Black as Sin Sample
A werewolf and a mage were driving down the road in a moving van. It sounds like the setup to a really bad joke, but it was how I spent my Thursday morning.
The werewolf was my best friend Jake, the mage was me. Yup, magic exists, monsters are real, blah blah blah. I’m sure it’s all very exciting for you, but I have been killing the things that go bump in the night professionally since I was sixteen. It’s all pretty much old news for me now. Except for having magic powers, that is still cool as hell. Magic lets you do some pretty neat stuff. Among other things, I could use magic to make myself stronger and faster than any human had a right to be. Of course I, being the idiot that I am, generally used my powers to go up against horrible slathering monsters that wanted to rip me to shreds. I’ve been in some sticky (generally with someone’s blood) situations. Boy, I could tell you some stories. In fact, I plan to do just that. Which brings us to our current story. Which starts, as I said, with a werewolf and a mage in a moving van.
“Come on, James, you’re just being paranoid,” Jake complained. He had his long auburn hair tied back in a pony tail and when he spoke I caught flashes of his pointed, wolf-like teeth. He was wearing a singlet that looked like it belonged on Jersey Shore, presumably to show off how buff he was.
“It’s not paranoia if everyone really is out to get you,” I told Jake as we drove along the highway in a rented moving van filled with my meager possessions.
“You don’t think that’s a bit of an overstatement? Not everyone is out to get you. Besides, we have been driving for ages. We’re halfway to Poughkeepsie. Nobody is following us.” Jake hadn’t been thrilled that we were taking such a large detour on the way to moving me into my new apartment, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
“Hey, those bullet holes in my couch aren’t for show. Last time someone found out where I lived, they redecorated my living room with an automatic weapon. We do this smart, we make sure no one is tailing us before we go to my new place.”
“You mean my old place.” Jake grinned. I had been staying at Jake’s place for a little over a week when he told me I could take over the lease. Apparently with all the money he was making as head of security at Mason Industries, he could afford a much nicer apartment.
“And you’re sure that there aren’t any vamps lurking around the building?” I asked. “I really don’t want to have to move again.”
Jake grunted. This wasn’t the first time I had asked. “I’m totally sure. If there were any vampires skulking around, I would’ve smelled them.” When Jake wasn’t going to the gym, or picking up girls, he had a habit of transforming into a wolf-man, complete with fur and a tail. Apparently, the whole being a werewolf deal came with a lot of smelling stuff. I had never asked if they liked to sniff the same sort of things as other canines. I was afraid of the answer.
“Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that,” I said. “Do vampires really have a common smell? And don’t you have to be in werewolf form to have any wolfy powers?”
“Yeah, man. I’m surprised you haven’t smelled it yourself. They stink.”
“Well I guess I don’t go around sniffing vampires,” I said. “I’m usually too busy trying not to get eaten by them.”
Jake chuckled. “Fair point. And as for my—” Jake made air quotes with his fingers “—wolfy powers: everything is much stronger when I turn, but I can still smell a vampire and heal faster than normal while in human form.”
I actually knew about the healing thing from my days hunting supernatural beasties for the Vatican. Even if hadn’t, Jake had given me a refresher course only a couple of weeks earlier when he had gotten shot.
“So increased healing and senses while in human form, any super strength or speed?” I asked, taking mental notes. You can never know too much about the supernatural when you hunt monsters for a living. And after nearly getting torn to pieces by a traitorous were faction, I felt like maybe I should bone up on therianthrope abilities.
Jake shook his head. “Na, just the senses and healing. But seriously man, who talks like that? Super strength or speed? You sound like you’re in a comic book. We’re not superheroes you know.”
I grinned. “Speak for yourself.”
Jake made a rude noise. “You so aren’t a superhero.”
“Well I do have magic powers and I fight bad guys. Remember when I killed that metal thingy with a car? That was pretty heroic. I should probably just get a cape and call it a day.”
“First off, I’m still not sure that really happened. Secondly, how many superheroes mooch off their friends and can’t afford new shoes?”
“Lots of superheroes are poor. Spiderman is barely making ends meet half the time. Rorschach even mooches off Nite Owl. Remember, he comes home and the dude is eating his beans?”
Jake stared blankly at me for a moment. “God you’re a nerd sometimes,” he said. “No wonder you can’t get a date.”
Jake liked to bring up my lack of a love life a lot. I think he was trying to motivate me to go to the gym with him. Normally I would just make a bad joke about him being a ripped werewolf named Jacob or challenge him to an arm wrestle (he always refuses on the grounds that I cheat by using magic, which, to be fair to him, I do). But this time I was ready for him.
