Magic is Life

Cameron hates the intrusive little gods that did nothing to save the lives of his wife and son. He distrusts their motives and insistence on worship.

That doesn’t mean that he can ignore an official summons to investigate a crime scene, one that will lead him to questions he’d rather not ask, and a new partner he doesn’t want.

1

The headache was a sign from the little gods, those shriveled pricks, those intrusive, callous weasely bastards —

Careful, Cameron. Wendy’s voice, sweet and high, like the perfect note of a harp. As if she was still there. Careful, Cameron. What if they heard?

What if, indeed?

Cameron shoved the heels of his hands against his gritty eyes until he saw spots of blue. He scraped the slime of the night from his tongue with his teeth and grimaced. Why had he woken up anyway?

The bell had sounded. The tiny brass bell that sat above the hearth on the mantel. Mrs. Book’s bell.

Cameron sat up, the mattress squeaking beneath him as he moved. The tiny flat, nothing more than a single room that smelled of the Chinese restaurant downstairs, was apparently empty. Even in the dim dawn light from the open curtains (he had closed them last night), he could see that. Outside, Three Rivers, called the new heart of the Northwest, was waking up to honks and clatter, the sharp snap of a casting chased by a smattering of applause. Some street magic, entertainment for the busy workers on their way to the office, the store or the train.

Past dawn, what time was it anyway? Cameron groped for his watch on the nightstand. The heavy gold band slipping comfortably around his wrist. His Father’s Day gift from Wendy and Peter, one of the few things he had kept. The display was dim, faded. He blinked. Damn, hadn’t charged it last night.

A deep breath. Ignoring the headache that pounded on the inside of his skull like miners hard at work, Cameron extended his index finger to the watch face and concentrated. A dog barked outside. A child wailed. He ignored all of that. Drew in breath and focused.

He panted between clenched teeth. A deep blue glow filled the veins on the back of his hand, the light turning the surrounding tissues a deep reddish purple. Breathing faster now, he pushed and the blue glow swam down his hand, tracing his veins around his finger. It burst out, that flash of pain like popping a pimple, the tiny splash of relief, and dripped down into the watch.

In the watch the blue glow lit up the face. Dark numbers swam into focus. Seven thirty-eight already, too early to get up. Wendy was the one who got up early. The seconds counted away.

The bell sounded again, sharp and insistent.

 

“I heard,” Cameron grunted, turning to the hearth. Was that a bit of burgundy disappearing behind the Urn? He caught glimpses, best not mentioned.

The mantel was a massive dark beam, stained by soot and age. The Urn was tall and dark, lovingly polished to a shine. Nearby, the brass bell gleamed. And this morning, behind the bell, propped between it and the wall, a folded piece of paper, sealed in a dab of cherry red wax.

Shit on toast! A summons. An official, report your ass to work summons. Praise the fucking little gods.

Cameron stood up, running his hands down his rumbled black suit coat. He pulled the tie free on his way to the hearth, tossing it in the wicker basket next to the cold stones, and pulled a clean one from the brass hooks driven into the front of the mantel. The paper of the summons was crisp and somehow cold to the touch, but there was a cinnamon toothpick tucked in the top. That was from Mrs. Book.

He took that, put it between his lips, shoved the summons into his pocket, and grabbed the badge and gun from where they lay on the mantel. Shoes were by the door. Coffee on the way, wherever it was the summons was sending him.

A glimpse of broken glass and an open place between buildings. A flash of green trees blowing even without wind, leaves ripped free and spinning, edges charred.

His headache stabbed at his temples again, driving the vision away in a wash of red. The room spun around him. He braced himself on the door frame.

Not good then. Uptown, that open space with the tall gleaming spires rising around. Something bad had happened.

2

Bad was an understatement. That much was obvious when Cameron arrived on the scene, pushing his way through the crowd gathered around the scene. That was the first sign it was bad. Crowds didn’t stick around unless there were gory bits to look at, and this was big crowd. Mostly business types in expensive suits worth more than he made in a month. Men and women who took their success as proof that they were favored by the little gods.

Maybe they were, he sure the hell wasn’t. Cameron held up his badge. “Excuse me! Make room! Make room!”

The crowd was reluctant, but he was determined. Funny, since he didn’t really want to get to other side of this mass of humanity. When he finally broke through the very first thing he saw were the white backs of the Priesthood.

That was the second thing that told him this was bad. The Priesthood shouldn’t be here. Not on scene like this. A half dozen of them knelt at points around the perimeter, hands clasped in front of their bowed heads. It was more than praying to the little gods. The waves of compulsion coming off them kept the crowd back more effectively than any crime scene tape ever did.

Each wave was like whispers in his ears, telling him to move back. Look away. Forget what you saw.

Cameron sucked on the chewed cinnamon toothpick, rolled it around with his tongue and sucked on the other end. That last bit of the compulsion pissed him off. Did the damn arrogant priests ever consider that there might be witnesses in the crowd? People that they needed to talk to? If the compulsion drove them off, made them forget what they saw, how effective was this investigation going to be?

He ignored the compulsion. His peculiar talents helped. He shoved through it, and stepped out away from the crowd.

The third bad thing was the scene itself. Shoving the compulsion aside made his head ache more, like an ice pick behind his eyes, but it gave him clarity.

The place was a fucking mess. Rubble and blown glass. Tattered cloth. Bodies covered in dark cloths, he skipped over those right now. The Lunar Cafe was, had been, one of those upscale coffee places, the sort that served really good coffee, not the burnt brew he’d gotten from the cart at the train station. This place catered to the Three Rivers elite, business types that worked in the surrounding spires.

Something had blown it up. Few people channeled that sort of destructive magic. Flashes of pain hit his nerves. Screams assaulted his ears. Cameron grimaced. A glimpse, that was all. No detail.

Inside the priests’ line, the place crawled with first responders. Constables, healers, and fire charmers moved around the scene. And more members of the Priesthood, standing straight and gleaming white vestments. They were calling out all of the stops on this one, why? An itch like a sneeze building warned him from going closer. What hadn’t he seen yet?

Cameron rolled the toothpick in his mouth, barely a hint of the cinnamon flavor remained. Only one way to find out. He’d have to go closer to the scene.

He’d barely taken a step, when a group of the constables moved, and a lean tall man stepped away, pale eyes fixed on Cameron. His suit was expensive and perfectly tailored. The little gods had to be fucking with him now. The man was chief constable Noah Redfield, and at his side was one of the Priesthood, a woman, one of the maters, with long straight red hair. Young, her face pale and flawless, but dusted with freckles like fairy dust. She was so bright in the sunlight. And she was also looking at him. Too late to turn back now.

“Chief,” Cameron said, as he reached them. This far into the scene the smoke and stink of burnt flesh stabbed at his senses, making his head pound more.

“Cameron,” Redfield said. “I see you got the summons.”

“Praise them,” the mater at his side murmured.

The chief glanced at the mater and continued. “We need you on this one.”

“I barely got any sleep last night,” Cameron said. “It looks like you’ve got all the help you need here.”

“I asked for you,” the mater said. Her voice was deep, throaty. “The Chief says that you see things, surely a gift from the divinity.”

More like a curse. Cameron, Wendy’s reproachful tone was faint in his thoughts.

“Of course,” Cameron said. “Anything I can do to serve.”

“This is mater Elizabeth,” the chief said. “She’s been appointed liaison in this matter.”

She took a step forward, her intense green eyes searching his face. Looking for what? Awe? Worship of her precious little gods?

“This investigation must go without flaws,” she said. “If people were to learn of the victim, it would cause great distress.”

Victim? Four bodies lay beneath sheets outside the destroyed cafe, and there were more dark sheets inside.

“You need to show him,” Redfield said.

Cameron held up his hand. “Wait a second.” He pointed at the kneeling priests. “They need to stop what they’re doing first. How are we going to canvas witness statements, if they’re driving off our witnesses and making them forget?”

Mater Elizabeth shook her head. “There’s no need of any canvasing. Better for all that this incident go unremarked. You’ll understand when you see.”

He held his ground. “If we can’t investigate properly, how do we build a case? I am assuming you want the person responsible caught?”

“We know who is responsible,” she said. “The investigation will be brief. The witness statements are not needed.”

“Work with the mater,” Redfield said. “You’ll understand.”

Understand that the Priesthood was screwing with the investigation. And who got the blame when it went bad? Not those chosen by the little gods, that was for sure.

“Please,” she said.

It was the please that got him moving. In his experience the Priesthood didn’t ask nicely. The fact of the please told him two things. One, that he already knew, was that the case was serious. But she could have taken it different, commanded him, rather than asking. That told him something about her, something he hadn’t known.

A red-haired child ran through a field, sunlight setting her hair ablaze. Her laughter was deep and full, she looked over her shoulder

“Constable?”

Cameron stirred. “Yes, okay. Show me.”

She moved with steady grace into the crime scene, as if somehow apart from it, while he crunched along like a clumsy ape. The debris field fanned out from the cafe. The blast had turned glass to tiny bits. Splintered and charred wood littered the ground among the bodies.

That glimpse, of the child, that had been her, mater Elizabeth. A happier time in her childhood. Before being adopted into the Priesthood?

