EPISODE 53: THE BLACK LOTUS

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Juel Flores. Jovday, Pisces 10th 2351. 3:06 PM. Arroyo Villa Terrace – Casa Grande (East Arroyo High School).

Scint moved in abruptly, knife cocked back and ready to plunge. But without a reflex contract, he might as well have been moving underwater. Juel darted forward, caught him by the wrist, and flung him onto the hardwood.

The kids winced, gasped, and laughed.

Ven moved in to attack Juel with his bat, and he was surprisingly tricky about it. Three swings in quick sequence rather than one haymaker. But with speed on his side, Juel was able to deflect them in sequence by channeling currents of his wyrd to deflect the blows. Ven surprised him again, charging forward with his shoulder and the butt of the bat. Juel stepped to the side and launched a powerful kick into his flank, sending him into Scint as he rose.

Again, the kids laughed.

Juel cast a second contract, hands blurring as he performed the various gestures and mudras to appease the animus. The spell went off without a hitch, and both Scint and Ven went dead rigid. Juel could tell that they were acting a bit; he had cast that binding on them so many times that their wyrds were starting to get used to it.

The entire class applauded. Juel released the binding on them, and helped them up in turn. The kids kept clapping, so Juel took a bow, and gestured for Scinter and Ven to do the same.

“Any questions?” Juel asked, smiling.

A younger boy shot out of his seat, hand raised, and started asking his question before the teacher or Juel could tell him to go ahead.

“What would happen if they also had magic?”

“It might be a different story,” Juel said, chuckling. “But even if criminals get their hands on a cracked license, most of them don’t know how to cast complicated magic like contracts.”

“But some do, right? Aren’t you supposed to fight malefactors?”

Juel grinned. Sharp kid.

“Well. I suppose we could show you what that might look like,” he said, teasingly.

The kids roared their approval. Juel glanced at his subordinates. Ven looked surprised, and Scint disgusted.

“You can’t be serious,” Scint said, too low for the kids to hear from the assembly hall’s stage.

“Come on. Speed up, then come at me together. No weapons though.”

Ven scoffed and spoke loudly enough for the kids to hear.

“Okay, okay. If we do this,” he paused for them to continue pleading. “If we do this, I am not writing up the incident report. Okay?”

“Fair enough,” Juel said, then turned to his audience. “I can’t guarantee I’ll win this one. Amagia work in three-man ventures for a reason.”

His two juniors cast reflex enhancing contracts, then walked in front of him and bowed. Juel returned the bow, and they all assumed fighting stances.

Ven charged first this time, stomping with his wyrd and creating a flash-bang like effect. Juel managed to shield his eyes ahead of time, since he had seen the trick before, but Ven charged immediately after, putting Juel on his back foot. Juel blocked Ven’s flurry of punches, found his rhythm, and struck him with a heel palm that held a spark of stunning magic in it.

As Ven stepped back, Scint snapped forward with a powerful, spinning roundhouse. Juel slid beneath it with a current of telekinetic sorcery; a sloppy way to dodge, but it looked impressive and made the kids happy. 

He turned as he jumped back on his feet, just in time to catch Scint’s kick with his hands. He yanked Scint’s leg forward while simultaneously backhanding him in the chest, knocking him to the ground.

Ven grabbed Juel from behind; a generously clumsy attack. Juel ducked into an Aikido shoulder-throw, then fired a basic binding contract to pin him to the ground. Under normal circumstances, the kids wouldn’t be able to see the spell, but Juel made a point of flooding the magic with his wyrd, creating vibrant magenta and turquoise currents energy and massive ripples that would dazzle the crowd and convey the magic’s meaning. It was a grossly inefficient way to fight.

Scint fired an urdic bolt and caught Sev in the face, surprising him. You asked for it chief. And you know Scint hates this shit. Juel spun with the punch, dropped into a crouch and answered with his own blast of telekinetic energy. Scint jumped over the blast, which disturbed the curtains of the school auditorium. But as soon as Scint’s feet touched the ground, Juel sprang forward, caught him by the face, and drove him to the floor. He took care to buffer Scint’s impact against the wood, but still knocked him down a bit harder than he would have liked.

