In the Twin Cities there is a magical underbelly hid and often violent, and for a fee I am one of the few people who can keep it spilling into the open. A young woman just walked into my office scared of men who were both there and not there. Now I have to figure who and what is after my client.
I looked at the clock on my wall and found it had been almost ten minutes that I had been on the line listening to this woman ranting on about her cheating husband. The problem was that I hadn’t been tracking down her husband to get juicy pictures for the divorce case. No one had yet. The other problem was that I don’t do divorce cases, they make me feel sleazy, but she hadn’t given me a second to speak since I had answered.
I jumped in as soon as she took her next breath. “I’m sorry ma’am but I don’t work divorce cases.”
“But you’re a detective, I thought all you guys do are divorce cases.”
“I’m sorry that you were under that impression. I don’t handle such cases. However I can recommend you to someone who does, and she’s very good at it.” I gave the ranting woman, and I use the word 'woman' only because I really don’t want to get sued for slander, the name of a detective who specialized in tracking cheating husbands.
There are days that I wished I had a secretary and this was one of them. So far today I had gotten three other calls to work divorce cases. I used to do the occasional divorce but stopped a very long time ago. I think my last divorce case was back in the forties. I hadn’t had a case in the last few weeks, but I wasn’t hurting for money yet.
The problem for me when it came to getting a secretary was finding one who wasn’t going to be scared off by the kind of people I deal with on a regular basis. It’s kind of hard to find someone who is qualified to answer a question like, “Have you ever dealt with witches, vampires, or daemons of any kind?” A question like that I’m sure would scare off the average person coming into apply for the position. I also wanted a beautiful, female secretary who’d sit on my lap while I dictated letters. Okay so that last part wasn’t a real requirement, but I can always dream. I know I could have hired a succubus for the beautiful part, but from my understanding they are horrid typists. Apparently typewriters never made it into any of the infernal dimensions they can be found in so it takes them forever to learn to use a 'QWERTY' keyboard with any real proficiency. So for the time being I was stuck answering the phone myself.
At least the office was designed for a secretary. I was currently using the front room where normally a secretary would be to answer calls and greet clients. The main thing that's in the back room is an old leather couch that is beat to hell and very comfortable to take naps on. It also has my gun safe which was home to the weapons that I acquired back when the twenties roared, and before then. Back then my city of St. Paul was run by the mob who made payoffs to the Chief of Police, and funded the policemen's ball. It was a different time back then, a romantic time, and the office still pays homage to that lost period of history. It may be the twenty-first century now but the office still looks as if not much has changed since I first dawned fedora and trench-coat looking like a hard boiled detective out of some dime-store pulp novel by Dashell Hammet. Almost a hundred years after my start as a private investigator even my furniture has stayed the same, it's just been reupholstered a few times.
I was getting ready to call it a night when there was a loud, fast knock on the frosted glass window of the door to my office. The silhouette turned its head to look down both ways of the hall. During those turns I noticed that the silhouette belonged to a woman. I was glad; women have always brought me my most interesting cases.
“Come in,” I called out loudly enough for the woman to hear me.
‘This better be good master,’ my crow familiar, Shadow, said directly into my mind from his perch by the antique radio in the back corner of the office. ‘I want to go home and watch television.’ I ignored him. I didn't want to freak out a client by talking to my crow familiar if they weren't from the magickal scene.
The woman, practically a girl now that I got a look at something other than her silhouette, threw open the door and slammed it shut as soon as she was in. She was panting, pressing her back against the door as if to barricade it from someone or something that was coming after her. I had seen that look of terror on someone's face before, and it always meant trouble, the kind of trouble I'm well accustomed to ending.
“Help me,” she whimpered. "I was told that you may be the only one who could help me and I really need help."
I got up from my desk and calmly walked over to where she was panting against the door. “Don’t worry, miss. I’ll lock the door and I assure you that no one will hurt you here,” I said in my most soothing voice as I reached past her to lock the door.
“Now why don’t you have a seat and we’ll discuss your problem.” I took her gently by the arm and guided her over to the recently reupholstered, plush, leather armchair across from my side of the desk. I then sat down in my own chair reached in to the bottom left drawer of the desk and pulled out a bottle nerve medicine, more commonly known as bourbon, and two lowball glasses. I poured two fingers of the liquor into each glass, and pushed one over to her. “Here, this will help you relax a little, but just sip at it; it’s got a bit of a boomerang effect to it.”