The mater stepped out of the sunlight into the smoky shadows inside the cafe. Cameron followed.

Right there, near the right side of the room, that’s where the blast came from. A glimpse of heat, shearing his skin. Cameron jerked and his breath hissed between his teeth. Elizabeth turned, her pale freckled brow wrinkling.

“Are you well, Constable? Do you need me to pray to the gods for you?”

“I’m fine.” Cameron moved past her, pointing unnecessarily at the blackened scorch marks. “That’s where the blast originated.”

There were bodies nearby, dark mounded shapes on the floor surrounded by debris. A large one, and a much smaller one next to it. Cameron bit down on the toothpick, breaking it in half. He took it out of his mouth and shoved it in his pocket. His eyes skipped across that smaller shape and away.

“Is the one responsible one of these?” He gestured at the other bodies in the cafe. A blast like that, enough magic to cause all of this, was probably equally fatal to the one responsible. Even if he hadn’t died, it would have taken years off his life.

“No,” she said.

“No? You know that how? Did they tell you?” His words came out harsher than he meant.

No need to define who they were. They might not show themselves often, but they were always around. Watching. Intrusive little bastards when you didn’t want them, and useless when you did. Like this.

Elizabeth’s eyes watered, just a bit. Shit on toast! This had to be upsetting for her too. Cameron shook his head.

“I didn’t mean —”

“It’s not that,” she said. She took a deep breath, composing herself. “This wasn’t a magical attack. The ones responsible weren’t here at all.”

She moved before he could frame the questions that piled on his lips. She walked to the bodies nearby, crouching beside the smaller one even though her vestments dragged on the sooty floor. Cameron wanted to look away, and couldn’t. Elizabeth pulled the dark cloth back.

Peter. Not a glimpse, a memory. Peter’s face ashen, except the flecks of blood on his plump cheek. It’d been dark that night, not sunny like now.

Cameron stabbed his eyes with his finger and thumb, squeezing on the bridge of his nose. He looked again.

This wasn’t Peter. The features were fine and sharp, masculine despite the beautiful fair skin. Not a child’s face at all. One side torn and bloody, ragged with bright bits of metal. Shrapnel from the explosion. Adult proportions, in a height no more than thirty inches tall. A tiny, delicate man wearing a earth-brown tunic. The upper tips of his ears bent slightly outward and down, just a bit. Long fair hair spilled out around him, turned reddish-brown with blood.

One of the little gods, dead. A brownie, probably one that lived here in the cafe, looking over the place and its patrons. Dead. As dead as any of the other victims.

Cameron did get a glimpse then. A brown satchel, something inside irresistibly flashing inside, with tiny green glints escaping like sparks from the satchel. A tiny fair hand undoing the clasp and then a green flash too bright to look at. He squinted his eyes closed and turned away.

“You saw it, just then, didn’t you?” Mater Elizabeth asked.

When he looked she was standing again, the body at her feet covered once more.

His head pounded like the little gods themselves were knocking on his skull. His tongue tasted of ashes and soot. The light from outside was bright, blinding, hiding everyone else even though he could hear them out there.

“Yes,” he croaked. He coughed, and tried again. “Yes. A glimpse, that’s all. I don’t see much.”

“Enough, to confirm what we think?”

“Which is?”

“An explosive device was planted, set to go off the minute that it was opened by, by the victim. Loaded with salt and silver.”

“I don’t know. It was only a glimpse, but I saw his hand,” a nod at the body, “opening the clasp. At least I think it was his hand, it’s hard to say. That’s all I got.”

“Can you try again?”

“Maybe.” Cameron rubbed his lips. He went to the body beside the little god. “Who’s this?”

“A member of the Priesthood, Pater Samuels.”

Cameron crouched, and flipped back the corner of the blanket. Charred and blackened skin, red beneath, was all that was left of the pater’s face. Lips burned away, teeth exposed in an endless scream. The same sort of shrapnel embedded in the charred skin. He was burned much worse than the little god. Cameron pulled the cloth back over the pater’s face.

“How was he identified?”

“His signet ring,” Elizabeth said. “Merely unfortunate that he was caught in the blast.”

Cameron rotated without rising and with a flat hand, gestured out from that spot to the others. “The explosion went that way. Presumably unfortunate for all of them too. Any other members of the Priesthood? Any gods?”

“No. All of the others were customers or staff or those passing. None of that is relevant. Someone set a device to kill the god of this establishment.”

The blast had radiated outward, blowing apart the tables and chairs as if insubstantial, burning —

heat and flames brighter than the sun. Deafening. Glass fragments everywhere

Cameron shook off the glimpse. “You said you knew who was behind this?”

“Unbelievers. We thought they were harmless nonconformists, obviously that’s not the case!”

“Unbelievers?” He rubbed his head, thinking about the possibility. “What would this gain them?”

“Nothing,” Elizabeth said. “It will, however, cost them a great deal!”

“It’s a place to start,” Cameron said. “I know a guy we can talk to, but you follow my lead on this.”

“As you wish. Shall I drive?”

“After you,” Cameron said. Last thing he needed to do was pour more magic into a car.

3

As it turned out, Elizabeth wasn’t offering to drive the car herself, and what more should he have expected from someone serving the little gods? That she should pour her own life’s magic into the machine? Of course not, there was a man to do that, hawk-faced Kevan that took the wheel while they rode in the back.

Wesley Sheldon lived in a shabby loft in a converted warehouse down on East River Bank. Two years ago Cameron had helped Sheldon get over a counterfeiting operation turning out fake IDs. Sheldon was an open unbeliever, which basically made him ape-shit crazy. Cameron got being pissed at the little gods, but in a pissing contest a human was always going to lose. Besides, it wasn’t like the little gods were fucking made up or something. Maybe they usually went without being seen, but the small body on the floor made it clear that they were real flesh and blood. The dying, that was new.

Inside the building’s lobby was cracked tile, stained by the passage of feet over the years, and a whole wall taken up with brass-fronted mailboxes. Cameron didn’t bother with the lift, running that sort of thing was a waste of magic. He headed for the stairs instead. Elizabeth followed him up without comment. It was only to the third floor. There, a long hallway stretched out in front of them, apartments on either side. Stained concrete floors, dirty and scuffed with age, smelling faintly of old piss. Light came from weakly illuminated bulbs hanging naked down the middle of the hallway. Whoever did their lighting wasn’t expending much energy for it. Who could blame them?

“This man will help us?”

“If he knows what’s good for him. He may have some names, people we can talk to, to get the person responsible.”

Wesley lived all the way at the far end of the hall. He opened the door at Cameron’s second knock. Wesley looked like he had goblin blood in his family line somewhere, he was short, warty and covered in wiry brown hair that stuck out from everywhere, his nose and ears included, as if it couldn’t get far enough away from his head.

“Constable!” Wesley licked his lips, wringing his hands. His eyes went to Elizabeth and he gulped. He bowed deep. “Honored mater, please, please come in.”

Cameron went in, forcing Wesley to scurry back. The place was a labyrinth of boxes and papers, stacked on every available surface. Elizabeth lingered in the doorway, her hands pressed together, as she took in the view.

“What is all of this?”

“Historical research!” The sweep of Wesley’s arm nearly upset a pile on an overloaded table.

The cat piss smell was stronger here and Cameron saw other eyes watching them. Cats. Many cats, tucked in between or on the stacks. Slitted eyes watched them both.

The bridge of Elizabeth’s nose wrinkled slightly. Cameron caught a glimpse of her dismay, carefully contained, and took the lead.

“Wesley, there was an explosion up town. Non-magical, what can you tell me about that?” He didn’t say anything about the victim. That wasn’t knowledge that the Priesthood, or the constables, would want spread.

“Explosion!” Wesley turned and scurried around a pile. He picked up a small fluffy black cat and scratched behind its ears. The cat sat contentedly in the crook of Sheldon’s arm, purring. “Nothing. Nothing. What would I know about explosions? I’m a researcher!”

Elizabeth looked down her nose at the papers on the nearest stack. “Researching what, exactly?”

“Um, our history, that’s all. Not enough people are interested in our history.”

“Our gods tell us all we need to know of history,” Elizabeth said. “What else is there to research?”

Cameron reached out and placed his fingers on top of a teetering stack. “Who would know, Wesley? You talk to other unbelievers, you must have heard something?”

“I’ve heard nothing!”

Cameron gave the stack the gentlest nudge. It tipped, tipped and spilled, papers flying up in a brief flurry before they settled down. Wesley let out a yelp, then bit his bottom lip.

“How can you disbelieve, when the evidence is right before your eyes?” Elizabeth asked. “The gods actions are visible all around us, and they show themselves to the faithful. What is there to disbelieve?”

Wesley’s face screwed up and turned red but he was still biting his bottom lip and wasn’t saying anything. It wasn’t going to take long before his lip turned purple.

Cameron put his fingertips on the next stack of papers. It wobbled and Wesley’s eyes bulged. The place might look chaotic, but Cameron knew that the man had a system, and could lay his hands on any piece of paper in moments, if he wanted.

“We’re asking for a name. Someone we can talk to, and we’ll go, and you can go on with whatever you want to do. Give me something, Wesley. You don’t want to be the center of attention on this.”