I grinned slyly. “Actually, I have a date this weekend.”
Jake looked stunned, which, while it was the reaction I was hoping for, was still a little insulting. I may not be a Calvin Klein model—I have far too angular a face, and a big scar from when something tried to take my eye out—but it’s not like girls run away when they see me. At least the human ones don’t.
“Who with?” he asked. “Did Sarah finally decide to forgive you?”
“Na, she still isn’t talking to me.” Sarah was a good friend of mine and had almost been more before she found out that I had kept a pretty big secret from her. The secret involved the people we were working for trying to kill her when she was only a girl. It sounds bad I’ll admit, but it had been done with the best of intentions and totally seemed like a good idea at the time. Honest. “It’s with Alice.”
“Alice the waitress?” Jake asked. “How did that happen? I thought you were meant to be showing her how to do magic or something.”
“I finished,” I said. “We had our last lesson the other day. When it was finished she said ‘goodbye Professor’ and I told her that I wasn’t teaching her anymore so she didn’t have to call me professor. So she said ‘so that means we could go out on a date if we wanted to’. I asked if she did want to, and next thing you know we have a date for Saturday night. I feel like she kind of tricked me into asking her out, but ya know, in a good way.”
“Why was she calling you professor at all?” Jake asked skeptically, clearly missing the point of the story.
“Er, never mind that.” I may have gone a bit overboard with the whole teaching magic thing and had Alice calling me Professor Black. “The point is I have a date Saturday night and she is pretty and smart and knows about magic. Now get happy for me before I kick your werewolf ass!”
“Okay, okay,” Jake said, “I’m happy for you. Now, when can we get back to my old apartment and get you moved in?”
“I’ll turn around up here,” I said. “We should be back at the apartment in half an hour.”
We arrived at the apartment a bit over two hours later. Okay, so maybe I went a bit overboard on the paranoia thing. The important thing is we got all my stuff moved in and loaded up the truck with all of Jake’s stuff (sadly including his huge plasma screen) for him to take to his new place. I was just about to head over to Jake’s new place and help him move in when my phone rang. It was Special Agent David Stone from the FBI. I had worked with him before and he still called me in occasionally to consult on any cases that he thought might involve supernatural bugaboo.
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked, hoping he wanted my help on something more fun than helping Jake move. Like fighting a giant pus demon with a spoon.
If that doesn’t sound like a good time to you, then it will give you an idea of how much I really didn’t want to help get Jake’s stuff into his new place. He had a lot more stuff than I did and it was heavy as hell.
“I got a case,” David said. “Can you meet me?”
“Sure. At the field office?”
David paused for a moment. “No, I’ll come to you. You still in the same place?”
“Actually, I just moved.” I gave him the address. “So how come you’re coming to me? Is this some kind of secret mission?”
“Not exactly,” David said. “The folks over at Federal Plaza just really don’t like you.”
Well that’s hardly fair. What had I ever done to them? All I did was crack a few bad jokes . . . and order around a few agents . . . and make constant comparisons to cop shows . . . and I did send a detective on the task force out for doughnuts. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that unfair.
“Okay, see you soon,” I said and hung up.
“Job?” Jake asked.
“Yeah, sorry. I won’t be able to help you move. I was really looking forward to it, honest.” This may not have sounded completely sincere. But I managed not to grin at the prospect of avoiding moving any more furniture, so I’m calling it a win.
Jake snorted. “Fine, see ya later.”
“See ya. And thanks again for the apartment.” I saw Jake off and then went inside to work on my new sword and wait for Agent Stone.
My last magic sword had gotten broken when it had a run in with an eight-foot-tall metal monstrosity, and making a new one was a pain in the ass. The magic that connects a mage with their magical object only works if they make it by hand. I had done the actual forging a couple of days after I started staying with Jake but carving the symbols into it was taking forever. Whenever I tell people I have a magic sword (assuming they don’t think I’m mental) they think that it’s going to burst into flames or crackle with arcane lightning or something like that. The reality is a lot less showy but a lot more practical. Have you ever tried to hold a sword that’s on fire? Sounds like a good way to get burned to me. And as for arcane lightning: how’s that supposed to work? You pick it up and get electrocuted? No thank you.
