The man Nick Damon had come to kill was already dead. By a fire that had burned with unnatural speed and intensity. Whoever it was knew precisely how to kill him and make sure he stayed dead.
So did Nick.
He stayed back from the fire, well beyond the yellow crime scene tape. Out of the glare of flashing lights. His car was parked two blocks away on a quiet cul-de-sac. He had intended to sneak up on the old man and surprise him. After all, it’s our anniversary. During the short walk he had first heard and smelled, then seen the frenetic activity and joined the other spectators as they were attracted to the scene of the fire like moths.
But only after casting a glamour spell on himself. Being remembered was not a good idea.
He glanced around at the crowd. They stood in small groups, these neighbors. Watching the activity with concerned expressions plastered on their faces. Some were in robes and slippers, others still in their work clothes, not yet ready for bed.
Ghouls, he thought. You’ll not leave until you’ve seen the corpse. Then the show will be over and you can go back to your reality TV. He snorted, disgusted by his fellow man. Most of you don’t even know who got killed. Or why.
He grimaced. Or how much danger you were in.
The multicolored, strobing lights from the emergency vehicles cast macabre, strangely playful shadows. He was grateful for the camouflage granted by his glamour. He would be only dimly remembered at best, and if pressed, the descriptions would not resemble one another. One might remember him as a tall Asian man with a shaved head, while another might see him as a shaggy-haired skater kid wearing his baseball cap backward and carrying his skateboard. Whatever was deemed “unnoticeable” by the person taking a cursory glance. And then their eyes would simply slide away.
The spell made him unremarkable and easily forgotten. But as much as it hid him from the notice of normals, to others with magical talent and the right kind of spell, it made him a beacon. It was a chance he had decided to take. A tiny percentage of people had the necessary genetic background—the talent—and of those, fewer still possessed the training to use it.
Still, there was the chance that the murderer had hung around. Nick scanned the crowd again, but realized the futility of it. I know if I had gotten here first, I certainly wouldn’t have hung around afterward. Not after I was sure the bastard was dead.
He turned his attention to the police, EMTs, and firefighters as they scurried around, doing their best to put out the fire and keep the onlookers and each other safe. They know, too, he thought. That the fire isn’t natural. You can see it in their eyes. They know, but they don’t understand. Perhaps they could smell it hovering in the night air along with the acrid smoke and gently falling ash. Feel it like greasy mist clinging to their skin.
They won’t even know it’s a murder unless someone tells them. He will have made sure there’s nothing left. I would have. It’s the only way to—
His cell phone vibrated quietly in his pants pocket. He fished it out and looked at the display.
“Crap,” he hissed. It was a call he couldn’t ignore. Still, answering it here would raise too many questions. And it would be impossible to hear over the noise.
He dropped the phone back into his pocket, then wandered casually away from the excited chatter of the crowd, the gushing water, the shouting firemen, the firetruck water pumps, and the cops on bullhorns exhorting people to keep back. He walked down the street and turned the corner before dropping his glamour, releasing the all-purpose disguise.
It was a minor spell, but one that had proven very useful. He didn’t like taking chances.
The phone had stopped vibrating, but he kept walking until he was back at his car, the sounds of the crime scene muffled by distance.
After he settled into the driver’s seat, he returned the call.
“Williams,” barked a deep voice after just one ring. The voice belonged to Special Agent in Charge Kyle Williams. His boss.
“Damon,” replied Nick.
“We have a situation.” The SAC launched right into it with no preamble.
They know already, Nick thought, not surprised.
“The Atlanta PD and FD are working a house fire near Capital City Country Club in DeKalb county.”
“Capital City,” Nick repeated, as though taking notes.
“It triggered an alert in our database because it’s Hans Ehrlichmann’s last known address.”
Nick remained silent for several beats. “I see. So…he’s dead?”
“No report of a body, yet, but if the killer knew what Ehrlichmann was, there might not be. I want you and Ellis on this tonight. If Ehrlichmann has been killed—”
“Yes, sir. I’ll call Agent Ellis and we’ll be on the scene ASAP.” If Ehrlichmann’s been killed, someone powerful is loose in Atlanta. But even worse, if he hasn’t been killed thoroughly enough, Ehrlichmann himself would be loose in Atlanta. And angry.
Williams gave Nick the address, and he pretended to write it down. Then the SAC disconnected and Nick slowly flipped the phone closed.
Nick considered. The fire is out, but they’ll be processing the scene for a while, yet. It’ll keep. He made up his mind: before he called his partner, Javier Ellis, he would pay a quick visit to Manny.
As Nick drove, he couldn’t decide whether to be upset or relieved. The bastard deserved death, and worse.
