The next morning I dressed in my only suit and met Grandfather in the front lobby of the Agency. It surprised me when Grandfather pressed the button for B1: A when we walked into the elevator. Were there offices in the basement or was he showing me something else? The hall we walked into was dark.
As Grandfather left the elevator, the motion lights flicked on with an electric buzz. The walls were lined with a dark wood panel and the floors worn chipped faded lino, had seen better days before I was even born. A directory and public toilet outside the elevator betrayed the level’s once-prosperous status. The floor was listed as B1: A ‘Living Magicks: Non-Flora/Fauna’. Before I looked at the names listed for each office, he chastised me for not following. I could hear folksy pop music in the hall as we passed the quiet offices. They had pinned the wooden double doors at the end of the hall open, and the room itself was an ample office space turned common room.
There were several people in the room, and most were talking in a single group while they downed a second coffee or tea. The workday hadn’t started for this department. We’d walked halfway across the room when Grandfather’s cell rang. He waved a finger at me, answered the phone and walked from the room. The instant he crossed the threshold, the other people in the room turned to look at me in unison.
“Morning,” I said. The smell of their coffee already had me craving another cup. After several mumbled greetings, they all went back to their previous activities. I noticed a waiting area walled off from the common room. Past the glass walls and straight in line with the door I’d walked in was a matching set of double doors, I knew the office belonged to my new boss.
Grandfather came back into the room. “I have to go. They will look after you.”
After allowing me to get a coffee, he walked me back to the hall. He left me in an office which held only a desk, a rusty filing cabinet, three battered chairs and a yellowed computer with a CRT monitor.
After half an hour of reading, I put my phone down and gave into my curiosity. I ducked under the desk and hooked the power board into the wall and powered it on. After a long couple of seconds, an image flickered to life on the screen. Though the office looked clean, it was clear no one had worked there for a long time. In the top desk drawer, I found a dusty desk phone, ceramic coaster and a pen holder filled with long dried pens. One pen was a freebie for presenters at the 2003 Beckham Job Fair. The login screen in front of me was for a version of Linux. I looked at the username box and the pre-filled name, I didn’t know who ‘jmmatheson’ was, but I knew they weren’t returning. Part of me wanted to log in as Matheson, but I knew the IT department would have deleted the account. The office hadn’t been used in well over a decade. I used the username and password they gave me at check in to log into the computer.
I was curious about the previous owner of the office… Where was JM Matheson right now? Dead? Transferred? Retired? How long had all these things sat in this office for? Half of the bottom desk drawer was filled with files. I locked the door to the office and removed one, then another. Matheson had been a Death Mage…with a desk filled with open cases.
I stopped what I was doing and put the files back. These being here after all this time was suspicious. Was this a trap? I remembered that email I’d read after my accident and the things Grandfather had said. People I trusted had been tasked to spy on me. Was I under suspicion for something specific outside of the demon in that house? I looked around the room but found nothing that could be a double-sided mirror. It was a terrible idea, and if I was being watched, it was through a camera. I sat back in my seat and settled back into my book.
My knees crashed into the top of the desk when someone knocked on my office door. I hadn’t expected to have any actual work. I opened the door to a smiling Cory, who walked into the office with a tray that held a teapot and two cups. He wore a perfectly pressed dark grey and red tartan suit with a black dress shirt, pearl cufflinks and grey suede gloves. His dark shoulder-length hair was neater than it had been the other day.
“Hello.” I watched him sit on a chair in front of my desk.
“They have assigned me as your mentor.” Cory poured some milk into the tea already in his cup.
“You’re a Death Mage?”
“Only a little. I’m primarily a Blood and Medical Mage.”
“I’ve only really heard people call themselves Healing Mages.” I recovered enough to shut the door and sat down behind my desk.
“I’m more into science. I’m a medical doctor, but most of my work is forensic. Living Magicks: Non-Flora/Fauna, my magic should be classified under Fauna, but this is where they hide those with problematic magic.”
“Problematic Magicks doesn’t have the same ring to it.” I poured myself a cup of tea. Based on the smell, it was an Earl Grey.
“It sounded less suspicious back when this department was a grey zone from a legal perspective.” He clicked his tongue. “Every Mage working here primarily practices once illegal magic.”
“Explaining our prime office space.”
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“Do you know why I’m here?” I raised an eyebrow and looked him in the eyes. What did he know? He seemed oddly keen to be my friend, and this interaction had felt artificial. Tea and books weren’t uncommon interests, but this guy had crashed into my life. Had our first meeting been a setup? They could have timed my arrival to the second. Every weekday I parked behind town hall and arrived at the Short Street Diner just before eight. I needed to string along ‘nerdy approachable’ Cory and find out what his game was.
“You have potential. If rumour is to be believed.”
“The ghost on Short Street. Ring any bells? The only reason we had to exorcise her was because you riled her up.”
“They told you what I did?”
“Dexter. Let me give you an idea of how things work here. A few people on the investigation team for that incident will have been victims of your petty trick.”
“Trick the Fuc- Guy in charge would have killed Eli. What was I supposed to do?”
“The only reason you’re not in more trouble is because the only damage you caused was a little temporary hearing damage.”
