EPISODE 33: GIFT HORSE

Support me on Patreon for as little as $2 to access episode soundtracks!

Sevardin Harker. Jovday, Aries 14th, 2348 AA. 9:48 AM. Arroyo (AKF Central Precinct).

God? I know I’m not exactly a good Christian… Actually, fuck it. Sevardin folded his hands in silent prayer and leaned his head on his steepled fingers. To any and all deities listening… I am normally not a praying man, but I will evangelize your ass from now ‘til your respective Judgment Day if you can just…smite this paperwork from the face of creation. If I have to write another word about another goddamn defective drive train on an Ieyasu Sedan I will—Sev’s phone started ringing.

“Well, that’s promising,” He murmured.

Sev checked the call ID which read “Delle,” and his heart turned brittle. If this is the answer to my prayers, my new god has got a quirked sense of humor. Sev had hoped, privately, that Delle’s confession was closure. An end to whatever they had been. The beginning of a new era, with other partners, and no rearview mirrors. I do not need a third round. He ignored the call and went back to his reports.

His phone twitched a couple seconds after ringing, announcing a voicemail. Then it started ringing again. Jesus Christ, better to get this over with, whatever it is. He hesitated a second, looking at the screen. I hope you aren’t in trouble.

“Hello?” Sev said, trying to sound innocent.

“Hey. Thanks for picking up,” she said.

“Sure,” Sevardin said, though his voice came out more wary than warm.

“I have a lead on your Unbranded problem,” she said. “Earlier this year, I worked on a missing persons case. And during that time, I made friends with two members of the Los Altos Rollers.


Sev furrowed his brow. He had heard the Rollers mentioned around the AKF, and knew they were a Black street gang, but precious little else. Arroyo’s biggest players were the Briaredge Bloods, and the North Arroyo Crips, both Black. There were also a few Hispanic gangs; sub-factions of Mara Salvatrucha-13 who routinely went from rivals to allies overnight, and sometimes back again before dawn.

“Heard of them, but I don’t know much. They with the Bloods or the NAC?”

“Ha,” Delle chuckled. “The Rollers love to describe themselves as Swiss. A neutral party.”

“Bullshit.”

“You’d think. Truth is, the NAC used to own Los Altos. Then the Bloods shot up a nearby supermarket last summer and…”

“The APD cracked down hard. ‘Clean up our streets.’”

Sevardin quoted the rallying cry from the mayor’s impassioned, chest-thumping speech.

“Yep. But come Christmas time, the cops had gone back to protecting Arroyo’s white folks, and the Rollers swept in quick and silent. They are a very complicated set. Their leader, Takane Wallace, is supposedly an ex-Crip who went straight, only to take charge of the neighborhood following the crackdown.”

“So they’re on everybody’s shitlist.”

“Very probably. But nobody can touch them. Instead of expanding their territory, they keep tightening their hold on Los Altos Park. The Bloods and Crips have made overtures, both diplomatic and violent. But the Rollers are deft and discrete. You haven’t seen them in the papers much yet—if at all—because their violence largely goes unreported. Wallace has the entire neighborhood lockstep.”

“How does this connect to the Unbranded?” Sevardin asked.

Upon hearing the Unbranded, Juel pointedly stopped typing, and Ashford folded his newspaper. Both of them turned to watch Sevardin talk. He emanated ‘fuck off,’ and gestured the same. This conversation does not need a goddamned peanut gallery.

“My contacts are midlevel Rollers. They supervise dealers and muscle, know where some of the bodies are buried, and handle pick-ups and drop offs. On a lark, I called them to see if they had heard anything about ‘revolutionary types’ through the grapevine. And as luck would have it, they noticed an uptick in… unusual customers.”

“Unusual how?”

“I think their exact words were ‘college-ass bitches’ and ‘thousand-yard-stare motherfuckers.’”

It was a stereotype, but most Unbranded operatives were young flag burners, newly graduated to terrorism, or asfalis ex-military. If these informants are using dog whistles like that, their meaning’s pretty plain.

“The Rollers mostly stick to drugs. Crack, grass, dust. And now these goddamn opiates. But their new customers have been angling for other contraband.”

“Such as?”

“Weapons. Restricted anima. Cracked licenses. And the sort of oddly specific ingredients you’d find on a recipe for entropy bombs.”

