Croste Your Heart…

Written by: Joseph D. Stirling (2013)

There was a God awful noise in my head. A ringing that wouldn’t quit, like someone had parked a squad car in my ears and left the siren running. I knew it was just the phone, but I couldn’t figure out why it was so painful this morning.

“Arlo, get the phone,” I mumbled.

Silence. It would have been peaceful if the phone wasn’t on his side. Good Lord, my head was killing me. I flopped over in bed, my whole left side was numb and heavy. Pins and needles. I fumbled the receiver off the cradle.

“Hello? Croste, here.”

“Hey you two. I’ve been ringing all morning.”

I knew that squeaky voice anywhere. It was Betty Lou, she worked the switch board down at the Police Station. Always good for passing us some info on a case the Boys in Blue couldn’t solve. And a case meant a paycheck.

“It’s just me, Betty Lou. Arlo’s passed out, and he left me with the hangover.”

“Splash some cold water around, Alan. There’s a crime scene that’s right up your alley. A real strange one, from I’m hearing.”

I held the phone against my shoulder and tried to push myself up. “What do you mean?”

“You have to go down and see this one. The Detectives are at a loss. They said it was impossible. Get Arlo on his feet and head over to Park Street and West Avenue.”

“Thanks, Betty Lou. You’re a peach, a real doll.”

I hung up the phone and slapped myself. Get up, Arlo.

Jesus, Alan. What’s the deal? Stop hitting ourself…

Betty Lou just called, Arlo. There’s a case. She says it’s a strange one.

Arlo got himself moving. We dressed and washed our face. I double checked the pockets of our trench coat to be sure we had everything. Flask of holy water, the Book, .38 snub-nose revolver, twelve extra bullets, Arlo’s cigars, Zippo lighter, and the Babylonian Lens. I made for the door.

Coffee, Alan. I need some coffee, and don’t forget the keys.

“We’ll get coffee from Flo’s Diner on the way.”

I grabbed the keys and locked the office behind me. It was a miserable drive to the crime scene. It felt warm, though I knew it was just the booze Arlo filled our guts with. I could feel it seeping from our pores.

The Cops had the area taped off, the yellow streamer of plastic flapped in the mid-morning breeze. The empty lot sat between two buildings, neither taller than a second floor. The lot used to be a hardware store til the fire that forced the tear-down. Thankfully they hadn’t removed the body.

Betty Lou was right. This was a strange one. The body was smashed to bits, like it had fallen from a skyscraper. There was nothing that tall around here. The wall looked like the point of impact, about fifteen feet up. The red brick was splattered with blood and a bit of hair. The biggest question was obvious. How the hell did someone fall into the wall of a building with that much force? Gravity shift? Temporal surge?

Maybe it’s another witch, Alan. I hate witches. Remember that Chinese witch we tracked down? That was some real-

“Focus, Arlo.”

“Excuse me?” It was a Cop. Damn, I must’ve said that out loud.

“A. Croste, Occult Detective. I got a call this morning.”

“Gee whiz, you must be a Private Eye, you smell like Dean Martin. Sergeant Berkowitz from Homicide is waiting. Grey suit over there.” He pointed, as if I couldn’t find the one cheap grey suit. I bet he thought he was clever, damn flat-foot.

We ducked under the tape, giving the crowd a good once over. The culprit may be hanging around, getting off on how stumped the Cops were. I took out the Babylonian Lens and gave a quick look through it. The crowd looked clear.

I could smell clove-oil and sage drifting over from the body, a touch of sulfur and animal fat. The Sergeant walked over when he saw me. I could see the chewing tobacco stains on his lapel from here.

Us, Alan. We’re a team here.

Then maybe you should take over the narrative. I’ve got a crime scene to look over. Unless you plan on helping? You know all the occult stuff, what’s with the smell from the body?

