The_art_of_madness_cover_final

By day, A.J. Mayall works in the indie publishing field and has quality checked nearly half a million manuscripts. He lives in California with his husband and his best friend.

An avid gamer, AJ got his writing start in the gaming industry, with a focus on community events and content.

As an LGBT author on the autism spectrum, he feels it is his duty to write diversity into his works, to ensure that readers have new and varied worlds to enjoy.

The rumors that he is a menagerie of hive-minded sentient spiders wearing a human suit are sheer fallacy and should be ignored.

The Art of Madness - The Gearwitch Investigations by A.J. Mayall

Phoenix McGee became a detective to show the world he was mature and reliable, capable of running his own life and business.

It's just a shame he can't adult his way out of a paper bag.

Being attuned to the clockwork nature of the universe and able to bend the fundamental laws of reality comes with the bonus that his powers don't show up under any scans, leaving him in a loophole where he can use his powers without legal restriction … or protection.

On the verge of losing everything, he takes on a simple case of suspected adultery, something to keep the lights on and the creditors at bay.

Little did he suspect his life would become a chaotic whirlwind of false leads, uneasy alliances, mob ties, and a woman who punches with a sedan. Bodies pile up as he struggles to keep things normal for himself and his assistant, Suzette DiMarco.

Phoenix will need his wits if he plans to solve the case and save himself, his livelihood, and everyone around him … because cosmic powers don't pay the bills.

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REVIEWS

  • "For anyone looking for great world building, relatable characters, and a magic system that is new and fresh, look no further."

    Amazon Review
  • "Once I started reading I could not put the book down. I can't wait until the next book comes out."

    Amazon Review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

FIRST CHAPTER:

"We have a case!" Phoenix exclaimed as he opened the front door to McGee investigations, raising his hand for a high five.

"About damn time, McGee," said Suzette DiMarco, his assistant, confidante, and best friend, passing him by as she entered and leaving the hand hanging.

The slender, six-and-a-half-foot-tall redhead shrugged with a grin, sliding his hands into his pockets. His attire was simple: a white t-shirt, slightly baggy jeans, well-worn sneakers, and a little too much hair gel.

She had met plenty of guys like him in her brief stints as a model. Looking at what she was wearing, it was hard to imagine her on a catwalk; the high-collared gray dress was practically dowdy. Her appearance was only modernized by her thin-framed glasses and her hair in a haphazard bun.

Phoenix thought she resembled what angry librarians claim their final form to be.

"Come on. We'll have a new investigation beyond the weekly insurance claims. Husband suspects an affair."

"Oh, so you might be ruining a marriage? I'm in."

Phoenix scowled, trying to lighten the mood, "We might save it, you know. At the very least, we could maybe make a new ad from a happy customer."

Suzette looked at him, nonplussed.

"I'm still not giving you a high-five, not before my coffee."

In his twenty-three years, Phoenix McGee had learned a few things. One: No matter what life handed you, try to find the positive. There were already plenty of people who were dark and dour in his line of work. Two: A friendly smile and a bit of wit could fix nearly any situation. Three: Suzette can't be held responsible for manslaughter if it's before her morning gallon of coffee.

"Fine, be that way. The client will be here in a few hours. Once we get his paperwork filed, put it into my B pile, after the insurance cases. We need to keep the lights on, after all. I'm certain your grandmother will understand."

"I hope so. She's been messaging me about when you'll pay her back for the loans on this place."

He looked around the office. Filing cabinets were half-extended out, plastered with sticky-note reminders about bills.

"When are you seeing her next?"

"Tonight," Suzette said, pouring herself a cup of coffee. "Dinner at the hotel."

"Tell her about the new case, and the insurance companies still need to cut me a check for last month. I'm not letting her take this place."

"Will do, boss."

He checked the time. It was nearly seven, which meant Genesis would have just opened up the combination bookstore and coffee shop across the street.

"I'm grabbing celebration donuts, Suzette, anything you want?"

"Bear claw," she said, sipping her coffee as she settled in for her day behind the desk. After a moment, she smiled, breaking her usual unimpressed expression. "Go celebrate your case, but keep it cheap."

