Chapter 1: Welcome to my crappy world
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby.
My day began with a drive-through fender bender. I should have seen it as an omen.
I’m Henry Eberhardt. Pleased to meet you, or I would be if I weren’t hung over. My friend Jon Tillman had a bachelor party last night, organized by his friend Charles Something-or-other. Charles, whom I’d never met before, is filthy rich. So the party contained a great deal of booze and almost as many “strippers” as guests. I call them “strippers” because it was obvious they were doing a bit more than that during the party, and quite a few went home with the guests. Including me. Woke up this morning alone in bed with some good memories, some embarrassing memories, and a hangover. And no, I’m not going to share the details. Hire your own call girl.
The hangover is the reason for the run to the drive-through for coffee. Hence the fender bender, which I did not cause. Hence my yelling at the guy who hit me. Hey, at least he got the worst of it. My car’s a beater, while his was a BMW. Rich prick.
Enough of that. Come see the parking lot adjacent to the building where I work. Scenic, isn’t it? Asphalt gives way to dying brown vegetation, which eventually gives way to hills in the distance whose main function is to help keep rain from ever falling here.
Oh, and admire the architecture of this office building. I think it was designed by a disgruntled Soviet exile from the 1950s who felt homesick. Old concrete: nothing shabbier in building materials. Windows you can’t open, too, because that would compromise the central heating/cooling system . . . when it works.
I walk in, flash my smile at the receptionist. Tracy looks up and exclaims, “Oh, another survivor from the night of the whores.”
I try not to get mad at Tracy. She’s cute, young, and allegedly available. So in my most dignified voice I reply, “She was not a whore. She was a professional woman. And we were discussing conditions among the American working class.” My burp at the end ruins the effect, though.
Tracy gives me a knowing smile. “Riiight. And you fell helpless before her intellect. Get to work, Harry, before Maura has you cleaning out toilets, because she’s been looking for you.”
I groan. Maura is branch office chief. She has two attitudes: you’re barely performing up to standards, and you’re not. Somehow I always seem to be in the second category. I say to Tracy, “What did Maura ever do to get sent to Siberia?”
Tracy shrugs her shoulders. She doesn’t really care; she’s in training, and her stay here is up in a month. “Who knows, Harry?” she says. “Maybe she was once a stripper at a party.”
The image of Maura as a stripper causes us both to crack up. I give Tracy a wink, and head on into the building to my office. It’s a cube in what we call the dungeon, an airless, lightless basement room designed to oppress us into slavery.
My cube is ornamented by a desktop computer, an unflattering picture of my ex-wife that I keep to remind me I’m best rid of her, and a dead fly. Oh, and a pink slip from Maura, telling me to come see her at my convenience. Which means at her convenience, which means now, unless she decides otherwise. I sit down in my chair, ergonomically designed to cause discomfort no matter how you sit in it, turn on my computer (which at least is state of the art), and look at the pile of papers scattered around my cube. Welcome to my job as a senior magician of the Office of Occult Affairs.
Oh, the Office? Never heard of it? Good. It’s a secret part of the United States Secret Service. It’s where the Federal Government employs magicians to address magical problems. Warlock planning to take over the government of Nevada? We’re on it. (It’s happened.) The Office has branches all over the nation. And some branches have great reputations, like Chicago and New Orleans. This place? This is Siberia. This is where the Office sends magicians as punishment. We cover a vast and empty part of the American West, with few people, fewer resources, no high-visibility issues, and no credit or visibility for what we do.
I don’t belong in Siberia. But three years back I had some crappy luck, and ran afoul of Valerie Thompson, who works back at headquarters in D.C. You do not cross Val Thompson, not without paying for it. Four months later, I got assigned out here. Officially, I’m here because of a concern about the rising level of ghostly activity in this district. But even though her fingerprints aren’t on the order anywhere, I know Val did this to me in revenge.
