Similarities to Persons Living or Dead is currently available as a part of The Official Private Eye Handbook, first book in the CITY OF MAGICK series. Please, feel free to take a look here, though, and at subsequent chapters. Let me know how you feel about it. For those of you finding your way here relatively late, no problem. The start of the story is just a click away.
SIMILARITIES TO PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD
We went back to my office. At least, I thought it was the right building. The office door did have my name on it, which meant we‘d managed to find the right floor for the day. I set my mystery box on the floor and started feeling around in my pockets.
“This looks like the place, Brick,” Harmony said.
“While you’re being so perceptive,” I said, continuing to dig through my pockets, “tell me why I can’t find my keys.”
“Because I have them,” she said, dangling them in front of me. “I drove, remember, handsome?” She moved to open the door, but suddenly announced, “Uh…This isn’t locked, Brick.”
“Again? Cover me,” I said, both of us pulling our guns. I took the lead, Harmony following me as we burst into the office.
“Oh, my…It’s…immaculate,” she said.
“I was stuck for a--Hey, look, I’m more surprised than you,” I told Harmony. “I’ve never seen it like this before.”
“Well, it’s certainly not what I was expecting,” Harmony said. “I assume your surprise means you don’t have some kind of a cleaning service.”
“Definitely not,” I said. “I like my stuff where I can find it, so the building cleaners know better. And they‘re lazy. This obviously isn’t the result of your average break-in.”
“Maybe an OCD burglar?”
“I’ve never been hit by cleaning bandits before,” I said, sliding the chest into my office as I holstered my gun. “This just seems weird. Nothing human did this.” Just then, a very sexy, five-foot-six, platinum blonde came bouncing into the office with a box of doughnuts. That was strange on several levels. Platinum blondes were rare, even in my circles. The only other one I’d met in the last couple of years was Whitney and her murder last week was still too fresh a thorn in my paw. On top of that, women didn’t usually come charging at me with food. It was odd, especially for a stranger. Falling back on the leading question of the day, I asked her, “Who the Hell are you?”
“Well, good morning to you, too, Brick,” the blonde said. “Is she your partner?”
“I don’t have a partner. She’s a client…sort of.”
“What?” Harmony asked.
“Clients pay. Now, do I know you?”
“Jonni. Jonni Berlin,” she said, setting the doughnut box on a desk that…wasn’t my desk. “You spell it just like it sounds: J-O-N-N-I.”
“That’s a funny way to spell Berlin,” I said. “Where’d that come from? That’s a real desk? You two see it, too?”
“Well, yeah, Brick,” the blonde said. “Are you OK?”
“I thought maybe I was seeing double,” I said. “Where’d it come from?”
“It’s been there all along. It was just buried under files and papers and boxes,“ she said. “I just had to peel back the layers of the years and there it was.”
“You came in to look for a desk?” I asked.
“Well, I was cleaning up in here.”
“For that alone, I should shoot you,” I said. “How am I supposed to find anything?”
“It’s all very organized,” she said. “I have a system.”
“Can you clean his apartment?” Harmony asked.
“Well, I guess,” the blonde said, “if he wants me to--”
“I didn’t even want you to clean in here!”
“You’ll thank me later.”
“Later? Why would I do that? Why do people keep saying that? Why are you here?”
“I’m your secretary, Brick,” the blonde said.
“Aha! I don’t have a secretary!” I said. “That much I know. I‘ve never had a secretary.”
“I’m new,” she said. “You hired me the other night. You don’t remember?”
“He just got the hang of walking in a straight line,” Harmony told her.
“You bought me a drink,” she said. “We were talking about how I was trying to get into show business.”
“Oh, are you a thespian?” Harmony asked.
“Hold on, honey,” the blonde insisted. “I don’t know what you’ve got in mind and don’t take it personally, but I like guys.”
“And acting,” Harmony said, nodding slowly.
“Right,” she said. “No hard feelings, OK? I mean, you’re really pretty, but--”
“Can you type?” I asked, trying to stop the torture of their conversation.
“A little,” came the reply. “I can learn.”
“You’re overqualified,” I told her.
“But, Brick, you already paid me for the first week.”
“Wow,” I said, collapsing into my chair, “I obviously had too much to drink.”
“Pleeeeease?” she begged with sparkling eyes. “Actresses are supposed to have real jobs for when they’re not acting. Please. Please. Please. Please.”
“Fine,” I said with a sigh of surrender. “Just…use the other desk.”
“Thank you, Brick!” she said, jumping and squealing. “I knew you had a good heart. You won’t be sorry!”
Oh, that ship had sailed. Then, as soon as I had thought that, my new secretary stumbled into the box I’d just brought into the office. Sure, I shouldn’t have left it sitting in the middle of the floor. That was admittedly careless, but I knew it was securely shut. I certainly didn’t think anyone was going to kick it over. Once it did get kicked over, I was certainly surprised that its lid fell open.
