Chapter I

It was the name. It stood out from the fog in my head like dim candle flicker. The incantation felt gummy in my mouth as I repeated it back to the shaman at the table. I’d heard the name before, but whiskey made the invoked images gauzy. I’d need to go deeper to see.

“Karla? With a ‘K?;” I asked, trying to bring the Boots into focus.

“How should I know how you spell it?” the shaman growled, sneering a jagged hole in his brown face to expose chiclet teeth that always looked ready to clamp down on something. Tonight was the most Boots said to anyone in weeks, most likely. He was talking to me, though. That’s what counts.

The thing about being a drunk is that it’s inconvenient. Here, I had the juiciest piece of info on my mark, and all I could do was order another round. I did so with a flick of my index finger that rested on my shot glass. The waitress always knew to eye-check my booth in the back corner as she made her circuit around the smoky basement pit that was Benny’s lounge. Boots deepened his sneer, his bloodshot eyes mapping every red road to the nearly-black iris through which he took the world hostage by command of his brooding silence.

“Don’t care what you do with it,” Boots said, proclaiming his divorce once again from human interaction for what was sure to be a long stretch. “Send my cut to Dr. Johansen before the next moon.”

At that point, I could barely manage the word, “Sure,” but I did manage to tip my invisible hat to him without poking myself in the eye or missing my forehead completely. After celebrating the news, the tipping-of-the-invisible-hat move would not be available to me for long. I had some more drinking to do. Now that I had the drop on Karla, whoever she was, the only decent thing to do was celebrate. Jill brought the shot as if on queue.

The man-mountain that was Boots rose up from the table with a guttural scrape of chair legs expressing relief to be free of his mass. He snorted once at the drunk that was me and sailed through the crowd like a steam freighter heading out from New York Harbor in a fog. I waved Jill back over to my table and congratulated myself for my ability to remain reasonably upright in my booth.

“Ever lovely Jill,” I began, “Bring me a dead crow.”

She pursed her lips slightly, then walked away while I removed my wand from its shoulder holster and set it down on the counter. Drunk or sober, the silver cage crystal wand was always sure in my hand. I’d built it during basic training, kept it throughout the war in Europe, and kept it at my side for twenty years. While waiting for my crow, I set my ceremonial pocket dagger down beside the wand and cleared away the shot glass.

A quick slash of the dagger across my lower lip brought enough blood to draw, with my pinky finger, a pentacle on the table. When the crow came, I took it from Jill without laying eyes on her. The bird was still warm, a fresh kill, and I could tell by the arcane energy flowing from its corpse into my hand that Jill made the sacrifice properly.

The chant could not be rushed, nor slurred nor said with anything but absolute gravity. I took my time saying it. The Elders, The Lost, and Those Who Wander do not suffer fools lightly. I made the offering of blood to them and spilled the crow’s entrails into the pentacle as my crystal wand glowed green.

I opened my eyes as the crow opened hers and I saw. I saw what Karla did that night. I saw the revolver, a Sturgus and Wilber enchanted model 63. The pistol bellowed once into the night, removing the life force from…someone, then tore out a soul. Karla was the reaper, but something else played harvester. I could not see the soul, nor the faces, but only the impressions of a murder months old. It was not a righteous kill. It was a kill born of malice or greed or both. Now, all I had to do was prove it, and my client would pay me enough, hopefully, to pay the rent.

“Oh, you bad, bad girl,” I mumbled as the visions faded and the dead bird became just another dead bird. “Thank you spirits, thank you sister crow,” I said with due reverence, and kissed the now-cold beak before setting the corpse back down again.

Jill came back to tell me, “You better get out of here now, Jack.”

“Why,” I asked, feeling almost sober from my quick jaunt to the other side. “Don’t you love me anymore?”

“Don’t be an ass. I kill your crows for you, remember? I felt where that phemertrail sent you. The inspector is probably on his way.”

“Which one? There are so many, these days.”

“The mayor’s crackin’ down on magic for hire. You know this.”

“Sure, I read the papers. I been around enough to know it’s all the same and they’re always down on our kind,” I replied, and though I did not want to leave, I knew it was true. The normies hated magic users, and they were in charge of the city now. Democracy is a hammer to the thumb when the vote doesn’t go your way. They were fine sending our boys to the front, drafting them in far greater numbers than their own kids, but use the craft as you were born to use it, and they wanted to fine you or pitch you in stir.

