Juel Flores. Venday, Pisces 18th, 2351 AA. 9:17 AM. Downtown Los Angeles (LAKF Central Precinct).
“You said you believe your daughter is the third target of the Black Lotus Killer?” Juel asked.
Cynthie Brightman sat across from Juel in interrogation room five at the central precinct. They had met once before, at the beginning of all this, when he tried to speak with her daughter on the set of Monstrum and Malefaction: Los Angeles.
“I don’t ‘believe’ anything, Detective. I didn’t drive all the way from Pacific Palisades on a whim. I know it.”
Great. So why are you in here instead of her? Why didn’t she come forward?
“Did she show you the card?” Juel asked.
“Of course not,” the woman scoffed. “Esmine Carter told Kileena that the fewer people who know, the better. And she idolizes… idolized… that girl. On the morning of the quake, Kileena was eager to find a way to help. She asked me about volunteer programs—shelters and the like, as if her schedule would permit it. She was her usual self.”
Juel scratched his head, unsure how to tell the woman her maternal suspicions were next to useless. She seemed to sense his frustration and gestured for him to remain patient.
“But after she received the mail that day, she shut herself in her room and refused to speak with me. She made excuses at first, ‘I just showered,’ or ‘I’m tired,’ but eventually stopped responding altogether. Skipped dinner. And later that night, after she thought I had gone to sleep, she snuck out of the house. So I stayed up and confronted her. I asked her point blank: did you receive a card? She broke down, practically fled the room, and refused to speak with me.”
That’s hardly a smoking gun, but it doesn’t sound good. Juel sighed heavily. Normally, Amagia couldn’t force suspected victims into custody. If they didn’t want to cooperate, the best they could do was post a watch to prevent the suspected criminal activity. Not that body guards would do any good against a curse. But given the prior pattern of murders, Kileena had to be considered a suspect herself. After all, she was present on the same set where Esmine received her card, and the established trend is for the killers to target themselves half the time.
“I would have dragged her here if I was capable of it,” Cynthie continued. “But we live alone and… well. I just hope she hasn’t run away.”
“Did you tell her where you were going?” Juel asked.
“Of course! I hoped I could persuade her to come forward herself.”
And gave her a golden opportunity to escape.
“Alright,” Juel said. “At the very least, we want to speak to your daughter as a person of interest. If she’s not home, do you have an idea of where else we might find her?”
She shrugged and shook her head.
“Stiegan’s maybe. Her boyfriend. I doubt it though; she seems to have grown bored of him.”
“We’ll try to get in touch.”
— 10:13 AM —
When Juel called Sev to give him the update, there was an easiness in his voice that Juel had not heard for a long time. When he and Jecia entered at the same time, the cause was clear. Especially since she seemed to glow as well.
For a split second, Juel was concerned. You’ve dated a Keeper before, Sev. But Delle was almost right for Sev. In fact, her retirement from the AKF had been a sticking point in their relationship. He definitely wants a woman in uniform. But maybe that’s what he needs as well. And watching them together, feeling the comfort that seemed to tangibly exist between them, it was hard to imagine standing in their way.
As the happy couple drew near, Juel tried to play things cool.
“So uh. You two, uh…?” Juel gestured vaguely between them and raised an eyebrow.
“Yup,” Jecia said, proud.
Sev smirked sheepishly and nodded.
“Wow, sure didn’t see that coming.”
Juel spoke drily and affected mild exasperation, but he was tapdancing inside. My god, it was exhausting being around them. The magnetic tension between their wyrds seemed to suck the life of everything else around them. Now that tension had relaxed, replaced by something else. A current, or bridge of sorts seemed to link them.But it was so subtle, Juel wasn’t convinced he wasn’t imagining it.
“You said we have a third victim?” Sev asked.
“She’s also a strong suspect for being the culprit. Problem is, she hasn’t come forward yet. Her mother outed her.”
“Walk us through it,” Sev said.
Juel nodded. Now I get to tell the team just how bad we fucked up at reading evidence. He led them to their evidence board, and tapped his finger on a name that came up early in the case.
“Kileena Brightman. You might remember her from the Cheerios ‘Cello Girl,’ commercials about a decade ago…” Juel’s voice trailed off when he saw Jecia’s face. “What?”
