Black Jack was not an especially dangerous witch, but he was a persistent one. It was impossible for the Office of Preternatural Affairs to operate in the American Southwest without stumbling over witches using Black Jack-crafted hexes. He graffitied the magical world with equal parts mischief and danger.
Some of his most impressive magic was the most subtle, like when he’d magicked a grocery store to make everyone inside forget what they needed. All his pranks were like that. Little things. Irritating things. Illegal things that were impossible to trace back to him, even though everybody knew it was his fault.
He’d already been warned once to get out of the black market trade in hexes.
Warned by Fritz, in fact.
Black Jack and Fritz frequented the same illegal gambling ring, run by a demon named King One-Eyed. They had bonded over a shared admiration of baccarat, agreeing it was undeservedly obscure and that King should have held more baccarat tournaments, usually while they were playing something prosaic like hold-‘em.
Though King only held games every few weeks, Fritz and Black Jack had gotten to know each other well over the course of steady years. This was nothing unusual. Fritz was friends with many disreputable people. More disreputable than reputable, realistically speaking.
As a courtesy, Fritz’s criminal contacts pretended he wasn’t upper management at the Office of Preternatural Affairs, and he pretended he wasn’t investigating them. He never warned his contacts when the OPA would finally crack down on them. He simply did.
But in this regard, Fritz’s relationship Black Jack was unusual.
“You’ll never see the light of day again if you keep selling hexes like that,” Fritz had said during their first meeting.
At their second meeting, he’d said, “The OPA is aware you exist now. They’re building a case against you..”
And when he learned that a Phoenix-area OPA office had taken an interest in Black Jack, Fritz said, “If you don’t go into hiding, I’ll be at your doorstep within weeks.”
Each time, Black Jack responded with the same Gallic shrug, a gesture that said everything and nothing. He heard Fritz. He might do something about it. He might not. Black Jack’s poker face was appropriately perfect, so there was no way to tell.
“If you don’t fold, I’m going to walk away tonight with all your money,” Black Jack said, changing the subject from his imminent arrest.
Fritz looked at his hand. They were playing hold-‘em again, and he had two face cards in spades. There was a ten and queen of spades on the table. “You’re wrong.”
Black Jack smiled the way the moon smiled the night before it vanished, thin and bright and cruelly sharp-edged. “What do you want to bet? Would you bet those nice sunglasses tucked in your jacket pocket?”
“You mean, bet them in this hand?”
“Separately,” Black Jack said. “If I get all your money tonight, I get the sunglasses too.”
Fritz’s fingers played over the folded arm of his sunglasses. He’d been gifted those sunglasses by his long-dead wife. “What do I win if you don’t get every last penny?”
“Then you can arrest me.” The witch unbuttoned his cufflinks and rolled them up, as if prepared to be apprehended.
“I’m going to arrest you anyway,” Fritz said.
“Really?” he asked. “You’d really arrest me?” They had been part of the same circuit for over a year, so Black Jack had as much dirt on Fritz as the other way around.
“Yes,” Fritz said.
He would arrest anyone. He’d have arrested his own childhood nanny if she’d broken his laws. He was as cruel as his father, from the tips of his hair to the tips of his toes, and nobody would be spared the merciless sweep of his fist.
Black Jack’s poker face melted into an expression of open heat, anger swirling with disbelief and betrayal.
The last card was placed by the dealer. An ace of spades. Fritz had a royal flush.
He took every last chip from the table, now a million dollars richer. By the time Fritz cashed out with King One-Eyed, Black Jack had vanished.
Black Jack jumped Fritz in an alleyway behind the Bellagio. Fritz had been walking alone to meet his driver, who had spent the night at lower stakes tables on the Strip, so he was unguarded and unready when Black Jack slammed his back into the wall.
Knuckles met Fritz’s face. It was a hard blow, and it was quickly followed by harder blows. Friends or not, Black Jack never started fights he didn’t intend to finish.
Fritz was much the same.
He kneed Black Jack away, pinned him to the corner.
“Assault doesn’t make me less likely to arrest you,” Fritz said, gripping Black Jack’s wrists. The witch was trying to strangle him. But Fritz was a kopis—a demon hunter imbued with legendary strength—and Black Jack’s hands couldn’t reach his throat to close around it.
“You won’t have me arrested,” Black Jack said through his teeth, straining to push closer. “You know you won’t. I know you won’t. You’re bluffing.”
“Want to bet?” Fritz asked.
“You haven’t even collected on the last bet,” he said.
