Special Agent Patrick Collins was not supposed to be here.
New York City was not the beaches of Maui, where he should have been enjoying a long-delayed and much-needed vacation with as many tropical drinks as he could suck down. Instead, he was back on duty for the Supernatural Operations Agency, tasked with investigating a pair of emergency cases he was certain someone else could have handled.
“Out fifteen hundred dollars and no chance of reimbursement,” Patrick muttered angrily as he navigated the midday traffic to find a parking spot on a block close to his destination.
This was what he got for answering his phone right as he arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport to start his vacation.
“I should’ve just gone to Maui,” he said, thinking wistfully of all the drinks with little umbrellas he wouldn’t get to enjoy.
Patrick had been wanting to try them for years, if he were honest.
After nine years as a combat mage in the Mage Corps under the direction of the US Department of the Preternatural, Patrick had walked away from frontline fighting at the age of twenty-six with habits not necessarily suited for civilian life. The SOA, a National Intelligence Service under the supervision of the Department of Defense, had immediately recruited him. Which meant Patrick continued doing what he’d been trained to do in the military, just on domestic soil rather than foreign, with a little less ordnance thrown into the mix.
Three years on and over a hundred cases later, his job mostly amounted to getting dropped into cities both large and small where monsters and demons hid in the shadows of the preternatural world. Being assigned to the Rapid Response Division within the SOA meant Patrick never got the easy jobs. He got paid to get his hands and soul dirty eviscerating demons, human or otherwise. Hazard bonuses made up a good chunk of his paycheck, but on a day like this? The money was never enough.
“When this is all over, you can go wherever you want. Just get the job done first,” Supernatural Operations Agency Director Setsuna Abuku told him over the Bluetooth connection in the car. “Preferably without any collateral damage this time.”
“It’s like you don’t know me at all,” Patrick retorted.
Setsuna let out a sigh that sounded like static through the speakers. Patrick’s former childhood guardian and current boss had an attitude problem. Namely, she didn’t like his on every day that ended in ‘y’ and he didn’t like hers.
There were reasons for that.
“The SOA isn’t the military with a multibillion-dollar budget and the ability to write off your destructive tendencies with a mere warning.”
Patrick rolled his eyes as he twisted the steering wheel and shifted the car into reverse. Parking in a red zone behind a police car wasn’t ideal, but right now it was his only option. “That’s a shame. You might want to look into changing your budget.”
“Please stop complaining, Patrick.”
“If you ever gave me a day off, maybe I would.”
“I have. You didn’t. Where are you?”
“About to head into a crime scene.”
“You should have reported to the New York office before going into the field.”
“I’d rather suffer through a migraine. Knowing my luck, this case might give me one within the first twenty-four hours.”
“They got another body, Setsuna. What was I supposed to say? No, I can’t make it? This is what I came here for. This is why you sent me, remember? Dead bodies and missing people. I won’t get any work done holed up in meetings all day.”
Patrick put the car into park and took the key out of the ignition. The call reverted back to his cell phone as the engine and power died. The June heat hit him hard as he got out, phone pressed to his ear.
New York City was hotter and muggier than Washington, DC, and he already missed the car’s air-conditioning. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, and Patrick ran a hand through his messy dark red hair. The sides were trimmed short, but it was a little long on top. The style had grown out of his military buzz cut from three years ago and wouldn’t pass regulations these days.
Getting spoiled, Patrick thought to himself. Here he was complaining about air-conditioning when he’d spent years living without it.
Setsuna’s annoyed voice cut his musings short. “Patrick.”
“Check in with Special Agent in Charge Rachel Andrita at the New York office after you finish processing the body.”
“Is that really necessary? This case is being handled through DC by way of me. It’s no longer her problem,” he said.
“If you want a roof over your head instead of sleeping in your rental car, then yes, it’s necessary.”
Patrick scoffed at that. “You forget my bed consisted of a cot, a hard bunk, or the ground for years. Come up with a better threat.”
“Take the meeting, Patrick. That wasn’t a request. And try not to make this situation with the NYPD worse than it already is.”
“You know I hate dog and pony shows, Setsuna. If you wanted ass kissing, you should’ve sent someone else.”
