Sevardin Harker. Satday, Pisces 12th 2351. 10:00 AM. Downtown Los Angeles (LAKF Central Precinct).
Jecia, Juel, and Sev arrived 6AM sharp, along with the Glendale venture. The task force had switched to rotating twelve-hour shifts, with at least two ventures on duty at all time, and all four collaborating for six hour stretches. Glendale was cross-referencing the data Burbank had pulled from Keystone lot’s security records, looking for anomalies and people of interest on the day Esmine received a card. Sev’s venture was reviewing the results of Glendale’s research from the preceding day.
Sev specifically focused on the dossier they had compiled about Rothford Bush. He had been cooperative, if distraught, throughout the investigation. And he came forward with theories for a few years following the original sequence of death. But when the second round of murders began, his tone was bitter and defensive. He lawyered up after their first meeting, and argued that Byanka Gorbachev’s death had ‘ruined him.’ He even went so far as to declare that he was likely the curse’s ‘true’ victim. Never mind that you suddenly had the perfect excuse to cancel your mismanaged, overbudget, behind schedule directorial debut, cutting losses and saving face in the process.
At the end of his review, Sev felt no closer to understanding Bush’s role in the murders, but he was convinced that he was involved, or at the very least, knew more than he was letting on.
Sev was just about to shift to Shapiro’s dossier when he felt a conspicuous stillness settle over the room. He followed Jecia and Juel’s gaze to the door, where Detective Kaytham Lecarde stood. It took a great deal of effort for Sev to swallow his anger.
Social media was ablaze with hashtags linking the Black Lotus deaths to a demonic curse. Before Rick left last night, they had managed to narrow the likely leak to Esmine Carter’s agent, whom Lecarde had interviewed. Imagine putting your client’s life on the line in exchange for fifteen minutes of fame.
“You aren’t due back ‘til noon Lecarde,” Sev said, trying to keep his voice as amiable as possible.
Lecarde, at the very least, had the look of a man who knew he’d fucked-up. But he was angry about it. Sometimes fucking up was a necessary wake-up call. But when you were young and hungry, it tended to give you tunnel-vision. And Lecarde was deep in a tunnel. His eyes were bagged and bloodshot, his brow cinched.
“Grimm told me to get some rest. I slept as much as I could. Now I want to get back to work.”
“I know you’re frustrated,” Sev said, finally. “But we can’t afford any more mistakes. And avoiding them means taking care of yourself.”
Lecarde bowed his head.
“Just let me do something. Paperwork. Research. I don’t care what—”
“Then I don’t want you here,” Sev said, dropping the pretense of patience. “Working blind may make you feel better, but it also means your eyes are gonna glaze over whatever you’re doing. If you call a task done for the sake of calling it done, we could overlook something crucial.”
The room had grown tense. The Glendale venture, Jecia, and Juel had all paused to watch the exchange. Lecarde snickered, held his hands out to the side and let them drop.
“I fucked up. Okay? I should have been more circumspect.”
“Yeah. No shit,” Sev said.
“I’m gonna get some coffee,” Juel said and excused himself with a gesture.
Once he’d left the room, Sev asked:
“How did it happen?”
He could tell Lecarde was tired of that question. Tired of being embarrassed. I don’t care. You might have signed Esmine Carter’s death warrant.
“It’s not like I said ‘Carter has been cursed by a demon, please tell the fucking press.’ I was interviewing her agent and asked him if Carter was religious. He didn’t know, but he inferred I was talking about demons. I never confirmed his guess, he just… read my face. And after, I warned him that releasing any details of our conversation could be fatal, but he went to the tabloids anyway.”
Sev took a deep breath and thought. Whether it’s now, or two hours from now, the kid is going back to work eventually. I need to saddle him with something that will minimize the damage he can do.
“We have a lot of very old evidence,” Sev said at length. “Barely legible police reports and witness statements that are turning to dust. If you want to work, you can start by copying all that information to incanter files. You notice a pattern, or see something you think we’ve overlooked, come find me.”
Lecarde nodded, still sullen, but placated. When he was out of sight, Sev felt a touch better. But he also knew that he was being extra hard on Lecarde because he was frustrated. The meetings with Shapiro and Roth were essentially dead ends, and none of the other ventures had turned up anything useful either. We’re all doing busywork.