The tips of Sevardin’s fingers started to tingle. Baby, if this is going where I think it is, I love you all over again.

“That’s remarkably ham-fisted. Do the Rollers have those kinds of connections?”

“Absolutely. I don’t know where they get their product, or their weapons. It was one area that my boys refused to discuss. I suspect they have a literal fairy godmother, or they found a way through the Veil, given how high grade their faen product is.”

“Delle, are you sure this isn’t some kind of trap?”

“Drat. Foiled again, I fucking guess,” she snapped.

“No—I’m sorry—it just sounds too good to be true. After what the APD did to their neighborhood, I’d assume—”

Sevardin realized that Juel and Ashford were watching him again. Goddammit, now they know it’s Delle. He sharply emanated ‘not now,’ and gestured ‘we’ll talk after.’

“Think it over a little, Sev. You’re smarter than this.”

“I’m just a little distracted,” Sev threw trash at Ashford and Juel who gesticulated like jackasses and made faces out of the corner of his eye, “By the lead you are dangling in front of my face. So please enlighten me.”

“According to my sources, the Rollers started out as a non-civic neighborhood watch. And there is a rumor that the APD may have made an anonymous donation to this organization with the intention of having them help ‘clean up our streets.’”

Sev nearly laughed. Are you seriously trying to tell me the Arroyo Police Department gave a North Arroyo gang seed money? Actually, that is depressingly plausible. ‘Hand the negros guns and let them sort each other out,’ sounds like the sort of solution the mayor would adore. And the Chief of the APD. Sev exhaled and drooped his head over the back of his chair.

“Again, the Rollers were never officially recognized by the city,” Delle clarified. “My guess is that selling drugs was not part of their original charter. But the APD isn’t eager for their little fuck-up to start snagging headlines just yet. Point is, while the Rollers are criminals through and through, they are also committed to maintaining control over that neighborhood. In their eyes, the drugs are just—”

“…A tax on the people they protect. From other gangs. From police. From each other,” Sevardin listed in a monotone.

“Yes, exactly. And in this case, from terrorists. At least, that’s what my guys tell me to help me sleep at night.”

“Gangbangers with hearts of gold,” Sev grunted.

“Don’t let them hear you say that. They’re all about the Game, Sev. Hardcore motherfuckers.  This is purely ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ shit.”

Sev couldn’t help but laugh as Delle continued.

“Anyway. I am willing to guess the AKF has your venture benched, given Juel’s personal connection to the case.”

“You’d guess right.”

“Well, that’s a pity. Because my guys are willing to meet with me, and one venture of my choosing. And frankly, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable teaming up with anybody else.”

Sev sat back upright with a jolt.

“Wait, you already got them to agree to meet with us? They agreed to be confidential informants?”

“I just need to name a time and place.”

Delle, what the hell kind of favor did you call in for this?

“Thank you, Delle.” Sev said. “I really can’t… Thank you. I can’t thank you enough. Can you come in this afternoon?”

“Just so happens I have a clear schedule. And their CI applications are sitting on my desk.”

Sev could practically see her smile through the receiver. Then she spoke in a cautionary tone:

“You know Drake will try to persuade me to give this to someone else. She’ll play hard ball. But she’s pressed for time and doesn’t have a lot of leverage. So don’t back down. After meeting the CIs, you will be officially listed on the case. That means access to files at the very least, even if they keep you off the field.”

“That’s all we want,” Sevardin said, wearing a fierce smile.

Delle laughed.

“It’s like I can see you smiling,” she said.

“I don’t doubt it,” Sev chuckled. The answer came unchecked and incautious.

Well. That’s… Huh.

The remark effortlessly ripped at the part of his heart Delle would always occupy. It was a nexus of happy memories, aborted hopes, and emotional scar tissue, haunted by persistent wonders of what might have been. Or who knows. Maybe it’s what could still happen. In a way, this kind of collaboration, the opportunity to channel their mutual talents into a good cause, was what their relationship had been missing. He shook his head. No. Don’t do this, Sev. At the very least, you have work to do first, and it starts now.

“I’ll be in soon,” she said.

“I’ll brief the others,” Sev said. “And Delle, seriously, thank you.”

“Anytime.”

—10:28 AM—

Drake was not pleased. Ashford’s venture stood at attention in front of the Arch Chief’s desk, while Delle had her thumbs hooked into her jeans’ pockets, wearing a faint little grin.