With a sickly wet splat, Wesley spit out his bottom lip. He cuddled the cat close to his chest. “Eugene Hodgson, talk to him. Leave me alone. He might give you something.”

Where the windows were, in the reflections, Cameron caught a glimpse of an older man, at least in his mid-forties, elegant, surrounded by books.

Cameron lifted his fingers from the pages, leaving them intact. “Thank you.” He gestured at the piles. “You might want to do something about this, Wesley. It doesn’t look healthy.”

Turning to Elizabeth, he said, “Come on. The name is good. This Hodgson, can you get his info? We need to move quickly.”

“I’ll pray to the gods for you,” Elizabeth said to Wesley.

The short man’s face went pale beneath all the bristly hair. He swallowed and looked ready to faint. Elizabeth was already moving to the door. Cameron managed not to laugh and winked at Wesley as he left.

As the door closed behind Cameron, he heard Wesley wailing to his cats.

“That was wicked,” he said to Elizabeth. “You terrified him good. Put the fear of the little gods to him.”

Her lips tightened. “You should not refer to them as such, and I meant only well-wishes for that sad little man.”

It was okay to call the man little, but not her oh-so-precious gods. Cameron sighed. “How about a prayer for that information we need?”

“Oh, I’ve already done that,” Elizabeth said. “I’m sure the information will be forthcoming soon.”

4

Forthcoming, in fact the moment they stepped foot outside the warehouse. A flock of pigeons came over the edge of the roof and descended on them in a flapping storm of blue-gray feathers. Cameron raised his hands to ward off the flying rats, but the pigeons circled them and landed in front of mater Elizabeth. It was only when she crouched that he saw the pale tiny naked people clinging to their backs.

Nasty, sharp tooth little fucking gods, pixies!

Cameron! Wendy’s voice scolded in his thoughts. More distantly, Peter’s high giggles.

Not even glimpses. His imagination playing tricks on him. He rubbed his temples, waiting while Elizabeth knelt down in front of the pixie flock. One of the pigeons took off in a flutter, landing on her shoulder. She kept her head bowed as the pixies leaned close, whispering in her ear.

Elizabeth nodded.

The pixie’s head snapped over, snake-fast, nipping at her ear. Then it was sitting back on its bird, the nasty thing with red, red lips. Beady dark eyes narrowed, looking back at him.

Shit on toast. Cameron looked down. He didn’t need to piss off the fucking little gods. Not any more than he had obviously already done.

A loud flurry of flapping and the whole flock took off, swirled around them in a dusty rush and were gone. Something hit Cameron’s shoulder, and when he looked there was white pigeon shit running down his suit coat. He groaned.

“I have the information,” Elizabeth said.

She was standing. Her eyes flicked to the mess on his coat, but she didn’t say anything. Her red hair fell down around her face. He couldn’t see her ear.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She smiled. “Shall we go?”

5

While Kevan drove the sleek white car, Elizabeth filled Cameron in on what the nipping pixie had shared. He listened, and tried using a tissue to clean the mess off his suit coat. A hopeless attempt, it was going have to go to the cleaners. Just another shitty sign from the little gods.

Eugene Hodgson, a professor of economics at the Three Rivers University, up in the university district along Crescent Lake. Tenured. Confirmed unbeliever.

“Confirmed how, exactly?” Cameron asked.

Elizabeth’s brow wrinkled. “The gods told me.”

Ah, right. The nippy, pigeon-riding shitty god, that one.

Cameron, Wendy would say, in her soft, disapproving, exasperated tone. Ice-picks stabbed the backs of his eyes. He rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes, then dragged his hands down his face, yawning. His stomach rumbled.

“Are you unwell?”

He shook his head. “Fine. Let’s get this done.”

As the car pulled into the University parking, they found it blocked off, barricaded by constables and Priesthood vehicles. Their car was waved on through. Cameron twisted around, watching as the barricades were replaced. He turned to Elizabeth.

“What’s going on? What’s all of this? I thought we were just going to talk to this guy?”

“The unbelievers are behind this attack,” she said. “The Priesthood feels that our tolerance to heresy has gone on too long.”

“But you don’t know that Hodgson had anything to do with this!’

“Perhaps not, but we are taking no chances. We will listen to what he says.”

“And justice? Don’t the gods care about that?”

“Justice for whom? For the god brutally murdered? Or the other innocent bystanders, one of them a member of the Priesthood? Oh, I assure you, constable, they care.” Her voice deepened. “But they are vengeful gods. It isn’t wise to incur their wrath!”

For a while he had forgotten that she was a mater. Her harsh tone made it abundantly clear. Cameron rubbed his hands on his pants.

“And if Hodgson had nothing to do with this crime?”

The car stopped. “Then he will be set free, on notice that heresy does not go unnoticed, or unanswered.”

Right. Cameron followed her out of the car.

Hodgson’s office was elegant, book-lined and formal, much like the man that stood stiff-backed in front of them. His hair, oddly, was white, immaculately coiffed, as was his beard. Clear blue eyes looked at them.

“What is the meaning of all of this? I have classes to teach!”

Elizabeth looked at Cameron. Ah, the appearance of impartial investigation. Cameron pulled out a notebook and a small pencil. He flipped it open.

“Dr. Hodgson, there was an explosion this morning just after seven at the Lunar Cafe, uptown on 7th. People were killed.”

“I was nowhere near there!”

“And where were you?”

“At home, in bed. Alone.”

tangled white sheets, a slim, perfect leg sticking out, dark brown skin contrasting with the sheets. The curve of a bottom swelled the sheets. The woman turned, sheets spilling away from her smooth young skin like milk. A cascade of curly dark hair spilled across the pillows around her smiling face

“Alone? There wasn’t a woman with you? Young, a student? Beautiful dark brown skin, bright smile, curly hair?”

The muscles in Dr. Hodgson’s jaw clenched. “Yes, well, obviously you know that, or you wouldn’t ask.” He smiled. “Which also means you know I had nothing to do with the attack.”

“You’re an unbeliever!” Elizabeth said.

Dr. Hodgson nodded. “Yes, I suppose you could say that, which is also reason that I would never do what you suggest.”

“Meaning?” Cameron asked.

“Unbelievers, skeptics, whatever you want to call us, we believe in a reasoned life. How old do you take me for, constable?”

The white hair was striking, suggesting advanced age. “Forty-five?”

Dr. Hodgson shook his head slowly. “No. In point of fact, I am fifty-four years old, as of last March. As the years have passed I have used less and less magic in my daily life, and this is the result, a longer life. It is because of this, and other details, that I don’t accept everything that I’m told.”

Fifty-four! It was staggering to hear him say it. Cameron wrote the number down in his notebook, and that still didn’t make it real. But why lie? They could verify his age.

“Magic is life,” Dr. Hodgson said, looking at Elizabeth. “That what the gods say, correct?”

Dumbly, Elizabeth nodded.

“And yet I get by just fine without it. How many more years have I got? Ten? Twenty? Even more?” Dr. Hodgson shrugged. A small smile touched his lips for a moment. “The gods only know. I have no interest in shortening anyone’s life. I recommend you look at the evidence again, constable. Look to the cause, who the victims were, who might have wanted to harm them? It is only reasonable that the answers are there.”

The man made sense. Cameron touched Elizabeth’s arm. “Let’s go.”

She stepped aside with him. “Where?”

“Like he says. Back to the crime scene. Maybe the answer is there.”

6

The bodies were gone, taken away, but Cameron did have the reports as he moved through the scene. The other evidence remained, organized and sorted. A puzzle with a solution. Elizabeth stood near the boarded up front with her arms crossed. She’d been silent since they left the university. Fuming over what Dr. Hodgson had said?

Cameron was good at compartmentalization. It was one of the things that allowed him to function as a constable. And to function at all after the accident that cost him his family.

I’m worried about you. Wendy whispered, her breath touching his ear.

Except that was only his imagination. He wasn’t haunted. Certainly not by the ghosts of his wife and son. Memories, yes. Not ghosts.

Right now, he would focus on the case. That’s what mattered. The evidence was organized into a grid, taped out sections collecting related evidence together. Redfield had told them all to leave it, clear out until Cameron did his thing.

One square held all of the pieces of the device that had been recovered so far. Cameron crouched beside it, not touching anything yet, looking. A leather case, mostly gone to ash. Bits of twisted metal, some simple, others complex. Parts of a timer?

He tasted copper in his mouth, clinging to his throat. Glimpses came and went, but touching things made it worse. He rubbed his fingers together and picked up a melted lump with wires.

A watch face, green tendrils of magic reaching up from the palm of a hand, drilling deep into the device… The watch glowing in the darkness of the case as the clasp snapped shut.

“The timing device was a normal watch, magical, not mechanical,” he said.

Elizabeth stirred. “What does that mean?”

Cameron shook his head. “If other unbelievers are like Hodgson, they wouldn’t have used magic.”

He put it down and reached for the charred handle of the case. The sour taste was stronger. The pain in his head was blinding, and grew worse as his fingers touched the leather.

A hand reached for the case, white gloves, with a bright white sleeve, the edge embroidered in gold stitches.

Cameron jerked away, gasping.

