By Nicole Walsh
Morgaine the Green diffuses expensive and rare essential oils in her office every Monday morning before Team Meet to ‘get her in the spirit’ of the work week. I could smell the oils from where we were seated in Small Meeting Room 1. I could also see the dead intern in the hallway, face-down in a spray of coffee and mangled cups.
The police-mage is taking his time, jotting down notes in a serious, thoughtful way. He has a notebook, and knows how to use it.
“Cursed with… ill-luck?” he repeated.
“Good luck,” I correct. “I’m cursed with good luck.”
This is the fourth police-mage I’ve spoken to this morning. This one has his personal shields set far too high, making it uncomfortable to sit opposite him. I understand why he’s doing it. If I was him, I wouldn’t trust me either. I don’t look very trustworthy at the best of times and a pile of corpses isn’t a good look on anyone.
I squirmed in the plush, comfortable chair.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” he suggested, like I hadn’t, three times already. He has a pleasant voice, but his eyes are cold.
“Your name is Barry Bartwhite and you’re… new here?” His gaze skimmed the office, taking in the expensive, comfortable furniture and overpriced artwork.
“Fairly new,” I gushed. “Six months. I got in this morning about eight thirty. I like to get Marty on reception a coffee. He has to start early, rushing to drop his kids off. He never has time to…” My babble trailed off under the investigator’s glare. Behind him, the main meeting room and several offices are filled with dead people. Downstairs, receptionists are dead in the lobby. The security guards are dead by the door.
“Early to work,” the investigator mused. “But late for the 9am meeting.”
“I needed to use the bathroom.” I explained this – a dozen times over. “I ducked into the loo. The death-spell hit whilst I was, er, in the cubicle.”
The police-mage paused a long moment, then looked down to make a careful note. He’s trying to psych me out.
“Look,” I tried to explain. “The death-spell funnelled up through the floor…”
He narrowed his eyes: “We have people looking into that.”
“You’ll find it spiralled,” I explained. “Professional level vertically rising death-spells always do. Spiralling left, usually.” I demonstrated by twirling a finger. “It will have hit something on the other side of the wall near the toilet. I was in the last cubical. Some relic or something.”
“So you do know how you survived?” He consulted his notes. “Before, you say you didn’t.”
I resisted the urge to grind my teeth and bare them at him.
“I’m guessing,” I said. “However it happened, it was pure chance and luck. I was in the right place at the right time.”
“Doing a…” he paused delicately.
I winced. “Yes,” I said, face heated. I’m a forty-six year old bachelor male with an appalling diet. When the bathroom Gods call, I drop whatever I’m doing.
“Making you several minutes late for the meeting,” he confirmed, still pretending to have to read his notes to get the story straight.
“Not just me,” I mumbled. “Morgaine and Pep the Prepped …” I waved at the hall behind him, indicating the carnage.
He gave me a long, sceptical look.
“You seem to know a lot about death magic,” he said.
“I’m not a death-mage. I’m not even a spell-caster, really. Just very low-level office magic.”
He’s checking the room again. Probably wondering how a dumpy looking middle aged nothing like me got a foot-hold in a sleek and sophisticated outfit like this. The investigator works out. I can tell from the muscles under his well-fitted robes. His perfectly straight hair shines with vanity spells. He has top of the line truth and innocence spells carefully displayed.
I’d like to claim I was like that at twenty. I was not.
The investigator is not a defensive mage but he’s shielded to the cahoots with a jittery ugly spell he set (clumsily) on himself. He thinks I had something to do with this. I’m not helping my case by babbling on, but I want to help. Everyone has a flaw and that’s mine – I need to feel helpful. I need to feel useful and involved. It would be far safer for everyone and far less traumatic for me if I lived in a cave on a mountain somewhere. I tried that. I lasted three quarters of a day.
“You’ll find quite a file on me,” I said. “I did suggest you read that first…”
His eyes narrowed further:
“You telling me how to do my job?”
I could do his job. I’d be good at it. Where ever I land, whatever I do, my luck means I do it well.
“You look agitated,” he observed.
“You don’t seem upset. You sounded very calm when you called the situation in.”
“You’ve seen my file,” I said. “It’s not the worse thing I’ve seen.”
