Almost missed yet another week of posting a chapter. Whoops! Since nobody screamed for me to save Alex’s dignity and stop posting, I’m just going to keep throwing chapters up and hope people are enjoying the story despite the rough writing.
Getting Luka and his wheelchair into my car was an easier deed than I had imagined. Luka nimbly swung himself out of the chair and into the passenger seat. As for the chair, it performed some amazing feats of acrobatic agility and I was able to fold it down to a size compact enough to fit in my messy trunk.
“Tell me about this Carlos,” Luka said as I pulled out of the Agency parking lot.
“Born in nineteen eighty-seven on the island of Puerto Rico, his family emigrated to mainland America when he was five. His parents and younger sister died in the Fall and he was adopted by a distant relative.” I recited what had been in Carlos’ file without taking my eyes off the road. Luka was the worst passenger I’d ever had the displeasure of driving anywhere. Not being in control of the two tons of metal and glass hurtling down the streets made him antsy. It was only a matter of time before the “helpful suggestions” started. “He showed a bit of promise when his magical abilities first began to appear, but he topped out as only a low-level sorcerer.”
“Watch out for that pedestrian, Lex. He is not paying attention to where he is walking.”
“I see him.” The pedestrian in question was a young man walking along the opposite side of the street. If I didn’t know he did it with everyone, I’d have been more annoyed by his side-seat driving, but I simply smiled and reveled in having my friend back.
“Of course you do. I am sorry.”
He laughed at my surprised “huh”.
“I have been informed by the hospital drivers that I am a very poor passenger, so I am attempting to remedy that.”
“That’s cool,” I said because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Here he was trying to fix his body and also re-align his thinking in order to change a bad habit. There was no question about which one of us was the more disciplined.
“Tell me more about Carlos.”
“A couple years after the Vamyraset was formed, he applied to be a Finder, but he flunked out during training. No note as to why, but he’s got a string of arrests for everything from vandalism to breaking and entering to armed robbery.”
“He sounds like he is a peach of a person.”
“Yeah, a real stand-up kind of guy.” Throw in malicious disregard for life and overwhelming arrogance and he’d be perfect for Vamyraset higher management. Not that I could ever breathe that sentiment aloud. At least not if I wanted to continue to breathe.
“He’s been staying out of trouble, or at least not getting caught at it for the last few years,” I continued, refusing to dwell on those thoughts. I loved my job and the good work I did, but knowing what type of person ran the New England Agency was… well, it was disillusioning at best. At worst it was life-threatening. “He married Evelyn Derosso six years ago and they now have three children. She has no discernible file and no work history.”
“Do you think Carlos actually changed his criminal ways or did he just get better at hiding his misdeeds?”
“I think after what I found at Liam’s house, he just got better at not getting caught. I don’t want to speculate about what happened, but I know you don’t get into a mage’s duel with a much more powerful mage for no reason.”
“I agree, so the question seems to be what happened between Carlos and Liam to provoke the fight?” Luka’s fingers gripped the dashboard so tightly his knuckles were white, the only sign of his internal struggle to keep his usual comments about my driving to himself. I couldn’t help but feel a bit of jealousy at his restraint.
“That’s the question I hope his wife can answer.”
We didn’t have time for any more talk as we arrived at the Maldonado residence. Unlike Liam’s magazine-perfect yard, the Maldonado’s yard was covered in children’s toys, patches of bare dirt, and a small, inflatable kiddie pool half filled with water. The house itself, a single-level cookie cutter version of every other house on the street, could use a fresh coat of paint and several of the ancient windows were cracked and broken.
If Carlos Maldonado was still living a criminal lifestyle, he wasn’t doing very well at it.
I parked at the curb and extricated Luka’s chair from my trunk. Opening it back up wasn’t as easy as closing it had been. The tangle of metal bars and electronics was confusing and I couldn’t figure out how to unlatch the locks. My struggles weren’t helped by Luka’s cackling.
