MARLOWE HAD OFFERED me fifty dollars to stand out here in the freezing Chicago cold and do an augury, and like a damn greedy fool, I’d said yes. I’d computed the ideal time for the operation with Marlowe still on the telephone, flipping between my calculations on scratch paper and an ephemeris. I had to shake a leg to make it to the crime scene during the moon’s Chaldean hour, the best window for divination with the dead. Fifty dollars is a comfortable sum, and I had foolishly believed I could earn it in time to enjoy my last weekend with Edith.
Naturally, everything was going wrong.
It was Luna’s fault. Moonlight sparkled off freshly smashed lightbulbs. It glittered on the wet asphalt underfoot, casting my shadow over the cleanest patch of back alley you ever saw behind a butcher shop. I held up the plumb of a pendulum and tried again.
“Spirit of this departed woman, speak with me.”
The plumb did nothing.
That wasn’t right. Kelly McIntyre’s spirit should still be linked to her deathplace. A mediocre spiritualist can talk to the dead for three days, no matter where they end up, and I was a little better than that. She ought to be batting that silver weight around like a kitten, falling over herself to tell me what happened to her. But the pendulum hung straight down, unnaturally still, as if no one had died in this alley.
Complications. I didn’t need complications. I didn’t have time for them.
My camera hung around my neck, the bellowed lens stopped at its widest, the shutter tension open and slow. Marlowe would have to settle for scene photos, if it ever got dark enough to take them.
I tilted my head back. Luna flirted around on the edge of a cloud but didn’t quite slip coyly behind it. She looked down at me in the alley, not caring that I was freezing to death.
“Come on, little lady,” I muttered at the sky. “Give a girl a break, would you?”
I shouldn’t even be out here, but Marlowe not only jumped to more than double my usual fee, she promised that I would find it interesting. So far, I hadn’t seen anything to merit Marlowe’s opinion. More importantly, I had a date in two hours, and I couldn’t skulk around this alley much longer. I dropped the pendulum in my breast pocket and stuffed my numbing hands under the armscyes of my coat.
I looked up at the moon again. “I mean it, lady. Scram.”
And for a wonder, she did. The silver light dimmed as Luna drifted behind that cloud she’d been flirting with for the last eighteen minutes. Time to step on the juice and get out of here.
Off came my gloves. I cut the little finger of my left hand, hissing as blood welled up. I held out my hand and spoke: “Blood, join with blood and reveal it.”
Three drops fell to the cracked asphalt between my feet, landing on the sigil I’d painted there with a solution of radium paint and the spores of a Japanese phosphorescent mushroom picked on a moonless night.
The spell worked by pairing the principles of contagion and sympathy. My blood activated the luminescent properties of the radium and the living glow of the fungus, connecting it to the blood that had been spilled—
You know what? Let’s skip the explanation. The ground beneath my feet glowed, spreading from the tiny droplets I had spilled to fill the alley in obscene greenish detail, exactly the color of the hands on a glow-in-the-dark clock, or a—yeah, a fairy mushroom. Blood doesn’t un-spill easily. It marks the places it touches. The cops scrubbed really hard, but you can’t wash it all away.
I hadn’t had a chance to test this spell, but it’s not bad work for a gal who wasn’t supposed to know anything more dangerous than the computation of Chaldean hours and a smattering of astrology.
The flare of pride at my successful spell design dampened as I saw what the enchantment revealed. The crime scene was straight out of a nightmare. Blood painted the walls—not in obscene, frenzied splashes but in the cruel and deliberate lines of magical sigils. They covered the north and south walls, sprawling onto the asphalt to the east and west, and I comprehended some. But the rest?
They weren’t Greek to me; I could read that. These marks reminded me of astrological glyphs, of hermetic seals, but I could read those, too. They looked familiar. But I didn’t know them, and I couldn’t put my finger on where I had seen them before.
Enough standing around with my jaw unhinged. I had a system for photographing ritual scenes, and I followed it. I snapped a photo, slid the shield over the exposure, and stuck the cartridge in my pocket. North, east, south, west. I captured the sigils and markings in the all-seeing eye of my Graflex. I’d inherited it from my old boss, Clyde, and he’d have something to say about letting the f-stop out all the way and not using a tripod, but I think he would have been secretly impressed with the spell that made it possible.
As I photographed a magic square filled with more of those strange glyphs, the rock in my gut got heavier and heavier. The blood, which I assumed had belonged to Kelly McIntyre, painted the ground and the walls in the complex geometry of a ritual circle unlike anything I’d ever learned as a mystic. This was deep trouble—worse than a haunting, worse than a hex. This was high ritual magic put to the most gruesome purpose I had ever seen.
