Where Demons Fear to Tread ~ Chapter 9

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All my contacts had gone silent, and not only the ones in Skullhaven. I couldn’t reach any of them through means either mundane or magical. The only other time I had lost complete contact with my informants was a few years back, when a group of trolls decided they objected to being snitched on and killed every single one of the Agency’s narcs they could get their oversized paws on.

“I’ll be so pissed if this lot is dead. It’s such a pain in the ass to cultivate new contacts,” I grumbled to myself as I tossed my phone back onto my desk. Almost three years had gone by before my current contacts fully trusted me. Knowing that your predecessors had been squashed into a giant, bloody puddle doesn’t do much for a person’s confidence. If my newest batch was dead, I would probably never find anyone willing to talk to me again.

I banged my head against the padded back of my chair, my brain running around in circles like a hamster, trying to find something to work with. Stag had called me back with some disturbing news – the heavens were silent. Not a peep, whistle, or out of tune hum could be heard by anyone in the Astrology Department.

She wasn’t too worried, it happened from time to time, and I shouldn’t be concerned, more than likely the silence had nothing to do with my case. Her underlying message being that nothing I was working on could ever be important enough to make the heavens keep their secrets. Yeah, right. Because a case that involved Death, a Seer Pope, and a supposedly impossible curse was just your everyday run-of-the-mill occurrence.

Vic hadn’t called me back, so I was working under the assumption he hadn’t found anything yet.

The only call that gave me any new information was from the crime scene analysis department.

“Agent Alex Powers, this is Dr. Laurence Chung from the lab. I have the test results back from your crime scene yesterday. You can pick them up any time today at your convenience.”

Before I had a chance to ask him anything or even confirm that I heard him, Dr. Chung hung up. His entire philosophy about life revolved around economy of motion: no wasted words and certainly no wasted movements. If it had been anyone else from the lab, they would have walked the file up to me and maybe spent a few minutes chatting about the results or just general small-talk. Today was one of those days where I couldn’t decided whether I was blessed or cursed by Dr. Chung’s taciturn nature.

I dragged myself away from the stack of files I was reading and walked down to the lab. Bethany, Dr. Chung’s assistant, aspired to emulate her boss and handed the file to me without a word.

I immediately flipped open to the first page and skimmed the details looking for anything I might need clarification on. Experience had taught me well the dangers of needing to call the lab at a later date. It would save everybody a boat-load of time, energy, and hassle to get things straightened out now.

I didn’t see anything that needed immediate clarification, but I was surprised and delighted to see that a name and address came attached to the body – Carlos Maldonado from Somers, Connecticut.

It was now nearly five o’clock and, other than the lab results and the extensive yet unenlightening information I was able to dig up on Mr. Maldonado, I had yet to make any sort of headway.

My normally sloppy desk was piled even higher with stacks of files. If anybody else ventured by simply to make a stupid quip about sending an excavation team to find me should the piles collapse, they were going to get the entire load shoved through their ears. One piece of paper at a time.

My aggression level was through the roof. Two stress balls and a weird looking Martian thing with bug out eyes had already died horrible deaths.

A light tap on the door brought my head up irritably from the file I was reading. Nobody was standing there and an exasperated sigh hissed from between my clenched teeth. A few moments later, a second tap broke my concentration. I launched to my feet, ready to blast the inconsiderate jerk with a barrage of obscenities. Instead, I was left standing there with my mouth agape staring at my partner, Luka Klaric.

He was sitting in a motorized wheelchair, which was why I hadn’t seen him over the top of Paper Mountain, as Tommy had dubbed it. His light brown hair was horribly mussed, one arm was in a cast, and both of his legs hung uselessly over the edge of the chair, but he looked healthier than he had in months.

The previous fall, an irate goblin had speared him in the back while we were attempting to apprehend it for accessory to murder. The goblin had convinced a few dimwitted humans to go into small town banks and exchange fairy gold for cash. The next morning, the banks were left with nothing but leaves and dirt. When caught, the humans attacked the officers with goblin magic, killing two of them. For supplying the thieves with the wands they used, the goblin ended up as an accessory to murder.

