Callum French paused outside the Drugs Oversight Agency. Across the street from the brick building in downtown Phoenix, a strip club advertised happy hour from five PM to eight PM. Bail bondsmen offices grew like mushrooms in the shadows of the towering county, federal, and city courthouses. Early morning sunlight glinted off the bronze plaque discreetly embedded in the dull red brick.
Callum’s fingers twitched. Excitement coursed through his veins. Taking a selfie to document his first day on the job would be immature. But damn, he’d busted his ass, competed with over a thousand other applicants, and humped his way through the seven levels of hell to get here. He glanced around. That deserved some level of celebration.
Men and women in tailored suits power-walked down the wide sidewalks. The light rail bell dinged twice as it glided out of the station. Along a grid of streets, the chemical cocktail of pollution and dust shrouded the city skyscrapers in a fog.
With the selfie out of the question, Callum had only one choice to mark the occasion. He stroked the area behind his right ear, activating his new communication implant. Pain lightning-bolted across his skull, causing his hair to stand on end. Effing implants always hurt for the first week. A list of pre-programmed contacts scrolled down his contact lens. He blinked, highlighting his best friend’s name, then a second time to connect the call.
The line rang for second before his friend picked up.
Blond, blue-eyed, and fit as an active-duty Marine, Micah was the poster child of the all-American male from last century. His friend grinned. “Did you take a selfie?”
“No.” Callum’s smile was more reserved. Beyond the bluish tint of the photovoltaic windows, he detected movement in the murky lobby. Thank the good Lord everyone understood he wasn’t talking to himself. “You’ll never guess where I am.”
It was a dumb statement. But not the dumbest. Callum had introduced himself to Micah in kindergarten by telling the blond boy that glue sticks tasted like marshmallows. Micah had eaten the whole stick then threw it up on Callum. Twenty-seven years later, they still shared glue-stick moments but rarely ended up needing medical attention.
Micah snorted. Tilting his head against his leather chair, he tapped his chin as if in deep thought. “Being that it’s Tuesday, and yesterday you were at orientation, I’m guessing you’re finally showing up for duty, Special Agent French.”
Callum’s cheeks heated. “You’re such a smart ass.”
He checked the time on the communicator. Ten minutes before he had to report to his superior, Agent Melbor.
“You’re living the dream.” Micah’s smile wobbled before he starched it and hung it from his wide cheekbones. The grin appeared on billboards and cyber ads throughout the city. “I wish I could be with you. Helping to save the afflicted and delivering the serpents in Eden to their righteous judgment.”
Callum shook his head. After four years in the service, he hated taking a life, no matter how justified. But saving addicts was a mission he and his friend shared. “Your path is different. And you’re good at it.”
But the decade had taken its toll. Callum was a foot soldier while Micah laid battle plans and led the charge.
Fine lines radiated from his friend’s blue eyes and ‘what the fuck’ grooves carved up the skin above his straight nose and around pursed lips. “Mine isn’t as important as yours. Anyone can do what I do. If things have been different… If your sister had survived…”
Callum snorted “You would be a successful money manager or CFO of a tech company. My sistered loved shopping, remember?”
“She never met a purse she didn’t like. Remember that retro handbag shaped like a hamburger.” Lips twitching, Micah leaned back in the chair and sank into the memory. Metal squeaked.
Callum knew the sound well. He had spent hours volunteering at Sinners’ Salvation, manning the phones, or studying in Micah’s office during his law school years while his friend quizzed him. He might not have made it without Micah. “This path was never yours. You’re doing the most good exactly where you are.”
“It’s not like the early days. The afflicted don’t want to be saved. Their numbers are fewer and fewer every month.” Mika glanced out the window, overlooking the children’s playground on the fellowship’s grounds. “And so many new afflicted get their Cain’s mark before they even register to vote.” His nostrils flared and his mouth thinned. “I blame the designer drugs. Fewer overdoses might be good for the afflicted but it’s bad business for us. Don’t they understand what mainlining does to their soul?”
Callum swallowed a lump in his throat. He prayed that no one lost a loved one as he had. “Hey, you have a man on the inside now. Anyone not slated for erasure, I’ll send your way. Just like we planned.”
He hoped his balance sheet was firmly in the black despite the blood on his hands. God knew he’d selected the Phoenix branch because of its low percentage of erasure warrants.
Micah combed his fingers through his hair. “Who do you think will get more recruits for the program today?”