“You were the only one I could send.”
Patrick paused in opening up the trunk of the car, fingers tightening on his cell phone. “Was I?”
Setsuna’s silence reminded him too much of a childhood where answers were never forthcoming. Patrick angrily shook his head and yanked the trunk open. A blast of hot air rose up from the space, making him wince at the heat. He unzipped his messenger bag, pulling out the travel lockbox that contained his semiautomatic HK USP 9mm tactical pistol.
“Are we done?” he wanted to know.
Patrick hung up without saying goodbye and tucked his phone into the back pocket of his black jeans. He was never going to win employee of the month at this rate.
Patrick entered the code to unlock the box and flipped open the lid, revealing the handgun inside. He pried it out of the foam interior and slid the magazine home, keeping his hands out of sight of anyone passing by. Not that there were many at the moment. Everyone seemed more interested in the police presence farther down the street.
He attached the holster to his belt and slid the handgun home, the weight of it familiar. Patrick let his right arm drop down to his side, fingers brushing over the warded leather sheath strapped to his thigh. The double-edged, ten-inch dagger was an artifact he’d been gifted with three years ago during the Thirty-Day War in the Middle East. He never went anywhere without it these days, but if he could give it up, he would.
“Fucking hell,” he said, letting out a heavy sigh.
Orders from his superiors could be annoying, but those of the godly persuasion were usually worse.
Patrick grabbed his secondary gold SOA badge attached to a black leather backing from his messenger bag and hung it around his neck. It tangled with the dog tags he still wore, the metal chains warm against his skin. Shrugging on the black nylon jacket with its gold agency lettering on the back, Patrick closed the trunk and headed up the street for the crime scene.
Curious onlookers had gathered near the apartment building in question. Patrick squinted through his aviator sunglasses at the crowd and the news van situated front and center right outside the police line.
The NYPD’s Preternatural Crimes Bureau held jurisdiction over the murders that had drawn Patrick to New York City. When he’d called the PCB upon landing at LaGuardia, the assistant to Giovanni Casale, the PCB’s Chief of Preternatural Crimes, had requested he keep out of sight of the media. They weren’t ready to announce the feds were taking over the case. With the cameras camped outside the cordoned-off area, Patrick only had one real option to stay out of sight.
“Time to get to work,” he muttered.
Patrick spun his index finger in a lazy circle while he walked, reaching for that presence deep inside his soul he’d always been aware of, even as a young child.
Roughly a quarter of the world’s population could manipulate their soul’s energy into magic. Children were tested young, with magic running through a range of types and affiliations, from various kinds of elemental magic to the more sinister calling of necromancy. Magic was only as strong as a person’s soul, and a soul still needed to keep a body alive. Evading magical burnout was impossible some days, but the risk for mages was lower compared to other magic users.
Mages were the only ones on record who could open up their souls to the rivers and lakes of metaphysical energy running through the earth in the form of ley lines and nexuses. That external, wild magic acted as a booster, giving them a reach most magic users could never attain on the basis of their soul alone. Mages were highly sought after by governments and militaries alike the world over for their ability to tap into that magic, though in some countries they were little more than slaves.
Patrick hadn’t been conscripted into joining the US Department of the Preternatural, but the pressure he’d felt at seventeen to sign those recruitment forms with Setsuna’s permission had felt a lot like he didn’t have a choice.
Maybe if he hadn’t been orphaned at the age of eight, things would be different. Maybe if he hadn’t been magically crippled during the Thirty-Day War—that clusterfuck the Dominion Sect almost won on behalf of all the hells three years ago—he wouldn’t be so fucking bitter. Patrick knew better than to deal in what-if scenarios, but it didn’t stop him from occasionally diving down that rabbit hole.
Patrick flexed his fingers, feeling a knuckle pop as he shook out his hand.
“Focus,” he told himself.
Magic, willed out from his tainted soul, spun itself into a pale, glowing blue sphere no bigger than a golf ball. It nestled against the curve of his hand, mostly hidden from sight. The mageglobe acted as an anchor point for whatever spell or ward Patrick needed to call up. The color used to be brighter, but the once vibrant shade had faded to a washed-out hue. The mageglobe’s dullness was a visual clue to the internal damage he’d suffered at the end of that month of literal hell on earth.
