EPISODE 14: CIRINITAS

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Sevardin Harker. Solday, Ophiuchus 22nd, 2344 AA. 11:20 PM. Arroyo (AKF – Central Precinct).

“Dessen Thomas’ last known place of residence was an apartment in North Arroyo,” Asudo said, voice dripping with fatigue. “Last known occupation was processing shipping and stocking for a bookstore on Lake that shuttered last year, but Thomas fell off the grid around Pisces of ‘42. According to his manager, he just didn’t show up for his shift one day. Didn’t even bother to collect his last paycheck.”

It was early Lunday and everybody save Forsythe looked like they wanted to die. After their meeting on Satday, Forsythe assembled everyone, reviewed evidence and laid out a schedule: twelve-hour shifts with six hours of overlap between the teams. Asudo and Trinna were catching up everybody on their afternoon findings. Despite Forsythe’s insistence that his team receive a baseline of rest, he brushed away the same concerns aimed at him, still appearing crisp and lucid.

How long has he been awake? When did he have a chance to shower or eat? The man’s a machine.

Everyone was assembled in Case Room 1, which was reserved for the Force’s most-pressing assignments. It was the polar opposite of Evidence Room Six. Newly renovated. Well-equipped with the latest technology and ample, comfortable seating. Best of all, the air wasn’t tangibly sour and potentially toxic.

“What did his landlord have to say?” Forsythe asked.

“Haven’t been able to reach the landlord yet. Apparently, he’s out of town.” Trinna sighed. “Fortunately, we were able to speak with the super, who knew the rough story. Thomas had paid his rent through Pisces of ‘42, and then bounced. They filed a missing person’s report in Aries, and cleaned out his apartment in early Cancer of that same year.”

 “I take it the department couldn’t find anything,” Delle said.

Trinna shook her head.

“APD still lists the case as on-going, but it was shifted to low-priority in Aquarius of this year.”

“Any other insights from his old manager?” Forsythe asked.

Asudo gestured negatively.

“She said it was fairly common for younger employees to go AWOL, and nobody on the staff was close to Thomas. He wasn’t exactly disliked, but when a person doesn’t wear licenses, it doesn’t take long for others to ask questions. Apparently, somebody discovered his record of malefaction and sexual assault. After that, the staff was content with him keeping to himself.”

Forsythe drummed his fingers on the conference table for a couple seconds, digesting the information. Then he nodded and looked at the two detectives.

“You both did very good work,” Forsythe said. “Unfortunately, we still don’t have a lot to go on and we don’t have much time.”

“What do you mean?” Sevardin asked.

“The summoning ritual Thomas performed will come to a head on midnight, tomorrow night.” Forysthe said, with certainty.

Sev inwardly raised an eyebrow. It’s one thing to take storybook monsters and invisible magic at face value. But it’s another to talk about them with military precision. Carroll nodded in agreement. He had the most rest of all of them, being restricted to an eight-hour shift, yet he seemed the worst for wear.

“The first stroke of Samhain,” Delle said.

Sev clenched his eyes. How did that not occur to me? While they were not as potent as solstices and equinoxes, holidays held powerful symbolic significance, which made those dates exceptionally well-suited for ritual magic. Casters had a large reservoir of ambient power to draw from. But the best way to maximize a ritual’s power was to perform a spell that leveraged the advent of a holiday, as well as the arrival of the date itself. Holidays suffused the collective unconscious, and people’s anticipation gradually built up in the ether, reaching a crescendo when the date arrived.

“Indeed. Furthermore, I suspect the ritual is intended to summon his patron onto our plane of existence. And as the good Master has repeatedly informed us, that would be extremely bad. Stranger incursions are rarely resolved without considerable collateral damage.”

“Is there any way we can… purify the bridge? Disrupt the ritual?”

Carroll shook his head, interjecting

“The ritual itself is likely xenomantic, meaning we won’t even be able to detect it, much less disrupt it.”

Well. Shit. Carroll shook his head, insisting:

“But we must do something. Prepare some sort of contingency in case we cannot find Dessen.”

Forsythe glanced at his nails and said mildly.

“If we haven’t located the xenomancer by this time tomorrow, I will go to the bridge to greet the Stranger myself.”

Carroll shook his head.

“You will die. As will any amagia who attempts to face the Stranger head on.”

Forsythe smiled demurely and spoke with gentle menace:

“With all due respect, Master Carroll… You have no notion of what I am capable of.”