“She was a member of the Salon,” Jecia said. “I saw her when I touched the lim. She was one of the students the Fae used to stabilize their crops. I just… Damn it! I just didn’t think to mention it because—”
Juel tried to assuage her frustrations with gestures and emanations. If anything, the blame lays with me.
“She’s been here from the beginning,” Juel said. “She was a guest star on Monstrum and Malefaction: Los Angeles. Meaning she had access to Esmine Carter’s dressing room. You just gave me the last piece of the puzzle. If she was a member of the Salon, she also had the opportunity to interact with Glianna Garfield.”
“…Who she just replaced as the lead in Final Girl,” Sev said, holding up his symphone. “I just googled her name.”
“Yeah, I saw that headline while I was waiting,” Juel confirmed. “That’s motive for one murder. And if the rumors I’ve heard are true, the producers of M&M: Los Angeles have been looking for an excuse to replace Esmine.”
“She had motive and opportunity for both murders. She must be killing herself to spare someone else,” Jecia said.
“Err, that seems a touch abrupt,” Sev said gently.
Jecia shook her head.
“Think about it. Both those deaths clearly, directly benefit Esmine Carter. But the demon tripped her up with the final choice. Or the guilt caught up with her.”
“Maybe her mother,” Juel observed.
Jecia shrugged and emanated that it was as good a guess as any.
“That would explain why she didn’t come forward,” Sev said.
The venture shared a collective nod.
“That poor woman,” Juel said, shaking his head. “Kileena’s mother was trying to protect her from this. Instead, she proved her guilt. And Kileena was trying to protect her mother, which is why she didn’t try to save herself.”
Jecia took a deep breath. Sev nodded in agreement and said:
“Irony’s one wicked bitch.”
— 12:53 AM | Pacific Palisades (Brightman Residence)—
The Brightmans lived in a millionaire’s mansion atop one of Pacific Palisades bluffs, overlooking the ocean. The wealthy neighborhood, located far to the west of the quake, showed minimal signs of damage. Fortunately, the house didn’t have any kind of gate or guard, so the venture was free to approach and knock on the door. When there was no answer, Juel noticed an intercom, and hit the buzzer.
“What do you want?” a hoarse voice answered.
“We are Detectives Harker, Singh, and Flores of the Arroyo Keeping Force, deputized to act on behalf of the LAKF. And we need to speak with Kileena Brightman as soon as possible.” Sev said gently.
“My mother sent you, didn’t she?” Kileena asked.
“Can we continue this conversation face-to-face?” Sev asked.
The intercom didn’t respond. Sev wasn’t sure whether she was stonewalling them, but eventually he heard the telltale shuffling of movement from somewhere inside. After a minute, the door swung open, and the pretty brunette girl Juel met just over a week ago answered the door. Seems like it’s been months. And the girl seemed years older. She was sickly pale. Her eyes were bloodshot.
“What do you want?”
“We have reason to believe you might be targeted by the Black Lotus Killer,” Sev said.
Kileena scoffed dourly and shook her head:
“I thought you’re supposed to be an actress,” Jecia said, mildly.
Kileena’s lip curled.
“Well, it won’t matter much longer if you’re right, will it? And I know my rights. You can’t force a potential victim to come in for questioning.”
“That’s true,” Sev acknowledged, “Unfortunately, you are also the prime suspect in the murders of Esmine Carter and Glianna Garfield.”
Kileena went rigid. She seemed utterly blindsided by the statement, as if she herself had never considered the possibility. Juel grimaced inwardly. Sev was taken aback as well. They exchanged a look. I mean, she is an actress, but I’ve never seen somebody fake confusion that convincingly. Jecia seemed less swayed:
“I’m afraid we have to insist that you come in for a conversation,” Jecia said apologetically.
“I am the victim in this!” Kileena snapped. The clouds of her confusion gave way to a hysteric storm: “Esmine was my friend; I didn’t even know Glianna! How fucking dare you!”
The venture waited for her outburst to pass. She opened the door more broadly, retreated inside, and sank down on her couch.
“So you are the third victim?” Jecia asked.
“I received the card on the day of the quake. Somebody did this to me. I am going to die.”
Kileena broke down sobbing as she finished speaking.
“Not if you help us fight,” Sev said. “We’re closer than we’ve ever been to catching the entity responsible. If you cooperate, we can save you and god only knows how many other girls in the future.”