—Juel Flores. 10:03 AM. Downtown Los Angeles—
Juel felt like shit. His mood was bruised to begin with. Missing out on a weekend with his boy never felt good. Sev’s team had spent the first part of the morning reviewing old statements in an over-caffeinated haze, and the last thing in the world his body needed was more coffee.
But I also don’t have the heart to listen to Sev tear into Lecarde, or to watch the kid plead for an opportunity to redeem himself. Sev gets sanctimonious when he gets frustrated. Makes for a hell of a show, but I’m over it. Demoralizing the poor bastard will just make him desperate and then he’ll do something else stupid.
The worry ate away at him as he waited for his Café Ericiano. As soon as he stepped out of the café with his drink, he got a call on his symphone. Jecia?
“This is Flores,” Juel said.
“Hey Juel. I’m looking out of our front window and I think I see a familiar face outside.”
“You remember kid on the motorcycle who was snapping pictures at Bush’s last night?”
“Pretty sure he’s across the street now. He keeps looking between his phone and the front of the precinct. He also has his camera, but he’s not shooting anything. I was hoping you might be able to have a chat with him on your way back.”
“Will do. Where is he?”
Jecia described his position relative to the precinct. Juel thanked her and started to alter his return approach to take the photographer by surprise.
“Sev still lighting up Lecarde?” Juel asked.
“He was actually pretty reasonable at first. Said that the best thing he could do for the investigation would be to go home and get some rest. Of course, Lecarde took it as passive aggressive. So Sev put him to work on backing up our evidence chain. I guess that’s a good enough way to keep him out of trouble?”
Juel shook his head, chuckling. He rounded the corner and spied the black-jacketed, black-helmeted rider astride his motorcycle. A camera with a cannon-like telephoto lens hung from his back. Jecia has a good eye. Definitely seems like the same guy from outside of Bush’s place.
“I’m coming up on our friend. Be upstairs soon.”
Juel hung up and took a sip of coffee before briskly approaching the rider, who was still absorbed by his phone.
“Hi there,” Juel said, simultaneously gripping the rider by the shoulders with his wyrd. “You happen to snap some pictures at Rothford Bush’s estate last night?”
The kid jerked, nearly dropping his symphone. He raised his hands in surrender without turning.
“Whoa man. Be chill. Please be chill. I’m within my rights. I’m cooperating. Don’t hurt me.”
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” Juel said, exasperated. “Last night you peeled out pretty quick and I’d like to chat before you do it again. So step off your bike, yeah?”
Juel loosened his urdic grip and the kid complied, hands still raised.
“Mind telling me what you were doing at Bush’s last night?” Juel asked. “And why you’re scoping out the LAKF’s Central precinct?”
“My name is Ezmund Chen. Ezzie for short. I think I have a major lead on the Black Lotus deaths. You’re right to suspect Bush. That’s why you visited him last night, right? I came to submit a tip in person. I was checking my phone to see what the protocol is.”
“Unless you’re here to make a confession, that’s not usually how this works,” Juel said.
“Well, what I’ve got is kind of wild. I figured you’d be more likely to believe me if I can present my evidence in person.”
Oh boy. Dealing with a paparazzo is bad enough, but I’ll take a tabloid reporter over a conspiracy theorist any day. The kid removed his motorcycle helmet. He was handsome, and fairly tall for an Asian guy. Sharp features and hair like a K-Pop star.
“Try me,” Juel said.
“Glianna Garfield was a member of a faen sex-trafficking ring disguised as a tutoring service. Bush is involved with it. He sends all his talent there for ‘training.’ I think he may have had her killed to shut her up.”
Jesus. Actual sex trafficking in Hollywood wasn’t as prolific as headlines made it out to be—systemic sexual harassment was a more prevalent problem—but it did happen. And actors did often seek out fae illegally, for lessons, boons, or other favors. But our evidence hasn’t shown us a whiff of any of this. Seems like long odds.
“You a paparazzo, Ezzie?”
“I prefer to think of myself as a journalist and photographer, but… Sure.”
“Who do you work for?” Juel asked.
“I’m between… uh, I’m freelancing at the moment. But my shots and writing have appeared in every magazine, blog, and trade sheet following the industry. I am very good at what I do.”
Yeah. That doesn’t carry the credit you think it might.
