Street Lawyer 5.6

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We watched them wheel Frankie out of the house on a stretcher. Sometime in the past seven minutes, he’d lost consciousness. I’d done all I could in the meantime, but was hard to know if he’d ever wake up again.

Milo lifted Frankie into the ambulance himself, then marched on over to us.

“How does he look?” Marq asked. “Is his heart rate stabilizing-”

He barely got to finish that sentence as Milo decked him in the face, knocking him to the floor.

What did you do to him, Marquis?!”

“Whoa whoa whoa, easy,” I said, stepping in front of him with my knife out. To my relief, Theo backed me up. Milo glared at me with every ounce of hate he could squeeze out of that sour lemon smile of his.

“Out of my way, soldato trash,” he growled. “Know your place or I’ll put you in it.”

“My place is with my boss,” I said firmly. “You’re not my boss. Now take a step back.”

He smiled. No, it was more like an imitation of a smile, wrought from anger and forced through clenched teeth like toothpaste in a tube.

“You have a lot of nerve talking to capo like that. I could have you stripped of your rank if I wanted.”

“Really? Is that what you are?” I replied. “I guess we’ll have to see how long that lasts after Boss Frankie wakes up. If he wakes up. I get the feeling he won’t take too kindly to you almost killing him today.”

That wasn’t me!” Milo roared. “It was Marquis! He… he did something… to the stone!

“Like what?” Marq said, wiping blood off his lip. “I don’t know the first damn thing about how that stone works. Kichirō doesn’t either, so I have a hard time believing you do. Admit it, Milo. You went in half-cocked not knowing what you were doing, and it almost got dad killed.”

“Stop trying to pass the buck!” Milo shouted. “You did something to the stone, admit it!”

“When exactly would I have had a chance to do that?” Marq asked. “You watched us cut it out of a live unicorn and then you took it for yourself. I haven’t seen it since. You just fucked up trying to make daddy love you.”

Milo bit his lip, a thin rivulet of blood forming as his teeth squeaked across the delicate flesh, ripping it open. A drop hit the floor, then two drops. On three, Milo went for his gun.

“Shut up shut up shut up!” Milo screamed, pointing his revolver at Marq and through me. “This is your fault! I didn’t… I couldn’t…

Marq stared at him coldly.

“And you think I would? What reason would I have for killing dad? Me, the supposed ‘favorite’? Why would I go out of my way to shake this family up even more than it already has been with this stupid blood feud? Take some responsibility for yourself, Milo. Whatever happens to dad from hereon out is on you. You made a mistake. Now you have to live with it.”

He brushed the dirt off his coat, ignoring Milo completely.

“Come on Al, let’s go.”

With that, Marq turned his back on Milo even while he still had his gun out, and I guess I followed suit. Wasn’t really sure what else to do.

Milo’s gun hand shook, and he almost pulled the trigger, but Theo knocked it out of his hands before he could, the tip of her throwing knife wedged into the steel of the barrel. Then she waggled her finger at him like a disapproving nanny, a move I found surprisingly sassy for Theo. I liked it. I liked the expression on Milo’s face even more.

We all piled into Marq’s car before things could get any worse, and I turned my head to look out the window at Milo as we pulled out into the street. Even without my powers, I don’t think I would’ve forgotten that face. It looked something like a kneecapped lion or a cornered wolf. Desperate, broken, unrestrained anger with a little fear mixed in, a highly unstable mixture that almost always blew up in your face.

I looked away, trying not to let it worry me. If it really was supposed to be my job to protect my boss, I would’ve told Marq right then. I should’ve told him. We’d just made a very big mistake.

“Al,” Marq said, catching me by surprise.

A moment of quiet passed.

“… Yeah?” I asked, taking his silence as an invitation.

“Does this seem a little convenient to you?”

I thought about how I wanted to respond to that very carefully. “Convenient how?”

Marq sighed. “I mean, Milo won. He had the stone, there was nothing we could do to keep him from using it on our dad and curing his disease. Then dad nearly dies when the stone conveniently starts acting up. Doesn’t that seem a little suspicious to you?”

“What, you think Milo used the stone to try and kill Frankie on purpose?” I asked, confused.

“No, no,” Marq said, waving his hands. “Not like that. You’re approaching this all wrong. Even if it was just a freak accident or a mistake Milo made going in all half-cocked, the most likely outcome of someone mishandling the stone should’ve just been nothing happening at all, not a blood vessel popping in my dad’s brain. And besides that, I can’t see Milo ever trying to kill him to begin with. It’s like I said, what do we have to gain? For someone in Milo’s position it’d be a risky move at best, and career suicide at worse. And Milo’s too much of a daddy’s boy anyway.”

“So what are you suggesting?” I asked. “That he was framed or something?”

“It’s possible, though I don’t see why anyone would do it. Everyone knows Frankie never really liked Milo, so what point would there be in trying to knock him out of the race when he’s already not a threat? You’d have to be pretty low on the waiting list to be less popular with dad than Milo, and frankly we’re running out of brothers and sisters,” Marq said as if it were just simple mathematics. “Besides, why not just kill him if that’s what you want to do? Anyone who can sabotage the stone or Frankie’s medical equipment should already have the resources to do that.”

“Maybe they were worried it wouldn’t work?” I suggested. “It’s not a guarantee that a demon would take a deal to have him assassinated, and hitmen can make mistakes.”

“And this roundabout method is somehow more foolproof?” Marq asked me sarcastically. He sighed. “Look, right now I’m not suggesting anything. All I’m saying is this smells way too much like fish for us to ignore it.”

We parked outside Marq’s office a half an hour later. I looked at Theo as we all piled out, and she cocked her head at me questioningly.

“You should head back home, Theo,” I said. “… Make sure Annie’s doing okay.”

“And you, Master-”

I put my finger on her lips.

“Don’t. Say it. I’ll be home soon. Just gotta take care of some things here at the office.”

She closed her eyes and tipped her head forward in a bow. “Understood.”

“Don’t do that!” I hissed, whipping around to make sure no one was looking. “It’s really embarrassing! Besides, you don’t want to get caught, do you? If anyone finds out you’re a homunculus we could both go to prison!”

“I’m sorry, Master. My apologies,” she said, and bowed again.

God-!” I started, then took a deep breath. “Look, just go. I’ll see you at home.”

Theo nodded. “Please call me immediately if you think you may be in danger.”

“What do you mean? Why would I be-”

But she was already gone. I hadn’t even seen her leave. Damn she’s fast, I thought to myself.

I sighed.

“You know, you really don’t have to be so hard on her,” Marq said. “She’s just trying to do a good job.”

“A little too good if you ask me,” I said. “Makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t want her to feel like she’s still a slave. Makes me feel shitty.”

“Maybe this her way of trying to thank you,” Marq suggested. “You saved her life, so now she figures being the best familiar she can be is the least she can do.”

“Speaking of that,” I said. “What did she mean by ‘call’ her? This telepathy thing, how do I use it? I haven’t had much practice.”

“Oh, that?” Marq said. “That’s easy. Just think about your familiar really hard, then tell them what you want them to do or whatever kind of message you’re trying to send.”

“That? That’s it?” I asked. “Sounds a bit too easy, don’t you think? I mean, a guy has to worry about his privacy now and again. What if I’m uhhh… thinking about Theo but I don’t want to call her? That seems like it could get embarrassing.”

Marq snorted. That got a chuckle out of him.

“Don’t worry. The geas we use for familiars was designed to prevent that from happening. You have to be very deliberate in what you’re doing, otherwise your message won’t go through,” he explained. “It takes a little practice though. Try to train your mind to associate calling her with a very specific set of stimuli. A strong mental image, like a phone ringing. Maybe snapping your fingers to a certain beat or clicking your heels together three times and saying ‘There’s no place like home!’ You’ve gotta make a ritual out of it. That way it doesn’t happen by accident, and you can trigger it whenever you want.”

I tried to think of something that’d make a good trigger. Mental images were out. I didn’t trust my brain enough for that. After all, your brain can be tricked. Doesn’t even take magic to do it. So it had to be something I did physically, or with my voice. Wouldn’t that be inconvenient if I wanted to make a call in secret though? It’d have to be something inconspicuous then.

I frowned, deep in concentration. Damn this was hard!

Master Alfonso?

“Huh?” I said aloud. Was that Theo’s voice? Had I accidentally called her?

What is it that you need?! Theo asked urgently. Are you in danger? I shall head there right away-

No no, Theo, I tried thinking back to her. I’m just trying to get this telepathy thing down. I didn’t mean to call you.

Oh, she said, her voice sounding much calmer. Well that is certainly a relief. Should I…

Yes, go check on Annie. I’ll see you at home.

I paused.

How… do I disconnect?

I could feel Theo’s sigh of exasperation on the other end of the line, then I felt nothing at all. The connection had been cut, presumably on Theo’s end. Well that was embarrassing.

“So what are we here for again?” I asked Marq as he opened the door, trying not to think about my ineptitude as a mage.

“Just wanted to go through our stories and all our information together,” Marq said. “Make sure everything matches up. You will be testifying, right?”

“Hmmm…. I dunno,”’I said, faking uncertainty. “I mean technically I was inebriated, so I don’t know how much of that fight I really witnessed  per se. And when you take the curvature of the Earth and the early morning light into account, I can’t really be sure what I saw…”

Marq raised his eyebrow at me.

“… Of course I’m going to testify, you idiot. Nayeli’s family, no matter what your dad says. She’s loud, annoying, obnoxious family, but she’s still family. And besides, what kind of mafioso would I be if I didn’t look out for my boss or my blood brother?” I said, ribbing him with my elbow. He smiled as he pushed open the doors and nearly bumped smack dab into the lady of the hour herself.

“Nayeli,” he said, surprised. “You’re up… and out of the house. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, ummm… just picking up the apron I left here,” she said sheepishly. “I thought I’d head down to the soup kitchen to help out one last time. You said we still had a few days before the news got out, so, y’know… I figured I’d make the most of them. Do something good.”

“Really?” Marq asked, still bewildered. “You’ve been cooped up for the last couple days. Are you sure you’re ready?”

Nayeli giggled. “Come on boss, I’ll be fine. Really, I will.”

“Ookayyyy…” Marq said, still somewhat disbelieving. “Well, do you want me to drive you there?”

“No, I’ll walk,” she said, heading for the door. “What are you so worried about?”

“Nothing, it’s just…” Marq faltered. “I love you… you know that, right?”

Nayeli smiled warmly, one of the few times I’ve seen her do that.

“Yeah. ‘Course I know that.”

“Well… see you later then, I guess.”

“Yeah. See you later, boss. Take care.”

Marq watched her go. She sounded so sad when she said that. I didn’t think about it too much though. I had problems of my own I needed to talk to Marq about.

“Marq. Hey Marq,” I said, snapping my fingers in front of his face. “We were gonna do our stories or whatever?”

“Right, right,” he said, the trance broken. “Here, let’s just head into my office quick.”

He turned the doorknob. The room was absolutely cluttered with stacks of paper, mostly legal documents. Court transcripts, letters, laws, bills, dossiers, the works.

“Johnny Numani v. the State of Florida, Adler v. the Black Cove Coven, ‘On Demihumans and How to Judge Them’, ‘A Short History of Post-War Law’, ‘Our New Reality’…” I read aloud. “Marq, what is all this shit? I’m feeling a bit behind the grind, here.”

“It’s demihuman defense law, Al,” Marq said. “I’ve been studying it, trying to find something that’ll keep Nayeli out of the hoosegow.”

Marq scowled once he saw his desk.

“Oh what the hell is this? Who moved my papers?! I had these all nice and arranged in a specific order! Now I’m gonna have to redo this whole thing…”

He sat down and started sifting through the mess, shuffling folders and packets of paper around in ways that only made sense to him, I’m sure.

“Hmmm… looks like there’s a letter here,” he said, picking up a folded envelope at the bottom of the pile. “Did I leave this here?”

He pushed a bottle of brandy to the side and cut the letter open with the knife he kept next to his pens. Now seemed like as good a time as any.