With her first sip I was almost amazed that she didn't gag on the stuff, most of my friends can't stand the stuff. She really must be scared. With her second sip I got over my surprised by her lack of reaction to the cheap booze and took the time to really look at her. She was a stunning redhead, at the oldest in her early twenties, and looking like a modern Ingrid Bergman. Bright green eyes were burning with fatigue. Her long, wavy hair was disheveled, and wet from the cold, April rain. Tasteful clothes seemed to have a few days worth of grime on them, as if she hadn’t had a chance to change in several days. Add everything up and the conclusion was simple. She was, or at least thought she was, being followed by someone or something and was too scared to go home.
She was shivering a little as the adrenaline that must have been coursing through her system went stale. “So tell me, what brings you to my office?”
“I’m being followed by two men. I think. And I think, no, make that I know, that they want to kill me,” she said staring into her glass which was shaking in both her hands. It gave her the appearance of a child holding on to a mug of hot chocolate after coming in from the cold. But in this case the little child was a young woman and the hot chocolate was a few shots of my favorite, cheap bourbon.
“You seem to have been keeping yourself pretty scared if you only think you’re being followed miss…?”
“Cross,” she said filling in the blank. “Jamie Cross. I don’t mean that I only think that I’m being followed. What I mean is that I’m not sure if the people that are following me are really ‘people’. I not sure they’re human.”
I nodded with a vague understanding, this sounded just like my kind of case. Once again the Gods had pushed a good case my way in the form of a female client. “What makes you think these men after you aren’t human?”
She took another sip of the bourbon before she answered. “I can only see them out of the corners of my eyes and in reflections from mirrors and window glass, but when I turn to look at them they’re not there. It’s like they’re ghosts or something. I feel like I’m losing my mind.”
“Well let’s first clear out a few possibilities so that I have a better idea of what we are dealing with. Now these questions are not meant to sound insulting, but I have to ask them.” I took a deep breath, before I started since I knew she was going to feel like I didn’t believe her about her current situation. I knew from experience that often times my perspective customers often have a hard time believing themselves what is happening to them. “First: are you on any medication for psychiatric problems, or do you have a history of using recreational drugs?” I didn't want to waste my time, and her money, chasing hallucinations when it would be better for her to go to a hospital where she could either be put on the right medication or get off the drugs. Their are far too many things that can cause a person to see things.
“What!!!” She screamed as if I had just slapped her across the face. She stood up and leaned across the desk to grab me by my tie, pulling me closer to look at her point blank. “I’m not crazy! I’m not a junkie! What I am, is in danger!”
I gently took her by the wrist and used just enough force to remove her hand from my tie, which had gotten uncomfortably tight. “I just had to ask. Now, since you're telling me the answer is 'no' to both questions, we can get at the real heart of the matter.”
I took a notebook out of another desk drawer along with a pen and got ready to take notes. She collapsed into the chair for my clients now knowing that I would take her seriously. I really didn't need to write anything down, but I find it helps people realize that I am indeed taking their situation seriously. “Well, first I’m going to ask some questions about you. I need to get a clear picture of who you are so I can understand what is going on, and why it’s happening.”
I took a sip out of my glass and got comfortable. “Where did you grow up?”
“The bay area, just outside of San Francisco. Why?”
I jotted it down on my notepad. “I’m just trying to get a feel for you. Do you have any relatives back there? When was the last time you were there?”
The confusion was still evident on her face as to why I was asking these questions and not about the two individuals who were following her. “Most of my family still lives there, except for my sister. She moved to New York three years ago, hoping to make it on Broadway. Why are you asking?”
“And you were last there?” I prompted. I knew from all my past experience that this type of information could often prove valuable when looking for clues as to who might be behind something like this. I also knew that it tended to drive my clients nuts.
She sighed, probably realizing that it was going to be easier if she just answered my questions without asking ‘why’ at every question. “I was there last Christmas.”
“What brought you out here? Can’t be the weather.”
“I was out here for college, studying international business. Now I have a new job with a multinational trying to get my foot in the door, so to speak.” Her voice had the tone of frustration, however not at me, but more likely the situation she found herself in.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-two. I turn twenty-three next month.” She really was just a kid.
“What kind of work do you do? I know that you said you are working for a multinational. So what do you do there?”
She looked at the floor and sighed. “I translate manuals. It pays okay, but I keep putting in bids for better positions. However all the upper management types keep saying that I’m too young and inexperienced. Plus my direct supervisor has the hots for me and doesn’t want to lose me.”
I nodded; I could easily understand how her boss could be attracted to her. She was very easy on the eyes. With her looks she should have been a model rather than a corporate drone. She was the kind of looker that made me wish she wasn't my client. Stupid scrupulous.
“Now let’s discuss the two people who have been following you for the last few days. Can you describe them?”
