Dead Man's Switch

rating: +15+x

Peoria, Illinois, 12:12 PM

Quinn threw her head back and washed down the small capsules with water, the sudden motion making her shoulder painfully twinge. Even a week after the showdown in Alabama, the bruises and scrapes she accrued from the impromptu wizard’s duel ached and protested at every move. Hopefully, the dollar store meds she took didn’t interfere with her spellcasting ability. Or clash with the numerous energy drinks in her bloodstream that kept her going.

Quinn was running low on sleep skipping from city to city, following up on half-dead leads from contacts and watcher angels, over encrypted chatrooms and nekyias. Some tips had been nothing, others unrelated conspiracies or plots. A very precious few were relevant to her investigation of the Lighthouse Mafia, and their increasingly bizarre stint of thefts and other miscellaneous crimes. Which is why she was here, idling her dinged-up rental in the parking lot opposite to a water treatment plant, weedy grass clawing to sunlight through the cracks in the asphalt.

A car belonging to an LM affiliate had been spotted here two days prior, parked for several hours in the same gray square lot that Quinn found herself in. They didn’t have a license plate of course — memory-holed by an infovore nailed to the hood. Its driver had gotten into a bar fight further into town, sending the other guy into the ICU with a fractured skull, severe blood loss, and puncture wounds in the jugular. The police report and descriptions of the assailant gave the UIU enough probable cause to poke around, find out about the car, and put two and two together. Vampires and subtlety do not mix, with their flairs for the dramatic.

The necromancer tapped a pen to her lips as she looked at the plant on the hill, a piece of vital infrastructure responsible for the health and safety of thousands of lives. Why were they parked here, specifically? Were they just passing through town when the incident occurred? Or were they casing the joint for a heist, to steal some other esoteric thing that would aid whatever scheme they had cooking? Were they able to pull it off? If so, why hadn’t there been a criminal report filed? Why the Lighthouse Mafia would target civilian infrastructure was a mystery to Quinn, but their presence here nagged at her. And she had learned long ago to listen to her gut.

Quinn put her car in reverse, backed out of the parking lot, and drove away from the plant. She followed faded green signage into town, the imposing building growing ever smaller in her rear-view mirror.

The agent had gotten stung in Alabama, and she didn’t like it one bit. Quinn had been an agent for over a decade, and she let herself get lulled into a false sense of security, egg smeared on her face. So she wouldn’t enter that building until she knew for a fact what was up with it. And if there is one good place for a necromancer to learn dark secrets, it’s always going to be the local morgue.

“FBI agent, eh? You from the local field office?” The short, balding man guided Quinn down the blue-tiled halls that could have easily belonged to a hundred different morgues, the faint smell of antiseptics and rot that hung faintly in the air identical to all of them. The snapping of rubber gloves as Quinn donned them seemed to echo in the halls louder than the clipping of their footsteps on the linoleum floor.

“Ah, no. Out of state. Part of a Joint Task Force with OSHA looking into negligent worker safety violations. Tangentially related to some alleged embezzlement.” Strange cover stories worked more effectively on the skeptical.

The old medical examiner, Doctor Grant, tsked through his teeth. “Chicago’s corruption is as infectious as a bad cold, I’ll say.” He pushed through the metal double doors, entering into the mortuary proper. The clean, sterile room was a strange comfort to Quinn. The neatly arranged surgical tools, chemicals, and all-around quiet environment starkly contrasted the messy, often violent work to be done outside.

Grant ran down the list on his blue clipboard, tapping on the doors of the slabs with a pen as they passed. “No, no, no, ah, here we go.”

He stopped near the end of the row, and hauled a small door open, pulling the slab out of its alcove. Pallid feet protruded out from the thin white sheet draped across the corpse. Creases and folds in the material disguised distinguishing features, leaving only indistinct hills and valleys to suggest a human figure residing underneath.

“C. Gonzalez, 36, worked as a technician at the Marquette Heights Water Treatment Plant until last week. Initial pass by EMTs suggests heart attack, and I was of the mind to concur. You think differently, I reckon?”

