Sevardin Harker. 6:18 PM. Marday, Pisces 14th 3351 AA. Los Angeles Keeping Force (Central Precinct).
“Bush sent you to the party with Beronica Stiles and Yordane Mallory. Did he provide you or them with lims?”
Vecca Reese shook her head. She had a nasty bruise from Hace pistol-whipping her with her own gun. Her mascara ran in tracks beneath her red eyes. The posh, self-assured woman they had met at Bush’s estate was nowhere to be found. And for good reason. Facilitating transference with the intention of sexual trafficking was a minimum sentence of forty years.
“The Salon always provides chaperones and proteges with payment and lims. I don’t know whether the mentors or the fae fund it. Both, probably.”
The venture sat with Reese in a standard interrogation room. Wren’s people had grilled her about the Salon’s operations for four hours, and they only stopped to give Arroyo a turn because they were on a ticking clock.
Reese had not asked for a lawyer, and unlike asfalis law enforcement, the Amagium felt no compulsion to assign a public defender unless explicitly requested. It’s a predatory policy. And she’s a damn fool. Like many young criminals, Reese panicked.She hoped giving her full cooperation might earn her some special consideration. All that can do is hurt you. Especially in this city. But Esmine Carter is already on borrowed time, and we need all the information we can get, as quickly as possible. As much as I hate to admit it, this is a huge windfall.
“How long have you been a part of the Salon?” Jecia asked.
Reese lowered her head to the table.
“Six years,” she said. “When I arrived in Los Angeles… Look, you’ve all heard this story before. Small-town girl with big dreams. No support, and no real plan. My savings were gone in six months. I had been served my second eviction notice when a friend invited me to the Salon.
“They paid my rent. Lined me up with two auditions. And I didn’t have to… I mean… I had to have sex eventually, but I wasn’t very popular with the mentors. I was twenty-two. Most girls start at about sixteen, but they’ve been trending younger lately.”
“Have you ever taken a minor to the Salon before?” Juel asked, voice dry.
Not really germane to Bush’s involvement with the Black Lotus, compadre. Juel seemed far less sympathetic to Reese’s circumstances than Jecia. Maybe it comes with fatherhood.
“I take anybody Roth gives me. I don’t know how old they are. I don’t want to know. I mean, with some of them, it’s obvious.” Then she added, hastily, “I never invited anybody under eighteen. Even when Roth asked me to recruit people, I… I’d say I couldn’t win them over.”
“But he did tell you to recruit people?”
“Why follow Bush’s orders at all?” Juel asked.
“He’ll tell you I’m a grown woman who always gave her consent. But I… depend on him. Even if you send him to prison instead of me, my life is over. I had no choice. I haven’t for years. Especially after what happened to Glianna.”
“You think Rothford Bush was involved with Glianna’s death?” Sev asked.
“I don’t… know. I mean, I have no proof. But she was a long-time member of the Salon, and Roth has been a part of it as long as I’ve known him. These are powerful people and I am…” She shook her head, hiccupped, and started to cry. “I’m a failed actress. I’m nobody. They could make me disappear without thinking twice. People go missing all the time. I don’t know if they run away, or they’re killed, or taken by the Fae.”
“Did Bush react to the news of Glianna’s death? Make a comment or mention her in the days leading up to her death?” Sev asked.
Reese knit her brows, trying to remember.
“He mentioned that the Black Lotus Killer was back. He said he knew that this day would come. But when I asked him why he thought Glianna was targeted, he said he didn’t know. He said he had no idea who she was.”
“I thought Glianna was in the Salon,” Juel said.
Reese laughed. Just a chuckle at first, but once she started, she couldn’t contain herself. The Venture exchanged a look. Juel opened his mouth to say something, but Jecia gestured for him to wait. Eventually Reese got herself back under control, gesturing and emanating apologies.
“I’m sorry. It’s not funny. I’m not…” She pursed her lips and started again. “Bush and the other mentors don’t keep close track of the proteges. Like I told the other detectives, at any given time there are sixty to eighty of us. I know mentors who have sex with a girl and then introduce themselves next party as if they had never met before. We are nothing to them.”
Sev tried to be dispassionate, but Reese was getting to him. The shock of her arrest had worn out hours ago. Wren’s people had been grilling her since her midnight arrest, asking her about every conceivable aspect of the Salon. She’s borderline delirious. And who can blame her? I went home. I slept. I ate.
“You need any food?” Sev asked. “Coffee?”