Patrick might have lost the reach and strength necessary to tap into a ley line and cast high-level spells and wards, but he could cast a look-away ward in his sleep. The mageglobe pulsed softly with magic, the spell within its pattern creeping into his aura, that extension of a human soul.
He pushed his magic outward, the invisible force spreading through nearby auras in the crowd with no one the wiser. The look-away ward didn’t make him invisible; it simply kept people’s attention from wandering his way until after he ducked under the yellow Do Not Cross police tape and entered the apartment building unhindered.
Patrick let the ward drop once he was out of sight of the media, the mageglobe fading away. He slipped quietly through the lobby filled with numerous police officers. He pulled off his sunglasses and hooked them over the collar of his dark blue T-shirt. Blinking to adjust his sight, he took a quick look around.
While most of the uniformed officers came and went like they had places to be, a few men and women in plain clothes gravitated around a tall man in a suit giving out orders. Patrick headed in that direction, figuring he was in charge by sheer presence alone, because Bureau Chief Giovanni Casale had a voice that would do any drill sergeant proud.
“…can’t clean it up until we get it secured,” Casale was saying. “Ramirez, get somebody to watch out for that damn SOA special agent. Paula said he should be here soon.”
The dark-haired woman in a neat pantsuit with a gold shield on her belt arched an eyebrow and jerked her thumb in Patrick’s direction. “Found him, Chief.”
Casale’s attention zeroed in on Patrick, who wasn’t intimidated at all by the intensity of it. He stuck out his hand, meeting Casale’s gaze with unblinking green eyes. “Special Agent Patrick Collins. I’m with the Rapid Response Division based out of the SOA’s DC office. The director sent me your way.”
Casale shook his hand, grip firm. “Tell me you’re someone with expertise in demons and that Rachel didn’t sabotage our request for new help.”
Patrick arched an eyebrow, curious about the rancor in Casale’s voice that he didn’t bother to hide. “I’m a mage. Demons are my specialty. The SOA should’ve contacted you about that.”
Casale gave him a sharp, measuring look. “I’ve been on-site for the better part of half a day dealing with this mess. I haven’t had a chance to check my email.”
Patrick glanced up at the ceiling. “Heard you got another body.”
“Eighth this year. Third in the past goddamn month and a half. The time between murders is getting shorter; we’ve got no leads and very messy crime scenes. The SOA’s local field office wasn’t worth the headache they were giving us, so we appealed. And now you’re here.” Casale jerked his thumb at the two people standing closest to him. “Detective Specialists Allison Ramirez and Dwayne Guthrie. They’re lead on this whole mess and reporting directly to me. People, this is our latest SOA liaison.”
Tall and black, Dwayne nodded a hello but didn’t offer his hand. His partner, Allison, was about Patrick’s height and appeared younger than Dwayne, her curly, dark hair pulled back in a tight french braid. She eyed him with frank professional curiosity. “Never worked with a mage before. Our last liaison was a witch.”
Patrick shrugged. “Just feed me more often. Where’s the body?”
“Third floor. Let’s get you up there,” Casale said.
The elevator they took was on the small side, and everyone had to squeeze together to fit. Patrick noted the space the other three left around him with mild disinterest. That didn’t stop him from striking up a conversation.
“So, what’s the buy-in?” he asked.
“What buy-in?” Dwayne repeated with just enough confusion in his tone that anyone other than an SOA agent would fall for it.
“Oh, come on. We all know the NYPD hates partnering with the SOA. It’s all right if you don’t want to talk about the pool on how long the new guy will last in front of your boss. Just let the bookie know I’m good for a hundred to see this through.”
Allison shook her head. “You’re that sure of yourself?”
Patrick flashed her a smile as the elevator came to a shaky stop and the doors opened. “I can always use the extra cash.”
As soon as they stepped out of the elevator, the smile on Patrick’s face disappeared. His magic responded to the faint traces of hell in the vicinity as it always did. The discordant recognition cut against the protective wards that made up his personal shields to contain the taint of his magic. Layered in skin, locked inside his bones, his shields weren’t enough to keep his damaged magic from recognizing when something from any of the hells past the veil had leaked through. Nothing left a stain in the metaphysical energies of the world quite like that.