A week placed the death prior to the Lighthouse Mafia’s arrival to the town.“Maybe. It doesn’t hurt to double-check.”

Quinn gestured towards the sheet with gloved hands. “May I?”

Grant shrugged. “Go right ahead.”

Law gently pulled the ivory cover down the length of the corpse, revealing a face and torso previously hidden from sight. Swarthy features, a barrel chest, and toned muscles indicated a strong worker, cut down in his prime. “He died at the plant?”

“Yep, EMTs rushed there as soon as they could, found his colleagues performing CPR on him, though he was as dead as a doornail at the time.”

As Quinn checked over the corpse, she inconspicuously waved a hand over its torso. As she did so, the hairs on the back of her hand stood on end. Though a heart attack can be painful, it is by no means a “violent” death.

“Where did they find his body?”

“Oh, it was in some maintenance tunnels, the EMTs had hell finding them, by all accounts.”

“Hm. Any Lichtenberg figures? Burns?”

“Wasn’t electrocuted, as far as I can tell,” Grant’s fingers made a dull slapping sound as he tried to snap through his exam gloves. “There was a very interesting abnormality I noticed in the external examination, if you’ll let me show you.”

Quinn moved out of the way to allow the doctor access, his squat frame belying a coarse strength as he manipulated the body’s arms with dexterous ease. “Hear that?”

Quinn frowned. She didn’t hear anything. Normally a fresh stiff kept at a cold temperature would still have to be manhandled to manipulate the joints, the tightened muscles audibly snapping and popping from the strain. “No rigor mortis?”

“Bingo. He never developed it in the first place. And here,” He let out a slight grunt as he rolled the body onto its side, exposing its back and spine. “He’s been lying on the slab for near a week, and no livor mortis to speak of, either.”

“Strange. Maybe a novel poison or toxin? He was exposed to it on the job-site, and it accreted in the body until he finally keeled over?”

“I thought it a possibility, but I ran a few samples through some toxicology tests, but they came up negative on all accounts. Now, Gonzalez from reports was not a teetotaler, but he was a very healthy man before dying. No drugs in his system, no prescriptions. His family has a genetic predisposition for diabetes, but other than that completely healthy.” Grant scratched his neck. “It’s a puzzler, alright.”

Quinn nodded, all the while trawling in her back catalogue trying to think of something that could possibly make a corpse like this. “It’s like he’s not even dead at all.”

It took a moment for Grant to understand her meaning, but he quickly mimed her nod once he did, staring with a bemused expression at C. Gonzalez. “Yeah, the rigor and livor mortis. No discoloration, no clear signs of bloating or bruising. Barring his lack of pulse and brain activity, he wouldn’t look out of place in a coma ward. I feel like I could just —“ Grant mimed a smack across the corpse’s face. “— and send him on his way.”

The word “coma” led to a quick succession of thoughts in Quinn’s mind, leading her to a single conclusion. Except… maybe… oh this poor bastard. Trapped in a state like this for an hour, much less a week, would be enough to drive her insane.

“Could I have a minute with him? Just to run a few tests?”

Grant’s brow knotted in confusion. “That would be… highly unorthodox, no one is supposed to be alone back here without supervision, to prevent any mishandling of the body, if you understand.”

Quinn reached into her pocket and pulled out her badge, flipping it open to display to the examiner. Doctor Grant nearly went cross-eyed looking at it, the edges of the golden medallion seeming to twist and curl like suspended liquid amber as they teased their way into his subconscious. The badge heated up in Quinn’s hand as she subtly applied more power to it.

“I… I… I think I have paperwork to do.” Grant hastily backed away from the slab and Quinn, unconsciously wiping the blood dripping out of his nose as he speed-walked towards his office.

Quinn pocketed her badge, and turned back towards the corpse, taking off her jacket. “Let’s get you out of there, shall we?”

Back at Quantico, years ago now, Quinn had attended a seminar from a defected Soviet mage, talking about thaumaturgical espionage. In the 60s, the KGB had a pilot program where they would bind the souls of their dead agents to their bodies and lay them in state until the agency had need of their expertise. However, the ensuing psychosis of the test subjects from being conscious in long-term storage put a premature end to the program, with the Russians finding little use for a legion of mad corpses. The lack of imagination of bureaucrats.

