There was a body in the church.
Even if Duffy’s phone call hadn’t alerted us to that fact, the line of news vans along the street would have tipped me off. Murders always made the media swarm like flesh flies on a corpse.
Outside the yellow police tape, reporters wielded microphones and cameras like weapons, and they shot questions like bullets at anyone wearing a badge. Special Agent Drew Morales and I were bundled up in coats and street clothes instead of cop uniforms, so they let us pass without too much trouble. If they’d known my partner and I were members of the Magic Enforcement Agency task force, they wouldn’t have been so dismissive.
In addition to the journalists’ vehicles, two CSI vans parked at the curb. I cursed silently. Any scene that required that many forensics wizards had to be a clusterfuck of epic proportions.
The call had come from Detective Patrick Duffy an hour earlier. Given the tense track record between Babylon PD and our MEA task force, they’d only have called us in to consult if the murder had ties to the dirty magic trade. The most likely scenario in this case was that the victim was a known player in one of the three major covens. Still, why the church? Dirty magic covens rarely set foot in houses of Christian worship—not even if it was to commit crimes.
Adrenaline and dread made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. Adrenaline because I loved my job, and working coven cases was my specialty. Dread because coven-related murders were always messy and never easy to solve.
“Any guesses?” Morales said.
“The vic?” I shook my head. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
He shot me his trademark smirk. “You’re no fun.”
“It’s Sunday night and I’m working a murder. Sorry for not being the life of the party.”
He put an arm around my shoulder. “Beats the paperwork you were working on before Duffy called.”
I expelled my breath on a laugh. “No shit.”
I grabbed the handle to the door and noticed streaks of white corrective fluid across my knuckles. Before Duffy’s call, I’d been pecking away at case reports and cursing the MEA’s refusal to automate the extensive forms we had to fill out after we’d wrapped a case.
Through the gaping wound that used to be the church’s ceiling, a helicopter’s spotlight created a strobe-like pattern in sanctuary’s shadowed corners. I ducked under a large wooden beam blocking our path. The structural damage had allowed a late-season snowstorm to have its way with the interior. Splintered wood and glass shards stuck out of the snow like skeletal hands. Broken windowpanes gaped like missing teeth in a battered face.
If you squinted hard, you could imagine this run-down temple in its heyday. Barrel vaulted ceilings, gleaming woodwork, high stone arches, and stained glass that glowed like jewels in the late afternoon sun. But now, there was no sun–only the helicopter’s lights. And instead of a temple, it looked like a tomb.
The old church was just one of many sad relics of Babylon’s steel empire. Some might see the empty shell of a church as a symbol that God had turned his back on the city. The truth was, even if God existed, He wasn’t the reason the economy had collapsed. Ask any of the old timers–the ones who were too worn down to bother with lying– and they’d tell you the real culprit in Babylon’s slow death: Magic.
Several of the other abandoned buildings on the street had been torn down years earlier, leaving behind lots choked with weeds and trash. Yet, for some reason, this old church had been allowed to remain. Maybe some people believed God would come back to Babylon, after all.
As I walked up what used to be the aisle, a familiar uniformed officer turned to call out. “Hey, Prospero, you don’t call, you don’t write…”
“I came to collect that twenty you owe me, Santini.” He’d been one of the few patrolmen who hadn’t treated me like a pariah back when I was still a beat cop.
He motioned toward his crotch. “I got your money right here.”
“You’d have to pay me a lot more than twenty bucks, Jimmy.”
Raucous laughter echoed through the old sanctuary. Murder scenes are usually tense, for obvious reasons, and any chance to add a little levity to the grim task of cataloguing some poor bastard’s final moments was leapt on with forced enthusiasm.
Further up the aisle, I spotted Duffy standing next to the altar. Even on a good day he wore a perma-frown, but that night, among the snow and the wreckage, and the blood, his expression was downright grim. He was speaking to Valerie Frederickson, one of my friends from the CSI squad. Val was a fellow Adept and one of my few allies at the BPD.
Behind the pair, a sheet covered the body, which was splayed out on the stone altar like a sacrifice to old pagan gods. In the snow in front of the altar, someone had painted a symbol using a liquid that was too darkly red to be anything but blood.
“Prospero,” Val called. “Hey, Morales.
I waved and picked up my speed to get the shit circus under way. Circumventing the bloody symbol, I joined them by the altar. “Who we got?”
“That’s what I was hoping you could tell us.” His tone hinted that asking us for help was costing him a lot of pride.
Detective Pat Duffy used to be on the homicide beat for a precinct in an upscale, Mundane area of Babylon. But last year, after his work on a case involving the murder of Babylon’s former-mayor, he’d been made head of homicide for the Cauldron Precinct, which handled crimes in Babylon’s magical slums.
Before his promotion, Duffy had rejected Gardner’s invitation to join the MEA task force–twice. None of us could figure out why he’d been so opposed to the move, especially since as an Adept, he shouldn’t have problems working under and beside other Lefties. But apparently he did. Now, every time any of us had to work with him it was twice as difficult and five times as frustrating as it should be. But since he was Captain Eldritch’s new favorite, we were forced to deal with the guy.
“Who called it in?” I asked.
Standing beside me with his arms crossed, Morales loomed like a large shadow. Even though he outranked me, I was the one who knew the covens best, so he was letting me take the lead.
“Homeless freakhead across the street called it in,” Duffy said, using the term for a potion addict. “Unis found him half-frozen in an abandoned gas station across from the church. He gave an initial statement, but it didn’t make much sense. He was spouting nonsense and half-frozen, so I called an ambulance to take him to Babylon General. Once he’s lucid, I’ll head over to get an official statement.”
“All right.” I blew out a breath. “Let’s see who’s behind curtain number one.”
Val flicked back the covering.
The limbs had been severed from the trunk and arranged around the body. “Where’s the head?” Morales asked.
Val nodded toward a covered a covered statute next to the altar. Wearing a grim
expression, she slowly pulled the sheet away. On top of a marble pedestal, a kneeling angel cradled a severed head.
“Shit!” The outburst escaped my lips like a bullet from a gun muzzle. The sound echoed off the crumbling walls and the banks of snow. I felt rather than saw everyone in the ruins freeze.
Tension rose like a plasma dome over the crime scene.
The empty eye sockets and the blackened potion burn in the center of the forehead were important clues, but they hadn’t unsettled me. Instead, it was the bullring hanging from the nose and the close-cropped gray hair that made my stomach flood with acid.
“One of your old friends?” Duffy was asking if I knew the victim from my days as the scion of a dirty magic coven.
I swallowed hard and dragged my gaze from the face of the man I’d known since I was born. “H-his name is Charles Parsons. On the streets they called him ‘Charm.'”