EPISODE 34: DRESS REHEARSAL

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Sevardin Harker. Jovday, Aries 14th, 2348 AA. 4:35PM. Arroyo (AKF Central Precinct).

When Sev broached the topic of the parole endorsement to Drake, she simply stared at Sev until he left her office. Not one word, emanation, or gesture. Sev briefly considered asking Juel and Ashford to write letters as well, but decided that would be a good last resort on the off chance Takane turned his nose up at Sev’s offerings.

Unfortunately, that means if this kid gets right back in the game when he’s released, any crimes he commits will reflect on me and me alone. All the same, Sev hastily typed up a letter consisting of boilerplate arguments and standard talking points. The hard decisions facing disadvantaged youths in economically depressed areas. Racial profiling in law enforcement specifically targeting black youths. But to his eye, it read as reasonably passionate and persuasive.

While Sevardin wrote, Juel and Ashford spoke with the watch commander about candidates for their undercover man. Juel and Ashford entered their venture’s cubical with a broad shouldered, but plain-faced probationary officer. Not exactly handsome, but by no means ugly. He still had the starched posture of an aspirant, and while his eyes were alert, they were also tense—twitchy more than vigilant. Work with what we’ve got, I guess.

“This our man?” Sev asked.

“Probationary Officer Vadon Freeman, sir.” 

Freeman extended his hand and Sev shook it.

“Detective Sev Harker. You got asfalis clothes in your locker, Freeman?”

“Yes sir, I do,” he said, and added with a chuckle: “Not sure if it’s at the height of Los Altos fashion…”

“No worries. That’s why we’re having this little chat. Juel, can we borrow your car?”

“Can’t exactly have you rolling up to the hood in a cruiser.” Juel fished the keys to his ’45 Black Stallion out of his pocked and stopped just short of handing them over. “You scratch it, you bought it.”

Sev rolled his eyes. We both know I am three times the driver you say you are. But he was grateful to be teased. It was Juel’s attempt at smoothing over their spat earlier. Yeah, I love you too buddy. He snatched the keys and nodded at Freeman.

“Go get changed. We’re gonna take a ride to LeVoy’s Smoke Shop in North Arroyo. Our erstwhile associates will give you some fashion tips and acting advice.”

“‘Erstwhile?’” Ashford repeated with disgust. “Who the fuck says shit like ‘erstwhile?’”

“Honestly,” Juel agreed. “The man writes one letter and thinks he’s Dowland or something.”

—Streets of Arroyo (Central Precinct to Briaredge)—

They strapped into Juel’s Black Stallion, and Sev’s brain buzzed as the engine purred to life. The 2045 is a modern classic, no mistake. The body was a beautiful enameled red, the color of cherry candy and old-school costume-heroes, while the interior was black leather with white and maroon accents.

Sev made a great show of fucking up Juel’s radio, even though it was set to the classic rock and hip-hop channel they both enjoyed. He first changed to a Folklorico station, furrowed his lip, then changed it to some godawful operatic shit and felt satisfied with the shtick. Vadon watched with polite amusement, and spoke up when they hit the streets.

“This is kind of embarrassing, man,” Freeman said, “But I did a report on you. Like, in the Athenaeum.”

Sevardin shot him a confused look with a bizarre emanation. What the fuck is there to report about?

“On me?” Sev repeated.

“Yes, sir. The elective case you took on at the very beginning of your career. The Samhain Massacre. They said you helped identify a key suspect, provided crucial character insights, slew egregores, killed cultists, and saved lives in the space of like, two days. You’re like a legend to our cohort.”

Is this kid for real? Sev was tickled, but also genuinely baffled.

“Anyway, it’s the CIC and all, so I know you probably can’t talk about it, but I was wondering if you had any other… stories, or like, lessons you could share?”

“Shit.” Sev chuckled. Juel says I’m a natural born teacher. I give speeches and critiques and advice whether it’s wanted or not because I can’t help myself. But now I’ve got a kid asking me for advice and I have no idea what the hell to say. “Shit. Uh. Well. You are right. The CIC told me not to talk about Samhain—but honestly, there isn’t much to tell. The whole thing was just… kind of a blur. Action, reaction, more action. Obviously, we were always one step behind. Otherwise, there would have been no massacre.”

Sev’s mood dimmed without him realizing it.

