From the author: This is the first chapter of a romantic noir urban fantasy, which itself is the first in a series. The sequel "The Demons of the Square Mile" will be published early in 2021. The full novella is available at the publisher link below.
I was working the action of my compact Ruger, pretending to shoot people I knew, when my phone rang. The ringtone was the opening to Night on Bald Mountain so I could tell who it was without looking at the screen. Also, the phone answered itself and switched to speaker. It wasn't programmed to do that.
"Mother," I said, "what is it?" I imagined her face floating in front of me, aimed, and pulled the trigger.
"Nora, dear, would it hurt to be polite?"
"To you? Yes." I keep hoping if I was offensive enough maybe she'd just leave me alone, but it never worked.
"I just wanted to let you know, dear, you have some work coming your way."
"I thought we had an understanding. I don't need your money, especially not for some stupid make-work job."
"Nora, please, this is not my idea. And it's not makework at all. This is the Commission's assignment. I just thought it would be nice to let you know about it in advance. I expect you'll have a case before the day is over. Your first in quite some time, if I'm not mistaken."
"Yeah, well. Thanks, I guess."
"Don't mention it, dear. And good luck. I think you'll need it."
She hung up. Talk about politeness. But she was a big one for last words. I felt a point of heat in my chest; it was Spark, responding to my irritation. So I walked over to the little clay pot by the window where it hangs out while I'm at the office and sprinkled some more crushed incense to show I wasn't angry at it. Not that I thought Spark really understood that kind of thing, but I liked to pretend it did anyway. And it settled down, too; the spike of fiery heat became a pleasant emanation of warmth before fading away completely.
It wasn't half an hour before someone knocked on my office door. I couldn't be sure it was a Commission agent. I do get drop-in clients from time to time, and sometimes people who aren't clients at all. I slotted a magazine into the Ruger and put the gun back in its clamp under my desk. You never knew. Then I hit the button to unlock the door. It made a thwocking noise loud enough for the person on the other side to hear.
The man who entered paused uncertainly. He was looking around at a tiny, bare space just big enough to wedge in an assistant or a secretary and their desk. If I had an assistant or a secretary, anyway.
"In here," I said, and he stepped through the doorway into my inner office. It wasn't much bigger than the outer one, a mere cubbyhole, but at least it had a window looking down on 35th Street. For what that was worth.
I figured he was a Commission agent; he looked like one, anyway, in his conservative gray suit with its thin red pinstripe. They liked to think they project an aura of authority, inherited from their bosses, but really, it was more like smug self-satisfaction at being in on the big dark secret behind all the finance of midtown and Wall Street.
The man pulled a device from a pocket that looked like one of the pistol-grip bar-code readers they use on checkout lines. He pointed it at me, which made me antsy to begin with, then pulled the trigger, almost blinding me with a laser glare. I came this close to blowing him away because I had the Ruger in my hand under the desk. And then a moment later, when I realized what he was doing, I almost had Spark set his hair on fire. But I managed to restrain myself for the sake of the hundred grand a year they pay me as a permanent retainer. That was pretty much my entire income.
"The fuck? A little warning first, asshole!"
"Sorry," he said, not sounding apologetic at all. "ID. Retina scan."
"Yeah? What about you? How do I know who you are?"
He produced a thick envelope from his jacket pocket and put it down on my desk. Heavy parchment bound with a gold ribbon and a double wax seal. "This should be enough. Good afternoon, Ms. Simeon."
He turned and left before I could say anything more. I hated these guys, but not only did they pay my rent, there wasn’t much I could do about cutting ties. When you're let in on the secret, they keep track of you. You're either with them or against them, and against them tends not to work out that well. And oh yeah, my mom? She was more than just with them. On their board of directors. Fuck my life.
Right. So there was this fancy envelope on my desk. The first wax seal was the Commission's, a caduceus with the snake in an S around the rod to make a dollar sign. Occult wisdom and profit combined. Cute. The second seal was blank. I put my thumb up against it and both seals split neatly down the middle. The nicest thing that would have happened if someone else tried to open it was the envelope catching fire.