“You must be Mr. Croste? Sergeant Detective Karl Berkowitz, Homicide. Call me Berkowitz. The skinny is you handle this kind of thing. We got nothing on this one. Unless there was a historical-type-rock-thrower that snuck in and out without leaving a trace…”

“Catapult.”

“Yeah, that’s the thing.” Berkowitz spit into a cup. “So, what, you need like a crystal ball and a goat or something?”

We feigned a smile and short laugh, no sense making a show over uneducated jabs. Besides, our ego could take the hit. We left Berkowitz and found our way to the body. The soles of the shoes had traces of white dust. It felt like chalk between our fingers. We looked through the Babylon Lens at the impact splatter on the wall. Bright green. There was magic residue here, leftover energy from transportation or portal magic. We looked across the lot at the other building. Bright green rings there too.

“Hey, Berkowitz.” We stood and turned to face him. He was laughing with the other Badges, smiles like someone slipped them all a Mickey. “What’s in these two buildings?”

Berkowitz pointed at the clean brick wall. “Pollinski’s Jewelry here, and those are apartments.”

We tucked the Lens back into our coat and walked across the lot towards the Jeweler’s. We could feel the Police watching us. We rounded the front of the building, ducking under the yellow tape. The sign in the window said the place was closed. We checked our watch, 10:36. The sign said the shop opened at nine in the morning.

We rang the buzzer and waited. Nothing. We banged on the glass door. “Mr. Pollinski?” We called out, still nothing.

We stepped away and waved to Berkowitz. “Hey, Berkowitz, I need to get in here.”

Berkowitz strolled over as if he was humoring us, his smile said he was mocking.

“Why do you need to get into the Jewelry Store? The body’s way over there.” Berkowitz was all puffed up, haughty. Story of our life. As if being a Private Eye wasn’t bad enough in the eyes of the Police, being an Occult Detective was worse.

“We don’t care where the body is now. We care about where it came from and how it got there. The biggest issue is who else is dead. Now, we need to get in here.”

“Calm down, we’ll see what we can do. Take a powder and read a palm or something.” Berkowitz chuckled as he left to join the other officers.

Watch the language, Alan. Too much “we” could get dangerous for us. I don’t want to end up back in that institution. It nearly killed us.

I know, Arlo. I’m sorry, I loose my concentration with these guys. Their jokes, their looks, they think we’re frauds.

We took a cigar from our case and struck the Zippo.

Not we. I don’t smoke, Arlo, that’s all you.

Berkowitz came back with another officer. The other fellow used a slim-jim to pop the lock on the door and open it. We walked in and flipped on the lights. The cases were filled with gold and silver on display. Necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings; nice looking stuff with one small problem. The stones were gone.

We left the Police to photograph and catalog the display cases. They had a Crime Scene Investigator come in to dust for prints, but we knew they wouldn’t find any. We headed into the back room and upstairs to Pollinski’s living space.

At the top of the stairs was the body, the head and most of the chest merged with the wall, but it wasn’t Pollinski. We looked through the Babylonian Lens and found the bright green glow on the wall around the body. Clearly the travel spell was either canceled or botched when they tried to leave. The body outside had hit solid wall instead of stepping into the apartment building. And this guy here, well he got the short straw.

We looked through the rest of the rooms. Pollinski had been strangled in his bed.

Betty Lou was right, Alan. Two dead accomplices, victims of the malicious use of a transport spell. A dead Jeweler. And only the stones themselves are missing.

So our thief graduated to murder. He may just be picky about the jewelry, Arlo. He left a lot of gold and silver downstairs.

It doesn’t make sense, Alan. The metals can be melted down, that makes them damn near untraceable. Gems on the other hand, especially diamonds, are usually cataloged by clarity and carat and all that. Why just take the stones?

“Hey, Croste! You alright up there? You’ve been standing there for a while with this blank look on your face. What do you think is going on here?”

“Not sure yet, Berkowitz. But you’re going need a hammer and chisel to get a body out of the wall up here. I need to talk to some people downtown.”