“Honestly, that part of it messed me up for a bit. Like. My name was in the paper and I got all kinds of medals for my brand-new dress uniform. But we didn’t win that day. Dozens of people and a lot of good officers died. Maybe more if I wasn’t there, but maybe none if I had done my job better.”

“Damn man,” Freeman said. “Sounds like you need to cut yourself some slack. I’ve seen pictures of the aftermath—I mean, I wasn’t there, and I probably can’t imagine what it was like, but that looked like a warzone to me. And you made it out alive. You saved lives, inspired people you don’t even know, and I’m sure the people who love you are proud of you for it. Right?”

Sev shrugged in concession and put on a weary smile. How do I make him understand that those medals are marks of shame without breaking his spirit? Come on, Teach. Educate your junior officer. Impart your sage wisdom. Tell him the ways—

“Hey, is it true that you hooked up with the Senior Detective on that case?” Freeman asked.

Sev’s brain imploded. The kid caught him completely off-guard and read his reaction perfectly.

“Oh shit! Shit, I’m sorry. I honestly thought it was just one of those rumors! But hey, like, mad respect, man. I’m not into white girls myself, but I saw her picture in the paper and she was fine.”

Sev was speechless. He wanted to reprimand him, but at the same time… I brought this on myself. This is why you do not sleep with people from work. The talk trickles like water and climbs like ivy.

“Yeah, she was,” Sev admitted. “Is. Err, was. I mean…”

Freeman raised an eyebrow at Sev’s double correction:

“You two still in touch?”

“That’s classified,” Sev said, and followed up with a stern emanation to the effect of “and that’s final.”

—6:13PM. Briaredge (Los Altos; LeVoy’s Smoke Shop)—

Arroyo’s northeast edge, and the upper end of the Briaredge Terrace in particular, was the most worn part of the city. Like the rest of Arroyo, it was blasphemously verdant for Southern California’s desert climate, but north of the 210, the manicured, park-like atmosphere gave way to a forest’s foreboding. Centennial trees upturned concrete and asphalt. Lawns were either aggressively overgrown, or desiccated lots with mange-like clumps of weeds. Every building was scarred by age and tattooed with tags, or freshly whitewashed to begin the cycle anew. And as Sev drove to the smoke shop, he felt the weight of unseen eyes appraising him.

LeVoy’s lay on the eastern corner of a densely packed but economically depressed commercial block, wedged between a tiny liquor store and a nail salon. They turned into the alleyway behind the businesses in search of parking. There was only one open space, and a Black kid, no older than fifteen, sat hunched on the concrete strip, staring at his phone. He looked up as the Stallion approached, and, upon seeing Sev’s face, he stood up and jogged to the front of the shop.

“Seems like they saved us a spot.” Freeman observed

Sevardin grinned.

“That’s a decoy look-out. When cops roll up in any official capacity, they have a kid like that shout ‘Five-oh! Five oh!’ like his life depends on it to draw our attention. In truth, I suspect they knew we were coming as far back as the park.”

Freeman looked at Sev with surprise.

“How?”

“They know my name, man. And they’ve seen my face. That’s all you need to look somebody up. And after that, it’s not that hard to send a picture on a mass text chain.”

The pair of amagia walked to the front of the smoke shop. Two old men sat in leather recliners, smoking acrid stogies and arguing about basketball. A lanky man in his late twenties manned the counter. He tilted his chin at them as they entered and then nodded toward a door in the back of the shop. Sev gestured polite thanks, and led Freeman toward the back room. As he passed the counter, he saw a beast of a tactical shotgun leaned in the corner.

Sev had his personal sidearm, a well-worn Plato, in an underarm holster beneath his jacket, and suddenly felt stupid to have even brought that much. Without their licenses, he and Freeman were at the Roller’s mercy.

The back of the smoke shop was almost like a tiny speakeasy. A single pool table sat off to the side of three leather couches arranged in sort of C-shape. Kobb was shooting a game of pool with three other Rollers, while Jahnz was seated on the middle couch, speaking to somebody on a cell phone. As they approached, he ended his conversation brusquely:

“Baby? Baby. I hear you. But I’mma have to call you back. My six-thirty’s here.”

Sevardin walked in front of the couch with Freeman in tow.

“Detective. You work fast. I assume you have the letter?”

“Right here.”

Sev slowly pulled the unsealed envelop from under his jacket, making no effort to hide his sidearm. Attending a meeting like this unarmed would essentially be a sign of disrespect.

Jahnz carefully reviewed the letter, line by line.