“I get it Jill,” I said, slapping on the table a finsky I could hardly afford to spend as she swept the bloody crow from the table, its blood and mine still crackling with blue static electricity from the aether.

I said a quick warding under my breath as I left, one that inspector Mitchell probably didn’t know, the old Romanian words felt just right as they spilled out into the sudden cloud of dampening energy brought into the scene by the mere mention of the bulls. But now I was on the case right and proper. It was time to head out into the night and do my job.

My name is Jack Frix. I’m a private oracle.

***

I picked up my hat, my real hat this time, the fedora, and not the grand imaginary brim I tipped at folks when I was feeling frisky. No, this hat had been with me a long time, almost as long as the wand.

The hat came after the war, a gift from a sweetheart. That little Roma witch taught me more about the craft than I thought possible but mostly because, at twenty-one, I thought I knew it all. The girl moved on, as all good Roma do, but the hat remained. It still carried the enchantments she taught me.

At times, the hat felt like the only thing keeping the top of my skull from shooting off into the sky like a Pellham rocket. I pulled my hat down low and made quick eye contact with Benny as he wiped down the bar. He mouthed the word “asshole” and then “back door” to me as the inner brim of the fedora reached the top of my eyebrows. I turned away before he could mouth the words “bar tab.”

Stealing through the railcar of a kitchen where fried egg sandwiches and sacrifices were made, I hit the crashbar of a rusty steel door and found myself in a reeking alley facing Inspector Marshall and his troll partner, Ved. I opened my mouth but all the air in my lungs came rushing out at the little stony fist that plowed into my solar plexus. On one knee, I was face-to-face with Ved and his scaly gray face that matched the damp concrete perfectly.

“Look what you’ve done,” I said, after pulling in a wheezing breath. “I just got these slacks dry-cleaned.”

Ved drew back his hand, claws out and my own hand twitched for my wand.

“Stop!” Marshall’s command voice froze us both, as it had in the trenches, that place where we all served together. Now our trench was this alley, and this was a different war, with me and them on different sides. “You go for that wand, and you die here and now. We don’t want that.”

I stood, keeping my hand still. It wanted the wand more than a lover, more than sin. My hand longed for the wand more I wanted the booze. That was really saying something.

“Maybe,” I said. “But what do  you mudfoots want?” I asked. It was stupid. Marshall had to step between me and his troll to keep him from slashing me that time. The Inspector himself looked as if he might punch me any second. In that moment, I’d have been happy to call that military issue wand back to war.

“Ved’s just doing his job a little too well,” Inspector Marshall said, and his face split open into a grin that would have been handsome on his corn-fed face, with his steamshovel jaw and perfectly-combed blond hair, if he weren’t a traitor to his kind. The smile would have been disarming to anyone who didn’t know who and what he was.

I fought back a sneer that would have told him he’d gotten to me, though he knew that already. “Assaulting citizens is his job now?” I asked, spitting on the ground with my tongue making silent curses in my mouth. Ved felt them for sure, because the warding amulet glowed visibly beneath his cheap wool suit. Ved jumped back, hissing.

“That there’s another violation,” Marshall said, stepping back just a tad because he knew what I was capable of. He’d ordered me to do such things long ago. “We just came about the seeing, that’s all. Then, we find you sneaking out back to evade our investigation. How does that look?”

“It looks like a citizen exercising his rights as an Oracle and a Wizard and a human being born to the craft,” I said, saying much more than I intended.

“Now don’t get all highbrow on me, Jack. You sound like one of those organizers. Do you want me to put that in my report?” the Inspector said, folding two thick arms across his chest. His suit was much better made than his partner, who shouldn’t be wearing a suit at all. The fine threads made me hate him more for how he got them than what they represented. “Law’s the law. No casting for hire until everyone gets registered.“

“Might as well ask us not to breathe, which is what they’re trying to do over in Europe, what they tried to do to us over there,” I said, and I’d already said too much. Sometimes the liquor made me say things I should have held back, things that might get me into a fight, or worse.

