Street Lawyer 5.7

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Nearly two weeks had passed since Nayeli left, and Marq was getting desperate. He’d had our guys comb the entire city trying to find her, and when that failed to turn up anything, he’d resorted to taking Sigurd out on joyrides and flying over the countryside, trying to pick up Nayeli’s scent. So far, no luck. In the meantime, I’d been asked to pick up the slack in taking care of our three fugitives hiding out at the docks.

I stopped in front of Mickey’s old studio warehouse on Pier 6, the one I’d nearly burnt down a couple months ago. There were still scorch marks toasting the place and nobody had bothered to replace the broken windows. All in all, it couldn’t look more abandoned if you stuck a tumbleweed in front of it.

Balancing a food tray with my one hand, I knocked on the rolling shutter door with the other. Faster than I can react, the terrible end of Yoshirō’s turgid metal deathstick speared through the door’s thin sheet metal only a few terrifying inches from my face. I think I almost pissed myself.

Who. Is. It.”

Kichirō’s voice asked me tersely from the other side. I swallowed, trying to regain my composure.

“It’s Alfonso. I’ve got your food. Y’know… soup’s on…”

“… Oh. You can let him in, Yoshi.”

The shutter doors rolled up and I walked on inside, looking around for the three of them. Were they hiding?

“You know,” I shouted into the darkness, “you really don’t need to do that every time I stop by. Can’t you just tell it’s me by sensing my ki or whatever?”

“True,” I heard Kichirō say as he stepped into view. “But Yoshi doesn’t like you.”

I felt a snort of hot air on my neck and nearly dropped the soup all over my new loafers. The big guy was right behind me, wasn’t he?

“H-Hi, Yoshi…” I squeaked, turning around slowly. “How’s it going?”

“Don’t call him that. He’s still mad about how you drugged him back on the train, Kichirō said, snacking on a tiny bag of circus peanuts. “He says you’re lucky he doesn’t turn you into sashimi.

“Duly noted…” I said, slowly backing away. “Do I at least get some soy sauce?”

Kichirō raised an eyebrow at me.

I set the tray down on a toolbench and unwrapped the bread, breaking off bits of it in their soup. The chunks float for a few seconds before sinking to the bottom. Typical New York cuisine. Soup was so watery you could stick a boot in it and call me Ishmael.

“You know, not that I don’t enjoy these daily chats of ours, but why don’t you just go and lay low with the Four Beasts again?” I asked as I literally broke bread with my enemies. “I mean I like the smell of mildew and stewed human flesh just as much as the next guy, but this isn’t exactly a five star hotel you got here. Don’t you want some better digs?”

“Asking the Four Beasts for help again would be… unwise,” Kichirō said. “They seem to have heard about how we treated their men, and now they want revenge. They’ve already sent men after us numerous times.”

“What? Why didn’t you tell us?!” I said, dropping half a loaf in one of the bowls.

“We going to, but…” Ren started.

“… they don’t seem to be particularly thrilled with the Allesandris right now either,” Kichirō said.

“Yeah, and whose fault do you think that is?” I said, sighing. “Here’s your soup.”

The bowl clanked to the floor, spilling a few precious drops of its liquid sustenance. My immediate instinct was to reach for my hanky and wipe it up, but I held myself back. I figured the floor could stand to get a little dirtier. Once you reach a certain point of no return (like say, burnt clothing and human flesh), any new mess you make kinda just gets lost in the background. No point in dirtying a perfectly good handkerchief then.

Ren hesitantly picked up her spoon and took a nibble, then immediately spat it out.

“Bleh! This taste worse than yesterday!”

“Oh really?” I replied sardonically.

“Yeah! It taste like nuppeppō pus!”

“I have literally no idea what that is,” I said. “It’s cream of mushroom soup from a can. Just eat it.”

“Canned? I thought they use fresh ingredients?” Ren said, or rather accused.

“Yeah, right,” I replied, snorting. “Fresh water, maybe.”

“Ren,” Kichirō chided. “It’s impolite to criticize the food someone’s given you out of the kindness of their hearts.”

Kichirō raised his spoon to his lips and tasted the soup, smacking his lips.

“That being said, I have to agree. This does taste an awful lot like nuppeppō pus.”

“Still don’t know what that is,” I said. “And I thought you said it was impolite to criticize.”

“I also said the food had to be given out of the kindness of their hearts,” Kichirō said with a wry smile.

“Fair enough,” I sighed, taking a seat. “If the food tastes like crap it’s because our local kitchen just lost one of its biggest supporters.”

“God-girl, right?” Ren asked, blowing on soup.

“Yup,” I said. “Without her around they’ve had to switch to canned to keep up with the demand. Her disappearing act is throwing a lot of monkey wrenches in a lot of peoples’ plans.”

“Why you think she did it?” Ren said, blowing on her soup.

“Who knows?” I said, sighing. “Wouldn’t have been my first choice. All that matters is that Marq is tearing his fucking hair out trying to find her. If she doesn’t show up before a formal arrest is issued, they’re probably gonna send the Untouchables after her, and that’s not going to end well for any of us.”

“The… Untouchables?” Kichirō asked.

“Yup.” I cracked another loaf in half and offered it to Kichirō. “They’re an anti-magic law enforcement division, beholden only to the highest authority within the US government. Sorta like secret agents crossed with cowboys by way of Merlin.”

“Uh-huh. So what make them so special?” Ren asked, chomping on bread.

“Easy shortstuff,” I say, enjoying my one chance to say that to someone else for a change. “Each of them is given a special mythical weapon that only they’re allowed to wield. Y’know, astra and holy swords and all sorts of cursed shit. Real nasty stuff like that. They’re the government’s last line of defense against monsters and magic users.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Ren commented.

“You don’t know the half of it. If they caught wind that any of us had dealings with the Cintamani stone, we’d all be locked up right now faster than you can say ‘I plead the fifth’. We should thank our lucky stars they haven’t perfected the technology for audio-based psychometry yet.”

“Hmmm… If they’re law enforcement like you say though, shouldn’t the Marquis just be able to buy them? That seems to be your family’s preferred way of doing things. Bribing people until the problem goes away.”

I grunt in annoyance. Cheeky little…

“Wouldn’t work. These guys? They’re incorruptible. The textbook fuckin’ definition of fanatics. Assassination, blowing up family-owned trucks and boats, smashing up entire warehouses then burning them to the ground. And that’s just the stuff they do to harass us. When the real monsters come knocking and the big guns come out, I’ve heard of entire towns getting written off in the name of their mission. Tabula fucking rasa, like they never existed. All to keep the peace, supposedly. Nobody knows where they find these psychos but they make the Vitalis look restrained by comparison. If you ask me, they dig ‘em up from the deepest pits of Alcatraz, give them a badge, then just turn them loose.”

“And your government let them get away with that?” Ren asks. I shrug.

“We live in crazy times, I guess. It all makes about as much sense to me as it does to you. All I know is that they’re tough, they’re mean, and they’ve got a license to kill. If they’re brought in to deal with Nayeli, we better just pray they bring her back in one piece.”

Ren snorted.

“Really? You worried about god-girl? When she can give Yamata-no-orochi a run for his money? It don’t matter what kind of weapons they bring. She tough enough. She can take it. God-girl is invincible.”

“Against an enemy like you who just uses brute force, maybe. But you weren’t there at Central Park.” I paused. “Anyway, you should always remember one thing. Demigods? They’re weak against magic.”

I soaked up the last of my soup with my half of the loaf, and stuck it in my mouth. Forcing my arms into my coat’s sleeves, I brushed myself off and got ready to go.

“You leaving already?” Kichirō asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I got two more mouths to feed back at home.”

Light shone through the slit in the door Yoshirō had made. Working my hands under the door, I lifted with my knees, and pulled up the metal sheet like a blind. Dark sunbeams from a cloudy but-not-too-cloudy sky pierced my eyes, flushing me back into the kind of daylight you only find hanging over New York City smog. I look back over my shoulder.

“I’ll be back tomorrow. Let us know from now on when the Four Beasts start to give you any trouble. We’re… working on a fix. Things have just been… well, you know the way they are right now,” I said. “I’ll let you know once Marq has something he wants you to do. For now, just stay put.”

