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Jamal James had been skinned and crucified on the home-built bondage rack in his living room.
I knew what to expect before I walked into his one-bedroom dump in Crenshaw. Phone calls had been made, orders had been issued and I was prepared for what I'd find. I told myself the thing on the rack was just a corpse, and the part of me made on the street believed it. The rest of me ran inside and locked the doors.
Anton Shevakov waddled up next to me, rubbing his hands nervously. "Domino, damn, I'm glad you're here. I sit on couch for hour staring at this fucking fillet." A lot of Russian gangsters used their accents to sound hard, but Anton whined enough to dull the effect.
"A fillet is boneless," I said. "Jamal is skinless."
Anton looked from me to the corpse. "Anyway, I'm just glad you're here. It is lonely time for me sitting with him." He sighed and shook his head. "We were going to get the doughnuts."
Anton was fat. He'd come to L.A. from Moscow in 1992 and hadn't stopped eating since. The guys in the outfit called him Heavy Chevy. I wasn't one of the guys, so I called him Anton.
I looked at the body. It was naked, of course —really na-ked—but a piece of paper was covering the groin. I looked closer. It was a magazine.
"Anton, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is stapled to his body."
"Just cover," Anton said, motioning to the coverless magazine on the coffee table. "Jesus, Domino, I'm tired of looking at dick."
"Well, take the damn thing off. I need to see Jamal like you found him."
He moved to the body and paused to consider. Then he shrugged and jerked the magazine cover from the body, returning it to the coffee table. I approached the bondage rack and examined the corpse more closely.
From the top of his head to the bottoms of his feet, Jamal's body was just muscle and bone. Not much fat—he'd been in excellent shape, lean and sculpted like an NBA small forward. Railroad spikes had been driven through his wrists and ankles into the thick wooden beams of the bondage rack. Other than that, there wasn't much to see. No blood. No empty birthday suit lying around.
"You search the apartment?"
"Any juice ? "
"I didn't find the unusual magic, but Domino, it's not strong point." Like most low-level soldiers in the outfit, Anton's strong point was mostly blowing things up. Even in that, his talent was modest. If something went down, he was usually better off with a gun. "What are you going to do?"
"Object reading. See if I can pick up anything from the stiff, the room." I shrugged. "I'll look for residual juice, just to be sure."
"So you think it was hit?"
"Magic is about the only way you could peel a guy like this and not leave any blood. There's an old Mongolian ritual—you hang a guy upside down by his toes and make an incision like this…" I traced a line across the top of one shoulder, around my head and across the top of my other shoulder. "You open the top of him like that, hocus-pocus, and he just slides out of his skin like a greased hand from a glove."
"Jesus," Anton swore and crossed himself. "And the guy is alive when you take his skin?"
"Yeah, depending on how good you are and how hard you want to work at it, you could keep him alive awhile."
Anton looked at the corpse and shuddered. "But why do Jamal like this? To squeeze him?"
"I don't see why. Jamal didn't have much juice to squeeze. The ritual would burn more than you could get out of him."
Jamal had been good at what he did, but he didn't have the kind of magic that would make someone think about stealing it. Still, you didn't see a ritual execution like this very often. When you did, the guy usually got squeezed. If you just needed him dead, a bullet in the ear was a lot less trouble.
"Anyway," I said, "that's what I'm here to find out. First, tell me what happened."
Anton spread his hands helplessly. "I was to go with Jamal to shooting gallery in the Jungle. He needs to check tags, make sure they still put out. I go just in case."
Jamal had been a tagger, a graffiti artist who used his craft to tap into the juice—the magical charge—of various places like buildings, freeway overpasses and buses. Anywhere he could lay down his tags and where there was juice to tap.
The derelict hotel in Baldwin Village where junkies went to shoot up was a well-known juice box. The place reeked of pain, hunger, desperation and despair. It was bad mojo, but it was still mojo. Jamal's tags were the straw in the juice box. Shanar Rashan, the boss of our outfit, had his lips on the straw.
Like every boss of every outfit in the world's major cities, Shanar Rashan was a powerful sorcerer, probably the strongest in Southern California. The LAPD thought he was Turkish. He was actually Sumerian. Rashan had been in L.A. for almost eighty years, building his organization, expanding his territory and his control of the city's juice, though he'd used many names in that time. The investigations into his activities always seemed to hit the wall. The detectives and task forces inevitably lost interest and stuck the file in the back of a drawer before moving on to something else. Rashan had become more an urban legend than a wanted criminal.
When I drifted into the outfit as a teenager, Rashan noticed me. Unofficially adopted me, became my mentor. I already knew a lot of craft. I'd picked up a bit from my mother, a lot more from the street. But I was raw, unpolished. Rashan taught me discipline, control, finesse. When I was twenty-seven years old, he made me his youngest lieutenant. For the past eight years, I'd been his go-to girl.
And that's why I caught the last phone call when the body of an executed gangbanger turned up. One of my gangbangers. One of Rashan's soldiers.
"So I come here," Anton continued, "knock on door, no answer, and so on and so on. I have key and I don't want to stand in heat all day, so I unlock door and go in. I find Jamal hanging with no fucking skin. After I look around, make sure no one is here, I call Rafael."
The outfit didn't really have a rigid chain of command, but it did have a pecking order. It was based on how much juice you had and how close to the boss you were. Rafael Chavez sat a little higher in that pecking order than street-level soldiers like Anton and Jamal, a little lower than me. He'd been two phone calls from Rashan, and Rashan had thrown it to me.
"How do you know it's Jamal?" I asked.