“There’s still time.” The smile that crossed Fritz’s mouth was deliberately cold. He wanted to scare Black Jack into hiding. Wanted the witch to run away and vanish.
Black Jack ripped free.
But he didn’t run.
He kissed Fritz hard, pressing their mouths together and jamming both their bodies into the same narrow space.
Fritz had been thinking of doing the same thing much of the night. He tangled his hand in the witch’s hair and pried his head back and bit hard on the muscles of his neck.
It wasn’t the first time that a poker game ended in such a way. Black Jack was an aggressive man. He’d made his intent for Fritz clear the first time they met, and Fritz, though accustomed to the company of women, hadn’t been averse to participating. Now it was a ritual they performed when their paths crossed every few months. They rubbed together like flint and steel, and they set each other on fire, and Fritz was going to arrest him soon.
Instead of having Fritz’s driver return him to Beverly Hills—a five hour drive from Las Vegas—Fritz had the driver take him and Black Jack to one of his local penthouses.
They spent a few hours there together. They fought between starched white sheets. They bit and punched and tried to grip one another’s shoulders and skin slipped where it met sweaty skin.
Dawn was chasing the horizon when the driver knocked on the door of the condo. Fritz untangled himself from the limbs of the witch, rolled over to turn the alarm clock toward him. It was after six. Fritz would need his helicopter to get to a morning conference with the OPA directors.
He sent a text message to his driver as he got dressed again, hunting for his tie, cufflinks, and wallet.
“Where are they?” Fritz asked. Black Jack hadn’t even gotten out of bed. He was flipping through channels on the TV, one leg on top of the comforter, the other still all tangled up. His erection stirred again when he shot a smile at Fritz.
“Where is what?” Black Jack asked.
Fritz glared at him as he buttoned his shirt, flicking the collar into the correct position. “You didn’t win the bet. Where are they?”
“Oh fine,” said the witch.
He tossed Fritz’s sunglasses to him.
“Remember what I warned you at the game last night,” Fritz said, tucking them into his jacket pocket. “It’s your only warning.”
Black Jack rose from the bed. “I know,” he said. He kissed Fritz goodbye. They hadn’t kissed like that before—like they weren’t trying to murder each other. The witch’s lips imprinted goodbyes upon Fritz’s skin, and they parted.
Fritz was buttoning his waistcoat in the helicopter when he felt the inside pocket of his jacket and realized that Black Jack had gotten away with his sunglasses. The really nice ones that his late wife had given them on their last anniversary. They had been there when he went in to play the poker game, and they had still been in his jacket when Black Jack shoved it off of his body to suckle at his collarbone, and now they were gone.
“You’re in a bad mood,” remarked Cesar when Fritz stormed into the office. Most people avoided Fritz when he was in a bad mood, but not Cesar. He followed him through the hall, up the elevator, and past the break room into an office that said “Director Friederling” by the door.
“Do you need something, Agent Hawke?” Fritz hurled his briefcase to the desk. It slid off the edge and crashed to the floor.
Cesar didn’t even take a step back. “Actually, I thought you might need something. You blew in here like a bat out of hell two hours later than usual. You don’t get worked up unless there’s a really bad case.”
Fritz braced his hands on the edge of the desk.
Control. Where was his control? He never lashed out like this. Not where he could be seen.
He contemplated the angry burn in his gut, and the red marks that Black Jack had left on his wrists. He wished he had his sunglasses. They were the only pair opaque enough to conceal his worst emotions.
Cesar was not safe in the office with him.
Nobody would have been, but especially not Cesar.
“I have meetings all day,” Fritz said. “Get out of here.”
Cesar lifted his hands in an unworried gesture of surrender. “All right. I’ll get back to paperwork. Hit you up for lunch?”
Fritz opened his mouth to tell Cesar to fuck off, to leave, to quit the job.
He said, “Sure.”
Cesar breezed out again. Fritz caught a glimpse of Agent Takeuchi slouched at her desk, feet up on the gray half-wall that formed the cubicle. She was using yellow sticky notes to form a collage of Bic illustrations that looked like an enormous dick.
The door shut.
On the other side, Fritz could hear Cesar laughing at Agent Takeuchi’s dick collage. Cesar laughed so easily. Even during the “really bad” cases, there wasn’t a day that Cesar didn’t find humor with his coworkers. He was loud and obnoxious and almost shouting, filling the air with his joy until there was no oxygen left for Fritz to inhale.