I took a deep breath. “Listen, Marq, about we talked about on the train. I was thinking I should-”

But he wasn’t listening. He was just staring, at the piece of old paper he held in his hands. Staring at it like a cyclops. Worst of all, his hands were shaking.

“… Marq?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t say anything. That everything was still going according to plan, like they always did. “What’s wrong?”

He looked up at me, slowly, like someone was cranking a car jack attached to his neck. I’d never seen that look in his eyes before. I’d seen him mad, sad, frightened, worried, anxious, happy. Afraid. But never this. This was true fear. We stared at each other wordlessly, then he bolted for the closet.

“Marq!” I yelled after him.

Nayeli!” he shouted, dropping the piece of paper at the door as he hurried to the stairs. Not thinking twice, I grabbed the paper and followed him through the trapdoor.

“Marq, what’s going on?” I asked him, extremely worried, but he wouldn’t respond. Instead he just skidded out the door on the bottom floor, making a mad dash for the exit. He flung open the front doors wildly and yelled out into the streets at the top of his lungs.

Nayeli! πρώτa αγάπη!” He yelled in Greek. “Isn’t that what you said?! πρώτa αγάπη?”

I held the piece of paper up to see what was written on it. My eyes scanned the chicken-scratch Greek lettering, and suddenly I understood.

“υγεία χαρά…” I read aloud. That meant goodbye.

“προτιμώ εσένα!” Marq trumpeted into the streets, desperate for his pleas to be heard. “προτιμώ εσένα! προτιμώ εσένα…”

He dropped down on his knees, sobbing.

“προτιμώ εσένα…” he croaked. “Please… Nayeli…”

I walked over and put a hand on his shoulder, concerned. He looked up at me, crying.

“She’s gone, Al,” he said, choking through tears. “Nayeli’s gone.”

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Street Lawyer 5.5

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A chill ran up my spine. No, actually it was more like being spooned by Jack Frost. I swallowed a hard lump and took a step forward to cover Theo. Frankie grinned upon seeing me.

“Alfonso Anastasio, associate no more,” he said, addressing me in an almost fatherly way. “Come on over here, let me get a look at you.”

I did as he asked, getting close enough that I could stand over his bedside. He looked me over.

“God you seem different. How many years has it been?”

“Ten, sir,” I said. “At least I think.”

“Shhhshhshh,” he lisped. “I don’t care what you think. I’m just happy to see one of my son’s oldest friends finally joining the family. We never talked much, but the way you two looked out for each other, I’ve always regarded you as one of my sons. You’ve been a good brother to my boy, Alfonso. Now you’re brothers by blood. How does that make you feel?”

I looked at Milo out of the corner of my eye. His sights were set squarely on me. That wasn’t good.

“… Honored, sir.”

“Then tell me,” Frankie asked. “Why did you disrespect me?”

My heart skipped a beat when he said that. I could feel it coming as I broke out into a cold sweat and my mouth dried up like a turd in a litter box.

“I-I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t really understand-”

“You stole from me, Alfonso,” he said, his voice hard like a rock. “You took what wasn’t yours without permission. The homunculus. That’s her right there, right?”

His wandering eyes passed over Theo, and I could see her stiffen up as she tried her hardest not to show what she was feeling. She was shaking, but I felt paralyzed.

“Well? Tell me, boy,” Frankie commanded. “Is it?”

Slowly, I nodded. “Yessir. Her name is Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von-”

“Homunculi don’t have names,” he said dismissively, waving his hand.

“Well… this one does,” I said.

Frankie grunted. “And? What made you think it was okay to steal her from me, when she wasn’t yours to take? I punish thieves very harshly, Alfonso, and traitors even harsher. Why shouldn’t I just kill you, and be done with it?”

Finally Theo couldn’t take it anymore. She flashed her knives which she’d hidden in her dress, and pointed them at Frankie. Milo immediately reached for his gun.

“You may try,” Theo said through grit teeth. That just made Frankie laugh.

“I like her! She has spunk. She would’ve made an excellent little dollie for me to play with,” he said, licking his lips. He turned his attention back to me. “I think I’m beginning to see the full picture here now. Alfonso, you did not enter into a contract with her of your own volition, did you?”

“… No.” Not necessarily, anyway…

“And you didn’t do it to steal from me?”

“No,” I said. “I was… incapacitated. About to be killed. She came to my rescue. Without that contract, I don’t think I would have survived.”

“And if you could go back in time and do it again, this time under different circumstances, would you still have done it?”

Theo looked at me. Did I defend her and say what was really on my mind, or did I say what he wanted to hear so we could all still leave this place in one piece? It felt like no matter what I picked, I would be burning a bridge and betraying my family. Except one of those bridges was built over a deadly fall.

“Well?” Frankie asked, urging me to get on with it.

I gulped. I had to answer honestly. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t. The Allesandris always came first, but the people I shared that tiny tenement with came even before that. As long as I didn’t give him the contract, he could never have Theo, even if I died. Annie would have the life insurance, and Theo to look after her. Everything would be fine if I just died here. That’s what I had to tell myself.

“… Yes,” I said. Frankie’s gaze hardened, while Theo’s looked relieved. “I would have done it exactly the same way. She deserves to be free, sir. She’s earned that.”

“And yet all I see is her calling someone else her master. Someone who isn’t me,” he intoned threateningly.

“With all due respect, sir,” I said. “She chose to be with me. That’s… as close to freedom as she’s ever going to get.”

And it was still wrong. But it was better than whatever Frankie had planned for her.

It was in thinking about that that I made my mistake. Frankie reached into his pillow case and pulled out a revolver, pressing it square against my chest. Theo gasped and drew her knives, panicking, but I held out a hand to tell her to stand down. If she attacked now she might very well kill me herself.

“I’m gonna give you one last chance, Alfonso,” Frankie said with his finger on the trigger. “One last chance to rethink what you just said, and hand her over.”

I gulped. What were my options here? Was Theo fast enough to go for the save? Would I survive a shot to the heart? Unlikely, to both of them.

Did that change what I had to say? Ditto.

“Sorry sir, but my answer’s the same,” I said. “Theo isn’t property we can just pass along, and I’m never going to let her be property ever again.

Frankie and I locked eyes. There was no give and no take between us. Either this ended when he put the gun down, or when I bled out on his lavender fucking carpet.

Frankie’s face twitch. Mine loosened for a second, betraying my surprise. He made a noise like snorting, then after a few agonizing moments of him making confusing noises, broke out into raucous laughter. He lowered the gun.

“That’s great! That’s really great! The balls on you kid; I just cannot believe it!” he said, guffawing. “When they told me you’d been mouthing off to Paulie and Georgie, I thought he was telling me tall tales, but you really do have some, don’t you?”

I laughed nervously.

“Eheh… heh… Ummm… I’m confused,” I said. “Does this mean you’re not going to shoot me?”

“Alfonso, I would’ve shot you if you had given her to me,” Frankie said. “It’s clear to me now how strongly you feel about this, and I have no place in this organization for men with weak convictions. If you couldn’t defend your girl there, how could I ever expect you to defend our family? You gotta have resolve, kid. If I really want a doll like her, I can just find one somewhere else. But I can’t just replace good men that easily.”

My chest lightened, and filled with air. “So does that mean-”

“Yes. In exchange for a forty, fifty… ehhhh… seventy percent increase in your tribute, I will ignore this transgression. Just this once,” Frankie said. “In the name of good faith and family bonds. You have potential, Alfonso. I expect a lot from you. But the next time this happens, you know what I’ll have to do.”

“Yessir,” I said, a growing relief rising in me.

“Good,” he said, waving his hand. “Now go.”

Relief washed over me. Marq and I nodded to each other. It was time to go, before things had a chance to turn pear-shaped. But just as we had turned to leave…

“One moment, father. Aren’t you forgetting about that other thing we discussed?”

“Huh?” Frankie said. “Oh, right right. The cinnamon stone.”

Cintamani stone,” Milo reminded him.

Frankie scowled. “I don’t give a damn what it’s called, just bring it here if you’re so worked up about it.”

Milo beamed and approached him.

“I know it’s not exactly what I promised, but it can do everything the philosopher’s stone can and more,” he said.

“Hmph,” Frankie snorted. “I find that hard to believe. Well, let’s see what you’ve brought me this time, Milo. Maybe this one will actually work.”

Marq and I stood rooted in place, waiting to see what would happen. There was nothing else we could do. Events had long since conspired to take matters out of our own hands, a state of affairs that had for the longest time been known by its proper name “being Fate’s bitch”.

Milo unwrapped the stone after pulling it from an antique wooden box, making an elaborate show out of the whole thing. Frankie looked like he was getting impatient.

Then the stone appeared, the veil concealing it lifted. Its humble, unpolished appearance belied its power, but to someone who didn’t know what that power was, looks could be deceiving indeed.

Frankie huffed. “What’s this?”

Milo looked at him, confused. “It’s the cintamani stone.”

That?” Frankie asked incredulously. “I wouldn’t give a stone like that to a whore! You expect me to believe that’s some kind of great and powerful artifact?”

He narrowed his eyes.

“Milo… you better not be wasting my time again…”

“Of course not, sir!” Milo said, practically pleading. “Here, watch!”

He tapped the stone, causing a tiny light to flare up inside it. It looked like he was about to use it.

“I just have to find the right spell…” Milo said, his eyes glazed over. A few silent minutes passed. Frankie harumphed.

“I knew it. You have no idea what you’re doing.”

“Please, father! Just give me one more moment!” Milo begged. His eyes twitched frantically like he was reading an invisible book.

“There! I found it!” he said. Looking back, I’m pretty sure he was lying. The only question was to who.

The stone started to glow faintly, like there was a candle inside it. Milo pressed the stone to Frankie’s chest. The Allesandri patriarch jumped.

“What the hell do you think you’re-”

The effect was immediate. With a sound like wrapping paper crinkling in reverse, Frankie’s chest started to expand, taking deeper and deeper breaths. Color flushed back into his face, and his weakness went away. Whatever Milo was doing, it was working. I heard Marq click his tongue.

“What… what is this?” Frankie asked, then demanded. “What’s going on?!?”

“I’m using one of the enchantments inside the stone to heal your sickness, father,” Milo said, concentrating. “Please, hold still.”

Frankie took a couple of experimental deep breaths. After he realized he could breathe clearly again, he laughed heartily. It sounded… normal. “Haha… well, Milo, this… this really is something.”

Milo smiled. Miraculously, Frankie rose from his iron tomb and pushed aside the door, setting his feet on solid ground again for the first time in years. He balled his hand up in a fist, testing his grip. It was strong again. New, like a young man’s.

Slowly, he stood, his squat frame juxtaposed against Milo’s tall, lanky body. He looked up at his boy, and smiled.

“Not bad… Not a bad job at all, son! This is wonderful! I feel ten years younger!”

Milo’s eyes brightened. “Th-Th-Thank you very much, sir!”

Frankie put a hand on Milo’s shoulder. “You know, son, I… I have a confession to make. I never thought you’d amount to much. You lacked the imagination to really succeed like your half-brother. Didn’t have an independent thought in your head, is what I thought. But… I misjudged you. And I’m sorry. When I learned what the stone really was, I thought it wasn’t worth pursuing. But you looked at what it could be, saw something I didn’t. And now… now I’m healed! Thanks to you!”

He smiled wryly. It was barely a nudge at the corners of his lips, but it was the most genuine emotion I’d ever seen from him.

“Son, I’m prow of you.”

The mismatch didn’t register at first. We all just thought it was a slip of the tongue. Milo’s smile broke for just a millisecond.

“What did you say, father?”

“I said I’m prow fuf you.”

There it was again. Milo stopped smiling, concerned.

“Father, are you okay? You don’t sound quite right.”

“Wuhya mean? I feelfin… feel fin… feel… fine…

Frankie started to mumble.

“F-Fine. F-F-F-Fuh-Fine. Fiiiiine. Fiiiiaaaace. Face. Face. Face. Face. Face! Muh face!”

The Allesandri capofamiglia, the boss of bosses, started twitching spasmodically, fingers clawing at the left side of his face. He just repeated that same word over and over again, spittle dribbling out of his mouth.

