Jecia Singh. 8:46 PM. Marday, Pisces 14th 2351 AA. 2 Freeway (Northbound).
“So how are we gonna play this?” Juel asked.
Jecia gazed out the window as Sev threaded them through the light, late night traffic of the Glendale Freeway. They weren’t running a siren. If Shapiro split town after our first meeting, she split town. A few minutes in transit won’t change anything. And the last thing we want to do is spook her.
“Hopefully we don’t have to do any playing,” Sev said. “If she answers, we ask to come in. Then we tell her calmly that she is under arrest.”
“You nervous?” Jecia asked Juel.
He folded his lip and shook his head.
“Not especially. I mean, she’s an old lady. But Hollywood types have a way of making simple things complicated. I just hope we don’t have to wrestle her to the ground or something. Last thing we want is some brutality charge her lawyers can wave around.”
Jecia smiled, amused.
“You see much action in Newam?” Juel asked Jecia.
“Never a dull moment,” Jecia said, somewhat facetiously.
“I can’t tell if that’s a yes or no,” Juel said, chuckling.
“It’s… I spent most of my career undercover. So it’s like, you’re always in mortal fear of being discovered, but you’re always doing normal shit. Watching TV. Talking. Hanging out. It definitely wasn’t boring, but compared to all the fighting in the Athenaeum?” She shook her head.
“What were you working on?” Juel asked.
“Technically, it’s still classified,” Jecia said, in what she hoped came across as airy and dismissive. But even to her ear, it sounded brusque.
Juel made a great show of backing off and Jecia looked away, annoyed at herself. I can’t remember it clearly. And that’s what scares me. I don’t know if it was the Unbranded or the Amagium who destroyed my memories.
—Sevardin Harker. 9:10 PM. Glendale (Foothills)—
They pulled up to Shapiro’s house shortly after nine. Sev was relieved to see a car in the driveway and lights on in the house. The easiest way things could go sideways was if she had fled following their conversation. He parked the car at the curb and the three of them shuffled out.
The chimeras that had littered the roof before were nowhere to be seen. Good. Those things creep me the hell out. They approached her door in a chevron, with Sev at the lead. He rang the doorbell, and after a moment’s pause, an intercom they hadn’t noticed before crackled to life:
“Hello, detectives. What can I do for you?”
Sev smiled amiably at the intercom’s camera:
“We just have a couple questions about the case we were hoping you might shed light on.”
There was a pause.
“You know, it’s really late. I just got ready for bed. Can we do this tomorrow?”
Please don’t make this difficult. Please don’t make me tell you we have a warrant for your arrest. Sev kept his expression neutral and gestured an apology.
“I do apologize, Triga, but we are on borrowed time and your information could really make a difference.”
There was a heavy sigh from the other side of the intercom, and another pause.
“I’ll let you in. Just wait downstairs and give me a moment.”
The front door buzzed loudly and an automatic deadbolt heavily clacked free. Sev exhaled inwardly and gave the intercom camera a salute. He beckoned for Juel and Jecia, and the three of them filed inside.
The glassed-in Japanese courtyard that had contained a few chimeras before was now saturated with them. Hybrids of every kind, in every hue. But no Luchadors, thank god. Juel whistled and took a step forward, admiring—or more likely assessing—the menagerie. Jecia looked at the walls, adorned with movie posters and pictures with favorite friends.
Just before Sev could get nervous again, Triga Shapiro appeared atop the right staircase, wrapped in the same feathered snake chimera she had worn the first time she met him and Jecia. Beneath the snake, she wore a thick terrycloth robe over silk pajamas. She descended the stairs with a good humored, but obviously tired smile.
“Alright, detectives. Can we make this quick? I have jazzercise in the morning and I need my full eight hours or I’ll pass out.”
“Hate to say it, but it may take a bit. Could I trouble you to put on a pot of coffee?” Sev said, trying to coax her within grabbing distance, if necessary.
Shapiro sighed again and gestured affirmation. When she had descended the rest of the stairs, she asked:
“So. How can I help?”
“I’m sorry, Triga,” Sevardin said. “But you are under arrest for the murders of Byanka Gorbachev, Lotine Churchill, and Marigold Tyler.”
