“Ten…Eleven…Twelve!” Hudson grunted as he racked the bar on the final rep. As he sat up on the bench, he looked around the Extended Stay Deluxe’s closet sized weight room. Couple of treadmills, an elliptical, two bikes, and a weight rack. And some moron on CNN jabbering away about trade sanctions. He’d have turned the shit off earlier, but the remote was no longer Velcroed to the side of the TV. Hudson briefly considered flinging a dumbbell at it while he grabbed his towel from the bench. It wasn’t like he had anything else to do.
Twenty minutes later, Hudson had decided to forgo a set on the treadmill but proceed with a drink. He was back in his room, home suite #216, which sported a fantastic view of the water treatment plant across the street. He’d kicked off his shoes as he walked in the room and then grabbed the half-full – he was an optimist, damnit – bottle of Maker’s Mark sitting on the nightstand. As a took a swig he considered that, given the state of his bank account, he might have to switch to Kentucky Gentlemen if this ‘administrative leave’ went on much longer.
A quarter of a bottle and half a pack of cigarettes later, Hudson sat on his hotel bed ignoring ESPN and the dozens of Styrofoam boxes scattered around the room. He had already hit the local shooting range the morning and cleaned his guns afterwards. He had gone the gym when he got back – he was in better shape than he’d been since the Academy – and he had even eaten breakfast this morning. A stale bagel from the hotel’s lounge, but it had been actual food. Now it was one o’clock and he had nothing to do but drink and brood.
His Captain had not been thrilled with the Lobo incident, but at least it had a pretty open and shut shooting. Not entirely by the book, but not bad. A week or so of paid leave, a quick investigation by IA, and then back on the job. Then, just as his administrative leave would have been ending, the Cauldron Incident – as Charlie informed him the supernatural community referred to it – happened. Hudson had started that day by shooting a civilian. The vic had been enthralled, but he doubted the review committee would see that as a mitigating circumstance. For an encore, he kidnapped an illegal immigrant, violated the Fourth Amendment, and negotiated with a known felon. For his coup de grace, he had executed a man. He might also have jaywalked at one point.
All of it had been necessary, all of it had been done in the pursuit of justice, and none of that mattered. So far, DPS’s Internal Affairs squad had not been able to pin anything definite on Hudson, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. They knew he had been at the Cauldron and left the scene. He’d told them it was in pursuit of a suspect, but that only made them ask a series of infuriatingly reasonable questions. Why he had not called the incident in earlier? Why he had not followed procedure when pursuing the suspect? Why had the building’s security cameras malfunctioned? Thankfully, the crime scene unit could not make heads or tails of the mess at The Cauldron, so Hudson was unlikely to be charged with attempted murder. He knocked back another swig of Maker’s.
Unfortunately, the police canvas of McCullough’s neighborhood had netted a couple folks who had seen his car that afternoon. Unlike most witnesses, they had given startlingly accurate descriptions of him and his companions. Hudson’s inquiries shortly thereafter concerning the whereabouts of one Eric McCullough, a suspect who had been involved in a gang turf war (the working theory of the powers that be) that afternoon had only raised more questions. The fact that McCullough was still in the wind made IA even more suspicious.
And Hudson’s explanations had been less than satisfactory. As his Captain put it, “It won’t stick like bullshit, but it sure smells like bullshit.” Hudson had very firmly quit talking after that. His administrative leave, now unpaid, had lasted almost a month with no end in sight. The Captain had asked for his cruiser back, so now he had to drive to the range in a rented Hyundai. Thank god his guns had been personal property or he’d have even less to do every day before engaging in some serious drinking.
As another swig burned his throat, his cell phone started to buzz. Hudson considered letting it ring. He was none too sober right now – evidenced by his sudden interest in WNBA highlights – and it was most likely another ‘request’ to come speak with IA. Nonetheless, he reached over to the nightstand and grabbed his cell.
“Excuse me, am I speaking with Hudson Pearce?” Male, prissy tone, Hudson could almost hear the stick up the guy’s ass.
“Possibly,” Hudson thought it best, given his current state of inebriation, to stick to short responses. Multiple syllables might be an issue though.
“I’m terribly sorry to disturb you sir. I’m Bartholomew Quinlan, an Associate with the Law Firm of Cassaro & Bellini,” Bartholomew, Hudson thought, no wonder this guy sounded like a dick. “Mr. Cassaro has asked me to schedule a meeting between the two of you for sometime very soon. Would you be available – ”
“Slow down, hoss. I’m new to town. Who the hell’s Cassaro and why does he want to talk to me?” That was good. All small words. Except Cassaro. Damned Italians.