“The escaped dragon?”
It wasn’t. But I wasn’t about to get into that, so I said: “That child on the floor behind you is only sixteen.”
“They take them from the local mage school.” I avoid looking at the girl. Her name’s Stephanie but she prefers the childhood nickname ‘Step’. It’s her mother’s birthday this weekend.
He studied my jiggling leg.
“Hungry,” I lied. I’m pissed about the girl. “I need to go.”
“The bathroom, again?” Man has a snarky edge to him.
“I need to get on with my day.”
He settled back in the chair, looking curious: “Why the hurry? I thought you wanted to help.”
“I need to find another job, for one.” With Management and Finance dead, I’m not expecting a severance package or final pay.
The callous response makes him blink. He’s pegged me for a nice guy, and he’s not wrong. Unfortunately, this is not the first workplace to drop dead around me. My earliest memory is of a piano falling on my foster parents. I’d stepped into the gutter to pick up a coin. I still recall the shadow of the falling piano across my hand as I studied the edge of the battered coin.
There were tragedies before that, but counsellors tell me I block that trauma. They say it with a disapproving frown, like it’s a bad idea. I’m quite happy to not have those memories. I have memories enough as it is.
I’ve survived more fires, car accidents, falling items, collapsing trees, rogue spells, assassins and weather events than I can recall. I stopped counting on medical advice in my late twenties, right after my third break-down.
The investigator makes a slow, deliberate note to make me sweat.
I rock back in my seat and fold my arms.
“I didn’t do this,” I said. “Your mages checked me out already. Three times. You’re talking with me because you’re spinning your wheels. I don’t have this sort of magic and I passed the truth and non-malice spells.”
“Thirty eight people died in this building,” he said. “Every single person on every level. The spell-seeker rats died. The security Hell-hounds died. The pigeons on the roof died. You’re the only thing still breathing.”
“I got lucky.”
“Again,” he snarked. He had read my file.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.
“That was six years ago.”
“Since the last time an entire building died around you?”
I hesitated. It was six years since the last reported instance of large-scale death around me, but there had been a few smaller, less publicised events.
“I’m cursed with good luck,” I said. “I told you that.”
I glanced at the dead girl.
“Lucky for me.” Now wasn’t the time to mention my good luck was sucked from the area around me. Instead, I gestured at the logo on the wall.
“Affordable Death? In this line of work, these things happen.”
“They do,” he agreed. “It’s dangerous work.”
He tries to sound disapproving but it’s spoiled by a sour little pout. He would have dropped out of an expensive household, into an expensive school. He missed his grab at private consulting and wound up on plod duty in CitySafe. I checked my watch.
“Can I go?”
I see nasty thoughts crawl behind his eyes, but he’s a busy man and his truth-spells and innocence spells confirm I had nothing to do with this. He’s twitchy to check for relics on the walls around the loo. Breaking this case could make his career.
“We’re going to have more questions for you.”
He fished out a card. I take it politely, tapping it against my knee.
They won’t be questions I can answer. I can’t explain myself any more then anyone else can. I’ve had the best hovering around me scratching their heads for forty-odd years. What I am can’t be explained, undone or copied.
Most of the time, they offer me a job.
It takes me forty-five minutes to get out of the building, mostly because the blonde investigator is such a douche. I wander down the street in the opposite direction most folk go to get coffee, popping my head into establishments.
Thirty-eight people are dead. Forty one people work in that building. Big Boss was very insistent we have forty staff on at all times. Something about the way the building is warded. It could very well be the reason everyone died today.
I spot Morton in the third coffee shop I check. What can I say? I’m lucky.
I wander in, wave to the waiter to get her attention and plop myself down opposite Morton. The chair is light and rickety and squeaks. Morton doesn’t react. He’s a hot mess at the best of times. Today he has his head on his arm, scrunching a hand through greasy, filthy hair. There’s quite a pile of hair under the table.
The café is small and cosy. The tables are clean but worn. At this time of morning, it’s mostly empty. The smell of grease and bacon tangle with the smell of coffee, making me feel light-headed.
“Either he orders something,” the scowling waitress said, “or he needs to leave.”
I reached for the menu, scanning it briefly.
