Wretched Wicked

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Episode 2
Terminating Contracts

One week after Cesar finished his month-long training to work for the Office of Preternatural Affairs, Agent Swallow from Statistics reported that they had a traitor in their midst.

“We can’t determine whom from existing data,” she said, presenting a folder to Fritz, “but we know it to be Agent Banerjee or Agent Herd based upon the cases they’ve worked.”

Agent Banerjee was a witch who typically worked in the accounting department. During times of budgetary constriction and criminal expansion, Fritz had borrowed him from Director Gethin to help resolve cases. He’d often had access to evidence without oversight.

Agent Herd was with the Magical Violations Department. He was a reliable agent who seldom called in sick, though he performed in the bottom twentieth percentile of turnaround on case closures.

Whether Banerjee or Herd, the perpetrator had been seizing equipment from witches and reselling that equipment on the black market. It was legal to perform seizures against any preternatural, with or without reason, but seized assets immediately became the property of the United States government. These artifacts, on the other hand, had been disappearing without paperwork.

The thief was stealing from his employers.

He was stealing from Fritz.

“Interesting,” Fritz had said, sitting back in his chair, smoothing hair back from his forehead.

“You don’t sound surprised,” said Agent Swallow.

He wasn’t. Fritz was a wealthy man; one did not maintain such status without being acutely aware of potential thieves.

The agent from accounting had no loyalty to the department, but still had elevated credentials. He’d have been a fool not to consider how much he could access, and how much money he could earn from it. Accountants were frequent thieves in Fritz’s experience.

Agent Herd, on the other hand, was sloppy with his paperwork. His inventories were incomplete. The gaps in coverage meant Fritz had already suspected him of misbehavior for months. Two weeks earlier, Fritz had assigned Agent Herd to the desk nearest his office door so that he could be supervised, within the same cubicle as the newly-anointed Agent Hawke.

“You’ve placed surveillance on Banerjee and Herd?” Fritz asked.

Swallow bobbed her head. “We should have a single suspect soon.” She set a folder on his desk. “I’ve opened a separate case file for recovering the artifacts themselves. It would be more suitable for one of your agents to address than one of ours.”

Fritz’s chair swiveled so that he could look out into the cubicles beyond. Agent Banerjee was, coincidentally, talking to a woman a few desks away. Herd was much closer. One of the two was working his final day with the OPA and didn’t know it yet.

Fritz was shutting the file on Agent Herd’s treason into his briefcase when a knuckle rapped on his door. The newly anointed Agent Hawke leaned against the frame.

“It’s six. We’re all clocking out and the guys are heading to the Pit,” said Cesar.

Fritz’s blank expression had been cultivated over decades of terse conversations with his father. It fell into place as he swept a jacket over his shoulders, seized his briefcase handle, and tucked in his chair. “Is that so?”

“Are you going?” asked Cesar.

“Are you?” asked Fritz.

“Agent Herd asked me, so yeah.”

Fritz almost said, But you never go to bars. “You’re only a week into working here, and you already need to drink the pain away?” he asked instead, arching an eyebrow and twisting his mouth in a manner that would be interpreted as mirth.

“No, it’s fine here,” Cesar said hurriedly. “Lots of paperwork. Lots of cases waiting to get picked up. Don’t think I’ll ever get bored, that’s for sure. It’s just that the guys just asked me if I wanted to go across the street, so…” He lifted one shoulder in an uncomfortable shrug, still unaccustomed to wearing suits all day. “I don’t drink alcohol, actually. Heard the Pit’s got good wings, though. You like wings? Beer?”

Fritz had an entire cask of century-old whiskey aging in the temperature-controlled basement of his family’s New York condominium tower. He’d planned to spend his night naked, trapped between at least three peroxide blondes.

“Sure,” Fritz said. “I’ll come.”

It was common practice for the witches within the Magical Violations Department to get drinks at The Olive Pit after work. They didn’t seem to need a reason for it. The parties were rowdier when someone closed a big case—something that had taken months of research, stake-outs, and logistics to resolve—but they also performed a mass exodus across the street when nothing of interest happened. Sports games, maybe. Avoiding families, probably. Fritz didn’t know. He never went.

The other OPA agents didn’t seem excited for their director to appeared at The Olive Pit for post-work drinks. They watched him out the corners of their eyes, got quieter when he passed, and never took off their ties.

