Volatile Bonds – Jaye Wells

S CHAPTER ONE ome say fire and water are the two most destructive forces in nature. But, if I had a vote, I’d insist on a third option. Magic. A potion can destroy a man’s flesh in a burst of violence or ruin his spirit by slowly consuming his humanity. Like fire and water, there are positive, even healing energies to be found in the arcane arts, but any fool who believes himself to be magic’s master will soon find himself in a world of pain. Case in point? The idiot who’d exploded his own potion lab in Copper Heights. The home went boom at three in the morning. The explosion had combined flames and magic, and fire crews had added water, the third element of the destructive trinity. By the time we arrived on the scene at ten a.m., the entire area felt like a pressure cooker and looked like hell on earth. My partner, Special Agent Drew Morales, parked the SUV and leaned forward to take in the scene through the windshield. The explosion had vomited poison-green smoke into the sky, and the stubborn cloud resisted the force of Lake Erie’s blustery winds. The air smelled scorched and ruined, and it shimmered with the ghost of spent magic. The actual explosion site was a couple of blocks farther up the road.

Normally we would have pulled closer to the scene, but dozens of vehicles representing several emergency response agencies already clogged our path. “Is it safe to go in there?” Morales asked. “Define safe,” I said. He shot me a heated look that had more to do with the lack of caffeine in his system than actual fear. I handed him one of the travel mugs I’d brought when we left my house that morning. “Drink up, Grumpy,” I said. “And I’m sure the fire burned off the worst of the precursor chemicals.” He pointed the coffee mug accusingly at the green cloud. “But what about the residual magic?” I could have explained how being Adepts meant we weren’t affected by magic in the same way Mundanes were. But the truth was, Morales had rejected being an Adept when he was young, so he didn’t have the same power to avoid secondhand magic exposure I did.

Instead, I focused my explanations on the practical reasons we’d be safe. “When the fire’s source is arcane, fire crews mix salt in with the water to dampen any lingering magic.” I pulled down the collar of my shirt to show the edge of my ballistics vest, which was embedded with salt slabs. “Besides, between our vests and the protective amulets Mez gave us, it would take way more powerful magic than this to bring us down.” Mez was our task force wizard. In addition to providing the team with arcane defense tools, he also handled processing crime scenes. His potion-powered sports car was parked across the street, which meant he was waiting for us. “All right,” Morales said, “I can feel the caffeine kicking in. Let’s go see a man about an explosion.” I jumped out of the SUV with uncharacteristic eagerness.

Any time Detective Pat Duffy called us to a scene, it led to lots of pains in my ass. But I’d never been called to an arson scene before, so I was looking forward to seeing what was what. Usually, when clandestine potion labs exploded, the wizards responsible were such small fish that the Magic Enforcement Agency task force I worked for didn’t bother with them. The fact we’d been summoned that morning meant the lab probably supplied one of the major covens that ran dirty magic in the streets of Babylon, Ohio. If we were lucky, the evidence would be useful in our ongoing efforts to bring the coven leaders up on federal charges. But, when it came to magic, only fools trusted luck. “Medical examiner’s here.” Morales nodded to the white van as we made our way toward the scene. “Hopefully, they’ve identified the crispy critter by now.” When Duffy had called that morning, he’d mentioned they found a body in the rubble, but it had been too badly burned for fingerprinting.

“You ever work a lab explosion before?” I asked. He shook his head. “Back when I was undercover in L.A., the MEA had a special task force that investigated clandestine labs. They handled all the explosion cases. I had a buddy who worked for them. He had some stories that made my work undercover seem like a visit to a preschool. How about you?” “I never worked one for BPD. But when I was a rookie, I was involved with the bust of a floating potion lab that exploded and set the Steel River on fire.

” “I bet that impressed your superiors.” “Let’s just say I made a name for myself early,” I said. “Also, when I was little, my cousin Rico set up a lab in one of those old conversion van like the one Mr. T had on the A-Team. Anyway, he did something wrong with a new potion one day. I guess when the potion blew, it clung to him like napalm. He ran screaming down the road, trailing blue fire behind him. His clothes and skin melted as he ran.” “Jesus,” Morales said. “What happened to him?” “Uncle Abe shot him in the head.