The room went dead quiet.

“That is hardly the ideal outcome, however. I will request Arch Chief Folsom station as many officers as he can spare to the bridge and close it to public traffic. It is possible Thomas will be foolish enough to return to the scene to greet his patron, in which case, we will be ready to end him.” There was a hunger behind Forsythe’s words. He clearly relished the thought of killing this man. “But we can’t afford to rely on wishful thinking. If he’s smart, he will stay hidden until after the Stranger arrives.”

“Is it possible that he’s fled the area altogether?” Trinna asked.

“No,” Carroll said. “A ritual that relies on a specific date, say, an exact moment of the lunar cycle requires the caster to be present in the same general region of the ritual. He is still somewhere in Arroyo. Certainly not outside Los Angeles County.”

“I must confess,” Forsythe said, still wearing his discordant little smile. “This looks bad. At this point, I am open to suggestions. Detective Hopkins, any notions?”

Delle raised her eyebrows and tilted her head to the side.

“Sev, you remember the homeless woman you met at Devil’s Gate? The one who called in the disturbance?” Delle asked.

“Attisha,” Sevardin confirmed, nodding.

“She knew the jumper, Canker, before he went off the rails, right? Any possibility we can talk to her? Maybe she saw Thomas with him. Maybe she knows him directly.”

“I don’t exactly have an address, but I bet we could track her down if we speak to others around Devil’s Gate,” Sevardin said.

Forsythe considered the recommendation and nodded.

“You have four hours,” he said, addressing Sev and Delle. “I realize that may be tight, but we don’t any have time to burn on goose chases. If you can’t find the woman, we need to consider other avenues of investigation.”

“What should we do?” Trinna asked Forsythe, gesturing to herself and Asudo.

“I’ve instructed Gladstone and Jacobs’ venture to start investigating abandoned buildings in Arroyo. But I suspect they would have more luck with needles in haystacks. See if you can cross reference records of recent missing person cases or… ‘unusual’ police reports against derelicts they haven’t hit yet. I realize that’s vague, but it’s the only thing I can think of at present.”

Arroyo wasn’t a rundown city. If anything, it was too wealthy and manicured for its own good. But every city had it’s share of condemned buildings, foreclosures, and other properties that were closed to the public. Searching through all of them in the space of a day would be impossible.

“I will speak with Arch Chief Folsom to see that the bridge is sealed to traffic.” Forsythe stood and looked at Carroll. “Master, I believe it would be best if you go home and get some rest.”

Carroll shook his head.

“There must be some way I can help—”

Forsythe smiled his infuriating, condescending smile.

“If you have a specific suggestion, Master, I am all ears.” Carroll’s expression fell, and his face flushed red. Forysthe leaned over the desk and added, gently: “Lewin, if passion alone could solve this case, I don’t doubt that you could bring the matter to a close by yourself. Unfortunately, you don’t have the authority to make the same inquiries as the rest of us. Go home to your wife. Get some rest. When you rejoin us tomorrow morning, I will find a task for you. For now, have faith.”

Carroll took a deep breath and bowed his head, excusing himself from the room. As Sevardin watched him go, he couldn’t help but wonder at his teacher’s hidden obsession. The fear on his face. The desperation in his voice. Forsythe watched Carroll with a similarly contemplative expression on his face. When Carroll was out of the room and took a few steps down the hall, Forsythe sighed and said:

“Regrettably, that man cannot help us any more than he already has. And his desperation could distract us.” Forsythe said. “But you all should know: he is the only one here who adequately appreciates the gravity of the situation.”

The statement chilled Sevardin, but it also pissed him off. Everybody in the room was tired, but nobody seemed to be lacking urgency or conviction. What are you trying to do, Forsythe? Scare people shitless? Motivate us with anger?

Delle seemed similarly unamused. She stood up from the conference table and tilted her chin at Sev.

“Let’s ride.”

— 11:36 PM. Arroyo (Devil’s Gate) —

The base of the arroyo was thick with a fog layer that night and lurid, waxing moon hung in the sky. All on the Eve of Samhain. Ripe night for magic if there ever was one. Concealing magic, either with smoke, tricks, or some other misdirection generally made it easier to cast. The principles were only loosely understood, but the theory was that direct observation was another Resting Law that physically altered existence. Out of sight, it was easier for Fae to step through the Veils, or for casters to conjure matter or summon creatures.

And full moons were all sorts of fun.

