Chapter 1: Meeting again
The spark missed its mark, zigzagged across the patio and set flame to one of the ribbons I had tied to the branches of my tiny apple tree just this morning. The flames licked up and went out. My fingers tingled as if I had grabbed an electric fence. Damn. For weeks I had been trying – without much success – to recreate Grete’s elemental RAF magic. The only thing I had gained so far were blackened flower beds and a written complaint from my neighbors. I inhaled deeply in an attempt to tame my frustration. There was plenty of energy beneath my feet, I could feel it, easily available thanks to dozens of rituals I had performed in my own garden. I started another attempt.
“You have to feel determination, but no headless anger”, I heard her voice echoing through my mind. She had made it look so easy.
The exercise I had set out to conquer was something that should not need a second thought: Gas-drenched twigs lay heaped into a metal bowl. Had I used everyday methods, I would have had a cozy fire at least half an hour ago. But I needed to know how Grete had done it, I needed to perform the trick myself. Elemental magic is a difficult topic. Mastering the energies is considered a sign of true supremacy. Not even the stars among the media witches claimed to be able to create a flame of a gust of wind from nothing. I had always thought that stories about RAF magicians doing just that had been legends – until I had met one of them myself. Out of all places she could have chosen, she was hiding at my mother’s Witchyard, a refuge for the innocent and the prosecuted.
By now I had taken the first hurdle – separating the connection to the earth once I had accumulated enough energy. This was not a must for the spell, Grete had explained, but the terrorists had needed it to not leave their personal magical traces at the crime scenes. After all the bad guys had not been the only ones to use magic back then. The Special Department for Magical Crimes had been at their heels. In order to make their lives miserable, the RAF magicians had performed rituals at secret gatherings and locked the spells into their bodies to take them where they needed them. This way the detectives had had a hard time following their magical traces. And once I knew this was possible, I had been hooked. If they had managed to do spells without being grounded, I wanted to do so as well.
I shaped the energy I had collected inside me into a sphere and walked a few steps. The construct held, even though the outer layer of my energy field trembled like a soap bubble at the tiniest movement.
The next step was way more complicated. “Imagine fire – not a flame, but the essence of fire itself.” It sounded easy enough when Grete said it, and her demonstration looked as if it was a breeze. I had burnt my fingers, my boots, lost a few strands of hair. And trying to guide the energies – once again I had shown how much I sucked at doing just that.
The patio door opened behind me. My concentration wavered, and the energetic sphere dissolved. At the last moment I managed to guide the energy with my fingertips to avoid disaster. It hit the bird bath. The water fizzed. Steam rose from the surface. Great.
“When will you finally give up?”, I heard Falk’s voice behind me.
I turned around, protecting my eyes from the spring sun with my left hand. “Never! I thought you wanted to go to the gym?”
“I’m back already.”
Indeed. Now I recognized the sweat stains on his T-shirt. Most people would have lost their attractiveness walking around like this, but Falk … let’s say, I would not necessarily admit it out loud, but it really did not hurt his rugged looks at all. I noticed his dark brown hair poking out from his head in all directions. “Do you want to borrow a brush?”
“It’s called fashion.” He grinned.
Strega appeared in the doorway and rubbed against his legs. My kitty of doom had her own version of attention deficit.
“Why don’t you take the day off?”, Falk asked with a skeptical glance at the steaming bird bath. “I thought the equinox was a big thing for witches.” So he had been paying attention at witch school after all.
“Not that big”, I replied. Yes, I had taken the day off, but only from office tasks. I did make my money as a registered and certified witch, but still witchcraft was not something I could just switch off when I was not working. “Besides, Maria and her paper messes are driving me crazy!”
“It might be different if you had not gotten everything upside down again.”
“Is that the proper way to talk to your boss?”
“Don’t forget, I have the day off as well. Coffee?”
Boy, was he getting rebellious. Maybe his makeshift bed in the living room was too comfortable. I should make him sleep on the floor. But coffee sounded like a great idea. The chance of producing anything but burnt spring decoration tonight was slim to none anyway.
Falk had set his gym bag down next to the door. Strega rolled around on top of it, purring. Something about Falk’s smell made her very happy. I gave her a push with the tip of my bare foot, which she ignored. My toes were even to cold for her to nibble.
“That smelly stuff belongs in the washing machine”, I reminded him.
“Later.” He was already at the counter, fiddling with the French press. He definitely knew how to make women happy.
I leaned against the doorframe, crossing my arms in front of my chest. “You sure?” I knew that he was not best friends with the washing machine. Our living arrangements could be so easy – but I refused to touch his gym stuff. Instead I complained every time it stayed in the hallway, marinating inside the bag for days, or blocked the machine, or just remained on the clothesline for days. Well, that last problem had been solved. Ever since I burned a hole the size of my fist into his boxers during practice, Falk made sure his clothes were gone from the garden before I started training. Something good had come from Grete’s instructions after all.
