Tall golden grass on the savannah rippled in the hot, arid wind like the shimmer of a mirage. A vast, sub-Saharan landscape lay before Dingo, and the scent in the air was death. Standing in the middle of an expanse of open grass – a ruby in a dry sea of bright gold – was a man. A bonfire raged before him as the sun began to turn the western sky from blue to orange. The man’s red and black checkered robe lay draped over his shoulder, a stark contrast from the ebony skin it covered. His hair was thinly braided and a few random locks were adorned with rows of blood red beads. He raised his wiry arms, adorned with beaded bands made from bone, teeth, stones, and other talismans. Then he waved his staff and hide shield heavenward, shouting to the clouds in the distance. “Miungu kuleta radi kubwa. Tuma mbwa-kichwa ili kuzuia uovu kutoka nchi yetu!”
Dingo approached the man with caution. He was sure he had seen this same man in the village, an innocuous shopper, haggling over the price of a leg of lamb But here, in this setting, he seemed foreboding. As Dingo drew nearer, the man continued to chant and wave his implements at the sky, periodically jumping up and down in a ritualistic dance and moving counterclockwise around the fire. A moment later, Dingo could hear the chirping bark of wild dogs not far off. He looked in the direction of the cacophony and beheld the pack about fifty yards away. There were some fifteen dogs, and they were moving in his direction. Dingo looked back toward the man, whom he was now convinced was some kind of tribal priest. The priest took no notice of the approaching predators. As he danced around the fire, repeating the same Swahili chant over and over, his eyes stayed fixed on the thunderhead in the distance.
Dingo’s attention returned to the pack, which had now split up and fanned out like the teeth on a wide lawn rake. Their chirps grew louder and more insistent. He felt panic and fear grip him, as the noise of the dogs and the chanting of the priest intensified. Finally, at the crescendo, everything turned to blinding white. He raised his hand to shield his eyes, and after a brief moment, he could just make out the fiery new cloud in the distance.
A bottle of scotch crashed onto the floor and Dingo woke up sweating and nearly out of breath. The shock of the noise sent him tumbling off of the Murphy bed and onto the floor. His arms held his torso upright and his bent knees splayed out in front of him. He looked over toward his desk on the opposite side of his home/office, Death Unicorn Investigations, just in time to see Barney lunge. Dingo’s confused mind could only perceive Barney’s target as a ninja next to the desk. The Australian Shepherd mix locked onto the intruder’s raised up arm and chomped down hard, ripping though the flesh of the forearm as the two tumbled over. The momentum carried Barney over the top of the ninja in a somersault tumble. Dingo’s adrenaline put his perception of time into an altered state, and he saw red blood on the man’s black sleeve, and he heard the man cry out in pain. Then he saw Barney right himself and prepare for the next lunge; his bark filled the loft – probably the entire building.
When he looked back at the ninja bleeding on the floor, he saw the flash of a knife in the man’s non-wounded hand. Instinctively, Dingo reached out with his right hand, palm held up and fingers spread. A terrific arc of blue lightning coursed from Dingo’s outstretched palm and seared into the ninja’s torso. The ninja’s body flew backward with the shock and hit the wall before slumping down to the floor.
Dingo screamed in spite of himself and began to kick his legs in an effort to crab-walk backward, but his feet just slid across the old hardwood floor. Barney continued to bark at the intruder, but kept a safe distance as Dingo slowly caught purchase and pulled himself up. His pulse raced and he was breathing like he’d just sprinted half a mile.
He grabbed the mace he’d made out of an old Louisville slugger and some giant nails from the bedside and slowly approached the charred corpse on his floor. Smoke rose from the gaping burn wound in the man’s chest. It would have set off the smoke detectors in the loft, had Dingo ever bothered to change the batteries.
“Barney!” He half-shouted.
Barney kept barking and growling.
“Barney, shut up! It’s okay. I don’t need neighbors coming up here right now.” Barney barked three more times at the corpse to make his point, then slunk over to the kitchen table and lay there whimpering quietly.
The next sound Dingo heard was the approach of footsteps coming up the stairs, down the hall, and toward his door. “Goddamnit.” He muttered. He put his hand in the pool of spilled Scotch on the floor and smeared some on his face. The knock at the door came, as expected, and he opened it just enough to pop his head out. Lawrence, the downstairs neighbor, was standing there in a set of obnoxious yellow satin pajamas. “Sorry Lawrence,” Dingo said.
“What happened?” Lawrence said, his voice sing-song and whiney. God, Dingo hated this man. “Is everything okay? It sounded like there was an explosion…”
“It’s fine, Lawrence.” Dingo said. “I was trying to cook a midnight snack and I got a little carried away.” He did his best to affect a drunken lisp and hoped the smell of the Scotch would answer any of Lawrence’s other snooping questions.
“Was there a fire?” Lawrence asked. “Why didn’t the smoke alarms go off? I definitely smell smoke.”
No such luck. Shit. Dingo thought.
What Dingo said was, “There was a small electrical fire but I hit it with the extinguisher and unplugged the alarms before they went off. No big deal, Lawrence. I promise to keep Barney quiet the rest of the night. Now go back downstairs, please. I’m gonna have a hell of a hangover in the morning and I wanna get a good start on sleeping it off.” Dingo tried shutting the door on him, but Lawrence resisted.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call the super?” Lawrence asked.
“No, Lawrence.” Dingo said. The stress of this ridiculousness had relieved him of all of his patience and all of his filters. “I don’t want you to call the super,” he continued. “I want you to take those ugly fucking pajamas back downstairs, mind your business, and let me sleep this off, got it?”
Lawrence’s face looked like he was the one who’d just been hit with a million volts of magic electricity. He chuffed. “Well… fine! Just trying to be a good neighbor!” he said, and stormed off down the hall. Dingo shut the door behind him and slid down to the floor with his back against the door.
“What the fuck is going on, Barney?” He asked. Barney whimpered and sank his head down. “Shit.” Dingo continued, more to himself than to Barney. “Now I gotta call Cuddles again.”
Before Cuddles could say “What the fuck?” Dingo interrupted and said, “Shhh! Try not to wake up Calvin and just listen.”
“I need you to get over here right now. I can’t talk about it on the phone, but this is some serious shit and it has to do with you know what. And now, on top of everything else, I’ve got fuckin’ Lawrence breathing down my neck…”
“Lawrence?” Cuddles interrupted, “The pansy from downstairs?”
“That’s cute,” Dingo said. “You calling another dude a pansy. Anyway, just get over here please, and try to keep Calvin out of it.”