Kileena shook her head.
“No. I’m sorry. I know you worked hard to save Esmine. I know you want to keep trying to kill this demon, or break this curse, but I don’t want it. Okay? I don’t want people fawning over me until I’m in the ground. If you can save my life… Great! But I didn’t come forward for my own reasons.”
“What about your mother?” Juel asked, hoping his earlier guess about the demon’s choice was correct. “You love her, don’t you?”
“Of course, I love her!” Kileena said eyes furious and wyrd blazing. “I’m leaving her everything! Yesterday I retained a new lawyer behind her back to make sure people won’t be able to contest my will. Mom’s my lawyer, so people will talk after I die.”
“Kileena,” Sev said. “We are closer than ever to stopping this killer. If you can give us your cooperation, and the tarot card, we can—”
“The card’s gone.”
The venture went quiet. Kileena sniffed and then looked at their stunned expressions.
“I sold it,” Kileena said. “Night of the quake.”
The venture continued to stare:
“What?” she asked reproachfully.
“Who did you sell the card to, Kileena?” Juel asked seriously.
“I used an online auction service,” Kileena said. “The bidders are anonymized.”
Why? Why did you do that? We are so close to saving you. It was like she had winded him. And he could tell that his partners felt the same.
“Why?” Sev asked, hollow.
“I told you,” Kileena said. “I love my mother. And I will take care of her, even after I’m gone. I set the bidding at twenty-five grand, and the buyout price at seventy-five. Somebody snatched it up within seconds of me posting it. I already have the money.”
Okay. Stay focused. After the quake, the mail may not have gone through. We just need to find out where she mailed it.
“Where did you mail the card?” Juel asked.
“Not how the auction works,” she said. “You leave the item in a post office box. Once fulfillment picks up the item, they send you payment digitally. I got the money last night.”
Jecia sighed heavily, pulled out her pen and notepad, handing both to Kileena.
“Alright. We need the address of that post office box and the address of the site that ran the auction. I also need you to forward copies of any confirmation emails they sent you.”
Kileena looked at the notepad as if she barely recognized what it was, then looked up at Jecia skeptically. This is it. If she doesn’t cooperate with us now, we can’t save her. We need to choose our words very caref—
“Is your life worth so little?” Jecia asked, almost menacingly.
“Fuck you, lady!” Kileena returned. “What would you do if you got a death sentence? Every girl who gets a card dies. Last week I reached out to Esmine because I was worried about her. And she warned me. She told me that the more people who know, the faster you die. She told me toward the end that she could feel the entire world pressing in on her. That she had not slept more than three hours since she found out.”
“If you help us,” Jecia said sharply, “you can beat this. You can break the curse. Or do you think your mother would prefer a payout instead of her daughter?”
Kileena accepted the pen sullenly and started scribbling on the notepad.
“Have you told anyone else that you’ve received a card?” Sev asked, gently.
Kileena hesitated again.
“If I told someone, and they didn’t tell you… will I get them in trouble?”
“No,” Juel assured her.
“Stieg,” she said, then corrected herself. “Stiegan Friedrich. My boyfriend. He’s the only person I told. I just felt he deserved to know.”
The venture was quiet as Kileena finished writing the requested addresses on the paper. When she had finished, Jecia took the page, scanned it, and then handed it to Sev. Kileena stared at Juel with a mix of hurt and despondence.
“I need you to start fighting this,” Jecia said. “I need you determined to break this curse. Esmine gave us more time than we deserved, and we feel guilty every second. Please honor her struggle by helping us save your life.”
Kileena swallowed and nodded.
—Sevardin Harker | 1:47 | Silver Lake—
Sev gunned it toward the Silver Lake Post Office, Jecia clinging to his back. They had dropped Kileena and Juel off at the central precinct and traded the cruiser for Sev’s bike. Everybody got straight to work. Feryl started taking sympathetic samples and urdic readings to prepare his ritual, and Juel dug up everything he could find about the auction site.
“The site’s owned by a company based in the SSS, Fedorov Holdings,” Juel summarized. “All of their support info and legalese are in Cyrillic. I don’t see a street address listed in the PSE.”
“Shit,” Sev said.
“It almost doesn’t matter. Getting an international warrant for their user info and transaction records will take a week under the best of circumstances.”