Delle followed Sev’s directions to the stretch of earth where they parked when responding to the Devil’s Gate call. There were a few tents, and a group of people gathered around a beat-up gas space heater. Camp’s grown since last time. Or maybe everyone just moved outside the flood control system after what happened.

“She was real feisty last time, but flighty as well,” Sevardin warned Delle.

Most of the people cleared out or retreated to their tents as soon as they saw the cruiser. The only ones who were still there was a stern looking man in Erician army camo tuning a guitar, an elderly Latina woman in a wheelchair, and a teenage boy who was possibly her nephew or grandson.

“Who wants to make one hundred dollars?” Delle asked the camp, holding up a folded wad of twenties.

The guy in camo shook his head, muttering to himself. The old woman didn’t seem to understand Delle’s offer, peering at her skeptically. But the boy looked at the money hungrily, and walked up to Delle, despite his abuela’s warnings:

“¡No les hables, Danello! Son policías brujos. ¡Es un truco!”

He waved her away and walked up to Delle, tilting his chin upward for Delle to speak. In properly-accented Spanish, she explained that she was looking for Attisha, a Black woman in her thirties to early forties, and asked if he knew her.

“Maybe,” the kid said, grinning slyly.

“I’ll give you fifty bucks for advice, and fifty more later, if your advice helps us find her.”

The kid’s grin turned into a cocky smile.

“One fifty for me, fifty for her, and I’ll bring her to you.”

Delle smirked.

“One twenty-five if you bring her to us right now. Tell her we’ll pay her separately.”

“Nah. One fifty,” the boy pressed.

“Nah. See, if you can go get her, that means she’s nearby. Either we find her ourselves, y no ganas nada, or you go get her now and you get one twenty-five. Esa es mi oferta final.”

The kid made a great show of considering the offer before nodding and gesturing for them to follow him. He led them away from the flood control entrance. It was about a two-minute walk through the brush before they came across a large blue tent, weathered to a faded gray.

“Tisha!” Danello called. “You’ve got guests. They’ve got money.”

When there was no answer, Danello picked up a stick and whacked the top of the tent. An alarmed cry came from the interior of the tent, followed by rustling.

“Jesus Christ! Who’s that? The fuck you want?”

“It’s Danello. There are some amagia here who want to talk to you.”

“I am asleep goddammit! They can come back tomorrow.”

Danello looked at Delle and shrugged, then held out his hand for money. Delle crossed her arms, and nodded at the tent, emanating that he needed to get her outside.

“Please, ‘Tisha. It’s important!”

Another curse and more rustling. A couple seconds later, the zipper to the tent opened and Attisha poked her head out, still wrapped in blankets. Delle handed Danello his money and gestured for him to leave. He gave Delle a wink and hustled back the way he came.

“Y’all know what the fuck time it is? Shit.”

“Apologies for the rude awakening,” Delle said. “I’m Officer Ledelle Hopkins. You’ve met my associate, Officer Harker before.”

Attisha stared at Sevardin for a second. Her eyes lit with recognition and her brow knit in anger. She stepped completely out of her tent, quick as a striking viper.

“You were there the night Dee died! What the hell happened to Bock, Canker, and Sidani?! They haven’t been back since.”

“We’ll be happy to answer your questions after you give us some information.”

“Fuck that. Answer my questions, pay me, and then we will see what I say, okay?”

Delle drew her head back wyrd swelling with offense, but Sevardin gestured for calm and cut in.

“Sidani needed some medical care after her encounter with Canker. After she got out of the hospital, we set her up at a shelter in Central. I don’t know if she’s still there, but if you want, I can try to get a message to her. Bock is still in the hospital. And Canker killed himself three days ago.”

Delle shot Sev a warning glance.

“Shit,” Attisha said bitterly. “He was one of the jumpers then?”

Sev shrugged, as if to indicate his hands were tied.

“I had a feeling,” Attisha said. “Alright. What do y’all want from me?”

“We’re looking for this man,” Delle said, passing Attisha a copy of Dessen Thomas’ mugshot.

Attisha took the picture and furrowed her brow for a second. Again, her eyes seemed to shine with recognition.

“I warned them,” she said. “I told him nothing good comes from angry white boys. This kid, Dess-something… he came around our heater a couple times. Brought food, booze, and some cigarettes. I usually left after he showed up though.”

“Why?” Sev asked.

“‘Cause I didn’t trust his ass! Certain people, man. When they get angry, they get a look. A darkness in their eyes. You see it in kids running from abuse. Old soldiers, like Bock and Jeet. People who are mad at the world. Usually, they have good reasons.