“I think you’re right about demons. The whole floor is contaminated with a hellish taint derived from black magic,” Patrick said, looking over his shoulder at Casale.
Casale clenched his jaw hard enough the tendons in his neck stood out before he let out an explosive sigh. “The witch we have monitoring the crime scene hasn’t notified me of a risk like that.”
Patrick started walking, dodging past a couple of uniformed cops standing guard in the hallway. “She’s not a mage. The taint is barely noticeable, but I can still sense it. Someone without my reach would probably miss it.”
“Everyone working at the PCB carries protective charms. Are those enough to keep our souls safe?”
“Depends on what I find at the crime scene.”
Patrick had a feeling he’d be stripping a lot of souls of lingering stains caused by black magic before he left. That was never fun for anyone.
Black magic was illegal for a lot of reasons, not the least being most victims of those spells ended up dead. Patrick knew that better than most. He’d survived a premeditated attack and still carried the scars—physical, mental, magical—from when he was a child and a demon nearly clawed out his heart.
Patrick’s ability to track and kill demons and monsters with ties to the preternatural world was a side effect of that childhood trauma. That little quirk in his magic had made him an asset to the Mage Corps and was the reason he had been assigned to a Special Operations Forces team. His hunting skills meant the Hellraisers’ mission success rate looked good on paper, but it did shit-all for Patrick’s personal health.
Someone had propped the apartment door open with a potted plant. Patrick stepped inside, moving past the tiny kitchen to the living room and its bloody center of attraction. He was mindful of the numbered evidence tags scattered over the floor, making sure not to knock any over. He stopped near the once pristine white couch, staring down at the victim’s remains.
Patrick wasn’t looking at a whole body, just pieces of it. The ceiling resembled a bloody Pollack painting, courtesy of the dead man’s eviscerated torso. The rib cage had been pried open like meaty butterfly wings, revealing a half-empty cavity that was missing a heart and three-quarters of the lungs. The soft skin of the abdomen was nothing but shreds, intestines spilling out of the lower part of the large, jagged hole in ropey, pinkish-gray knots.
Strings of muscle clung to the raggedly broken bones jutting out of what remained of each arm. The victim’s legs were gnawed through at the thigh, the femur bones bitten clean through. Blood saturated the carpet and the nearby couch cushions, as if he’d been dragged off the couch to the floor. Fat bits of flesh were scattered across the floor around the body, but Patrick didn’t see any sign of the missing limbs or organs.
Patrick would bet his entire next paycheck the guy had been eaten alive.
Members of the Crime Scene Unit and a representative from the medical examiner’s office were carefully working around the body. The state of the victim made their job slightly more difficult than usual.
“You told the next of kin they’re getting ashes back and not a body for a viewing, right? Did you burn all the other ones as well?” Patrick asked.
“They all got cremated. Standard procedure for homicide cases under our purview. We’re not new at this,” Dwayne said, sounding vaguely irritated.
Patrick knew most police forces didn’t like a federal agency coming in and stepping on their toes. The defensiveness wasn’t unusual. But he needed to play nice if he was going to get anywhere with this case. So he bit back the retort sitting on the tip of his tongue, mindful of Setsuna’s request, and focused on the dead instead of the living.
“Anyone have a spare set of gloves?” he asked.
“In the case,” a woman with CSU on the back of her jacket said.
Patrick followed where she pointed and went to dig up a pair of latex gloves. Pulling them on, he approached the body and crouched down for a closer look at the victim’s face. The report he’d read on his MacBook during the short flight to New York had contained details about the dead that weren’t showing up in the press—yet.
The waxy skin of the mutilated face was cold to the touch. He pulled down an eyelid to get a better look at what linked this murder to all the others. The astrological sign sliced into delicate skin had been done with such precision that Patrick doubted it was the work of the demon who had ripped the body apart.
He touched a finger to the sign that represented the immortal god Ares, an uneasy feeling settling in his gut. In his experience, nothing good ever came from magic that called to the gods.