“Copy that,” Sev muted himself.
Sev’s bike had been the natural choice for quickly navigating the streets post-quake. The air had finally cleared enough to make driving in the open air viable. But it led to a more exposed, intimate experience with the city. People were hurting. There had been severe looting to the north of No Man’s Land. Several neighborhoods were still without power.
It was hard to see, even without the knowledge that this might all be for naught gnawing at him. We came so close with Esmine. We are so close again. How am I supposed to fight an army of literal demons if we fail?
Jecia squeezed him gently from behind. Surged reassurance through her wyrd. It warmed him.
“You okay?” she asked when they reached their destination.
“Yeah,” Sev assured her. “Juel says it’s up to us on an address. The auction site is Soviet. Would demand an international warrant.”
Jecia gestured something to the effect of “fuck that noise.”
They walked into the post office, which was abandoned save for a harried looking attendant in her late sixties. Sev reflexively withdrew the power of his wyrd, so that it would seem dense, but not massive and oppressive. The woman went completely white all the same, and she stood at attention as if yanked by a wire affixed to the top of her head.
“Hello miss,” Sev said, trying to be disarming.
“W-what do…you want?” She asked, then gestured sincere apologies. “I-I meant, ‘what can I d-do for you o-officers?”
“We have a warrant for the address associated with a post office box,” Jecia said.
The woman nodded then stood stock still for three full seconds before she realized Jecia was extending the warrant with the pertinent details to her. Again, the woman obsequiously apologized and immediately began working on her incanter.
Sev smiled pleasantly, with his hands behind his back. I hate this. I hate scaring people by existing. He thought back to the rude security guard they had met on the Keystone Lot. Even dealing with that puff-chested fool is better than this. After being trained for combat—after leading a life-and-death life—coping with animosity was easier than anything else. We are violent just by being here.
Just shy of a minute later, the woman handed Jecia a print-out wordlessly.
“Thank you,” Jecia smiled.
“We appreciate your time,” Sev followed up.
“Thank you,” the woman said, then hastily added: “Officers.”
They walked out of the door. Jecia pointedly exhaled her wyrd.
“I thought we were going to give her a heart attack.”
“Not sure we didn’t,” Sev said. “I was trying to suppress my wyrd too.”
“I hate that,” Jecia said. “Honestly, I prefer pissants like that guy on the Keystone Lot.”
Sev nearly laughed. Jecia looked at him reproachfully until Sev gestured apologies.
“I had the same exact thought,” he explained.
Jecia’s face lit up and she shook her head, but he could tell she believed him.
“Where are we headed next?” Sev asked, peering at the paper.
—Burbank | 2:38 PM—
The address belonged to a large body shop on the western edge of Burbank. The shop had a sort of U-shape, with vehicle bays, tools, and machinery surrounding a large lot that opened into the street. Sev noted there were a lot of featureless white-paneled vans, which, to be fair, meant almost nothing at a body shop. But I still mentally call that model of car “the Rapist’s Ride.”
The guy working the gate—an older teenage boy reading a porn rag—nearly fell out of his chair when Sev flashed his vambraces, and immediately buzzed them through the gate. As soon as they entered the U-shape, the sounds of mechanical work gradually died out around them. The mechanics all turned to face them, being as loud as they possibly could without saying a word. This is our turf.
A neckless beast of a man approached. He was built like a tank and so roided out that his veins looked ready to pop. He also wore a thick gold chain that was probably supposed to be fresh, but to Sev’s eye, it vaguely resembled a dog collar.
“Can I help you, bro?” the man asked in a thick Armenian accent, somehow turning the question into a dire threat.
“I certainly hope so,” Sev said pleasantly.
“You collect from this Post Office Box?” Jecia asked, holding up the warrant.
The man regarded them warily. It was clear he was unaccustomed with failing to intimidate people, and he was having second thoughts. He finally sighed, and started tilted his head back toward the office.
“I get my boss.”
Most of the workers continued their pointed strike, but one pointed at the big man and laughed. That’s a choice. The big man snatched a wrench from a nearby tool table and threw it—quite unplayfully—at the upstart’s chest. The man attempted to buffer the blow with his wyrd, only to yelp, then wheeze and sink to the floor as the tool clanked flat against his ribs.
