Give Up The Ghost 2-IX

“…and so we’re not allowed back in that bar ever again.”

Sorayah stared at me in amazement. “…wow. Just, wow. I didn’t even know someone could do that with a martini glass.”

I shuddered. “Up until then, neither did I.”

From behind us came the sound of glass shattering, and someone yelling profanities at the top of their lungs.

“Did you get them?” I asked Kath as she slipped through the door we were standing next to.

She brandished a sheaf of manila folders in response, grinning broadly despite the fact that she had a large cut across one cheek, blood dribbling down her face. “All seven, bay-bee.”

“And the yelling was…?” Sorayah asked.

“Unrelated.” Sorayah and I jumped in shock as something shattered against the inside of the door. “Semi-unrelated.”

“Did you steal those?” I asked, glancing suspiciously at the files she held.

“Legally speaking? No.” She saw the look on my face and sighed dramatically. “It’ll be fine, she has copies.”

“Can you do… anything normally?” Sorayah asked as we began walking away from the social worker. “Like, is making a sandwich an hour’s affair with screaming and explosions?”

Kath gaped at her, eyes wide in mock-offense, while I guffawed. “You gotta admit,” I said through the chuckles, elbowing her in the ribs, “she’s got you there.”

She harrumphed, folding her arms. “I refuse to dignify this baseless slander with a response.”

I grabbed the folders away from her and began flicking through them until I found a familiar face. “Alex Couarde,” I read aloud. “Seventeen. Left home three years ago, abuse, kept leaving shelters because of the same.” I shook my head. “Jesus.”

Sorayah had one hand over her mouth, and looked like she was about to cry, so I quickly closed the folder and handed it back to Kath. “What now?” I asked her.

“So remember that dumb suggestion I made about going around and just asking people about the tattoo?”

I frowned, suddenly wary. “Yes…?”

“Well…”

 

I wiped the loogie off my cheek with the back of one hand, and flicked it the ground, trying to contain my annoyance. “Is that a no?”

“Fuck you, you dirty-” The rest of the sentence was mostly taken up by a mix of racial and gendered slurs, with a few all-purpose ones tossed in there for good measure.

I gave up, turning around to glance at where Kath stood near the end of the alley. “You’re sure we’re in the right place?”

She nodded. “Yeah, number… four, David Hussain. File says this was his main spot.”

“We could… wait around, see if other people show up?” Sorayah suggested.

I glanced back at the man, who was wrapped in multiple tattered blankets, and had one of those internet conspiracy theorist beards. He tried to spit at me again, and I stepped away and let it splat against the ground.

“Let’s not.”

 

The elderly woman stared at us with suspicion. “You’re not with the police.”

“No, ma’am,” Kath confirmed, oddly respectful, “we’re not.”

“Why are you looking into my granddaughter’s death, then?”

“It’s a long story, ma’am, but if it reassures you at all, I’m a registered P.I.;  you can look me up. We just wanted to ask a few questions about her… about her.”

The woman sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be able to help. I may have been her carer, but most days it felt like I barely knew her. We hadn’t spoken in over a year. I tried, but…”

 

“…as far as I’m considered, he deserved whatever he got.”

I stared in wide-eyed horror, frozen in disbelief. I knew I needed to say something, to react somehow, but it-

“YOU’RE HIS MOTHER!” Sorayah screamed. “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” Her attempt to slap the other woman was somewhat undercut by her hand passing harmlessly through her head, but the intent was clear.

“We’re, uh,” Kath said, “just going to go.”

 

“Alright, fuck this.” I leaned in close to Sorayah, muttering so we wouldn’t be overheard. “This guy is obviously jerking us around. When I do it, run.”

“When you do what?”

“This.” Kath was still nattering on, utterly unconcerned by the knife the guy held, so I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey.” He turned around, towering over me with a snarl, and I slugged him in the gut.

He doubled over with a violent whoof as all the air was expelled from his lungs, and before he could react I grabbed Kath’s arm and sprinted away, dragging her behind me.

“Wh-” Sorayah stared at us, dumbstruck, as we passed.

“Move!” I yelled at her, and she jumped, before hurriedly floating after us.

“How did you- where did that come from?”

For the second time that day, we could hear the sound of profanity being yelled at maximum volume.

“It’s,” I replied through panted breaths, “a long. Story.”

“Come on,” Kath whined, “I had that guy handled.”

 

“Where did you see that?”

Kath whooped, pumping a fist in the air, as I sighed in tired relief. “Finally!” Sorayah exclaimed.

The girl looked at us like we were crazy. “Sorry,” I explained. “It’s been a very long day.”

She squinted suspiciously at each of us in turn. “You cops or something?”

I was still wearing my tanktop and shorts, along with some garishly bright sneakers and a baseball cap. Kath still had the cut across her cheek, and was currently trying to engage me in an elaborate victory dance. Sorayah was… Sorayah. “You tell me,” I replied.

Apparently, that was a sufficient argument, because the girl relaxed slightly. “Where did you see that?” she repeated stubbornly. “And why do you want to know.”

I sighed. “We saw it on the body of Alex Couarde, tattooed…” I tapped the spot on my own body with my free hand, “just here, underneath the armpit.”

At the word “body”, her eyes tightened and her teeth clenched. She wasn’t surprised, though. She’d known, or suspected.

“When?” she asked tightly.

“Two days ago.”

She sagged. “‘f course.”

“Listen,” Kath cut in, “I know it’s a lot to deal with right now, but it’s really important that you tell us everything you know. It could save a life.”

She hesitated for a moment. “Fine,” she conceded after a moment. “Fine.” Then, she turned, and pointed towards the storm drain behind her.

“I’ll show you.”

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Give Up The Ghost 2-VIII

In the end, we settled on Chinese. I’d wanted a kebab, Kath had ‘argued’ for Vietnamese (by which I’d mean she’d chanted “pho” over and over with increasing volume until people started staring), so as we normally did when we couldn’t agree, we settled on something that neither of us particularly wanted. Without thinking, I’d offered Sorayah the tiebreaker, but she’d declined on account of not having the ability to eat. Thus, Chinese.

“Um, June?” Sorayah asked tentatively as we sat down with our food (a giant pile of anything and everything fried for Kath, discount noodles for me because they were half-off and I was willing to risk the gastro). “You were saying something earlier about…?”

“Hm? Oh, right, the magic thing.” I slurped up a stray noodle from the corner of my mouth. “Okay, so,” I said, gesturing with my chopsticks, “you know the trinity, right?”

“…father, son, holy spirit? You didn’t strike me as a Catholic.”

I shook my head. “Not that one. Eiffel’s Trinity?”

“Isn’t that a band?”

“Fundamental metaphysical makeup of a sentient being, but, sure, someone’s probably named a band after it at some point.” I laid my chopsticks on the table in a V, and grabbed another pair to put at the bottom to make a triangle. “This,” I waved a hand over the sticks, “is a person.”

“No it isn’t,” Kath said through a mouthful of chicken.

“Three fundamental parts.” I gestured to each side in turn. “Mind. Body. Anima. Some people call that third one magic, some people call it the soul, chi, whatever. Put em together, you’ve got a fully functioning, sentient being. With me so far?”

