Coven of Dolls

When they revealed themselves to the world, they changed everything. Creatures of legend that were thought to be little more than myth and superstition came out of hiding to found a new nation for their kind and those who would be willing to live with them. The Republic of Argyre, founded on an artificial island they built in secret over half a century, would act as a safe harbor for the creatures now calling themselves “Alters”. But it wasn’t enough to just construct this haven, they needed to ensure the rest of the world would accept their kind as well. Realizing that not every Alter could reach their island, Argyre established the Alter Control Task Force – an international organization meant to act as police in Alter situations. These stories follow the ACTF and the Agents of Argyre.

Following the events of Shards of Glass and A Patchwork Soul, the Agent of Argyre series now continues in Coven of Dolls – a tale of murder, mystery, and harmful secrets.

Coven of Dolls finds Agent Nathaniel Leone more seasoned and a bit tenderized. He’s dealt with unusual events and more unusual people. But, despite this experience, he’s not quite prepared for what’s coming when a string of murders is carried out by people who have no memories of the crimes they committed.

Breaking the peace and quiet of a lazy summer day, Nate finds one of these murders on his very doorstep in this excerpt from…

None of us expected the crack of a gunshot blasting through the neighborhood like a thunderclap.

Everyone around us moved on instinct, bolting away from the doors and the windows. Trey, my friend behind the counter, yelled to the crowd to stay calm as I bolted to my feet and everyone else dropped to the floor. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dulaf’s figure lunge over Amelia and pull her in as close as possible, taking the little girl beneath the table before I could circle to the exit.

My hand was already on the grip of the Helios pistol at my side, ready to draw in case the shooter was just outside. It didn’t seem far from the shop, echoing off the nearby buildings as people scattered in a panic. But as I reached the door, the front of the shop was clear. Wherever the shot came from, it was further down the street than the echo made it seem.

I looked down at Dulaf and nodded. “Keep her down, I’m going to check it out.”

She met my gaze and nodded back, holding Amelia as close as she could and shielding the child from the window behind her. Putting on my visor, I saw the flashes of colors around them as Dulaf’s strength seemed to radiate into the little girl and calm her. I wasn’t sure if it was training or if she’d just had a lot of experience ducking under tables over the years. But, whatever it was, I didn’t have the luxury of ducking with them.

When I made my way outside it was easy to see just where the sound came from. People were practically stampeding away from the corner down the block. Normally, under daylight, the street is fairly easy to walk. There isn’t a thick crowd at that time of day in Fangtown. But with all of them pushing at each other to get away from the gun, I was faced with a wall of people moving like a shockwave.

Pushing through, I found a break in the crowd and ran down the block as fast as I could. Expecting whoever pulled the trigger was going to be in a fight or flight state, I drew my gun and ensured it was in crowd control mode. But the scene I found wasn’t quite what I expected. Standing in morbid curiosity, a small group gathered around the scene of a man on the ground and a woman standing over him with a gun.

The shooter was seemingly a young woman, looking no older than her 20s and dressed like she’d just come from the office in a buttoned-up blouse and a grey skirt now stained red. She was lean, short and unassuming. A simple glance would have looked like she was anyone else in the world. It was only through the auras of my visor that I could see this girl was an Alter hiding in plain sight.

Her victim, an older man in a suit, sprawled across a pool of his own blood, face down as the shot had hit him in the back of the head. Normally when I saw someone like this, I would have had to scour the city to figure out who would have taken the shot. Firing into the back of someone’s head was rarely the sort of thing you did impulsively. He didn’t see it coming at all; he had no reason to be facing her as she pulled the trigger.

So why wasn’t she running?

There were a lot of people around us, murmuring and whispering among themselves as they assessed the situation too. Gawkers had crept closer for every second she wasn’t shooting up the rest of the neighborhood, likely as confused as I was in this eerie calm that shouldn’t be happening. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to know anything of value as I edged past and heard them whispering questions and comparing notes.

I wished they weren’t there. It was easy for the tension to break violently with this crowd of people surrounding us. Normally, I would just aim my weapon at her and try to take control of the situation. But I couldn’t risk her opening fire at me and hitting one of the others around us. Luckily, she hadn’t noticed the uniform hovering behind the group.

In fact, looking at her face, I wasn’t sure she was aware of anyone. Her eyes were practically glazed over as she stared down at him. Her hand was as steady as I’d ever seen after a shooting. In fact, her aura was reading like nothing I’d ever seen at a crime scene before. They taught us what sociopaths would look like through the visor – in case we ever encountered someone the system couldn’t read. I just never expected it to look like a 5’2″ brunette straight from accounting.

She was so entranced by what she’d done that it was easy for me to circle around behind her. I gestured to the onlookers not to make any sudden noises and slipped between the people as quietly as I could. Raising the Helios, I inched in before leveling it to her back.

“Put the gun down, kick it away and put your hands on top of your head,” I commanded, startling her out of her trance.