“Big breakfast,” I decided. “Three plates, so we can share. And a coffee – the biggest you have. And, er…” I study Morton warily. “Maybe a camomile tea?”
The waiter studies Morton, scans me head to foot, and hesitates. I fish out my wallet.
“Pay upfront?” I suggest.
I hand her the cash and a healthy tip. She instantly relaxes.
“Sorry. He just…” She hesitated. “He looks like a death-mage.”
“He is,” I admit. “I’m not.”
“There was trouble up the road.” There’s a shadow of fear in her eyes.
“He’s my friend.” It’s not a lie. I can’t help but involve myself – automatically helping her and him. “He’s not well.”
I offered a friendly smile. She smiled back. The place doesn’t look that busy but I still have to fight the urge to offer to help her out the back. She saunters off and I turn my attention to Morton.
“Go away,” he hissed.
Morton works in Filing and Archive. To say he’s unsociable is a discredit to all socially awkward people out there. Morton is a sour, nasty, actively hostile little shit.
“Did you do this?” I asked.
The blunt question snaps him out of his funk. He lifts a look through his hair.
“Fuck you.” He spluttered, fumbles, and repeats, ineloquently: “Fuck you!”
Morton is the nephew of someone important. He did his internship at Affordable Death five years ago. It took a lot of money and favours to prevent him flunking out of that prestigious school and even more money and favours to secure him a job. Morton lived on site, so no one who isn’t on the payroll needs to see or speak to him.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Leave me alone.”
“We’re the only ones who survived, Morton. I know how I survived. I need to know how you survived.”
Morton cringed, burying his face into his hands. He’s shaking like the junky he is. He’s also sweating up a storm.
“He opened it.” The voice came out of no where.
I jumped sky-high, jolting the table.
Beside me stands a tall blonde girl. She’s wearing cheap flats and tights under her skirt. Her face is streaked with mascara. An expensive leather bookbag hangs at her side.
“Mindy.” I said. Employee number forty-one, survivor number three. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Sorry.” She doesn’t sound it, but she does tap her name-tag. The high-level discretion spell goes down. The waiter blinked in surprise, then heads over to take her order.
“Full-cream capp.” Mindy looked and sounded calm, despite the mess of her make up.
“You were hiding,” I realised.
She slid into the seat beside me. The food arrived. Mindy pulls a face. I make a big point of serving up the huge plate of food. Call me stingy, but as of 9:01 this morning, I became unemployed.
“I’ve already eaten,” Mindy frowned.
“It isn’t for you.”
I set the plate and push it into the vacant place beside Morton just as a sleek, well-dressed blonde mage walks in the door. He gives me and the plate a sour look.
“You knew I was coming?”
“There was a tracking spell on the business card,” I pointed out. It was clumsy, shoddy work. Someone needs to show the blonde police-mage how to do a transfer spell.
Mindy blinked in surprise.
“Who are you?”
“Cop on the case,” I explained. “This is…” I twirled a finger, deliberately pretending to forget.
“Nelron Manser-Ward.” The cop says it like it means something. He shakes Mindy’s hand, frowning at her grip.
Mindy glared at me.
“You let a cop follow you?”
“We’re working the case together.” Investigator Manser-Ward doesn’t correct me. He’s diving for serviettes to mop up his suddenly bleeding nose, looking ill. Mindy’s warded with some pretty nasty spells. I wouldn’t be touching her. Investigator Manser-Ward’s ineffective shielding spells are now down.
“There were forty staff rostered on,” he growled, head tilted against the bleed.
“Forty-one,” I corrected. “The intern shouldn’t have been in there today. Her and one of the receptionists work in an on-off pattern. Big Boss is very specific about the warding spells.”
“Forensic says that’s not why everyone died.” We were all too polite to ask the investigator if he’s okay. Being a cop, he should know better than to shake someone’s hand.
“Did he do it?” Mindy asked, nodding at Morton. Morton is having some sort of panic attack against the table.
“He didn’t,” I said. “You said he opened it?”
Mindy touched her satchel. “I logged on remotely and checked Delivery. The last thing logged through security was a parcel to Filing and Archive.”
“Checked what? From where?” Nelron fumbled one-handed for his notebook.
