Give the Devil His Due
rating: +3+x

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2022, 8:31 AM
TENTH FLOOR, SITE-16, NEWBURGH, NY

It’s 8:30 on a goddamn Monday morning and I already want a bottle of goddamn Scotch.

Doctor Alto Clef slunk around the bend of an empty corridor — shoulders tense, neck sloped, hands thrown in his pockets, and Monday morning woes darting through his skull like a kicked hornets’ nest. Slipping out a keychain, he shoved the first key into the fourth door on the left side. He pressed his left foot against the door’s kick plate and tugged the key at the same time. The door squeezed tight against the lock jamb, throwing squeals into the hall — as though it were as reluctant as he to start the workweek.

New Site, new office, same old bullshit.

Clef flung his coat on the wall hook, capped it off with his hat, and in one swift move, pivoted behind a battered birch desk. Sitting leg-over-leg, he pulled out his Foundation company cellphone and swiped through the e-mail inbox.

I hope your vacation was just fantastic!

Congratulations on the transfer, Alto — Site-17 senior staff sends its best wishes!

The assistant-director of Occult Studies tips her hat to your fine work, Clef!

Cleffy-poo, I miss you!~ Come back soon! OwO, won’t you?

That one went to the trash.

Tenth-floor coffee run is every morning at 9:15. You want some? We’ll deliver it to you and everything — at the Site Director’s expense! — just give us the heads up.

Clef sent a brief

yes. and make it triple-triple.

to that last one, expectant of them not to pick up on his esoteric coffee jargon, but not particularly caring.

He passed through a few others — one denoting the approval of his transfer request; one particularly lengthy back-and-forth saga with Human Resources; and various other work e-mails, automated or otherwise. All that and more had flooded his inbox in the span of the last 48 hours, and he groaned so loud that the desk vibrated.

One caught his eye, though: An official United Nations Global Occult Coalition memo about an upcoming conference in New York City. Which was weird — he thought he’d unsubscribed to their notices years ago. He did, of course, and stopped them from coming through his private e-mail server, too. No, someone else forwarded it his way.

He squinted, eyeing the details. There was a message, just for him, at the very bottom.

Oh Jesus H. Christ, get to the poooooooint!

There was a knock at the door.

Clef froze. He checked his watch — only 8:43. He shrugged and scrolled back up the e-mail chain, inattentive to whomever wanted to bother him so soon.

“Uh, Mister Clef, sir? I-I’m Junior Researcher Rickard, a-are you going to open the door?”

Clef crossed his arms. “Come in, come in, come in!”

A metal handcart groaned the door open, piloted by a timid young researcher, who pushed through with measured fumble. A rigid phalanx of boxes, lined with paper files, filled the cart’s full height. “Your computer workstation assignment must not’ve gone through yet — but this will have to do for now, huh?” The researcher gave an anxious laugh. “Listen, sir, I’m here to help you sort through all of this, if you like! It’s my assignment for the day, after all, and–”

“Just leave it here.” Clef barely looked up from his screen. “And it’s doctor. Don’t you forget it.”

Colour drained from the researcher’s face. “I- If you say so, sir–”

“And close the goddamn door!”

The intern slipped away in a snap. Clef stroked his temples. I’m getting too old for this bureaucratic desk job shit.

He thumbed another response to the coffee e-mail

make that extra large. i'm going to need it.

and got to work figuring how the hell he’d sort this garbage out with no computer.

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1:28 PM
STAFF MESS HALL, SITE-16, NEWBURGH, NY

Special Inspector Quinn Roscoe pored over their underlings’ latest report. A thin buttered bagel, slices of grapefruit, and a litre of bottled water sat in front of them, as-of-yet untouched.

Forensics Technician Anita Saraswati came to the detective’s table and sat across from them, tray in hand. “You going to eat any of that?” She sunk her teeth into a soft cookie.

“Yeah, yeah, eventually. I have just a few more pages of this junk to get through first.” Quinn flipped absentmindedly through a thick booklet of copy pages, their head leaning on their arm. “When I requisitioned access to this year’s Site-19 Prank War report, I hadn’t a clue that the pranks would be so far-reaching. If you checked out these figures your jaw would drop. So — get this. On the night of March 31st, Site Command got reports that an unknown party hired a group of Disney thaumaturgists to pull a stunt on the site grounds. Run-of-the-mill so far, right? Well–”

“Wait, Disney has wizards?” Anita asked.

