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Sevardin Harker. Venday, Pisces 11th 2351. 8:02 AM. Arroyo – Glade Crest (Sev’s House).

Pick up. Come on, pick up. Sev nearly tripped as he attempted to pull his spare uniform fatigues on, symphone squeezed between his ear and shoulder. She picked up on the third ring, voice hoarse with sleep.

“This is Singh.”

“Jecia, it’s Sev. Have you left home yet?”

“Not yet. What’s up?”

Her fatigue made sense. They had left The Book at quarter to midnight.

“We have an opportunity, but we’ve got to move quick. Somebody on Juel’s set just received a Black Lotus card.”

Sev could practically hear her mind’s gears cracking off the crust of sleep.

“Understood,” she said, alert now. “He’s at the Keystone Studios lot in Burbank, right?”

“Yeah, but in a perfect world, we beat the Burbank Keeping Force there. I have a bike. Can probably get us through traffic faster than a car. If you don’t mind riding back saddle.”

“I’ll get ready. I’m in Brookside, off Orange Grove.”

“Text me your address. Be there as soon as I suit up.”

— 8:23 AM | Burbank (Forest Lawn Drive) —

“Whew. Where did you learn to drive like that?” Jecia asked as Sev exited the freeway, relaxing her grip on his torso slightly as he slowed to a more reasonable speed, and eventually came to a stop at a stoplight.

“Sorry about that,” Sev said. “You alright?”

“First time on a motorcycle,” she said. “Definitely don’t need coffee anymore.”

“Sorry,” Sev said again. “As soon as I could drive again, I took every defensive driving course the Keeping Force had to offer, and a stunt-driving class on the side. The people who kidnapped me got me when I was on my bike. Figured having some tricks up my sleeve could be useful in a pinch.”

“You talk about it so easily,” Jecia said. “What happened to you, I mean.”

Sev was surprised. He had already learned Jecia was quiet by nature, and extremely guarded when it came to her history and personal life.

“I suppose. Though I don’t think what happened to me compares to what… err, what happened to you.”

“What are people saying?” Jecia asked.

The light turned, and the bike was once again too loud to keep talking without shouting. Given the subject matter, that strikes me as a poor idea. Sev heard that she had been tortured. Mentally raped for three days, after somebody leaked the identity of her former chapter’s undercover operatives. He had heard it from Vadon, of course, who had heard it from Fischer. God only knows where she heard it. That woman loves to talk, and the more lurid the gossip the better.

They drove along the long stretch of road that ran parallel to Forest Lawn cemetery, eventually arriving at the bridge that led to Empyrean Studios. There was a considerable back-up of extremely expensive cars as security screened people through.Sev was tempted to let the moment with Jecia pass. It would be an uncomfortable conversation, and he was embarrassed to admit that he had listened to office hearsay and taken it as information. He got the sense that she wouldn’t mind if he just dropped it.

No. That’s the coward’s way out, and I am not a bitch.

“People are saying what you’d expect,” Sev said. “That your cover was blown and you were tortured with psychic magic for days. And if that’s anything close to the truth… I think what happened to you and me aren’t really comparable.”

“From what I’ve heard, you were kidnapped by terrorists, maimed, and left crippled for two years,” Jecia said, matter-of-factly.

Sev blinked.

“Well, when you put it like that, it sounds…” He chuckled. “Yeah, I guess it was pretty rough. But the thing is, it was a very physical problem. And I can do physical.”

Sev hated himself the second the words were out of his mouth. Jecia stifled a giggle. He was suddenly painfully aware of their proximity. She had leaned back since they were mostly stopped, but they were still close enough to feel each other’s wyrds coruscating into each other.

“Err. I mean, I’m good with concrete problems. You can appreciate how things are getting better after every surgery, every week you make yourself work out. And then you’re back on your feet. But mental shit? That’s dragon territory.”

Jecia snickered, good naturedly and said:

“I suppose.”

