Authors: Unknown Author
Tags: #Don Bassingthwaite
A World of Darkness Novel
The sun was just beginning to rise as Solomon stepped out of the long, black sedan. To the southeast, the skyscrapers of Toronto’s downtown core were silhouettes against the rosy predawn sky. It was going to be another hot day. July was one of the worst months to be in Toronto. People complained about the winter, with its cold winds and slushy streets, but sticky, smoggy July was just as bad. Solomon slipped off the jacket he wore over his black T-shirt and tossed it back into the sedan. “Keep the motor running, David. We’ll go home again as soon as I’m finished.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Solomon walked through the iron gates of one of the University of Toronto’s many colleges. It was a pleasant building, now abandoned for the summer except for a few visiting scholars and a handful of graduate students. Several old trees grew in the college courtyard, and water splashed in broad fountains at the base of a bell tower. More water dripped from the body that two big men were hauling out of the pool. A third man, lean and hatchet-faced, watched them. Solomon walked over to him. “You’re cutting it close, Arthurs,” he said angrily. “I called you three hours ago.” Just moments after he had received a telephone call himself,
a telephone call that had consisted of a single name.
“We just found him,” Jubilee Arthurs said hastily. “We missed him the first time we were here looking. He was in a shadow under the water.” Arthurs was in his late fifties, his hair gray, his clothing loose on an aging frame. Solomon was barely pushing thirty. His skin was tanned and his muscular body stretched his T-shirt tight. His hair was black and slicked back. He had the kind of look that spoke of days spent in the gym and nights spent at clubs. He knew it. He cultivated that look. Arthurs prodded the wet body with his toe rather than meet Solomon’s dark eyes. “We would have left him in the fountain, but,” he shrugged, “like you said, we’re cutting it close.”
Arthurs’ bodyguards settled the wet body on the flagstones beside the fountain. Solomon knelt beside it, turning its head so that the face of the professor looked at him with clear, terror-haunted blue eyes. A third shining eye stared blindly at him from the professor’s forehead: the head of the nail that had been hammered through his skull. There was little blood. As with the others, the nail had been driven in after he was dead. Solomon rose again and held out his left arm. Arthurs took his hand and kissed the tattooed chain that encircled the thick wrist. It was a strange tattoo, gleaming dully as though steel rather than ink had been embedded under the skin. Solomon caught Arthurs by the neck before he could move away. “Full obedience.” He reached across his chest and pulled aside the collar of his T-shirt to reveal his left shoulder. He had another tattoo there, a rearing black beast. Sometimes people mistook it for a heraldic lion rampant. In fact, it was a mastiff.
Arthurs glanced up at him. This time it was Solomon who refused to make eye contact. He kept his eyes fixed forward, unnervingly distant. Arthurs bent his head and kissed Solomon’s wrist again. “I pay homage to Shaftiel,” he murmured obediently. He straightened a little and leaned forward to kiss the tattoo on Solomon’s bared shoulder. “1 pledge my soul and service to the Sentinel of the Ways, the Hungry Guardian Who Watches the Three Ages, the Hound of Thorns, the One Who Waits, the One Who Comes First.” He stood straight and kissed Solomon’s angry, unmoving lips. “I will obey his servant in this world. I am Bandog.”
He was calm. Too calm. Solomon didn’t want him calm. He wanted him anxious, frightened.
And a mage, especially one of the demon-serving Nephandi, had the power to make almost anything he wanted happen. Solomon reached out with his will and just a touch of magick, seizing reality and bending it. For a moment, Arthurs’ heart thundered in his chest. His face became slightly frantic. Whether the mercenary recognized magick at work or not, his body was responding to the cue of his racing heart. “You don’t have any clues, do you, Arthurs?” Solomon asked coldly. “You’re no closer to knowing why this is happening than when I first asked you to investigate. And two
more of our master's followers
two more of the High Circle
Arthurs actually cringed before the lash of his voice. “I’m not a private eye, Solomon,” he protested, “I’m an arms dealer. Can’t you get—” -
“You’re a mercenary.” Solomon turned away from Arthurs. The two big men, Arthurs’ henchmen and bodyguards, were watching them. They looked away hastily. Solomon swept his gaze around the dark windows of the college. “One of the best, so I’ve heard. Or you used to be. Now what’s happened? You’ve been disgraced, Arthurs. You’ve messed up one too many times. You’re getting old and clumsy. Even Pentex won’t hire you anymore, not after that episode last winter with the Garou and the Wynn-tainted bullets. It was an easy job, but it fell apart in your hands.”
