It was the ninth time.
Detective Ellen Greenberger ran a hand through her hair. She was a tall, lean woman, with a square chin and dark brown eyes capped off by short brown hair that was cut for function, not style. She wore a jacket and jeans with her feet stuck in worn out hiking boots. She was just on the far side of thirty and had only just made detective six months ago and had caught the case from hell.
"I only looked away for just second. My cell phone went off! It was just a second. He was right next to me! I swear to God!" Ellen nodded and made notes and tried to reassure the distraught mother that her son would be found, hale and hearty and whole.
This was too much like the others. In a few hours, she knew, somewhere in the state, or even down in Jersey, the missing child would be found, wandering around naked and bleeding, and ruthlessly sodomized. No one had ever seen the kids being dumped, or who took them to begin with.
A uniform stepped up next to her. "We just finished taking statements, Ma'am. Same as all the others. No one saw anything. Big surprise, huh?"
Ellen closed her book. "Yeah, what a shock." She sighed. "By the book, officer. Take Mrs Jenks home and then round up some other officers. We'll do a knock on doors and maybe this time our ghosts messed up and somebody saw something. They can't have been picking kids at random. It makes no sense."
Hours later, Ellen was ready to eat her badge out of sheer frustration. Again, nobody had seen anything, or at least the ones who didn't slam the door in her face the moment they saw her badge. She had the feeling some of them might have known something, but were too afraid to speak.
She zipped up her coat against the night chill and took a deep breath and began walking back to her car. As she passed an alley, someone spoke.
"You the cop lady looking for whoever's doing those kids?" She spun, one hand dropping to her gun. The speaker was a kid, dressed in gang colors. He couldn't have been older then twenty. Big and muscular. "Easy, cop lady, I aint lookin for no trouble."
She kept one hand on her hip, ready to draw if she had to. "I'm the cop lady. Why?"
"You aint gonna get anything 'round here. Too scared or don't know jack shit an even if they weren't, aint nobody gonna talk to a cop. 'specially no white lady cop."
"I aint talking, Lady, I'm telling you how it is. You want to catch these guys, you go down to McGee's over in the Village, ask for Doc."
"Doctor Strange." With that, the kid faded back into the Alleyway and she heard the sound of running.
The only McGee's in Greenwich was a small irish pub and the bartender was singularly unhelpful. However, for a twenty, one of the regulars, an unwashed man who looked like he'd spent plenty already gave her an address three blocks over.
That address was a small townhouse. It was about three stories tall, with an adobe roof and all the windows were shaded. A small sign on the door identified it at "Stephen Strange; Occult Consultant."
She raised her hand to knock when the door was thrown open. Standing there was a large black man with short hair. He wore sunglasses and black clothing. He glared at her, baring teeth in a snarl and she could have sworn she saw fangs. Then he pushed past her and down the steps to a big black Harley sitting at the curb.
"Can I help you?" said a voice from inside. "Please come in."
Ellen stepped inside, squinting into the gloom. The speaker was an asian man who was either a well worn thirty or a remarkably well-preserved seventy. He was completely hairless, even his eyebrows were gone and he wore loose fitting clothing. The shop's walls were lined with bottles and curios. The back wall was taken up by a small counter and a single doorway beaded with curtains.
"My name is Ellen Greenberger," Ellen said, laying her badge on the counter. "NYPD. I'm primary on a series of child crimes and I need to speak with Mister Strange. Is he in?"
"A moment, please."
The man disappeared through the beaded curtain and then returned a few minutes later. "The Master will see you. This way, please."
The hallway beyond the curtain was even darker then the shop, if that was possible and then the man opened the door into a much larger room.
It was the size of the shop, every inch of wall space devoted to bookshelves. Two candles sat on the low table at the center of the room and seated on a cushion at that table was a man. He was lean, with hair that grayed at the temples and a pencil thin mustache. He was poring over a large and extremely old book and wore a dark blue shirt. His hands were gloved.
"The detective, Master," the man said, bowing.
"Thank you, Wong," the man at the table said, rising to his feet with unnatural grace . "Welcome, Detective. I'm Doctor Strange. Please, sit. He sank back onto the cushion with that same grace. "How can I be of service?"
"I'm assuming you've heard of the kids being kidnapped and sodomized?"
"Yes, tragic. Am I a suspect?"