Alan, dammit where’s the chalk? The body outside had chalk dust on the soles of his shoes. Where’s the chalk? I don’t see even a footprint.

We looked around the hardwood floors. Not a trace of white powder to be found. But wait, we knelt down and checked the shoes of the man in the wall. Bingo, the same white chalk that we found on the body outside.

Bingo nothing, Arlo. You and I still have no clue what that means.

We’re just going to have to look harder at the facts. We also need to see what the forensic lab at the Station can tell us about the powder. Maybe an ID on the bodies. That’s got to be Pollinski strangled up there, but the body in the wall and the body outside; maybe they’ll get something from the prints?

We took another pull from the cigar, God did we need more coffee. We left the jewelry store and pushed through the gawkers outside. The press was here. We blocked the flashes, too damn bright for this hangover.

We ducked under the yellow tape and crossed the vacant lot. We had to check the top floor of the apartment building. Alan insisted on a quick jog up the steps, I wanted no part of that so I kept us walking. We looked down the hallway, it was empty. The residents were no doubt outside watching the fiasco. The floors were hardwood and still no trace of footprints from the chalk dust.

We used the Babylon Lens. Sure enough, bright gree rings at the end of the hall. With the Lens tucked away we walked to the end and gave a knock on the doors of the two apartments on either side of the corridor. No answer. Maybe we’d get lucky and find 2G and 2F in the crowd outside.

Back on the street we walked into the crowd.

“Anybody live in 2G or 2F of this building?” We pointed to the apartments.

What luck, a woman who looked about our age turned and came closer.

“Hi, I’m Connie. Connie Beaumont. I live in 2F.” She seemed like a sweetheart so far. Probably a nurse or something.

“Did you notice anything strange last night, or maybe early this morning?”

“No, I’m sorry. I worked the overnight at the St. Luke’s Hospital. I haven’t even gone home yet, this is so exciting.”

Figures… “You happen to know who lives across the hall in 2G?”

“No one does. It’s been vacant for six month now, since Mr. Carrol passed away. God rest his soul.”

“Thank you, Miss Beaumont. Have a nice day.” We tipped our hat and walked on.

“Am I going to be in the paper?” She called after us.

“I’m not a reporter, ma’am.”

That’s when we saw the guy wearing an apron and white cap.

“Hey, pal? You a cook or something? Where can I get some coffee?”

The guy looked us up and down. “You guys cops?”

“Not anymore, Private Detective. About that coffee?”

“Yeah, sure. Bakery on the corner there.” He pointed, two buildings over from the jeweler’s. “We have pastries too.”

We tipped our hat in thanks and walked the short distance to the corner. The smell of fresh bread and sweets was promising. We entered the small corner shop, a large counter with a door to a back room. A few small tables along the windows. The place was empty. Someone was in the back though, we could hear a loud grinder running. Crunching noises with someone singing, sounded Italian.

We slapped the small bell on the counter- ding-ding. Short moments later an elderly man popped out of the back room. His hands were coated in flour and he wiped them clean on a towel in his belt.

“Yes, welcome.” He was all smiles. “You having bread? Cannoli?”

“Coffee, and a couple of those cannoli.”

The old man cheerfully filled a styrofoam cup with that beautiful black gold and tucked two cannoli into a paper bag. We paid, sipping the hot coffee like it was mana from Heaven.

“What are you making in the back there? That machine is a bit loud.” We’ve never worked in the baking business, curiosity is curiosity.

“We make cold, for butter and milk.”

“Thanks for the coffee, Sir.”

“Gratzi.”

We cut across the street to avoid the reporters and looky-loo’s. We went unnoticed and slid into our car. The cigar stub went out the window. We had some questions about the missing stones. Follow the money, that’s usually the same direction the suspect went. It was time to talk to that guy we know down on 5th Street.