Marlowe had been right after all. This was one hell of a job, and I didn’t have time to take it past this consultation. I wished I could have, even though the whole thing screamed peril! Danger! Mortal threat! Awful as it was, it woke my sense of curiosity right up.
Another magazine slid into my camera, and I crouched to get the best frame on the markings along the north wall.
Crouching. I backed up and counted bricks, holding my arm up to reckon eyeline.
The White City Vampire could have been the Half-Pint Vampire. The markings put him at about five foot three. How did a pipsqueak that size haul an amazon like Nightingale McIntyre this deep into the alley? I wondered at the state of the songbird’s nails. Had she fought back, or was she dead weight? Could I grease somebody at the morgue to find out?
I was falling into the case, and I couldn’t do that. All I had time for was getting these pictures. I crouched again, shooting a square of the unknown alphabet on the south wall. The shutter clicked open, and the glow on the walls intensified an instant before it all went dark—or should I say, bright.
Luna was back from her tryst with cloud cover, shining on me with all her curiosity.
I had another vial of luminous solution. It was enough for another spell, but I would have to wait … I looked up at the sky and reckoned. At least another half hour. That would tip me into the hour of Saturn, and that was inauspicious.
Six shots would have to be enough—the seventh was probably ruined. I reloaded the camera with fresh film, and my pockets bulged with 4x5 plates. The glow from the spell was gone, but I gazed through the viewfinder all the same. Something inside me wanted one more shot, and a mystic doesn’t ignore her intuition.
Broken glass crunched under a boot sole. A new shadow fell over my path, shaped like square shoulders and a fedora.
“What’s your business here?” a man demanded, and then he made a disbelieving noise. “Christ, it’s a dame.”
Damn it. I’d been pinched, and it was my own fault. I had cast no wards at all. I wasn’t great with the invisibility glamour. I hadn’t even set up a trip line. I had been sloppy, and I deserved to get caught.
Two men had come around the corner—one tall and broad across the shoulder, the other shorter, standing like a boxer. But were they cops or robbers?
Intuition still had its lips to my ear. I depressed the shutter button with the lens pointed in their direction before I grabbed air and gave a grin. “The scene’s clean, but a second look never hurt—Aw, hell.”
The flash of an eight-pointed silver star on the shorter man’s lapel told me who I was dealing with, and I’d be twice damned if I ever showed my belly to the likes of them. I put my hands down. “Evening, gentlemen. Nice night.”
The shorter man took the lead, gun in hand. But then I got a look at the bigger one, and even with his figure shrouded in shadow, my heart gave a little leap, because I knew him. The light shifted to shine on half his face and I forgot how to breathe. His chin, his mouth … even ten years older and a full foot taller, I knew.
“Ted?” I took a step forward. “Teddy?”
“Helen. You shouldn’t be here.”
“Helen Brandt?” The shorter one’s voice rang with delighted scandal. “You’re still alive?”
Ted and I both flinched.
“Shut up, Delaney,” my brother said. His voice didn’t squeak anymore, evened out to a smooth tenor.
Delaney didn’t matter. I was smiling so hard, I could feel the cold on my molars. Ted was here, this week of all weeks. Here, when I thought I’d never see him again. “Teddy. It is you. You transferred out of Ohio? Are you here in Chicago to stay? You’ve got to be an initiate by now; have you earned your third degree?”
My heart thumped in my chest like it had to carry the whole band playing in my veins. Ted. My little brother, not so little now, standing right there and—his expression was hewn from ice.
“You don’t get to ask about me,” Teddy said. “You don’t get to stand there and ask about my life.”
The look on his face tore me open, exposing the hollow spot just under my heart that never felt full. I’d accepted that I would never see him again a long time before, but I never made peace with it. In my heart of hearts, I yearned for one more glimpse and hoped that he would know me anywhere. That he would see me, the sister who he had loved with all his heart, and maybe I’d have something to tuck away in the little space I had emptied for his sake.
It wasn’t turning out the way I’d dreamed it. He regarded me with disdain, rejection plain on his face. He saw no one he loved, only the warlock Helen Brandt—and I had never wished to see that in his eyes.
But even as the moment I had dreamed of turned into a nightmare, the gears in my skull kept turning. Teddy wasn’t in this alley by chance. They’d been watching the scene all along. Not cops. Not robbers. High magicians, and that was worse.
I lifted the collar of my coat and gathered up my dignity. I was Helen Brandt. He was Initiate Theodore Brandt, and I wouldn’t air out our family business in front of a stranger, even if he knew the rumors anyway.
I flicked my hat brim at Delaney. “What brings the Brotherhood of the Compass to such a charming location?”
Copyright © 2022 by Chelsea Polk