And Nick had been ready, willing, and able to perform the public service of ridding the state of Georgia of one of its most dangerous inhabitants. Well, maybe, on the ‘able’ part.
The dead man had been Hans Ehrlichmann. Once the police realized there were human remains in the structure, they would eventually determine that he had been a widower who lived alone and was recently retired after selling a chain of dry-cleaning stores for a tidy sum that would have funded his retirement for decades. They would puzzle over why anyone would want to kill a kindly old man who had never harmed another human being in his entire 70 years.
Kindly! He scoffed. What the cops wouldn’t find was that Ehrlichman, for all that he was a frail, little old man with wispy, white hair and a gentle smile and who always wore a cardigan like Fred Rogers, was the most dangerous man in three states. And that he had been well over two hundred years old.
Kindly old man Ehrlichmann had been a necromancer. And that fact alone made him one of a handful of the most powerful people in North America. And one of the most deadly.
Someone had been more powerful. Powerful enough to reduce a modest two bedroom, bath-and-a-half home to ashes in less time than it took for the emergency vehicles to arrive. And, Nick hoped, to cremate the body to the point where there weren’t enough remains to fill an ashtray. The police would conclude that the fire had been set to destroy evidence of another crime. Nick knew better.
Total destruction of the body was the only way to kill a necromancer and ensure that he’d stay dead.
Nick had intended to use intense, powerful heat himself. Someone beat me to it. But who?
This was Atlanta. Nick’s city. He knew it well, having grown up not far from the neighborhood he had just left. As he drove the familiar streets toward Little Five Points, he thought about what the AFD would find once they began investigating the scene. Both the police and fire departments had a few mages in their ranks; they pretty much had to in a city the size of Atlanta. Large cities attract people with magical talent the same way they attract people with musical, theatrical, or athletic talent.
Nick knew from personal experience that local law enforcement didn’t pay well for those with magical talent. As a result, they were spread pretty thin and tended to be less skilled than, say, members of the FBI’s Paranormal Crimes Investigation Unit, or PCIU. Like Nick and his partner, Javier.
He doubted they had anyone with the skills or knowledge to determine what had happened at the scene of the fire.
He thought he knew exactly what direction their investigation would take. They wouldn’t find a conventional accelerant, and would conclude that the fire had been paranormal. There were several magical means to set such a fire that would leave no trace and burn with the kind of intensity with which Ehrlichmann’s house had burned. Salamanders would do it, Nick thought. So would phoenixes, dragons and certain kinds of demons. He frowned and narrowed his eyes at the tail lights in front of him. But all of those are too rare. A few quick phone calls to Zoo Atlanta and the Bureau of Thaumatofauna Control and they’ll know it couldn’t have been one of them.
He smiled. They’ll probably call PCIU. The delay to talk to Manny will give them time to invite us instead of having us stick our noses in where we aren’t wanted.
He paused, then, in the left lane and waited for on-coming traffic to thin out so he could turn left. He glanced at the apartment building to his left and noticed faint light at Manny’s windows, so he knew the man was home.
He smiled. It had been a while since he’d paid a visit to Manny.
Nick parked his car on the street, which seemed to be the norm in The Highlands. It was a beat-up-looking, fifteen-year-old crap-wagon, or so his ex-wife had called it. And he had gone to considerable trouble to make sure it looked unworthy of theft. Anyone who tried would live to regret the attempt.
Those with the perception to see through the disguise would stay well clear of it as well. Sometimes a beacon was a deterrent.
He approached the building cautiously, but casually. Most of the windows were dark, but he had already noticed the dim light in the side window of the ground-floor, rear apartment.
Manuel “Manny” Gutierrez was a torch. A pyro. He didn’t set fires by hand, he set them with his mind. Damon had known Manny since a case several months back had resulted in Nick and Javier picking Manny up on suspicion of arson and murder. Manny had been a suspect, but had agreed to finger the real perp in return for avoiding jail. Nick figured that probably hadn’t made Manny any more popular on the street if any of his friends had figured out who had ratted them out. Them’s the breaks.
The little weasel had never killed anyone that Nick knew of, and his record was a string of minor arsons in which only property had been damaged. The kid was a junkie, but not far gone enough to grow careless. Yet. But he needed fire like a nympho needed sex. Eventually, it would burn him out, but for now, Nick occasionally threw Manny a bone in return for information. Unofficially, of course.
Nick sighed, then walked up to the exterior door, which was shielded from the road by a brick, lattice-work wall and a large hydrangea with sickly looking white blossoms. He turned the knob firmly, making as little noise as possible. Locked.
He looked around to make sure he wasn’t being watched, then squatted in front of the door, simultaneously slipping a set of lock picks out of his pocket. They weren’t exactly regulation issue, but what the Bureau didn’t know wouldn’t hurt it. He could open the door without them, as well, but it would make a lot of the wrong kind of noise, and he was trying to be inconspicuous.