“Anyway. I understand why you don’t want to talk about it. Well. I mean—I was presumptuous. I respect you not wanting to talk about it. But if you want to talk, I’m here to listen.” A second later he added, aloud. “That’s also presumptuous. Fuck.”

This time she laughed outright. I sound like a damn fool. I am a damn fool.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jecia said still giggling beneath her helmet.

Ahead, the cars started pulling U-turns away from the lot. The security guard had stepped forward and was now gesturing that the lot was closed.

“Great,” Sev muttered.

He wheeled the bike forward, and held up his license vambrace. A Keeper’s silver cuff opens a lot of doors. It was, in many ways, better than a police badge, but also more dangerous.

“That doesn’t look like an amagiate bike,” the guard said. “Don’t you usually drive cruisers?”

“We’re in a hurry. Need to get to sound stage seven,” Sev said.

The guard paused, clicked his tongue, and gestured for Sev to take off his helmet.

“You got ID?”

Sev also paused, pointedly. Yes. I also have ten kinds of ‘fireball,’ motherfucker. He pulled off his helmet, staring death at the pissant. The pissant extended his hand, gesturing for their ID cards. Sev and Jecia both fished their wallets out and gave him their Amagiate Identification cards. The only magic piece of plastic on earth. The guard made a point of scanning both cards thoroughly.

“A bunch of Keepers already came through the south entrance,” the guard said, voice slow and exasperated. “Your IDs say you’re from the Arroyo chapter.”

“We have an interest in the same crime they are investigating,” Jecia said in a tone that broached no bullshit. He stared at her as if she was speaking a foreign language. “Are you gonna let us in or not?”

The security guard opened his mouth, but ultimately trudged back to his booth and started punching something in on his incanter. A long moment later, he re-emerged with the IDs and two visitors’ pass stickers.

“Keep these on while you’re here,” he said.

Really? Sev snatched the stickers and demanded:

“Where’s sound stage seven?”

“You’ll need to park your bike in the lot first, and then make your way down that road there, turn right, and then walk south.” He pushed the button to raise the gate as he finished talking.

Sev took off down the road, ignoring the guard’s instructions to park in the lot. Jecia chuckled as the guard jogged after them, hollering.

“Nobody creates problems like little men with a little power,” Sev grunted.

Two amagiate cruisers were parked outside of one of the sound stages. The BKF had set up a cordon barrier around the stage’s entrance, with two officers standing guard, and another addressing a small crowd that had gathered for the spectacle. Sev parked next to one of the cruisers, the two of them disembarked, and showed their licenses to the officer’s standing guard.

“You also from Arroyo?” the officer asked.

“Came as quick as we could,” Sev said. “I’m Senior Detective Harker and this is Detective Singh.”

“Yeah, my CO told me to keep you guys here until we finish our initial assessment…”

Sev pressed his lips into a tight smile and ignored the rest of the officer’s explanation. The more people who pass that card around, the muddier the waters will get before Jecia can work her magic. I have to find a way to get us in there. Immediately.

“We have some information he’ll want to hear,” Sev said, edging past the officer. “It’s urgent.”

“I appreciate that sir, but it should just be a couple moments before—Hey, you can’t just—”

The hell I can’t. You’re gonna have to lay hands on me son, else I’m gonna keep walking. Jecia also stepped across the cordon barrier. Unable to stop both of them, the officer fell into step behind them, protesting the whole way. Fortunately, Juel was waiting inside the sound stage.

“Sev. Dressing room down the hall,” Juel called, then moved to waylay the patrol officer who was still trying to get them back outside the cordon.

Stepping into the hallway, Sev saw Detective Kaytham Lecarde—posted outside the door labeled Ezmine Carter. God damn it. The feeling appeared mutual. Lecarde forced a smile and stepped forward.

“Detective Harker. You made good time, but I thought I told our officers to ask you to wait while we finished our initial assessment.”

“Oh, he tried,” Sev said amiably. “But I figured we might be able to provide a crucial insight. Detective Singh here is a very gifted psychometrist.”