The crowd roared with their approval. The teachers seemed as giddy as the kids.

“You good?” Juel whispered to Scint.

“Sir, go fuck yourself, sir,” Scint hissed.

Juel gestured apologies as he helped him to his feet. That was the best workout I’ve had in months. Euphoria immediately gave way to shame. And it was all play acting. His subordinates held back despite his order. They were careful to take turns coming at him, always tagging out just as he was starting to get overwhelmed, giving him a chance to catch his breath. Reminds me of my thesis defense.

Juel felt cheap.

Again, the kids applauded. And again, the venture took its bows.

3:33 PM

“Fuck me dead,” Juel said, once his venture was back into the cruiser, “I miss real police work.”

“You seemed to enjoy play-fighting well enough,” Scint said, words sizzling with acid.

Scinter Westmore was a tall, spectacled Detective One from Entropathy who had been Juel’s partner for the last two years. He was often the smartest person in the room—in an academic sense, if nothing else. He favored short sentences and big words. Also had talent for slicing himself on his own tongue. The stunt that landed in him Public Outreach, for instance, involved an uptight watch commander, the phrase “insipid, self-important jackass,” and an audience of about twelve other officers.

“Wailing on you two is my only outlet,” Juel said apologetically.

“Then find a fucking hobby,” Scint said.

“I take it you miss it too then?” Juel asked.

Scint sighed.

“No, Juel. I adore the birthday clown circuit. It’s why I have such an ebullient disposition.”


Juel couldn’t remember what ‘ebullient’ meant, but he was pretty sure he could just assume Scint was being an asshole again. He turned to his other subordinate:

“What about you, Ven? Ready to get back on the streets?”

Venhardt Cobb was built like a bull at 5’11” and 230 pounds of pure muscle. Juel was initially outraged to have him assigned to his venture. The kid was written up for excessive force only five days into the job, and Drake handed him to Juel as a means of reforming him. On paper, he was exactly the kind of cop that Juel wanted to eliminate from the Keeping Force. But as they worked together over the past ten months, Ven had a way of surprising him. Hidden depths, and a surprising capacity for growth.

“I definitely want to go back to patrol,” Ven said after a moment’s consideration. “Just to prove I can do things right this time. But I’m actually thinking of keeping on in Public Outreach too.”

“No shit?” Juel asked.

Ven nodded good naturedly.

“Yeah. I mean. The demos are kinda fun. And I thought I’d hate dealing with kids, but the little bastards are growing on me, you know?”

“Not remotely,” Scint said, witheringly.

Juel snickered but Ven kept talking, indifferent to Scint.

“Honestly, I wasn’t ready for GP. Like, they tell us how to fight in the Athenaeum, but they don’t teach us much about solving things peacefully. And you kinda showed me that side of the job here. Turns out I think I like it better.”

“That’s a good outlook,” Juel said.

If only I could relate. I trained to fight monsters, decipher enchantments, solve crimes, and use complex magic. Instead, I get to cast the same stunning contract for all eternity.

“I get why Scint’s unhappy—everything makes Scint unhappy. But you’re doing good work. I remember the lecture you gave me when I got assigned. Breaking down the barriers between asfalis citizens and amagia and all that,” Ven said, and then added a second later: “And you get to work on that symvision show. That’s cool, right?”

Juel chuckled. Hurts to have my own preaching shoved down my throat. And yes. Hollywood is great. I get to tell a bunch of pencil pushing dipshits how their “creative vision” has hopelessly fucked up amagiate peacekeeping procedures, only to be disregarded eight times out of ten.

“I guess I’m just worried I’m going soft,” Juel said. “All these demonstrations…”

“Can’t exactly let the evil malefactors triumph in front of the precious children,” Scint said, taking off his glasses to wipe them down.

