(Vol 1 of The Wizard Hall Chronicles)
Steam wafted from the cauldron as bubbles popped and pinged against the iron sides. The boiling potion gave off a pungent vapor that moistened Annie Pearce’s face and frizzed her massive wave of curls. She wiped away the sweat with her sleeve and checked the heat beneath the oversized cauldron, reducing the blue and orange flames. Though the heat was lower, the flames still danced and pulsed as they cooked the holy water.
Stirring the potion calmed her apprehension and siphoned some excess adrenaline she always felt before facing a vampire. But then, this wasn’t an average vampire.
The timer beeped and, standing on bare toes, Annie glanced inside the pot. The clear liquid bubbled softly, so she shut off the fire before dumping a bucket of ice into the mixture. As cold met hot, the potion hissed like an angry snake, sending more steam in the air. Unfazed, Annie sang along with P!nk’s “Who Knew” as it blared from the small radio near the stove.
As the potion cooled, Annie loaded supplies into a field pack. First came an abridged version of her Book of Shadows. The tome contained potions, spells, and notes—an accumulation of Annie’s life experiences with magic. The book had grown exponentially over her five years with the Wizard Guard; thumbing through the book, she was amazed and maybe a little proud by its thickness.
The book fit nicely beside several ash stakes, each whittled to the sharpest point, good for piercing the skin and the breast bone of a vampire. On top of those lay a rolled map of Chicago tied with a scrying crystal necklace.
Three songs played on the radio by the time Annie finished gathering and packing her supplies. After closing up the pack, she poked her head into the cauldron and immersed a pinky finger in the potion.
Rummaging through the kitchen cabinets belonging to her best friend and Wizard Guard partner Bobby “Cham” Chamsky, she found a stash of small glass vials, grabbed a handful and placed them in a haphazard cluster on the counter. Filling twelve—more than enough to take down the vampire—she tucked half of the bottles deep inside her field pack to prevent shifting during teleportation. The rest she left for Cham.
“Isn’t the potion done yet? It smells like it’s burnt,” he complained from the dining room.
Rolling her eyes and arching her back Annie glared at him. His scrying crystal glowed bright white, and he marked another location on the map next to the several already drawn that night.
“I’m a potion master. It’s not burnt. Haven’t you found him yet?” she asked defensively.
Cham glanced up and offered a grimace. “Yeesh. He’s never in one place long enough to confirm his location.”
Burn my potion, right.
“So where would you hide a zombie army?” Cham asked, still pushing the crystal across the map.
“Someplace large and discreet, I would think. Any location fit that so far?”
After weeks of rumors flying around the wizard community, the magical police department known as the Wizard Guard could no longer ignore the vampire’s zombie army, no matter how useful the snitch was. As a result, the vampire, a creature that’s a subset of the larger demon world, became Annie’s and Cham’s problem.
“Nothing that accommodates that many bodies.” Cham’s curly blond hair sat high and wild above his head from running a hand through it. He glanced up again; Annie was still watching him. He offered an exhausted grin. “Need something?”
Annie started, caught like a child with hands in the cookie jar. Her cheeks burned red.
“I didn’t burn the potion. Your apartment smells like boy,” protested Annie.
“Okay,” he replied awkwardly before resuming his search.
What the hell? Embarrassed by the hot blush in her neck and cheeks Annie hid herself in the kitchen, cleaning up spillage, storing excess holy water, and straightening up the herb cabinet. Cham after all was her best friend and her competition in grades, broomstick racing and the Wizard Guard. There was no reason for her to disrupt their easy friendship with strange comments. Still, her busy work did little to assuage the unfamiliar exchange with her partner.
Not wanting to engage in conversation, Annie turned her attention to the only item left— the cauldron.
I hate cleaning these. But the repetitive nature of scrubbing, the backdrop of running water, and the dumping of the grayish sludge gave her time to ponder and collect her thoughts.
Cham’s voice released her from the contemplation and confusion. Curious, she joined him in the next room and found him on the floor administering a sticking spell to keep the table leg from collapsing. As with all the other spells they tried in the past it didn’t work, and the table continued to sway precariously.
“Where can I find a screw?” he asked, his freckles hidden under deep scarlet.
“A nonmagical solution?” An amused smile broke across her face as she put a finger on the swaying table to stop its motion.
“Anything’s better than this.” Cham found his way back to the seat and steadied the table with one arm while grabbing the scrying crystal. Familiar with the feel of his rock, he rolled it easily through his busy fingers.
“I don’t own one to conjure.”
Annie shrugged as Cham returned to scrying. “Maybe we should give it a rest for tonight. It’s getting late.”