“What you think we’ve been doing?!”

I walk out and let the door drop behind me, drowning out the incensed oni’s protests. The way things are right now, huh? And what exactly was that? What way were they ever supposed to be to begin with?

The stairs creaked softly as I walked up to our apartment on the second floor, carrying a bag of groceries. I only mention this because normally the stairs make noise like a pissed off cat whose tail someone just stepped on. I can think of a few good reasons for why today was different. For one thing, the bag’s lighter than it should be, on account of me having to skimp now to pay Frankie. I don’t know how much extra he wants, but I’m not about to go overspending and test the man’s generosity any more than I already have.

Second, they’ve been doing renovations around here lately, something they say is finally gonna have us all caught up with the new building code they instituted a few years after war. Been a miracle they managed to get away with not doing it for this long, but then again nobody’s in a hurry to pay for the living conditions of the working class.

Dwarves – excuse me, dvergr – clung to the architecture wherever I looked, hammering away and tearing down walls, ripping out electrical wires. That part was probably gonna be easy. Not much in the way of commodities here. We were lucky we had our own bathrooms, let alone lights. A few of them muttered something in Old Norse as I walked past them, which made me frown. If you’re gonna say something about me, at least say it to my face in the King’s English.

I walked to the other end of the hall where our apartment was, and noticed there was one thing they weren’t touching. The spriggan’s old room. So far it had been spared the hammer and the hacksaw. Not a single soul had touched it. I snorted. Probably because they were still figuring out how to get inside. The spriggan had always been a private old girl, and now that she was a tree she was going to be even harder to convince to leave.

As if to prove my point, a vine crept out of the mass of roots and flower buds that had already grown out of the wall surrounding her apartment and coiled around the doorknob, its slow, deliberate movements more than making the tenant’s wishes clear. She’d move when she was damn well ready to. As for us, I wasn’t sure what we’d do when they started fixing up our place. Probably sleep downstairs in the basement until it was fixed like everybody else. I could ask Marq for a place to crash, but I don’t think Annie would like that, and she’s plenty pissed at me as it is. Besides, he… needed his space right now.

I fished for my keys, trying to keep the contents of the bag from spilling over. Turning the key in the lock, I heard that satisfying ka-chunk that let me know “I’m home!” and then I shut the door to our apartment behind me.

“Annie? Theo?” I announced to seemingly empty space. “You guys here?”

I didn’t expect to hear much back. Theo wasn’t the talkative sort most of the time, and she said she would be out doing the laundry this afternoon anyway. As for Annie, she was still mad at me, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

To my surprise, I heard her call back, “Yeah Al, we’re in the living room!”

Funny, I could’ve sworn she still wasn’t talking to me this morning. “You’ll never guess who’s here!”

“Who’s here?” I asked, immediately suspicious. Had that shitty agent stopped by again? Dr. Evans?

I looked down and noticed an extra pair of shoes by the door. Spit-shined leather oxfords, with their laces carefully tied.

“Oh no…” I said to myself. I turned the corner into the living room, walking as naturally as I could. There I saw Annie in her wheelchair, and setting next to her was…

He looked up at me. “Oh, hello Alfonso.”

I tried smiling as convincingly as I could. “Hey there, Cavvy.

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Bonus Interlude (Nayeli Knossos, pt.2)

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A frightened, now mortal Nayeli walked down the long, stretching highway to the city of angels for what seemed like hours, clinging to her axe for comfort. The road twisted and turning constantly, she wondered when it would ever end, when she would find civilization and relief from the oppressive darkness and rain of the country at night. Why couldn’t her father just send her to live in Italy with her mother? Why did she have to fall in America? She didn’t know anyone in America! Everyone here was a stranger and everything she saw was even more frightening and unfamiliar than the last. She was cold and wet and occasionally something called a car would drive down the road and beep loudly at her, spraying water. They weren’t very dangerous, which she’d learned after a few of them crashed into her, but their constant, overbearing presence hardly made her feel welcome.

She sighed. Why couldn’t mortals just drive chariots like everyone else? They were much less noisy and the horses that pulled them were usually much friendlier to her than cars were.

Her shadow on the road stretched out in front of her and she turned around. Here came another one. A truck. This one looked big, and its beeping and honking was so loud it hurt Nayeli’s eardrums. She hoped this one wasn’t going to try and hit her too.

The sound of tires squealing blocked out all other thoughts and just as the light became blinding, the car stopped. Nayeli opened her eyes. As she’d thought, the mechanical chariot was enormous, easily ten feet tall and the length of a temple pillar. A man, large and overbearing, climbed out of the front seat.

“Hey, watch where you’re goin’! The fuck you think this is, the NYC boardwalk? Do I look like a Coney Island clown to you?”

Nayeli was surprised. Not shocked, but surprised.

To think they act like this to people they’ve just met…

“Um, excuse me?” she said, trying to shield her eyes from the bright headlights. She ignored the man’s harsh tone. “I’m sorry if I offended you, but you can you please help me make it to the nearest city? I don’t know where I’m going. I just got here and-”

“Just got here?” The man looked at her like she had nine heads. “What in the name of god is that supposed to mean? How do you ‘get’ to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and say ‘I just got here’? What kind of fucking moron are you? Are you lost?

“No,” Nayeli said. “I just got here.”

“From fucking where?” the man almost yelled. “There’s nothing around for miles!”

“From the sky!” Nayeli shouted.

“Oh!” The man laughed. “That’s rich. What are you supposed to be then, an angel?”

“No!” she shouted. “I’m the daughter of-”

The trucker sighed. “Look, kid, I really, really don’t care who you are. Because unless you got a rich daddy that can pay me for a ride and my flat tire, then I don’t want anything to do with-”

“I said I just got here and I need some help! Why won’t you listen to me?!” she shouted, stepping out of the blinding headlights.

“Whoa,” the man said, stopping mid-sentence.

She should’ve known then. The way he looked at her. It was obvious what he was thinking, but not to her younger self, who knew so little about the world. All she knew was that it seemed strange.

“Ummm… sir-”

“Huh? What?” he said, snapping out of his trance. “Oh, yeah. Ummm, sorry for almost hitting you there, angel. How about I take you to the next town down the road to make it up to you? The next city is a little far but me and my buddies at the mill might be able to help you out. Get you something to eat, give you a place to sleep. How does that sound?”

“That sounds great!” Nayeli exclaimed.

“Alright, just climb in the passenger side next to me,” he said, heading back for his truck. Nayeli reached out and hugged him from behind.

“Thank you so much, mister! I thought I was going to have to walk in the dark forever! You’ve really saved me! The gods won’t forget this!”

His body tensed up when she touched him, becoming firm and rigid in her grasp. Though she couldn’t see his face through the shadows, his eyes were wide open, and his breathing suddenly ragged.

“Yeah… no problem…”

She walked around the side of the truck and saw it was carrying logs, dozens of them.

He must work at that lumber mill he mentioned, she thought, staring at the vehicle in awe. I thought father said the humans were weak. How do they carry all these logs on their back and then load them onto the truck?

Without giving it much more thought she opened the passenger side door and got in. The compartment smelled uncomfortably of old smoke, musty and damp. The garbage lying everywhere and the pillow and blanket stowed beneath the driver’s seat indicated this truck had seen many long nights.

Must get lonely, she thought. I bet he’s glad I’m here to keep him company now. I wonder why he was so rude at first though?

“You all buckled in?” the driver asked. “The company quacks say we gotta start using these harness… belt… things to prevent accidents. I think it’s a load of crap but they’ll fine me if they find out I wasn’t using them when the truck’s in motion.”

“Do accidents happen a lot?” Nayeli asked.

“Not as much they’d probably tell you, that’s for sure,” he snorted.

Nayeli fiddled with something that looked like what he was describing but she couldn’t figure out how it fit.

“Here, let me help you,” he said. He reached across Nayeli’s lap and started grabbing for something tucked into the seat. But his arm wasn’t long enough, so Nayeli kept feeling him brush up against her butt and thighs, his hands sometimes lingering just a little too long. Long enough to be noticeable.