Through the blue glass, Callum detected a human-shaped shadow near the wall. Was his presence causing concern? He bent down to tie his shoe and polish the smudge off the black leather. Did they think he was casing the place? With the drugs war heating up again, the Drugs Oversight Agency would be a prime target for any addict or dealer wishing to make a statement. “I’m sure you will save more afflicted today. From what the instructors told us at the academy, my duties will be routine inspections and cross-referencing their ledgers against tax records. You know the serpents are always skirting the law, unwilling to pay their fair share to help society even when they benefit most.”
Micah straightened. A soft thud signaled that his feet touched the floor of his office. “If only tax evasion was the least of their sins.”
Callum nodded. His friend was preaching to the choir. “Besides tonight is Jazz in the Park. There’s usually a couple or three afflicted receptive to your message as they come down from a bad high.”
“Yeah. It won’t be the same without you. The ladies will miss you.”
Callum snorted. “The ladies only cozy up to me to get close to you.”
The agency door opened. Ogden Whitlaw Fitzgerald strode out. Money, power, and purpose radiated from the heir to one of the most connected families in the United States.
Callum blinked so hard he nearly disconnected the phone call. What was the head of the Drugs Oversight Agency doing in Phoenix? “I got to go.”
“Why? What is it? What’s happening?” Micah’s voice rose an octave.
“It’s the big boss.” Callum traced the shell of his ear and disconnected the call. His heart thundered in his chest. No doubt the big man had seen Callum chattering like a school girl.
No doubt the action would be used against him.
Fitzgerald had taken control of the Drugs Oversight Agency six months ago. He’d immediately instituted widespread housecleaning. Nearly half of the agents hired in the last year had been dismissed for one reason or another. Rumor had it, the Drugs Oversight Agency, the last government-run enforcement agency in the US, was slated to be outsourced to private industry.
And the Whitlaw-Fitzgeralds owned nearly all the private policing agencies, including remnants of the FBI, CIA, and NSA.
Callum’s hands clenched in the fists. He planted them on the ground before pushing himself up. As much as he loved capitalism, he believed justice shouldn’t be valued solely by its ability to make a profit. It’s why he’d ignored the other offers of employment since his discharge.
He’d wanted to work where ideals and principals mattered.
Director Fitzgerald crossed the courtyard. Towering mesquite trees cast his symmetrical features in shade then light. His expensive leather loafers whispered over the marble walkway. Between his fingers dangled an electronic badge. “Special Agent French?”
Callum nearly offered his hand. Shaking hands with Fitzgerald would be like shaking the hand of the President, a congressman, and a senator. God knew the Fitzgeralds of the world owned most of them. “Yes, sir.”
The communicator flashed the time across Callum’s eye. Nine AM. He wasn’t late. So why had the big boss come looking for him? Apparently, his first month at the agency would be his last. All part of making the agency and its agents look corrupt or inept to speed along the privatization.
Everyone knew the drill.
“This is yours, I believe.” Wrinkling his nose as if he detected a foul smell, Fitzgerald turned the badge in his fingers so the hologram of Callum faced him.
“Thank you, sir.” Callum caught the badge as it slipped from his superior’s fingers. He clipped it to the lapel of his gray pinstriped suit. His buzz cut brushed the stiff collar of his white shirt and black tie. His newly purchased uniform of the Drugs Oversight Agency looked cheaper than the five hundred dollars he’d paid for it.
But then only the Fitzgeralds of the world could afford tailor-made, silk and wool suits.
Not that Callum cared. He had a job to do. And he would do his best.
Until Fitzgerald fired him.
Turning on his heel, he headed toward the door.
“Where are you going, Agent?”
Agent. Not even his name. Did Fitzgerald even bother remembering the names of agents whose lives he’d wrecked? Callum’s gut twisted in a hard knot. And he spun about. “I was told to report to my immediate supervisor.”
Anger wiped his memory, and he couldn’t recall the agent’s name. Maybe the guy didn’t work here anymore.
“You’ve been assigned to me.” Fitzgerald fished a pair of tactical sunglasses from his pocket and slid them in place.
Callum ground his teeth and watched a muscle flex in the jaw of his reflection. No doubt Fitzgerald meant to intimidate folks by wearing gear favored by Special Ops units. The effect was wasted. Callum had served with men and women who’d earned their glasses. And he’d be damned before he trotted after the big man on some bullshit coffee run.
Fitzgerald’s mouth quirked before he wiped away all expression. “Let’s go.”
The boss strode down a handful of steps to the street-level terrace. Bougainvillea leaves spotted the brick like blood drops before clinging to his spotless shoes.