"No, no. I . . . I was told that if I wished to catch those responsible, I should talk to you."
Strange was silent for a long time as he simply gazed at her. "You believe some sort of supernatural agent is responsible for this?"
"I don't know what to believe," Ellen admitted. "All I know is, we have nine kids snatched out from under their mother's noses, in public, and no one saw a thing. The ninth kid? They found him today at two in the morning up in Potsdam, wandering around the college."
"There are human monsters in the world, Detective, and you yourself just said that you don't know what to believe. If you don't believe, I can't help you. Good day."
"Wait. Please. Please. Look, my job is to follow all leads, build a case, and put these guys behind bars. You're the first lead I've had since this whole thing started, the captain is pushing for a break, the chief is pushing the captain, and I can only imagine how hard the Mayor is pushing the chief. Please, if there is anything you know, tell me. I don't even have to use your name. Just help me. Please."
Again, the silence and then at last Strange sighed. "Very well, I will require all data to date that you've gathered so far. Names and addresses of the victims, statements, interview transcripts, and so on. I must know everything the police know. You can rely on my discretion." Behind Ellen, the door opened. "Wong will show you out. Good day."
After leaving Strange's, Ellen went straight to the precinct house and into the captain's office where she relayed her story.
"He wants what?" Captain Ed Bangs didn't so much sit in his chair as he filled. He was big man with alert eyes and a chin like a bulldozer. "We can't turn over that kind of information to a civilian. It's against regs. Hell, for all we know, he's the one doing it."
"My instincts say no, Sir," Ellen replied. Call it a gut feeling, but he's not responsible."
"So you think we should give him what he wants?"
"I think, Sir," Ellen said, as diplomatically as she could, "that he's the first break we've had in this case. Even if Strange is a loon, someone thinks he can help."
"A gangbanger gives you a name, and you want to hand over classified data."
"Yes, Sir, at this point, we have nothing to lose."
"We have a lot to lose, Greenberger. If this Strange is a fraud and word gets out, you'll lose your shield at the very least and get busted back down to uniform. You want to risk that?"
"If it means a chance of keeping another child safe? Yes, sir."
He let out a grunt. "All right, I'll get the ball rolling, you get me an arrest."
"Thank you, sir."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever."
At her desk, Ellen made a phone call to a friend of hers in the archives and then grabbed some lunch. When she returned, there was a voice mail message from that same friend asking her to come down to the records office ASAP.
Alice Werner was a petite blond with outsized glasses and an overbite. She tended to talk very vast, and reminded Ellen of a hyperactive ferret.
"You have a mystery man, Ellen," Alice said. "A real unknown. Like Batman, but without the ears and everyone knows his real name and he's not buggering some kid in chainmail briefs. Or maybe he is, but that means he's pervert and that would be just gross."
"Alice, what about Strange?"
"Oh! He's a piece of work. Finished Med School before he was old enough to buy booze, comes from old money. I mean, old, old money. Like Civil War old. But I don't think it was from slavery, cause Strange is German. I think it's German. Maybe Romanian, or Transylvanian. Could he be a Vampire? Like Angel, not Dracula, cause Dracula was the Prince of Darkness and really evil and Angel was good unless his soul got taken out, but that was only if he was totally content and he had that whole angst thing going on. Does Strange have angst?"
"I don't believe so," Ellen replied. "So he's rich?"
"Yeah, real old money. Family's loaded. Graduated High school at fourteen, got his M.D. from John Hopkins at 20. Residency at Mayo, top notch, all the way. He was a neurosurgeon, pulled off some ops that no one else would do. Brilliant. Then, out of the blue, he disappears. No one sees or hears from him for ten years. Then last year, he shows up in the Village and buys his townhouse. Cash on the barrelhead, full price up front. It's all his. Land and everything. He owns it all. Do you think he's married? Cause if he's not married that would be great and Mom said I should marry a doctor and I bet he's hot. Is he hot? Cause even if he's not, I bet he's charming and brillant, cause of course he's brillant, he's a doctor."
The two women stared at each other for a moment and then Ellen rose. "Right. Thanks, Alice."
When Ellen got back to her desk, the file was waiting for her. "This had better be worth it," she muttered and left immeditly. When she got to Strange's, Wong said that Strange was meditating, but would call when he had read everything.
Feeling disgruntled, Ellen returned home.