Fritz Friederling’s obsession began months before Cesar Hawke almost punched an incubus to death.
It began with an investigation.
Los Angeles was lousy with private investigators. In a glitzy world of haves and have-nothings, entire industries bloomed around covetousness. Private investigators were rapists looking up skirts for scandal and slipping their fingers where fingers were unwanted. They ripped away the disguises that society’s upper echelons were entitled to wear. They murdered stock portfolios in exchange for pocketing pennies.
Those have-nothing men destroyed men-who-have like Fritz.
Bottom feeders, all of them.
Fritz Friederling was confident his opinion on the profession would never change. And it was true. Fritz never would become fond of the profession.
It was a stale winter day when the report crossed Fritz’s desk. A complaint had been filed with the Office of Preternatural Affairs. A private investigator was using magic in his work, and it fell to the Magic Violations Department to apply regulations.
Regulations, not laws. Because the Office of Preternatural Affairs was a ghost organization. The general public didn’t know that witches walked among them, and Fritz was certain that was for the best. As the MVD’s director, Fritz had seen both victims and perpetrators of magical crime in gory detail. There were things out there that could make even Fritz’s sculpted Germanic features turn green.
This particular case wasn’t in that league; the witch in question hadn’t used his magic to hurt anybody, so there was not yet a crime scene to process, and no specific incident to uncover. Agent Herd offered to look into it while dropping off dry-cleaning in that neighborhood.
Fritz bought a glamor and booked a consultation for himself with Cesar Hawke, Private Investigator.
Mr. Hawke kept an office in a strip mall near the apartment he called home, which Fritz knew because he already knew everything that the law knew about Cesar Hawke. His juvenile record was sealed, but money crossing the right palm got every detail of the petty larcenies unveiled. They were unremarkable. There was no adult record.
Fritz also looked into Cesar’s business for weaknesses. There were none; he kept up on his paperwork and state taxes in a manner Fritz would describe as flawless, were it not for the amount of mustard stains smeared on Cesar’s paperwork. Fritz imagined a witch hunched over self-employment forms eating a hoagie, stacks of photos beside him, a cigar smoldering in an ash tray.
The director also looked for news stories involving Cesar Hawke’s name, such as celebrity exposes, but there were none. In fact, the only time he had ever appeared in newsprint was because a poem he wrote in third grade had been selected for the governor’s award of excellence.
He kept looking in the days before the appointment.
He kept digging.
Every man has skeletons in his closet. The only question is how deep the closet is.
But Fritz dug and dug and dug, and he found no bones.
He disguised himself before arriving at the appointment. As a billionaire heir of the Friederling fortune, there was no such thing as an over abundance of caution. The glamour made him look shorter and browner and unrecognizable as a Friederling.
Cesar was not short. He was over six feet tall and broad to match; his hair was such a smoky black that it looked as if it should have left smudges on his forehead. He had kind eyes. Fritz hadn’t expected those eyes.
The consultation was very short.
“I want to pay you to look into Sadie Hackett,” Fritz said. “She’s the leading lady in a movie I’m producing. I suspected she’s violated the terms of her contract by taking boxing lessons. Our insurance won’t cover it if she’s unable to film for an injury unrelated to work. Catch her boxing and I’ll pay you a five figure fee.”
“All right,” Cesar Hawke had said, “no problem,” and he had left to investigate Sadie Hackett.
This woman was indeed an actress, and was indeed shooting a movie. Fritz had no professional affiliation with Sadie. He’d only slept with her once, after a Golden Globes party. He’d selected her as a test. Her skeletons were buried deep, but she had skeletons aplenty.
It only took a couple of days for Cesar to call Fritz back.
“Sadie Hackett isn’t boxing,” Cesar said. “Mostly I just got a lot of pictures of her with her boyfriend. Seems to be all she’s up to when she’s not on set.”
“Who is she dating?” Fritz asked. He was watching Cesar through a Scrying ball, which showed the man’s visage as if seen through an inch of water. Cesar was looking through photographs at his desk in that strip mall office. There was no hoagie with mustard. There was only a tall glass of some sludgy vegetable smoothie.