“I was in the cafe across from the office. I saw Barry walk out,” Mindy nodded at me. “I followed him here.”
“And you were following…?” The cop glared at me.
“I was lucky enough to stumble upon Morton,” I explained. “You weren’t in the building Mindy?”
Mindy hadn’t been in the team meeting. Mindy’s a tall awkward girl who has a laugh like a hyena. She’s always late. For some incomprehensible reason she’s never fired. Word around the office is… was, that she was sleeping with Big Boss.
“I was running late,” Mindy said. “I came in at 9:30, just as CitySafe arrived. I veered into the cafe and watched from across the street.”
Nelron is gaping at her: “We did a Relation and Connection Scan.”
Mindy tapped her badge. It has a lot of hard-core spells on it, most of which I haven’t seen before. I dabble, but I’m no spell-caster.
“Did you see Morton leave?” I asked.
Mindy shook her head.
“When did you leave?” I asked Morton.
Morton is listening, for all his whimpering and shaking.
“I opened it,” he admitted. “It was addressed to me. No one has ever… it was stupid.”
“Who was it from?” Mindy asked.
Morton shook his head.
“There was a compulsion on the box,” I explained. “That’s how it works.”
The other two stared at me.
“We work for an assassination company,” I pointed out. “I’ve worked in quite a few previously. There’s a compulsion to open it. Personalised with an emotion hook of some sort.”
Morton has so many buttons its impossible to say which one the compulsion hooked. I’ll guess later, when we’re alone. I spent most of yesterday helping Morton find a file in the deep, dusty bowels of the building. Just ‘cause they toss Morton down there doesn’t mean he’s good at his job. I can’t help myself. If I see a job that needs to be done, I jump right in there.
“You opened the parcel in the lobby?”
Morton jerked a shallow nod.
“Why isn’t he dead?” Mindy asked.
“He was holding it. Vertical rising death-spells spin outward but that means there’s often a space at the center. Morton was standing in just the right place at just the right time.”
“As you were,” Mindy frowned.
“And you,” I point out. “I’m lucky. This is how it works for me. There would have been something on one of the walls I was standing near that blocked or corrupted the spell and it flowed around me. Morton was spared because he was standing at the center of it.”
Nelron cleared his throat. “I found the relic,” he admitted. “A tribal mask on the wall of the… er, the large fire mage’s office.”
“Yuri the Precious,” I agreed. “He liked to collect things.”
“The spells on the mask were in just the right place to shield you.” The investigator flicked a look at Morton. “I will have to look into the pattern of the death-spell.”
He’s lying. I can see a scribble on his note-pad in another mage’s hand – a spiral that looked exactly how I described it. Nelron spent the forty-five minutes it took me to escape the building doing a quick ‘death-spell one-oh-one’ with one of his men.
“Who set it?” Mindy’s voice is tight and angry.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” I admitted.
“You have an answer for everything else,” she flashed.
“This is not the first large-scale assassination spell I’ve seen. I’ve lost three workplaces to something like this before. You knew this when you hired me.”
I glared at Mindy.
Mindy glared back.
“That’s pretty bad luck.” Nelron’s still being a douche. This isn’t the way he expected his day to go and it’s made him sulky.
“Actually, its good luck,” I said. “Which is why I get hired for work like this.” I glanced at Morton. “Eat.”
“You’re a death-mage, Morton. You’ve drained yourself in a panic. Eat.” I nudge the plate of bacon and sausage his way. He needs the protein, but he also needs the lingering pain and terror on the meat.
Nelron’s attention snapped up.
“Not a very good one,” I pointed out.
“What do you know of death-magic?” Mindy asked me. Her tone and body language is all wrong.
“Death-magic is what cursed me as a baby,” I explained. “I’ve gone out of my way to understand it.”
Mindy is staring at me, like she’s trying to read my soul. Maybe she is. It makes my head ache but, like Morton, I don’t have shields. Nelron is snapping painkillers out of a strip. He does not look well, but he’s not leaving.
“You’re an interesting man,” Mindy decided, gaze locked on me.
“You didn’t do this.”
“I did not.”
“And you really do want to help?” I shrug. I can’t help myself. It’s written all over my file. It makes me very employable and very likeable.
“Morton didn’t do it either,” she admitted.