Shapiro froze for a moment, then completely deflated. Her face seemed to age ten years in the space of a second.
“Roth told you.”
Sev nodded. Triga started to back away. Triga. Be calm. Sev implored her to cooperate with an emanation. But she sped up, retreating back toward the stairs.
“I… I need my purse! Just let me get my purse. I’ll come quietly.”
Sev could see the fear plain on her face though. She was panicking. Considering her options. As Jecia and Juel started to set up a flank, she backed into the corner of the wall, and grabbed her right index finger. At first, Sev thought she was trying to break it, but then he realized she was pulling off a ring.
“It’s enchanted! Get back!” Jecia shouted and grabbed both Sev and Juel with her wyrd.
Shapiro yanked off the ring. Sev felt a shift ripple through the house’s Inherence. As if an alarm had been tripped. The air itself seemed to turn hostile. The feathered snake around Shapiro’s neck hissed to life and ‘swam’ through the air with its wyrd, snapping at Juel. He drew his sword and narrowly managed to swat the huge, flying boa constrictor to the far wall.
At the same time, countless chimeras in the courtyard joined in a hellish chorus of howls, shrieks, and roars. Sev and Jecia looked outside, where dozens of griffinoid chimeras—wolves and big cats merged with birds that had dazzling plumage—abruptly came bounding toward the glass walls enclosing the courtyard.
Amidst the bedlam, Shapiro darted for the front entrance, but Jecia managed to trip her up before she could reach the door and she went down hard.
“Ignore her! Reflexes, barriers, now!”Sev commanded.
Juel was already enhancing his reflexes, and Jecia followed suit. The menagerie of chimeras swarmed the glass in a vibrant tide, thudding, pecking and clawing at the shuddering glass. Cracks began to spiderweb through the glass as the golden macaque with a quail’s topknot smashed into the pane with both fists. Sev narrowly managed to complete his reflex contract before the wall exploded in a shower of glass.
Two wolf-bird hybrids led the charge, along with the macaque. Sev drew his Locke as the world slowed down. His first shot struck the closest wolf in its open mouth as it lunged toward him. Its bulk still struck his torso heavily, making his second and third shots go wild. With the fourth, he blew a hole in the macaque’s chest just before it could claw his eyes out. His next two shots felled a cat-like hybrid he couldn’t identify.
Sev saw the second wolf tackle Jecia and knock her to the hardwood floor, beating her with its massive wings and drawing its head back for a killing bite to the throat. Sev drew his sword and threw it with sorcery. The blade plunged into the lupine chimera’s chest, and it fell off Jecia with an anguished whine. She finished it with three shots from her Locke.
Something slammed into Sev from behind, sending him sprawling to the floor. Something savaged his uniform; which was reinforced against ballistics and lightly warded against contract magic, but considerably less useful against claws and fangs. Whatever was on him was too heavy for him to fling off.
“Plug your ears!” Jecia shouted.
Sev couldn’t reach his ears, but he used sorcery to dampen his hearing as the creature behind him slashed through his uniform, carving a nasty gash in his back.
Then there was an earsplitting screech accompanied by the ripple of powerful contract magic. A sonic spell. The creature on Sev’s back yelped and relented in its assault. Many of the flying chimeras fell from the sky as if they had been struck dead.
Smart. Chimeras have extremely sharp senses. As he stood, still buffering his ears against the din, Sev caught a glimpse of Juel, swinging a blazing sword to keep a bobcat with condor wings at bay. Jecia leaned on her contract with her wyrd to focus her contract’s noise into a concentrated dome. Despite his sorcerous buffer, the noise was like an icepick in his ears. The sonic pressure was so intense that his eyes began to water. He felt his right eardrum pop, but didn’t hear himself cry out. Before the shrieking abated though, the surviving chimeras retreated back through the broken glass into the yard, fleeing down the slope of the foothill and into the trees.
“We need backup!” Jecia said, though Sev could barely hear her. “That ring also disabled her enclosure spell. She just unleashed this entire zoo in the fucking suburbs.”
“Damn it! Juel, use a barrier to seal that wall. Double up on the contract in case they try to come back. Jecia, call for help. I’m going after Triga.”