“You’ve got quite the way with words.”

“I like to think so. But my partners give me no end of shit about it.”

“No chance of getting a second signature on this endorsement?”

“I did what I could.” Sev said firmly.

Jahnz held up his hands.

“Had to ask. This your man?”

“Vadon Freeman,” Freeman said.

Kobb had wandered away from the pool table, holding a bottle of beer in one hand, a lighter in the other, and a cigarette between his teeth. He lit up as he sat down on the couch next to Jahnz’s. Jahnz gestured at Kobb.

“Officer Freeman, my name is Jahnz. This is my esteemed associate, Kobb. It will be the three of us doing the meeting tomorrow. I assume you’re gonna wear a wire, or have some kind of remote scrying charm on?”

Sevardin nodded.

“There will be two Amagia vans posted at either end of the park. One looks like an HVAC technician, and the other looks like it belongs to a plumber. We’ll all be dressed to our respective parts too. Speaking of which… what would you recommend for my friend here?”

Kobb cupped his chin in his hand and gave Freeman a thoughtful look.

“A’ight. First off: you’ve got to wear long sleeves. I can literally see the lines where you licenses wrap around your forearms. Dead giveaway for amagia.” Kobb said.

Freeman nodded.

“You got a hoodie or something?” Jahnz asked.

“Would a jacket work?” Freeman asked.

“Motherfucker, you seriously don’t own a hoodie?” Kobb demanded.

“Oh no, I’ve got a real nice one,” Freeman said. “Has the crest of the Arroyo Athenaeum on it.”

Jahnz snickered, shook his head, and steepled his fingers together.

“Would a jacket work? You tell me, Mr. Wizard. It’s gonna be 82 degrees by 9AM tomorrow. We stand outside doin’ our shit all day. You’d wish for death in a jacket. A light tracksuit might work, but I’d go with a hoodie. Unassuming. Practical. To most white folk, it’s the official uniform of Black men up to bad shit.”

Sev snickered. Jahnz wasn’t wrong, but his take was a touch cynical for Sev’s tastes. Still, when it comes to this kind of work, leaning into some subtler stereotypes can carry you a long way.

“I’ll get one tonight.”

“Neutral colors. No red, no blue. Shit, let’s keep it simple: get something black,” Jahnz specified.

“And while you’re shopping? Grab a pair of Athenas,” Kobb added.

Freeman lowered his gaze to his sneakers, then looked to the shoes Jahnz and Kobb wore and Sev did the same. Freeman had a pair of black leather shoes—not Sunday dress but definitely more formal than sneakers. Kobb and Jahnz both wore loosely tied but immaculately maintained Athenas. Another fair point.

“Those jeans will work, but you gotta loosen that belt. Give your boys a little breathing room, feel?”

“Kinda hard to run with you pants hanging around your ass,” Freeman observed.

Sev snickered. Careful, Tiger.

“You get use to it surprisingly quick when properly motivated,” Kobb said, cheerfully.

Jahnz nodded and turned to Sev:

“Correct me if I am wrong, detective, but from what I understand, if this gets to a point where people are running to and froe, things have gotten seriously kinked.”

Sevardin nodded.

“That’s accurate.”

Kobb leaned forward from his leather recliner, gesticulating with unnecessary specificity and emanating great wisdom:

“Biggest thing is how you wear what you got on. Your outfit is fairly neutral right now. Like it’s not exactly the pinnacle of style, but I could put that on, go for a walk, and nobody would say shit. Obviously helps they know me, but point is: you’d get looks. Because you stand like a cop. You walk like a cop.”

“What do you suggest?” Freeman asked, still a touch fresh.

“Loosen the fuck up, nephew!” Kobb said. “Get some pussy tonight. Have a drink or few. Cast a ‘chill the fuck out spell.’ Whatever you do to relax. You gotta be able to walk like you don’t give a fuck and stand like you don’t have a stick up yo—”

“Kobb, Kobb, Kobb,” Jahnz cut in, wearing an amused smirk: “I worry we are overcomplicating things for our friend.  I didn’t get the sense that these flag burners are hardened criminals, feel? But they will be on edge, because they are in unfamiliar territory. You know the phrase ‘game recognize game?’ Nerves’ the same shit. Long as you keep your head cool, mouth shut, and eyes open, we’ll be fine. Just be there. If we ask you to play along with something, play the fuck along and then go back to just being there.”

