Two suspects had gone for their guns. One of them lay dead on the floor. The other howled and spat curses as the police disarmed him, his skin and clothes still smoking where a godborn officer had struck him with a lightning bolt.
Sophia scanned the room for threats as other officers cuffed the suspects who’d been wise enough to surrender. Her pulse was pounding, her vision narrowed. Her ears rang from the gunshots and crackling thaumaturgy, the fractal afterimage of the lightning still floating before her eyes.
But there weren’t any threats left to find. “Clear!” an officer shouted, rounding the back of the van parked in the corner. Similar calls echoed from the other rooms.
Sophia let out a long breath as she holstered her gun. Slowly, the adrenaline began to fade, and she actually had a chance to take in the room. It was a garage, more industrial than the somber, customer-facing front of the embalmer’s office. Instead of bodies, though, the company van was loaded with weaponry, with more waiting on tables and in crates nearby. This place had been built for the cold business of death, but somehow, she doubted gun trafficking was what its designers had had in mind.
“All right, people, you know the drill!” Sophia called out. “Get that man to an ambulance. Secure the other suspects, cordon off the building, and touch nothing you don’t have to. Hashet, I swear to all the gods, if you walk through that blood spatter, this will be your last crime scene.” She headed for the van in the back corner and the crates stacked around it.
Let’s see what we’ve got, she thought to herself.
The raid had gone by the book. Their entry had been quick and stunning, turning what could have been a deadly firefight into a few seconds of violence. No officers had been hurt, and they’d found more evidence than expected. The captain would tell her that she should be proud.
But as she crossed the room, all she felt was disgust. A row of wheeled stretchers stood along the wall, holding reminders that she hadn’t gotten there in time: a horned man whose chest was a ragged mess of bullet holes. A woman with deep blue skin, probably part frost giant, with a precise slash across her throat. Two humans who’d gotten the business end of a shotgun. One had been partially prepared for mummification, but the thick odor of embalming fluid wasn’t strong enough to completely cover the stench of death.
Sophia paused by the stretchers. No surprise finding corpses at an embalmer’s, but normally they hadn’t been killed by the employees. Were they the bodies of rivals? Victims of a deal gone bad? Hapless civilians who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time? Hopefully forensics would give them some answers.
“Looks like they were doing more than just running guns.” Her partner’s voice brought her to a halt, and she waited for him to catch up. He stopped next to her and took in the bodies. “Damn shame.”
Kofi Asena’s gun, sword, and detective’s badge were twins to her own, and his skin was just as dark as Sophia’s, but that was where their similarities ended. His features were uncannily perfect, as if sculpted from pure imagination instead of crude matter, and neither the heat nor the raid had left a single hair out of place.
He liked to say that his looks were the only thing his grandmother, a nymph, had ever given him, but even the most distant divine ancestry would have been enough to make him a godborn, with the ability to work his inborn divine power into miracles.
“We should have thought of this sooner,” Sophia said. “An embalmer’s office was a great cover. And it gave them the perfect way to get rid of their enemies.”
Kofi massaged his upper arm, the site of an old bullet wound, the way he always did when he was contemplating mortality. “We moved as soon as your informant tipped us off. Don’t beat yourself up over a win.”
A win. There were no pure, perfect victories, but looking at the bodies of the people she’d been too late to save, it was hard to feel triumphant. With the last of the adrenaline draining out of her, mostly she just felt exhausted.
Kofi clapped her on the shoulder and jerked his head toward the loading dock at the back of the garage. “Let’s check out our haul.”
They’d caught the suspects with enough equipment to outfit a small army. Pistols covered a table in the far corner of the room. Rifles and shotguns rested against the wall nearby, or leaned against crates packed with ammunition. The van parked in their midst had Royal Funeral Services printed on the doors in somber hieroglyphs, but it held no bodies. Just the real prize: a small collection of blades that shimmered with energy. Human criminals paid a premium for power they couldn’t wield naturally, and with deadly miracles woven into the steel by godborn weaponsmiths, these blades were worth more than all the rest combined.
“‘Service fit for a Pharaoh’ indeed,” Kofi said, chuckling at the slogan on the side of the van.