“Veteran Elves of the Light, to be exact. It’s crazy, right? I couldn’t believe it either.”

“What the fuck?”

“I know! So, anyway, when the clock struck midnight, all permanent on-site detachments noticed something fishy happening across from the residential block. This thick, orange-red haze seeped through the heavens and cloaked the whole facility. Everyone was ordered to stay inside, until a giant tusked Devourer Worm knocked over and started chewing up the forward security pylon…”

“Mm, yeah, and then what?”

“So, Site Command was out there panicking, scrambling to get a lock on whatever happened to the site, because they got reports from civilians in the next town over that there’d been tremors, y’know? Turns out, the elves transported 2,000 personnel and tens of thousands of square feet of facility space and site grounds halfway across the solar system, onto the surface of the largest fuckin’ moon of Saturn. And — get this — they didn’t know how to get them back!”

“Wow, holy shit.”

“They dispatched the site’s emergency task force on the worm, all at once, and fought that thing for hours, until suddenly, the site just popped back up where it was supposed to be. Except, you know, with the front half of a twenty-meter-long space-worm carcass smearing orange blood and viscera across the biological research building.”

Anita wiped her hands. “That’s it?”

Quinn looked up. “Yup, that’s– Hey, what the hell!” They looked in disbelief across the table. “Where’s my fuckin’ grapefruit, Anita!”

Their colleague merely giggled, wiping her mouth. “I’ll spot you when we next have lunch. But what else is new, Q?”

“Oh, you know. Same shit, different pile.” They chewed into their bagel. “I’m still waiting to hear back from Clef. I sent ‘im the details on the GOC case a few days ago, but I’m not even sure he’s back at a desk-job yet, or if he’s gone back into active duty, or what! Senior staff sure are difficult to get a hold of, aren’t they?”

“Wait, Clef? The Doctor Clef?” The technician’s deep brown eyes widened. “You do know he just started at Site-16 this morning, don’t you?”

Inspector Quinn jolted up, knocking back their chair. “What?! Oh, why didn’t anyone tell me! Holy shit, talk about good news!”

“Wait, wait! You’re not just going to, like, run up to his office and talk to him, are you? How do you even know where he’s stationed?” Anita crushed the napkin in her palm.

“Come on, Anita, I’m a god damn detective. I’ll find out where that brilliant bastard is!” Quinn fiddled with their rucksack, struggling to get it zipped up, and then stopped to listen. But, to what? The mess hall’s mid-afternoon muttering seemed as loud and mundane as it always did.

“What?” Anita glared at them for a beat. “What’s happening?” And then she jolted her hand into her pocket, pulling out her phone.

Quinn pulled theirs out too, and the two of them shot conflicted faces at one another. “Oh. My. God. There’s been a murder in the UN delegation? No, no, no, this can’t be happening. The prediction must be a day ahead of schedule!” Quinn took a swig from their water and slipped on their jacket.

The two ran to the parking garage, shock twisting their expressions like taffy.

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3:49 PM
HILTON GARDEN INN CHELSEA, NEW YORK CITY, NY

Try as they might have, Quinn and Anita’s driver sped out of the site as quick and as unsafe as possible, only for the Palisade Interstate’s gridlock to gobble them up and shit them out over the next hour-and-a-half. A whole two plus hours after their call, the pair jumped out of the van and scrambled up to the twenty-seventh floor, where the murder happened, with Quinn at the lead.

The detective stomped down the hall and nearly ran headlong into the 6’5”-tall CSI Security meathead blocking the door. “Hey! This is a restricted crime scene. You best be turning back and going home, kid,” the man grunted.

Quinn reached into their jacket’s interior pocket, panting. They pulled out a badge. “Uhm–” gasp, “Theodore Rubles–” huff, “SCP Foundation–” wheeze, “Site-16.”

Anita stood between the two with her shoulders relaxed and head held high. “Mahira Khan, SCP Foundation, Site-16.” She shot a glare at Quinn, who blinked wearily.

The guard shifted a half-step to the right. Anita slid through the door and pulled Quinn behind her, who brushed against the man’s fat belly. She crooked her head and whispered. “Next time, try the elevator, Quinn.”