“Mister…” she said, uncomfortable. “Please stop… you shouldn’t be touching me like that… my father isn’t going to like it if you do…”

She didn’t want to hurt him. Father had told him how weak the humans were. If she wasn’t careful she could kill him.

“I’ve almost got it…” he said, his groping becoming more aggressive.

“Mister!”

“Just shut up!” he yelled in her ear. “I’m almost there!”

Finally his hands reached for something besides Nayeli’s flesh, taking hold of a belt inbetween the seat cushions.

“See?” he said, fastening it around her. “You were sitting on the damn thing.”

“Oh…” she said. “Sorry, mister. I thought…”

“Don’t worry about it, angel,” he said, settling back into his seat. “Let’s just get going. I’ve got a timetable to keep.”

She nodded. Maybe she’d just misread the situation was all. She was the one sitting on the belt after all. That had to be it. But…

Her eyes drifted to the creases of the man’s pants. A small dark spot had appeared, like a stain.

What is that? she wondered, looking up at the driver. Did he… wet hinself?

The driver’s eyes were glued firmly on the road ahead. He hadn’t noticed her staring. Quickly she snapped her head back and buried it in her lap, playing with the trinket that symbolized her axe.

Father… she thought, frightened.

Hours of silence passed in the truck’s cab, with nary another passing car to interrupt the long stretches of quiet. The breaking of the morning sun brought some relief, but the road ahead still seemed long and never-ending. Any sense that they’d made progress since last night was eclipsed by the light of the sun showing only more grey asphalt stretching into a pinpoint on the navy-blue horizon.

Nayeli sat quietly in her seat, spinning the little handle of her trinket for comfort.

“Say,” the driver said, breaking up the quiet for the first time since 4:00 AM. “That little bracelet you got there. What is it?”

“Oh,” Nayeli said, surprised. “This is my axe.”

“Your axe?” the driver asked.

“Mmhmm,” she replied. “My father gave it to me. He says it symbolizes my strength.”

“Huh,” the driver said. “Your father sounds like a pretty weird guy.”

“He’s not weird!” Nayeli protested. “Just because a mortal like you doesn’t understand-”

“Yeah yeah, whatever, I get it,” the driver said. “Sheesh. You uhhh… you mind if I look at it?”

Nayeli thought about it. There shouldn’t be any harm in it, right? The axe was too heavy for him to lift, and it’s not like he could steal it from her or anything. If he wouldn’t give it back, she’d just make him. Of course that ran into the problem of potentially killing him again…

Deciding it would be okay this one time, she loosened the knot that kept it tied to her wrist, and handed it to the driver.

“Wow…” he said, squinting at it through the dawn’s dim sunlight. “This is really something! You mind if I pull over so I can get a better look?”

She shook her head, and the truck came to a slow stop on the side of the road facing the shore.

The tiny axe spun slowly in the light of the dawn, practically weightless so long as it was in this form. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be nothing more than ornate jewelry. A trinket of fine craftsmanship certainly, but a trinket nonetheless. No one in this world knew the power of the gods yet. They had no understanding of magic.

The truck driver whistled.

“This sure is some good-lookin’ bracelet you got here. Must be worth like, what, fifty sawbucks at least, right?”

She had no idea how much that was.

“More than that,” she said, making an educated guess. “It’s very precious.”

Really?” the truck driver said, suddenly very interested. “How’d a little girl like you get ahold of something like this, angel? How old are you, anyway? Sixteen? Seventeen? Twenty?”

“I’m thirteen,” Nayeli said. “And my dad gave it to me.”

“Thirteen? No fucking way! A girl as pretty as you, dollface? You must think I was born yesterday!”

The truck driver continued to stare at the gleaming golden axe, captivated by dreams of wealth and power. Nayeli fidgeted, seeing the look in his eyes.

“Umm, mister?” she said. “Can I please have that back now? It’s very precious to me.”

“What? No! You’re gonna need this to pay for your ride!” the truck driver said, gripping the trinket tight in his meaty fist.

“What?!” Nayeli said, taken aback. “But you said the ride was free!”

“I never said that,” the driver said, brushing her off. “Besides, it’s my truck. I get to decide how much you pay.”

“But that’s not fair!” Nayeli shouted. The truck driver raised a hand and slapped her, hard, across the cheek. She felt her head and shoulders collide with the passenger side window.

Nayeli lifted a hand to her cheek, touching where it stung. No way…. Had he just hit her?

The truck driver started to yell at her.

“Life isn’t fair, angel! You think I wanna be out here in the cold driving all night for minimum fucking wage so some fat cat can pocket all the profit? ‘Course not! But life don’t care! Life is just life! It don’t care what happens to you or me. That’s why,” he said, staring greedily at the gleaming gold bracelet, “you gotta always be looking out for number one.”

She couldn’t believe. The axe father had given to her… the one Uncle Hephaestus had made! It was like she thought. Mortals were the absolute worst! So corrupted by greed and lust…

She didn’t want to have to do this, but it looked like she’d have to force him to give her back her axe. Once he felt the kind of strength she had, she was sure she wouldn’t cause her any more problems. She’d show him what it meant to be her father’s daughter!

Summoning up the courage to strike the man against her father’s explicit warning, Nayeli swung hard and hit the truck driver, bending his nose in a most unnatural way with a sickening crunch. He screamed as blood flowed out of his nose. It was, all things considered, a solid blow. But something was wrong.

I know I wasn’t hitting him as hard as I could but that punch should’ve at least thrown him out of the door! she thought, staring at her own fist. What’s going on?!

“You… stupid… bitch!” the truck driver roared. Suddenly he was on top of her, pinning her to the seat by her wrists. Nayeli struggled but couldn’t break free. What was going on here?! Something was wrong! Something was definitely wrong! Where had all her strength gone?!

“Look at what you did to my nose, angel,” the truck driver panted, positively manic. “Look at what you did to my nose! Did your daddy tell you to just go punching nice guys who offer to give you a ride? Huh?! How you gonna pay me back for this, angel?! Tell me how you’re gonna pay me back for this!”

Nayeli kept struggling. “I don’t know!”

“You don’t know?!” roared the truck driver.

“Please!” Nayeli screamed. “I’ll do whatever you want, just let me go and give me back my bracelet!”

The truck driver stopped. He smiled perversely. “Well if that’s how you feel about it, then I’ve got a couple ideas.”

He reached for the hem of her blouse and started to lift up. Nayeli realized all too late what he was doing.

“No!” she screamed, kicking as hard as she could. “I didn’t mean that!”

“You said you’d do anything, didn’t you angel? Well this is what I’ve decided on!” he said, nearly tearing her clothes right off her. Nayeli felt her hair get yanked on as he pulled her head through the hole. She couldn’t see what was going on. What was happening?!

Her head popped out of the hole and she opened her eyes. Ugly purple marks blotted her wrists. She was naked. In front of this mortal, this complete stranger, she was naked! Tears welled up in her eyes. What was going on? Why couldn’t she fight back? Why wasn’t she strong?!

“Whooheeee!” the truck driver whooped and hollered. “Thirteen years old, huh angel? Sure doesn’t look that way to me!”

“Please, stop! You can’t do this! My dad won’t let you!”

“Your daddy, huh angel? Your daddy isn’t gonna come help you out here. That’s if you even have one, that is.”

“Of course I do!” she said, struggling. “And he’s going to punish you when he finds out what you’ve done! Daddy! Please, help!”

“See, I’m having a hard time believing you, angel. First you lie to me about your age, then you lie to me about how you got that jewelry-”

“I didn’t lie!” she screamed, unsure how anything she said could help at this point.

“Of course you did! Your daddy bought it for you? Which daddy? Your sugar daddy? Because I’m having a hard time believing any rich man’s kid is just gonna show up walking in the middle of the road out in no man’s land, California! Hell, I bet you stole that jewelry, and now you’re on the run!”

“No!” she yelled. “That’s not it!”

“Isn’t it, angel?” he said, his smile wider than the sky. “Looks to me like you’re nothing more than a homeless golddigger some pimp left on the side of the road! And ain’t nobody gonna miss you if you just disappeared right here. Guess that means I got a free ticket to do whatever I want with you.”

The truck driver’s thick fingers reached for the zipper on his trousers, slowly pulling them apart. Nayeli screamed, louder than she could ever remember screaming before.

