Smoke & Mirrors: Chapter One

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I staggered into the church after midnight, a mostly empty bottle in my hand. Thunder rumbled outside, the voice of an angry father. If you listened close enough, you could hear God’s belt snap against the raw, exposed flesh of the world. Lightning flashes of pain lit pale, shivering storm clouds. Fat raindrops pounded against the stained glass while angry wind howled.

The power was out, but it was bright inside thanks in part to hundreds of white wax candles at the front of the room. A few parishioners warmed the pews, heads bowed in silent prayer while the blessed virgin stood up front, arms open.

Rain trailed down from my wet hair, slipping under my collar. I tugged on the stained blue tie and pulled the white cotton fabric of my shirt away from where it was clinging to my chest. It’d been a hell of a walk in the rainstorm, and I was too pissed to recall the exact name of the church. It was Orthodox, and out of the way, not one of the big, fancy churches, but a small and humble place whose doors were always open. Supposed it didn’t really matter, as I wasn’t there to pray.

I drew an arm over my mouth and scanned the place, looking for the priest. It was late, too late for traditional confessional hours, so I walked up the wide aisle between pews to confront the robed man in the front of the room. Halfway up, I stumbled and caught myself on a pew, startling one of the parishioners.

She looked up at me, wide-eyed, and stood. “Are you hurt?” She reached to touch me.

I jerked away and found my feet, swaying. “Piss off.” My voice bounced off the walls, the echo punctuated by thunder and lightning. I spun a half circle, using the hand that held the bottle to point at all the others whose prayers I’d interrupted. “All of you can go get fucked! You hear me? Fuckin’ bleeding heart helpless twats. What’re you prayin’ for anyway? Health? Happiness? Fuck that. Get out. Go on, get out and go make your own damn happiness. God’s not going to do shit for you needy wankers.”

They stared at me, deer eyes in headlights.

I leaned to the side and placed the bottle in the nearest pew, barely managing to stay upright. With a firm shove, I got back to my feet and clapped my hands together, letting the sound echo a moment before pulling my hands apart. There, floating between my hands was a ball of brilliant blue flame. Angel fire, one of the few unique gifts my unusual parentage had left me. “I said get out!”

With a flourish, I clapped my hands back together and let the fire erupt into screaming sparks of light.

Several shrieks went up from the unwary prayer warriors as they abandoned their private battles and fled.

The priest at the front of the room sighed, unbothered as he snuffed out one of the low burning candles. “You don’t have a monopoly on God’s time, Josiah. Those people had every right to be here.”

I ignored his scolding and picked my bottle back up for another swig. “What for?”

“Prayer?” He put down the snuffer and turned his back on the candles to walk toward me. “Comfort. Peace. Whatever they feel they get from it.”

“You know as well as I do that no one up there gives a shit about the people down here, Father Mirren.”

“Reverend would be more correct, Josiah. This is a Greek Orthodox congregation.” Mirrien walked down the aisle toward me, moving silently, slowly, as if we had all night. “What can I do for you tonight, Josiah?”

My breath caught, throat suddenly on fire. I’d had too much to drink and there it was trying to crawl back up. I swallowed the fire and the sour taste with it. Reverend Mirrien and I didn’t know each other well. He’d been the only priest in the city willing to perform funerary rites for Danny when he passed. Manus Dei wanted to cremate Danny’s remains and probably dump them in some alley somewhere. Bunch of pricks.

But not Mirren. For all his flaws, he was a decent man as far as I could tell. That was the only reason I’d gone so far out of my way to give him a hard time.

“How about a confession, Reverend?” I spread my arms wide. “I could do with a little absolution.”

“You could do with a hot meal and some rest. When was the last time you slept?” He put a gentle hand on my back and led me to the nearest pew where he bid me to sit.

I shook my head. “What day is it again?”

The pew creaked as he sat down next to me, close enough to be intimate but still far enough away to be comfortable. For a long moment, neither of us spoke. Wasn’t much point. He was busy composing himself so he’d come off as concerned instead of condescending, and I just didn’t have anything to say.

I lifted my gaze from the floor to stare at the flickering flames. There must’ve been a hundred fires, each one dancing in some wind I could neither see nor feel. Yet it must’ve been there. What else would move them like that?