"Who else would it be? " That kind of limited imagination was one reason Anton would always be a low-level soldier. He didn't have the head to be anything more. He didn't have the juice. He never would.
You can't get a good ID on a guy when he's been skinned, but Anton was probably right. My instincts told me it was Jamal hanging there. Most of him anyway. If it wasn't, I'd find out soon enough.
Witch sight involves staring at something long enough for your eyeballs to dry out. It's like looking at one of those optical illusions. You look at the pattern, then you look through it, past it, and pretty soon there's a picture of Jesus.
The only thing supernatural about magic is that most people don't believe in it, don't even notice it's all around them. It's as natural, as much a part of the world, as electricity. A rare few can see magic if they know how to look.
I stood by the door of the apartment and looked. I looked into the room, all the way in, past light, and color, and contrast and shape. I looked behind the visible to the magic that flowed beneath.
I looked first at the bondage rack. I saw the natural juice of the wood, no longer flowing, just pooling in the lumber and slowly evaporating. I saw the juice that soaked into the rack from the pleasure and pain of those who had occupied it.
I didn't think Jamal had really been into the BDSM scene. Most likely he'd been using the rack and its associated activities as a tool. He'd been trying to tap more juice, learn to harness and control it. He'd wanted to get stronger, and he'd been working out. The bondage rack was his magical Bowflex.
There was quite a lot of juice in the rack, but none of it smelled like the murder. If this had been a ritual execution, the wood should have been dripping with the black magic of the spell used to kill Jamal. If I could have gotten a taste of that juice, I could have identified the ritual. Because magic is personal, I might have been able to identify the sorcerer who performed it. Failing that, I might have been able to use the juice to recreate the murder, just as Jamal had experienced it. It wouldn't have been pleasant, but I might have gotten a look at the killer, might have been able to learn something useful from the details of the ritual.
But I didn't get any of that, because the juice just wasn't there. The rack had been cleaned. Scrubbed. On the surface, what I got was mostly the pain and terror of the victim. I also got the brute fact of his death, which stained the wood like mildew on bathroom tile. Deeper still I found only the old juice that had soaked all the way into the wood and the natural juice that had been there since it was a sapling.
I found enough juice in the corpse to confirm that it was Jamal, but I didn't find nearly enough of it. A person's magic clung to the body after death, evaporating at a measured rate until there was nothing left. This was especially true with sorcerers. If you knew how old a sorcerer's corpse was, you could get a pretty accurate idea of how powerful he'd been by how much juice was left in the body. In the old days, graves and tombs were even violated to get at the juice trapped in the moldering corpses of powerful sorcerers.
Jamal hadn't been a powerful sorcerer, but even a civilian's corpse would have more juice than remained in the kid's body. The skinless corpse was like a desiccated husk, sucked almost dry of the magic that had made Jamal a valuable if limited member of our outfit. He had been squeezed.
Whoever had done the ritual was good. It was complex magic, and most sorcerers—guys like Jamal and Anton—didn't have the craft for it. But the really impressive part was the way the killer had scrubbed away the magic after the deed was done. It isn't easy to clean up magic with magic. It would have been simpler just to obscure it, contaminate it—stir in enough random juice that you couldn't get anything useful from it. Instead the murderer had wiped away every magical trace of the ritual spell that killed my guy.
I let my gaze pan around the small living room, and my luck turned. The carpet in front of the bondage rack was stained with black juice. I knelt by the stain and touched it. It was roughly circular, about two feet in diameter, cold to the touch, damp and sticky.
I dug my fingers into the stained carpet and reached out for the juice, tapping it, allowing it to flow into me. I leaned down and tasted it.
The juice began to resolve itself into a pattern in the part of my mind or soul that makes me a sorcerer. The black stain had been left by a small rectangular box. I didn't get any sense of exact dimensions—it just doesn't work that way—but it was about the size of a normal cookie jar, maybe a little smaller. From the taste and texture of the juice, it was probably made of clay or ceramic. It was very old and somewhat crudely formed. I could see symbols, like hieroglyphs, carved into its sides, though I had no sense of their meaning.
Mixed in with the box's juice, I tasted faint notes of living human magic. Most of it was very old, and there was no way I could identify it. Some of that juice was fresher, though. It was Jamal's.
I stood up and caught myself rubbing my hands on my jeans, as if it could somehow rid me of the black juice that had soaked into my skin. I let my gaze slip back to the mundane world.
"You find anything?" Anton asked.
"I'm not sure. The killer cleaned up after himself. It's definitely Jamal, and I think he was squeezed. I might have a line on the murder weapon."
"What do you do next?"
I thought about it a moment and shrugged. "I'm leaving. I can try to contact Jamal, but I'm not going to do it here."
Anton's eyes widened. Even guys who had been around the game a while got a little creeped out by necromancy. "Tell him I'm sorry about it, Domino. Tell him I wish I got here sooner." Anton crossed himself again. "Tell him goodbye."
"Well, I'll try to get Jamal to talk to me. Probably I won't be able to say anything to him at all. If I do, I'll tell him for you."
As touching as Anton's request might have been, I knew his real motivation wasn't just the bonds of friendship. He and Jamal hadn't been that close. He was mostly worried that Jamal would blame him and stick around to haunt his ass.
Anton gestured at the corpse. "What about…?"
"Get rid of it. Clean the place. It's dark and this is Crenshaw. Shouldn't be much trouble."
It wouldn't be real messy, either, given the complete lack of blood. I took one last look at the skinned corpse hanging on the rack, and I was still glad I didn't have to do it.
"And Anton," I added, "put the word out. Tell everyone to stay sharp."
In the underworld, you never find just one skinned and crucified corpse.