The other mechanics erupted with laughter.
“Veradardzir ashkhatank’in!” the big man shouted.
A few minutes later, an elderly gentleman in a tracksuit came out.
“Look, it’s a difficult time and we’ve got a lot of work to do, Officers. I’d appreciate it if we could make this quick.”
“Nothing would make us happier,” Sev said.
“What is your relationship to this PO box?” Jecia said.
The man swore in Armenian.
“Look, we make deliveries for this company. SSS assholes. We are not in a position to say no. You understand? We don’t ask questions; they don’t give us answers—”
“We need a copy of your delivery schedule from the sixteenth.”
“Uh, yes,” Jecia said gently, and tapped the pertinent portion of the paper she handed him at the beginning of their conversation. “This is a class five urgent search, it applies to the owner of the post office box, including—”
The man swore again.
“Okay, okay,” he said, then combed his hands through his hair. “Here’s the issue. We don’t do written records. You obviously understand, this is not ‘by-the-books.’”
“How do you tell your drivers where they are going?”
“I don’t know. The company runs a program—or something—on the Arcanet that sends the drivers’ GPS routes. The GPS units are modified to delete directions after they are completed.”
Jecia blinked. Sev felt like the man had driven railroad spikes through his lungs. But we aren’t dead yet.
“Alright,” Jecia said. “I need every last one of those GPS sets. Or your people’s phones. Whatever device receives the address.”
“Lady,” the man scoffed. “They are embedded in the vans.”
“Then I also need you to have your people drive them down to the LAKF central precinct now. Or we can start an entirely different conversation about trafficking.”
“We’ll be inviting the LAPD to the table too,” Sev added.
The man looked and swore again. Something about ‘witch cops.’
“Fine,” he said, and waved his hands irritably.
—Juel Flores | 7:38 PM | Los Angeles (LAKF Central Precinct)—
Returning to the precinct and downloading the caches from each of the four van’s antiquated GPS systems took the better part of five hours. After manually disassembling the dashboards to access the GPS computers, they discovered they needed an antiquated adapter to reach the files.
“Easy part is over,” Sev said.
The venture watched the last corrupted files upload to the police database from the final GPS.
“You had to say it,” Jecia complained.
“It’s true though,” Juel said. “Feryl doesn’t have a clue how to resurrect those files. Not his specialty. Which means we either have to hunt the arcanet for an incanter daemon that can do it, or come up with our own decryption ritual, and, I’ll be honest. If Feryl can’t do it—”
The incanter pinged them with a “Task Complete” message.
“Let’s just take the win,” Jecia insisted with straining patience, “and get something to eat before we worry about the next part.”
Juel looked to Sev and the two shared a nod. As the venture turned to the entrance of the evidence room, they saw Kaytham Lecarde standing in the room. He looked considerably subdued compared to the last time they had seen him.
“Still working it, huh?” Lecarde asked, almost wistful.
“We have a third victim. Now we just need her card. Which is at an address somewhere in these corrupted files.”
Lecarde nodded thoughtfully.
“Look. I’m off my relief shift. If you have anything tedious that needs doing… I’d be happy to do it. At least until you get something to eat.”
Sev turned to Juel and Jecia, who both shrugged. I do not want to be on the record for endorsing this. But honestly, I can’t see it hurting. Jecia seemed to agree, gesturing “what’s the harm?”
“If you could find us a program that retrieves data from deleted AGPS files, that would be…” Sev shook his head. “I’m not kidding when I say it would bust the case wide open. But we don’t even know if such a thing exists.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
When they returned, Lecarde was deep in a ritual trance.
His eyes glowed blue, traced by rapid streaks of white runic characters. His nose was bleeding. He had his hand on the incanter’s crystal port pad, and it was included in the same urdic circuit as Lecarde’s spell; an incredibly complicated beast involving all three anima on his right cuff.
“What the fuck?” Juel Exclaimed
“We have to stop him!” Jecia said.
“No!” Sev said, and held her back. “It could kill him! Or ruin our data.”
Sev pointed at the incanter screen, which was now flickering with runic code. Then the corrupted files disappeared, replaced by a single file labeled “address.” Lecarde woke up a second later, gasping heavily and trembling from exertion. Whatever he had done had an enormous load of energy behind it.