“I’m good,” she said, and gestured that she had eaten.
“How about sleep?” Sev asked.
Reese caught herself before she could say something snide. Then she swallowed, and smiled:
“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep any time soon. And I would prefer to get through this first.”
“Fair enough,” Sev said.
She has nerves of steel if nothing else.
“Do you, or Bush, have any relationship to Esmine Carter?” Jecia asked.
Reese shook her head and gestured negatively.
“I don’t think she’s a member of the Salon. The first time I heard about her is when the news announced she got a Black Lotus card. Bush didn’t say anything either. He’s been withdrawn the last few days, but that’s not really unusual. Especially when he’s fasting. Roth also seemed to be… distancing himself from the Salon. He hasn’t hosted a party in the last eighteen months.”
“How long has he been fasting?” Juel asked.
“It’s been three weeks,” Reese said and nodded her head with a slow exhale. “Last time he only used his rations because they were about to expire. He doesn’t feed. I mean,” she shook her head. “I don’t think he has been feeding. Obviously, there were… times, at the Salon in particular… When…” She swallowed and forced a smile. “He’s discrete—goes for the inner thigh. But he hasn’t done it to me in over a year, and I haven’t seen him do it to somebody else for a long time. And he’s pushing his fasts longer and longer.”
Reese continued almost absent mindedly, gazing at the table:
“He says the only way he can still feel alive is when he’s wrestling with the hunger. He gets… ecstatic when he has hunger attacks. Obviously, he’s better after he feeds. More exuberant. Less mean,” the girl sniffed again.
She can’t bring herself to hate him, even though she’s claiming to be his prisoner and selling him out. But he’s also done so much programming that she automatically tries to make excuses for him. She doesn’t know how to live without him.
“Did he have any visitors or guests in the past two weeks?” Juel asked.
“Just Triga. Triga Shapiro. You met her, briefly, when you came to interview Roth.”
“Did she make any kind of impression on you?” Sev asked.
Reese thought for a moment.
“Not really. But when they catch up, they talk for hours. Sometimes she gets… really, really drunk. And she’s one of the few people who are allowed to watch. Err, watch him feed, I mean.”
Reese laughed at the venture’s collective response.
“It becomes a very intimate thing for ahemes. He has no family left. So he only lets close friends… and….” Her voice trailed off and she swallowed. “Close friends and pets, I guess.”
The rest of the interview was just as bleak. They had learned that “executive domestic assistant” entailed the duties of a bodyguard, secretary, live-in nurse, head of staff, personal pimp, and occasional whore. Sev suddenly felt shitty for his snide impression of ‘overblown’ titles. If they called the job what it actually was, nobody would apply.
For the purposes of the Salon, she was paid—via checks from a variety of different ‘scholarship funds’ or Faen shadow identities—for transporting, managing, and generally caring for the girls—who were assigned to her care by Bush directly. In earlier ‘phases’ of the Salon, she had attended as a protégé, and received her promotion two years after joining. The promotion entailed a white rabbit mask and a steady check. She said she was afraid of what would happen if she said no. And two years after that, Rothford ‘adopted’ her. That’s the word she used. That’s the way it is in her head.
“Quite a story,” Jecia said.
Sev started back into the present, and looked at Jecia. They both stood in the break room, Sev waiting for his cup of coffee to cool, Jecia reaching for a mug.
“Yeah,” Sev said. “With her testimony, we should be able to get Bush on conspiracy at the very least. But not exactly a smoking gun where the Black Lotus is concerned. And Reese herself…”
“You feel for her,” Jecia said knowingly. “And you continue to puzzle me,”
“You don’t have any sympathy for her?” Sev asked.
“I didn’t say that. But I have noticed you have extremely high standards for people. Juel. Vadon. Me. The suspects we interview. Yet when somebody answers hardship by becoming a predator herself, you see her hardships first.”
“I suppose I’m a soft touch,” Sev said, at a loss.
“It’s not a bad thing. I think more cops—amagia and asfalis alike—could stand to show some compassion to the people we book. I’m just curious as to whether Reese gets special treatment because she’s young and beautiful.”
“I’m conflicted, not infatuated,” Sev assured her.
“If you were infatuated, would you know?” Jecia said, her tone teasing slightly.
“Young and beautiful isn’t really my type,” Sev chuckled.
Besides, somebody else has been running around my head lately.
“Oh? You prefer old and scarred?”
“A few scars have never bothered me,” Sev smiled.
