Month: May 2014

Poltergeists and Prohibition 1.3

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“The dead kind?” I briefly considered (true) zombies or revenants, but those would be classified as undead, not dead. Which meant… oh. Shit. “You mean a poltergeist, don’t you?”

“Indeed I do.” I jumped a bit as something behind Marq’s desk started knocking papers and clutter around. Whatever it was, it was hissing at us.

“Uhhh, Marq? What the hell do you got in here with us?”

“Oh, sorry,” Marq said sheepishly in a way that was a little uncharacteristic of him. “That’s just Sigurd. Come on out of there Siggy, daddy wants you to meet some friends of his.”

Marq briefly disappeared beneath the desk as he fumbled and wrestled with something in his footspace, bumping and hissing noises issuing from within the wood every few seconds.When he reemerged, he was holding a furry lizard the size of a Komodo dragon, like you see in the zoos. It looked like it had given up fighting him, but not before it took a few scratches and half-hearted bites at him, I noticed.

“Gentlemen, meet Sigurd. Sigurd, say hi to the boys.” It seemed to understand, and twisted its long neck to growl at us.

“I don’t think that was a hello.”

“You’ll get used to him. He’s European dragon. Germanic, actually. I paid quite a lot of money to have him shipped over here from the old country after I won the rights to his mammy’s litter in a poker game. Rest of ‘em I sold as part of a… legitimate business venture, but Siggy here I kept. Me and him, we got a little somethin’-somethin’.”

“No offense boss, but I don’t think he feels the same way about you,” Sostene said, holding his ground against the lizard while silently voicing his distaste for the thing. Not many people liked dragons, especially not vampires and lycans. Too many years of overlapping feeding grounds. Not to mention the historically terrible combination that is vampires and fire.

“What are you talking about? He’s always been friendly with me,” Marq said like he honestly had no idea what we were talking about. “These are just love-bites. I’m still trainin’ him. He’s gonna be a real monster one day, yes he is.”

He was cooing and scratching it like he would with a cat. Didn’t he know that thing was a wild animal?

“H-How old is he?” I asked, attempting to change the subject.

“Eleven weeks.”

“Oh.” That thing was… big.

“Why’d you name him ‘Sigurd’?” Sostene asked.

“There’s an old myth back in Siggy’s country about a hero who shares his name. He gained eternal fame and glory when he killed the dragon Fafnir with the holy sword Gram, and bathed in its blood, which granted him invulnerability and neverending life.”

“So you named a dragon after a myth about a dragon slayer,” I said just to confirm. “That’s classic, Marq. Real classic. You know I’ve said this before, but why is it you always do the exact opposite of whatever makes any sense for you to do?”

“Because the opposition never considers the options that don’t make any sense. They assume you’ll act in a logical fashion that does make sense. That’s where I come in. Guys like you and me, we’re good at making sense out of things that don’t. Besides, it’s worked out fine so far, hasn’t it?”

I sighed. He was right. Crazy as the shifty-eyed bastard was, I trusted his judgment.

“So what do you want us to do down at the speakeasy? We talkin’ exorcism?”

“If it comes to that.”

“Don’t you think we should be calling the Vitalis about this? I’m kinda surprised them and their fucking goons aren’t all over it already.”

“It’s not their territory, Al. They’re nosy, but they’re not about to risk overstepping their boundaries on the off-chance a poltergeist is threatening serious harm to a speako of all things. Anyways, forget about them. Asking for their help is really just asking for trouble. I don’t wanna be owing those bluenosing rat-bastards any favors.”

I sighed. “So then what do you want us to do about it? I don’t know any fancy magic tricks besides the one obvious one, and I get the feeling Sostene isn’t the kind of guy we should fall back on to perform any sacraments or exorcism rites for us.”

“That’s not where you come in. It’s part of the job, but the real reason I’m asking you two to do this has nothing to do with the why and the how. Just the who.” Marq picked up a pencil and began scribbling something. The finished result was a geometric diagram interladen with various simple runes. He held up the paper so both of us could see it. “We sent this in to Hliðskjálf for analysis two days ago. This sigil is the basis for an inscribed formulaic ritual magic that binds souls to objects, places or people. Similar to what keeps ghosts bound to the site of a haunting. It’s high-intermediate to mid-advanced necromancy. You don’t see this kind of thing very often, not now that any class C or higher magic requires a special license and permit from the feds.”

“So someone set this up then. Alright, I’m starting to see the picture. We go in, scout the place out, and I work on piecing together who sicced an angry ghost on our club and cabaret while Sostene works recon. Once we’ve done that, we track the bastard down and Sostene works him over while you send in someone else to clean up the poltergeist, right?”

“Wrong. You’ll be taking care of that part too. Manually.”