“I mean, it’s not exactly complicated.”

“Again, lies-to-children. So, as you’d expect, normally what happens when you remove one part of the trinity,” I slid the ‘body’ stick away from the others, “is that you die. The aspects rely on one another to remain stable and coherent, like…” I thought for a moment, then quickly rearranged the sticks so that they stood upright, supporting one another. “Like so. Take one away, and…” I spread my hands as the two remaining sticks clattered down.”

“Creative visual metaphor.”

“I try. So the most common point of failure is the body, for…” I drew a thumb across my throat, “obvious reasons.”
“Or, yanno,” Kath added nonchalantly, “heart failure, aneurysm, sponcom. Old age. Explosive constipation. Not everything has to be about murder.”

“…explosive constipation.”

“Well, technically it’s not the constipation that’s explosive, it’s the build-up of pressure behind the blockage.”

Back to what we were actually talking about, it can be any of the three, and almost always the structure collapses. But sometimes…” I picked up two of the sticks, and carefully leant them against one another, the longer sides of their flat bases aligned with each other. “Under certain circumstances, the remaining two can support each other, and…”

“You get a ghost?” she finished.

“Well, not necessarily. It depends on which part you remove. Take out the mind, and you get a golem. Take out the anima, you get a ghoul. But both are pretty uncommon, and yeah, most of the time, it’s a ghost.”

“Okay, I’m with you so far,” she said slowly. Kath snatched at my noodles, but I smacked her down. “But what does this have to do with me having magic?”

“I’m getting there, I’m getting there. See, when it happens, it’s not like the others just keep going like they were; there’s… adaption. One or both of the two remaining will stretch or adapt to try and fill the gap. Anima’s significantly better at it than the other two, which is why ghouls are so uncommon. Doing that, though, stretches the aspect; it’s pulling double-duty, essentially. Well, more like one point five, but you get the point. Thing is, though, the average person just doesn’t have enough magic to support that; it burns out trying to handle it, and you get a spectre. For you to be a fully-realised ghost, you pretty much had to have an above-average magical capacity, even if you never utilised it.”

“…huh.” She stared down at her own hands, as if she expected them to burst into flames at any moment. “How could I have had magic without knowing it?”

“Beats me,” I replied with a shrug. “Not exactly an expert.”

“Could’ve fooled me.”

I took the compliment with a slightly awkward smile and a nod, stuffing my mouth with noodles to avoid having to reply.

“Hey,” Kath jumped in, brushing crumbs off her mouth, “speakin’ of things that June mentioned cryptically and then didn’t elaborate on, what was that thing from earlier? Crochet Demon?”

“Wh…” It took me a second to process the Kath-ism. “Oh, Cranston-DeVrie, right.”

“You seriously don’t know about it at all?” Sorayah asked her, surprised.

“Like I said,” she replied with a wink, tapping her brow, “too much up here to keep track of everything. That’s what June is for!”

“Still,” Sorayah replied doubtfully, “it seems like the kind of thing you should know about?”

“Why?”

“Cranston-DeVrie,” I explained, “v. the state. Civil rights court case. I don’t remember all the details, it was back in the fifties.”

“So why do you know about it at all?”

“Because unlike some people I at least made half an effort in high school.” She stuck her tongue out and blew a raspberry at me. “Basically, if the plaintiffs had won, it would’ve been a landmark case, like Brown v Board of Education in the States, or the Mabo case. But…”

“They lost?”

I nodded. “They lost. It essentially institutionalised a whole bunch of discrimination against the genetically-divergent; stuff that had already been commonplace, but now it was tacitly endorsed under the law.”

“Holy shit, really? That’s fucked up.”

“Yeah,” I said, “it really is. I know we’ve really been harping on this, but did you not know this at all?!”

She shrugged one shoulder, other hand rubbing awkwardly at her chin. “…yeah. I guess it just sort of- never came up, I guess.” She wasn’t making eye contact either, and I realised with a start that she was actually embarrassed. One for the books. “So the reason the police didn’t…”

“Yeah,” Sorayah confirmed. “To them, it wasn’t like he’d actually killed a ‘real person’; it was like he’d just killed a dog. And seeing as how he’d offed himself afterwards, well, everything was just wrapped up nice and tight, then, huh?” The venom in her voice was unlike anything I’d heard from her.

“Holy fuck,” Kath breathed. “They said that?”

“Not explicitly, but I’m pretty good at reading between the lines,” she gestured at her skin, “when it comes to this sort of thing.”

“Fuck,” Kath repeated again, leaning back. “Wait. Didn’t he kill you too?”

She laughed bitterly. “Funny story! Seeing as I ‘survived’, he didn’t kill anyone, so there’s no need for an investigation!”

I rubbed my eyes. “What a mess,” I said tiredly. “What a fucking mess.”

The other two nodded in agreement. “Well,” Kath said after a moment, regaining some of her usual energy, “then I guess it’s up to us to clean it up, huh? We have,” she stuck up her fingers and started counting off, “seven murdered street kids, all zooeys, all with the same mysterious tattoo on their bodies somewhere. An unexpected eighth death in the form of our lovely friend here. A ninth death in the form of our pseudo-suicidal killer, who was apparently compelled into killing by someone or thing, and then splatted once it was done. And a list of social worker case files for the kids. All of which adds up to…” she paused dramatically.

“What?” I asked after a moment.

“Oh, I was hoping you’d finish it. I have no clue, man.”

I groaned, sliding down in my chair. “Wonderful. So now we stumble around in the dark until we find something?”

Kath made finger-guns at me. “Babe, how do you think 90% of my cases go?”

“The social worker case files, then?” Sorayah interjected. “I mean, it is our only lead.”

“The tattoos?” I pointed out.

“Well, they sort of are,” Kath said, “but we don’t really have anywhere we can go with that. Unless we wanted to go around to all the street kids in Brisbane asking them if they have a tattoo, but that would be both stupid and boring.”

Give Up The Ghost 2-VII

“There was more than one murder,” I said as soon as Kath picked up the phone. I’d called her as soon as we’d left Westy’s house, and now I was power-walking as fast as my tiny legs would allow to the nearest taxi rank. Sorayah walked at a more reasonable pace beside me, thanks to being taller, but the movement of her legs and her actual progress forward were slightly out of sync.

“Ohh, yep,” Kath replied tinnily. “Dee double-u, Junebug, I’m all caught up on that.”

I missed a step, nearly tripping. “You’re- what?!”

“Yeah, dude. On a completely unrelated note, can you come to the station in the city?”

“Why?”

“Uh, to pay my bail? Duh?”

I stopped walking entirely, and was treated to the only mildly disturbing sight of an arm swinging through my chest as Sorayah didn’t quite manage to halt her momentum in time. “Kath.”

“June.”

“Kath. I’m only going to say this once, so I’d like you to listen very carefully.”

I’m riveted.”

“Good.” I took a deep breath. “WHY,” I bellowed into the phone, “ARE YOU. IN JAIL?!”