He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth, and found himself trying to avoid eye contact; especially with the chevron shaped mark coming out of the corner of Jecia’s right eye. She is your subordinate, and you are in the eye of the storm. Do not flirt, Sev. Don’t even think about it. He did his best to keep his wyrd neutral—warm, friendly—but strictly neutral.
Jecia continued to peer at him, however. And when he looked back, he found nothing but curiosity and amusement in her emerald eyes. She bowed her head with a smirk, and took a step forward, but was interrupted before she could say anything.
An irate, gruff voice called from the hallway, followed by a crash. Jecia froze rather than backing away. I really, really wish I knew where that was going. But…
“That didn’t sound good.” Sev said.
“Yeah, we should…” Jecia gestured vaguely toward the door.
“…Probably check that out,” Sev agreed, nodding.
They left the breakroom and searched for the source of the noise. Down the hall, Wren stood in the task force’s conference room, hands folded. Juel was holding his head. And Grimm had his back to the door, looming over a smashed copy machine.
“What the fuck happened?” Sevardin asked.
“Grimm killed the copier, like a fucking child,” Wren said.
“Oh. Why did he do that?” Jecia asked.
“Look, what’s done is done, alright? Let’s leave it at that.” Rick said.
Juel sighed deeply and turned to Sev and Jecia.
“Bush’s lawyers called in a favor with the county Adjudicator’s Office. Very conveniently, he ended up with Erwen Stern as the Juris Lexis to review his case and set charges.”
Grimm cursed again and kicked the ruined machine. Sev raised an eyebrow. I have no idea who that is, but when bad guys get to pick their prosecution, petty things like justice tend to fall to the wayside.
“Who is Erwen Stern?” Jecia asked.
“Every Hollywood hotshot’s best friend,” Juel said. “Stern is probably the most notoriously corrupt JL in Los Angeles County. He is a human ‘Get out of Jail Free Card.’”
“I mean, it takes time to approve a JL. Can’t we challenge it?” Sev asked.
“It’s already approved. Call in enough favors, grease enough palms, and anything is possible..”
“Jesus Christ, he’s working out a deal tonight?”
“Stern’s in the room with Bush’s lawyers as we speak,” Wren said. “This could be a win for your case, if you’re right about Bush knowing something regarding the lotus killer. He wouldn’t call Stern if he didn’t have a bargaining chip.”
“How generous are these deals?” Sev asked.
“Stern is everybody’s friend for a reason,” Juel said.
God damn. This is not how I wanted to win.
“Why the long faces, ladies and gents?” Stern asked as he strolled into the conference room. “Yours in particular, Grimm,” he added, nodding at Rick.
Stern vaguely resembled a game show host. He wore an expensive asfalis suit, his dun hair was cut short and smart, and he had an easy, practiced smile. Handsome, charming, and to Sev’s eye, utterly insincere. He walked to the head of the conference table, sank into the chair and put his feet up. I have never seen anybody actually do that. Who does that shit?
“Yeah? How’s that?” Rick asked.
“Bush says he knows who the Black Lotus killer is. And I got him to agree to tell us everything he knows.”
“Why should we believe a sexual predator who will say anything to save his skin?” Sev asked.
“I was skeptical too. But he’s so confident that he says that if his information doesn’t lead to an arrest, he’s willing to consider the deal null and void.”
“What was the deal, Stern?” Wren asked.
Stern’s smile held fast, but Sev could tell that he was annoyed. At length, he said:
“Accessory to Trafficking with hazard of Transference.”
Wren scoffed and shook her head:
“A maximum of fifteen years. As few as five with good behavior. And if Bush is the accessory, who are we calling the primary culprit?”
Stern sighed and emanated mild regrets.
“It’s a tough break for the girl, Reese, but she’s not exactly an angel either. And it’s a slam dunk. I mean, she was actually attending the party. Bush wasn’t. She threatened a Confidential Informant retained by the Amagium with a deadly weapon. She tried to flee her arresting officers. And she received money from the Salon for her services, not Bush. She merely used one of Bush’s cars, and drove two starlets in his employ to the party.”
Sevardin seethed. Yes, Vecca Reese was complicit. But she was groomed into it. Transformed into a tool. And now her life is over. She can’t afford lawyers that can stand up to what Bush can buy. And the way Stern framed the charge makes it her word against his. Accessory charges are jokes. Especially compared to actually conducting or conspiring to commit trafficking or transference.