“I could not say sir. Mr. Cassaro has not seen fit to share the reason for this meeting with me,” And that just burns you up, doesn’t it, you ladder-climbing little shit? “However, he has authorized me to say that he would like to discuss a business proposition with you. He is prepared to compensate you for your time.”
Hudson’s mind had started to wander after the revelation that Cassaro was an attorney. Last thing he wanted was to spend his time talking to another damned lawyer. Then Bartholomew mentioned money. Hudson glanced at his wallet, his very thin wallet. And his bottle, his mostly not full bottle. Still optimistic. Shit, at least it would be an excuse to shower. “Hell son, I’m practically on sabbatical right now. When’s your boss want to meet?”
“How’s tomorrow morning, Mr. Pearce? Say, 9 am?”
“You don’t drink a lot, do you Bart?”
“Excuse me sir?!”
“Nevermind, son. Tell Mr. Cassaro I’ll meet him at 10 tomorrow. You got an address?”
David Ramsey disliked computers. They were fickle machines, heartless and cold. He preferred account books, ledgers, typewriters. Davie had several typewriters he used depending on his mood, all of them beautifully maintained antiques. The feel of paper, the scratch of a pencil, the click of a typewriter. These simple pleasures made balancing his monthly accounts one of David’s favorite chores. Especially when the accounts were so very, very good. A computer would have calculated David’s revenue in nanoseconds. With his ledgers, David got to carefully, thoughtfully, add all his sales and subtract all his expenses by hand. This gave him ages to bask in the glow of record profits.
Even with the added expense of taking on Javier part-time, his business had been booming since the Cauldron Incident. Diane had shown gratitude for her rescue by sending several clients his way, and he already had orders for at least a dozen Ramsay Originals. The orders ranged from simple pendants, to watches, to one local Sidhe lord who wanted a hexagonal grandfather clock made entirely of used records (for some reason). Since he always required a substantial deposit before beginning any commission, his accounts were practically bulging. On top of that, orders for repairs were so numerous that Aziz was handling most of the simple ones – David always reviewed his work for quality of course – and Javier was manning the register and phones more often than not. His English had improved considerably.
Speak of the devil and so he appears, David thought as Javier stuck his head into the office.
“Javier! What can I do for you on this most excellent of mornings?”
“Phone for you. A Senor Quinlan. Muy importante, he said.”
“Gracias, Javier. I will take it in here,” David said as he reached for his personal phone. He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the edge of his desk as he answered it.
“David Ramsay speaking.”
“Mr. Ramsay, my name is Bartholomew Quinlan. I’m an Associate with the Law Firm of Cassaro & Bellini. Mr. Cassaro would like to schedule a meeting with you at your earliest possible convenience. Would you be available tomorrow morning, around 10am?” Deferential manner, quite polite, straight to the point. David liked this Bartholomew already.
“Mr. Quinlan, I am extraordinarily busy these days, but I might be able to spare an hour or so. Why does Mr. Cassaro want to see me?” David hoped the law firm wanted some decoration for their office. Perhaps an imposing clockwork statue, some corporate ‘art’ designed to convey how low their legal testicles hung. A design started forming in David’s head. Gears, lots of bronze gears, lightly aged, merging at odd angles, like a steampunk Escher sculpture.
“I’m sorry, sir, but Mr. Cassaro did not provide me with the specifics. He simply said that he wanted to discuss a business venture with you, something about antiques. He said it was dreadfully urgent, and I am authorized to send a car for you in the morning, if that makes it more convenient for you.”
David took a moment to enjoy the design in his mind before shelving it. It did not sound like Cassaro wanted to discuss reputation-enhancing sculpture. However, he would be lying if he said he was not curious about why the founding partner of Houston’s preeminent supernatural law firm wanted to meet with him. He was doing well, but Cassaro & Bellini represented people with real money.
“Mr. Quinlan, I must admit you have piqued my curiosity. I would be happy to meet with Mr. Cassaro tomorrow morning. Send the car to my workshop around 9:30 or so please.”
“Of course Mr. Ramsay, and thank you.”
“You’ve reached the voicemail of Charlie Harper. Don’t talk unless you’ve got business.” Click.
“Mr. Harper. Your presence is requested tomorrow morning at the offices of Cassaro & Bellini in the Scanlan Building at 10 am. Mr. Cassaro would like to discuss a business proposition with you. He has authorized me to offer you considerable compensation simply for attending the meeting. We have arranged a car for you in the morning. It will be at your house around 9:15.”