We drove through downtown, as luck would have it we hit every green light. We parked on the street and fed a few nickels into the meter. As we turned the corner into the alley we missed a step and tripped in the pothole, again. It seems no matter how many times we do a thing, we can’t remember it. And damn it all if we didn’t spill half our coffee down the front of our jacket.

Midway down the alley a small sign hung above the door we sought. The 5th and 6th. A little curio shop named for the streets it hid between. Three quick raps on the rusted steel door and a long push on the buzzer was all it took. After a loud click of the locks we pushed the door open and walked in.

The place was poorly lit, smelled like too much incense, and was full of cluttered tables and shelves. This was the kind of place we had to hold our coat to avoid knocking something over we didn’t want to pay for. The guy sat in the back in an old rocker, puffing deeply on a silver and ivory opium pipe.

“I need to ask you a few questions. You still owe me for the stuff I brought you from that witch last month.”

“Then ask.” He was always short with words. Maybe he just didn’t know too many.

“Diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphire, opals. What would someone want with them?”

“Money.” He laughed as if it was the easiest answer to give. It was, but it felt wrong.

“The stones were stolen without touching the display cases or moving the jewelry. The burglars got in with a transportation spell. Left two bodies, one in the wall, and the other- well the other was slammed against the wall.”

Why don’t you let me handle the guy, Alan.

“Not you, Arlo. I’ll talk with Alan. Keep your thoughts shut.” The guy leaned to his side and spit into a shallow bronze dish. “They used a conductor. Three. Way. Jump. White dragon says- uh- a kaleidoscope.”

“Great,like that makes any sense. You need to lay off the poppies, my friend.”

Let’s head back to the Station, Alan. Maybe Forensics has something we can sneak a look at. We’re not getting anything here.

“You are my sunshine… My only sunshine… You make me happy… When skies are grey…”

And now the guy is singing.

We left the small shop, glad to breath air not so heavy with opiates and sandalwood. We jumped back into our old Buick and hung a louie, heading back to the Police Station. As luck would have it, we hit every red light on the way.

Our entrance into the 12th Precinct was met with stares and mumbles. We could feel the same startling shock ourselves. It had been nearly eight years since we set foot in here, but those were different times. We tipped our hat to Betty Lou as we passed the switchboard heading back towards the Forensic Department. We just hoped Walt Sinclaire had something more to go.

We could hear voices as we approached the door. The conversation set our ears ringing. It was Sinclaire and Berkowitz.

“The man is a joke, Sinclaire. He’s washed up, not even fit to be a Private Dick.”

“C’mon, Berkowitz. Cut him some slack. After what happened to his wife…”

“Jesus, how can that be called a cold case? He’s probably the one who done it.”

“Berkowitz, that’s uncalled for. What happened left him a shattered shell of a man. He was a great Detective once. Sergeant of Homicide, you’ve got his old job. He was the best.”

“How long was he in that Hospital?”

Let me hit him, Alan. That stooge is rubbing me the wrong way.

Cool it, Arlo. We’re just here to see what Sinclaire can give us. Berkowitz is inconsequential.

We cleared our throat as we stepped around the corner into the lab. Berkowitz avoided our gaze and checked his watch. He pretended he had somewhere to be and left without a word. Sinclaire stepped forward and shook our hand.

“I hope you didn’t hear too much of that.” He looked down at his shoes. “What’s the scoop, Ace?”

“I’m working this double homicide and burglary, Walt. You get anything from the scene? Prints? Anything about the chalk dust?”

“Well, one of the bodies was too ruined to get anything for identification. The other guy, they have a crew down there digging him out of the mortar. They’ll take fingerprints as soon as they get a hand free.” Walt moved around a table in the room and took up a clipboard. “Now that powder isn’t chalk at all. It’s interesting. A mixture of powdered sugar, regular old flour, and finely ground human bone. Can you believe that? I can’t figure what substance was on their shoes that kept it from transferring to whatever they stepped on though.”

