The boy: nine or ten, snarls and thrashes at the bed sheets tying him to iron bedposts. His bloodshot eyes roll in darkened sockets and he gurgles black speech with a voice deeper than any human ought to produce. The priest: Bible held over his heart with one hand, eyes closed, Latin rites on his lips. His other hand quivers, sending the crucifix twirling in circles on its silver chain over the boy’s head. My hand: steady, holding the priest’s head in my pistol’s iron sights.
The priest’s head turns slightly to me, yet still faces the boy’s. “Leave us,” He says.
“No,” I say.
His head tilts. “You saw my church?”
His head turns back, like I’m dismissed. “So you understand.”
Yeah, I understand. “You have to let him go. What you are attempting is against the law.”
The boy stops thrashing and looks at us with a predatory calm.
“Your law. What about God’s law?” the priest says.
“Take it up with Gabriel and the Choir. Your side knew what they were giving up when they signed the accords.”
The boy smiles and licks his teeth.
The crucifix flashes as the priest’s fists clench tighter. “What about what he did? You saw!”
I recall the empty church, the splintered door, the blood, and the soot. “Arson, vandalism, petty theft, and I doubt those animals were humanely butchered. Not my department, Padre. His papers are in order, and unless you can produce a writ for this exorcism, yours are not. You’re under arrest, Father.”
He sets his shoulders. “I’m not afraid to go to my maker while doing His work,” the priest says.
“I’m loaded with Black Martyrs, Padre,” I say. “Cursed bullets.”
“Soul killers,” the priest whispers. We stand there frozen as he thinks it through. “Forgive me my weakness, Father.” He lowers the bible and crucifix, and then hangs his head. I can’t blame him. Having all your Brownie points with the man upstairs wiped out as a .45 slug tunnels through your organs can make even the most zealous pause.
The boy cackles, and I reach behind my back. A quick flip, and Balance flies, tumbling one and a half times before embedding itself point-first in the wall near the boy’s head. The boy’s eyes cross as they focus on the black blade.
“Keep it up, laughing boy,” Balance says. “We’re hauling your ass in too.”
The ride back to the Judicar’s office is thankfully quiet, each perp watching the city going by through opposite windows. I haul them into booking, the priest by his steel handcuffs, the boy by his copper ones. A man who could be Conan the Barbarian’s bigger, uglier brother sits behind the booking desk. He looks up and scowls at me before rolling his eyes to the side. I follow his gaze to a wooden bench where a grey-templed man in a suit rises. He opens his mouth as I push the two perps to the booking desk.
“I must protest my client’s rough handling, officer,” he says. I wonder if he has even bothered to learn his client’s name yet.
“Good Evening to you too, Booger,” I say.
“It’s pronounced Boo-jhee,” he says. “It’s French.” He says it like I don’t already know he grew up in Jersey.
“Excuse-moi s’il vous plait, je ne parle âne,” I say.
Bouguer blinks. “What?” Balance rattles in its sheath in silent laughter.
“Never mind,” I say. “Which one of these is yours?”
Bouguer sniffs. “As if the diocese could afford me.”
I nod to the man behind the desk. “You can have him after Gimel the Oathbreaker here is done processing them.”
“But my client is the victim here! Detained and nearly murdered by that charlatan.”
“That boy is possessed by evil,” the priest says.
Bougeur smiles and speaks as if addressing a second-grader. “That entity is simply – and legally – operating on this plane in his host.”
“Parasite!” The priest shouts.
Bouguer grins and points at the priest. “Then you admit your corporealism! Officer, write that down!”
I don’t have time for this. It’s almost five a.m., and the end of my shift. I turn to Gimel the Oathbreaker and say, “And I leave the rest to you, Gimel. One count of illegal exorcism for the Padre, and hold the kid for busting up a church, assuming someone files a complaint.”
“That’s a secular matter!” Bouguer shouts. “Not your jurisdiction!”
Gimel frowns at me. “Thanks terribly, Angus.”
I shrug and turn to go, but Gimel holds up a slip of vellum in his pancake-sized hand. “Magister wants you to check this out.”
