213 - Death and Coffee

Charlotte Palmer enters Has Beans, not as the Magus, but as an ordinary girl. She smiles at the people behind the counter, bides her time in line, and places her order. As JC rings her up on the register, Charlotte adds only one comment out of place for a customer. “My dear, a rather serious matter has come up. May I have a word with your father?”

JC pauses before nodding and smiling. It’s Grail Knights business, and though she’s involved in that, she has other business to attend to at the moment. Questions can come later.

At her table, Charlotte pulls the tools of today’s activity out of her satchel: a notebook, an assortment of pens and pencils, a cell phone, and a scroll she bought on Etsy. While there are various “mind-mapping” tools available on the phone, Charlotte finds the scroll a more intuitive way to gather and represent her scattered thoughts.

Coffee comes, and she smiles appreciatively. Careful not to spill anything, she alternates between drinking, reading, and writing.

Presently, Lucius appears. She gestures for him to sit, and he eases himself into the seat opposite her.

“Thank you for your time, Lucius.”

“A request from the Magus is virtually a command.”

Charlotte laughs. “I wouldn’t dream of commanding you, sir.”

The seriousness of the situation returns to her, and she presents her work on the scroll for inspection. “Ghostheart, a demonologist, has somehow escaped AEGIS. He seems to have been soul-marked by a goetic demon, King Paimon, against his will. He involved a priestess of Palamedes in a journey to the underworld, and I believe used her to attract my attention.”

Lucius takes this with aplomb. Working with the supernatural has been his business for more years than Charlotte has existed, she reminds herself.

“Hmmmmm. Paimon is an unusual choice for the Ghostheart I know of. They have few motives in common, if any. If you’ll forgive me a moment of humor, it’s quite a detective story. The mysterious visitor drags their business across the detective’s path, and the sleuth is obliged by their nature to investigate.”

Charlotte samples her coffee. “Investigate and apprehend, I’m afraid. Whatever business Ghostheart is involved with, they must still be returned to AEGIS custody.”

“And what of the conjurer?”

Charlotte ponders that. “That is something you can answer for me. Is binding Ghostheart something a goetic demon might do on their own?”

Lucius shakes his head. “They are… enigmatic.”

Charlotte chuckles at that. “More than you, my dear sir?”

“Quite so. As semi-divine beings, they have an agenda, but no will. There will be a human conjurer who arranged this.”

“One with an interest in Ghostheart. I wonder what AEGIS thinks happened to them?”

Lucius smiles. “That sounds more like your line than mine. In the meantime, I shall collect what I know about Paimon, and share it with you when you’re ready.”

“Wise advice. Thank you, Lucius. And as always, your coffee is exemplary.”

Lucius departs, leaving Charlotte with her caffeine and contemplation.

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Charlotte finds Summer at home.

“Look what I figured out!” the robot girl enthuses. She starts snapping her fingers. With each snap, her hair and fingernails instantly take on different hues, cycling through the colors of the rainbow.

“Pretty snazzy, huh?”

Charlotte smiles. “When I was alive, a girl’s goal was to look natural. Cosmetics could grant pale skin and dark hair, but some of the ingredients would be considered very unhealthy today. I’m glad you’ve found a solution that’s entirely natural - at least for you, my dear.”

Summer welcomes her inside, and after instant coffee is made, the two get down to business.

“I want your help investigating a matter with AEGIS,” Charlotte explains, and outlines the situation with Ghostheart. “So you see, they ought to have still been in custody.”

Summer’s scowl isn’t hard to read, and Charlotte leans forward. “Is there something wrong, Summer?”

“About this? No, no… This is all fine. It’s just…” The girl gets up and paces nervously. “AEGIS did a thing, that none of us - Leo, Otto, Aria, me - knew about, and we’re still pretty upset about it.”

“If you’d rather not involve yourself, I can find someone else?”

“Oh, it’s okay, I’ll get over this.” Summer grips the back of her chair, forces herself to sit down again.

