The lights of New Corinth at night dissolved into the hard gold of the morning sun. Detective Nathan Perez drained the last of his coffee while standing in front of a window watching the dawn. He’d already been up for hours and was due in the morgue, but this brief moment of peace was something he needed.
Ten minutes later he stepped into the morgue. The harsh lighting beat a rhythm against the headache already blooming behind his eyes. He approached the table, nodding a greeting at the coroner, who had her hands in the dead man’s abdomen. Dr. Lucille Walker was a slender, middle-aged woman with a no-nonsense air of competence Nate appreciated.
“Tell me you’ve got something, Luce. The scene’s given me nothing and I’ve been called in upstairs.”
“Already? That was fast, even considering who this guy is.” She pointed at the vic’s gray, slack face as she deposited the man’s liver in a scale.
Grimacing, Nate waited for her to note the organ’s weight for her report before replying. “Head of the local DMS testing facility as well as his own private clinic, friends with the mayor, yadda yadda—yeah, I’d say this guy has some juice.”
“You mean had some juice.”
Nate kept his eyes on Dr. Walker’s face instead of what she was doing with her hands and the body. “His assistant says it doesn’t look like anything was stolen but he’s going to have to sort through the mess better before he knows for sure. No murder weapon. I’ve got someone running his financials but that’ll take time. I’d really like to have something to tell the chief when I’m due in his office in ten minutes.”
Luce paused in her work. “Blunt force trauma to the back of the head is the most obvious thing, plus defensive wounds. Definitely a homicide. We found a hair that’s not his. Baldy here doesn’t have any four-inch blond hairs on him. Henry’s running it now.”
Nate’s grimace relaxed as his curiosity was piqued, one corner of his mouth twitching upward. “Did you know him? You’re both part of the medical community in the city.”
She gave him a baleful eye as she returned to weighing organs. “I met him a few times, but I wouldn’t say we were part of the same community.” The tone of her voice had gone from workaday relaxed to tight and controlled.
“You didn’t like Dr. Alan Forbes very much.”
“How long have you lived here? Three, four months?”
“You’re about to get an education, boy.”
Nate chose his next words with care. “One of the uniforms volunteered a theory. That maybe someone didn’t like the test results that came back. Maybe they wanted to keep, uh—”
“Keep their baby?” Luce smacked something that might have been a kidney onto the scale. “Instead of send their baby to the zone? If that’s the direction this goes you might be real surprised how long your list of suspects turns out to be.”
The doors swung open and the lab tech returned with a shiny silver microtablet not much bigger than his hand. Although younger than Nate, Henry Andros was already the assistant department head of the police lab. Wiry and energetic, he had a habit of moving almost constantly and always seemed to be three steps ahead of everyone else.
Luce said, “Give it to us, Henry.”
The young man held a hand over the tablet. “First of all I want to stress that I ran the tests three times and got the same results each time.”
“You don’t look too happy with those results,” Nate said.
Henry said, “You’re not going to be, either.” He tapped the touchscreen. “I’m sending you the preliminary now. Here’s the basics. That hair did not belong to the victim. It did belong to a male, and there was nightshade in the man’s system.”
A drug crime would be far preferable to the theory mentioned moments ago. “Was there any in Forbes?”
“Nope,” Henry said. “You ready for this one?”
“Don’t be a drama queen,” Luce teased.
“The hair tested positive as belonging to someone Magic Born.”
“Won’t take long to find them then,” Nate said. “At least that’s something the chief will like hearing.” It would take a matter of minutes for a computer search to go through the DMS database of Magic Born DNA and find a match. Between their places of residence and work being registered and their identification badges having RFID chips to record their comings and goings, finding that person in the zone would take longer but not by much. He might be able to wrap this up in a day. That was the kind of high-profile case to have. “What’s the name?”
“I haven’t gotten to the oh-shit part yet.”
Nate gave him an expectant look.
“There’s no match.”
Nate blinked, not sure he’d heard that right. “What?”
“That’s not possible,” Luce said.
“I ran it three times and I’ll run it as many times as you want but I’m telling you, there was no match. That hair belongs to an unregistered Abnormal.”