With the help of a Seer, we tracked him back to his cave where he jumped us from behind. Goblins are strong and extremely vicious when cornered and by the time he was subdued, Luka was lying in a pool of his own blood, his spinal column nearly severed in two. Unfortunately for the goblin, accidents happen to those who hurt Agents; he didn’t live long enough to go to trial.

That had been eight months ago. The best doctors and healers in the country were at first optimistic, but as his wound festered and refused to heal, they had to admit defeat. The goblin had poisoned his blade with some unknown substance that impeded the re-growth of cells.

Without the knowledge that had died with the goblin, it was doubtful Luka would ever walk again. I wasn’t upset about the vigilante justice dispensed by the Agency. I, myself, had done the same a time or two and would likely do so again, but I did wish that they had waited to get the information needed to help Luka before they’d done it.

I didn’t know what he had done to his arm. The cast was fairly new, only a few scribbled names marred its white surface.

My look of surprise quickly morphed into a heartfelt grin. If his wife, Marla, thought he was strong enough to visit me, he was doing better than good. Marla gave Vic a run for his money when it came to being a mother hen. When she and Luka had kids, those poor tykes were likely going to be wrapped in bubble wrap until they moved out on their own, which wouldn’t happen until their mid-thirties, at the earliest.

“Holy pink hair, girly!” For the millionth time I regretted ever introducing him to comic books. “You are looking as frazzled as usual. Do you ever take time to relax?”

My laughter was a loud, mirthless bark.

“And when do you think I have the time to relax? Especially now that your lazy ass is out on worker’s comp.” Our carefree banter was refreshing; it had been far too long since I’d seen him out from under a morphine haze.

“Lazy? Who are you calling lazy?” he grumped. “I will have you know that Marla has had me doing more work than any crippled person should have to do.” He mock groaned and clutched at his chest. “She thinks because I am home all day, I need a list a mile long of things to do.”

I walked over to him, bending over to kiss his forehead. He smelled good, familiar and fresh, like crushed almonds.

“You poor baby. Look at me feeling so very sorry for you,” I teased, my laughter real this time. “It has to be better than what I’m doing.”

Luka grinned cheekily.

“What? You do not enjoy working for Death? Or searching for the missing souls of priests?” He winked at me and it was exactly like old times. It was impossible to keep my mouth from widening into a grin.

“How did you know what I was working on?” I lightly punched him on his good shoulder.

“Tommy called. He said you could use a little pick-me-up.” He manipulated the wheelchair’s controls to spin himself in a tight circle. “So, here I am. I would pick you up if I could, but …”

His voice trailed off as he waved his injured arm in the air.

“What did you do, you idiot?” His voice didn’t join me in laughter. Instead he blushed a deep red.

“I may or may not have fallen down the stairs,” he mumbled, looking everywhere except my face. I was trying very hard not to laugh again. It wasn’t funny, but it was so out of character for him I couldn’t help laughing. Luka was one of the most graceful people I had ever met, even in a wheelchair.

When I got myself under control again, I cocked one eyebrow at him quizzically.

“How in the seven hells did you fall down the stairs?”

“Do not ask, you do not want to know.”

I started to ask just to be a smart ass, but his pleading look stopped me. I raised my hands in defeat.

“Okay, I won’t ask, but you owe me one. You have never been unwilling to share your stupidity with the rest of us. You have piqued my curiosity, and my curiosity is not easily placated.”

“Yeah, I know,” was all he said. It had to be one doozy of a story if he was that embarrassed by it.

There were a few minutes of semi-awkward silence where both of us tried to come up with something to say. Luka was the first to break the silence.

“So, how is the case going? Made any progress?” he asked with false cheer.

I groaned.

“This case sucks,” I whined. “Just about everything that has happened should be impossible.”

I ticked things off on my fingers when he gestured for me to go on.