“Fuh-fuh-facee… Fuuuuuh-fuf-faaaaaace… C-can’t…”

He slumped down, back against the iron lung, still twitching. His arms fell uselessly to his side.

“Father, what’s wrong?!” Milo said, shaking him by his shoulders. “What are you trying to say, father? What are you trying to say?!”

I knew.

“Call 911!” I shouted, shoving Milo out of the way. I grabbed Frankie’s twitching shoulders and held him down, doing my best to keep him lying on his side. I loosened his tie. “He’s having a stroke!”

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Street Lawyer 5.4

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You ever remember the feeling you get just before you fall and hit your head or break your arm? The one that normally lasts for just a millisecond before you hit the ground but it feels like an eternity of falling? The lightning flash of fear and uncertainty, not knowing what’s going to happen to you when you finally stop falling or even if you’ll get back up? As it turns out, there are ways you can feel that without the risk of accidentally turning your skull into brain pate, though I wouldn’t recommend it.

I swallowed a hard lump, adjusting my tie for the fifth time since we’d all piled into the car. I’d left my scarf at home that day. Thought maybe it was a bit too ostentatious. Then again, coughing in the presence of Frankie Allesandri could make you feel ostentatious. The man had a way of commanding respect, even from a hospital bed with a tube sticking out of his dickhole. He wouldn’t have climbed his way to the top of the New York scene if he hadn’t.

The three of us, me, Marq and Theo (whose presence Frankie had specifically requested, much to my dismay), had all piled in Marq’s new Rolls-Royce that morning to go see him. The car’s radio was on, but the atmosphere was dead quiet. Stifling really, like someone had just dropped a really eggy fart. Wasn’t me though. I hadn’t passed a solid shit in a week since the train.

“… How’s Nayeli doing?” I asked, staring absentmindedly out the window.

“Fine, given the situation we’re in,” Marq said unhappily. “She’s refused to leave her apartment for the last couple of days, so I’ve had to come by and make sure she eats. Apparently she still feels guilty about all this. She thinks that all she does is cause problems for me and that I’d be better off abandoning her. I tried to tell her I’d never do that, but she wasn’t in much of a mood to listen.”

I nodded, watching the other cars fly by us. “Have they set a court date?”

Marq shook his head. “No. I think the investigation is still ongoing. Otherwise we would’ve gotten a notice or some kind of warrant for arrest. Which is good, since it gives us more time to prepare.”

“Yeah…” I turned to look at Marq. “So, uhhh… we there yet?”

Marq sighed. “No, Al. And would you quit asking? This is the fifth time you’ve asked me that. Don’t you know the way to our house? Look out the damn window.”

I did what he said and stared nervously out the window. It wasn’t the same. Nothing looked the same when you were on death row. You look outside and it’s like seeing everything for the first time. I couldn’t tell if we were sitting on the corner of Park Avenue or at the intersection of Broadway in Little Italy.

I started out just wanting to get this meeting over with so they could decide our fate, but the longer the trip took the more I felt like I didn’t want to arrive. Just like that the ride started to feel like it took seconds, and we’d arrived at the Allesandri family manor faster than you can say “arrivederci”.

We got out. The place was modest, for a mansion at least. Which is to say it was only a home the size of a federal office building rather than an entire city block. The Allesandris preferred their territory historic, which is why they bought the house on Fifth from the Vanderbilts some time in 1926 before the BRC could get their grubby little paws on it. I remember coming here once when I was a teenager. I wasn’t allowed inside of course, but you didn’t have to see what’s in it for it to be impressive. And that’s all that mattered to Frankie Allesandri. That it was big, imposing, and could let people know “I wipe my ass with the kind of money you make” with a single glance.

Before long we found ourselves standing at the entrance, a grand ornate doorway not unlike the one Marq displayed proudly at his office. Guess taste in tacky decor is genetic.

The door knocker stared at us, challenging us to open it. Marq stepped forward, ignoring it entirely, and turned the doorknob slowly and quietly. And you know, I’ve noticed a funny thing about doors over the years, especially doors to places you shouldn’t be. They can smell fear, and they tend to open like the legs of a dame. If it’s a door you’ve been in before and you know you’re supposed to be there, if you’re confident and calm, they open without a single complaint. If it’s a door to a place you’re not supposed to be in, if you’re afraid and you try to force it, then they’re going to make noise like you wouldn’t believe.

The doors squealed and moaned, creaking open with the agonizing slowness of a snail hitting the grass, and we all winced as we heard the sound echo throughout the empty halls. I shivered.

“Are you nervous, Master Alfonso?” Theo asked from over my shoulder.

“S-Stop calling me that,” I reminded her again. “Can’t you feel it? This place is goddamn freezing!”

Theo thought about it. “No, I suppose I can’t. My body temperature is self-regulating.”

“Great,” I said. “Good for you.”

Jesus, I could actually see my breath a little if I squinted.

“I thought it was supposed to be summer, why is it so goddamn cold in here?!” I asked Marq. “I did not dress for this!”

“Al, shut up,” Marq said, his words icy as the air. “We came here for a reason. Don’t forget that.”

“O-Oh. Right…” I said. In the heat of the moment (or lack thereof, rather), I’d almost forgotten about that sinking feeling I’d had all morning. Well here we were. Rock fucking bottom. The end of the line.

I worked the last of the shivers out of my system and stood up straight. I was confident. I was calm. I was cool, and I was collected.

Yeah right.

We made it up the stairs without issue. Milo was waiting for us at the top.

“Oh, so nice of you to join us, Marquis,” he said sardonically as he held the fruits of our labor in his grubby little hands. “Fashionably late as always.”

“How’s father?” Marq asked, cutting straight to business.

“He’s…”

SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU CUNT!”

There was a crashing and a clattering noise down the hall where Frankie’s bedroom was. Someone yelped with a voice like a bleating goat.

“… not in a good mood today,” Milo finished.

Marq snorted. “Is he ever?”

Milo frowned. “No, but I get the feeling he will be, once I show him this.”

The door opened at the end of the hall and a confused-looking cynocephaly in a servant’s uniform stumbled out. Marq stepped forward as the goat-headed man tried to pick himself up.

“Everything okay in there, Zeb?” he asked, holding out his hand. Did… did he know this guy?

“He… he let me go,” the man bleated. “Just like that! He let me go! After I’ve been working at his side for the last thirty-two years!”

“Well, you do kinda have this whole thing going on now,” Marq said, pointing to his face. The cynocephaly clung desperately to Marq’s lapels.

“What am I going to do, Marchese?! This… this is all I’ve got left! I don’t think I can…”

Marq sighed. “Look, Zeb. He’s just having one of his moods. You know how he’s been ever since he became sick. Let me talk to him, I’m sure I can convince him to give you your job back.”

The man’s square little goat eyes shimmered. “R-Really? You’d do that for me?”

Marq smiled. “Of course. You were the family consigliere, remember? You think I’d let him just fire you?”

“Oh! Ohhhhh!!” Zebediah sobbed, hugging Marq’s waist. “Grazie, il mio piccolo Marchese! Grazie! I raised you well! Bless your kind heart!”

“Alright, alright, that’s enough!” Marq said as he smiled awkwardly, trying to force Zebediah off of him. “You’re getting snot all over my new suit, Zeb!”

“O-Oh! That I am… I’m so, so sorry Marchese- I mean Marquis!”

The goatman let go, scuttling back a few feet. He was still on his hands and knees, like he was expecting to be beaten. Marq sighed in pity.

“It’s okay if you call me that, Zeb. I’m not gonna get mad because of some stupid little kid name you used to call me. That gypsy really did a number on you, didn’t she?”

The former consigliere bleated pathetically. “She took it all away from me, Marchese. My wife, my job, the rogue-ish good looks of an elderly Sicilian gentleman… Now what do I have? A goat for a head, and a registry card in my wallet!”

He started crying again. Marq knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t mean like that, Zeb. She didn’t take anything away from you. Nothing except what you let her have.” He sighed. “I’m not gonna lie, what she did to you… it’s not pretty. But the things that make you Zeb, that Sicilian gentleman who raised me and helped keep this family afloat for thirty-two years… those aren’t things that she can take away just by changing your face. You earned those things, and you can take ‘em back, so long as you don’t let this change the way you live your life.”

The goatman sniffled. “I wish it was so easy Marchese, I really do. But the world isn’t kind to demihumans like it is to you. I see that now…”

“Well, I’m working on a fix for that,” Marq said reassuringly as he patted him on the shoulder. “Now go home and get some rest. Think about things a bit. It won’t change anything, but neither will sitting here feeling sorry for yourself, and I know which one I’d rather be doing. You just let me take care of the old man, okay?”

Zeb nodded, then slowly started walking down the steps. I watched him as he went. The drooped shoulders, the slink in his steps… now that was a special kind of sad.

Marq got up, dusting the goat hair off his lapels. Milo sneered at him.

“You always have to play the saint, don’t you brother?”

Marquis glared at him. “I don’t remember asking for your input, Milo.”

“I just thought you’d want to be a little more careful about how you associate yourself with these demihuman types,” he said, looking directly at me and Theo. “You know, after everything that’s happened.”

Milo smiled. Or rather, he found a way to express every synonym for the words “smug” and “asshole” in visual shorthand, and was showing us that. Made me want to punch him. There wasn’t much about Milo that didn’t once you got to know him, and by that I mean spend more than five minutes with the guy.

What’s happened is none of your business.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find that it’s quite my business. And after today, Father will realize-”

There was a sharp crack of a wheezing cough in the room just down the hall, where Frankie was supposed to be.

“Is that you, Marquis?”

Milo frowned at that, I noticed. “Yes, father, he is here. Shall I send him in alone, or do you wish to speak with us both?”

“… Enter,” he wheezed, more of a command than a welcome. I guess that meant all of us.

I followed behind Marq. It had been years since I’d last met the old man. Though I guess now he was the boss of my boss. The one and only Allesandri capofamiglia. The first time we met I was in awe of him. This time, I was scared shitless of him.

He’s just an old man, I reminded myself. A sick, dying old man. You could take him out if you really wanted. What’s there to be so scared of?

But those were empty assurances. I didn’t fear the man. I feared what he represented. What he stood for. This was the guy who built the Allesandris from the ground up. A criminal empire that stretched across the sea and into twelve states and more than fifty major cities. He had more money and connections than even big-shot politicians and Wall Street bankers, and he could have just about whatever he wanted. Drugs, dames, magic spells and artifacts, you name it. Excepting just two, there wasn’t a man in the world he couldn’t buy out or buy from, and the ones he couldn’t were even scarier than he was.

They say that in this world, money is power. If that was the case, Frankie Allesandri may very well have been one of the most powerful men in it, hospital bed or not.

“Remember, Theo,” I whispered. “Head down, hands where he can see them, and don’t say a word.

Milo opened the door, and that’s when we all saw him. He looked worse than I’d thought. His giant antique bed of which he used to brag was no more. Instead, he lay under its canopy inside an iron lung, hooked up to an IV with an oxygen mask wrapped around his face. He was wearing his formal clothes, and it made the iron lung look like his coffin, and him a walking, talking corpse.

Marq took a step forward. “Hello… father.”

Frankie chuckled. Or maybe he was just quietly coughing up a lung. He tried reaching out of the metal tube with both arms to offer a hug, but could only make it part way. Marq walked over to him instead, and they embraced, just like any other father and son.

“Marquis, my boy! How long has it been since you’ve paid your dear papà a visit? I’ve missed you so much. To come see your only father for a few minutes every couple of days just to deliver medicine… it’s too cruel.”

“No, what’s too cruel is kicking poor Zeb out on the streets again,” Marq said, taking a step back. “Besides, I’ve been busy with work.”

“So I hear. From the sound of things, your brother has been having you do his dirty work,” Frankie said, glancing at Milo. “And Zeb can take care of his own damn self. What happens to him is not my problem, capisce?

Marq sighed. “You already demoted him from consigliere to a lowly manservant, do you really have to fire him? It’s not his fault he got cursed by a gypsy.”

“Yes it is!” Frankie retorted. “Why do you think the gypsy cursed him?”

Marq sighed. “Father, just give him back his job. You know you can’t run this family all by yourself.”

Frankie was quiet.