Charlotte fills the space by drinking her own coffee. Even at home, the robot barista seems keen on picking quality coffee for her guests. She smiles and sets the cup down. “You don’t sound very convincing. But I’ll take you at your word. How do we proceed?”

Summer thinks. “There’s the official channels. I don’t think you’ll get very far with that. There are people we know inside the organization. I think Alycia mentioned she’s working with someone, but she’s kind of scarce these days. And there’s her handler, Agent Parker, whose number I have.”

Summer makes the call at Charlotte’s behest and leaves a voice mail. Something like this isn’t to be discussed over a typical telephone call, so the two girls agree that asking for a meeting somewhere would be best.

Parker isn’t interested in meeting at a location she doesn’t trust, even with people she does. Charlotte and Summer get off the bus downtown to find the senior agent waiting for them.

The venue is a parking garage for AEGIS personnel and visitors. It’s not on the main campus, but close enough that Summer guesses security teams could respond in short order. Parker takes her ease by leaning back against a concrete pillar, and gestures for the two to proceed.

Charlotte once again explains the situation. A supervillain thought to be in AEGIS’ custody has been seen in the wild, and if they aren’t instigating fresh evil, they are certainly embroiled in it.

Parker takes all this in stride. “I don’t promise anything - no information or assistance. However, I can refer this matter to the appropriate internal team for investigation.”

Summer and Charlotte glance at each other. That’s about as much as either of them expected.

Parker pauses. “On the other hand… You say Ghostheart seemed trying to tip you off that something was amiss. If that extends to AEGIS itself, formal notification may be counterproductive. Assuming things are as you both say, I shall undertake my own investigation. In return, you two shall share with me any further results on your end, with the eventual goal of recapturing this individual. I want to stress that my cooperation is contingent upon yours. Do we have an arrangement?”

“We do,” smiles Charlotte.

“Very well. Then I shall expect regular reports from you both. Ms. Newman, you may update me via text at the number I’ve provided you.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Parker waves the two of them off and walks toward the elevators.

Summer turns to Charlotte. “So now that you’re the Magus, can’t you, y’know, just magic up Ghostheart’s location or something? Seems like you have a lot of power.”

Charlotte shakes her head. “Power without prudence is dangerous. Ghostheart is not only marked, but protected, by potent forces. This is not the time to engage with those forces, although such time may come. We’ve started at one end of Ghostheart’s trail. Let us strategize on ways to find the other end, and hope that it’s not a dead end.”

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The pair are visiting Captain Burger when Summer perks up.

“The bike,” she says suddenly.

Charlotte looks up from her burger-shaped omen of death. “I beg your pardon?”

“The bike. Ghostheart told Daph they rode a bike to meet with her at the cave entrance. They said it was a rental. Paid by credit card. Well, credit card transactions are electronic, and can be traced.”

Charlotte sits up. “You’ve lived with this technological currency longer than I have. What would that require?”

Summer takes a bite of her burger, pausing in her explanation for an appreciative “mmm”. As a robot, she has a distinct advantage in the Captain Burger survival challenge. “The security around credit cards is very tight. We’d need some kind of world-class hacker. But it should be possible to pull up a list of sales made with a given card and turn that into a map of places someone has been. And with luck, we could figure out patterns, places the card holder typically goes, and stake those out.”

Charlotte nods in understanding. “How do we begin?”

Summer wolfs down more of her burger. “Womf foomf ffsom.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full, dear.”

Summer finishes and nods sheepishly. “Sorry. Um. I’d usually ask Alycia for something like this. Say, why don’t we ask Jason?”

Charlotte samples her own burger, rather than speak her first thoughts.

“Honestly, that sounds legally dicey.”

Jason is sitting in the conversation pit, turning over what the two girls have told him. Charlotte and Summer sit opposite. Now that they’ve explained the situation and what they hope for, they’re mostly watching Jason walk himself through the consequences.

