Chapter two: The Brain Is A Terrible Thing To waste
"We're gonna need a new bartender." Trish slammed her copy of the local newspaper down on the coffee table in front of Wick, her eyebrows knitted together in annoyance rather than concern. "Three years - three years I've poured into Benny, teaching him how to hone his magic, and this his how he repays me? By dying?"
Wick bundled tighter into his bathrobe, burying his face in his hands as he tried to rub away the migraine throbbing in his head. Around his feet were half a dozen beer bottles, sans the beer. On the top of the table, next to the newspaper, was a half-downed bottle of vodka. The time on the clock read ten in the morning, and yet here Trish was, not mourning the loss of her apprentice instead of leaving Wick alone to sleep away his problems.
"I'm sure Benny would apologize to you for wasting your time if he could," he drawled dryly, peering over at her over his thick, horn-rimmed glasses. "But by all means, let's be more concerned about finding a new bartender than the fact that our token douchebag now sits in a coroner's office with someone's hand inside his arse, probing him for a drug problem."
Trish pursed her lips. "Ass."
"Yeah, yeah, I know I am."
"No, I mean it's ass - not 'arse'. Although, it's sort of cute when you slip into your old ways again…do me a favor. Say 'A wee pot o' gold at da end of de rainbow' for me."
Wick narrowed his eyes. "Are you done?"
With a shrug, Trish took a seat in the chair next to him and grew quiet, strumming her fingers along the table's edge, lost in thought. The silence was welcoming to Wick, who licked his dry lips and glanced around his apartment.
Sure, he'd never particularly cared for Benny, but he never wanted him to die. The idiot was like that pesky cousin who came for Christmas and broke all of your toys - you didn't like them, but you sort of expected them to be around to do their part. And besides—his meal ticket was now null and void. The one thing that kept dancing around the forefront of his mind was the message written in blood above Benny's body.
"When will we hear back from Michael?" he asked quiety.
"Should be tomorrow."
"That's too long…"
"He's a detective, Wickland, not a miracle worker."
"Part-time detective. The rest of the time he runs around with fancy tools and sticks his nose in business that isn't his."
"We're lucky to have him-"
"We are," Trish insisted. "Just because you two have some personal vendetta against each other doesn't mean the rest of the Occult have to feel the same."
"He rubs me the wrong way. Something shifty about his eyes…"
"Funny enough, he says the same thing about you."
"He's a Clipper, Trish."
"One that sticks to his side of the tracks."
"As long as we keep our heads down, right?" Wick sneered.
"I give up. You're even more salty than you normally are." Trish raised an eyebrow. "What aren't you telling me?"
"Nothing." He pushed against the table and drove his chair back. "Are we done here? All this talk about Benny's death is really killing my buzz."
As if understanding his meaning, Trish reached over and patted Wick's hand, seemingly to offer words of encouragement. But then... "Benny's death is killing all of our buzzes. Could you imagine if he had been killed before his shift last night? He's lucky today is a Sunday." She stood from the table and shrugged the strap of her purse over her shoulder. "I'll call you if anything new develops. Are you sure there isn't something you'd like to tell me?" Her coffee colored irises flickered in suspicion.
Wick's throat closed, and his body broke out into a cold sweat. Lying to Trish was like trying to sneak past the border of Mexico on foot wearing a bright yellow jumper. He gave a disgruntled huff and crossed his arms. "Michael's going to tell you there's a cut on Benny's hand. I'm going to tell you it has nothing to do with him biting the dust."
Trish tensed. "Tell me you didn't." Wick remained perfectly still. "Oh, come on, Wick! My apprentice? Out of anybody in New Orleans, you had to feed from Benny?"
"Hey, he was already a junkie. When you invited him to take on your so-called apprenticeship," he placed the word in air quotes, "he was doing Molly on the side."
"Oh, so not only did you feed from Benny, but you got him vamp'd up, too? What's my rule?"
"Don't make me say the rule…"
"What's. My. Rule?"
"No feeding on company property, employees, or customers…"
"Exactly. - Consider your pay a week docked."
"Don't act surprised. You're lucky it isn't more."
As Trish made her way to the door, Wick sputtered out, "Wait! Trish…" She turned to face him, and Wick's stomach bottomed out. "How are the wards?"
Trish paused. "Perfectly fine, as far as I know." Her usually bossy demeanor softened ever so slightly. "If you're worried about Rediks-"
"Good," she nodded, turning toward the door.