The front door was still closed. Sev wrenched it open and saw that Triga’s car was still in the driveway. Without bothering to close the door, he turned to the staircase leading to the second story and ran upstairs.
“Triga?” Sev called.
He reached into his right license, breathing power into a sedative animus, ready to start a contract at a moment’s second. He started hastily checking rooms, one by one, not bothering to look under beds or check closets. The first was a guest bedroom and the next was an office of sorts. Finally, at the end of the hall, he reached what appeared to be the master bedroom.
“Triga, this isn’t going away. Let’s talk it through.”
He heard a metallic thud come from what appeared to be a walk-in closet. Sev stepped forward, binding sorcery swirling around his left fist. Then he saw the steel door at the end of the closet.
Fuck me. A panic room. Sev sighed and allowed himself to relax ever so slightly. He cast a barrier contract first, saving his one remaining contract for a skeleton key unlocking spell. But when he tried to thread the energies through the lock—which, by law, were required to respond to amagiate licenses—the spell met harsh resistance, got lost in the mechanism, and faded to nothing. Somebody doctored the lock.
Sev sighed and walked up to the door. There was no visible way to open the door from the outside. It didn’t even have a handle. He probed the metal with his wyrd, feeling the rough outline of a steel, four-by-five box.
I do not have time for this. Sev knocked on the door twice.
“Triga. Open up.”
There was no response. He considered his options. He had burned all his kinetic anima; all he had left was a cryomantic animus, a fire animus, and an electric animus. Sev probed the metal with his wyrd again. There were three bars securing the door shut. All steel.
“This is gonna be tricky.”
Sev allowed his wyrd to relax slightly. A single contract, then a double. He reached into his left cuff, activating the cold animus, and placed the edge of his hand at the seam of the door. He took his time negotiating with the animus, making sure he could squeeze the absolute maximum amount of power from it.
He sent a blade of pure cold into the door. Colder. I need to make this as cold as possible to make a difference. A sharp, numbing rime coated his hands andfrost spiderwebbed across the entire door, but he reached for the three rods barring the door specifically. The door seam began to overflow with ice. Sev leaned on the spell, straining his wyrd to its absolute limit. His head ached with thoughts of cold until he couldn’t see through the pain. Then he pivoted to the double contract as soon as the spell expired.
The abrupt switch to the dual anima contract, paired with the pain in his head super-charged his wyrd, sending him immediately into exus. Again, Sev forced himself to concentrate, weaving the fire and electricity into an extremely focused laser-like beam. Again, he leaned on the spell. Strange symbols began to obscure his eyes, and voices whispered in his ear. But he held his focus fast.
Starting at the top of the door he fired a brilliant beam of plasma into the crack, then dragged his finger down the length of the seam. There was a hiss of steam as the spell atomized the ice. He could feel the beam strike the rods, pressing through the metal. The first and second snapped cleanly down the meridian of frost. But by the third rod, the spell’s power was starting to wane.
Sev embraced exus. The strange symbols in front of his eyes began to glow, and a final, radiant blade of plasma broke through the final rod. Sev had lost track of himself though. His mind was lost to a single train of thought. Get that fucking door open! With another titanic surge of urdic power, he wrenched the metal door open.
Bang. Something struck the periphery of Sev’s barrier contract.
Bang. A sharp blow to his stomach. He got the barest glimpse of Triga, holding a Plato.
Bang. A final shot struck him square in the chest, expending his barrier with a crack.
Next thing he knew, he was lying on his back, blinded by pain. Fortunately, the shots knocked him out of exus. But it left his entire body exhausted. He lay there for a long moment, trying to collect his breath and regain his sight. As his hearing and vision came back, he heard the sound of weeping from the recesses of the panic room. He waited there for a full three seconds, calming down and allowing his wyrd to regain something resembling a normal breathing rhythm.
Sev slowly pushed himself up to see Triga aiming a Plato at him, her hand shaking so badly that the bullet could go anywhere. Especially in a metal room.
“Don’t…” Sev coughed. “Don’t shoot.”
“I will kill you!” Triga shrieked.
“You’ve… been down that road… Triga,” Sev managed.
Triga shook her head, face crumpled with anguish.
“My life is over, one way or another,” she said. “I should have died fifty years ago.”