“On the one hand, I want to help, and I have the resources and skill to do this. On the other, if it’s traced back to me, the Foundation’s charitable efforts and public image would suffer.”

Jason pauses, stands, and paces for a minute. “I could set up isolated resources, enough to provide some shielding against detection and countermeasures, but it would take time. Let me get started on that, and I’ll let you both know when I’m ready.”

Charlotte nods, and rises as well. “That would be most appreciated, Jason. Thank you.”

Summer stands too. “Say, um, Alycia hasn’t been around lately. I figured she’d tell you if anything was up. Is she um, she doing okay?”

Jason nods. “There’s something going on. That’s all I can say.”

“Okay. Understood.”

Jason shows them to the front door, and the girls walk out into the daylight.

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Jason summons the pair back to the Quill compound the next day.

They meet him in one of the conference rooms, where he sits in a comfortable office chair, looking at a digital screen six feet wide. Charlotte can’t make head or tail of what she sees, and she feels some relief upon noting Summer’s confused expression. Perhaps Jason will explain?

He does.

“It’s good that you were able to bring that bike back, because that constrains when the next person could register to use it. The system processes thousands of riders a day, and otherwise there would have been no way for me to narrow it down.”

He rearranges some of the tabular data on screen. “So, here’s all the bikes that were rented minus three hours from that date and used after the time you returned yours. That’s 23 bikes, and 23 credit cards.”

More tables slide into place. “A trick Rusty taught me. Most people are set in their ways. A credit card used as part of a false identity will show signs, as one person’s habits transition immediately to another’s, rather than individual purchases sliding into new patterns gradually. None of these cards are for a ‘Max Gallian’, so they probably obtained a card under the table.”

Twenty-three rows of data become one, and a transaction history springs to life on the screen. “And voilà. One bicycle rental, plus food purchases, some likely hangouts, a favorite coffee house. No apartment rental, unfortunately. That probably would have come as part of the fake ID package, though, most safehouses are funded separately and the fake name never appears on a lease.”

Jason turns in his chair to regard the girls. “Credit cards do need to be paid off. And false fronts can be traced. My father made a career out of unraveling Achilles Chin’s web of global financing, and I wasn’t asleep those days. Either of you have any ideas why Ghostheart’s card balance is being paid off by a Rook Industries shell company?”

Summer has been selected to visit Ghostheart’s preferred coffee joint and keep an eye on them. Charlotte and Daph are instantly recognizable, and spiritually potent, while Summer can disguise herself. Plus, as Charlotte assures her to a decidedly mixed reaction, there’s nothing that stands out about her soul or aura.

The place is Mater Luna, one of those expensive coffee joints across town. It’s in the same neighborhood as the Theosophical Research Society, the Anson Museum of Witchcraft and Magick, the Santuario de las Brujas, and other places that high school kids would have been warned to stay away from in the past. Summer is no longer in high school and admits to some personal curiosity beyond the mere thrill of going into a forbidden place of business.

Mater Luna is decorated like the nave in a gloomy cathedral. There’s an ambient soundtrack coming from artfully concealed speakers while people sip coffee, write in leatherbound journals, whisper to each other, and stare at the strange spiraling designs on the walls. Summer is pretty sure she can detect a whiff of cannabis, probably from one of the rooms in the back for special clients.

She’s done up her hair, changed it to a rainbow color scheme, and reworked her face and eyes. She’s still the same height - there’s only so much you can do with a Newman shell on short notice - but has dressed to change her silhouette. She’s pretty sure Ghostheart never met Pneuma up close and in person, and that what they saw of Radiance won’t give her away either.

Is it all for nothing? No - Max Gallian is there, sitting in a corner, poring over a collection of tomes and magazines. She’s not here to make contact, just observe, so she subtly dispatches a butterfly drone and then takes a seat of her own.