“I didn’t investigate who Sadie Hackett is dating.” Cesar was looking at a picture of the actress in flagrante delicto. Sadie’s boyfriend was actually a girlfriend. Given that she was currently starring in a big-budget romantic movie targeted toward Middle America, her status as a lesbian could torpedo the project.
She was a bitch. Fritz wasn’t worried about her. He was worried about Cesar casting a miniaturized circle of power on his desk, surrounding a small alchemical kit.
“I asked you a question,” Fritz said. “Who’s Sadie Hackett dating?”
Cesar picked up another photo, brow crimped as his too-kind eyes tracked over the actress’s face as she leaned in to kiss her girlfriend. He had no idea that Fritz was looking over his shoulder, Scrying the situation, yet he turned the picture over on the desk as if to conceal it.
What did that expression mean? Was he…worried?
“I didn’t investigate Sadie Hackett’s love life,” Cesar said. He dropped the photo into a shredder.
“I’ll see who she’s with when you give me the photos anyway,” Fritz said. “And if you don’t give me the photos, I won’t pay your fee.”
“Of course you won’t, asshole,” Cesar said.
He hung up, tossed the phone to his desk.
Surprised, Fritz called him back. “You heard me say I won’t pay you if you don’t complete the investigation, right?”
Cesar hung up again and continued shredding the rest of the photos he’d taken of Sadie Hackett.
Fritz watched from afar, hands steepled.
There was only one important checkbox on the paperwork about the case for Cesar Hawke. It asked if Fritz thought he presented a threat to society. Checking that box would be enough to get Cesar detained for the rest of his life.
Fritz closed the file on Cesar Hawke officially.
Privately, he continued Scrying sometimes to see if anything happened which would change his mind.
For six months, Fritz Friederling watched Cesar Hawke, looking for a reason to detain him.
Or worse. A reason to hire him.
Cesar Hawke was a dull, wholesome man. He met clients during normal business hours and followed targets in the evenings. When not at work, he seldom left his apartment in the evenings, preferring to read comic books or watch Netflix DVDs. He had a girlfriend for the first few weeks. She stopped calling him, and Cesar, seemingly baffled but unhurt, moved on with his life.
Aside from that, his only socialization was familial. He helped his grandfather haul trash, went to the gym with a brother, and enjoyed regular lunches with a teenaged sister named Ofelia.
Watching them through the Scrying ball was boring, but not exactly a chore. All the Hawkes were well-proportioned people. Only in Los Angeles could such symmetry and quality of appearance go accepted as average. They easily could have been a sitcom family on any major TV network.
See Cesar walk in on his brother having a spousal argument. Hear the audience laugh.
See Cesar investigate a cheating wife. Watch the credits roll.
On Friday nights they made pupusas and Fritz watched unseen from the next position on the counter, as if waiting to remove the sizzling dough from the skillet. The grandfather Cesar called Pops made a joke, and Fritz chuckled, signing off on the arrest of an entire coven of thirteen witches.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he observed Cesar’s exercise routine as a healer repaired Fritz’s shattered fists. The director had gotten into a fight with a werewolf. The werewolf had won the battle, but Fritz’s silver-armed agents had won the war. He’d smiled when the werewolf took a bullet to the brain. Cesar apologized when he took too long occupying equipment at the gym.
On Saturdays, Cesar met Ofelia for lunch, and Fritz nodded along with the conversation, dining upon shark fin caught freshly in Japan while the Hawkes ate Quarter Pounders.
Interest surely would have waned eventually. Fritz was confident of this. He was not obsessed; he was just bored with everything else in his life. Even cocaine-fueled yacht parties featuring big-breasted models got dull after a while. Soon he’d have an assassin on his tail, or he’d be roped into Friederling family drama. Soon he would forget about the Hawkes.
Except that Cesar’s routine suddenly broke.
One Saturday, Ofelia didn’t appear for lunch.
Cesar was left sitting alone on a bench outside McDonald’s, checking his phone with that same worried expression he’d used on Sadie Hackett. Fritz almost reflexively checked his phone too, just to see if Ofelia had canceled on them. Of course she hadn’t.