"You don't find it a bit coincidental, though?" he asked, causing her hand to stop at the knob. "Benny dies right in front of the cathedral?"
"I'm sure it's just some sick prank. You worry too much - but if it makes you feel any better, I'll discuss it with the Coven."
"Take it easy, okay?"
"Sure." But Wick couldn't take it easy. As Trish shut the door behind her on her way out, he picked up the bottle of vodka, twisted off the cap, and began to chug it straight, ignoring the swift burn. The wards are fine, he thought to himself. Just some prank… don't be an idiot.
"Come on, Ethan, don't be an idiot." Ashe Greene dug her heels into the soft earth beneath her feet, surveilling the graveyard with severe interest. Her hand rested on her partner's shoulder, signaling him to relent his assault with the heavy hedge cutters in his hands, which were currently positioned around an iron chain holding the gate to the graveyard shut. With idle care, he rested the cutters at his side and turned his large, brown eyes on his best friend.
"Idiot?" He scrunched his face as if insulted, though she knew he wasn't. "Your big mouth must consume half your body weight."
Rolling her eyes, Ashe dug through her pockets and produced a yellow slip of paper and a charcoal pencil. She rested the scrap against the cold stones of the archway attached to the gate and began to trace an intricate design: two circles, tied together with an infinity symbol in the middle. Then she turned the paper over and pressed it to the gate - with a loud rush of wind, the gate lit to life in a cobalt tint. "Just like I thought," she muttered, looking back over her shoulder to gloat. "It's been warded with a signaling spell. If you'd broken that chain, you would have given us away."
Ethan scratched the back of his black mop of hair and shrugged. "So? You know I like to go in guns-a-blazing."
"And you know that I would prefer it if we made it out in one piece. Come on, Eath. This is our chance to show your dad I'm ready. Take it seriously, would you?"
"Correction. This is a way to get us in deep shit. He's not going to take you seriously, Ashe, no matter what you do. This is just reckless."
"Well, no one asked you."
"Whatever." He stuck out his tongue in mock childishness and roamed his gaze over the bars separating them from their quarry. "So what's the plan then, oh mighty planner-of-all-plans?"
"Simple," she said, "up and over."
"And that won't set off the spell?"
"Not likely...come on, give me a lift." Ashe shrugged the strap of her backpack over her shoulder and tightened her ponytail before stepping up beside the gate.
Ethan met her at the edge, lacing his hands together to make a hoister. "Not likely? That's reassuring." When she set her foot in his cradled hands, he lifted and pushed her tiny frame up to the top of the gate. Ashe wrapped her fingers around the tops of the speared bars and jerked up with all her might.
"Little higher!" she called out and was sent toppling over the gate with a quick spurt of energy. She landed with a harsh thud on the gravel below, heart stammering away in her chest, and blood trickled down her biceps from a fresh cut. "Ethan, you ass! Those Romeo catchers could have skewered me!"
"Yet you live," he smirked from the other side of the bars. "And no wards set off. Good call, Greene." Being a good foot taller than Ashe and with three times as much upper body strength, despite his lean frame, Ethan hoisted himself up and over the fence with ease. Landing gracefully on his feet like a cat, he gave an impish grin and said, "Well, this is your quest. Lead on, Macduff."
"The phrase is 'lay on, Macduff', and it actually means to vigorously attack. Quote Shakespeare correctly or don't quote him at all." Ashe wiped at her bloody arm and smeared her hand on her pants, deciding she would, in fact, live. It was only a surface wound.
"Tomato, potato. Really, it's all the same if we get down to the nitty gritty."
"Look, Prince of the Silver Spoon, you didn't have to come."
"Actually, Princess of the Deranged Ideas, I did. I'm a Guardian." He puffed out his chest.
"That's just a fancy title for babysitter, you know. I liked it better when we were just friends." She checked and double checked the contents of her backpack: flashlight, lighter, spray cans, hunting knife, chewing gum, camcorder - all in order. The only thing that looked out of place was a Ninja Turtles lunchbox at the bottom, but she would save that for later. She plucked the camcorder out and flipped it on, setting the picture to night vision. "Make yourself useful and hold this." She handed him one of the spray cans, pocketed the lighter, and zipped up the backpack. Settling it back on her shoulder, she inhaled the scent of wet dirt and years' worth of ritualistic magic.
"My Dad's just trying to protect you," Ethan tried, but Ashe wasn't listening. Her eyes were set on the camcorder, and her ears were pricked to focus on the wind whipping through the trees and the katydids chirping in the grass. There were rumors of bodies gone missing in this cemetery, and she had a sneaking suspicion she knew what was behind the attacks.