Triga opened her mouth, aimed the barrel of the pistol toward her brain, and tried to fire. But Sev was ready. With the most precise sorcery he had ever conducted, he managed to freeze Triga’s trigger finger, twenty feet away. But I’m too tired. I can’t hold this forever. Her arm began to shake with effort as she tried to make her muscles obey. Sev forced himself to his feet, holding fast to the sorcery.
“Let go, Triga,” he said.
She pulled her gun out of her mouth and tried to shoot Sev again, cowering as he approached, and struggling against his sorcery. Eventually, the panic exhausted her, and the resistance against his sorcery receded. Sev knelt to her and eased the gun out of her hand as she wept. He ejected the magazine and slid the weapon down the hall.
“Don’t do this to me. I can’t go to prison,” she said. “I’ll die in there.”
“Triga, I need your help,” Sev said solemnly.
She furrowed her brow, utterly confused, bordering on outrage. Sev continued before she could explode again.
“We need to save a young girl. She doesn’t have much time left.”
“I told you, I don’t fucking know anything!” she wailed.
“We all know more than we think.”
“I don’t. I don’t,” she said, shaking her head.
Sev took a deep breath:
“When you went to Rothford Bush fifty years ago, you weren’t looking for judgment or absolution. You were reaching out to the only other person who might understand what you had endured. Unfortunately, that person happened to be a sociopath. But I believe that you do want redemption, Triga.”
“Redemption?” She scoffed. “There’s no bringing Mari back. And I don’t know who the fucking demon is contracted with this time. I’m even more out of the game than Bush is, so I can’t—”
“You can try,” Sev said. “You regret this. You wish it never happened. I understand that. But you are uniquely qualified to help us save Esmine Carter’s life. Nobody else can do what you can do here, Triga. Help us catch the son of a bitch who did this to you.”
Triga broke down, nodding and sobbing.
—Juel Flores | 10:48 PM. Arroyo (Remington Memorial)—
All things considered, Juel got off lightly. Sev had been shot twice, mauled, and had a ruptured ear drum. Jecia had been mauled on her upper arm and was badly bruised from where the chimera tackled her. I just have a bad case of tinnitus and a couple bruises. He felt guilty about it, like his lack of injuries were an indictment against his ability to protect the team.
He waited at the hospital until Sev and Jecia were patched up and texted Elamni that he would head home has soon as he finished his ‘partner vigil.’ She texted back that she was glad he got off light, and that he should take his time.
Once again, Juel said a silent prayer to whatever powers that were listening in thanks for his wife. Since she was also law enforcement, she understood that the job could be inherently unfair, and she knew the unspoken rules of police work. When your partners are injured, you stick by them. You make them dinner, offer to drive them home. Whatever they need.
Sev followed Jecia out of the emergency ward and laughed at something she said, hard enough that he winced and massaged his bullet-bruised chest.
“You good, hermano?”
“Just a little sore,” Sev said, smiling.
“I know it’s been a long night, and that we’re all bleeding and battle weary,” Jecia began. “But would you two care to join me for a round at the Book? My treat.”
Juel was surprised. They had been working together long, but Juel had only two distinct impressions of Jecia. First of all, she clearly had a thing for Sev—and it appeared mutual, but Sev was fighting it. Secondly, she played her cards close to her chest, to the point of being evasive. At first Juel worried that she didn’t like him.
“Sounds good to me,” Sev said.
Jecia turned to Juel expectantly. He hesitated. Ah shit. What do I do? I don’t want to cramp Sev’s style, and I promised Lami I’d be home soon.
“Please?” Jecia pressed, surprising him. “Earlier you asked about my work in Newam, and I didn’t mean to brush you off. There are actually some things I’d like to get off my chest and…” She paused, then continued haltingly, figuring out the words as she spoke them: “And I trust you both.”
Juel chuckled. You are there for your partners. Whatever they need.
“Well, when you put it like that, how can I say no?”
—11:05 PM. Arroyo – Old town (The Drowned Book)—
They arrived at the Book at more or less the same time, descending the long stairway to the cavernous basement that housed the bar proper. Hodd wasn’t on duty, which was a shame, and there were a couple older amagia shooting pool, but the place was mostly empty.