“Right?” Juel said, but his mind was already miles away.

He drove them back to the central precinct in silence, hungry for an urgent call. I don’t actually want an emergency. Hoping for one is fucked up. But at the same time…. Please. Let me do something. Let me actually help somebody. I’m so frustrated that if I channeled it into my wyrd, I could probably kill a griffin with one spell. My wife does more fucking policework than I do!

Just as they were disembarking from the cruiser, Juel’s symphone started ringing. Sev? Wonder what’s that about. Juel answered.

 “‘Sup Hollywood?” Sev asked.

“Nothing worth talking about. How’s the Fridge?”

“Heh,” Sev replied. “It’s heating up. You feel like meeting for a drink at the Book?”

“My guy. It is only 3:45.”

“After shift, obviously. But believe me, it has already been a hell of a day. Have you seen social media lately?”

“No. We’ve been busy with our famous show and tell routine. I miss something important?”

“Do a search on Glianna Garfield, and you’ll begin to understand my predicament.” There was a voice in the background, and Sev said something before returning to the receiver. “Sorry. I gotta run. Come to the Book. I can introduce you to my new detective, and you might be able to help me with something.”

“I dunno man. Lami’s been having a hard time putting Ethano down to sleep and—”

“Look. Do what you have to do. But read the trends and see if you aren’t interested first.”

Sev hung up, and Juel stared at his phone, hesitating. Why do I have the feeling I’m gonna regret taking the bait? It took him approximately twelve seconds of fishing to find the words ‘Black Lotus Killer Returns to Arroyo,’ on the arcanet. His jaw dropped.

“Oh, you son of a bitch.”

7:25 PM. Arroyo Central Terrace – Old Town (The Drowned Book)

When Juel explained the situation to Elamni, she gave her blessing for Juel to join Sev at The Drowned Book; a Keeper’s bar located in old town. The ground floor of the establishment was almost comically narrow, but after descending a steep staircase—with a newly added wheel-chair accessible rail—there was a cavernous room with two pool tables, a couple dartboards, a collection of booths, and a long, brass-railed bar.

Juel felt guilty for grinning as he walked downstairs. He knew that Glianna’s death was a tragedy, and two more women could be in danger as well, but he was half-excited, and half-amused by Sev’s colossal predicament.

Sev, Vadon, and an old LAKF Detective by the name of Rorick Grimm had a large corner booth, along with one of the most beautiful women Juel had ever seen. Indian descent if he was any judge. Tall and slender with the high cheekbones and perfectly symmetrical nose like a model, and as he drew near, he saw that she had brilliant, emerald irises and a distinctive, check-mark shaped scar coming out of the edge of her right eye. Jesus. Not sure if I’m jealous of Sev or scared for him. Juel’s former partner and best friend had a track record of mixing business and pleasure. Always a stupid proposition in my book.

“If it isn’t the AKF’s poster boy,” Sev said, standing to greet Juel.

Juel met Sev with a hug, and then bumped Vadon’s extended fist.

“What’s happening, Hollywood?” he asked.

“Compared to what you all have on your plate,” Juel turned to address the woman and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you detective. I’m Juel.”

“Jecia Singh,” she took his hand and gave him a tight, but earnest smile. “Sev’s told me plenty of stories.”

“Nothing good I’m sure,” Juel chuckled.

“Fifty-fifty, really,” Jecia said, smiling and shrugging.

“I’m gonna get us another round,” Rorick said as he stood and clapped a hand on Juel’s shoulder. “Good to see you, kid.”

“You too, Rick.”

The table was covered with copied reports and photographs of crime scenes. Jecia had a notebook in front of her filled with a meticulous timeline, and lists of various names.

“What have we got so far?” Juel asked as he slid into the booth.

“Everything and nothing,” Sev said. “Rick got the LAKF to loan us all their evidence, which is back at our lock-up. Burbank gave us soft copies. A young detective there seems to be angling for a shot at the case, though. Wanted to know where Glianna received her card.”