Like the security guard at the gate, Lecarde was clearly high on the authority he had been entrusted with. And very, very hungry to make this case his own. But I can’t help but notice that he’s on door duty.

“Look, I appreciate the offer—and the enthusiasm—but Burbank has—”

An exasperated, grizzled voice came from the dressing room:

“Just let ‘em in, Kay.”

Sev smiled pleasantly and edged past Lecarde into the dressing room. Jecia followed suit. There were two senior detectives in the room. One was old, mustached, and bearded, the other mustached, and slightly younger. An attractive young woman whom Sev vaguely recognized as the female lead of Monstrum and Malefaction: Los Angeles stood in the corner with her arms folded.

“I’m Detective Sevardin Harker, lead of Arroyo’s fridge.”

“Detective Zuiker,” the older of the two detectives said. “How can we help each other?”

“Sorry to butt in, but judging from what Detective Flores told me over the phone, I’m pretty sure our cases are linked. Detective Singh here has a talent for psychometry, and we would really appreciate it if she could take a look at the card Ms. Carter received. At the very least, she should be able to tell if it’s a legitimate threat. If it’s not, you may be able to settle this by lunch.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” the bearded detective said witheringly.

He was clearly annoyed, but Sev got the sense that it was the case itself that troubled him rather than Arroyo’s presence at their scene. He could feel Lecarde’s wyrd quietly seething somewhere behind him. Sit and stew, kid.

Zuiker vaguely gestured at a standard-sized envelope resting on the dressing room counter.
Jecia stepped forward and retrieved the envelope.

She studied the envelope for a moment, then extracted the card and looked at Sev.

“Do your thing,” he said.

—Jecia. 8:46 AM—

The card held a tempest, or rather, a sort of whirlpool. As Jecia probed it with her wyrd, she felt like she was submerged. The conflicting etheric energies—physical and psychic, egregoric and lawed, contrasting elemental charges—broke over her like a wave, tousling her senses in the savage surf.

She could tell that most of it was the paint, which was much more potent than the fae dust-eroded card she had inspected yesterday. Need to reframe this. She had encountered psychic traps before, and the best way to deal with them was impose her own mental structure on the magic, giving it a more tangible form to fight against.

Jecia imagined the paint’s vortex as a vertical wall and withdrew her wyrd slightly, separating her senses from the magic. Restoring her sense of self allowed her to separate the paint from the card. Its energies still acted as a barrier, but she leaned on her metaphor, searching for a way to untangle the interference. Water is transparent. And you can see through transparent mediums.

Beyond the water was another firmer sort of magic. ‘Outside’—on the physical plane—she stroked the unpainted parts of the cardstock, trying to tease the magic out of it. The paper itself was depleted; a cruel trap that had already sprung, but the malice behind it lingered. It’s a death curse—no question.

Jecia had to recenter herself again, resisting the pull of the paint’s funnel. Then she held her breath and smashed into the barrier, headlong, spearing through it with wyrd and will. She was able to catch a solid hold on some of the residual energy, and with it came flashes of insights.

It had been an egregoric spell—based on the power of human belief. But it had not bonded to Carter directly. Rather it was a sort of hungry cloud, gathering energy that would eventually reach a fatal fever pitch. The magic had a cyclical sort of self-awareness. The spell itself ‘knows’ about the Black Lotus’ legacy. It’s feeding on the public’s perception and fear of the magic. As the case gained notoriety and the target’s insecurity grew, the spell gained strength.

Jecia felt a hand on her shoulder. Voices called out to her. She ignored them, pushing deeper as the paint-barrier buffeted her mind. What can I determine about the caster? The spell was initiated by human will, but the actual power behind the magic is fueled by something else. Her wyrd began to gasp for neutral etheric energy. Just a little deeper.