Fritz tactfully positioned himself on the glass mezzanine where they would feel more comfortable conversing, unheard by their boss. Fritz didn’t need to listen in directly. He had bugs passively recording activity in half of their homes.

Cesar carried a basket of wings to the mezzanine, set it on the table in front of Fritz, and sat down. “The waitress will bring your beer in a minute,” he said, tucking a napkin into the collar of his button-down and spreading another across his lap. “Two beers, actually. You can have both of them if you want. I’ll buy one. The waitress bullied me into getting it.”

Fritz frowned. “She bullied you?”

“Well,” Cesar said.

Fritz understood once the waitress delivered their drinks. She had huge tits. Cesar must have thought he was discreet in staring at their reflection in the mirrored bar top.

The waitress was closely followed by Agent Mack Herd, one of Fritz’s suspects for the case. Agent Herd was a narrow, nervous man who tried to drown his fear in cologne and a swaggering walk.

“Hawke,” said Herd.

“Herd,” said Hawke.

They gripped hands, bumped chests, slapped each other’s backs in a tersely masculine greeting.

“Keeping on?” Cesar asked in a gruffer tone than he used with Fritz.

“Keeping on,” agreed Agent Herd. A flush climbed his forehead. He was drunk. “One of those beers for me?”

“Get your own, mooch,” Cesar said, feigning a volley punches at Agent Herd.

Herd boomed with laughter. “Right, right. Hey miss, get a third out.”

The buxom waitress was wiping down the next table. She glanced at the men, and her hard mien only softened the slightest for Cesar. His attraction had been noted, and was returned. “Will you be sitting here for a few minutes? Should I bring it this way?”

Herd’s eyes flicked to Fritz.

Fritz held Herd’s gaze as he took a slow sip of the cheap beer, which tasted like dollar hotdog night at the baseball stadium, like green smoothies in a strip mall, like a private investigator whose shredder was used to destroy evidence harmful to gay actresses.

Agent Herd had unbuttoned his shirt and rolled up his sleeves but he was still dewy skinned. He sweated pure Jovan Musk.

“Naw, I’m not sticking around up here. I was in the middle of something with those guys.” He nodded toward the agents downstairs. “You can bring the drink down there.” He turned back to Cesar and said, with forced bravado, “Wouldn’t want to drink with a dick like you anyway. You’ll scare off the ladies with that mug.”

The chill burn of Fritz’s gaze must have been stinging Herd’s skin. The agent slapped his neck, scratched his nape.

“Be around,” Cesar said. “See you in the morning.”

Herd bobbed his head, shuffled down the stairs.

“You seem to be getting along with your new desk mate,” Fritz said.

“Like blueberries in a muffin.”

“Don’t get too attached to him,” Fritz said.

Cesar looked up, as if startled. “Firing me already?”

Fritz shouldn’t have said anything. “I’m rearranging the office soon.” It would have to be rearranged if Agent Herd was the thief. There was no version of reality where the culprit kept his job. “Speaking of work, two new cases crossed my desk today. You can have first pick.”

Cesar brightened. It was amusing to see someone who didn’t yet dread his job. Someone who hadn’t learned that interest was rewarded with more burden without more money.

Sucking his fingers clean of sauce, Cesar grabbed the folders from Fritz and flipped through them.

One case was easy. A witch named Suzumi Takeuchi had been caught using magic to augment her townhouse, and they wanted a full profile on the woman. It would probably end in an arrest, but nothing dramatic.

The other case was to search for the stolen artifacts that had been taken by Agent Banerjee or Herd. This was the casefile that Agent Swallow had brought earlier that day.

“That one.” Cesar tossed the townhouse file to the table and kept the artifacts. “Since we’re talking work anyway, we’ve gotta talk about that one thing.”

An electric jolt slithered around Fritz’s spine, anticipating that Cesar would now confront him about his spying, his deceit. “Yes, Agent Hawke?”

“There were some photos of dead bodies in my inbox today,” he said. “Old cases that Agent Herd suggested I look at.” Cesar gave a charming grin and shook his finger at Fritz. “You said I wouldn’t have to deal with dead bodies.”

It took Fritz a moment to understand.

Once Fritz had made the job offer, mere hours after Ofelia Hawke was rescued from the Silver Needles, Cesar had asked three questions: Could he tell his family that he was going to work for a secret organization? (No.) How good was the pay? (Bad.) And would he have to kill anyone or solve murders?