Anyways, Quinn was at this point reaching a particularly existential point in her life, and coupled with a cocktail of uppers and party drugs, the ensuing paranoia led Quinn to get a series of intricate counter-wards inked on her left breast, just in case.

The curse had a side effect of perfectly preserving the victim at point of death, paralyzing the processes of decay that would normally affect the body and soul. Snow White Syndrome, it was nicknamed, as those dead Pentagram operatives never retrieved were found decades later in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Cuba, all in pristine condition. Their minds… not so much. The Pentagram — the long, magical arm of the Department of Defense and never one to be outdone by the Russians — utilized the same curse for different ends. They bound the souls of their agents to their bodies as to prevent summonings by hostile powers for ritual interrogation, not caring about their assets’ sanity one whit.

How a technician in the middle of Illinois became afflicted by the curse, Quinn had no clue. Maybe he had touched a cursed component that had been lost in post, maybe his grandfather had been hexed and it was late to kick in, several decades and generations overdue. No matter how refined thaumaturgy got in the lab, it was still more of an art in the field. At least, that was Quinn’s point of view.

Lucky Grant isn’t here to see me defile his morgue like this, Quinn thought as she finished the chemical ritual circle. She poured the last drops of rubbing alcohol onto the floor, sourced from a bottle she had nabbed from a nearby shelf. Quinn grabbed more components from her go-bag, placing herbs on key points of the body. Mistletoe over the heart to anchor the spirit. Yarrow leaf over the eyes to anchor the mind. The agent pulled out an incense burner, and lit it with a lighter, the air quickly filling with its pungent aroma. And myrrh, to bring the soul to the surface.

While the curse all but forbade long-distance seances, Quinn thought she found a workaround. The ritual she was performing was one of possession learned on a stint in Undervegas, usually used to call in a dead relative or a demon or three. But with a little modification, she could perform some magical trickery to allow C. Gonzalez to possess his own corpse. Hopefully.

Quinn crossed her fingers, hoping that the HVAC would do its job and siphon away the smoke before it reached the detectors in the hallway. She had already removed the batteries from the ones in the morgue proper with the help of her worn Leatherman, but you couldn’t be too careful.

She touched the lighter to the floor next to a trail of alcohol, and it lit with a wush, a firey pentagram blazing to life on the linoleum tiles of the morgue, the body at the circle’s center. The other herbs added their heady aromas to the mix as they burnt and sizzled from the heat, but the body — still under the curse — remained uncooked.

Quinn knelt over the crackling flames, humming in polytonality as she unsheathed her ritual dagger and gently sliced down Gonzalez's arm, opening up ruby red. She flicked the blood off of the blade into the fire, which spat and turned teal. A wind from nowhere picked up and swirled around Quinn and the body. The blaze sputtered and dimmed as the temperature in the morgue lowered by several degrees. Quinn stood and spread her arms wide, whispering into the gale. <Gonzalez, follow my voice. Awaken.>

The whistling wind rose to a fever-pitch crescendo, whipping Quinn’s hair into her face. The corpse bolted upright, the burnt and curled yarrow leaves dropped away to reveal wide, frightened eyes. It drew frantic breath into lungs that no longer needed it, and wept from tear ducts that no longer flowed. The flames quietly burnt out as the dead man curled up on the floor and sobbed.

“You’re not going back, I swear.” Quinn patted the man’s bare back — still cold as ice — as he tried to calm down and bring himself back to sanity. After a minute, his shuddering breaths finally slowed, and he found himself able to speak. Rambling, really, but coherent. About his time in the dark, paralyzed and unable to move, blink, breathe. She listened to it all, there wasn’t really much else she could do otherwise.

Quinn shifted uncomfortably as the rant slowly gave way to shuddering silence. “I just want you to know, you aren’t alive again, per se. I just brought you back for the time being. Temporary. But you aren’t going back there. Stuck.”

