The Archfiend Artifact

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24

24

SAATHOFF ACADEMY, DARK MOON PORT, MABON CITY

Thursday, OCTOBER 23

1:23 PM

A phone call came in to Quinn’s office some twenty minutes after he had left. Duncan froze, staring at the phone and unwilling to answer it. I leaned forward and pressed the speaker phone button, asked who’s calling.

“It’s me,” said Quinn.

I noted the tone in his voice and looked to Duncan.

“Lieutenant LeFae is here,” Quinn went on. “She says a call came through to her office about ninety minutes ago.” He took a breath. “Cynthia is… She’s…”

Duncan’s gaze suddenly went distant. He didn’t blink. Didn’t breathe. He just stood there, stunned. Broken. There wasn’t anything anyone could do or say that would make any difference. Sympathy. Condolences. It would all fall on deaf ears.

I know. Because that had been me.

I could only watch as the vampire unsteadily made for the door. Morgan tried to go to him, but he waved her off. She nodded, and he quit the room. I drew a deep breath, let it out slow. There was work to do. I didn’t have time to get sidetracked on emotions or memories. I’d just have to deal with those later.

So I shoved it all into the deepest, darkest corners of my mind, looked down at the phone. “We know Duncan didn’t call her. Who’s the other person with the number to that phone?”

“Specter,” Quinn and Morgan replied at the same time.

My lips tugged into a frown. That didn’t track. “Would he have had any reason to call her?”

Morgan shook her head negative.

“It’s extremely difficult for him to make any phone calls.”

“That’s what I thought.” I sat back in the chair with a sigh. “That number isn’t listed, so whoever called it had a strong reason to go digging for it. A motive for murder, for example. So let’s get the obvious question out of the way. Did Cynthia have enemies?”

“She was a member of our team,” replied Quinn. “But she retired nearly thirty years ago.”

Thirty years is an awful long time for someone to hold a grudge, but it isn’t unheard of.

“Plus,” he continued, and I could hear the phone rustling. He must have been pacing as we spoke. “We use codenames and aliases as precautions to prevent this sort of thing.”

“Okay,” I said, and thought that over. “What were her powers?”

Morgan stepped up to the desk to stand just opposite me. “She was a witch.”

According to the pamphlets I read, witches were pretty commonplace, which meant it was highly unlikely that the Shadow had been after her simply to get a power boost. No; This had personal written all over it. And it couldn’t be because of Cynthia’s ties to AEON.

What if the Shadow had nothing to do with using the mirror on Cynthia? Sure, it stole the pieces and fused them together, but it could have been under orders from someone else. Now that made a little more sense.

Wait a minute!

I sat forward. “Who called the Lieutenant?”

Though he muffled the phone, I could still hear Quinn asking her. “She thought it was one of us.”

In other words, Lieutenant LeFae knew of the AEON Agency. She may even be a parathrope herself. Good to know.

Did we call her?”

“No,” said Morgan.

“Nope,” Quinn confirmed.

I rapped my fingers on the desktop. “Is there any way we can find out who did?”

I jumped a little when Specter suddenly leaned through the wall to my left. He flashed an apologetic smile and said, “I can do a reverse look-up on LeFae’s number.”

Quinn told him to go ahead and do it and relayed the Lieutenant’s phone number. The ghost phased through the wall to join Morgan and me and summoned his control sphere. A burst of static erupted over the speaker phone.

I frowned down at the phone until Specter moved away and the line cleared. That’s right. His energy would make electronics go on the fritz. Come to think of it, so would a demon’s. So it is possible that the Shadow wasn’t behind the murder. That narrowed down the suspects a bit, but nowhere near enough.

“Watch,” I muttered darkly. “The call probably came from a pay phone or a burner.”

“If you’re right,” Quinn snickered. “I’m going to blame you for jinxing it.”

“Blame away,” I countered with a smile.

Morgan quirked an eyebrow in silent query.

I waved it off. “I’ve been a jinx since grade school.”

“And—no surprise—the psychic is correct,” Specter announced a moment later. “The call came in from a payphone outside Bad Habits.”