“Seriously? We could die, you know. Well okay, maybe not Sostene…” Sostene’s nostrils flared. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I just think it’d be better to call an exorcist. I mean doing it the manual way means… well, I just feel sorry for the fire department is all.”

Marq sighed. “Al, you know I love you like a brother, right? Well, this is my way of showing you some tough brotherly love. I don’t care. Just get it done. You’re gonna be asked to do stuff a lot more difficult than this in this family, so it’s better if you just learn to swim in the deep end.”

Sigurd huffed in agreement. That damn lizard…

So that’s how it was. Sostene and I hightailed it over to the Castaway Club. Situated right at the heart of the downtown area, it was, or rather had been, one of the family’s most successful money makers. Prime real estate with easy access for civilian traffic and a nice little basement brewery that had consistently put out thousands of dollars in product every month since opening day. It even had an outdoor patio for the paying clientele. Nothing really looked wrong with it, but nothing ever did when you were at the site of a haunting.

We knocked five times and a gentle-looking madam opened the door. She had a beautiful figure, especially for someone pushing into their early-mid forties, but her face was starting to get a few too many lines and wrinkles. She must have been worrying herself sick about this place.

“You’re the Marquis’ men, right?”

“Yes ma’am, in fact we’re two of his right hand men,” Sostene improvised before I could protest. He wasn’t really wrong, I guess. I just never thought of myself as “right hand man” material.

She nodded, ushering us in. “I got word you were coming a few hours ago. I can’t tell you how grateful we are for your help.”

“No offense ma’am, but the place doesn’t really look that trashed. You sure this is really that serious?

“I’ve been trying to clean up around here after the last… what do you call it… manifestation, right? I’ve managed to fix the place up for you fine gentlemen, but a lot of our stock’s been destroyed, we keep finding the cash register and the manifest in hard to reach places, and they’re still trying to mop up… whatever happened backstage. I’ve never seen so many pork butts before…” Her eyes glazed over like she was remembering something absolutely horrifying, and I decided not to push the point any further. “Anyway, we haven’t been able to conduct proper business for a week now thanks to this new house guest. The girls are scared silly, and I’ve been worried sick about what’s going to happen to this place if we can’t get rid of this thing.”

“In all honesty ma’am? It’s probably gonna get burnt down for the insurance money if this doesn’t work. I don’t know what kind of sentimental value this places hold for you, but rest assured you and your employees will all get a share. I’ve known the Marquis for years, I can put a word in for you.”

“Is that so…”

“Something wrong?”

“No, it’s nothing. Everyone here will surely appreciate everything you’ve already done for us.”

“Right… That being said, could you show us the site of the first event?”

“Yes of course. It’s in the back. Follow me.”

The back of the place was nothing that special. We went down a corridor just to the side of the backstage entrance, trying to ignore the noises we could hear coming from the backstage cleanup crew. We reached our final destination at a cellar door that led to the downstairs brewery.

I whistled. The place had been totally trashed. Bottles broken, holes punched in barrels of perfectly serviceable liquor, and jagged edges cut into the sides of brewery tanks. Even some of the support beams were broken, and those things were as thick around as logs. I was beginning to feel less sure about this by the second.

“You guys got yourselves one hell of a ghost here…” Sostene remarked dryly.

“No shit big guy. It looks like someone dropped a bomb on this place.”

“As I said, it’s been wreaking havoc with our production. We haven’t been able to refresh our stocks since it started attacking us, and its slowly chipping away at the liquor we still have on shelf. There’s really only one place it hasn’t touched so far.”

My eyes perked up when I heard that. “Really now? You guys got some sort of ghost-proof panic room down here?”

“Not quite. It seems to be leaving this room alone so far, but I wouldn’t call it our panic room. It’s our vault. It’s where we keep all of our revenue and our most valuable product, so it’s the most heavily protected room in the building. I don’t know why, but it hasn’t been able to get in so far.”

“That right? Mind showing it to us?”

“Certainly, so long as you don’t expect me to let you inside. You’ll understand if I’d like to keep something so vital to this club’s livelihood under lock and key.”

“Certainly, miss…” That’s right. She never told us her name, did she?

“Madam is fine. It’s what all the girls call me, and when your job defines you as much as mine does me, you get used to being talked to like that.”

“Right then.”

The vault door covered an entire wall. “Ironclad”, “elaborate”, and “ornate” were all good words to describe it, but the first that came to my mind would probably be “expensive”, preceded by “fucking”. Just the work that went into these designs must have cost a fortune. How much money had Marq already sunk on this place?

I decided I’d ask him about it after I confirmed with him that whatever had went into making this thing had actually made it poltergeist proof. In the meantime, I searched for activity near the vault, finding scratches and gouges all around the border. Looks like the spirits’ failure to enter hadn’t been for a lack of trying. Although something about the marks was a little… off.