No! Stop, please stop! Daddy! Auntie Athena! Help me!”

The truck driver laughed, his exposed member hanging in the languid ocean breeze like a corpulent sausage. Covered in filth and the excess of its last discharge, it looked like some vile serpent. Only she had no blade with which to slay it, no means to defend herself, and she could smell the fetid breath of the monster’s other head looming over her as it whispered in her ear, entirely too close.

“What’s the matter, angel? I thought a girl like you would be used to doing this by now.”

He wrenched her legs apart. Nayeli shut her eyes, trying and hoping that she could shut out the world. That if she blacked him out hard enough, that he wouldn’t be there the next time she opened her eyes. But she could feel him coming closer, even if she couldn’t see him. She felt it brush up against her inner thigh and cringed, shutting her eyes even harder as tears ran down her cheeks.

There was the clicking of a gun, followed by a loud, abrupt discharge. Something warm and sticky splattered all over her face, and she opened her eyes, fearing or perhaps hoping the worst was already over. But the man hadn’t entered her. He still stood, kneeling on the precipice with a giant hole in his head. Teetering under his own weight, the man’s meaty body collapsed on top of her, emptying its last all over her and the leather seat behind him.

“Ugh,” she heard a voice mutter as someone opened up the door. “This fucking reeks. Did he have to shit himself all over the upholstery?”

Someone, she knew not who, dragged the corpse off of her, leaving her to stare at the cab ceiling in vegetative shock. The face of a young boy soon entered her view. He held out his hand.

“It’s okay, you’re safe now,” he said. “That stiff won’t be bothering you anymore. Let’s get you cleaned up and, y’know… back in your clothes.”

The boy’s face was glowing a soft red. Her eyes opened all the way, taking in every detail of his face.

“Well? Come on! You’re making this really awkward already…”

Nodding tokenly, she took his hand. Was this it? Was she safe now? Was it over?

The boy walked her over to the ocean where she could clean herself of the man’s stench and other bodily fluids and turned around, giving her some privacy. Off to the side, a taller man started to dig a shallow grave for the corpse of the truck driver.

She washed herself with the warm ocean water. It was… fresh. Welcoming. She could feel Poseidon’s embrace. And it felt like as long as she stayed in the ocean within it, she might be able to wash away the memories of what had just happened.

When she was finished, the boy offered Nayeli her blouse and her bracelet with the axe still intact, which he’d washed in the ocean water. Silently, she put the wet clothes on.

“I know it’s still wet, but it was the best we could do,” he said. “They’ll dry off soon. Come on, hop in the car. We’ll give you a ride to wherever you’re going.”

She immediately felt herself tense up at the offer. That was exactly what the man now lying in a shallow grave had said to her. The man who’d tried to… tried to…

No! She shook her head back and forth, adamantly refusing. She clutched her axe tightly in her hand this time. She knew what would happen this time, and she wasn’t going to let it.

“Come on,” the boy said, taking her hand. “I’m serious, we just wanna help-”

Nayeli recoiled sharply at his touch, jumping in her skin.

“No! Don’t touch me!” she screamed. This time, the effect was profound. The sand all around her was picked up like a maelstrom by the sound of her voice and the boy was thrown back, caught by the taller, quiet man who’d been digging the grave. Nayeli took a step back and curled up on the beach, her head tucked in her lap.

The boy grimaced. “Well Sostene, I think we may have found another one.”

That was how she first met the young Marquis. It wasn’t an easy relationship at first. In fact, she actually used to hate him when she first met him. That took some time to change. But then again, it wouldn’t have been so rewarding if it didn’t.
Nayeli laughed a little remembering those days. It was a bitter sound, full of joy and hopelessness and sadness and regret. And love. So much love. Perhaps that feeling was why there was so much of those other things.

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daisy_xmas2

For a loving friend

Around 6:30 PM Tuesday evening, our dog Daisy passed away peacefully at the age of 15 after being put to sleep by our family vet. For the last few months she had been suffering from partial deafness, cataracts, dementia, and chronic pain in her back legs. When the vet told us the previous Friday that she had lost over 10% of her body weight in less than one month, we knew it was time. We decided to have her put to sleep rather than let her suffer through the final stages of old age.

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For the last few days I’ve been working through her death and trying to figure out how I should deal with it. We’ve gotten rid of her things, gone through all her pictures (the best of which you can see above), and in the hours since her passing, I’ve thought of a few words I like to say in memoriam.

This is for you, Daisy. You became a part of our family when I was only eight years old, and you’ve been like a sister to me ever since, in both the good ways and the bad. In this moment I love you more than words could ever describe, and I wish I could’ve shown you even a tiny fraction of that love while you were still alive. I want you to know we never betrayed you or let you go willingly. We were there with you up until the end, and we did what we had to because we loved you and didn’t want to see you suffer any more. I hope more than anything that you understand that.
R.I.P. Daisy May
June 2001 – September 2016
It’s been a long day without you, my friend… and it’ll be many more before I ever forget you. Goodfae will resume publication as soon as possible, once things have calmed down around here. Until then, I thank you all for your support and for two years of wonderful memories.

A Look Into Another World: Between Scylla and Charybdis

The long nap. They call it that but if you ask me, they should rename it to the short death. Why? Because when you’re in cryo, you don’t dream. You can’t. The body’s core temperature is lowered to near-hypothermic levels, inducing a state of torpor where brain function is almost completely suspended. Your brain shuts off, your body shuts off, and you become a statue, a relativistic meat missile traveling over 4.37 light years across space until the wirehead flipping your switches decides it’s time to wake up. Just more cargo to be hauled. Another lump of carbon strapped to the back of a rocket tearing through the interstellar medium like a cosmic pinball, praying against all odds that whatever cable car you’re sleeping in doesn’t hit a nickel-sized lump of rock traveling at 92% of c and turn your short death into a long one.

But if we forced them to tell the truth about space travel instead of lying wherever they can get away with it, half of marketing would start formulating a murder-suicide, so we call it the long nap.

My eyelids flutter in my tube. The first thing you need to know about space travel is that space is weird. It’s like there’s no concept of the passage of time out here whatsoever. You just black out then wake up a second later, almost five years older but none the wiser, and everyone you knew back home might as well be dead. Good thing I don’t have anyone back home I’d really miss.

It feels kind of liberating, y’know? Just the feeling that all the stupid bullshit you used to care about doesn’t matter anymore, like paperwork or monthly injections. Not that I’d call this a new start, by any means. Everyone I hated in my work-a-day life may be in a completely different solar system save for one, but the fundamentals of my life are still all the same. My name is still Rokuro Asahito. I still work as a project manager for the Hato zaibatsu. And I’m still a noncon. No matter where I go in the universe, those facts never change. It’s just same shit, different planet.

Consciousness returns as my core temperature stabilizes, and my body begins the long process of recovering from being preserved for my last five birthdays (technically just one birthday if you account for the effects of relativity inside a moving spacecraft). Wonder if I’ll get any cake.

The pod’s autodoc accesses my corneal implants, displaying a list of options for my recovery. Blink once for anabolic accelerants (that’s for if I wanted to be the first one to be back up on his feet again and also enjoyed the sensation of being numbed by heavy doses of painkillers), blink twice to be put in a medically induced coma until your body has fully recovered from stasis (this time you may actually dream), or blink three times to be put back under (this is for if the wireheads made a mistake and woke you up too early, although they never do). Patching into the ship’s logs, I confirm they didn’t undershoot my resurrection date, which means I have to pick between options one and two. Or more practically speaking, try and resist picking option two and going back to sleep.

I do my best to look around outside my pod with my body’s atrophied muscles, watching with keen interest as rapid eye movement signals the awakening of all the other noncons. They get to choose between options one and two, so most of them will be going back to sleep shortly. Me on the other hand, I’m “essential to the mission”, although I’ve heard that line before. That means I can’t go back to sleep. I have to be up and running as soon as possible so I can begin my duties as supervisor.

I blink once, and immediately the pod floods with a chemical cocktail designed to quickly regenerate lost muscle and bone tissue in just three days. It’ll make you want to scream so loud you crack the acryllic glass of your pod, but that’s the price we pay as a spacefaring species. I start feeling nauseous right away, but the machine pricks me with needles full of painkillers to inhibit the signals coming down from my nervous system, and I immediately dive into a confused, restless stupor.