Cuddles sighed. “First of all, bitch, I’m a bear, not a pansy, and that Lawrence asshole’s not even gay. Second, I’ll be right over and I’ll leave Calvin here… alone… where he’s supposed to be safe.” He hung up before Dingo could respond.
By the time Cuddles got there, Dingo had at least managed to get the Scotch cleaned up, and had aired most of the scorched-flesh smell out by using the vent above the stove and a bunch of summertime box fans his super generally considered “air-conditioning.”
Still, the first thing Cuddles did when he came in was crinkle his nose in disgust and gag. “Is it still that bad?” Dingo asked, “or are you just being… you?”
“Well, it definitely smells like someone died a fiery death in here.” Cuddles said, “but I do have a really hyper sense of smell.”
“Whatever,” Dingo said. “For now we need to deal with the body.”
“So someone did die a fiery death in here?” Cuddles said.
“I cast another spell. This time it was lightning. Like full-power lightning.”
By now, Cuddles had come in and turned the corner to the kitchenette – or rather, the area with the sink, mini-fridge, toaster oven, and hotplate – where Dingo had dragged the charred corpse
“Yeah…” Cuddles said. “This is definitely your full-power lightning.”
“So do you believe me about the spells now?” Dingo said.
“Yeah, but how and why are you able to cast spells all of a sudden?”
“Well, I think that’s maybe a question for another time,” Dingo said, looking at the dead ninja in his kitchen. “Let’s get this goon out of here first – preferably without waking up Lawrence in the process.”
“Don’t you wanna search him first?” Cuddles said. Barney made a small yip as if in agreement. Dingo shot a look at Barney and the Australian Shepherd slunk his head back down between his forepaws. “Ha! Well, of course we’re going to search him,” Dingo said. “We’re gonna do it when we get him out to the morgue, though.”
“THE MOR…” Cuddles caught himself and then whispered “The morgue!? You mean we have to put up with that fuckin’ weirdo, Jimmy?”
“Look man,” Dingo said, “Jimmy’s alright. He’s just a bit… different, that’s all. If you spent all your time around stiffs you’d be a little off, too. Besides, you got no problem with dead bodies.”
“Yeah, but… dude gives me the creeps. And there’s a reason I don’t spend all my time around stiffs. I prefer to kill them – in battle – and leave them behind, not stick around and hang out with them afterward.”
“Well, what other choice do we have?” Dingo said. “I can’t have any evidence of this being dug up by some animal, so the woods is out. This needs to be a clean disposal. You know anyone else besides Jimmy that can handle that for us?”
Cuddles sighed. “No.”
“Well, then here… help me wrap this sheet around him, and we’ll get him down the stairs real quiet-like.”
The ninja, thankfully, was stereotypically light, and Cuddles, being the size of a pro-wrestler, didin’t have much trouble getting him downstairs. They crept down the three flights and out to Dingo’s van, which was parked in the garage across the street.
When they had finished loading the charred remains into the back of the van, Dingo stopped for a moment before shutting the back panel door.
“What is it?” Cuddles asked.
Dingo looked at the corpse a moment longer and then shook his head. “Let’s go get Barney.” he said.
When the three of them were in the van, Dingo started the engine and Bruce Dickinson’s voice belted out the last notes of “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and the big crash ending of the epic Maiden tune bellowed out through the van’s formidable speaker system. Dingo turned to Barney, who was laying in his bed in the back, apparently not bothered by the body, and said, “Don’t you fucking start with me. I had to deal with Lawrence because of you, so we’re starting this one over. It’s a long enough drive, you’ll get your Rush tune in approximately seven minutes.” Barney whimpered again and sank his head.
“Jesus, we still have to endure your horrible two-band rule in this van?” Cuddles said.
“I’m gonna listen to Iron Maiden right now. If you want to deprive Barney of ‘YYZ’ in a minute, you’re going to have to work it out with him.” Barney let out a low goal.
“Fine. God I really don’t know why I put up with you.” Cuddles said.
“It’s because you owe me, and because you’re life would be boring without me.”
“Yeah.” Cuddles said. “I owe you.”
Dingo didn’t respond. He knew all too well that no matter how many times he’d saved Cuddles’ ass when they were doing wet work together, (and, to be fair, the roles were reversed a time or two, as well) he was never going to make up for what he’d done. All of those great times they had together saving the world one job after the next went away because he, Dingo Roy – famed sorcerer mercenary – killed magic. It was his fault Cuddles lost his career as a spec-ops combat troop. Mert too. And, though he really couldn’t let himself give much of a fuck about this part, the rest of the wizard corps who watched over the rest of the world. He did it. He was careless. He didn’t notice the witch, and now he was the most hated ex-wizard on the planet.
Bruce Dickinson’s low operatic voice started in. “I’m waiting, in my cold cell, when the bell begins to chime…” Dingo hit the gas and they drove off toward the morgue.
Royal Cremation Services was in the heart of Northeast Portland, and it took Dingo about a half-hour to get there The business occupied a corner lot, and there was a converted house behind it that had been turned into an Asian BBQ joint. There was a narrow alleyway that ran behind Royal Cremation and Mighty Khan BBQ, so Dingo backed his van, The Death Unicorn, into the parking spot nearest the alley.
The van was named so for Dingo’s ridiculous “business logo.” which was a red circular ring, within which, the grim reaper rode atop a white unicorn bounding from the circle. As if the reaper wasn’t enough, the unicorn’s eyes crossed at odd angles, and it’s tongue hung out of one side of it’s smiling mouth – all of which served to give the beholder the impression of death riding a deranged, lunatic unicorn. Around the circular border were written the words “Death Unicorn Investigations” Cuddles exited the passenger side of the Death Unicorn and thought to himself, “Twelve. My best friend is fucking twelve.”
Jimmy met them in the parking lot with a look on his face that confirmed Cuddles’ earlier sense of the heebie-jeebies. In fact, Cuddles thought Jimmy’s face might actually have been the inspiration for whomever painted that fucking psychotic unicorn on the front of the van. Dude’s eyes weren’t crossed, exactly, but they were definitely off, he thought. And that weird way he licked his lips every couple of seconds… Cuddles shuddered and got out of the van.
He and Dingo opened the back doors of the Death Unicorn and Jimmy kept watch on the parking lot.
“Where’s the gurney?” Cuddles said.
Jimmy just stood there for a moment.
Cuddles looked at Dingo.
Dingo cleared his throat. “Mmm, Jimmy?” he said.
“You mean you guys don’t just want to carry him inside? That’s the fun part for me… It’s like I’m the ferryman carrying them across the River Styx.” Jimmy said. His voice was a little high pitched, but soft. He was short and skinny, and he had only patches of red hair on his head, which he was derelict in keeping buzzed off. He wore a lab coat that had stains all over it, and he stunk of something Cuddles was sure he didn’t want to identify.