“Hey Madam… why isn’t there any ectoplasm around here?”

“Why? Should there be?”

“Not necessarily, but these marks on the wall make it look like the poltergeist got physical with this place. Since they’re scratch marks, I’m assuming it was using its fingernails. The physical manifestation of a dead man’s spirit typically has elongated fingernails, as death dries out the skin and exposes more of the nail than would be natural while alive. At least that’s what I’ve read about it.”

“Odd, I didn’t peg you for a scholar, Mr…”

“Just call me Alfonso. And I’m not. Kinda. Maybe I am a bit. My little sister wanted me to be a doctor, so I’ve been studying medical books and scientific journals for years now. I thought it’d help me get a job, but… that didn’t really work out.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Anyway, these kinds of marks would be possible with long enough nails and enough determination. The thing is though, there should be ectoplasm somewhere around here. The dead bleed just like the living, and scraping your nails against a wall seems like it should leave some blood behind.”

“Well…”

“What is it?”

“…”

“Anything you or the girls have to contribute is appreciated, Madam. I have perfect memory. I don’t forget things, so even tiny details can be helpful. It might help me think of something later down the road.”

“Well, it’s just… I think you might be wrong about the nails. I’ve never seen it, but some of the girls claim to have been confronted by it. The poltergeist, I mean. One of them said it had a knife.”

“Oh, a knife-wielding ghost. Great. That’s great.” I sighed. “Can you please show me the sigil you reported to the Marquis?”

She led me over to a small, rough carving that approximated what Marq had shown us back in the office. It checked out. “Well there’s yer problem. I’m gonna need to contact the Marquis to touch base and clarify a few things with him. You don’t mind if I use your phone, right?”

She shook her head. “It’s upstairs by the bar-”

The lights cut out. Everyone in the brewery went silent. A rather well-timed and abrupt interruption, if nothing else.

Something didn’t want us to leave.

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Poltergeists and Prohibition 1.2

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I woke up that morning with oily red sores all over my hands, a reminder of what had happened the night before. Shit, I’d forgotten to apply the burn cream I’d mixed up. Even went to sleep with my gloves on again. A guy who never forgets anything forgot to take off his gloves before bed. It was almost comical. I mean, what are the fucking odds?

Laughing it off wasn’t helping heal these angry glove burns, but it took my mind off it a bit. I just had to keep this hidden from Anastasia.

“Brother, what are you doing?”

Anastasia walked, or rather, rolled into the hallway in her wheelchair. Damn. I quickly hid my hands behind my back.

“It’s nothing, Annie. Anyway, what are you doing out of bed? You’re supposed to be getting rest, isn’t that what the doctor said?”

“The doctor also said I could try using the wheelchair if I felt up to it.”

“And?”

“And I felt up to it. What about you, big bro? You’re looking pretty shifty this morning.” She frowned. “You didn’t get in a fight again, did you?”

“No, of course not! What makes you think that?”

“Let me see your hands then.”

“What’s there to look at? I don’t even have my gloves on yet.”

“You’re not wearing your gloves? Okay, now I know something’s wrong. Show me your hands, Alfonse.”

Reluctantly, I held my hands out for her to see. She gasped when she saw the bright red skin

“Brotherwhathappenedtoyou?!”

I sighed. “It’s nothing, Annie.”

Wincing, I gripped the handles on the back of her wheelchair and pushed her back to her bed, all the while enduring her many questions and complaints.

“Whyareyouburned? Wasitthemob? Wereyouattacked? Didyouspillhydrochloricacidonyourself? Ihearit’sacommonhospitalaccident…”

“I told you it’s nothing, Annie. I’m fine, really.”

I picked her up gently and sat her back on her bed.

“Brother, I have a question I need to ask you.”

“Okay, shoot.”

She grabbed my hands and stared me right in the eyes. “Have you been having unprotected sex with vampires?”

“How do you even know about stuff like that?!”

“It’s in the books you bring home for me!”

Jesus…” I sigh. “No, Annie, I have not been having unprotected sex with vampires.”

“Are you sure?”

Yes.

“Alright… was it a fire witch then?”

Goodnight, Annie. I’ll see you after work.”

“Where are you going, brother?! You haven’t even cooked breakfast for me yet! Alllllll!”

I let the sizzling burn cream do its magic as I rubbed it over the red spots on my hands. I sighed with relief as the bubbly tingling sensation of healing flesh percolates over my hands and fingers. Holding it carefully so it doesn’t slip from my oiled grip, I screwed the lid back on the container of burn cream and put it back into my pocket.

Aloe vera and wormwood with some comfrey and St. John’s wort. Mix it together with some of the fat and grease from Tartary’s famous vegetable lambs and a few mystery accelerants and you got yourself a slick little salve, perfect for scrapes, cuts and burns. Substitution of a few ingredients was optional, but this was my favorite recipe. Great for stuff like this. It’s too bad I didn’t have a plantain leaf I could have used as a bandage.