Luce frowned at the term but said nothing. Nate rubbed his temple, that low-level headache starting to turn into a raging monster. “There’s no such thing as unregistered Magic Born,” he said.
“Well apparently there is because the tests don’t lie. The science is solid, man.”
Nate turned slowly, acid churning in his stomach. Three months in the city, his first big case in this department, and he’d landed in the middle of a minefield. “Shit.”
Nate knocked on the chief’s door, curious about the meathead in a suit standing across from it. He had the whiff of private security, not a wholly unusual sight in police headquarters but still strange enough for Nate to notice. The chief called for him to enter.
Chief of Police Decker greeted Nate with a grim nod and a bone-crushing handshake. He did not offer the detective a seat. Instead, Decker led him to the bay window where another man stood looking out over the city.
Decker cut him off as the man turned to face them. “Introductions first. Senator, this is Detective Nathan Perez. He’s new to the department but comes with an exemplary record from his old department and his time in the service. I have every confidence in his abilities.”
“Good to hear.” The senator extended a hand. “John Beckwith. Pleased to meet you.”
Nate shook his hand. United States Senator John Beckwith was practically an institution in the state. He’d started out in his father’s company, worked there until he was old enough to run for Congress and spent several terms in the House before running for Senate. He was the paragon of a wealthy, powerful family, now a force to be reckoned with in his own right. Beckwith was a known friend of the murder victim, but Perez had not expected to meet him in the chief’s office.
The acid bath in his stomach turned into a hurricane. “Glad to meet you, sir.”
Decker said, “Dr. Forbes was a close friend of the senator and his family. He’s very interested in making sure justice is served. Tell us what you’ve got so far.”
Keeping his face impassive, Nate recited the facts of the case in a flat monotone. He left nothing out, including the bombshell of DNA from an unregistered Magic Born. Thick silence filled the room as the other men absorbed the shock.
Senator Beckwith was the first to recover. “I’ve never heard of that happening, even in the Department of Magic Security’s most top secret reports.”
Decker skipped his gaze from the senator to Nate and back quickly. “It’s not the kind of thing that needs to get out either. It could cause a panic here and in every other city with a zone.”
“Do you think the drug trade could have something to do with this?” Beckwith directed his question at Nate.
“To be honest, sir, it’s really too soon to tell. We’re still waiting to hear from Dr. Forbes’ assistant to find out if anything was stolen. If anything is missing from the doctor’s office, that could tell us motivation. If the place was just trashed, then we’ll have to broaden the scope of the investigation.”
Beckwith nodded. “I like your line of thinking, but I’m concerned about how this investigation is going to be conducted.”
Nate suppressed a flinch. He doubted he’d like what he was about to hear.
“What’s your specific concern, sir?” Decker said.
“The idea of unregistered Magic Born would be terrifying to a great many people. We need to know exactly what we’re dealing with before we risk this information being made public. If we’re talking about one individual who somehow managed to avoid registration, that’s an entirely different matter than if we’re talking about large groups. There’s no need to cause an unnecessary panic. The fewer people know about it, the better.” He turned to look out the window again. “No task force, no big flashy investigation. This would best be handled by one person, at least to start.”
By one scapegoat, he means. Nate kept his mouth shut.
“If that’s what you think is best, Senator,” Decker said, managing to sound both obsequious and disgruntled at the same time. “Your position on the Congressional Magic Affairs Committee certainly gives you unique insight.”
Nate wanted to tell the chief, Thanks but I know who this guy is and what’s at stake if I screw this up. Once again though, he kept his mouth shut.
Beckwith faced them. “If it’s alright I’d like to co-opt your detective here. I know local police and DMS agents don’t always cooperate the way they should. My influence can help smooth those problems on the DMS end.”
Decker clasped his hands behind his back. “A one-person, discreet investigation. To see if there’s even any reason to alarm the public. I think that would be the best way to handle this, at least to start.”
The muscles in his jaw clenching, Nate said, “Discretion’s not a problem, but whether this leads to the nightshade trade or hidden Magic Born, I’ll need authority to work in the zone unimpeded by the administrator.”
