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The Collector

Her informant was late.


Detective Carver had warned her this might happen, but Gaige still found her head snapping up every time the corner café's doorbell chimed. Not that she was liable to miss Julian in any case: her informant was a six-foot-tall humanoid chameleon.


She started drumming her fingers against her coffee mug. The second cup had been a necessary evil. Jittery as caffeine always made her, it kept her focused, and right now she needed focus more than anything. Julian could get her close to Damion, and the lizard had played a hand in Rudolph's murder to boot.


She couldn't afford to botch this.


Each blast of arctic air coming through the coffee shop’s busy doors was a pointed reminder of discovering her husband's contorted corpse in a snowbank outside their apartment. Through the window, she watched last-minute shoppers crowding the street, a scene framed by twinkle lights that clicked against the café's picture window with every frigid gust. Gaige marveled at how all of them were missing the bigger picture, squandering time they could be spending with their loved ones -- time they would never get back, even using the darkest magic.


She ran her thumb over the badge hidden inside her coat, tracing the embossed numbers as she thought about all she'd sacrificed trying to bring Rudolph back. Spells, alchemy, runes - none of it, not even the old curses, had worked. Her fingers slid to the wand tucked into her waistband, caressing its worn ebony handle. All she had left now was vengeance.


The doorbell chimed again. Julian strutted in, his oversize puffer jacket swishing with each movement, and sat at the table behind her.


"What happened?" Julian hissed, his back to Gaige.


Gaige let go of herself and slipped into character. "I was gonna ask you the same thing, Jules. Not like you to be late."


"You said to meet at the pub. Lucky I thought to check here when you didn’t show. You know I hate this place."


Gaige scowled. Carver had bungled the meeting spot. Not surprising, considering how Gaige had found him: reeking of cheap vodka, gibbering an apology about not protecting Rudolph.


"It is a bit toasty," she finally said.


"Very funny. You may have noticed I'm reptilian. I like it toasty." Reflected in the café's window, Gaige watched Julian's tongue flick out and slap against one of his eye-mounds. They were constantly in motion, simultaneously scanning the crowd outside and the coffee shop itself with jerky, hitching movements. He stood. "It's too easy to get made here. If you wanna talk, I'm parked in the alley off Fourth."


Gaige winced as another frigid blast filled the cafe, then waited several minutes before following him. She took a sip of her coffee for good measure, wincing as it scalded her tongue. Reasoning that this was her cosmic signal to follow Julian, she left the café and hustled the few blocks to the Fourth street alley, where she found the lizard's sedan idling beside a set of dumpsters. She knocked on the foggy window and Julian unlocked the door.


"Word is that Damion's gearing up for war," Gaige said, sliding into the passenger seat. Carver had revealed as much earlier that evening. "Recruiting new stooges, buying up weapons. What's going on?"


"So much for foreplay, huh?"


Gaige ignored him. "Is another syndicate making a power grab?"


"You're the cop," Julian scoffed. "You tell me."


Gaige sighed and drew her wand, pointing it at Julian's chest. The lizard scrambled back against the door of his car.


"The hell?!"


"Tell me why Damion's making moves."


"It - it's this little widow-witch!" Julian stammered. "We iced her hubby for singin’ to the cops. Pot n’ kettle, I know. Anyway - she's disrupting Damion's whole operation. But nobody knows what she looks like, 'cause she can turn into anyone she kills.” His tongue slapped against his eye once more. "It's like she's collecting us."


Gaige smirked. "So Damion's worried?"


"Not worried. Terrified."


"Good."


Gaige dispelled her glamour. As her illusionary Detective Carver melted away, it felt like she’d finally broken the surface after a very deep and dangerous dive.


"Aw, shit," Julian whimpered. "It's you."


"It's me," Gaige agreed. "Rudolph says hello."


Gaige touched the tip of her wand to his chest, just over his heart, and muttered the curse. Julian writhed in agony as every muscle in his body seized at once. A pale purple glow filled the car's interior as the wand absorbed everything that made the lizard who he was, leaving only the desiccated husk of his body behind.


Gaige opened the door and tumbled into the alley. The curse drew its power from the void left by Rudolph’s absence. Casting it cost her dearly, but that wouldn’t matter for much longer. If she played her cards right, Damion would be long dead before word of Julian’s fate reached him. With any luck, so would she.


She rose, lurching toward the street, leaving the car, the corpse, and Carver's badge for the real cops to find. Pressing her wand against her temple, she whispered the incantation and grimaced, staggering as Julian's memories, aspirations, and mannerisms flooded her mind.


When she passed in front of the coffee shop's twinkle-light display, the baristas only saw an abnormally tall chameleon strutting by in an oversized puffer coat.




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