Cory walked into my office without knocking and placed a pile of red cardboard boxes on my desk. A careful look in the boxes and I realised they contained filled manila folders. “The higher ups have decided that you’ll learn by doing.”
“Cleaning up.” Cory opened the top box.
“Cases given to you, and by extension, me. Mostly manifestations people created with their very own brain boxes. I grabbed the easy ones because neither of us is fully trained to handle this.”
“You mean urban legends people thought into existence?”
“Yes,” Cory said. “Once someone will work with you as your mentor, this is what you’ll do for the Agency.”
“Remind me why people here won’t work with me again?”
“They think you’re an evil homicidal Mage called Nox. Get with the program, Dexter. Would you want to work with someone who had rumours like that surrounding them?”
“How do I prove my innocence and make my life easier?”
“Hang in there until the investigation is over and try not to do anything else suspicious.”
“I’m investigating a crime committed by someone with a lot of power. That could come across as suspicious if the right person is pulling the strings of the detectives.”
“That investigation is fully approved by my direct boss, but I can’t promise to defend us if we get caught.”
“You told White Suit?” I stood and pointed my finger at him. My anger burning the words in my mouth. Unable to decide what to yell at him for first, I growled in anger. “Why would you do that?”
“He needed to know why you were acting like a weirdo,” Cory said. “The less other members of the Templars look at the Alissa Thornton case, the better.”
“You think I’m weird for investigating the murder of a ghost I had a mental connection with? A girl who was brutally murdered by someone I’ve known my entire life. By someone I could trust.”
“I don’t think you’re weird, I work in the Special Basement, but people outside of the department might have different options.”
He shook his head. “If you heard the things they say about us upstairs.”
“What is ‘Special Basement’ supposed to mean?”
“The Special Basement where they hide all the weirdos. Many people still don’t like the magic we practice down here.”
“What kind of magic?”
“Blood magic, life magic, electricity magic, mind-altering. We specialise in using magic that can alter the body and mind, living or dead. You’ll learn to specialise in Death and Eldritch Magic plus Demonology and Monsterology. To become the best Exorcist you possibly can.”
“And your bosses thought it would be a superb idea to settle me with that? I thought the idea was to make me less weird.”
“There was a trainee Cleaner who was killed over the weekend.”
“That’s what you mean by cleaning up?” I waved my hands about, not knowing what to do with them. “I thought I was supposed to be an Exorcist.”
“Cleaner’s just the common name. You clean up messes. You started with your own now we move on.”
“They move fast.”
“You’re a blank slate that’s willing to learn, and we need to give her mentor time before she’d ready to come back to work.”
“We’re taking over their caseload?”
“Yes.” Cory looked down at his watch. “We have someone to meet at the Diner.”
“You’ve already organised work on this case?” I pointed to the red manila folder he held.
I tapped the side of the bottom box. “Are all these ‘safe’ cases?”
“Yes. You’re a Trainee Apprentice.” He pointed to the same box I touched. “You’ll do red cases with supervision for the first three years.
“You’re in a four-year program.”
The realisation washed over me like a sick wave. I’d be closer to thirty before I was fully trained. How was I supposed to catch up with my peers?
“This case was marked as a priority,” Cory said.
“Anywhere else red would be the danger colour.”
“The colour levels are based on the visible light spectrum. They taught you the shorthand on how to remember those colours, right?”
“Roy G. Biv. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.” I said. “I know the education system here isn’t the best, but it’s not that bad.”
“Seven clearance levels. Red is the lowest and violet is the highest. The highest clearance level a mage would dare take on alone is green, and even that’s considered a last resort. If you do a situational assessment and the level is higher than you’re capable of handling. Evacuate everyone and call for backup.”
“I have a guide.” He handed me a thick plastic bound book with information about the colour code system and how to conduct a safety assessment. “You’ll be tested on that. You’ll need to know how to do everything expected of a Trainee Apprentice in one year or you fail.”
“What happens if I fail?”
“Normally you get kicked out. You? I think they’d put you on trial for illegal knowledge of magic.”
“You heard me.” Cory held the door open for me to walk through and gave me a smile. “Remember to do your homework.”
He’d left casually as though he hadn’t just told me I was almost certain to be executed if I didn’t play along and try hard enough.
Cory hadn’t let me look in the folder, so I went into the Diner clueless about what I would walk into. We sat down across from a middle-aged man with black circles under his wide eyes. Dressed in a long-sleeved flannel shirt, jeans and muddy boots, I assumed he was a farmer.
“Marco Bailey?” Cory said.
“That’s me.” Marco shook both our hands.
“You reported that your sister-in-law is in possession of a forbidden creature,” Cory said.