“Umm…Brick?” Harmony spoke up nervously.
“Oh, no,” Jonni gasped, as she quick-stepped to keep her balance and not fall over. “I’m sorry. I know I just said you wouldn’t be sorry, but…is it broken? Please tell me it isn’t something fragile.”
“Brick,” Harmony said, this time more insistently.
“It’s open, Brick,” Harmony said, getting agitated and sounding anxious. “It’s open!”
“Swell,” I said, suddenly realizing what was going on. I pulled my gun again as I got to my feet, my desk chair rolling back as I stood. I moved around my desk, my gun barrel and my eyes fixed on where I was sure the box was as I positioned myself for a clear view. “You two back away. Move toward the door.”
“What’s wrong?” Jonni asked. “What is it?”
“We don’t know,” Harmony said, grabbing the blonde by the arm and pulling her along with her toward the office door, away from whatever possible deadliness lay within the box and had been freed once again. “Brick, be careful.”
My biggest concern at that moment was that Harmony had been exactly right: we had no solid clue about what was waiting for me in that box. All I had been given was a bunch of horror stories and vague warnings. It could’ve been nothing or it could’ve been painfully lethal or somewhere in-between.
As I crept closer, I ran down my usual mental checklist. I didn’t smell any brimstone, hear any evil laughter or see anything that looked like it wanted to eat my face. It was a short list, but it was a good start most times. I crouched low as I got closer to the box. The Official Private Eye Handbook (standard issue) had admittedly limited application when it came to checking out mysterious magical death traps. Since I didn’t have a ten-and-a-half-foot pole handy, I reached out with the barrel of my .44 and turned the box so I could see into it.
“What is it, Brick?” Jonni asked in a whisper.
I looked up at her and Harmony and almost smiled before putting my gun back into its holster. They seemed to relax a little. I reached into the box and took out a small, sleek electronic-looking…thing. Picking it up, it felt smooth and warm. The face of it appeared to be nearly all screen, the back was shiny silver.
“What is it?” Harmony asked as they started approaching carefully.
“Plastic, I guess,” I said, still examining it. “Looks like about four inches square, rounded corners…about as light, firm and flexible as heavy stock paper.”
“And about as thick,” Jonni said, reaching out to feel the thing in my hands.
Suddenly, the lightweight, nearly nothing sounded with a sharp pinging, like a triangle being struck lightly. Jonni withdrew her hand. The darker side of the square, apparently a screen or control panel, glowed gently and then greeted me with a simple stream of text.
“Hello yourself,” I said.
“It’s friendly?” Harmony asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “Polite, at least. Maybe it makes small talk before it kills. I’ve met plenty of polite killers before. Maybe it‘ll try to lull me off-guard with knock-knock jokes and witty banter.”
“It kills?” Jonni asked.
“Hard to believe, huh?” I asked. “Hey, how do you kill people?”
>I haven’t killed anyone.
“A self-aware scrap of plastic?” Harmony asked. “Weird.”
“I’ve seen magic and I’ve seen mad science,” I told her. “From both, I’ve seen weirder.”
“Me, too,” Jonni said.
I tapped at the little square. It pinged at me again. “Hey, what happened to the last…five people who opened the box?” I asked it.
“Well, there’s a concept,” Harmony said. “It’s gone beyond self-aware to totally self-absorbed.”
“Or it’s stupid,” Jonni said.
“Sounds like a breakthrough from R&D,” I offered. “Somebody’s developed an artificial blonde.” Whoever said an artificial intelligence had to have a high IQ?
“Hey!” Jonni snapped.
“Whatever it is, Brick,” Harmony said, “from what you’ve said, a lot of people have died because of it and a lot of others are still trying to get their hands on it. Shouldn‘t you figure out why? Isn‘t that, like, part of some code of honor or something?”
“I suppose. Or I could just turn it over to the only one still around that paid me to find it,” I said. “I‘ll sleep on it. Harmony, let‘s delve into your bag of tricks.”
Harmony took her camera bag in both hands and placed it on my desk, her eyes darting from it to me and back again as she slid it my way. Leaning forward, I unzipped the top of the bag and peered inside. I reached in and pulled out a boxy camera. “Old, slot in the front, simple lens, single-button operation…I don’t see anywhere to open it.”
“May I?” Jonni asked, holding out a slender hand.
I gave her the simple-looking camera. She took it in her hands, turning it over and over and examining it from every side. While she performed her examination, I reached back into the bag and extracted several photographs of a man and a woman. “I’ve got pictures of a man and a woman,” I said, passing them on to Harmony after I looked at each one. “The same two, over and over…some of her alone. This must be the woman Lew was hired to follow. What was the client‘s name?”