“Did we ever find that out?” Jecia asked.

“Talked to Gibson. Glianna received it in the mail at her home address, in Arroyo. So Detective Lecarde can fuck the whole way off,” Sev said mildly and took a beer.

Jecia stifled a giggle. Juel grinned and said:

“I knew everything there was to know about this case when I was like fifteen. But it’s been a hot minute. Walk me through the basics?”

Sev and Vadon gave him the play-by-play—the fae dust, the victims, the few commonalities between them—while Jecia continued to scan one of the case files, occasionally annotating her timeline. Rick returned and listened to the others talk, occasionally adding quips or recollections from the second string of deaths.

“So. The only person who has been alive for both sets of murders is Rothford Bush?” Juel asked.

“We’ve reached out to his people a couple times today, but everything goes to voicemail. If I don’t hear anything by end of day tomorrow, we’re just gonna show up on his doorstep.” Sev said.

Juel nodded and asked:

“Did anybody directly benefit from the murders in either time period?”

“The attention surrounding the murders helped establish Bush as a tragic, cursed star. But Trimina Fillmore had the most to gain from the first two deaths. Calea Kennedy and Elice Harding were both her rivals, all jockeying for the same roles. But she was also the third ‘victim,’ via suicide.”

“Serial killers usually don’t turn to suicide. Even if they’re facing incarceration, narcissism tends to get in the way,” Juel observed. “What about the second string of deaths?”

“Roth’s name crops up again, actually.” Jecia said. “He was working on his directorial debut, a film that was going to be called Engagement, when the second card killed Lotine Churchill, his leading lady. Afterwards, the studio pulled the plug on the production to cut its losses.”

Rorick spoke up:

“I did a little bit of looking into the old Hollywood trade mags,” Rorick said. “Interesting to note that Variety repeatedly reported that Engagement was a dumpster fire. Over budget, behind schedule. And apparently Churchill was an insufferable cun—err, diva.”

Rorick pinkened and gestured an apology to Jecia, who seemed more amused than anything.

“Rothford seems like your frontrunner then. He’s connected to three of the deaths,” Juel observed.

“Yeah, but we haven’t been able to find any connections to the other four,” Sev said.

“Were the same studios affected by both cases?” Vadon asked. “If Engagement was a disaster, they stood to gain a lot by offing their star, right?”

Everybody looked at each other and pulled out their symphones to search for more info. Sev was quickest on the draw.

“Castle Entertainment, the studio behind Engagement, didn’t even exist when the first deaths occurred. Wilson Bros. had an exclusive contract with Kennedy and when she died, Fillmore signed with them in her place. They paid a fae royal’s ransom for her too. No matter how you slice it, both deaths were bad for Wilson Bros. They lost two of the most marketable stars in the world in as many weeks.”

“This is interesting,” Jecia said. “Harding and Fillmore originally worked for the same studio. Empyrean. When Harding died, Wilson Bros. had to haggle in order to court her over to their side.”

“So. Harding’s death gave Fillmore major bargaining power,” Vadon said.

“Undoubtedly,” Jecia confirmed.

Juel sighed. Fillmore benefited from every death except for her own. Why would she kill herself after becoming the most powerful leading lady in Hollywood? Fear of the curse? No. Wouldn’t you at least try to fight it? She never even approached the LAKF. It just doesn’t add up.

“What about the second set of deaths. Were the other two stars involved with Castle?”

Again, the phones came out. Juel was first to find an answer.

“Byanka Gorbachev was with United Pictures. And Marigold Tyler was with RMC.”

“Glianna was also signed with Reagan Media Corporation,” Sev said. “One of their child stars. But I don’t see any other patterns. No public connections to Rothford Bush, or any of the other women.”

“Hate to say it, but I think we’ll need to get our hands on one of those cards before its recipient dies,” Jecia said. “I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to sus anything out, but the cards are the only constant, and clearly a key part of the spell.”