It’s around the time Summer has had her third sip of this “smoking mirror” concoction from the menu that Max announces themselves to her. They haven’t moved from the table, but they’re clearly addressing the butterfly. “My perceptions have increased since my return. If you wish to observe me, you can do so from my table.”

There’s no reason not to, she supposes. She stands, takes the cup and saucer, and weaves her way through the crowd of strangers to take a seat.

“Coffee is one of the most accessible tools for expanding one’s consciousness,” says Max.

“I beg your pardon?”

The villain gestures upward, at the butterfly’s hidden position. “You’ve transcended human physical and mental limits through technology. Those of us born of flesh and blood can only get by on the inadequate chemical tools at our disposal. But of those, coffee has become both socially acceptable and ubiquitous.”

Summer smiles. “I suppose so.”

“Would you like to hear more about me? I assume that’s why you came.” Max takes a sip of their own drink.

Summer nods. Why not?

“My father was one from beyond the veil. My mother was alive - at the time I was born. I inherited qualities of both worlds. To see beyond that veil, to understand. And to know how dangerous it was when crossed.”

Max looks up, finding Summer’s gaze and matching it with a burning intensity. “Modern civilization seems compelled to destroy whatever it touches. You pollute the air, the water, the soil. You take what you wish and leave garbage in trade. You use, and use, and use, and the detritus is thrown back, unhindered.”

“Do you know that there is a spiritual detritus as well? Regret, anger, insecurity. You build up the ugliest of emotions, but rather than address them, you release them into the afterlife. And then what? They return. Again, and again. Hurting people, in subtle ways sometimes, overtly in others. Your very way of life torments the living after you are gone.”

Max taps something on their phone, then hands it over to Summer for inspection. “Read it aloud,” they direct.

Summer complies. It’s a quote, from the book “John Dies at the End”. “Try to imagine a Hitler or a Vlad the Impaler or even the nasty old man at the dump who steals people’s cats and buries them alive. Now imagine those guys but strip them of all their limitations. No bodies, so they never die or run down or get tired. Give them literally all the time in the world. Imagine that malice, that stupid hate just burning on and on and on like an oil well fire.”

Max takes their phone back. “This. This is why I fight to keep the veil intact. Do you understand?”

Summer is shaken by what she’s been told, and what she’s read, but she nods regardless. “I think I do. Very well, actually. You see, myself, and my family, we all feel very strongly about addressing and resolving our emotions. We don’t like leaving things unsaid or undone. It feels wrong, to bottle it up and never let it out. It doesn’t feel healthy. And we know enough about neurobiology, and can see the effects of stress on a living brain, to really understand the damage such things can cause even in this life.”

Max’s smile is an attempt, but Summer can see the pain behind it. “I admit I have hurt people. I accept the label of ‘supervillain’. But I am not the worst. And if I could get people to wake up, to see beyond, to understand the harm they do, I’d be content.”

They lift their coffee mug and finish the drink. “And if it means stopping any forces from beyond from claiming territory - or people - here, I’d go back to prison for that.”

Summer nods again. “I suspect that’s what will happen.”

Max shrugs. “I won’t ask how you found me. I’m sure you have your ways. I wish you equal success in all your detective endeavors.”

Summer finishes her own coffee and stands. “We will see that justice is done,” she promises. “For everybody.”

“To justice.” Max lifts their coffee cup in a mocking toast, and sets it down only after Summer has exited Mater Luna.

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The Ram ProMaster van is parked outside Halcyon City limits. Roksana Mahdavi, aka Facet, sits in the driver’s seat, staring at a laptop that’s been propped up by a baby booster seat on the passenger side. Her partner, Kamley Saunders, aka Iconoclast, sits in the back of the van, at the center of a messy mixture of electronics, glowing containers, and Uline wire shelves bolted to the interior of the vehicle. 90’s alternative rock is blaring from the speakers.

'Turn it down," shouts Kamley.

Roksana glances into the back. Kam’s hearing aid is out. She ignores the command. After all, how can her partner hear it?

