Dr. Occult in
"Cursing the Pharaoh, pt. 1 (of 2)"
by Alan Strauss
I was reading the Sunday edition of the Daily Arcane when she walked through my office door. The first thing I noticed were her legs. Perfect legs-long and tanned like cocoa, no stockings. She wore a navy blue skirt, white blouse, and a blue hat with a spider web veil. Her dark hair hung down her back in a loose braid.
I stared probably just a second too long and expected Rose to say something snide. My thoughts were quiet though. That much was good.
"You," the woman said, "are Dr. Occult."
That didn't sound much like a question but I nodded. "May I help you?"
"I sincerely hope so."
I gestured to the chair in front of my desk. A few years ago that same desk would have been covered in stacks of papers, old food cartons, and a pleasant array of exotic junk. These days it was as neat as an old lady's linen closet. There was even a blue doily under the phone. All Rose's doing.
The woman sat down and crossed her legs, offering a brief glance of perfect thigh that caused my brain to slip gears. I almost knocked my coffee into my lap as I tried to set the newspaper aside. Way too early for this, I reflected.
She politely ignored my faux pas and noted, "The Daily Arcane? I didn't know they still delivered print copies. We get ours online now."
"Print's better at wiping up stains," I joked, dabbing on the coffee spots I'd left. "Besides, we don't have a computer. I guess I'm old-fashioned."
She smiled. Her lips were dark, almost burgundy, red. "That is a quality I like in a man."
It was tempting to say something stupid then, but luckily enough of my brain had fallen back into place to keep me from it. Instead, I replied in my most professional tone, "So how is it I can help you, Miss…"
"Taia," she said. "It's about my husband, Ibis."
"Ibis. Haven't I heard that name before?"
She shrugged. "Possibly. We formerly did some detective work ourselves."
"Yeah, I thought so. So what do you need a guy like me for?"
"As I said," Taia answered with a sigh, "it's my husband. I think he may be having an affair."
I frowned. "An affair? That doesn't seem likely."
"Oh, and why is that?"
"A guy would have to be crazy to cheat on a woman like you."
Okay. So I went and said something stupid after all. Like I said, it was too early in the morning, and that skirt had no business doing what it was doing to me. This job isn't as easy as people think.
The corner of Taia lip quirked upwards in a smirk. "I assure you, my husband may be many undesirable things, but crazy isn't one of them."
"Alright. So tell me about it then."
Her smirk faded. "There's not much to tell. Only that for the last month he has been sneaking out of our apartment at very late hours. I have confronted him on this but he denies it. He will not tell me where he is going or where he has been."
"Won't tell you, or won't-"
"Tell me the truth, I should say. He makes up excuses, of course - covens, secret society meetings, sorcery seminars, and so forth. Not one of them stands up to any real scrutiny."
"I'm surprised you haven't tried following him."
"I have," she said, "but to no avail. He knows my magics too well. I cannot track him and he has not once failed to shake my pursuit. It is quite frustrating, doctor."
She didn't sound all that upset really. This was no weeping bride or frustrated lover. She seemed annoyed mostly, especially when she talked about him giving her the slip, as though it hurt her pride.
"Well," I said, "you could always just divorce the bum."
"We have been married for over four thousand years."
I probably gasped or winced or something like that, because she smiled bitterly at me.
"Yes. We met in Egypt. I was a Princess of Thebes and he was the Pharaoh's son. We studied the dark arts together." She made a mocking sound in the back of her throat. "It was very romantic at the time, I suppose."
"Sounds like a beautiful honeymoon, alright."
"So," she said, "given that, I feel as though some proof would be appropriate before taking action, don't you?"
I thought about it. This wasn't much to go on and I hated domestic cases. I had thought the names Ibis and Taia sounded familiar, and her little story jarred my memory. These two had been heavy hitters in their day, which was about sixty years ago. Nick and Nora Charles by way of The Mummy.
Four thousand years and change, I reflected, studying her face. She had sharp cheekbones, a small chin, good nose, and crystal blue eyes. Didn't look a day over thirty. If I was a pharaoh's son she definitely would have been my type.
So, naturally, I said something stupid again. I said, "Don't worry, Taia. I'll find out where he's going."
She reached across the desk and placed a slim hand on top of mine. It was warm and so was her voice.
"Thank you, doctor. I put my complete faith in you."
Already I found myself hoping the prick was guilty. I was going to nail him to the wall.
I took down a few pertinent details from Taia and we said our goodbyes. After she'd left, I rummaged through my drawer, pulled out my pipe, and propped my feet up on the desk as I lit it.
I don't trust her.
At the sound of Rose's voice, I nearly rolled out of my chair. As it was, I had to swipe tobacco shavings off my tie where they'd spilled out.
"Christ," I said, "you're awake then?"
Of course, dear.
Her voice echoed through my head with the same frustratingly familiar cross of patience and bemusement she'd used in life. Mostly when mad.
"So you were listening in the whole time?"
If you mean, did I see you going gaga over a trollop in a short skirt, then the answer is yes.
"Don't know what you're talking about," I grumbled, biting down on my pipe, not really enjoying it now.