“Yeah, what are your thoughts on the magic itself?” Sev asked the table. “I would have assumed that it was an entropy curse. But I’ve never heard of an entropic curse affecting somebody’s intentions, just the environment around you.”

“Maybe Fillmore didn’t jump. Maybe she fell,” Jecia offered. “An entropy curse could definitely make you slip or fall from a dangerous height.”

Sev shook his head.

“Somebody either threw her, or she jumped off herself. Look.”

He pulled the black and white crime scene photograph of Fillmore’s body from the table. Fillmore had landed back first on the asphalt, hands clasping the tarot card to her breast.

“She’s in the middle of the street. An accidental tumble wouldn’t carry you that far. And the way she’s holding the card… there’s just something theatrical about it. The scene looks staged.”

The speculation hit a lull after that. Feels good to do some detective work again, even if I’m on the sidelines. The case was an absolute nightmare, but it intrigued him. Hell, it’s bewitched everybody around the table.

After a long pause,they started shooting the shit. Juel told Vadon and Rorick about Ethano’s exploits and showed them the latest pictures. Jecia proved to be rather taciturn, but Juel caught her eyes lingering on Sev more than once. And whenever he spoke, the ghost of a smile graced her lips.He seemed to be pointedly trying not to look at her, as if she would burn his eyes. Guess you do have a type. Good luck, brother.

Before Juel knew it, his watch read ten o’clock.

“Ah shit. I gotta run. I told Elamni I’d be home a half hour ago.”

“She knows you’re full of shit better than any of us,” Sev said.

“True. But I got a meeting at the studio tomorrow. Need to be on the Keystone lot by eight.”

“Mr. Bigshot over here,” Rorick scoffed. “Too important to burn the midnight oil with his old war buddies.”

Juel knew the comment was good natured kidding, but it still stung. He did his best to hide it with a smile, and forced a joke.

“It’s called charisma, baby. Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

“Don’t worry. We’ve got plenty of other reasons,” Sev said.

Juel punched him in the shoulder as he stood up.

“Keep me updated and let me know if there is anything I can do to help,” he said. “Good luck all. Have a feeling you’re gonna need it.”

Venday, Pisces 11th. 7:47 AM. Burbank – Keystone Studios Lot (Sound Stage 7)

Traffic was lighter than usual next morning, and Juel reached the lot a few minutes ahead of schedule. Security waved him in, and he parked in one of the few spaces in the towering lot that wasn’t reserved for an executive, then made his way over to the soundstage where Monstrum & Malefaction: Los Angeles, was shot. He made a beeline for craft services to grab coffee and a doughnut. He watched the film crew set up, preparing a host of exempt optical contracts and doing light readings for various corners of the set.

There was a magic to it. Very different from the forces he wielded on a daily basis, but still enchanting. A distortion—or perhaps an enhancement—of reality’s Resting Laws that was still tangible. It’s fun to be a part of it. He told himself. A privilege. Working as a consultant, with the AKF’s blessing—and Drake’s encouragement, no less—supplemented his salary considerably and allowed him to buy Elamni their picturesque four-bedroom home in West Arroyo. But I don’t belong here. I should be fighting monsters; not deranged showrunners. He snickered at himself. Then again, is there really much of a difference?

He spied a young woman in Keepers’ robes, reading a script intently. She was Hollywood pretty and looked familiar, but he had never seen her on set before.

“Haven’t seen you around before. You new?” Juel asked the young actress.

The girl came back to reality in a start. She flashed a charming, spritely smile and started to answer:

“Oh. Hi! Yeah, I’m Kilena—”

The girl trailed off as she looked in the direction of high heels clipping hard against the smooth concrete of the sound stage. Juel followed her gaze to a severe-looking brunette woman in an austere navy suit approaching. He didn’t recognize her either. Agent? Assistant? The girl buried her face back in her script and started to walk away.

