story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
“Anak, wake up.”
Caren sat up in bed.
“Anak,” came Mom’s voice again. “Your friend Luke is here.”
At first Caren didn’t know where Mom was.
Then she spied her petite frame in front of the windows, dressed in the t-shirt and socks she always wore to sleep, bathed in blinding white light from outside. Still, smiling, staring out at something Caren couldn’t see for the brightness.
“Luke?” Caren echoed. “Where?”
Mom raised her arm and pointed out the window.
Caren got out of bed, in her oversized sweatshirt and bare feet, stumbled over, shielded her eyes, squinted into the light.
She noticed a shape in the distance, a slender shadow behind all the whiteness…which she now realized was snow, snow coming down in soft sheets, burying everything. Big bright flakes falling—soundless, except for a susurrus of static.
Caren looked back.
The house was gone, and Mom with it. Only whiteness remained, on all sides.
Facing front again, Caren saw the shape had gotten closer—was just a few yards away now, motionless as before.
It was Luke, like Mom had said. Luke in his quilted coat and mittens, wool knit toboggan pulled low over his ears mashing his bangs down flat against his eyelashes. Luke smiling his dorky dimpled smile. Snow falling all around him, and on him, sticking to his hair and lashes, piling high on his shoulders and the top of his head. Smiling, not moving, not blinking, while the surface of the snow crept up his ankles to the top of his boots, over his calves, flake by flake, past his knees to his thighs. Static slowly rising.
Move! Caren yelled, but her throat didn’t make the sound.
She tried to take a step toward him, but her feet wouldn’t budge. Looked down—saw her own legs buried to the knees in snow. Wiggled them frantically—then hurled herself forward with all her weight, a futile effort to dislodge them.
Raised her head. Saw snow piling up everywhere.
Didn’t see Luke anymore.
Until she did. But only his face.
Still smiling. Not blinking.
Surrounded on all sides by the mound of snow slowly sealing over it.
Caren tried to reach out, but snow pinned her arms.
Luke’s eyes were gone now, buried in white. Nothing left but his nose and grinning mouth.
Caren jerked upright, heart hammering.
…Where am I?
Languid half-dark, half-harsh-light. Air dry and hot. No sound but the whirr of a decrepit space heater.
Not Mom’s house…not Caren’s own studio apartment.
There was a shape next to her in bed, facing away. Broad shoulders. Dark hair.
“Luke?” she whispered.
Then wakefulness dawned, with the knowledge, like a stone settling heavy on a riverbed, that there was no way in hell that was Luke sleeping peacefully beside her.
There followed nausea. A vague recollection of the early morning hours. Driving back from Arcadia in a stupor. Stopping into Voyeur for drinks because it was the only place she knew of that was open so late, and no way was she going home to her shitty apartment alone while it was still dark.
Sending a text message to Luke:
just another of ur disappearing acts. right?
When an hour and no response, and no read receipt either, a second text—this one to fucking Ellis:
The rest was a blur.
Caren pawed around the bed, through the tangled-up sheets, through her clothes all mixed up with fucking Ellis’s, trying to find her phone.
When she couldn’t find it, she felt around again, more urgently.
Ellis stirred. Rolled slightly to squint over his wiry shoulder at her, his fine-pointed features screwed up in a sleepy grimace. “Caren, what the—?”
Caren ignored him. Started throwing bedclothes.
Then human clothes.
“Caren, what the fuck?”
She finally found her phone under Ellis’s boxers. Snatched it up, fumbling it like it was a wet bar of soap.
Gripped it tightly in both shaking hands. Opened her text thread with Luke.
Caren dropped the phone on the bed. Lowered her face into her hands. Pushed the heels of them into her eye sockets like she wanted to force out her eyeballs.
“Seriously though, what is up with you?” said Ellis. “You’ve been so fucking weird, ever since last night.”
Caren didn’t answer.
Ellis’s arms curled around her waist.
She pushed him off, staggered out of bed. Started assembling her clothes. Her chest was throbbing—nonstop since the night before, even worse than her head.