Vecca Reese is going to jail for a minimum of forty years. She will be sixty-eight years old when she gets out. This isn’t justice. She deserves her time, but for the man who did this to her to walk away free?
Stern read the room and then chuckled.
“Honestly, I don’t know why you’re all so bent out of shape. Wren, you just arrested half of old-school Hollywood tonight. And from what I understand, your operation outside Bakersfield was successful too. Officer told me we seized forty pounds of lims and disrupted the trafficking ring that produced them. It’s already a career making case. What difference does one scumbag make?”
“Ask the girls he abused,” Sevardin said.
“Or their families,” Juel added.
Jecia said nothing, but her expression spoke volumes. Plain disgust and stony silence. Stern reassessed the Arroyo venture and chuckled again:
“At the very least, I figured you people would be on my side,” Stern scoffed, then turned to Rick: “I mean, Rick. Look. With any luck, Esmine Carter will be in the clear by this time tomorrow. And you will be credited with catching the most infamous serial killer in Erician history.”
Rick’s lip curled.
“Call me old-fashioned, Erwen, but I have serious qualms with answering systematic rape with a slap on the wrist.”
“Look, I get it! Bush is a fucking monster. We should take him out back and shoot him with a Locke. Due process is a bitch. But it’s there, and we have to play by different rules in the courts. Sometimes you have to cut a deal with the devil you know to catch the one you don’t.”
“Is there anything else, Stern?” Wren asked.
Stern folded his lip and shook his head, as if it had been a perfectly convivial conversation.
“Good. Leave.” Wren said with an emanation that broached no debate. She wasn’t outwardly angry, but her wyrd was hard and cold as concrete.
Stern chuckled once more, gestured “scary,” and took his feet off the conference table. He retrieved his briefcase, stood, and addressed the room at large:
“If it’s any comfort… guys like Bush? They don’t change. We’ll keep a closer eye on him, he’ll fuck up again, next time he won’t have leverage, and that accessory charge will bite him in the ass. But right now? He’s ready to talk. And from what I understand, you don’t have time to waste.”
“The Black Lotus Killer is a generational role,” Bush began. “I hope you have deduced that possibility, but I can confirm it. I know for a fact who the second killer was, and I have a very good guess as to who the first may have been.”
“How?” Sev asked, already annoyed.
Bush’s lawyers sat to the right of the room; an old black man, and a—talk about young and beautiful—woman, who had a very distinct dynamic. “Good Lawyer,” and “I Will Force Feed You Your Own Amagiate Legal Code Via Your Colon Lawyer.” Sev didn’t want to deal with that, and they had finally shut up. So he had to let Bush meander and give his story the dramatic treatment.
“Because the second Black Lotus Killer confessed her crimes to me herself. You’ve already met, in fact. Triga Shapiro. The woman who was visiting me the same day you arrived.”
“How convenient. You could have told us then and saved everyone a lot of time,” Juel said.
“I thought you said you understood the deal, Detective Flores,” The lady lawyer piped up. “Article two, section one, clearly states—”
“Alright, I get it,” Juel said.
The other part of Bush’s deal, which Stern had conveniently failed to mention, was that Bush would receive a Confidential Informant’s Indemnity for the purposes of the Black Lotus investigation. Sev had seen it coming, but it had surprised Juel, apparently.
“Did Triga Shapiro volunteer this information?” Sev asked.
“She felt guilty, detective,” Bush said. “And she found absolution in giving me closure.”
Bush paused, and just before Sevardin could prod him, he gestured; “please, let me finish.” Sev took a deep breath and reclined in his seat. Bush pulled out a page dense with writing. My hand to God, is that a prepared speech?
“This is the first letter Triga sent me. There are others, and I’m sure you can compare her handwriting samples to confirm a match, but this one ‘cuts to the chase,’ as it were. I received it almost exactly fifty years ago, give or take a couple days. The second string of murders had just concluded with Marigold Tyler’s death.”
“Dear Sir. You poor and tortured soul. I am the second Black Lotus Killer. It is the first time I have called myself that name, but it is true, and I can explain everything in detail, if you so desire. I will come alone. Unarmed. To any location. I submit myself to whatever justice you see fitting for my crimes. I owe you that much, after what this curse has taken from you. If you never want to hear from me again, I will not write another letter. But if you want to know the truth, call this number.”
Bush stopped reading, and handed the letter over to Sevardin.
“That is still the landline for Triga’s home phone.”