Sophia rubbed at her forehead. “How long have we been doing this, Kofi?”
He glanced at her, thoughtful. “We kept a lot of guns off the street. Caught the assholes who killed those people on the stretchers. Kept them from killing more.”
That was true, but Sophia found her gaze drifting past him, across the guns. They’d stopped these, but more weapons would find their way into Memphis. More killers would take the place of the ones they’d caught. More bodies would be fished out of the Nile.
The gang war on the south side of the city was older than she was, and one raid wasn’t going to stop it.
Kofi knew her too well for her look of professional detachment to fool him. “We’re finally making a dent,” he said. “It’s hard for them to keep murdering each other if we’ve cut off the supply of weapons.”
“It’s one garage full of guns.”
He grinned. “Actually, it’s more than that. Follow me.”
He led her back across the room, to where uniformed officers were securing the last of the suspects. “Him,” Kofi said, nodding toward a weaselly man cringing against the wall. “Allow me to introduce my new friend, Amarat Benesu.”
Amarat’s clothes were soaked with sweat, like he’d just come from a jog in the sun, and he was chewing his nails ferociously. He held out his cuffed hands as he saw them approaching. “Please, you have to get me out of here! These people… You don’t know what they’ve done!”
“We’ve got a pretty good idea,” Sophia said dryly.
Kofi gestured at Sophia with an amicable smile on his face. “This is Detective Akerele, my partner. Why don’t you tell her what you told me?”
“You don’t understand, I can’t—”
Sophia leaned in close and plucked at Amarat’s shirt, making him flinch. The sweat-stained fabric was stamped with the logo of the Centurions, the Roman mortal-league pitz team. Originally Maya, pitz had been the most popular sport in the world for more than a century and a half. The Romans hadn’t fielded a successful team in all that time.
“I can see you have a history of picking the losing side,” Sophia said. “Now’s your chance to correct that mistake.”
Amarat’s eyes darted to the other men and women cuffed nearby, and she could see the fight drain out of him. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I can tell you whatever you want to know. Details. Plans. Who’s supplying the guns. Just promise you’ll keep me safe!”
Sophia traded a look with Kofi, eyebrows raised. He smiled.
She patted Amarat on the shoulder. “You’ll be just fine. Give us a minute.” She pulled Kofi away. “This is either a trap, or it’s bullshit.”
He shrugged, smile never wavering. “You should have heard what he was saying when I grabbed him. This could be the break we’ve been looking for.”
Sophia narrowed her eyes at him. “Did he admit to taking money from the Celts?” That would be a major coup for the police department, something more impactful than a simple bust. The Celtic government funneled money and resources to criminals throughout the Conclave—anything to undermine their enemies—but their agents were rarely caught at it.
“No. Think closer to home.”
Sophia sighed. “I’m really not in the mood for your…” she trailed off, frowning. “Setesh?”
Kofi grinned. “Like I said. This could be huge.”
Sophia scoffed. “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? Just because there aren’t desert spirits running this place? You know he’s behind this.”
“Sure. This and every other arms deal and drug sale in Memphis. But that’s not the same as proving it. He’s been at this for centuries. Styx, we’d have a better chance nailing down the Celts.”
“What if this is the break we need?”
Sophia could see the eagerness in his eyes, the dream of being the one to finally tear the facade of legitimacy from the Egyptian god of the desert. It would be the Furies making the actual arrest, of course—no one would send simple police after a god—but the officers who cracked the case would never be forgotten.
She remembered what that righteous zeal felt like. It was a mystery to her how Kofi kept his optimism alive, when he’d been in the force as long as she had. She wasn’t sure whether to feel jealous or sorry for him.
And yet, despite years of experience warning her off, she couldn’t help but feel a tiny spark of possibility ignite inside her. So little of what they did made a difference. But this…
A smile found its way onto her face. “Okay. You could be right. Just don’t get overconfident. Take this slow, do it right, and we’ll see where it leads us. We can— Hang on.” Her phone was buzzing in her pocket. She slipped it out, expecting the station.