Years had elapsed since Agent Hawke had shot his former deskmate. They had been pleasantly uneventful years. Cesar was a good agent. Not a spectacular agent, but good. His close rate on cases was twelve percent lower than Agent Takeuchi’s. She was the gold standard, whereas Cesar was a standard of government mediocrity.
But he was the person most requested as backup. The person most requested by dispatch. The person most requested for delicate work. When agents went out to bars each night after work, Cesar was always invited along, too.
Fritz wasn’t the only one who noticed how easily Cesar laughed.
The director settled in behind his desk, steepling his hands in front of his face. He didn’t need his sunglasses to feel calm.
He pushed a button on his phone to summon Cesar back.
The agent returned.
“Pretty sure ten o’clock is more brunch than lunch territory,” Cesar said. “It’s been five minutes.”
“Close the door,” Fritz said.
When Fritz gestured, Cesar took the chair across the desk.
“My late wife,” Fritz said. “My Emmeline. She gave me a pair of sunglasses a few weeks before she died. They’re the only pair I’ve owned since. I made a trip to Las Vegas last night, and I lost them.”
Cesar rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Shit, man. I’m sorry. That blows.”
“Yes,” Fritz said. “It does.” And so did Black Jack.
“No chance you’ll find them?”
“Possibly. I have good men on my payroll I can use to do a search for me.”
“I hope it works out, Director,” Cesar said.
Fritz managed a smile. He picked a curl of black hair off of his lapel, flicking that final vestige of his night with Black Jack into the trash bin.
He pulled a file out of the top drawer of his desk as he said, “How’s your caseload? Do you have time for a trip to Phoenix?”
“Arizona? This time of year?” Cesar asked, casting a miserable gaze toward the window. Los Angeles reached temperatures above one hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and Phoenix was worse. “Do I have to?”
“You don’t have to do anything,” Fritz said, “but there’s a notorious criminal in Phoenix we need to detain. He recently charmed an ex-girlfriend’s car keys and she died as a result.”
Cesar’s face darkened. “I can go to Arizona for a piece of shit like that.”
“Glad to hear it.” Fritz handed Cesar an arrest warrant for Black Jack.
It took six months for Cesar to track Black Jack down.
Black Jack had always been slippery, but Fritz had made the mistake of warning him that an arrest was imminent; the witch had gone from elusive to downright invisible. One didn’t thrive as a gambler, master thief, and chronic criminal without learning to evade law enforcement.
For those months, Cesar remained in Arizona, living out of a Motel 6. He filed regular reports on his goings-on. Fritz read them with as much obsessive regularity as he used to observe Cesar through a Scrying ball.
If anything personal happened between Cesar and Black Jack, it would not be in the reports. They were dry, poorly proofread, and utterly professional. Too many things could have been happening with Cesar—and with Black Jack—that would never show on such reports.
Cesar would be catnip for someone like Black Jack. He perceived himself as the sexual equivalent of a feline toying with deadly mice, and it would have tickled him pink to seduce an agent Fritz sent for the arrest. Cesar was unaware that he held any sexual appeal for other men. He wouldn’t see Black Jack’s intentions until his pants were around his ankles and his favorite pair of sunglasses were gone.
These kinds of details, had they existed, were not included in any report.
Fritz couldn’t stop wondering how he’d react if something did happen. That was why he’d sent Cesar, wasn’t it? To see what happened when the witches crossed paths?
He thought about closing the case and extracting Cesar.
But six months passed, and the arrest itself was anticlimactic.
A mundane slip-up led to Black Jack’s apprehension. The gambler had used his credit card once to get gas, and Cesar caught him buying cigarettes in the station.
Black Jack was admitted to a detention center in the Mojave Desert within hours. Fritz watched footage of Black Jack’s intake into the detention facility and tried to decide if he felt bad for putting Black Jack away.
“Sir?” Cesar stood in the doorway to Fritz’s office, looking travel-worn and tired.
“Good work, Agent Hawke.” Fritz closed his laptop on the security footage of Black Jack. “Clean arrest, flawless paperwork, great procedure. That’s one for the books when we train new agents.”
“If you’re teaching other agents with my work, your other agents must suck,” Cesar said.
Fritz couldn’t help but laugh, and he startled himself with the sound. He wasn’t like Cesar. He didn’t laugh easily. It felt a little painful coming out.
This time, Cesar didn’t laugh along.
“I searched Black Jack when I arrested him,” Cesar said. He set a hard case on Fritz’s desk.
