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Magic Dick

When you’re a bad cop gone good, nobody’s safe

Part 1 of a serialized novel of noir urban fantasy

By Matt Vella

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Det. Oz Carter had gone down into the gutter to cuff a dope-dealing punk, but he stayed in the gutter for another reason altogether. For out the fog had stumbled, wretched and hollow-eyed, the specter of a woman twelve years dead. And he intended to find out what power—or dark magic—could send this corpse wandering from its grave.

Thin rain fell from a purple sky. Dismal rivulets crawled down the dirty building-fronts, spreading a film of grime. Above the narrow alley, concrete towers cowered together against the clouds. The few shops that weren’t abandoned had been closed for hours. Out in the harbor, a tugboat howled mournfully through the fog.

A man stood alone in a doorway and watched the rain. He was just over six feet, with thick-set shoulders. His face made a gentle oval that came down to a flat, undimpled chin. He usually kept his black mop slicked back so tightly that his hairline formed a symmetric v down the middle of his alabaster forehead. Tonight he’d left it unkempt, and a few wet curls spilled forward like birthday ribbons. His cobalt-blue eyes looked out from under thick brows.

He wore a stained leather overcoat and warped felt hat. Anybody looking his way would have thought him derelict. Which is what he wanted. His shabbiness was deliberate. A bid for anonymity. City Central had sent him down here to get a line on an informant, street name Zhang Shu, a.k.a. Zhang the Rat. Without the spoiled threads, some neighborhood lowlife might make him and let the other lowlifes know a hunt was on. That kind of buzz on the grapevine would send all sorts of vermin back into their holes.

Leaning against the edge of the doorway, Detective Oz Carter fished in his pocket for a cigarette. On the door behind him, in silver lettering, was etched: DELACOURT’S DIABLERIE. The shop was dark, but the light reflecting from the wet street revealed the window-front’s contents. A multicolored collection of geodes under apothecary domes, a shallow teakwood bowl stacked with brass orbs and a matching set of pewter goblets.

Baubles for the desperate, Carter thought.

In the corner of the window, he noticed a framed copy of The City Sentinel, dated August 23, 1923. MAGIC REAL, the A-1 headline read dumbly. Carter smirked. The words that weren’t there said as much as those that were. Those hot type boys must’ve given up quick and knocked off to the bar early that day. Then again, how else were you gonna put it? Fifteen years ago, he’d barely been out of short pants. But he remembered how goofy the papers and the radio jocks had gone. And pretty much everybody else too, himself included. One of his academy instructors had even called the revelation a historical pivot. A chance to illuminate humanity. To cleanse the world.

Carter’s smirk hardened into a scowl. The world was dirtier than it had ever been. And humanity...well, that’s what made men like him necessary. As for magic, he thought, magic is like money. Those who got it, get it. And they never let go easy.

“No wands at least,” he sighed.

Carter put the flattened cigarette to his lips and snapped his fingers. A flash of light and heat materialized between them, disappearing into the paper and tobacco. As he put his hands back in his pockets, a withered old woman dragged herself out of the rain and into the doorway. She stamped her feet one after the other against the concrete, her shoes spitting with each clack.

“Some weather, eh?” Two black eyes looked him over.

“Sure is, ma.”

Carter saw her face clearly now. It shocked him. Not its ugliness, though it was, but the sensation it generated. Indecipherable images of a similar face flashed in his mind. He stared at her, searching.

Her face was deeply aged, but not by time alone. Time had accomplices in carving this particular mask. Cruel accomplices. A red scar on her right cheek was so straight, it couldn’t have been accidental. Crush must’ve helped too. The gutter dope promised a magical euphoria. But it left its addicts, the few who survived, walking husks.

Then he noticed her hands.

As she rubbed them together for warmth, eight little nubs clattered against one another. Her thumbs were intact, but the rest of her fingers had been amputated at the second knuckle. They squirmed like the legs of a centipede trying to turn itself over in the mud.

I know this woman, Carter thought, inhaling smoke as deeply as he could. That’s it. I know her, but... He exhaled slow. She’s dead. She died a very long time ago.

His mind spun so fast
he just gave in to it. All he could do was keep her there until the rattling inside quieted.

“How’s about a smoke?”

She turned to him, owlish with astonishment, “What?”

Carter pulled the rumpled pack from his pocket, tapped his last cigarette loose and extended it to the woman.

The knobs that had been her index and middle fingers clamped down on the cigarette.

“Thanks, pal,” she said. “But...I can’t pay you nuthin.”

To avoid giving himself away, Carter used his nickel lighter to put fire to her smoke.

“Misery loves company. And this,” he nodded to the street, “looks like misery to me.”