“Well, technically it’s just the holding cells. And they wouldn’t let me look at the bodies at the morgue.”

I stifled a growl. “And. Then?”

“And then I broke in to look at them.”

She started to say something else, but I hung up before she could.

“What’s happening?” Sorayah asked me nervously. “Is Kath alright?”

“Oh, she’s fine now,” I growled. “She won’t be once I’m through with her.” I resumed walking, doing my best to go even faster. “Change of plans, we’re going to bail her out, with the money that was supposed to be for this week’s groceries.”

“Do you…” Sorayah hesitated. “Okay, sorry if this is a weird question but… do you actually like her? I mean, you two seem close, but…”

I dragged a hand over my face. “Sorayah, I ask myself that every goddamn day.”

—-

The police watchhouse in the city was an unassuming block of a building, but with an odd, surprisingly modern glass-and-steel rotunda sort of thing at the front. We walked right up to the public entrance without any trouble (it’s not like there were crowds), but as I tried to pass through the doorway, I found an arm barring the way.

“Sorry, ma’am.” The arm belonged to the officer standing just inside the doorway, tall and broad.

I looked down at his arm, and then up at him. “Is there a problem, officer?” I asked, in what I thought was a pretty good approximation of politeness.

“Not with you, ma’am.” He gestured back with his head at Sorayah. “I’m afraid she isn’t allowed inside.”

“…what?” I glanced back at Sorayah, who seemed just as surprised and confused as I was. “Why not?”

He gave an apologetic shrug. “Security reasons, ma’am.”
I scoffed. “What, because she’s intangible? Mate, I can see the wards on this place, and a stray fucking thought couldn’t pass through them, let alone a ghost.” That was an… exaggeration. Like most government security, the wards on the station were very fancy and effective for a decade ago, but they hadn’t really been updated since; not from the bottom-up. They were definitely good enough to prevent any incorporeal beings passing through.

“I’m afraid that’s just how it is, ma’am-”

“Stop with the ma’am shit,” I snapped. “God.” I bit my lip, debating my options. “Sorayah, we’re-”

“It’s okay, June,” she interrupted. “I’ll wait out here.”

I paused, train of thought derailed. “You sure?” I asked instead. “You’re not…?”

“It’s fine,” she replied. She didn’t sound like it was fine, but. “You won’t be long, right?”

“Hopefully,” I sighed, “but it’s Kath.”

She chuckled. “Guess I’ll do a bit of people-watching, then.”

“Well, as long as you’re okay with it…” I tried to enter again, and this time, the arm lifted out of my way. I shot its owner a mild glare, then walked past him and up to the front desk.

“Hi,” I said politely to the desk sergeant. She was a stout, blonde woman in her fifties, who looked someone had fused a lollipop lady and a librarian in a freak accident“I’m here to post bail for Ka- …um, for Aakatherine Aajones.”

She chuckled slightly, tapping a few keys. “Let me guess. Long-suffering partner?”

“Not quite in the sense you meant, but essentially, yes. When’s the court date?” I asked, as I pulled out my wallet and handed over the cash, and I winced slightly as the money left my hand.

“N.D.A.” she replied. “Given your friend’s seeming familiarity with the judicial system, it’s probably pretty low on a priority list somewhere.” She stood from her desk and began leading me towards the holding cells.

“You seem remarkably cavalier about that?”

“I’ve been doing this a long time. You get used to the weird.”

“Hey!” Kath was draped awkwardly over the cell’s cot, legs up on its thin mattress, and her back on the ground. She had been aimlessly bicycle-kicking at the empty air, but as I approached, she twisted sinuously onto her feet, arms outstretched for a hug. She stuck them through the bars, reaching for me, but I stepped back out of reach with a grin, and she pouted.

“Oi!” the officer sitting on a stool a few cells down yelled. “Back inside the cell!”

“It’s alright, Corporal,” the desk sergeant told him, as Kath withdrew her arms. “This one’s just had her bail posted.” She pulled an ID card from her one of those retractable cord things on her belt and swiped it across a sensor on the wall, and it beeped as the cell door rattled open. Kath bounded out and immediately swept me up into a crushing hug.

“Mrrmm.” I jabbed her in the gut until she put me down, the desk sergeant watching with a vaguely amused smirk as she closed the cell again. “You fucking idiot. How the hell did you get off so lightly?”

“My irresistible charm,” she responded with a wink.

“Let’s just say ‘precedent’ and leave it at that,” the sergeant added.

“Well,” I muttered, “that’s not a terrifying thought at all.”

Kath nattered on about nothing in particular as we collected her personal effects (which turned out to be unsurprisingly, ridiculously numerous; including but not limited to three old photos of a duck, two screwdrivers, a box of painkillers with a piece of tape with ‘russian roulette’ written on it placed over the front, and two used q-tips in a ziploc bag). As soon as we’d left, though, picking up a rather bored-looking Sorayah on the way, she immediately cut herself short midstream.

“Good news!” she said enthusiastically, as we weaved around a crowd of businesspeople in suits. “I managed to get a look at the bodies before I was…”

“Arrested,” I finished dryly.

“Mm, let’s say ‘struck down’, I like it better. So before I was struck down in the noble pursuit of justice, I got to look at the putrid, rotting, flesh-sacks of; our killer, Casper here-”

“Hey, not cool.”

“-and finally and most interestingly, another theoretically unrelated body. Which, surprisingly enough, turned out to not be unrelated, thanks tooooo… a very familiar-looking tattoo.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I figured as much. Westy said she’d been seeing the symbol in her dreams slash visions, apparently the night before one of the killings happened.”

“She summoned some kind of trash golem,” Sorayah added. “It was something else.”

“How many times had she seen it?” Kath asked me. I pulled out the list and showed it to her. “Hmm.” She scratched behind an ear thoughtfully. “Seven murders. Damn. Oh, right, yeah, forgot to mention, the other tatted kid was a zooey too.”

“Shittt,” I breathed. “So this is a racial thing, then?”

“We’ll have to check the other five, but it’s looking that way. Seven mean anything?”

I shrugged one shoulder. “Could be? Seven’s a pretty common ritual number, but everything under ten is, and the primes doubly so. Plus, Sorayah makes eight.”

“I mean, I don’t think I was supposed to be a part of it?” the ghost in question added hesitantly.

“True.”

Kath was still staring at the piece of paper. “I recognize these numbers,” she muttered, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth.

“I thought they might’ve been phone numbers?” I suggested, but she shook her head. “Without the area codes, I mean.”

“No, too much diversity. Phone numbers have patternssssssssssss okay yep I’ve got it. These,” she brandished the paper triumphantly, “are case file numbers.”

“What, like, police case files?”

“Nope, social services case numbers. And considering the age of the two victims we know of…”

“Damn. So I guess I know where we’re going next?”

“Yep! The offices of-” she was interrupted by a loud growl from her stomach.

“Protein and Carbohydrates, Inc?” I suggested.

“Right. Food first, then murder.”

Please try and phrase that differently.”

“Chow, then how?”

Sorayah chuckled slightly. “What?” she protested as I turned on her. “It was funny.”

“Awful,” I grumbled, “the both of you.”