Enough of Val, the problem who’s far away. Time to deal with Maura, the problem right here. I get right out of my chair again, and walk down the hall to one of the few real offices, one with a door. Maura’s sitting at her desk. She looks up from some papers on it, beckons me to come in, and returns her gaze to the papers.
I come in, shut the door, sit down, and wish I had a beer in my hand. I look at Maura hunched over whatever paperwork she’s examining. Maura’s in her early 40s, but looks to be more like in her early 50s with the gray hair and wrinkles. Oh, and let’s not forget the perpetually annoyed look on her face.
By all rights, Maura is not someone I’d ever consider having sex with. And yet, it’s hard to be around her without having sexual thoughts about her, and I sometimes have sexual dreams about her, too. There are three of them: she ties me up, I tie her up, or we’re doing it on horseback. None of this is normal for me. So I wonder if Maura’s some kind of sex magician. I’ve had that kind of experience around the few I’ve met. And the alternative, that I’m actually attracted to Maura in the ways I dream about, is too dreadful to contemplate.
My musings get interrupted by Maura looking up and addressing me. “Congratulations, Harry, you won me $10. I bet Tracy you’d be the next-to-last employee to straggle in this morning.”
I wonder what Tracy expected, the traitor. But that’s irrelevant right now. “I suppose it wouldn’t do me any good to ask who’s last.”
Maura gives me an unhappy grin. “No, it wouldn’t. D.C. called you while you were sleeping off your little romp. Why, I don’t know. But they didn’t sound happy at not being able to reach you. So I suggest you call them up and treat them the same way you did the girl last night. Or better yet, let them screw you.” And she barks out a laugh before waving me off. “Go.”
Happy to oblige, boss, though I’ve got this weird urge to crawl across your desk and ask you to punish me. Fortunately it goes away once I get out of Maura’s office.
Sure enough, there’s voicemail on my phone. “Harry, it’s Rashelle. Get your ass into work and call me.” Unlike Maura, Rashelle is being playful. And I heave a sigh of relief. Rashelle may be weird, but she likes me. Not enough to got to bed with me, but she likes me. And then I worry. Because Rashelle does this weird data analysis stuff that seems to conjure magical threats out of random facts. Sometimes they are spot on. Other times, they just lead to futile chases looking for problems that aren’t there. I’m not sure which one I’m up for, just now.
So I call. “Hey, Rashelle, it’s Harry Eberhardt.”
Rashelle’s voice comes over with its customary Southern drawl. “Well, look who crawled out from under. You partying last night, boy?”
“And how. Hangover this morning, fender bender, and a little chat with Maura. How are you going to make me more miserable, Rashelle?”
Rashelle laughs. “Poor boy. Well, here’s the scoop. You know the demon serial killer I’ve been tracking? It turned up in your jurisdiction, and for once we’ve got names and even a description of the bastard.”
Whoa! Rashelle’s been warning everyone along the Interstate that there’s a serial killer on the loose. Problem is, no one could identify the guy and none of the corpses were talking, either. But looks like this is real, and it’s a national case. This could be big.
My joy lasts the whole of two seconds, and then I begin wondering about the details. “How’d the ID work? We’ve got eyewitnesses? A talking corpse? Or just somebody thinking maybe they saw something?”
Rashelle doesn’t answer immediately. “I don’t know, Harry. All I got is the bare report that came across the Internet an hour ago. Some Decatur County deputy sheriff with a corpse in Farnham. She gave two IDs for the killer, one he was using, one from a credit card. There’s a description of the guy, which is a hell of a lot more than we’ve had so far.”
Rashelle gives one of her exasperated sighs. “Yeah, Harry. You do have female cops out there, don’t you? It’s like the twenty-first century out there?”
“Yeah, well, Rashelle, Mark Hamilton’s the sheriff for Decatur County, and he’s old school. He doesn’t like female cops, black cops, or Hispanic cops, and he’s none too keen on Eyetalians.”
“Sounds like a winner, Harry. Anyhow, the cop in Farnham is definitely a she. You’re going to love her name: Persephone Désirée Arabia Nightfeather Sanderson.”