Dedication: Dear Michael C., finally, your time has come.
Thirty minutes later, Stella and I stood in front of Henry L. Bowden Hall in the heart of Emory University. The three-story building loomed in the dark, dimly illuminated by a row of feylantern streetlamps, and the ghostly blue light gave it a foreboding air. When we arrived, two policemen, armed with shotguns and swords, guarded the entrance. We had shown them our badges, and one of them went inside to let the lead detective know that we were there.
We’d been standing around for twenty minutes, waiting for the PAD to finish processing the scene. Supposedly, we’d be allowed in once Biohazard said it was safe.
The building was older, pre-Shift, with the first floor sheathed in pale stucco and the two upper ones inlaid with polished stone tiles, marble or granite, I couldn’t tell in the dark. All three floors sported rows of rectangular windows, three feet wide and six feet tall, shielded by thin metal grates. Half inch steel bars, only two cross bars, cheap-looking steel without any trace of silver. Protection on a budget. To make things worse, the grates opened like shutters, so the top and bottom edges of the grate weren’t anchored. The entire mess was secured by four bolts on each side, driven into the wall.
Do you want magic monsters in your office? Because this is how you got monsters in your office.
I was pretty sure Alycia Walton hadn’t wanted monsters.
“The grates aren’t properly anchored,” Stella said quietly.
“It’s a college.”
“They have a limited budget.”
Stella rolled her eyes. “The Academy is a college and it had proper grates.”
She wasn’t wrong. “Let’s take a walk around the building.”
We turned left and followed a paved path around the corner, rounding the building. The Woodruff Library sprawled to the left of us, cushioned in trees and steeped in deep, night shadows. You could hide dozen wolves in those shadows and using my magic to send out a pulse and check if they were there was out of the question. I didn’t know what Stella’s special tricks were. The less she knew about me, the better.
Moonlight cascaded from the dark sky, illuminating the side of Bowden Hall. A hole gaped in the top row of windows, second from the left, emanating faint cerulean glow. The steel grate that used to shield it stuck out of the hedge bordering the path. The corner of it jutted up, with the bolts still attached to the hinge. You get what you paid for.
I looked back up. Deep gashes marred both sides of the window.
“Those are claw marks,” Stella said. She held her hand up, sizing them up. “Big boy.”
“It had trouble fitting through,” I murmured.
We stared at the window. There were no claw marks on the wall. No tracks on the lawn on the other side of the path either. It didn’t run up and climb the building. It had to have flown. A manticore checked some of the boxes: winged, large, carnivorous, fangs. You could probably train one to attack on command. But they were smaller, and they hunted in packs at dusk, swooping onto the running prey. They rarely attacked humans. Their preferred targets were deer and herds of feral cattle.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” Stella said.
“You came out of your house leading your horse. Where was it? Your house is not that big. Do you have a stall in your bedroom? I mean, the smell…”
Really? “Here we are at a murder scene, examining claw marks of the perpetrator, three stories up and in poor lighting, and your mind is laser focused on the mystery of my horse stable. Truly, Knight Davis, no detail escapes your notice.”
“I like to know things. It doesn’t make sense.”
“I like to know things too, like what did you do to get shipped off to Atlanta?”
Stella raised her chin. “I punched a superior.”
Somehow it didn’t surprise me. “How superior?”
Stella pondered the question. “In terms of rank or morality?”
“Hey!” the cop called from the entrance. “You can go up.”
We went up the marble staircase to the third floor, where a hallway stretched, interrupted by doors on both sides. Brighter fey lanterns, fastened to the walls, bathed the corridor in sharper light. At least I could see where I was putting my feet.
One of the doors on the left, almost at the end of the hallway, stood wide open. Two people waited by it, a middle-aged white woman in a PAD uniform and a black man in his mid-thirties in a suit and tie. Two others, wearing the white coveralls with PAD Biohazard Unit stenciled in red on the back, crouched on the floor by a portable M-scanner.