——-

My tube dumps me out onto the cleanroom’s cold, sterile floor gasping and sputtering like it’s the womb of an uncaring electronic mother delivering its preterm fetus. Five days have passed. I’m behind schedule, and my head feels like I have aerogel plugged between my ears. A light and airy but firmly impenetrable fog surrounds my thoughts, and I try to focus as hard as I can so I can get back to work.

“Gotta find clothes…” I mutter. The thin drawer underneath my tube delivers. A stark white uniform that’s paper thin, not unlike a hospital gown. Made of hydrophobic nanofibers so it doesn’t cling, but it doesn’t do much for how fucking cold the cleanroom is. It’s a good thing the cellular regeneration matrix has an extremely low freezing point.

I shiver. First order of business is to manually confirm the physical condition of all the other noncons. In a world not run by syphilitic gibbons this job would be delegated to the wireheads, just like everything else. But nobody trusts them enough to leave them in charge of civilian cargo anymore. Not since Proxima b. So here I go, scrolling through the readout on my implants and starting the ridiculous process of personally double-checking the life signs and various states of muscle degradation of over nine thousand noncons to make sure they match up exactly with the wirehead’s information. Just another step on the ladder of corporate bureaucracy.

“Vasquez, check. Nakata, check,” I droned on and on. “Spindel, check. Sarasti, check. Keeton, check. Taka, check. Kanoe, check. Kozlov… czech.”

I run down the list, passing tube after tube of human specimens preserved in the cellular regeneration matrix; just more mammalian dill pickles with tiny little robotic limbs exercising their shriveled muscles. They open and shut via voice command, so they follow me like a blue metal wave, sliding out of their storage units then slinking back inside once I give them the okay. So far everything checks out. It always does.

“Tanikaze…” I mumble, staring at the screen. I look up, and immediately jump back, crashing into the opposite row of drawers with a dull thump. The sensation is not dissimilar to smacking your hand with a hammer after you’ve been sitting on it for an hour. Feels like it should be painful, but it isn’t.

I get back up, staring at the magnificent specimen stored in front of me. Not a human. A bear. Old-fashioned, 20th century grizzly bear, before all the gene tampering and inevitable attempts at de-extinction made them too pitiful and ugly to bother keeping alive.

“What the fuck?” I asked myself. What the hell was a bear doing on the list of noncons? Doesn’t the company have a strict rule against importing wildlife into foreign extraterrestrial environments?

I look closely, and see the tell-tale signs of surgery marks. Implants. Ah. I see now. This is someone’s prosthesis. Odd that they’d choose to go for a partially organic body when a more traditional cybernetic one would be easier to store and transport. Then again, it was odd to see a full-body prosthesis to begin with. Most people in those kinds of catastrophic accidents don’t survive long enough for a successful transplant to be prepared, and if all you want is to be superhuman, your cape is just a few subdermal implants away, maybe some new arms and legs if you wanna go really hardcore. This guy must just be a grade-A weirdo.

“Wouldn’t think a noncon would have the kind of money to afford that kind of procedure,” I said to no one in particular. “Okay, Tanikaze- excuse me, Dr. Tanikaze, let’s check your vitals.”

Numbers read 55 bpm, 268 kg, <10 uV.

“Heart rate normal… for a bear. Bone and muscle loss within acceptable parameters… for a bear. Brain activity is… normal,” I said, then quickly added, “for a bear. Everything checks out.”

Ticking Dr. Tanikaze off the list, I keep moving down the rows of tightly packed tube lockers and drawers. Christ. This place is claustrophobic as hell. How is that possible when the clean room is supposedly a hundred meters wide, the size of a goddamn warehouse? Cubes of human storage units, that’s how. Just cubes as far as the eye can see. Five meters tall, seven meters wide. The tubes are about 30 inches wide and seven feet long, so once you subtract a little space to account for all the tech needed to keep the cubes running, each stores about 105 people (must be cramped for the bear man). All in all, we’ve got a cargo of about 150 pallets of preserved human bodies on five different levels, for a crew just shy of 16k. The perfect number for colonization.

I look up at the civilian super above me through the transparent plexiglass floor. From here the cleanroom’s sterile white light makes them look like a tiny shadow, an ant under a magnifying glass. Or were we both ants, and I was just the one beneath the glass looking up? Hard to tell in space.

They scowl at me, then continue about their business. My attitude sours, but just before I can call them an asshole in my head, I remember I’m a noncon now. Non-consensual labor. A non-convict. Someone who broke the company’s laws and is now paying the price. This was just part of that price.

I look down at the level below me, hoping to see another noncon waving up at me. Of course there isn’t one. All I’m doing is reminding myself I still have two more levels to check before I’m allowed to take a break.

I sigh. Guess I really am one of the pariahs now.

The work takes me nearly thirteen hours. Any time I felt like I had to go, I just held it. By the end I was going through it as fast as possible, and damn near felt like I was ready to burst. Finally I reached the end of the bottom level, and that’s where I found something odd.

“Teresita Hibiki Montero,” I read aloud, staring at the upright storage unit that was less a pod and more a frozen cage, or perhaps a meatlocker with chains. The woman being kept restrained inside is a lightly-tanned Asian Hispanic (los latinos asiáticos) with bright red hair whose clothes hadn’t been removed before the preservation process, so she’s still wearing a fur trim jacket and wifebeater with a leather skirt. In fact, she isn’t even submerged in the matrix. Further inspection explains why.

Her arms are each dark black, and what I had assumed were the stockings covering her legs is just more of the same material. Her limbs are cybernetic. Advanced prostheses too by the looks of it. I take note of the slightly off way her skin sticks to the contours of her face, the unnatural perfection of her features and unblemished skin, and conclude she must be another full-body.

“Wait…” I think aloud. Chino Latino, full-body prosthesis, and bright red hair. That’s when it hits me. I realize just who I’m looking at.

La Sombra Pelliroja…” I whisper. My fingers involuntarily make a fist. This woman isn’t just a noncon, she’s a wanted corporate terrorist, on the warpath with Hato for years now. She’s sabotaged and blown up more of the company’s facilities than I could count, hacked hundreds of corporate bank accounts, divulged sensitive company secrets and funds to outside parties, and directly or indirectly killed more of my coworkers than karōshi and the cola wars combined. All in all she’s cost Hato trillions in damages over the last ten years, and yet here she is, right in front of me. They’d finally caught her.

I slam my fist down on the wall between us.

“You’re the reason why I’m here.”

My gaze drifts to the pod’s touch-screen, to the controls that are keeping her human brain alive.

I could kill you right now, I think to myself. It’d be so easy. Just a drop of a few degrees in your core temperature, maybe an accidental overdose blamed on the wirehead. No one would even know as long as I passed a few thousand dollars into the right hands.

I half-expect her eyes to snap open and to be choked to death by bundles of synthetic muscle fibers and cold carbyne coils, but of course there’s no response. Why would there be? Her brain is completely under. Full-on long-term preservation until we reach Alpha Centauri. With no muscles to atrophy, we can afford to leave her to rot with minimal care. And with no brain activity comes a total lack of movement. Cybernetic muscles don’t twitch or spasm, not even involuntarily.

I sigh, forgetting my momentary fantasy. Killing her doesn’t do me any good at this point. It wouldn’t even be satisfying, not with her lying preserved and motionless like some sort of lab sample, completely unaware of what’s going on around her. It’d just feel petty. Besides, if she’s here, the company already has their own plans for her. That’s worse than death.

“You’re a lucky girl, chica,” I say directly to her, pressing my forehead up against the glass. “Maybe if you were awake I wouldn’t be feeling so merciful.”

She’s very pretty when she’s asleep, though. Almost like an angel. Eventually I realize I’m staring and I move on.

“Rodriguez, check. Lambert, check. Parker, check…”

————

Finally I finish and I’m allowed to go to the bathroom, grab what passes for a cold drink, and relax in the command module. Super’s privilege. I may be noncon but I can still pull rank on somebody at least. That’s always a relief. You work for Hato, you live and die on your ability to outrank people.