“That won’t be a problem,” said the senator. “I knew Alan through his work for the DMS and he was a family friend. I’ll be happy to do everything I can to facilitate the investigation.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, sir, did Dr. Forbes have any enemies to your knowledge?”
Beckwith smoothed his tie and put on the sincere face Nate recognized from news videos. “Alan was very dedicated to his work and a terrific asset to the community. The closest he ever got to stepping outside the lines was the occasional poker game.”
Nate said nothing. Beckwith might have had a professional face, but so did Nate. He had a few, in fact, and right then he chose the one that said, You’re not answering the question. Try again. Not his harshest cop face but still, not one that could be ignored.
Beckwith read him loud and clear. “No. To my knowledge Alan had no enemies, no problems, nothing untoward going on in his life. I understand you want to cover all the bases, Detective, but if the killer is an unregistered Magic Born then the answers to this are in the zone.”
Decker said, “I’m sure you’re right, sir, but as you said we need to cover all the bases.” He gave Nate a significant look. “And now that base has been covered, so the investigation can move on.”
The senator said, “Who all knows about this?”
“The coroner and the lab tech,” Nate said.
“We’ll need to make sure they understand the need for discretion as well.”
“I’ll take care of that, Senator,” Decker said.
Beckwith offered his hand to Nate again. “I’m glad you understand just how delicate this situation is, and I hope you’ll keep that in the forefront of your thoughts as you conduct this investigation.”
Nate shook the older man’s hand without hesitation. “I will, sir.”
Decker walked Beckwith to the exit, the two exchanging polite goodbyes. After closing the door, Decker said, “I want regular updates. I’ll decide what he needs to be told and when.”
“Listen to me, kid.” Decker stabbed the air with a thick forefinger. “We’re through with Kabuki theater now.”
“Good record or not, you’re new here, I don’t know you and I could care less about you. Somebody from the zone killed the doctor and you’re going to find them, and that’s gonna be that. I’m putting you out on a limb. If you f*** this up, make the department look bad, piss off that senator, I will not hesitate to push you off.”
“I appreciate your honesty, sir.”
Decker walked behind his desk and dropped into his chair. “I thought you might. Look, this isn’t personal. Like I said, I don’t know you. You do a good job and bring this case to a satisfactory close, then I will know you.”
Nate didn’t miss the implied promise in that statement, any more than he’d missed the earlier threat. His tablet beeped an alert for a text message. He withdrew it from the inside pocket of his jacket and checked it. “Nothing’s missing from the doctor’s office. Either the perp was high and just trashed the place or they didn’t find what they were looking for.”
“Ever been to the zone?”
“Not even to that club?”
“What about the bazaar?”
Perez shook his head. “Haven’t had any reason.”
“So you haven’t had much contact with Abnormals then. They’re different, Perez. The zone is a world unto itself. You’ll need to find someone in the DMS office there to act as a guide but not a coinvestigator. The senator’s office has probably already contacted the administrator’s office. Go on down there this morning.”
“I’ll have to tell them something, and I was thinking of using the drug angle. It may be significant and even if it isn’t, it’s a good lead in without having to divulge the more sensitive aspects of this case.”
Decker opened a drawer and took out a plastic bottle. “That’s the kind of thinking I want to see from you, kid.” He opened the bottle and shook out a chalky tablet, then held the bottle out to Nate. “Antacid?”
Nate chuckled. “Hell yeah, sir.”
After requisitioning a department car, Nate drove across the city. He left the car in the small parking lot for DMS staff and official visitors across the street from the main gate to the zone. Department of Magic Security, Magic Born Zone Number Thirteen was the official name of the place. Black-clad DMS guards manned the gate, wearing small arms and stun guns in holsters. That much he expected. What he found odd was the woman standing several feet from the gate, swaying and holding a teddy bear. She appeared to be humming to herself as she stroked the bear.
Nate flashed his badge at the guard who approached him. She checked the badge number against the display on her tablet. “We were told to expect you, Detective. If you could just run your ID through the visitor’s scanner I can show you to Admin.” She pointed at the appropriate scanner. It looked like every other one in the city, just a plain gray box with a card reader on the side and a faded government logo on the front. Fishing out his wallet, he removed his ID and swiped it. Within seconds a green light flashed on the screen.