“Munch, then crunch!”

Give Up The Ghost 2-VI

By the time I managed to catch up with Westy, she’d already made it out to the backyard. Actually, “yard” was probably stretching it; it was maybe a 5×4 plot, and bore more resemblance to a junkyard than a garden. Patches of greenery had managed to burst through here and there, but for the most part the ground was rough, stony soil; that is, where it wasn’t covered entirely. If the land was twenty square metres, then at least sixteen of those were taken up by industrial levels of trash. It piled up on top of itself, large, sagging heaps that pressed up against the decrepit fences that ringed the property in. There were fridges, furniture, appliances, timber, a ridiculous amount of fast food wrappers and chip packets, and even, tucked haphazardly underneath an old armoire, half a car, hood torn away to reveal a rusting engine block.

In short, it was a deathtrap. I was pretty sure it could give tetanus by proximity alone.

Westy was standing in the small “clearing” in the middle of the trash, still staring down at my phone. BC was standing on top of the largest pile of trash, having a staring contest with a magpie.

“Westy,” I called down to her, shutting the rickety screen door behind me. “What are you doing?”

She ignored the question, holding my phone up to the light and tilting her head as she squinted at it.

“Westy,” I snapped, “for god’s sake, can you just-”

She threw the phone my way, and I had to dive to catch it before it smashed against the side of the house, slamming my shoulder into the rickety wood. “What,” I snarled as I panted, clutching at my now-bruised shoulder, “the fuck.”

“Seen it before,” she answered turning away from me. “Important. Gonna find out why.”

“June?” Sorayah asked from behind me, and I turned to see her head and shoulders sticking out from the door. “Are you okay?” She passed through completely, and came over to stand next to me.

“Fine,” I lied, doing my best to straighten up. “Just a bit sore.”

I turned my attention back to Westy, just in time to see her kick an old microwave out of her way, sending it clanking along the ground with a surprising amount of english. She grabbed an old curtain rack from where it leant against a termite-ridden boudoir, and began dragging it through the dirt in a rough circle, pushing aside the various wrappers and bits of litter strewn across the ground.

“What’s she doing?” Sorayah whispered from beside me.

“Setting up some kind of ritual circle,” I muttered back. “Beyond that, I have no clue. Witchcraft is weird, and she’s weird even for a witch.”

“Don’t you have a degree in this stuff?” With the circle closed, Westy was now drawing a more intricate set of symbols within it. There didn’t seem to be any pattern to it, though; she’d draw a few lines on one side, then immediately break away and move to a blank patch on the other side to etch something there.

“I mean, yeah, but it’s only a bachelor’s and a year and a half of a Master’s; I’m not an expert.”

“Still, nothing?”

“Look, it’s complicated. How much magical theory do you know?”

“Um, the basics?”

“So nothing, right.” I caught a flicker of annoyance across her face. “Sorry, but it’s basically true. The stuff you learn if you’re not actively studying it is…” I clicked my fingers a few times, looking for an appropriate metaphor. “It’s like… colour theory. So you know, when we’re kids, we’re taught primary, secondary colors and so on. And it works, but it’s inaccurate? Light is wavelengths, and colour doesn’t really exist, and so on. With arcane theory, you’re pretty much still at that stage; not wrong, per se, but it sort of falls apart if you get deep into it.”

“So, lies-to-children.” I glanced at her, surprised, and she shrugged. “What? I’ve read Pratchett.”

“Lies-to-children is pretty much accurate, yeah,” I conceded. “So that whole thing everyone learns about arcanist vs shamanistic traditions of magic isn’t wrong, exactly, but it’s a vast oversimplification. Like, take archetype magic.”

“What?”

“…do you not know-” I shook my head. “Forget it. The point is, magic is weird, and highly cultural slash personal. There’s no simple or even coherent categorisation system that works beyond the most basic stuff. Actually, outside of the super-common categories, elemental manipulators and whatnot, it’s pretty much a case-by-case basis. So, if Westy’s magic would be considered the polar opposite to mine under traditional categorisation, imagine how much more different it is when you take all that into account. For me, watching her work is like trying to visualise a fifth-dimensional object. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“So,” she said slowly, “what you’re saying is that it’s like apples and oranges.”

I sniffed. “If you want to be reductive.”

“You just wanted a chance to show off, didn’t you?”

“…I will neither confirm nor deny that.” As we watched Westy continue to sketch out her circle, a thought occurred to me. “Wait, I’m sorry, I completely forgot to ask. What do you do?”

“Um, you did ask? Digital systems and security analyst, remember?”

“No, not that. What’s your magic?”

She frowned, confused. “I… don’t have any?”

I laughed disbelievingly. “The ghost says she doesn’t have any magic?”

“What is that supposed to-”

The vibration that happened when Westy closed her circle wasn’t physical. Not a single piece of the litter around moved an inch. But we still felt it, a deep, broad thrum that shook us to our core. Sorayah’s form actually wavered, coming apart at the edges slightly, and I had to double over to prevent myself from vomiting. Westy, kneeling just outside the circle’s edge, seemed unaffected, but BC straight up fell off the trash pile, tumbling down its slope, croaking indignantly all the while.

While we’d been talking, the design had only gotten more complicated. Looking at it now, intricate curves and jagged lines, actually made my head hurt a little. In contrast, the items sitting in the empty space at the center of the circle were almost painfully mundane: a toilet bowl, a wheelie bin, and what looked like a chunk of brick and mortar about the size of my head.

For a moment after the pulse, nothing happened. Then, just as I was starting to think whatever spell it was had failed, the wind suddenly picked up, tugging at my hair and rustling through the branches of the trees. The trash on the ground began to flutter, and slowly began to move, dragged in a vague spiral towards the center of the circle. It picked up speed as the wind grew stronger and stronger, until I actually had to brace myself against the porch rail. Slowly, larger and larger pieces of junk began to tumble and spin towards the circle, until a veritable pile had formed, taller than a person, the three original items obscured within.

And then the trash began to move on its own.

Pieces spilled down the side, forming thick, blobby arms and hands, and the top swelled and grew, until a lumpy head sat on top of the torso. It didn’t really have any features, but a lightbulb and a tattered tennis ball had ended up vaguely in the place of eyes, so pareidolia did the rest.

The trash behemoth towered over Westy, staring down at her. A heavy, low groan filled the air, rumbling and slow, like the passing of a train.

“Shut it,” Westy snapped at the trash-behemoth, and the groan petered out.  She full-on pegged the vial with the scale in it at its chest, where it wedged itself firmly between an old newspaper and a chunk of wood. Slow as tectonic shift, the head of the behemoth looked down at it. She snapped her fingers. “One of yours. Dead.”

The behemoth’s head tilted slightly, and it carefully reached a lumpy hand up and removed the vial. Its misshapen fingers closed over it, and I heard the faint tinkle of glass shattering. When it opened again, the scale was gone.

The rumbling came again, pitch and intonation slightly different, and this time Westy didn’t cut it off. “No,” she replied. “You know how it works.”

Rumble.

“Take it up with Waste Management, then,” she snapped.