If she was being honest, Ashe would have admitted to being on edge. Ever since she was a child, this was all she wanted to do. To fail her Trials three weeks ago had been a fluke - at least, that's what she told herself. The pieces never fit tight in her mind's eye; she didn't understand how it had all gone horribly wrong. Tonight, she would prove she was worthy of what the Council had denied her and earn her sigma; Ethan donned his, tattooed just below his left ear: a tribal sun with flames like arrows, worn with pride for the world to see.
"This way," she whispered, scanning the cemetery as if the corpses buried beneath her feet were merely daffodils. Death didn't scare her. Most things didn't. She'd spent years forging her adrenaline into a weapon, so it was difficult for her to dissect anxiousness from excitement. She continued down the walking path, occasionally weaving between the headstones to move to another track. Something flashed on the camcorder's screen, and the image turned from greens and blues to reds and oranges. With a satisfied grin, she stopped her treck. Ethan halted as well, squinting his eyes in concentration.
"Are you sure you wanna do this?" he asked.
"Not for long."
She trailed her eyes over to a thick headstone up ahead, motioned to Ethan to follow, and took the lead. Resting against the hard stone, she scooted to make room for Ethan's athletic build. They exchanged an entire conversation in a single glance as Ashe handed him the camcorder. Ethan tilted it around the headstone to get a look at what rested on the other side. His eyebrows drew together, but there was an excitement in his expression.
'Impressive,' he mouthed.
Ashe snatched the spray can out of his lap and fished in her pockets for her lighter. 'Watch me.'
After a methodical fist bump, Ashe readied the can and rolled out from behind the tombstone.
The smell of fresh dirt wafted into her nostrils - the grave one row away had been freshly dug, which meant it was also easy to overturn. Piles of earth lay on both sides of the hole in the ground, and inside it, resting on top of an open casket, sat a man. Well, to call him a man was stretching the truth. His skin was wrinkled and pulled taut against his gaunt face, and his lips curled over the tops of his teeth like shriveled orange peels. His waxy, bloodshot eyes and mixed sized pupils were enough to send someone to an early grave - which, incidentally, is how he probably would have liked it, considering he could feast on them, then. Small tufts of frizzy hair stuck out of the bottom of a Panama hat he wore on top of his head, which paired well with his pegged trousers and oversized blazer with wide lapels.
When their eyes met, the man chewed thoughtfully on the severed arm in his mouth and swallowed. Bits of flesh peeked out from his teeth as he gave a wide grin and tilted his hat to her. "Little clipper." He strummed his bony hands along the top of the coffin. "What brings you out on such a beautiful night?"
Ashe held the spray can out in front of her, flicking the lighter in the other to produce a tender flame. "Charles Wallace, lead speaker for the underworld, I presume."
"Ooh, a clipper that's done her homework. By all means, I'm very impressed." He tipped his hat to her again while simultaneously reaching into his pocket at producing a handkerchief to dab his mouth. "Tell me, young one, does The Council know of your presence here this evening?" A heavy silence fell between them. "I thought as much." He waved his hand as if to shoo her. "Off you go, then."
"I'm not going anywhere until I get some information."
"Darling, I'm a ghoul, not a fool. You wear no sigma, so I can easily infer you aren't at liberty to make demands. Not without causing some uproar with your good 'Council'." The ghoul grinned wide and tossed the severed arm over his shoulder.
"And what do you think the Council would say if they saw you picking apart freshly dug graves? The agreement was for-"
"-One year decomposition and older, yes. I'm aware of the bylaws," the ghoul growled. "But since when has a Clipper cared about the bylaws of the Ghouls? We do not feast on the living. So, whatever you plan to tell your Council about my digressions, I imagine it's nothing compared to what they will do to you should you admit to hunting me without cause."
"Well, I tried to use reason with you." Ashe steadied her spray can and brought the lighter in front of the nozzle. "That's why I came prepared."
"You threaten me?"
"I don't want to. This is just a precaution. I actually don't want to tell the Council anything when it comes to your rule breaking. I just need some answers. Answers, I'm afraid, only you can give as a result of said rule breaking."
"Alright...you have my attention." The ghoul's eyes glistened in amusement in the light of the flame. "But do tell your lurking friend I mean no harm to the living."
"Come on. I almost broke my record on Candy Crush," Ethan whined, stepping out from behind the headstone. "Charles."