Callum inhaled deeply, then let it out slowly. This wasn’t just a job, but a mission. He’d vowed on his sister’s grave to save as many afflicted as he could; if only to prevent innocents from dying. Jogging, he caught up with his superior then matched him stride for stride.
“You should know, you’re not the right fit for the agency.” Fitzgerald slowed as they approached the curb then checked his watch. Sunlight sparked off the platinum band and diamond marking twelve on the dial.
Callum bit his tongue. No point in mentioning that he’d scored the highest marks in his class on the entrance exam, aced the physical fitness tests, and hit all of his targets in the tactical screening. No doubt, the man wanted some lump of flesh, related to one of his pocket politicians for the job. Tough shit. Callum would stay until they tossed him out.
Fitzgerald slanted him a glance.
A self-driving black sedan coasted to a stop alongside the curb. The emblem of the DOA marred the ebony paint on the doors.
Fitzgerald paused by the front passenger door.
Callum clamped his lips together. He hoped his boss held his breath waiting for Callum to open the door like a damn chauffeur.
After a heartbeat, Fitzgerald eased open the passenger door and folded his six-foot-two-inch frame on the upholstered seats.
Callum slipped around the back of the hybrid sedan and slid behind the wheel. As soon as he shut the door, the self-driving car glided forward. Had Fitzgerald given directions while Callum skirted the vehicle? And just where were they going? He glanced at the screen in the center console. A map displayed their course and an arrow the sedan’s current location. Too bad their destination was missing.
The car braked. Overhead, lights flashed red, and a train icon appeared. A bell dinged. The light rail rumbled across the street. As soon as the signs switched off, the car glided forward. They took a right, then left, heading down narrow streets in the penumbra of skyscrapers.
Silence filled the interior like a third occupant—prickly, whiny, and demanding attention.
Callum rested his hands on the steering wheel. Silence was better than being balls deep in mud and muck while waiting for your objective to finish banging his whore so you can blow their brains out. The vehicle’s destination popped up on the screen. A hotel. They were headed for a hotel. And not one known for drug parties, but an upscale joint with gatekeepers in matching uniforms. “What’s at the August Hotel?”
Fitzgerald grunted. “A body.”
“A body?” Callum tasted the word, made sure it matched his superior’s. A body. On his first day. What the—? His time at the academy had been spent performing audits, combing records, building flow charts to monitor the movement of credits. In two years, he’d had two classes on dealing with the dead.
No one investigated overdoses.
“Problem?” Fitzgerald stared at him. His eyes were gray and flat, a shark’s eyes. “Your file indicated you’ve seen bodies before.”
“Yeah.” Sweat prickled Callum’s upper lip. Images played across his mind like a montage in a horror movie. His buddies remains—mangled from IEDs, obliterated from mortar strikes, and mutilated from torture. He scratched the thoughts from the surface of his brain and pinned his attention to the present. There was a body. But no one he knew. Please, God, not anyone he knew. He fished around in his past to remember the three reasons why the DOA would be called to the scene of a dead body and came up empty. “Are we to determine if it’s an overdose?”
Fitzgerald drummed his manicured nails on the dash. “We don’t determine anything. Don’t they do teach you anything at the academy? We have medical examiners on staff to determine the cause of death.”
Right. Well, on the plus side, it’s not like Callum could make a bad impression.
“And before you ask, the department also has someone prep and release the corpse back to the family or cremate it if the ‘dicts have screwed over all their relatives in their search for their next fix and no one claims the bodies.”
Callum winced at the overemphasis on ‘dicts. Most addicts were victims, too weak to resist the temptation of the serpent’s fruit. The dealers on the other hand… He hoped the rumors were true and their ashes were thrown in the garbage.
The director side-eyed him. “If you contact Saint Micah to have him come and pray over the dead, you will be terminated, got it?”
Saint Micah. The media’s golden boy. The true faith’s answer to the drugs epidemic. No one looked past the stereotype to see the human underneath.
“Got it.” Callum’s skin tightened. Just how much of a proctology exam had they given his background before offering him the job? Let them look. He intended to make the most of his time he remained employed.
Red and blue lights flashed ahead. A cop broke open flares and tossed them across the road. The map on the central console blanked then flashed that a new course was being set. The car turned into a private parking garage. The blue light on the dash demanded access. The gate rolled up, and the vehicle coasted through. A few turns later they banked onto a narrow side street and started a new course.
Fitzgerald stopped drumming on the dash. “What circumstances make a body worth the Drugs Oversight Agency’s time?”
Great. A pop quiz outside of school. A spurt of adrenaline jump started Callum’s memory.
