The body smelled like apples and cinnamon.
Deep in the midst of a stinking, damp alley, the smell would normally be a relief given the way it pushed out the stench of urine and garbage. For Malcolm Xavier, though, the odor brought with it a vast array of knowledge most people in this world lived happily never knowing.
He knelt beside the decaying monstrosity left here, all too familiar with the sight. Two fist-sized puncture wounds, blackened and charred, dotted the chest. Whether or not this victim was once male or female was no longer possible to determine. The skin spread along the ground, sagging against the bones within like a deflated balloon, large sections already decayed to the point of bone showing. The head had been completely shattered, fragments of skull and brain matter splattered across the pavement.
Sneakers hitting pavement alerted Malcolm. He stood.
"Wow! No bogarting all that tasty--" The voice stopped short, as did the sneakers. "Holy Swiss cheese!"
Malcolm suppressed a smile as his friend and partner decorated the side of a dumpster with his breakfast.
"It's her," Malcolm said. "Six hours, give or take."
Leaning against the dumpster, seemingly enjoying the gag-worthy aroma of trash and vomit, and no longer a fan of apple cinnamon oatmeal, his back toward the gruesome display, Jesse Creighton merely nodded his paled head.
"Go back to the van and call the clean-up crew. I'll be right behind you in a moment."
Jesse obliged, out of the alley in seconds.
A quick sweep of the surroundings turned up nothing useful. So, Malcolm wandered back toward the van.
After twenty-two years of working for the Order of Darius, Malcolm Xavier chased many creatures, but this woman he was after now, she was different--smarter, sexier, more powerful than anything he'd ever seen. Now he was closing in on her.
The only thing he worried about was his relatively new partner. Jesse joined the Order five years ago, introduced to the darkness of the world through his father. He was a good kid, but he lacked a lot of the backbone that this job required. In the couple of years they'd worked together, Jesse had proven his worth and earned Malcolm's respect. Respect, though, wouldn't keep him alive if things became too dangerous.
The back of the van served as a field base. Jesse, the more cerebral of the two, had all the technology down as if he was born with a PDA in his hands. Malcolm preferred the good old fashion fist approach to things, but he didn't dispute the power of the technology that had saved his life more than once.
All the benefits of an office life filled the van from computers to a coffee machine. Hundreds of photographs clung to the walls; all of them displayed a young woman in her late teens with hair dyed like a fountain of flames. In some she stood alone, others she spoke with various people from all different lifestyles.
Malcolm found Jesse parked in front of a computer, staring at the star field screensaver dotting the monitor with a vacant expression.
"Did you call?" asked Malcolm.
"Be here in twenty minutes."
He'd get over it. Malcolm left Jesse to his thoughts and climbed into the driver's seat. At the first sign of the clean-up crew, Malcolm pulled away from the sidewalk and headed toward their next stop.
Founded in the mid-1700s, the Order of Darius had no trouble keeping up with modern times. A multinational banking firm served as the cover for the operation. Inside the building, Malcolm and Jesse took an elevator down to the basement. They passed through a maze of boxes and files until they reached another, hidden elevator that required a special key to open. From there, they entered an underground base bustling with activity.
Stretched out for what seemed like miles, the operations center was filled with men and women working at computers, testing the latest in equipment manufactured right here in this building, training, and other tasks. For the most part, clear walls divided the one massive room into sections. The next four floors down held containment cells for a wide variety of creatures and hundreds of people. Only a few rooms existed in the entire complex.
Malcolm and Jesse headed toward one of those rooms.
Inside, a balding, overweight man looked up from his cluttered desk. His beady little eyes took them in and then returned to the file splayed open before him. A nameplate on the desk read: David Creighton.
"You've been after this girl for six months, Malcolm," he said. "What's the hold up?"
"She knows we're after her."
"And this is a surprise? You've taken down bigger fish than her and they knew you were after them, too."
He'd taken down physically bigger creatures than this wisp of a girl, yes, but they were not nearly as powerful. Malcolm considered his words carefully. "I believe she's key and that gives her far more... incentive to avoid us."
Jesse remained silent, as he usually did when in this particular room with this particular man.
The elder Creighton looked up, frowning at Malcolm's words. "How can she be key? We have next to nothing on her."