“I almost have him,” he said, irritably. But the crystal remained still without having confirmed a location more than once. Finally, Cham yawned, “Maybe I should,” and moved to put away the scrying crystal.
Just as Annie opened her mouth to agree to call it quits for the night, a phone rang, cutting through the early morning silence. They glanced at each other, and Annie tugged her cell free from her back pocket.
“This can’t be good,” she said into the phone. Milo Rawley, the Wizard Guard department manager, never personally called, not even in the event of an emergency. Annie’s stomach lurched.
“You with Cham?”
“Yeah. We’re tracking Sturtagaard.”
Cham’s face contorted in a mock scowl, causing Annie to stifle a laugh.
“Stop searching for that shithead. I need you out in the field.”
“I gathered that, Milo. What’s up?”
“Smartass. The Vampire Attack Unit arrived at a scene, but the FBI’s there.” Annie’s adrenaline replaced her weariness as her fingers gripped the phone so tightly it might crack.
“Why? How did that happen?” No longer holding her breath, Annie blew out the stale air that burned her lungs. The Vampire Attack Unit never missed their window in which to clean a scene of all evidence.
“That’s why I’m calling you.”
“Why would I know?” Annie asked, but she already knew his answer. Spending her childhood living amongst non-magicals apparently qualified her more than the others in the Wizard Guard—or so thought Milo. Though most of her colleagues now lived in non-magical communities and could easily work any investigation, all cases involving the Chicago Police Department came to her.
This is federal, not local.
Annie felt a gnawing in her stomach at the realization of what the wizard secrecy laws would require of them on a federal case. Her heart pounded in anticipation.
“You know the reason, Annie. Just do it,” Milo ordered with finality.
Through the phone, a keyboard clicked as Milo typed. She sighed loudly for his benefit and glanced at Cham with worry lines deeply entrenched into her forehead.
“Fine, we’ll check it out,” she said.
“You’re a pig, Milo.”
“I sent you the coordinates.” He was ignoring her insubordination. This left Annie wondering if he respected her for the ability to hold her own in a mostly male profession or if he ignored her on purpose because he lacked respect. In the end it didn’t really matter. They had a new job to do.
Ending the call and turning to Cham, she said, “We’re on. The FBI beat us to a crime scene.”
“Has that ever happened?” Cham casually tossed the crystal; it rolled several times before landing on the edge of the table.
As he stood, his knee crashed into the table apron, and the weakened leg buckled. The table collapsed, and Cham’s scrying crystal flew through the air, crashed against the wall, and split in two.
“I’ll fix that later,” he muttered.
Annie thought of her location, and within seconds her body became weightless and detached from earth, drifting through space and landing on the edge of a wooden palette. Her arms flayed wildly, reached into the semi-darkness of the alley and caught a sleeve on a rusty metal dumpster. With a quick spell, she stopped falling and hung in midair over a pile of garbage.
“Need help?” Cham chuckled, unscathed by his own landing.
“No, I’m good.” With a flick of her wrist, Annie removed the spell and stood upright.
Damn, my favorite jacket. Annie tugged on the rip, which was long and deep enough to reveal her blue shirt sleeve. Waving a palm across the tear, she repaired the rip, leaving no visible mark.
“You need to see this,” Cham said.
Jumping over garbage and avoiding boxes of assorted junk, she peered around him. Hundreds of people mulled through the vicinity, investigating the scene, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses or patrolling the area.
“Wow,” Cham responded. He seemed just as bewildered as Annie felt.
“Where do we even begin?”
Where do we begin? The sheer enormity of the scene left Annie with an overwhelming sense of dread. It outsized anything they had ever investigated in the magical world.
They were separated from the crime scene by an east-west thoroughfare, a well-travelled road at any time during the day. However, this morning, police cruisers cordoned off the road at both ends of the block while traffic barricades created a perimeter keeping the general public from interfering, though the patrol officer was keeping busy warning nosy outsiders away.
And rush hour’s in a few hours—will they be done? Thought Annie.
“I’m not sure how we’re gonna pass through the barrier. It’s pretty tight.” As an excuse to stave off growing unease, Annie fiddled with the lenses on her binoculars and scanned the crowd for the Vampire Attack Unit. Either they hid themselves well or they were waiting at Wizard Hall.
“Do you know what types of cases the FBI works? I mean, besides the federal cases?” Cham asked.
Annie lowered the binoculars. A police officer forcibly removed an observer from near the traffic barrier. The man, boisterous and drunk, was escorted to a police car and locked inside.
“As far as I understand it, they work national security, cyber crimes, civil rights, and public corruption–type cases. Not sure how this relates to their jurisdiction.”
“Personally, I think they’re on a stake-out, tailing someone at the bar, and it’s a coincidence.” Cham reached for the binoculars, tugging them from her tight grasp.
