Psychic Madison Stone and her detective friend Joe Fazio are characters I’ve played around with for nearly a decade now. I’ve not quite settled them into a story that I’m entirely happy with. So they remain among the fragments and false-starts, waiting on just the right chemistry of plot and world-building.
Madison’s phone went off right as the students started leaving her last class. She jumped at the unexpected sound, then furiously blushed, hoping no one noticed. Normally she turned her phone off during lectures. She had a strict rule that her students do the same. She must have forgotten, but maybe it was for the best. It was hard to mistake detective Fazio’s ringtone. It wasn’t a call she should miss.
“I’ll be right with you,” she said to the small knot of students gathering to ask her questions. She still hadn’t gotten used to being center stage in an entire room full of young adults, and it was worse when half a dozen of them mobbed her at the end of a lecture. She tried not to look nervous, but still managed to fidget with her straight blonde hair, tucking a loose strand of it behind one ear. She smiled apologetically. “I have to take this call.”
She ducked quickly out of the classroom and tried to find some relative privacy a little ways down the hall. Snapping open her little phone, she said, “Hey, Joe. What’s up?”
“Maddy!” Fazio’s full-throated voice greeted her from the other end. “I got clearance to bring you in on a case. You got time for a trip to the Southside?”
Madison chewed her lip as she paced. “Well, I need to stop by my office and put a few things away,” she said. “But sure. I can make it. How soon do you need me?”
She heard Fazio cover the phone and say a few things to somebody else. The words were muffled, but the emotion still translated. Cases with Fazio were never good, but something about this one seemed to have ruffled him more than usual. After a moment, he took his hand away from the receiver and said, “How fast can you get here, kid?”
“It’s five-thirty on a Wednesday in Chicago, Joe,” Madison remarked. “What do you think? How far is it on the Southside?”
“A couple of streets over from the old Union Stockyards,” he replied. “Take the Pershing exit, then hang a right –”
“Hang on, Joe,” she said. “Let me grab a pen. Just give me the address and I’ll GPS it. I always get lost when you give me directions.”
“Now whose fault is that?” the detective teased. “No one else has trouble with my directions.”
“Well, no one else is me, Joe,” Madison replied. “Give me the address and I’ll get there faster than if you try to give me some kind of short cut.” She stepped back into the classroom as she spoke, going to the podium where she had left her notes. She rummaged through the papers there, trying to come up with a pen.
“Fine, fine,” Fazio grumbled. “Though I don’t know why you can’t pick it out of my head.”
Madison laughed. “You know it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “Not usually.” She made a frustrated sound as she gave up looking for a pen among the stack of papers. She bent down to her over-sized purse instead. Hair swinging forward, she pressed the phone to her ear with one hand and tried simultaneously to rummage for a writing utensil and keep the hair out of her eyes with the other. One of the students still waiting to talk with her figured out what she was looking for and helpfully offered his own pen. It took Madison a few heartbeats to realize that he was holding it out to her. She took it, smiled gratefully, and went back to the podium where she could jot down the address.
“You only got to deal with me and two uniforms once you get here,” Joe said. “Mike headed back to start the paperwork.”
“I don’t think your partner likes me very much,” Madison observed as she folded up the paper with the address and slipped it into the pocket of her slacks.
“Staunton?” Fazio laughed. “Don’t take it personal, kid. He doesn’t like anyone very much. Of course, another decade of doing this work, I don’t know how friendly I’ll be either.”
“I don’t want to think about it. You’re a barrel of sunshine already, and you’ve only been working homicide for three years,” Madison replied. “Look, I’ve got to finish up here before I hit the road. I’ll be there as fast as I can, Joe.”
She could almost hear his curt nod on the other end of the phone. “See you soon,” he said, then hung up.
She flipped shut the phone, then turned to the young man who had handed her the pen. Belatedly, she realized that all the other students had wandered off during her phone conversation. This guy was the only one left. He looked as nervous to want to talk to her as she often felt being the focus of so many questions.
“Brian Larson, right?” Madison asked.
He nodded, hugging a notebook to his chest. He had clear brown eyes and a complexion that suggested some sort of mixed ancestry, though she couldn’t guess what. Whatever it was, it didn’t help him with facial hair. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to grow a beard and goatee. Mostly, it looked like he had some dirt on his upper lip. She found the sheer awkwardness of it endearing.
“You wanted to know if I really meant for you to read all of The Power of Myth and the Huston Smith chapters between now and Friday,” she said. “And the answer is yes.” Anticipating his objection, Madison continued, “Moyer’s book is a really quick read. I promise you’ll enjoy it. There are even pictures.”
Brian Larson blinked. “But Miss Stone,” he responded. “How did you know what I was going to ask you?”
Madison smiled, her green-flecked eyes dancing merrily. “I’m psychic,” she teased. “And thanks for the pen.”
He took it as she held it out, then slipped it absently into a rear pocket of his jeans. He looked like he was going to ask something else, but she stopped him, tapping the faceplate of her phone.
“I’d love to chat some more,” she said, “But you’ll have to catch up with me during office hours tomorrow. Right now, I’ve got a date with a corpse.”
* * *
The corpse was long gone by the time Madison arrived at the crime scene. So were the guys from the coroner’s office, and so were all of the forensic techs. As Madison found parking and walked up to the run-down apartment building, the only official cars left were Fazio’s beat-up Ford Taurus and one lonely cop car, parked near a fire hydrant by the curb.