He said it was to put him out of his misery, but we all knew Abe was just afraid Rico would snitch if the cops got ahold of him.” Abe had been the leader of the Votary Coven until he’d been arrested for racketeering and thrown into Crowley Penitentiary for Arcane Criminals. Luckily, I’d left the coven a few years before he went down. “I’m not a fan of your uncle,” he said, “but it probably was the most humane thing he could have done, regardless.” I didn’t respond because I didn’t like to give my uncle any credit, especially if he deserved it. Instead, I waved to Mez, who was conferring with Val Frederickson, the lead CSI wizard on the scene. We headed toward the pair, dodging fire hoses and cops scrambling around the burnt husk of the old house. Across the road, neighbors and rubberneckers gathered behind police barricades to gawk at the charred ruins. “Did y’all bring the marshmallows?” Mez called. That morning, his dreadlocks were pulled back and woven with jade amulets and copper bells.

He normally wore dark jeans with embroidered waistcoats, but in deference to the mess at the scene, he’d thrown coveralls over his clothes. Despite the outfit and the setting, he still somehow managed to look elegant. Val rolled her eyes. The pair were both talented wizards, but they were total opposites. He was tall with Japanese features, and she was short with WASP-y blond hair. But together they made up a sort of yin and yang of magic. “Good morning,” she said. “I hope you don’t like those clothes.” She wore blue scrubs, her typical uniform when working a messy scene. Her comment referred to the intense scent of smoke and the fact that there was no way we’d be able to enter the soggy, ashy mess of that house without destroying everything we were wearing.

“Luckily I decided to forego the ball gown today.” I wasn’t too worried about the worn jeans and gray V-neck that made up my warm-weather work uniform, and my boots had slogged through way worse stuff than wet ashes. “Any new information on the vic?” “They found a wallet on the scene, but until Franklin does his stuff, we won’t be able to verify the deceased is the guy in the wallet.” “What’s the name?” Morales asked. “Basil Valentine.” Everyone looked at me for a reaction. As the only member of our task force who’d grown up in the Cauldron, they relied on me to fill in blanks when it came to major players. “He’s related to Aphrodite. A nephew, I think.” Aphrodite Johnson was the Hierophant of the Mystical Coven of the Sacred Orgasm.

As a sacred alchemical hermaphrodite, Aphrodite was both a he and a she, and both sides were vindictive as hell. “If the John Doe is Basil,” Morales said, “whoever killed him is gonna have themselves a real bad day once Aphrodite gets ahold of them.” “That’s assuming Basil is the victim and not the one who set fire to the lab,” Val added. “Either way, I’m pretty sure someone’s going to be visiting the Hierophant today,” Morales said. “And I’m really hoping it’s Detective Duffy and not us.” “No shit.” To Val, I said, “It safe to go inside yet?” She nodded. “Arson investigator is inside with Duffy. They said you should go in when you got here.” Morales and I left them and headed inside.

Homes in that area of Babylon had been built in the 1920s to house steelworkers and their families. The bungalows had deep porches where people used to gather on warm nights to chat with neighbors. But once the steel industry died, neighborhoods like this one had gone on life support. The ones not being used as hex dens or cook houses sat abandoned, just like the dreams of all those workers who lost their jobs. Two darkened window frames resembled bruised eyes, and the doorway gaped in a silent scream. We went up the brick stairs and picked our way through the rubble to walk inside. A potion fire doesn’t behave like a normal fire. Depending on the types of chemicals and magic used, the reactions can be extremely varied. In this case, the explosion turned everything made from natural materials deep blue. All of the synthetic materials, from plastic to polyester, melted on the spot.

From the outside, the structure had still been recognizable as having once been a house, but on the inside, it looked like something out of a nightmare. Anything not destroyed by fire or transformed by magic had been ruined by the water used to douse the flames. As we entered, our boots sank into a slurry of dark-blue water and black ash. The walls between what would have been the living room and the kitchen were gone. In the other room, Duffy spoke to a man with a head as bald and black as an eight ball. “Took you long enough,” Duffy said by way of greeting. He had a receding hairline but the fit frame of a man who refused to surrender to the gravity of middle age. “They got every road leading in here blocked off,” Morales said. The man I didn’t know responded, “Had to evacuate earlier on account of all the chemicals.” He stepped forward and held out a hand.