“Ew.” Cuddles said. “Go get the fucking gurney,”
Dingo looked at him.
“Pretty please.” Cuddles chuffed, “I’ve already carried this crispy bastard down three flights of stairs. If you wanna get your jollies off of carrying him, you’re gonna do it on your own, pal.”
Jimmy sighed. “Fine. I’ll go get it,” he said, then went back inside the crematorium.
When Jimmy was back inside, Dingo punched Cuddles in the shoulder.
“Hey!” Cuddles protested.
“Dude!” Dingo said. “This guy’s already gonna ask me for something weird, I just know it, and you being an asshole is just gonna make it worse!”
“Don’t you just give him Bitcoin?”
“No. He doesn’t give a shit about money.”
“I guess that shouldn’t surprise me.” Cuddles said.
“Yeah, well I usually end up going on some kind of stupid scavenger hunt for this guy, and anything rude you do to him is just gonna make the payment that much harder on me, so could you please just go with this for now?”
Cuddles raised his eyebrow.
“Look dude, you don’t wanna know. Trust me. But if you make it worse, I’m taking you with me! I’m practically a wizard again!”
“You’re not really a wiz…” Cuddles cut himself off when he saw Dingo’s look.
Jimmy came back out through the alley soon after pushing the gurney before him. The three of them lifted the charred ninja onto the gurney, still wrapped in the sheet they’d used in Dingo’s apartment.
Inside the morgue, Jimmy had Norwegian death metal blaring, and a body already on one table. The fluorescent light bulbs flickered intermittently. For a moment Dingo wondered why he hadn’t switched from fluorescent to LEDs like everyone else had decades ago, but he let the thought go as soon as he saw the other corpse. It was mid-prep, by the looks of it. The chest cavity was open, and the organs had been removed.
They wheeled the gurney next to the open table opposite the organ donor. Without saying anything, Dingo and Cuddles unwrapped the ninja’s body and lifted him onto the exam table.
Jimmy whistled. “Whoo! What in the name of Lucifer’s sweet nipple-rings did you do, Dingo?”
“He broke into my office. I defended myself.”
“With a death ray?” Jimmy asked.
“Jimmy, we came to you because you don’t ask those kinds of questions.” Cuddles interrupted, and shot Dingo a look as if to say, “Shut the hell up.”
“Ha! I guess you’re right.” Jimmy said. “None of my business. ‘Course that does leave me to draw my own conclusions…”
“Draw whatever conclusions you like,” Dingo said. “Just make sure your conclusions don’t leave your own head, get it?”
“Oh, I remember our arrangement.” Jimmy said. “This is a bit different, though. I’m going to need something really unique for this kind of disposal.”
Cuddles shook his head and said, “What do you mean? He’s already half burnt up! If anything you should be charging less to burn up the rest of him.”
Dingo raised his hand to Cuddles to cut him off. “Text me a few ideas, and I’ll do what I can to get you something really special,” he said to Jimmy.
Cuddles looked disgusted. “It’s worth it,” Dingo said. “Jimmy is a steel trap – no matter what his twisted mind comes up with for his own conclusions – he won’t tell a soul we were ever here. Just let me deal with his payment.”
“Okay,” Cuddles said. “Just remember it wasn’t my fault you pretty much agreed to give him whatever he wanted.”
“Duly noted,” Dingo said. “Okay, Jimmy. We need a couple of minutes with the body to search him before we let you do your thing. Trust me, the less you know, the better, so it’s probably best if you go out and have a smoke or something for a few minutes.”
“Suit yourselves.” Jimmy said, and went outside.
After Jimmy left, Dingo began searching the body. The man was of Asian descent, that part was sure – and if Dingo had to bet, he’d have put his money on Korean – given recent circumstances. There were a couple of tattooed symbols on his wrists that looked like Korean writing. They weren’t decorative, more like identifiers.
Dingo and Cuddles both checked the man’s front pockets, but didn’t come up with anything useful like an ID. As they were about to give up, Dingo noticed a ring on the man’s right hand. It was a large silver ring, squared at the front with an image of Thor’s hammer cast in relief. Dingo recognized it immediately. It belonged to a former wizard named Bjorn Olafson from Norway. He’d had it custom made and had used his magic to bind a lightning spell to the object.
The special alloy in the ring bonded with the Promethium isotope – the one that had given all of the former wizards their powers – and gave the wearer (if he or she was a mage) the ability to amplify his or her energy and channel a more powerful lightning spell.
There wasn’t much left of the man’s shirt, but there was one breast pocket that hadn’t been singed all the way. Inside, Cuddles found a partially burned list. Most of its contents meant nothing to him, but he showed it to Dingo anyway.
“This is starting to make some sense to me.” Dingo said. “Come on. We need to go out to the woods.”
“Right now?” Cuddles said. “It’s the middle of the goddamn night!”
“That’s the best time to do what I’m fixin’ to do.” Dingo said.
“Oh, I don’t like this at all.” Cuddles said.
They left the corpse, said goodbye to Jimmy, and drove west on highway 26 toward the mountains. The Death Unicorn’s stereo alternated between Rush tunes for Barney and Iron Maiden tunes for Dingo. When they got past Tigard, Cuddles tried to touch the radio during “La Villa Strangiato,” and quickly thought better of it when Barney jumped up and snarled at him.
After an hour or so, they pulled off onto an old fire road and drove it up to a clearing that Cuddles, Dingo, and Mert used in the days when they called themselves “The Cuddle Buddies,” and still worked for the Department of Defense’s Mage division. Back then, Dingo and Mert had set up a ward around the area in order to protect it from prying eyes and ears while they developed new weapons and spells. Now, though, as they drove hard through the clear and moonless Pacific Northwest night, Dingo hoped the spot’s isolation would be enough to give them the privacy they needed.
When they rounded the final corner of the dirt switchback that led up to the last 300 yards to the clearing, Dingo cut the lights and the engine immediately. In the middle of their clearing they saw what looked like a group of teenagers sitting in a circle, with a giant stone in the middle. Dingo looked at Cuddles and both of them opened their doors quietly. They got out and snuck up the path toward the group.
They saw five small fires arranged around the points of a pentagram made from white stones. Each point was about ten feet away from the next. At each fire stood a gutter punk kid. The one who was obviously the leader was wearing a black trench coat with a hood pulled over his head that obscured his eyes. In the faint firelight, Dingo saw that at least some of the kid’s hair was maroon. Not bad, he thought. He’d been getting tired of the particular shade of purple he’d been dying his own Mohawk lately.