Primal, guttural noises—hissed fricatives and growled consonants with the cadence of Latin—cored Jecia’s stomach. The stench of intense, weaponized sulfur and burning pitch lanced her head through her sinuses, followed by the unmistakable scent of burning flesh.

And suddenly, she was back in the dentist chair of the Newam warehouse. Her torturer’s wyrd, wormed deep inside her mind, abruptly vanished. She felt the weight of his dead body collapse on top of her, still smoking from the pyromancy that killed him.

Oh god. Is this real? Am I still being—

The questions overloaded her senses, slammed her back into the paint’s barrier, and obliterated her sense of self. Caught in the undertow of the paint’s vortex, she was flung back into reality, light-headed to the point of blacking out.

 —Sevardin. 8:58 AM—

The other detectives had grown impatient. Jecia had been non-responsive for nearly five minutes, brows knit in concentration, eyes flickering, and fingers feverishly stroking the unpainted edges and back of the card. Sev tried to coax her awake by shaking her shoulder to no effect. Twenty seconds later, she jerked back to reality with a gasp.

“Jecia? Are you alright?” Sev asked.

She nodded and handed him the card.

“I could use some aspirin,” she said.

The mustached middle-aged detective—Grallace Thiel, according to his badge—looked at Lecarde and gestured for him to comply to her request. He opened his mouth to object, but caught a glance from Zuiker and stormed out of the room, lips pursed.

“What did you see, darlin’?” Zuiker asked gently.

“Spell’s demonic,” Jecia said.

“Figuratively?” Sev asked.

“No. Literal demonic energy shaped it. Smelled brimstone, pitch, and burning flesh.”

“Did you get a glimpse at the caster?” Sev asked.

Jecia shook her head.

“I know how the spell works, though. It’s an egregoric curse. Subsists on the…” She gestured vaguely, searching for the words. “…the infamy, of the image. The more people who are aware of the Black Lotus, the more people who are afraid of it and believe it works, the more effective the curse becomes.”

Sev shot a glance at Carter.

“Maybe we should talk about this somewhere else,” Sev suggested gently.

“No. She needs to hear this,” Jecia said, resolute, and looked at Carter. “You need to be brave. The more you believe in us, the harder you push back, the longer it will take for the spell to gain strength. And we need to keep this as quiet as possible.”

Carter pursed her lips and nodded.

“Could we call the Rosary Squad?” She asked. “Can an exorcism break the curse?”

The Rosary Squad, an Erician colloquialism for Keeping Force egregorics divisions, were a class of Keepers who dealt with faith and belief-based magic.Most of them were deeply religious, which was a rarity among Amagia. Sev never understood how you could go through the Athenaeum, gain a clear understanding of what egregores actually were, and still believe in the authenticity of one god over another. But where belief was concerned, there was no tool more powerful than faith, and they could focus their magic in ways that other casters could not.  Unfortunately, the strict mechanics of egregoric magic, and the role that the Rosary Squad played in a department, were ill-understood by the general public, and often used as a convenient plot device in fiction.

Jecia shook her head.

“It’s complicated. A human was the one to cast the spell, but a demonic entity fueled it. If you were possessed, we could drive the demon out and send it back to whatever plane it came from. As it is? We need to find the human who initiated the spell, and either get them to break its contract, or we need to track down the demon and destroy it.

“How long do I have?” Carter asked.

Jecia opened her mouth, then closed it again before settling on an answer:

“It’s impossible to tell, really. But the braver you can be, the longer we have.”

Carter seemed displeased by the answer, but nodded.

Zuiker grunted:

“So much for an early lunch.”

Sev collectively addressed the Keepers and nodded toward the door.

“A word, detectives?”

They retreated to the hall where Juel waited, and Lecarde approached, holding water and two white pills. Jecia received them gratefully and downed the cup of water. Sev filled them in on their findings.

“If we can keep this under wraps, I’d give her roughly a week before her own anxiety gives the curse enough fuel to kill her,” Jecia said. “Ten days if she’s got an iron will.”

“And if it gets out?” Juel asked.