“You know I don’t give two fucks about God and all that,” I said. “I don’t know why I’m here.”

“Here in this church or in the world?”

I scowled at the priest. Damn him for twisting everything into some unanswerable question. “What about you? Why’re you here? And don’t feed me any of that seminary bullshit about God and his plans. Why’re you really here?”

Mirren leaned one arm against the back of the pew, a small smile and a memory playing on his face like an old movie. “I suppose I like the comfort of it. The certainty that there’s more to my meager existence than a constant cycle of dieting, paying my bills, and getting stuck in traffic. This profession gives me a rigid code to live by and I find peace in that.”

“Certainty.” I repeated the word like a curse. “It’s a synonym for fuckin’ monotony, is what it is.”

“We’ve all got to have some peace in our life, Josiah. Something to look forward to. Some reason to get up in the morning, to keep going.”

“Something to hunt.” I lifted the bottle in a toast to the front of the room.

He folded his hands and twisted in his seat to regard me. “Guilt and vengeance don’t have to drive you, Josiah. Those things eat away at your soul. Strong as you are, even you can’t carry that burden forever. Sooner or later, you have to give that up, or at least let someone help you carry that heavy load, or else it will crush you.”

I grunted and pulled a pack of cigarettes from my pocket. The reverend wouldn’t let me light up inside the church, but he couldn’t stop me from chewing on one at least. “Who said anything about guilt?”

Mirren heaved a heavy sigh and shook his head. “I just don’t get you. God’s given you a second chance, Josiah, whether you want to acknowledge that or not. If you would just learn to let go—”

“Do you have any work for me or don’t you?” I glanced over at the priest who’d frozen with his mouth open.

He had to have known since I showed up that I was looking or something to do. Normally, I’d have just waited for God’s Hand to call. They had jobs that needed doing every couple of weeks. But I’d just come off a job doing protection for a goddess in New Orleans that hadn’t gone so well. I was doing my best to lay low so I didn’t have to answer any questions, and that meant not informing Manus Dei that I was back in town. I needed something to keep me busy. That didn’t mean I needed to kiss the God Squad’s ass.

The priest sighed and fished a slip of paper out of his pocket. After glancing around to make sure we were still alone, he pressed the paper into my hand. I unfolded the paper and glanced down at the candid photo of a thin, dark-haired man. In the photo, he wore sunglasses and held a brown bottle. His clothing consisted of blue jeans and a short-sleeved button down that he’d left unbuttoned enough to give a glimpse of a large tattoo on his chest. I couldn’t make out what it was at that angle, only that part of it was written in Greek. I flipped the picture over and found a name printed on the back: Stefan Nikolaides.

“He’s a friend of a friend,” said the priest, folding his hands. “Went missing a few days ago.”

I looked up from the photo. “Missing or missing?”

Mirren frowned.

“Come on, Reverend. I’ve been around enough to know a made man when I see one. Nikolaides is a Greek name. I can put two and two together, even piss drunk.”

He sighed. “There was a change in leadership about a month ago. A lot of Georgie Komnosis’ people went missing.”

I snorted and tried to hand the picture back. “Went to the bottom of the East River more like. And that’s if they were lucky.”

Mirren refused it. “Keep it. And Stefan wasn’t one of them. He was indispensable to the organization. No one would dare touch him, not without drawing the attention of Athens, which isn’t a good thing. No, if Stefan has been missing this long, it’s because he doesn’t want to be found. Alexi Komnosis—that would be Georgie’s nephew—has offered a favor to anyone who can find him.”

A favor from a local crime boss was a powerful thing, and currency that wasn’t easy to get. A lot of men would be willing to kill for it. Chances were good that every Greek person in the tri-state area was on alert, searching for Stefan. “What makes you think I can find him?”

The pew creaked as he shifted his weight. “You have a reputation for completing impossible tasks. You’re also not Greek or connected to the Greeks in any way.”

“Nor the Italians, the Russians, the Serbians, the Jamaicans or anyone else. Guess that makes me a rare thing.”

He nodded. “A man with power, beholden to none. If anyone can find Stefan, it’s you.”

