Madam Korina's Fortunetelling parlor was a seedy stand- alone storefront in the middle of downtown Sanford. A neon rainbow Open sign shone bright against the tinted window. The gutters, which had been damaged during the last hurricane, hung forlornly off the structure waiting for the damp wood rot to corrode their remaining screws. A decided feeling of loss surrounded it, much like the faded beauty of an aging movie star.
Edward Justice stepped out of his black Ford pickup into the sweltering heat of a Florida summer. Glancing at his watch he wondered for the second time if he should just wait until nightfall to come. His powers would be much stronger then. It was five o'clock with actual darkness not due for another two to three hours. I'm here now, might as well get this over with. Walking along the cracked cement path, he pushed the rickety door open and stepped inside.
A small air conditioning unit hummed in a corner window laboring beyond its ability to cool the stuffy room. Ribbons of alternating cold and heat licked at his face.
Everywhere Ed looked there was occult merchandise: books on witchcraft and spell casting; aura reading; past lives; and even mind reading. A cracked glass case housed Tarot cards and small opaque vials of scented oils. The far end of the room was hidden by a curtain decorated with crescent moons and stars. Ed couldn't help himself. He smiled. What a lot of silly, expensive junk.
The curtain stirred and a woman he assumed was Madam Korina emerged dressed in a long green t-shirt, blue polyester pants, and worn leather sandals. With a distinct limp, she lumbered past Ed and settled on a wide stool behind the glass counter. He glanced at the warrant photo in his pocket and confirmed her identity. She looked to be close to sixty but Ed knew from her warrant her real age was fifty-two. A strong stench of cigarette smoke drifted up from her clothes. The woman ran her fingers through her hair showing gray roots. "Can I help you, young man?" she asked, breathing heavily as if the simple act of walking were a great and terrible burden.
Ed hesitated then freed his dark power. Pure scarlet energy flowed from him in the form of four large vipers, hitting the ground with an audible thump and slithering toward the madam. She gasped and was about to bolt from her chair when he said, "Be still while I search you." His voice had claimed the room: deep and commanding. The madam flinched from the sound like she'd been struck.
The vipers reached her, slinking up her legs and penetrating her heart and mind. Within seconds Ed knew everything about her: her real name (which matched the warrant); her birth date; and even her favorite ice cream. He also knew her powers as a witch and psychic were nonexistent.
Visions came to him unbidden, like movie trailers in his mind. In his vision he saw the madam luring clients with false newspaper ads, defrauding some with promises of winning lottery numbers and others with questionable donations to unscrupulous associates. Yes, Madam Korina had been a very busy woman but her nefarious deeds had now come to an end. Ed withdrew the vipers and the woman slumped.
"Helen Winters?" Ed asked already knowing what her answer would be.
The madam's eyes fluttered open. She squinted at him as if trying to see inside his soul. "Yes, that's my name. But who are you and how did you..."
"I'm Special Investigator Edward Justice with the US Paranormal Agency. I have a warrant for your arrest."
"A warrant for what? What crime have I committed?" she sputtered.
"You have a warrant for fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud, among other things. You'll have to come with me," he said.
The madam, who only a moment ago appeared to be in dire need of a hip replacement, suddenly took off running. She sprinted from her chair and raced for the curtain and a doorway beyond. The woman moved with such startling speed, Ed almost lost her behind a locked door. Ed grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her away from the escape route.
"I'm not going back to federal prison!" the woman shouted, clawing at the hand that held her. With a feral snarl, she dipped her head down and bit the flesh on the back of his hand.
An explosion of furious rage filled Ed, quickening his blood. Like hot lava from an erupting volcano, molten anger crept over his senses and poisoned his goodwill. Unbidden, the dark power spilled from within, its lashing tentacles seizing the madam and throwing her against the wall with a harrowing crash. Ed stared in stunned disbelief. He thought he had more control than this. He had to stop this now. Taking a deep breath, he harnessed his mind and forced it to his will, summoning the dark power back into the secret place in his soul. When he finally had control, he rushed to the woman who was already struggling to her feet. She speared him with her venomous gaze.
"Freak!" she spat out and pulled a knife from the elastic waistband of her pants.
Ed froze. The madam was apparently tougher than she looked.
"I know your kind," she growled, coming toward him with the knife out in front of her. "All high and mighty daring to judge me! It took me a moment to recognize you but now I realize who you are. Not many have power like yours." She lifted her free hand and pointed an accusatory finger at him. "You're that warlock they call the Black Prince!"