Miss Cross cocked her head to one side and closed her eyes in concentration. “One of them is a tall, thin, white man, almost painfully thin. The other is a short Asian man. They’ve been dressed in black suits that look well tailored, but since I can only catch glimpses so it’s hard to say for certain.”
“Now you say you only catch glimpses of them out of the corner of your eyes or in reflections?” I needed to confirm her answer because what she had described often meant serious trouble.
She nodded again. “They’re never there when I turn to get a better look at them.”
I had been right about what was following her then, Shadow Men, which meant she really was in serious trouble. The question was who had called them. They rarely traveled to the human world of their own accord, so someone must have brought them here. “Why come to me and not go to the police?”
“I did go to the police,” she said. “With the exception of one, they all told me to check myself into a hospital.”
“I take it that the exception was the one that gave you my business card?” It was a rhetorical question. I had worked with the police in most of the cities and towns that made up the Twin Cities metro area. Occasionally, when they got desperate for a lead on a kidnapping or murder, a detective would come to me. Those that had used my services would usually keep a couple of my business cards with them in case they met someone who could use my help. Those business cards are my main source of advertising.
“Yes. She said that if there was anyone who could help me it was you.” If it was a "she" it was probably Helena McKarren. Tough broad that one, once saw her jerk a guy's arm out of its socket when he gave her a too much trouble. Helps that she's a werewolf. The two of us had known each other for a while now, mostly through her real boss. She may be a cop, but when it really counted she reported to The Court of Night.
“Well I’m sure I’ll be able to help you. Now back to the questions.” Another sip of bourbon. “Since you haven’t corrected me yet Ms. Cross, I take it that you’re not married?”
She shook her head again. “No. I haven’t found the right guy yet.” When she did I hoped it would be someone interested in her for more than just her looks. And if the guy was the type that would use her as a punching bag her though I hoped she would come to me so I could put the guy in his place. No woman deserves to be hit, especially a girl who looked like my soon to be client.
“Do you have any life insurance?” Just because you’re not married doesn’t me someone’s not after you for your insurance.
“Just the fifty-thousand I get from work.”
Not a lot of money to kill for, but you could never tell these days. “Who’s the beneficiary?”
“The Defenders of Wildlife,” she said proudly, and I liked her for it, it showed that she had real character.
“Well I seriously doubt a charity is going to have you killed,” I said with only a slight smile, not trying to make light of her predicament. “Do you have any money other than your insurance?”
“I have a few thousand in savings for emergencies and I’ll be happy to give all of it to you if you can help me,” she said desperately.
“Don’t worry, I’ll try to solve your problems without bankrupting you.” I wasn’t about to rob her blind, she was too pretty for that. “Now for the big question, did anything unusual happen to you before these people started following you? I don’t care how unimportant it may have seemed at the time. I need to know everything.” There were any number of magick users, cults, covens, and the like that could summon Shadow Men. This was going to be a process of elimination to get an idea of who had summoned these daemons. Anyone who would summon those things were the kind of people who wouldn't mind sinking low to get their way.
“Let’s see…” she started once again closing her eyes in concentration. “There was a group of protestors at my office building. They were protesting one of the other companies that has offices there.”
‘Doubt it boss. Anyone who could call Shadow Men into our world wouldn’t make that kind of rookie mistake to get an innocent involved,’ Shadow said. I merely nodded in reply; he was correct on that account.
“Next…” I prompted her.
“I got into a bit of a road rage incident when I forgot to use my blinker. The woman I cut off pulled along side me rolled down her window and screamed her head off at me.”
‘Anyone who had the kind of power needed for the ritual would have needed to have been having a really, really bad day not to have calmed down before finishing drawing the summoning circle.’ Again it was Shadow putting in his two bits which he had been doing since I got him from mother after she had been murdered all those centuries ago. I found it’s not a good idea to let him watch political talk shows unless I want to listen to him screaming in my head.
I shook my head. “Next…”
She still hadn’t opened her eyes. “My boss made a rather heavy-handed pass at me. I probably shot him down harder then I needed to.”
“This was the third time he made a pass at me, and the third time I told him no. I told him that next time he makes a pass that I’d go to H.R. and file a harassment complaint.”
I felt Shadow giving the idea some weight. “What do you think Shadow?”
‘Doesn’t sound very good boss. I doubt a magick user that powerful would be working in a corporate setting.’
“What about the Silicon Slaves? They’re the corporate types.”
“Why are you talking to your bird?” Jamie asked obviously confused.
“He’s a familiar; basically a servant of sorts. He’s smarter then most people and makes for a good second opinion.”
‘Ask her what kind of company it is that she works for.’