“Excuse me,” The woman said curtly. “Can I help you? My daughter is getting in character. She needs to concentrate. But if you have a business question, I’d be happy to answer it for you.”

“Sorry,” Juel said and then extended his hand. “I’m the amagiate Detective consultant for M&M. She looked familiar, but I know I haven’t seen her on set before, and I was curious.”

The woman pointedly declined his hand and eyed him shrewdly. Juel smiled and shrugged.

“As I said, I’m happy to answer any business questions you may have. But Kilena needs to focus. A family friend from the LAKF has already coached her on amagiate protocols, but if she has questions, I will be sure to send her your way.”

Juel could tell the woman wanted nothing more to do with him, so he smiled and acted interested purely out of spite.

“You’ve really done your research! So is Kilena a guest star or…?”

“Guest with the potential for continuation,” the woman said airily, then turned to look at her daughter with an odd sort of pride. Something more predatory than loving. “She’s supposed to play the lead’s sister. Kilena has done dozens of roles. She’s been in commercials since she could talk, so I’m not surprised you recognized her. You’ve seen the Cheerio’s commercial with the girl playing–“

“Playing the cello! That explains where I saw her!”

“Today, people only know her as the Cheerios Cello Girl, but trust me when I tell you there will come a day when you will tell people about the time you met Kilena Brightman.”

Get the fuck over yourself lady. I mean, Jesus Christ.

“You’d make one hell of a publicist,” Juel joked.

The woman gave him a chilly smile.

“I wear many hats, Officer…” she scanned his uniform for his name, “…Flores. I act as Kilena’s agent, publicist, secretary, and personal assistant.”

Many hats indeed. Some of them seem to have an inherent conflict of interest with the whole “mother” thing. But hey, maybe it’s just me. Juel was about to ask about Kilena’s role when CC, one of the show’s production assistants, jogged over, concern written on her face.

“Juel. Thank god, you’re here early,” CC said. “Mr. Davenport wants to speak with you right away.”

Makael Davenport was the showrunner on M&M: Los Angeles. He didn’t particularly like Juel and he didn’t make a habit of hiding it. The studio was the one who wanted to have an amagiate consultant, and Davenport didn’t like the idea of any unnecessary fetters on his creative freedom. His visions tended toward the fantastic, and occasionally tawdry. Whenever the other writers wanted to push back, they would turn to Juel to act as a reluctant tiebreaker. Oftentimes, Davenport would railroad his own ideas through anyway.

“Is this about water magic again? Because the writers can do whatever they want, CC, but—”

“No, it’s about Ezi.”

“Esmine?” Juel asked, confused.

Esmine Carter was one of the show’s leads. While Juel was used to talking with the writers, producers, and directors, he had much less interaction with the actors. Still, she had made an impression the one time they spoke, when he was first brought on as a consultant. She asked intelligent questions about Keepers, and seemed invested in doing an earnest portrayal of an amagiate detective. She was young, beautiful, and not prone to the sort of diva-ish behavior that splashed the tabloid headlines on a daily basis. If I was not happily married, I would have one hell of a crush.

“He’s waiting in her dressing room. Asked you to see him first thing.”

“Did he say why?” Juel asked.

“No. But he seemed… frightened.”

That was also unusual. Angry, sure. Stressed, always. But Davenport’s the kind of guy who would approach the throne of heaven and tell God Almighty to get the fuck out of his seat.

“Juel. Did you hear anything on your way in?” Davenport asked, before Juel was completely through the door.

“No,” Juel said slowly as he closed the door behind him. “CC just said you wanted to speak with me. What’s going on?”

Esmine leaned against the wall at the far end of her dressing room, concerned or possibly annoyed. Millea Riley, Carter’s agent, paced the room like a toddler who needed to pee. And Lilina, Carter’s assistant, stood with her hands clasped against her chest as if in prayer.

“Ezi found this waiting for her today.”