Silence, then a rumble that managed to sound petulant.

Westy threw her hands in the air. “Fine. Fine. Worse than BC.”

Satisfied, now. The scale reappeared in its hand again, on top of a piece of paper. Then, whatever force had been animating the trash disappeared, and it slowly collapsed into a heap and was swept away by the wind.

“What… was that?” Sorayah breathed out after a moment.

“Genius loci,” Westy answered, rising and brushing the dirt off of her knees. “Ish. Sewers, waste, back alleys. Homeless kid places. Figured it’d know something.”

“Did it?”

She raised one hand, and a moment later, the still-powerful wind blew the scrap of paper directly into her hand. She slapped it against my chest as she passed.

“Three weeks,” she said curtly. “Dreams; that symbol. Those dates. Don’t know what the other numbers are.”

I looked down at the scrap. Scrawled on it were a list of dates, and next to them, corresponding strings of numbers, all nine digits long.

“What happened on the other dates?” Sorayah asked.

Westy turned back to face us, already halfway up the steps. “You died two nights ago?”

“…yeah.”

She nodded. “Saw it that night too.”

Give Up The Ghost 2-V

The house at the bottom of End Street was a weird one. It was sandwiched between a rickety old Queenslander on one side, and a squat block of flats on the other, but it didn’t look even remotely like either of them. In fact, it didn’t even look like it had been built there; it was so incongruous that it was more believable to think that it had been airdropped in from another country, or that it had just appeared there one day, fully-formed. Knowing Westy, both possibilities were equally likely.

It was tall and thin, by design as well as necessity, and only got narrower as it went up, ending in a thin point like something out of a children’s storybook. The point was slightly uneven, leaning to one side precariously, which only added to that image. Rickety steps led up to a small porch, with curtain-covered windows on either side of an incongruously fancy door, which had a space for a small glass insert, but only a single shard remained, and a plank of hardwood had been roughly nailed over the rest.

“She lives here?” Sorayah asked, mildly incredulous. Once we’d gotten off the train, she’d excused herself to the bathroom and returned a few minutes later looking more composed (the exact mechanics of that, I’m not sure). By unspoken agreement, neither of us mentioned what had happened on the train, instead lapsing into more banal conversation while we walked the short distance.

“No,” I replied, only mildly sarcastic, “I just brought us here to sightsee.”

“Not like that. I meant, like, someone lives here? This can’t be safe.”

I shrugged, and began clambering up the stairs, which creaked ominously under my weight. “Sounds about right.”

There wasn’t any doorbell, just an old, empty bean can hanging on a string by the door, so I picked up the small stick sitting on the sill (next to the pair of black crocs with pentagrams spray-painted on them) and gave it a good whack. It made absolutely no noise whatsoever, swinging back and forth in complete silence.

“Uhh,” Sorayah said after a few moments, “was that-”

With a slow, ponderous inevitability, the door toppled backwards and slammed into the floor, sending a huge plume of dust up into the air. I coughed, covering my mouth and nose with one hand, and Sorayah recoiled in disgust.

“Oh,” said a low, raspy voice. “You.”

Somehow, as the dust cleared, a woman was standing on top of the fallen door, one hand on the now-empty frame. She was short, only slightly taller than me, and significantly stockier. Her skin was a pale, sallow white, with pale blue veins so prominent they almost seemed to glow, and the dirty blonde hair that fell down her back was limp, rank, and tangled. The nails on the hand that grasped the doorframe were long and gnarled, coloured a deep black that seemed ever-so-slightly too well integrated to be polish. A few strands of hair fell down in the front, hanging over small, deep-set eyes that didn’t seem to reflect light properly, like dark brown pits of emptiness. Her face was blocky and squarish, harsh edges defined by sharp cheekbones and aided by a distinct gauntness around the eyes that suggested far too many missed meals and far too little sleep in the recent past.

Her clothing was just as… uh, let’s go with ‘distinct’. A pair of glasses sat low on her nose, but the two lenses were different shapes and sizes, one a circle and slightly polarised, the other a clear rounded rectangle, that had obviously been welded together at the bridge. She wore a ridiculously ornate dress; black, of course, made mostly of lace and silk, fine patterns that fell all the way to the floor and dragged across the ground behind her. Over it, though, she wore a baggy men’s business shirt with the sleeves rolled up, originally white but so stained with dirt and blood that it was hard to tell anymore. Around her neck were too many necklaces to count; most were just cheap, rough leather cord holding a single item. I saw a small stick on one, what looked like the letter ‘A’ cut off a street sign on another, and what looked suspiciously like an empty condom packet on a third. Around one wrist was a single handcuff, its partner dangling loosely, and on the other was a bright red Fitbit.

Even trash witches have to count their steps, I guess.

“Hi, Westy,” I said awkwardly.

She grunted, glancing around through half-closed eyes. “No Jones?”

“Busy. She sent me, though.”

“Mm. Who’s the ghost?”

“Client slash victim, Sorayah Khan. Sorayah, this is-”

“Anna Bella Claire Deandra Ellis,” she rattled off. “Charmed.”

She didn’t sound it.

“…likewise,” Sorayah replied slowly. “Um, I hate to be rude, but your name-”

“Seven siblings, prophecy. It’s a whole thing. What do you want, Young?”

“Can we come inside?” I asked. “It takes a bit of explaining.”

She shrugged one shoulder, stepping aside. As we walked in, Sorayah glancing around nervously, there was a croaking caw from above us, and a large, fat ibis swooped down from the rafters. It landed on Westy’s shoulder, balanced slightly awkwardly, beady eyes staring at us.

“Hey, BC,” I said, as Sorayah stared back at him.

“Familiar,” Westy explained to her, leading us out of a tiny, dirty foyer into a dark, dingy corridor.

“Pardon?” Sorayah asked, confused. “Do you mean I’m familiar? Because, no offense, I think I’d remember if we’d met.”

She rolled her eyes.

“BC is her witch’s familiar,” I elaborated, and she let out a soft oh of understanding.

“And BC stands for…?”

“Bin Chicken,” Westy muttered.

“Just call him BC,” I advised Sorayah. “Or he’ll probably attack you.”

As if to back me up, he cawed and pecked at Westy’s eye, and she swore under her breath as she whacked his beak away.

The room Westy led us into looked like it might have been a living room at some point, but now, like the rest of the house, it looked more like a garbage dump than anything else. A fireplace stood at one end of the room, filled with old cardboard, and at the other was a single, ridiculously tall window that looked out onto the industrial lot that was behind the house. Two high-backed chaise lounges took up most of the space in the centre of the room, and what they didn’t was covered in detritus of all kinds. I nearly stepped on a light bulb, and there was half a mannequin buried underneath packaging for twenty-year-old action figures in the corner.

As soon as we entered, BC took off from Westy’s shoulder, flapping up to the rafters above and settling on a beam. His mistress, meanwhile, slouched her way over to one of the couches, dragging bits and pieces of trash behind her with her dress.

“You look like shit,” she said to me, apropos of nothing.

“Thanks,” I replied dryly.

