Last time on Jane Crow, Jane finished her origin with her tale of joining the FBI’s witch-hunting division, the Yellow Center and meeting her partner Andrew Chivas… only to warn us that the real story she was going to tell was one of prophecy, murder and impending war…
Esteemed FBI Yellow Center director and professional asshole Ian Hills had a remote in his hand. He gestured with it towards the projector hanging from the ceiling and with a fan hum it woke up, its cyclopean lens eye projecting light through the dust of the conference room.
I was sitting with my partner Andrew Chivas at a new case briefing. It was noon, and I was having trouble getting my mind off of the leftover veal parm sandwich I had waiting for me in the office fridge.
The picture on the screen behind the director was of a building facade, white with red diamonds and a sign in a circus-like font. The door itself was glass and half open.
“This,” Hills said, “is the Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It’s a museum for early twentieth century penny arcade machines.”
He squeezed the remote in his hand and the image changed to the inside of the building.
There was a body on the floor, surrounded by nickelodeons, player pianos and pinball machines.
“Frank Goering, forty-two. Night guard at the museum. He was found dead this morning, causes unknown.”
“Wasn’t he the guy who played the Riddler on Batman?” I whispered to Chivas.
“You’re thinking of Frank Gorshin,” he replied sotto voce. “Now pay attention.”
“Are we done whispering, kids?” Hills asked through a frown.
“Agent Crow was wondering if we’ve ruled out natural causes,” Chivas said.
“Yes and no,” Hills said. “There was no sign of violence on Goering’s body. We’ve got a guy from the San Fran office doing an autopsy as we speak. Still, based on the rest of the crime scene, even natural causes might be a murder weapon.”
“A curse,” Chivas said.
“Curse, hex, evil eye… the SAM-2 system flagged it as a Yellow Center crime, and with the possibility of paranormal involvement, we can’t rule any of those things out.”
I nodded to look like I was keeping up. The Yellow Center used a computer algorithm to process cases and isolate ones that it thought deserved Yellow Center involvement.
Hills flicked the remote. The next image drove away all thought of my sandwich.
The new picture was of a large box-like enclosure with a mechanical puppet man torso in the upper glassed-in section. It was carved out of wood that peeked through the old paint job. A white turban sat upon its head above its seriously disturbing arched fur eyebrows. Piercing blue glass eyes exhibited far more consciousness than any manikin ought to have. Beneath his sinister Fu Manchu whiskers, The detatched jaw block was agape with an expression of hunger rather than mindlessness. A sign above the figure said in garish letters, “COUNT AUGUR” and beneath that, “Learn the TRUTH of your FUTURE!”
Seriously, I actually like puppets, but this one freaked me out. I swear the thing was staring right at me.
The box the Count lived in was painted purple with chipped gold filigree on the edges and corners. Old light bulbs lined the inside of the glass along the top and bottom. Beneath Count Augur on the front of the machine was a metal plate with a coin slot and a curved dispenser. The plate, however, dangled loosely, barely hanging on to splintered wood encircling a hole. Someone had broken into the mechanics of the old automaton.
Hill continued. “This is Count Augur, one of five fortune telling machines that used to tour with the Batson and Quill Traveling Carnival. Of those five, it is the only one remaining. Andrew, you may remember the case of Abner ‘Cadabra’ Czynewski, back in ’94. Verified practitioner of temporal divination, tried to publish a book of thinly veiled prophecy disguised as poetry?”
“Director Bester had the manuscript confiscated,” Chivas nodded, “Something about it leading to a nuclear incident if the Cult of the Ebon Sun got their hands on it.”
“Right. Czynewski scored over two hundred on the Ebworth prognostication scale… probably one of the ten most accurate seers of the twentieth century.” Hills turned back to the projection on the screen. “Apparently, and we only discovered this interviewing the museum owner about the crime today, when Count Augur ran out of fortune cards, it wasn’t uncommon for the more, ah, literate of the carnies to write new ones rather than contacting the company that designed them.”
“Wait, so you’re saying that someone stole the fortunes out of the machine?” I asked with just the right amount of incredulity.
“Nothing else in the museum was touched, and there are several exhibits there that are worth in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
I looked again at the gaping hole in the purple wood. It almost looked like someone had torn Count Augur’s stomach out through the box. Metaphorically, I adjusted for anatomy and imagined that it was his heart.
“Do we have a report?” Chivas asked.
Hills slid a folder across the desk. “SFPD did their job, we’ve got a good initial investigation of the crime scene. Still, if this is what I think this is–and SAM seems to think so–then I need your eyes on site. You’ve got reservations on flight 4235 out of BWI at three this afternoon. You’ll be met by Agent Symonds of the San Francisco desk; he’ll act as your departmental liaison.”
“Anything particular we should be looking for here?” Chivas asked.
“Yeah,” Hills said. “Someone stole a bunch of futures. Look for a guy who’s not worried about the present.”
“So helpful,” I muttered. Chivas silenced me with a disappointed stare.
From the screen above, Count Augur’s stare was far less compassionate.
© 2013 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.