Wincing, I slid my leather gloves over my hands. I felt bad about leaving Annie on her own without even making breakfast. Of course now that she felt up to using her wheelchair I made sure that there was something in the kitchen for her to eat that she could reach with it, but what if she was just bluffing and told me she was feeling better so I wouldn’t worry too much about her? What if her wheelchair fell over?

A knot grew in my stomach. That settled it. I was coming back as soon as I could, and I was gonna take Annie out for a nice lunch. It was the least a good-fer-nothing brother like me could do with all of my ill-gotten wealth. I’d be done with work as soon as I could, then I’d be back home in a flash.

I crossed the intersection into Ludlow St. Marq said I was supposed to meet Sostene before coming to meet him, but come to think of it…

I don’t care what you do with your time until then, but meet me back here eight o’clock sharp tomorrow morning. Look for Sostene, he’ll show you how to get here.

He never told me where I’d find him, did he?

“Dammit, Marq…”

The Lower East was teeming with life that morning. Kinda like a roach motel, ‘cept with more cheap clothing and greasy food stands. I looked around. This was bound to be Marq’s idea of a practical joke. He’d have me meandering downtown all morning looking for Sostene only for the big lug to jump out and surprise me right as I’d petered out. Classic, but I didn’t have time for it this morning. Not with my lunch date on the line.

The crowd was thick. Sostene was bound to be keeping a low profile, so what could I do to separate some of these people apart? I could keep a lookout for the sharp-dressers. No made guy went out on a job without his best glad-rags. What was Sostene’s favorite color? Since he was a vampire, it had to be black. Black absorbed the most sunlight, so it was ideal for…

“Alfonso, you’re a real fucking genius…” I could’ve slapped myself stupid. Sostene was a vampire. Sostene was a vampire. This wasn’t even hard, he’d be waiting for me somewhere where there wasn’t any sunlight.

I started scanning the back-alleys where the light of day had been blotted out by laundry lines and tight-packed tenement buildings. He’d be waiting for me somewhere over in there.

“‘Scuse me.”

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, and lost about an entire range of tones in my beautiful face. That wasn’t low-profile. That wasn’t low-profile at all. Sostene was right behind me, dressed in all green and yellow, and holding a bright yellow umbrella that hid him from the rays of the sun.

“You’re looking for me, right?”

We walked in awkward silence for the next five minutes. I couldn’t believe it. Talk about missing the forest for the trees. Well, maybe not, because that would imply that the forest wasn’t six foot four and carrying a sunshine yellow umbrella.

Jesus christ this was embarrassing. I felt like a scorned lover, too afraid to say anything lest I invoke Sostene’s wrath. A joke came to mind about carrying a torch, but that felt inappropriate in my current company. Try not to be racist, was the mantra I kept repeating to myself over and over again in my head. Just try not to be racist.

“What’s wrong with you?”

I jumped a little. “Who, me?”

“Yeah. You look like you think someone’s gonna jump you or something. You got bad blood in this part of the neighborhood?”

“What? Nah. Not me. They love me here.”

I waved to one of the random schmoes crossing the street like I expected him to know me, trying to throw Sostene off the trail. If he’d just let up with all the questions, maybe I could get through this without pressing any of the wrong buttons.

Sostene sighed. “This is about me, isn’t it?”

“No, really! It’s not like that!”

“It is. I can tell.”

Look, I didn’t mean to upset you, I just-”

“If you’ve got something you wanna say, just say it.”

“I’m just trying to think of what kinda stuff I shouldn’t say so you-”

“So I what? So I won’t snap and start sucking your blood out through a bendy straw? Is that it?!”

That made me freeze like a deer in a headlight. Tensed, ready to move if I had to. An instinctual response for someone as far down the foodchain as I was, even though I knew it would do me no good against a vampire.

Sostene’s sudden anger softened a bit as he got himself back under control. “Sorry. That was uncalled for. I didn’t mean to-”

“No no, it’s okay,” I reassured him. “I totally get it. Being a vamp is hard for you.”

“It’s hard for all of us. Especially someone my age. I don’t have much experience with keeping my instincts under control like this. And with the way things are right now, if I fuck up even once, it’s either the stakes or cement shoes.”

“‘Someone your age’?” I asked, daring to be curious. “What’s that mean? You look about as old as I am.”

He gave me this look. “How old are you?”

“Uhhhhh… twenty-four, I guess?”

“Huh. Must be nice, having a babyface like that.” Funny, coming from a vampire. “Anyway, what I meant was that I’m not that old compared to my father.”

I nodded. He meant the one who turned him.