Still it gave me grim satisfaction to know she hated the smell of it. I took a big whiff. "Maybe you should keep your nose out of my business."
I would be more than happy to Richard, she said tartly, if you know of some way to remove it from our body.
Of course I didn't. Nobody did. Our clients included some of the greatest minds in sorcery and enchantment but not a damn one of them could solve our puzzle. We shared the same physical body-two minds, one host. It hadn't always been that way, but it sure as hell seemed like it. Once we'd just been partners, lovers even, and then a case went sour and now this.
I may have hinted at this before but occult detection isn't the greatest job around. The pay, for one, stinks. And so does the company for that matter. At least, it has for the last ten years or so.
So what are we planning to do?
"I don't know what you're planning," I snipped, "but I've got a case to solve. For starters, I'm going to stakeout Ibis's house."
Are you sure? You're not very good at stakeouts, Richard. Remember the last time-
I gritted my teeth and purposely stubbed my toe on the filing cabinet to shut her up. Pain could sometimes overpower her voice.
"Now, if I can just find where you hid my camera…"
That night I found myself in Fawcett City. The address Taia had given me belonged to a large split-level condo on Binder Blvd. It was a nice looking place - well kept lawn, clean pool, and a new Toyota out front.
I guess it wasn't what I expected. Given their back story, I was anticipating a gothic mansion or maybe a pyramid or something. Not this.
"Pretty modern looking," I thought.
Well, Rose replied, not everyone is as determinedly old-fashioned as you, Richard.
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
It means exactly what it sounds like. Take how you're dressed for example.
I glanced down at my outfit reflexively. Dress shoes, slacks, trench coat and tie, with matching fedora.
Nice, right? I thought so anyhow. "What's wrong with this? This is how private investigators are supposed to dress, Rose."
Maybe sixty years ago. And even then the idea was to blend in. You stick out like a sore thumb.
I frowned. In the middle of a stakeout and here I was arguing about my wardrobe. My life in a nutshell lately. "Would you prefer jeans and a T-shirt? Maybe a backwards baseball cap?"
Possibly. At least they'd serve the purpose better.
I'm sure I had something real clever to say to that, but there was movement over at the condo. A man had stepped out of the front door and was heading towards the sidewalk. He was tall, thin but well-built, with caramel toned skin. He was wearing a blue and gray track suit with tennis shoes, and stopped a moment at the curb to stretch his legs.
Again, not what I expected. I might not have recognized him as a four thousand year old Egyptian prince at all, if not for the swami hat he was wearing. Finally, he started off at a jog and I took to tailing him, casting a few simple spells to keep me from sight.
His course took us around the block and up through Beck Park. If you've ever been to Fawcett - and I have a funny feeling you haven't - you'd peg it for a nice quiet city, on the order of a Metropolis or Central City but smaller, without all the post-industrial sprawl. It gives off an almost turn of the century vibe with its brick streets, striped barber poles, and Art Deco street lamps. I don't often have the opportunity to get out this way but I find it fits me well.
What didn't fit me was trailing Ibis up and down its empty sidewalks. I started to get the distinct feeling we weren't headed anywhere. That he really was just out jogging. And I personally hate jogging, as a matter of style mainly, but especially when dressed in a trench coat and tie.
I didn't give Rose the satisfaction of hearing me complain though.
I was ready to call it a night as Ibis crossed the street, leaving me stuck at the intersection. I watched impatiently as he continued up the block - me trying to think of a good spell for making traffic lights change - when he slipped deftly into an open alleyway. I cursed under my breath and leapt into the road, dodging cars in my race to catch up to him.
By the time I reached the alleyway it was empty. There was only one way in though, and I was standing in it. The other way was blocked by a tall chain link fence, which I doubt Ibis could have scaled before I'd showed up. I checked it for signs of magical tampering but got nothing.
Next I dug out of the Sign of Seven and did the same for the whole alleyway. The Sign's this smooth clay disc of mine, roughly the size of a shot put, with the emblem of an hourglass on its back. It was a parting gift from the Cult of Seven, and helps protect me from spells, enchantments, curses, and the like, while giving a little extra whammy to my own castings.
I'd explain how it works in more detail but you wouldn't understand. No offense. I'm not sure how much I understand it myself. Occult detection is like that sometimes. Suffice to say, I trust it, and so when the Sign failed to pick up any trace of magical energies, I was floored.
Ibis had to leave this alleyway somehow. He didn't slip back out the way he entered as I would have seen him, and there was no way he got past that fence in the handful of seconds it took me to get here. Or was Ibis so skilled he could actually hide spells from the Sign?
Why don't you check the dumpster before jumping to conclusions?
I smirked. "You think he's hiding in a dumpster?"
Leave no stone unturned, Richard. Where did you say you learned the art of detection again?
"The Clouseau School of Investigation."
A cultural reference only fifty years old. Very good. That's twenty fresher than usual, dear.
I walked over to the dumpster and, standing on tiptoes, pried up the rusty lid. Inside I found several black plastic garbage bags and a thick swarm of flies. A few of the later started buzzing irritably around my head, just to let me know what they thought of my barging in on dinner like that. "Happy?" I said.