“… Feh. Enough about Zeb,” he said, changing the subject. “He’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. I wish our meeting today could be under happier circumstances Marquis, but… you know what has to be done.”

Marq’s expression flipped upside down. This wasn’t a happy family visit anymore. Now we were gonna start our march down the green mile.

Frankie continued. “You made a mistake out there, and it’s going to cost us dearly. This will bring undue attention to us, and to our… operations. Now that we’re in the spotlight, the police won’t be so willing to look the other way, and we’ll have lost the support of many of our most loyal allies and friends, the Four Beasts included.”

Frankie sighed. “No… I made a mistake. I should have never let you bring that demigoddess into our house. I knew she would bring nothing but trouble.”

“Father,” Marq tried to argue. “That may be so, but you can’t deny she’s helped bring in a lot of money for the family-”

“Which was almost immediately spent covering for her in court every time she destroyed something. Or someone.” Frankie sighed. “Listen, my child. You know I cannot ignore this. If it was anyone else, you know I would have already cut out their eyes and tongues and laid them to rest at the bottom of the river. Do you know how lucky you are, Marquis? That I am your father and you are my son?

“… The punishment is this. Whatever happens as a result of her actions, you will have to deal with it by yourself. The family isn’t going to waste its resources backing you on this one, Marquis. We will have no part of it. As of this moment, she is no longer an associate of the Allesandris. If I see her in this house again, I’ll turn her in to the authorities myself.”

Marq knew better than to argue. Once Frankie Allesandri said something, it was final. Milo didn’t seem to agree.

“Father, what are you doing?! You’re being too easy on him! This punishment is far too lenient, even for family! He should be stripped of his position and rank, at least!”

“Quiet!” Frankie hissed at Milo. “If I’m going to punish him as a capo and not as my son, then the blame should be shared equally with the one who sent him on that suicide mission, and practically declared war with the yakuza when I told you to settle it cleanly! None of this would have happened if you’d just done it your damn self, so shut your mouth! You’re just lucky the yakuza disowned them.”

Milo backed off immediately, looking a lot like a kicked puppy. So his relationship with daddy was his weakness, huh? Isn’t that a cruel twist of fate. The eldest son, tossed aside for the bastard. No wonder he had a complex.

“Speaking of the Yamadas…” Marq started.

“We won’t be offering them shelter, but we also won’t be handing them over to their friends. You chose to spare them, I presume because they now owe us a debt. As before, the responsibility lies with you. I expect better of you in the future, Marquis. Now then. On to our next order of business,” he said, turning his gaze towards Theo. “Is this her?”

He licked his lips.

Previous || Next

Bonus Interlude (Sylvester)

Previous || Next

No rain fell at the funeral procession that day. Full cloud cover, no sun, but still no rain. Romeo carried an umbrella, even though his suit remained bone dry. When he’d heard the forecast for today, he’d thought it apropos. That even God was crying for Sylvester. But as the ceremony progressed and nobody showed up to grieve, the doors to heaven remained shut, the sky black but unwilling to shed a single tear. It seemed as though God had truly forsaken them this day, when neither the light and the warmth of heaven nor the tears of their Lord Jesus Christ found their way to Sylvester’s tomb.

“We gather here to commend our brother… Sylvester, to God our Father, and to commit his body to the earth,” the priest rambled disinterestedly as the coffin was lowered into the hole, closed and unseen even by the few in attendance. Sylvester’s death had not been a pleasant one, and while his only remaining family consisted of distant relatives, in attendance more out of obligation than genuine mourning, Romeo knew they wouldn’t want to see him so carved up and mutilated.

The chains being used to hoist the body into the ground groaned, rusted from disuse and put under strain by the cold and unfavorable weather. For a second the coffin jerked, catching everyone’s attention, but it was quickly steadied again. The priest continued. “In the spirit of faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, let us raise our voices in song and offer our prayers for Sylvester.”

Romeo quickly made the sign of the cross, offering his prayers in silence.

“I had a feeling I’d find you here.”

The hulking giant Felix, the second of Romeo Vitali’s bodyguards and right-hand men (now singular), put a hand on the young Vitali’s shoulder.

“We read in sacred scripture, ‘This is the will of the one who sent me, says the Lord, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.”

“I’m the capofamiglia of the Vitalis,” Romeo said. “It just… felt like I should be here, at a time like this… you know how it is.”

There was another sudden jerk as the chains went slack, dropping one half of the coffin closer to the grave than the other. Attendants rushed to grab the chains, pulling on them to prevent it from falling any further.

Felix faltered as people grunted trying to hold the chains. “Well it’s a good thing you are I guess. I know no one else would’ve showed up if you hadn’t. Man wasn’t exactly a people-person. Always going on about the killin’ ‘n shit, forgettin’ the mission… made me sick. You can say what you want, but that man was a zealot in all the wrong ways.”

“Yeah, but…” Romeo said, stuttering and trying to maintain his composure. “He was always kind to me. You both were. You’ve been with me ever since my father… and you’ve taken care of me. You’ve been like the family I never had.”

“Boss Romeo…” Felix said.

“I mean, I know he wasn’t the best of men, but he respected my father, and he respected his mission, even if he didn’t understand it the way we do. He was always… he always did good by our family. And isn’t that enough?! I mean, for him to die like this…”

Tears fell down Romeo’s face.

“I don’t know what to do, Felix. I just don’t know what to do. We’ve lost our support from Paulie. Our recruitment’s down. Some of our best men have just been killed. And now this? If I were to lose you too… it’d be like I was losing my father all over again. I don’t think I can take that…”

The young capofamiglia buried his face in the chest of the only true family he had left. His face concealed, he wept without constraint, sobbing uncontrollably.

“Crying like this… I’m so pathetic. Father in heaven must be so ashamed of me right now…”

“It wasn’t your fault, Boss Romeo.” Felix’s voice thundered through his chest.

“Yes it was! I was the one who ordered the strike!” he sobbed as though it was an admission of guilt. “I thought… I thought we could make up some lost ground after we failed to stop the Marquis from gaining control of that homunculus, but…”

“But you failed,” Felix said gently. “We all do. In the face of the almighty we are all judged, and we are all found wanting. You, me… the Marquis too. You have nothing to feel ashamed about, Boss Romeo. You did what you thought was right.”

Romeo sniffed, then gently pushed Felix away as he cleared his eyes of the tears.

“You’re right… of course you are. No one is perfect-”

“Except the Lord, our God,” Felix reiterated.

“-but when other men are found wanting, only they suffer. When I am found wanting-”

“Others suffer for you,” Felix said again.

Romeo glared at him halfheartedly. “Stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop finishing my sentences! Stop trying to make me feel better! I don’t deserve it!”

“Why not?”

“Because…”

“Because?” Felix said, raising an eyebrow.

Romeo looked up into Felix’s eyes. “Because of me, now we are less.”

“Boss Romeo…” Felix said. The giant man knelt so he could give his young friend a hug in his massive arms, enveloping him in his warmth so he could shield him from the harshness of the world. Romeo’s eyes widened as Felix slowly ruffled his hair.

“We were less when your father died. We were less when the faith fell, we were less when this world became twisted with evil and rife with blasphemous magic. We are not less because of you, no matter how many men we lose. Now, because of you, we are more. Because you give us strength. Direction. Leadership. And faith in our cause. Even when we all gave up on your father’s dream for a better world, you never did. It is because of you we are even here at all.”

“Felix…” Romeo whispered before frowning and shaking his head. “No, you don’t-”

“You’ve accomplished a whole hell of a lot as capofamiglia, Boss Romeo. Things you should learn to value more. But you’re still young. No one expects you to be as good a leader as your father. But you will be. One day. So keep that chin up, and stop judging yourself for every damn little mistake. That shit? That’s the Lord’s work. Be free of it. And if you can’t, let me worry about it instead. I worked for your father. I know what makes a good leader, and you’re it. I don’t give a shit fucking good godda-”

“Hey! Language,” Romeo said, reprimanding him. Felix cleared his throat.

“Sorry, boss. I almost took the good Lord’s name in vain.”

Romeo smiled. “You… always did have a way with words, Felix. Thank you.”

Felix released him, returning to his full height. He’d done his duty. Romeo’s heart had been steeled again, freed of doubt. Until the next challenge, anyway. But one day he’d learn to walk on his own. Until then…

“We can only press forward,” Felix said, handing Romeo a manilla folder.

“What’s this?” Romeo asked, accepting the brown package.

“It’s the completed mission dossier. I know you always like to study them. See what you did right.”

“What I did wrong,” Romeo corrected.

“What you did right,” Felix insisted.

Romeo opened the folder, adjusting his umbrella so it covered the creased, weary paper. Even now he still held out hope that it would rain.

“What are you looking for?” Felix asked.

“The eyewitness reports of the attack. I wanna know who killed our men, and how they did it.”

“Uhhhh…” Felix droned, casting a glance at Sylvester’s coffin. “I think it’s pretty obvious how Sylvester died, boss.”

Romeo ignored him. Felix and Sylvester had never gotten along, but he knew he didn’t mean it. You didn’t say that kind of stuff about family if you really meant it.

“Reports say he was killed by…”

Romeo leafed through the portfolio, his eyes darkening.

“… a white-haired girl. With rabbit ears, who was wearing a red dress.”

He handed the folder to Felix, who growled like a coal-burning engine. “That bitch…

“Felix…” Romeo said. “This means Sylvester was killed by…”

“By the homunculus,” Felix growled, crushing the manilla folder in his clenched fist. “I knew we were right! He meant to use it as a weapon all along! That pagan blasphemy against God and nature! Shit!”

Felix threw the folder to the ground, and a wrinkled photo fluttered out. Romeo leaned over and picked it up.

“No, Felix… that’s not it. There’s another photo in here.”

Romeo squinted, stretching the picture out. The young, boyish face pictured in the photo seemed familiar.

Black hair… brown eyes… a white suit and a red scarf…

Romeo’s eyes widened. He remembered. The young man in the picture was wearing newer, nicer clothes, but he hadn’t forgotten his face. Romeo flipped through the folder in a hurry, trying to find the page the photo had been clipped to. Finally he stopped in the middle, his fingers trembling.

“Felix… it’s him.”

“Hm? Who?” Felix said.

“That medium that works for the Marquis,” Romeo said, his voice wavering. “Sylvester wasn’t killed by the homunculus. He was killed by this man. Alfonso Anastasio.”

Felix looked confused. He was a brilliant man, an excellent hunter, and a well-read gentleman (though he sometimes had a foul mouth). Most importantly, his faith was a rock. But because he was a zealot, because he hated magic more than any of them, even Romeo, things like this escaped him. He didn’t have a concept of knowing your enemy the way Romeo did. So Romeo explained it to him.

“A homunculus is a tool, Felix. It’s a machine created in the image of man to serve man. It doesn’t have a mind, a soul, or free will. It’s just supposed to do what its master tells it to do.”

His bodyguard’s eyes widened.

“Do you understand now, Felix? A homunculus can’t kill the same way a gun with no hand can’t kill. Someone needs to pull the trigger. And that person is the killer.”

The funeral rites had come to a close, and the ground swallowed Sylvester, its white tombstones closing around his coffin like teeth. Now that the body had been laid into the earth, it was time for it to be buried. Shovelfuls of dirt were piled on top of it, each slowly erasing the memory of the man that had once been as the vicious circle of life came to its end, curling back up and eating its own tail. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Felix’s stare hardened beneath the spectacles perched atop his bald head. “And by that person you mean…”

“Yeah…” Romeo said.

His fists clenched, he stood completely still as it finally started to rain. And although God Himself had finally found tears to shed, Romeo found that now the moment had come to cry, his tears had been all but dried up. Now, as the last shovelfuls of dirt were hurriedly dumped on Sylvester’s tomb and the attendants scattered to escape the rain, there was only one thing left for him to do. Only one thing left for him to say.

“I don’t care what we have to do. We’re going to defeat the Marquis,” he said solemnly. “And then we’re going to take Alfonso Anastasio, and make him watch as I take away everything from him that he holds dear. Sylvester’s killer will not go unpunished. By the name of the Vitalis, this I swear.”

