was strained with the inevitability she refused to admit. Always there was hope, until a corpse proved that hope dead. If there was a corpse. More often than not there was no closure at all.
Hines favored her with a gentle smile she couldn’t see. “It’s not easy, Mrs Parker. Missing persons are tricky at the best of times, but a city this size… Leave it with me. I have a lot of possibilities to investigate.” He stretched out his right leg, wincing at the painful stiffness in his knee.
Parker’s crestfallen silence spoke volumes.
He opened his mouth to offer further empty reassurance when she said, “You’ll call me though? With even the smallest news?” Grief were obvious in her voice.
“As soon as I know anything. And I’ll check in from time to time.” She already knew his strike rate was low, he’d been honest with her.
“Thank you.” Parker sighed. “Grant’s just a kid, Mr Hines. Lost in the big city.”
“We’re all lost in the big city, Mrs Parker.”
The phone clicked dead.
As dead as his chances of finding Grant Parker, most probably. Although he meant it when he said he wouldn’t give up and he had found people before. It was what he did and where his reputation set him apart. Most PIs didn’t have the ability to search the way he did. Trouble was, most people who went missing for more than a few days were either long dead by the time he discovered anything, or had no desire to be traced. More than once he had found someone who resented his success. He’d had to tell those clients he couldn’t give any details on the missing person’s request. Which hurt more than the dead, the lack of closure always worse than grief for those left behind.
Hines sank deeper in his armchair, dragged a hand across his face. Just once it’d be nice to land a result quickly and clearly. Something in the aether this night gave his talent a potency he wasn’t used to. Perhaps he was in the zone, could maybe give Mrs Parker good news yet. But seventeen, fatherless, drug-user, this city. The odds were not in young Grant Parker’s favor.
The telephone rang again. He scrabbled for it, found his glass on the way and picked that up too. He sipped burning scotch and checked the screen. Abby. “Hey, buddy.”
“Too busy masturbating to answer right away?” she asked.
He grinned, swirled the amber liquid in the tumbler in his hand. “Just seeing a client out, actually.”
There was a moment’s pause. Steven sensed some discomfort. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah, it’s a work thing,” she said, reluctantly.
“Oh, and here was me thinking you wanted to go out for a drink and a bite to eat or something.”
“We could do that. My date last night was a disaster anyway.”
He was genuinely sad for her. This last guy had seemed like a decent sort. “What happened?”
Hines barked a sound of disgust. “Scumbag.”
“Why do I get all the fuckknuckles, Steve?”
“It’s not you. Pretty much everyone is a fuckknuckle. You notice because you’re one of the few who isn’t.”
She laughed and he felt better, like he’d relieved her melancholy, if only briefly. He really cared about Abby, had done since they met in school at eight years old. He was an orphan, growing up in care, and ridiculed for it because kids are mean; she had a West Indian mother and red-haired Irish cop father, which made her exotic to some, but not enough of one or the other to most. Their mutual dislocations drew them close and the bond never broke. It pissed him off when the world was cruel to her.
“So I might need to ask you some stuff,” she said.
“Off the record. The department can’t know I’m divulging…”
“Yeah, yeah, usual rules apply. What’s the deal?”
There was a pause. He heard a clicking, knew she was nibbling at her thumbnail, like she always did when she was worried, indecisive. He let her think.
Eventually she said, “Fuck it. You wanna get pissed?”
He grinned again. “You never have to ask me twice.”
“I’ll meet you at Murphy’s in an hour. I can ask you about this stuff then.”
Steven nodded, then felt foolish because she couldn’t see it. “Sure thing,” he said. “And when we’re loaded we can track down this married fuckknuckle and kick his ass.”
Her laughter came again. “I love it when you get all big brotherly.”
“I might not be your big brother, but I do see it as kinda my job.”
“I know.” Her voice was suddenly soft. “I appreciate it. See you in an hour.”