Hudson frowned as he unfolded himself from his Hyundai. Or was it a Kia? Who cared? Americans, Texans, should drive trucks and SUVs. Giant, earth-killing mountains of Detroit steel that laughed at compact parking spots and made hybrid owners piss themselves. No matter what the rental agency claimed, squeezing six feet and two-hundred plus pounds into a ‘subcompact’ – what an Orwellian term – was just this side of torture. As Hudson tried to return blood flow to his calves, a limousine pulled into the parking lot and parked next to his rental. Charlie and David climbed out of the back after a young man in a fancy uniform opened the door for them. There was no fucking justice in the world.
David strode over as soon as he saw the Ranger standing by his econo car. “Hudson! So good to see you. Now the gang’s all here.” David grabbed his hand and shook it with every evidence of genuine pleasure.
Charlie was somewhat less welcoming. “Jesus Hudson, where’d you get that clown car?”
“Thanks Charlie, no one offered to pick me up in a limo.”
“Well, it would have looked a little out of place pulling up to that flophouse you live – ”
“Gentlemen! If you could manage to stop bickering, I believe we have an appointment. I, for one, am most interested to hear Mr. Cassaro’s proposition,especially since he apparently invited us all here at the same time.” Hudson and Charlie both managed to look annoyed and chagrinned at the same time. David gestured to the door.
Several minutes, several floors, and several secretaries later, the trio was ushered into a cavernous corner office. Two walls were nothing but glass and offered a panoramic view of downtown Houston. The furnishings were all polished teak, warm and glowing with obvious attention. The carpet was thick enough to hide small animals and a bar along one wall held coffee, bagels, and other breakfast foods. It screamed money. Lots of money. Old money. Tasteful money. Powerful money.
A large circular desk sat in the back of the room near the windows. As the trio entered the office, a man stood up from behind the desk where he had been studying a thick file folder. Hudson had to admit that he was impressed. Though he was obviously on the far side of sixty, the man moved like he was much younger. No creaking hesitation as he stood from his chair, no halting steps, no bend in his back. What little hair he had left was gray edging toward white, but his beard was neatly trimmed and he wore an immaculately tailored three-piece suit. His stride was long and confident as he came around the desk.
“Thank you Sandy, I’ll take it from here. Welcome gentlemen!” His voice boomed and Hudson struggled not to wince as the man shook his hand. “Mr. Pearce, so glad you were able to come. Mr. Ramsay, Mr. Harper, thank you for coming as well. Would you like a cup of coffee? Help yourselves. As you’ve probably surmised, I’m Angelo Cassaro. Grab something and have a seat, if you would. We have business to discuss.”
Cassaro pointed to a trio of chairs in front of the desk. Hudson estimated that the chairs probably cost about he made in a year. Each. Well, his annual salary prior to his recent stint of forced vacation. Hudson did not know if it was appropriate for a public servant to feel so mercenary, but the man behind the desk certainly had his attention as he lowered himself into the chair.
Cassaro opened the file folder he had been studying when they arrived and slid on a pair of glasses from his suit pocket. “Gentlemen, I’ll come straight to the point. I represent a group of investors that are trying to redevelop some property in the Heights. They have been at it for weeks and haven’t even managed to clear the property of debris, much less demolish a house that sits on the lot. So far, we’ve had three contractors return their retainers and half a dozen labor crews walk off the job. Hell, we picked up a dozen illegals outside the Home Depot last week and they were gone by lunch. We can’t even get anyone to bid on the damn project now.” Cassaro paused to shuffle some of the papers in the folder. The three companions all glanced at each other with similar confused expressions. David was the first to respond.
“That is certainly very interesting Mr. Cassaro, but what does it have to do with my friends and I? I am a clockmaker, not a construction foreman. Likewise, my companions are both quite skilled at their trades, but I am not sure how they could help with such an issue either.”
“Mr. Ramsay, you are exactly right. Were this a simple construction problem, you and your friends would be as useless as tits on a boar hog. However, our labor issues have been accompanied by…incidents at the work site. Equipment has malfunctioned. Supplies have gone missing. Workers have walked reported seeing…well, strange shit, let’s leave it at that. No one’s lasted half an hour there without gettin’ the heebie jebbies. Hell, the heebie jebbies would be an improvement. They’ve been terrified.” Cassaro paused for a moment to look out the window. “Listen, I’ve looked into the incidents – discretely – and I’m convinced that they’re supernatural in nature. Something weird is going on at the property and my clients would like to hire the three of you to investigate the situation.”