I read through the enclosed material quickly because the ink was going to fade, or the paper fall apart, in a minute or two. Could have scanned it with my phone, but probably that would have cursed the electronics, so I contented myself with making a few notes on a legal pad.
The whole first page was pretentious bullshit. Whoever it was at the Commission liked to pretend they were old-time British admiralty. "Wherefore fail you not in the execution of our commands except at your peril". Et cetera. The meat of the case was distressingly thin, but it was my kind of work. Rogue demon. Broken contract. The creature somehow managed to sever or refute its binding, escaped from the secure sorcery floor of the Goldman Sachs headquarters building on West Street. Geomantic scrying had failed to narrow down its location, but the demon was thought to be in New York City somewhere. My job would be to track it down and then return it, banish it, or destroy it, in diminishing order of preference. My personal preferred order was the reverse. I hated infernals. I had a contact, a vice-president at Goldman Sachs, the creature's supervisor, and that was it.
I'd just finished noting down Ms. Sakashvili's contact info when I felt a sudden urge to turn away from the document. When I looked back it was a sudoku puzzle. It had always been a sudoku puzzle. Fucking Commission. I hated their little games.
When I called, she picked up on the first ring.
"Sakashvili." Cool, clipped delivery, just a hint of an accent.
"This is Nora Simeon. I assume you've been informed who I am."
"Ms. Simeon. Yes, I have."
"I need to speak to you in person. How about in an hour, at your office?"
"Impossible. Staff meeting. I can give you a slot on Tuesday."
Today was Thursday. For me this was one of the few joys of taking on a case from the Commission, pushing people around who normally wouldn't give me the time of day.
"An hour from now will be fine," I said. "Or if you like, I can mark you down as intransigent in my report to the board. And I don't mean the board of Goldman Sachs."
A pause. I imagined she was gritting her teeth, trying to control her breathing.
"Just as you say. I'll see you at 2:30. Please don't be late."
I wasted ten minutes getting ready to face the outside world, always a problem for me. I didn't say goodbye to Spark when I left; it was always with me wherever I went if I needed it for something. I didn't smoke, though, so needing it was pretty rare.
It was a sunny autumn day in Manhattan. Not too bad. Ten minutes from my office to Penn Station. Thirty more on the #1 train down to Chamber Street. And another five minutes to walk the two blocks through the mix of tourists and bankers to the hulking, godawful Goldman Sachs HQ on West Street. Right on time. Except for having to pass security. Oh well.
Approaching the entrance plaza, I saw the shiny neo-brutalist skyscraper was practically festooned with security cameras. Lots of plate glass out front, with poster-color murals on the walls, but also lots of square corners and surprisingly simple decor. I suppose they must have made a conscious decision not to show off. I walked up to the front desk, because I knew getting through to Sakashvili wouldn't be as simple as looking her up in a directory. And indeed, I went through two iterations of unenlightened security people before someone showed up who knew who I was, who she was, and was authorized to take me to her.
The man who finally arrived to meet me was 6'6", wedge-shaped, buzz-cut, in a black business suit, and he had a curly wire connected to his earpiece. I was surprised he wasn't wearing sunglasses, but the bulge beneath his lapel was certainly part of the costume. He didn't say a word to me or the regular security guards, just nodded his head slightly, and I followed him into the elevators. We went up to the 25th floor, got out, walked past another security desk with no words exchanged, and entered an elevator for which access to the floor had to be unlocked with a passcard carried by my guy. I was thinking of him as my guy at this point, imagining what he'd be like in bed. Domineering at first, probably, but that wouldn't last. By the time we got up to the executive floor, I'd already gotten to the point of our breakup in my little fantasy. It involved a romantic sunset on the High Line and an exchange of gunfire. I was just working out what I'd be wearing at the funeral when we got out and transferred to yet another elevator, this one requiring a key to enter. My guy left me then, and I left off daydreaming for the moment.