She hung up and he cradled the phone for several moments while he sipped twelve-year-old malt. Like a big brother. He really did feel that way. Perhaps that’s why the brief fling in their late teens had felt so weird and they’d gone straight back to being buddies. They’d needed to try the lover thing, it became unavoidable, but it had been a fumbling comedy of errors and just not right. If you know someone long enough, they’re as good if not better than family. Steven and Abby worked best that way and it was something they both valued pretty much above all else.
Knowing Abby’s appetite for drinking, he decided he’d better line his stomach. Thankfully Maeve Clemens had been by the day before. His friendly neighbor, her tiny body preceding her round behind everywhere she went, like she was a half-human, half-bumblebee. She was the sweetest woman Hines had ever known, and often “accidentally” made too much of one meal or another and dropped the leftovers by. Yesterday it was chicken and rice, and it served him well as ballast.
He smiled as he ate. He was the youngest resident in the building by a good thirty years, not yet forty, though he was showing a little gray in the tight curls above his ears, bright strands against his dark skin. But he liked what Abby called his old folks’ home. It was peaceful and he was looked after.
He finished the food, downed the last of the glass and stood, limped to the door. He tied scratched and faded Doc Martens to his feet and dragged a long, dark coat over his jeans and dark blue, heavy-knit sweater as a shield against the autumn cold and seemingly endless rain.
Janusz was in the lobby checking his mailbox as Steven headed for the doors. The old man’s papery white face was screwed up, a dripping cap clutched in one gnarled hand.
“Hell of a day to be going out,” Janusz said.
“Ain’t it always?” Hines asked with a grin.
He left the Pole’s wheezing laughter behind and paused at the top of the short flight of stone steps leading to the street. He flexed his right leg a few times, warming it up for walking. Sometimes it was worse than others, but just lately all the wet weather seemed to be making the old injury more of a hindrance than ever. Well, he didn’t need to hurry and he’d still get to Murphy’s well before Abby. It was better than drinking in his apartment alone.
A dank, slick alleyway on the edge of Cleveport City. Rain drips from fire escapes, runs down the walls in grimy sheets. A man, wrapped in ragged, filthy coats and socks but no shoes, stumbles into the gloom between the tall buildings, seeking oblivion. His grizzled face is twisted, permanently on the verge of collapsing into hysterical tears. He shakes the brown paper-wrapped bottle in his dirty hand. It sloshes encouragingly.
In the deepest shadows at the alley’s end he finds comfort on piles of broken garbage bags, vomiting their contents onto the old cobbles. He sinks to the ground, stifles an insistent sob, swigs. The cheap liquor burns and the pain begins to numb. He swigs again. And again.
His blurring gaze falls on a dark greenblack patch among the trash, shimmering faintly. The man leans forward, blinks. The patch is a miniature phosphorescent sea with a strange forest of minute mushrooms gently waving on dark stalks mere millimeters tall. The man cocks his head, his tired ears catching a sound like bells, like the distant voices of angels. The bottle clinks dully against the cobbles, forgotten, as he moves forward on hands and knees. He leans in, the softly glimmering domes draw him forward with glowing green, with mysterious song.
The man cries out as every mushroom top bursts, his face scant inches away. Clouds of swirling particles swarm up through the air like green smoke and engulf his head, invade his mouth, nose, eyes, burn his skin.
He stumbles backward, wailing softly as he claws the flesh of his cheeks, gouges knuckles into eye sockets. He collapses onto the garbage sacks, more rotten detritus pulsing out. For a moment, he’s still, but for the rapid rise and fall of his chest as he gulps shallow breaths.
He calms, a smile flickers the corners of his crusty lips. His eyes blink open, solid greenblack glistening orbs in a pale, filthy face. He pulls himself to his feet, strips off layer after layer of clothing until his scrawny frame stands naked in the gloomy rain. He laughs, deep, phlegmy. He stalks out into the night, a hunger like he has never known even in his deprived lifetime chewing at his soul. Car horns blare and people shout and laugh as he staggers across the road and into a small side street, hidden from the crying night again in the shadows of tall buildings.