“This how it is now?” Ellis sat up, scratched himself, watched her dress with his arm draped over one knee. “You hit me up when you want the D, then take off first thing the morning after?”
Caren checked the time on her phone. “It’s—fuck—not morning, dude. It’s four fucking P.M., and I’m late for a thing.”
“You still so thirsty, why don’t you call up your Khmun girl? What was her name, Khaleesi?” Caren yanked her shirt over her head, reached for her jacket.
“Kalliope. And come on, you gonna keep throwing that in my face forever?”
“Hey, it ain’t no thing. You were the one who wanted to be monogamous.” Caren sidestepped the peeling beanbag chair, the dangerously tall and lopsided stack of vinyls, a couple of open dog-eared daemonology tomes as she made a beeline for Ellis’s apartment door.
His voice followed her into the hall. “Hey, why don’t you give me a call sometime when you’re in less of a bitch moo—?”
Caren slammed the door behind her.
It was rainy out still. Tepid. The bus arrived behind schedule, because of course it did, because Philly.
Caren finally trudged into M&M Restaurant at four-thirty-three.
The little mom-and-pop diner was empty at this hour, except for its owners, Margaret, who welcomed Caren by name, and Martin, who was in the back slicing beef.
…And, of course, the familiar skinny white kid in the gray peacoat and glasses, who was sitting in the rearmost booth facing the door, nursing a glass of water.
Grenville’s round dark eyes followed Caren’s approach. “We should exchange cell numbers. I started to think you weren’t coming.”
“Yeah…sorry I’m late.” Caren slid into the other side of the booth, eyed a fat white envelope sitting on the table in front of her.
“Your payment for Navarrete.”
Caren pocketed it in her jacket. “Thanks. You know, you could have gone ahead and ordered food. You didn’t have to wait for me.”
“There’s nothing here I would consider eating.”
Caren shot a glance at Margaret and Martin, hoping neither of them had overheard.
She leaned forward and hissed at Grenville: “Who the hell are you, Marie Antoinette? The food here is to-fucking-die-for. What were you expecting, foie gras?”
“I wasn’t trying to be disparaging. I just observe a number of dietary restrictions, and everything on the menu here violates at least two of them.”
Caren waved Margaret over, put in an order for coffee and kielbasa.
As the proprietor walked away, Caren studied Grenville, who in turn seemed absorbed in studying his surroundings. There were Old-Worlders, Caren knew, who’d never set foot outside Arcadia, never seen a mundane. She wondered if he was one of them.
“You’re Fraternitas Mercurii, huh?” Caren eyed the ring on Grenville’s right forefinger that bore the seal of the elite all-male order.
“Yeah. But I can’t say much about it.”
“They try to burn you alive when you were a kid?”
“No. The Rite of Infernal Passage was officially banned about three years before I turned thirteen.”
“You mean after that one kid got cooked like a Thanksgiving turkey?”
“After the Phineas Gadshill incident came under public scrutiny…yeah.”
Caren fell briefly silent as Margaret returned with her coffee, mumbled her thanks.
Once she and Grenville were alone again: “Y’all are fucked up, you know. Just saying.”
Grenville traced his surroundings once more with his eyes, his head bobbing faintly like he’d lost himself in thought, then rummaged in the messenger bag on the seat beside him, producing a manila envelope. “Should I go ahead and brief you on the case so far?”
“Yeah, go wild.”
“Here are the ten locations where the killings took place.” Grenville slid a map out of the envelope and placed it on the table in front of Caren.
She looked at it. “That forms a fucking pentagram.”
Caren frowned, noting each of the locations. “Yeah, some of these places are heavily trafficked. Were there—?”
“Mundane witnesses? Yeah.”
“Explain to me how that doesn’t mean Lex violated the Occultation Protocols.”