The woman smiled, her cheeks pulling inward against her toothless gums like a tarp blown concave by the wind. Then she chomped back down on the cigarette and sucked.

“You’re mighty decent,” she said. “I can tell just by lookin.”

Carter shrugged. He had to know who she was. But he couldn’t put the work on her and risk spooking her.

“Gotta place to sleep tonight?” he asked, stalling.

Half a hand shot up. “I’m no flunky. Sure, I gotta place to sleep tonight. Whaddabout you, huh? You got some place?”

He nodded.

“You’re a real decent sort. Won’t ever see you again, but I won’t forget.”

They stood silently smoking, both looking out into the drizzle. But all Carter saw was the dead woman’s face.

She’s...dead, he thought. An icy shiver crawled down his back. He’d never heard of, let alone seen, any magic that could set a corpse wandering from its box. And he hadn’t perceived any of the usual signs—the low monotonous hum against his temples, the sudden musky-sweet sweat under his arms—that he was in the presence of another Optimate.

No, no. She can’t be dead. The dead don’t smoke. And there’s no magic powerful enough to make em smoke. Common sense overcame his fear. She must be someone I think died long ago.

“Thanks for the puff, pal,” the old woman said. That toothless smile again. Then she was off, shuffling into the rain.

Carter stood frozen. That final grin had done it.

“Constance Heather,” he whispered. “That’s it. It’s been what...twelve years? But it’s definitely her. Constance Heather.”

Carter had completely forgotten why he was in this part of town, under this disheveled doorway, dressed like garbage. He’d forgotten all about Zhang and his dime bags of Crush. About the uptown over-doses of well-to-do, pretty young things. A woman had appeared like a specter. She was Constance Heather, twelve-years dead.

He quashed his cigarette under his heel and sauntered forward. His assignment from City Central could wait. Let Zhang and the other petty vermin enjoy their symposium in the muck for one more night.

Fifty yards ahead of him he saw her shambling toward the flickering neon of the avenue beyond. Carter hunched his shoulders and drove his hands into his pockets.

He tailed Constance Heather through the fog.

He crossed Testamont Avenue
, the unofficial line between the rough side of Shipley Triangle and the slightly less rough side. At least the lights were on over here. Signs advertising swing music, cheap cookware and fried food lit up the street. Most of the shops were closed this time of night. But Carter heard the brass of an American big band wafting from a second-story window. He recognized the tune, Love is the Only Real Magic, as well as the faint scrapings of dancing feet.

Pity the affair that starts in this part of town, this time of night, he thought. The chintzy perfume named regret was the best you could hope to do down here.

Suddenly, Carter made a pancake of himself against a brick wall and watched Constance Heather through the mist. When she paused in front of New Red Bo Restaurant, he knew that had to be her destination. She moved closer to a fogged window and peered inside.

The woman stayed there a long time. Passing cargo ships called longingly to one another in the bay. The subway rumbled underfoot. And the upstairs band played on.

Half an hour passed, the woman’s gaze unbroken. Carter slinked forward and hid behind an iron stairwell. He watched as she removed a handkerchief from a pocket and dabbed her eyes. He was near enough to hear her crying. A pneumatic gasp accompanied each sob.

Then she returned the rag to her pocket, backed away from the window and made an abrupt about-face. She began walking back toward Carter.

He cowered as she passed by him. Just as he was about to resume following the old woman, he was overwhelmed by curiosity. What she had been staring at for so long? He bolted toward the restaurant behind him and headed for the window. He had a hard time making anything out through the steamed glass. But then he saw her. A young woman sitting alone in a booth.

The restaurant was nearly empty. The walls of the joint were black enamel emblazoned with gold dragons. The creatures’ eyes glowed orange, and crimson fire spiraled out of their jaws.

The young lady sat beneath one of the Chinese creatures, her fur coat draped on the banquette next to her. She wore a tight, emerald dress which seemed to illuminate her dark red hair from below. Hazel eyes looked ahead softly at nothing in particular. Her full lips were painted the same shade as the dragon’s fire.

She sat there, a bowl of wonton soup untouched in front of her. She was obviously waiting. And obviously resigned to her waiting. Outside, Carter thought he could feel her sighing. He wanted to know those hazel eyes. He wanted to be the punctuation to end her solitude.

Who was she? And what was she to the old ghost? Carter understood this lonely doll was the force calling Constance Heather out of the past. But this power wasn’t magic. It’s something darker, he thought. Something sadder.

He tightened his coat and forced himself to turn away from the young beauty in the window. He moved quickly now. He had to catch Constance Heather.

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About Matt Vella

Journalist who has written for Time, The Wall Street Journal and The WashingtonPost. Just off a long dad-bbatical.

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