He glanced back to see what effect his words had had. Arthurs was red in the face. “How did you know about that?”
“You’d be surprised what I know about the people who join the Bandog, Arthurs, especially the people I bring into the High Circle. So many of them are desperate. So many of them seek Shaftiel’s aid. I like to know why.” Solomon smiled. “You can get access to contacts and resources that I can’t. Find the killers who are preying on us, Arthurs, and Shaftiel will see that your fortunes rise again.” His smile turned sharp. “Think of it as a last-chance contract.”
Solomon turned back to the professor’s body without looking at Arthurs again. He knew that the man would very likely be pale and swallowing hard, weighing the pact he had made in choosing to join the Bandog. It was, of course, far, far too late for him to back out now. Solomon gave him a little time to sweat, then squatted down beside the professor’s body once more. “Do you have anything new to tell me? We're still looking at two murderers?”
“Umm...” Arthurs hesitated, trying to find words that wouldn't make him look like a fool. “Yes. And no
— nothing new. Not as such.” Solomon almost grinned at the old man’s desperation; he was at the end of a very frayed rope. “I’ve been in his office. All the usual signs, though: a new bottle of the victim’s drink of choice open, three chairs moved and sat in, two glasses drunk from. And the cut link.” He pulled something from his pocket and passed it to Solomon. A heavy link from a chain, one side cut through so the link could be separated from the rest of the chain. Solomon wrapped his hand around the link and squeezed tightly, feeling the cool metal against the skirt of his palm. The nail, the cut link, the final drink, the mocking calls that told him who had just died — of it all, only the cut link made sense. The killers were severing the chain of the Bandog one link at a time.
“What about the people here? Did anyone see anything?” -
“No, not as far as I can tell from their dreams.” Arthurs coughed and added, “I’m keeping them asleep now so we won’t be disturbed.”
Arthurs’ access to contacts and resources wasn’t the only reason Solomon had elevated him to the High Circle of the Bandog. The mercenary had other useful talents. Not magick, but useful nonetheless. Now Solomon just gave him a dull stare. Arthurs shifted nervously. “But you didn’t find anything else.” Not a question. A statement of fact. Arthurs looked away. “Look again. Keep everyone here asleep until noon if you have to.”
“What about the body?”
Solomon touched the professor’s corpse. “We’ll make it look like another suicide.” He gestured at the body’s head. “Pull out the nail. You remembered to bring something this time?”
Arthurs flushed, but produced a clavvhead hammer and proceeded to wrench the nail out of the professor’s forehead. It left a neat, round hole behind. “An accident would be more believable than a suicide,” he suggested humbly. “Hardly anyone commits suicide by drowning themselves.”
Solomon just glared at him. “An accident then.” He pulled a small packet of herbs from his pocket, glancing at Arthurs’ bodyguards as he did so. “How much do they know?” It was a vague question, but Solomon knew Arthurs would understand what he meant.
“Not enough for what you need.” Arthurs gestured toward a door leading into the dark interior of the college. “You two take care of the office. Lose the extra glass and fix the chairs.” The bodyguards nodded and disappeared. Arthurs turned back to Solomon. “All clear.”