I pounded at the recalcitrant metal as my earlier aggravations returned. As if sensing my rising anger, Luka relented and motioned for me to bring the chair closer. With just two expert flicks of his fingers, he unlocked the chair and it unfolded without a problem.
“Son of a bitch,” I swore beneath my breath.
Luka grinned, swinging himself into his seat with the same ease as he got out of it. “Do not hate me because I am better than you.”
“Arrogant bastard,” but I said it with a laugh. I could almost forget that this would, in all likelihood, be our last time working a case together. Luka was confident that a cure would be found and he would be back on his feet and returning to work, but I was more of a pessimist. I was going to enjoy this time with him and not think about our future.
I followed him to the edge of the walkway leading up to the house where he stopped a moment before proceeding forward. The cracked concrete blocks gave his chair a bit of trouble and he was forced to ask for my help to push him up to the door. I did so with a wry smile.
“Hello, can I help you?” The woman who opened the door of the Maldonado residence was stunning. A bright green Chinese Qipao-style dress molded itself to her curvy figure and accented her pale skin. Coal-black hair hung down past her waist highlighting her cat-green eyes. Those eyes scrutinized the two of us, lingering on Luka’s chair and my pink hair. “If you’re here begging, I don’t have much money to spare, but I’ll give you a hot meal.”
Guess we needed to work on our tough, Vamyraset Agent personas.
“Madam, we are not beggars; we are Agents from the Vamyraset.” Luka stepped right back into his role as public speaker. A role I gladly ceded to him. I was never very good at talking to people, especially people I didn’t know. “I am Agent Luka Klaric and my partner is Agent Alex Powers.
“The Vamyraset? Does that mean you’ve found my husband?” Hope lit up her eyes and filled her voice. She would be the second person today whose hopes would be dashed because of this damned case.
“You are Evelyn Maldonado?”
“Yes, of course.” A small child, face covered in what I hoped was chocolate, ran up and clung to the back of her leg. The child, I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl, peered out at us from behind the safety of its mother’s leg.
I smiled down at him or her and gave a small wave with my fingers. The child gave a fear-filled gasp and then their little legs were carrying them down the hallway.
“Mrs. Maldonado, we are very sorry to have to inform you that your husband is dead.” Luka was able to infuse his voice with so much sympathy you’d think he was intimately connected to the deceased.
“I already know that,” she snapped, glaring at us.
Mrs. Maldonado’s irritated words brought both Luka and I up short and we exchanged intrigued glances. Death Knells were rare and their ability to know the exact moment when a person dies made them highly sought after by just about everybody with enough money to afford their extravagant fees. The only Death Knell the Vamyraset was able to afford worked for the DC Agency. He answered directly to Jäger Eichelberger himself.
The chances of Evelyn Maldonado being an unknown Death Knell were slim, but then again, so were the chances of just about everything else related to this case. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility, but the better bet was that she was involved in his death somehow.
“When was the last time you saw your husband, Mrs. Maldonado?”
“At the funeral, of course.” I didn’t understand why she was more irritated than upset. If she was innocent in regards to his death, she should be grieving and if she was involved in some way, she should be scared, worried, pissed off not… annoyed.
“Whose funeral would that be?” I could tell by the intent, predatory look in his eyes that Luka had picked up on the emotional disconnect as well.
“Mrs. Maldonado, we just found your husband’s body yesterday and it was stolen from the morgue last night. There’s no way you could have had a funeral for him.”
“Agent Powers, my husband died six months ago. His gravesite was desecrated and his body stolen two months ago. I reported it to the Vamyraset immediately.”
No, oh no, no, no, no, no. I swallowed back the groan that was threatening to escape. What in the seven fucking hells is going on here?
I wasn’t surprised that this information hadn’t come up in any of the reports I’d looked through. It was a sad fact that bodies were stolen from their graves all the time and we just didn’t have the manpower to hunt for them all.
What I didn’t understand was why somebody would steal his body, dump it in Liam’s house six months later, and then steal the body again. It made no sense. If indeed it was the same person who stole it both times.