Biohazard’s official name was the Center for Magical Containment and Disease Prevention, but it was confusing while “Biohazard” was clear and familiar. Whenever someone reported freaky life-threatening magic incident, Biohazard would race there, secure the remains, process the scene, and sterilize the site. They were the city’s magical CSI and the first line of defense between it and magical hazmat.
The detective waved us over. He had one of those weary faces that told me he was used to being woken up in the middle of the night to examine the bloody end of someone’s life. For the survivors, the murder of a loved one was the worst thing that ever happened to them. For him, it was early Tuesday morning. Veteran mercenaries and soldiers sometimes looked like that after decades of fighting, except he was barely in his thirties.
He gave us a quick look. “Badges.”
Stella and I held them out.
“What’s the Order’s interest in this case?”
“We believe it’s connected to an ongoing investigation,” I said.
Telling him about Pastor Haywood would catapult this into high profile territory. Two things could happen. First, they could hand this murder off to us, the way they gave us Pastor Haywood. Second, far more likely, the PAD would want to hold on to this murder and request any findings from us, because the two cases were connected. That would allow them to benefit from my investigation, while keeping an eye on the Order. There would be a lot of red tape, meetings, and in the worst-case scenario, a joint task force, which I needed like a hole in the head.
“I’m not at liberty to say. Our findings are not conclusive at this time.”
The detective’s look communicated that he wasn’t born yesterday, he knew I was dodging, and he wasn’t that impressed.
“I’ll allow you into my crime scene as a courtesy. Don’t cross the chalk line. Don’t touch anything. You have five minutes.”
“Before we go in and the countdown starts,” Stella said, “Who found the body?”
“The cleaning crew,” the detective answered. “They work nights because of the heat. The custodian was taking out the trash around ten thirty, noticed the broken window, and came to check. He knocked, Professor Walton didn’t answer, he unlocked the office, and here we are.”
“Any witnesses?” Stella asked.
“No. Graduation was on May 11th, and the summer session doesn’t start until June 1st. The campus is deserted.”
“Thank you.” I stepped into the room. Stella came in right behind me.
The office was a rectangle, and if it were drawn on paper, the door would be in the right bottom corner, by the wall lined with bookcases brimming with volumes and binders. Next to them, a man in his early twenties waited with a bored expression. Bronze-skinned, with big brown eyes and short black hair, he wore the white Biohazard coveralls. A patch with stylized flames marked his left sleeve. A firebug, a pyromage, in case the body rose, grew fangs the size of steak knives, and expressed a desire to eat human faces.
The broken window was in the wall opposite the door, about mid-way, its frame scarred by deep claw gashes and stained with smudges of blood. Something had really dug into the wood, trying to squeeze inside and then left the same way it came in, smearing the blood of its victim in its wake. Shards of glass from the window littered the floor and the imitation Moroccan rug. In the center of the rug, Alycia Walton’s corpse lay in a crumpled heap, staining the beige carpet fibers a gory burgundy.
Her head, a wet red mess, rested against her right shoulder. The killer had bitten through her neck from the left, nearly severing it in one bite and leaving the head attached only by a narrow strip of skin and flesh. Her white blouse and shreds of her bra hung off her body, blood-soaked and torn, and her chest cavity gaped open, the broken shards of ribs slick with dark blood. More blood colored her khaki capris.
Someone, probably Biohazard, had drawn a protective chalk circle around the rug and the body. Standard procedure. The chalk would delay the reanimated corpse long enough for the firebug to torch it.
I approached the circle to get a better look at the body. No heart. Only a puddle of dark blood pooling inside. The blood was still liquid. Once the heart stopped pumping, the blood settled within the lowest points of the body due to gravity, turning the skin an ugly mauve. The process was called livor mortis and it started anywhere from thirty minutes to four hours after death, reaching its most pronounced stage in about twelve hours. Alycia’s body showed no signs of it.