“My turning was less than a hundred years ago. Compared to an elder or even an adult, I have practically no experience with any of this. Being a vampire… it’s slow learning. There are some mornings I wake up and almost forget. Then the sun leaking in through the blinds burns my skin blistering red and crispy and I remember again.”

I nodded, making sure to convey to him that I was paying close attention. So that’s what the umbrella was for. I’d heard vampires were really photosensitive, but to think they sunburned that easily…

“Anyway, I think I’m gonna turn the tables on you here. What about you then?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. Who else could I possibly be talking to? What’s being a medium like? I’ve always wondered.”

“Well, it’s not… that bad…”

Sostene snorted. “Not that bad, huh? Yeah, I walk around town gettin’ stared at because I gotta carry an umbrella just to stay out of the sunlight, and meanwhile you just have to put on your suit and tie and you can blend in with the rest of ‘em. Yeah, ‘not that bad’.”

I don’t think he valued my opinion very much. Before I can retort, he keeps going. “I mean, it’s bad enough I gotta wear my condition on my sleeve like this, but I can’t even get served decent food because no one wants to carry the kind of stuff I can actually eat. Do you know how fucking embarrassing it is to order your lunch raw from the butcher’s and just eat it in front of everyone? How humiliating it is to have people watch your every move like they’ve already decided you’re some kind of criminal? Like they’re afraid you’re going to flip and just tear someone limb from limb, and then bathe in their blood?! I can’t fucking stand it!”

“Uhhhh, Sostene?”

“Don’t interrupt. Do not interrupt me right now. Do not be that guy.” Wisely, I opted not to be that guy. “But the worst part of it is the pity. The fucking half-hearted pity. The way people look at me like I’m diseased, pretending like they care about guys like me. They’re just doing it because they’re scared. They’re doing it because they’re fucking scared of me! Because as soon as they think I’ve gone off the reservation, they’re just gonna abandon all their ‘sorry’ bullshit and pick up torches and pitchforks like everyone else in this fucking town! I mean I’m just a normal guy, right? I don’t deserve to be treated like that! I didn’t ask for this!”

“Uhhhhhhhhhhhh…”

“And look! Now you’re doing it too! Why does everyone always look at me like that?! I’m sick of it, ya hear me?!”

“No man, it’s not that, but-”

“But what?!”

I flicked my head towards two cops, one skinny and black and the other morbidly obese, who were standing on the street corner, guns drawn and pointed at Sostene. The anger immediately vanished from Sostene’s face.

“Whoa. Whoa. Whoawhoawhoa. Officers. Sirs. This is not what it looks like, I swear.”

“Just drop the umbrella, fang. No one here has to get hurt, okay?”

“No, you don’t understand. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, I just wanted to-”

The police officers tightened their grip on their guns as Sostene tried to take a step forward. “I said drop it! Are you trying to get shot? Because I’d be happy to oblige!”

“I’m trying to-”

This time, I stepped in front of Sostene, interrupting the line of sight and the conversation. It was dumb, sure, but I had to do something. If these guys kept egging Sostene on like this, someone really was going to get hurt. Defusing the situation quickly and getting Sostene and these cops far away from each other seemed like the best and only option at this point.

“Guys, guys! Let’s just all calm down here, okay? My friend didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“Your friend is menacing a public street.”

“What? Menacing? This big guy? He couldn’t menace a fly, let alone the likes of you two. Ain’t that right, Sostene?”

I mouthed at him to play along. The bulls seemed like they recognized his name, meaning they knew he was with the Allesandris. But given him being a vamp and all, I wasn’t sure that was going to stop him. Killing a wiseguy in cold blood was one thing. Killing him in self-defense because he’d gone on a meaningless rampage through town no one had authorized and would only cause the family he was in with more trouble? A bit more justifiable. I wasn’t entirely sure where Marq stood on the issue of discrimination against vampires, but for most people, that kind of story would be one hell of an easy sell.

I walked towards the cops slowly.

“Listen guys, we don’t want any trouble. My friend here don’t wanna get dead, and I’m pretty sure you fellas don’t wanna fill out any more paper work today. So how about we just go our separate ways,” I said as I slipped a wad of bills into the fat one’s pocket, “and forget this little incident ever happened, alright?”

The fat one looked towards his partner, and presumably his superior officer. He nodded.

“We’re letting your friend off with a warning this time.” Lowering his voice, he said, “Allesandri or not, I don’t wanna see this guy around here anymore, understand? Guys like him are nothing but trouble for honest fellas like us. They give the neighborhood a bad image.”

I raised an eyebrow. Like this neighborhood didn’t have a bad image already? “We understand, officer. It won’t happen again. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got a schedule to keep. You wouldn’t want to keep the Marquis waiting, right guys?”

They stiffened a bit at the mention of Marq’s name. I figured that was that. Sostene and I walked past unmolested, the crowd that had gathered parting in our wake.

“… Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. And don’t do it again. I know you’re trying hard to keep it all together man, but try a little harder, okay? Marq can get you outta jail but he can’t get you out of a body bag.”

“They wouldn’t have been able to kill me.”

“You know what I mean. Don’t go stirring up unnecessary trouble. You don’t wanna go causing Marq any problems, right?”

He nodded. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I’d appreciate it if we could just sorta… keep this to ourselves, alright? It’d make me look bad with the boss if I got told off by the new guy.”

I offered what I thought would be a reassuring smile. “Sure thing, big guy.”

We arrived at Marq’s office without much more incident. Now that I’d walked the route once and committed it to memory, I wouldn’t need Sostene to come out and chauffeur me anymore. Better for the both of us that way, I think.

“Oh hey, it’s you two,” Marq said as he finished handing off a piece of paper to some lower-level lackey. Looks like he’d forgotten I was even supposed to meet him. “What’s the word on the streets?”

“Nothing interesting,” I said, lying through my teeth to protect the promise I’d made to Sostene.

“Really? That’s weird, because I heard two buffoons got in a showdown with the police down in the Lower East Side this morning. Supposedly it was a real nail biter. You two wouldn’t happen to know anything about this, would you?”

I cringed. He knew.

“There was really nothing we could do, Marq. They were the ones who drew their guns first-”

“I disagree, there was plenty you could have done to avoid this. For one, Sostene, what have I told you about controlling yourself when you’re out in public?”

“Sorry.”

“Yeah, sure. And Al. Why the hell did you have to egg him on?”

Me?

“Yeah you, genius. What did you even say to get him so worked up? From what I hear, he was about this close to going ballistic!”

“Nothing, I-”

Marq sighed. “Forget it. I have a job for you two bozos. One of our speakos downtown has been having a run of bad luck the past few days. I want you two to go check it out.”

“What kind of bad luck?”

“The dead kind.”

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Poltergeists and Prohibition 1.1

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Looking back, I’ve begun to doubt whether I ever really had a choice in what I was going to become. No matter how many times I think about it, it just seems inevitable that one day I’d end up here.

“Alfonso Anastasio… as a child, you were baptized with water by your parents. Is this correct?”

“Yes.” I responded without hesitation. Sure, maybe I’d be a few years younger or older if I’d made a few different choices. Maybe in a few years I’d be doing this for myself, or maybe I would always have a debt to pay. Doesn’t matter. Every road I take seems to end up here.

“Well that’s good. Makes you an honest man. But today you forget about that. Because today, we’re gonna baptize you again. Welcome you into our family. This is a new stage of life for you, Al.”

The man who spoke to me from across the candlelit room was Marquis Allesandri, the youngest capo of the Allesandri family, and the illegitimate son of the Don Frankie Allesandri. I’d been a friend of his for more than ten years now. We’d practically known each other since we were both snot-nosed brats, but I’d always known even back then there was something special about Marq. Something that gave his name a little panache, a reputation. How even when we were kids, everyone knew better than to fuck with him.

Marq made a little nod at me, telling me in our own little way this was the part where I was supposed to step forward a bit and hold out my hand. I did as he asked, and this pasty-lookin’ motherfucker with a knife stepped forward and grabbed my hand, pricking me with a knife until I bled. Something in me didn’t like the way he looked at my hand as it ran like it was Marq’s allergies acting up. Now I don’t wanna sound racist or anything, but I’m pretty sure I knew right then and there what he was.

I yanked my hand back. Marq told me, “This blood means we are now family, Al. You see this gun I got here in my back pocket?” I nodded. “You see that knife Sostene just gently, lovingly stuck you with?” I nodded again. Sostene, then. Marq smiled. This was his favorite part. “From now on, this gun and that knife are your life. You’ll live by the gun and the knife, and if we tell you to, will you die by the gun and the knife?”

That would’ve been the time any normal person would’ve felt some kind of hesitation. But I didn’t. Not a thing. I just nodded my head and said yes.

Marq stood, worked his way out of the comfy chair he had parked in front of his desk. I’d always envied that chair. That thing was a nice piece of fucking work. You could tell just by looking at it that the guy who sat in that chair was someone you respected. That was a chair that from the moment it was made was destined to cradle the ass of someone with more power and respect than he should have ever deserved. You don’t see many chairs like that one anymore. I’ve tried, believe me, but I just can’t find ‘em.

He handed me a card with the picture of a saint on it, pushed it into my hand and rubbed it around until it was smeared with my blood. He took a lighter, and told me to hold out my hands while he set the card on fire, and then he told me to hold it as it burned. I tried putting in a half-hearted effort into juggling it for theatrics’ sake, but I just didn’t have it in me to pretend. Burns were nothin’ new, I had about a half-dozen reliable poultice recipes I could slather over ‘em and be just fine by tomorrow. So I just stood there and took it.