After I take a quick shower, I sit down in my cubby with a lukewarm beer in my hand and a towel with the words “HATO 重工業は株式会社” sewn into it draped over my shoulder. No point in going to the commons or what laughably passes for a viewport. Even with the biggest windows on the ship you can’t see much, not with the artificial gravity keeping your module constantly spinning, and the planet’s still four million km away anyway. No, I think I’ll stick with my sims, and maybe take a nap while we wait for the ship to finish decelerating.

I say that, but I can’t deny I’m curious. After spending five minutes fruitlessly trying to decide on what my next digital wet dream will be, I decide to patch into the ship’s sensor arrays and get a good look at my new home.

The picture I get isn’t of a planet, but rather a series of meaningless bright smudges on a radar screen. Right. This is what the ship sees. I want anything useful I’ll have to reformat it.

I play around with the files a bit. Slowly an image starts to coalesce. A bright blue planet with green splotches of land spread randomly throughout an enormous ocean. Anthemusa. Just a little over one-fourth of Earth’s mass with .66 times Earth’s gravity, it orbits its binary parent stars Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B at a distance just shy of 1 AU, similar to our little blue planet. Its deeper into the system than we’ve ever explored, having already mapped out all of Proxima Centauri and half of Alpha Centauri B. No moon, but its orbit is surprisingly, thankfully stable. The gravitational influence of its parents might have something to do with that. Because of its slingshot orbit around both stars, it also receives the questionable benefit of constant sunlight from both of its parent stars. They say it’s a planet where night never comes, no matter where you are.

I take a sip of my watered down beer, remembering the earliest planning meetings for this expedition. The meeting that decided on the name for this planet had pretty much gone as thus: they’d given us instructions to come up with a name for the planet that fit the Greek naming scheme that had become popular in the 20th to 21st centuries, and then told us the names of the other bodies in the system. That was it.

Brian, being the unoriginal fucking mouthbreather he is, suggested we call the planet “Pandora” for like the fiftieth fucking time. That name had been used so much by now it’d lost all meaning. Our planet would just be another serial number on a long list of Pandoras both real and fictional; hardly befitting of what might become Hato’s most profitable venture into deep space yet. The heads of the project shot him down immediately.

Feeling coy, I jokingly proposed we call the planet “Anthemusa”, thinking they’d find it funny. They didn’t. In fact they loved it. Apparently I gave them too much credit when I assumed they were at least intelligent enough to figure out my cute little jab at their stupid naming conventions.

It is a good name though, if you know what it means. I flicker through an array of files by moving my pupils, eventually finding what little remains of the video recordings taken by the drones before their destruction. They depict a lush jungle planet beneath a dark blue, almost purple sky, with trees of such size and girth that they’d be impossible on Earth (from what I hear, our scientists think they might actually have circulatory systems). Unusual chirps, cries and mating calls from the local fauna dominate the background noise, and atmospheric readouts indicate a gaseous composition of 35% oxygen, 61% argon, 1.07% carbon dioxide, and .93% arsenic particulates, with a dew point of 26 degrees celsius and a relative humidity of 73% on average. Sorta like a prehistoric jungle designed by Satan if Satan was a disaffected antisocial teenager with an undiagnosed personality disorder.

A low growling unlike any animal found on Earth cuts into the feed, and something strikes invisibly, dragging one of the drones into the shadowy undergrowth with frightening speed. There are no mechanical beeps, no electronic cries for help, just the sound of an oversized pop can being crushed as the armored surveillance drone is chucked back into view, damaged beyond repair. The noises intensify from multiple directions until the camera starts shaking wildly, and the probe is dragged into the forest, the feed abruptly cutting off.

I close the video file. This is all we know about Anthemusa so far, one of the very few planets we’ve discovered to date that actually supports complex multicellular life instead of just pond scum and algae. It’s hot, damp, has an atmosphere that’s very nearly poisonous to breathe without protection, and the wildlife is capable of eviscerating armored surveillance drones without breaking a sweat. That is no mean feat. That’s like an elephant trampling an M1 Abrams tank. Either this planet is populated by mega-dinosaurs, or we’ve actually plotted a course to fucking Krypton. I’m sure the superhuman physique of these creatures poses a very exciting research opportunity to some company scientists, but you’ll excuse me if I’m not exactly looking forward to meeting these things myself.

I scoff. And we’re supposed to set up a colony here? I’d joke about it being a suicide mission if I didn’t know for a fact that that was exactly what it was. We’re just the first wave. All we’re expected to do is lay the foundation for the next group of colonists; doesn’t matter how many of us die. They’d definitely, 100% sent me here to kill me. I’d agreed to it. After all, it was better than the offworld labor camps, if only marginally.

And Hato seemed to agree with the science-types, because they’d poured everything they had into this mission. Top of the line nanofabricators, a full complement of scientists, colonists, noncons, and construction and mining drones, a 10km, 100,000 tonne Valkyrie-class with a 200 TW positron engine, the works. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that it’ll be at least twenty years before they see a return on their investment, they want what’s on Anthemusa badly. And what might that be?

I pull up a log of our mission objectives. Yup. C-zero. Short for compound zero, slang for zero degrees celsius, also known as the new black gold. Room temperature superconductors. First discovered in the mid to late twenty-first century, C-zero makes the electromagnetic Penning traps that allow us to produce and store antimatter possible. Possible and safe. Which is good, because without them we wouldn’t be seeing any of that sweet, sweet Jovian ice any time soon, which would be a real bummer for those cylinder folks and all the poor bastards back on Earth who ran out of fresh, uncontaminated water a few hundred years back. Filtered seawater picks up the slack but really, it just isn’t economical, and with all that ice and iron out there just waiting for us in our own neighborhood, we’ve come to depend heavily on the resources that can be bled from beyond the red planet, especially the spacer types who’ve lived offworld on company stations for most of their lives.

Up until now nobody thought C-zero occurred naturally in the universe, but you see, that’s why Anthemusa is special. It’s an exotic little vacation destination, and I mean that literally.

We suspect that, billions of years ago, Anthemusa was actually the rocky core of a gas giant, a mini-Neptune, that orbited its mother star just a little too closely by gas giant standards. Over the course of about two billion years, the planet lost its gaseous atmosphere due to proximity to, well, Proxima, a flare star whose intermittent outbursts accelerated Anthemusa’s transformation into a cthonian planet as solar wind stripped away its atmosphere. Eventually things settled enough to the point where all that remained was the core and an atmosphere just thick enough for microbial life to develop. Then photosynthesis happened, Anthemusa got a new, oxygen rich atmosphere and more complex life started to develop. Just not normal life.

Proxima’s frequent outbursts are very energetic, and while this is only idle speculation, our scientists suspect the energy was high enough that on the occasions when Anthemusa was directly in the line of fire rather than just in the neighborhood, the amount of high-energy particulates and stellar radiation it was exposed to were great enough to stimulate the creation of exotic matter, similar to what happens when a distant, distant planet is exposed to the tail-end of the high-energy jets of a hypernova. This would later become C-zero, and whatever other types of exotic matter that helped make the present day Anthemusa a reality.

I stared at the innocuous-looking sphere suspiciously. On Anthemusa, you can mine expensive room-temperature superconductors that it takes labs millions of dollars to produce like it’s pig iron or fool’s gold, and that’s just the start of the cornucopia of wonderfully physics-defying compounds and forms of matter the techies hope to find on Anthemusa. Maybe even the fabled “negative matter”, which would solve the FTL problem and make Hato the richest motherfuckers in all of time and space (more than they already are, anyway). And it’s even habitable and hospitable to life despite orbiting two suns and a red dwarf, making it home to all kinds of alien wildlife with potent biochemistry just waiting to be exploited for profit? This planet seems too good to be true.

So then what’s the catch? What’s the punchline? In my experience, whenever something looks too good to be true it’s almost always exactly that, plus a complimentary kick in the balls (if male; if female, then a complimentary punt in the cunt). There is no such thing is a free lunch (only a free universe, if you still believe in democracy or those old lectures by that twenty-first century physicist Michio Kaku). So then how do you explain Anthemusa?

