Magic and crime. Agatha Christie meets J.R.R. Tolkien in “Shadow Path,” the first book in the new Portals series by author P.L. Blair.
An Ogre murdered with a rune-inscribed sword is just the beginning as Kat Morales, a very human detective on the Corpus Christi, Texas, police force, and her Elf partner Tevis McLeod follow a blood trail that leads to Pixies, necromancy and Magic of the Blackest kind … to its climax in a stronghold Between worlds, where Tevis must duel spell for spell with a former lover who wants to see her old flame extinguished permanently.
Ogres looked – and smelled – bad enough in life. Death magnified those uncharming qualities, especially the smell, something like a cross between rotting fish and open sewer. Kat found herself swallowing again and again against the urge of her stomach to empty itself.
If she’d seen this coming, she would’ve skipped breakfast.
Tevis, kneeling beside the body, seemed unfazed. With his short-cropped blond hair, wearing a pale gray summer-casual suit (white shirt, no tie), he could have passed for one of the young attorneys who worked in the law offices that lined the surrounding streets. Except, of course, for the pointed ears that marked him as an Elf – Aalfar, as he called himself and his people – and the white, department-issued rubber gloves similar to those Kat wore.
“Almost done?” he asked in his strange accent that was slightly Scottish and slightly … something else.
“Almost,” Kat said. Sense of duty overcame revulsion, and she raised the digicam and took two more shots, slightly different views, of the corpse. The Ogre lay face-down on the street just at the edge of the alley, its head twisted to one side. The one eye she could see was open. She slowly surveyed the kill site: North Carancahua Street, midway between Antelope and Leopard, just a few blocks from the Nueces County Courthouse Complex. The killer had nerve.
Tevis looked up at her, his eyes blue as high-mountain lakes, dazzling in their intensity.
She nodded in response to the question he didn’t put into words. The coroner had been here when she and Tevis had arrived. He’d officially pronounced the Ogre dead, said he’d wait for the autopsy before any further rulings, packed up and left. For now, the body was Kat’s jurisdiction — and her partner’s. “Roll him over. Let’s see what the front looks like.”
Tevis made the task look effortless — which amazed Kat, considering the Ogre even in its present condition had to weigh 300 pounds or more, and the Elf’s 5-foot-8-inch frame (only two inches taller than Kat) couldn’t have weighed more than 150 soaking wet. Kat would have helped him, except he had made it clear on previous occasions that he neither wanted nor needed help.
The dead Ogre flopped onto its back, a small pool of dark, nearly black, stuff — what passed for Ogre blood — marking the place where the creature had been.
“Not much blood,” Tevis remarked as Kat shot views of the Ogre’s front.
“Most of it’s in the dumpster,” Kat said. “He must’ve pretty well bled out by the time he was found.” She brushed a limp strand of auburn hair off her forehead. Not even 8 o’clock, and the temperature was already pushing 90, and God only knew what the humidity was. It had to be in the eighties at least. Today was going to be a scorcher, even for July in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Tevis sat back from the corpse. It amazed Kat that he could be so unaware of the heat or humidity. True, the jacket he wore was summer-weight, but still. Kat had left her jacket in the car, stripped down to a sleeveless green tee over her tan slacks, and she still felt wilted. The Elf directed his gaze toward the crowds being held in check by the yellow police line, nodded at two figures who stood a little apart from both the crowd and the uniformed officers. “Is that the one who discovered the body? The one the lieutenant is speaking with?”
Kat inclined her head. “His name’s Ed Lewiston. He’s a dumpster diver.”
“Not a street person,” Tevis said. “He is dressed too well.”
“He calls himself a ‘pre-cycler.’ Says it’s his job to save the good stuff people throw away.” Kat took another, more thoughtful look at Lewiston in his gray slacks and pale blue shirt, a middle-aged male trying to look ten years younger. Maybe he’d be a bit more careful of going into other people’s trash after today.
The Elf returned his attention to the body, probing with long, slender fingers. After a moment, “I have found, I believe, the cause of death.” He parted a few strands of the bristly hair that covered the Ogre’s chest, sat back again to give Kat a clearer view.
She snapped off two photos of what she saw before she lowered the digicam and let herself think about it. “A stab wound. But — Ogres can’t be stabbed! Their stone hides …”
“You are thinking of trolls,” Tevis said. “Ogre skin is true flesh, not stone.” He probed the wound while he spoke. “Although,” his voice dropped to a murmur, barely audible, “it still requires a formidable weapon to penetrate.”
