I finished the first chapter of this year’s Nano novel. Meet the members of the Magical Crime Unit.
“What did you do? We’ve a new member of the unit starting and you’ve turned your hair purple?”
Greta rolled her eyes, keeping her feet up on her desk and her back slouched against the chair. Her older brother played cop too much for a real investigator. “There’s no law against purple. In fact, it’s even in Bremen’s official seal.”
“Nobody’s going to take you seriously looking like that. Think about how that’s going to represent us. Where’s your sense of honor?” Hans demanded, making his curl of blond hair bob over his forehead. As usual he looked more like an advertisement than a live person. He wore a tailored green vest yanked tight over a white dress shirt.
“Honesty over honor, brother. That’s what any newbie needs. Facts. Not your cause. Not the headlines. Facts. That’s what keeps people alive.”
“Why must you make everything so difficult?”
“That’s why you keep me on the pay roll.” Greta winked.
“I don’t do the—“ He broke off, glowering at her. A rapping from the floor above echoed across the silence. “Greta, I swear—“
“I have the most brilliant ideas. I know. Come, that must be the new techie now.” She ran up the steps two at a time, her brown duster jacket flapping about her boots.
“Did you at least finish the paperwork I asked you to take care of? The review of Ivan’s final dossier?”
“Now you’re babbling. That’s been on your desk for twenty minutes. I know you’ve read it.” Honestly. One would think her brother needed rescuing every day with how he carried on. When he got like this it was so tempting to do something bold and stupid, like dyeing his hair orange. Hans was one of the best magical crime investigators anywhere, but there were times when he was worse than a mother goose. He’d been worse the last two months. They all had.
“Please do your best not to traumatize our newest coworker in the first five minutes,” Hans said as Greta cleared the staircase. At least he had the sense not to deny the babbling or engage her in an argument. He tried to step past her, but she lowered her shoulder and shoved.
“I can’t help it that they showed up the same day the cow exploded all over our crime scene. Besides, this one’s already got past Ruby. That’s more than any of the others.” She closed her hand on the door knob, ready to pull back with all her strength. The warped door needed replacing. Given the current budget crunch, the wait could be years. Until then, it remained a better exercise than benchpressing the volumes of local ordinances governing magic.
“Please step away from the door before you wrench it off its hinges. That would be a most uncivilized welcome for us to offer,” a soft voice said from the hallway behind them. “Greta, Hans, put away the sibling rivalry and allow me to handle this.”
“I know how to open a door, Anne.” She rolled her eyes at the other woman, one of three in their small unit. Anne looked ready for a party, not like the dusky woman had spent all morning buried in documents up to her elbows. Some things were never fair.
“I have no doubts on that matter, Greta dear. It’s your restraint that needs some duct tape.” Anne slid past Greta, ignoring the noises of protest coming from Hans. Her long black curls hung free over her backless green sundress. She opened the door in a smooth motion and then artlessly flicked open the latch on the screen door.
A dark young man with black hair falling jaggedly across his brow stood there. He was dressed in a bright purple shirt and gray slacks. He carried a pair of shoes that flashed more than reflectors. He looked at Anne, Greta and Hans in turn, head tilted. Greta hoped he wasn’t part dog, not that she thought Ruby would approve someone like that. “Is this the Bremen Police Department Magical Crime Unit?”
He wasn’t from around here. That much was clear. Nobody used their whole name. Greta was still trying to figure out the shoe thing. He didn’t have any blisters that she could see, so why carry them around? Luckily, Anne remembered her manners.
“Welcome to the MCU. Please, come in. I’m Anne, field investigator and researcher. Allow me to introduce you to Hans, our team leader, and Greta.”
“I’m known as Marcus Shaw. I would have been here earlier, but a flaw in my research led me astray.”
“What you mean is no one told you to look for MCU in a house,” Greta said. She hadn’t decided if he was being pretentious in his language or if that was how he translated his thoughts into words. If it was pretension, she’d have him out of there before the afternoon grew a beard. Arrogant and her didn’t mix.
“The website indicated your unit was based in police headquarters. The secretary on duty there made it sound like a most formidable compound with Barbie wire.”
Greta choked. “It’s called barbed wire,” Hans said, impatient.
“My point is that I ought be more prompt in my arriving. I am most sorry.” Marcus bowed to Hans.
“It will not be a problem in the future.” Hans was working on his in charge voice. It was too bad that sounded like a bad old-fashioned movie threat voice. “Arriving timely—“
“Everyone gets lost. It doesn’t matter. We can’t fire everyone because the city has fits of stupid,” Greta cut in.
Anne peered outside. “Let us move this conversation inside. The rain will be upon us shortly and dripping paperwork would be most inconvenient as would be an office of stuffy noses.”
Hans and Greta shuffled over so Marcus could come in. He stopped on the threshold, examining the security gate just inside the doorway. “That is an impressive home system. Do you often experience intrusions?”
“No, we don’t. I intend to keep it that way,” Hans answered.
“Such a design would catch many a weapon.”