She was killed a couple of hours ago, at most. The creature had come through the window and attacked her right there on the rug – all the blood was confined to it. It likely bit her neck first, knocking her down, then straddled her and broke open her chest to get at the heart.
Past the body, almost all the way at the other wall, a large desk waited, with an office chair pushed back from it, but still upright. Two smaller chairs lay overturned against the desk.
I blinked and the office blossomed into colors. Gossamer tendrils of the palest gold bordered the window, stretched in thin lines across the floor, then exploded over the body into a familiar cascade. No other strong magic signatures. Just assorted blue traces, old and faded, likely left by students or other visitors to the office days ago.
I blinked it off.
The same creature that killed Pastor Haywood murdered Alycia Walton.
“Why was she here late at night alone?” Stella wondered.
“Working on a book, apparently,” the firebug said.
Steps echoed down the hall – someone walking toward us, briskly.
“How old was Professor Walton?” I asked.
“Forties,” the firebug said.
“No cane, no mobility problems?”
“If she had a cane, we didn’t find it.”
“What are you thinking?” Stella asked.
I carefully walked around the circle to the desk and stood behind it. I could see both the door and window. The desk had been positioned to enjoy the view of the woods. “About twelve feet to the door?”
Stella nodded. “Give or take.”
I pointed at the window. “A giant flying creature tears the grate out of the wall and tries to force its way inside. It’s too big, so it claws at the window frame, struggling to wedge itself in. You’re a forty-year old college professor sitting behind this desk. Your next move?”
“Run for the door,” the firebug said.
“Twelve feet.” Stella’s eyes narrowed. “She should’ve made it.”
“She jumped off the chair,” the firebug added. “It’s pushed back. But then she didn’t run.”
“Why wait?” I thought out loud.
“Maybe the creature has some sort of hypnotic magic gaze?” Stella said.
“But she jumped off her chair and came around the desk,” the firebug said. “If there was some sort of hypnotic gaze, she would have stayed seated. If it was me, I would come around the desk so I could fry its ass without damaging the furniture.”
“Maybe Professor Walton had some sort of offensive magic we don’t know about,” I said.
“She didn’t,” a new voice said.
A stocky, white man stepped into the office. He appeared to be in his early forties. His tousled dark hair stuck out from his head in all directions, as if he rolled out of bed and hadn’t even bothered to drag a comb or even his hand through it. A pair of wire rimmed glasses perched on his nose. He wore khaki shorts, work boots and a blue T-shirt with a pointy hat printed in white ink. The words below the hat said Keep calm, I’m a wizard.
The firebug stopped slouching and stood straight, suddenly looking alert and professional.
“Crap,” Stella muttered.
Luther Dillon. When I left, he was a higher up in Biohazard. Whenever Mom had to report something to them, she called him first. I’d met him a handful of times, twice because Mom asked for my help with a crime scene and on a few occasions at family gatherings, like Mom and Dad’s wedding. All I remembered about him was that he called Mom a heathen and pretended she bothered him, while helping her in every way he could, and he was brilliant. On the recognition danger scale, he ranked pretty low.
Luther gave me a cursory glance and focused on Stella. “Knight Davis.”
“Assistant Director Dillon,” Stella squeezed through clenched teeth. “I didn’t know you would be here.”
She winced as soon as she said it.
“I’m a wizard, Knight Davis. We are always exactly where we’re supposed to be. You, however, are not where you’re supposed to be. I was wondering who was cavorting around my crime scene, asking smart questions, and imagine my surprise when it turned out to be you.”
Luther crossed his arms. “Do you remember the song I taught you last time you interfered with one of my crime scenes?”
Stella looked like she swallowed spoiled milk. “Yes.”
“Splendid. Let’s sing it together. I’ll start. Biohazard is a law enforcement agency, yes, yes, yes. Your turn.”
Stella unlocked her teeth. “The Order is not a law enforcement agency, no, no, no.”