One hand disappeared inside her hoodie, and reappeared holding a small jam jar with an odd green liquid inside. “Drink that,” she said, tossing it to me.

“What is it?” Sorayah asked curiously, as I caught it and unscrewed the lid.

“Vitality potion,” Westy responded, already turned away from us and digging through a pile of books and empty pizza boxes sitting on the ornate cabinet behind her. BC cawed, flapping back down from the ceiling and landing on her head. He fluffed his wings and tucked them in, sitting down in her hair.

I shrugged and took a large swig of the potion. It tasted… not bad, actually. Odd, and strangely familiar, but not bad. “What’s in this?” I asked, taking another sip.

“Red Bull,” she replied, “five-hour energy, two shots of Nyquil-”

“Sorry,” Sorayah interrupted, “is it a potion, or just a bunch of-”

“-newt’s tail, oak leaves, some coke.”

I managed not to gag and choke. “Cola-coke? Or cocaine-coke?”

“Yep.”

BC leant down and pecked a piece of stale pizza off a carton, flipping it up into the air and swallowing it whole. He immediately choked on it, and Westy let it go on for a full ten seconds before reaching up and whacking him on the back, hard. He went flying off in one direction as the pizza went the opposite way, splattering against the wall before slowly peeling off and falling to the ground.

“Idiot,” she muttered, and he flew back up and cawed in her face.

“So, uh, Westy,” I began, as she pulled a large, hardbound book from underneath the boxes. “We’re actually here about-”

“Mnh,” she grunted, cracking open the book and turning to face us. “Give it here.”

“What, the-” she pointed one hand at me and made a ‘gimme’ gesture, so I just gave in, pulling out the vial and tossing it to her.

Holding her book in one hand, she caught the vial in her other, holding it up to the light. “Dead?” she asked.

“Yeah.” I turned to Sorayah, who was doing her best not to appear too overwhelmed. “Did you want to explain, or should I?”

She scratched the back of her head awkwardly. “I, uh, think it would be best if you did.”

As I gave Westy a rundown of the murder scene, she began flipping through her book, occasionally stopping for a few moments on a page before moving on. When I got to the tattoo, though, she scowled, looking up at me, and I cut myself off abruptly.

“…I’m guessing that’s important, then?” I asked after a few seconds of nothing.

“Show me,” she demanded, striding over and tossing the book to one side. I pulled out my phone and showed it to her, and she immediately snatched it away, staring at it closely.

“Uh, Westy?” I asked, slightly nervous, as she began to mutter. “Is everything- hey!” Without warning, she spun on her heel and strode out of the room, still staring down at the picture.

“Is this normal for her?” Sorayah asked.

“Sadly,” I sighed, “yes. Come on, we should follow her before she sacrifices my phone to the Elder Gods.”

Sorayah laughed as we began moving, then abruptly stopped as she glanced over at me. “That was a joke, right? June?”

I quickened my pace.

Give Up The Ghost 2-IV

We were already at a train station, so it seemed prudent to take one. West End was a straight shot, and after a little confusion when Sorayah tried to pay with a spectral GoCard, we were on our way.

“So, Westy is just West End, then?” she asked as the train started moving, rattling and rumbling. She stood while I sat, one hand not-quite-clasped around a pole. I wanted to ask how she was keeping up with the train, but I was frankly worried that doing so would break the illusion and she’d just stop. “I thiught you two meant the dog breed at first. Why were you talking about it like a person?”

“She is a person,” I answered. “Westy is a nickname; people call her The Wicked Witch of the West End.”

A single eyebrow slowly lifted.

“Hey, I didn’t come up with it. Plus, it’s… well, it kinda fits, to be honest.”

“She’s not green, is she?”

“No,” I laughed, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if she melted under water. She smells like she does, anyway.” There was a jolt, the train shifting tracks, and I jerked in my seat before recovering. Sorayah was completely unaffected, though, and I saw a brief flicker of something inscrutable and sad flick across her face for a moment.

“Hey,” I said suddenly, trying to distract her, “can I ask a bit of a dumb question?”

“No such thing, right?”

“I bet there’s more than one high school teacher who’d disagree with you on that,” I quipped.

She laughed. “I guess so. Yeah, ask away.”

“Where are you from? Not, like, ‘no but where are you really from’,” I hastily corrected, “but, you know.”

“I get it, don’t worry. I’m from Pakistan originally, but I’ve lived here most of my life.”

“Ah, long enough to lose the accent.”

“Only when I want to,” she said with a grin, shifting into thick, stereotypical Indian intonation.

“Great for the telemarketers,” I replied in an equally stereotypical Asian one, and we shared a chuckle. “Do you know any Urdu?”

Sirf thori si. Just a little,” she clarified, “and my accent’s terrible, according to my parents. Which they like bringing up every time we talk.”

“Do they not live here?”

“Nah, they’re still back there,” she elaborated. “We talk occasionally. I… uh,” she glanced down at the floor, “I don’t know if they’ve been told yet. Or, what they’ve been told if they have.”

“Were you close?”

She grimaced, making a so-so gesture. “We weren’t… we didn’t not get on? But… they sent me away when I was five to live with my aunt, so like… I guess they still think of me as their daughter, but it’s sometimes hard for me to think of them as my parents.”

“At age five?” I asked, slightly incredulous.

“Yep,” she laughed. “She lives here- well, she lived in Sydney at the time, but she lives here- here, Australia-here, and they thought it would be better for me. Which I guess it was, but, you know.”

I nodded sympathetically. “Your aunt, is she…?”

“Dead.” She drew a thumb across her throat and made a face, tongue sticking out and eyes rolled back, and I chuckled. “Properly dead, not… whatever I am.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Nah, it was her time; she was in her eighties. Went peacefully in her sleep a few years back. We weren’t super close, but she did effectively raise me, so. Yeah. How about you?”

“Ehhh…” I mirrored her gesture from earlier, and she laughed. The train began to slow, as the speakers announced our arrival at a station. “It’s complicated.”

“When isn’t it.”

“Well, both of Kath’s parents are dead, so I’d say that’s pretty simple.”

“Really?!”

“Nope,” I said with a grin. “But it’s totally believable, isn’t it?”

“I was beginning to assume she was raised by wolves,” she joked.

“You’re not too far off, honestly. The Joneses are… uh, intense.”

She opened her mouth to reply, but then stopped, frowning. “That was a good dodge,” she said. “I almost missed it.”

I clicked my tongue in disappointment, settling back into my seat. “Damn. Okay, fine. It is complicated, really. I’m Korean, you know, genetically,  but my mum was born and raised here, whereas my dad is from a very traditional family back there. Which was generally fine, for about… god, when was it. Fourteen years?”

“What happened?”

“Coming out,” I replied with a humorless smirk. “Which was a long, complicated, multi-stage process. Mum… adapted. Dad didn’t. Things sort of… fell apart from there.”

“I’m not going to lie,” she said skeptically, “that doesn’t sound all that complicated.”

“Mmm. It’s complicated because before that, and some after, they really were good parents. Mum still is. Dad was. So I have a hard time just writing them slash him off.”

“Parents,” she said sympathetically. “Can’t live with them…”

“That’s it,” I replied instead of completing the aphorism, “end of sentence.”