“How did your husband die?”
“We were eating dinner one night and he just fell out of his chair. He was dead before he hit the floor. The coroner said it was a death curse.”
A death curse, why the hell not? Seeing as how every other aspect of this case was so completely improbable as to be laughable. Why not a curse that required the sacrifice of one person to bring about the death of another. And not only was it cast once, but twice without the caster being caught. And why the hell hadn’t the coroner said anything about this to anyone at the Agency? A death curse would have been routed to the Violent Crimes department and I would have heard about it no matter who caught the case. And it definitely should have been listed in his file.
“Mrs. Maldonado, was there anything unusual about the days leading up to his death?”
She narrowed her eyes, either glaring at us some more or deep in thought, it was impossible to tell.
“He did mention that he had a new job. He promised that it would be his last one and after that we’d never have to worry about money again. Of course, I don’t know if he ever completed the job before he died, but I do know that I haven’t seen a good god-damned dime from anybody. Not for this supposed job he had and not from the insurance company. How am I supposed to feed three kids on my minimum wage salary alone?”
Seeing the small child from before peeking around the corner sent a small pang of sympathy through me. My Mom had never had to struggle for food money a day in my life and I couldn’t imagine how horrible it must be for a single mother to have to do it.
“Did he happen to mention who this job was for or anything else about it that might help us?” I refused to believe that this illegal job he took right before his death had nothing whatsoever to do with the case.
“He refused to talk about it and told me not to ask him any questions.” She rubbed the skin under her left eye and I was willing to bet Carlos used violence to make sure his wife complied with his wishes. “Agents Klaric and Powers, please explain to me what’s going on. You were under the impression that my husband had died recently, yet there’s no way any intelligent person could have mistaken a six-month old corpse for a recently dead one. And now you’re saying it’s been stolen again?”
“I am very sorry, Mrs. Maldonado, but your husband’s body was found while investigating a different case and we cannot, at this time, give you the information you seek.”
“Well, isn’t that just fucking great. Is there anything you can tell me or am I just going to have to continue wondering what the hell happened to my husband?”
“Again, I am very sorry. We will let you know what we can when we can, but the information regarding this second case is highly sensitive.”
“Uh-huh, sure. If you have no more questions for me, I need to start supper so I can feed my children.”
Luka and I nodded in unison as she stepped back inside the house.
“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Maldonado.”
She let out a derisive snort and slammed the door. We could hear her yelling for her kids to “get their asses inside and get washed up.” There was nothing left for us to do except head back to the car and assimilate everything she had told us.
Bundled back in the car, Luka turned to me, his expression closed.
“What do you think of her story, Lex?”
“I think it’s just another fucking complication to this case. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was all just an elaborate prank to make me look like an idiot.” I pounded my fist on the steering wheel. “And it’s working.”
“That is not true. You do not look like an idiot, Lex. Even if you were to have full use of me as your partner, this would not be an easy case to solve. Did you know that, since the Fall, there have only been three confirmed cases of a death curse being successfully used to kill somebody?”
I hadn’t known that, but it didn’t make me feel particularly better.
“What do you think is going on here, Luka? It sounds like this death curse was used on Carlos six months ago, probably in relation to this job he took, and then on Father Callahan just the other day. Is it possible that Liam did this?”
“He has the power and the lack of morals that are necessary to make such a spell a success, but this does not strike me as his work,” he said after thinking about it for a minute. “Liam is arrogant. He likes spectacles and explosions. If this were his work, he would not be in hiding. We would know he did it and why. The only hurdle we would have to get over would be proving he did it. Not exactly an easy task in and of itself, ya?”
“No, but I’d take that over this mess. At least then I’d have a few answers.”
“I agree that answers are in very short supply, however I have complete faith in you, Lex. You are strong and smart and more than capable. Do not let this case bring you down.”
I smiled at his praise.
“With you at my side, this case will be a cakewalk.” I started the car as he let out a rude snorting sound. “I’m starving; let’s go get some dinner. I’m in the mood for Indian.”