The kettle steamed, blubbered and switched itself off.
Falk grabbed it and poured hot water into the French press. “Maybe we should have used the water from the bird bath. It was already hot.”
“Really funny. Washing machine? Now!”
He turned around and shot me an annoying look. “You sound as if we were married.”
“Why should I marry a man who does not know how to do laundry?” No way was I going to touch that disgusting stuff.
“Fine, I’ll take care of it!” He pushed past me and grabbed his bag. I caught a faint smell of masculinity.
Strega meowed and stayed glued to the gym bad as he lifted it up. She did not give up her spot even when he opened the door to the basement.
“Fur is dry-cleaning only!”, I called after them. Then I returned into the kitchen, poured myself some coffee and looked out of the window. My hands were still tingling, and the sole of my left foot felt numb – as if I had tried walking over burning coals. I was frustrated. Maybe I would never learn this fire spell.
The street in front of the house was quiet. It was still three weeks till Easter, the holidays had not started yet and most of my neighbors were at work. Only a few cars were parked on the other side of the street on front of a few bushes. I had parked my car right in my view – even though it did not exactly count as a new car after all. We had driven more than ten thousand miles during the past few months. I told myself it was car training and good for the engine.
The garden gnomes standing next to the “Magic behind the mountains” plaque my secretary had put in my front garden without asking permission had taken off their scarves and woolen hats. They seemed to enjoy the sun between the first light green spears of tulips, crocuses and daffodils. The time of the snowdrops had passed already.
A burgundy Renault slid into the gap right in front of my car. I put my cup down, surprised. Wasn’t that … what was he doing here?
Raphael and I had not spoken to each other in months, and the Christmas gift he had left for me still stood on the shelf below the stairs, untouched. I might have sent it back, if I had known his address. Well, this was a problem I could remedy right away.
My heart beat hard as I watched him walk down the path leading to my front door. He disappeared from my view, and the next second the doorbell rang. He had probably seen me standing at the window. Playing “No one’s home” was not an option. I pulled myself together and went to answer the door.
Raphael’s blond hair was just as short as it had been when we last met. I smiled. “Hello, Raphael! What are you doing here?” I could only hope it did not sound less friendly than I had meant it.
A door sounded behind me, followed by the quiet murmur of rubber wheels. I looked over my shoulder and saw Maria sitting in her wheelchair, questions plain on her face. “Is everything alright?” Her gaze wandered from me to him.
“I’ll take care of it, don’t worry.” I watched her maneuver back to the office carefully. “I believe you have already met my personal assistant Maria.”
“We met in December, briefly. You were not home.”
No, I had been in another part of the country with another man, trying to solve a mystery. And shortly after returning home I had ended whatever I had had with Raphael. He was just too needy, with his ex-wife and his insecurities and mood swings. I simply did not like him enough to put up with that. “Is this a private call or do you bring business?”
“Business. And I am not here for you, to be honest.”
So? “What do you want here?”
“I need to speak with your assistant.”
“By all means, enter.” I had to force myself to step away from the door so he could enter. What business did Raphael have with Falk? Curiosity raised her head. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes, please.” Raphael followed me into the kitchen and looked around. He did not say anything about the tower of old newspapers on the table or the footprints on the floor. I really had to mop the floor again. Falk was responsible for cooking and took great care of his equipment and work surfaces, but apart from that he had not exactly invented housework either.
“How do you like your coffee?” Another thing I had not learned during our short romance. It had been over too quickly.
“Black and sweet.” Raphael took the cup I offered him and drank a sip. “You’ve got a nice place.”
“Let’s talk in the living room. My employee is still busy.” I gestured towards the hallway. At least the living room was kind of tidy. I hoped.
We sat down facing each other on the worn red sofa. I noticed the stains on the armrest. The soft spring sunshine emphasized the stipes on the window where I had messed up during spring cleaning. At least Falk had been clever enough to put away his blankets this morning. Everything was covered in red and black cat hair, of course, but what else could you expect at a witch’s home?
Something thumped in the basement, and then we heard steps coming up the stairs. So he had won the fight against the washing machine after all. There was something good in every day. Maybe Falk would eventually detect his love for housework if I just waited.
Strega came racing through the door and froze when she saw the strange man sitting on the sofa. Her fur stood on end as if she had bitten into a cable. The sound from her throat was feral and ancient. It scared her so much that she jumped onto the shelf beneath the stairs, swishing her tail from one side to the other, making the dust dance.
Falk entered less spectacularly, balancing a cup of coffee in his left hand. He held a box of cookies in the other. “I thought I heard someone else.”