“People shouldn’t be able to steal a soul from Death. Curses shouldn’t be able to last after the target person dies. The Veil shouldn’t be usable in spells. I have two corpses missing from the morgue, and a dead vampire in their place.” I threw my hands up in exasperation and kicked the leg of my desk for good measure. I winced as pain shot up my foot. It only served to heighten my bad mood. “To top it all off, my most likely source of information is missing and my regular contacts have gone to ground. Not to mention that Stag says the planets have gone silent.”

I slunk back to my desk and dropped into my chair. Luka followed behind me, maneuvering his wheelchair around my cluttered office like a pro. He was silent for several moments, his face set in the rigid lines of concentration I was so used to seeing at the start of a case.

“This is quite an interesting and difficult case. Has Tommy assigned you a new partner to help with it?”

“No. He wants to, but I refused. There’s nobody experienced enough who wants to work with me.” Luka’s grin was evil and snarky at that. “Not to mention that I’ve been asked by the Vatican to only talk about the case with my partner, Tommy, and the Director. It makes finding a suitable partner a bit difficult when you can’t tell them beforehand what they’re getting into. Nobody wants to get involved in a case like that.”

We’d all done it at least once before learning our lesson. Any smart Agent ran the other way when asked to blindly join a case.

“Since I am your partner, albeit on medical leave and not officially on duty, you can technically tell me all about your case. I will try and give you as much help as I am able to provide from a wheelchair with a broken arm.”

Born with a white caul over his head, Luka was destined to become a kresnik, a shaman with the power to vanquish evil. His Croatian family had moved him to America at a very young age to give him the best education possible. They made sure he was trained in numerous fighting styles as well as giving him as much magical knowledge as possible in the hope that he would return to Croatia to help bring peace back to their home country.

Regrettably, the Fall and subsequent destruction of the entire region made going home impossible. Despite his humorous approach to most of life, he was completely serious about his mission.

“Tell me everything you have so far.” His brown eyes lit up at the prospect of doing something useful. He had to be chafing at the bit to return to work. He loved his job, and not being fit enough to do it was slowly killing him.

I laid the entire case out for him in exacting detail, starting with my visit from Death and ending with Stag’s return phone call. When I got to the part about Liam being missing, his eyes grew dark and worried. My description of the inside of Liam’s hallway had his lips pursing together into a thin, bloodless line.

“Did you know Liam?” I asked, pausing in my narration out of concern. Naturally Luka would have at least heard of him, everybody in the Agency knew who Liam was, but the look on his face was more than simple distress for a fellow mage.

“Not very well. I had the opportunity to work with him on a few cases, but he was never one to open up and make friends. Despite his tendency to be a hot-head, he is a pretty decent guy. Are you sure the body was not Liam’s?”

“Yeah. I got the DNA results back this afternoon and they confirmed that the body was not Liam. It’s somebody by the name of Carlos Maldonado.”

“That is a relief. So, you think Liam killed this Carlos person and cast the curse on his body?” He furrowed his brow in a frown. “That does not sound like him.”

I shook my head, steadying a stack of folders my movement had overbalanced.

“We don’t know who cast the curse on the body. From what Vic says, the curse was cast when the person was still alive, at least six months ago. And they used the Veil as part of the curse.”

I enjoyed the look of shock and disbelief on his face.

“That cannot be possible. I thought you were joking when you mentioned it the first time. Is Vic absolutely positive?” Luka’s unease was starting to creep from the realm of fun into seriousness. He saw my body tense and I could see him force himself back to playful mode. That’s what I loved about him. He could always tell when things were pushing my buttons and he did what he could to make it better. “I mean he is an airhead at times.”

He grinned foolishly at me. I returned his smile with a grateful one of my own. Our mutual jabs at each other had started as a way for Luka to keep me calm when the stress of the job threatened to overwhelm me.

“Considering how shaken up he was by it, I would say yes.”

I continued my story, stopping occasionally to answer a question that Luka had or to ask his opinion on some of my speculations.