He scowled as he walked to the door.

"What? I do your banking, McGee. Until the checks clear, you need to keep a tight budget. You know, like a functional adult."

"I'm a functional adult. Look at me. I'm running a business, I have my own place. I'm adulting fairly well. Hell, adultery is my specialty."

"Adult, my ass. You sleep with a stuffed animal."

"You leave Bouncer out of this."

Suzette pointed to the door, chuckling, "Don't forget my donut, you god-damned manchild."

"I always thought of myself as more of a 'rascal,'" he said, opening the door onto the streets of Rouge Mal, leaving McGee Investigations, and quickly crossing the street to the Books of Genesis.

#

He heard the familiar ring of the bell over the door as he entered, calling out to his friend and neighbor, curious what color her hair was today. When he turned to face the counter, he paled.

Two robbers had guns pointed at the rainbow-haired woman behind the counter. Genesis trembled.

Phoenix sighed, "And here I thought the morning was going so well."

The two men faced the tall, gangly redhead. One kept a shaky gun trained on the barista, the other pointed his pistol at the interloper.

"Wallet, now!" was all the larger of the two said.

Phoenix raised his hands and motioned to his right. "Back pocket, take it. Don't shoot." His detective instincts kicked in, memorizing the robber's features: Caucasian, no visible tattoos, couple of facial scars, brown hair, cut short. He was about six foot, which made him shorter than the detective. His skin was pale, which meant out-of-towner or night owl. Living in the Nevada desert meant a lot of sun and even Phoenix, with his Irish heritage, had a faint copper glow to his cheeks.

The robber's partner kept his gun pointed at Genesis. The shorter robber was scruffy and twitchy, the more dangerous one to upset right now. Phoenix was willing to take a bullet, but Genesis? Never in a million years.

The larger thug fished out the wallet and flipped it open, pulling out a handful of small bills. When he spied the investigator license, he said, "Private dick. Get the cash, fast."

The twitchy one jerked his gun toward Genesis, who opened the register wordlessly, her eyes focused on the gun.

"Does he have a Black Card?" Twitchy asked, emptying the bills into a duffel bag atop rare books.

"Don't see one; his ID don't have him registered either."

"Good," said the smaller man, pulling his gun back and rubbing the top of his head with the butt of it, backing away. He trained his gun on the redhead as he and his larger accomplice exited for an armored van.

Phoenix kept his hands up as he asked Genesis, "They in the getaway car?"

She turned her head to check through the small window near her coffee station, nodding to Phoenix a moment later.

"Good. My turn."

Phoenix closed his eyes, extending his senses from his body throughout the room. He focused his will, being flooded with an intrinsic knowledge of the nearby space, every machine like a ley line to him. Time seemed to thicken, every instant stretching out. He felt the pull of gravity, the thrumming spin of the planet. His Attunements were a little rusty, but it was like riding a bike. The Patterns were all around him, from the computers on the counter, to the data flowing invisible in the air, all interconnected, all able to be manipulated. He breathed in, savoring the metallic flavor the air took when he used his abilities.

White-blue energy coursed around his arms and fingertips. The faint sound of a clock ticking was at the edge of hearing. Genesis watched from the window as the glow enveloped the van, intensifying under the hood. She saw the robbers panic as the engine wouldn't turn over and the doors wouldn't open.

The redhead lowered his hands and took his wallet from the counter. "Call the cops; tell them robbers are having technical issues with their vehicle and are detained. Iced decaf mocha for me, large. Bear claw. How's it look outside?"

"They're freaking out, the hood of the van is on the sidewalk, and you've got so many wires and tubes waving in the air it looks like that scene from The Thing; you know after the part when the rib cage opened. So, this thing you do, it's not technomancy, right?" She stared out the window while reaching for the phone.

"I'm just a guy with a few tricks he can do."

There was a loud thud at the door. Something wanted in.

"Gee, I wonder who that could be? Let's find out," Phoenix winked, opening the door as the van's engine block hovered in, suspended on an ever-shifting pattern of the same blue-white light. It settled near the lost and found box.