When David said nothing, Malcolm continued: "Her very nature is more complex than anything we've seen. That, plus the lack of information on her, leads me to believe she's key. And if she's key, she's far more dangerous than we first assumed. This 'girl' has shown the ability to manifest supernatural powers in others. The few reports we've been able to get suggest she is telling them it's their duty to help mankind with these 'gifts.' Yet we know these powers are hundred percent deadly. Anyone that has been subject to one of the power-given's gifts has ended up dead."
"Yes, I've read the reports. We've rounded up most of these folks that she's tampered with--those we know about, at least. Speaking of..." David tossed open his draw and removed a file, handing it over to Malcolm. "We need you to pick up this man. He's the most recent to encounter her."
The photo in the file struck Malcolm Xavier as familiar. As he scanned the information, he realized why. "Do we have anyone trying to track her possible next target," he asked without looking up. "There's no subtle lack of irony in all her victims--the assassin healer, for example. Now this guy? Vince Raines, exposed 'psychic' fraud turned true Spiritspeaker?"
"Yes, we have several people trying to predict where she'll strike next. Not that that matters. You're going to catch her before she can get to anyone else."
"Going to try."
"Catch her, Malcolm. We don't need this loose end right now. Too much is going wrong and if she's key, we need her here."
Malcolm closed the file and nodded.
"What an asshole," Jesse said as the van pulled up in front of a shaggy little shop. The sign in the dirt-crusted window of the shop read: Spiritspeaker. He'd said nothing the whole drive until now. "As if we weren't doing everything in our power to find this chick."
Malcolm removed the key from the ignition, glancing at his partner. "He's helpless. He's scared. Don't blame him."
"Scared? Ha. Nothing could scare that man."
Malcolm let it drop as he headed into the shop.
A young woman with strawberry blond hair poked her head out of a back room at the sound of the bell over the door ringing. "One sec," she called out before disappearing.
A few crummy sofas with exposed stuffing and some cheap plastic chairs were scattered about the lobby, if you could call this a lobby. A single table sat next to the door at which the woman had briefly appeared behind.
"What a shithole," Jesse said. "Wasn't this guy like some kind of rich bastard?"
Malcolm ran his hand over his hairless head. "He was. But things went bad for him when he was exposed."
"Bet that chick is with him, huh?"
"Seems that way. We'll have to take her, too."
The woman stepped out of the back room and smiled. "Lacy," she said, offering her name. "You're here to see the Spiritspeaker?" She hesitated a moment as she took a good look at Malcolm and Jesse.
Malcolm said, "Yes."
"He only sees one person at a time. Too many conflicting voices if there are more. Who wants to go first?"
Voices wouldn't be a problem in this case, but Malcolm played along until he was sure the situation was under control. "I will," he said before giving Jesse a familiar look. The younger man nodded to Malcolm, fully prepared to keep an eye on the woman.
Stepping into the back room was like entering a completely new world. The rundown shabby exterior of the building gave way to a lavishly decorated reading room. Whatever money Mr. Raines had left after his downward spiral must have all gone into this room.
"Malcolm Xavier," said Malcolm, extending his hand to the goateed Spiritspeaker as Lacy stepped out of the room and closed the door.
"Have a seat," Vince said, a light frown playing on his lips. He indicated the chair opposite him at the small table in the middle of the room.
Malcolm did not sit. "You seem puzzled, Mr. Raines."
Vince's struggle to maintain his stoic expression surrendered and the frown dropped prominently.
"No voices. Right?"
"Who are you?" He started to call out to Lacy, but Malcolm cut him off.
"Are you familiar with this woman?" Malcolm tossed a photo of the young girl with the fiery hair on the table.
"No?" Malcolm asked surprised.
"I find that hard to believe, Mr. Raines."
Malcolm removed a dozen photos from his jacket and tossed each one on the table, one at a time. "Any of these people look familiar?"
"My clients are none of your--"
"They're all dead."
"What?" Vince whitened.
"Whatever advice you gave them, it lead them to their death. Your first client, do you remember him?"
"How could I forget? He tied me up and nearly killed me."
"Your voices told you to tell him to contact an unknown relative about his weight. That unknown relative botched the surgery he performed and killed him. This young man," Malcolm pointed to the photo of a freckled red head in a college sweater, "was told he needed to get his car checked out because the breaks were damaged."
"There was nothing wrong with his breaks, but the friend's car he used while his was being checked had faulty breaks and he plunged over a bridge into the river. They all have similar stories."
"What are you trying to say?"
Malcolm gazed silently at Vince Raines, letting the information fully seep in before answering. "Your voices are not the voices of dead friends and family. They're the whisperings of demons."To be continued...