Quinn swatted at her. “Shut up, Anita, y– Your fake name’s a Bollywood actress!”

The pair walked through the apartment, checking their corners, before heading into the penthouse’s master suite. They traded glances, and in unison, pushed open the double-doors.

The room set the scene: A pool of dark blood soaked into the rug. Splotches of gore coated the walls and furniture like a Pollock painting, and in the air, a meter-and-a-half from the foot of a bed, a woman’s body levitated in place — pale, shrivelled, nude, and hanging limply.

“God! Fuck!” Anita slipped on her nitrile blue gloves and walked around the bed to rifle through the nightstand.

“Looks like nobody’s been here.” Quinn crouched down and studied the blood. “There’s heavy coagulation. It’s got to be a day old, at least. Hmm…”

“Found a passport.” Anita held it sideways, squinting. “Name’s Luciana Cipriani. An Italian diplomat, from the looks of it. Well, I mean, not anymore.”

“A foreign rep, eh? What’s she doing at a three-star hotel without security, then?”

“Q, your guess is as good as mine.”

“Hold on.” On the woman’s back and chest, astrological symbols from the modern, expanded chart snaked patterns across her skin: Invocations of old Roman gods. They were too well-composed and in places too awkward to draw herself. The detective ambled around to the woman’s head. “There’s a tattoo on the back of her neck. Or… A branding of some sort. Yeah, must be — there’s esoteric logograms seared right into the flesh. Crap, I wish we had a symbol reader with us.”

“Well…” Anita peered through the window into bustling Midtown Manhattan. Dark clouds passed over, ready to belch a downpour. “Let’s get our equipment before we get rained out.”


4:11 PM

Anita lugged the last of the equipment into the hotel’s backside fire escape, ushering the sensitive technology away from the rain.

Quinn set up the Vital Energy radiograph analyser next to the bed. It towered over the furniture, looking more like a torture device than a parascientific instrument. In three of the room’s four corners, Anita propped up miniaturized electrophotonic imaging devices like tacky Christmas displays.

Still levitating, the body looked precarious above the pool of congealed blood. “Yep, that’s good,” Quinn said. They walked out of the room and Anita followed. She sealed the doors.

The inspector tapped their tablet while Anita tapped her foot. “Ready yet?” she asked.

“Ready,” Quinn replied.

“Is it done?” she asked.

“Should be.” Quinn scrutinized the screen. “It… Looks to me… That… I don’t know what the hell this means.”

“Ugh! Don’t make me do grunt work!” Anita frowned and stood behind Quinn — half a head taller than them. She peered down for ten long seconds. The screen displayed a three-dimensional model of the room, overlaid with many added colours. “Huh, that’s peculiar. Usually when a person gets murdered, or their life is cut short, they still have a prominent somatic impetus in them — that’s the human desire — which gets discharged violently. When that happens, you’re typically looking at a shit ton of Élan-Vital energy residue displaced across a crime scene. But the imager didn’t pick up on any of that — except from when we were in there, of course.”

“Huh. So, she didn’t get murdered, then? But there’s no way she did this.”

“I don’t think that’s the case either, Q.”

“There were no wounds on her body, and she didn’t mark herself up, either. Even in the way her body looked — it’s like someone or something squeezed out her life force like a juicer.” Quinn looked over to Anita, wide-eyed. “There had to be some kind of ritual done here.”

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11:01 PM
INVESTIGATIVE WING, SITE-16, NEWBURGH, NY

… UN Global Occult Coalition spokesperson Christine Chan spoke with press a few hours ago, where she said — quote: “The General Assembly talks have been deferred until further notice, following a thorough investigation by our own internal analysts and an extensive advisory discussion led by the New York Police Department.” Chan declined to answer questions this evening regarding why such an important conference was being postponed. As for now, the people of New York and foreign dignitaries alike are baffled, given that this is the first conference in nearly 50 years to have been cancelled, but without any sign of a cause. We are still awaiting a resolution…

“Can you shut that thing off, Regal? It’s distracting.” Quinn looked up from their computer screen, only to catch Security Officer Regal asleep at his station, feet propped atop a desk. “Oh, come on!”

Quinn balled up a scrap of paper and chucked it.