The man nodded haltingly and spoke in a hoarse whisper. “As long as I’m not, I don’t much care where I wind up, really.” He had wrapped the sheet around himself and was sitting on the slab, tentatively running his fingers over the textured surface, immersing himself in the feeling of simple sensation again.

Gonzalez looked at Quinn, the dead, glassy eyes managing to focus on her face. “You have questions for me?”

Normally, the agent wouldn’t be able to do this, but Gonzalez’s soul was sealed into his body for the time being by at least two different hexes, so he was probably stable enough for Quinn to stab at the meat of the matter without much pissing about. “Mainly one, really. I want to know how you died.”

The corpse wheezed, muscles forcing air out of already deflated lungs in a weak attempt at a laugh. “Don’t know if there’s much to tell, really. I brushed up against a door and keeled right over. Thought I was having a stroke at first, until my coworker realized I didn’t have a pulse.” Gonzalez started rocking back and forth on the slab, though that was more likely due to trauma than any ectoplasmic instability.

“What door?”

“Door in the basement, in one of the maintenance tunnels.”

“Had you gone in those maintenance tunnels before?”

“No, that was our first time, oddly enough. They were outside of our sector. My coworker Benny had a curious streak and he wanted to know where the tunnels led. We decided to snoop around on our break.”

Shit. Gonzalez must have stumbled across some serious wards, if they were set to kill-on-sight just like that. “Do you remember seeing any label on the door? Any identifying markings?”

The glassy eyes unfocused, staring into the middle distance. “I think it had a label that started with a D. Or maybe a B? But other than that, no, it just looked like a closet to me.” He turned to look at Quinn, his vertabrae popping. “Does that mean anything to you?”

Jack-shit, thanks. “No, not really.”

The two sat on the slab in silence. The morgue’s air was cool upon the skin, and Quinn shivered slightly. She couldn’t help but notice Gonzalez didn’t. Gonzalez didn’t really do anything reflexive. The disconnect between his soul and physical mind was too great, the possession tying the two by a thread. His skin was free of goosebumps. His chest didn’t move unless he spoke. His eyes didn’t blink at all. The eyes…

The eyes weren’t focused on her, but staring past her. The corpse broke the silence. “You’re a wizard, right?”

“Essentially, yeah.”

“Wizards have creepy pets, right?”

Quinn clenched her jaw. “Some do. Why?”

Gonzalez lifted a trembling finger, pointing behind her. “Is that one of yours?”

Quinn swiveled to where he was pointing, but didn’t see anything. The lab was completely clean, except for the burnt traces of the ritual circle nearby. Her eyes narrowed. The rose tattoo on her neck hissed and spun, dilating her pupils and saturating the environment with high-contrast colors. There, in the corner, behind a table of surgical tools, stood a tall, elongated shadow, completely motionless. The shadow was cast from nothing, stemmed from a single-dimensional point of darkness hovering above the tile and projected onto the floor and wall, with its large, misshapen shadow-head brushing the drop-down ceiling. It was not one of hers.

Quinn quickly stood up from the slab. <Identify yourself,> she commanded in Floridian-accented Enochian.

The shade cocked its two-dimensional head. When it spoke, it didn’t make a sound, really. It was more like a thought popping into Quinn’s mind, fully formed.


The point glided across the floor towards the two, and the shadow grew in size, covering the far wall in darkness. Quinn glanced down at the seared remnants of the ritual circle on the tile, and spotted droplets of alcohol that remained untouched on the floor. Thinking fast, she quickly unspooled the silken spider thread from her pocket, and wrapped it around her fist. She spoke again in Enochian, enunciating her words and imbuing them with thrumming power. <Halt your advance and return to the dark, shade.>

The point stopped in its tracks for a moment. The shade remained completely silent, clearly running through the cost-benefit analysis of engaging a wizard. It was at this point that Quinn realized the room was oppressively quiet, to the point where she was able to hear her heart-beat keep time in her ears. Even the wheezing HVAC had gone silent. At least we won’t disturb Grant in his office.