“What did you do Lecarde?” Sev said, more than a touch menacing.
“It’s a skill I discovered when I did my interdivisionals in Leximancy,” Lecarde said, wiping the blood from his nose. “My wyrd has a really strange talent. When it comes to runic code, I can find needles in haystacks.”
“What do you mean by that?” Juel asked.
“If I know something is ‘there,’ in the haystack, I can find a specific needle. I can’t… search it all. Like, if I know something is in the haystack, and I know what it is; say, an address… I can transmute that digital information haystack into a needle’s worth of good information.”
“You’re like a digital alchemist,” Jecia said.
“It’s a hell of a party trick, but you’d be surprised at how infrequently I get to use it.”
“I’m guessing it’s not a sure thing either, seeing how you needed three anima to do it,” Sev said, looking at the inert glass orbs in his right vambrace. “And your bloody nose.”
“I wanted to make sure it was a sure thing,” Lecarde said.
A chill ran up Juel’s spine.
“What did you offer the anima, Lecarde?” Jecia asked.
Lecarde chuckled the first time he tried to answer. Then he took a breath and said:
“A collective year of my life.”
Everyone gaped at Lecarde. He shrugged.
“It’s my fault Esmine Carter is dead,” he said. “I was raised Catholic. We’re big on guilt. But we’re even bigger on atonement.”
Jecia blinked and reflexively emanated something to the effect of ‘wow, that was enormously stupid.’ Juel was speechless. You could also call that brave. It was definitely well-intentioned. But my god, you really are a child with a lighter, aren’t you?
‘Never bargain with permanent payment’ was perhaps the most important principle of safe contract magic. Losing a year of your life is punishment enough. But when those stakes were fueling a spell, an inexperienced caster could end up dying on the spot, or losing all but one year of his life, or some technical spin on the concept that somehow made it even worse.
“You had better hope,” Sev began, “that this address pays dividends. Or else I will take the years you’ve got left.”
Lecarde nodded and sighed, as if he expected that exact reaction from Sev.
Sevardin walked over to the incanter and opened the file.
It was an image, like a real-estate broker’s flier. An address was listed at the top: 404 Castellammare Drive, Unit Q, Pacific Palisades, Southern California. Beneath the address was the picture of an ultra-modern condominium complex. The units had an odd, tiered design, reminiscent of both neo-adobe architecture and precariously stacked children’s building blocks. And at the very bottom of the flier, was a headshot of a handsome young man who immediately struck Juel as eminently punchable. Sandy blonde hair, movie star jawline, and a pair of glasses that had to be deliberately lame. His headshot was labeled “Stiegan Friedrich – Current Registered Owner.”
“You got all of this from digital scraps?” Jecia asked, suddenly impressed again.
“Well, I went overboard with the magic, so a lot of it… like the graphic design, could be considered a flourish. Hence the blood. And the anima.”
“And the missing year of your life,” Sev said.
Juel re-read the name of the current owner.
“Isn’t Stiegan Friedrich Kileena’s boyfriend?”
“Yeah,” Sev said.
Juel hung his head and sighed.
“I can’t believe we are driving back to Pacific Fucking Palisades.”
—11:27 PM | Pacific Palisades—
It was close to midnight when they arrived at the specified address. It turned out Stiegan’s unit sat above all of the others. Juel snickered. Why am I not surprised? I bet it’s the biggest too. They exited the car, took the glass elevator to the top, and rang Stiegan’s bell.
A few minutes later, a familiar punchable face emerged from the door.
“Stiegan Friedrich?” Sev asked.
“Yes. What can I do for you officers?”
“We have reason to believe you purchased a piece of key evidence in an online auction.”
His expression darkened and he folded his arms.
“I purchased something at an auction, yes,” Stiegan said evenly. “But it was personal property. Not evidence. A death threat is not a murder weapon.”
In this case, that is exactly what it is, pendejo.
“It’s a cursed object,” Jecia said gently. “Buying, owning, or creating it is a crime.”
Stiegan glared at her. But just as quickly, he shrugged off his mood with an easy sigh.
“Be that as it may, you’re too late.” He said.
“You resold the card?” Juel asked.
“You think I wanted the card for money?” he asked, disgusted. “I bought it to protect Kileena from herself. I did what you fools should have done from the start, and destroyed it as soon as I got it.”