Friday, June 27, 2014

Smoke Angel

Smoke Angel
Bobby Derie

In the corner booth, she lit a hand-rolled cigarillo from the table lamp, her face momentarily lit from below, then disappearing back into shadow and smoke. Just a glimpse had me shaking and pawing at my pockets, the thin nicotine patches suddenly weak and empty things next to the old and familiar craving that gripped me.

She was a coffin nailer, that was for certain.

The victim had been drinking AbsintheSmash!, the cheap green plastic bottle molded in the cartoonishly muscled visage of a hulking humanoid; the paper wraparound banner was a cheap comic print of a scrawny pencilneck scientist caught in an emerald explosion, mutating into the outrageous alcoholic avatar. The pre-packaged spoon and sugar were also on the table, but the bottle itself was mostly empty. I resisted the urge to polish off the evidence.

The hunched figure of the Necronaut worked over the corpse. He was dressed - armored, if I was honest with myself - in something that looked like Charon's diving suit, all black leather and old brass, topped by a fishbowl of dark, shadowy glass or crystal. The shadow of ribbs and spine were cast into the torso-chassis, and anatomically-accurate skulls in gunmetal and silver leered from around the mechanical joints. The fat, four-fingered hands hovered over the open mouth, tiny wires snaking out from palms and fingertips, tracing the cause of death.

I busied myself by examining the scene. Utrek's wasn't a classy place or a den of villainy, the patrons were mainly the wrong side of twenty but without the guilders to show for it. Most couldn't even afford to drink themselves to death here, not on cheap green fairy - the serious liver-killers would be in the dinger, more dangerous bars farther down the street. I stabbed a finger into the ashtray, but the grey crust there was cold and long dead. Waste not, want not, I murmured a prayer and drew a rune on the inside of my left wrist; a promise for later, for a little luck now.

"He was killed by a practitioner," the Necronaut said as the little tendrils retreated back into their cavities with a whir. "Traces of pneuma in the lungs, esophagus, on the lips. Physical cause of death was asphyxiation and smoke inhalation - the inside of his lungs are burned and swollen, oxygen levels very low. There are also elevated levels of carbon dioxide and nicotine in the last breath, though not enough by itself to poison him. Signs of old damage underneath - he was a heavy smoker. No signs of a struggle, but there are lacerations on the knuckles from earlier - some hours before death."

I looked at the neighboring tables; one was marked with the circle and glyphs for conjure rum. I thought of thirty-somethings realizing they were just past their prime, doing shots and summoning muscled jade homunculi to wrestle each other, heavy hands hitting the tables. The image didn't fit the crime.


There are parts of the Net that the great masses don't have access to. I swiped my card and called up the metaengines of the trade - eBay sold listings and library check-out lists, cross-referenced by shipping address, IP, user name. Practitioners, for all their focus, fall into certain predictable habits: they have interests, and they pour their time and resources into finding things that suit those interests.

Tobacciana seemed the first choice; the first search term came up with over 10,000 hits. I added keywords, tweaked the terms, looking for something I wouldn't know until I'd see it. Atlantean hookahs, Arabic hash oil, whole plants and fat Cuban cigars that had been rolled between the thighs of virgins, guaranteed or your money back...lots of possibilities, nothing quite fit, but there was a pattern of purchases, a name that came up again and again in the book lists, and an address. I clicked open a new tab, to cross-reference with the police databases...and found a hit.

A rap sheet filled the screen.


In her corner booth, I laid the book on the table. Arthur Machen's The Anatomy of Tobacco.

"Handsome, for a delivery man." The rasp sent shivers up his spine. He couldn't picture what that voice would have sounded like whole. It was like a cat's tongue on the back of the neck, burned and coated and seasoned to perfection. Nicotine-stained fingers carressed the pale yellow cloth covers; the last two fingers were missing their tips, the pinky little more than a nub.

"Detective Jack Bastard." I flashed the badge. The runes got more attention than the shield; darker angels watch over cops than most people dare play with. "I want to talk."

"What about, detective?" She blew a perfect pentagram, smoke elementals playing in the thin grey-white streamers.

"Got a stiff-" he noted her sudden crinkly smile, and he was intensely aware of the sudden pressure in his crotch "-a dead body at Utrek's. Not many practitioners could do that."

"Not many," she said, then sucked on her cigarillo, the coal flaring to life as she held it in her lungs. "Am I in the frame?"

I nodded.

"I didn't do it."

"That's what they all say."

"He was my husband."


"Papers aren't in yet."

The silence wasn't tense. I was getting a better look at her as the eyes adjusted. The hair hanging down over her face didn't quite cover the bruises around her eye, the way she sat was stiffer than natural. She looked thin and fine as porcelain; the kind that breaks easy but still looks good, even when it's cracked and missing a few pieces.

"Did you two...share any interests?"

"He was my husband." Her eyes never looked past the end of her cigarillo.

"What I mean is, could he have conjured it himself?"

She shrugged, noncommital.

"Some guys, they hit a woman - " she stopped breathing for a moment, then exhaled " - they find it hard to live with themselves. Hate themselves."

"He only ever loved himself." she said, eyes flashing - and they really did flash too, I saw. Big dark eyes, the kind that bug out just a little when they get angry, as the crazy creeps in around the edges, pupils dilated in the dark.

"I'll need a statement, downtown." I said at last.

She looked at me then, and her face was a broken-doll mask, too much concentration to hide the pain any more. My wrist tickled, then burned as the rune flared - and died, as she released whatever she was holding, the smoke elemental slipping out through her lips, her nostrils. She looked up and grinned another crooked smile.

"Mind if I smoke?"

"Be my guest."

There was a little shrine on the corner, an altar to no particular god and devoid of offerings. I pulled what was left of the pack from my pocket, stuck them upright in the sand and lit them, one by one, like incense. She watched me mumble the prayers that the smoke would carry up to heaven, for hungry saints and smoke-stained angels to savor.


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