The resounding boom of a book falling off my desk woke me up, but it was the sound of a vial rolling across the scarred surface of my work bench that got me out of bed. I scrambled across the room, stepping on something sharp along the way, but managed to catch the vial before it hit the ground.
Good thing. If it had somehow shattered despite the enchantment, the whole building would have been engulfed in flames. My last girlfriend had told me that the precarious stacks of things in my home would be the death of me. Smart woman. By the time I had everything back in place, I was already half asleep. Until I looked out the window. Lights were shining through a cloud of smoke coming from a building several blocks away.
I got dressed and headed for the building with the smoke coming out of it. By the time I got there, the City Guard had already surrounded the place.
“Sorry sir, no one goes in,” a Guardsman with tired eyes told me when I approached. I handed him my license, and he inspected it, the metal inlays flashing in the alchemical streetlights. I didn’t say anything, the less you give them, the less they have to be suspicious of.
“Thanks Mr. Ramsey. Be careful in there,” he said, stepping aside, apparently satisfied that my badge was the real thing, which it wasn’t.
Once I was inside the perimeter, no one questioned me. I passed people taking care of the miscellanies of police work: collecting evidence, getting statements, checking for injuries, and the like. The apartment was easy to find, it was the one with the missing door and holes in the walls where small objects had shrapneled through.
“Any idea what happened here?” I asked an inspector when he came out of the room.
“Looks like a spell got out of control,” he said.
“Thanks, mind if I take a look?” I asked.
“Be my guest.” He waved me in. Had he checked, he would have known my badge was a fake. The thing about being an independent investigator was that my livelihood depended upon me being able to get close to things that I shouldn’t be able to. I had gotten pretty good at looking like I belonged.
The apartment was clean, anything too big to be blown out with the explosion had been either melted or converted into small piles of ash. Something was wrong, though. Everything in there, with the exception of the residue of the spell that had destroyed the place, had been mundane. Magical things didn’t just leave behind grey dust and puddles of metal. If someone who was capable of a spell like this had done this to their own place, it would look like a seared rainbow. On the other hand, why would someone cast it? A spell like this just had no place in a murder, anyone who was capable would have better means of killing. The same logic applied to every other reason I could think of.
“Afternoon, David. Did you hear about that explosion last night?” were the first words out of Sven’s mouth when he sat down across from me at the cafe. He looked like hell, or at least as much like hell as someone like him ever looked. Even with slept-in looking clothes and two days of stubble he looked professional, but his eyes looked tired, like he had been furrowing his brow for a week straight and they had finally just given up and let themselves be pulled tight. I had never seen anything like despair on his face before, and it was unnerving.
“Yeah, it was about a block from my house,” I said. “You hear anything about what caused it?” I had been hoping that the papers would have an explanation in the morning, but they hadn’t.
“Nothing,” Sven said with a sigh. “No progress on the other incidents, either.” The past two weeks had been filled with anomalies: streetlights exploding for no apparent reason, people falling into inexplicable comas, long-standing enchantments malfunctioning. It would have been good news for people like me if we could offer any sort of solutions.
Sven had moved on from the Investigations business and was now a Security Consultant for the Guard. It must have been pretty embarrassing for him to not know. One of the advantage of working for myself was that there was no one to disappoint.
“It was weird. As far as I could tell, the whole building was mundane, nothing was left but a bunch of ashes.” I looked up and Sven had stopped in mid-sip, looking like a fish about to be gutted.
“Wait, you were there?” he asked.
“Yeah, conned my way in,” I said, miming flashing a badge.
“You’re a crazy bastard, you know that? Flashing a fake badge to the Guard. One of these days you’ll get caught, you know.” He smiled a little.
“Hopefully not,” I said. The Guard didn’t look too kindly on imitators.
Our food arrived and Sven started eating his noodles with a purpose, not even looking up. I had known him for a long time, long enough to know there was something that he wanted to talk about but wasn’t willing to bring up.
“What is it?” I asked. He looked like a cat caught in the pantry. “What is it that you want to ask me?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think that the Guild has something to do with this,” he said.
“Come on Sven,” I said. He was completely convinced that the Engineers’ Guild was behind some vast conspiracy. Craziness.
“Hear me out,” he pleaded. At least he knew how he sounded. “About the time this all started, the Guard broke up a smuggling ring. Mostly they were bringing in Spell Ink ingredients, but they were bringing in a bunch of other stuff, too. Exotic stuff, but none of it is illegal or even specially taxed. You have that friend at the Guild . . .”
“Edgar,” I said. We had all attended the College together, until he had been kicked out. “What makes you think that the Guild is connected to this smuggling ring and to the anomalies of the past weeks?”
“I got ahold of the report and almost everything that wasn’t used for Spell Ink was stuff whose only known use was for Engineering. I know you think I’m nuts, but just go and give it a shot. If you don’t find anything, I’ll drop it.”
“I’ll do it, just get me any information you have, alright.”
“Thanks. I owe you one,” he said.
“I know,” I said.