Charlie piped up before anyone could stop him. “What do you mean by investigate?”
Cassaro tilted his head to look at Charlie over his glasses. The lawyer had apparently developed quite a glare over the years. “Investigate, from the Latin investīgātus, for to find out what the hell is going on and put a stop to it. That clear enough for you Mr. Harper?”
Charlie remained unimpressed, “Good enough. What’s in it for us?”
Hudson noticed that Cassaro, despite his glare, did not look directly into Charlie’s eyes. Guy was clued-in if nothing else. “Well, Mr. Harper, I could encourage your participation by failing to mention your name to another client of mine, a Mr. Christos Palles, concerning some of his missing…inventory. However, I believe I’ll stick with the old standby: money. The investors I represent are losing money every day that construction doesn’t go forward.” Cassaro pulled three stapled packets from his folder and handed one to each of the men. “This summarizes the details of the proposed agreement. Payment to be based on a sliding scale related to speed of completion. Payment to be transferred to each of you immediately upon completion of the contract, contingent upon a follow-up investigation of the property, completed by me and anyone else my clients choose. The contract is binding under the Accords as well as mundane courts of law. I’m sure your friends can fill you in on the specifics of the Accords Mr. Pearce. Any questions?” Cassaro looked up from his folder.
David glanced through the packet. He began to smile as his gaze lingered on the compensation. This was even better than a commission for a piece of bollocks corporate sculpture. He felt almost like raising his hand, “Interesting proposition, Mr. Cassaro, and I must admit the compensation has me intrigued. However, I must ask, why us?”
Cassaro looked up from his papers and folded his hands together. “Because a couple of weeks ago I hear that the three of y’all threw down with a bona fide warlock. Tracked him down, took him down, and saved the girl. People I trust tell me it was good work. My firm represents a number of supernatural clients, so I’ve often got work for people that can handle situations like this. Think of this contract as an audition. It goes well, I might have more work for y’all in the future.”
Charlie turned back to the conversation from where he had been staring out the window. Hudson noticed he was trying to lock eyes with Cassaro, “Angelo, you seem to know an awful lot about the three of us and it sounds like you need a couple of supernatural troubleshooters. How about a retainer, rather than an audition?” Charlie spread his hands wide and tilted his head as he look smirked at Cassaro, “Looks like a seller’s market to me.”
Cassaro seemed to have managed the art of not getting sucked into soulgazes. He ratcheted up his glare while still managing to avoid direct eye contact with Charlie. “Mr. Harper, despite your delusions, you are not the only one with mystical power in this city. Why don’t we see how this commission goes before we tie ourselves into a long term relationship?” Charlie grinned as he slouched back in his chair and stuck his hands in his pockets. “If you need a bit more incentive, you’ll notice that section 2a offers each of you ‘special considerations’ upon a satisfactory completion of the contract. These are unique to each of you and I will be happy to discuss them privately with each of you. Perhaps we can do that now. Mr. Pearce, Mr. Ramsay, why don’t you help yourselves to some refreshments? Mr. Harper, perhaps you and I could speak over here?”
The office was more than large enough to provide at least the illusion of privacy. Hudson and David nodded and moved to pour themselves more coffee from a small buffet in one corner, while Cassaro came around from behind his desk and walked over to stand looking out the window on the far side of the room. Several moments passed before Charlie rolled his eyes and ambled over to stand next to him. Cassaro continued his study of the Houston skyline. Just as Charlie was losing patience and opened his mouth, Cassaro spoke softly.
“How long has it been since you’ve visited your grandfather’s grave, Charlie?”
Charlie might have been more surprised if Cassaro had Die Hard-ed him out the window, but not by much. His hand twitched toward the wrench hooked to his belt. He decided against overt expressions of anger, but he turned to glare at Cassaro, which had little visible effect. “None of your fuckin’ business, Angelo. Tell me what you got for me, and I’ll letcha know if I’m interested. Otherwise, I got shit to do.”
“More scams, Charlie? More pathetic wastes of your talent?” Cassaro turned to look at Charlie, who had no interest in staring contests with him this time. Cassaro’s voice softened slightly as he put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “Listen. Art was a friend of mine. I handled his estate. I can’t say I was thrilled when he left it all to you, but he wanted more for you than being a small time hustler.”