“Two days. Maybe three,” Jecia said.

“‘A demon did it’ isn’t much of a lead,” Lecarde frowned.

“It’s more than we had to go on fifteen minutes ago,” Sev replied, trying to keep the icy swell of anger out of his voice. “We need to get on a conference with our ACs. This is a task force situation.”

“You sure about that?” Lecarde interjected. “Only so many cooks fit in a kitchen. May be better if we devote our Chapter resources to the cases individually, especially if the clock is ticking.”

“Los Angeles County’s collective Keeping Force had two runs at this before and came away with nothing,” Sev started, only to be interrupted by Lecarde.

“Right. So wouldn’t a leaner approach be more efficient? Less bureaucracy to deal with and fewer opportunities for leaks.”

Sev scoffed.

“We can’t hope to solve this without pooling our evidence. We’ll lose more time commuting and copying evidence than we will putting a team together. And without Jecia, you would have even less to go on. Unless you discovered something you haven’t shared yet?”

Zuiker held up a hand and forestalled Lecarde’s rebuttal with a sharp emanation.

“Lecarde. Thiel. Start interviewing the cast and crew. Take statements, but do not let them hear about the damn card.”

He waited until his subordinates left, then gestured apologies to the group.

“Sorry about, Lecarde. He’s a bright kid, good police, but hungry to make a name for himself.

Sev snickered. Zuiker continued:

“I agree that we need all the help we can get on this, but Lecarde’s right that we can’t afford to dick around with politics and protocol. I’ll get on the horn with our brass and see about putting a team together. Appreciate it if you could do the same.”

Sevardin nodded and said:

“I’ve already spoken to the LAKF. Got Rorick Grimm on notice, so hopefully we can put a team together fast.”

Zuiker nodded and sighed, then pulled out his symphone and walked away to make his calls. The man seemed perennially weary. He had to be at least fifty-five. Too old for the job, in Sev’s opinion. Probably holding out for a fatter pension. He could understand why Lecarde would be frustrated to serve under a CO like that—after all, he had gone through something similar with Ashford Adams. But we really do not need a young maverick with big dreams fucking this up.

“I’m gonna talk to Drake. Can you two see if you can take some statements, as well?”

Jecia and Juel nodded, and started walking away from the dressing room.

After ten seconds of internal debate, Harker called Drake’s direct line. It was a breach of etiquette; normally you had to steadily work your way up the chain, but he knew that Commander Borman, at the very least, would be slow, obstructive, and more concerned with clearance rates than solving the damn case. After three rings, Drake picked up.

“Harker, I don’t have time for a friendly chat, so unless this is life and death—”

“Another actress just got a tarot card. Jecia got her hands on it and she says it’s legitimate.”

There was a pause as Drake swore under her breath.

“Tell me exactly what you found.”

Sev walked her through the details. After another long pause, Drake spoke up:

“I’ll call Wolf so we can start figuring this out.”

Dysen Wolf was the Arch Chief of the LAKF’s central chapter. Sev didn’t know too much about him, but he was supposed to be a fairly straight shooter who had turned the chapter’s reputation around after the controversies surrounding the LAKF’s alleged involvement with the LAPD’s Rampart scandal. Hopefully he’ll be sensible and give us enough manpower to handle this properly. But police politics being what they were, Sev wasn’t holding his breath.

“Not sure what this team will end up looking like, but you will be in charge of Arroyo’s contribution. Who do you want?”

“Ideally? As many people as possible.”

“I can guarantee you two people. Pick them now.”

Two? Lady, are you insane? Sev made a sort of choking noise, followed by silence, which Drake seemed to read perfectly.

“That’s the best I can do, Harker. You know Los Angeles will hijack this. We don’t have time to negotiate with the division leads for extra boots. Egregorics is tied up. Homicide will push back due to clearance rates, and you literally do not have time to bring more people up to speed. I’ll do what I can, but assume the worst. Pick your people.”