"Don't you 'Charles' me, Harding. Do you see what your father's ward is up to?"
"I can't control her," Ethan shrugged. "When Ashe gets an idea in her head, it's damn near impossible to talk her out of it. I'd just do what she asks, if I were you. And she's right, you know. About the bylaws."
The ghoul gave an impatient sigh, tapping his fingers on the coffin. "Go on, then."
"Great. I need you to give me all the information you can about the death of Benjamin Bronson."
"The fae?" Charles tilted his head to the side, exposing his leathery neck. "What would I know of that? The man died last night."
"You wouldn't. But…" Ashe pulled the backpack off of her shoulder, momentarily giving an ounce of trust as she set the flammable paint can at her feet. She unzipped the top and produced the lunchbox, offering it out to the ghoul.
"I feel there's a joke here somewhere about things that live in the sewers," said Charles.
More interested by the second, he took the pail from her and unhooked the top. Peering at the contents inside, he smirked and nodded in approval. "You even packaged it in ice."
"To preserve it."
"Can you manage with this?"
"I've managed with a lot less. You are a surprising one, little clipper." He dug his hand into the box and pinched his fingers around the small bit of soft, pink tissue about the size of a quarter. "A delicacy." Charles smacked his lips. "I can't remember the last time I've eaten one so fresh. You could have started with this," he waved the spongy muscle, "instead of threatening me with fire." And then he opened his jaw wide and popped the bit of brain into his mouth. "Mmm…"
"Well?" asked Ethan.
"Patience. The memories come in small doses. Ah…there it is. Your fae was an apprentice. Oh, and the porn he watched...my, what a variety of depravities."
"We already knew that," Ashe sighed. "Something else. Anything about the night of his death."
The ghoul closed his eyes and chewed thoughtfully, savoring the flavor of Benny. "It's difficult to sort out this man's thoughts. Peculiar…"
"Your fae's perceptions of the world were altered at the time of his death."
"Magic, I imagine. Powerful magic. The likes I haven't come across in quite some time. You're not looking for a killer - rather, I believe your victim took his own life."
"You're saying he slit his own throat? So he died willingly?" asked Ashe.
"I never said that," Charles drawled. "Only that he committed his own death. The subconscious never lies. What is seen and what is felt are two different texts, and they must be read with discretion. I sense fear - and elation. Conflictual emotions, for sure. The feeling is a trance, if I'm being completely honest. I'm afraid that's all I can tell you without more samples."
"That's all you're getting," said Ethan, reaching over to Ashe for her attention. "We should go."
"Thank you," Ashe said to the ghoul, reaching down to retrieve her paint can. "Sorry."
Charles gave a shrug. "A word of caution, if I might, young clipper. We Occult might seem like your garden variety monsters, but most of us have feelings. The older of your kind forget this, but perhaps your generation can set an example. What is the saying? You catch more flies with honey than vinegar?"
"Or you swat the flies and don't worry about preserving them," muttered Ethan.
"And like a fly, I will enjoy feasting on your rotting corpse one day," Charles gave a mock bow. "So long, clippers! Happy hunting!"
When they were out of earshot, Ashe caught up to Ethan, shrugging her backpack over her shoulder irritably. "Speaking of insects, what bee flew in your ass?"
"You shouldn't have apologized."
"I did almost set him on fire. - Do you need a new hat?"
"What?" he murmured, half distracted in his own thoughts.
"For the oversized head you're getting. You didn't used to talk like this. Ever since you became an official Guardian-"
"If wanting to protect humans from freaks like him makes me big-headed, slap me with a Ten Gallon hat and whistle me Dixie."
"That freak just gave us information we otherwise wouldn't have known."
"Do you really think the Council is going to give you a second chance just because you got them a lead?" He stopped just short of the gate; Ashe had to dig her shoes into the dirt to keep from running smack-dab into him.
"What?" Ashe peered around him. The iron-wrought gate was wide open as if to beckon them on. A tall, lanky man with ivory colored hair stood at its border, casually pacing back and forth with his hands in his pants pockets. When he caught sight of Ashe and Ethan, he released a satisfied sound, still continuing to carve a path into the ground with his feet.
"Interesting," he said in a thick, German timbre, eyeing the pair. "I wondered which one of you it was, but now that you've arrived, I can clearly tell it was the girl. Such a pity...such a pity. You look like a nice girl, you really do." The man paused, flashing her an attractive grin. "So let me offer my deepest condolences in advance for having to kill you."