“Do you believe in coincidence?”
“Not usually, but you didn’t mention occult crimes. So why do you think they’re here?”
“Okay, fine. This time I’ll buy the coincidence theory. I know we would’ve gotten here before the Chicago police.”
“Annie. Look at that over there.” Several men and women with cameras and gloves snapped pictures and collected evidence. “The ones in the ERT shirts. They’re looking for evidence. And that guy all the way on the far end found something. I just . . . can’t make out what it is.”
When Annie smacked him for the binoculars, Cham pulled away from her, twisting to get a look at the object. The item, too small for a clear look, was bagged and taken away. “I don’t like it. They’re messing with our case,” Cham said, annoyed. He passed her the binoculars.
“You don’t have a choice.”
In the alley between the night club and the tire store, the medical examiner, a woman in her late forties wearing scrubs and boots, scribbled in a notebook while an FBI agent in khakis and ERT across the back of his shirt, snapped pictures of a body tossed carelessly in the garbage. “One body over there,” Annie said.
“A vampire victim?”
A man in a suit with salt and pepper hair wrote copious notes while interviewing an animated witness who motioned wildly with his hands. Unable to read lips, Annie moved on to view a nearby woman framed in a business suit, hair in a tight bun, and slim kitten heels on petite feet.
Annie grimaced, thinking of her own outfit. It was neither polished nor clean, and her hair was still frizzy from preparing the potion earlier that night. Absently, she smoothed her hair to no effect and offered Cham the binoculars.
The first of the SUVs pulled away from the curb and headed east to the labs. Police escorted witnesses from the crime scene to their cars.
“The medical examiner!” Cham’s voice rose, nearly drawing the attention of the nearby crowd. If the street hadn’t been packed with noisy onlookers, they would’ve heard him call out.
Annie turned her attention to the medical examiner, who was unfurling a plastic blanket. It blew uncontrollably in a gust of wind. A cameraman ran over to help, placing the blanket over the victim. But the doctor noticed something requiring a second look and removed a long strand of brown hair, revealing an unobstructed view of the neck.
Now how do we get the bodies?
“Did you bring your badge?” Annie summoned her Chicago Police Department identification, glanced at the picture taken five years ago, when she started with the Wizard Guard at eighteen years old. She snapped it shut, placing it in her pocket.
“Really? You had to ask that?” His brows furrowed.
“Sorry. I’m wondering if we should track the bodies to the morgue and break in—not even engage now.”
Surprised, his face softened. “Are you scared?”
“Not scared . . . just apprehensive.”
Cham squeezed her shoulder before leaving. He headed east, following the perimeter of the crime scene. Once he disappeared into the shadows, Annie left the hiding spot and ducked under the crime scene tape. She entered to the west, avoiding a male agent who was still interviewing a witness, and pretended to search for evidence.
“Man, it was a big fight. The big guy looked mean and happy like all at the same time. Oh, and his teeth came out like this.” The witness wiggled two fingers, one on each side of his mouth.
“Do you know what they were fighting about? What did you see or hear?” The agent appeared bored or disinterested in the witness, shifting weight between feet while taking notes.
“All I know: the big dude with the teeth hit on the other guy’s girl. Tried really hard to get in her pants.” The witness grinned, exposing a large gap in his front teeth.
The vampire wanted to suck her dry, not have sex with her, Annie thought dryly and continued towards the medical examiner and the first victim.
The body, already loaded into the ambulance, parked halfway on the sidewalk. The back hatch stood open while the doctor read through her notes.
“Any thoughts on how the victim died?” Annie asked.
Startled by the intrusion, the woman jumped and frowned at Annie suspiciously. “Who are you?”
Annie produced her identification, which the medical examiner took and examined thoroughly, even comparing the picture to the real Annie before handing it back.
“It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” she finally said. “Look at this.”
They hopped in the back of the ambulance; the doctor donned a pair of gloves and unzipped the body bag, carefully exposing the victim’s neck.
“Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
They’re vampire tracks! Annie bit her tongue, but the thought screamed inside her head. The vampire’s canine teeth left two holes three inches apart. Raised and raw, drops of blood pooled around the edges. Through a gloved hand, Annie felt swollen wounds, red and raw, marking otherwise perfectly smooth skin.
“It’s weird, but it looks like a barbecue fork poked her.” Annie bit her tongue to keep from laughing, her thoughts jumping ahead to the autopsy.
The lack of blood will make this seem even weirder.
“How in the world did that get inside the bar?” the doctor asked as though it were even plausible. The medical examiner secured the victim inside the body bag.
“I guess that’s the question.”
“If there’s nothing else, I have another body to attend to.”