Felix grinned. This was what he’d been waiting for.

“What do you want me to do, Boss Romeo? To where shall the Lord’s fury be directed?”

Romeo turned to face Felix, who was now kneeling before him as a sign of his fealty. With a strong voice, he commanded, “Gather a group of men to investigate him. Follow his every movement. I want to know where he lives, where he eats, where sleeps. I want to know where he goes most often and when. I want to know everything about him. Anything that could be considered a weakness.”

Romeo’s car, a 1930 Delage D6, rolled up outside the cemetery gates, his chauffeurs rushing to get their capofamiglia out of the rain. As Romeo started walking towards the car, Felix asked him one last question.

“And the Marquis?” he questioned expectantly.

“If this report has reached us he’ll be returning soon, and he’s bringing Hell with him.” Romeo smiled, his expression innocent the same way a child’s is. “Let’s see that we do what we can to push him into it.”

Previous || Next

Street Lawyer 5.3

Previous || Next

I laughed. “Oh my god. Cavvy? That’s seriously you?”

He smiled at me wearily. “Who else would I be? It’s Detective now, by the way. Special Detective Dante Salvo.”

“Psh,” I wave him away. “Who gives a fuck? You’ll always be Cavvy to me.”

Cavvy smirked. “Careful now, citizen. I could arrest you if I wanted. Contempt of cop.”

I snorted. “Like you’d ever do it. You’re way too stiff and straight-laced to ever be the crooked type.”

“I don’t know,” he said only semi-seriously. “They say the city gets to everyone eventually.”

Some of us faster than others, I couldn’t help but think. I know I shouldn’t have been happy. I know I should’ve realized how much trouble this’d get me in down the line. Meeting your best friend again after fourteen years, except now you’re on opposite sides of the law. It was like a bad joke. No, maybe that’s what I wanted to think it was. And the punchline would be me winning Cavvy over to our side, or him revealing he was already a dirty cop. Or maybe he would’ve won me over, and straightened me out. Made me give up this life of crime. The answers are never that easy, though.

But the thought of that never crossed my mind. I was just happy to see my family again.

“Come ‘ere, you!” I said, pulling him into a hug and kissing him on both cheeks.

“Uhhhh..” Officer Thompson finally interrupted. “You two… know each other?”

Sostene didn’t say anything, but you could tell he was thinking the same. I let Cavvy go.

“We were friends when we were kids,” I explained. “We used to play together, eat together. Practically grew up together. Annie used to have a huge crush on him.”

“Annie?” Cavvy asked, looking confused.

“Yeah, Annie. You know, my sister Annie?” I said disbelieving. “I know you hardly ever saw her because she was always too embarrassed to talk to you, but come on! You gotta remember Annie.”

He didn’t respond for a second, but then his eyes lit up. “Oh! Little Anastasia! I can’t believe I almost forgot about her!”

He faked smacking himself on the head. I grinned.

“You sure you’re not going senile there, Cavvy ol’ boy?”

“Why do you keep calling him that?” Sostene asked.

I turned to look at Sostene. “It was our nickname for him back in the old country. Short for cavaliere, ‘cuz whenever someone was in trouble he’d always try to rush in like he thought he was the cavalry, stickin’ his nose in everyone’s business. Guess he thought he was gonna be just like daddy one day~”

Cavvy coughed. “In case you haven’t noticed, I do have my pin now.

“Wait, doesn’t ‘cavaliere’ mean ‘knight’?” Thompson asked. “What’s that about?”

“Wait, you seriously don’t know?” I asked. “He didn’t tell you?”

Cavvy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh here we go…”

“He never used to shut up about it,” I said, continuing. “See that pin on his chest? The motto, Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum? That’s the insignia of the Knights of Malta. His family’s been in the order for generations. It means-”

“In defence of the faith and assistance to the poor,” Cavvy said, sighing. I grinned ear to ear.

“Of course they’re really nothing more than a glorified humanitarian organization nowadays,” I said. “They barely have enough soldiers – excuse me, knights – left to fill three brigades. Can you believe that when we were kids he always used to think that he was gonna grow up and ride around on a horse slaying dragons and rescuing princesses?”

Cavvy grasped my shoulder firmly. He looked mad.

“The Sovereign Military Order of Malta still does more good for the world than you ever will,” he said defensively. “What do you even do, Al? What kind of job do you have?”

“Uhhhhhh…” I said, trying to think of some convincing lie. I couldn’t tell him I worked at the hospital. Cavvy was a cop now, he’d see through that one right away if he ever bothered looking. But what else could I say that wouldn’t make me look like a bum or guilty?

Thank Zeus and Lycaon for Officer Thompson, because if it wasn’t for those ears of his I think that conversation would’ve ended right then and there. Instead, his fluffy little tiger ears perked up and he hollered, “Time’s up, you two! Coffee’s on.”

Saying no more, he headed inside. We all looked at each other.

“Don’t look at me,” I said. “I just got invited here.”

Apparently Cavvy didn’t really want to know what I did for work that badly, because all he did was shrug and head inside the station. I sighed with relief.

“Y’know, I’m reminded of something the boss said once,” Sostene said as he watched Dante walk away.

“Yeah? What’s that?” I ask.

“Don’t shit where you eat, Al,” Sostene said, patting me on the back before he walked in too.

I slammed the cruiser’s passenger side door as Sostene and I crawled into the back of the car, careful not to upset the burning cup of coffee I now held in my hands. I blew on it and accidentally splattered some on the back of Thompson’s headrest, making him flinch. He looked at me.

“Don’t you spill that lava in my car. It ain’t my fault you poured from his pot,” he said, pointing at Cavvy.

I took a sip, and almost immediately spat it out as soon as it touched my tongue, spraying hot coffee all over Officer Thompson. He yowled, hissing and pawing at his face.

“The fuck’d you do to this coffee, Cavvy?” I asked, reaching for a cream-filled donut to soothe my tongue. I took a bite. “Heat it with a goddamn blowtorch?”

“I like my coffee like I like my women,” he said as I groaned at his stupid cop joke. “Hot, sweet, and-”

“-all over your pants?” I said, finishing for him. “Because that’s where I’m about to pour this shit. This is too damn hot.”

“Yeah well, some of us like something that’ll keep us awake when we’re on the job.”

“Yeah, and burn your tongue clean off,” I muttered. “As for me, I like my women to give me a little kick in the ass.”

I nodded as I reached into my jacket. Here’s looking at you, Theo. I unscrewed the top off my flask, then remembered I was in the back of a police car.

“You uh… you mind?” I asked Cavvie. He glared at me.

Yes I mind,” he said sternly, snatching away my hootch.

“Hey!”

“This is against the law, Al,” he reminded me. “Where did you even get this?”

“Company function,” I said, lying through my teeth.

“Figures. Those Wall Street fatcats think they can just bend the law…” he said, muttering. “I’m confiscating this. Be grateful I’m not going to fine you for it.”

“Alright, Officer Killjoy,” I said, grumbling. I kicked back with my donut, waiting for the coffee to cool. Thompson finished wiping his face with the napkin from the bakery box and turned on the radio.

“-still reeling from the shock of this cataclysmic event. Initial reports place current estimates at nearly 800,000 dead and over 150 million injured in the state of Arizona and various shock points around the world, making this the most devastating natural or magical disaster of the last sixteen years. The tremors are said to have been worldwide-”

“Jesus, can you believe this shit?” Officer Thompson said about the radio. “The entire damn state is gone. Whoever did this shit, I hope someone hangs them with their own fucking guts.”

I chewed a little slower, trying not to let it show. Of course he didn’t know. And we couldn’t tell him here. That it was Nayeli. That we were there when it happened.

“Amen to that,” Cavvy said, sipping his coffee. “See, this is why we need stricter demihuman regulation laws if we want justice for-”

“Whoawhoawhoawhoawhoa,” Thompson said. “Stop right there. Guys like me and Sostene ain’t got nothing to do with this shit.”

“So? Can you honestly tell me that you don’t think the world would be safer if people who could do stuff like this weren’t behind bars? Or at least back in the forests or Mt. Olympus where they belong.”

“How do you even know it was a demihuman, huh?” Thompson said angrily. “Maybe it was just a bunch of humans messing around with magic they shouldn’t have.”

Humans couldn’t do something like this,” Cavvy said. “Not without help. It’d take decades to build a ritual big enough to do this, and you’d need to have more money and manpower than all the five families put together.”

“So what, you’d just have us all thrown in prison, is that it?”

“No!” Cavvy said. “But I would make sure the people who were capable of doing stuff like this weren’t allowed to live in places where they could hurt innocent people! I’d make the gods take them back!”

“So yeah, you’re just gonna throw us all in prison, put us in camps! Just like the Spanish!”

“Yeah, that’s seriously not kosher,” Sostene said, talking for the first time.

Cavvy put his arm around the headrest and looked back at me. “Al, back me up here.”

I threw my hands up. “Hey, don’t look at me to back up your crazy ‘build a wall’ plan. I’m a demihuman too.”

“What?” Dante said, acting surprised. “No way!”

I pulled out my card. “Read it and weep. Only… don’t use it as an excuse to have me picked up. My powers aren’t really the type that’d protect me from inside a jail cell.”

I joked, but the threat was all too real. Discrimination against demihumans for… accidents like the ones that seem to follow us around lately accounted for more than fifty to sixty percent of arrests these days. Sometimes it was warranted. Sometimes it was because a cop just needed a target no one would defend.

But not Cavvy, I thought. If he’s anything, it’s so hung up on the rules that he’d never be unfair to anyone.

Cavvy stared at my card. “You’re… a medium, huh? With the power of memory recall. Funny, I could’ve sworn I was gonna look at that card and see vampire. That’s how most of the cases go. When someone who didn’t use to be demihuman turns out to be one, I mean.”

He cast a suspecting eye at Sostene. I raised my eyebrow. Well, maybe not. The city does get to everyone eventually.

“See?” Cavvy said to Thompson. “That’s what a responsible demihuman citizen looks like. He carries his card with him.”

“Oh give it a rest!” Thompson snarled. “I’m a cop! The way I see it, I should get to enjoy certain privileges.”

He folded his arms, pouting. Good. He had the good sense not to say anything about me or Sostene-

“Besides,” he said, pointing at us. “If you only knew what these two chuckleheads get up to when you’re not looking-”

Sostene and I both jumped to shut him up, shoving donuts at his open mouth.

“What’s he talking about?” Cavvy asked.

“Nothing, nothing! It’s nothing!” I said, hoping Bobbie would take the fucking hint. Just a few… rowdy nights out, that’s all. Bobby already cleaned us up, we paid our dues. Isn’t that right, Bobbie?”

Cavvy looked at us funny, then grumbled and folded his arms. “Well, whatever. But you agree with me right? We gotta do something. Maybe a less extreme solution exists, but we can’t just allow maniacs who do stuff like this to keep roaming free!”

“Well… maybe they don’t mean to do it,” I said without thinking. Immediately, I knew I had made a mistake.

“So?”

“So… maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge,” I said. “Maybe we should cut them some slack. They’re not trying to hurt anyone, right?”

I didn’t get it. Why was I defending her? I couldn’t even say for sure if she was really sorry for what she’d done. But something about the whole situation just felt-

“Unfair.”

“Huh?”

“That’s unfair, Alfonso,” Cavvy said. “How do you think the victims of that attack would feel if you told them that? That the one who killed them all, cut their long lives short and ripped their family members away from them, shouldn’t be punished just because they’re ‘sorry’? Because ‘they didn’t mean to’? What if it was you and Annie who’d been in that attack? Would you have forgiven them?”

I bit my tongue. We were in that attack, I wanted to say. But I couldn’t let him know that.

“Why do you think manslaughter is a criminal offense, Al? What you meant to do or the mistakes you might have made are irrelevant. All that matters is the result. The law must treat everyone equally.”

Cavvy sat back in his seat, folding his arms. “This is why demihumans are dangerous. It’s this very line of thinking. That just because someone didn’t mean to do it means we should forgive the crime or alter the punishment. They present too great a threat for unintentional, uncontrolled violence to be allowed to just walk around without any regulations.”

“But we have regulations!” I shot back.