Jecia ordered a round of bourbon as Sev secured their favorite corner booth. Juel paused at the jukebox, looking for something appropriate and coming up empty. When everybody was seated, Jecia started her tale:
“Technically, I worked my first two years in Jersey. Did well enough to receive an option for a special assignment. A long-term undercover operation in Newam proper. Greenwich Village. I was young, looked younger, and bored by GP. So I said yes.”
“What was the aim of the operation?” Sev asked.
“Grassroots infiltration of a new Unbranded sect that had formed in Newam University. I was posing as a graduate student who was bitterly drummed out of the Athenaeum. They wanted me to climb as high as I could in their ranks. The ultimate goal was to see if we could get any leads on the unbranded leader.”
“Whil Speare?” Sev asked.
“I spent four years of my life on it.”
“Jesus,” Sev said.
“It really wasn’t that bad. I never ‘got in too deep,’ or got confused about where my loyalties were. At first it was mostly tedious. Just putting up with a bunch of flag-burning white boys and their sullen girlfriends. But eventually…” She pursed her lips. “They announced they were going rogue. The leader, Mathim Doyle, said he discovered a ‘more direct’ way to oppose the Amagium. And this is where the story gets a little bit weird.”
Jecia paused to thank the barwoman as she brought over their bourbons, and took a long appreciative drink.
“So I know this sounds… hard to swallow. But they were experimenting with xenomancy. And it wasn’t the usual white boy edginess. I distinctly remember Doyle doing magic without a license. Not once or twice, but commonly. Easily.”
Juel turned to Sevardin, who was now intently looking at Jecia, lips parted slightly. He worked a case that allegedly involved xenomancy early in our career. And it messed him up good. Juel humored Sev, but deep down, he assumed that the ‘silent magic’ Sev saw was some sort of egregoric magic. It didn’t help that Sev was vague about the details. He had repressed a lot about the case. And it was hard to blame him, seeing how it ended in a literal massacre.
“What happened?” Sev asked.
“Well. That’s the thing,” Jecia said. “I can’t really remember. Not clearly at least. I spent five years of my life entrenched in this group of kids, steadily becoming terrorists, and…” She shook her head. “The medithurges say it’s because of what they did to me when they caught me. When people scrape your mind, they can destroy memories. Especially if they are clumsy. And if you layer repression on top of all that… It kind of makes sense. But I can’t shake the feeling that the Amagium may have ‘helped’ me forget.”
A chill rattled down Juel’s spine. Sev says the same thing. Or at least, he did right after the massacre. At the time, Juel figured it was some kind of PTSD. He saw the people he swore to protect get mauled by egregores. That’s enough to mess anybody up. But if Jecia is saying the same thing…
“Why do you think that?” Juel asked Jecia.
“Even though I was the officer on the case, all of my notes, all of my reports… completely classified. The Manhattan Chapter wouldn’t let me see anything. They said that they were pulling the plug on the operation, but the documents were still too sensitive to share. And my amagiate analyst said that seeing them could trigger my PTSD. Honestly, I think it might be worth it. To get some closure, you know?”
“That’s fucked up,” Juel said.
“I just want you both to know that I trust you. I didn’t mean to sound like I was brushing you off earlier.”
Juel looked to Sevardin. You gonna speak up, Hermano? Share your experiences? But Sev looked like he had been struck dead. He was staring into his glass like he was trying to tie it into a knot with sorcery.
“We all have parts of the job we regret. Things we wish we didn’t do. Things we can’t forget, and things we can’t remember to save our lives,” Juel said.
“You regret rolling over on your CO? Ashford?” Jecia asked, point blank.
Juel smiled ruefully.
“Not once. But my hypocrisy gets to me sometimes.”
Sev sighed heavily and gave Juel an annoyed look.
“You aren’t a hypocrite, Juel. Your hands were tied, and you saved an entire city with quick thinking. Ashford had a choice, and he chose to execute an unarmed man who had surrendered.”
Of course you would say that, Sev. But if it were anybody else, you’d cut them off, and you’d be right to. What I did was wrong. Desperate or not. Jecia peered at Juel and emanated curiosity.
“I called in a gang as back up,” Juel said heavily.