“Lex used mind-wiped mundanes as weapons. Since the mundanes were tranquilized, they don’t and never will remember that magic was performed on them. And they themselves obviously didn’t perform magic while carrying out the public attacks, so mundanes who witnessed the attacks didn’t see any agent of Lex’s perform magic. It was actually brilliant, if you think about it. By targeting the Martial Magi using tranquilized mundanes, Lex forced the Martial Magi to defend themselves with magic—which means technically the Martial Magi ended up being the ones in violation of interfaction law. If any of them had survived, they’d be facing charges.”
Caren met Grenville’s eye. “You’re saying Lex is deliberately flouting Auctoritas Magicae law?”
“It looks that way.”
Caren might have almost respected it.
…If it hadn’t been for the collateral damage.
“I assume the major factions had to act fast to organize a cleanup,” she said.
“Yeah. Naturally they couldn’t do a perfect job…tracked down and mind-wiped witnesses, rounded up tranquilized mundanes who didn’t end up vegetative in mundane hospitals.” Grenville paused. “Made sure the ones who did didn’t make it out alive.”
Caren raised her eyebrows. “Shit… You serious?”
Grenville’s mouth twisted slightly, grimly. “They were walking husks,” he pointed out. “Good as dead to begin with.”
“Yeah…where’s the lie, I guess.”
“There were the cell phone videos to contend with. Of course any wireless signals in proximity went haywire once spells started flying, so no actual magic was livestreamed, but footage of the mobs did make it online. Tracking down and disposing of all recorded video of the magic activity wasn’t easy, but so far none’s leaked that we’re aware of.
“So what we’re seeing so far is mundane news outlets calling the incidents riots—reporting a lot of people missing, attributing weird injuries and memory loss to possible deployment of chemical weapons. Mundane conspiracy theorists flipping their lids. ‘The Midnight Riots’ already have their own subreddit.”
Caren raised an eyebrow. Kid was casually referencing subreddits. He couldn’t be as out of the loop as she’d guessed.
“The major factions have agents on the ground,” Grenville went on, “spreading rumors to help obfuscate the truth as much as possible. Pointing fingers at mundane gangs, dissident political groups. Extraterrestrials. Even mundane ‘magic’ adherents—Wiccans, Thelemites, Satanists.”
“Sounds like a fucking clusterfuck.”
“That’s the idea.”
Caren went quiet—and Grenville turned the map facedown—while Margaret dropped off Caren’s kielbasa.
The ratcatcher poked at her food, nibbled a small bite. Kielbasa was one of her faves, especially M&M’s kielbasa, but she hadn’t been able to muster up much of an appetite since last night.
Once Margaret was out of earshot, Caren jabbed her fork toward Grenville’s manila file. “What else have you got? Gimme the true fax.”
“I’ve got profiles on each of the mages who were killed. A list of names and basic info for the mundane casualties, those we were able to collect and identify. Reports on each of the crime scenes.” Grenville glanced over at Martin and Margaret, who were both busy behind the counter. “It might be better to go through all of it in depth someplace more private.”
Caren turned the map face-up again, studied it. “My place isn’t far from here,” she said absently. “We can head there in a bit. Uh…Grenville.”
She hesitated. “There’s ten locations marked on here. A name written next to each location. That’s telling me who was killed where, right?”
“Okay. Well…twelve mages were killed. Not ten.”
“So the other two…”
“Polyxena Severin and Luke Langit?”
“Right. Those two. They were…um. Where…were they…?”
“Are you asking where did they die?”
Caren started picking at her food again. Nodded.
Grenville was silent a moment. “We don’t know.”
Caren looked up, squinted at him. “What do you mean, ‘We don’t know’? Y’all recovered bodies, right? Luke was—all twelve victims were ID’ed by the Onomagnostikon.”
“That’s right, they were.”
“Well, then where the hell was Lu—were Severin and Langit?”
Grenville studied Caren. “He was someone you really cared about, wasn’t he? Luke Langit?”
“Why are you so fucking interested in that? The question I’m asking you has to do with the case.”
For the first time since Caren had met him, Grenville looked like he felt as awkward as he was. “I just thought…if that’s the case, I should warn you…you might find this detail really unpleasant.”