She cracked a small grin, but it faded quickly, replaced by melancholy as her gaze drifted upwards to the view outside. She must have come this way a lot, I realised.

“Okay, there’s no non-weird way to ask this,” I decided aloud, morbid curiosity getting the better of me, “so I’m just gonna do it. What’s it like?”

“What’s what like?” she asked warily.

“You know,” I gestured. “Uh. Karking it. Shuffling off the mortal coil. Becoming exsanguinated. Other… euphemisms. Sorry,” I hastily added, seeing the look on her face. “It’s just…”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “yeah. I guess I get it. It was… hazy, I suppose. I mean, I didn’t exactly have a regular amount of oxygen going to my brain, you know? But it was… well, leaving the body was an unique experience.”

“I can imagine.”

“Honestly, I’m not sure you can? It was like being… it was like…” she grasped around, frustrated. “Imagine… imagine trying to fit through a hole that’s ever-so-slightly too small, and you’re stuck there for so long that it just becomes normal, until you suddenly get yanked through.”

I made a face. “That’s an… interesting metaphor.”

“It’s death,” she shot back. “If it was easy to describe, we wouldn’t have poetry.”

I rocked back in my chair slightly, surprised by the vehemence in her response. She noticed, and immediately groaned, dragging a hand over her face. “Sorry. I’m, uh. Not handling all this as well as I maybe could.”

“I dunno,” I joked, “considering you were literally murdered, I’d say you’re doing pretty well.”

“I think the momentum is helping,” she admitted. “If I stop, I’m going to fall apart.”

“Eh,” I shrugged, looking down at the grimy floor, “that’s true of any trauma. You’ve just got to keep powering ahead, until, you know…”

“You stop thinking about it?” she said critically.

“Well, I was gonna say you make sure you’re in a safe place before you fall to pieces, but I guess yours works too.”

She looked at me curiously. “Speaking from experience?”

I gave a tight smile. “Something like that.”

“Is it related to the thing you said, with your parents and coming out.”

“Something. Like. That,” I repeated, significantly more terse.

“It’s just that you mentioned it,” she continued to blather, “and you seem like you know what you’re talking about, so I just thought-”

“Why don’t you have any friends?” I interrupted her coldly.

“W-what?” she stammered, caught off-guard.

“You died, and came back as a ghost. Since then, the only places you’ve been are to the police and to a private detective. Your family was out of the question, obviously, but you haven’t gone to your friends? Your colleagues, even? It’s not that hard to figure out.”

“How-” she said, starting to grow indignant. “You- how dare you-”

“Weird,” I said casually, “it’s almost like someone digging into a personal trauma kinda sucks, huh?”

“Oh.” She drooped slightly, suddenly wilting. “…sorry.”

“Mmm,” I replied, noncommittally.

For a few minutes, we rode in awkward silence, the budding camaraderie it felt like we’d been establishing suddenly dissipated. Then, as I inspected the intricate graffiti etched into the side of the chair next to me, Sorayah suddenly spoke again.

“My job’s mostly men. I mean, it’s a tech job, so that’s not much of a surprise.”

“What?” I began to ask, until I realised she was answering the question I’d posed earlier. “Oh, no, Sorayah, you don’t have to- I was just-”

She waved me down, not making eye contact. “Plus, I’m Indian, working in the tech field. The number of call center jokes… So work was out, and all my hobbies are pretty solitary, and I guess one day I sort of looked up and realized that…”

I clenched one fist. “Sorayah, I’m sorry, I was completely out of line-”

“No, I went too far, you were just-” she choked slightly, and I realised with alarm that she was crying.

“Sorayah?” I asked worriedly, standing out of my seat.

“S-sorry,” she said through the tears. “It just hit me, I guess. Who’s going to come to my funeral? My parents are two continents away, my aunt is dead, my colleagues don’t care, I-” She clenched one fist and stuffed it in her mouth, as tears continued to roll down her cheeks.

Tentatively, without thinking, I reached a hand for hers. Just as I went to close around it, I realised, too late, that it would just-

My hand closed around hers, and to my utter shock, it was cool and solid. I stared at it in shock for a second, but Sorayah didn’t seem to notice.

I almost said something, but thought better of it. Instead, I just wrapped my arms around her, and let her cry.

Give Up The Ghost 2-III

The Coorparoo train station didn’t look like it had recently housed a double murder-suicide. In fact, it looked… well, like every train station I’d ever been to. Grimy brick platforms with ads about the latest flavor of coke, cheap linoleum floors inside, a McDonalds and KFC fighting their eternal war. People trickled in and out, boarding and disembarking, buying coffees and overpriced snacks from newsagents. I kept an eye out as we walked, and I couldn’t see a single police officer anywhere.

“It’s over here,” Sorayah said from beside me. In better lighting, her transparent ghostly-ness was even more obvious; under direct sunlight, she almost seemed to disappear entirely. She obviously wasn’t comfortable with it, either; I kept catching her glancing down at her hands when she didn’t think anyone was paying attention. Plus, as she walked alongside Kath and I,  she mostly lined up with the ground, but lost track of herself every so often and began to move up into the air or disappear into the ground before she noticed and hastily corrected herself. Thankfully, Kath hadn’t noticed it; if she had she would’ve made some snide comment already.

The fire stairs were tucked away down a small corridor, just past the public restrooms. And standing outside of it, finally, was a police officer.

He was young, white, clean-cut features just beginning to be smoothed out by fat. The namebadge on his chest said JOHNSON, and the badge next to it marked him as a rank-and-file constable. He was leaning back against the wall, smoking a cigarette, and when he saw us approaching, a look of irritation flashed across his face before being replaced by bland politeness.

“Good morning, ladies,” he said, standing up straight and dropping his cigarette into the ground, where he quickly ground it under one heel. “I’m afraid that this is currently an active investigation, and I’m going to have to ask you to stay back.” I almost missed the micro-sneer as his eyes passed over Sorayah and I. Almost. I met his gaze steadily, emotionless, until he glanced away.

Au contrite, mate!” Kath responded cheerily. “For if it is an active investigation, then we are the active investigators!”

He stared at her flatly. “Sorry?” he said at last.

She stuck out a hand. “Katherine Jones, P.I. This is June Young, my ineffective conscience, and Sorayah Khan, the deceased.”

“One of them,” Sorayah corrected politely.

“One of the deceased,” Kath acknowledged. “We need to have a look at the scene of the crime.”

He narrowed his eyes, staring her down. And then he shrugged, leaning back against the wall. “Sure,” he said, “go right in?”

“…really?” Kath asked. “Just like that?” I think she’d been expecting to do a whole bit, and the lack of resistance had left her flailing slightly.

“Yeah, whatever.” He pulled another cigarette out and lit it. I wrinkled my nose in distaste, but he didn’t seem to notice or care. “There’s some debris left over, so be careful?”

“Debris?” I asked warily.

“You’ll see.”

“…ohkay then,” Kath said, regaining some of her customary exuberance. “We’ll just… do that?” She reached a hand for the door handle slowly, as if expecting him to protest, but he just pulled out his phone.