Harmony sighed as she looked over the photos, then said, “Uh…Tyler? Taylor? I think, Taylor. I never met him. It was just supposed to be a routine job.”
“I guess it didn’t stay that way,” I said.
“What’re these? Eagles?” Harmony asked, showing me one of the pictures.
It was a photo of the woman going into a hotel with statues outside the front doors. The focus was bad, but it looked like gold eagle heads and wings.
“It’s a magic camera,” Jonni said. “No film or winding. Point and shoot and the picture comes out through the slot. Neat, huh?”
“Yeah, peachy,” I said. “Not only was Lew a lousy photographer, but he was lazy. All that convenience and he couldn’t even be bothered to put notes on the backs of these.”
I fished around in the bag and its pockets to see if there was anything else inside.
“Jonni, you ever seen this place before?” Harmony asked, showing her the photo.
“Blurry gold eagles…hmmm…It does look familiar,” she pondered, “but I don’t remember where I’ve seen them before. Sorry.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “Either of you seen this before?” I asked, holding up the last find from the bag. It was a black vellum business card, reading “SOC“ in shiny gold type.
“No, never,” Harmony said, taking the card and studying it. “You?”
I reached into my pocket, then another…then another and finally produced a black vellum business card, reading “SOC” in shiny gold type.
“Well, how about that?” Harmony asked. “What’s it mean?”
“It may have something to do with the box,” I said, “or more specifically this little square of chatty plastic.”
“No, I meant, what does ‘SOC’ mean?” Harmony clarified.
“Ah, an excellent question,” I told her. “I know because I’ve asked it several times myself and I‘m known for my really excellent questioning.”
“And what did you learn?” she asked.
“When is a murder not a homicide?” I asked.
“I give up,” Harmony said. “When?”
“That’s all I’ve got,” I said. “Good questioning, but lousy answers. It’s been very aggravating.”
“Wait a minute,” Jonni said, tapping her head kind of like brunettes did when they were thinking. “What about…a murder of crows? That’s it!”
“A what now?” I asked.
“What about murdering crows?” Harmony asked.
“No, a murder of crows,” Jonni said.
“A murder of crows?” I asked, the black business card suddenly starting to glow in my hand.
“What’s a murder of crows?” Harmony asked, her card starting to glow, too.
“It’s a group of crows,” Jonni said.
“Do you hear that?” I asked.
“Hear what?” Jonni asked.
“A voice,” Harmony said. “It’s like a…raspy whisper.”
“Yeah, it’s going on and on about…continuing paradox, I think,” I said, trying to make sense of the faint voice in my mind. “The dead…are alive…”
“I don’t hear anything,” Jonni said.
“Hold this,” I said, holding out the card to her.
She took a corner of the card and slowly began to nod her head.
“You hear it now?” Harmony asked.
“Yeah, it’s…spooky,” Jonni said, withdrawing her hand and shuddering. “Something about the dead. Crows are carrion eaters. They feed on the dead.”
“They’re looking…for something…a paradox…and for me,” Harmony said. “The voice, it’s talking to those people following me!”
Shaken, she dropped her card. It stopped glowing. I set mine on the desk and it stopped glowing. The voices left along with the fading glow. “Well, that was slightly disturbing.”
“To say the least,” Harmony said, stumbling into a chair. “Could I get a drink? And maybe a cigarette?”
“Yeah, I’ll get you some water,” Jonni said.
“This is not helping my nerves. Why are they after me?” Harmony asked.
“Well, they were after Manning,” I reminded her, “probably for something they thought he had or thought he knew. You were the last one to talk with him and he gave you this bag. So why wouldn’t they be after you?”
Sorting through the photos Lew had given to Harmony, I picked out the clearest ones of the woman and man Lew had been following. “Here,” I said to Jonni, handing her the pictures. “Go to the Herald--”
“The newspaper?” Jonni asked.
“Yeah, the newspaper,” I said. “Don’t go to the Informer. They’ve been trouble lately. See Will Dunn and find out if he can identify any of the people in the pictures. The woman’s last name may be ‘Tyler’ or ‘Taylor’. And ask him if he knows what SOC means.”
“Is it safe to send her on her own, Brick?” Harmony asked. “For her, I mean.”
“Why not? No one‘s looking for her. You sure you got all that, Jonni?”
“Got it, boss!” she said, scribbling furiously in a small notepad as she headed for the office door. “I’ll be back before you miss me.”
“I don’t doubt that,” I said.
“I think you’ve got your hands full with that one,” Harmony said as she took off her hat and coat, revealing that snug green dress again. “Why’re you smiling like that?”
I felt my headache fade by half just watching her sit and breathe. Hubba-hubba. “I finally got an answer to that stupid riddle clue. I like making progress. I deserve a reward,” I said. “Pass the doughnuts.”