Madison was a little surprised to find an honest-to-goodness apartment building in this part of town. Most of the apartments in the area were converted houses, two or three stories at most with fenced-in entrances only a little ways from the street. The apartment building stood out from everything else, a dingy glass and concrete cube with stark lines that couldn’t be softened by any of the surrounding trees. A high metal fence with vertical bars surrounded the whole complex, making it seem more like a prison than a residence. Given the relative poverty of the area, Madison suspected that, for some people, it was.
Sheets of old newspapers and tattered plastic bags had fetched up against the fence, tangling in the lower branches of the trees. The aluminum casing of an empty whippet shone dully in the gutter and Madison stepped around what looked like the torn end of a used condom on a broken slab of sidewalk. She grimaced. Of course she had to wear her open-toed pumps today.
“Oh, Joe,” she muttered to herself, “the places you take a girl.”
She paused at the front entrance, trying to recall the apartment number so she could buzz to be let in. 531 was the number she’d scribbled down during her phone conversation nearly an hour before. Of course, most of the numbers on the wall were illegible. Belatedly, she realized that the security lock on the second set of doors had been busted out long ago. So she let herself in, striding past two residents who loitered in the downstairs hall. They eyed her suspiciously as she walked by, her crisp burgundy pantsuit in sharp contrast to their stained hoodies and sweatpants. She found the elevator and headed up to the fifth floor. Despite some colorful graffiti, on its ceiling and walls, the elevator seemed well-maintained. It was the first sign that anyone cared about things in this apartment building at all. As the elevator trundled up past the other floors, Madison dug in her purse for her ID card. She slipped the lanyard around her neck, fidgeting with it as she waited for the doors to open.
The moment Madison stepped out onto the fifth floor hallway, she was assaulted by the smell. It wasn’t the usual grease-and-garbage stench of poverty she might expect in a residence like this. This was the scent of death, pure and simple. A primal part of her brain reacted instantly, making her heart race and her stomach seize up in knots. She tried to breathe through her mouth to alleviate some of the stink, but that didn’t help very much. If anything, it made things worse, because now she could practically taste the sickly-sweet rot of the corpse.
Perhaps in response to the smell, the hallway was empty. Of course, given the neighborhood they were in, Madison suspected that the neighbors weren’t being curious more out of a desire to avoid any personal interactions with the police. She wondered how long it had taken them to report the murder. You didn’t get a stink like this from a body sitting over night.
A couple of uniformed officers stood at the far end of the hall, keeping watch over the only open door. Clutching the little ID badge she had for such occasions, Maddy cautiously approached the two uniforms. She didn’t recognize either of them. Before she could launch into any awkward introductions, Fazio stepped through the doorway and into the hall. He was chewing on a toothpick, a habit he’d picked up ever since he stopped smoking a few years back. He plucked the toothpick from his mouth and greeted her.
“Maddy! Glad you could make it on such short notice,” he said. “Sorry about the smell. Decomp like this, the stench pretty much soaks into the walls, not to mention to rugs and the floorboards,” he added cheerfully, fiddling with his toothpick. His manner seemed light-hearted, but his dark eyes looked shadowed and worn.
Madison tried to repress a shudder. “Thanks,” she told him. “I get the picture. So what’s special about this one?”
Detective Fazio’s face grew serious. He glanced furtively at the two uniforms and said, “Well, we probably should have called you in on one of the others first.”
“Others?” Maddy asked. “You mean this isn’t the first one?”
Again, Fazio’s eyes flicked over to the two silent men standing near his side. Madison knew that look, and Fazio was going to have some serious explaining to do once they were away from the crime scene and out of earshot of the other cops. She hated it when he kept things from her.
“We had these other two murders with ritualistic elements,” Fazio began. “The first victim was a gay stripper. The second one was a transsexual. We figured the ritual elements were just window dressing and the murders were really sexually motivated. Hate crimes, maybe.” He stopped, cleared his throat, and shrugged. “After this one, we’re going to have to rethink that theory. This victim was a woman. By all accounts, straight. And she was black. The other two were white. I don’t need to tell you how unusual it is for serial types to switch the race or gender of their victims.”
“Three murders and you already think it’s a serial case?” she wondered. “What the hell’s past that door, Fazio?”
“Well,” he said, rocking back on his heels, “I was hoping you’d be able to tell me, Ms. Professor.”
Fazio stepped aside and motioned her into through the door. She could feel the eyes of the other two cops boring holes in her back the minute she entered the crime scene. She had been called in on cases with the Chicago police before, mainly because they didn’t bother employing an occult specialist of their own. It’s not as if they got a huge number of occult-oriented crimes in the city. Most of the cases Fazio pulled her in on involved teenagers who were using occult images like upside-down pentagrams to make their otherwise ordinary crimes seem weird and scary. But every once in a while, Fazio made an excuse to call her in on crimes that didn’t have such an obvious occult twist. From the way those two stone-faced cops were glaring at her, Maddy wondered how much the other officers had guessed of her real purpose at those investigations. Despite the image portrayed by a few New Agey TV shows, most cops resented having a psychic called in on their cases.
She needn’t have worried about the presence of an occult element at this particular crime scene, however. The minute she got far enough into the room to see past the couch, the circle was unmistakable.