“Ralph Perry, arson investigator, BFD.” Morales introduced himself and the fact we were with the MEA task force. “And this is Detective Prospero, Kate.” He wasn’t a wizard, so I shook with my right hand. If he’d been an Adept, aka a “Leftie,” I would have used my dominant left hand instead. “You had a chance to determine whether the blaze was caused by a cook gone bad?” “Someone sure wanted us to think it was.” Perry’s lips twitched with the beginnings of a smile. “But it’s pretty clear to me based on the fire pattern that the perpetrator used the Bunsen burners to set fire to the chemicals.” “How is that different from a normal potion-lab explosion?” Morales asked. “Most explosions in alchemy labs happen when a wizard doesn’t know what he’s doing and mixes two chemicals that don’t play well together.

That can create a nasty fireball like we had here, but that sort of explosion doesn’t leave much behind.” He waved us to follow him further into the house. “Our boy had his lab set up in the master bath.” “Why not the kitchen?” Morales asked. “It’s too exposed,” I said, answering automatically. “Bathroom labs are easier to hide from nosey neighbors and defend if someone breaks in to steal the stash.” Perry shot me a look. “Prospero used to be a cook for the Votary Coven,” Duffy supplied in a shitty tone. “She’s right, though,” Perry said. I decided I liked him a lot.

Down the hallway, we went to the second doorway on the left. Or what used to be a doorway. Dr. Thomas Franklin kneeled on the broken tiles that used to be the floor. “Franky,” I called. “Prospero, you slumming today?” “Oh, you know, I like to be where all the action’s at.” He snorted and rose from the crouch until he towered over the cramped room. His white lab coat contrasted starkly against his dark skin. “Shiiiiit, I thought you were here to see me.” Duffy cleared his throat.

“Can you update them on the vic?” The ME moved to the side so we could get a better view of the body. The skin blackened with patches of pink and red showing through, and the clothes had melted like shrink wrap to the trunk and limbs. The smell was beyond description. Hot bile rose in the back of my throat. “Damned shame when a perfectly good white boy gets fried like a Thanksgiving turkey.” “How do you know he was white?” Morales asked. “The DL they found was a Caucasian male named Basil Valentine,” Duffy said. “Of course, that could have just as easily have fallen out of the perp’s pocket,” I said. Franklin nodded. “Agreed.

I’ve got my assistant calling in the dental records, so we’re not confirmed on identity—or the race—yet. However, I have been able to identify cause of death.” Morales held out his hands. “Gee, could it have been fire?” Franklin pursed his lips. “No, smartass, he was dead before the explosion.” He knelt again and used a gloved finger to tilt the head. A wet crunch filled the small space. That sound, combined with the nauseating scent of charred flesh, meant I wasn’t too far from needing to excuse myself for some fresh air. “He’s got a bullet hole here.” He pointed to a dark hole about the size of a fingertip next to the vic’s left eye.

“Why blow up the place if he was already dead?” I asked. Perry answered. “Because criminals are dumb. Or maybe they were sending a message. Or they just liked to watch things burn. We won’t know the answer until y’all find who did this.” When he said that, he was staring at Morales and me, not Duffy, who was the lead homicide detective for the BPD. “Um. Duffy?” I said. “You forget to explain to Perry that you’re the lead on this case?” Duffy cleared his throat.

“Can we talk?” He held out a hand, indicating we should precede him farther down the hall. Morales and I exchanged a look but marched back into the kitchen. Once we were out of that cramped hallway, I sucked in a lungful of cleanish air. The windows there had been blown out, so a slight breeze reached me. It still smelled like smoke, but at least it didn’t have the nauseating ozone and barbecue scent that permeated the bathroom. Once Duffy came out, we rounded on him with identical bullish expressions. “All right, here’s the thing,” he began. “I’m sure you’ve heard that murders are up for the last few weeks.” I didn’t nod, and neither did Morales. Any indication we sympathized with his plight would only encourage him.

“Well, Captain’s been riding my ass about closure rates. It’s not our fault. Bodies have been stacking up since Easter. My detectives are working overtime just to process the scenes.”


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