The next morning, I walked into the morgue’s front lobby and immediately wished I’d stayed away. I hadn’t slept well the night before. My brain had been wound too tightly for sleep to be anything but a couple minutes of downtime interspersed with long bouts of tossing and turning. My entire body ached from the night before as did my hand.
I wasn’t ready to deal with anybody else’s drama. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be that lucky.
A wash of agitated panic cascaded over me. It was nearly a physical blow to my already raw and exposed system. I had to pause for a moment to catch my breath.
“Agent Powers, you got my message.” Mel Stevens, the head medical examiner, was a behemoth of a man. As far as I could tell, he was completely human, but at close to seven feet of nothing but bulk, he towered over everybody. Short grizzled hair clung to his head and face, nearly obscuring his dark brown eyes and bulbous nose. The hair on top of his head always stuck out at the oddest angles as if he either didn’t brush it in the morning or he ran his hands through it and tugged on it throughout the day. Despite his haphazard hair, his clothes were always freshly pressed.
He was also as skittish as an over-caffeinated cat.
“No, Mel, I didn’t. What message?” I had checked in at the office that morning before coming to the morgue, but my answering machine was empty.
“I called your office early yesterday. They told me you were out on a case, but they promised to send you over as soon as you checked in.” Mel wrung his meaty hands and gazed at me with a mixture of fear and sorrow.
“Sorry, nobody gave me any message from you. I’m here because of the case I’m working on.” A bad feeling was growing in my stomach. “What’s got you so worked up?”
For some reason, I was the only member of the Agency Mel felt comfortable working with. He would work with the others on their cases, but he always asked for me when he needed help of his own.
“One of our bodies went missing the night before last.” Mel shuffled his feet as if expecting to be reprimanded.
My breath caught in my throat. I crossed my fingers and muttered a quick prayer to whomever would listen to me. Please don’t let it be Father Callahan.
“Normally I wouldn’t bother the Vamyraset with something such as this, but the consequences of this loss are enormous.”
Hell and damnation. Apparently, nobody was listening to me. Look at me being shocked.
I held up my hand to halt his next words. I didn’t need to hear them. I already knew what he was going to say.
“The missing body is Father Rupert Callahan’s, isn’t it,” I said, more as a statement of fact than a question.
“How did you know? I thought you hadn’t received my message.” His confusion and shock hit me square in the gut.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. I needed to get away. I shouldn’t have come here. It was bad enough I could feel the lingering death permeating the very walls themselves. Mel’s heightened state of agitation was only further eroding my barriers.
I had to find a place to hide from the world and rebuild my defenses. I needed to call Mom and get her advice; she had taught me how to control myself when I was younger. I wasn’t going to get my first wish, but I could spare a few minutes to call Mom if things didn’t get too out of hand. As busy as her celebrity life was, she always made time for me. All I had to do was hold out for a few more hours.
“Father Callahan’s death is the case I’m working on. I didn’t know it was his body that was missing, but with the way this case has been unfolding, it was simply my luck.” I saw the questions in his eyes, but he didn’t ask and I didn’t elaborate.
The entire case felt like it was spinning out of my control. I needed help, but didn’t have a clue who to call.
“What time did you discover that the body was missing?”
Mel’s eyes closed and he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet for a moment, apparently trying to organize his thoughts.
“Yesterday morning when I came in. First thing I do every morning is take a quick walk around and check the holding room and vaults to make sure everything’s in order.”
“And that’s when you put a call in to the Agency?” His eyes flew open and a sharp wave of fear spiked through him, so strong I could practically see the sickly green energy with my physical sight.
What’s going on with you, Mel? My question was completely benign as far as I could tell. Why did he have such a strong reaction to it?
“N-no, I didn’t call until after I had searched everywhere for the body. I didn’t want to waste your time if somebody had moved it without telling me.” I scrutinized Mel with all of my senses searching for any hint of trouble, but he was so saturated with fear, I couldn’t get a good read on him.
“Does that happen often? Somebody moving a body without telling you?” I hated this case. I hated that it was making me question the motives of people I liked.
“Not often, but it’s happened a couple times. I always reprimand the person responsible, but sometimes they just forget or are too lazy to put the body back where it belongs.”