I nodded it was a fair question. “So Miss Cross, what kind of business is your company in?”
“High end medical equipment.” She answered.
“Silicon Slaves are still a possibility,” I said.
‘I still don’t like them for it. Not their style.’
I nodded again thinking about it. “Your right. They’d be more inclined to erase her digital footprint.”
“What do you mean erase my digital footprint?” Jamie asked me.
“They’d cancel your credit cards, erase all bank records, pull the record of you having a drivers license,” I told her. “You’d effectively not have any history as far as computer records were concerned.”
“They can do that?” she asked bewildered.
“Any good hacker can do it if they’re willing to really work at it, but they’d probably miss a couple of things. Silicon Slaves can just do it a hell of a lot faster and they don’t miss anything, but Shadow’s right. Summoning Shadow Men, while easily within their power, is not their style. Now anything else? We are dealing with some really nasty pieces of work there must have been something.”
"What are Shadow Men?" Jamie asked, which was an understandable question.
"They're a type of daemonic assassin. They kill for hire and for fun when they are brought to this world." I hoped that the answer wouldn't scare her into forgetting anything crucial. "Now think. Is there anything else you can tell me anything at all?"
“No. I can’t think of anything,” Jamie said shaking her head. The her face lit up with an eureka moment. "Wait! Yes there was something else. There was this filthy, homeless woman who ran into me. She scratched me and said something bizarre at me. I had no idea what she said, it was just gibberish."
The words, 'oh crap,' quickly ran through my mind, this was bad. "Can you give me a better description of her?"
My client closed her eyes again. "She was wearing a filthy, ragged dress, and she stunk as if she had been bathing in polluted water." The 'oh crap,' thought ran through my mind again far more intensely. "Her eyes were yellow and she was missing teeth, and part of an ear."
I looked over at Shadow. "You thinking what I am?"
Shadow's answer consisted of two dread filled words. 'The Ladies.'
I nodded agreement. Turning back to Jamie I noticed that her glass was empty and poured another two fingers of medicine for her. "Okay I hate to tell you this Miss Cross, but you are in very serious trouble."
Jamie swallowed hard and started to shake again. "You can you still help me can't you?"
"I'm probably the only person within a thousand miles who can," I said simply. "I'm going to be honest with you, the people who have summoned these Shadow Men are a very dangerous group of women. To make it worse, they aren't the ones who want you dead. They're just contractors."
An understandable look of sheer terror took hold of Jamie's face. "Who are they?"
"They are known as the Ladies of the River." I decided that I needed to make things as clear to Jamie as possible. "They are what people think of when they think of witches that sell their souls. The Ladies of the River sell their souls to the daemon of the Mississippi River. For that they receive powerful magicks, though it causes them to burn out quickly. The human body isn't meant to run magick through it in that way. A person can learn magicks that are just as powerful as those used by the Ladies of the River but it takes a long time of serious study. By selling their souls the Ladies cheat the system but it catches up with them quickly and in about ten or twelve years they're bodies simply burn out leaving a mere shriveled, husk of a body."
"Why would anyone do that to themselves?" Jamie asked in disbelief.
"For the most part the Ladies are made up of runaways and the homeless. By selling there souls they gain a power that no one can buy for any amount of money. For that short time they can do things that even Arabian oil princes could never do, despite all the money they have."
Jamie's next question showed her understandable confusion. "If they have all this power, then why did they hire themselves out as contract killers? I mean it doesn't sound as if they have much need for money."
I nodded in agreement. "It does sound silly I know but it's safe to assume that they'll send the money to an environmental group that will work to help clean up the river and there by increasing their own powers. The cleaner the river the more powerful the daemon of the river is, and thus the more powerful the magick they receive from it."
"You can stop them, right?" she asked hopefully. "I mean they have sold their souls for magick, what can you do?"
"I have studied magick for a very long time, plus I come from a deep family line that has provided me with more than a little natural talent. I have taken them on before, and as you can see I'm still very much alive. Yes I can help you, but not only will I have to take on the Ladies, but I will also have to find out who hired them before they can hire someone else to hurt you. So the question is who would wish you harm."
Jamie shook her head in frustration, which was a clear sign to me that I was going to end up just as frustrated. "I can't think of anyone. I don't know of anyone who would want to kill me. I mean I have disagreements with people but nothing major. The only real person I could think of would be my boss, but I can't see him going that far even though I turned him down."