Setting the packet on a dry patch of ground, Solomon began to run his hands over the professor’s wet body as though he were frisking him. Arthurs leaned in, watching closely. Solomon knew the mercenary was trying to catch the trick to what he was doing. He never would, of course. The young man concentrated on the body under his hands, his eyes narrow and distant. “Alcohol in his stomach, but hardly any in his blood. I’ll have to increase that. High levels of adrenaline and epinephrine. Like the others. Bruising on the back of his head, neck and shoulders. Bruising along his belly as well. They forced his head under the water. The bruising on his belly is from the edge of the fountain.” He would have to remove all of it — and the nail hole. He glanced at Arthurs. “If he had fallen into the pool and hit his head hard enough to knock
him out, how much damage would there...”
Solomon broke off suddenly and sucked in his breath. “What is it?” Arthurs asked.
“There are abrasions around his left wrist and hand. Like something was pulled off him.” He clenched his teeth. “Why didn’t you tell me they had taken his chain?”
“I didn’t know!” Unconsciously, Arthurs twitched his left arm back. He wore a heavy, silvery chain bracelet, not unlike Solomon’s tattoo. Solomon knew that some of the Bandog, like Arthurs and the professor, wore the seemingly innocent chains openly, flouting their secret worship of Shaftiel. The professor was the first of the victims who had done so. “Can you track the bracelet with magick?”
“No.” Solomon pushed up the left sleeve of the professor’s shirt. The skin of his wrist and the back of his hand was scratched. The scratches were slight and not very deep, the sort of abrasions that pulling off a chain bracelet might produce. Solomon picked up his packet of herbs and opened it. The herbs inside were coarsely crushed and had a peculiar smell. Some of the few people who had smelled the herbs said that the scent reminded them of old graveyards in Europe. Others said that the smell reminded them of a mortuary. There was truth in both statements. Some of the herbs had indeed come from plants commonly associated with Old World graveyards, and derivatives of others were used in embalming. Solomon also used them in the preparation of dead bodies — although hardly in the way that a mortician would. He had been planning to use them to erase the signs of struggle from the professor’s body. Now he had a better idea.
He took a big pinch of herbs out of the packet and ground it fine between' his thumb and forefinger, letting the fragrant powder settle into the palm of his other hand. Water squeezed out of the corpse’s clothes turned the ground herbs into a thin, runny, gray-green paste. The paste he smeared across the corpse’s hand and wrist, rubbing it gingerly into the dead skin. When he was finished, the skin had acquired a bit of the paste’s gray-green color. “Do you have a knife?” he asked Arthurs. The mercenary shook his head. Solomon frowned. He would have to detach the hand himself. He stretched his thumb and forefinger around the professor’s forearm, just above the stained skin, and concentrated, once again bending reality to his will.
The dead flesh under his grip began to decay.
The cold skin blackened, then liquefied. Solomon’s thumb and finger sank into the muscles and tendons underneath. More flesh rotted away. Thumb and forefinger met. The last flesh sloughed off the bare bones, leaving a foul gap in the professor’s forearm. Solomon pressed against the exposed radius bone, then the ulna, with the edge of his thumbnail. Each bone cracked neatly in turn. Maggots wriggled in the marrow. The professor’s left hand came away in Solomon’s grip. He stood and took a few steps toward the college gates, watching the scratches on the hand.
The leading edge of the scratches changed as he watched. The scratches were growing.
“Arthurs!” he snapped. The other man came to his feet. Solomon shoved the detached gray-green hand at him. “Take this. Use it to find the professor’s chain.”
Arthurs took the hand gingerly, but not squeamishly. “How? You said you couldn’t track the chain.”
“I can’t. But when the killers took the chain, they took some skin with it. The scratches will guide you: they’ll always point toward the skin on the chain, and they’ll get deeper when you get close to it.” He grinned, baring strong, white teeth. “If the scratches start bleeding, you’re practically standing on top of the damn thing.”
Arthurs nodded. “What if the killers dumped the bracelet somewhere?”
Solomon’s smiled disappeared. “Then it will still be closer to them than we’ve been yet, won’t it?” He looked up at the sky. Dawn was only minutes away. “Get going. Do whatever’s necessary to get these people. I want them, and the sooner, the better.”