Elizabeth crossed the room quickly, reaching for him. He scooted backwards on his hands and feet, his eyes on the sleeve of her vestment as it fell around her hand. Her hand was delicate, bird-like bones. Not the hand in the glove. That was a man’s hand.

“What did you see?”

He realized she had already asked, and was repeating her question.

“A hand,” he swallowed, squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. “White gloves, he was wearing vestments. Like yours.”

She stood up straight. Her voice shook. “You’re saying a member of the Priesthood did this? Why?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to ask them.” He opened his eyes. The pain ebbed some. “We have to look at everything.”

“No.” Her head shook once, decisively. “They killed a god!”

Killed a god. If word got out people would panic. If the little gods could be killed, what else could happen?

The same little gods that had allowed his family to die.

You never liked them, Wendy’s voice admonished. Even before.

True. They were manipulative, sometimes cruel, and intrusive little bastards, controlling everything from behind the scenes. But he hadn’t felt such a cold hatred before the accident. The one time when they could have used their powers to do something good where were they?

“Constable? Are you okay?”

Boxes. Compartments. Maybe he wasn’t doing as good of a job as he thought. He pulled out his pencil and flicked through the debris in the square.

“Fine,” he grunted. “This was the watch.”

A lump of metal, shattered and melted. If you squinted, you could make out a bit of the band.

He poked through the rest. Other metal bits, shrapnel apparently put into the bomb. Discs, it looked like, small. Coins. Silver coins? He picked through the coins and found one less melted, bent in half, blackened on one side.

He picked it up. There was a woman, seated, a shield on the floor in front of her and worn letters up the side. United was the only word legible. At the bottom of the coin were two numbers ’18’.

It was a dime. An old one. He held it up to Elizabeth. She took it, turning it in her fingers.

“A dime?”

Cameron stood up, knees aching. “Yes. A silver dime. Dimes aren’t made with silver today.”

“Of course not!” She thrust the coin at him. “Why would we make coins out of a metal toxic to the little gods? It’s an offensive thought!”

He took it, and pulled an evidence bag from his pocket. He slipped the coin inside. “Does it remind you of what Sheldon told us? And Hodgson?”

“What do you mean?”

He held up the bag, shaking the coin inside. “Clearly dimes were made with silver content in the past. Why would they do that?”

“They wouldn’t! It must be a fake!”

His gut told him otherwise. He hadn’t gotten any glimpse from the coin, it didn’t always happen when he wanted, or it was convenient. And with his head hurting, he didn’t care. He slipped the bag into his pocket.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, though, it takes us closer to our bomber. How did he come by the dimes? He had to get them from somewhere. We knock on a few coin dealers, we might get some answers. There can’t be too many places that deal in silver coins.”

7

Elizabeth had refused to pray to her gods for guidance. “They aren’t a business directory!”

Kevan pulled the car over at the third coin shop they’d visited. At the first two, the dealers had recoiled from the coin as if it was toxic for humans to touch.

Camera got out of the car. The sign across the face of the shop was Edgehill Coins. Gold bought and sold. Now gold, that was something the little gods fucking loved. Greedy bastards.

The other car door opened and Elizabeth got out. He turned. “You could wait, if you want.”

“No,” she said. “My presence might encourage truthfulness.”

It might at that. Cameron went to the door, and waited for her to catch up. He opened the door automatically, stepping aside to let her enter first.

“Welcome! Many blessings of the day…”

The voice trailed off as Cameron stepped inside the dimly lit store. As his eyes adjusted he saw the man behind the counter. A man, soft and baby-faced, still. Bright red pimples scattered like constellations across his forehead.

The man smiled at Elizabeth, looked nervously at Cameron, and back to her again, as if his dark eyes couldn’t decide which of them to address first. He focused on Elizabeth.

Probably smart.

“Ah, are you together? May I help you?”

“We are,” Cameron grunted. He went to the counter, and pulled out his notebook, letting his badge flash the guy. “Are you the owner?”

The young man nodded quickly. “That’s right. Rod Edgehill, it’s been in our family for generations. I’ve taken it over now that my father can’t run it.”

“Aren’t you young for such responsibility?” Elizabeth asked. “You must be blessed by the gods.”

A nod, jerking his head. “Yes, mater. We are blessed. The gods see that we receive the rarest, most precious coins and gems, and we pay appropriate tribute in return!”

“How long have you been running the store?” Cameron asked.

“A year now. I grew up here in the store, though, apprenticed to my father.”

Good enough. Cameron hauled out the evidence back and held it up in front of Rod. “You ever see dimes like this before?”

“No. It doesn’t ring any bells.”

The answer was too quick. The kid hardly even looked at it. He pushed it closer to Rod’s face. “Maybe you better take a closer look, son.”

Rod recoiled. Drops of sweat beaded on his pimply face. “I haven’t seen it before!”

Elizabeth, turned away from the counter, placing her hand on Cameron’s arm. “Another dead end?”

It wasn’t. Cameron shook her off, turning back to the kid, which was right when he bolted. He sprinted along the aisle behind the counter.

“Hell.” Cameron shoved the dime in his pocket and took off after the kid. “Hold it!”

The kid ignored him, disappearing through a beaded curtain that whipped around him.

At the end of the counter Cameron banged through the swinging gate marked No Admittance. He drew his gun and peeked around the corner through the swinging beads.

A back room, narrow, and empty. Cameron looked at Elizabeth, still standing where he’d left her. “Go out front! Keep an eye for him.”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He went through the curtain.

The work area was cluttered with tools and books. Ahead it turned, a set of stairs leading up, and the hallway continuing to the left. Cameron moved forward quickly, cautiously. Anyone willing to blow up a cafe probably wouldn’t worry about shooting a constable.

He hugged the wall where the hallway turned, then looked around, a quick look.

Empty. A long corridor, waste bins and an outer door swinging shut.

He ran to the door at a full sprint, and caught it with his foot. Peeked, out, weapon ready.

Rod, already a good distance down the alley running behind the store.

Cameron burst through the door and gave chase. “Stop! By order of the law!”

Edgehill wasn’t stopping. Damn him! He was younger and faster. Cameron sucked air and ran full out, his legs already burning. He shoved the gun back into the holster. It wasn’t like he was going to shoot the kid. He really needed to spend more time exercising.

Where were the little gods now? He was trying to solve the murder of one of their own, the least they could do was help out!

A delivery truck pulled into the alley in front of Rod. The boy tried to swerve and wasn’t fast enough. He ran smack into the front of the truck as the tires squealed on the asphalt.

No! Cameron didn’t have the breath to shout.

Rod flew back from the truck as batted into the outfield. He tumbled and rolled, landing hard in the alley. Foul ball!

If the fucking little gods caused this, killed this boy—

He couldn’t even finish the thought. He reached Rod moments later. The kid was lying sprawled on the asphalt, clothes scraped, blood on his face. He groaned and blinked up at Cameron, trying to shield his eyes.

Sucking air, Cameron put his hands on his hips. It looked like the kid would live. The delivery drive climbed down out of the truck, pulling off his baseball cap and wringing in his hands.

“Oh, gods! Is he going to be okay?”

Cameron flashed his badge. “Why don’t you do that? Pray to the gods to send us some help. Or better yet, run and get help.”

The driver pressed his hands together. “Of course! Constable. Of course!”

He dropped to his knees in the alley and bowed his head. “Please the gods, send us help for this injured boy.”

Cameron, shook his head, tuned out the litany and knelt beside Rod, who looked like he was trying to get up. Cameron put a hand on Rod’s shoulder.. “Don’t try to move. Wait for help to come.”

Rod groaned and lay back, sobs wracking his body. “I’ve ruined us!”

“How?”

Cameron heard sirens and an ambulance turned into the alley at the other end. Now the gods act.

“Merciful gods be praised!” The driver called out.

“How?” Cameron pressed.

“I bought the coins,” Rod said. He groaned. “Can’t be real, thought they’d have novelty value.”

“Who’d you sell them too?”

Rod coughed. “Didn’t. He came, the pater. Confiscated them.”

“How’d he know you had them? Did he give you a name?”

“No.” Rod coughed more, a ragged sound.

The medics ran up from the ambulance. Both were women, young and fair, but light and dark.

The one with the dark hair, and deep brown skin touched Cameron’s shoulder. “Constable, do you know his name?”

“Rod Edgehill,” Cameron said. He stood up.

Elizabeth was coming down the alley, walking quickly past the ambulance.

“Is he going to be okay?”

The blond woman was holding her hand above Rod’s head. A faint red glow surrounded her hand, and extended down to Rod. “Yes. We can heal his wounds.”

“Thank you,” Cameron said.

“Thank the gods, not us.”

Yeah, right. Cameron bit back the comment as if he was under Wendy’s both amused and disapproving gaze. He walked away, meeting Elizabeth before she reached the scene.

Her eyebrows drew in. “Why did he run?”

“He was afraid. He did say that he bought the coins for their novelty value, but a pater came to the store and confiscated them.”

“A pater? Who?”

“He didn’t know.” Both medics had their hands over the kid, magic spreading out in a fine mist of blues and greens. The blond closed her hands, rocked back on her heels and stood.