“As burns this saint so will burn your soul if you ever betray us. Everyone in this room is now your brother, your sister, your father, your mother. We are all family now. And if you ever betray that family-”

“May my flesh burn like this saint,” I finished.

“Baptism by fire, and the shedding of new blood symbolizes your birth into this family. We are one until death.” His smile widened. “Congratulations, Al, you’re one of us now!”

Marq hugged me like a brother hugged you. This was a big a moment, for both of us. The youngest capo and the youngest made man of the Allesandri family. Two brothers in soul had now become two brothers in blood. He kissed me on each cheek and laughed, practically overjoyed that I’d finally become one of the family.

“Come on guys, don’t be shy! This is a happy moment! Let’s give Al a proper welcome, eh?”

Sooner than I’d hoped, everyone was lining up to hug and kiss me. It was just sort of how things went when you became part of a family. I didn’t like it. Could never really bring myself to say I ever would like it, ‘cause of how awkward it felt to me. Marq was an exception, but I’d never really liked people touching me. It’s why I wore gloves.

Most of ‘em were sweaty and a little bit fat, and there was really only one person I looked forward to getting a hug from in the room, the fine-looking doll with the thistle-hair and thin-cut suit. But when it came time for her turn she barely touched me, a quick grab-and-release that didn’t really feel like a hug at all. Can’t lie, I was kinda disappointed.

Then it was the big man’s turn, Sostene. His hug was practically bone-crushing. I was a little nervous, armed with the knowledge of what he was that felt less like a gun in my hand and more like a stiletto. Or a toothpick. He treated me much more kindly than she had, and I felt a bit of admiration for him in spite of myself. For someone like him to be this close to fresh blood without freaking out, well… it was an amazing thing. Marq had some amazing people working for him.

Finally, all the hugging and kissing stopped, and the ceremony was over. I felt like I could barely breathe, but I was glad. This was gonna be the answer to all my problems.

“Al.” Marq put his hand on my shoulder. “You did your job well today. Better than that. I knew from the day I met you that you’d be the best of us one day. I can’t tell you how happy I am to not be disappointed. Now go home. Get some rest. Your first day as a soldier starts tomorrow. I don’t care what you do with your time until then, but meet me back here eight o’clock sharp tomorrow morning. Look for Sostene, he’ll show you how to get here.”

I don’t care what you do with your time until then… It was about then I realized what everything that just happened to me meant. I was made. No one in this city could touch me now. I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I had only one boss, and he couldn’t give a damn about what I stole, or who I killed, or anything else inbetween. In a lot of ways, it was freeing, knowing I would never again be held accountable for anything I did outside the family. But it was frightening in a lot of other ways.

Y’know, when I really think about it, all of this was that damn doctor’s fault for not giving me a job on account of me bein’ a medium. Anastasia always wanted me to work in a hospital. She said that because she knew she was sick, I think. Even back when we were kids, I’m sure she knew.

What’s an older brother to do when his little sister asks something like that? I mean the American Dream is great and all, and I’m sure it looks real nice on paper. But not everyone can be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a politician. Some people just aren’t born with those things in the cards. I shoulda known that when the first thing I did the day I met the spriggan was get high off of her herbal blends. But hey, who leaves that kind of stuff out where a kid can find it? I mean who does that?

Anyway, back to the real story. When Anastasia told me she wanted her big brother to be a doctor, I started hanging around our neighbor in the tenements, the spriggan. She was this nice old broad who’d let me watch as she mixed her salves and poultices together, and she never got mad when I touched her stuff. She didn’t really have much of a choice, I think. Even when she could, she didn’t move around much, so she knew she didn’t have the energy to stop me from messin’ around with her stuff.

That’s where it all started for me. The spriggan. I watched her every day, mixing, mashing, brewin’ and stewin’ her herbs and plants together. I learned everything from her. She never taught me of course, she didn’t have to. I was a smart kid, I could figure it out for myself. And because I’m a medium, I got something that the doctors call “eidetic memory”, whatever the hell that means. It means I don’t forget nothing. It also means that when I applied for a job at the clinic, I got turned down and they gave the job to an elf instead. Fuck that guy. Fuck him and his pointy ears.

You mighta guessed, but my promise to Anastasia didn’t really fall through. Even when I’d studied enough herbal medicine to beat the test scores of all the other guys lined up at the clinic, they still gave the job to that unnamed someone. It kinda goes without saying these days, but I’m pretty sure the reason was I’m what they call a demihuman. People who ain’t quite people. Demigods, succubi, werewolves, dwarves, fairies and all the rest of ‘em. Guys like Sostene, who I was dead sure was a vamp from the moment I met him. Some of us have it better than others, but we don’t get many nice looks when we go out for our walks on the town. Surprising how the targets of racism shift when you get a whole new group of people to hate. Blacks and whites working together in perfect harmony to put the kibosh on fur and fang.

