We found the dead chess piece in a dumpster on Seventh. Black pawn, five foot two, ebony, hand-carved. A crooked fissure ran from top to bottom along its length, remnants of the killing magic.
A circle of salt outlined the dumpster. That was to keep the mage master from feeling the death.
"You think it’s him?" Rooster asked. Rooster was a big, sloppy man and had been my partner for two years.
"Looks like his work," I said.
"How many is this?"
"Three pawns, both knights, a bishop."
"Not doing well, is she?" He meant the other mage, the one who was losing pieces left and right.
"Nope," I said.
We made the break in the salt circle withe a raven feather and got the pawn into the body bag.
"Imagine cracking down the middle like that," Rooster said. "Just one day out of the blue."
"Not a nice way to go," I agreed.
The mage who had controlled the dead pawn had gone into hiding. Her name was Virella. At least, that was her mage name. What her human name was we couldn’t track down. Most mage’s tried to expunge their human identities once they donned the cloak.
At the end of the day, once the report was filed, Rooster leaned on my desk. "You want a beer?"
I didn’t. But I could see he didn’t want to be alone. “Sure,” I said.
So we went to our favourite watering hole. “The usual,” we said to the barkeep. Then we looked dismally into the mirror behind the bar so we didn’t have to look at one another.
The story with Rooster was that his wife used to be a chess piece. She was a queen, a pawn who got promoted. He didn’t know that she was a chess piece, not until they found her.
See, half the time, chess pieces are just like you and me, skin and bones. Then the other half of the time they’re wood and march out to do the bidding of their mage master. So it had been a double blow for Rooster to find his wife not only dead, but having lied to him all this time.
A beautiful lady in a black cape came over to us. She was chewing gum and looking nervous. "Officers," she said, "Officers, I got some information you’re maybe interested in."
"And who are you?" Rooster said, taking in all her goods.
"I got me a skin suit," she said. If true, that meant she or he was a demon.
Rooster was slow on the uptake because of the dead pawn. He eyed the demon or woman with undisguised interest.
"Where’d you get it?" I asked.
"Mage lady." The demon blew a bubble.
"Yeah?" Rooster said.
"Got her a place with a moon door. Expensive defensive, as they say."
"Have a name this mage lady?" I asked.
"Virella," said the demon.
"Skin suits are contraband," Rooster said. "We ought to take you in."
"Don’t make me laugh," said the demon. We both knew it was right. Neither of us could handle a demon. We were just a pair of dumb humans.
"This suit,” said the demon, “it’s perfectly legal."
"No such thing," Rooster said. He was reaching for his weapon. I put a hand on his arm, a bad thing to do, but I wanted more information.
I said, "How do you figure its legal?"
"Cause," said the demon. It popped a bubble loudly. "She gave it to me off her own bones."
"You stole it, you mean," Rooster said. He jerked his arm away and came up with his weapon. All us officers are issued a stick of holly. Rooster’s had a forked end.
The demon just looked at it and laughed. "I gave you the information you’ve been hunting for and this is how you want to repay me?"
I said, "We’re grateful. Really. You have a good day."
I got Rooster out of there. It was about six o’clock. Neither of us needed to talk about what we were going to do. I checked to see when the moon rose that night. We were going to go through the moon door and talk to Virella. If she’d sold her skin then she was obviously in a bad way. Talking to her, we might learn more. What, you may ask, could we do to help? Well, not so much. But you never no. You can’t not do anything. You can’t just turn over and give up.
So around moonrise we showed up at a likely prospect. Places with moon doors didn’t really have physical addresses. They were mental and temporal addresses. We knew her mage name and we knew the time. That might be enough and it might not be. We would find out soon.
The moon came up and a silver door appeared in the thin air of the night just like that. Like magic. It had a knocker in the shape of a snarling wolf. I grabbed the wolf and gave the door a good solid knock.
"You know," I said as we waited, "I’m just a dumb human. And if a dumb human has figured out where to find her, whoever’s trying to kill her probably knows too.
“That crossed my mind,” Rooster said.
“My point is, if she opens up that door to let us in, she might let her attacker in too."
"It’s a possibility," he agreed.
The door opened. A grinning skeleton in a white dress gave us a once over with its empty eye sockets.
"Mistress Virella I presume,” Rooster said.
The skeleton nodded. It pulled open the door all the way and we went in. It was a small apartment. A few potted plants for colour and or potions. A tiny kitchenet. A couch and crystal ball on a stand opposite. A closed door maybe going to a bedroom, or a closet now she was a skeleton.
She pointed at the crystal ball and we turned to see what was playing. We saw the demon from the bar earlier. It had its skin on and was in the process of being nailed to a cross by two white rooks.
"The demon was a decoy," said Rooster. "Smart."
"And a messenger," said the skeleton. "I needed you to come to me. I can’t leave or he shall see me. In here I have defenses against his gaze."
"Who is it, my lady, that dares attack you?" I asked.
"I wish I knew," she said. "But I don’t. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you."
"We don’t know," Rooster said. "He’s covered his tracks well."
"Can you think of anyone who’d want to do you harm?" I said.
"All mages have enemies," she said.
"This one is also a chess player," I said, gesturing to the crystal ball. "With pieces powerful enough to overcome a demon."
"Indeed," she said.
"Revenge is a good motive," Rooster said.
"True,” I said. “Anyone out for revenge on you, my lady?"
"Yes," she said. "As a matter of fact."
"Name them," I said. "Maybe we’ll know something that can help."
"Will you arrest them?" Though she had no eyebrows, she gave the impression of having raised one. "You do not have much power."
"There are certain rites we can perform," I said. "The law has some power."
"Yes," she said. "I wonder where that power resides. How many mages work on the force?"
She had me there. I said, “None I can think of. Some judges are mages. That’s where the power comes from."
"Yes.” She drummed her boney fingers against her skull’s chin, thinking. So was I…thinking that is. The force wasn’t all that affective at stopping magical crimes, true enough. Policy was to file the reports and keep our heads low. So why was I so compelled to solve this case? It was ridiculous, dumb humans getting between powerful mages. But I hadn’t considered it, almost as if a spell had been cast over me. Was it for Rooster and his history? A sense of friendship? That must be it.
"You know," Rooster said. "I think I know who it is."
So do I, I thought. But justice or friendship?
I thought about the black pawn we’d found in the dumpster earlier that day, about the other murdered pawns, the knight and the bishop.
"Imagine cracking down the middle like that," Rooster had said. "Just one day out of the blue."
I drew my holly branch and said, "Rooster, you’re under arrest."
He began an incantation. I saw the storm clouds his words made. At the same time, Virella made a gesture and the closed door behind her burst open, revealing not a closet or a bedroom, but the twinkling lights of the city, far, far below.
The winds from Rooster’s storms howled and screamed. Forked lightning flew from between his teeth and struck Virella in her chest. She was blasted head over heels out the open door toward the city below. That was when I had my chance.
Rooster stared after his wife’s killer as she fell down toward those far-off city lights. Those lights that were a lie. For it was a city of darkness, where mortals feared to tread in case a mage or demon decided to use them as pawns in their evil games. Mages like Rooster.
I dropped the useless holly branch. Putting my head down, I shoulder slammed my partner in the back. He was caught off guard, his mind far-off.
I pushed him forward and through the open door.
I watched Rooster plummet after Virella. Plummet toward those distant, treacherous lights. “So long,” I said to the wind.
I closed the door and called it in. Double mage homicide.