“And because that group isn’t one hundred per cent legitimate.”
“You seem to know a lot about the group who attacked your husband for an outsider. Who told you about them?”
“Someone after the incident. I was told they’re fanatics who do Nate Island’s dirty work, and they fill the Agency with members.”
“They can be a little extreme.”
“A little?” I hope my eyebrow raise looked elegant.
“They do exemplary work. You just haven’t had the chance to see it.”
“My Gran thinks Nate Island brainwashes the people here, and you’re all part of a cult.”
“How about you get to know the magical world before jumping to that conclusion? Spend a few years with us while we will teach you magic instead of locking your abilities. If you don’t like it here, you can join the alchemists. Given your maternal grandfather’s reputation, I’m sure they’d be glad to have you.”
“What do you mean by ‘lock my powers’?”
“It’s what will happen if this arrangement doesn’t work out. Mason wanted to take you on out of brotherly duty, but this is the only department you can work in.”
“So if I fail here?”
“Bye, bye magic.” He gave me a sickly amused grin. He lacked in the humour department.
“What do you do down here?” I asked.
“We get orders from upstairs. My apprentice and I do forensics, but it’s a small town, so we aren’t kept too busy. We sometimes protect th-”
“You’re not detectives?”
“God, no. What gave you the idea that everyone working here is a detective? You will work as our third Exorcist.” Cory said. “If you like solving mysteries, you’re in luck. You will need to confirm that the ghost or demon is a threat. It’s considered a waste of resources to exorcise something that isn’t a thr-”
“Can you just backtrack for a minute? Did you just say demon? I’m expected to vanish demons?”
“It’s part of the job description of an Exorcist. We class ghosts or spirits as demons.” Cory sighed and took his glasses off to rub the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “Did your grandparents tell you what demons are?”
“Creatures from alternative universes.”
“Or creatures created by magic. Ghosts are as far as we can tell one of the few creatures humans create using pure magic.”
“There’s no chance that they’re the souls of the dead?”
“There’s no such thing as the soul. What would be the point?” Cory challenged.
“The point?” I asked.
“In both the theological and evolutionary theories, the soul thing would be a waste of time and energy.”
“People use their dying moments to create pure magical creatures imprinted with their consciousness?”
“I can imagine that people who experience violent or sudden deaths don’t want to die. Have you been told about the other common ghost?”
“There are entire fields of magic based on using only thought to power a desired outcome. The small energy used to focus on the thought builds because magical energy is absorbed by the surrounding environment.” Cory paused and looked at me, wanting me to put the pieces together.
I closed my eyes for a few seconds as I thought. When I opened my eyes, I met his. “Ghosts can be created through the thoughts of living people. Haunted houses… the ones with stories. Tell the same story enough. Many people thinking about the same ghost can create one. Does that mean some ghosts aren’t imprints of actual people?”
“Yes. A lot of urban legends spawn monsters that are ghosts. Though some urban legends are inspired by people who witnessed demons.”
“How are they living creatures? Wouldn’t they be constructs?”
“I don’t know enough about them to answer those questions. The physiology of ghosts crosses from Death Magic to Eldritch Magic or Demonology. All I know is some ghosts are similar enough to some creatures from the void, and it’s hard to tell the difference.” Cory looked at me for an uncomfortable amount of time. “You showed real promise controlling that ghost. Do you know how many people could do that without proper training?”
“Few. Death Magic is a hard magic for people to learn.”
“Why are you assuming that I wasn’t trained properly?”
“You would have used a tactic that didn’t risk damaging you and your husband’s hearing.”
“I put my headphones in first.”
He gave me a thin smile. “How did that work?”
“I burst one eardrum and got hearing damage in the other ear from the volume of the music.”
He pulled a thick string-bound manila folder from the leather satchel slung over his body. “I’ve created a training program for you.”
I noticed my name on the top right-hand corner of the folder. “Officially?”
“Well.” He dragged out the word, considering his response. He sighed and turned all his attention to me. “Okay, here it is. Dunn isn’t the crime mecca of the world, and I haven’t got a lot going on right now. We can test your skills and give your tutor at the University a baseline to work from.”
“There’s not a lot I can offer you other than the promise of fun.”
“The promise of fun? You sound like a kids’ show host.”
“I can’t bribe someone rich,” Cory stated. “Do you want to sit in this office until your classes start? I’ve heard the next round doesn’t start for another month.”
“Let’s get started then.” God, I sounded artificial. Did he know I was playing him too? I looked into his wide green eyes. Magnified by the glasses, they gave him an almost owl-like appearance. They almost seemed to have a genuine spark of curiosity in them. Just how much of what I was about to experience was officially sanctioned?
“Great.” Cory stood up. “I just need to get my outside gloves.”
“Outside gloves?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
He looked at me, confused, as though I was asking an obvious question. “You don’t know?”
“No.” I narrowed my eyes.
He pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Blood magic is best done with fresh blood. It’s considered a waste of time and magic to heal the wounds the blood comes from.”
“Oh.” I shivered, nausea formed in the pit of my stomach as the realisation sunk in.
“You’d know all about using the tools available.” He turned and walked off before I could respond. What had they told him?