"You gonna put the hurt on them?" Genesis asked as she dialed 911.

"No need, neighbor."

Phoenix crossed his arms and focused on the van as he walked out.

The two would-be robbers kicked at the bulletproof glass, to no effect as gears and tubes leapt from the van. Even the fluids slowly flowed through the air into discarded bottles.

Phoenix gave them a friendly wave as the energy coursed through him, the whir of machinery in the air, though there were no engines running. The detective smiled at the duo as they flailed, stepping forward when he saw them brandish their guns to try to shoot their way out. He wanted them humiliated, not injured. Ricocheting bullets in such a tight space would maim one or both of them. He knocked on the passenger window, and the twitchy one jumped, dropping his pistol.

Phoenix raised a luminescent hand, miming rolling down a car window. The sound of the power window activating filled the space between them, an oddity considering the battery lay near Phoenix's feet.

"The money and the books, please," Phoenix demanded, hand reaching out to collect the stolen goods.

"You got powers! You ain't got no Black Card! Yer in for more jail than us …"

"You pulled a gun on my neighbor. Let's not discuss who's in trouble with the law. Now, the books and the money."

Phoenix stepped back as they threw the duffel bag out the window. He quietly picked it up and returned to the bookstore. As sirens approached, the window rolled back up with a snap of Phoenix's fingers. He stepped back in, peeking around the corner, smiling wide and shaking the bag triumphantly.

"How much do I owe you, Gen?"

"Those guys robbed me! Can you please take this seriously?"

"Well, here's your stuff. I only had about twenty bucks, so the rest is yours."

"McGee, I …" She paused, glaring at the man who grinned like an idiot. "Let me make your damn coffee. Do I need to tell the cops you were involved, or will they figure it out, considering you live across the street and the car disassembled itself?"

"I'm sure they'll have questions, send 'em over if they want answers. It's open-and-shut, though." He glanced back at the two men locked in their car. "More shut than open."

Genesis huffed and put the coffee on the counter beside the bear claw. "On the house. Thanks again, smartass."

"Hey, any time if it means free goodies. Will you punch on my card for these?"

"McGee, don't push it, or I'll punch something else."

Phoenix nodded and hurried across the street to McGee Investigations. Suzette peeked out the window as the sirens blared.

"For fuck's sake, McGee, what'd you do now?" she greeted.

"I got my coffee."

"Decaf?"

"Yup."

"Blasphemy. You look like crap, you know. You need to clean up for the client."

"Well, I haven't had my coffee."

"Decaf isn't coffee." She peered out the window again. "Tore their car apart, too. What, was Gen getting robbed at gunpoint or something?"

Phoenix averted his gaze. Suzette leaned forward, eyes wide.

"No way! Is she okay?"

"She's shaken, but she'll be fine. Upside of an armored car, it's a jail cell. I power-locked them inside and lifted the engine block out. It's simple enough to put it back in."

"There's nothing easy about putting in an engine block," Suzette scolded.

"Never said it was easy, I said it was simple. Now, you have a file on the new client?"

"Yeah. Get ready, I'll hold down the fort. Did you at least get my donut?"

Phoenix climbed the stairs double-time, mouth full of bear claw. "Can't hear you! Getting ready! See, I'm a professional!"

She grumbled, "Professional slacker, maybe …"

#

Suzette was thankful the police were quick to arrest the two men who accosted Genesis. That a wrecker took away the armored van and its many disconnected parts before their client, Jeremy Benton, arrived was miraculous. When she invited him in, she found he was a fireplug of a man, with thick cheeks and thicker glasses.

He stood in the small office that was more like her second home. A set of stairs led to Phoenix's loft ahead of him, her desk was to his left, and the waiting lounge with a flat screen television was to his right. On a nearby wall, a set of newspaper clippings documented recent escapades.

"Private Investigator Foils Mob Takeover," "Lost Masterpiece Discovered by Private Eye," and "Phoenix McGee Finds Lost Couple" were but a few of the headlines Phoenix managed to earn in the short time he'd been in business. Unfortunately, the recognition had not brought an influx of customers.