“Do you remember about what time you called the Agency?” The Vamyraset had just installed a new switchboard operator. Adele was a magical construct fused with a state of the art piece of phone-answering machinery. The science of merging magic with technology was still in its infancy and the tech-mages were still working the bugs out of Adele. It was possible the call had either been misrouted to the wrong Agent or it was simply not routed to anyone at all. I’d file a bug report as soon as I returned to the office.
“I-I think it was around ten yesterday morning.” The shuffling of his feet against the tile was starting to grate on my nerves. I resisted the urge to nail his feet to the floor, but just barely. “It was definitely before eleven, but I’m not sure exactly when.”
I didn’t get out of my meeting until after one. It was possible that Adele had tried paging me to take the call. When I didn’t answer, the call should have been forwarded to my cell phone, but I didn’t have any voicemails nor was there a missed call notice. Definitely a fuck up on Adele’s end… Unless Mel hadn’t really called me.
Dammit all to hell! I swallowed down the growl scratching its way up my throat. Until I checked in at the Agency, I would not follow that line of thinking.
“And you got here at what time?” I pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and forefinger without stabbing my eye out. Claws, what claws?
“Seven. It’s when I always come in.” He held his hand out as if to stop me. “No, that’s not right. I came in at eight yesterday because Barbara, my wife, had a doctor’s appointment I had to drive her to.”
Wife? All the years I’d known Mel and I hadn’t realized he had a wife. I never noticed a wedding ring – I looked down at his still-clutched-together hands, nope, no ring – and he just always struck me as the perennial bachelor type of guy. Although, I guess the wife might account for the always pressed clothes.
I shook my head to dispel the random thoughts. Get your act together, Powers. Focus on the case, worry about your misperceptions about Mel later.
“Who works the overnight security shift?”
Mel grimaced and reddened slightly. “It’s a new guy, Nicholas Smith. Been here for about two weeks. He claims he didn’t see or hear anything.”
“But you don’t believe him?” I prompted.
Mel snorted. “Hardly. I personally set the security alarms that night, as I do every night, and I can assure you that nobody has tampered with them.”
“Could Mr. Smith have slipped away to the bathroom for a few minutes?” Of the last names to use, Smith was one that raised every red flag imaginable. It screamed “I’m using a falsified name!”
He shook his head. “He’s a vampire.”
This was getting interesting. Vamps don’t associate with other species. At least not in such a mundane way. They use their human or Fey slaves as a source of income, so finding one working for money was a rarity and, in this case, more than a little suspicious.
“Weren’t you at all curious why a vampire was looking for a job? What sort of credentials did he offer?”
Mel blushed an even deeper shade of red and squirmed.
“Not really. I was getting desperate; nobody wants to work the night shift at a morgue. Even I have to admit it’s pretty creepy here at night.” Mel was becoming even more flustered than normal.
“You afraid of the dead, Mel?” As pissed as I was, I couldn’t help my gentle ribbing. I couldn’t imagine that a medical examiner would find the dead creepy.
“The dead don’t bother me, but not everything that comes through the doors stays dead. I’ve been working here for more than twenty-five years. When I first took the job, the dead remained properly dead and didn’t rise as ravening predators after five days.”
Ravening predators. That described vampires perfectly. I’d have to remember that phrase.
“Back to Mr. Smith.” I brought the conversation back to the topic at hand. I couldn’t keep going off on tangents like that, I didn’t have the time to waste on extraneous bullshit. “How did he come into the picture?”
“He applied for the security job saying he needed a distraction for a little while. I asked around and everyone I talked to said he was as decent as they come.” My opinion of that assessment was limited to a snort.
“I realize it’s not saying much since he’s a vamp, but I had no other choice. And anyways, what would a vamp want with a dead body?”
“That’s the big question, isn’t it?” I collapsed onto one of the grey padded chairs lining the wall, wondering when I’d fallen down the rabbit hole, and how far left I had to go until I hit bottom. “Do you have his address? I’m gonna need to talk to him.”
“I made him tuck himself away in one of the empty vaults this morning. It’s obviously too early for him to awaken, but if you want to come back right after dusk, I’ll be glad to wait here for you.” Mel shifted from one foot to the other, appearing for all the world like a dog waiting to be kicked.
“Sure. As long as nothing else comes up, I should be able to make it back here for six-thirty.” I stretched my back and shoulders out before getting to my feet. “Can I take a peek at the vault where Father Callahan was being held?”