“That is quiet interesting.” Arlo, take out the book. You need to ask it about this stuff. It doesn’t listen to me.

We took out Rasputin’s Journal and held it out.

“Did you hear the combination of ingredients? What kind of hocus pocus are we looking at here?”

We opened the cover and watched ink bleed across the blank pages. Words came into view. They read: Just like flour keeps bread from sticking to a pan. This formulae keeps objects from sticking to the void for passage.

“Jesus, Alan. The guy on 5th said a conductor. Why didn’t we see it?”

“Ease off the sauce, Arlo. You have our head too clouded.”

We were suddenly aware of Walt Sinclaire fidgeting nervously across the table. Damn, Alan, I’m sorry for talking out loud. I wasn’t thinking.

“I was just thinking outloud, Walt.” We looked down at Rasputin’s Journal and snapped it shut. “Had to double check some notes. Thanks for the info, Walt.”

We turned and left. Our step quicker than normal. We don’t know how much of the book he saw, but it was too much by any standard. We were slipping, we needed to keep a better handle on things.

Arlo, I’ve got a hunch. The loud grinder at the bakery. It’s real close to the crime scene.

Yeah, and they have plenty of flour and powder sugar, Alan. Think that old Italian gent is a wizard? Damn, Alan! If he’s a wizard and empowers those crushed jewels with arcane energy…

Then this “kaleidoscope” will be a lock pick to open a door that shouldn’t open! Arlo, we have to get back to that bakery before this fool opens a portal.

You really think he’s trying to make a portal, Alan? We’ve been on this road before…

I know the risk, Arlo. I’m worried too. But the Cops can’t do anything about this. It’s you and me.

We waved to Betty Lou as we made our way back outside. Wizards, warlocks, witches… We had no love for any of them. We climbed into the car and Alan drove us to the scene of the crime. The reporters and pedestrians would be gone by now, that makes our job easier. We parked across the street and fed a few nickels into the meter.

The sun was drooping and most folks were probably eating supper. The streets had cleared. The street-lamps would be coming on soon, we had move quick. We jogged across the road. The jewelry store was missing a section of wall from the second floor. The ground in the vacant lot was wet, no trace of blood or bone; the clean-up crew had done a good job.

We stopped short of the bakery, peeking through the windows. The shop was closed. But the thin line of light from beneath the door behind the counter told us someone was still there. The front door was locked and breaking the glass wasn’t an option. We patted our coat pockets down. No lock-picks. We needed another way in. How could you forget the picks, Alan?

I was a little stressed dealing the hangover you gave me. It was hard enough to drive this morning, Arlo. Take some responsibility for a change. I’m going around back to the alley. There may be an open or unlocked window we can reach from the fire escape.

Wait, wait, wait. I know I have some rosemary oil in here. We dug into a small pocket inside the coat. Luck was again in our corner. Okay, Alan. Open your revolver- the part that spins with the bullets.

The cylinder, Arlo. It’s called a cylinder.

That’s the part. A drop of this oil on each slug is going to save our lives. Well, only if you have to shoot him. Trust me, Alan.

Fine.

We placed a single drop on each bullet and made our way around to the fire escape in the alley. The upstairs lights were dark and a single window sat open, curtains moving with the evening breeze. We took to the ladder like a spider.

Eww, no. Not spiders, Arlo. Rat, or a monkey, anything but spiders. Nasty little things.

We climbed the ladder, purposeful, quiet. The room was empty. Flower print couch and matching chair, covered in plastic, with doilies on the arms. Two lamps with beadwork shades sat like gargoyles at either end of the couch. We could hear the grinder running downstairs.

Alan pulled the .38 snub-nose as we made our way into the hallway. We slowly descended the stairs, pausing when the old wood creaked. When it seemed to have gone unnoticed, we continued. The stairs led into a short hallway that ended with three doors. One clearly led to the alley out back, another may have been a restroom or closet. The last had to have been the baking room, this was where the sound of the machine was coming from.