“Look, Ezzie. I suggest you call the tipline with your information, and steer clear of people you suspect of being murderers in the future.”
Juel started to turn to leave.
“Wait!” Ezzie said, rushing to cut him off. “I know about Glianna because I heard about her from my sister. Celira Chen. She’s a client of this ‘tutoring’ service. They’ve got her strung out on dust and keep promising her a big break. But she refuses to talk to me or our family.”
“Kid, I’m sorry. That’s awful. But I don’t—”
Ezzie held up a hand and started fishing in the front pocket of his motorcycle jacket.
“I have evidence, okay? Very serious evidence!”
He fished out a bundle of plastic bags; a common way of insulating magical objects; especially drugs. He presented the bundle to Juel who reluctantly took the package. Ezzie nodded his chin at it.
“Those are lims.”
Juel pivoted from exasperation to skepticism. Liminal Seeds were an incredibly expensive and hard-to-produce alchemical substance that allowed a person to forcibly eject themselves out of reality, and into the Faed, or visa-versa. The ingredients were common enough, but like meth, the price of fucking up the preparation was…extremely high. It was said that people spent money on drugs, and made money on lims. Being able to instantly escape into the Faed, or meet at a secret rendezvous point anywhere in that limitless otherworld, was a trafficker’s dream.
Juel was surprised by the jump in magical pressure as he removed the first plastic bag of an interminable number. The energies were distinctly faen and pertained to spatial magic. Juel stopped after the next bag. He could see the shimmering, silvery seeds that distorted the air around them. Even after God-only-knows how much folded plastic.
Juel sighed, then smiled to himself. We’re going to figure out if this is a prank real quick. He looked Ezzie in the eyes and held up the package.
“You get thirty minutes,” Juel said.
The kid’s face lit up and his wyrd went off like fireworks on the solstice.
“Thank you, officer. Sir. You won’t regret it. I promise.”
“Good. Because I’m holding thirty years of your life here.” Juel shook the package.
“What!?” Ezzie blurted, then forced a laugh. “Bro, I literally just gave you those to prove I am serious about this! I am turning it in as a concerned fucking citizen!”
“Yeah. And if you aren’t wasting my time, I’ll commend you as a concerned fucking citizen and safely dispose of them. But if this is a hoax that interferes with an active murder investigation?” Juel winced and clicked his tongue. “I hope you have something fun planned for your fifties.”
Ezzie stared, mouth agape and crestfallen. Juel irritably gestured for him to head toward the precinct’s front doors, but he smiled once the kid was out of his eyesight. If the kid is driven enough to not recant his story… Maybe something will come of this after all.
“You’re sure Glianna Garfield was a member of this… tutoring service?” Sev asked.
Ezzie produced his symphone and navigated to an album which he handed to Sev.
“I sent myself these pictures from my sister’s phone from one of their parties the same time I took her lims. And I know they’re authentic. This one is Garfield. She has a beauty mark… err. Yeah. There. In the uh, upper thigh area.”
“How do you know that?” Jecia asked, wrinkling her nose slightly.
“Bathing suit shoots for The Eye,” Ezzie muttered.
Sev frowned and shook his head.
“Where were these taken? Tech doesn’t work in the Faed.”
“The fae are the pimps. They give their ‘students’ drugs, cash, and ‘acting lessons,’ inside the Faed in exchange for them having one-on-one sessions with ‘influential mentors’ on our side of the Veil.”
“How did your sister get involved?” Jecia asked.
“She’s an ‘aspiring actress,’” he said with air quotes. “A friend who was already involved recruited her. The Actors and Entertainers Salon, or just the Salon, throws these ridiculous parties at their johns’ houses to set up the rich and connected with the young and desperate. But they don’t just take anybody. You either need an introduction from a mentor, or another member. And you have to be attractive and relatively young. Helps if you can actually act, or come from a Hollywood family, or appeal to a fetish, and lucky Celira checks every box.”
“What’s your family do?” Sev asked.
Ezzie blinked as if the question was tedious.
“My father handles contracts for talent. Has the Lincoln brothers as clients. My mom is a professional gossip and Valium enthusiast, which makes her tragically popular in certain social circles.”
“They don’t have any pull with these ‘influential mentors?’” Juel asked.