It lobbed Regal square in the forehead. “Hey! You better watch where you throw, bud,” he muttered, as the metallic chair — balancing on its back legs — slunk its front onto the linoleum. “You might take somebody’s eye out.”

“Can you mute the TV, or turn it off, or something? Please. It’s getting late.” Quinn yawned, stretching like a cat.

Regal complied, and then walked over to Quinn’s workstation and set down the remote. “Whatcha looking at?” A PDF of weird squiggles and haphazard notes lined and dotted Quinn’s screen.

“Symbologist’s notes.”

“What’s it for? You’re thinking of getting a tattoo, huh? Every badass field agent has one nowadays.”

“What? No! These are from a m–” Quinn tried to phrase their words more carefully. “Someone died. We found these symbols on their corpse.”

Regal studied the photographs of the skin. “I can see that. What do they mean?”

“I’m no philosopher, but based on the information here…” They tussled the hair at the back of their head. “These’re used in a specific ritual that works to mimic cosmic rebirth. You know, like a karmic cycle, or reincarnation — that type of thing. But they’re incomplete: These symbols in this order only do half the job. They forcibly draw a soul from a body.”

“Wiggle a magic stick around and say a few special words, and poof — there go the faceless goons!” He laughed and slapped Quinn on the back. “If that’s all it took to take someone down, Roscoe… It’d make my job a hell of a lot easier, believe me.”

“Shit, Regal, that’s such a typical line coming from you.” Groan. “I’ll show you. You see that symbol, branded on the subject’s neck?”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“It’s an ancient Pagan symbol. There’s a pretty infamous ex-GOC group that used a symbol of exactly that kind. An Italian group called the ‘Streghe di Firenze’. The story about them’s a mess: They felt that the Council of 108 disenfranchised them, and later, the Council kicked them out because of a major conflict of interest. After that, they only grew weaker. And then, in the 1970s, they were no more. But anyway, they’re the most recent ones to use it.” Quinn sighed. “I just can’t see the connection between them and this.”

“Phew, that’s hefty.” Regal paused. “Well, Quinn, you do know how symbols work, then, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Symbols are little fictions about real things. Solid things. People ascribe a symbol to mean something, and it proliferates when enough people agree on it. So, if enough people have enough faith in what a certain symbol stands for, that symbol gains a great deal of power.”

“So, you’re saying…” Quinn blinked. “If the symbol still has power, then the group must still be out there. In hiding. Maybe–”

“No, Quinn, I don’t think a group of black-hooded old witches chanting hocus pocus led to this perp of yours dying, or whatever. This is New York we’re talking about. Just as you said; they’re defunct — finito.”

“Then–” The detective’s eyes lit up. “Someone’s been using their symbol! They must’ve kept it alive all this time.”

“Bingo.” Regal smiled and sauntered over to the security desk, eyeing monitors. He reached for a bag of Doritos and ripped it open.

Quinn got up and collected their things, placing them into their rucksack. “And there’s a reason they took down the perp–”

Regal cut in. “Your perp — who is she?” He shoved Doritos down his gullet.

The detective took pause. “She– She’s nobody. Well, she isn’t nobody, I have some idea she is — she’s a delegate. Well, she’s not just a delegate; no, I think she must be with the GOC. Or… Something.” They were stuttering; they must not have had all the pieces they needed, yet. “I’ll have to contact Clef; he’ll know just how to help.”

The security agent choked. “Clef?” He coughed up something nasty. Moist, half-digested crumbs hit the floor.

“I know he transferred here earlier today. You mind showing me where his office is?”

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TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2022, 9:17 AM
DOCTOR CLEF'S NEW OFFICE, SITE-16, NEWBURGH, NY

That Bastard paced the office, ranting to someone on his Foundation company cellphone. “Head of Occult Studies for a decade, officer in the Task Forces for a decade before that, and after a measly two-week vacation, I’m thinking I’ll be shipped across the country to somewhere nice! Somewhere I can do my own damn job without any goddamn strings attached. Instead, I’m forced to pore through a million and one of my own documents, each one taunting me, pushing me further and further as I careen down the Seven Layers of my own personal Hell. Budget cuts this, and Public Relations that. Bullshit! And you send me these interns, these bugs up my ass, that serve to do nothing else but irritate me. I swear, if you do not put me in a corner office and promote me to the top of your computer request list pronto, I will unmake you, motherfucker.