Her aura shifted dramatically and a rush of color radiated up through her like a flame being lit. It was almost like watching her soul reignite as she recoiled at her situation. For a brief moment my finger tensed on the trigger, worried this was the start of one of those incidents where the gunman opened fire on everyone in sight. But when those colors stabilized and her shoulders relaxed again, I watched her head tilt down to the weapon in her hand and the body at her feet.

Her scream pierced the uneasy silence that had covered the block as she jumped away from the pool of blood and whipped her arm up towards the crowd. Her sudden movement scared everyone around us, scattering them like roaches as they did their best to dive into the nearest building they could find. When I was younger, I probably would have fired right then and there. But I could see what was happening as her finger released the trigger before she flung it into the air.

She wasn’t trying to fire; she was throwing it away in a blind panic.

That was what washed across her body as the aura was growing stronger. She was terrified, utterly terrified and there was no mistaking it in the visor readings or in her posture. I grabbed for her and turned her to face me, holstering the gun as I realized this woman wasn’t looking for a fight. Locking eyes with my visor, she stared in shock and trembled. The light splash of blood across her cheek was starting to streak as tears streamed down her face.

“How did I get here?” She asked timidly. “What happened?”

I couldn’t figure out what to say to her. The scene was pretty clear to me and without the visor I would have thought she was faking it on the hopes of an insanity plea. But it was there, the readings confirmed her actions were legit and her actions were telling me that she had no clue what the hell was going on.

Finally, I gathered myself enough to reply, “We’re in Fangtown, just a couple blocks from the Forum.” I hesitated for a moment, studying her expression and realizing she needed to know, “I think you just shot someone.”

She grew pale, her breath quickened. I watched the aura flutter on the display again, her vitals shifting rapidly. Before I could say anything or try to calm her down, her eyes rolled back and she collapsed. It was like someone flipped a switch in her brain and shut it all down. Catching her, I cushioned her head with my hand before it could bounce off the pavement.

The moments of silence following her scream were surreal. Kneeling on the pavement, I could feel the eyes of the entire neighborhood leveled on us and peering from every corner and shadow. They were watching for some sign that she’d rise again and begin to take her wrath out on the rest of us. But the fact was we weren’t in that sort of situation. Unfortunately, that situation would have been easier to understand.

This was something different, something I’d never seen before. For as much time as I’d been on the force, I’d never seen someone lose their shit so completely and so randomly after committing a crime that appeared to have been premeditated. After all, who takes a gun to work?

Looking down the block, I saw Dulaf’s head peek out of the Ahabs down the street and watched a smaller figure poke out behind her hip, their blade-like ears flicking together as they seemed to listen for something like a pair of curious cats watching from the brush. Tapping my badge, I opened a channel to the station and sent in the request.

“This is Leone, home in on my beacon,” I said loud enough for the two of them to hear, “I just witnessed a shooting and the assailant has fainted, send an investigation team, medical crew and the coroner.”

Dulaf’s posture relaxed and she stepped out from the cafe’s doorway, tugging along Amelia in her wake and keeping the little one behind her protectively as she nodded my way.

The response teams only took a couple minutes to arrive with us being so close to the headquarters. I had just enough time to section off the scene and place the woman in my car, handcuffing her and restraining her in the passenger seat. I didn’t quite close the “coffin” around her like normal. Considering she just fainted, the reaction she may have had when she woke up probably wasn’t going to be good for anyone.

The onlookers were hovering again by the time the team arrived, curiously drawn to the body lying in the middle of the crosswalk as they murmured once again, safe in the knowledge the shooter was locked away. Though my car was only just down the block, they didn’t seem to have much interest in the woman herself. Even the gun, which had landed on the sidewalk and skidded up against a wall, was of little interest to any of them. The morbid curiosity was in the dead man on the pavement, who he was and how he ended up in this situation.

To be honest, I would have liked to know myself. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly something I could have pulled from the aether and I was sure that I didn’t have time to get it from his pockets.

Whoever he was, his death was far from a random act. Even if her trance was entirely genuine, she was carrying that gun and fired on that man for a reason. I couldn’t read any signs of drugs on her once her trance broke, her pupils were normal and her biometrics were reading clean. Whatever had put her in that state wasn’t directly chemical but it wasn’t natural. There weren’t a lot of explanations for something like that and none of them would have made this anything other than premeditated murder.

The investigation team hovered the scene and did what they could to catalogue it as quickly as possible. Outdoor crime scenes are horrible for trying to collect information, especially those that are in public or are exposed to the elements. But I couldn’t bring myself to join them as they gathered evidence, I’d been there to see who was holding the gun and knew that the true mystery wasn’t on the pavement, it was in her head. Watching the medics with the suspect, waiting for a sign she may stir again, I wondered how long I would have to wait to hear the truth from her.

Continued in Coven of Dolls, available now!

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