The other kids were dressed in spiked leathers and hoodies, chains and anything else they could find at the hardware store to make themselves look tough. There was one girl who had bleach blonde hair and wore all white contacts. All had piercings and tattoos.
“Well, we can’t do anything here.” Cuddles said. “Let’s leave it alone until tomorrow night.”
“Are you kidding me?” Dingo protested incredulously. “Hell to the no! I have an idea and it is gonna be god-damned awesome! We’re gonna kill two birds with one stone – er… ring.”
“Wha! No… Dingo…” An outside observer would’ve thought, Cuddles tried… But Dingo paid no heed, and deep down inside Cuddles knew he wouldn’t.
“Shhh!” Dingo chided. “Trust me, this will make up for you having to put up with Jimmy, and I promise I won’t kill anyone. Stay here,” he said with a mischievous grin Cuddles had seen all too often. “I’ll be right back.” He smiled, pointed at the teenagers, and said, “Listen…” then he snuck back to the van.
In the clearing, the leader knelt down behind the fire and picked up a large object that neither Dingo nor Cuddles could make out in the dim light. Then he stepped from his point of the pentagram. He moved carefully toward the stone altar at the center. Once he was at the altar, the light from all five fires illuminated the object in his hands. He held the severed head of a pig, and he set it atop the alter, its leathery snout pointed upward. The eyes were sewn shut, and the mouth was stuffed with a large polished black stone.
“O Lucifer, Son of the Morning, Accuser of the Accursed Creator, hear our prayers. O Beelzebub, Lord of Flies, Apollyon, Destroyer of Worlds, we call upon your power and offer this sacrifice unto you so that you might restore upon us the blessing of your magic in this realm once again!
“Itz rachu mantantu vespacha kaltamu
Itz ranta mant kala mant atzu belt tazu
Vaskalla itz rachu kantantu velchatza”
From their hiding place about fifty yards away, Dingo tapped Cuddles on the shoulder. He had a grin on his face Cuddles hadn’t seen in years. Cuddles looked down and saw Dingo putting the ring on his finger. Dingo held a walkie-talkie in his other hand and was giggling under his breath. Cuddles opened his mouth to say something, but Dingo raised his finger and cut him off. Then he pointed as the leader of the group kept repeating the chant over and over.
Dingo clicked the button on the radio and whispered, “Okay, Barney… Now!”
Bruce Dickinson’s low speaking voice boomed from the direction of the Death Unicorn and echoed throughout the trees.
“Woe to you, Oh Earth and Sea!
For the Devil sends the Beast with wrath,
Because he knows the time is short…
Let him who hath understanding reckon the Number of the Beast
For it is a Human number.
It’s number is Six Hundred and Sixty Six!”
Immediately afterward, Dave Murray’s Stratocaster started its chunky rhythm.
“What the hell are you doing?” Cuddles said.
“Just watch,” Dingo said, giggling full on, now.
The teens stood there aghast as the leader, apparently spurred on by his success kept chanting louder and louder. He raised his hands above the pig’s head and his voice soared over the opening riff until Bruce’s voice cut in.
“I left alone
My mind was blank
I needed time to think to get the memories from my mind
“What did I see?
Could I believe?
That what I saw that night was real or just a fantasy?
“Cause in my dreams
IT’S ALWAYS THERE!
The evil face that twists my mind and brings me to despair…”
By this time, most of the teens were freaked out, and had started to back away from the circle. The leader was still chanting, but he had also backed significantly away from the altar, and there was a tremble in his voice.
At the precise moment when Bruce’s iconic “YEAH!” scream came from the speakers, Dingo closed his eyes, and pointed the ring toward the stone altar.
A bolt of blue lightning powerful enough to set the entire Willamette Valley on fire coursed from Dingo’s bones, through his outstretched hand, and onto the stone pillar in the middle of the pentagram. Sparks flew, and a nanosecond later the stone shattered into a barrage of shrapnel. The pig’s head caught fire as it sailed at least 100 feet in the air, and bounced on the crater left by the exploding altar. It lay there burning while the teens scattered screaming into the night.
When they were out of earshot, Dingo burst out with laughter and Barney came running up the path from the Death Unicorn to celebrate with his partner. The Australian Shepherd jumped up onto Dingo, who was still crouched behind the bushes, and began licking his face.
“Good boy, Barney!!” Dingo said, and he reached into his pocket to give the dog a treat.
“God you’re a moron,” Cuddles said. “Those kids are going to tell everyone what they saw here tonight! I thought we were trying to be discrete!”
“Those kids aren’t even going to tell each other what happened here tonight.” Dingo said. “Trust me. You can take that one to the bank.”
“If you say so.” Cuddles replied. “So what did that little stunt prove other than the fact that you can cast lightning all of a sudden, which we already knew you could do anyway?”
“I have a theory.”
“The first time I cast a spell recently, it was because I was at a warehouse full of what I suspect were magical artifacts being imported by Ralph Marzano and having something to do with the Koreans. Then, I try to cast the same spell again, to no avail. Nothing happens, but there’s all this cryptic shit about Africa, and we both know that can’t be a coincidence. Then tonight I get attacked by a Korean guy with Bjorn’s ring and all the sudden I can cast lightning again?”
He let the conclusion hang.
“So? Cuddles said, annoyed.
“Take the ring back to the van and drive a few hundred yards back down the road. Put it in a cup from the van and leave it there, then come back here.”
“Okay.” Cuddles said.
When he returned, Dingo was cleaning up some of the mess his lighting spell had made, and Barney was chewing on a piece of charred pig ear.
“The ring’s way down the road.” Cuddles said. “About a half mile or so.” He was nearly out of breath from the walk back up.
“Alright,” Dingo said. “I’m going to try to set that point of the pentagram back on fire.” He stretched out his hand, closed his eyes, furrowed his brow, and…
“That was weird, but good.” he said.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Obviously I didn’t cast lightning, but I did feel a slight surge of electrical buildup.” he said, and immediately put his hand on Cuddles’ shoulder. There was a small pop and a tiny blue spark from Dingo’s hand.
“Ow! Goddamnit!” Cuddles said. Then he hit Dingo hard on the shoulder. Dingo stumbled back a bit, but was laughing and said “Sorry.”
“I’ll go back and get the ring. I want to try something else.” Dingo said.
When he came back, he was walking.
“I thought you were going to go get the ring…” Cuddles said.
“I did. I put it halfway between where it was and here.”
He then looked over at his former target – the point of the pentagram on the ground, aimed his palm, and closed his eyes. This time a much less powerful bolt of lightning arced from Dingo’s hand to the target, and the wood and coals caught fire in a small explosion of sparks. Rather than the full-powered, sustained stream of lightning he channeled when he wore the ring, this was more like a short burst of electricity that almost looked like a blue laser bolt.