The lock clicked open in less than a minute. It was as cheap and old as the building itself. No alarms went off, which was as he had expected. Manny wasn’t the type that could afford a place with an alarm system. He silently thanked the person who had planted the hydrangea, then walked into the building. He closed the door gently behind him.
Manny’s apartment was on his left. He approached the door cautiously, but needn’t have done so. He could have opened the outer door with a hand grenade and Manny would not have heard it over the loud heavy metal music issuing from his apartment.
He beat on the door several times with his fist. The music abruptly shut off. There were some rustling sounds, and then a voice called out from within, muffled by the door. “¿Quién es?”
Nick leaned in close to the door. Without shouting, he spoke clearly and distinctly into the crack between the door and the jamb. “It’s Nick Damon, Manny. I need to talk to you.”
Nick heard a voice say, “Mierde!” and braced himself for the other man to bolt. Instead, he heard a padlock and slide lock opening. A few seconds later, the apartment door opened a crack, held in place by several chains.
One of Manny’s bloodshot, dark eyes appeared in the crack and peered down at Nick, occasionally darting to take in the man and his surroundings. “What do you want, pinchero? I ain’t done nothin’.” Manny’s voice was annoyed more than angry.
Nick carefully held both hands out to the sides to show that they were empty. “Aw, Manny, I’m wounded. Did I say you had done anything? I just want to talk with you. Just talk, that’s all.”
Manny’s eye narrowed and regarded him for a long moment. Then the door closed briefly and Nick heard chains rattling. The door opened wide enough to admit a person, and Nick walked into the dimly lit space beyond.
The door slammed behind him and Nick turned to find that Manny had a gun pointed at his head. Glock 9mm. Probably stolen.
Nick smiled. “It’s good to see you, too, Manny.”
Manny would have been described as “freakishly tall” if he were to end up in a lineup. But it wasn’t his nearly 6′ 5″ height but his thinness that made him look so tall. Nick guessed Manny barely weighed 180. The stiff, spiked green mohawk didn’t help, either.
Manny did not return the smile. He held the gun level and never took his eyes off Nick.
“Not very hospitable, Manny,” Nick said, as he turned his back on the gun. He walked to a filthy futon strewn with food wrappers, shoved aside enough trash to clear a place to sit, sat down, leaned back, and crossed his right ankle over his left knee. “You should offer your guests a drink, at least.”
Nick tried to ignore the smell of the place. Stale cigarette smoke, body odor, and old fast food. Manny’s housekeeping skills were lacking, like most other nineteen-year-olds Nick had ever known. Like himself, for that matter, although he was nearly twice Manny’s age.
Manny still stood where he had, holding the gun with both hands, aimed at Nick’s head. He was impressed that Manny’s hands weren’t shaking.
“No? Not even a diet soda?”
The silence in the apartment was almost palpable.
Nick sighed. So this is how it’s going to be. “Okay, fine. Crispy critter up in DeKalb county. Country club neighborhood. Little old man. Do you know who did it, yes or no?” He fixed Manny with a gaze that he hoped would compel the man to answer truthfully.
Manny seemed to consider the question. Then he spoke. “I ain’t done nothin’ like that. I tole you before I don’t do shit like that.” The gun did not waver.
Nick nodded. “I believe you, Manny. Relax. But I think you might know something about who did.”
Manny relaxed his stance a bit, but the gun didn’t waver.
“What makes you think I know somethin’? You know I ain’t—”
“Come on, Manny, give me a little credit. You know something. If there’s someone or something in town that can make fire in a big way, you know about it before we do, before the cops, before the fire department. And if too many people start dying in fires, it gives pyros a bad name.”
“Why you think I’d tell you if I did?”
Nick smiled brightly. “Porque tengo el escroto en un vicio, ¿te acuerdas? Now cut the shit and put down that gun. We both know it’s not loaded.” And you also know I could make the gun too hot to hold without batting an eye. That’s a lesson you only have to learn once.
Manny let his hands fall to his sides, still gripping the gun with his right hand. “Pendejo!” he said, then tossed the empty gun onto a table near the door. He crossed to a ratty leather chair next to the futon on which Nick sat and flopped into it like a tossed rag doll. “How the fuck did you—”
Nick grinned. “You’re not a killer, Manny, and we both know it. Whatever else you might have done, I don’t believe you’ve killed anyone.” Yet, anyway. It’s just a matter of time…
Manny sighed and looked down at his hands, which were clenched into fists in his lap.
“Besides that, if you did want to hurt me, you’d have done it with fire.” Or tried to.
“Shit,” Manny said.
“Now, what do you know?”