“It’s not a metal detector,” the blond said. “You can come through and Greta will give you the tour.”
“Hans,” Greta scolded.
“Not all weapons are metallic in composition. Some are plastic. Others are bone. Still others are magic. I recognize this design. It was quite effective and popular ten years ago. The power sources now tend to fail and are not easy to replace. Did yours spark, pop or smoke before ceasing operations?”
“How’d you know that? Are you magic?” Greta rolled her eyes as Hans took the defensive tack. He had to get over the whole magic phobia one of these days, right?
“It is my business to know such things. Gadgetry is my specialty. My previous two…employers have had such devices. The first ignored the warning signs when the device began to malfunction; my second was wiser. The power cores were built to erroneous specifications.”
“When Greta is done showing you your laboratory and the rest of MCU, she’ll bring you by my office and we’ll get you started on a small case as a probationary run.” Hans’s tone was ambivalent, but he wasn’t giving the new guy death glares anymore. He still lost points on overstating his brother advantage.
“I look forward to the challenge.”
“I’ve had to fill in the technology role recently,” Anne said. “Call me later and I can review what I’ve been doing.”
“Thank you for the kindness.” Marcus bowed again. Greta sort of wondered if he’d been hit on the head over at PD. She wouldn’t put it past the secretary if he had interrupted her, though he didn’t seem the sort.
“Anne, if I could speak to you a few moments about the Andersen case.”
“Of course, Hans. Let me get my files and we can assess things in the briefing room.”
Anne headed down the corridor while Hans briskly ascended the staircase. Greta watched her brother. He was worried about something and it was not Marcus, though he was being a bear enough about that. She’d ask him about it later; she had some new question tricks to try. Now there was more urgent business.
“You like climbing, right?” she asked the new tech.
“Let me guess,” Marcus said dryly. “I’m in the basement.”
“Nope, you’ve got to do better than that. You’re in the attic.”
“I am?” Marcus asked in surprise. No. Not surprise. Thrilled. “Techies and people others don’t want around are always in the basement.”
“What’s so amusing? Did I say something wrong?”
“Funny. You want the word funny. Amusing is for strangulating social functions.”
Marcus’s eyebrows scrunched together. He thought her weird. He kept it out of his voice. “What’s so funny about my words?”
“Hans is in the basement.”
She didn’t hear any footsteps behind her as she climbed the stairs. Casting a glance backward over her shoulder, she saw Marcus standing at the landing, one hand on the rail. He was trying to keep his face calm. His jaw tightened. She assumed he was trying not to laugh. There weren’t enough tells to be sure. Somebody had schooled the new techie on divorcing his face from his heart. She was used to that in field agents and secretaries. Not so much with the lab rats, even when there weren’t any chemicals electrifying their brains. “Sorry,” he said. “Your brother was not my target.”
“Don’t be,” Greta said. “Sorry, that is. I would object on principle if you offloaded rounds, darts, arrows or pigeons into Hans.”
“Pigeons? You confuse me.”
“Then I’m doing my job.” She reached the landing. She pointed at the corridor leading away from the staircase. “That is Anne and my’s floor. You’ll get a better look later. I-Your place first.” Fried toads, why had she almost said Ivan’s name aloud. She didn’t even like the guy and now she was almost babbling about him when they’d all decided it was better not to. Drama was so very irksome.
“I would like to see your job description.” Polite again. This was going to take work. Though there was a bit of tug. He wanted to smile.
Greta snorted. “Job descriptions are the best fiction in PD. Even better than chronic charms confessors.”
“I’ve found charms confessors to be rather repetitive in their claims. Is not the nobility more guilty of fictional habits?”
“Not here. Bremen doesn’t have any nobles.” She looked at him. “That’s pretty common knowledge. Are we going to need to plant you on a grapevine? Or put you up in the middle of market like a shaggy scarecrow?”
He ignored that. “You mean outside of visitors and the ones that move here when they can’t hack it at home.”
“Well, yes. The visiting sort is all sorts of trouble. Here, they all whine. That’s why the charm confessors sell more tv spots here. They get novels as well. Sometimes a pasta box.”
“I think you mean cereal box,” Marcus said.
“I’ll prove it when you get stuck helping with grocery runs.” She yanked off the large carbineer from her belt and spun the keys around until she got the large tarnished silver skeleton key. She forced it into a formidable padlock and jammed it counter clockwise. The lock popped. The black key went into the smallest lock. She did the combination lock and then slid the smallest lock into a diary lock she had souped up when board of meetings at PD. The coroner hadn’t been happy with the materials she’d swiped in the process. Who knew guys who worked with dead people were so picky about their blades? Then there were the two string knots. A child could take them out, but redundancy was important in all of Hans’s directives. She opened the door and peeked inside, using her body to shield most of the opening.
“Don’t tell me there is a dragon in there.”
“Ok, I won’t.” She sounded boring, the best way to make someone sweat. She was good at making people’s pores cry.