Fritz had only expected the first two questions based on what he knew of Cesar. The last one was less orthodox.

“The Magical Violations Department doesn’t often handle murders,” Fritz had said. “We have a separate tactical branch that handles dangerous perps.”

“So I wouldn’t have to ever be assigned to something with dead people?” Cesar had pressed.

And Fritz had seen in him a fissure waiting to crack and spread. This answer mattered more than the others. Cesar could accept low government pay in exchange for benefits; he could not accept facing death directly.

In truth, Cesar couldn’t pick his cases. Fritz had absolute discretion over assigning them to agents, and since cases always outnumbered employees, he tended to pile the next case on the first person to come up for air.

But his mouth had opened, and he’d promised Cesar in the chilly blue fluorescence of the hospital, “You’ll never have to do a case involving dead people.”

Now Cesar wasn’t accusing Fritz of anything. He hadn’t lured the director to The Olive Pit to corner him, to hurl utterly true accusations that Fritz would deny coolly.

Instead, Cesar was teasing him. This was a genuine smile without a hint of sarcasm. There was nothing but honesty in his open expression, in fact, and the glow of the lights over the pool table his jawline glimmered bronze. Cesar had missed several patches while shaving. He’d have benefited from a better razor.

The expectant tension in Fritz’s shoulders unraveled. “If you can’t even look at photos of dead bodies, I’m going to have serious concerns about your constitution, Agent Hawke.”

“Naw, I can be a second pair of eyes on cold cases. I can do that. I might peek through my fingers at the gross pictures.” Cesar mimicked the action, and then guffawed, and then shredded the meat off of a chicken drumstick with his teeth. Barbecue sauce flecked onto his collar.

“What’s your aversion to bodies?” Fritz said.

Cesar shrugged. “No upside to people dying, right? At least when I’m chasing cheating wives, the wives are having a good time. Someone’s happy.”

Fritz took a sip of the beer. It was terrible. He took a longer sip when Cesar glanced up from demolishing his wings. He now had a barbecue sauce mustache. He was grinning. He shouldn’t have been working for the Office of Preternatural Affairs.

Cesar didn’t stay at The Olive Pit for long. He made excuses and left, and once he was gone, the rest of the employees hurried away too. It was typical for Cesar to get home early. The rest of them usually stayed until nine or beyond. They really didn’t like Fritz watching them from above.

“Did they already leave?” asked the buxom waitress, who’d returned to collect empty glasses. “All of them? Even the one with the blue tie?” She was asking after Cesar.

Fritz donned his jacket. “I’m afraid so.” He slid his sunglasses into his hair, surveying the waitress as she leaned across the table. Her skin glimmered bronze in the lights over the nearby pool tables.

When she straightened, she wobbled with the weight of too many glasses. Fritz rested his fingers on her elbow to steady her.

She turned wide brown eyes on him, breath caught in her throat. Her pulse fluttered under her jaw.

Fritz knew how to let his chilly expression slide away, replaced by something warmer. He knew how to turn instantly from aloof to accessible. This woman, like so many others, wavered under the intensity of his sudden interest. He could tell from the way the hairs stood on the back of her wrist that she was interested.

He let his knuckles wander up her sleeve so that his thumb could trace the corner of her mouth, painted with lipstick the same shade of matte brown as Cesar’s irises.

“Are you done working soon?” Fritz asked.

They fucked in the alley beside the business, hidden in a corner of the loading dock where the camera couldn’t see. Fritz lifted her skirt. She pulled her panties aside. He entered her in a single movement and braced an arm on the wall beside her head as he took what he needed. When his fingers contacted her clitoris, it took only moments for her to dissolve into weeping orgasm.

He left without her phone number or name, the case file for Suzumi Takeuchi locked in his glovebox.

Fritz went home. Today was a day he’d driven himself to work, so he came home behind the wheel of a Porsche 918 Spyder. He stepped out on loafers from Jason of Beverly Hills and slid Chopana sunglasses down the bridge of his nose to survey manicured topiaries that looked like exquisite boxwoods, though he’d bought these from an ethereal botanist. The pots and plants alike had once been in the ethereal city of Araboth. He’d bought them from a plunderer who’d found Michael’s base of operations on Earth. They were rare, dangerous pieces that broke up the otherwise safe monotony of cultured landscaping.