“I said, turn it down.” Kamley throws a spool of wire up front, narrowly missing Roksana.

The woman up front pauses music playback on her phone, and the speakers cease. “How could you tell?” she demands.

Kam puts her hearing aid back in, and Roksana repeats the question. “Vibrations in the superstructure, dumbass,” Kam snaps. “Sound is a vibration. That’s the whole point of all this equipment. I need to feel the etheric acoustics, and you are messing with it by playing that, that, whatever it is.”

“It’s Third Eye Blind.”

“I don’t care if it’s Both Ears Deaf, which is what you’ll be if you keep blasting it. Take it from me.”

“You Oughtta Know,” quips Roksana.

“How are the signal levels?”

Roksana checks her laptop. “Minus 84 dBm. No change. You sure you got the right wires?”

“You wanna come back here and do this?” barks Kam.

“If I can’t listen to my music, then yeah, may as well.” Roksana slips out of the driver’s seat and crouches her way into the back. “Move over, let a real technician at this.”


Both women fiddle with the apparatus, until Roksana holds up the cables in triumph. “Found it! This cable is bad. Look at this under a light. See the core here? See how it’s just kind of gray and dull? There’s no metallic luster. Either Max didn’t order good quality cable, or the supplier sent us this garbage.”

“So, it’s not my fault?” Kamley sounds dubious that her partner would make such a concession.

“Nah, it’s not your fault.” Roksana lightly punches her shoulder with a grin. “You’re brilliant, except in your taste in music. There you’re hopeless. Stick with me, I’ll set you straight.”

Kam snorts. “‘Straight’ is not something I’ll ever be, but whatever.” She finishes her wiring work, then starts piling things back onto the wire shelves.

Roksana hands over a handful of zip ties, and Kamley starts attaching the equipment to the shelves, so nothing will fall during a bumpy van ride. The two women argue for a minute about who’ll be driving, but Kamley wins. Roksana gets comfortable in the passenger’s seat, with the laptop in her lap - and resumes the music, but at a lower volume.

“I think we’re ready to resume ghost fishing,” Roksana says presently, after reviewing the data on the laptop’s screen.

“Once Max shows up,” Kamley replies. “And we need more relics, right?”

“Yeah. They’ve just been fishing up randos like a catch-and-release deal. It sounded like they need the right kind of bait to fish for the big game.”

“Long as we don’t have to do any of that.”


The van drives off, into the night.

Summer relays her findings to Charlotte. The latter considers the matter in silence, while Summer stays busy checking her phone.

Charlotte speaks at last. “They still kidnapped Power Pony. They’ve done worse, but whatever good they think they’re doing for the living and the dead, I can’t allow them to go about it in harmful ways.”

Summer nods, and Charlotte smiles at her. “Besides. I disagree with Ghostheart on one important point. I don’t think it’s right that we just wall off the afterlife either. I’ve spent time closing wounds around the world, and sometimes the past made a great deal of difference. We must learn from the mistakes, and the feelings, of the departed. We must make things right when they couldn’t. We can’t use the land of the dead as our emotional landfill, it’s true, but we can’t simply wall it off, so the smell doesn’t reach us any longer.”

“What’s our next move?” asks Summer.

Charlotte lets out a sigh. “I’m reluctantly compelled to say I do not know. Ghostheart isn’t acting at the moment, and we can’t learn their goals until they do. As for Rook’s motives, well. We may learn something there, but I hold little hope of that bearing fruit. And I wouldn’t ask either you or your sister to face Rook again, even if you wanted to. No. I think this is now between Ghostheart and myself. I’ll tell you what you can do to help, when the time is right.”

Summer nods again, and the pair go their separate ways. But Charlotte continues to wonder. Rosa Rook sought to use the wounds in the world before. Now she seems intent on crossing another similar boundary. But for what?

She knows she’ll find out in the end. But the end may be too late.

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So that’s how we find out about the Ghostheart/Rook connection. What’s ghost fishing, though?