“See where I’m going with this now?”
Cuddles nodded. “Let’s go get that ring, and lock it up in my vault.”
“Lock it up?” Dingo said. “That thing is gonna put me b… in a position to really figure out what’s going on here.” He began nodding his head. “I mean, what if these Koreans and the Marzano clan have mages who know about all of this?”
“All the more reason for you to keep the ring locked up and away from yourself.”
“You asshole! You know as well as I do that I couldn’t have anticipated what that witch was doing when it all ended. You signed off on the plan just like I did. If this ring gives me back some of my powers, and if I can find out why, I might be able to put everything back the way it was! Why the hell shouldn’t I use it to try and make things right?”
“Does it give you back all of your powers? Cuddles retorted. “I’ve only seen lightning. Can you levitate? If you can lift me up and toss me, then we might have something!”
Dingo angrily pointed the ring at Cuddles’ feet and closed his eyes. He thought of the levitation spell and channeled his focus into the ring. Cuddles jumped out of the way just in time to avoid the full-strength lightning bolt that hit the spot his feet were occupying a nanosecond before.
“Oh, shit!” Dingo said, bracing himself for what he knew was coming. Cuddles charged him and threw his shoulder into Dingo’s midsection, slamming him into the nearest tree. Dingo fell to the ground gasping for breath.
“You FUCKING ASSHOLE!” Cuddles screamed. “You just about killed me! You reckless bastard! It’s not bad enough that your brilliant plan killed magic in the world and took everything from us? Now you want to kill me by being reckless? Well kiss my big ass!”
Dingo coughed and wheezed. Barney barked on the outside of the circle, not sure what to do. Dingo held up his hand and took off the ring. He threw it on the ground at Cuddles’ feet. “I didn’t know…” he choked out. “So sorry…”
Cuddles sighed and turned around. “I know,” he said. “You’re always sorry. Look, let’s get this thing back to my place, lock it up, and make sure Calvin’s still okay.”
Dingo nodded and got to his feet. He picked up the pig’s head, now completely scorched and looking absolutely gnarly, Barney having gnawed one of the ears off and all.
“What are you going to do with that?” Cuddles asked.
“Remember that weird favor I owe Jimmy?”
“This’ll help take care of that.” Dingo said. He coughed a few more times, then pulled out his phone and took pictures of the ritual site and the destruction and the three of them headed back to the van.
“No shit?” Jimmy said. “A real Satanic ritual?” He held the charred pig’s head as Dingo was showing him the pics of the ritual site.
“Straight up.” Dingo said. “Those bastards were all chanting and focusing their energy on this pig’s head. All of a sudden, this gigantic explosion of hellfire itself rose from beneath the altar and all that was left was bloody bits of rock and this charred pig’s head.”
“Oh, my god!” Jimmy said. He was nearly petting the pig’s head as he held it. The sewn together eyes that somehow survived the fire seemed to capture his attention the most.
“So…” Dingo said, “are we good?”
“Oh, no.” Jimmy said. “No, no, no. That won’t do at all.”
“What do you mean?” Dingo said.
“Oh this is too good to call us even,” Jimmy said, his eyes having never left the charred pig’s head. “I owe you one now, my friend. I owe you.”
Dingo chuckled. “Well then, I’ll keep that in mind! I’ll send you those pics, too, right now.”
Jimmy lurched. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “I get to keep the pictures, too?!”
“In… in that case…” Jimmy could barely get the words out. “I owe you two!”
“Ha!” Dingo said. “Okay, Jimmy. I’ll catch you later, buddy, okay?”
Jimmy muttered something about bragging to his paranormal research buddies on the message boards as Cuddles and Dingo got back into the van.
They drove back to Cuddle’s apartment and found Calvin sound asleep on the couch. Dingo looked at Cuddles, then at his watch. It was 4:37 am. He nodded at his friend without saying anything, and walked out the door. Cuddles nodded back and closed the door behind him.
Dingo and Barney climbed the stairs to his office/loft and he found a pamphlet for Alcoholics Anonymous stuck between the door and door frame next to the handle. A note, written in black sharpie on the front of the pamphlet read: “It can be our secret. I just want you to get help. – Lawrence”
Dingo rolled his eyes and tossed the pamphlet on the kitchen counter as he entered his loft. He got back to the couch and went back to sleep.
He woke around six hours later, to find the sun shining brightly through the cracks in his blinds. He looked at his phone, and found a message from Cuddles. It just said, “Let Mert know.” He replied with a thumbs up.
Dingo grabbed his phone and texted Mert.
Dingo: I’ve got some news, and u really need to be involved. Cuddles’ orders.
Mert: I told u I don’t want anything 2 do with this.
Mert: WTF is that?
Dingo: Just a fraction of the shit that went down last night.
Mert: I’m serious, Dingo. I’m catching so much shit because of u and this whole mess. My captain’s watching me like a hawk and giving me nothing but dogshit details since that whole warehouse incident. I can’t do it. Not again. I want to have ur back, but I’ve worked so hard 2 get where I am after everything. I can’t just go abandoning that because u think something big’s at play.
Dingo: Look nobody knows how much u lost more than me. I can only apologize so much. Last night it was lightning.
Mert: Lightning? Were u trying?
Dingo: Nope. I have a theory though. I need u to check and see if there were any rings in those crates.
Mert: I’ve already been through the manifest. The higher-ups are being really transparent about the items – except, you know… Anyway, this was all big stuff. Statues, ornamental decorum, stuff like that. Nothing that could have been jewelry.
Dingo: Hmm. Shit. Well, I guess I’ll have to see where Bjorn’s came from.
Mert: Bjorn? Well that explains the lightning. Jesus. When do you guys want to meet.
Dingo: We’ll meet at Cuddles’ place. I’ll txt u the time code later.
“Come on, Barney,” Dingo said. “We’re going to the pawn shop.”
When Dingo started the Death Unicorn up, he texted Cuddles:
Dingo: Going to Piston Pete’s Pawn Palace to see if I can’t find anything out about our artifact. Mert’s coming over later.
Cuddles: Have fun. I’m gonna watch Beaches with Calvin. He’s never seen it.
Dingo: Just remember — No means no.
Dingo shook his head and pulled out into traffic. He and Barney arrived at Piston Pete’s at around 11:15. The pawn show wasn’t quite in Gresham, but it was close. Of course, there were a hundred pawn shops in the Portland area, but Dingo had a history with Piston Pete. He knew the slimy bastard had dealings with the Marzano organization. He also had a hunch that Bjorn’s ring had somehow “found” its way into Piston Pete’s shop before the nameless non-ninja picked it up.