This elevator was obviously secured against etheric influences, with planetary amulets embedded in the walls and what looked like a silver hexagram engraved in the floor. But it was a little too shiny to be silver. I crouched and sniffed the metal. My nose tingled with negative ions. Stabilized azoth warding circle. Fancy and expensive. A demon who got into this elevator without a sorcerer escort would be banished and incinerated simultaneously.
I went down, down, down, with no indication of the passage of floors except a flashing arrow by the elevator control bank. At last the trip was over, the elevator door opened, and there I was in an underground atrium that practically reeked of magical wards. Sakashvili was waiting for me.
"You're late," she said. Younger than I was expecting: mid-twenties, my age. But I guess vice-president is one of the junior grades at a place like Goldman Sachs.
"Blame your security. I was here on time."
She shrugged. Apart from her youth, Sakashvili looked and dressed pretty much like what I imagined she would. Perfect hair and makeup, muted designer outfit in beige, off-white, and black. Nothing pretentious there, but I had the feeling her ensemble probably cost something on the order of a month of my income. She had one distinctive feature you wouldn't normally see in an investment banker, a long leather sheath dangling from her waist, like the case for a conductor's baton, except that from the top poked a symbol-inscribed wooden rod with metal ferrules. Saturnian lead, I expected. Sakashvili was carrying a blasting rod, a sorcerer's tool for punishing unruly demons.
"Whatever," she said. "Let's get this over with." She took me through a couple of boring corridors to her office. Chrome and glass desk, nice but not fancy. Aeron chair, big old laptop, and that was it for her workspace. The visitor chair looked to be conference room surplus.
She walked behind her desk and I pulled up the chair before she could tell me to sit down. When she sat and saw I was already there, she frowned at me. Good.
"So," I said, "you lost a demon. The Commission doesn't like it when that happens. Even human-looking infernals don't understand how to live normally without a lot of training. And most of them are just monsters. They freak out the mundanes."
"You think I like it? Or my bosses?" She opened a desk drawer, pulled out a file folder, tossed it across the desk to me. "It's all there."
I flipped it open. Three pages. First, a printout of a photo. The demon itself. It was sitting at a barebones desk with a MacBook open in front of it. Well, okay, he, not it. Most infernals couldn’t do gender very well, so I was surprised to see he had a realistic body. They were supposed to be summoned into bodies constructed from materiae like plastic or metal, which the more powerful infernals could alter over time in the direction of the biological. Usually low-level demons like the ones they summon as analysts couldn’t manage it very well. This one was convincingly satyrlike, though. In the photo he was wearing an old-fashioned three-piece-suit waistcoat over an even older starched white shirt with vented sleeves bound by gold cufflinks. Bearded, handsome face, human-looking except for the yellow, bar-pupiled eyes, and the cute little horns growing out of his forehead. No pants; any trousers would have to be bespoke to fit his goatlike lower half. The laptop was strategically positioned to hide any view of his genitals, if he had any, but with such a carefully crafted masculine appearance I assumed he did. In the photo the infernal appeared to be engrossed with whatever was on the laptop screen, but I had the sense he was aware of the shot and was posing for the camera.
"Whoa," I said. "This is an analyst? Fancy. You guys do happy hours together after work or something? Or happy nights, maybe?"
Sakashvili flushed. "I, uh, I gather he's been summoned before. Not by Goldman Sachs, I mean. For reasons not having to do with financial prognostication."
Next page. The demon's personal data. Name: Barbatos. His personal sigil and magic square as required for summoning and binding rituals. Special talent: finding treasure hidden by magic. Just what the investment banks wanted in a demon.
"Wait," I said. "Barbatos. The Barbatos? The one from the Lemegeton and the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum? What the fuck is this? You summoned a demon lord as a staff analyst?"
"No," she said, "of course not. It's another demon with the same name. They're not very original down there. Our treaty with the Infernal Powers forbids summoning anyone of earl-level or above."
