“Murder, then,” Murphy said.
I grunted. “Looks like.”
“And the killer wanted you to know it.” She came to stand beside me, frowning up at the wall. “A cop couldn’t have found this.”
“Yeah,” I said. The empty apartment made a clicking noise, one of those settling-building, homey sounds that would have been familiar to the victim.
Murphy’s tone became lighter. “So, what are we looking at here? Some kind of religious wacko? Salem witch trial aficionado? The Inquisitor Reborn?”
“And he uses magic to leave a message?” I asked.
“Wackos can be hypocrites.” She frowned. “How did the message get there? Did a practitioner have to do it?”
I shook my head. “After they killed her, they probably just dipped their finger in the water in the chalice, used it to write on the wall. Water dried up, but a residue of energy remained.”
She frowned. “From water?”
“Blessed water from the cup on her shrine,” I said. “Think of it as holy water. It’s imbued with positive energy, the same way.”
Murphy squinted at me and then at the wall. “Holy? I thought magic was just all about energy and math and equations and things. Like electricity or thermodynamics.”
“Not everyone thinks that,” I said. I nodded at the altar. “The victim was a Wiccan.”
Murphy frowned. “A witch?”
“She was also a witch,” I said. “Not every Wiccan has the innate strength to be a practitioner. For most of them, there’s very little actual power involved in their rites and ceremonies.”
“Then why do them?”
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” I shrugged. “Every faith has its ceremonies, Murph.”
“This was about a conflict of religion, then?” Murphy said.
I frowned. “It’s sort of difficult for sincere Wiccans to conflict with other religions. Wicca itself is really fluid. There are some basic tenets that ninety-nine percent of all Wiccans follow, but at its core the faith is all about individual freedom. Wiccans believe that as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else by doing it, you should be free to act and worship in whatever way you’d like. So everyone’s beliefs are a little bit different. Individualized.”
Murphy, who was more or less Catholic, frowned. “Seems to me that Christianity has a few things to say about forgiveness and tolerance and treating others the way you’d like to be treated.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “Then came the Crusades, the Inquisition . . .”
“Which is my point,” Murphy said. “Regardless of what I think about Islam or Wicca or any other religion, the fact is that it’s a group of people. Every faith has its ceremonies. And since it’s made up of people, every faith also has its assholes.”
“You only need one side to start a fight,” I agreed. “KKK quotes a lot of scripture. So do a lot reactionary religious organizations. A lot of times, they take it out of context.” I gestured at the wall. “Like this.”
“I dunno. Suffer not a witch to live. Seems fairly clear.”
“Out of context, but clear,” I said. “Keep in mind that this appears in the same book of the Bible that approves the death sentence for a child who curses his parents, owners of oxen who injure someone through the owner’s negligence, anybody who works or kindles a fire on Sunday, and anyone who has sex with an animal.”
“Also keep in mind that the original text was written thousands of years ago. In Hebrew. The actual word that they used in that verse describes someone who casts spells that do harm to others. There was a distinction, in that culture, between harmful and beneficial magic.
“By the time we got to the middle ages, the general attitude within the faith was that anyone who practiced any kind of magic was automatically evil. There was no distinction between white and black magic. And when the verse came over to English, King James had a thing about witches, so “harmful caster of spells” just got translated to “witch.””
“Put that way, it sounds like maybe someone took it out of context,” Murphy said. “But you’d get arguments from all kinds of people that the Bible has got to be perfect. That God would not permit such errors to be made in the Holy Word.”
“I thought God gave everyone free will,” I said. “Which presumably — and evidently — includes the freedom to be incorrect when translating one language into another.”
“Stop making me think,” Murphy said. “I’m believing over here.”
I grinned. “See? This is why I’m not religious. I couldn’t possibly keep my mouth shut long enough to get along with everyone else.”
“I thought it was because you’d never respect any religion that would have you.”
“That too,” I said.
Neither one of us, during this conversation, looked back toward the body in the living room. An uncomfortable silence fell. The floorboards creaked.
“Murder,” Murphy said, finally, staring at the wall. “Maybe someone on a holy mission.”
“Murder,” I said. “Too soon to make any assumptions. What made you call me?”
“That altar,” she said. “The inconsistencies about the victim.”
“No one is going to buy magic writing on a wall as evidence.”
“I know,” she said. “Officially, she’s going down as a suicide.”
“Which means the ball is in my court,” I said.
“I talked to Stallings,” she said. “I’m taking a couple of days of personal leave, starting tomorrow. I’m in.”
“Cool.” I frowned suddenly and got a sick little feeling in my stomach. “This isn’t the only suicide, is it.”
“Right now, I’m on the job,” Murphy said. “That isn’t something I could share with you. The way someone like Butters might.”
“Right,” I said.
With no warning whatsoever, Murphy moved, spinning in a blur of motion that swept her leg out in a scything, ankle-height arch behind her. There was a thump of impact, and the sound of something heavy hitting the floor. Murphy—her eyes closed—sprang onto something unseen, and her hands moved in a couple of small, quick circles, fingers grasping. Then Murphy grunted, set her arms, and twisted her shoulders a little.
There was a young woman’s high-pitched gasp of pain, and abruptly, underneath Murphy, there was a girl. Murphy had her pinned on her stomach on the floor, one arm twisted behind her, wrist bent at a painful angle.