Sev held up a hand and passed the page to Jecia who brushed her index finger on the letter, immediately flinched, and eventually settled into her usual trance.
“This will only take a moment.” Sev said.
Bush gestured, “by all means.” After about two minutes, she blinked back to the present, and nodded at Sev.
“I’m pretty sure that’s genuine.”
“So Triga Shapiro sent you this confession. How did you react?” Sev asked.
“I looked up the number first. Yellow Pages, in those days. And I only recognized her name from the headlines about the Black Lotus. And then for the first time, I studied the second course of murders like I had studied the first two. Went back through my week’s papers and sort of pieced everything together. Before then,” He shook his head. “That curse had taken enough from me. I didn’t want to face it again. But I was curious. And Triga… She made a sad sort of sense, after what happened to Calea, Elice, and Trimina.”
“I hated Trimina for years. I was convinced she was guilty. Until that moment, when I realized that she was guilty. Then I saw the circularity of it. How she was driven to it.”
“Trimina was the first killer?” Jecia asked.
“The true Black Lotus Killer is a demon. It reaches out, with a letter, anonymously, and has a proposition for you. It’s egregoric, so the letter is enchanted. Trimina later showed me her first letter, and it looked like gibberish, but when she looked at it, she understood a proposition: Three lives. Two of your choosing. And a choice between two lives for the final life.”
“The way Triga described it to me, the contract sort of… unrolls in your mind. It promises that the deaths will be perfect. They will reach the apex of your potential advantage. If you wished a political opponent dead, he would die in a scandal. If you wanted a loathsome relative to die, you would receive their full inheritance through some legal technicality or odd happenstance. Or if it were a rival recently cast in a coveted role…”
“Let me guess,” Sev said “The catch is that for the final life, the demon chooses the last two lives that you have to choose from.”
“Of course. Triga said that the demon simply promised that the final death would be perfect too. And she insisted that once you ‘read’ the letter, you must respond immediately. Automatically, in fact. Though that detail may be revisionism on her part.”
“Triga had Marigold killed in place of herself,” Jecia said.
Bush nodded at her.
“Just so. Triga didn’t fall for the wordplay. She knew she would have a choice to make. And at the time, she was confident she could do without anything. Or anyone. She had just had a serious fight with Mari. Both their relationships, business and romantic, were in jeopardy. After she agreed to the contract, the fight stopped. The next day, she received a wooden box. Three tarot cards. A vial of black paint and a brush. And another letter.”
“This letter was far briefer. Just a basic primer. It instructed her to paint the lotuses black on the card as she thought of her target. Then it told her to mail them to her target.”
“So should we be investigating the Erician postal service?” Juel asked.
“That final part is vague. She said that the contract generally implied that an addressed letter would reach it’s intended recipient, if it was ‘sent’ in some manner.”
I fucking hate egregoric magic. Because that is right on the money for a powerful egregoric curse. Urdic magic was direct, and immediate. Same with most contracts. But egregoric magic was like jet-streams, oceanic currents, and plate tectonics. Things so big and powerful that understanding them made almost no difference in your ability to control them.
“What happened next?” Jecia asked.
“I called her and invited her to my house. I think she hoped I would kill her. But I was grateful to have closure, and like I told you before, I have no taste for violence. So we simply talked. She explained everything I told you over the course of several meetings and we developed a friendship. I didn’t go to the Amagium because honestly, what was the point? The curse had run its course. She had already suffered enough for her crimes.”
“If you spoke up then,” Sev said, wyrd swelling with anger. “We would have had fifty years to track down this demon and prevent this nightmare from repeating itself. But you decided that your pen pal was more important than the lives of three young women, and the families of six others.”
Bush smiled bitterly.
“Good friends are few and far between, Detective Harker. Do you have any idea how… tedious, the world becomes when you have lived through so much of it? Triga’s experiences aged her. Matured her to a degree that most people never achieve. At twenty-eight, she was more insightful than most of my acquaintances from the time of the first murders. So yes. I kept her secrets. I protected her from your feckless retribution.”
How can somebody be so delusional? How can they prioritize their own convenience and judgment over any other consideration?
“You didn’t protect anything,” Jecia said. “You hoarded her trust. Treated it like currency. And now you’re cashing out to save yourself from Transference and sex trafficking charges.”
Well put. Bush held his composure, but Sev could tell he didn’t like the way Jecia phrased that. After a pause, he settled on a response:
“Triga, of all people, will understand.”