I let the lid drop and it came down with a sharp bang. Leaping back faster than I should have, my shoe slipped on something wet, and suddenly I found myself diving face first into the stack of garbage cans and bins next to the dumpster. It wasn't my finest hour, all considered.
"What now? Spied a port-a-potty you want me to scour next or…?"
Then I saw what she meant. I quickly kicked aside the remaining bins and found myself gazing down at a covered manhole. So there was nothing magic to Ibis's disappearing acts after all. Crafty bastard.
I'm not going to relate my time tromping through the sewers to you. I have a pretty handy bag of adjectives to describe the sensation of breathing waste water for two hours straight, but I'm guessing you wouldn't appreciate them. Suffice to say, it was one of those things you have to experience to get the true flavor of.
The good news is that I was able to follow Ibis without much trouble. Even though he'd gotten a head start on me, I don't think the prince was aware anyone was tailing him. These were just the usual precautions he took to deter his wife's pursuit. Once in the sewers, he slowed down and I could see the light cast by his wand from a good distance away.
I followed him for several, long damp minutes, how far exactly I'm not sure, finally emerging in another back alley. From there we walked an additional block to a large gray brick building called the Parker Hotel, me all the while trying to ignore the squishy sound my wet socks were making in my shoes. I waited outside while Ibis checked in and then tacked on another fifteen minutes before I went inside myself. A pimply clerk in a red vest greeted me from behind the desk.
"What room's the swami hat in, kid?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but we can't give out information about our guests."
I showed him the Sign and watched his face go slack as I repeated the ancient words of power once used to manipulate entire armies into laying down their swords. I just wanted a room number myself. And maybe a glance at the hotel's floor plans.
Moments later, back outside and on my way up the creaky fire escape, Rose started in.
I don't like this kind of creeping around, Richard. I find it very distasteful. It seems almost…voyeuristic.
"That's the job. Taia wants proof her husband is cheating on her. So we need pictures."
I still think you enjoy it too much.
That really kind of depended on what they were doing when I got there.
Have you ever considered going into another line of work? I mean, what's the point of living for centuries if we're going to spend all our time sneaking down alleyways and staking out -
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Rose, I'm trying to work here!"
We'd reached the fifth floor and I slipped the camera out from under my coat, double-checking the lens. Privately, I considered myself something of an artist when it came to this part. The pictures I snapped were always beauts. No one could capture their targets in more compromising poses than me at my best. There was never any room for doubt once the client saw them.
For some reason, Rose couldn't appreciate the delicacy that went into that kind of precision though.
I cleared the last rung then crouched down, approaching the window on cat's paws. The curtains were open but the lights inside were dimmed. Within, I could just make out the usual accoutrements of a posh hotel room. Couch, coffee table, gift basket of soaps, a naked woman bound and withering within a crude circle of flickering red candles.
This last one sort of held my attention.
That doesn't look good, Richard…
I watched as a man - Ibis, I realized, stripped to his shorts, his oiled body covered in strange runes - entered from the other room, carrying a bowl of incense. He spoke some words, sprinkling it on the woman with his long bony fingers, before picking up an enormous crescent dagger from the table and raising it overhead.
I hated to admit it but I suddenly found myself agreeing with Rose.
I've got a bad reputation for doing senselessly heroic things, I realize. I have no idea how it got started and don't normally appreciate such slander. The thing is, you do a few seemingly nice things in this crummy world - disband a Satanic Cult, say, or slay a Wendigo or two - and people get the wrong idea. Suddenly, fruit loops like Dr. Fate or the Phantom Stranger start showing up in your living room on weekends, inviting you along for every little Mom and Pop magical crisis that crops up. They can be real insistent guys too. As if it's this great privilege to save the world or something.
Let me tell you though. In case it isn't clear at this point, magic people are a weird bunch. Personally I can't stand them. If it wasn't for my line of work, I wouldn't have a thing to do with the whole damn lot.
So despite what you may have heard, hanging out with batty archmages and sticking my neck on the line needlessly are not my favorite pastimes in the world. On occasion though, a situation just calls for you do something outrageously stupid. Demands it even.
Like this one.
Richard I really don't think…
I pulled down the brim of my hat, covered my face with the sleeve of my coat, and took a bounding leap forward. It carried me through the glass window and straight into the hotel room. The plan was to hit the floor rolling, then leap up to knock the dagger from Ibis's hand like a bonafied movie action hero.
Instead my shoe hooked itself on the window seal and I struck my head against the leg of the dining table.
…Richard…this really isn't the time to play around…I'm serious Richard…RICHARD…GET UP!
With Rose's shouts ringing through my brain, I slowly opened my eyes. My head was now pounding to its own unique rhythm while the room spun as if on a turntable. Suddenly, I saw Ibis standing directly above me. His chest heaved up and down like a bellow, the oil on his lean arms glistening in the candle light. He was in pretty good shape for a four thousand year old, I thought to myself. Then I saw the knife, twinkling overhead and clasped in both his hands, as Ibis's eyes rolled back in their sockets.
Yeah. Occult detection. It's the worst.