Charlie jerked himself away from Cassaro’s hand, but still refused to look up. “What the hell do you know about it?”
“I know magic should be about more than impressing goth girls and scamming the muggles. You’ve got real power Charlie, and I can offer you the opportunity to improve it. And hell, if I’m hiring you, you might actually be using it to do something your grandfather would be proud of. Do this for me, and I’ll see to it you get the chance to hone your talents instead of coasting on’em. What do you say?”
It was Charlie’s turn to stare out the window. Memories of his grandfather rolled through his mind. The old man had been the only one willing to spend any time with him when he was a kid. Early on, it had been typical grandpa, grandkid stuff. Baseball games, ice cream trucks, and presents his folks couldn’t afford. Grandpa had even taught Charlie to be a decent chess player. Then Charlie had manifested his talent while throwing a neighborhood bully halfway across the playground. Charlie’s grandfather had revealed that he had been a member of the White Council and took charge of Charlie’s training. Lazy summer days of baseball and board games became endless weeks of training and practice. Arthur had pushed Charlie hard, drilling him constantly and lecturing him endlessly about control. Charlie, however, had been far more interested in using his talents to score beer for his friends and show off for girls than in practicing. One night, Charlie, along with half a dozen friends (and two dogs), had been caught drunk in a state senator’s hot tub. They had not been invited. When the cops brought him home, his grandfather went ballistic. Charlie moved out the next day. A couple months later, Arthur died. They never spoke after Charlie left.
Charlie shook himself out of his reverie. He turned back to Cassaro, hand caressing the wrench at his side. “I’ll take the job Angelo. Just don’t go thinking we’re friends.” He stepped into Cassaro’s face, “You don’t follow through on the money or the power, and I’ll show you how much talent I’ve wasted. And don’t ever mention my grandfather again.” Charlie strode over to the buffet.
Cassaro turned from the windows and raised his voice, “Mr. Ramsay, may we speak a moment?” David grabbed his tea and walked over to stand by Cassaro.
“You seem to have caused Charlie a bit of consternation, Mr. Cassaro.”
Cassaro looked up at the tone in David’s voice, noting his frown. “You don’t approve?”
David shrugged, “He can be a trial at times, but his heart is in the right place. He is quite skilled as well. We would not have been able to rescue Diane without him. Seems a bit counterproductive to antagonize your…consultants. Now, shall we to business?”
Cassaro smiled, “Of course. You’re quite the impressive craftsman Mr. Ramsay. I’ve considered purchasing one of your creations, but rumor has it that there is a considerable waitlist.”
“Business has been good lately, Mr. Cassaro. I could do wonders with your lobby, if you need a designer. But, as you are no doubt aware, I am a businessman, not a mercenary. While the compensation you have offered for this job is certainly enticing, I’m not sure I want to take this particular commission.”
“Let’s not split hairs, Mr. Ramsay. Being a businessman is simply your hobby. You didn’t move here all the way from London because of the market for antiques. You’re searching for something, and I think I know what.”
David paused with his mug halfway to his lips. His eyes narrowed as he looked back up at Mr. Cassaro. “You are remarkably well-informed, Mr. Cassaro. It makes me just a touch suspicious.”
Cassaro chuckled, “I’m an attorney, Mr. Ramsay, and a supernatural one at that. Information is my business. Let’s see. You recently purchased a pair of trunks at an estate sale. Nothing unusual, particularly for a known dealer in antiques. However, these trunks contained a number of journals and diaries that once belonged to Thomas Pierce Converse, great grandson of Augustus Allen, founder of Houston.” Cassaro paused and looked expectantly at David.
David carefully set his cup of tea down on a table beside Cassaro’s desk. It was rare that he wished he had his pistol, but this was most definitely one of those times. This was Texas, however. Maybe he should get a concealed carry license. “Again, you are very well-informed Mr. Cassaro, but I find your interest in my private life somewhat disturbing. I assume you are coming to a point?”
David found Cassaro’s smile somehow predatory. He had to stop himself from stepping back as Cassaro closed the distance between them.
“Yes Mr. Ramsey, I am coming to a point. The journals you purchased detailed the sale and distribution of a number of antiques connected to the Allen estate. You also recently bought a shard of the Brutus, one of the first Texas Naval schooners. I think you’re trying to track down one or more of the artifacts that the Brutus and the Invincible plundered while raiding the Mexican coast during the war. And the law firm of Cassaro & Bellini would be happy to assist you in your search. Provided, of course, that you accept and complete this commission.”