“Adams,” the Arch Chief began. “You know we are trying to keep your people off this case for their own good, right?”

“I told them,” Ashford said, nodding. “Over and over again. But you know they’ll force a veto.”


Venture’s chains of command were complicated things. Outside of immediate danger, a commanding officer’s orders could be over-ruled by a majority decision of their direct subordinates, provided those officers had finished their probationary period. It was an antiquated convention of the Amagium, and rarely invoked because it almost inevitably caused problems. At the very least, it bred bad blood. But Juel and Sev had pushed their luck before, over less important issues.

We aren’t budging, Chief.

“And I’m with them on this,” Ashford added. “Mainly because they’ve both been useless since this ordeal has started. The Force is desperate for a lead, Hopkins isn’t extending this opportunity to anybody else, and nobody on the AKF is more motivated.”

Drake turned to Delle, her scarred mouth curling at the corners in a sour smile.

“I thought we parted on good terms, Delle. And I thought you liked Harker. Why are you sending him into a dangerous situation where his instincts and good judgement will be inherently compromised? You two back together again?”

Sevardin bristled, and Delle emanated a sharp objection.

“With respect, Chief Drake, that isn’t your business. It hasn’t been your business since I left the AKF four years ago.” Delle held Drake’s gaze for a long moment, demanding a response.

“Consider it a personal inquiry,” Drake replied, coolly. “I want to know just how badly compromised my men are before I put them in mortal jeopardy.”

“We aren’t dating,” Delle said. “Satisfied?”

“No, Delle, I am not. You are holding this investigation hostage. This is a terrorist threat, you understand that, right? It is bigger than Flores’ feud with Drigori Demirci. And I have to consider what is best for this department’s reputation, my men’s safety—”

“And I have to think about the lives of my sources,” Delle interrupted. “Speaking frankly, Chief, I don’t trust anybody else on the Force enough to handle their safety and make the most out of this opportunity. That’s not a contrivance. I left the Force for a reason.”

“Here I thought that reason was so you could date Harker out in the open,” Drake said, still icy.

That’s out of line. Sev wanted to tell Drake as much, but the situation was precarious enough already. And fortunately, Delle didn’t take the bait. She just smiled and waited for Drake to continue:

“From where I’m sitting, you’re trying to score points with your ex by giving him exactly what he wants most in the world. And you are willfully putting him and others at risk to do it.”

“I’m throwing the AKF a lifeline,” Delle corrected. “Take it or leave it. Threaten me with whatever you like; we both know you can’t legally coerce me or my informants to participate in this investigation via amagiate or asfalis laws. These men put their trust in me. And I trust Harker, Flores, and Ashford.”

Drake leaned back in her chair, laughing, and spread her hands wide.

“What can I say? You have me over a barrel and you know it. But you should know, this sort of thing makes me extremely angry. Whereas, if you can muster the decency to see reason, I would be extremely grateful. Either way, I pay my debts in full. So detectives, ask yourselves one last time: are you willing to stake your careers on this cute little stunt?”

Ashford took a deep breath and gave Juel and Sevardin a longsuffering look. You’re just hanging around until your pension hits the next milestone. But for us, it really is a gamble. Even if we bust this thing wide open, capture Demirci Junior, smoke out all the Unbranded in Arroyo, there will be major consequences. Drake could re-assign me to general patrol for the rest of my days on the Force out of spite, or to prove a point—

Drake’s patience tangibly snapped with a harsh emanation. She reached over her desk and said:

“Give me the goddamn applications.”

Delle passed her the slips. Drake reviewed their personal information. Theoretically she could balk, but Sev could tell that she was already in.

“Kobbick Star and Jahnim Zachry Rose. Occupation… Los Altos Rollers? Fucking gang bangers. Jesus Christ. And five hundred in compensation?”

“Five hundred for each,” Delle confirmed. “And if their involvement leads to Junior’s arrest, they want seventy percent of the bounty for the information, as-advertised. I’ll take the remaining thirty.”

Drake raised an eyebrow.

“You’re giving them a larger share?”

“They’re the ones assuming all the risk!” Delle said.

“How magnanimous,” Drake muttered. She slashed her signature across both slips, then slid them back to Delle. “Alright. Your sources are officially sanctioned confidential informants for the Arroyo Keeping Force. Now talk me through this.”