Marco Baily’s hands shook as he moved the short, white coffee cup towards his mouth. “My sister-in-law was the type of woman who always wanted kids, but she didn’t meet my brother until it was too late. I honestly always thought she was the most educated and capable person I’ve ever met. We ran in a similar field of magic, and I always admired her.” Marco took a few shaky breaths. “I guess my image of her was ruined when she introduced me to the thing that’s living in her home.”
“Thing?” I questioned.
Cory gave me a sharp look that said, ‘sit still and shut up’.
“I thought she was smarter than that. She says she can control it, but I’m worried. I promised Herb I’d take care of her,” Marco replied.
“Are you in love with your sister-in-law, Mr Bailey?” Cory said.
“God, no. I’ve never really been interested in sex, marriage, children or anything like that. She’s older than me and someone I respected. Her work was the reason I went into magical biology.” He let out a bitter chuckle. “They say never meet your heroes, and mine became my sister-in-law. I still had that admiration for her until she introduced me to my new nephew.”
“What is the nature of your newly acquired relative?” Cory said.
“It’s not human. I was always told to report things like this.”
“I will need a description.”
“It looks like a child. When she first started talking about it, I thought she’d went off the deep end. The way she was talking, it was like she’d kept a child she found, as though it was a stray dog. I paid them a visit, and that’s when I was introduced to Thomas.”
“It’s intelligent enough to respond to the name Thomas?”
“Yes. She called him Thomas but told me to call him Tom to his face.”
“I need a description so I can identify the creature. I don’t want to hear how wrong you think it is.”
“It looks like a ten or eleven-year-old boy. Like any other kid, apart from the black eyes, pale skin and sense of dread.”
Cory looked up from the notepad. “Do you think it’s an actual child?”
“An actual child?” Marco said.
“A baby demon.” Cory tapped the end of his pen on the paper.
“That makes a difference?” I said.
“All the difference in the world. Many creatures mimic humans, especially women and children, but there are also baby demons who don’t know any better or mean no harm.” Cory turned his attention to me. “Not every demon is dangerous. It’s a universal term to describe anything that doesn’t naturally belong to this world.”
“Including aliens?” Marco’s eyes lit up for a second.
“Anything not native to this planet is a demon. The term was invented by people to describe the unknown creatures they encountered. Not to describe a literal Abrahamic religious evil come to life. Is there a reality out there somewhere with a Heaven and Hell like described in the bible? Maybe, but not here. None of these creatures is pure evil or good.”
“If that thing clinging to my sister is what I think it is, it’s got nothing good planned for her.” Marco had a stern look on his face.
“It’s a creature that needs to eat.”
“Her fucking life energy.” Marco dropped his cup and grabbed the front of Cory’s suit across the table. He drew his other fist back, a ferocious look on his red face.
I dived behind Cory and shoved both of my hands over his face to block Marco’s. “I know he’s an arsehole, but we’re only trying to help. Please don’t hit him. We’re the only people sent to help your sister.”
Marco’s raised fist shook for a minute before he let it drop. He shoved Cory so hard when he let him go; I was also knocked off my feet. Cory as collected as ever clicked his tongue and pulled a small cloth from his bag. He silently pulled the glasses I’d covered in fingerprints from his face and cleaned them without looking at either of us. He stood without another word after he placed the glasses back on his face and walked from the Diner.
“Thank you for your time, Sir.” I gave Marco a stiff smile and hurried after Cory.
Cory was strapped into the driver’s seat by the time I reached it. How had he moved so fast? “I hate dealing with the public.” He said public like it was a dirty word. He sighed and looked at me. “I’m getting sick of this act.”
“Make me truly believe you went through with it.”
“I shouldn’t still be falling for this. If you did it, you’re not as smart as I thought you were. All you’ve done is make yourself vulnerable. Catering to their demands wasn’t the way out.”
“Is this about that Nox thing? Falling for what? What is everyone not telling me? Who’s demands? Tell me.”
“I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that you went through with it, but sometimes I really truly believe you did.” Cory looked out the window. “You found my weak point and really dug in, but you already know that.”
“What is everyone keeping from me?”
“I no longer care enough about you to tell you. Ask your precious husband because he really took advantage if this isn’t all an act.” Cory swapped out his glasses for sunglasses and started the car. “It doesn’t matter even if you really went through with it. You’re stuck in this rat trap like everyone else.”
“I don’t know what you want from me,” I spoke so quietly I could hardly hear myself. For a second before he slid the sunglasses up his nose, his eyes looked wet.
“You can’t just press the reset button on your life,” Cory said.
My head spun, and I grabbed the side of my chair to steady myself.
“Put on your fucking seat belt.” Cory hissed through gritted teeth as he pulled onto the road. “I don’t want to get fined.”