“He wasn’t in a vault. He was in the holding room; he’d only been here a day.” He sounded a touch defensive. I wasn’t sure whether it was his way of dealing with the stress or if he was hiding something from me. I hoped he wasn’t hiding things, I liked him and it would ruin the friendship we had, not to mention our working relationship.
“I just want to get a look at it now; there might be some leftover psychic residue that could tell me more about what happened.”
He nodded tersely, heading for the back of the building without a word. I quickly followed before his giant steps left me behind.
“The holding room is right beyond the autopsy room,” Mel called over his shoulder.
Because of the Fall, it was standard practice for morgues to hold a body for seven days to be sure the person was well and truly dead. Most morgues had a special room where they housed bodies for observation during those seven days as a precaution against accidentally performing an autopsy on a transitioning vampire or somebody under the influence of faerie dust. Both conditions resulted in the person appearing, for all intents and purposes, to be dead.
We passed through a large metal door into the brightly lit autopsy room. What we found in there was a complete disaster. All the drawers were open, and bodies had been thrown about the room like rag dolls. A metal gurney lay on its side, spattered with blood and stainless steel instruments scattered around it were also speckled red.
Mel stopped just inside the room, his mouth agape with horror. My eyes roved around the room taking in the technical details. I noted the super-human strength needed to shove vault drawers almost completely through the cement wall. I studied the splashes of blood with a clinical eye, trying to match the bodies with their appropriate splatters. Anything to keep myself from seeing the true scope of the destruction.
The room was filled with death, but it was old death. The souls had left these bodies days ago, carried away by Death to wherever it was he took them. Most of these bodies had died over a week ago. Except for one. One of the bodies didn’t smell like death at all. It smelled like a vampire. Picking my way through the debris, I came across a headless body.
“Uh… what was Mr. Smith wearing when he went into the drawer this morning?” I was staring down at a body dressed the exact same way Mel was describing. There went that lead.
“When was the last time you came through this way?”
“About two hours ago,” he replied softly, eyes bugging out of his head. “I had a pile of paperwork I needed to take care of, and I wanted to stay near my phone in case you called.”
“Did you hear anything out of the ordinary coming from in here?”
“Not that I can recall, but I wasn’t paying attention to back here.” Mel’s giant hands kneaded each other, and his eyes darted around the room as if he were ready to run. I wish I could tell if he was hiding something, or if this was his natural reaction to such a stressful situation. His emotional responses just didn’t fit in with the Mel I knew. I would have to ask Tommy to get a Tracker to tail Mel. It saddened me to have to do it because I was fond of the man.
It was only then that I realized that Mel was the only living person I’d seen. The morgue was usually overrun with staff scurrying about doing their work.
“Mel… where is everyone?”
Again my personal shields were overwhelmed by panic.
“I gave them the morning off. We didn’t have anything scheduled until later this afternoon, so I put them all on call and told them to enjoy their morning.”
Something definitely smelled here and it wasn’t the dead bodies.
“I don’t understand, this place was warded by a covey of mages. Nothing should have been able to get in here without my knowing it.” He sounded so despondent and broken.
I couldn’t afford this sympathy I was feeling. It would taint my objectivity.
“If the person or persons who did this didn’t come through the front, could they have gotten in through the delivery entrance?”
Mel shook his shaggy head.
“I don’t think so. The alarm is still set from last night, but you’re more than welcome to take a look.”
He lead me through the morgue to the back entrance, a set of heavy double doors that opened onto a poorly-lit parking area. A shiny high-end convertible the only car back there. I tried to picture Mel behind the wheel of it and failed. It just didn’t fit what I knew of the shy man.
Nothing looked out of place and there were no obvious signs of a forced entry, but I’d have the lab techs dust for prints and take spectral analysis readings just to be sure. It wasn’t unheard of for a particularly adept mage to have the ability to get around a security system.
“I need to call the Agency about this. Why don’t you go get yourself something to drink, you don’t look so good.”
“I… uh… yeah,” he mumbled, still staring around the room in apparent shock. I hoped he didn’t have a part in this. Mel was a good man at his core, and having a hand in this would destroy him.
Even so, I made him walk in front of me all the way to the front lobby, and I kept him in my sights the entire time I was on the phone with Tommy. It wouldn’t do to have him attack me from behind because I thought he was trustworthy.