I stood and tucked the photo into my pocket. “And when I find him, what is it you want me to do with him? Bring him to you? What’s stopping me from taking him straight to Alexi to claim the favor for myself?”

“A sense of loyalty. Honor. And the five thousand dollars I’ll give you when you deliver him to me alive.”

I smiled. “Now we’re talking. Anything besides the picture to go on? New York is a big city.”

He tugged on his collar, but not as a sign of nervousness. His fingers hooked on something he wore beneath the collar and he lifted it for me to see. It was an amulet, a magical one that would’ve been made with a spot of blood and a spark of magic under a full moon to work. This one was shaped like an ivy wrapped rod of wood.

Used to be such amulets were everywhere to ward against what the less educated would call the Evil Eye. More like they absorbed any magic that was meant for the wearer. The pulsing blue topaz in the center dulled and lost its luster when it was hit with a spell, making the amulet good for one-time use only. This one was still glowing bright.

I knew the symbols of several gods, but this wasn’t one I knew well.

“Dionysus,” said the priest, lifting the amulet to examine it. “God of wine, fertility, and madness. It was Stefan’s. He almost never took it off, but left it in his apartment when he fled along with most of his other belongings.” He pulled the amulet off and handed it to me.

I whistled, turning it over in my hands. “Heavy duty protection spell. Why leave it behind when you’re going on the run? How certain are you that he’s still alive?”

“I’m not,” the priest answered with a frown. “But I pray he is. There aren’t many good men left in the organization, Josiah. I don’t know if I’d call Stefan a good man, but he’s better than most.” 

“I’ll find out what happened to him,” I said, folding the photo around the amulet and dropping both into my pocket. “You have my word.”

Reverend Mirren nodded gravely.

I stood, retrieving my bottle from where it rested on the pew next to me.

“Josiah?” Mirren pulled himself to his feet using the back of the pew in front of him. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but Danny wouldn’t want this for you. Not the real Danny Monahan. He cared about you, and I know you cared about him. Mourn if you need to, Josiah. Please. Don’t bottle this and let it eat you from the inside out.”

I was about to tell the reverend to stuff it when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. With a frown, I fished it out and watched my partner’s name dance across the screen followed by a text message. CALL ME. GOT WORK FROM THE GOD SQUAD.

Bugger all, of course they’d found out I was back in town. They had spies on every corner. Whatever the work was, it could wait. I had one more stop to make.

“Best get yourself one of these amulets, Reverend,” I advised, stuffing the phone back into my pocket. “Seems it’s a dangerous time to be Greek in this city.”

Outside, the churchyard was quiet but for the sound of rain rolling off the tombstones. The raging storm had passed, moving out over the bay, the only sign of its passing the occasional lightning strike in the distance.

Danny’s stone sat in the corner of the yard, far from all the others. It wouldn’t have been right to put him with all the rest. An exceptional man deserved an exceptional final resting place. For Danny, that meant putting him under the strong arms of a stubborn oak. The tree had defied all odds and grown up through a crack in a boulder that once served as a boundary stone. Over the years, it split the rock wide open, but rather than destroy it, the oak grew long boughs and now sheltered the broken rock from wind and snow. Even when the leaves fell and left the branches naked, they reached wide, doing the best they could.

I bought him a black granite headstone because I thought he would never have liked the white. Always did like to stand out. My palm moved over the rough edge at the top, brushing away a few wet leaves. Mirren was kind enough to sprinkle some grass seed over the dirt some months back, but it had yet to take root and grow. Too cold yet. We’d have to sow more seeds once the bitter cold was a distant memory.

I sighed and sat in the mud with my bottle, pulling my jacket closer. “Happy birthday, mate,” I said, raising the bottle. “Fine weather for it. Always did like the rain, didn’t you?”

The only answer was the distant roll of thunder, and the gentle tap of rain on granite.

I poured a libation to the dead and raised the bottle to my lips, resolved to ignore the phone still ringing in my pocket and drink until I forgot the bloody thing was there.

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You can pre-order Smoke & Mirrors today. Click on the link below to check it out on Amazon. 

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Working for Heaven can be a living hell, especially when your name is Josiah Quinn.

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