David struggled to keep the lust for information off his face. Given the broadening of Cassaro’s smile, it seemed unlikely that he had succeeded. It mattered little, of course. If Cassaro put the resources of Houston’s preeminent supernatural law firm at David’s disposal, there really was no choice. Cassaro stuck his hand out to David, “Can I assume we have an agreement?”
David returned Cassaro’s grin as he shook the older man’s hand, “I look forward to a closer working relationship with your firm, Mr. Cassaro. Shall I tell Hudson it is his turn to be manipulated?”
Cassaro chuckled again, “If you wouldn’t mind.”
Hudson sauntered up shortly thereafter, eyes red over a cup of black coffee. As he passed Cassaro’s desk, he took a quick peek at the folder Cassaro had left on his desk. The label on the cover read Artic Tor Ltd. Hudson filed away the information. Maybe Charlie or David would know what it meant. He continued over to stand beside the attorney without breaking stride. “What have you got for me, Mr. Cassaro? David and Charlie certainly looked intrigued by what you had to say.”
“How do you like living at that hotel, Mr. Pearce?”
“Well, it’s full of chemo patients and sick kids, so, you know, every day’s a party. What’s it to you?”
“What’s keeping you there?”
“The thread count and room service. What the hell do you think? Hard to sign a lease when you’re lookin’ at ‘indefinite administrative leave’. Law enforcement doesn’t exactly help you build much of a reserve fund either. You gettin’ to a point soon?”
“Just this. Cassaro & Bellini has a lot of friends in law enforcement. We contribute to the annual policeman’s ball, provide legal consultation for the state, stuff like that. Might be we’ve got enough pull to get you back on the job. Barring that, law firms always have need of skilled investigators. Not many around with your experience.”
Hudson suddenly understood Charlie and David’s expressions after they spoke to Cassaro. It was hope, mingled with the fear of someone who knew so much about them. Cassaro had played puppet master with each of them, deftly tugging the strings to make them dance to his tune. Distressing, but also intriguing. “What you’re offering for this job’ll keep a roof over my head for quite some time. I’d certainly appreciate anything you could do after that.”
Cassaro clapped him on the shoulder, “We’ll do our best, Mr. Pearce. I promise you that. The people of Texas need men like you watching out for them.” Cassaro turned toward David and Charlie and raised his voice again, “Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure. I thank you all for your time.” Cassaro grabbed a small folder off his desk and handed it to Hudson. “This contains all the information we have on the property. Good hunting.”
Hudson lamented that real investigations were never like in the movies. If this were Hollywood, stirring music would play while a few quick cuts of musty books and phone calls flashed across the screen. Pages would flip, maybe there would be a bit with him knocking on doors, and ninety seconds later the plot would advance. Instead, the three of them had spent the last two days calling contacts, knocking on doors, and digging through back issues of the The Chronicle, trying to learn what they could about this property in the Heights. Now the three of them sat around David’s kitchen trying to make sense of what they had discovered.
“Alright boys, where are we?” Hudson said.
David answered first, “Well, according to the public records, what we have here is a standard murder-suicide. Jerome Yates, the husband, murdered his wife and kids in the house on the property about five years ago. Apparently, the Yates murders were a pretty big story at the time. Before Hudson’s and my time though.” David shot a look at Charlie.
“Don’t look at me man. Five years ago I was chasing girls and trying to stay outta jail. Not my fault I didn’t remember.”
David rolled his eyes and continued, “House has been empty since then, no surprise. Motive seemed to have been religious. Apparently Jerome was the member of some local cult. On that note, were you able to procure any information from the supernatural community, Charlie?”
“Ass. Anyway, I checked with Diane and some of the other local supernatural folks about the property and the Yates.” Charlie glanced down at his notepad, “Apparently, the wife, Maggie, was a minor practitioner, spirit chick. Not real powerful or anything, but used to be a semi-regular at The Cauldron. Diane remembered her acting progressively weirder in the weeks running up to the murders.”
Hudson interrupted Charlie, “Diane remembers how an infrequent customer acted over a couple of weeks five years ago? Charlie, most folks can’t accurately describe a fender-bender they were just in, much less something like that.”
“Hey, I just report’em. But apparently, the local NBC affiliate did a little interview with Diane after they found out the victim was into ‘the occult.’ It seems that the resulting publicity was good for her business.”
Hudson nodded, “Fair enough, I’ll buy it. What about that cult the husband was in?