She came over to them. There was a red rash now on the side of her face. Stigmata from the healing.

“He’s going to need surgery. There are internal injuries.” She looked to Elizabeth. “With your permission, mater, we’ll take him to the Grove Hospital.”

Elizabeth nodded.

“He’ll live though, right?” Cameron asked. If the kid died, so did one of their clues.

“I believe so, gods willing. We’ve stabilized him, but it will take many sessions, with his body helping, to heal.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said.

The medic went back to help her partner load Edgehill into the ambulance.

Cameron shoved his hands into his pockets and started walking. His fingers found the chewed and broken toothpick. He ran the tip along the splintered wood, wishing he had a fresh one. Elizabeth kept pace at his side as they left the alley and started around the building back to the front.

“What now, constable? Didn’t you get any insights?”

“Glimpses.” When she looked at him, he explained. “I call them glimpses. They’re flashes of sensory details. The fire burning me, the hand reaching for the case, the glow of the watch. I don’t control it.”

“Of course not, the gods do.”

He snorted. “Then they’re capricious li—. Why do this? If they know who’s responsible, why not tell me? Or you at least?”

Elizabeth stopped catching his arm. “They don’t answer to us. It isn’t our place to judge them.”

The familiar old anger rose up, the smoke before the flame. He tried to push it back. “They’re vengeful gods, right?”

“They can be.”

“Then why not go get vengeance?” Cameron thrust his hands out to his sides and turned in a circle, looking up at the buildings. “Why don’t you go get vengeance?”

Again, Elizabeth touched his arm. Her lips pressed together as she looked at him. “What made you hate them so much? How have you gone so far from them?”

He started to deny it. But why? Here he had one of their maters, and she was listening. Why not lay it all out?

Careful. Wendy’s voice said, faint in the back of his mind. He pushed that away. No. I won’t be.

He shook his head. “Where do I start? I could say it was because my wife and son died. Would that make sense? That I blame the gods for their death? They could have done something to save them, and nothing.”

Her eyes closed for a moment and then opened, moist. “I’m sorry.”

Cameron shook his head harder. “Don’t. Don’t be sorry. Why should you? Yeah, the fucking little gods could have done something if they bothered. Had the car break down. Or something else, so at least when Wendy died, she wasn’t behind the wheel!”

Bleeding magic into the car, giving it life, until her own ended. Young, at twenty-five to go. Not unheard of. Hodgson’s words, his age, more than twice Wendy’s drifted in Cameron’s mind. He didn’t know what to do with that. He pushed it all away.

Because it wasn’t true. Their deaths cemented his hate, it didn’t create it.

Cameron stepped closer. “Think about it. They lie. We know they do.”

Elizabeth’s mouth opened, as if to protest. Cameron barreled on.

“They manipulative, greedy little fuckers! They demand tithes of food and blood and gold. They interfere in everything. We can’t do anything without them being in the part of it. If I’m out on a case and I need help, I have to pray that the gods will send it. And if they’re pissed at me? Then I’m screwed. So be it!”

He stopped, breathing hard.

“Everything you see,” Elizabeth said softly. “And yet you fail to see so much of the good they do. What about the simple tasks that they provide? Is there not a brownie or house elf that has done you a kindness?”

Mrs. Book. Cameron fingered the broken toothpick. Peter gave her that name, no idea where he got it from, but they’d all used it.

Elizabeth touched his arm. “Even if we don’t understand it, they have a bigger plan for us. You can’t turn to unbelief, constable. Without them, we’re forsaken.”

Her words, her face was sincere. He believed she meant well. Today, he wasn’t particularly swayed. “What about Hodgson? About his age, that rather than magic being essential to life, it is actually draining life?”

“He lied.” Elizabeth folded her hands together. “I’m sure any documentation he provides would prove fabricated. You know, as well as I do, what happens when people stop using magic.”

Headaches. Like the one that still pounded on his temples. Most people didn’t resist using magic, there was no reason to. It ran everything. It’d be difficult to function, without using it.

In his other pocket, he touched the plastic bag holding the dime. He pulled it out. “What about this?”

“A fabrication. Nothing more.”

Maybe, maybe not. “We know that they were used in the bomb. Edgehill said a pater confiscated them. How would the pater have known about the dimes? Why take them? And how did they end up in the bomb?”

“Without his help identifying the man claiming to be a pater, we may not find out the answers.”

Cameron shook his head. “There’s a pater we haven’t investigated yet. Pater Samuels. He was at the site of the blast. Maybe he was a random victim, or he may have been the target. Or the one responsible.”

“I don’t like where this is going.” She crossed her arms. “What did you have in mind?”

Cameron started walking again. “Let’s find out.”

8

Despite Elizabeth’s considerable reluctance to look into Pater Samuels, she agreed to let Cameron see his quarters and his office.

The Priesthood headquarters flagrantly declared the wealth bled off the people of the city. It was a massive, twisted cluster of reflective spires rising up out of the dense dark woods of Priest Park, at the heart of Three Rivers. The massive park stretched along a half-dozen city blocks, and another three blocks wide. The ground rose, a hill rising toward the heart, where the headquarters glimmered like something from another realm.

Cameron’s throat was dry as Kevan threaded the car into streets around the park, clogged with a mass of humanity. Merchants of all stripes sold from booths that spilled out into the streets. Pedestrians and cyclists moved through the crowds. Pilgrims lined the rugged stone fence surrounding the park, poor souls who came here to pray to the fucking little gods. Elizabeth seemed unaffected by the crowd, no doubt used to having them fawning over her.

Watching the crowds, Cameron’s disgust grew. Why should people do this? Why scrape and bow, leaving their offerings at the fence? Anything of value was more likely to get picked up by those that worked the crowd, than by any little god.

“Does this ever bother you?” He asked, looking at the young mater.

Her shapely eyebrows drew together in apparent confusion. “Why would it bother me? Don’t pilgrims have a right to petition the gods, and the Priesthood?”

“What good does it do?” Cameron waved to the tinted window, the people outside peering at the car, fruitlessly eager for a look at the priests inside. They’d sure be disappointed if they could see him.

“They’re the ones to judge if it does them good or not. We don’t ask them to come. It isn’t something we demand. They choose this. I’ve heard testimony from many of the faithful that the visit has help them, even that the gods have granted special favors.”

“To some, not all,” Cameron said.

“Yes. The gods select those worthy of their favor, just as they’ve chosen you.”

“Me? They’ve cursed me.”

“If you’ve been punished, then you haven’t learned the lesson the gods meant to teach. They granted you the gift of insight, constable. How well have you used it?”

He clenched his teeth. His headache was back in force, pounding at his temples. Hadn’t learned the lesson? Who gave them the fucking right? His temples pounded and he rubbed them, and his eyes. His tongue clung to his mouth. His gut churned. He hadn’t had anything since the coffee from the cart this morning.

“Are you okay?”

He blinked and looked at Elizabeth. The car stopped. Ahead of them the gate was opening. Priesthood guards kept the people back from the gate.

“Sure, it’s nothing,” he lied.

“You’re tired. We haven’t taken a break since this morning. When we reach the Spires, I’ll send for refreshments.”

Why’d she have to be so damn nice? “That’s not necessary.”

“It is. I need to you well to solve this case.”

“Why not ask the gods who set the bomb? Don’t they know?”

Elizabeth’s eyes were sad as she gave a little shake of her head. “They’re not omnipotent, omnipresent beings. They have great power, yes. And they could be anywhere at any time. That doesn’t mean they are everywhere, all the time. As you saw, one was present at the explosion.”

The car pulled through the open gate, leaving the gathered pilgrims behind.

Elizabeth leaned closer. “Don’t forget, constable, who the victims were in this crime. Maybe you feel wronged somehow by the gods, yet they lost one of their own, as well as the others that died.”

She leaned back, turning away. The rebuke tasted sour. Was she right? Was he letting his feelings about the gods interfere? So much for compartmentalization. He looked out as the car drove slowly into Priest Park.

He’d never been, and only had a vague idea of what lay beyond the tall stone walls. A forest at the heart of the city, with thick, twisted trees that rose higher than the walls.

It was all of that, and more. The dense forest cut off all sounds from the city surrounding the park. They might has well have been plunged into a massive wilderness, were it not for the road which snaked and twisted through the woods, with barely enough room to pass on either side. The trees above leaned together over them, like weary giants leaning on each other’s shoulders. The thick canopy shut out much of the light except a dim greenish yellow that filtered down through the leaves.

Yet, looking forward through the front, the road was bare cobblestones, free of any leaves or plants growing up between the stones. It was smooth, as if each stone was at the perfect height. The road rose and fell, turning and twisting through the woods as if laid only with the goal to avoid any trees at all. Likely true, living trees were originally homes for many of the gods.

Then the car went up over a small hill and down and the road was gone. Not covered. Not blocked or gated, simply gone. Kevan stopped the car. Just ahead the road formed a small circle of stones, hardly enough room to turn around, should they try.

A massive black oak squatted straight ahead, two dark trunks rising together into a twisted mass.

Cameron coughed, his throat dry. His head ached as if the fucking little gods were trying to claw their way out of his skull through the back of his eyes.

“Honored mater?” Kevan asked, turning in the driver’s seat to look back.