Tommy sounded as pissed as I was. This entire case was falling apart before our eyes. All our leads kept dying or turning up missing. We needed to find Liam. At the moment, he was the only one who could possibly tell us anything useful, and even that was a long-shot lead at best.
I stuck around until the tech crew showed up. It was the same crew from Liam’s place yesterday and we exchanged pleasantries as they set up their equipment and I transferred the scene over to them.
As I was ready to walk out the door, Mel grabbed me by the arm.
“Alex, you’re not going to like this.” Now what? I sighed and turned back around.
“There’s another body missing.” Eyes downcast, refusing to meet my gaze, he was the epitome of a guilty conscience. He was involved, I just knew it. I was really bummed; I would never be able to trust him again.
“Which body, Mel?” I couldn’t hide my frustration any longer and my words were sharper than they had ever been with him.
“It was a John Doe brought in yesterday. A possible victim of a mage’s duel.” The body from Liam’s house. I should have known.
Death should come and strike me dead now, I thought peevishly. I’m never going to solve this stupid case. Every time I think I’m getting ahead, the trail in front of me gets obliterated.
“Thank you, Mel. I’ll inform the Agency and let them decide how to handle things.”
Back in my car, I put another call in to Tommy to bring him up to speed on the latest developments.
“Goddammit!” I had to pull the phone away from my ear and rub it to try and dissipate the angry buzzing caused by his outburst.
“What the hell is happening, Powers? How can a case go completely to shit in so short a time?” A thunderous thump in the background must have been his fist connecting with his desk.
“I don’t know, sir. I’m doing my best to find out, though.” It had been a long time since I’d felt this inadequate at my job.
“I want to set a Tracker on Mel’s tail, Tommy. I’m sure he’s involved somehow, but I don’t know exactly how.” I had to force the words out.
“Are you sure, Alex?” Tommy’s voice was concerned, almost fatherly. “Once I officially give the order to set a Tracker on him, whatever they find becomes a matter of public record. Do you want to do that to your friend?”
Friend, my ass. Friends didn’t lie to each other. Friends didn’t complicate a case and not help you uncomplicated it. No, at the moment, Mel was not my friend.
I flexed my left hand. Even before I’d left work the day before, the slice in my palm had scabbed over. Now, it itched and buzzed – faster healing thanks to my stronger demonic-self. One of the few side effects I wasn’t going to complain about.
“Do it, Tommy.” If this was the right thing to do, why did I feel like a complete asshole for doing it? I was still pissed at Mel, so pissed in fact I had to force myself to remain in my car rather than storm back inside and beat the truth out of him. However, even though I liked to think I was a cold-hearted bitch, when somebody wormed their way past my shields, they became a part of my extended family. I watched out for them, did what I could to help them when they were in trouble. To have Mel betray my trust was a bitter lesson. It wasn’t one I was apt to forget either.
“All right. Just remember,” he warned again, “this is completely out of both our hands from this moment on.”
“I understand, Tommy, but what choice do I have?”
“I understand.” I was going to end the call when he cut back in.
“Oh, while I have you on the phone, Alex, I want to talk to you about something interesting that came by my desk this morning.”
This was unusual. Tommy never discussed cases with us unless he wanted us involved in them.
Please don’t let this be a complication with my case.
“Several human men came in this morning with a complaint.”
“They claimed to have been attacked by a “rabid” demon with bright pink hair in your neighborhood.”
Rabid? I think I might be offended by that descriptor.
“Tommy, I didn’t…”
“I know, Alex. When we questioned them separately, their stories didn’t match up. We pressed them harder and one of them eventually admitted they had been the ones to start the trouble, thinking you were human.”
Thank you, Goon number three, whoever you may be.
“Tommy, I didn’t hurt any of them,” I explained, fearing they may have jeopardized my job with their lies. “I just scared the hell out of them so they would leave me alone.”
“I know, Alex, but watch your back. One of those young men has a deep-seated hatred of anything non-human and you embarrassed him in front of his ‘boys’. I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to hunt you up to exact some sort of revenge.”
“I will. Thanks for the heads-up.”
I clicked my phone off and started my car, wondering where my life had taken such a wrong turn. My watch said it was only a little past eleven, but it felt like I had been at the morgue for hours, not a mere forty-five minutes. I had more than enough time to make my appointment with Bishop Montoya.