Last page. Summarized quarterly performance reviews. Barbatos was summoned two years ago by a group president named Raymond Utgard. Group president of the Goldman Sachs demon-summoning operation was about as powerful a position as you could achieve in the firm without being on the board. And by its nature, this role would always have to be a secret. Probably most of the Goldman Sachs directors had no idea their company's profits were driven by sorcery. All the major investment banks, along with the larger hedge and capital firms, employed secret cadres of sorcerers and demon analysts. Between them, with a few unaffiliated types like my mother, their board chairs and CEOs made up the Commission that oversaw magic and summoning throughout the city, and indeed, throughout most of the western hemisphere.
Barbatos' reviews were all positive. Surprisingly so, considering the demons were worked like slaves. Infernal attitudes toward management typically ranged from passive-aggressive to murderous. But nothing much useful here, except-
"Why am even I talking to you? Where's your group president, this Utgard person who summoned the demon in the first place?"
She hesitated. "Mr. Utgard, is, ah, no longer with the company."
"What? Retired? Headhunted by Deutschebank?"
"Deceased. He screwed up a binding ritual. The demon involved was...recalcitrant."
"I guess that's why they pay you the big bucks. Who's group president now?"
"The position is vacant. Really, I don't see what this has to do with Barbatos. We reported the loss as required by the Commission. Shouldn't you be out there tracking him down?"
I shook my head. "First I want to see the infernals' workspace."
She was being obstructive now. I stood up, put my hands on her desk, encroaching on her space.
"It's supposed to be secure, right? I want to hear what you know about how one of them got out, and I want to see the place for myself."
She recoiled from me a little. "Our security protocols...I'm not authorized to allow an outsider to see them."
"For fuck's sake. I'm going to have to write all this up. You think the Commission's going to be happy with 'sorry, it's a secret'? So why not let me decide what's relevant to my job, okay?"
Sakashvili looked like she wanted to argue, but at last she said, "Okay." At least she didn't try to pass the buck, which is what I was expecting.
"I assume you've seen demons in person before," she said. "You know what it's going to be like being in a room full of them?"
"Yeah. My nightmares are not your problem."
"That's for sure. Fine. Follow me."
Out of her office, through an unmarked door that looked like all the others, into another corridor, to a blank steel door. The door was equipped with a near-field phone sensor, a keypad for passphrase input, a palm-print reader, and for retro laughs a mechanical key lock. It took Sakashvili the better part of five minutes to open it up.
She turned to me when she was done, holding the door open to reveal a stairway heading down. "Needless to say, there are hidden cameras here, and everywhere on the secure floor. Someone is watching us right now. If I made the signal, or even if it looked like I might be coerced, armed response would be here immediately."
"Needless to say," I said. "So why didn't they spot a totally inhuman-looking demon sneaking out through all this security?"
She colored. "We suffered a power failure. It was on the weekend. A security officer called me at home within a minute of the event, and I was here in person in fifteen."
"Don't tell me the doors all fail open when they lose power."
"Of course not."
We walked down the narrow staircase to another steel door. This one was equipped with a servo-driven spring-loaded bar. Some security person upstairs had to acknowledge our presence through a camera and microphone interaction, and it was their action that powered back the bar.
"This is it," she said. The door opened.
We were looking into a large room, thirty yards square, with a big structural pillar in the middle that no doubt concealed a skyscraper girder. There was an outer ledge at our level surrounding a carpeted pit full of workstations, little desks with laptops staffed by demons. The whole pit area was fenced off with a cordon like the velvet lines they use for queues in movie theaters, except that each of the brass poles supported a prominent pentacle, and the purple cordon ropes were worked with intricate runes in silvery thread.
A dozen demons were variously standing, sitting, or perching at their workstations in the central pit. Originally summoned into inanimate bodies made out of clay, metal, plastic, or whatever, some of the demons had altered their forms over time. Not to the point of looking like proper living beings, though, not even semi-human ones like Barbatos. These things were halfway between piles of trash and people.