“There are three circumstances that trigger an immediate investigation. A dealer is killed without a local law enforcement official’s erasure warrant being issued.” He could see the logic, especially with the news outlets reporting the drugs war was starting up again. “Reason two, the violence inflicted on the corpse was excessive.” In the last decade, two serial killers had eluded justice while preying upon nearly a hundred afflicted. Even second-class citizens had some rights.
“And the third?” Fitzgerald set his hand on the buckle of his seat belt.
“If an innocent or public property is harmed.” But the investigation’s scope was limited to assessing the compensation a victim could expect-and it was always higher for the public property than a citizen’s injuries.
Fitzgerald leaned closer to Callum then frowned at the speedometer. “Can’t you make this car go any faster?”
Callum compared their speed with the posted sign. “We are going the limit, sir.”
Fitzgerald’s eyes narrowed. “You are a law enforcement officer on the way to a crime scene. Go faster.”
The hell he would. Callum skin prickled with warning. If he sped there’d be a record of his infraction, a reason to make his first day his last. “LEOs are allowed to exceed the posted limit only when lives are at stake. Not much worse can happen to a dead body.”
He braced himself for a reprimand.
Fitzgerald tried to outflank him. “You don’t know how to drive. The agency requires manual driving skills. As director of this agency, it is within my purview to demand an exhibition of those skills. Drive us to the hotel within five minutes or you’re fired.”
Fuckin’ A. Callum inserted his badge in the dashboard and initiated the override to manual. His fingerprint backed up from the command. The steering wheel jerked to the right, signaling the switch in control. He turned into an alley while his thumb worked the traffic controls. Lights turned red within a two-mile radius, halting all vehicles on the roads. He slowed as they approached Central Avenue.
Traffic clustered around the intersections. Pedestrians frowned at the red lights then jaywalked across the streets.
He bumped over the gutters and zoomed down the next alley. Papers fluttered. Paper cups rolled along the curbs. He honked his horn at a citizen looking to cross the street then flashed his lights. The citizen froze on the sidewalk. Reactivating the lights, he jerked on the wheel and the car bounced onto Third Street then pinged surrounding traffic controls to clear the road for him.
Fitzgerald eyed the speedometer and clamped his lips together.
Callum made the last turn and swayed inside the car as the tires dipped into a pothole. The Art Deco hotel loomed on the right. He coasted to a stop in front of the hotel at the four minute and 35 seconds mark. The self-centered prick could suck it.
“Grab the kit from the back.” Fitzgerald shoved open passenger door then slammed it after he exited.
“Yes, sir.” Resisting the urge to give his superior a one finger salute, Callum returned the sedan to auto-drive then popped the trunk.
A doorman in a green ushered the director inside.
Removing a blue duffle bag from the trunk, Callum tossed it over his shoulder and strode after his boss.
The doorman eyed Callum’s off the rack suit then sniffed in disapproval.
Callum flashed his eyeteeth. “A cheap suit is better than a dead guest.”
The man gasped.
Snobs always had their values backward. Callum marched through the lobby, noting the exits, the potential weapons, and the few guests lounging in overstuffed chairs watching him.
Fitzgerald paused in the middle of the lobby, like a model posing for a magazine cover.
Callum stopped next to his boss, ruining the moment for the preening peacock.
A man in a black suit and small gold name tag hustled over. “This way, gentleman.”
He ushered them to a bank of elevators guarded by potted palms in urns standing on the marble floor. The crystal chandeliers tossed tiny rainbows on the art nouveau ironwork and an old-fashioned brass arrow indicating the elevator’s current floor. A bellhop in crimson and gold livery secured the next car and gestured them inside. He quickly started closing the door.
A woman in the hotel’s uniform intercepted a young couple running to catch the elevator.
The doors slid closed and the car glided upwards. The music of Brahms swirled around Callum. He counted heartbeats, waiting for his boss to take the lead in the investigation.
Fitzgerald remained as talkative as a mute for three floors and fiddled with the recorder in his hand.
Callum twisted his grip on his bag. Maybe someone should have given the bossman a quiz on operating the tech.
After a moment, the recorder tapped into the optics in Fitzgerald’s eyes and the manager’s image filled the screen. “Who found the body, Mr. George?”
Callum felt the tingle in his contacts as he, too, became a human recorder.
George smoothed his brocade vest. A gold timepiece peeked over the small half pocket. “The morning maid discovered the body when she came in to clear the room.”
Fitzgerald tapped the stacker icon on the screen and the manager’s image shrunk to be replaced by the identity cards of the maid. “Her credentials appear to be valid, but I understand the advanced team is holding her for further questioning.”