Fingers drumming away at the arm of his chair, he considered everything I had to say very carefully. He understood almost immediately the magical implications of what I was telling him. He concurred with the theory that whoever was responsible for the curse must have at least one other piece of Veil energy to work with, because nobody intelligent enough to know what it was and able to work it would be stupid enough to use it on something inconsequential.

As for Stag’s estimation of the case, he tentatively agreed with her.

“The heavens go silent all the time. Just because they have chosen now to do so does not mean that it is because of your case. Do not worry overmuch about it.”

That was easy enough for him to say, he wasn’t the one drowning in ignorance.

His objective analysis of the case didn’t mean he approved of me working it by myself.

“This case troubles me. Working with the Veil takes incredible power. Power that human mages and most Fey just do not have. The vibrational feedback alone would rip them apart at the atomic level. None of the human mages who helped fix the Veil survived.”

I knew that. Five hundred of the world’s most powerful mages had died in ways too horrible to describe.

So whomever had cursed Carlos wasn’t your run of the mill spellcaster. They were super-powered enough to manipulate a piece of the Universe. A magical piece of the Universe that chewed up mages and spat them out as reddish-brown goop.

Somebody pass the lube because I was royally fucked.

“I do not have a good feeling about this, Lex,” he repeated. His worry spiked against my chest in hot, throbbing flashes. “You should give this case to someone else before you get hurt.” His eyes were filled with pain and worry. He tried to hide it behind a boyish smile, but it was there. I looked away quickly; it was too much for me to handle right then.

Luka’s one major flaw was his inability to stomach the thought of a woman putting herself in serious danger. Yeah, it made working with him pretty interesting at times.

It would be natural to assume that, after being my partner for six years, he would have tempered his views, but it would be a completely false assumption. He still cringed every time we went out on a dangerous case.

I was pretty sure the whole reason we were paired together was because the higher-ups wanted him to be with a woman who wouldn’t take his shit and they wanted someone who could rein in my impulsiveness. The first week we were together, Marla, brought me a basket of cookies as consolation for having to put up with her husband. After spending an hour with me, she brought the cookies back home to Luka. Her sympathies had obviously reverted back to her husband. Which was fine with me – I didn’t much like cookies anyway.

“Luka, I’m not going to give up this case because it’s a little dangerous,” I said with a sigh, cringing at how curt it sounded. He meant well, but I wasn’t in the mood to deal with it at the moment. “I’ve been doing this for eight years. I know what I’m doing.”

“I know, but that does not mean you are invincible. You do not understand magic; you have always relied on me to handle the magical knowledge. How are you going to know what to look for and what to avoid?” His hand pressed down on my leg, a warm comforting presence. “Can you at least find somebody willing to back you up, since I cannot?”

“I’ll be fine by myself,” I insisted, knowing I had already lost the battle. I could say no to Tommy with nary a qualm, but Luka, never.

Luka replied by giving me The Look. Early in our partnership, we had determined that I have this insane need to always have the last word. To counteract that, Luka had taken to giving me a certain look to let me know when I was being irrational. It worked most of the time. There were some days when I completely ignored it, but today was not one of them.

I was being unreasonable. I knew that. Knowing my luck, I would charge in with guns blazing and walk right into a spell I didn’t know how to handle. It had happened before, but thankfully Luka had been there to bail me out. I didn’t want to think about how much trouble I could get into without someone to help me.

“Fine, I’ll talk to Vic and see if he would be willing to help me out on this case.” One of Luka’s best qualities was the fact that he didn’t gloat when he got his way. He merely smiled and let the issue drop with a nod of thanks. I would have liked to stay grumpy with him, but it was nearly impossible to do so when he acted so gallant.

I stood shaking my head in resignation. “I need to go interview Carlos’ family and then grab some food. Wanna come with? Or is Marla expecting you home?”

Luka grinned. “Marla is out with some of her girlfriends. I have all the time in the world tonight.”

“Good.” I grabbed a sweater from the back of my chair and headed for the door. “Let’s go have some fun.”

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