But that just ain’t fair, is it? I’m not the one who needed that money, I couldn’t give a damn about it. Anastasia’s the one who needed it, and she wasn’t like me, she was completely human! One hundred percent. But just because someone in the family wasn’t like the rest of them, it was no job for me and an off-the-books hike in medical expenses for her. Suddenly her radiation therapy got almost twice as expensive, and I’m sure they woulda charged more if they could’ve.

I was outta options at that point. So I lied. Told Anastasia I’d gotten the job, even though I didn’t have a cent to my name and no insurance to pay her bills. That’s when I met Marq. He showed me a whole new world where I could put all that anger and desperation to use making some serious clam. Suddenly I had more money than I knew what to do with, and all I had to do to keep making it were some… slightly less than legal errands for Marq and his family. It was like a dream come true. The answer to my prayers.

Imagine my surprise when Marq told me it was just the tip of the iceberg, that there was more where that came from if I just kept doing him and his folks some favors. And one day, he would see to it that I’d become one of them, and I’d be bringing home enough bacon to pay Anastasia’s bills five times over. I couldn’t be happier.

So that’s how it was for the next ten years. I’d do Marq some favors, and maybe if I was feelin’ a bit ballsy I’d do some stuff on the side, just for me. Nothing too drastic, no dead bodies or barrels of gunpowder. Just a little bit of larceny and vandalism, maybe some assault and battery if I was in a nasty mood. I’d collect tribute from the local business and other goodfellas that worked for Marq and his folks, then I fucked up their shops and their cars if they didn’t pay up. I left messages, intercepted deliveries, got to know the guys that worked for Marq.

I immersed myself in the life of a ne’erdowell, a delinquent, and I’d never been happier. I led a double life, and the only ones who were any the wiser were Marq and the spriggan. I never told her, but I didn’t have to. She wasn’t a maroon, she knew the only place a kid like me could get that kind of money was with the mob. She never said a word though. Never lectured me or told me stop. I think she wanted me to figure that out on my own. Too bad I never did.

Anastasia though… the innocence of a child is really something. She never once doubted I was a nurse’s assistant or whatever promotion I told her I’d gotten to justify all the money I was bringing in. It hurt me at first, to just look her in those big brown doe eyes and lie right to her cute little face. It hurt me more than any of the beatings from the cops, or the guilt I felt sometimes when I passed by people whose stuff I’d wrecked. But then I remembered the little passenger riding in her gut and the medicine I was paying for to get rid of it. I remembered the machine they used to pump her full of rads, and the poison water they made her drink to help her get better. That made me forget the lie real quick.

We’d both been keeping on like that ever since. I’d go out, make some money for Marq and get some in return, then I’d spend it on medicine, come home and give it to Anastasia, then lie to her about where it came from. It wasn’t a perfect life, but it was the life I was managing. Me. Only I could keep it together and keep her alive. I’ve never forgotten that, not once. Not even on the day of my induction into the family.

I passed the door to the spriggan’s apartment. I still visited her occasionally, although she long ago lost the ability to move once she began settling her roots into the tenement walls. We don’t really talk. I just help her mix and brew. And every time I visit, I ask her if she’s thought of something we can make together that would help Anastasia. She’s stayed silent every time.

With a bag of Anastasia’s medicine in one hand, I jammed the rusty key into the door of our apartment. The door opened, and I walked in to say hi to Anastasia, to lie to her face and give her the medicine I bought with blood money, just like I always did.

She heard me close the door, and turned to give me the biggest smile she could manage. She was so pale, even her silky black hair that used to make her look like a princess had grown dull, lacking sheen. But I still thought she was beautiful. My little alabaster doll.

“Welcome home, big brother. How was the hospital today?” She saw me frown a little. “Don’t tell me Dr. Smith is still giving you a hard time about those errands you were supposed to run?”

“Oh, you know how it is, Anastasia,” I said, steeling myself for the lie I’d told so many times. “You do what you have to do to put food on the table.”

“Yeah, I guess… well if there’s any money left over, do you think you could buy me some new books? I get tired of laying here just staring up at the ceiling.”

“Come on, I just bought you some last month. You can’t have finished all of ’em already,” I said with a smile, tussling her hair. “Why don’t you just try rereading some of them?”

“I can’t do that! Then it’s just same old, same old!”

“But same is good, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, same is good, I guess. Even if it does get a little boring…”

I tried consoling her. “Tell you what. I’ll pick a few up for you tomorrow. But only enough to last until the end of the month, got it?”

Beams of light practically radiated from her every expression, and I couldn’t help but feel happy in spite of myself. Same is good, huh… The phrase bit into my tongue. Now that “same” was the one thing I was never going to be able to get her.

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