“All the crime scenes in Atlanta Metro are mine, mine, mine.”
“All the crime scenes in Atlanta Metro are yours, yours, yours,” Stella intoned.
“When are you allowed into one of my crime scenes?” Luther continued.
“When I’m personally invited, invited, invited.”
Wow. What did she do to make him that mad? I’d never seen him like this.
“Knight Davis,” Luther said without any trace of humor, “Were you invited to this crime scene?”
“Begone, ye unfortunate.” Luther pointed at the door. Stella headed straight for it without another word and I followed.
We walked down the hallway with Luther about twenty feet behind.
“What did you do?” I whispered.
“Later,” Stella ground out.
“No, no, Knight Davis,” Luther called. “Don’t be shy.”
Stella shut her eyes for a second. “We were working a murder case jointly. Several people died standing up with strange bulbs growing out of the bodies. One of them came to life.”
“And in blatant violation of the safety procedures established over the last four decades, Knight Davis didn’t give way to the pyrokinetic specialists. Instead, she had a lapse in judgement.”
We turned onto the staircase and headed down.
“I hit the corpse with a sword,” Stella said, her tone resigned. “It exploded.”
“And because Knight Davis was in the way, the explosion couldn’t be contained in time.”
“What do you mean, exploded?” I asked.
Stella grimaced. “I mean its insides, suddenly and with great force, became its outsides. People got splattered, nobody died.”
Luther’s voice held no mercy. “Nobody died because they were in the ICU for five days receiving cutting edge medical care. Many of them wished, loudly, that they had died, and some even asked us to kill them. And this is why this particular Feldman minion is not permitted at any of my crime scenes.”
“Stella, did you get sick?” I asked.
“I don’t get sick. Ever.”
“Accurate,” Luther called out. “She was covered in gore. Some of it even made it into her mouth. She didn’t have a single symptom. No agonizing pain, not projectile vomiting, no bloody diarrhea. Fresh as a daisy.”
“You really don’t have to walk us out,” Stella said.
“On the contrary, I really do.”
We ran out of stairs and the big double doors loomed in front of us. Stella and I opened them at the same time, she on the left and I on the right.
Ten feet away, in a pool of light from the nearest feylantern streetlamp, stood Nick Feldman.
Nick looked like a statue from Easter Island, whose eyes were on fire with ice-cold fury.
Stella turned and tried to go back inside. Luther blocked the doorway and shook his head.
Nick’s voice was ice-cold. “Knight Davis.”
Stella turned and faced him. “Yes, sir.”
He turned and marched down the path. Stella sprinted after him.
I halted. Nick was having a terrible night. I wasn’t sure if Stella would survive.
Should I go and try to explain? I could lie and say I dragged Stella here. But then he might get angrier that a complete stranger somehow convinced her to disregard his orders. That would make it even worse.
Luther came to stand next to me. “Well, someone is in trouble.”
I didn’t answer. It wasn’t a question and sometimes silence was the best strategy.
“Ms. Ryder, if I could borrow you for a moment.”
I pivoted to him. “Of course.”
Luther glanced at a red-haired woman holding a set of keys, who stood by the door. “Could you please open the library for us?”
The woman nodded, her expression shellshocked.
Luther waved at one of the uniformed officers and started down the path toward the library. The three of us trailed him. The woman unlocked the library, Luther thanked her, and she rushed back to Bowden Hall.
Luther looked at the cop. “Stand by the door. Nobody comes in. If an emergency happens, they wait outside, you come and get me.”
Luther turned to me. “Okay then. Let’s find a comfy spot and chat.”
We headed deeper into the library. The moonlight spilled through huge floor to ceiling windows and our steps sounded too loud in the empty building.
Luther found a group of couches by the window and landed on one of them, indicating another with his hand. I sat.
He studied me for a long moment and smiled. “Love the new face. Have you told the Lennarts that you’re in the city or should I be the one to break the happy news?”