—1:36 PM. Arroyo (Brookside Park)—

Juel, Sevardin, and Delle sat at one of the benches before Brookside Park’s open-air auditorium, a barebones stage under a pergola.

They all wore asfalis clothes to avoid attention, and Sev’s wrists felt light and naked without his Keeper’s vambraces—instead, he wore his standard, certified licenses; the single-animus type that most adult asfalis people wore in public, styled like a watch. Ashford waited in the parking lot, behind the wheel of an amagiate cruiser in case things ‘went south.’ My ass. He’s only here at all because the entire Venture has to be ‘present.’ He’d rather just read the paper.

“Ah. Here we are,” Delle said, tilting her chin up.

Sev followed her gaze to two young Black men, both late teens to mid-twenties, strutting like pimps and dressed like professorial parodies. The shorter of the two wore a tweed jacket with brown-leather elbow patches, a polka dot bowtie over a cream shirt with khakis. The taller wore a three-piece houndstooth suit with a white shirt and the sort of shoulder capes Hollywood loved to give eccentric academic types. Both wore expensive sunglasses.

“Lookin’ dapper boys!” Delle said.

“Yeah, well, you know, you come to White Arroyo, you got to look the part, right?” the taller of the two said.

Nailed it.

“Gentlemen, this is Kobb, and this is Jahnz,” Delle said, indicating the shorter and taller of the pair respectively.

“Sev Harker,” Sev said, extending his hand.

“Juel Flores,” Juel said, following suit but a touch stiff.

When they finished shaking hands, Jahnz took a pointed headcount.

“I thought witch-police came in packages of three.”

“Third guy is kind of a dick, so we left him in the car,” Delle said, grinning.

“Always happy to cut dicks out of the equation,” Jahnz said, laughing.

“So! What are you hoping to get out of this relationship, detectives?” Kobb asked pleasantly.

“Our end goal is Drigori Demirci Junior in custody,” Juel said. “He’s our prime suspect and the alleged ringleader of the Unbranded in Arroyo.”

Sev shot Juel a glance. You’re skipping some steps there, partner. He cut in:

“First thing we’d like to do is just hear what you have to say about these ‘revolutionary types.’ After that, we’ll probably surveil the park to get probable cause for a sting operation. Then we use the sting to arrest them for buying contraband, and try to get them to flip on Demirci or another higher up. Even if nobody talks, we disrupt their operations.”

“Hey, talking’s no problem,” Kobb said. “But we have a… strong allergic reaction to the word ‘surveillance.’ Don’t we?”

He looked to Jahnz for confirmation who emanated emphatic, nigh-religious agreement, then said:

“Our business is sensitive, right? If we set you up in our hood, give you the grand tour, let you take names and faces, what’s to stop you from busting our asses a month after you have your terrorists?”

“We don’t necessarily need to go into your buildings, or to seed the park with our people,” Juel clarified. “One white van, a couple photos, and an undercover guy with a wire is all we need.”

“Forgive me, Detective Flores,” Jahnz said. “But I can’t help but notice you didn’t answer my associate’s question. How do we know the Amagium won’t bite us in the ass?”

“I’m gonna be real with you,” Sevardin cut in before Juel could respond. “If you are hoping that we can give the Rollers some form of lasting legal immunity, or even a ‘get out of jail free card,’ we all walk away disappointed. During surveillance and on the day of the sting? You’re off the hook. Any other illegal activity we see is just part of the charade, and any other evidence gathered is inadmissible in court.”

The gangbangers nodded thoughtfully, and Sev continued:

“Thing is, we’re cops. Our professions will inevitably end up at cross purposes eventually. But in both our lines of work, dead bodies are very bad for business. Because dead bodies demand reprisal. And given what we’ve got on our plate, we are in no hurry to go picking fresh fights, because that would mean more dead bodies.”

“Man, I do fuckin’ hate dead bodies,” Kobb said, nodding.

“Preach,” Jahnz confirmed. “We are all about what’s good for good business. But you’ve got to understand. Takane knows we having this meeting. Right? He gave us his blessing. And we need to go back to him with some kind of… silver lining.”

“From what I understand, you both are getting a pretty sweet cut of the Unbranded bounty. That isn’t enough?” Juel asked.

Sev had to keep himself from shooting Juel a look. Man, be cool!

