Chapter 2: Shoes and cigarettes

“As powerful as Her Royal Highness may be, she can’t be everywhere at once and she won’t concern herself with the little things. Every dictator has their lapdogs, and putting them in an official uniform don’t make them any less detestable. The people might think the police are there for our protection, but those of us on the wrong side of them know better.”

All that was left was a pair of shoes, but that was more than usually survived these things. Ingham crouched down and picked up the left one, turning it around in his gloved hands.

“What do we have?” his partner, Sergeant Jill Wilson, asked. She sounded bored, not bothering to lower herself for a closer look.

“If you can’t recognise a shoe when you see one,” Ingham grinned, standing up to join his partner, “you’re worse at your job than I thought.”

“I know what we have, Nick,” Wilson said. “Just getting the ball rolling so we can hand it over to MagRes.”

Ingham nodded, reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out a transparent plastic bag. He dropped the shoes inside and held them up for his partner to see, removing a quill wrapped up in a scroll from his other pocket. He chucked the two items into the air and they hung there, the scroll unrolling itself and the quill swooping into position, ready to transcribe.

“Two shoes, white, presumably…” Ingham began, but Wilson interrupted with a cough.

“Think that’s a training shoe,” she said. “Or, as I believe my neighbour’s kids call them, ‘runners’.”

“Runners?” Ingham turned to his colleague, eyebrow raised. “Look at you, knowing all the slang.”

“I’m down with the kids,” Wilson said, allowing a grin to surface on her face.

“Two training shoes, and… Oi, scratch all that and start over,” he said. The scroll rolled itself up sheepishly and when it presented itself again, the ‘runners’ conversation had been erased. Ingham began again.

“Two training shoes, white, presumably male by the size of it. Slight scorchmarks all over, along with traces of dried blood – recommend immediate DNA check – and small lacerations throughout, presumably from exploding bone fragments. Soles missing – no, fused to the pavement at the scene of death. No other remarkable features.”

Ingham walked over to a collection of people in white coats, Wilson and the floating scroll following close behind. When the men noticed him coming, Ingham threw the bag of trainers over to them. Several lurched forward to catch it, the one that did so glaring up at Ingham. The Sheriff raised his hands.

“Just trying to get out of your way faster, folks,” he said, turning back to where they had found the shoes.

“Okay, what else do we have?” he asked, more to himself than to Wilson or the quill. “Soles of the training shoes fused to the pavement. Suggests incredible heat. Fragments of bone and scraps of material – looks like some sort of tracksuit – scattered around the scene of death. Little organic matter around, presumably burned up during the incident, as is common with these cases. Cause of death?”

He turned to Wilson, whose eyes remained locked on the foot-sized smear of melted plastic on the pavement in front of them. “SponCom?” the woman replied.

“Concur,” Ingham said, turning to the scroll. “Spontaneous Combustion. Cause uncertain – but safe to speculate counterfeit magic abuse. Time of death – I reckon, about one in the morning. Maybe half past. MagRes to ascertain. End of report.”

The scroll and quill wrapped themselves up again and fell neatly into his waiting hand. He stuffed them back into his pocket, and groped around for something else. Wilson stepped over to him.

“Another BMS?” she asked.

“Has to be,” Ingham replied, not diverting his attention from the search through his pockets.

Spontaneous combustion was one of the more unusual side effects of black market spells, although it was becoming remarkably common. Probably more spell-dealers scrimping on the ingredients, Ingham thought, seeing if they can cut costs. The real stuff was expensive and time-consuming to produce, and had to be done so under extremely strict, almost pharmaceutical conditions. Few spell-dealers had the time, resource or the patience to manufacture magic correctly, hence Ingham’s visits to scenes like this.

Nine years ago, black market spells were much rarer as legitimate magic had been widely available for decades. But when the terrorist Merlin had murdered the King with mysterious enchantments, the Queen had stamped down on the industry. Initially, there had been an all-out ban, but multiple companies within the city relied on magic as part of their business – as did the police, who used key spells as part of their investigations. The Queen had relented, imposing strict regulations on magic, to the point where only the rich could afford it. At first, the people reluctantly accepted this, but over the course of the next year, illegal spells had emerged on the black market. Soon, the problem became so widespread, the Sheriff’s team was founded: the Dust And Counterfeit Magic Enforcement Division.

The Sheriff found what he was looking for: a small vial filled with a thick orange substance. He pulled out the cork, took the most frugal of swigs and dropped the vial back into his coat before retrieving the cigarette tucked behind his ear. He snapped his fingers a few times, until a brilliant orange flame engulfed his upturned thumb. He used it to light the cigarette and then waved his hand to extinguish the fire. He took a long drag and exhaled in relief.

“Thought you were giving up,” Wilson smirked.

“I’ve been a 20-a-day man since I was 16,” Ingham said. “Not the sort of thing you give up cold turkey.”

“I meant the other stuff.”

Ingham took another drag, trying not to meet Wilson’s gaze. “I’m working on it.”

“You’ve been saying that for months.”

“Look, Lucy’s helping me wean myself off the stuff slowly,” he said, slightly ashamed at the level of defensiveness in his voice. “I’ve only got a little FireStarter left and then I’m done for the month. And it’s legit stuff – Lucy buys it herself.”

“Fine,” Wilson said. “Just don’t want to find you scattered across the pavement, that’s all.”

Ingham fixed her with a long, determined stare. “You know me better than that.”

The two officers wandered away from the remains, ignoring the white coats as they scurried to pick up fragments of bone, cloth, shoe and anything else that might help with their work. Ingham and Wilson walked over to the black Bear, the four-wheel drive SUV that had brought them there, and leaned against it, watching the MagRes team at work.

“So who do you think it is?” Wilson asked.

“I dunno,” Ingham said, continuing his cigarette. “Some kid spending all his pocket money on spells – guessing his parents are fairly well off by the looks of those trainers. Pretty expensive, right?”

“Yeah,” Wilson sighed. “My neighbour’s kid wants a pair of those for his birthday. What do you suppose the kid was doing down here? Centacre isn’t the sort of neighbourhood a rich boy would be socialising in.”

Ingham looked around them. Rows of rundown garages bathed in the light of dawn, with two tower blocks either side of the scene. None of the furniture, clothes or other items left out on the balconies of small, box-like flats looked particularly valuable, and any cars parked around here were old and rusty.

“Probably meeting a dealer,” Ingham reasoned. “I’ll bet there’s several living in either of those towers.”

Wilson snorted. “Where do you want to start, Nick? You want to go knocking door to door, hoping someone confesses. We’d never get a warrant to search the lot based on this one incident.”

Ingham sighed.

“What are you worried about?” Wilson asked. “We’ll catch this kid’s dealer soon enough. They’re as thick as trolls, this lot – they’ll slip up.”

“Maybe,” Ingham said, a croak of concern hindering his words. “I just worry that – we keep busting these guys, and yet more spring up. There’s just too many of them. Magic’s hard to come by, so there’s always going to be demand for BMS. But who’s supplying that demand? I mean, where are they even getting their stock? How can they manufacture this much?”

Wilson just shrugged.

The Sheriff opened the door to the Bear and climbed into the driver’s seat. Wilson walked around the other side and jumped into the passenger seat. With them both strapped in, Ingham wound down the window, chucked out what was left of his cigarette and drove deeper into the estate.

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