“Yeah, that’s were it gets a little weirder," Charlie paused. "_Weirder_ anyway. The cult is called the Shepherd’s Path and evidently they’re a pretty anti-supernatural cult. ‘Suffer not a witch to live’ kinda folks. The members have a tendency to get arrested for assault on members of the local occult community, but they seem to be a magnet for self-hating practitioners as well. Neither has endeared them to the supernatural folks around town. They’ve picketed Diane’s place a couple times too. Basically, Westboro Baptist but they hate on magic instead of gays. They’ve got a compound up north of town.”
“Yeah, I talked to some of the investigators who worked the Yates case,” Hudson said. “They found an altar and some ‘weird pagan shit’ in the house. Figured the husband found his wife’s stuff, maybe her teaching the kids, and lost his shit.” Hudson rubbed his chin, “One of the detectives, Sergeant Tillman, wasn’t entirely convinced though. There were some inconsistencies, timelines didn’t add up. He may have a point too. The kids were drowned, which doesn’t quite square with the rage murder theory.” Hudson found Charlie and David looking at him questioningly. “What? Drowning, especially with kids, is usually premeditated and associated with women. Especially ones with postpartum depression. The youngest Yates kid was less than three months old.”
“Man,” Charlie said, “You really do know your shit, don’t you?”
“Your confidence in my ability is staggering. Anyway, the motive was there, Jerome was an obvious suicide, so they closed the case. Tillman did mention that they got stonewalled by the Shepherd folks though.”
The kitchen was silent for several moments before David spoke up, “So, we have several violent murders, the apparently guilt-driven suicide of a supernaturally savvy cult member that hates magic users, the death of at least one spirit-using practitioner, and a property that has everyone running scared.” David looked at Charlie. Charlie sighed and nodded.
“It’s ghosts,” Charlie said.
“Definitely ghosts,” David replied.
“Fuck,” Hudson responded.
Hudson knocked back one of the beers that David had passed around. They all agreed it was appropriate, despite the early hour.
“So, ghosts huh? I’m beyond the reactionary disbelief stage, but I’m still in the dark. Anyone care to fill me in?” Hudson said.
“Not my area,” David tipped his bottle toward Charlie. “You are up mate.”
Charlie took a pull from his beer, “Listen, as far as I understand it, ghosts are basically imprints of people that have passed. Violent deaths, emotional deaths, stuff like that can leave behind an entity that’s essentially a sentient psychic fossil of the person that died. It feels what they felt, knows what they knew, wants to finish what the person left undone. I’m guessing that infanticide, suicide, and murder all tied up with an unstable kitchen witch is a pretty good recipe for ghosts." Charlie shuddered before taking another swig of beer. "Angry, angry ghosts.”
“And the stuff that Cassaro’s file reported – frightened workers, malfunctioning equipment – those are things that ghosts can do?”
“Yeah,” Charlie replied, “pretty standard stuff actually. Ghosts are usually locked to a particular location and can get touchy when other folks are there. Which sucks for us because we need to find someway to get rid of them or we don’t get paid. And I want to get paid. I’m not sure I want to get paid enough to walk into a house so haunted it scared off half a dozen construction crews and killed a few bulldozers, but I do want to get paid.”
“What’s the problem? Let’s kick down the door and raise some hell. Can’t you blast’em like you did McCullough?” Hudson asked.
Charlie waggled his hand back and forth. “Maybe, maybe not,” he replied. “Some ghosts manifest ectoplasmic bodies, some are pure spirit. For most ghosts it’s hard to even interact with’em unless you get their attention. Which can be difficult because dying has a tendency to make most normal stuff seem somehow uninteresting.” Charlie took another swallow of beer.
Hudson shook his head, “Didn’t understand a word of that.”
Charlie sighed, “Shit Hudson, this ain’t really my area either. Look, ghosts are basically immune to most magic that’s not specifically ectomancy. I could throw a bolt of air that would flip a car at a ghost and most wouldn’t even notice. Fire might work, but first, I’m not great with fire, and second, a lot of ghosts would ignore it anyway. David could fire his pistol at’em, and they wouldn’t even blink. You’re guns aren’t likely to be much good either. And, since world tends to be incredibly unfair, just because we can’t hurt them, doesn’t mean they can’t hurt us.” Charlie rubbed his forehead as he fell silent.
Hudson persisted, “Come on, there’s got to be something we can do. Shit guys, I’m a couple weeks from asking Javier for a place to crash.”