I hate it when people think they have no enemies, just shows that they are blind to the world around them. Or they just want you to think that they are a really nice person whom no one would dislike. I once tracked down a rapist for the brother of the victim. I talked to the bastard for a while and I turned the conversation around to the subject of enemies and he claimed to not have an enemy in the world. He was certainly surprised when I showed up on his door step the next night with the brother. I cleaned everything up so that no one could tie anything together for evidence. After child molesters, I hate rapists more than just about anyone else in the way of normal humans.
There is another problem when people claim to have no enemies in my line of business, I have to start from scratch. Now don't get me wrong, I love a challenge, but it still makes things make things more difficult. The thing is that it could really be that she didn't have a real enemy. However she may have gotten on the wrong side of someone who really knew how to nurse a grudge. Either way it didn't matter in the end the results were the same. She was in trouble and I was the only one who could help her.
She sighed, obviously she had hoped that this would have been a simple matter of dealing with a couple weird men who seemed to want to kill her. But now she realized that she was hiring me to track down someone truly bent on hurting her. "How much is it going to cost me to have you keep me alive until then? I'll give you everything I have for you to keep me safe."
She meant it to. She probably would have even offered up her body if she thought it would keep her alive. Had I been almost any other private eye I may have asked for just that, but I'm not like that. Mixing business with pleasure was something I've never done. That sort of thing always screws you up, especially if the client back stabs you, which has happened to me before. I'm not saying that the thought of spending time with her in my bedroom wasn't appealing, she was incredibly attractive, but I'm a professional. I'm not like Dashell Hammet's detective Sam Spade. I may look and sound much like the Humphrey Bogart image of the character, save for the bright white streak running through my black hair, but I keep things purely business. I'm not about to mix romance with business.
I opened up the file drawer in my desk and took out one of my knight in shining armor contracts. Even though I wear a trench coat now, and haven't worn armor since my last stint in a Hell bound army during the Knights' War, I still call it my knight in shining armor contract. As I said I wasn't about to rob her blind, but I still needed to have some payment. I placed the contract on the top of the desk facing me. "The fee for my service is $250 a day with a five day retainer to be paid upfront," I told her pushing the contract, and a pen, towards her.
Jamie quickly read over the contract and nodded. She wrote her signature next to the 'X' and pushed it back to me. Reaching into her purse she pulled out a checkbook and cut me a check for the five day retainer. "There, twelve-fifty. Now, what is the first thing that we need to do?"
Now that I had been paid it was time for me to start earning that money. "Well first we have to figure out where to keep you until I can track down the person who is after you. I mean it defeats the purpose of you hiring me if I were to go after someone bent on hurting you by leaving you exposed to danger from another assassin."
"I can't go back to my apartment," Jamie said simply.
"Of course not, that would be the first place they would go. No, I have two options for you. First you can stay here. I've got a comfortable couch in the back room you can sleep on, and there are a lot of places in the area that deliver. There are also many magickal protections here that will block most supernatural beings from coming here. However there's no shower here where you can really wash up, though there is a small bathroom down the hall."
Jamie nodded and looked around the office not knowing if she'd feel comfortable sleeping in the office. "What's my second option?"
"You can stay at my place. I have a spare bedroom and you are more than welcome to use it. You'll have to cook since not as many places deliver there but it is probably the safest place you can possibly stay."
Jamie gave me an appraising look. "How do I know that you're not going to try anything funny?"
"You're my client," I said with only the trace of a smile. "And while you are incredibly beautiful I never mix business with pleasure."
Jamie raised one eyebrow when she looked at me with a questioning gaze. "Are you sure you'd never do that?" she asked.
"Scout's honor," I said as I held up my hand in the Boy Scouts' sign.
"You were never a Scout," she said, humorously.
"You're right I was too old," I agreed, referring to the fact that I had been far too old to join the scouts when they had first formed.
She smiled slightly, probably thinking I was making a joke. "Then I'll stay at your place."
"Now that that is settled let's go to you place so that you can pick up a few changes of clothes and anything else you might want."
I stood up out of my chair and and headed over to my gun safe. I pulled out my shoulder holster and Colt 1911 which I had nicknamed The Ace of Spades for the image of the playing card in mother-of-pearl grip. I wouldn't need the other guns in the safe, at least not until I met with the Ladies. I traded out the magazine with everyday .45 rounds and swapped it with one of loaded with enchanted silver designed for use against many different magickal beings. Normal silver doesn’t tumble for a damn so the enchantment allows it to fly straight. In my line of work it pays to be prepared for such things as shooting daemons. I had another type of bullet at my home that were really meant for dealing with daemons in the way I was going to need, but for now these would do.
Thank you for reading the first chapter of the first book of The Black Shadow Detective Agency series : The Shadows Up Caper
The full book plus a longer sample can be found on Smashwords
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