Hines sat nursing a beer. When Abby arrived they would hit the scotch. He’d long ago learned to pace himself against her capacity. People in Murphy’s were a strange mix of lowlifes and losers, mostly harmless, sometimes dangerous. Most importantly there were no cops, which was why Abby liked the place. I have to spend all my waking hours with the bastards, I don’t want to drink with them too.
She knew the hypocrisy of her words, admitted she could be the most bastard cop out there sometimes. Steven smiled at the memory of her lambasting the force she was married to. The force that had made her, living up to her father’s legacy despite her gender and her skin. Her mom had died of breast cancer when Abby was sixteen, she’d largely taken care of herself, in awe of her dad, until she was eighteen and then ran straight to the Academy.
“What are you grinning about, fuckwit?”
He looked up, shook his head. “Lovely to see you too, Abs.”
She wore tight jeans and a tailored black blazer over a white button-up shirt. She threw the jacket on the seat beside her, slumped down on the opposite side of the booth and put a shot of whiskey in front of him. “Get off the fairy juice, we have serious drinking to do.”
He skulled the rest of the beer and toasted her with the whiskey tumbler. “To fuckknuckles everywhere.”
“And their dumbass wives.” She slammed the shot without a wince and waved at Sal across the crowded room. Sal gave her a nod, knowing all she needed to from the gesture. Abby stared at the glass. “I had meant to make that last a bit longer.”
“It’s all right, you’ll have another one soon enough.”
“I promised myself I wouldn’t let this asshole get to me, Steve.”
He saw a glisten in the corner of her eye. No way she’d cry in public, she was too much of a hardass for that, but it showed how much she really was hurt. He squeezed her arm. “Fuck him. And the wife he rode in on.”
Abby grinned, sat up straighter. Sal arrived and put four doubles on the table. “Saving myself some shoe leather. You two look like you’re in for the night.”
“You’re an angel in an apron, Sal,” Abby said, pushed two glasses across to Steve. “Come on, pussy, catch up.”
“I’ll keep an eye open for empties,” Sal said as she set sail through the sea of flesh and disappeared.
Steven downed the first whiskey, picked up the second. The third sat threatening him on the table. He could already feel tomorrow’s regret nipping at his heels. “So what’s the secret business you’re not supposed to be telling me?” he asked.
“We’ve got some unexplained corpses.”
“That’s not unusual for Cleveport City.”
“We get unknown corpses all the time in this city. These are unexplained. We don’t know how they died.”
Steven sipped, frowned. “Coroner no use?”
She gave him a patented Abby Jones look. “He can’t figure it.”
“Six so far. They all seem to have died completely inexplicably, no recognizable cause of death at all. They all share some strange similarities though. I’ve got a hunch there’s going to be a lot more.”
Steven had learned to trust Abby’s hunches. Most of the force had. She’d made sergeant in no time based on her tenacity and skills and a lot of that came down to a powerful sixth sense for the job. She was about the most magical untalented person he knew. Her father had been the same, which only made it harder for her now to see him in a care home, often not even able to remember her name. “So what do you think I can do about this?” he asked, his intuition already buzzing.
“I have no way to be sure, but I think all six victims were… you know. Like you. Three I know were. Thought you might help with the others.”
Steven raised his palms, surprised at her openness with something she did her best to disbelieve despite the evidence that came in the form of him. “Happy to help, but the police don’t officially recognize anything arcane. How’s it gonna be of use?”
Abby drank again, frowned. “Officially I call it hocus pocus bullshit, Hines. But I’ve seen enough from you since we were kids to know there’s more in the world than most people admit. Three of these guys were associated with people or societies that you’ve told me are arcane or arcane-connected. I need to know if the rest were.”