Marshall just stood there for a moment. His eyes glazed over and I knew then that he was holding something back. I tasted smoke in my mouth though no fire was present. That meant a silent warding, most likely from Marshall. I let him be.

“You gonna take me in?” I asked, not looking forward to spending a night in the tank.

“Powers know I should,” Marshall said, and I knew he was going to let me go. “But leaving you be means you owe me a favor.”

“I owe you shit,” I said, spitting again.

Ved dangled handcuffs from his right index claw. He pulled them out faster than I could see and the move made me smile. The swiftness of trolls always did tickle me, even little traitors like this one.

“You cast or travel the thread again, Frix, and you will have plenty of shit to give, belive me. I’ll make sure you get a cell in Rikers Dungeon for a month.”

The thought didn’t appeal to me, but there was no way I’d stop and Marshall knew it. “You got me,” was all I said, trying to make it convincing.

Inspector Marshall scoffed, a sound that was heavy on the hissing like the snake he was. He parted his coat for a moment to show me the same silver-cage style crystal wand. I knew what he meant. It wasn’t a threat, it was a reminder. He tried to tell me we were the same, but I knew we weren’t. Some of our experiences were, but we were not.

I didn’t suppose it was his fault. I knew his score. It was the same for many Americans born into the Craft but not into a craft family. The silver thread binds us all together but the needle stitches sometimes without reason. He was taught to hate his true nature from an early age; to fear it and to drive it out. Being a cop let him feel like he was doing the right thing, when all it did was make the taste of him bitter on the wind. His self-loathing and regret stood out from the rot and decay of the alley.

I watched them go and Ved watched me back with one eye turned to face me, and the other turned to watch where he was going. I gave him the finger and he reached around to his behind to cup his hand there in the gesture that that trolls used to say “shit on you.” I smiled in spite of myself, though I would likely soon have to kill him at some point.

When they were gone, I reached into the pocket opposite the wand for my flask. It was empty. I resisted the urge to curse in vain and then the door opened behind me. I turned and it was Benny.

“You tipped them off, you son-of-a-bitch,” I said, trembling more from lack of liquor than from rage.

“I tip them and you go to jail, then you don’t pay tab for another thirty days,” Benny said. “You OK?”

“Yeah,” I replied, not proud of myself yet again. “Sorry for thinking that.”

“Get in here,then,” Benny said and his ham of a hand clamped around my arm and pulled me back in. “Before they double back.”

I followed him through the kitchen again and nicked a bottle of cooking sherry on the way. Benny whirled and plucked it from my hand before I could give it a slug. He grabbed me again and dragged me to his office where he shoved me down into the seat.

I flopped down into the cracked leather couch and started counting water stains on the yellow-gray ceiling and the fissured plaster above began to describe for me the forces that held up the building overhead and the earth that strained beneath it. Everything was built by patterns of force that I could not resist, just like the building and both of us trying despite the inevitability that forces would drag us down. The difference between me and the building was that it had a lot more time. That, and the fact that it didn’t know any better. Maybe I didn’t either, because I still kept trying. Whatever was wrong with the city crackdown was the same thing wrong with Inspector Marshall and the same thing wrong with Karla and her spectral pistol. It was why America was about to join the war in Europe. All that was why my wand existed.

“You going to get up for your shot? Because I ain’t bringin’ it to ya,” Benny said. Of course, I got up for the liquor, but bypassed the glass and took the bottle instead.

“Jesus, Jack,” Benny said, as I pulled from the bottle and did a grotesque, unintentional pirouette on my way back to the leather couch.

“That’s right,” I said. “The God of judgement, redemption and compassion. Call out to the triune for me. That will balance the scales for me when I come for them.”

Benny sighed, sending up cigar smoke from the stogie he lit as he leaned back in his creaking office chair. “Who’s the ‘them’ this time, Jack?”

“I’m being paid to find out. A job, right and proper,” I said. When I leaned up to grab the bottle again, Benny pulled it back with a telekinetic grasp that frosted my fingertips. I tried to stand, but that invisible hand pushed me back down onto the couch again.

I was rarely cowed, but the casual use of powerful forces did it for me. Benny had rare gifts and he did not use them lightly. “You’re in way over your head,” he said as sleep overtook me and I drifted down and away from the waking world to skim along the aether.

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