“We consider that a service fee for our troubles,” Kobb explained with a smile. “Like, Delle’s your middle man, we Takane’s middle men. That means it’s our job to make sure everybody is happy. Now, us three are getting paid,” he gestured to himself, Jahnz, and Delle. “So that’s three happy people right there. And the Amagium gets their terrorists, which should make y’all happy. But we gotta look out for Takane and the Rollers as a whole too, feel me?”

“Hate to break it to you, but we don’t have the authority to—” Juel began.

“Come on now,” Sev said, talking over Juel again. “Getting rid of the terrorists is good for the Rollers, too. Else Takane wouldn’t have given you his blessing in the first place. But if he needs us to sweeten the deal, don’t go fishing. Name your price and we’ll see what we can do.”

Kobb and Jahnz weren’t expecting that. They probably hoped to stonewall us, walk away until we get desperate, then name an outrageous ask further down the line. But we don’t have time for more back and forth. We need to keep them at this table, have them accept the CI money, and progress from there.

“Takane got a nephew in Chino,” Kobb said. “He’s on year five of ten for cracking licenses. Sentenced at eighteen. Balls had barely dropped. But he’s been on his best behavior and he’s coming up for parole. If the AKF can put in a good word with the board….” Kobb held out his hands and shrugged.

Sev nodded thoughtfully. Drake will not be happy about this. But I don’t see another option.

“As my partner said, we don’t have the official authority to make any additional deals on behalf of the Force as a whole. But we’re on a tight schedule. Every minute we waste is another opportunity for the terrorists to find a different supplier. And if you lose them, nobody’s happy.”

“True that,” Jahnz said.

“Here’s what I propose: tell us everything you know about the Unbranded right now, and you each walk away five hundred dollars richer, as previously agreed. When we finish that discussion, tell Takane I will talk to my superiors about his nephew, and ask him to arrange an initial meeting with the buyers, tomorrow.”

Kobb’s eyes bugged and he said:

“Y’all don’t fuck around! Whatever happened to healthy bureaucracy?”

“You’re not talking about pulling the sting tomorrow, are you?” Jahnz asked.

“No. Tomorrow we just need to catch the suspects on camera, establish their intent to buy. Your people should suggest a meeting location for the sale though.”

“I know Takane, man,” Jahnz said. “And he’ll want some assurance that your word about his nephew is good.”

“Southern California’s Amagiate Parole Board is part of the Amagium but a separate entity from the AKF. We can’t wave a wand and guarantee he gets off, even if word comes from the Arch Chief herself. But at the very least, I can promise you a letter arguing the nephew’s case with our chapter’s letterhead on it. By tonight.”

Even if I have to write it myself.


Kobb and Jahnz exchanged a look that seemed to constitute an entire conversation.

“Aight,” Jahnz said. “Seeing how we movin’ fast and all, I should probably call Takane right now. Kobb can tell you all about the lunatics.”

Jahnz stood and started dialing his symphone while Kobb held out his hands, emanating, ‘ask away.’

“How many people have come around? You have names? Faces?” Juel asked.

“‘Bout a month back, an old vet started coming around. He had had a prosthetic leg; no artifice, just one of those blade things. Asked what we could do for pain. So, I sold him some next level dust. He became something of a regular. Think his name is Claden. ‘Clay’ something. Anyway, beginning of last week, he brought two college-looking kids with him. Said they were his niece and her boyfriend.”

“Referrals like that common?” Juel asked.

Kobb shrugged.

“Well-to-do white people aren’t common in Los Altos, period. And while it’s not normal for an addict to drag family along for the ride, it ain’t unheard of neither.”

“You weren’t worried they were undercover?” Juel asked.

Kobb snickered.

“Thought briefly crossed my mind, but college boy immediately asked if they could partake in the park. And they’re paying customers, it’s a free country, so why not. As soon as that college boy got lit though, he asked us how we felt about Amagia.”

“What’d you tell him?” Sev asked.

“The truth: y’all a bunch of trigger-happy, urdocratic fascists. And college boy loved to hear that. Started raving about how Claden lost his leg, caught in a crossfire between a raghead and a Judge.”