I grab the writ and read the address, a place somewhere on the other side of town, which makes me wish the Judicar’s office paid overtime. Or simply paid. I look up at Gimel, who just smiles. I shrug and turn to leave, but the priest steps in front of me.
“There’s no redemption for you,” he says. “The Almighty will consign you straight to hell for what you are. “
I pause and nod, as if considering, then whisper in his ear. “Problem is, Father, Lucifer doesn’t want me either.”
Sovereign Pawn and Trade is an immaculate brick storefront in the dirtiest part of town, well-lit with nothing but plate glass between the passerby and glittering items on display. On the door, a sign reads: Abierto las 24 horas. Se Habla Demoníaco, tambien.
I park the car next to a razor wire fence surrounding a boarded-up plumbing supply store, and set the locking wards. The door locks click as the hair on my arms stand on end and ozone fills the air. Anyone messing with my ride was going to find out if they could juggle lightning. If not, too bad, better luck next lifetime. If so? Then it wasn’t worth the effort to fight over a used Chevy; they could have it.
I pull Balance and give it a look at the shop.
“See anything interesting?” I ask it.
It pops and hums a song to itself, something I recognize from the radio, but can’t place. “Whoever designed the place actually had two brain cells rubbing together,” it says. “On top of the usual glamours that keep the squares away, there’s locking wards and astral barriers that would make a high shaman crap their pants.”
“Anything that’s going to be a problem?”
“Pfft! Even if the Magister’s writ doesn’t let you in, all the wards are open.”
“Getting in doesn’t worry me,” I say.
In theory, the juju on the writ was proof against all barriers to entry, like a mystic battering ram. The problem was, anyone worried about such writs usually just left the wards open and threw the wards into lockdown after the schmuck with the writ passed the threshold. Then the writs couldn’t do a thing to get said schmuck out. I asked why once, and all I got was “Magic is funny that way.”
“Don’t worry, Angus,” Balance says, “If it all comes tumbling down around your head, I’ll still survive.”
“Don’t mention it. By the way, where did you learn French? I thought you didn’t read anything unless Elmo was on the cover.”
“I could leave you in the car,” I say.
It vibrates in my hand, like a rattlesnake about to strike. “Don’t be a baby, Angus. Now let’s go find an excuse to eviscerate whoever’s inside. What are we looking for again?”
“Plenary indulgences,” I say
“Those the things with the chocolate center, or the peanut butter?”
“Just stay alert,” I say and slip Balance back into its sheath.
I feel the tingle of restrained power as I pass through the door. The shop is bright and clean, with its wares neatly arranged in glass cases or arranged on shelves lining the walls. The wares themselves are another matter. Pottery shards, moldering taxidermy, ill-formed candles, and books with faded lettering on the spines are on display under the glass. I think there’s a glow coming from a case with dusty jars arranged in alphabetical order.
“Help you sir?” a voice says.
“You the owner, or the help?” I ask.
“My father owns the shop, but it’s a family business. I’m the manager, you might say. Torvald Gustafson.”
The guy behind the counter is dressed in khakis and a blue polo shirt, like he just got back from a second job at an electronics store, though I don’t know of any store that would let an employee walk around with an unlit pipe in his teeth. He doesn’t flinch when I show him the writ, just waves me over to a display case featuring murky glass orbs, monkey paws, and skewers of rainbow-colored tarantulas. He pulls out a lunchbox featuring the characters from the Addams’ Family TV show, and places it on the counter.
“Open it,” I say.
Torvald opens the lid and spins the lunchbox around. Inside are thin biscuit-like wafers. Some crumble at the edges, but it looks like anyone trying to eat one would crack a tooth. I don’t sense anything special about them.
“These are indulgences?” I say.
Torvald switches his pipe to the other corner of his mouth and smiles. “Of course not. Selling controlled relics like plenary indulgences is quite illegal. However, there are some uninitiated types that will simply not take ‘no’ for an answer. This is what we sell them. Caveat emptor.”
“Buyer beware,” I say.
I point to the wafers. “So what exactly are these?”
“Teething biscuits. You know, those cookies you give babies to gnaw on.”
I pick one up and sniff at it. Smells like cinnamon. I toss it back into the lunch box. “So why would the Judicar’s office send me down here looking for indulgences?”