Faint blue wisps floated out of the woods. No more substantial than patches of fog caught in the light, but they swam through the air like fish, twisting and turning, circling the car.

“What’s going on?” Cameron asked.

Elizabeth reached for her car door handle. Cameron grabbed her other arm.

“You can’t go out there!”

She smiled, and opened the door. “I’m one of the Priesthood, who else should commune with the gods?”

Her arm, warm and smooth slipped free from his grasp as she pushed the door open and stood.

The wisps spun around, sweeping down at her in a swarm.

“Elizabeth!” Cameron yelled, lunging across the car seat.

She cried out and fell back, into the car. Cameron grabbed her under the arms as the swarm circle and came back. They weren’t aiming for her, they were aiming for the door!

Cameron grunted and heaved her across the back seat, across his legs into his lap. The wisps hit the car door en mass, and it slammed shut!

Outside the swarm circled around the car, slowing.

“Mater?” Kevan asked.

Her red hair was in Cameron’s face. She moved against him, extricating herself from the tangle. She blew hair out of her mouth and brushed it away. Her eyebrows drew together as she glared at Cameron.

“How, how dare you!”

Oh, frickin’ gods! “I was trying to get you back inside before they hurt you!”

Kevan was watching, his face dark.

Elizabeth’s mouth tightened, then she said, “It wasn’t up to you to protect me from the gods, constable!”

“Next time I won’t bother!”

Outside the wisps hand stopped circling the car. Instead they floated in place, right outside Cameron’s door. “What are they doing?”

He looked to Elizabeth.

Her glare faded. She took a deep breath. “Perhaps I misunderstood. It looks like they don’t want to speak with me.”

“If not you —”

Kevan gave a little shake of his head.

They meant him. Cameron groaned. “You can’t be serious! What would they want with me?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Elizabeth said. “They didn’t make the road disappear for no reason, constable.”

Both of them, Elizabeth and Kevan, were watching him. Expecting him to get out there? With the little gods in the middle of their fucking magic forest?

He’d have to be crazy.

Of course, gods being what they were, they could probably get him out of the car if they wanted.

“Fine!” Cameron grabbed the door handle. “I hope they have a good reason for interfering with the case.”

He opened the door, slowly. The wisps floated and moved, like nothing more than a patch of ground fog, except illuminated from within by an icy blue light.

Cool air bathed his face. A drop of water hit his cheek. Cameron brushed it with the back of his hand and looked up.

A little god crouched on a twisted tree branch above his head. She was tiny, no more than a couple feet high, with mossy green hair pulled into two fluffy pony tails on each side of her head. Her skin was darker green. She wore a filmy light green tunic, belted at the waist, but falling open. Tears hung in her large yellow eyes, the whole things yellow with a tiny black pupil. A tear rolled down her cheek, across her button nose and hung there shining for a moment.

It fell. A tiny twisting drop. Blue wisps like fog swirled around him.

The tear drop splashed into his eye.

Cameron fell back.

9

It was October 4th, three years ago, almost eight o’clock and already dark on the road out of the city. The smell of burnt rubber hung in the air like overdone coffee.

Lights flashed nearby.

A glimpse of the past. No! Cameron tried turning away. He couldn’t move, bound by the sprite’s tear to see.

The car, broken, windows shattered, sparkling like icy on the cold pavement. It wasn’t ice that caused the accident. Wendy, her head down, dark hair covering her face, a mercy.

Until she lifted her head.

No, Cameron moaned silently.

Her face was pale and eyes dark, drooping, sad eyes, and yet a touch of a smile on her lips?

Cameron. It was her voice, though her lips didn’t move. We’re moving on, Peter and I. It isn’t time for you.

Why? Why now? Why couldn’t he come?

Her head moved, almost imperceptibly. It’s our time. Don’t blame the gods, we’re with them now.

It wasn’t fair! How could they go, and leave him alone?

You’ll join us, one day. Almost she smiled. In time.

I can’t. I can’t keep doing this. Not without you, what’s the point?

You’ll know that one day, too, Cameron. Believe.

This is a trick. The fucking little manipulative —

Cameron! It isn’t a trick. We’re with them now.

If that was true, why? Why her? Why take Peter, when he was so young?

This isn’t the time to explain. Look after Elizabeth. Look to the ring, Cameron.

Blue mists swept across his vision, blocking out Wendy, sweeping it away.

No!

10

Dark green leaves covered the sky above in a blanket of foliage. The green sprite still crouched on the branch, tilting her head to watch Cameron. He rubbed his eyes. The headache was gone. He was lying on his back, on the soft ground.

The sprite looked up sharply, looking at something else, beyond him.

Cameron rolled over, fingers digging into moss and leaves. The dark trunks of the Priest Park forest covered the mossy slope in front of him. At the top fingers of granite thrust out of the small hill, like the nose of a sleeping giant. He had the sense of something moving, dropping out of sight on the other side of the rocks, but his eyes may have just caught the dance of shadow and light from the canopy overhead.

There was a sound like laughter, familiar boyish laughter that sent a shock through his heart. He scrambled to his feet, moss and leaves falling from him.

His heart was beating so loud how could he hear anything! He listened, and only heard the thick canopy rustling above.

“Cameron?”

The voice startled him. He turned.

There was the car, sleek and black, out of place in the forest. The road continued on ahead as if never blocked. The massive black oak that had squatted in front of the car was somehow off to the side now, crouching, stooped, as if watching them from the craggy bark folds.

Elizabeth, gleaming white in her vestments, her red hair like an aura of flames around her pale face, stood beside the car. Her hands were pressed together in front of her chest.

“Are you okay, Cameron?”

He didn’t answer. Words spun in his head. What had that sprite done to him? He looked up at the branch above, but the green sprite was gone.

His dry throat cracked. He coughed. “I’m fine.”

The glimpse, the vision of Wendy, it couldn’t have been real, could it? A trick of the little gods? It didn’t feel like that. Her voice, it sounded like her. It was fading already. The details slipping away like a glimpse of the sun through the clouds.

He stomped down to the car.

“Pranks and games,” he said. “That’s all. Let’s go.”

Elizabeth didn’t protest. She got into the car, sliding across the seat. Cameron climbed in and slammed the door.

11

Whatever else anyone might say about the Priesthood, they served good coffee. Cameron sipped the piping hot brew, perfectly roasted, a hint of sugar, no cream. It slid smoothly down his throat as he looked around pater Samuels’ chambers.

Elizabeth was with him, and pater Bracken, a tall stooped fellow with a flat boxer’s nose.

“We’re happy to assist the investigation,” Bracken said. “Although I confess only the gods know what you hope to find here.”

Cameron didn’t comment. The pater’s chambers were earthy, natural, with wood paneling and shelves along one wall were filled with bound volumes. Mrs. Book would no doubt love this room.

There was a big desk, the back facing the windows that wrapped around that wall. The view out the windows looked down on the park below.

He moved around the desk. The chair looked expensive, big and imposing, leather-backed. No wheels. It sat firmly in front of the desk on four clawed feet.

Cameron sat. The desk itself looked old, but gleamed with polish. “This desk has been cleaned?”

“The gods grant us such favors,” Bracken said. “Many take great joy in such simple tasks.”

Mrs. Book came to mind. How many of the little gods were watching right now? Lurking behind books or curtains, observing everything they did. Thinking about it was like having fingers crawling up his spine. He pushed it aside and focused on the desk.

It was clean, spotless. A blotter, ink well and pen occupied the desk. Nothing else. Cameron grabbed the side door to pull it open —

The same room, at dusk. His hand extended out a signet ring, handing it to someone.

“Cameron?”

Elizabeth had moved. She was standing in front of the desk, her fingertips resting lightly on the surface. “Did the gods grant you a vision?”

Wendy. She’d said something about the ring. And Elizabeth. Whatever that had meant. He left the desk. “I was thinking we should pay our respects to the man himself.”

She grimaced. “Why?”

“Yes, indeed,” Bracken said. “What do you hope to gain by that constable?”

“I’ll see when I see him. He’s still at the morgue?”

“Yes,” Bracken said. “Arrangements have to be made.”

Cameron looked up at the pater. “And the god, the one that died, what happened to him?”

Bracken stood a little straighter. “The gods took him.”

Of course. Cameron headed out of the chambers. Elizabeth caught up with him and followed.

12

On the drive over to the morgue, Cameron stared out the window without paying too much attention to the buildings and people they passed.

His headache was gone, apparently cured by the sprite’s tear. Bottle that, and it could make a million.

The vision of Wendy, that was different than the usual glimpses he got of other places, other times. It felt like he’d talked to her and the thought twisted in his heart. Could it have been? Was what she said true, that she and Peter were with the gods, whatever that meant?

The laugh. That fair laugh in the woods. Real or imagined?

With the little gods, who knew? He didn’t, and he wasn’t about to ask Elizabeth about it. He could feel her fuming on the other side of the car, angry that he hadn’t explained his purpose.

He wasn’t sure of it himself.

Except he didn’t believe that the glimpses came directly from the gods. Maybe they gave him the ability, maybe they didn’t. Curse or gift, he got glimpses of things that maybe even the gods didn’t know. Elizabeth said as much.