“That was… weird, right?” Sorayah asked quietly once we were all through the door. “Police officers are supposed to care about stuff like that, aren’t they?”

“They are,” Kath replied. “Dunno whether to report him, though, because I would’ve hadda pull some real shenanigans to get us in here otherwise.”

“I’m more worried about the fact that there was only one, obviously incompetent, corporal watching it,” I said as we began to walk down the stairs. “I’m pretty sure that does not say good things about how this case is being handled.”

“Oh trust me,” Sorayah muttered, “I already knew that.”

I was going to ask her what she meant by that, but then we rounded the corner at the bottom of the flight of stairs, and it suddenly didn’t seem that relevant anymore.

“Huh,” I said after a moment. “I always thought getting slapped in the face with my own privilege would feel more momentous than this.”

There was a sheet on the ground, draped over a form that could have just been a really, really realistic mannequin, but almost certainly wasn’t. A pervasive stench hung in the air, a mix of faeces, sulfur, and nauseatingly-sweet rotted meat. I grimaced, reaching up to squeeze my nose shut, which didn’t help much. Sorayah seemed roughly as disgusted as I was, despite presumably not being able to smell it, but Kath was completely unperturbed.

“Yep,” she said with a sniff, “two days for sure. Give or take a few hours.”

“You can tell that just from the smell?” Sorayah asked.

“It’s kind of her thing,” I replied nasally. “Among others.”

The messed-up part was, the rest of the scene had obviously been handled with professional care. Neither of the other two bodies was still present, all the bullet impacts and points of contact had been neatly marked with little flags, the blood had been sampled and cleaned. It made the complete lack of attention given to the remaining corpse even more egregious. Made it seem deliberate.

“Aight,” Kath said, striding forward, pulling a pair of gloves out of a pocket of her coat. “Let’s crack open a cold boy.”

“Wait, should you really be interfering with a crime scene?” Sorayah asked nervously, hovering (literally) over her shoulder.

Kath snorted, kneeling down. “You heard the guy outside. ‘Debris’. I could set this entire room on fire and they wouldn’t give a shit.” She snapped her gloves on, then pulled out a second set and offered them to me. I sighed, taking them and putting them on. Being Kath-sized, they were way too big for my hands, but I didn’t intend on touching anything anyway.

“God,” Sorayah whispered. “I thought I knew about… this sort of stuff, but…”

“Yeah,” I replied quietly. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

“Actually,” Kath noted casually, “something this blatant is pretty unusual. Normally they’re a bit more subtle about it; you know, profiling and all that crap. Guess you two would know about that part, though. In fact, remind me when my hands are free to make some calls. I think I know a few people who might be interested to hear about this.” Her tone made it very clear what kind of interest it would be.

With a deft gesture, she yanked the sheet aside, revealing the body underneath.

It was… not pretty.

A pained, contorted face stared up at us, blank, reptilian eyes peering out of bloated, pale skin. He had been young-ish, in that awkward liminal space between late teens and early twenties, with dark, curly hair and a small, flat nose. He was dressed like most of the street kids I’d known, ratty hoodie and torn jeans, and I suspected that without the corpse smells there would’ve still been a pungent odor about him. Maybe half of his visible skin wasn’t skin; the washed-out, translucent pink gave way smoothly to small green scales that shimmered slightly in the light. His fingers, clutched over his chest, were long and oddly proportioned, entirely scaled, with thick black fingernails that looked like they had been roughly filed down.

“They just dropped a sheet over him and left,” Sorayah whispered, one hand over her mouth. “How could they be so…”

“You’d be amazed how effective a system and chain of command can be at turning people into objects,” Kath said, leaning over the body. She closed her eyes and took a deep, long breath through her nose. “Ugh. Cha’boy ate beans before he died. Uhh, canned, tomato sauce.”

“Which is relevant because?”

“You never know,” she replied. “One time, guy had eaten at a restaurant that turned out to be a front. Ended up being a whole thing.”

Delicately, she lifted the boy’s hands away from his chest, revealing a bloody, gaping hole. I gagged, turning away, and Sorayah made a noise that sounded an awful lot like suppressing vomit. “Some warning, please?” I snapped at Kath.

“Murder waits for no woman, June.” There was a nasty squelching noise. “Huh. Sorayah, what did his gun look like?”

“Um, it was a pistol? Blocky, squarish? It just looked like an ordinary gun.”

“Interesting, interesting.” I looked back to find her holding a crumpled piece of metal between two fingers. “This is a hollowpoint round,” she explained. “They’re hard enough to get on their own, because, well.” She gestured at the corpse. “Combined with the fact that he had a handgun in the first place, and a lot of flags have just been raised.”

“What does that mean?” Sorayah asked.

“On its own? Nothing in particular. But it’s something to look into for sure.” She pulled a small baggie out of a pocket and dropped the bullet into it. “Hold this.” She tossed it at me, and I just managed to snatch it out of the air. As I did, though, something caught my eye.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What’s what?”

“There,” I said, crouching down next to her, as Sorayah hovered up to see over both of our shoulders. “Look, just under his armpit.” There was a small tear in his hoodie, and underneath it…

“Oh damn,” Kath breathed. “Good spot, Junebug.” She reached down with her knife, and carefully cut away the fabric to reveal the skin below. Etched into it, halfway between a scar and a tattoo, was a symbol. Isosceles triangles intersected at odd angles, forming an odd spiral as they grew smaller. Some of the triangles were missing, though, in no pattern that I could detect.

“Either of you recognise that?” Kath asked, and we both shook her heads. “Yeah, me neither. Good odds it’s not a religious symbol, either, or my hives would’ve started.”

“Seriously,” I said, pre-empting Sorayah’s confused look, “don’t ask.”

“June, can you get a photo of it?”

“Do it yourself.”

In response, she waved her blood-and-viscera-covered hands at me with a grin.

“Is it a cult thing, maybe?” Sorayah asked as I snapped a photo with my phone.

“If it is, it’s a new one. I’d give it a 40%, maybe. Cults don’t tend to put this much effort into any branding effort; there’s a lot of detail in this thing. Of course, it could also be nothing. Plenty of cultures do the scarification thing, it’s not a stretch to imagine adding some ink to the process.”

“Some of the Pacific Islander cultures do it,” I offered.

“Neat!”

I glanced over, to see Sorayah staring at one of the chalk outlines on the floor. “Hey,” I said softly. “We’re gonna figure this out.”

“And then punch the person who did it right in the dick!” Kath added. “If they have a dick. If not, vagina-punch, I’m not picky.”

Sorayah laughed softly. “You two are very strange,” she said. “But… thank you.”

“It’s in the job description, sweets.” Kath stood up, stretching a little. “Okay, I’ve got a little more digging to do around here, but shit’s gonna get weird. June, do you want to take Sorayah and give Westy a visit, see if she can make something of the tattoo?”

I sighed, taking the vial. “Why on earth are you phrasing that like a question.”

“Um, who is Westy?” Sorayah asked hesitantly.

“Trust me,” I replied wearily, “it’s easier if I just show you.”