Torvald shrugs and spreads his hands. “Perhaps a competitor, or a disgruntled customer.”
“Then you don’t mind if I look around?” I ask, knowing the Judiar’s writ allows me to whether Torvald likes it or not.
Torvald’s pipe switches mouth corners again as he nods. “Go right ahead.”
I turn and wander through the shop, past finger bones, vials of holy water, demon blood, black cloaks, white pointy hats, rings, amulets, angel’s tears, and a menagerie of preserved animal parts. There’s even a weed trimmer in the corner. I arch an eyebrow back at Torvald.
“What’s up with Lawn and Garden?” I ask. “This weed whacker possessed or something?”
“No, perfectly mundane.” He pauses as I stare at him. “We are a pawn shop, after all.”
I nod and continue circling around the shop. It doesn’t feel right. Maybe the place is legit, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something. Places like this always have something to hide, items that fall into that grey area between what the Judicar allows and what is proscribed. But I can’t find anything like that. The shop is too clean.
Torvald is leafing through a magazine, but his eyes are on me as I move through his shop. The pages flip, flip, flip as I walk, then slow as I pass the case of glowing jars. I walk past it, and the flipping speeds back up. I pretend to read the spines on a bookshelf, and mutter to myself.
“Wake up,” I say.
Balance rattles in its sheath, against my vertebrae. Its voice travels through my spine and vibrates my skull as if it were coming from behind my eyes. I can expect a whopper of a headache today.
What is it now?
“Can you scan those jars?”
Love potions, embalming fluid, salamander mucus, liquefied curses, extract of ambrosia, and some residue of…
Something weird. Get me closer.
Torvald straightens as I do.
“Yes?” He says.
“Is there anything in this place that will go off if I pull a weapon?” I say.
He gives me a smug grin. “You mean like that hand cannon under your jacket? It’s a .45 auto if I’m not mistaken, a M1911 if I had to guess. You know, if you’re looking for something more discrete, or more modern, I have several automatics in the corner you might be interested in.”
The problem with carrying a gun like mine is that it can’t really be hidden, even with a long coat. It bulges and pulls. The upside is that if someone notices the .45, they may stop there and miss something like a knife. Torvald waves his hand.
“Go ahead, sir. I’ve placed the defenses on standby.”
I nod and pull Balance. Then two things happen: Torvald’s face goes pale, and Balance swears. They speak at the same time.
“That’s a forbidden weapon –“
“Angus, it’s oil of innocence –“
Torvald barks out a demonic word that hits me between the eyes. It stings, and distracts me long enough for Torvald to utter a more complicated phrase. Energy surges, and steel shutters slam over the doors and windows. I fling Balance, and dive, trusting the blade will find its own way to Torvald. There’s a flash and smell of sulfur behind me. Somebody screams, and I roll up, M1911 in hand.
Balance is stuck hilt-deep in a shield of glowing green metal. Torvald is peeking over its edge, a twisted metal rod in his other hand, pipe still clenched between his teeth. The knife was struggling to pull itself free, but something in the shield was holding it fast.
I line up my shot. “Put it down, Torvald.”
“And what? Go meekly to the death chamber?”
“They’ll make it quick. I won’t.” It’s the best offer I can make. Oil of innocence is one of the darkest materials, possession an instant death sentence. A skilled alchemist extracts and distills it from its essence as it’s released from its host. Puppy Love’s first breakup, telling your first lie, listening to your parents fight, getting conned out of your lunch money, discovering who Santa Claus is, all vent off innocence like pollen. Gather up a hundred such events, and the alchemist can distil a single drop of oil. So what happens rather than the alchemist hovering around teenage dance parties for years, they go for the big score: horror, trauma, abuse, deathbeds. All staged to waste not a single iota, and the younger the subject, the better. A hundred ruined lives yield about an ounce.
Torvald flinches, and I fire. I’m already rolling as another fireball erupts from the twisted metal rod. The book case behind me explodes into smoldering confetti. I come up, and Torvald is still there, huddled behind his shield. I squeeze the cross-hatched grip on my pistol and whisper.