No, what my sword did was a lot more subtle but infinitely more useful. It regulated and restricted the amount of power I could pump into augmenting my physical abilities. Without it, I could very easily let a little bit too much magic in and accidentally give myself another heart attack. I had been practicing augmenting myself without it (on account of not enjoying my first heart attack at all), but it still wasn’t a reliable option. In short, my sword kept me from killing myself and doubled as something sharp and heavy to hit bad guys with. Given that hitting bad guys was one of my top hobbies, right up there with not dying, I needed a new sword.
My old sword had been a bit of a half-assed job. It wasn’t very efficient, and it got really hot if I used it for too long. I was working hard to get the symbols just right on this one but it meant working with smaller tools and taking a lot longer.
So when Agent Stone knocked on my door, it was a welcome distraction. I put away my fiddly metalworking tools and went to answer it.
“Hello, Black,” David said when I opened the door.
“Hey. Come in. What’s this job?”
David came in, sat on my couch, and dropped a thick file onto my coffee table. He looked grim, but then he always looked a bit grim. David was a bulky black man with a shaved head, a perpetual scowl on his face, and a nose that had been broken one too many times. Think Samuel L. Jackson only without looking like a movie star.
“It’s about a kid,” David said. “Somebody took a kid.”
Well that got my attention. A lot of human kidnappings are just custody bullshit. But Stone profiled murderers for a living. If he was working the case, it was undoubtedly much worse than that. Not to mention the fact that you rarely call in a professional mage and monster hunter over a custody issue. And if something was planning on hurting a kid, I wanted to find it, and cut off its head.
“Okay, I’m in.”
David cracked a brief smile. “You may be an asshole, but you’re one of the good ones, Black.”
“Uh, thanks. I think. So, what do we know?”
Stone opened the file and started laying out documents and pictures. “Holly Perkins, six years old,” he said, pointing to a picture of a blonde girl smiling brightly. “She was taken from her home on Tuesday morning. Looks like someone broke her window and then carried her down the fire escape. No ransom call was made and it was assumed that it was a child predator. That is, until I realized that there was another girl of the same age and description taken from a nearby neighborhood at the same time six years ago. And another six years before that. One every six years going back forty-eight years. They always turn up dead somewhere six days after they are taken, killed that day, showing signs of torture”
I thought about it. “Well that is fucked up, but not necessarily supernatural. Not to talk myself out of a job, but it could just be some sicko right? Ritualistic murder and all that shit?”
“You don’t get it. When I say the same time I mean the exact same date. That smells funny to me. Plus if this guy has been snatching kids for nearly fifty years, he would likely be into his seventies by now. Bit old for running around fire escapes, don’t you think?”
“Good point. Okay that does sound like the supernatural brand of sicko. We should look into that date. See if it has any connection to any boogeymen or events that involve a child sacrifice.”
“And how do we do that?” Stone asked, eyeing my bookcase of thick, arcane volumes as if one might attack him at any moment.
I got up and turned on my computer. “Mysticalcalendar.com of course.”
David looked at me like he wasn’t sure if I was kidding or not. “Is that really a thing?” he asked.
“Just because magic is involved doesn’t mean we are all stuck in the middle ages.”
Stone raised an eyebrow at me. “On the last case we worked, I got attacked by a vampire with a flail.”
“Okay, he wasn’t a good example of the point I’m trying to make here.” My computer finished booting up I opened my internet browser and selected Mystical Calendar from my favorites. It came up with this month and I selected Tuesday. “Okay, Tuesday June 5th. Looks like there is nothing relevant happening, unless you think she was snatched by a gormspike. Tuesday marks the start of their active cycle.”
“What’s a gormspike?” David asked.
“Giant porcupine monster native to Australia,” I said stony-faced.
“Let’s assume it wasn’t that,” David said flatly.
“Gotcha. I’ll keep looking.” I clicked over to adjacent days. “Nothing yesterday, nothing today, nothing tomorrow,” I muttered as I flicked through pages of mystically significant events. “The closest thing I can see is next month. There is some annual feeding of a demon but it only eats babies. Whatever we are looking for, we aren’t going to find it here.”
“Okay,” David said, “then where should we start looking? Normal profiling techniques tend to go out the window when the suspect pool includes demons and monsters.”
“First I need to get a look at where she was abducted from.”
“Okay,” David said apprehensively, “but leave the sword at home.”
“Don’t worry,” I responded cheerfully. “My sword exploded when a giant metal monster stood on it.” And with that, I strode out the door, leaving David wondering whether I was joking or not.
“Hey, David, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about,” I said as we drove to the Perkins’s apartment.
David grunted noncommittally.
“You know that mess a few weeks ago with the skinned bodies?” I asked.