13

The morgue was cold and sterile with a harsh chemical scent that did little to mask the scent of death. Beneath it all, was the odor of a butcher shop. The lights glowed bright, recently infused by somebody.

What if that was his job? Nothing but day in and day out, climbing ladders and pouring magic into the lights to make them work.

Dr. Hillman, the coroner, was stout and round, with a ruddy complexion and thin, oily black hair combed over his egg-shaped head. He moved with small prancing steps and spoke in a voice hardly more than a whisper.

He received them both in the main operating theater surrounded by slabs with covered bodies. His beady eyes glittered like wet raisins in soft dough as he held up a folded piece of parchment.

“An official notice!” His voice showed his delight. “From the gods themselves! I’ve prepared the body for your inspection, mater, constable, right this way.”

Someone had prayed to the little gods to let the coroner know they were coming. Apparently they were in a cooperative mood.

The body lay naked on the slab, charred and torn by the blast, stained by blood. Face a red ruin. Cracked red skin showed through the blackened areas. The shrapnel was gone, picked clean of the flesh.

Elizabeth pressed a finger to her nose and moved to stand near the head. Cameron walked around the coroner to get a clear view of the body.

Adult, white male. Approximately 130 pounds, slender. No real muscle definition. What was left of his hair was brown, darkened and charred, lighter on the back side.

“What are we doing here?” Elizabeth asked.

“Looking for clues, a glimpse of what happened?” Cameron walked around the body, then looked up at Dr. Hillman. “His personal belongings, do you still have them?”

“Yes, certainly,” Dr. Hillman said.

“Bring them, please.”

Cameron resumed studying the body. Something about it felt wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Finger. The ring. Wendy had mentioned the ring, and the glimpse he’d had, of giving the ring to someone.

The pater’s hands weren’t badly burned. They must have been above the table when the bomb went off, and it would have shielded them from the blast that caught him from below, at his side.

Where the bomb had sat.

Which suggested that the pater had placed the case beside his chair.

Why? Why would a pater blow up a cafe? And himself in the process?

Suicide bomber, but why? There wasn’t a reason, unless it wasn’t him.

“What are you thinking?” Elizabeth asked.

Cameron ignored her, bending to look at the man’s hands. The fingers were long, and slender. The nails were chipped and marked. Not from the explosion, there was dirt beneath the nails.

The tap, tap of footsteps on the stone floors announced Dr. Hillman’s return. He carried a card board box. “Here it is! All of his personal effects, I made the inventory myself!”

“Put it down here,” Cameron pointed to the counter at the side of the room.

Elizabeth came around the slab, her lips pressed together in a tight line of annoyance.

Dr. Hillman stepped back and Cameron poked through the box. The signet ring lay on top, in a small plastic bag along with some cash and a packet of cigarettes. Cameron grinned. That was it!

He picked it up —

A slice of fresh apple pie and a steaming cup of coffee sat on the table, the cinnamon-sugar smell of the pie vying for attention with the coffee. His stomach growled. He dug his fork into the pie and reached for the coffee with his other hand. A bright green glimmer caught his attention beneath the table. He turned, looking down

That glimpse, those hands were the hands of the man on the slab. It was more than a bit of dirt and worn nails. The man’s hunger gnawing at his gut had been familiar, a constant thing, never satisfied. Sitting in the cafe, eating and drinking with the rest of the people, that had been a treat. When people had looked at him, at the victim, it was with respect and quiet words to the gods.

Cameron licked his lips, almost tasting the coffee. The man was enjoying an opportunity to be someone else, for a time, the knowledge was in the back of his head that it was all temporary.

He hadn’t been thinking about being blown up. The look into the bag, that’d been surprise.

“Constable,” Elizabeth said. “Please tell me what you’re thinking!”

Cameron turned and pointed to the body. “That’s not pater Samuels.”

“His ring was positively identified. Are you saying that this man stole it?”

Cameron shook his head. Dr. Hillman leaned in close. Cameron picked up the box with the personal effects found on the body.

“Thank you, Doctor. We’ll need to take these.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

Cameron tucked the box beneath his arm, and with the other, pulled Elizabeth along. She made a noise of protest and pulled away, but continued to follow him.

14

Back in the car outside, they sat with the box between them. Elizabeth’s face was pinched with annoyance.

“Now will you tell me what’s going on?”

“Yes.” Cameron picked up the bag with the ring. “This is pater Samuels’ signet ring, you’ve identified it and are convinced it is genuine?”

“Yes, the gods identified it themselves.”

Okay, if the little gods said it, that must make it true. “My glimpses never give the full picture, but I saw this ring handed over to our victim in there. And I saw him eating and drinking in the cafe right before the explosion. It’s more than seeing, it’s like I am that person, experiencing things as they did. He wasn’t the pater, and he was surprised as anyone about to die.”

Few people going about their normal routines expected to die. It happened without warning. According to the little gods, people died when the magic ran out. But sometimes someone else helped that happen.

“I don’t understand. You’re saying that he gave the ring to this man? But that man in there was wearing vestments. He’s the right size. And on the basis of your glimpse, you don’t believe he is the pater?”

“That’s right.” Cameron tapped the bag, or more specifically, the cigarettes inside. “He must have had these in his pocket, on the side away from the blast. Do you know if the pater smoked?”

“I don’t know.”

“We should find out. It might be important. This is what I think. I’m guessing there’s no one that would report our victim missing. Your pater sent him into the cafe, dressed as a pater, in his vestments, with the ring, and with the bomb. If anyone talked to witnesses, they’d describe someone matching the pater’s description. That didn’t even happen, because your priests sent everyone away and made them forgetful.”

Elizabeth’s mouth tightened but she stayed silent.

“With the bomb set off, everyone assumed that he was dead.” Cameron fished in his pocket and came up with the bag holding the dime. “I’ll bet if we show a portrait of the pater to Edgehill that he’ll recognize the pater that confiscated the dimes. He wanted everyone to think he was dead, but not without sending a message.”

“But why?” Elizabeth’s voice was soft. “Why would he do all of this?”

“If I’m right, we’ll get a chance to ask him.”

“How will you find him?”

“I’ve got a hunch. He’d need a place to hide. Someplace to stay. What place is better than wherever our victim lived? He knows that it’s empty. If anyone sees him, he matches the general description of the man. He hides out until things quiet down and then he moves.”

“We don’t even know who he is,” Elizabeth said. “How will you find out?”

Cameron shrugged. “Can’t you ask the gods for help?”

She shook her head. “Not without a name.”

“We don’t need a name,” Cameron said. He waved the dime bag. “What about these? He might not have used them all. If they can pick up on the silver, it might lead us to him.”

Elizabeth’s lips parted in a slow smile. “That might prove possible. There are gods with an affinity for metals. One of them may be able to track the scent.”

“Good.” Cameron settled back against the car seat. He laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes. “Let me know when we’re ready to go.”

15

“Ugly. Rude,” said a strange voice, one rough and deep.

Cameron stirred, opening his eyes. He was still in the car, but one of the little gods was standing on the seat beside the evidence box, his head even with Cameron’s own.

The god was dark of skin, like lava rock, rough and covered in sharp burrs, so much so that he almost looked like rocks himself. His build was extremely muscular, every muscle showing in definition. The only thing he wore was a furry-skin wrap around his waist and crotch. Shriveled mole heads and hands hung from the bottom of the wrap like a decorative fringe.

It was his eyes, that were most telling. They glittered with an inner orange light, sparkling facets fixed on Cameron.

A dwarf. A genuine fucking dwarf.

Cameron slowly lowered his arms, careful not to move unexpectedly. “I’m Cameron —”

“I know,” the god said. “Call me Mal. Show me this coin!”

Elizabeth was still in her seat on the other side of the car. She nodded quickly.

Cameron held out the plastic bag with the burned dimes.

“Bah! Plastic! How can I do anything with plastic!”

“I thought —”

“I didn’t ask what you thought! Give it to me!”

Cameron fished the coin from the bag. It was light and cool to the touch. He held it out. Mal extended his hand, palm up. Cameron placed the coin gently in Mal’s hand, not surprised to feel warmth radiating up from the dwarf.

Mal peered at the coin. “Silver, mostly.”

Dexterous fingers spun the coin over as the god examined the sides. “Trace other metals.”

Mal flicked the coin at Cameron, who caught it. He slipped it back into the evidence bag. “Well?”

“Well, I can find its mates. Isn’t that what ya asked for?”

Elizabeth bowed her head, pressing her hands together. “Gratitude, wise one.”

Mal coughed and thrust the dime back at Cameron. The coin was warm to the touch. He dropped it back in the bag.

When he looked up, Mal was now in the front seat, standing with his legs spread wide and hands on the dash. He pointed. “That way!”

16

Following Mal’s turn-by-turn directions, even though sometimes they seemed to be going in a circle, eventually brought them to an older undistinguished apartment complex on the east side of the city. This was one of those places on the outskirts of a neighborhood. Cameron knew as you moved deeper there’d be duplexes, and then single-family homes of more middle-class families.

There were five buildings in the complex, each with a half-dozen apartments, none of the buildings over two stories tall. The city’s population had been decreasing for years, and a complex like this would have plenty of vacant units. The populations tended to come and go quickly.