We leaned against the door listening. Someone was there, we could hear them moving. It was now or never. I yanked the door open and Alan took aim. The old man whirled, eyes wide, and dropped the eggs he was holding. Shaking, he put his hands in the air.

“No money. My son, he take to bank.” The old man’s voice was quivering.

The room was what you’d expect of a bakery. Thick wooden table tops covered in flour with large mixing bowls on shelves underneath. Big bins of flour and sugar. And in the corner, a beast of chipped white paint, sat an old refrigerator with the loudest cooling unit we’ve ever heard. No grinder to be found.

“I think you know I’m not here for your money. Drop the act. Where are the gemstones? Why’d you murder your partners?”

“I don’t know gemstones. I make bread, make pastry.” The old man was good, we almost believed him.

There were some dark powders in dishes on the table behind him, an open book that looked old and worn. “Step away from the grimoire. What’s the spell you’re working?”

“Spell? No spell, is cinnamon roll. Look, look.” The old man backed from the table, pointing. “Is cookbook, recipe. See?”

Alan kept the gun trained on him as we stepped closer. Shit, Alan. It’s a cookbook! What the hell is going on here? We looked back at the old man. We had another question but stopped when the front door opened. We eyed the door to the front room and waited.

The kid pushed through the door and froze staring at the gun. The same kid from the street earlier in the day that sent us to the bakery for coffee.

“You can’t be here. This is private property and you two aren’t cops.” The kid was smug.

“Private Detective. I’ve got every right to be here. It wasn’t your father, so it has to be you. All the clues come back here for the heist and the murders.”

“You can’t prove anything. Look at how those two died. You guys are just a couple of washed up drunks. I can smell the liquor from here.”

He moved his hands towards his pockets. “Keep the hands where we can see them!”

The old man was in shock, he looked bad. His face was pale and beading with sweat. This was a bad spot. How could we have missed this. The kid could obviously see both auras and knew there was two of us. He called it in the street, why didn’t we catch it, Alan?

“The stones are gone. Sold. You have nothing.” The kid laughed.

But we did have something the Police would like to see. The powder mixture he used. We could see the large mortar and pestle on a shelf below one of the tables. It was stone, we were willing to bet our jobs that fragments of bone were still embedded in the porous walls.

“We have enough. You’re pretty sloppy for a mage, kid. Your conduction material is fairly unique. It’s not the flour or powdered sugar that gets you arrested. But the human bone? That one ties you to the crime. We bet it’s still clinging to your shoes and a few other places.” We looked over to the old man. “Call the Police. Now.”

The kid glanced at his shoes and took a side look at the mortar and pestle. We got him. The old man dialed 9-1-1 from a phone in the corner of the shop. The kid looked up at us, a glint in his eye.

He began to wiggle his fingers. Mixing bowls and spoons trembled. We had no love for wizards, so Alan shot him. The bullet hit him square through the shoulder and dropped him. The kid screamed.

“That’s rosemary on that bullet, kid. I bet that hurts like hell. You do know what that does to a body that’s fused with arcane energy I trust. You’ll never work magic again, that’s a promise.”

Berkowitz and a few Uniforms came in after a few minutes and hauled the kid out. Paramedics took him to the hospital with the Cops. We explained the connection between the kid and the crimes to Berkowitz, leaving out the transportation magic. We played that off like we had no idea. Berkowitz wasn’t the type of Cop to understand or even believe that part. A forensic team came through and gathered the evidence we knew about.

The gemstones were another matter. The gate key the Guy on 5th spoke of, the kaleidoscope, was still in the wind. Maybe the Cops could get a lead on the missing stones. We only hoped they were out of our city. Still, we’d make some calls, reach out to others that worked to keep the supernatural out of the view of the natural.

It had been a long day, we were tired. We climbed back into the car and noticed the cannoli we hadn’t eaten from earlier. We opened the bag and took a bite. Delicious.

END

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