Don’t misunderstand me, the planet is a living hell. But that’s the key word, isn’t it? Living hell. This planet supports life, life that by all means should be remarkably similar to ours given the relative hospitableness of the environment. Plants grow here. Animals live here. There’s oxygen, CO2, liquid water and relatively minor microgravity. Sure breathing in the oxygenated atmosphere regularly for too many years will give you cancer. Sure you can literally die a slow, painful death by poisoning in an arsenic rainstorm at any given time if you happen to be caught outside on the wrong day at the wrong time. Sure the animals are big and vicious and sure the planet receives twice as much cosmic radiation as Earth, meaning you’ll have the opportunity to get even more cancer. But none of those things are deal-breakers. They’ll make your life more miserable than any Terran alive can comprehend, but hey, at least the planet doesn’t have hypersonic windspeeds and an atmosphere of pure poison. At least the surface temperature isn’t 1000 kelvin and it doesn’t rain molten glass. This planet is habitable, and on top of that, it’s extremely profitable, filled to the brim with rare materials that otherwise don’t occur in nature.

So I ask again. What’s the catch?

A red alert sign shows up at the fringe of my vision. I’ve got incoming comms. I accept the call, the signal running along various wireless channels until it reaches my ear and activates the tiny implant grafted to my mastoid bone.

“Rocky, baby!”

Oh sweet christ no. Don’t hang up don’t hang up don’t hang up don’t hang up, I keep repeating to myself as I screw my eyes shut at the sound of Brian’s incredibly informal, insulting, and punchable accent and way of speaking. This is the asshole who stole my fucking job.

“Hey Brian, what’s up?” I spit through grit teeth.

“Oh nothing, just thought you should come on down to the commons area. We’re about to have a staff meeting and I thought it’d be a shame for you to miss it. I’d have to put you on probation otherwise, and after everything that’s happened I figured that was the last thing you needed,” he said smugly. He’s rubbing it in my face. “Then again you are a noncon now, so I suppose missing a meeting or two doesn’t really matter to you anymore, does it?”

“I’ll be right there,” I grunt. “Just let me get changed.”

“I’m counting down! Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven-”

Oh screw you!” I shout without thinking as I try to fit my other leg into my good pants.

“Ninety-four, ninety-five…”

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” I shout. “Just give me a little more time! I can’t get to commons in a minute and a half!”

“Oh, now that’s not the kind of attitude a Hato employee should have! You need to be a go-getter, not a forgetter! Tell you what, let’s make it sixty and I’ll forget you told me to go fuck myself.”

“What?! I didn’t say that!”

“That’s not what the report’s gonna say~” Brian cooed. “Fiffy-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven, fifty-six, fifty-”
Fuuuuuuuuuuck!” I shout as I straighten my tie and bolt down the hall. Welcome to day one, year one, of my own personal hell. Stuck between Scylla and Charybdis on good old Anthemusa.

Bonus Interlude (Nayeli Knossos, pt.1)

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Nayeli left as soon as she was able to, before Marquis could find the note. In those few brief seconds, she walked out into the street and quietly selected a darkened alleyway to disappear into. Then, when no one was looking, she leapt.

For the first few seconds air resistance fought her, but as she neared the apex of her jump she began to float gracefully like a butterfly or a bumblebee in flight, flying over Manhattan high above its towering buildings as she scraped the clouds. She heard his voice crying out for her with the phrases she’d taught him as a child as the cityscape slowly began to disappear underneath the layers of overcast weather, and she screwed her eyes shut, biting her lip so as not to cry.

“πρώτa αγάπη,” she repeated. “πρώτa αγάπη, πρώτa αγάπη…”

Tears fell like rain amidst the dark clouds, and finally, mercifully, her jump ended as she made landfall outside the city limits. She wiped her eyes clean so she could check the road signs.

“New Jersey, seventy miles. Rhode Island, a hundred and sixty-eight miles,” she read aloud. Two options. Go further inland where the feds might be waiting, or head for the Atlantic.

“Guess we’re going home,” Nayeli muttered.

Her destination decided, she set out for New Jersey, headed to the west.

She traveled for a few days after that, slowly making her way to the edge of the continent, giving Arizona a wide berth and stopping only occasionally to see the sights. Or perhaps “visit old haunts” was the better way to phrase it.

Her last major stop was in California, near Lake Tahoe. It was when she saw the trail marker that said “Mt. Reba Scenic Tour”, and wondered why it felt oddly familiar. Her bracelet swung heavily in the breeze.

Ah, that’s right. She remembered now. She didn’t actually fall in New York. It was here, just a few miles out from the city of angels. It was easy to forget that sometimes, with how much of her life she’d spent in New York with Marquis since then. But this is where it happened. Where she was abandoned by her father. Where she’d first discovered her curses.

Life in Olympus was good, while it lasted. Twelve or thirteen years by all accounts, but it felt so much longer. Concepts like age and time meant different things for gods, so she could spend as much time as she wanted there without ever getting the sense that she was growing older, always make-believing that she was daddy’s little girl. But eventually she had to grow up. Everyone does. And one way or another, her time in Olympus had to come to an end.

“But father, why do have to be your champion? I don’t wanna go to Earth!” she pleaded. “I wanna stay here with you!”

Immediately her father’s stern gaze penetrated her defenses. She couldn’t see him, but then again she never could. The presence of the gods was something you felt, not something you saw. Without the use of avatars, a god could not appear before mortals because their minds could not comprehend the enormity of their true being. Even now she doubted if this room was real or simply something created for her convenience. It had never bothered her before, but now that she risked losing it she wondered if she’d ever belonged here to begin with.

If her father’s reply was anything to go by, the answer to that question was probably “never”.

He grunted. “Why?”

“Auntie Athena says the people there are cruel and disrespectful!” she protested. “It’s cold and dark and filthy… She says Earth is at war!”

“Earth is always at war,” her father said dismissively. “It’s our job to keep it that way.”

“But why?”

“Why not? It’s good for them. Stimulates the economy.” Her father placed a firm hand on her shoulder, a buzzing sensation like static. “Listen to me, Nayeli. There is nothing more glorious than war. Heroes are born there. Civilizations are built, rise, and then fall. All in the course of war. If you want to become great, there is no surer way to do it than in battle. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“But you’re great, aren’t you father?”

“Of course,” her father grunted. What a silly question. As if it was worth asking.

“Then why can’t I live here with you? If you can be up here and still be great, why do I have to go down to Earth?”

“Because you’re not me,” he said, his voice losing what little patience it had. “I had to prove myself in order to be as great as I am. That is the way of a true man, a warrior. And this? This is no place for a warrior. There’s no hunger or strife, everything is warm and safe, and worst of all you’re waited on hand and foot all the time. It dulls you. Paradise is for the weak. You are strong. I made you that way. Now you’re going to prove it. To your grandfather and to everyone else.”

“But-”

“Nayeli!” he said, raising his voice. “I will hear no more of this! You’re going to Earth, to live amongst the mortals, and become the warrior I meant you to be. This isn’t for you to decide. Do you understand?”

Nayeli lowered her head. “Yes, father.”

With that she felt her father disappear, his presence leaving the room. She sighed.

“Hey. What’s the matter, kiddo? Something got you down?”

She turned around. A cripple in a wheelchair was suddenly behind her, paddling the floor like river water with his walking stick while two metal hounds flanked him on either side. One of his legs was shriveled to the point of hideousness, but his upper body was muscular and well built with strong arms. He had youthful, springy, finely-cared for facial hair (such was the pride of many of the gods), with color that was red and wild like fire, and half his face seemed to sag on the side opposite his crippled leg. The bright blue eye on that side rolled lazily around in its socket while the other one focused mindfully on Nayeli. His overall appearance gave the impression of an outcast or a hermit, a man of knowledge shunned for his physical deformity.

“Uncle Hephaestus,” Nayeli said as he approached in one of his many mortal bodies. “What are you doing here?”

“Just checking up on my favorite niece,” he said affectionately, ruffling her hair. “Word on the grape vine is you’re nervous about making the trip to live on Earth.”

“Mmhmm,” she nodded. “It seems scary.”