Annie loitered beside the ambulance, waiting until the medical examiner became entrenched in the crowd and grabbed the notes, which were clearly written in a doctor’s handwriting.
The observations scrawled haphazardly across the paper illustrated a disconnect between the evidence and a plausible explanation. The doctor’s guesses wound around in circles never becoming clear or correct which Annie didn’t blame on the doctor. She wouldn’t know. The preliminary comments revealed nothing to Annie except the estimated time of death. She expected nothing less. Suddenly, she heard hard-soled shoes clicking against the cement. Great. She was caught in the act.
“Excuse me. What are you doing?” a man asked. Annie’s adrenaline pumped; her heart beat in her ears. Dropping the folder, she turned to see the interviewer with salt-and-pepper hair and the dark suit.
“I’m just reviewing the medical examiner’s notes.” The suit looked at her dubiously and eyed her up and down, leaving Annie feeling exposed.
“Who are you? We didn’t ask for additional backup.”
Annie’s identification was still warm from her exchange with the medical examiner, but she pulled it out. He doesn’t believe me. She tapped her foot anxiously while the agent examined the picture encased in plastic.
“Okay, Detective Anne Elizabeth Pearce. Again, what are you doing here?”
“Annie, please. And now that you know my name, mind telling me yours?” Even though she made her smile warm and welcoming, it did little to unclench his square jaw. Even when speaking, his jaw appeared tight. It must hurt, she thought.
“Special Agent Jack Ramsey. Now tell me what you’re doing here.”
I wish I could.
Instantly, Annie regretted her decision to enter the crime scene; she was no longer inconspicuous, making her vulnerable to her secret getting out.
“I believe we’re after the same murderer.”
The agent attempted to hide his surprise. “So who killed them?”
It’s a vampire, you moron! “It’s not that simple.”
“Either you know or you don’t. Either way you’re tampering with my evidence. I should arrest you.”
Annie had worked with the Chicago Police Department in the past and often used the connection to walk in and out of questionable crime scenes without being noticed as anything other than a police officer. Being threatened with arrest was a first.
“You won’t. Because I know what killed them. You and your team have no idea what you just walked into.”
“And you do? Why . . . what do you mean what killed them?”
His suspicion was growing, drawing his already deep frown deeper. He fondled the handle of his gun.
Annie tensed. If he pulls it out I’ll summon it from him. If . . . Annie clamped her fists in resolve as Special Agent Jack Ramsey confidently unlatched his holster. She reevaluated her situation. Getting into the morgue was her most important goal.
“Let me into the morgue at midnight, alone with the bodies, and I promise I’ll tell you everything.”
Dropping his hand from his gun, Jack laughed a hardy, almost hysterical laugh at her request. Finally, he controlled his outburst. “Why would I do that?”
“Because we’re tracking the same killer, but only I can find it.”
“Why don’t you just tell me who killed them?”
“Just get me into the morgue at midnight, and I’ll explain everything.”
Rebekah Stoner, television journalist from Channel 5 news, finished the FBI briefing and returned to her television crew that had set up their workspace in the permitted area across the street. They, like the other crews, were corralled a safe distance away from the crime scene and busied themselves reading email, texting, or checking their equipment.
With an hour to go, her excitement grew. This time, her story would be the lead and not a crappy one buried between weather and sports. Rebekah reached into a cooler for a can of pop and her morning dose of caffeine.
The morning events seemed nothing more than normal. That said, the intense exchange between the FBI agent and the police officer appeared odd; Rebekah wondered if anyone else noticed it. It intrigued her so much that she jumped up and followed the officer leaving the crime scene.
“Excuse me,” Rebekah called out. The officer faced her. Not overly made up, with frizzy hair and wearing T-shirt and jeans, the police woman was still lovely. A gust of wind blew toward them from the lake.
“Hi. Did you need something?”
“I’m Rebekah Stoner with Channel 5 News. I saw you working in the crime scene. Is there any new information we should know about?”
“Sorry. There’s nothing new.”
As the cop turned away, Rebekah grabbed her wrist. The officer glared at the journalist before pulling her arm away.
“Listen. I’m a detective. I make observations. There’s nothing new. Besides, it’s only been a few hours.”
“I saw you with the special agent. What did you argue about?”
“Ms. Stoner, you know I can’t answer that. It’s not my case. I’m sorry.” The cop walked confidently down the street and turned the corner.
Rebekah returned to her seat twenty minutes before her report. Adrenaline pumped as her team prepped her for the air, fixing her hair and lipstick, wiping the moisture from her eyes.
The final ambulance pulled away from the scene, and the traffic barricades were removed just in time for the start of rush hour traffic. “Ten minutes, Rebekah.”