Marcus coughed. He was clearly disappointed in her. How did he know there wasn’t a dragon in there that fast? It was most vexing that he hadn’t played at all. She flung the door open the rest of the way, rather harder than was necessary. It made a great boom as it hit the wall. Four seconds later her phone rang. She looked at the caller id. Her brother. Of course. Well, if he was going to complain about noise like some old grandfather, she wasn’t answering.
“Your caged lair,” she said to Marcus, pointing at the room beyond.
“The door is made of wood. There was string tied to the door. All too flammable for dragon confinement, even if you had a field generator or Teflon or Plexiglas in place.”
She said nothing, only crossed her arms and waited pointedly for him to enter the attic. Marcus met her gaze. He was ignoring her attitude. That was earning and costing him points at the same time. No matter the balance, she was not going to move first. Marcus didn’t make it a staring battle of wills. He went into the room like he was only taking his time. If he’d shrugged his shoulders or slinked, that would have been it. She’d have written him off as another computer geek lab rat. This was different. Instinct told her so. Hans said instinct was foolish, something to be mastered. Whatever. It kept her sharp.
It was instinct that told her that the attic was too quiet. There should have been some reaction to the mess in there unless Anne had worked a miracle and Greta was not in the know about it. She went through the door, climbed the narrow set of ten stairs and around the corner of the landing. Marcus was standing in the middle of the dimly lit first room. One of the two lightbulbs had burned out.
“Sorry about the light. We’re not much of a welcoming committee are we? We make you stay on the roof in the dark.”
“This is neither the roof nor the dark. You gave me a place. For that, I am in your debt.”
“Wait until after you figure out what we’ve got for you to work with.”
“This is more than adequate.”
She frowned. No one could have assessed the contents of the room that fast. “You just got up here. You’re in the middle of the room. What do you know about adequate?”
“The scans on the wall behind you indicate that there’s access to the third best portable resonator on the market, which happens to be the most reliable and offers scalable images so transferring the images won’t bring down the entire city network. The bins to my left have more tools in them than my technical training program, and that is without even considering the cameras scattered about. You’ve a more compact magicthrometer that I’ve ever seen. It’s easily mistakable for simple penlight. That flat screen on the wall likely has touch screen capabilities. The number of computers in this room alone is obscene. Is the more scientific lab in the second room? I hope you have a hood. Analysis of magical compounds gets rancid more times than not. At this point, the only thing I’m doubting is your database subscriptions as I know there have been city budget cuts and those things are prohibitive without a university going in on the price.”
Greta coughed. Maybe she’d been too quick to underestimate his observational prowess. “You aren’t concerned by the lack of magical equipment?”
The noise of metal upon metal answered her. Marcus was going through the bin, muttering to himself as he looked at each piece. Greta was up on slang but she didn’t know all the words he was using. She’d have to grill him later—you never knew what words would throw off a witness when asking questions. Most of the PD technical specialists didn’t get to ask questions—it was a perk of the MCU that she got to do so. Her crime scenes made people nervous. All the more fun for her. She repeated her question, after stomping this time.
He held up what looked like a copper whisk welded to a flashlight handle, his purple sleeves falling down to his elbows. “You’ve a wraith diffuser field generator on inventory and you complain of magical equipment? A training wheel version is all I have seen and that was only because I attend the Conference on Magical Technoference every solar year.”
Apparently the key to unleashing Marcus’s inner geekbabble was to present him with a glorified spoon. There better be an off switch. “Not that sort of magic gadget. Does it bother you that none of these use magic for juice?”
“Please tell me this is some sort of test. I’m working with the infamous Hans and Greta. If I thought magic was going to have any place in my job other than behind bars, I fail at research more than college students running sleep debt to rival some palace treasuries.”
“Hey, I don’t have a problem with magic. That’s not how I roll. It’s all on, Hans.”
He didn’t believe her. He didn’t call her a liar, but she knew. It was something in his eyes. “Power sources don’t matter as much as you think you do. It’s all about getting the data and then making it speak. Electronics, magnetic, thaumaturgy, simple machines, toothpicks can all get the results you seek. Leaving out one group leaves three others still at my fingerprints.”
“Your test I pass then?” He smiled then. It was not unpleasant. He rubbed the dust from his knees where he had knelt before the tool bins.
“Hans will let you live.” Greta looked at her watch. “I think. You better head down to the basement.”
“Anne had offered assistance,” Marcus said, looking around the room. “I hate to leave this all out of order.”
“It’ll wait. My brother’s impatient today. Don’t make him more so. I mean, doing that is fun for me, but could be trouble for you.”
“I wish that didn’t make sense. Do I follow the stairs all the way down or is there a secret passage?”
“Get going down. Oh, and Marcus?”
Was he already halfway down the stairs? Gremlins, he was fast. “Put your shoes on. Even if you have blisters larger than brownies, put the shoes on.”
“Shoes?” The dark young man looked down to see that he was still holding a pair of laces in his right hand. “Oh, right. Footwear. These dress shoes don’t fit. I thought a show my first day would be good, but then the hike from city hall.”
“No shoes, no shiny tech toys of doom.”