“Mom thinks it’s ‘a wonderful opportunity,’ and that this is just the way the world works. Dad has his head in the sand. Thinks I fabricated these pictures with incanter daemons. His darling little girl would never associate with whores, much less suck a dick herself to get ahead. When I pushed him on it, he called me a ‘nosy pervert’ and told me to get a life.” Ezzie snickered bitterly. “If the shoe fits, I guess.”
Juel winced. Yikes. Sev flicked through the album, then handed the phone to Juel. They were what he expected; group photos of young actors and models partying, and a few candid shots of the same people in varying states of undress, taken on the sly.
After a couple seconds, Ezzie spoke up:
“Cel and I aren’t even that close anymore. Not since she started college and I dropped out. She was always superficial and spoiled, but since she moved out… She’s become this out-of-control party girl. She’ll do anything for attention or an opportunity in the industry. But unlike me… I dunno. I like to think she has the potential to grow out of all that. She has ambition, at least.”
Ezzie struck Juel as a bit of a fuck, but he couldn’t completely write him off. Takes a certain personality to jump at job descriptions that revolve around ‘invasion of privacy,’ yet you recognize your sister is in trouble and want to do something about it.
“Would your sister know the location of the next party?” Jecia asked.
“I don’t know where my sister is, and she wouldn’t talk to me—or you—if she did. She hasn’t come home since I took her lims. I know their next party will be on Lunday. One of the mentors hosts a ‘salon’ every other week at their home, but it could be any one of a dozen places. So I figure we need to monitor each home, and when the guests start showing up—”
“Ezzie, I like your enthusiasm, but you have a very fanciful idea of what LAKF resources look like.” Sev said, smiling apologetically. “Even if we had the manpower, a raid is no good. If they have so many lims that their clients can lose track of them, they’ll be able to disappear in seconds. We might get some scraps of evidence, but I bet they have contingencies in place to prevent the whole thing from falling apart.”
“Why not chase them into the Faed? There are spells for that, right?” Ezzie asked.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But a little knowledge plus hopefulness is fucking cancerous. Ezzie was familiar with amagiate protocol as Hollywood presented it, and smart enough to form a plan based on that false premise. He looked at each member of the venture in sequence, settling on Jecia who was either pointedly ignoring him, or genuinely captivated by the bundled-up lims. Sev cleared his throat and answered Ezzie:
“Entering the Faed in any kind of official Amagiate capacity requires a warrant to avoid pissing off the Courts.” Sev said. “If it wasn’t a weekend, we might be able to get approval in two days, but by Lunday? Not likely.”
“So what are you going to do? Just wait until another girl gets a card!?”
Ezzie’s outburst drew the attention of the Glendale venture. Most Amagia weren’t used to taking lip from asfalis people. Juel stepped in before Ezzie’s bravado could carry him any further up the creek:
“Listen, Ezzie… to get started on a warrant, and a whole lot of other shit, I need you to start writing up a statement. Sounds like you’ve been investigating this for a while.” Juel fished a notebook from a nearby table, extended it to Ezzie, and nodded at an interview room: “Tell us everything you know. You can use that room there to—”
Ezzie shook his head and deflected the notebook.
“No. You aren’t getting rid of me that easily. I’m not leaving until I know you’re going to take some kind of—”
Jecia made a retching noise and dropped the bundled lims to the floor. Her eyes flickered, and a facial twitch turned into a full body shudder that made her seem to melt. Sev caught her before she could hit the floor, and tried to loosely cradle her as she shook. He emanated reassurance, and waited for the seizure to pass. Juel barked at the Glendale Keepers to call for a medithurge.
Did she really just use her psychometry on those fucking drugs!?
—Jecia | 10:22 AM—
Jecia’s senses of the world literally flickered like a symvision set. Black and white gashes of static cut through the sounds and images of reality for a second. Then her sight went blank, only to be replaced by an old timey test-pattern screen with the bust of a First Peoples’ chief in profile. She felt something pulling on her wyrd, and the test pattern cleared to reveal a verdantly overgrown castle filled with fae. Elves, an ogre, and a spriggan attired in Spring Court uniforms looked at her with surprise.
Jecia narrowed her senses on the liminal seeds, trying to see through their enchantment. Again, static. Again, a test-pattern—this time a smiling 2300’s cartoon sun—and then she was in a desert at night.