Dangerous artifacts were suitable decor for the sprawling mansion. When a man’s money reached “fuck you” levels, it stopped mattering if he owned two or ten million-dollar cars. Even the imported marble lining his six pools was merely par. Fritz’s family had become rich mining in Hell, so it was only right that he should distinguish himself as superior to his peers by stealing pieces of Heaven.

He was greeted at the door by one staff member, helped out of his coat by another. They brought brandy to his study so that he could drink. And when Fritz sat in front of the fire to kick up his feet and catch up on OPA emails, he was alone, one pinprick of a soul among the vast hollowness of his mansion.

Fritz’s phone pinged. He saw Agent Hawke’s new agency email in the “from” field and opened it.

Cesar had written, “I’ll find your artifacts by the weekend.”

Fritz turned his phone off, emptied his brandy, and took a shower in a cavernous tiled room.

Yet even though Fritz had fucked and drank and relaxed, he could not sleep. He spent hours in his bed, eyes unable to close, heart beating a little too fast. He wondered if Cesar was working, or if he’d sunken into his beaten couch to watch hours of Battlestar Galactica again, or if he was also lying sleeplessly in a vast empty night.

At midnight, Fritz stopped pretending he was going to sleep.

He sat up.

Fritz scrolled through the emails on his Blackberry, his hand rimmed blue from the light of its screen.

There were developments in the case of the missing artifacts. Agent Swallow had used their time at The Olive Pit to search Agent Banerjee and Agent Herd’s respective homes, ultimately locating one of the missing artifacts in Agent Herd’s basement. He was the culprit. There was no room for doubt.

Another email had come from Agent Hawke too.

Surprised, Fritz opened it.

“Got a lead,” the message said. “If I close my case tonight I’m not coming into work tomorrow. Ha ha ha.”

Setting his phone back on its charging base, Fritz rose and stretched, striding to the balcony. Gardeners quietly moved through his grounds. Crickets sang. From here, the road was too distant to hear road noises or see cars, but the light pollution dimmed the stars to yellow smudges.

The near-full moon provided enough light for Fritz to see his cultivated pathways, and the garage where he kept his favorite cars. The fountain between them was softly splashing, its surface slashed by moonlight.

Fritz looked at all he possessed and he thought about thieves like Agent Herd. Some shriveled have-nothing man.

The Friederlings had spilled blood for the money that bought all this. They’d sacrificed dozens, probably hundreds, of mortal lives in order to get a foothold in Hell’s industries. They had bitten and scratched and climbed over innocent others to reach the top of society, and this was theirs.

He returned to his phone and drafted a new message to the OPA dispatch team. Fritz CC’d Lucrezia, since the Vice President would want to know that Fritz was cleaning house. And then Fritz got dressed to go to work, painted by yellow starlight, warm with anger.

Fritz was in the first of the three SUVs that quietly parked a block away from Agent Herd’s house. He ordered the other men to stay back and progressed alone, ignoring objections from dispatch over his earpiece.

He entered Agent Herd’s house through the back door. He slid soundlessly across the kitchen linoleum toward the basement door, which Agent Swallow had marked on diagrams of the house.

The basement in Agent Herd’s house was cluttered, dim, cobwebbed. The only clean corner held a box underneath a white drape. Fritz whipped it aside, expecting to find the stolen artifact—an egg the size of a bowling ball.

Except that the box was filled with a jumble of medical equipment. Fritz lifted rubber tubing, confused, and found a binder with instructions underneath. Home Hemodialysis. There were also medical bills tucked in the front pocket. Agent Herd was millions in debt. His wife had reached her lifetime maximum from the government insurance company.

A click.

Fritz turned.

Agent Herd stood at the bottom of the stairs, cradling the stolen egg-shaped artifact in one arm. He held a handgun in the opposite hand. He was wearing pajamas, and his eyes were rimmed with the black bruises of exhaustion.

“It’s not my fault,” Agent Herd said.

Fritz’s mouth had no moisture. “You’ve been stealing and selling magical artifacts. How do you plead?”

“Innocent. Fuck, I’m innocent.” Agent Herd pointed the gun at Fritz’s skull. “This is all your fault, Director Friederling.”

Fritz was a good fighter because he was well-versed in body language. He sensed no willingness to kill from Agent Herd. The man didn’t have the guts. He’d try to run, Fritz wagered, and the agents would arrest him outside.

Agent Herd would never shoot.

Except then a gunshot split the air of the basement.