“Something about this boy… He was the same kind of angry. But he was trying to act like he was one of us, bitching about how he couldn’t find work because he lost his licenses and boo-fucking-hoo, but his clothes were clean, he was rested, and he had enough money to eat. So, it’s like why the fuck are you here, right?”

“When was the last time he came around?”

“It’s midnight man, I don’t know!” Attisha sighed and wiped her face with her hands, then she lowered her gaze and shook her head. “About a week before I called you about Sidani.”

“So early Virgo?” Sev asked but if Attisha heard, she didn’t take any notice.

“I should’ve said something that night. But I didn’t put anything together at the time. People come and go, and I was just happy he was gone. What did he do?”

Sev looked to Delle, unsure of what else they could, or should share.

“All I can say is that he’s a person of interest in an ongoing investigation,” Delle said.

“Did he say where he was staying?” Sev asked.

“‘Here and there’ is what he said. Said he got kicked out of his apartment because he lost his job or whatever, and he said he was going to lose all his shit because he had it in storage and couldn’t afford to pay it anymore. Again, boo-fucking-hoo. Least you have something to lose.”

That didn’t square with Asudo and Trinna’s research two ways. His old boss said he stopped coming in, and the super said that Dessen’s belongings were sold off months after he disappeared. But if he really does have a storage unit…

“Did he say where he was storing stuff?” Delle asked.

Attisha snorted.

“The fuck do I look like? This was months ago! And I told you, I didn’t want to get involved with his ass. Sounds like I made the right call, too.”

“You did,” Sev assured her. “But if you can remember any details at all, it could save lives.”

Attisha made a grunting noise and closed her eyes, as if she could squeeze the memory out of her head.

“He talked about the storage the last time he came by. Was asking us to help him move stuff out so he could save some of it. Said we could help ourselves to other things he couldn’t carry. Only Canker agreed to help. He was always soft on kids. But now that I think about it, Canker seemed different after that. He was quiet before, but after that he stopped talking unless we talked to him first.”

Canker was the xenomancer who jumped. Dessen must have dominated him when he lured him to the storage unit. After that, Dessen didn’t need to come around himself. He could control Canker second hand and use him to lure Dee and Bock into his trap too. It was possible the storage story was just a lie. But if it did exist, it must be in Arroyo.

“Ma’am, if I may, I’d like to cast a charm on you to help you remember that night more clearly,” Delle said.

Sev held his composure but mentally raised an eyebrow. Mnemonic magic—all kinds of psychological magic—was very difficult to cast on others. If you were clumsy about it, the side effects ranged from lightheadedness to altered memories to seizures. Then again, I might be biased because I’ve never been good with any of that. Memorization spells. Recollection spells. No two wyrds were alike though, and there were plenty of people who were exceptionally skilled with mental contracts. But protocol dictated it was best to have a medithurge on standby in case things went sideways.

“What the fuck? No. I don’t want anybody foolin’ with my brain, thank you very much.”

Delle reached back into her pocket and pulled out her wallet, counting out one hundred and seventy-five dollars. She extended the cash to Attisha.

“This is for your help so far. If you want, we’ll leave now and let you get back to sleep. But if you   allow me to cast the spell on you, I will give you the rest of the money I have…” she quickly counted her remaining bills. “Another one hundred and seventy-five dollars.”

Attisha pursed her lips.

“What does the spell do?” She asked.

“It puts the memory center of your brain into overdrive. All I need you to do is think back to that night like you’ve been doing, and the spell will make the memories clearer. After it wears off, you won’t be able to remember things very well for a couple hours. Kind of like getting blackout drunk, but without the hangover after. If you go back to sleep after I cast the spell, you’ll wake up feeling fine.”

You’d better believe this is going in my case report, Delle. And if she winds up hurt, I am submitting a formal complaint against you myself.No matter how desperate the stakes were, Sev couldn’t condone putting an innocent asfalis woman in jeopardy.

“Shit,” Attisha said. “You know this is extortion, right?”

“I’m not going to force you ma’am,” Delle said, lowering the money.

“Yes. You are. I literally can’t afford to say no.”

It’s true. Our leverage here is grossly inequitable. Jesus, Delle. I hope you know what you’re doing.

“I’ve practiced this specific spell for a long time, ma’am. I have it down to a science. And I promise on my wyrd, this contract will not harm you.”