“No. But he did see the parcel and the spell.”
Morton froze, a chunk of sausage half way to his mouth.
“You did. The death-spell missed you but the compulsion didn’t. A spell wiped your memory so you don’t recall where the parcel was addressed from. You would never have opened an anonymous parcel, Morton. The security mage would never have let an anonymous parcel in.” Everyone stared at me.
“The Delivery log said there was no sender information,” Mindy frowned.
“Compulsion prevented Security from recording it. Think about it. Security accepted it from the parcel delivery company from outside the shields. Security carried it inside the building. Morton fetched it personally. He took one look at it and opened it. Right there in the lobby.”
“Compulsion?” Mindy frowned.
“A compulsion can be very strong but it’s not strong enough to override our sense of danger. Morton is a very private man. He was eager enough to open it the moment he saw it.”
Morton was staring at me.
“I don’t remember,” he whispered. “I remember the call. I remember the elevator trip up.”
“What were you feeling?”
“Emotion is hard to wipe,” I explained. “What did you feel when the phone rang?”
“Talk us through it. Every moment. Every feeling.”
“I looked at the clock,” Morton said, “to decide whether I needed to answer it. It was right on nine o’clock. I realised… people will start calling now. I felt…” His voice wobbled. He stopped talking.
“And when you picked up the call?” I prompted.
“Excitement.” Morton frowned. “In the elevator… I was sweating. Wiping my hands on my robes. I felt… happy and excited.” He paused, astounded. “Why?”
I shook my head. I don’t have those answers.
“The spell stripped the details, but not the emotional content. Something wiped the cameras too. Otherwise the cops would be looking for Morton.”
“Why would they wipe the cameras?” Mindy asked.
“To prevent us from zooming in to see who the parcel was delivered from,” I explained. “Enforcement will scry Morton through the forensic spell soon enough. If you want to check Morton for remnants of the spell they used, you need to take Morton, now.”
“Take him?” Nelron frowns. “Where?”
“He needs to be behind wards. Fast.” I’m talking to Mindy.
Morton looked at Mindy in confusion.
“Mindy?” he asked.
“Big Boss,” I explained. “He’s been riding Mindy since she walked in the door. Mindy doesn’t have a book bag. She doesn’t talk or move like that. And she doesn’t drink full cream milk. Your choice, Boss. Either CitySafe takes Morton, or you do.”
Nelron freezes. His gaze dropped to bloodied serviettes. His face blanks as he realises he’s had his mind and motivations forcibly read. I watch the thoughts flick across his face. CitySafe is as corrupt as sin. They swing which-ever way they get paid to swing. Nelron knows that. There’s a reason he followed us here.
When Big Boss speaks, it’s more stilted. Mindy’s in there somewhere. She just heard me. She’s probably screaming. It’s fairly easy to jump an unprepared and ignorant non-mage, but once the victim realises what’s happening all sorts of self-defence mechanisms kick in.
“City Safe will give me a full report,” Big Boss said.
I shrugged: “Depends who wanted your organisation destroyed, I suppose.”
“I’ll organise a taxi,” she said.
I flashed a smile.
“We’ll be ready.”
“Bring the girl.”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
Mindy folds. Her face smacks onto the table.
Morton and Nelron are gawking at me. I dab grease out of my beard.
“Are you in or out, boys?”
“In,” Morton says, without hesitation. Not like he has a choice. He lived onsite.
Nelron stared at Mindy, aghast.
“I didn’t sense him… her.”
“Welcome to the big league.”
“The sorcerer who owns Affordable Death is…”
“Yep,” I agreed.
“We are,” I point out, stacking the plates carefully. If I’m not careful I’ll end up carrying them into the kitchen.
Nelron looked me up and down. He checked sweating, broken Moreton and the comatose girl.
“He won’t work with the likes if you.”
“We’re all he has left.”
About the Author: Nicole Walsh is a cat enthusiast from the east coast of Australia who loves fern gardens and long dresses. She writes short stories and novel-length speculative fiction and urban fantasy that spans from a little bit dark, a little bit amusing through to a little bit steamy. Visit Nicole at: https://nicolewalshauthor.com/ and www.facebook.com/nicolewalshauthor
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