He paused.

“Yes, I know. Okay, I know, I know. All right, I love you too. Bye.” He closed his phone and leaned back on his desk; top teeth pressed into lower lip, leaning his weight on his fist, no longer fuming, but wanting to.

A minute or so passed, and the familiar Junior Researcher James Rickard appeared at the threshold. A split second before he even knocked, Clef swung open the door to greet him hastily. “Hi, good morning. Oh, coffee for me? You shouldn’t have. Tell them I said thanks. Now, you have a good one,” Clef muttered, closing the door in his face and locking it.

Coffee in hand, Clef was placated for the rest of the morning, until–

There was another knock. “Who is it?” Clef asked.

“Name’s Detective Quinn Roscoe, sir. Is this the office of Doctor Clef?”

Clef swung the door open. “This is he,” Clef said, unimpressed. The two looked each other up and down, and Roscoe stepped in.

“Oh, Doctor Clef… Look at this office! This looks like my office — same size and everything. Wow, you’re a real modest guy!” Roscoe flashed a genuine toothy smile.

“Who are you and what is it that you need from me that’s so important?” Clef held up his coffee, as if to convey strong words with a modicum of a gesture.

“I– Err, I was the one in the e-mail. From the other day? I’m with the site’s Investigative Department.”

Clef stroked his chin and blew air from his nose. “Oh, it’s you! You know, I was thinking, actually — you were the one that predicted the UN would delay their conference, weren’t you? That’s a keen mind you have; real sharp, lucid enough to see an opportunity from a million light years away. Almost reminds me of me…”

Quinn stood there, hands in pockets, not sure what to say.

Clef stepped forward, tilting his head down at a glacial pace. The room’s shabby central light cast his shadow over Roscoe’s face. “So, tell me, then. Who do you work for? You work for the wizard cops? No, they’d know better not to stick their nose so deep up bureaucracy’s asshole.”

A crease was forming between Roscoe’s eyebrows. “What? Look. I’ll tell you everything, just… Would you mind sitting?”

Clef sat.

“I’m investigating a murder… Okay, that’s imprecise. An ex-Italian diplomat, Luciana Cipriani, was found dead in her hotel room yesterday. My colleagues and I suspect she was being used as a node in a complex ritual, but not as an offering. No, they wanted her life force for something else, and sucked it right out of her body.” Quinn closed their eyes, thinking.

Clef looked them over, thinking they must have been at least half his age. “All of this, on the same day as the supposed attack on the General Assembly conference on restricting anomalous terrorism.” The man didn’t need to read the e-mail twice to remember that. “Man, that’s the world’s strangest coincidence, ain’t it? And you’re coming to me– What, because I used to work for them? That was a different time–”

“I know, I know, a time when maintaining the Veil meant everything. Listen, I’m not here because I want you to run in, find the bad guy, and beat their ass.”

Clef scoffed.

Quinn just continued. “I know you’re a resourceful man, Alto. And if you put your mind to something, you can make it work. All I’m asking is that you help me solve this…” Hands smacked down onto the desk. “Y’know what, I’ll just say it: They took her life. It’s a murder case.”

Clef sighed, thinking over the metrics of the situation, pacing around the small room. The kid might be right. They weren’t here to thinly insult him. They weren’t an idiot, neither — they had the foresight to predict a sticky situation before it shat on everyone’s day. They even had a lead. And a solid one, to boot.

What more could I get out of a proposition like this?

If he helped them in the only way he knew, well, he could see action again without baggage and bullshit. And after he played detective enough to get to the true source, then maybe, just maybe, he could kick the ass of whoever conspired to cause all this trouble. “You know what? Fuck it. I’m on-board.” Clef strode to the door, grabbed his hat, and sank it onto his crown. “By helping you, you help me, and we both help us all.”

Quinn stuttered in disbelief. “So, you’ll do it? Holy shit… Thanks!”

Doctor Alto Clef yanked the door open and stroked the front of his cap like he just stepped out of an anime shōnen. “C’mon, then. Let’s follow your lead and figure out what the hell is going on.”

Detective Quinn Roscoe never thought they’d get to work with their hero. They followed the man, hit the lights, and closed the door behind them.

Finally, they could do what was right.

TO BE CONTINUED


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