The shade spoke up again, its thought-syntax digging into Quinn’s neurons, each syllable an ice pick. <REQUEST DENIED. NEUTRALIZING ASSET.>

The point continued its advance, slowly closing the distance between it and Gonzalez. Quinn grabbed another bottle of rubbing alcohol and popped the lid, dousing the enchanted silk cord in the fluid. With a flick of her lighter, the cord ignited. She snapped her wrist, and sent the flaming whip at speed towards the shade, which hissed and skittered backwards as the burning cord struck home.

Gonzalez had clambered to his feet by then. He fumbled around for a weapon, discarding scalpels and syringes in the search for something better, heftier. “Don’t aim for the shadow, aim for the body.”

Quinn’s gaze flickered towards him. “You can see the damn thing?”

His glassy, scratched eyes looked up for a moment, then resumed his frantic search. “I can see it’s uglier than hell. Aim for the dot, Chrissakes.”

“It’s hard to aim for a fucking dot, Gonzalez.” Quinn complied nonetheless, the fiery whip screeching in the air as it wrapped around something incorporeal, but substantial. Her hit was rewarded with a piercing thought-scream that pounded vowels into Quinn’s brainpan. The shade’s shadow flickered for a moment and disappeared, apparating onto the opposite wall.

The shadow grew and morphed to the point that it covered the whole wall in a shapeless void. Lights caught in the darkness flickered and died, and water vapor formed in the air, condensing from the entity’s freezing aura. Surgical tools within the shadow rattled and shook in their tubs, and were sent flying towards Quinn, who ducked behind an autopsy table as a scalpel carved a scarlet furrow across her cheek.

<CEASE,> Quinn roared as she unholstered her pistol and fired over the table into the darkness. The banishment rounds burrowed bright silver trails into the black shadow — almost physical now — completely obscuring half of the morgue. However, instead of hearing the fleshy, satisfying impact of a bullet striking home, Quinn was instead treated to another barrage of sharp metal implements, as its unearthly screech dug deeper into her mind, painkillers not doing much to temper the pain its psychic claws inflicted.

The moment the last scalpel clattered to the tile, she rolled out of cover, dual-wielding two kinds of firepower. Shooting into the inky void while brandishing her whip like a lion tamer, she corralled the shadow into a corner, lashing out and cutting into the roiling black as it tried to squeeze past her and escape.

Finally, it was condensed and restrained enough into a tight, whirling sphere, and with gritted teeth caught in a fierce grin, Quinn fired directly into its center mass, dispersing the obsidian dark. The lights flickered back on to reveal — nothing. Her eyebrow twitched with bemusement, but realization quickly dawned on her as she felt freezing air brushed against the nape of her neck. A diversion. Shit.

Congealed air wrapped around Quinn’s throat, hefting her off the floor. She dangled there, suspended by nothing, coughing and choking as her esophagus was slowly crushed. The spider silk cord fell from her fingers, the fire extinguished. Quinn slowly turned in the air, the dot was right in front of her, its restrained shadow snapping out into a looming, all consuming darkness surrounding her. Below the dot — its mouth, she realized — there were pockmarks and lacerations from where Quinn’s attacks struck true, oozing a near-translucent, off-white substance.

The words pierced her cerebrum again like a killer migraine. <CRITICAL DAMAGE SUSTAINED. REPAIR COMMENCING. PLEASE HOLD STILL.>

Quinn felt cold, then — her throat like it was doused in liquid nitrogen — as her energy was siphoned away. The agent’s wards sparked and flickered as they tried to combat the threat, but their main power source — Quinn’s body heat — was unable to keep up with the demand. She fumbled with her pockets trying to find the pneumanite pendant, in the vain hope that she could maybe channel some macro that could be amplified by the harvested souls’ hateful power, just to push away this shade for a few precious moments. Her fingers grew numb, and then froze into position, as her muscles refused to obey her.

She could almost see its true form, the air solidifying and coloring as she neared death’s door, her vision tunneling in until she could see nothing but its mouldering, tomb-stone teeth, and many, many eyes tilted askew, blankly staring into hers. A small part of her brain, that wasn’t preoccupied with trying to breathe, coolly noted a camera anachoristically embedded in the center of its forehead as it whirred and whined, focusing on her face.