David grunted an affirmative. He wasn’t surprised that I knew about it. The “Manhattan Massacre”, as the media had called the incident, had been all over the news. And why wouldn’t it be? A whole bunch of skinless bodies were found in a high-end apartment and the police had no leads on who did it. What he didn’t know was that I was the one who had stumbled upon the grisly scene in the first place.
“I need everything the police have on it.”
That certainly got David’s attention. He wasn’t one to give out police files to civilians and I usually wouldn’t ask. But this was a special case. Ever since I had received a cryptic message from a friend’s shadowy “employer”, I had been working the case. The message had implied that his employer had a hand in both the massacre and in the job I had been working at the time. I had been asking around, trying to find anything that might lead me to their identity, but I had turned up nothing. I needed the police file. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, David didn’t want to help me get it.
“You know I can’t give you that,” David said.
“I think you are confusing can’t with don’t want to.”
David glared at me. “No I’m not. It’s not my case. Why do you even want it? Do you think it’s supernatural?”
“Actually, I’m certain it wasn’t.” I was with a necromancer when I found the bodies and she had confirmed that it was definitely not a supernatural death, which makes it a hell of a lot creepier. Monsters I can deal with, but the idea that a person could do something like that really creeps me out.
“Then what’s your interest?”
“Um, it’s hard to explain.” I got the feeling that David wasn’t going to buy that the perpetrator sent me a message that seemed to claim that they had helped me in a way that was almost impossible, with a comma that connected them to the massacre. It sounded too silly, even to me.
“Well I can’t get you the file but I could put in a good word for you if you want to consult on the case. I don’t think the local PD is going to be interested in your services though.”
“Is that because they don’t like me?”
“Well, yes that, but also I get the feeling it isn’t exactly a high-priority case. The victims were all either in or connected to the Russian mob. Hell, most of them were big time bosses. Since the massacre, the Russians have ceased all operations. Some might see the whole thing as a public service.”
I shuddered at the memory. “If skinning people is a public service, remind me to stop paying my taxes.”
“Not saying it was, just telling you how people see it.”
I grunted. “I don’t want to be on the case anyway. I just want that file.”
“Well you’re going to have to find someone else to get it for you.”
“Dammit, David, come on! It’s important. It’s just a stupid rule.”
“No it’s not,” David said, resolute. “It’s the law. Don’t ask again.”
Dammit, I should have known I wasn’t going to get anywhere asking David to do something illegal, especially without telling him why. David was a good person, and he occasionally bent the rules when they needed bending, but he is also an FBI agent. He cared about the law, and he wasn’t about to break it without a damn good reason. I had the distinct feeling he wouldn’t think my reasons were good.
“Fine,” I grumbled, “but this isn’t over.”
David didn’t respond and we drove the rest of the way in uncomfortable silence.
We arrived at the Perkins’s residence in only a few minutes. They lived close by my new place, which for some irrational reason pissed me off. Not that I was okay with kids going missing anywhere, but I especially didn’t like the idea of it happening so close to my neighborhood.
“When we get in there, try not to piss anyone off,” David said.
“Or scare them,” he added.
“Is that what you think of me? That I am either scary or rude?”
David gave me a sidelong glance.
We climbed the stairs of the modest apartment building and came to the Perkins’s apartment. David knocked on the door and announced that he was with the FBI and that he wanted to talk to them.
The man who answered the door (Mr. Perkins, presumably) looked like he had gone on vacation to the seventh circle of Hell, with a layover in Detroit. His face was creased with worry, and dark circles drooped beneath eyes that held the look of a man whose world had been turned upside-down.
“Hello again, Mr. Perkins,” David said. “May we come in? My associate would like to look around. We think he might be able to help us find your daughter.”
“Okay,” he said in a tone devoid of hope.
We entered the Perkins’s tiny apartment. On a good day it would have been cozy. But with Holly missing it just felt claustrophobically small, like there was nowhere to hide from the pain of their missing daughter. There was a woman that I was assuming was Mrs. Perkins sitting on a soft-looking blue sofa and staring blankly into space. She looked as haunted and hopeless as her presumed husband. Her blonde hair hung limp around her face and an unlit cigarette sat forgotten between her lips. Holly’s parents were almost painful to be around. The intense sorrow at having their daughter taken from them was like a physical weight pressing down on everyone who entered the apartment.
“Which is your daughter’s room?” I asked uncomfortably.
Mr. Perkins pointed weakly at a door on the left of the living room and I slipped through it, grateful to be away from their sorrow. David stayed behind to go over the details of the investigation with them. I didn’t envy that job one bit.
