“I don’t like it. It’s all wrong.”
“Amanda, it’s a muffin.”
She glared, one-eyed, at her friend Juli. “That’s not what I mean. This whole place is too…exposed. Too many windows, too many angles of attack. Anyone could get to us here.”
“When I asked you to come for coffee, I didn’t realise it would be such an imposition.”
Expatriette shrugged, stiffly. “I don’t like being so exposed, that’s all. And the muffin isn’t good either, it’s too dry.”
“You just don’t like being unarmed.” Juli sipped her coffee, slowly.
“You’re right, I don’t. You shouldn’t either. I’m sure you have as many enemies as I do.”
Juli smiled. “Oh, I don’t think any supervillains know who I am.”
“Whatever. Juli, why am I here?”
Dr Tremata rolled her eyes, reached into her bag, and flipped a few photos onto the table.
The man in the photos was not that unusual or interesting, and if she’d passed him in the street Amanda probably wouldn’t have looked twice. He was neither handsome nor ugly, well dressed but not ostentatious, neither particularly fit nor unusually chubby. The backdrop to the pictures was ordinary too, the kind of broken stones that could be found in alleyways all over the city. The only thing that broke the illusion of normality was the small wound in his chest, directly through the heart.
She grimaced. “So what are we looking at?”
“His name’s Stefan Jones. Unremarkable man, as far as the police are aware. Did administrative work in a bank in the city. Went missing a couple of nights ago and nobody saw him until he turned up dead.” Dr. Tremata took another thoughtful sip. Amanda just blinked her eye at her.
“So far it sounds like a mugging.” And Lord knew there were enough of those in Rook City to keep anybody busy. The Wraith was a big help in keeping street crime down, and Amanda certainly liked to think she did her part too, but something about the city meant that no matter how many criminals and monsters they dealt with, there always seemed to be more.
“So you might think. But see this wound?” She indicated one of the photos, a close-up on the chest. “Straight-edged, not ragged or torn. If there was a struggle, you wouldn’t see a wound like this. And there’s some bruising around the wrists and ankles-“
“He was restrained.”
“Bingo.” The doctor leaned forward, eager now despite her professional composure. “Restrained, and killed by a single stab wound directly to the heart. The body left in an alleyway when the perpetrators were done with him – not so much disposed of as just abandoned, like they didn’t care about police. Maybe like they were trying to draw attention. Tell me that doesn’t sound strange to you.”
Amanda just nodded. “Fine, you’re right, it’s strange. We’ll look into it.”
“What about me makes you think that ‘stabbed in the heart’ automatically means ‘magic’? Do you have that bleak an opinion of the mystical, or do I give off a creepy vibe?” The sorcerer known as Nightmist was sitting in a soft old leather armchair, poring over a crumbling book, and now that she’d been interrupted, tapping her foot on the floor.
“You know it’s not that, Faye,” said Amanda. “But yeah, you do. You spend half your time covered in black clothes and weird symbols, and the other half fading into sentient mist. I like you, but you’re creepy.”
Faye quirked a smile, and completely failed to hide it. “Fine. So apart from a few details of his untimely death, what do we know about this man?”
“Not much.” Amanda’s face returned to its habitual frown. “Bachelor living alone, insignificant office job, no enemies we know about.”
A nod. “Organization connections?”
“None we’re aware of. Not yet, anyway.” The question had long-since become automatic – so many things in Rook City could be laid at the feet of the Chairman’s Organization – but this time there was no police presence either hurrying things along or hushing them up, and that suggested that for once, it wasn’t their fault. All that they were doing was treating it with the lack of interest so typical of their department. “Seems like an innocent bystander.”
Faye grumbled under her breath a little, and aloud said “Alright then. Next step would be-“
“I already got you a sample of his blood,” said Expat, and pulled out the little tubefull, “Tremata was very well-prepared.” Faye grinned.
“You both know me too well. Give it here, I’ll prepare the ritual, and we’ll find the real murder scene.”
“Great,” she said, and passed it over. Faye held it up to her eye, carefully inspecting. “And you’re still creepy.”
The ritual did not take long, all-told. Once Faye would have needed to retreat into a secluded room in their base and taken hours with intricate symbols, deep mental focus, the chanting of strange magical phrases…now, it was simple. She poured a quick but perfect circle in salt, held up the phial, and said a single word. The phial sparked in response, then the spark wriggled and flexed, and grew into a strong, pulsing glow. Even to Amanda’s eyes, it seemed to be leading them forwards, and Faye looked like she was seeing much more.
Overbrook City had once been a leader of the nation, a bastion of modern industry and a place where innovators and developers and all kinds of people with big ideas came and congregated and tried to change the world. It had been the site of a massive boom, and a lot of those who came had made their names and their fortunes for the parts they played.
That was a long time ago now, but the signs were still there, and a lot of them looked like this place – a dingy, abandoned warehouse, cluttered with rusting equipment, vats of rotting slime and crates of unsold products. The floors were coated in pigeon feathers and rat droppings and dust, the air was full of grit and the smells of aging metal and oil.
Expatriette led the way through the shadows, checking the corners and guarding Nightmist as she moved, while the mage directed their progress, pointing them through the warehouse towards some faint trace of murder.
The detritus and clutter gave way to a little clearing, and Nightmist nodded.
Expatriette moved around the edges, checking for danger, but there was none. The place was as empty as it seemed. “It’s safe. Do what you need to.”
The spellcaster moved forward, hand outstretched thoughtfully, and muttered something under her breath.
“Maybe.” She shook her head. “I don’t know. There’s something a little…I don’t know. Odd.”
“Who’d have thought.” Expat grinned, crouching to inspect something on the ground.
“Funny. I mean, I’m not sure if there was magic done here or not. There’s a strange sort of residue about the place, I don’t know what it means.”
“But the murder was definitely here?”
“Then it was definitely something from the weird magic-stuff end. Look.” She held out her hand, showing the droplets of dried wax she’d found. “Someone, probably a few someones, was here with a bunch of lit candles.”
“That doesn’t prove a lot-“
“Sure, but I’m betting it wasn’t a meeting of the Abstinence Club.”
Faye smiled wryly. “No, probably not.”
“So, then…” Amanda paused, thoughtful. “Does this help you?”
“Maybe. If I can get a fix on that residue, maybe I can detect other traces, or set up something to warn us if it flares up again.”
“Catch them in the act. Nice plan.” A sudden gust blew through, rattling the windows and scattering the rubbish around. Amanda realised her guns were up, fingers on triggers, and she gradually, consciously untensed. “The faster you can get it done, the better. Something about this place gives me the creeps.”
“I know what you mean,” said Nightmist, and hurried on with her work.
The dust swirled around, and Expatriette glared out at it, looking for enemies. But there was nothing there.