Upon hearing the promise, Sevardin felt considerably better, though he wasn’t sure Attisha would appreciate its significance. Making a vow on your wyrd was similar to a contract. It essentially staked the caster’s power on the fulfillment of the promise. Breaking the vow would injure their wyrd, possibly permanently. To risk that, she had to be confident. But there was always a small chance that Delle would botch the spell, no matter how deeply ingrained it was. People tripped over their own feet all the time.

At length, Attisha nodded. Delle handed her the money.

“I’m going to put my fingertips on your temples, alright? The less resistance I have, the smoother it will be. When I count to three, I want you to start thinking back to that night. The moment that Dessen arrived.”

“Should I sit down?” Attisha asked, nervous.

“It’s not necessary, but you can if you’d like.”

“I’ll stay on my feet then. But if I die, I’m gonna haunt your ass.”

“Noted,” Delle said, smiling.

Attisha stood straighter and closed her eyes. Delle placed her fingertips delicately on the sides of her forehead. An animus on her right license vambrace ignited in a plume of brilliant magenta, then faded to a flickering indigo glow that traveled down Delle’s wrists and into Attisha’s head.

“Three…Two…One.”

Attisha’s eyelids began to quiver, and her mouth hung open slightly. The indigo light flowing from Delle’s right license formed a sort of crown, or halo around Attisha’s head. Then she spoke in a sort of monotone:

“The boy came about two hours after sundown. It was still Cancer, but just barely. Probably around ten o’clock, I think. It was me, Canker, Jeet, Bock, and Lizal by the heater. The boy had a handle of liquor. Whiskey, I think. It was brown.”

“What happened next?” Delle asked in a soothing tone.

“He passed around the bottle. Canker, Jeet, and Bock had some. He asked how we were doing. Nobody had much to say to that so it got awkward quiet for a bit. Lizal and Jeet said they were going to bed. I wanted to leave too, but I was curious about what he was after. So, I asked him straight up, ‘why’d you come here?’”

“What is he saying?” Delle asked.

At Delle’s prompt, Attisha slipped deeper into the spell, her voice faded to a calm monotone, and her words shifted to present tense. She’s probably reliving the event in slow motion.

“He says he has nowhere else to go. He’s looking for help. Talking about how he was fired again and how he still can’t find work without licenses. He says he lost his licenses because the Athenaeum kicked him out for fighting… no, wait… was that another night?”

The indigo energy flared to a shade of magenta briefly. Sev held his breath. One of the problems with recollection spells is that they could blur similar memories together. Amagia learned how to navigate the spell and stay focused throughout, but an untrained mind could easily get lost in a sea of similar occurrences.

“What does he have to say about the storage?” Delle asked, voice slightly firmer.

The spell’s energy seemed to stabilize, returning to a calm indigo hue.

“Right…The storage…” Attisha nodded, still speaking in a monotone. “He says he has most of his stuff in a storage unit. Needs help moving his furniture. Wants to sell it. He’s promising to give us some of the cash or our pick of his clothes.”

“Is he saying where the storage is?” Delle asked, voice now urgent.

Attisha’s eyes quivered slightly. “It’s nearby. West side of Farman. Over in North Arroyo.”

Goddamn. She did it. Let’s just hope this isn’t a lie Dessen made up to lure Canker away. Sev also noticed that Attisha had leaned deeper into the spell. Her words were coming slower, and the energy was starting to turn a reddish hue of purple again.

“Do you remember anything else?”

Attisha shook her head.

“Canker is asking him if he has blankets. Yeah, he has a couple. But I’m tired. It’s late…I don’t want to get involved with this shit… shady as fuck…. I’m going to bed. You boys have fun.”

The crown of indigo light receded as Delle slowly started to release the contract. From the ripples, Sev could tell that she was using sorcery to keep the contract stable, and gentle, slowly pulling the excess energy out of Attisha’s mind. Delle took her hands off Attisha’s temples and placed them on her shoulders. Attisha’s eyes fluttered open with a disoriented expression.

“How are you feeling?” Delle asked.

“I think I’m good,” Attisha said, drawing the word out slightly. “A little dizzy.”

“Thank you for your help,” Delle said, and helped guide Attisha back to her tent. “Go lie down. You’ll feel clear in the morning.”

“Wait…did that boy make Canker jump?” Attisha asked, confused and suddenly alarmed.

Delle hesitated before answering:

“Whatever he did to Canker, he won’t get away with it.”