Davenport handed Juel an opened envelope, addressed to “Esmine.” There was a very faint thrum of magical energy permeating the paper. He reached inside, feeling a thick card with a satin finish, disrupted by the texture of a thick, nail-polish-like paint.

Oh shit.

He extracted the card back-first. It was adorned with a stylized lotus flower that had been painted black, painstakingly shaded with hues of dark purple and indigo, with the label “Lotus Arcana.” And when he flipped it over, he saw an illustration of a stone tower being struck by lightning. The card was labeled: “The Tower XVI.”

Juel’s mind started racing.

“What time did you find the card?” Juel asked Esmine directly, keeping his voice even.

“I don’t know. I came in just after seven, but I dropped my bag off. I didn’t see if the card was there until after I got coffee and came back around seven thirty.”

“Is this legitimate?” Davenport demanded.

Juel was taken aback. I am not a magi-forensic pathologist, halfwit.

“I don’t know. You know people send shit like this as pranks all the time—”

Riley stepped forward.

“But this one is magic though, isn’t it? It feels magical to me. I get a bad vibe coming off it. After what happened to Glianna, we can’t dismiss it, right?”

“Everyone calm down a bit,” Juel said. He hit the room with a slow, strong, and hopefully reassuring emanation, despite the pang of dread in his stomach. “Who else have you told about this?”

“Nobody,” Esmine said. “Only the people in this room know.”

“We need to keep it that way for as long as possible. Mr. Davenport, we should call in the Burbank Keeping Force to take a look at the scene.”

Davenport scoffed.

“Huh. And here I thought you were supposed to be a fucking detective.”

If Juel had any respect for Davenport, he would have been tempted to lay him out. Instead, he laughed on reflex, which had the delightful side effect of making Davenport’s veins go rigid against his balding skull. Davenport continued:

“If we get a bunch of cops in here it’s gonna disrupt everything. Cause a panic. Do what you can yourself, and take this to your people for analysis or whatever—”

Juel spoke over him:

“If you ever read my notes on your scripts, you’d know jurisdiction can be really inconvenient where chains of evidence are concerned.”

Davenport’s mouth dropped, stunned. Juel raised his hands in a muted apology.

“You want my professional opinion? Close the set. Hell, call Schneider and get him to close the lot. I don’t know if this is authentic, but it is still a death threat. If you want to take it seriously? Take it seriously.”

“Fine,” Davenport said after a couple seconds consideration. His voice was chilly and snide. “You go call the real cops, then. I’ll address the others.”

Davenport tried to shoulder his way through the door, only for Juel to intercept him.

“Do not tell anyone what happened to Esmine. It could royally fuck up the investigation.”

Again, Davenport was stunned, but he managed to shut his gaping mouth after a second or two.

“What the fuck am I supposed to tell them? You don’t think they’ll figure something out when your people are all over the place?”

Huh. And here I thought you were supposed to be a fucking ‘creative.’ Make something up. Juel swallowed his steadily increasing impatience and said:

“We want to keep the bad guys in the dark as long as we can. Even a couple minutes could make or break the case. Tell them we’re investigating a curse, and that’s all you know.”

Davenport stared at him, and then stormed out of the room in disgust. I figure the chances of him listening to me are fifty-fifty. Hell, he may announce everything to everybody out of spite. Fucking pendejo. Juel shook his head and addressed the others.

“I know it’s a pain in the ass, but if you can sit tight for a while, until the other Keepers get here, I’d really appreciate it. I’ve got to go make some phone calls.”

Esmine nodded, brow knit with concentration.

Juel stepped into the hallway and dialed Sev immediately. Hopefully I don’t catch him while he’s on his bike. Fortunately, Sev picked up on the third ring.

“What’s up, brother?” Sev asked.

“It’s Christmas morning. The star of my show just got a Black Lotus card that might be genuine. Definitely has some kind of enchantment on it. I need to call the BKF, but if you hustle hard, you may be able to get a look and ask some question before they completely hijack things.”

“On my way,” Sev said.

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