“Flechette round, two second delay.” The gun glows and shudders as it reorders its magazine to put a bullet with with tiny razors packed around an explosive charge. It’s not as good as a grenade, but it’ll have to do. I take aim.
“Wait!” Torvald says. He throws the shield and his metal rod away and holds his hands up.
I stand, covering him with the gun. I could bring him in, let the system take care of him. I find I don’t want to. “You had your chance, Torvald.”
He smiles, that damn pipe bobbing as he talks. “But you don’t know where the oil is.”
I shrug. “We’ll find it eventually. We don’t need you.”
“But is it justice? I thought that what you Judicar goons were so high and mighty about,” he says.
“Why, are you pleading innocent?”
He laughs. “In a manner of speaking, I guess I am. You see, the oil is in this pipe. A quick bite, and concentrated innocence bleaches my soul clean. I go straight to heaven with a sparkling record. You, on the other hand will have killed an innocent man, as far as the Angelic crowd will be able to tell.”
Seraphim. More concerned with the state of the soul than details as to how it got that way. I shake my head. “You’ll still be dead.”
“I’m dead anyway, right? And you will be facing vendetta. So let’s talk about how you’re going to walk out of here and forget about this.”
I clench my pistol. “Load Black Martyr round.” The pistol shudders as the bullets shuffle. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“Tsk, Tsk, Judicar,” he says. “You have what, eleven rounds in that thing? How many are Martyrs? I’m guessing not enough to counter the oil.”
“You ready to bet on that?” I say.
He nods. “Are you?”
I take a step forward, he works his jaw, and the pipe stem breaks off in his mouth. Golden oil drips from the corner of his mouth. His eyes glaze, and he slides to the floor. Hundreds of childhoods wasted, and for what? My finger tightens on the trigger. I don’t care, I tell myself. Whatever happens after this will be worth it. I’ll know it, even if no one else will. I want to believe it.
Balance buzzes, still stuck in the metal shield. I holster my gun and take a plastic baggie from a pocket and stick it on my hand like an ill-fitting mitten. I pull the remains of the pipe with the mitten, careful not get any oil on myself as I seal it up. I then plant a foot on the shield and wrench Balance free.
“I almost had him, Angus,” it says. “But a loadstone shield? Who the hell carries one of those around anymore? Is he dead?”
“No. We’re taking him in,” I say.
“You’re too soft, Angus. Back in my day, we would’ve impaled the son of a bitch on the city walls over the course of a week.”
I ignore it, and reach for a teething biscuit from the lunchbox, and use it to wipe the last of the oil from Torvald’s lips.
At the station, I meet Bouguer and the possessed kid as they’re walking out. The kid leers at Torvald, who stares back at him curiously. As near as I can tell, all that oil bleached Torvald’s mind along with his soul, leaving nothing behind. The kid, not getting a reaction turns to me.
“I’m free, pig,” the demon in the kid says in his basso voice. “Time to play.”
I stop and look at him. Bouguer checks his phone, though I think he’s pulling up a camera to catch me thumping his client.
“Whattya want? A cookie?”
I smile and pull the teething cookie from my pocket and hand it to the kid.
“Don’t take that,” Bouguer says.
The kid snaps his head around, I mean really around. “You’re not the boss of me!”
“You should listen to him,” I say, “I’m a stranger. Didn’t mommy and daddy teach you not to take gifts from strangers?”
The kid bears his teeth and bites into the cookie. The residual Oil of Innocence hits his system and his eyes roll back into his head. I catch him as he slumps to the floor.
“What did you do to my client?” Bouguer says.
“I believe he self-deported by ingesting a holy relic after we both warned him not to.”
Bouguer opens his mouth to protest, then pauses. “I guess so.”
“You’re not going to file a complaint?”
Bouguer shakes his head. “The dumb bastard forfeited his retainer when he left this plane of existence. Let him hire someone else.” He puts his phone to his ear and makes it seem like he’s taking a call as he walks out of the station.
The kid’s eyes flutter and open. The whites are clear as the kid scans around him. “Who are you?” he says to me with a high, ten-year-old voice. “Can I go home?”
“I’ll get you there, kid,” I say. “I work with the police.” Which wasn’t exactly the truth, but it’s a sin I’m willing to bear.