She stood in front of columns and rows of hydroponically hydrated plant beds, exposed to direct moonlight. The hydroponic hookups were enriched by a number of powerful magical reagents. And interspersed between the plant beds, in a precise grid-like fashion, people performed.
Their ages ranged from old children to young adults. Jecia recognized Garfield performing a dramatic monologue, teary-eyed and pleading to an unseen lover. A black teenager painted a swirling abstract that was actually quite arresting. A pretty young woman played a cello. Huh. She looks like the Cheerios girl, all grown up. At least twenty entertainers and artists flashed by.
And through it all, Jecia sensed a heavy silence in the margins of the performances. The glassed-in desert tent was on the brink of annihilation. And everybody present was quite literally performing for their lives, though none of them were aware of it.
The vision accelerated toward the end, each glimpse growing briefer. Static began to intrude again. A muffled voice was calling her name. I can’t breathe. Her perspective narrowed to an individual plant bed, with two workers in hazmat suits clipping the stems from the plants. The voice called her again, louder this time.
In the desert, two other workers removed the vibrant silver, reality-blurring seeds from the plants, and placed them in clamshell containers made of heavy plastic. And each slot was dated. Like birth control.
My tongue. I’m choking. A cartoon starring the test pattern sun began to play, flickering in and out as workers packed the drugs into a truck.
The manic, smiling sun began to dominate Jecia’s vision. But as her fever dream reached a fever pitch, she saw a house. Textile block concrete. Surrounded by greenery. Somewhere famous. Then the cartoon sun came back, but instead of a friendly yellow, it was a very angry red. Then it was the warped bastard who opened her brain—
Encouragement surged through her wyrd. Followed by concern. And surprisingly deep affection. Sev’s wyrd. His voice catapulted her mind back into her body and the vision disappeared like an old fashioned symvision turning off. And then she was looking up at Sev. In Sev’s arms. He seemed to deflate as she woke up but his eyes seemed to sparkle with relief.
Jecia smiled at him. Then immediately threw up.
—Juel | 10:28 AM—
“Aren’t there… safety guidelines for using psychometry?” Sev asked accusingly.
Jecia and Sev had just returned from their respective restrooms, cleaned-up but damp. The seizure had stunned Ezzie into silence. Even Juel had been caught flatfooted. Her eyes had rolled back into her head, she thrashed and gagged in Sev’s arms, and, at the very beginning of the episode, her wyrd withdrew so sharply that it seemed to… invert, for a second. Gave Juel the creeps just thinking about it.
“Guidelines, yes,” Jecia admitted. “But we don’t really know much about how it works.”
Sev folded his arms and asked sternly:
“What do the guidelines say about prodding transference drugs?”
Jecia pinkened slightly, shrugged, and finally settled on:
“My head is damaged goods anyway. I figured a peek was worth the risk. And it was one hell of a ride, let me tell you.”
Sev looked displeased. Juel, on the other hand, was charmed. I think the three of us have a lot in common when it comes to looking and leaping.
“What did you see?” Ezzie asked timidly.
Sev glared at him, but Jecia held up a hand before he could go off:
“Ezzie, which mentor’s house has fancy steel, glass, and concrete on top of a hill? There’s also a pool. It’s famous.”
“Gryfard Nixon’s place. In Hollywood Hills.”
“Thanks,” Jecia said. “Gents? A word.”
Ezzie looked like he wanted to object to being cut out, but thought better of it. Jecia added:
“We’ll be a minute. If you want us to help your sister, get started on making your statement. We can’t do anything without it. Alright?”
Ezzie nodded his head and retrieved the notebook. Juel ushered him to the interview room, did a once-over to make sure there was no confidential material around, then shut the door behind him.
“I take it you saw Nixon’s place in your vision?”
“I saw a whole lot. At the beginning, I caught a glimpse of the Spring Court. At first, I figured that was just a side effect of the drug since they are the current dominant court, but now I think it might be significant. The important thing though, is that these people are farming the lims.”
“I’m sorry, farming?” Juel asked.
The reason lims were so expensive, apart from the risks associated with possession, was that cultivating them was incredibly dangerous. If the grower misallocated the amount of additives in the soil or water, the seeds would have a violent reaction. A single lim bearing plant could tear a car-sized hole in reality, either stranding physical matter in the veil, ejecting it to the Faed, or slicing it between dimensions. And when multiple lim plants were present, the effects were more volatile and varied.