The outside of the shop was covered in barred-over windows and graffiti. On either side of the shop other shady businesses stood. A payday loan place on the north side and a strip club on the south side. In the alleyway between the strip joint and Piston Pete’s, Dingo saw a dealer palm a balloon of smack to a junkie and her pimp or boyfriend — it was impossible to tell which.
He parked in the lot and grabbed Barney’s leash. Ordinarily, he’d let the canine sit a job like this out, but he knew that bringing Barney into the shop would annoy the hell out of Piston Pete and put him on edge. That prospect was too good to pass up. “Come on,” he said, and Barney jumped up to be leashed.
They walked into the dingy shop and immediately the smell of must and rot hit them. Barney whimpered and tried to turn around and go back to the van, but Dingo tugged him inside. “Oh, no you don’t,” he said.
“Hey!” Piston Pete’s voice rang out across the shop. “Get that mutt outta here!”
Barney barked and bared his teeth at Pete, who was just then looking over to see where the whimpering he heard had come from.
“First of all,” Dingo said, “You call Barney a mutt again and I’m going to let him bite your nut sack off. I’ve seen him do it, and if you think you can block him, you got another thing comin’ ya filthy douche bag. Second, he’s a service animal, so unless you wanna call the cops and have them poking around here and verifying all kinds of paperwork and documentation — which I have — he stays.”
“Dingo…” Pete said, his tone suddenly changed. “I didn’t realize it was you and, uh, what’s your fine looking dog’s name again?”
“See, now you’re just proving to be a slimy bastard.” Dingo said. “Barney can smell it on people. I think you offended him when you didn’t remember his name.”
“Heh, uh, sure. Oops. I offended the little pooch,” he shook his head. “Now, uh, what can I do for you so I can finish helping this lovely customer out?”
“Did your mother teach you any manners at all?” Dingo asked. “I told you that Barney was offended. You didn’t apologize. Then you assume I’m not a customer. It’s a good thing I have a hold on this leash.” As if to drive home the point, Barney barked loudly and lunged. Pete jumped back, and the woman who’d been standing opposite the counter from him throughout this whole exchange giggled in spite of herself.
“Okay! I’m sorry Barney!” Pete yelped out.
“That’s better.” Dingo said. He petted Barney behind the ears. “Now, I wasn’t the one who rudely interrupted this transaction, so please… as you were.” He made a dramatic swooping bow as he said the last words.
Dingo started to look at the row of weed-whackers and chainsaws lined up on shelves next to the counter. Barney stared at Pete as he nervously continued to transact with the woman.
The woman, a tall, slender brunette with smudged make-up looked like she’d been awake for three days. She pulled out a diamond ring and handed it to Pete. The pawnbroker pulled out a small magnifying glass and examined the ring before biting into the metal and setting it back on the counter.
“I’ll give you a hundred and fifty bucks,” Pete said, almost under his breath.
The woman gasped and said, “A hundred and fifty bucks!? That was a five-thousand-dollar wedding ring!”
With the outburst, Dingo looked over at the counter and saw the woman’s face for the first time. He immediately knew that he recognized her, but not from where. Instead of immediately coming to her defense, however, he decided in a split second to keep his mouth shut and see how Pete reacted.
“Look, lady,” Pete said. “I don’t care what you paid for it at the swanky jewelry store. You got maybe a hundred bucks worth of raw gold here and a diamond that I’d have to remove to sell and there’s no certification with it. At most I can get three hundred from this thing, and that’s where my margin has to be.”
“Please,” she said. “Can’t you give me five hundred for it? It’s all I have and I have to get out of this city.”
Pete nearly choked when she said five hundred. When he caught his breath, he coughed out, “Get the hell out of here, lady! I’m a businessman, not a fuckin’ charity. I said one fifty and that’s it. That’ll get you a goddamn bus ticket to Seattle or San Francisco. You can hook it or do whatever the hell else you gotta do from there.”
The woman started sobbing, and in the briefest of moments before that, the look on her face jogged Dingo’s memory.
“I’ll give you five hundred for it.” Dingo spoke up.
The woman looked over and sobbed even harder.
“For the ring, lady! God, I know I’m a little rough around the edges, but damn, I’m tryin’ to do you a favor here. This creep’s the one tryin’ to hustle you.” Dingo said.
She looked at him and said “Why would you help me?”
“Because I know where you came from.” Dingo said.
She looked at him and her demeanor changed.
“Yeah.” Dingo said. “Here are my keys. Go get in the van while I conduct some business with Piss-head — I mean Piston Pete here. I promise you’re going to be safe, and I can help you. In fact, take Barney with you. If I’m not back in five minutes, or if you get a creepy feeling, you can take off with both the van and the dog. I have no advantage over you.” He handed the keys and the leash to the woman, and she reluctantly took them. Barney went up to the woman and nudged his head against her knee. She smiled, reached down, and scratched him behind the ears. Then she looked up at Dingo, grabbed the ring from the counter, and gave it to him.
“Na, you hang on to that until I give you the five hundred,” Dingo said, and he handed it back to her. She walked out of the shop, and he returned his attention to Piston Pete. “Now, for you and me…” he said.
He pulled Bjorn’s ring out of his pocket and put it on the counter. Dingo saw Pete’s eyes light up for a split second before he regained his poker face. “Recognize this?” Dingo asked.
“I don’t know,” Pete said. “Let me get a closer look at it…” he said, and he began to reachfor the ring.
Dingo held up his hand and made a small blue arc between his right thumb and index finger that made his digits look like the end of a stun baton. “Ah ah ah…” he said, shaking his head. “A ring like this you’ve either seen or you haven’t, and based on the lack of surprise on your face right now, I’d say you’ve definitely seen it. So, unless you want me to show you just what ol’ Dingo can do with a lightning spell, I suggest you start talking.”
“It was one of Marzano’s goons!” Pete yelped. “He came in about three weeks ago and hocked it. I didn’t think anything of it. He haggled hard on it, though, saying it was worth way more than I thought. I knew the guy was the kind of slimeball to skim from Marzano, so I took his word for it and gave him the three hundred he asked for it. Then two days ago this Chinese guy comes in and pays a grand to get it out of hock.”
“I thought it was illegal to release an item to anyone other than the one who pawned it?” Dingo said.
“Let’s just say he persuaded me…” Pete said. “Besides, he gave me three times what I paid for it, so I figured it wasn’t any of my business.”
“God you’re a sleaze.” Dingo said. “I guess that’s a good thing, though, because that means you won’t have any problem telling me who Marzano’s goon was, right?” He held the arc a little closer to Pete’s face.