Nick frowned as he drove. The information Manny had given him was sketchy at best, but he trusted him as far as that went. Before he left, he’d tossed Manny a slip of paper.
He had stood at Manny’s window, his back to Manny while the kid read the paper, folded it, and shoved it into a pocket of his jeans.
Turning from the window, Nick said, “Seems that there is a condemned building in Conyers that’s scheduled for demolition this weekend. If it were to happen to burn before then…along with that note… .”
Nick had shrugged then, and Manny grinned from ear to ear, like a little kid given the keys to a candy store. His eyes were already beginning to glaze over.
“Mierda no?” Manny asked.
Nick had laughed. “No shit, Manny. Just make sure no one is in the building, ¿entiendes?”
The man—more a boy, really—had nodded absently, his mind clearly already halfway to Conyers. Manny was a junkie as bad as any heroin addict, but his drug was fire. It happened a lot with pyros. They tended to lose control and self-destruct fairly young. Manny was only nineteen, but he already showed the signs of the slide down into hell. Nick hated it. But he couldn’t heal the wounds of society. He’d learned that the hard way. He would help Manny if asked, but the boy needed to want it. He didn’t.
Manny had given him a few names—street names, mostly—of other pyros that made him nervous, claiming he didn’t know for certain that they’d killed people, but that they’d bragged they had. Nick was sure most of the names were already in the PCIU’s database and that the bragging had been just that. He’d pressed for more, and Manny had reluctantly told him rumors that a new specialty pet store had recently opened in Sandy Springs. Word on the street was that in addition to the usual kittens, puppies, fish, birds, and snakes, they had rare, more dangerous “pets” for sale. For a price.
Manny didn’t have to come out and say it. Dangerous “pets” meant proscribed magical creatures that had been deemed a public menace by the Secretary of the Interior’s Paranormal Task Force. Dragons, salamanders, basilisks…that kind of thing. Strictly forbidden as pets in all fifty states and Guam.
Nick shook his head. It was time to call in the cavalry. He and Javier had been ordered to the scene. He checked his watch and saw that it had been nearly an hour. And the locals hadn’t called for help, yet.
The vestiges of whatever spell had been used to kill the old man would likely fade, soon. Under normal circumstances, he would have been content to wait until the local law-enforcement agencies had finished their investigations and called for PCIU’s assistance.
This time, he had no choice in the matter. There was another player in the game. And he wanted to know who it was.
At his apartment, Nick changed into the standard PCIU “uniform”: a dark suit over a white shirt with a colorful tie. He carefully undid the top button and loosened the tie. He had already called Javier and the other man was on his way to pick him up. Nick smiled. Javier hated riding in Nick’s “crap-mobile” car, so he ended up doing a lot of the driving. Which was just fine with Nick.
He appraised the results in the bathroom mirror. It projected exactly the air he intended to project: a hard-working PCIU agent as unhappy with having been called out at a godforsaken hour of the night as the cops would be having him interfering in “their” investigation. He looked bored, tired, and impatient even to himself. Perfect.
There was a knock at the door. Nick paused a moment to compose his thoughts. He trusted Javier as much as he trusted anyone; more than anyone since Jacob, in fact. And even though Javier would not intentionally probe Nick’s thoughts, if he were leaking, his partner couldn’t help but pick it up. One of the disadvantages of having a telepath for a partner.
He carefully constructed a barrier in his mind, as he had been taught during his apprentice training many years before. After a few seconds of concentration, he would be able to maintain the barrier without conscious effort.
Javier would think nothing amiss. Nick maintained a shield whenever he was around telepaths. The less noise they had to block, the better. Thoughts he didn’t want leaking out wouldn’t, unless strong emotion or a concerted effort were involved.
He didn’t intend to get emotional about the death of scum like Ehrlichmann.
There was another knock, and Nick heard Javier’s voice call out. “Nick?”
He grabbed his badge wallet, yelled, “Coming!” and went to answer the door.
Javier grinned as Nick opened the door. Javier was always grinning. When Nick had first met his partner five years before, it had been off-putting, but now it would be wrong to see him without the perpetual grin.
“Hey, Nick. You ready?”
“Yeah. Just. You have great timing.”
Nick closed his door, placed his hand against the wood, and closed his eyes while Javier stood patiently nearby, still grinning. Nick carefully constructed the lock and warding spells he wanted, wove them together into a coherent whole, and pushed them out of his mind onto the door of his apartment. Over the years, he had embedded many other spells around the entire apartment, but the ones on the door were renewed each time he left. Like his car, Nick’s apartment didn’t look like much, but it suited his purposes, and was a lot better protected than it looked.
Nick opened his eyes, took a quick assessment of his work, and nodded. “All right, let’s get this over with.”
Javier led the way down the hallway while Nick followed, trying not to brood.