Hephaestus chuckled. “Earth isn’t scary! I mean it’s no Mt. Olympus, but that still doesn’t mean you should have to worry. You’re strong, right? I bet you could beat me in an arm-wrestling competition!”

“That’s not true, uncle. You work the forges all day long!”

Nayeli still blushed at her uncle’s praise. He smiled. Uncle Hephaestus had always been like that. Not everyone Olympian was happy about her presence here, but Uncle Hephaestus had always treated her kindly, and maybe even perhaps spoiled her if you asked her father or her father’s father. Her father wasn’t the most well-liked Olympian, but he hadn’t let that stand in the way of being a loving uncle to his niece.

“Well, if you’re still nervous, you wanna see the weapon I’m making you? Your dad had me make it extra special, just for you!”

“Really?” she asked, smiling.

“Yeah, sure,” he replied nonchalantly. “Just don’t tell him, okay? He wanted it to be a surprise.”

“Okay!”

The room shifted in dimensions, and a pathway materialized that spiraled downwards into a chthonic forge, its twenty bellows belching with the fires of Tartarus. Nayeli took careful steps down the spiraling staircase while her uncle was carried by the dogs, the metallic beasts never once voicing a single complaint. Metal in motion. That was her uncle’s specialty.

Once his dogs set him down, he rolled himself over to the forge and picked up the crude beginnings of what looked like an axe.

“See this? This used to be a mountain, Nayeli,” he said, lifting it as though it were just any other weapon. “I still have to finish plating it in gold, but this is your weapon now. Think of it as a gift.”

“Really?!” Nayeli asked happily.

“Mmhmm,” Hephaestus said, nodding. “Your father said he wanted something simple and elegant. Of course he understands very little about what actually goes into all those weapons he uses, but I thought this might be a good opportunity to experiment. So I took a mountain, and tried to wring it into the shape of an axe. It has lots of mass, so just swinging it normally can be deadly, but the catch is because it’s so heavy, it can only be wielded by someone with extraordinary strength.”

He offered it to her. “Wanna try?”

Nayeli nodded. Gingerly, she picked up the axe. Almost immediately she felt the handle tingling in her palm, like her hand had gone numb. She quickly let go.

“Uncle, this axe feels… weird,” she said, confused.

“What’s wrong? Don’t tell me our little princess can’t lift it,” Hephaestus said, smiling glibly. “Now that’d make daddy really upset.”

Nayeli pouted, rising to the provocation. She stubbornly grabbed hold of the axe. All she had to do was just power through it, whatever that strange sensation was. She wouldn’t let her father or Uncle Hephaestus down.

The numb feeling quickly spread from her palms up through her arms. In a matter of seconds it felt like her whole body was being pricked with ice-cold needles. The axe had barely budged. So she tried harder, used even more of her colossal strength, until her muscles felt burnt by cold fire.

Hephaestus smiled. Nayeli just took it as a challenge.

“You don’t have to try so hard if you can’t do it, y’know,” Hephaestus said. “I can always make it lighter if you think it’s too heavy for you.”

“I can do it, uncle!” she protested. But she wasn’t sure. It didn’t feel like she had any strength left, and the mountain wasn’t yielding.

Nayeli grit her teeth. If she didn’t have any strength left, she’d just have to find more. For the first time in her life, she gave it everything she had, summoning every last bit of strength she had and exerting herself until she could practically hear her muscles starting to snap like rubber bands. And just like that, the axe-head began to rise.

Hephaestus’ eyes widened. Nayeli grunted with pain, but it didn’t seem to be slowing her down. Finally, she managed to hoist the axe over her head for a proper swing.

“Nayeli!” Hephaestus shouted. “Nayeli stop!”

But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. He thought she couldn’t lift it, that it was too heavy for her. But she wouldn’t disappoint her father, and she wouldn’t let her uncle have the last laugh! The strange tingling feeling was gone. The axe’s weight meant nothing.

The bellows belched fire and flame like volcanoes erupting over the plains of the underworld, and Nayeli brought the axe down in an overhead swing that cut right through the furnace, spilling coals and white-hot metal all over the floor. Warm air blasted through the room like a tempest. Hephaestus sighed.

“Well, I guess you proved me wrong. And destroyed one of my forges…”

“Wha-?” Nayeli looked down at the axe she was holding. “Oh no! Oh no I’m so sorry, uncle!”

He chuckled. “It’s fine. Look, see? I’ve already repaired it.”

She looked at the forge again and lo was it so. The power of the gods knew no limits, it seemed.

Nayeli tried lifting the axe again, and found it strangely lighter this time, which is to say it still felt like swinging a sack of bricks. But that was still preferable to what it felt like swinging the first time, which is to say a humpback whale.

“Uncle, why did it feel so weird the first time I picked up the axe?” she asked curiously. “Now it feels so much lighter.”

“Oh, that’s just because you’re not used to it yet, sweetie,” Hephaestus said quickly. “But hey, you proved me wrong. You can swing it, can’t you? That’s a lot better than I was expecting for your first time.”

Nayeli beamed. Hephaestus smiled back.

“Hephy? Are you still down there in that sweatshop you call a forge?” a thick, syrupy voice cooed.

Hephaestus groaned.

“Yes, dearest wife! I am! I’m a little busy right now!”

“Oh come on! Why don’t you come up here and pay more attention to me for once? Grab a couple of those golems you made – you know, the ones with the really nice asses – and maybe a few of the dogs too, and we’ll have some fun! It’s the least I deserve for being forced to marry a cripple who can’t even make a woman c-”

“You should watch what you say, Aphrodite dear,” Hephaestus said, clearly not sympathetic to her plight. “Nayeli is here with me.”

“Oh,” the voice said, deflating. “Her.”

“Hi, aunt Aphrodite,” Nayeli said timidly. Aphrodite ignored her.

“Heph, whenever you’re done entertaining our brother’s little mistake, come see me up in the bedroom.”

Normally the prospect of being invited to the bedroom of the goddess of love would send heart palpitations through any man. But Hephaestus was not man, nor was he unwise to the games his sister played. Frankly, he’d stopped wanting any part of it centuries ago. The pleasure wasn’t worth the premium.

“I’ll be there once I’m done working on Nayeli’s axe,” he said, lying through his teeth. “Her father wants it done ASAP.”

“Really? That’s your excuse? What a load. And trust me, I know loads,” Aphrodite said scornfully, before her tone took on a cajoling air. “Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve had any proper fun that I might just go and ask Ares to keep me company.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Hephaestus growled. “I know you wouldn’t. Not after the last time.”

The air became frigid with the chill of spousal neglect and cold bedsheets. Sensing her chance, Nayeli pitched in.

“I could keep you company if you wanted, aunt Aphrodite.”

The colors of the room suddenly became vibrantly energetic, like a buzzing bee.

“Oooooooohhh-?”

“She doesn’t mean it like that, Nayeli dear,” Hephaestus said, covering her mouth before she could say anything else. “And you’d better not be getting any ideas, Aphrodite. I know lying with children isn’t anything new to the kind of courtships you’ve approved in the last four thousand years, but I’m not having it, understand?”

He turned to face Nayeli, whose face was beet red. Looks like she’d gotten it.

“Tell you what, kiddo. While your aunt and I talk this out, how about you take that axe and practice swinging some more out in the courtyard? I’ll come get it later.”

“You sure, uncle?” Nayeli asked.

“Yeah, it’s fine. Now go out and practice,” he said, giving her a light shove until the entrance to the forge closed behind her.

“That was a good joke, coming from you. Acting all protective like that when you know what’s coming,” Aphrodite said.

“Yeah…” Hephaestus said, watching the spot where Nayeli left. “I guess you’re right.”

He turned back to his forge as Aphrodite’s thoughts and presence drifted away and he himself reverted back to his immaterial form, the forges losing all substance until they smelted nothing but pure thought.

Sorry, kiddo, he thought. This isn’t about you, it’s about your dad. Wish I could tell you that…

Nayeli kept walking. What point was there in remembering that anymore? Except to make her mad, of course. No, she still had much farther to go. And her path would take her right through that place. Through the city of angels, where she first met Marquis.

Previous || Next

Street Lawyer 5.6

Previous || Next

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.”

Previous || Next

Street Lawyer 5.5

Previous || Next

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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