A torrent of emotion washed through her before she’d fully registered the name displayed on the screen. Fear and worry came first, followed by an undercurrent of rage. Kofi backed off, eyebrows raised. “I’ll give you a minute,” he said. Sophia realized her jaw was aching, and she forced herself to unclench it.
She answered the call. “Gahiji. What’s wrong?” He wouldn’t call without a reason. Her heart thundered in her ears as her imagination spun possibility after awful possibility.
There was a nervous chuckle on the other end of the line. “Am I not allowed to call my sister unless something’s wrong?”
Fear boiled away before the heat of her anger. Even Gahiji wouldn’t be flippant in a real emergency. “As if you’ve ever cared what’s allowed.”
He scoffed, and she knew exactly the face he wore, all hurt indignation, as if nothing was his fault. “Excuse me for reaching out. I’m trying to mend fences, and somehow I’m the bad guy?”
A uniformed officer Sophia knew gave her a worried look and mouthed, “Everything all right?”
Sophia managed a tight smile and a nod before leaving the garage and heading for the front of the building, where she wouldn’t be underfoot or overheard.
“You’re the bad guy because you’re a criminal Gahiji!” she hissed, keeping her voice low. “Styx, what kind of example are you setting for your daughter?”
Gahiji just sighed into the phone. She could picture him, all false innocence and pleading eyes as he tried to pick the right lie. He was probably getting ready whine again that all the good jobs were going to godborn.
The front office of the embalmer’s was hot, dirty, and unwelcoming. Probably to encourage law-abiding customers to find another place to handle their dead. It didn’t help that the front doors were swinging open every few seconds, admitting gusts of summer heat as officers and EMTs went in and out. There was a radio on the front desk, ignored during the raid, with a news show still chattering away about Poseidon and Mazu’s joint campaign against ocean pollution. Sophia shut it off and parked herself in a corner, by a window that looked out on the street.
“I’m clean, Sophia,” Gahiji said finally. “On the straight and narrow.”
“Oh really? So you weren’t caught with stolen property a month ago? You aren’t redoing your garage with money you make as a fence?” He tried to talk, but she kept going, speaking right over him. “Maybe I’m just imagining the phone calls I get from Teshan asking where you are some nights.”
She heard Gahiji swallow. “She misses you.”
Guilt took root in her heart, just as he intended, but Sophia forced it away with a growl. “Don’t play that card. Sometimes I think I talk to your daughter more than you do.”
“Let me put her on, then. If—”
“Oh no, you don’t get out of this that easily. You called me for a reason. What is it?”
Another sigh. “I wanted to invite you over. Dinner tomorrow night, with me and Teshan. Meret too, if she’s not busy at the shelter. I want to show you how things have changed. I’m trying to be a better father.”
“Yeah? Is that you talking, or did Meret write you a script?”
Gahiji chuckled. “Why don’t you ask Teshan?”
“Hey, no—” But he was already gone, shouting for his daughter.
Sophia’s breath hissed out through her teeth, and she glared out the window. The sunset painted Memphis in shades of brilliant orange. In the distance, she could just make out the tops of the government center’s ancient monuments basking in the light, framed by the massive skyscrapers of the last century. A handful of winged godborn soared through the sun-soaked air, the envy of the earthbound commuters trapped in rush-hour traffic below. Godborn and airplanes alike gave wide berth to the weather control towers that had been built around the circumference of the city in the last few years. Inside, crews of everyday humans without a trace of divine power could alter the weather with a few keystrokes. Just the latest marvel of modern thaumatechnology.
But the neighborhood around Sophia lacked both ancient grandeur and modern wealth. She had grown up in the Boneyard, and thirty years had changed exactly nothing. The streets outside were still cracked and dirty, and a familiar eye could pick out knotted black scars, built over but never truly repaired, from the dragonfire that had begun the district’s rapid decline. The lights from the squad cars danced across graffiti and sun-bleached ads for cheap divorces and cheaper beer. A handful of people gawked, but most hurried past the crime scene with their heads down, barely risking nervous glances. The liveliest business in sight was the convenience store on the corner.
Just hearing Teshan’s voice was enough to warm Sophia’s heart. And to send a tendril of guilt coiling through her. Her free hand found the multicolored cloth bracelet Teshan had woven for her years ago and began slowly turning it around her wrist.