Fritz was called away to a meeting. He tried to forget the missed lunch. Despite her obvious adoration for her brother, Ofelia was still a teenager. There was no reason to think anything was wrong. And even if something had gone awry, the matters of Cesar Hawke’s life were none of Fritz’s business.
The instant his teleconference ended, Fritz returned to his office to check on Cesar.
The private investigator was following someone. Cesar should have been indoors; a rare hurricane was descending upon Los Angeles, and rain pounded through a crooked car window he couldn’t roll fully shut. His left sleeve was sodden. There was a baseball bat in the passenger’s seat where Ofelia should have sat. The worry shadowing Cesar’s eyes had sparked with anger.
Once Fritz adjusted the Scrying ball’s focus to peer into the car Cesar was following, he understood.
There were four incubi in that car.
They bore the pallid skin and distinctive leather gear of the Silver Needles, which was a gang of incubi living in Los Angeles’s Helltown neighborhood. Human trafficking was the profession and passion of their clan. It didn’t take significant mental math to realize what had happened to a teenage girl who was almost as tall as her brother and almost as pretty.
Fritz shot out of his chair. It tumbled to the carpet, and its upthrust wheel was still spinning by the time Fritz had shouted his first orders to the Magic Violations Department.
Cesar Hawke, amusingly wholesome and dull, was going after demons.
The Office of Preternatural Affairs needed to arrive first.
Yet the same unwitting competence Cesar showed in his tax forms also showed in his stalking methods. He was an expert tail. He turned cunning and ruthless when motivated; there was no indication of his quiet politeness in any of the glimpses Fritz Scried. He drove over curbs. He blew through red lights. He parked, flung open his door, and vaulted over a low fence to slop through muddy sand toward the shore.
Cesar arrived at the storm-tossed beachside hut where Ofelia was imprisoned first.
It took ten minutes for the Office of Preternatural Affairs to follow.
Ten minutes was too late.
Scrying didn’t work when the viewer was at high speeds. For the duration of time that Cesar was in the Silver Needles’s hut, Fritz had no visual on what had happened. He imagined the death as vividly as he had once imagined Cesar eating a hoagie. More vividly. He could guess what those kind eyes would look like once they were impaled upon stilettos.
Fritz’s breath was too loud in the enclosed car. The assisting agents didn’t speak. They clutched sidearms and exchanged looks, afraid to ask why the director was riding along. They thought that they were being audited. Fritz didn’t even know their names.
The driver parked, Fritz flung open his door, and he stepped out to survey the inevitable result.
Except Cesar hadn’t been killed by incubi.
The private investigator was knee-deep in the surf, knuckles bleeding, clothes plastered to his flesh by the waves and slamming rain. There was wildness in his eyes, a beastly hatred.
At the sound of sirens, Cesar woke from the violent reverie.
He looked down at his hands, realizing that they were bloody. He looked at the collapsed skull of the incubus underneath him.
Hatred turned to horror.
He yanked himself out of the sand, making room for OPA staff to move in. He almost fell over, unsteady on the beach.
Fritz was the one who caught him.
“Careful,” Fritz said.
Cesar looked at Fritz with no hint of recognition in his eyes.
Fritz knew this man had celebrated his birthday by buying a hardback edition of Watchmen, his preference for sci-fi TV shows, and how badly he wanted to bench press more weight than his older brother.
Cesar didn’t even know that he’d met Fritz before.
Now they stood together under a pier. The wind was screaming. Kelp clung to the left toe of Fritz’s loafers and Cesar smeared blood on his lapels when he grabbed them for purchase.
“Is he gonna be okay?” Cesar had very perfect teeth and more muscles than most bodybuilders. His eyes were puffy. His hair was limp over his forehead. “Are you guys gonna be able to help him survive?”
He meant the incubus.
“You won’t go to jail for this,” Fritz said.
“But will he be okay?”
Fritz realized, belatedly, that Cesar wasn’t worried about being pinned with a murder charge. He was only worried that a worthless demon was hurt.
The director extended a job offer to Cesar Hawke that same day.