Charlie waved for David to take up the mantle of supernatural tutor. “Well, the real problem with ghosts is getting them to acknowledge you at all. The spirits inhabiting this property seem to be more than happy to acknowledge intruders, so that is less likely to be a problem for us. What Charlie is trying to say, however, is that once we have their attention, it will be difficult for us to affect them. The reports from Cassaro seem to indicate that they have not been particularly interested in communication thus far either.”
“So, once we have their attention, we could basically just stand there and get the shit scared out of us like everyone else?” Hudson asked.
“Correctamundo brother Hudson,” Charlie replied.
“Alright, blasting’em won’t work. What else we got?”
Charlie waved for David to continue. David sighed and turned back to Hudson, “Well, since Charlie’s evocations and my weapons are unlikely to affect the ghosts, we would need to use more complex magic, thaumaturgy. To put it simply, we need a channel to the spirit. Their True Name,” Hudson heard the capital letters fall into place, “some sort of very personal memento connected to the deceased. Something like that might allow us to forge a channel to the spirit. Well, Charlie might be able to. Ectomancy is a bit beyond my ken, I am afraid.”
“We could always check their caskets,” Charlie said.
“Charlie! We’ve discussed this,” David replied. “I will not abide grave robbing.”
“Don’t think of it as grave robbing. Think of it as acquiring spell components…for profit.”
“Grave robbing is not a get-rich-quick scheme, although I must admit it is better than some of your ideas,” David said. “Besides, who knows what condition any items would be in?”
“How will we know until we check?”
“What about the house?” Hudson interjected. “There might be personal items still in the house.”
“Yes, there could possibly be something in the house,” Charlie replied. “In the house, with the angry, physically immune ghosts.”
“Good point,” Hudson said. He walked to the fridge and pulled out another trio of beers. For a few minutes, the kitchen was silent except for the hiss of escaping CO2 and the quiet glug of emptying bottles. There had to be something they could do – apart from grave robbing – to find something they could use to forge a connection to whichever Yates family shades were haunting their former abode. Hudson might not understand all this magic stuff, but they were talking about connections. In the long run, that’s all investigating was, making connections. Investigators followed connections: payments, fingerprints, relationships, property. Follow the connections and eventually the pattern, the answer, would reveal itself. He might not be a wizard, but he was a damn good investigator.
Something tickled the back of his mind. They needed personal items of the deceased, something connected to them, something they cherished. Something they would keep with them, on their person.
The answer came in a rush of warming inspiration.
“The evidence lock-up,” Hudson said.
David and Charlie looked at each other and then back at Hudson, “Huh?”
“Good goddamn! This cryptic remark stuff is like crack," Hudson cackled. "The evidence lock-up, children. The murders weren’t that long ago, in bureaucratic time. HPD will have the evidence from the investigation saved and labeled in long-term storage. I know the guy that runs the place. Met him when I looked into the criminal background of some drug runners the Rangers had under observation. If we’re lucky, I can get him to let me look through what HPD bagged from their investigation. If we’re really lucky, I’ll find something from the deceased that y’all can use to do whatever the hell it is that you do.”
David and Charlie looked at each other again and nodded, “Hudson, that just might work,” David said. “When can you meet with him?”
“I’ll give him a call, see if he’ll meet me this afternoon. It’ll be off-the-record, but he’ll bend over backward to help a Ranger. Even a disgraced Ranger.”
Charlie had been uncharacteristically quiet during the exchange, peeling the label from his beer and frowning in concentration. “Hudson, how would you feel about making another stop this afternoon?”
“Well, if it’ll get us closer to solving this case, I’d be fine with it, but gas ain’t cheap man.”
“Hudson, you’re becoming downright mercenary. I love it. But I’m curious about this Shepherd cult. Even vicious murders don’t always, or even often, leave ghosts. I’m wondering if there’s more to their involvement in this.”
“What does that have to do with my plans for the afternoon?”
“They’re an anti-magic cult. They ain’t likely to open up to me or David.”
“So you want me to lift evidence from the local police and saunter up to mystical cult compound? What the hell are you guys planning on doing?”
David smiled at Hudson, " Anti mystical cult. And Charlie and I are going on a little field trip.”
Charlie’s raised his eyebrows, “We are?”
“We have spoken to every contact, read every book, knocked on every door. What is the only thing we have not done yet, Charlie?”
Hudson was the one who answered, grinning, “Put boots on the ground. I’ll make my stops and meet you guys there.”
Charlie sighed as he drained the rest of his beer, “At least try and get there before dark.”