Caren stared at him. “What detail?”
Again, Grenville paused. “It’s…not known where Luke Langit was killed, or Polyxena Severin, because…remains of those two—and only those two—were recovered from all ten sites.”
The smell of kielbasa suddenly, violently turned Caren’s stomach.
A half-second later, she went pitching out of the booth. Set her legs churning. The red stools next to M&M’s bar, the kitschy Christmas decorations blurred past her.
She barely made it to the toilet. Her knees hit the floor the same instant her stomach gave up what little she’d managed to put in it.
She came up heaving and gasping for air. Fire exploding in her chest. The walls of the stall reeling wildly around her.
She couldn’t stop seeing it. Smelling it.
Caren retched again, but there was nothing left in her. Dry.
She slumped over the toilet, panting. Zoned out on the pinkish chunks floating in the water.
The sound of Grenville’s voice jerked her back to herself. “Navarrete, which stall? I have something for you that might—”
“Get out!” Caren croaked. “What the fuck? This is the girls’ room.”
“It’s okay, no one will care. People always think I’m a girl.”
“I don’t want you in here.”
Seconds later came the sound of the bathroom door swinging open and shut.
Caren staggered to her feet, dusted off her knees.
Stared down at the contents of the toilet.
Swallowed another dry heave.
Can’t think about it.
Can’t think about it.
Can’t think about it.
She returned to the booth to find her plate gone, and a glass of pale-blue fizzy liquid perched in its place.
Grenville sat paging through the file. Didn’t look up at her approach. “It’ll help with your stomach.”
“Where did you get…?”
Grenville opened one side of his coat, displayed a bunch of pockets sewn into the liner, nozzles of flasks poking out of them. “I’m a walking pharmacy.”
Caren took her seat. Eyed the glass, then drained it.
“Tastes like chalk.” She plunked it back on the table.
“Somebody blew up my mom,” said Grenville.
Caren stared at him.
He looked up at her, briefly, then back down at the file. “It was when I was a baby, so I don’t remember it.” He paused. “My dad and I know who did it, but we can’t prove anything.”
Caren couldn’t think of anything helpful to say, so she went with the obvious. “Who did it?”
“It wouldn’t be prudent to name them.” Again, Grenville paused. Then, “Another First House. Enemies of my family.”
“Christ. You Old-Worlders go hard.”
Grenville tilted his head in a way that seemed to signal agreement.
After a pause,
“Should we relocate now?” he asked. “Continue our review of the case at your place?”
Caren waved down Margaret for the ticket. “Sure. But my apartment’s a sty. Don’t judge.”
Grenville raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think I’d judge?”
“Dunno.” Caren opened her wallet, slapped her debit card on the table. “Something gives me the feeling you’re a neat freak.”
“So that’s everything?”
Caren stood in the middle of her cramped one-room apartment, between her cluttered computer desk and her half-flayed cork board, which was crowded to every edge with the contents of the case file. Grenville perched opposite her, on the corner of her futon—the only part that wasn’t covered in Caren’s stuff—the manila envelope resting in his lap, both arms tight against his sides in an apparent effort to avoid touching either the tall pile of Caren’s dirty laundry on the futon next to him or the dusty guitar parked on its stand on his opposite side.
“There’s one more thing.”
Grenville pulled a stack of eight-by-ten photos from the file. “These are graphic,” he said, then caught her eye. “None of them are of Langit.”
Caren nodded, pawed the air dismissively. “Hand ’em over.”
Grenville passed them to her.
Caren stared down at the topmost one. She’d thought she’d be fine, but suddenly her asshole brain kept trying to superimpose Luke’s face. “Were all the victims like this?”
“Except for Langit.”
Caren leafed through the photos. There were eleven—each of a human head. Some she could have believed were peacefully sleeping, if not for the fact that they ended abruptly at the neck. Others were misshapen beyond recognition. Caren thought she knew which one was Sten, but she didn’t ask.
Each of the severed heads photographed was encircled by a laurel wreath.
“Fuckin’ creepy.” Caren handed the photos back to Grenville.