“Then we need better ones!” Cavvy snapped. “Do you know how many people I’ve seen get hurt because of magic and demihumans since I’ve started this job, Al? Since I arrived in this city? I’ve had to clean up more bodies than anyone should ever have to, me and Bobbie both. You think this is unfair? Ask him what he knows about demihumans in this city.”

“Alright Bobbie,” I said. “Waddya got to say about that?”

I sat back, confident that Thompson would back me up here. He and Sostene both. Nayeli was a pain, but she was still a part of the family as far as I was concerned.

But they were quiet. Both of them. Even Sostene, who I was sure I could count on to defend one of our own.

“Hey, come on,” I said, slightly less confident. “You… don’t actually agree with what he’s saying, do you Bobbie?”

Thompson sighed. “I won’t say if I agree with him or not. But…”

“But he’s got a point,” Sostene said. “And we both know it. Bobbie, you’ve got your harnesses all fixed up for you and your little girl, right? Full moon’s coming soon.”

Officer Thompson lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, breathing out a cloud of rough smoke.

“Yeah. Had to adjust little Mary’s this year. She’s been growing so much. You want me to fix up yours too?”

“Please,” Sostene nodded, taking a cigarette from Thompson. “Maybe you can make it a little tighter this month?”

“Hold on, hold on,” I said. “Slow down. What do you mean ‘harnesses’? What are you talking about?”

“Protection, Al,” Sostene said, fruitlessly spinning the ignition wheel of his lighter. “For us and everyone else.”

I looked to Officer Thompson to explain. He sighed.

“Look, kid, you’re a medium, and one with a pretty harmless power to boot. Do you have any idea how lucky that makes you?” Thompson said. “You can take a walk down the street and nobody’ll know what you are. Nobody can finger you in a case you had nothing to do with it and say, ‘I’m sure it was him! That freak killed my husband!’ just because you got the same claws or the same fangs or the same magic as some other bozo. People don’t like you, but they’ll never be able to blame you. The rest of us aren’t so lucky.

“Those harnesses me and Sostene were talking about? They’re for lunar madness. Guys like me and my little girl who are a little furrier than the rest of you, we get a little stir-crazy around the full moon. If we don’t straitjacket ourselves, people might get hurt.” Officer Thompson smudged the butt of his cigarette against his palm, wincing. “You were right about one thing. We can’t help it. But we can take responsibility for our actions. If we say we don’t want to hurt nobody, we damn well better act like it, something this mook has clearly never heard of doing.”

“You see? Prohibition exists for a reason, Al. It’s the only reason we haven’t ended up like Africa yet, or worse, Australia.”

I bit my tongue. It’s not like that, I wanted to say. It’s not the same. We tried, we did everything we could to minimize the damage. But I couldn’t rightly say that. Not without admitting to being there.

“What if they were fighting someone else who kept pushing them to the limit?” I said. “What if things just escalated really quickly?”

Cavvy raised a suspicious eyebrow. “That’s… an awfully specific scenario you’ve concocted there. Mind telling me exactly how you came to that conclusion?”

I froze, stuck to my seat like glue. It was like waking sleep paralysis. Oh crap. Oh crap oh crap oh crap.

“Well…” I started without knowing where I was going with this. My pupils dashed around the car frantically, looking for a point to latch on to.

The radio.

I gulped. “… the thing is, it’s like feedback.”

“Feedback?”

“Yeah, like in an electrical circuit. You couple part of the output signal into the input circuit and it amplifies the output. It feeds into itself. A feedback loop. So in this case, if this mage or demihuman was fighting another mage or demihuman, or maybe even some kind of monster, we can model the input as aggression from party A to party B. The output would then be turned into violence, which would circle back and amplify aggression. When the next circuit or attack is complete, aggression is higher, so violence becomes higher, for both of them. They just keep feeding into each other until one of them breaks and the circuit is disrupted.”

Cavvy considered this. “Interesting… but it still doesn’t explain why you’re assuming this was a fight at all. Why couldn’t it just be some random act of terrorism? In fact, that’s what this person should be labeled. A terrorist.”

Sostene ribbed me, hard. This was my cue to stop. But for some reason I didn’t want to. I wanted to see this through. Allesandris look out for their own.

“So Al? What’s your explanation?” Cavvy interrogated me.

“… Self-interest.”

“Hm?”

“Humans and demihumans act based on self-interest. Anything we do, we do because we expect that it will benefit us somehow, either in the immediate future or the far-off one. What would anyone stand to gain from this? There’s been no statements or admissions of guilt from the perpetrator, so this isn’t an act of terrorism meant to further some agenda, and as far as we know, there was nothing at the bottom of that crater worth having. Just magma. So if a demihuman was involved, it had to be a fight.”

Sostene ribbed me again, even harder.

“What?!” I hissed, still pretty pissed off that he didn’t have my back here. He tapped the face of his wristwatch. I checked mine, and remembered the feeling I’d just experienced trying to explain myself to Cavvy.

Oh crap.

I swung open the door, dinging it on a lamp post.

“Hey!” Thompson shouted.

“Sorry fellas but I gotta beat it! I’ve got an appointment I gotta keep!”

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Street Lawyer 5.2

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Fifteen hours later, Milo arrived back in New York. After freshening up, he made plans to visit a certain restaurant again. Alone this time.

Milo pushed open the front doors, disturbing with the toll of the bell a silence so poetic one couldn’t help but feel disdain. In the wake of the recent national tragedy, the Le cinq á sept was understandably empty. Except for one person, that is.

“Revisiting the scene of a crime? How unlike you, Milo.”

His sister’s voice rang sweetly in his ears from across the sous-chef sepulchre. Following it across the creaking floor of the dark restaurant, he found her sitting alone at a table for two, a solitary candle amidst an ocean of empty seats. Smiling, he unfolded the cloth covering the red-gold stone and held it aloft.

“Ohhhhhh…” Priscilla almost squealed. “And there it is! The famous cintamani stone. Said to be one of the most powerful magical artifacts in existence! May I see it?”

She held out her delicate hand. Milo frowned. Reluctantly, he handed her the stone.

“Be careful with it,” he reminded her. “This stone is my last chance to impress father. If I can cure whatever ails him…”

“Mhmmm,” Priscilla replied, her eyes fixed on the stone, which shimmered in a multitude of colors when held up to the light. “Look at that. It’s beautiful. You can practically see the magic etched into its facets. The cleavage is sublime.”

Milo nodded absentmindedly as he looked down, admiring the sublime cleavage.

“Can I have it back now?” he said impatiently.

“Just one more second,” Priscilla said dismissively. She stared deep into the stone’s rough surface, its uncarved angles. Never once had this stone been touched since it was pried from the meteorite shell it had arrived in, for fear of tainting or lessening its power. Those ancient fools. How much of the true stone had they left clinging to the insides of that meteor, like placenta from a babe? Every reflection of this divine geode was an enchantment, every cut a mark of magic left by the stone’s last owner. Every one was precious. And now she would add her own.

With a brief and tiny spark, the stone lit up, a bolt of lightning arcing from the surface straight down to the heart of the stone, where it terminated in a bright spark lasting only a second. Milo never even noticed a thing.

She handed the stone back to him. “Alright, go. Heal father.”

Milo frowned. “Don’t you think we should study it first? Get a better idea of how it works so nothing goes wrong when we do decide to use it?”

Priscilla just chuckled. Milo raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

Priscilla wiped a tiny tear from her eye. “Oh Milo. Do you really think father will want to wait once he knows what you have? You see, this is what sets you and Marquis apart. You deliberate while Marquis does. He doesn’t question his decisions like you do. It’s why father loves him more.”

Priscilla knew she’d said the right words when she watched Milo’s face warp into something ugly.

Sorellona…

Now before Milo’s anger could erupt, she needed to apply some balm to it, to soothe his bruised ego.

“I’m only telling you the truth because I want to help you, Milo,” she said gently. “Do you think I enjoy seeing Marquis wrap our father around his pinky while your valuable contributions to this family go completely unrecognized? What I’m trying to do is give you a chance to succeed in front of father.”

“Then what would you propose I do, sorellona?” Milo said, the anger in his eyes not diminishing but, at the very least, no longer growing.

“Show him how much he means to you,” she said. “Show him your resolve. Use the stone.”

Milo’s anger grew. “Are you mad?! I just told you sorellona, we don’t know how it works-”

“Do you think those ancient fools who pried it out of a rock that fell from the sky knew how to use it either?” Priscilla responded. “When I touched just now I felt it, Milo. The stone wants to be used. By you. If you just have a little faith in yourself it’ll show you what needs to be done.”

Milo looked down at the stone he held with his handkerchief. Gingerly, he touched it with his bare skin, and he immediately knew Priscilla was right. He could feel the magic inside it working, just like a normal enchantment only far, far greater. A whole index of spells was thrown into the forefront of his mind for him to pick from. Hundreds. Thousands. Each with a name and a designation hinting at their function. And he was willing to bet all he needed to do was run his mana through it and they would run, just like any other enchantment. It felt… right.

He looked at Priscilla, his rage evaporated. She smiled.

“Do you really want to let Marquis steal the spotlight forever? It’s time for you to shine, Milo.”

Milo looked down at his hand, at the little miracle he held in his palms. He gripped the stone, his mind made up.

As Milo turned to leave, Priscilla smiled at his back, waving him goodbye and good luck. But with each empowered step he took, Priscilla’s smile curled, morphing into something completely unlike a smile at all. She covered her twisted grin with a gloved hand.

All lies, of course. The stone was nothing more than a stone. It didn’t want anything. But Milo did. He wanted to hear a fairy tale about how he could cure father and finally earn the stony old man’s affection, what little of it could possibly be pried from his crusted charcoal heart, anyway. And that’s what Priscilla had told him. She had fed him a few little white lies, given him an encouraging slap on the rear, and he’d filled in the rest himself and been on his way. And when the stone did fail him, he would have no one but himself to blame.

Poor little Milo. Oh my dear, sweet little Milo. You only want what’s best for this family, but you have no idea what that is, she thought as she watched her brother climb into his car. But I do. The old man can’t die fast enough, and this illness of his, whatever it may be, has nothing but my thanks for speeding up that process. I’m not about to let you stand in the way of it.

She watched as the car sped off, leading Milo inexorably towards the predetermined conclusion of today’s meeting, the outcome that had been decided by her. Knowing what was to come, she felt a small little flower of guilt bud in her chest, like a scilla after the first spring rain. She felt bad for her brother, for lying to him. She had nothing but love for Milo, but… there were some things in this life much more important than love.

I’m sorry Milo, but this is for the best. Just this once, allow me to break your heart.

Just like that she grabbed that little scilla and crushed it, stomping it beneath her heels. The future was supposed to be a wild forest, not a delicate little flowerbed. It could not be allowed to be shaped by the perennial cuttings of the last generation. Too long had the shadow of Frankie and men like him hung over this city. Now, it was time for a woman’s touch~

Dark. Cloudy. High chance of rain. It was days like these that made you look up and feel like you should start taking stock of your life. And mine… well, mine was coming up depressingly short these past couple of days. Annie still wasn’t speaking to me, Sostene had been even more withdrawn than usual, my insurance premiums were going to absolutely skyrocket after this court case came to light, and I hadn’t even been able to turn to work to take my mind off it. Marq had been busy the past couple days just comforting Nayeli and planning for the trial. I guess the only positive thing I could take away from this whole experience was that my leg was healed now.

I sighed. You know it’s bad when you have to count not being sent to the hospital as a plus. Sometimes it just feels like the whole world is out to get a man. Sometimes, a man just needs a drink. And I’m not talking about hitting the bottle like some pathetic boozer schlob, I’m talking about a New York classic. Sometimes, the best way for a man to calm his nerves is a fresh pot of joe.

I hummed along with myself, nodding. A cup of joe, with cream and sugar, and maybe a bit of hooch to spice things up or to give yourself some of that much needed hair-of-the-dog. Now that was a New York breakfast. Nothing else required. Just a man, a pot, and some beans.

And so to that end, I invited Sostene to come have a drink with me that morning. And, well, when he suggested we score a free pot from his good friend Officer Thompson down at the station, who was I to say no?

See, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just fear and a few corrupt cops that keep the police in the mafia’s back pocket. We both want the same thing. For crime in this city to be controlled. Anyone who’s spent time in either profession can tell you crime isn’t something you can just get rid of, so better for someone to control it than let it run wild, right? We do that. We provide a service to this city, cleaning up the lesser villains like Mickey so only the five families can claim absolute power in the criminal underworld. The cops in this city are smart enough and have seen enough to know that this is a mutually beneficial relationship. You may call it “a corruption of justice” or “encouraging the expansion of a vast criminal empire”, we call it “efficiency”.

I was looking forward to it. It had been a while since I’d had good bean juice. It was a luxury we couldn’t exactly afford. But Sostene seemed to be in considerably lesser spirits.

I looked up. He just stared ahead blindly, looking as out of it as a guy who’d just been knocked around-side the head with a baseball bat. Was this an aftereffect of his little rampage on the train?

I coughed, but he didn’t say anything. I coughed again, louder this time. Still nothing. I frowned. You were really gonna make me say it, weren’t you Sostene?

“… hey,” I said, and his eyes flashed open. It seemed like that finally got his attention. He turned to the right and looked down. Dammit, why did he always have to remind me how much taller he was?

“Yeah?”

“You… feeling okay, man?” I asked. “You’ve been out of it all morning.”

He sighed, and groaned a little. “Yeah, sorry. Things… haven’t really been the same since the train.”

I thought so.

“You… wanna talk about it?” I approach carefully, not wanting to push any of his buttons.

“No.”

“You sure?

“Absolutely.”

Now I started overstepping my boundaries a bit. “Come on man, I can guarantee it’ll make you feel better-”

“I said I don’t wanna talk about it, Al!” Sostene yelled at me. But he didn’t watch his step, and as soon as he stomped down on a passing manhole cover, his strength made the sewer lid flip like a giant penny and it smacked him under the chin. I winced.

“Ouch…”

“You’re sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

Yes, Al.” Sostene said, rubbing his chin.

“You’re absolutely, positively-”

“Oh my god, for the last time, yes!” he barked as we made the turn onto 67th St. “What part of ‘I don’t wanna talk about it’ don’t you understand?”

“Well, can I guess then?”

“Sure,” he said wildly, throwing his hands up in the air. “Whatever makes you fucking happy!”

“Hmmm…” I thought. “Is it about Nayeli?”

“Pffft. What? Now I know you’re just goofing off,” Sostene said. “Why would I care what happens to her?”

“Maybe because you work together and she’s Marq’s favorite? You know this is hitting him harder than any of us.”

“Their private lives ain’t none of my business,” Sostene said coldly. “As long as the boss lets me keep doing my job, I don’t really give a shit.”

There was a pause.

“… I mean I do feel kinda bad for her, I guess. But what she did is what she did. A lotta people died at the bottom of that hole, Al. People aren’t just gonna forget it, and she’s gonna have to live with it, whether it was her fault or not.”

Sostene’s eyes took on a dull quality, the thousand yard stare.

“Trust me, I know.”

I thought about that.

“You’re on the run from a handsome spanish baron! You seduced his daughter-in-law and killed his son in a duel, becoming El Sostene Magnifico!

Fuck you!”

I shrugged. “Well then I’m all out of ideas.”

“Halle-friggin’-lujah.”

“… You really think the charges are gonna stick?”

Sostene shrugged. “Hard to say. We don’t even know what they’re charging her with yet. No formal arrest has been issued.”

“Yeah, but, we’ve made some pretty big stuff disappear under the rug before, haven’t we? All it takes is a few strategically placed dollar bills…”

“What, you talking about Central Park?” Sostene asked. “I don’t think this and that are really the same thing, Al. That was the local boys vs the away-team. This is a whole new ball game. A whole new goddamn ball game…”

We walked the rest of the way in silence. Officer Thompson was waiting for us at the precinct when we got there. He seemed like a scruffy kinda guy, the type with permanent 5 o’ clock shadow and rough, scratchy whiskers, which was actually pretty funny when you thought about it. A pair of fluffy little tiger ears poked out of the top of his head, and he was chewing on a bagel and lox while he waited for us.

“Hey Sostene,” he said with his mouth half-full. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added “Hey pipsqueak.” He must’ve meant me.

He stuck his fingers in his mouth and licked the cream cheese off of them, then wiped them off on his uniform. My skin crawled.

Please don’t shake with that hand, please don’t shake with that hand…

He stuck his hand out. It was the cream cheese hand.

Goddammit!

Sostene sighed. “Bobby, that’s disgusting. At least use the other hand.”

“Oh give it a rest, will ya?” Thompson groaned, pulling his hand back. “You sound just like my new ‘partner’.”

Sostene raised an eyebrow. “They gave you a partner?”

“Pffft,” Officer Thompson spat dismissively. “More like another boss, if you ask me. All he does is order me around like I’m some new recruit. Little shit’s barely any older than the pipsqueak here-”

“Oi.”

“-and he thinks he can order me around just ‘cause he’s some sort of fancy ‘special detective’? Give me a break…”

Thompson sighed, running his hand down his face melodramatically. I had half a mind to punch him if he didn’t stop calling me “pipsqueak”. Thankfully, Sostene covered for me (sometimes I wonder who really has the anger issues here).

“What’s his name?” Sostene asked.

“Dante,” Thompson said. My blood froze. I recognized the name. Knew it all too well, in fact. But no. Couldn’t be. Not after so long.

“You mean like the poet?” Sostene asked.

“Nah nah, more like the actor,” Thompson said. “Takes himself way too seriously. Thinks he’s some sort of knight.”

My heart leaped in its cage. That definitely sounded like him.

“Bobby!” a voice yelled from the next floor up. “Do you have that bag from the evidence locker?”

I didn’t quite recognize the voice. Maybe it wasn’t him then. But voices could change a lot in 14 years…

Officer Thompson winced, growling. “No! I told you, Arn is taking care of it! You don’t need to yell either, I can hear you.

“That him?” Sostene asked.

“Yeah, that’s him,” Thompson said, rubbing his ears. I heard the clattering of footsteps marching down the station stairs. “Sostene, pipsqueak? I’d like you to meet…”

The doors to the station flung open. I took a step back as he walked out.

“Special Detective Dante Salvo.”

I couldn’t believe it. The guy standing in front of me was taller than I remembered, a bit lankier too, and it looked like he’d been run over by a truck since the last time I saw him but it was definitely the same kid. The black hair and blue eyes. The way he kept his clothes immaculate and perfectly cared for. And that pin he kept stuck on his chest. Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum.

Cavvy?” I asked cautiously.

The reaction was immediate. The way his muscles tensed like a rubber band snapping back you’d think he’d been shot, but he and I both knew that name. It was a shared memory, for both of us. A way to say goodbye… and now a greeting.

He turned to look at me. Fourteen years of misplaced emotion raced between us like a current.

Alfonso?”

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Street Lawyer 5.1

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Finally the train arrived at the station and we all piled off, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. We’d left the scene of the disaster behind us, but it was only a matter of time before they tracked us down. Right now, what we needed to do was take the stone back to New York as quickly and quietly as possible. The rest we could ad-lib from there. As much as it’d pain Marq, I’m sure the Cintamani stone would make some pretty slick bail for-

“Hello, brother~”

Oh no. No. No. Not now. Marq and I swiveled our heads in unison to find ourselves confronted with the absolute last person we both wanted to see. Milo Allesandri. He smiled.

“You look upset, Marquis. Is there anything I can help you with? A certain stone that needs smuggling back into New York, maybe? Or perhaps you’re suffering from a guilty conscience? This is all your fault, after all.”

Theo brandished her knives while I stood stock-still. How. How was he here? How did he know? Wait, that’s a stupid question, I thought at I stared at Leo and Figaro. Who else could’ve told him?

Getting over his surprise, Marq cleared his throat, straightening his tie. “Sorry Milo, but the stone was a fraud. We don’t-”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Marquis. You’re better than that. We both know the stone is a fake, and we both know it’s hiding a much better prize.”

“The Cintamani stone,” they both said in unison. Milo’s tone was loud and triumphant. Marq’s was subdued and defeated.

Crap…

“How-”

“Did I know? Please brother, we both know I have my ways, just as you have yours.”

“… It was Figaro and Leon, wasn’t it?”

“Huh?” the two goons in question replied.

“You put them undercover on the train and thought we wouldn’t notice, but we did. I erased their memories of the stone, but they must’ve been bugged too. Clever. You knew even if we caught on to them we wouldn’t bother checking our own men for surveillance devices, didn’t you?”

“…”

“…”

This was it. Would Milo admit to it? No, of course not. No logical person would. Even if you knew they knew too, admitting to it doesn’t benefit you at all. It only gives them ammo to use against you later, even if it’s brick-shittingly obvious you did it. The only one who’d admit to that would be a narcissistic psychopath. Then again, that’s what Milo was.

And that’s exactly what Marq was banking on.

“Uh, boss Marquis?” Figaro asked. “What are you talkin’ about? What stone?”

“I’ll admit, it’s a pretty brilliant scheme. So clever I’m a bit surprised you came up with it. You even used low-tech bugs too, didn’t you? Something basic like a pocket mic I’m guessing? So we wouldn’t think it was you, the amulet-obsessed magic tchotchke-freak. You’ve surprised me for once, Milo. Congrats.

Don’t push it, I thought. Feeding into his psychotic ego was all well and good, but sarcasm wasn’t going to help.

Milo frowned. “… I have no idea what you’re on about.”

What?!

Marq maintained his cool. “Sure you don’t. And I’m guessing you just happened to come here because you wanted to meet your beloved half-brother at the station to make sure he was alright? I’m touched, Milo, really.

Milo sighed. “My sources, of which you will not be made privy to, have never and will never incorporate either of these two. Doubt me all you want, brother, but I didn’t send them.”

Marq and I exchanged quick glances. Something was definitely wrong here.

“That being said however, I suppose I am here to congratulate you on what can loosely be called ‘a job well done’. Believe me, it’s the only one you’ll be getting after the devastation you and your… friends caused here.” He looked at us with disdain. “Make no mistake, I have no intentions of defending you or that raging bull of yours in front of the federal court, let alone father. Your best defense right now is compliance. Make me look good in front of father, and it makes you look good by association. I’m sure as a fellow attorney you realize this is your best option at this point, yes?”

Marq nodded. “Yeah.”

“Then hand over the stone.”

Marq didn’t do anything for a second. Then he nodded slowly at Kichirō, who nodded back. Approaching the banged up boxcar of the Nimbus, Kichirō forced open the sliding door with his good arm, revealing stacked cages of animals. Nayeli squealed, the prospect of getting to see Bob making her momentarily forget her funk, and clambered inside.

“Ohooo…” Milo sneered, mildly impressed. “So you hid the stone with the animal feed.”

“Not quite,” Kichirō said. “We actually hid it in the cargo container. It’s connected directly to the boxcar containing the animal’s cages, so no ordinary passengers would be able to fumble in here by mistake. Or by design.

The tone of his voice showed just how much he trusted Milo: only about half as far as he could throw him. Which judging by the look on his face was something he had definitely thought about doing.

“Stay here, Annie,” I said. But she glared at me and propped her crutches on the rim of the car, pulling herself up. After what had happened between us earlier, I decided not to press the issue.

Everyone clambered inside, carefully stepping over the strewn hay and bountiful craps of the animals that had been released in the chaos earlier that morning.

Hmmm… in retrospect, maybe that doesn’t clear things up a whole lot. The chaos at the train station then.

We all followed Kichirō, who stepped with confidence. Worst came to worst, we all figured he’d do his new allies a solid by offing Milo rather than letting him get his hands on the stone. Sadly, fate and a certain gassy ungulate had other plans.

“Where’s Bob?” Nayeli asked, looking around the empty cages. But everyone ignored her.

“We hid the stone in a bottle of ceremonial champagne the shipping company included as a gift for the Monkey King. He likes having little presents hidden in the bottles,” Kichirō explained. “The boxcar should be just up ahead- oh. Oh no.”