The whole scene seemed to freeze at the sound of a heavy metal shunk. Quinn dropped to the ground, her screaming shoulder reminding her that she was still alive. The shade stood still above her — for a moment seeming to lean forward to grab her again — before its head tumbled to the floor, quickly followed by the rest of its insubstantial body. Standing behind it was Gonzalez, holding a massive pair of spring-loaded bone shears ripped straight from a horror movie. Its giant blades dripped with what passed for the thing’s blood, quickly congealing into corpse wax. His arms were trembling, and he drew frantic breaths as he looked down where the body laid.

Quinn shivered and coughed, gently massaging her throat. She managed a faintly whispered “Fuck.”

The shade was fully visible, perhaps the mechanism that made it incorporeal to the living eye had halted with its demise. Now that Quinn was no longer in imminent danger, she realized that a significant portion of its head had been replaced, augmented. Hard metal instead of spongy flesh, whirring camera lenses instead of eyes, wires of primary colors protruding and sparking from the severed neck. She grabbed the head by the hair and lifted it up, furrowing her brow quizzically as she examined it.

Gonzalez let the shears drop to the floor as he knelt beside her. “What is that damned thing?”

“Hm. Looks like a psychopomp, but modified somehow.” Seeing his confused look, she elaborated. “In myths, you have these spirits, right, that ferry ghosts and souls to the underworld. Well in the real world they function a bit differently, acting more like predators that consume ectoplasm. Some can be sentient but most aren’t, just glorified specialized mammals. They can appear like people, animals, whatever. But it looks like someone got to this before us. Trapped your soul in your body, and then sent a psychopomp out to finish the job. Maybe my working alerted it to come early to stop me from questioning you. But whatever the case, brutally efficient, whoever they are.”

With a grunt of effort, Quinn wrenched the camera from its case, the housing dripping fluids and grease as it came free. She delicately dismantled the machine, but almost every part she examined had their serial numbers and unique markings filed off, rendering identification impossible. But she was going to try, anyways.

Quinn arranged the parts around her like she was performing some esoteric ritual, which you could say she was. The entirety of the camera, as well as some other instruments that she had found digging around inside the psychopomp’s corpse, was laid out neatly on the floor surrounding her.

“Found something.” Gonzalez triumphantly held up a small, green circuit board, one of the dozens used by the psychopomp’s augs.

Quinn squinted at the square. “I don’t see anything.”

Gonzalez flipped the circuit board over in his fingers, showing a small sticker on its back, emblazoned with a stylized claw, the logo of…


Quinn put her face in her palms, and rubbed her sore eyes with her middle fingers. The Mafia couldn’t make this easy for me, just this once? She took a deep breath. Another. “Okay.”

Gonzalez stared at her as she got up from her kneeling position. “What, is that bad?”

Quinn had to reel in her frustration as she pulled out her cell phone and speed-dialed her boss. “It’s only RavenTech, one of the most prolific paramilitary contractors this side of — hey, Carter? Yeah, status update for you. In Illinois. The Mafia broke into a Pentagram facility. Yes. Illinois. Yes. Peoria. No, but I’m going in. Listen, I just dealt with one of their security drones after following a lead. Carter, they know my face. Listen, don’t call me again, this phone is burnt, I’ll call you after whatever happens. You know they’ll never respond to a formal inquiry, this is the only way to know what — yeah, thanks, that’s a big help actually. Yes. Thank you. Bye.” She hung up, twisting the flip phone until the screen and keypad came apart in her hands, and sighed.

Gonzalez continued to stare at her. “You’re breaking into Marquette Heights?”

Quinn rubbed her eyes again. “No, I’m breaking into the Pentagram facility underneath Marquette Heights.”

“…Do you have a plan?”

Quinn sucked on her tongue for a second as she rubs the cuticle of her thumb. “No, but I have the beginnings of a plan.”

She paused. “How long were you working at the plant?”

“Uh, about five years. Why?”

Quinn checked her watch. “Your binding should hold for a few more hours. Until sundown, at least.”

She looked at Gonzalez. “Want to help me break into a government facility?”

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