Patrick couldn’t sense any magic left behind in the body itself. Whatever spell the signs had been a catalyst for, it was nearly gone now. The only trace of it left was the residual of hellish taint.
“Are the signs the only things connecting the murders?” Patrick asked.
“The current MO is half-eaten bodies and the signs. There aren’t any links we can find between the victims. There’s no consistency between their economic, religious, racial, or social backgrounds. We’ve only found bodies in Manhattan though,” Dwayne said.
“Can you be certain they’ve only been found in Manhattan? Are they all locals?”
“The PCB has jurisdiction in the five boroughs. We’ve looped in our affiliates outside New York City, but we haven’t received any calls from other departments, and we haven’t released critical details to the public,” Casale said.
“Any sign of forced entry?”
“None. Door was locked and so were all the windows except the one running the air-conditioning unit, but there’s no sign it was tampered with,” Allison said.
“Poor guy’s wife is a nurse and came home after an overnight shift at New York-Presbyterian in Lower Manhattan. Found him like this,” Dwayne added. “She had a nervous breakdown, and EMTs removed her from the premises.”
Patrick settled his weight back on his heels, still studying the body. “Hopefully not far. I’ll need to make sure she’s clean of magical residue before she can be let go. You said you ran off the local SOA agents previously working with you. What was their conclusion?”
“Nothing helpful,” Casale said with a snort. “One witch suggested looking into hellhounds and maybe getting animal control to help with it.”
Patrick rolled his eyes. “On a scale of one to bullshit, I call bullshit. Body looks like it got hit by a magical IED, not a rabid dog.”
“You think that’s what happened? A magical IED?”
“No. I guarantee the ME report for this victim will be the same as all the others in this case. No forced entry into the home. Body half eaten, and signs carved on their eyes.” Patrick stood up and stripped off his gloves, depositing them in a biohazard bin nearby before heading to where the other three stood. “Killings like this, especially with the signs, means these people were targeted for a specific reason.”
Casale studied him with an unreadable look in his eyes. “You’re talking assassination.”
Patrick shrugged. “Assassination, murder—both get you dead.”
“That’s more than the other SOA agents gave us, Chief,” Allison said quietly.
Which shouldn’t be the case, but Patrick was familiar with the rot hiding deep within the SOA that Setsuna and her predecessors hadn’t been able to completely carve out.
Patrick crossed his arms over his chest, the jacket pulling against his shoulders with the motion. “I’ll need to see the full file on this case, not just the encrypted report you emailed my boss. I also need to make sure no one else is leaving with residual black magic in their souls. Who else has been in contact with the body?”
“We’ll get you names,” Casale said with a grimace. He waved a hand at the crime scene and everything in it. “Give me your take on all of this.”
“I don’t know what the signs relate to, but the chewing and rending and the magic? At the very least, you have a demon problem.”
“Mayor will be thrilled,” Dwayne muttered.
Casale let out a heavy sigh and pointed a finger at the two detectives. “Both of you are in charge until everyone clears out. I’m going downstairs to feed the press. That should give Special Agent Collins enough time to make sure everyone here won’t need to call a priest for last rites. Collins? You’re coming with me after my presser. We’re meeting with my favorite pair of eyes.”
Dwayne glanced at Casale in surprise. “I thought your meeting with him was next week?”
“I’m moving it up.”
Patrick frowned. “Who are we visiting?”
“Someone who might be able to shed some light on this mess, if we’re lucky.”
“If you have local help outside the SOA, why haven’t you gone to them before this?”
Casale gave him a hard smile before turning his back on the group and heading for the door. “The SOA is technically the cheaper option, and the City gets pissed when we go over budget with our overtime. Make sure my people are safe, Collins. Any of them get hurt, the next thing I’m sending your agency is a complaint.”
Patrick barely refrained from rolling his eyes. Looked like the animosity between state and federal agencies was still alive and kicking.
“Right,” Patrick said, eyeing Allison and Dwayne. “Who wants me to check their soul first? I have to warn you, that spell hurts like a son of a bitch.”
In unison, the two pointed at each other, silently volunteering their partner to go first.