“Hey Whirlwind. How’s it going?”
The old nickname would normally earn her an eye roll, but she could hear the smile on Teshan’s face when she responded. “Okay. You coming to dad’s dinner thing?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“You can bring your boyfriend if you want backup,” Teshan said hopefully.
“Yeah… We broke up. Just weren’t right for each other, I guess.”
“That’s what you said about the woman before him.”
Sophia winced. This relationship had been as short lived as the rest. He’d accused her of losing interest as soon as the mystery faded. It was a familiar, tired refrain.
She cleared her throat. “Seriously, though, backup aside, there’s a lot going on at work…”
Teshan snorted. “You don’t have to lie to me. I’ve known how you and dad feel about each other since I was like eight.”
“No lie. The job’s crazy right now. Lots of big cases, not enough leads.”
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s just dinner.”
The hurt in her voice made Sophia cringe. “You know what? I’ll be there.”
“Yeah, okay.” She’d sunk back into sullen teenager mode.
“I’m serious, Teshan. I’d love to see you.”
“Uh huh. Hope you solve your case or whatever.”
She’d already hung up. Sophia ran a hand through her hair. Outside, someone hitched their gryphon between two cars and headed into the corner store. Unusual, in a neighborhood like this. Then again, car thieves just had to deal with locked doors and alarms. Anyone who wanted to steal a gryphon had a razor-sharp beak and a nasty set of claws to deal with.
The gryphon folded its wings. Then it twisted its eagle’s head to inspect the cramped parking space, scratched at its neck with a lion paw, and let out a frustrated cry.
“I know what you mean,” Sophia grumbled.
Gahiji fought dirty, like always. Maybe if he worried more about being a good father to Teshan and less about how to use her to guilt trip Sophia… She realized she had a death grip on her phone. Shoving it into her pocket, she turned away from the window and glared through the dusty collection of pamphlets on the front desk. Most featured picturesque scenes from the Duat and the Field of Reeds, but there were a scattering of advertisements for other afterlives, from Hades to Irkalla.
Sophia barely saw them. She was tired of this case, tired of fighting with her brother, tired of working herself to the bone just to see more killers pop up like hydra heads to take the places of the ones she put away. She just wanted to go home and spend some time with a cold beer and her sketchbook.
But it wasn’t fair to take all of that out on Teshan. Sullen teenager or not, the girl was right. However busy she was, however she felt about Gahiji, Sophia should be there for her. If she wrapped this scene up quickly, she might have time to run to the store and make Teshan’s favorite pie before tomorrow night. It was the best peace offering she could think of.
She turned and headed back into the garage.
The last few suspects were being marched toward the doors. Forensics had arrived to process the scene, and they had opened the garage door in the back so they could get at all sides of the van. Kofi still stood by the wall, talking quietly to Amarat.
Sophia stepped around Kofi, seized Amarat by the shirt, and pressed him against the wall. “Setesh. Talk. Now.”
He winced, sputtering. “I don’t know—”
“You were happy to talk to my partner here. As long as we kept you safe, right? Well, you’re safe. Most of your friends are cuffed. The rest…” She glanced at the bloodstains left behind by the suspect who’d been shot. “Well, let’s hope that he picked an afterlife already, or he’s got a lot of paperwork ahead of him.”
Amarat held up his hands pleadingly. “You don’t understand! It’s not them I’m worried about.”
“Good. You should be worried about buying yourself some leniency. Because the way things stand, it’s not looking good for you. I count four victims and a lot of guns over there, and those are just the ones in this room.”
He gave her a plaintive look, the same one Gahiji wore when he was begging for a favor. It made her blood boil. “Please, I’m not one of them!” Amarat said. “A friend brought me on for this one job, okay? Thought I could make some quick money!”
“I’m not hearing anything that will put Setesh behind bars. Are you?” she asked Kofi.
Amarat shivered. “Don’t you get it? The way these guys talked about the boss, it was like—”
Amarat jerked back against the wall, almost tearing free from Sophia’s grip. The front of his head exploded, spraying her and Kofi with gore.
Only then, an instant later, did the deafening crack of a gunshot register in her ears.