George stiffened. “I can assure you that all my employees are carefully screened, but a few illegals do, on a rare occasion, sneak in. The forgeries keep improving, and I’m afraid we can’t always keep up.”
Plausible deniability. What business that employees a lot of illegals didn’t use that line? Callum was careful not to roll his eyes. The last thing he needed was the manager and bellhop moving out of frame.
Fitzgerald bared his eyeteeth. “We’re not here to investigate your hiring practices, Mr. George. Have you ever been involved in a DOA investigation before?”
“Of course not.” George raised his chin and stared at his reflection. “In the ten years I’ve been here, nothing like this has ever happened at my hotel.”
Not officially, Callum would bet. But money and drugs went hand in glove. He made a mental note to search the hotel and the manager’s background.
The elevator glided to a stop, and the manager preceded them. Plush carpet muffled their footfalls down the long hallway. “I’ve already sent the list of people on staff and will make them available should you need to interview them.”
At the end of the hall, a door stood open. Dark shadows moved within the bright interior. An officer of the Phoenix Police Department stood outside the room, guarding the entrance. His eyes glowed blue as he watched them approach.
Callum counted the seconds until Fitzgerald’s credentials registered. Two. Three. Four.
The officer straightened. “The scene is secure, Director.”
Fitzgerald nodded and entered the suite.
Callum followed the manager inside. Marble floors covered the floor from white walls studded with black abstract art to the bank of floor to ceiling windows showcasing the murky skyline. Jet pillows punctuated the white horseshoe-shaped couch filling the center of the room. A female in a red dress sprawled in the center, blond hair fanned around her face and one trim leg propped on the twisted hunk of acrylic serving as a coffee table. Her oval face gleamed like a wax doll. From the cut of her silk dress to the designer label on her six-inch heels, and the clean angles of her body, everything screamed money. Maybe his boss was here as a favor for a wealthy friend.
The medical examiner and two CSI crewmen in black hovered around the victim like ravens by fresh carrion.
Fitzgerald pocketed his recorder and snapped gloves over his hands. “Do you recognize her?”
“I didn’t check her in.” George pursed his lips but didn’t look at the victim. “I would’ve noticed had she been under the influence.”
“With drugs these days, it’s hard to know if they are high.” Fitzgerald threw the man’s words back at him.
Callum tamped down a jolt of respect. The rich were defending the rich.
“How was the room paid for?” Fitzgerald ran his hand over the back of the couch. No residue stuck to his glove. The room had been cleaned.
“A cryptocurrency card.” George shrugged. “Untraceable, I’m afraid.”
Callum cocked an eyebrow. Nothing was untraceable.
“Maybe for you.” Fitzgerald pointed to the floor near the table. “We’ll need the record of the transaction, including the magnetic strip read.”
Callum dropped the bag at the selected location.
“Of course.” George remained rooted in place.
“You may leave now.” Fitzgerald flicked his wrist. “And shut the door behind you.”
The manager huffed but hustled outside.
Probably not used to being bossed around. He should consider it a growing experience. Crouching, Callum unzipped the bag.
The two CSI techs scrambled over and divvied up the contents.
Callum stepped back. Guess, he was just the delivery guy.
A middle-aged man glanced over his wire-rimmed spectacles at the steel temperature probe protruding from the woman’s liver. The rest of him was swaddled in a white bunny suit.
“Give me some good news, Dr. Crawford.” Fitzgerald remained at the edge of the horseshoe couch.
Dr. Crawford pinched the metal hasp on his face mask. “It’s definitely a drug overdose.” The doctor raised the woman’s arm. The Cain’s mark glowed brightly against her pale skin and waxy skin. “High as a kite.”
“One less ‘dict in the world.” Fitzgerald peeled off his gloves. “If only they’d die faster.”
Callum flinched. Maybe his boss wasn’t here to cover up the death of some rich asshole’s daughter or granddaughter. So why didn’t the CSI techs return the toys to the bag?
Dr. Crawford yanked his probe free then nodded to the techs.
They prepared the body bag to shrink-wrapped the corpse.
Ripping his mask off his face, Dr. Crawford pursed his lips. “As much as I would like to give you an easy case, Director, I must disappoint you this time.” He shook the woman’s arm. The Cain’s mark tumbled to the ground.
Callum blinked. Those monitors were supposed to be embedded in the skin. How could one just fall out?
The doctor groped for the mark, fiddled inside his bag, then dropped the monitor in a plastic evidence bag. “The Cain’s mark is a forgery, making this woman’s death a murder.”