“Nice to meet you.” Raphael got up and held out his hand. He was almost a head shorter than Falk, but did not seem to mind. “We have met already, if I remember correctly.” Of course he remembered.
Falk put down coffee and cookies without haste, smiled and shook the hand that was offered. I wondered whether they had this weird alpha guy thing going – whoever could press down harder or something. I looked closely, but could not tell.
“Sit down and let’s talk shop”, I interrupted their arcane male ritual. Still it took them another second or two before they followed my suggestion. Seemed I still had to work on that authority of mine. “Tell, why are you here?”
“I would like to talk about this with your … employee in private.”
No way. “Is this about a job? Then you’re definitely talking to me.”
Raphael raised his eyebrows. Seemed he had not expected me to be this demanding.
“Falk works for me, and his contract states that he may not take up any other occupations without my consent.” I was afraid my head would explode from all the questions running around inside if I did not get any answers soon.
Falk was clever enough to keep his mouth shut. We did not really have a contract. At least nothing written in legalese. He lived at my place, did what I told him – at least when it came to work – and got a proper paycheck every week. I did not know what he did with it – as far as I knew he did not have a bank account. Maybe he used the paper to roll blunts, who knew?
After a moment of thinking Raphael decided that he did not want to keep me out of this at all costs. “I am here to get his expert opinion.”
“On what?”, Falk asked
Raphael took a cookie from the box. A few crumbs dropped onto his carefully ironed pants. He brushed them onto the carpet. “Your experience with street fights.”
“Wait”, I interrupted him, “how do you know about that?” Those files should have been sealed and lost.
Raphael turned around to face me. “You remember, during our first date, how we agreed to not talk about our jobs?”
“Well, I am head of a special unit dealing with magic-based crimes. Hence I get information that is not easily accessible for most people.”
The wheels started turning in my head. “So you know Radinger?”
He nodded. “I took over when he resigned.”
Also Radinger was the guy who got me started on my career path. His special unit had picked me up when I was trying to pull a new trick on a street gang. Instead of sending me to prison, they had convinced me to study magic at our local university. The rest, as they said, was history. I had not thought about any of this in ages. And most of all …
“Does that mean you know my file?”
Raphael nodded. “I had to know who we are cooperating with.”
Well, I thought he should have told me when we first met. Which means there would have been no second date. My stomach felt weird. What a son of a bitch …
“But that is not why I’m here today.” He pulled a brown envelope from the inner pocket of his black jacket and threw it down on the table in front of Falk. “Would you be so kind to look at this?”
Falk did not move. “This was not part of the deal. When my service at the Wandering Graveyard ended, my file was supposed to be wiped clean.” He frowned.
“It is”, Raphael insisted.
“Only not really”, I suggested.
His gaze gave him away.
“He’s probably wrestling that dreaded data bear. How does that get along with my right of privacy, or the latest data protection act?”
“This is not the question right now”, Raphael interfered. “All I need from you, Falk, is to look at these pictures and to tell me if you notice anything familiar?”
I do not know whether I would have opened the envelope. Curiosity is one of my worst character traits, but I am definitely more stubborn than curious. Only this time it was not my decision, but Falk’s. He tore the paper open with his thumbnail and pulled the pictures out.
I waited for him to take in the details. He took his time, then threw the photos onto the coffee table with the images facing the room. I bent closer and saw the pale face of a man who was definitely not sleeping. His eyes were clouded already, and a tear gaped on his forehead. Someone had torn out his hair in bushels, and foam was sitting on his blue lips.
“What are these supposed to tell me?”, Falk asked.
“Do you know this man?”
“He was a streetfighter, like you.”
“That was years ago, as you know. I haven’t been in contact with the scene in years. People come and go all the time.”
“Have you seen similar injuries?”
“Even in the mirror, yes. Everyone gets their share of bruises. But these pictures do not show why he died, am I right?”
Raphael pulled another image from his pocket and put it on top of the other images with careful movement. “We think this was the fatal wound.”
I looked away quickly. Ouch. Yes, that might have been the one. The guy’s lower abdomen was ripped open, the edges of the wound black and frayed. His intestines had slipped from their cavity and lay gleaming on the wet grass.
“You can’t do that with your bare hands”, Falk stated matter-of- fact. “I never got involved in weapons.”
“This was not done with a weapon – at least none that our experts know. In addition we found an unknown chemical agent in the dead man’s blood. This is what caused the discoloration.”
“Do you know who he is?”, I asked. Some part of me did not want to know a name, or any other details. Some other part was fascinated in a scary way. I was getting used to images like these.
“Dimitri Kosarow, a young star in the streetfighter circus. At least until three days ago”, Raphael said. “We asked family and friends, but of course they don’t know a thing. Obviously he went to church every Sunday.”