Grenville got up, set to work rearranging the documents Caren had haphazardly affixed to the cork board to make space for the photos. “It’s the only consistency among all the slayings, with the exception of Langit—all beheaded, all fitted with a laurel crown. Actual causes of death varied: blunt force trauma, exsanguination from puncture wounds and/or dismemberment, internal bleeding, organ damage. Depended what modus operandi the tranquilized mundanes happened to choose, I guess, based on whatever means were available to them.”
Caren paced, flexed her fists. “This Lex bitch was trying really hard to send some kind of message, I guess. Real drama queen.”
“That, or it was all part of a massive ritual.”
Caren had considered this. Giant pentagram, after all. “Having what effect, though? A ritual that big…I mean…we would know by now if it did something. It’d be pretty damn hard to miss, right? Shit would be fucking apocalyptic.”
Grenville shook his head faintly, I don’t know. “It’s possible you’re right and Lex just has a flair for the dramatic. It would be consistent with their rumored tendency to leave behind a ‘calling card’ at all of their crime scenes—a written or graffitied symbol. The symbol they use is a laurel wreath, as a matter of fact, being cut in half by a blade. Their message claiming responsibility for the killings was signed with it.”
“Mm.” Caren jiggled in place. Began bouncing her fist against the side of her thigh. “You said that…Langit wasn’t…like the rest.”
“So.” Her fist bounced harder. “What was different.”
Grenville spoke gently. “Well…in Langit’s case…the head was actually the only part not found.”
Caren’s chest throbbed. She zoned on the pieces of an old balisong of Mom’s that had lain disassembled on her desk for probably months after Caren had gotten distracted one day mid-repair. The bite handle, the blade, pins scattered around and mixed with the other random shit on her desk. The tang pin nowhere to be found after all this time.
Caren flexed, unflexed, flexed her fists.
Bounce. Bounce. “Fuck. Fucking—fuck. Fuck this.”
“Hm?” said Grenville.
Since last night, Caren had been stumbling through a fog. Alternately numb and sick to her stomach. Hallucinating, seeing Luke everywhere, like he hadn’t fucking walked out of her life five years ago and never looked back.
Now, all she wanted to do was destroy something.
She turned back to Grenville. “Well, I guess that’s fucking it, right? Only thing left to do is get going. Fucking hunt this bitch down.”
“I’m planning to start tomorrow morning at dawn,” said Grenville. “Conduct a thorough search of each of the crime scenes, look for more evidence.”
“Didn’t your people already go over those? Isn’t that how we got all these fancy fucking reports?”
“Yeah, but I can do it better.”
“Oh, right. You have, what was it again, ‘unprecedented forensic capabilities.’ What’s the deal with that anyway?”
“You know how I told you I’m a walking pharmacy?”
“I’m also a walking crime lab.”
“Okay. Sure. Be vague.”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
“Be vague and ominous.” Caren paused, gazed out the window at the full moon. Jiggled her leg—kept bounce, bounce, bouncing her fist against her thigh. “Well, I do my best work at night. Also I’m fucking impatient.”
“You have something in mind?”
“Yeah. Let’s go.” Caren spun, grabbed her jacket off the futon. Felt her pockets for her balisong, her baton, her lunaria flares.
Headed for the door.
“Uh…where?” By the sound of Grenville’s voice, he wasn’t following.
“Just put your coat on, Daddy’s Boy. Have a little faith in a girl. Finding bitches is my bread and butter.”
“It’s not that I don’t have faith in you. I just don’t like surprises.”
“Then have I got bad news for you about this kind of work. Just stick close to me, you’ll be fine. I know my way around. Where we’re going right now is where I always go when I’m getting started hunting down a mark.”
“Which is where?” By the sound of it, Grenville was following but none too thrilled about it.
Caren stopped a half-second with her hand on the doorknob. Shot him an over-the-shoulder glance, her eyebrows raised. Echoed his words back to him:
“You’ll see soon enough.”
She shoved the door open, led the way into the night.