Cesar had found Fritz’s sunglasses.
“When you said that you’ve got guys on payroll who can take care of stuff for you, you were talking about me,” Cesar said.
Fritz pushed his sunglasses into his hair, relieved by the missing weight of the frames against his pate. “Is that a problem?”
“Nah.” There was no conceit in Cesar’s casual shrug, as always. “Wish you’d have told me, though.”
“I’m not that kind of man.”
“Guess you’re not.” Cesar jerked his thumb toward the door. “The guys are going to The Olive Pit for drinks tonight after work. Wanna come? I know that Suzy—Agent Takeuchi—wants to see how much tequila she can force into me. It’s bound to be hilarious.”
The nape of Fritz’s neck prickled. “You don’t drink alcohol.”
“Suze is hard to argue with.”
That she was. “I have other work,” Fritz said, attempting to close the door on a rare opportunity to see Cesar Hawke drunk. And then he fouled it up by saying, “I’ll make an appearance if I can.”
Two hours later, Fritz was in the helicopter, on his way to the Mojave Desert detention facility.
It was criminal for Black Jack to look so disheveled and undignified on the floor of an empty cell. His eyes sparked with the barest mirth when Fritz came inside, careful not to pass the outer boundary of the pentagram on the floor. That magic not only guaranteed a witch couldn’t cast his way out of custody, but also protected Fritz from attack—as long as he stayed outside.
“Took you long enough to get here,” Black Jack said, climbing to his feet. “Let’s go.”
Fritz didn’t move. “Go where?”
“I don’t know. Your place or mine. I don’t care, but I bet your place is nicer.”
“I didn’t come to let you out,” Fritz said. “You’ve committed a crime. You’ve been arrested. You will be detained for the rest of your life. I can’t change anything about that at this point.”
“Bullshit! You’re a kopis. I’m a witch. This here—this arrest, our fights, the whole investigation—is just courtship.”
“I’m not gay,” Fritz said. He wasn’t feeling defensive. This was a fact. He was not gay, not courting Black Jack, not flirting via apprehension.
“The kids call people like you pansexual these days. But we’re talking about something a lot bigger than that. More fatal than friendship, more permanent than family, closer than the oldest friends.” Black Jack bared his inner wrist again, much like he had during that one night at King One-Eye’s poker game. He wasn’t asking to be arrested now. He was asking to be bled. “You don’t have an aspis, so take me. You know you want me.”
It was true that Fritz could have taken him as an aspis, with or without Black Jack’s consent. The Office of Preternatural Affairs preferred all kopides to be partnered to aspides , as they provided a degree of innate protection from demons, angels, and other witches that a kopis couldn’t get elsewhere.
But Fritz could only ever have one aspis. One soulmate. It was a card he kept close to his chest, waiting for the right hand to play it.
“I don’t want you,” Fritz said simply.
“Come on. You know you wouldn’t have bothered with me if you didn’t.” Black Jack was getting desperate, and that too was an unflattering look on the man. “Just like how you wouldn’t have sent that cute little fish to nibble at my tackle if you hadn’t wanted him to bite. What was his name? Agent Cesar Hawke?”
Fritz reached into his jacket. In one pocket, he had discharge papers that could pardon Black Jack and free him, hopefully now wise enough to stop selling hexes in Fritz’s jurisdiction. In the other pocket, he had sunglasses.
He tossed his sunglasses at Black Jack’s feet.
“Your consolation prize for losing our bet,” Fritz said. “Enjoy eternity in darkness.”
Black Jack was pounding on the door and screaming before Fritz got ten feet down the hall.
As soon as Fritz had cellular reception, he got a phone call. He would have answered to no name except the one on his BlackBerry’s screen in five bold letters.
“Belle,” he said huskily.
“It’s your target, the guy I’m investigating,” she said. “He’s in trouble.”
Fritz wanted to talk to this woman right now, but not about this. Isobel Stonecrow was the only woman on the planet he trusted. He had conversations to offer her much more delicate and personal than the matter of investigating Agent Cesar Hawke.
It was a formality, really. Fritz had studied Cesar long enough on his own to be sure that it was safe to induct him into more secretive operations. But Belle had a good head on her shoulders. She saw things differently than Fritz.
If anyone was going to find a problem with Cesar Hawke, it would be Belle.
Still, Fritz doubted she’d find anything.
“What kind of trouble?” Fritz asked. “Did he forget to mail his DVDs back to Netflix again?”
“He murdered a woman,” Belle said. “He’s on the run.”