It was the perfect place for pater Samuels to hide out. No one paid any attention to anyone else in places like this.

Mal tapped the side of his nose, the sound of it like a rock hammer tapping on rocks. He pointed at the building coming up on the left. “That one, second floor. The silver’s up there. The nearest apartment on the left.”

“Yes, Holy One,” Kevan said.

Cameron leaned forward. “Pull in here, behind this garage.”

Kevan did as asked without question, swinging the car around beneath the car port between garages. The structure would prevent anyone in the building Mal had identified from seeing the car. A Priesthood vehicle would likely send the pater fleeing.

“I’ll go in, identify him, and take him into custody,” Cameron said. “The rest of you stay here.”

“I don’t take orders from you,” Mal said.

Cameron refused to let the little god’s presence scare him off. “It’ll be better if I go alone.”

“Don’t ya worry about me,” Mal said. His chuckle sounded like a small avalanche. “Consider me backup. He won’t even know I’m around, not unless I want him to.”

Great. Another intrusive little god shoving his, no. Cameron stopped himself. He didn’t even need to imagine hearing Wendy’s voice. The god had a point.

He looked at Elizabeth. “Stay here, in the car.”

Cameron slid out of the car and walked around the garage. He adopted a slouch and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. No looking around, just a guy tired after a long day of work.

That much was true, at least.

The complex might be one of the most gods forsaken places he’d been lately. Usually there were signs that the gods were present, well-tended plants, or other small signs of favors from the gods. None of that was present here. The lawn was dying, the shrubs twiggy and weak-looking. The building itself looked old and tired, slumping in on itself, paint peeling and cracking. There were concrete steps leading up to the second floor, but the first was broken in two pieces and propped up with a piece of firewood shoved underneath.

As Cameron climbed the steps, he realized that he was alone. If Mal was around, the god wasn’t showing himself.

Dust and cobwebs gathered in the corners of the stairwell. The whole place felt abandoned, but Cameron believed the god that the dimes were inside.

He stepped to the side of the door and drew his gun. Then he knocked, hard, with his knuckles.

He waited. If he didn’t have to announce who he was, he didn’t want to until that door opened. The apartment was quiet. Then he heard a dull snick as a deadbolt was unlocked.

The door opened an inch.

Cameron pointed the gun. “Constable. Open the door all the way.”

A chain rattled. A man spoke. “Constable? What’s this about?”

The door opened wider.

The man was unarmed. Cameron moved into view, keeping the gun on the suspect. He pulled his coat back, to show his badge.

For someone at gun point, the man was calm, give him that much. His general build and height more or less matched the man in the morgue, minus the hunger and the chipped fingernails. He had the posture and the poise of a priest, even wearing a plain black t-shirt and blue jeans. His feet were bare, so he probably wasn’t planning on going anywhere.

Cameron moved into the apartment, and kicked the door closed behind himself, without letting the gun waver. He gave a little nod of his head.

“Move on, keep your hands visible. Are you alone here?”

The man sighed and did as he was told, backing up slowly, hands out at his sides. “You know I am.”

There wasn’t much to the apartment. A living room, with a ratty old red couch, slumping into the carpet. Black plastic trash bags, stuffed full, stood against the sliding glass door leading out onto a definitely unsafe balcony. Someone had been cleaning up.

Off the living room, a kitchen, with a bar between it and the living room and a small dining room. Straight ahead, past the kitchen, a short hallway which lead to three doors. Bedrooms, bathroom, and the according door along the hall on the right must be a closet.

“This is a gods forsaken place, isn’t it?” Cameron asked. “What’s driving them all away? Is it the company, pater Samuels?”

Samuels opened his mouth and closed it. He shook his head. “How’d you find me?”

“I can’t give away all my tricks,” Cameron said. “What would the other constables say? Why’d you do it? Why blow up a cafe?”

Samuels shook his head. “You don’t want to know, constable. No one does.”

“Know what?”

“Let’s say, I lost my faith.” Samuels pointed his finger at the gun. “Why don’t you shoot me now, constable? The gods you worship won’t let this go to a trial.”

Cameron held the weapon steady, and didn’t pull the trigger. “Why? What’s this all about?”

He pulled the evidence bag with the dime out of his pocket. “These dimes? They’re real?”

“Would you believe me if I said they were?”

Samuels moved, slowly, carefully toward the kitchen counter. He pointed at the piles of papers on the counter. “If you really want to know, constable, the answers are there. Documents preserved and copied over the years. The gods are deceitful. They lie. I couldn’t turn away from it anymore.”

“And for that, you kill innocent people?” Cameron shook his head. “That’s —”

“Innocent?” Samuels laughed. “The gods feed on people like that, draining them, making them worship, and —”

A loud crack sounded from the kitchen. Mal was on the counter, his rocky face twisted into a cracked grimace. He slammed his hand down on a stack of papers.

“That’ll be enough!” His voice was the roar of an avalanche.

The papers beneath the god’s hands burst into flames.

Cameron jumped forward and grabbed Samuels’ arm. He propelled him at the door. “Go! Come on!”

“Blasphemy!” Mal’s fist hit another stack and the papers combusted, rising up in a whirlwind of flame.

They reached the door. Cameron yanked it open and shoved the man through. Together, Samuels going first, they headed down the stairs. Cameron kept a tight grip on him, and the gun pointed at his back.

By the time they got down the stairs glass shattered in the building and flames leaped out to the roof. Elizabeth and Kevan were by the garage where they’d parked the car, looking up at the building going up in flames.

“Put your hands behind your back!” Cameron said.

Samuels complied. Cameron pulled the cuffs off his belt, slapping one, then the other on Samuels’ wrists. “I’m arresting in on the charge of murder.”

He read Samuels his rights, then shoved him further from the burning building. Maybe people were praying to the gods to send help, fire charmers or someone, but if so, no one was responding. When they reached Elizabeth and Kevan, Cameron looked back at the burning building. It was engulfed in flames, along with all of the evidence. If any dimes remained, they’d be melted bits by the time the fire finished.

“Pater Samuels,” Elizabeth said. “The Priesthood will demand an inquisition into your actions.”

“Of course they will.” Samuels turned deep, sad, brown eyes to Cameron. “Constable, my actions may have been unconscionable, but I was trying to send a message. To wake people up to the truth —”

A loud snap and a smell like sulfur hit Cameron’s nose. Mal stood in front of Samuels. The black asphalt at his feet bubbled and steamed. He pointed a stony finger at the pater.

“You’ll shut your gob, if you know what is good for you!”

Samuels glared down at the god. “Do what you will, since you do anyway!”

Mal glared and turned his gaze to Cameron. “Ya have done us a service, Constable. We won’t forget.”

The little god turned, around, molten tar sticking to his feet. “Bah!”

He stomped over to the ground and dove forward, vanishing into the earth without a ripple. The ground looked undisturbed. Across the lot, the building continued to burn.

17

By the time Cameron got home, banging through the door, he was bone-tired. He put his badge and gun on the mantel, along with a fortune cookie for Mrs. Book.

The intrusive little gods had made a mess of the case, no doubts there. The Chief didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, the guilty party was in custody, being turned over to the Priesthood as soon as they convened their inquisition. Cameron didn’t want any part of that, although he might be called upon to testify.

As far as the evidence went, that was thin. When he got back to the constabulary, the dime from evidence was missing. He must have dropped it trying to get Samuels out of the apartment building before it burned to the ground. None of that mattered with the former pater’s confession.

Still. Cameron dropped into his chair at the small table. He pulled containers of Chinese out of the bag, popping open the spicy fried rice, and unwrapping the chop sticks. His stomach growled eagerly as he dug in, eating from the box. Why dirty up dishes?

What had Samuels meant? Deceitful, yes, anyone would say that the gods spoke the truth to suit themselves. The dimes, if those were real, it suggested a time when silver was used in coins. Except every coin dealer he’d spoken to insisted that such a thing had never happened.

It sounded like more of Wesley Sheldon’s paranoid ramblings. It didn’t excuse what Samuels had done, but maybe the unbelievers were on to something.

Whatever it was, it had big caution signs all over it. The gods were also vengeful.

And yet, thinking back to his vision in Priest Park, was it possible that Wendy and Peter were with the gods? What if that was true? As disturbing as it’d been, it had sounded like her. And that laugh, hadn’t it sounded like Peter?

Maybe the gods lied. Maybe they also held the key to his reunion with his family. If so, what would he do to see that happen?

He could probably start by watching his language towards them. It’d make Wendy happy, anyway. That was a place to start.

14,656 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 17th weekly short story release. This story introduces characters and a world that I’d like to return to in the future. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Cameron or the little gods.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Farm of the Dead Things, the first of four stories that make up my Filming Dead Things collection. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.

Author: Ryan M. Williams

Writer and artist, Ryan M. Williams, author of more than twenty novels, writes across a range of genres including fantasy, science fiction, romance, paranormal, and mystery. He holds a Master of Arts from Seton Hill University in writing popular fiction. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Pocket Books, WMG Publishing, and in On Spec Magazine. He currently attends San Jose State University, pursuing a Master of Information and Library Science degree.