Sev sighed and took five full seconds to seethe and consider. Finally, he said:

“Singh and Flores.”

There was another long pause.

“Harker, I know you and Juel are old war buddies but—”

“He has connections and insights about Hollywood that nobody else has. Hell, he was the one who tipped me off to Carter’s card. I know I can trust him, and I’ve already walked him through the details of Glianna’s death.”

Drake chewed on it for a couple seconds, but Sev knew he had her convinced.

“Why Singh instead of Freeman? She’s brand new.”

Sev spoke the truth before he could censor himself:

“She’s a better cop.”

“You’ve worked with her for a week, Harker,” Drake returned, incredulous.

“And I’ve already seen enough. Her gift for psychometry is…unparalleled. It’s the only reason we have anything to go on at all. I love Vadon like a nephew. I’ve tried to raise him to be the best police I can, and I like to think I’ve done a decent job of it, but you can’t teach the kind of talent Singh has.”

“Fine,” Drake said. “But you get to break the news to Freeman.”

“He’ll hate to hear it.”

“You don’t say. Doubt he’ll ever let it go, either. But I don’t have time to listen to him whine or massage his bruised ego. And neither do you. So get it over with, gather your evidence, and report to the central Chapter.”

“Yes, Sir,” Sev said, but Drake had already hung up.

—9:34 AM. Arroyo (Central Terrace, AKF, Central Chapter)—

“This isn’t fair,” Vadon said, dead serious for once. “It isn’t right.”

“I know,” Sev said.

They were in the Fridge. Sev had left Jecia and Juel in Burbank to help the BKF take statements. Now he was boxing up the evidence they collected as Vadon wheeled after him in the conference room, his wyrd nakedly irate. He was hurt and outraged.  

“But you made the requests anyway,” Vadon insisted.

“I did.”

“Why? I understand Juel. He has all sorts of connections, but Jecia?” He shook his head. “She is brand new man. You and I have been working together for four goddamned years! So are you telling me you trained me wrong? Or are you saying I’m incompetent?”

“Neither!” Sev snapped slamming an evidence box down on the table. “Can you give me a detailed history of an object just by touching it? Can you detect demons that forensics couldn’t find?”

Vadon looked away in disgust. Sev kept talking, trying to be gentler:

“Right now, we owe every lead we have in this case to Jecia. She has a talent for psychometry that is unmatched. We would be dead in the fucking water without her. And I need somebody here who I can trust.”

“You don’t trust me,” Vadon said flatly. “If you did, I would be working this case, with you, like you trained me to do. This is a career-making case.”

“It’s a fucking nightmare and you know it.”

Vadon shook his head, lip curling into a snarl.

“Naw, man. Sitting alone in the goddamned Fridge for the rest of my service is the nightmare. I will always be that kid who lost his cool to you.”

“That ain’t it, Vadon. You should know that. Otherwise, I would have booted your ass years ago. If I left Jecia to watch the fridge, she’d have to check protocol every five minutes. I need her on the Lotus, same as I need you here.”

Vadon held Sev’s gaze then shook his head again.

“When this is done? We are done. I’m requesting a transfer. Today.”

Sev took a deep breath, and then nodded.

“That’s fair. You’ll have my recommendation.”

Sev thought Vadon was hurt before. But seeing his expression now, he realized he was just pissed. Now he’s hurt. He thought that would sway me. He thought I valued him more than this. Sev wished he could say something to ease the sting.  

“Just like that, huh?” Vadon asked.

“It’s bullshit,” Sev agreed, helpless. “It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. But it’s also our best bet at solving this case.”

“Yeah,” Vadon said. “Good luck.”

And with that, he wheeled away.

Sev sighed and stared at the evidence boxes. Well. That went about as poorly as it could have. But—and Sev felt guilty for thinking it—the way Vadon took it confirmed that this was the right call. The only call. There’s no room for ego in a case like this. And if I tell myself that hard enough, maybe I won’t feel like shit about it.

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