“This way, Detective.” The guard led him through the narrow street toward a squat gray building two blocks away. There was little to distinguish this part of the zone from other poverty-stricken parts of the city. Buildings on either side of the street formed a canyon that hid most of the zone from view. They appeared to be the back sides of apartment buildings, covered in strange graffiti in various colors. Despite the zone’s generally rundown appearance, there was no trash in the street, something that did set it apart from Normal government housing areas. One thing it definitely had in common with them was rowdy residents. A couple argued near an open window several floors up, screaming invective at each other.
A woman and a young boy walked toward the gate, both carrying woven baskets full of colorful scarves. As they passed Nate, the woman pulled the boy closer. Her lack of eye contact felt deliberate to Nate. He slowed, glancing over his shoulder to watch as the two swiped their IDs to leave the zone.
The guard looked impatient, but Nate ignored her attitude. He knew little about the Magic Born and none of it from personal experience. He couldn’t help his curiosity. The graffiti especially interested him. So far it was the most obvious thing he’d seen to indicate he was in a zone. It reminded him of the runic tattoos he’d seen on a French peacekeeper while stationed in Kenya. Regulations about mixing too much with foreign troops had kept him from being able to learn much, but he’d been intrigued then and found himself that way again.
The screaming from above intensified at the same time as a group of small children burst out of an alley. An orange tabby cat followed, chasing something on the ground. Nate spotted a red dot on the gray pavement, then the person controlling it. A woman stepped out of the alley holding an old laser pointer, manipulating it to the delight of both the cat and the children.
Two things about the woman struck Nate immediately. One was her hair, a chin-length shaggy bob in a rich dark purple with several locks of bright fuchsia. The other was her wide smile, perhaps the most uninhibited expression of joy he’d ever seen. It brought him to a stop, staring. She wore a pair of patched cargo pants and two tank tops layered over each other, the top one black, the other acid green, and old scuffed boots. Vibrant tattoos on her arms and shoulders should have made her look rough and unsavory, like every ugly stereotype one heard about Magic Born. Instead she looked like a shining summer morning, all sunlight and heat and full of possibility. Her laughter cut through him, almost painfully bright and alive.
Beautiful women across three continents had smiled at him, flirted with him, occasionally even slept with him. He’d never seen any woman light up a space like that before, with an energy that glowed hot and wild like arcs of electricity escaping a live wire. He could have watched her all day, just for the warm, simple pleasure of it. Never had he been so strongly attracted to someone so fast, or so futilely. He could look for this brief moment, enjoy her strange beauty and vitality, but that was it. Nate still didn’t know much about life in a zone city, but he knew the Magic Laws and he knew he was here on a case, not looking for a pretty girl.
As if sensing eyes on her, she glanced his way. Her laughter stilled, her smile disappearing like a fast-setting sun. She lowered the laser pointer and shooed the children back into the alley. The cat hissed and followed. Nate continued to stare, unable to take his eyes off the woman. She glared back, exuding resentment and a scalding defiance. He took a step forward, then halted as she raised her arm and aimed the laser pointer just above his head.
The guard unholstered her sidearm, pointing it at the Magic Born woman. “On the ground, Vesper!”
More screaming came from above. “You asshole, that’s my sewing machine you threw out the window!”
Nate looked up to see an antique sewing machine suspended in the air above his head, less than a foot from giving him a concussion. He looked at the purple-haired woman, tracking her movements as she used the laser pointer to guide the machine to settle gently on the pavement. Either grossly oblivious he might have been injured or just uncaring, the guard moved in, hitting the woman on the back of the shoulder with the butt of her sidearm.
She cried out and went to her knees, dropping the pointer. The guard zip-tied her hands behind her back and slapped the back of her head, sending purple hair flying.
“What the hell are you doing? We’re still in the zone!” The witch’s voice sounded of tight control and barely contained rage.