Asfalis military hated the Amagium for a whole host of reasons, but Judges were near the top of the list. They were extremely powerful veterans of the Keeping Force who oversaw warzones to ensure neither side was using illicit magic. And if anybody broke Amagiate Law, or took a shot at the Judge, the Judge would react with extreme prejudice. By the same token, they were forbidden from intervening in the conflict under any other circumstances.  Imagine being sent to die in some godforsaken dust bowl, watching your buddies get mowed down by machine gun fire or torn to shred by IEDs, while angry arch wizards watch to make sure you don’t ‘cheat.’

“When college boy started to sober up, he immediately started asking about what else we had access to. Now, I figured he wanted something harder, like heroin, softness, midnight eye… But he jumped straight to guns and licenses.”

“How’d you react?”

“I asked if he was gonna yippee ki-yay his way through the Arroyo Athenaeum. He didn’t find that joke particularly funny.”

“What about the girl? Claden’s niece,” Delle asked.

Sev smirked. Look at you playing Keeper, again. Can’t help yourself.

Kobb made a great show of shuddering off a chill.

“Girl gave me the creeps. Didn’t take shit. Didn’t say shit either, at first. But she kept her eyes wide open. Honestly, I think she was in charge. There to make sure the other two didn’t fuck things up, or to size up our operation. And after college boy brought up weapons, she started asking specifics; how fast we could deliver, what all was available, what ballpark in terms of price…”

“What’d you tell her?” Juel asked.

“I said we weren’t a fuckin’ burger joint, and that there was no fuckin’ menu. I told her to come back Merday with a full list of wants. And sure enough, she, Clay, and college boy come back with their asks. Four pairs of cracked licenses, six Platos, all kindsa alchemical shit, and everything you need to make e-bombs. Demon marrow. Restricted fire anima and gyves.”

“You’ve studied up,” Sevardin said, impressed.

Kobb started laughing as if Sevardin delivered a good punchline. He got himself under control, gestured a quick apology, and explained:

“I literally just looked up her Christmas list on the arcanet. Did it on my phone on my way to talk to Takane. First five line items were all about entropy magic. Given what happened at that restaurant, and the Unbranded’s little declaration of war, it’s like arithmetic, right? Two and two make four. Angry college kids and weird magic shit make domestic terrorists.”

Sev snickered and nodded.

“Why do you think they came to you instead of buying off the arcanet?” Juel asked.

“I got the sense they need it quickly. You can’t exactly get free next day delivery on this shit. Anyway, I showed Takane the list, told him these motherfuckers are terrorists, straight up, and asked how to proceed. He told us to sell them the guns then and there to keep them interested. Knowing him, he was probably planning on some sort of sting himself.”

“In that case, why involve Delle at all? Why not claim the bounty for himself?” Juel asked.

“Come on, man,” Kobb laughed. “Me and Jahnz? We small fry. A man of Takane’s stature can’t go playing CI. Kings don’t talk to cops even if they dealing with terrorists, you know? He needs a degree of distance and plausible deniability. But when Delle called Jahnz and said that she was looking for mad bombers, it’s like… spares us the trouble, right? Takane don’t give a shit about money. He said we could take the bounty as a finder’s fee, so long as we look out for his blood.”

“Where’d you leave things with the girl?” Sevardin asked.

“I told her it would take some time to see what all we can get. She gave me a phone number to call when we were ready to take the next steps,” Kobb said, and extracted a folded piece of paper from his pocket.

Sevardin copied the number into his notebook. The phone was almost certainly a burner, pre-paid and untraceable, but it was still worth looking into. People were powerfully stupid on occasion.

Jahnz walked back to the table, sliding his phone back into his pocket.

“Takane says we good to go as soon as tomorrow if need be. But before we provide you with any further cooperation, he wants to see that letter.”

“That won’t leave us much time to prep our undercover officer. Don’t suppose you’d be willing to come back to the station and wait while we get it written up?” Sev asked.

“That’s a hard pass from me dawg,” Kobb said, laughing.

“Word,” Jahnz agreed. “Air’s a little thick for our liking. Too much… What’d y’all call it… ‘urdic respiration.’ Seeing how y’all in a rush though, soon as you have the letter, bring it by LeVoy’s Smoke Shop in Los Altos along with your undercover man. We’ll get him to look the part. Speaking of which, come as you are. Leave the dresses at home.”

Sevardin snickered again. People often dissed or dismissed amagiate robes as dresses—Keepers’ waist capes in particular. Sev gave them a two fingered salute and the pair strutted off.