Holly’s room was filled with pink, fluffy things and more than a couple of unicorns (not real ones). It looked like a little girl’s dream room, except for the broken window covered up with cardboard and duct tape. That window was an affront to the innocence of the room. An ugly reminder that something terrible had happened here. I grimaced and began my investigation, which is to say that I looked around and hoped something would jump out at me. People seem to think that I’m Harry Dresden or something (I think it’s the leather coat), but I’m really no good at the whole detective thing. I was basically just wandering around hoping I would see something bloody obvious that would tell me who or what the kidnapper was.
After not finding any big-ass claw marks or inexplicable slime, I decided to cheat. I may not be much of a detective, but I have magic powers and that makes up for a lot.
A took a piece of white chalk from my pocket and ground it into powder using a little bit of augmented strength. Once it was nice and fine, I began my CSI spell.
“Revelare magicus, revelare monstrum, revelare revelare revelare,” I chanted in Google-Latin. The spell was pretty straightforward and didn’t require much magic. The whole thing took only a few seconds. When it was done, I blew the chalk dust over the window where the intruder had broken in. It hovered for a moment before giving off a dull buzzing and forming an indistinct, blobby shape in the air. After a few seconds the spell ended and physics reasserted itself, the dust drifted to the ground and settled.
I left the room and awkwardly signaled to David that I was finished. He said his goodbyes to Holly’s parents and we left.
“Well that was awful,” I said as we walked to David’s car.
“Did you find anything?”
“Kinda. I tried this new revealing spell I’ve been working on. It’s meant to show any kind of magic or supernatural being that’s been there recently. It reacted to something but I don’t know what. It could mean that someone with some kind of magic was there but didn’t use any active powers. Or it could mean it is some kind of creature that is particularly close to human, like maybe a vampire. Or it could just mean that the spell has a few kinks to work out.
“So we’ve got nothing?”
“Well we definitely know it was something supernatural,” I said sheepishly. “That’s something at least.”
David shot me a sidelong glance.
“Okay, we’ve got nothing.”
“I don’t get it,” David said. “Why can’t you just do a spell to see who took her?” David didn’t really understand magic, but then again magic is so bloody complicated that anyone who claims to really understand it is probably lying.
“Magic doesn’t work that way,” I said. “First off, I’m an augmentamancer so I can only do augmentamancy. Second of all, I would need something with enough symbolism to hold the spell. Plus I would have to have made the spell in advance or I might accidently blow everyone up.” Technically you can make up spells on the spot, but it requires working out every detail of the spell perfectly on the first try, otherwise it can have some rather unpleasant results. I prefer not to do those kinds of mental gymnastics under pressure, especially when screwing them up could potentially kill me, so I make a point to always work out the particulars of my spells ahead of time and then sketch out the different elements in a way that helps me remember. Given the nature of magic, those sketches tend to be pretty abstract.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” David said. “You’re a what-kind-of-mancer?”
“An augmentamancer. My magic makes things more of what they already are. In order to do a spell to see who was there, I would have to do it on something that could already do something similar.”
David grunted. “Seems a little useless if you ask me.”
I harrumphed. “Well I didn’t get to pick. My first spell was an augmentamancy spell, so I’m an augmentamancer. And besides, I don’t see you with any magic powers.”
David lost interest then. He didn’t have a lot of time for the complicated set of metaphysical laws that govern magic. But, for those of you with a more inquisitive disposition, a mage’s first spell works like this: magic first manifests itself, usually during adolescence, in response to a powerful desire. The form that desire takes determines a mage’s first spell, and their first spell determines what kind of magic they will be able to do for the rest of their lives. First spells are also play by a slightly different set of rules to other spells. For one thing, they can be cast without any magic words or gestures, and because they are developed entirely subconsciously in response to a pure desire, they don’t require all the mental modeling or calculations that normal spells do. And that means they can do things that would otherwise be incredibly difficult or lethally dangerous. But I digress. Where was I again? Oh right, driving away from the Perkins’s apartment, now I remember.
“So, where to next?” David asked.
I thought about it for a moment then groaned. “Oh crap.”
“What?” David asked.
“I know someone we could ask, but I really don’t want to talk to him,” I said.
“Holly is counting on us to get her back to her parents. Whatever personal issues you have, you had better get over them.”
I groaned. “Yeah I know. He is just such an ass.”
“We need to talk to the Soothsayer,” I said. “Frankly, I’d rather go for a piggyback ride on a gormspike.”