Everyone leaned and took a peek over Kichirō’s shoulders. It was difficult to see in the darkened boxcar, but the door had been opened. Violently. Crumpled in like the lid on a pack of goddamn cigarettes.

No one rushed. We all tiptoed in slowly, dreading what we might find.

“What the hell happened to this place?” I asked. “It looks like a damn minotaur got loose… They didn’t actually have a minotaur in here, right?”

“No,” Marq said, sighing. “They had something much worse.”

I looked around. There were some holes poked in the side of the car where dim light shined in from outside. Did I say “poked”? I meant more like “stabbed”. Splinters of wood and broken glass were everywhere, making the place look like it had been torn apart.

Who was I kidding, it had been torn apart. But by what? What could stab a hole through a sheet of solid magically-reinforced steel and looked like it munched on hunks of wood and glass bottles?

Wait…

I groaned. Oh no. I hated it once I figured it out, but I caught on to what we were gonna find just a few seconds after Marq did.

Finally the light beaming in revealed enough and Annie gasped. Nayeli just flipped the hell out.

“Bob!” she yelled, running over to the prone, horse-like animal lying on its side. About eight feet long and seven feet tall if it were standing upright, it had a bright white coat with brown age spots and was unmistakably a unicorn. It also was unmistakably slurping alcohol from a bottle it held in its drunk-ass purple lips, noisily smacking it down.

“Ohhhh, now I remember!” Marq said, going “aha!”. “Bob was retired from the races ‘cause they said he had a drinking problem!”

I look at him weird. Weirder. “Horses drink?

“Oh yeah, all the time, Al,” Marq said in a calm, relaxed tone that made it clear he was completely fucking serious. “Their jockeys feed it to them all the time. They especially love hoppy beer.”

He turned his head. “Hey, Nayeli? You might not want to do that.”

Nayeli, for her part, was trying to get as close to her dream animal as possible (hopefully to make some good memories before we all sailed down piece-of-crap street here in the next few weeks). She had tiptoed her way most of the way there already before stopping to kneel, the unicorn so ass-blastingly drunk it hardly noticed her. She reached out to touch Bob with her outstretched hand. Then she started to stroke him.

“There there, Bob…” she said lovingly. The horse-monster’s eyes snapped open. Forgetting that it was supposed to be drunk and thus sloppy and uncoordinated, it flipped its head around and clamped its chompers around Nayeli’s outstretched fingers.

“Owwwch!” she yelped, pulling her fingers back. Surprisingly, they were red and starting to swell. “B-bob… why?”

The unicorn neighed wildly, bucking and flailing even though it couldn’t stand up on its own. It tried jabbing Nayeli with its horn but to no avail now that she was ready for it.

“Bob!…” she protested, obviously feeling let down.

“That’s a unicorn for you,” Marq said, sighing. “They don’t like anyone who’s not a virgin. They can smell it on you. Drives them crazy.”

“B-but that’s not fair…” Nayeli said with tears in her eyes as she looked at Bob, who’d settled back down now that she’d backed off a bit.

No, I thought. What’s not fair was Marq not telling you this from the beginning.

“These uhhh…” Milo said, picking up the empty bottles scattered around the floor. “These wouldn’t happen to be the bottles you hid the Cintamani stone in, would they Kichirō?”

Our tall Japanese friend sighed. “As a matter of fact, they are.”

Bob belched.

“Oh, that is just disgusting,” I said, plugging my nose as everyone else tried to waft the scent away.

“So what do we do now?” Milo said. “I don’t think I have to remind you what happens to your crew and that homunculus should you fail to hold up your end of the bargain, do I Marquis?”

Not on your fucking life, I thought. Nayeli was already in the shit, but I wasn’t letting Theo join her.

“Well Kichirō?” Marq said, sighing and letting his hands fall to his sides. “What can we do?”

“We can wait for the creature to pass it.”

How long will that take?”

“A few days… a few weeks… who knows?” Kichirō said.

“Okaaay… any other options?”

“We could surgically remove it?”

Marq clapped. “Great! Al, get on it.”

I froze. “What?”

Marq motioned at the prone, bloated Bob blob. “Get on it. You’re Mr. Medicine Man, right?”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said. “Slow down. In fact, back up. You want me… to do gastrointestinal surgery… on a unicorn?”

“Yeah… What’s the problem?” he asked me dangerously slow-like.

I gulped. “Well… do you realize how fucked up that is? I mean, it’s a goddamn unicorn!”

“Oh grow the fuck up, Al!” Marq shouted out of nowhere. “This isn’t some fairy tale with pretty pink little princesses, and I’m not going to let you fuck us because you don’t wanna cut open the poor widdle unicorn! It’s a goddamn animal! There’s nothing special about it! I thought you said you’ve worked in the operating room before!”

I stared at him. “I’ve assisted in an operating room before. I’ve memorized how to perform certain surgical techniques, and practiced a few. This isn’t one of them. And even if it was, what makes you think just because I can operate on a human means I’m qualified to chop up a goddamn horse?”

“What’s the difference?!”

“They have four stomachs, Marq! Horses have four stomachs! How am I even supposed to know which one the stone went through?”

“That’s cows, Al. Horses only have one stomach,” Annie said, correcting me. “It’s separated into a front and hind gut.”

I sighed. “Fine. You want me to cut up the goddamn unicorn?”

Yes,” Marq said through grit teeth.

“Well too bad, ‘cause I can’t!” I said. I regretted saying it right away, but I was too angry, too caught up in the moment to stop. “You saw what Bob did to Nayeli when she tried to get too close, right? Well some of us here don’t have adamantine skin, and I’m pretty fond of my fucking hands. How about you?”

“Well there’s gotta be someone here who can!” Marq said, his desperation obvious. He was losing his cool. “Come on Al. Give me something. Give me anything. Isn’t there anyone here who’s a virgin?”

I hesitated. We were pinned down here. We needed that stone, or all of this, literally all of this, would’ve been for nothing. There had to be something we could salvage from this, something that had even the slightest bit of meaning that we could look back at and say “well at least we did that” when we were thinking of just how much this job had cost us all. But there was nothing.

Milo sighed. “Well, this has been fun, but if no one else has any ideas, I propose we just shoot the damn thing and take the stone out from its body by force. Any objections?”

Milo spun the chamber on his revolver, leveling it at Bob’s head. Nayeli sprung into action.

“Yeah! Here’s a few!” she said, shielding Bob with her body. “Go fuck yourself! You want me to kill you right here and now?”

“Go right ahead,” Milo said. “But know you’ll only be adding to your list of crimes by doing so, and once our father gets word of it, expect Marquis’ head to be next on the chopping block once he learns his pet bitch offed his other son. That’d certainly kill his chances in the war for succession. Or would you rather just keep standing in the way like an idiot so I can tell our father Marquis refused to cooperate in retrieving the stone?”

Nayeli was sweating like crazy, and it wasn’t just because the boxcar was damp with animal shit. Milo had had her trapped like a rat again. I bet she wasn’t eager to relive the same experience.

There was nothing we could do. Every way out was a dead end. It seemed silly, but this one little fucking unicorn had become a symbol for this whole fucking job, and if we let it die it’d be like fucking this whole thing up all over again. Something good had to come of this. Anything. But unless we could think of something fast, nothing would. We’d be right back where we started. Totally defeated.

That’s when we all heard a sound no one was expecting to hear. Bob nickering in his sleep.

“Ummmm… I could do it.”

I turned around to see my sister kneeling next to Bob in a sea of booze, broken glass and horse piss. The smell was was so bad it was almost physically repelling, but she just knelt there, bearing it as she stroked the incensed unicorn to calm it down.

“And who are you?” Milo said.

“She’s my little sister,” I said. “And… she’s the only one that can do this.”

I hated saying it. I wanted to protect her, protect my little sister from anything that could hurt her, but right now we didn’t have a choice. Either she operated on a wild, dangerous animal in my place, or we all paid for it. Theo, Marq, Nayeli, me. This was the best option. The only option.

“Lil’ squirt…” Nayeli said, almost teary in the eyes.

“Don’t get me wrong!” Annie said, looking at Milo and Marq. “I’m not doing this for any of you. I just want my brother and Theo back home safely. And this unicorn doesn’t deserve to die either! Is violence all you people can ever think about? There are other solutions!”

Milo snorted. “Feh. Fine. Do as you wish. It’ll probably just end up dead anyway.”

Annie looked at me, asking me what to do first. For just this second, I had some of her trust back.

I sighed, and flipped open my knife. I passed it to her gently.

“Here. Use this. It’s sharpened to surgical standards. Bob should be okay on pain, he’s kind of already… self-medicated.”

The unconscious unicorn farted loudly, and we all pinched our noses.

“Okay,” Annie said, taking the knife. “Where should I cut first? Shouldn’t we sterilize the equipment and move him somewhere clean?”

“We can’t really worry about that right now,” I said. “We’ll leave those problems for the vet. Speaking of…”

“Right, already on it,” Marq said, exiting the car to find the station’s phone.

I looked around. Dark. Damp. Smelly. Probably full of shit and other things that could cause infections. This was hardly the ideal operating room. But we didn’t have much else. It was time to start.

“Alright, first you need to shave the area you’re going to make an incision into. In this case, that’d be his midline,” I said, instructing her as I pointed where to cut and what needed to be shaved. “We’ll use some of the leftover booze as antiseptic. Wait for me to pour that stuff on before you make the first incision.”

Angling the blade carefully, Annie made a few ragged passes, shaving a rough patch into Bob’s belly. Dabbing part of her dress in alcohol, she sponged the area down with our makeshift cleaning agent and antiseptic. With me guiding her, she slowly, very slowly, made the first incision.

Almost immediately Bob whinnied and neighed, but quickly fell silent again. I felt ready to jump in at any minute to yank Annie back. If Bob hadn’t been so completely trashed, I doubt we would’ve been able to do this. A conscious unicorn would turn us into a horn kebab.

Annie finished the long first incision, stopping after more than a foot. Perhaps a bit too generous, but this was my sister’s first impromptu veterinary surgery. All things considered, I thought she was handling it pretty well.

“Okay Annie, this is gonna be the hard part,” I said carefully. “Things are gonna get kinda gross, but I want you to stay strong, okay? Now, you gotta reach in there-”

Without even hesitating, Annie dove into Bob’s guts up to her elbows, smearing blood all over her hands and dress.

“Okay,” she said, turning to look at me calmly. “What am I looking for?”

Damn, I thought. My little sister was a bit more hard-boiled than I’d thought.

“Uhhh… the small intestine,” I said. “You need any help describing what that looks or feels like, or-”

“Nope,” she said, dragging a coil of guts out onto her lap. “I got it.”

“… Alright then. You see a bulge, feel any bumps where the stone might be?”

Annie squeezed the unicorn’s gut-piping in her hands, groping like a pro doctor administering a mammogram. Wrong form, but you had to admire her enthusiasm. Finally, her fingers closed around a section of intestine with a slight bulge in it.

“Find it?” I ask.

She nods. “I think so. It’s big. You want me to make another cut?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Gently, though. You don’t want to poke the tip through both sides.”

She did so, a little squeamishly at first with shaky hands, but in the end she made it through without perforating Bob’s intestines. Pantomiming what she’d need to do, I slowly guided her through the process of squeezing the stone out of the hole she’d made.

A few pushes later and it was finally done. The stone clattered to the floor, a dark orange, almost blood red color like amber. I breathed a sigh of relief, and grabbed my sister in a hug.

“Hrrmmmm… Al,” she said, but ignored her. “… Al. That’s enough.”

She shoved me away, or tried to. I was much stronger than her weak little arms. I let go of her.

“Ah, and there’s the prize~,” Milo said, reappearing just in time to scoop up the stone. “With this I should be able to heal whatever it is that ails father. That should be more than enough to ingratiate myself into his will. Though admittedly, it does stall our family’s little feud somewhat. Such a shame, isn’t it Marquis?”

“Yeah,” Marq proffered with venom. “Should paint a nice fat target on your back now that you’re the frontrunner for the inheritance.”

Milo just smiled. “We’ll see.”

He turned and walked away. And that was the last we saw of him. Till that dreadful day when Nayeli’s fate would be decided.

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