Attisha gave a heavy headed nod and ducked back into her tent.

Lunday, Ophiuchus 23rd, 12:04 AM. Arroyo (North Arroyo)

Sevardin called the precinct as they traipsed back through the brush, relaying what they had learned about the storage unit to Forsythe. Before getting back into the cruiser, Delle showed Dessen’s mugshot to the others around the homeless encampment, but most of the others had left, and those who were still present either didn’t recognize him or didn’t have anything to say.

As soon as they boarded the cruiser, dispatch called and patched them through to Forsythe.

“There is a Secustore facility in North Arroyo. Apparently, the building boasts twenty-four-hour access. Head there now and show the attendant Dessen’s mugshot. I’m going to secure a warrant and assemble a TMAW team. If he does have a unit, it may be boobytrapped.”

“Won’t a warrant take at least a day to obtain?” Delle asked.

“Some friends in high places owe me a few favors that should expedite things,” Forsythe said. “But bureaucracies being what they are, it will still probably take until morning. For now, see if you can confirm whether Dessen has a unit. There’s probably some confidentiality clause, but if you mention it’s for a homicide investigation, the flunky at the desk might give you a straight answer anyway.”

“Won’t that make any evidence we find inadmissible?” Sevardin asked.

A pointed silence followed.

“I will take full responsibility for any ‘discrepancies,’ Harker. Apply some gentle pressure and learn as much as you can before I arrive. Just wait before opening the unit.”

There was the click of a receiver and the call went dead. Sevardin took a deep breath and looked at Delle, who looked similarly glum. This is crazy. Not one hot fuck given about chain of evidence. This man seriously intends to murder Dessen without any kind of justification or trial.

“I gotta say, I’m getting a touch uncomfortable with this case. I know the CIC plays by different rules, but Forsythe’s acting like the law doesn’t apply to him.”

“I’m getting the impression it doesn’t,” Delle said, stoking the cruiser to life with her key. “Our hands are tied though.”

“No,” Sevardin said, a touch stern. “We have to be better than executioners. At the very least, we have to play by the rules.”

Delle gave Sev a hard look. He returned it. Delle gestured for him to speak up. He shook his head and snickered. You know what I’m getting at. You can acknowledge it or pretend it didn’t happen.

“I didn’t violate protocol, Sevardin. Detectives have leave to use memory enhancement charms to assist witnesses in recalling pertinent information with their consent.”

“I think you’re forgetting a clause, Ledelle. We can cast sensory and memory enhancement charms on compliant witnesses within a controlled setting. That means medithurges are standing by in case something goes wrong.”

“I am the goddamned controlled environment!” Delle snapped. “You know how I got promoted to full detective? I don’t have a lot of high-profile collars under my belt. I keep my caseload under control but I’m not prolific. My only urdic talent is my skill with mnemonics. When other detectives bring in hazy witnesses, I’m the one they call to jog their memories. And I don’t always get results, but I have never had an incident.”

Sev felt slightly chastened and said nothing. Delle continued:

“You were the one who told me she was ‘flighty’ and probably wouldn’t be willing to come into the precinct. I weighed the risks and did what I had to do. But maybe you see something from your high horse that I’m missing. Care to share?”

“I’m sorry,” Sevardin said. “I didn’t know that was a specialty of yours. It just seemed risky.”

“You’re a sharp kid, Sev, and you have a very promising career ahead of you. But you are still learning the realities of this job. The differences between doing things ‘by the book,’ ‘following orders,’ and dealing with the practical realities of a case. The distinctions aren’t as neat and clean as the textbooks and ethics tests make them out to be. So, spare me your sanctimony.”

Spare me your condescension!

“If we were to just happen across Dessen, find him crossing the street somewhere, what would you do? Shoot him on sight? Run him over?”

Delle sighed and paused for a long moment, eyes glued on the road. Finally, she shrugged and said:

“Obviously, I would prefer not to kill anybody, but somehow I think he’s gonna force the issue.”

“What if Dessen wants to turn himself in and Forsythe tries to kill him? Are you just going to stand there and watch?”

“Yes!” Delle said, turning to face him. “I honestly don’t get you, Sev. One minute you’re bitching about me playing fast and loose with protocol, and the next you’re telling me to disobey somebody so far up the chain he needs a telescope to see us. I overheard his conversation with the AC. Forsythe’s word is law to Folsom. He is bossing our Arch Chief around. I mean, Christ. I’m just trying to do my fucking job here, man.”