I knew of Bad Habits only by reputation. The truck stop had become famous for their Nail Biter burger within a month after opening. I also knew that it’s location put it within walking distance of the Palisades.

I looked at the ghost, made a gesture towards his sphere. “Are you able to get security footage on that thing?”

He nodded and went to work on that.

“Why?” Morgan queried, crossed her arms.

I pressed the tip of my left index finger on the desktop. “Bad Habits,” I said, watching as Morgan’s lips pursed in thought. Then I jabbed my right finger at a point an inch and a half away from the first. “The Palisades.”

“She’s saying the same thing I’m thinking; that they’re too close to be a coincidence,” said Quinn. “Someone—most likely Cynthia’s murderer—could jog between these places within fifteen or twenty minutes.”

That drew another heated look from the blonde. She leaned over the phone and spat, “And you presume the caller is the murderer why?”

“Think about it, Paladin,” growled Quinn. “If any of Cynthia’s employees had found her dead, they would have called from inside the mansion. At the very most, they would have gone running to a neighbor. There’s no reason for anyone to run across a busy highway to use the payphones unless they weren’t supposed to be in the Palisades to begin with.”

I nodded. “Exactly. Plus, we don’t know if the Mirror of Souls has a limited range or not. For all we know, the murderer could have been within feet of Cynthia or half way across the planet.”

“Another point to the jinx.”

I grinned down at the phone.

Specter cleared his throat to get our attention. “I’ve tapped into the security footage. Unfortunately, I can’t make much of it; It’s too distorted.”

Quinn uttered a curse.

I asked to see the footage. The ghost shot a look at Morgan, who begrudgingly gave a nod. So Specter manipulated the sphere until it projected the footage on a blank space in the wall. Everything kept blitzing out as if someone were playing with high-powered magnets near the camera. I could barely make out something vaguely humanoid in shape approaching the trio of payphones outside the truck stop. One frame gave an instant of near-clarity, and I had Specter rewind and freeze it.

“The caller wore high heels,” I stated. Actually, they were more like spiked heels. In fact, you could probably stake a vampire with them.

“And that helps us how?” demanded Morgan. “A demon could have easily possessed a passing cowan and used their body to make the call.”

I fretted at my lip. She had a point. A possession would also cause a huge flux of energy, which explains why the footage wound up so distorted. But those heels…

“Hey, jinxed one,” called Quinn.

I looked down at the phone. “Yeah?”

“I’d like to get you out here to Cynthia’s to see if you can get anything. Deaths—especially sudden or violent ones—leave a residual energy. Sometimes even a shade. Maybe your sensitivity to the energy will get us something we missed.”

“Is it all right with the cops?”

“They’re going to be busy,” he answered cryptically.

Go into an active crime scene and use my abilities to help a police investigation? What an opportunity! I’ve dreamed of doing just that for years. In fact, I would have leaped at the chance to do it.

So why am I hesitating?

Morgan sighed. “Mater Dei, just say you’ll do it.”

“Paladin!” snarled Quinn. “If she doesn’t want to do—”

“I do,” I blurted. “Really. I’m just…”

“Scared.”

I glared at the blonde. “Wouldn’t you be if you had a bounty on your head and at least one Shadow on your tail every time you stepped off the ship?”

She snapped her mouth shut, glowered back.

“Cybil,” Quinn said, his voice soft and understanding. It drew my attention away from the haughty blonde and back down to the phone. “I give you my word that, should you choose to come to my aid, I will protect you.”

I could almost feel his desperation through the phone. He needed my help. AEON needed my help. We had to find that mirror before it could be used again, and I might just have the ability to crack the case wide open. But it would leave me exposed. I’d be vulnerable to the demons hunting me. And I had no way to protect myself.

I took a deep breath. “I’ll do it.”

“Great!”

“But I’d really like some sort of defense. Just in case.”

“Paladin, arm her,” commanded Quinn. “And get down here yesterday.”

“I will Light Jump us to—”

“She’s a demon, Morgan. You can’t teleport with her.”

The blonde uttered something in another language. “Fine. I’ll take a car.”

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