Sev nodded in agreement. It was good that they were dealing with college kids and vets instead of another Black gang, who would be more likely to notice discrepancies in attire and conduct.

“Sir, yes sir,” Freeman said.

Sev froze. Jahnz’s amused grin vanished, and Kobb’s eyes widened. The room went quiet and still for a full three seconds. The other rollers who were shooting pool paused their game and looked up, sensing the change in atmosphere. Jahnz snickered at Freeman and flicked two fingers at him as he turned to Sevardin:

“Is he the best you have, detective? Because I am suddenly not convinced that this will work.”

“Look, man, I understand we’re in your neighborho—” Freeman started.

Kobb cut him off, getting out of his chair.

“No, nephew, I don’t think you understand sh—”

Sevardin blasted the room with a powerful emanation; the urdic equivalent of shouting at the top of his lungs, but with a more intense and focused bandwidth. The pulse hit the room like a slap in the face. Freeman and Kobb both flinched, and the rest of the room collectively backed off. Sev raised his hands deliberately and delicately.

“Everybody chill. The fuck. Out,” Sevardin said loud enough for everybody in the back room to hear him clearly, but not quite yelling. When he was confident that nobody was moving for a weapon, he continued: “Freeman is eager to show the world what he’s made of. He worked hard to get where he is, and it is unwise to disrespect the power he earned. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”

“I appreciate that just fine,” Jahnz said. “But we all have hardships, detective, and you aren’t the only ones with power. In our house, you act like guests. Not fucking pigs.”

Before Freeman could shoot his mouth off again, Sevardin put his hand on the younger officer’s shoulder, heavily.

“I understand, and he understands, Jahnz. Your hospitality is appreciated, and we appreciate that we have overstayed it. Besides, I think we’ve all said what we need to say tonight, except for ‘see you tomorrow.’”

“Indeed,” Kobbs said. “But make damn sure he’s the right man for the job, detective. Cause if he gives me that kind of lip on my street? He’s gonna answer for it. And he won’t be wearing his jewelry to even the odds.”

Kobb tapped the front of his right arm, where Keepers wore their vambraces. Sev inclined his head, turned Freeman around and walked them out the way they came in.

“Sorry,” Freeman began, when they had turned the corner.

“Good,” Sev said.

Be smart. Stay silent. Kid had enough sense to keep his mouth shut until they got in the car. Sevardin strapped in and sat for a long moment, unsure of how to begin. Fortunately, the little idiot spared him the trouble.

“What was I supposed—”

“Stand there and take it! You’re mad that a couple gangbangers dissed you? Why the fuck do you even care? Let them think they are in charge. Let them act like they own you, or whatever. Be more secure with yourself. Because if something like this happens tomorrow? This whole op. is fucked.”

Freeman nodded, chastened.

“You don’t want to look like a bitch. I get it. You don’t want to put up with it from anyone, much less guys like them. But if you want to be like me? Hear me when I tell you that making progress is more important than posturing.”

Sev started the car, and continued lecture, unable to help himself:

“As a warning: it’s going to be worse tomorrow. They are in there talking, just like we are in here talking. Unless they lay hands on you, you don’t say shit, okay? Take it all in stride. Just go with the flow. We need that meeting to go through. If you want to be a hero, all you’ve gotta do is stand there and keep quiet.”

Venday, Aries 15th. 10:46 AM. Briaredge (Los Altos Park)

“I thought they set the meeting for ten-thirty. What the hell is this?” Ashford groused.

In his defense, their venture was crammed into the back of a poorly airconditioned van along with Jesmine Finch, their scryer. She was a sardonic woman in her early thirties who was at the top of her game in terms of remote surveillance, but as a result, she had very little patience for bullshit.

She had enchanted Freeman with a scrying spell linked to herself and Sev’s venture. All they had to do to was close their eyes and channel their wyrds, and they could tap into the spell, seeing over Freeman’s shoulder from a slightly elevated perspective. Both the sound and image quality was sharp and clean. The footage gathered through the spell was also being recorded on a crystal drive, which would serve as probable cause for their sting.

“Jahnz and Kobb gave them a loose arrival time. Didn’t want it to look like a prearranged meeting,” Sev explained.

“Look alive,” Juel said. “I think they just arrived.”

The three of them closed their eyes again, and saw a group of three white people approaching Jahnz, Kobb, and Freeman. There was a stringy, long-haired boy in skinny jeans, a huge man who vaguely resembled a grizzly bear in military camo—Claden, presumably–and a severe-looking young brunette who could have been anywhere from nineteen to twenty-nine. Instead of a greeting, the girl stared at Freeman and demanded:

“Who is he?”