Kat stuffed the digicam into her shirt pocket and went down on one knee on the other side of the body. “What do you See?” She pulled off the gloves she’d been wearing, spent a couple of minutes wriggling her fingers, enjoying the feel of not having anything on her skin before pulling a second pair of rubber lab gloves from a pants pocket. Even dusted inside with baby powder, the gloves too quickly left her hands hot and sticky-wet with sweat in this weather. Finally, she pulled the fresh pair on. Somewhere a siren wailed, and a seagull passing overhead called out as if in answer.
“A fragment of the weapon remains in the wound,” Tevis said at last, though Kat had a feeling he was thinking out loud, talking to himself rather than her. “The blade was not powerful enough to resist breakage. We will learn more once we get the body to the lab.”
“The killer,” Kat pressed. “The wound is in front. The Ogre had to have seen his killer.”
Tevis inclined his head. “And it was someone known to him. More — It was someone he feared. That much I can See. But I cannot See a face. It is clouded by a Magic more powerful than I can penetrate.”
Kat arched an eyebrow. “A Practitioner?”
Another slight nod. “Or else a True Wizard. I feel Magic of the blackest kind. It has left a residue.”
“Cold?” Kat asked. Humans lacked the Elven sensitivity to the feel of Magic, but Tevis had explained it to her. Beneficial Magic felt warm. Black Magic felt cold.
“So cold,” Tevis affirmed, “that it burns.” He turned his attention from the wound to the the denim cutoffs the corpse wore. “Ogres do not usually wear Human garments.” He sounded vaguely surprised. Then he shrugged and set to work exploring the pockets of the jeans.
Kat retrieved the digicam and took photos of the objects that emerged. There wasn’t much — three brightly colored paper clips, two oversized marbles, an empty plastic bag.
“Ogres are like those little animals that collect odd materials for their nests,” Tevis said.
“Packrats,” Kat filled in as he visibly struggled for the word.
“Yes. They — Ogres I mean — are big and strong, and they are attracted to shiny objects. But they are not overly bright.”
“So,” having snapped the last picture, Kat lowered the camera, “was our friend here an innocent victim? Someone in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
Tevis flashed one of his rare smiles in his partner’s direction. “Ogres are seldom innocent, even when they appear to be doing nothing. Nor are they chance targets for thieves. They like shiny objects, but cash has no importance to them.”
“So,” Kat said, “unless our Ogre somehow acquired a pocketful of, say, gold nuggets …”
“Which someone would have to know about, which rules out a chance mugging.”
“Sounds like you two are cookin’ up theories already.” Lieutenant James Cornelius Harley, soft drawl and amiable manner masking a core of purest steel, joined his junior officers. He focused gray eyes on Kat. “What’ve we got, Morales?”
“Ogre male, age …” She shrugged. Who knew with Ogres? “Stabbed in the chest, just below the rib cage.”
“The angle of the wound suggests the killer was Kathryn’s height or smaller,” Tevis interjected. His hands continued to deftly explore the corpse while he spoke. “No other apparent wounds. But this one would have been sufficient. It penetrated the heart.”
“Tevis says part of the weapon is still in the body,” Kat resumed. “From the condition of the body, rough guess I’d say he’s been dead at least twelve hours. That would put the murder around 7, 8 last night at the latest.”
“Early enough that someone might still have been around, maybe have seen somethin’,” Harley speculated aloud.
Kat inclined her head. “Maybe Tevis and I should visit a couple of offices later today, see if anybody was working late. As for the body,” she shrugged, “we’ll know more after an autopsy. Hopefully whatever’s left of the weapon will tell us something.”
“Kathryn.” Tevis’s voice interrupted again, his tone telling his partner he’d found something more significant than marbles or paper clips. She turned, looked down at him.
In one hand, he held a pouch — not a bag but a small, burgundy-colored pouch of velour — or maybe suede.
The other hand stretched toward her, palm-up. In the palm, four small stones nestled, glittering like ice and fire in the light that shafted down from the nearly cloudless Corpus Christi sky.
“The Ogre was carrying them on a belt under his cutoffs,” the Elf said.
Harley whistled. “Diamonds?”
“We cannot be certain without a proper analysis.” Tevis held out stones and pouch together while Kat photographed them. “But I believe so, yes.”
“In that case,” Kat slipped the digicam into her pocket once more, “I think we can definitely rule out robbery as a motive.”