“They’ve stabilized mass production in the most genius, evil, and absolutely fucked up way imaginable,” Jecia said. “They have kids perform for the plants, and the energy behind their performances sustains and stabilizes the operation.”
“What?” Juel asked.
“Look. Lims are a ‘get into the Faed’ free card. They are saturated with Faen energy. The reason lims need to be cultivated in exclusion from each other is because they need to have a sufficient amount of care put into them, as a sort of… tribute, to the Fae. Industrial farming depersonalizes that experience, right? But what if you could make up for the deficit in care?”
“I’m guessing you’re telling us you could stabilize it,” Sev said.
“I saw it. I saw all these kids… performing for the plants. Garfield was one of them.”
“What happens if you don’t meet the care quota?” Juel asked.
Jecia held up her hands and made a small eruption gesture with her wyrd.
“That’s… that’s insane,” Juel said.
“The Fae would love it though. Kids paying tribute with their lives on the line, chasing dreams? It’s madness. It’s beauty. Spring Court through and through and through,” Jecia insisted.
“Jesus,” Sev said.
“There’s more. Those seeds are a bonded pair. Designed to be used on a specific date, at a specific location. One to go to the Faed, and one to come back, to be used at a specific place and date. They ship them out in these dated containers, like birth control, so the kids know when to pop them. And these pills were born for next Lunday, at Gryfard Nixon’s house.”
“How the hell did you get all this?” Sev asked.
“Psychometry is a form of advanced sympathy. If you get one piece of a puzzle, you might be able to tell what the puzzle is made of. Two pieces means two opportunities to interpret how they fit together. But if you have two, interlinked pieces of that puzzle? That’s a multiplicative advantage, because there is no chance of misinterpreting their relationship. Psychometry thrives on those kinds of connections.”
“And there were no side effects?” Juel asked.
“Well, I have a fear of cartoons now, but aside from that?”
Sev and Juel stared at her skeptically, but she shook her head and added sternly:
Sev and Juel politely withdrew their curiosity. Jecia continued:
“I need to report to vice so they can do something about that farming operation before it blasts a sequel to the Grand Canyon outside Bakersfield, but we need to get inside that party. Garfield was involved.”
“Don’t suppose you saw Carter performing?” Juel asked.
Jecia shook her head.
“We should ask her about it to be sure,” Jecia said. “But if we can get an agent into that party undercover, I have a feeling we’ll find our demon. Or at least a sense of where it’s hiding out.”
“Party isn’t enough,” Sev said. “They won’t risk us spooking a trafficking operation to catch a serial killer. Which means we need to get inside the Faed to confirm trafficking as well. And to get that, we need a warrant to use lims.”
Juel shook his head.
“Like you said, it’s the weekend. Even if we found a Juris Lexis at work, they would probably want some way to verify the details of Jecia’s vision given the… ‘unorthodox’ chain of evidence. It would take us until Merday at the earliest. But there is a loophole for investigating the Faed without a warrant.”
Sev and Jecia were all ears. Juel sighed. I hate that I know this. I hate why I know it.
“Amagiate akrasiacs may legally enter the Faed at will, because it technically doesn’t require any form of external ‘assistance.’ Drugs. Anima. Whatever. And before you ask, the question came up in the writer’s room of M&M. They had me do some homework, and this was the answer.”
“We don’t have any akrasiacs in Arroyo. Neither does the Los Angeles Chapter, far as I’ve heard. But we may be able to call one in. Most of the time, they’re solo agents who travel for reasons like this. And like I said, Vice will want to do everything they can to cinch this arrest.”
Jecia nodded and shifted gears almost immediately.
“I’ll look into the protocol and start putting the paperwork together.”
Juel walked to his desk and queried the amagiate personnel database with the word ‘Akrasiac.’ About fifty names came up in the Los Angeles region; the overwhelming majority read as either ‘deceased,’ ‘retired,’ or ‘relocated.’ But one name was listed as ‘active personnel,’ and another as ‘aspirant.’ Both were affiliated with the Arroyo Athenaeum.
Tenured Master Fera Fitzgerald and Seventh-Year Aspirant Hace Matthews.