“Chill, baby. He’s the bossman’s nephew,” Kobb said, breezy. “Hell, we don’t even know your name yet. What should I call you, girl?”

The brunette girl pointedly hesitated before answering.

“Call me Bretta.”

“A’ight, Bretta,” Jahnz said. “We got a line on everything you need. The licenses, Platos, and anima are technically ready to go right now, but we need to wait ‘til Lunday on the marrow and other alchemical shit. Better to do it all at once.”

“Lunday works for us,” she said, and pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket and extended it to Jahnz. “This is the address. Time is up to you.”

Jahnz stared at her for a beat, took the paper, and then laughed as he read it.

“We’re not doing this in College Park,” he explained, amused but firm. “The exchange is gonna happen somewhere in Altos.”

Bretta’s expression darkened while College Boy turned pale.

“We can’t agree to that,” Bretta said at length.

“You’re the ones who came to us. If you had another option, you’d be talking to them instead. We own this neighborhood. No police up in here, and no keepers neither. But if we do this in College Park, right next door to San Marino, where they harass Black folks to pass the time? That’s a lot of extra risk for all of us.”

Bretta shook her head.

“You outnumber us and outgun us. Even if we do this on the Arroyo City College campus, we still run the risk of you ripping us off.”

Sev made a mental note of Bretta’s statement. This is a small team of terrorists. Probably a splinter cell as opposed to some coordinated effort from the greater Unbranded organization.

“If we’re scary everywhere, what fucking difference does it make then?” Kobb asked.

“Our boss is willing to pay extra for a secure venue,” Bretta said.

“That won’t work for us. Locale is non-negotiable.” Jahnz insisted.

“Then I’m sorry that we couldn’t come to an arrangement,” Bretta said, and started to turn to leave, but the college boy caught her by the arm, pleading.

“Whoa, whoa, Bretta, we can’t just—”

Bretta shrugged off his hand and silence him with a crisp gesture.

“Dee put me in charge for a reason, Jost. I will not set us up to be robbed at gunpoint.”

Dee! Sevardin and Juel both opened their eyes and exchanged a glance, hearts stuck in their throats. Could that be Demirci Junior? Has to be. Damnit, we are so close. But this isn’t going in the right direction. Sev blinked back to the scry.

Kobb’s nostrils flared and Freeman adjusted his stance, clearly nervous. Jost looked desperate. Claden was trying to stare them down, but nobody paid him any attention. He didn’t seem to be entirely there. Only Jahnz and the girl looked like they had any sense of calm, and that was fraying fast. Stop playing hardball and keep them on the hook!

Jahnz snickered and scratched his nose like Bretta told an unfunny joke.

“Here’s the problem. We’ve already taken pains to secure your merchandise. And it’s useless to us. Hell, the shit you want? It’s a liability just to have it on hand. In other words, we already have an expensive stake in this.”

“So do the deal in College Park,” Bretta insisted. “We know how to be discrete.”

Jahnz chuckled and unwrapped a piece of hard candy, then popped it into his mouth. Come on, man. Why the fuck are you being so obstinate about this? These assholes can’t have a single conversation without tripping over their dicks. They just can’t resist a pissing contest.

“Nah,” Jahnz said at length. “These are your options: we do this here, in Altos on Lunday, or we go talk to the Keepers. That bounty on information leading to the arrest of terrorists should make us whole for the shit you didn’t buy.”

Now Bretta was unnerved too. She clearly had not seen that coming. And that’s why you don’t deal with gangbangers. But if she balks… This game just got a whole lot more complicated. Sevardin was suddenly aware of the sweat beading his brow. This damn van is an oven.

“Fuck!” Juel said, breaking Sev’s concentration. “Why the fuck would you do that, why would you even suggest the possibility that…”

Finch shushed him, just as Freeman spoke up:

“What about a middle ground?”

Everybody in the van groaned again. Jesus Christ, kid, at least let the girl answer. Jahnz had her trapped!

Kobb and Jahnz slowly turned to face Freeman, astonished and irate.

“Solves the issue, right?” Freeman said defensively. “We could do it on Farman Terrace. North Lake Street. Near the Reservation border.”

Bretta practically lunged at the opportunity.

“That would be acceptable.”