Fritz flinched.

But it was Agent Herd who dropped at his feet, and on the other side stood Cesar Hawke with a Remington.

“I quit,” Cesar said.

It was two days after Agent Herd’s arrest. Cesar had not returned to the OPA office in the elapsed time. One day was reasonable; after all, he had emailed to say that he would take a day off if he resolved the case of the missing artifacts. Two days was something different.

Fritz had hopped into his Bugatti to check Cesar’s apartment, and here they were now, having this conversation in a doorway.

“I don’t accept your resignation.” Fritz brushed Cesar aside and entered his apartment. It was slightly bigger than a closet and smelled as most bachelor pads smelled. The smell hadn’t been communicated through the Scrying ball yet Fritz felt it was as familiar to him as Cesar’s sorrowful expression. “Close the door.”

Cesar obeyed. “I’m quitting, and you can’t make me not quit, sir. It’s that—look, I’m grateful for the job. Okay? I thought I’d like having someone else pay my employment taxes. But you said there’d be no dead bodies and I already killed my desk mate.”

“Agent Herd lived. You didn’t kill him,” Fritz said.

Cesar sat down hard, as if relief had turned him boneless. “I’m still quitting. I don’t think this is the right work for me.”

“You’re really bothered by Agent Herd, aren’t you?”

“He brought me coffee,” Cesar said. “We were coming up with a funny team name, like a 70s cop show. I shot him. I can’t forget that.”

“Actually,” Fritz said, “have you sent in a resignation letter yet?”

Cesar shook his head. “Why?”

“Just making sure.” Fritz’s thumbs moved over his Blackberry, and he sent an email to the Vice President of the agency. “There’s a clause in the contracts that all OPA agents sign. When terminated, they forget their time employed with us. All of their colleagues ranked below me will also lose their memories. It’s a matter of security.”

“You mean…” Cesar raked a hand through his hair. “I’m gonna forget this? The whole last week?”

Fritz squared his shoulders before saying, “Yes.” He was braced to be struck. Cesar had every right to be angry.

But Cesar had looked relieved.

“I won’t remember shooting a guy?”

“None of it,” Fritz said.

Cesar sank against the back of the couch, shutting his eyes.

After a moment, he said, “Thanks.”

Five minutes later, when Cesar was looking for a drink to offer Fritz other than protein shakes, he suddenly stood up straight and looked confused. He checked his watch. He looked down at his pajama pants. He turned back to Fritz. “Why’d you visit me, again?” Cesar asked, scratching his chin.

“You were late today,” Fritz said in a neutral tone.

Cesar looked even more confused. “So you came to my apartment? Don’t OPA directors have other stuff to do?”

“I hired you personally. What kind of man misses a day in his second week without calling in?” Fritz asked.

“Oh yeah.” Cesar looked sheepish. “Sorry. I’m not even sick. I guess I got so used to working for myself that I forgot I can’t sometimes stay in my pajamas all day.” He shut the refrigerator. “Give me a second. I’ll get dressed and head in.”

Cesar disappeared into his bedroom, and Fritz uncapped a protein shake to sip at it. He liked hearing the thump of Cesar hurrying to dress on the other side of the wall.

The apartment—and Cesar’s companionship—was a pleasant, boring, and yet somehow completely comforting place to be.

Fritz put the next new agent at the desk with Cesar.

Her name was Suzume Takeuchi, and she became the strongest witch in the Magical Violations Department from the moment they dressed her in one of those black suits. She also had the worst psychological and personality assessment scores.

She had been investigated for using magic to expand the size of her townhouse. It was ruled illegal. She’d been given the option to go into detention or work for the agency, and now-Agent Takeuchi had spit in the face of the agent who suggested it. But she’d signed the paperwork.

Agent Takeuchi was adequately respectful when first meeting Fritz, but she’d told every other OPA employee she met to go fuck themselves, and he was not fooled by her veneer of politeness.

If she was going to go the way of Agent Herd, then Fritz liked thinking Cesar was capable of shooting her. Cesar no longer had a clue that he’d shoot someone to protect Fritz, but Fritz knew it, and that was enough.

As it turned out, Cesar and Agent Takeuchi—or Suzy, as he called her—became fast friends and excellent partners. Fritz wasn’t surprised that a human as bitter and caustic as Agent Takeuchi would quickly fall smitten with Cesar.

Cesar just seemed to have that effect on people.


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