“Well. Sounds like you boys have plenty of work to do so I’ll let you get to it,” Delle said. “Lemme know when I can claim my reward.”

Juel and Sevardin both chuckled.

“You’re out? Just like that?” Juel asked.

“In case it escaped your notice, I probably made Drake into a lifelong enemy by handing you this lead. Kinda doubt she’d let me help with the investigation.”

Sev grinned broadly.

Let you help, huh? That phrasing kinda implies you’d like permission. I knew you missed it.”

Delle crossed her arms and snickered.

“I really don’t. But I’m happy to help good Keepers do their job. And like I said, you’ve got your work cut out for you. So get to it. Mama needs her payday.”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am,” Sev said with a mock salute.

Delle walked off toward the parking lot and Sev watched her go, then turned back to Juel. He was also watching Delle, but his expression was stormy. Grim as coffin wood.

“Don’t let her get in your head, man. We’ve got to stay focused,” Juel said.

What? Sev scoffed. He would have been genuinely amused if he wasn’t pissed. Excuse the fuck out of me? I’ve about had it, man. You were curt, inflexible, and outright hostile to our only lead. Are you trying to torpedo this because you weren’t the one to bring it in? Sev gestured for Juel to hold up and took a moment to find the right words:

“I’m sorry. Does it look like I’m lacking for focus here? Because from where I’m sitting, you were almost trying to drive them away. You know the way of this, man. The more reasonable you are—the lighter you play things, the smoother they go.”

“They’re fucking gangbangers, Sev. I’m still not convinced this isn’t a goose chase. And if it is? We’ve pissed our careers away over nothing!”

“Same shit if you scare them off before we see what they’re about! Look man, I know you’re angry and I’m not exactly thrilled to be working with drug dealers either—”

“You seemed pretty eager to look the other way on Wallace’s nephew, when the only thing we know about the kid is that he is supposed to be doing ten for cracking. That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, yet you promised them a letter sight unseen.”

“That’s right. A letter. If Drake isn’t willing to sign it, I will, and Wallace will have to make do. We aren’t asfalis cops, Juel. We don’t need to grovel before a DA to negotiate something like a parole endorsement, which any one of us can submit to the board as an individual officer. Or what? Would you have preferred I said, ‘sorry, no deal,’ and burn another week on back and forth while we stand with our dicks in our hands?”

Juel’s veins tightened against his temples, and he did the little jaw-click thing he always did when he was righteously pissed. And seeing it made Sev even madder. How can you not see this?

“That’s what they expected, man! Hell, that’s exactly what they were hoping for. Because the longer they make us wait, the more leverage they have. I put them on their backfoot by having them name a price here and now. If we sent them back to Wallace emptyhanded, he would take it as an afront and use that as an excuse to press negotiations.”

“The bounty for information leading to the arrest of terrorists is fifty-thousand dollars, Sev! You know what people like that can do with money like that? Even split three ways, that should be more than sufficient for their cooperation. Also, pretty sure CIs aren’t supposed to clue in their entire gang—”

“What the fuck do you want here?” Sev said with a fierce emanation. “Are you hoping that Junior will ride into the middle of town, twirl his mustache, and challenge you to a fucking duel?”

Juel exhaled slightly and gestured acquiescence but Sev knew the look in his eyes. He’s tired. You’re telling yourself that I am the one being unreasonable so you have an excuse to ‘be the bigger man,’ but deep down, you know you don’t have a fucking leg to stand on. Sev continued to stare him down. Juel got off the park bench and started to walk to the car. Sev grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Nah. We’re not brushing this off. You’re right that our careers are on the line, but that ship has already left port and now we need to see it back to safe harbor. So if you’ve got something to tell me, now would be a good time.”

“What can you tell the man with all the answers?” Juel asked with a chilly smile. “Look. You have good instincts. I’ve followed you to hell and back, and you know I’ll do it again, but I am trying hard to be as objective about this as possible. My father lost control when he dealt with Demirci. I want to do better than he did. And you should too.”

Sev nodded as he chewed on Juel’s words. But I can’t swallow this shit.

“Well,” Sev said at length, “I definitely don’t have an answer for that.”

Juel shook his head, and they walked back to the cruiser in silence.

Liked it? Take a second to support hankwhitson on Patreon!