Suzette did her best to smile, an action to which she was not accustomed. "Would you like some coffee? If you want decaf, I'll have to run across the street for you."

Jeremy could sense she didn't look at you, she analyzed you, dissected you with that gaze, collated if need be, before filing you into her memory.

"Coffee sounds great."

#

Phoenix was in a room behind and to the right of Suzette's desk, watching the security monitor amid a massive pile of unused gadgetry. It was a substantial part of his investment in opening the agency, and a constant reminder of the debt he owed.

He checked the notes. A husband suspected infidelity; Stygus might be involved. Where he saw cause for alarm, he also saw dollar signs. His gaze returned to the screen that showed the office. As Suzette talked Jeremy up, Phoenix looked to the right-hand wall, which functioned as a floor-to-ceiling white board, with his budget for the month.

Marital trust issues meant a rich field to harvest a commission. He could get in the black if he upsold the hell out of this case.

Phoenix watched Suzette spin on her chair and push across the room with one foot, stopping herself with the other when she approached the snack area near the entryway to the back room. She blew a wisp of raven hair that came loose from the bun and fell on her cheek, then rose, seemingly to grab Jeremy a cup of coffee.

The man looked like an overworked and slightly overstuffed ferret in a polo shirt and slacks, eyes darting about the room.

#

"Can I get you any cream or sugar, or a substitute, maybe?" Suzette asked, through a saccharine smile. "Let me check the back to see how much we have," she said before Benton had a chance to respond.

Phoenix looked up as she entered.

"Okay, I hope you're ready, because I'm peopled out for the day," she whispered, making sure the client didn't hear her. Phoenix knew it was out of character for her to be nice, but she faked it for the pay. She might not be a people person, but she knew not to drive away business.

"I'm looking over what we need for this."

"You. Go. Help the client, Phoenix," Suzette growled under her breath. She pulled out a few sugar packets and sweeteners for Jeremy from a drawer, tagging him in by dropping them in his hand.

Phoenix strode past her, shoulders squared. He gave Jeremy his coffee in a mug emblazoned with a picture of the Vatican.

"Mr. Benton, I'm sorry for the delay. Please tell me why you need my help." Phoenix ran his fingers through his hair, wiping off excess gel on his jeans. A moist paisley pattern appeared where his fingers gripped the denim.

Your first move: hand the coffee to the client. You can't say no to the guy who gave you your coffee. Hook.

"Well, my wife, Margaret … things haven't been normal lately. She's stayed late at work, something about side projects. I didn't give it much thought until I found another man's boxers in the back seat of our car," Jeremy responded, keeping his gaze averted.

Phoenix redirected the topic of conversation; he could learn the intimate details later. For clients this worked up, you had to put on the kid gloves.

"You work for …" he paused as he reviewed the files Suzette had prepared, "… Prescott Electronics. I heard about your buyout a few weeks back."

Benton relaxed a little. Phoenix knew polite small talk would calm Jeremy some, but the stresses of the day were a bit much for him to just turn off. He sat, holding the mug with a meek smile.

"It's been a change on all fronts. I'm not the happiest with it, but a job is a job. Heck, I met Margaret there."

Phoenix made a note to look into Mrs. Benton's colleagues; she could have found another office romance. He reviewed the file once more and sat near Jeremy, smiling kindly. Phoenix placed his left hand on Jeremy's shoulder and leaned in, raising his eyebrows as he did so.

Follow the first impression with secure and comforting body language. Line.

"We'll get to the bottom of this, Mr. Benton, but you need to ask yourself if you're sure you want to know the truth."

He gave the shoulder a few pats as Jeremy shook, fighting back tears.

Trust issues.

"I'm sorry for falling to pieces," Jeremy said, wiping his eyes. "This wasn't what I was expecting. I was considering that other agency, Pyramidion, but your reviews … I've seen you in the news-feeds but I thought you'd be …"

Phoenix finished his sentence, "Shorter, I get that a lot."

"You Catholic?" Benton asked, pointing to the mug.