“Lenny!” Pete said. “It was Lenny Valenzuela! And the guy who picked it up was…”
“Not important to me.” Dingo interrupted. “Where can I find Valenzuela?”
“I haven’t seen him.” Pete said. “Far as I know he’s off the map — or dead. He seemed awfully desperate when he hocked the ring.”
“Well, you obviously knew him,” Dingo said. “Let’s say he didn’t skip town or meet some bitter end. Where would I go to find him otherwise?”
“He hangs out a few blocks south of here with all of the other…”
“Easy…” Dingo said, making the arc a little stronger.
“Latino gentlemen.” Pete finished.
“Okay, Pete. Here’s how we’re gonna leave things. You know who I am, and now, you can see that I’ve got my groove back. You’re a sleazeball, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be useful. Before I walk out of here, I have one question for you.”
“What?” Pete asked.
“Who do you fear more right now — Ralph Marzano or me?” Dingo released the spark that had been arcing through his finger tips and blew up a 72″ television on the other side of the shop.
“You!” Pete screamed.
“Good. Then here’s the deal. I want you to act like you never saw what I did just now. I want you to go about your sleazy little business with your sleazy little Marzano buddies, and the next time I come to you for information, I want you to give it to me without me having to ask twice. Does that make sense?”
Pete nodded his head.
“And if I find out that you’ve breathed a word to anyone about what went down these last few minutes… After I’ve cleaned up the bag of shit that’ll lead me to hold, I will lay my vengeance upon thee. Do you understand?”
Pete continued nodding his head.
“I mean, if you tell anyone… I swear upon Barney’s life that you’d better hope they kill me before I get back to you — which, considering what you know I’m capable of again, is not very likely, is it?”
Pete shook his head.
“Good.” Dingo said. “So we understand one another then?”
Pete nodded his head.
“Excellent. Now Pete, you know that I’ll be watching, right? Even when you don’t think I can. I’m a motherfucking wizard, remember?”
Pete started shaking and said, “Yes! I know what you can do. I won’t screw you over, I swear! Please don’t do any of that mind-control shit on me!”
“Don’t make me have to,” Dingo said. Then he walked out of the shop without looking back.
When he stepped out into the parking lot, he noticed immediately that the woman was in the passenger seat of the Death Unicorn, and that Barney was in the driver’s seat keeping vigil. He opened the driver’s door and said, “Okay, buddy. I got it. Let’s go.”
Barney barked affirmation and jumped off of the driver’s seat and back to his bed in the rear of the van. Dingo got in and started the van up. He turned down the stereo and Geddy Lee’s shrill voice shouting, They call me the workin’ ma-aan! That’s what I am... faded into the silence. Barney whimpered a bit, but Dingo turned around and said, “We’ve got company. Shut up.” Barney whimpered one more time and then buried his head in his paws.
“I’m Dingo Roy,” he said to his new companion.
“Anna Peretti.” the woman said.
“I saw you at Pinebluff.”
She lowered her head and eyes.
“Look, Anna,” Dingo said, “I’m not here to hurt you, or to turn you in, or judge you, or any other bad thing. I’m only helping you out because I think you might be able to help me out on a case I’m working for one of your former inmates’ family members. It is absolutely in my interest to keep you safe and alive.”
Dingo pulled the van out into traffic and headed toward Cuddles’ apartment. Anna looked up at him, but didn’t say anything.
“Here’s the deal. We’re going to go back to my buddy’s house — don’t worry, he’s gay — and you and Calvin are going to help me compare notes before we all meet together with another friend of mine tonight.”
“Calvin?” She asked.
“My client,” Dingo replied. “His brother Benjamin was at Pinebluff, too.”
“Benjamin Blair?” Ana asked.
“So you knew him.” Dingo said.
“Yeah,” she said. “His brother — Calvin, I guess — worked with my husband before I lost him and got put into that place.”
“What do you mean ‘lost him?'”
“I was a writer,” Anna said. “About six months ago, I noticed that Alan, my husband, started acting weirdly. He stopped talking about his work and became really withdrawn — like nothing mattered to him anymore. I tried to help him out, but he refused to talk to me or go see a counselor. Finally, I called up his company’s Employee Assistance Program number. I described what was going on, and they said they would make an appointment for him to see a therapist.
“I didn’t tell Alan, of course. I made his dinner that night and we went to bed like we normally do. The next thing I remember, I woke up in the Pinebluff hospital bed.”
“Let me guess,” Dingo interrupted, “Dr. Carpenter told you you were delusional.”
“Yes.” Anna said. “Alan tried like hell for two months to get me out, but then all of a sudden he just stopped showing up two weeks ago. He wouldn’t answer his phone. I couldn’t get a hold of him no matter what I tried. Then when I found out what Benjamin had done to himself, I knew I had to get out of that place. I saw my chance to escape during shift change last night. Dr. Carpenter called an extra long meeting due to the ruckus that I’m guessing you caused yesterday.”
“You guess correctly,” Dingo said. “That was some of my better work.”
“Well, thanks, then, I guess.” Anna said. “Do you have a cigarette?”
Dingo noticed that her hands were shaking. He pulled a Camel from his jacket pocket and handed it to her. “You okay?” he asked.
“I don’t feel right,” she said. “I don’t know what they were pumping me with these last few months, but I haven’t had it today, and I feel like my heart’s about to jump out of my chest.” She puffed the cigarette and continued.
“I went home to find the mail stacked up behind the door, and my wedding ring on the table. Alan was nowhere to be found. The only sign of him was a note with some cryptic song lyrics on it.”
“What lyrics?” Dingo said, his eyes widening.
“I hear the drums echoing tonight, but she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation. It’s from a song called…”
“Goddamnit!” Dingo shouted.
“What?” Ana asked.
“You’ll hear all about it later tonight.” The Death Unicorn pulled up to the curb in front of Cuddles’ apartment building. “I have a theory about what’s happening, but like I said, we all need to compare notes.” They stepped out of the van and headed upstairs to Cuddles’ apartment.
Mert arrived at 6:00 pm sharp. She was smartly dressed in a slim black suit. Her hair was its natural jet black again, pulled back in a pony-tail, and it shimmered in the faint light of Cuddles’ hallway. She had bangs now. She looked, well, professional.
Cuddles looked at her for a moment. He remembered the time they got into some shit and a fireball spell just barely grazed the side of her head. She had to shave that entire side off and dye the rest pink to make it work. He chuckled inside.