“And I’m just trying to do the right thing,” Sev spoke in a gentle tone and emanated an apology.

“You might have picked the wrong discipline,” Delle said, voice grim.

Sev snickered. That stung bad enough when Sala said it. But hearing it from a colleague was a much deeper cut. He looked outside the window at the dreary, fog-shrouded arroyo, sighed, and gestured that he had heard that one before.

But I still refuse to believe it.

—12:28 AM. North Arroyo (Secustore Facility)—

“We just want to know if there is a client with the name Dessen Thomas,” Sev pressed.

“I get what you’re saying, man, but my boss would have my balls,” the attendant said with a thick, surfer-like affectation. “I can’t tell you the names of our clients unless you’ve got like, a warrant or something.”

He was a thin man in his early twenties, standing behind the counter in punked-up dress. Lip ring and ear plugs. Spiked choker. Limp mohawk. As Forsythe predicted, his initial attitude and ennui evaporated as soon as Delle said ‘Homicide Investigation.’

“You probably want to call your boss and get him down here,” Sev said. “A warrant is on the way, along with a TMAW team.”

The kid’s eyes widened again. Delle nodded and gestured for him to make the phone call. He retreated to the back office of the security booth. Sev could hear the nervous threads of conversation drifting through the open door, including ‘amagia,’ ‘homicide,’ and ‘TMAW squad.’ Mere seconds later, the kid re-emerged, looking shaken.

“Yeah, uh, my boss says he’s on his way.”

Delle extracted the photo of Dessen and slid it across the counter to the attendant.

“I know you can’t give us records ‘til your boss gets here, but can you tell me if you’ve ever seen this guy while you were on shift?”

The attendant’s eyes lowered to the photo and came up wider than they were. He opened his mouth to say something, then stopped himself. He’s seen Dessen. Both Sev and Delle gestured for him to continue speaking.

“I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you that either, man. Err, ma’am. Detective. But like, let’s say he looks kinda familiar?”

Delle smiled like she just beat the devil at poker.

“If there’s anybody else at the facility now would be a good time to ask them to leave.”

— 5:15 AM—

A five-man TMAW squad arrived with Forsythe in-tow in just under forty-five minutes, but it was over four hours before the Precinct sent an officer over with the search warrant. Forsythe spent most of the wait on the phone, calmly detailing threats to some poor soul on the other line. Sev and Delle slept through most of the wait in the cruiser though.

At quarter past five, Forsythe knocked on the door, rousting them. There was no storage unit registered to Dessen Thomas, but the attendant recognized Thomas’ mugshot as one Jahn Dorset, who owned Unit A6. The attendant added that “Jahn” came around fairly regularly; one of the few customers who routinely stopped by on the graveyard shift.

The TMAW crept toward the last unit in the first row, behind the attendant in their cruiser, with Forsythe, Delle, and Sevardin following on foot. The cruiser pulled square in front of the metal-slatted garage, shining its headlamps to illuminate the unit’s contents. The attendant surrendered the key to the TMAW squad leader.

The key turned smoothly, and the metal sheets slowly creaked upwards. There was no explosion. No hidden wards or silent traps sprung. The unit was just large enough to serve as a single-car garage, but the first half of the space was empty.

As the metal slats receded, four mirrors reflected the glare of the cruiser’s headlights onto a tall figure shrouded in a heavy white sheet, both arms raised out and to the sides. It looked like a child’s Samhain costume: a ghost cut from curtains.

Sev felt a faint urdic pulse emanating from beneath the sheet.

Oh God.

“AKF! Identify yourself!” the TMAW squad leader shouted, gun trained on the figure.

There was no answer. The person was either drugged, asleep, or barely clinging to life. The TMAW members crept into the tiny room from its corners, taking cover behind warded riot shields. Still no traps. Still no movement. There was a desk, a chest, a chair, and a precarious heap of alchemy reagents and equipment stacked compactly behind the figure and the mirrors.

“Curtain’s ‘chanted!” one of the TMAW members called.

There was no easy way to see or access the objects that had been set up behind the mirrors without disturbing the central display. After thirteen tense seconds, the TMAW team signaled for Hopkins and Forsythe to enter the room, indicating the room was clear of magical threats.

Delle walked into the room behind the TMAW captain, and reached out with both hand and wyrd, prodding the curtain to sniff out the enchantment that had been placed upon it.

“Shit. It’s some kind of trigger,” Delle said.