“Offensive magic directed at a Normal is grounds for arrest anywhere.” The guard traded her handgun for the stun gun and waved it at the smaller woman. “I am so gonna love seeing you go away for this.”
Nate knelt quickly to pick up the pointer, then pocketed it. “Excuse me, but I’d be on the ground bleeding if she hadn’t stopped that thing from hitting me.”
The guard pulled a face, as if he’d poured lemon juice in her eyes. “Detective, you don’t understand.”
“I think I understand perfectly.” In his experience there were three kinds of law enforcement: the ones for whom it was just a job, the ones who joined to protect and serve, and the ones who got off on being a bully with a badge. Nate liked to think of himself as mostly the second type with a decent helping of the first. He despised the bullies and hated the bad name they gave law enforcement everywhere.
“As soon as I’m done discussing my business with the administrator, I’ll be glad to fill him in on this incident.” He looked at the woman on the ground, meeting one blue-gray eye peeking out through purple hair. “I’ll be sure and let him know I appreciated your quick action.”
A feral smirk was her only response.
Nate returned his attention to the guard. This time out of his many cop faces he chose the one he liked to call Don’t f*** with me or I will f*** you up.
The guard backed down—gracelessly and with a piss poor attitude, but she did it. Slapping the woman’s head again, she spat out, “Get yourself out of the cuffs, freak.” To Nate she said, “You can find your own way to the office. I’ve got better things to do than babysit the likes of you.” She stalked away.
“I can get those cut off for you at the admin building,” Nate said.
“Don’t bother.” The witch closed her eyes, lips just barely moving. Within moments the zip tie fell to the ground. She stood, running her hands through her hair, then held out one hand, palm up, and said, “I’d like my wand back now.” There was no hint of request in her voice. It was a command, and despite being several inches shorter than Nate, scrawny, and dressed like something out of a punk version of Dickens, she had the force of personality to back it up.
Nate had every intention of returning the wand, but he wasn’t going to be a pushover about it. “ID.” He withdrew his tablet and held out his hand.
The wintery chill of tight control almost covered the anger in her blue eyes. She pulled her ID card from a pants pocket and slapped it into his hand without touching him. He swiped it down the reader on the right side of the tablet, waiting for the police network to call up her information before returning the card to her. Before he read a word of it, he saved her file.
“Calla Vesper,” he read. “ID number F111192038Z13. A handful of drunk and disorderlys, no felonies. You’re a jewelry designer.” He held out her ID between his index and middle finger. “You any good?”
She snatched the card and shoved it into a pocket. “Find me in the bazaar and see for yourself. Can I have my wand back now or do you need to wave your dick around some more?”
Nate cleared the tablet screen and tucked it back inside his jacket. Gorgeous, entrancing, and more than enough sass to keep him on his toes—this was definitely a woman he could like a little too much. One corner of his mouth curling up, he said, “That’s quite a mouth you’ve got on you. That why that guard had such a hard-on for you?”
“What can I say? I’ve got the kind of sparkling personality everyone loves.”
He felt himself on the verge of smiling, then remembered where he was and that he was talking to a Magic Born. Not flirting with a girl in a bar.
A middle-aged woman stepped out of the alley, coming to an abrupt halt when she made Nate for a cop. Calla spoke over her shoulder. “Go ahead and get your sewing machine. It’s fine.”
“Thanks, Calla.” The woman hurried to retrieve her machine, hefting it easily. “Sorry, officer.”
“No problem,” he said. She left quickly. Nate never took his gaze off Calla Vesper. “Detective Nathan Perez.” He didn’t know why he felt the need to introduce himself.
Calla rolled her eyes. “Like I care. Just give me my wand back. I’m tired of standing here.” It could have been the glare of the sun, or maybe his imagination, but there might have been a bare hint of amusement in her eyes.
He tossed the laser pointer to her. She caught it easily and turned on her heel, darting into the alley. He watched her walk away. “Come on, come on.” As she reached the far end of the alley she looked back at him, giving him a cheerful grin and a middle finger. He returned the grin, and then she was gone.
That was not at all what he’d expected from his first encounter with a Magic Born.
Copyright © 2013 by Sonya Clark
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.