Over the next hour, Juel and Sev switched off, giving Jecia the full story behind the Unbranded Bombings of ’48. The sick, generational cycle that started with Demirci and Ajola. The disastrous undercover op. that literally blew up in their faces, paralyzing Vadon. Sev’s kidnapping and Demirci Junior’s ultimatum.
“If you had to do the situation over again, what would you do differently?” Jecia asked.
“I don’t know,” Juel admitted. “But it still keeps me up at night. The Rollers shot those kids. And I basically signed their death warrants. Or do you think they would have accepted surrenders? After what happened to their people?”
“Those ‘kids’ were going to destroy the lightway system,” Sev said. “With thousands of people on them. Cars would have rained down on the city from Downtown to Torrance. If nobody was there to stop terrorists, they would have been able to retrigger their bomb as soon as the system finished rebooting off emergency power. In a matter of seconds. You needed a two-pronged assault. Or do you regret saving my ass?”
“No,” Juel said, and he meant it.
“Really, the whole thing is my fault, because I got kidnapped in the first damn place,” Sev insisted.
Juel chuckled unconvincingly. Don’t make light of this, man.
“Well,” Jecia said. “I have a rule about regrets. If I can think of a smarter alternative in hindsight, then sure. I’ll kick myself. But if I had to make the most of an awful choice, and I can’t think of a good answer, especially three years later… There may not have been a better way. Sometimes we just have to do what we have to do.”
Juel nodded thoughtfully. You give your partners what they need, when they need it. The thought warmed him somewhat.
They finished their drinks and the conversation hit a comfortable lull. After about a minute of silence, Sev gestured ‘shall we?’ and Juel and Jecia responded in the affirmative. Jecia paid their tab and walked back up to the street. It was chilly that night.
“It’s gonna be rough going back to Public Outreach after this,” Juel said.
“Yeah. Don’t think we’ll find another cold case that tops the Black Lotus, either,” Sev said.
“Then we should keep working together,” Jecia said.
Sev and Juel peered at her, amused. She looked at them questioningly.
“I’m serious. Neither of you want to be stuck where you are. And I definitely prefer pursuing something active than chasing cold cases indefinitely. If we get the chance, once this is over, we should request reassignment.”
“Wouldn’t hurt to ask,” Sev admitted.
“If we do this case right, I think we have a shot of it being approved,” Jecia insisted.
Juel snickered, deciding to humor the thought for a moment:
“What division should we request?”
“What division do you want to work?” Jecia asked.
It was a question Juel hadn’t considered in a long time. One he hadn’t allowed himself to consider since he was reassigned to outreach. It seemed even more remote since he had become a father. But this case has shown me I can do more. I have more to contribute. Juel started to speak up
“I’d settle for—”
“No,” Jecia interrupted. “What do you want to work? If we’re asking, let’s not half-ass this.”
“M&M,” Sev said. “I’ve always wanted to work M&M.”
Jecia nodded thoughtfully.
Juel sighed. That was the dream. But I can’t remember the last time I dreamt it.
“I’m in,” Jecia said.
“Not sure Elamni would go for that,” Juel said, scratching the side of his head.
“She knows you’re miserable in Outreach,” Sev said dismissively. “She told me herself. You feel like you are squandering yourself. She said you feel like fake police.”
Juel grimaced. I told you that in confidence, mi amor.
“When did she tell you that?” Juel asked.
“We had a quiet moment in the kitchen at Ethano’s birthday party. She’s worried about you. Says that you’re depressed. Asked me how I was doing, and if I also missed working cases. I told her that I did.”
Juel was quiet for a moment, and then Sev continued:
“Before this… Since my legs, really, I’ve been kind of coasting. Like I figured this is what I could expect out of life, and that I had made peace with that. But I want more. And I can give more. I want out of the basement. And you want out of your dog and pony show.”
Well. When you put it like that. Juel nodded:
“Alright. We solve this case and we’ll put in our request.”
“Monstrum and Malefaction,” Jecia looked between them to confirm.
Sev smiled, looked to the sky, and proclaimed:
“‘We must all live together as brothers, or perish alone as fools.’”
Jecia and Juel both looked impressed, but confused. Sev’s eloquent, but….
“You come up with that?” Juel asked.
“Martin Luther King Junior.”