Back then, she was pissed, but he knew that secretly she grew fond of the look. She was much more fun back then, but then, of course she was. She was a mage, like Dingo, and he took that from her. He felt that old familiar twinge of guilt in his gut. It was the memories they shared, he supposed, that kept her talking to him at all. And if that meant he had to put up with her being gruff and businesslike — well, he’d take what he could get.
Cuddles invited her inside and hung her purse on the coat rack for her. She came in and looked around the room. Dingo said, “Thanks for coming. I know what a big ask it is.” She nodded and said, “Let’s get down to business. Who are these two?”
Dingo and Cuddles introduced Anna and Calvin, then filled her in on all of the events of the past few days.
“So, let me get this straight…” Mert said. “You cast your stupid pickup spell by accident at the Marzano warehouse, which I had to cover up. That spell played the song ‘Africa,’ by Toto.” Dingo nodded. Mert continued. “You claim this is significant because our last job – the one where you killed magic – was in Africa.” That barb stung, but Dingo nodded again without interrupting. “Then you find Calvin, here, who works for Nikwon, and he tells you that he notices some weird micro-expressions on his boss’s face when he asks about a paperwork error. That, of course leads you to assaulting and threatening a respected psychiatrist and her orderlies. How am I doing so far?”
“I mean…” Dingo was about to protest, but then thought better of it. “That’s about right so far,” he said, gesturing for her to continue.
“Calvin’s brother was rambling lyrics from ‘Africa,’ and then we found the note with the other lyrics.” Mert carried on. “You get Calvin here, then you get attacked by a Korean thug with Bjorn’s ring and you ‘accidentally’ murder him with a lightning spell.”
Dingo held up his hand to protest the murder accusation, but Mert put her hand up to his face.
“Then, you dispose of the body illegally, go out to the woods, scare the shit out of some teenagers, and almost catch the entire Willamette Valley on fire in the process — just so you could prove what exactly?”
“See, that’s what I was getting at before you…” Dingo said. Mert glared at him. “…asked your question,” he finished. “First, I was trying to prove that the magic spells I cast are tied to magically bound artifacts. I can’t cast anything without being close to that ring, and the power of the spell depends on how close to it I am. Also, I can only cast lightning with it. I’m guessing that’s because that’s the spell Bjorn bound to it.”
“That doesn’t explain the pickup spell, though,” Cuddles said. “You told me you have a different phone, so your phone couldn’t have been bound with that spell.”
“Yeah,” Dingo said, “But the phone that was got lost when we were on the last Africa job.”
Mert and Cuddles looked at him blankly. “Calvin, explain to them about the codes again!” Dingo said.
“No, I get it,” Mert said. “You think that Marzano and Nikwon have discovered that magically bound objects will still work – apparently – and they’re storing them at the warehouse.”
“Correctomundo,” he said. “That much I’m sure of. I don’t really know about the ‘Africa’ references yet, though.”
Cuddles said, “Yeah, but there’s got to be something there.”
“Agreed,” Dingo said. “but I don’t think we’re going to find out until we do some more digging.”
“What about my husband?” Anna asked. “I don’t know what happened to him.”
Calvin spoke up. “I remember Alan. He and I used to argue about football all the time when we’d see one another. We were in different departments before… Well, I just stopped seeing him, but now that we’re here, I do remember the last time I saw him. He was on the phone and couldn’t talk when I stopped by his office. He seemed really upset about something, and I remember him saying ‘She’s not crazy!’ to whomever he was speaking with. That was a couple of weeks back, I think.”
Anna was shaking. She excused herself and went out to the balcony for a cigarette.
“She’s not okay.” Cuddles said.
“No shit, Sherlock,” Dingo Said. “She’s been locked in a loony bin for three months and she just found out that magic works again, and that her husband is probably in some serious shit.”
“I can put an APB out for the husband,” Mert said.
“I thought your Captain was crawling up your ass,” Dingo said.
“I can still pull a few off a few tricks,” she said, looking right at Dingo.
“Gotcha,” he said.
“In the meantime,” Mert continued, “these two can’t stay here. Sorry, Cuddles, but it’s not safe for them. And where is the ring?”
“It’s safe.” Dingo said.
“DO NOT use it,” she said. “I know you’re not gonna give it to me or tell me where it is, but I’m serious, Dingo. You can’t use it. Not until we figure out what’s really going on.”
Dingo nodded sincerely.
“I still have the old safe house in Hillsboro. We can drop them off there. If Marzano or Nikwon know they’re with us it’ll be a lot easier for them to pick us all off at once.”
When Anna came in from the balcony she looked pale and sick. She was still shaking. “Are you okay?” Dingo asked.
“Yeah, I just think I need to sleep this off. Maybe it’ll pass by tomorrow,” she said.
“Okay,” Mert said. “Change of plans, dear. You and Mr. Blair are going to go to a safe house I have set up in Hillsboro for the night. I’ll be back in the morning to check on you. I’ll put out an APB for your husband, and we’ll get this mess figured out, okay?”
“Cuddles and I will be in touch in the morning, too,” Dingo said. “You just hang in there, okay.”
Anna nodded her head and headed toward the door. Before she got there, she turned around, reached into her pocket and held her wedding ring out to Dingo.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Listen, keep it. I don’t need your wedding ring, and, truth be told, I don’t actually have $500. But here’s $200 to help you feel a little more secure. If we can’t figure this out in a day or two and you still want to get out of town, that will do it.” He handed her a wad of cash.
She looked at him and said, “Thank you.” Then, she, Calvin, and Mert headed for the safe house.
“This ‘Africa’ song shit is starting to freak me out more and more, Dingo,” Cuddles said.
“You and me both.” Dingo said. “It’s just way too… I don’t know. I just don’t know yet.”
“Yeah,” Cuddles said.
Dingo said goodnight and drove back to his apartment.
He dreamt of the savannah again. The same African priest. The same pack of wild dogs. The priest kept repeating the Swahili chant just like before. The dogs moved closer and began to fan out into flanking positions just like before. This time, though, instead of a ninja in the night, it was Mert in the morning who woke him at the critical moment.
He heard his phone ding and he woke up sweating. He looked at the screen and saw a text from Mert.
Mert: Things just got worse.
Dingo: FML! What now?
Mert: <.jpeg file>
Dingo: “Oh my god, No!”
The picture Mert sent was of Anna lying dead next to the front porch of the safe house. She had a needle in her arm with a note pinned to it.
Dingo: “WTF happened?!”
Mert: Calvin said he heard her make a call around midnight, then step outside for what he assumed was another cigarette, but he fell asleep afterward. He found her like this and called me.
Dingo: What does the note say?
Mert: “Wild dogs cry out in the night. They grow restless, searching for some solitary company.”
To be continued…