"I'm not that man anymore," Ed said, keeping a wary eye on the knife. "I protect people now from charlatans like you." He slid his ID card out of his pocket and held it out to her. The madam eyed his identification and he put it away. "I work for the federal government and I've already told you why I'm here. So why don't you put the knife down and come with me nicely?"
"And if I don't?"
"Then you'll force me to use magic to subdue you. And as you've seen, if I have to use magic, you won't like it." He took a step back and gave the madam room to consider her options.
The madam scowled and tossed the knife in a corner. It clattered and came to rest under a golden statue of Buddha. She turned around to allow him to handcuff her.
Ed took out his restraints and twirled them around his index finger. "Do I really need to use these?"
Madam Korina turned around to face him, a tiny mischievous grin playing at the corner of her lips. She shrugged. "No, I guess not."
They stepped outside into the sticky humidity and the woman paused, tilting her face up to the sun. She closed her eyes. Ed gave her a moment to enjoy the heat while he stayed in the shadow of the doorway. He didn't much like the sun, or the heat for that matter.
"I'm ready," the madam said finally heading for the car. Gone was the limp. She walked with the strength and agility of an athlete.
Ed opened the passenger door for her. "What happened to your injured hip?"
Madam Korina tossed her head back and cackled. "Guess you warlocks don't know everything, eh? It's fake. I just use it when I'm looking to generate profits for the store. A bum hip is great for business. People buy more stuff if they think they're helping an injured old lady."
He pushed her door closed and stalked over to the driver's side. "Nice," he muttered under his breath.
Ed arrived at the Bureau of Paranormal Investigation just as the last rays of sun were coloring the sky a brilliant orange. He placed Madam Korina in a holding cell and went to his desk to process the paperwork for her arrest. The minute his screen saver blinked off he noticed an urgent message from his boss, Chief Investigator Warren Lord. The chief wanted to see Ed right away.
Knocking on the partially open door, Ed poked his head in. "You wanted to see me, Chief?"
Warren, the Grand Master of the Coven of Nine and a long-time friend, gestured for Ed to come in. Ed took a seat in front of Warren's desk trying not to fidget with the hem of his jacket. He hated office meetings even when they were just one on one. And the moon, his beautiful mistress, was calling, inviting him to come out and play.
Warren interlaced his fingers over his stomach looking grim. "The Fallen Lady has a new owner," he began. "Her name is Jillian Cross and she's the niece of Archibald Cross, who I'm sure you know by reputation. We've done a thorough background check on Archibald and Jillian seems to be his only heir."
"Lucky girl," Ed said sarcastically. Archibald Cross was a notorious necromancer often sanctioned by the Bureau for casting dangerous spells and summoning demons. By all reports Cross was schooled in many types of magic, especially the black arts. He had traveled all over the world building his knowledge and most in the Bureau knew the necromancer was well on his way to becoming a third tier warlock. Thank God he died before reaching that power level or they'd really have a problem on their hands.
Ed had never met the man but he'd heard the stories. He couldn't count the number of bloodcurdling tales told by other investigators who'd gone to the Cross residence to police the goings-on. The house became so infamous staff just started referring to it as The Fallen Lady and the name stuck.
"Since you're the highest ranking warlock with the exception of myself, I'd like you to conduct the investigation." Warren leaned across the table and handed Ed the key. "That house has a long and dangerous history. You'll really need to be on your toes with this one."
Ed frowned. This was a test. Why else would the Bureau give an ex-black magician like him a seductive case like this? What if he wasn't ready? Ed pushed his doubts to the back of his mind. "What about the new owner, Jillian Cross? Does she know I'm coming?"
"We've placed a heavy duty lock on the front door with a notice informing her we must complete our investigation before anyone can take possession of the house. Our research tells us she's a first tier witch but she doesn't practice. She spends her time doing minor psychic stuff like Tarot reading and automatic writing. But as a first tier she's more than a match for your power, Ed, even if she is untrained. This may be the opportunity she's been waiting for to build up her power and experiment. That house is a black magician's goldmine."
"And what if I find the house is unclean and can't be mended?" Ed asked as he rose from his chair.
"Then we bring the whole damn mess down with a wrecking crew. Do I make myself clear, Ed? I'm counting on you. Do you think you're ready for this?"
"Absolutely," Ed said, pocketing the key. "Thanks, Warren. I'll be in touch."