"No, but I have a friend who works at the Vatican; he sent us the mug as a thank-you gift for a favor."

Suzette watched Phoenix on the monitors; he was giving Benton what Suzette called the Number Four. In three minutes, either Benton would be signing the documents and negotiating higher prices, due to more expensive surveillance measures, or they would be in a post-signing handshake.

The Number Four never failed. Heaven knows how many times he had avoided getting the power turned off due to that fun little bit of psychology.

When Suzette returned from the back office, she blinked in mock surprise to Mr. Benton, signing a hard copy of a contract placed before him.

Phoenix turned a bit so he was between Suzette and the client. He reached a hand behind his back and gave her a thumbs-up, then opened his hand three times. Jeremy had signed for the more expensive measures that meant an additional fifteen percent fee.

"Mr. Benton, have a good day. We will call you when and if we need to use any of the more intimate measures."

Sinker.

"Thank you, Mr. McGee. I apologize for being emotional. I've been run ragged by this whole thing." He checked the time. "I should head out; a project of mine needs attention."

Suzette attempted another smile. Jeremy nodded to them and excused himself. Suzette's posture stiffened as Phoenix peeked around the corner of her desk and went to the blinds, ensuring the man was out of earshot.

"The Number Four, you gave that guy the Number Four.…" She placed a hand to her face, holding back a wicked smile.

"Suzette, stop calling it 'The Number Four.' So, I greased him over a bit with some kindness and sympathy to our benefit, sue me." He grinned at her, feeling proud of himself on this one.

Suzette checked the time and motioned to the door. "Lucky is opening his cart, go get some slawdogs. Try to avoid guns this time, and actually bring me back some food, would you?"

"Fine, I deserve that. Be right back," Phoenix said as he stepped back outside.

#

He breathed in the warm afternoon air of the canyon metropolis as he walked the busy streets. Being in the middle of the high-end merchant sector had its benefits when it came to a cheap meal. Nothing readied him for a busy workday like one of Lucky's Apple Onion Slawdogs. It was three blocks before he ran into his favorite food cart, the whir of the metropolis buzzing around him all the while.

Every town is known for something, and Rouge Mal, Nevada, the Bad Red, was a home for the outsider. It had been a few decades since laws about the public use of "superpowers" and matters "supernatural" were pushed through Congress. If you were lucky enough to have abilities or attributes beyond those of normal men, you had to carry your Black Card.

The laws changed over the years. At first, they were restrictive. As understanding of the hows and whys of the supernatural Stygus and the super-powered Omnus grew, their rights had broadened but for a few barely objectionable limits.

These days, the concepts of the supernatural and super-powered were banal. It allowed for specialty shops, and ad campaigns occasionally featured the more colorful citizens. For anyone who stood outside the norm, the laws on use of their abilities were just a part of daily life.

This was not true for one man a few blocks away from getting his favorite food.

Phoenix had his fifteen minutes of fame, coincidentally, when he was fifteen; an ancient order known as The Cloister chose him to channel and manipulate "the clockwork nature of the universe." At first, it sounded like the boasting of a teen seeking attention, but became a topic for closer study by the law. The court case had been kept local, but threats to take it to higher courts persisted. The problem with the State vs. McGee case was an inability to classify him.

Phoenix submitted himself to many tests, which yielded no results. As part of getting their Black Cards, potential Omnus and Stygus were scanned; their auras indicated their classification. If anything, the average "normal" citizen had a more brilliant aura than the red-haired boy, the crux of his defense. For all legal purposes, he was a normal human being; the restrictions on Omnus and Stygus did not and would never apply to him. However, neither could he enjoy their legal protections.

Today, he needed lunch, which involved waving to his favorite street vendor and ordering a full bag of his famous slawdogs. It was a tradition broken by a twenty-dollar bill thrust in front of him.

"I'll cover his bill."

Phoenix recognized the voice; he stared into the steel gray eyes and ivory smile of Gregori Stevenson, lead investigator for Pyramidion Investigations. A few run-ins in the recent past had soured Phoenix to their offices, and especially Gregori.

"Christ on a crutch, what now?"