Not officially recognizing his bullshit was an understatement. For everything they shared in explicit detail, his talent and the existence of talents in others was something she blatantly ignored, usually changing the subject as soon as it came up. It was the only thing about her, about their friendship, that bothered him. She knew it was all real, maybe one day she’d admit it. “Okay,” he said. “Got something to show me?”
She pulled six manila folders from her bag, spread them out on the table, two lines of three. She pointed to the top row. “These three I know are… you know.” She waggled her fingers at him.
“Some connection with talents,” he offered.
“Yeah, exactly. I’ve kept up my lists over the years.” Her voice carried her skepticism far better than her expression. She indicated the three nearest Steven. “These I don’t know.”
He opened the first folder. A young face stared back at him, paper-clipped to a sheaf of notes and a coroner’s report. Male, maybe twenty years old and completely unfamiliar. He read the name, a few details. “Not a clue on this one.”
He opened the next. A woman, early thirties, long auburn hair and a sneer that could freeze hot soup. One side of his mouth curled up in distaste. “This is Yvonne Veloitte. She’s a technomancer from Johnson’s crew. Nasty bitch. Can’t say anyone is likely to miss her.”
“Technomancer?” Abby’s eyes narrowed, her face fixed in the expression she wore when she had to admit to stuff beyond the normal. Hines had never understood why she resisted so much, but at heart she just wanted to see more justice and less cruelty in the world.
He nodded. “You know, uses magic to enhance tech and vice versa. All about melding mind, body and machine, new wave of human evolution, all that shit.”
Abby tipped her head to one side. “You don’t approve?”
“I don’t really have an opinion. They’re usually a weird bunch and I don’t want to be a cyborg. And Johnson’s lot are some of the whackiest.”
Abby shook it off, nodding at the files. “But she’s got talent, you’re certain?”
He took the third folder, opened it. A man in his twenties, fit-looking, kind of angry around the eyes. He didn’t recognize the face or name, but there were a few familiar people in the Known Associates list. “This guy is a stranger to me, but half the goons he hung out with have talents or talent connections.”
“So it’s likely this guy does too?”
“Well, that’s not a given. Look at you and me. But the possibility is strong, at least.”
Abby pursed her lips, stared at the folders across the dirty, scratched tabletop. “Bit too much to be coincidence?”
She was onto something. “There are a lot of folk with skills and interests beyond the mundane in this city. Well, everywhere else too, but Cleveport attracts more for some reason. But there aren’t that many talented people compared to the general populace, even here. We’re a tiny fraction in the grand scheme of things. So yeah, this does seem to be a strangely coincidental collection.”
Abby leaned back, quietly sipped scotch. She was on her third, so Hines quickly finished his second to catch up, felt the buzz rising. He let her ruminate. Eventually she said, “Still gives me fuck all though, eh?”
He shrugged. “I guess so.”
She looked up, her eyes a little reddened. He wondered if that was the drink or the hurt. Or both. “Could they have died…?” Her question petered out.
Steven drank, thought about it. “I guess so. There are millions of ways to kill a person including lots of magical ones. But any kind of death usually leaves a trace.”
“Can you look at them for me? If I get you into the morgue, can you, you know…?” She waved her hands like a stage magician.
Steve laughed. “I’m a citymage, not some kind of magical surgeon. And really, I’m a bloody average citymage.”
Abby looked crestfallen. “Do you know anyone who is?”
“A magical surgeon?” He smirked and leaned over to pinch her cheek when she scowled.
“Fuck you, Hines!” But a half-smile tugged at her lips. “Seriously though, do you know anyone who could look at the bodies and see if there’s been something weird at work?”
“It’s possible, yeah.”
She nodded once, decisive, raised her glass. “Good. And after a lot more of these we’ll crash at your place and in the morning you can take me to see this Johnson technowanker guy.”
“Whatever. Drink up.”
“But I don’t really know him well, I just know that Yvonne…”
“Shut the fuck up and drink, Hines.” She waved at Sal for more whiskey.