Kobb snickered and shook his head. Jahnz continued to give Freeman a stare fit to drill solid granite. He cracked his hard candy between his teeth, as if to drive home his displeasure, then turned back to Bretta.

“That could work, so long as we choose the address. And before you object, Arroyo Riffa-13 owns north Farman. We need an area where we know they won’t show up. Though, I must confess, I am a touch… disturbed, by this sticking point. Maybe I have trust issues, but I have to wonder whether you’re coming at this in good faith.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Bretta said. “But I think this is a satisfying compromise.”

“You don’t know much about satisfying people then,” Kobb said, and put on a lascivious grin: “If you want, I’d be glad to give you some lessons.”

Bretta ignored him. Jahnz gestured for Kobb to shut the fuck up with one hand, and pulled a piece of paper from his jeans with the other. He passed it to Bretta, who tucked it in her pocket without question.

“Next Lunday, then,” Jahnz said. “Call that number at 6PM tomorrow. We’ll give you the final address and time.”

Bretta nodded and turned to walk away. Claden lingered for a moment, as if to try and prove he was more than muscle, but turned to follow his leader with a sneer. Jost lingered longer than the others, and approached Kobb, Jahnz, and Freeman almost timidly.

“So uh, seeing as we’re partners, I was wondering if I could score a half-ounce—”

“Bitch, leave.” Kobb said.

He blinked, chuckled, then turned to Jahnz for confirmation. Jahnz simply stared at him, unamused, and blinked once. For two horrible seconds, it looked like the idiot was going to push his luck, but ultimately, he bobbed his head and jogged after his companions.

When the Unbranded trio had rounded the building, Kobb wheeled on Freeman, pinning him to the wall.

“Don’t drop the scry!” Juel shouted.

“No shit,” Finch said. “Better get there quick. I don’t see this being a friendly chat.”

Sev was already ducking out of the van. Juel started to follow, but Ashford held him back until his better judgment took hold.

Sev nearly tripped when he tried to break into a sorcery-assisted sprint. He was wearing asfalis licenses to avoid being conspicuous, and he was used to having more propulsive power behind his footsteps. His foot landed just before the curb, torqueing his ankle as he stepped forward. He limped back into a messy rhythm, hoping to hell he hadn’t injured himself.

When he rounded the corner, he saw Freeman kneeling on the sidewalk, bleeding from the lip, an expression of pure rage written across his face. Fortunately, Jahnz was holding Kobb back.

“If you ever disrespeck us during business like that again, you a dead n****! You understand me, motherfucker? On a slab! In the fucking morgue!”

Kobb nearly said something else, but Jahnz managed to snag his attention long enough for him to realize Sevardin had arrived. Meanwhile, Freeman got up slowly; the way you stand up when you think the other guy cannot touch you. The way you stand up before you get in a fight. Fortunately, as he raised his head, he saw Sevardin standing at the far end of the sidewalk.

“That’s right,” Kobb said with a sneer. “You ain’t cut out for this shit! Run back to—”

Jahnz adjusted his grip to twist one of Kobbs arms and growled through clenched teeth:

“Shut your fucking head, n****!”

Sev shot Jahnz a look he meant to simultaneously intimidate and sympathize. We’ve both got our hands full. My man fucked up, it’s true. But your man made his little scene, got his satisfaction, and now it’s time we go our separate ways. Sev’s eyes tightened ever so slightly. Right, Jahnz? Then he turned his attention back to Freeman, whose eyes were still blazing.

Kobb went still until Jahnz released him. Freeman wiped the blood from his lip, glanced over his shoulder at Kobb, and hocked a glob of red spit onto the sidewalk. Don’t push this any further, kid. But Sev held his composure, giving Jahnz a long gaze until Freeman walked to his side. Then Jahnz made a great show of returning his attention to the street at large. Kobb waited a second longer, but did the same.

“Fucked up again,” Freeman admitted, as they walked back to the van.

“Yeah,” Sev agreed. “But you managed to keep your head at the end.”

“I thought the girl was gonna walk away.”

“She might have. But you shouldn’t put yourself in danger like that. First rule of going undercover, as I understand it, is to stick to the plan, even if the plan goes sideways. My personal read was that the girl would have folded under Jahnz’ threat. But I was watching through a contract and I’ve never been in your position before. So. All things considered…”

“Not bad?” Freeman offered.

“I didn’t say that,” Sevardin grunted. “Let’s go with ‘a win’s a win.’”

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