“Didn’t help.” Falk took the picture into his hands and gave it a closer look. “So you think he died during a fight?”
“We are pretty sure. Besides the injuries demonstrated here, he had numerous fractures and bruises. And he made a major deposit just a week ago. My men assume this was the advance payment.”
Falk made a face. “That’s why I don’t have a bank account. Not enough privacy.”
Maybe I should get rid of mine as well. It started to look as if our privacy was not in the best hands around here.
Falk handed the picture back to Raphael. “Sorry, I have nothing I could tell you that you don’t know already.”
“The information is not the main reason I am here.”
“I would like to ask you to act as our contact inside the organization.”
Wait, what? I put my cup down with a thunk. “You must be out of your mind.”
Falk held up his hands to stop me. “I want to know what he has to offer.”
Raphael acted as if I was not even there. He turned towards Falk. “We need someone who won’t look out of place in this environment.”
I was not going to be silenced this easily. “Someone to get beat up in your place, you mean.”
They kept ignoring me. Falk said, “If I do this, you are going to wipe my files clean once and for good. Immaculate, without exceptions.”
“We could do that.”
“No could, no talking. Just do it.”
“Do we have a deal?” Raphael got up and walked around the table towards the hallway.
Falk followed him. “How do I contact this organization?”
“Don’t trouble yourself, we have already made arrangements”, Raphael replied.
That puny confident runt. My fingertips tingled. I looked down at my hands and noticed tiny burn marks on the red cushions. Damn! Quickly I closed my fists and took a few careful deep breaths.
The men shook hands again, cementing their agreement. Seemed as if I had missed the details. I jumped off the sofa, hit my knee against the glass surface of the table and spilled coffee from the cups. “Wait a moment!”
Both looked at me as if I was interfering with grownup business. That did not stop me. “You said your department thinks this is about magic. And then you send Falk into the lion’s den? That’s madness! He is not a wizard!”
“I do know how to take care of myself.”
In that moment I would have loved to punch him. “Raphael, as his boss I have to insist to take a closer look at the body before anything else happens.”
He frowned. “What do you hope to find there? I’ve put my best people on it.”
His best people, what did that mean? They were not me. And when it came to magic, my own powers were what I preferred to rely on. “Is the crime scene still cordoned off?”
“Yes”, he answered reluctantly, as if I was keeping him from doing important stuff.
“Then I will go and take a look. Maybe I can find something your people have missed.” I swallowed my pride, “You know my file, hence you know I am not any run-off-the-mill witchling.”
“And if I agree, you will let your assistant play with the big boys?”
Wait, was he making fun of me? “Maybe.”
“I guess that’s your best offer.” Raphael’s gaze wandered from me to Falk and back. “I think it best if we go there right away.”
I looked at Falk, nodded. Then I called, “Maria, we have to leave. Please lock the door when you’re leaving.”
The rustling of papers in my office stopped. A moment later my personal assistant appeared in the doorway, almost without a sound. She maneuvered her wheelchair around the corkscrew stairs with her usual ease. She had probably overheard most of what we had been talking about.
I saw in Raphael’s face how he followed the same train of thought. “Has she been eavesdropping?”
“I’m just a cripple, not deaf”, Maria replied and threw her black hair back over her shoulder with an angry jerk of her head. “I would greatly appreciate it if you addressed me directly. And no, I was listening to music.” She pulled her ipod from her pocket. The white earphones dangled next to her wheelchair and immediately attracted Strega’s attention. The cat dropped off the shelf and started stalking the white plastic buttons.
“Strega, stop!” I smiled. “Raphael, have you forgotten that you talked to Maria only minutes ago?”
A red flush rose from the collar of his shirt. “Excuse my bad manners. Nevertheless I have to inform you that everything that was discussed in this house today is strictly confidential.”
“Never mind, who would want to talk with a cripple like me?” Yes, Maria was enjoying his embarrassment. She was definitely not a shy wilting flower.
Which reminded me of something else. “Here, I never got around to giving it back to you.” I grabbed the holiday present off the shelf and handed it to Raphael. He looked surprised. “Thanks for your consideration, but I think you should take it with you again.” Then I turned around to Maria. “You’ll get home safely?”
“Sure, why not? Weather is great, I’ll take the shortcut through the park.” She maneuvered past us towards the main door. I heard the cloth of her jacket rustling, followed by the clicking of the lock. “See you tomorrow!”, she called from the front garden.
“You should follow me in your car”, Raphael stated matter-of-fact. He held the wrapped gift as if it was explosive.
Well, we could always get back to the mess in the living room later. I glanced at Falk – I had no idea what he thought about me interfering. Ah well, I did not really care. After all I still was the boss.