The nearest demon glanced our way as Sakashvili opened the door. Its body had originally been a life-sized artist's mannequin, a wooden object with articulated joints allowing the model to be posed as an anatomical drawing reference. But the demon had been altering its body. Flesh mixed with wood, now. The original mannequin structure was still visible, but a clumsy face had formed where a blank had once been; it was more like a sketch of a face than a real thing. I didn't know if it used the hollow pits of its eyes to see or not, but a moment after the thing inclined its head upward towards us, it flinched violently and hunched back down over its laptop. Around the room other monstrosities behaved similarly, pretending they were entirely focused on their computer screens, deliberately not paying us any attention at all.
It might have been a pathetic scene, these hapless slaves crafted into shambling semblances of humanity and forced into servitude by a rich, evil corporation, but I knew from long experience that infernals just weren't deserving of that kind of consideration. It wasn’t just being inhuman. Their fundamentally unnatural existence in our world was creepy, sure, but it was their pervasive malice that really made me hate them. Low level infernals were stupid; apart from their magical talents, they were just thugs. The higher-ups were villains and fiends. So maybe they weren’t properly demons at all, not fallen angels or rebels against some divinity, just monsters from some alien plane of existence, but the name fit.
"This is the only way in? What're those?" I gestured at several doors around the sides of the room.
"Conference room," she said, "summoning chamber, workshop for demon material assembly, and analyst quarters. No other exits."
"I'm going to have to talk to them," I said. "I assume they're all under your control."
"Yes, but..." Sakashvili seemed unhappy with the idea of my going down there.
"Listen," I said, "you've got these things warded up the ass, and the physical security would make Tom Cruise cry. Power outage or no power outage. It's obvious what happened here. Right? You do see it's obvious to me, don't you?"
Sakashvili stared at me for a moment. I wasn't sure what was going on behind her eyes.
"I...I think you're going way beyond your purview, Ms. Simeon. This has nothing to do with finding Barbatos."
I took a step closer to her, and she flinched away from me.
"You're wrong," I said. "I shouldn't even have to explain this, it's so obvious. Someone must have helped your demon get out of here. If it wasn't you, it was someone else high-level at Goldman Sachs who works with infernals. Some or all of these demons must have been here when Barbatos escaped, or was taken, or whatever happened to him. I assume your internal security people are all over this already, and you were just hoping I wouldn't follow up on it for the Commission. But that's not how it's going to be. Because my reputation is at stake here if I ignore it."
I left unsaid that finding out who the insider was would end their career and maybe their life, knowing the kind of control the Commission's member firms liked to exert over magic in the city.
That was obvious, too.
"Okay," Sakashvili said after another pause, "so be it. I'm going to have to clear this with security. Hang on. Got to give them some passphrases."
She stepped to the side, far enough to have some privacy from me, and started muttering into her phone. After a minute she put the phone away and returned to where I was waiting.
"I can give you fifteen minutes," Sakashvili said. Then she walked to the top of the steps leading down into the work area, just behind the cordon.
"Listen up, people," she called out, and all the various monstrosities working their laptops looked up, as if they hadn't known she'd been there all this time.
"I invoke your bindings. Code Shemhamphorash. By Anaphexeton and in the name of Abrac Abeor I adjure you. Speak truthfully to my servant Nora Simeon and answer her questions. In the name of the Primemeuton. Selah." Then she muttered to me, "Sorry about that servant thing, you know how it goes."
I nodded to her. "May I?"
She unlinked the cordon rope barring access to the three steps down into the demons' work area. It probably formed some kind of magical ward. "Be my guest."
I have to admit I paused at the top of the stairs. I hated having to be anywhere near infernals, but I'd talked myself into being allowed down there. And the longer I waited, the more likely they'd think I was weak. You didn't want to show weakness to demons, even when they were bound to serve you. So down I went. Into the pit.
Nora Simeon hates demons. But as an investigator for the Commission, the organization that regulates sorcery in New York City, she deals with the creatures more than she'd like. Her latest case has her on the track of a rogue demon, escaped from magical bondage as an analyst for an investment bank. But bankers are more dangerous than demons, and she soon becomes embroiled in the corruption at the heart of the financial industry.
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