“…Help me,” a voice rasped, from beneath the sheet.

Delle looked at the Squad captain, weighing the danger. Forsythe abruptly tore away the curtain, despite protests from the TMAW captain, Delle, and Sevardin. That could set off a bomb you maniac! But what was beneath the sheets was in many ways worse.

The girl was scored by thin red tracks. Pinstripes ran the entire length of her body save for her stomach, which was imprinted with the same mark that had been emblazoned on the suicide victims. Her familiar face wore a deranged smile. Where have I met you?

“Hello, Detective Hopkins,” she said. “Hello, friends.”

The red threads drawn down her body slowly began to ooze. No. Bleed. The stripes weren’t paint, but open wounds that had somehow been held in check. Probably the enchanted sheet. But Sev looked at her contorted face. Oh my god. That’s Sidani! The same girl he had rescued from Devil’s Gate. The first life I saved on the job.

“You can’t save the girl,” Sidani said. “Even if you could stop the bleeding, she’ll die from infection. These cuts have been open for six hours. But since you got far enough to unwrap my present, I figure you deserved a consolation prize.”

“Search the premises!” Delle said to the TMAW team, and then turned to Forsythe, “Help me cut her down!”

Sidani bucked against her restraints, and the blood started flowing faster, spattering the concrete with thick drops and heavy trickles.

“I was going to give you two minutes,” Sidani snapped, breathing hard. “But now you get sixty seconds. Try to get her down again, and I’ll bleed her dry in an instant.”

Delle backed away from Sidani’s body and raised her hands. Forsythe stepped forward again, placing his stave on the ground in front of him, both hands resting on the cross-handle.

“Enough theatrics, wretch. If you want to demonstrate your great power, face us.”

Sidani laughed.

“Now, now! Don’t skip the foreplay. Ask something smart and I might give you a clue or two.”

“Where are you, Dessen?” Delle asked.

Sidani barked a laugh.

“Farther than you’d think! But That’s the wrong question, isn’t it detective? You should be asking yourself where I’m going.”

“Where are you going?” Delle asked, trying to keep her voice calm.

“Well, I was looking forward to meeting a close friend at Arroyo’s Haunted Bridge Party tonight. But based on all the uniforms you’ve got walking around, it looks like that fun will be canceled. So now, I’m thinking I’ll head downtown instead. Maybe watch a scary movie. See what kind of crazy costumes the kiddos are wearing these days. All I know is that I don’t feel like being alone tonight.”

The blood continued to flow out of the slash lines in Sidani’s body. Sevardin clenched his teeth and stepped forward from the side of the cruiser, where he’d been instructed to wait. We have to save her! She’s possessed. Xenomantic or not, there has to be a way to break—Forsythe held up a hand and emanated stillness and silence. The gesture wasn’t abrupt, but it was authoritative enough to stay Sevardin’s hand.

“I will speak plainly, and I suggest you do the same,” Forsythe said, in a gentle voice. “You are dying tonight. But you may still die on your terms.”

Sidani adopted a stunned expression and burst with laughter, even as the bloody pool beneath her body crept steadily across the concrete. Forsythe continued:

“Issue us an invitation and we will face you in advance of your patron’s arrival. Prove that you do not need to hide behind his skirts. You may die with dignity. Or you can continue to play these precious guessing games, and prove, definitively, that the Amagium was right about you.” At that, Sidani’s smile vanished. “To my eye, you are nothing more than a parasitic drumout. A born failure suckling a monster’s teat. A slave and coward.”

“I will feed you your own heart,” Sidani snarled.

Forsythe smirked.

“Wouldn’t that contradict your patron’s wishes?” Forsythe asked, a wicked gleam in his eye. “I imagine he gave you some very specific instructions. ‘Keep a low profile until I arrive,’ or ‘stay alive until midnight on Samhain at all costs.’ Something of that nature, yes?”

Sidani’s face was contorted by a foreign rage and almost completely covered with blood. Forsythe managed to strike a nerve.

“Come to Los Angeles’ Fright Fair. Eleven tonight. Gather as many cops and Keepers as you can. But if you cancel the festival? I’ll start killing trick or treaters instead.”

Forsythe inclined his head. Then he gripped the handle of his stave and drew a long, double-edged blade concealed within the shaft. What the—No! Stop! But Sevardin was too far back, and Delle, who was transfixed on Sidani, noticed the movement too late.

Forsythe strode forward, and with one swift stroke, he cut off the girl’s head.

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