The girl was in her late teens. She wore combat boots, black fatigue pants and a tight, cut-off grey t-shirt. She was tall, most of a foot taller than Murphy, and built like a brick house. Her hair had been cut into a short, spiky style and dyed peroxide white. A tattoo on her neck vanished under her shirt, reappeared for a bit on her bared stomach and continued beneath the pants. She had multiple earrings, a nose ring, an eyebrow ring, and a silver stud through that spot right under her lower lip. On the hand Murphy had twisted up behind her back, she wore a bracelet of dark little glass beads.
“Harry?” Murphy said in that tone of voice that, while polite and patient, demanded an explanation.
I sighed. “Murph. You remember my apprentice, Molly Carpenter.”
Murphy leaned to one side and looked at her profile. “Oh, sure,” she said. “I didn’t recognize her without the pink and blue hair. Also, she wasn’t invisible, last time.” She gave me a look, asking if I should let her up.
I gave Murphy a wink, and squatted down on the carpet next to the girl. I gave her my best scowl. “I told you to wait at the apartment and practice your focus.”
“Oh come on,” Molly said. “It’s impossible. And boring as hell.”
“Practice makes perfect, kid.”
“I’ve been practicing my ass off!” Molly protested. “I know fifty times as much as I did last year.”
“And if you keep up the pace for another six or seven years,” I said, “you might – you might be ready to go it alone. Until then, you’re the apprentice, I’m the teacher, and you do what I tell you.”
“But I can help you!”
“Not from a jail cell,” I pointed out.
“You’re trespassing on a crime scene,” Murphy told her.
“Oh, please,” Molly said, both scorn and protest in her voice.
(In case it slipped by, Molly has authority issues.)
It was probably the worst thing she could have said.
“Right,” Murphy said. She produced cuffs from her jacket pocket, and slapped them on Molly’s pinned wrist. “You have the right to remain silent.”
Molly’s eyes widened and she stared up at me. “What? Harry . . .”
“If you choose to give up that right,” Murphy continued, chanting it with the steady pace of ritual, “anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
I shrugged. “Sorry, kid. This is real life. Look, your juvenile record is sealed, and you’ll be tried as an adult. First offense, I doubt you’ll do much more than . . . Murph?”
Murphy took a break from the Miranda chant. “Thirty to sixty days, maybe.” Then she resumed.
“There, see? No big deal. See you in a month or three.”
Molly’s face got pale. “But . . . but . . .”
“Oh,” I added, “beat someone up on the first day. Supposed to save you a lot of trouble.”
Murphy dragged Molly to her feet, her hands now cuffed. “Do you understand your rights as I have conveyed them to you?”
Molly’s mouth fell open. She looked from Murphy to me, her expression shocked.
“Or,” I said. “You might apologize.”
“I-I’m sorry, Harry,” she said.
I sighed. “Not to me, kid. It isn’t my crime scene.”
“But . . .” Molly swallowed and looked at Murphy. “I was just s-standing there.”
“You wearing gloves?” Murphy asked.
“Um.” Molly swallowed. “The door. Just pushed it a little. And that Chinese vase she’s planted her spearmint in. The one with a crack in it.”
“Which means,” Murphy said, “that if I can show that this is a murder, a full forensic sweep could pick up your fingerprints, the imprint of your shoes, and as brittle as your hairdo is, possibly genetic traces if any of it broke off. Since you aren’t one of the investigating officers or police consultants, that evidence would place you at the scene of the crime and could implicate you in a murder investigation.”
Molly shook her head. “But you just said it would be called a suic–”
“Even if it is, you don’t know proper procedure, the way Harry does, and your presence here might contaminate the scene and obscure evidence about the actual killer, making the murderer even more difficult to find before he strikes again.”
Molly just stared at her.
“That’s why there are laws about civilians and crime scenes. This isn’t a game, Miss Carpenter,” Murphy said, her voice cool, but not angry. “Mistakes here could cost lives. Do you understand me?”
Molly glanced from Murphy to me and back, and her shoulders sagged. “I didn’t mean to . . . I’m sorry.”
I said, in a gentle voice, “Apologies won’t give life back to the dead, Molly. You still haven’t learned to consider consequences, and you can’t afford that. Not any more.”
Molly flinched a little and nodded.
“I trust that this will never happen again,” Murphy said.
Murphy looked skeptically at Molly and back to me.
“She means well,” I said. “She just wanted to help.”
Molly gave me a grateful glance.
Murphy’s tone softened as she took the cuffs off. “Don’t we all.”
Molly rubbed at her wrists, wincing. “Um. Sergeant? How did you know I was there?”
“Floorboards creaking when no one was standing on them,” I said.
“Your deodorant,” Murphy said.
“Your tongue stud clicked against your teeth once,” I said.
“I felt some air move a few minutes ago,” Murphy said. “Didn’t feel like a draft.”
Molly swallowed and her face turned pink. “Oh.”
“But we didn’t see you, did we Murph?”
Murphy shook her head. “Not even a little.”
A little humiliation and ego-deflation, now and then, is good for apprentices. Mine sighed miserably.
“Well,” I said. “You’re here. Might as well tag along.” I nodded to Murphy and headed for the door.
“Where are we going?” Molly asked. Both bored medtechs blinked and stared as Molly followed me out of the apartment. Murphy came out behind us and waved them in to carry the body out.
“To see a friend of mine,” I said. “You like polka?”