I spread a thick poultice over the cut on my hand. I’ve taken to carrying some of these and a few different kind of salves wherever I go. Kinda like a handerkerchief, except I had to get rid of that to make room. Kinda wish I had it now though. Would be more comfortable than wrapping this in a booze-soaked bar towel.
“You know, when I asked you if you knew anything that might help us figure out what the stiff wanted, it would have been very helpful to mention the fact that it graffiti’d its demands all over the joint in fucking blood.”
I enunciated with a fair bit of piss and vinegar. Why shouldn’t I? I mean, I could have died back there. Sostene did die! For christ’s sake, that’s not the kind of information you keep to yourself during a haunting!
The Madam gave me the doe-eyes. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t want you to see that and write the Castaway Club off as a lost cause. Truth be told, we did our own investigation, and we couldn’t find any trace of what was used to bind the ghost here, or who might be trying to sabotage our business. I made the decision to cover up the graffiti so you wouldn’t be driven away.”
I sighed. “Come on, give me a break, lady. Don’t you know that’s dangerous to not tell us stuff like that? You and the girls could really get hurt doing that kind of shit. I mean, you got Sostene killed, and I’m pretty sure he don’t appreciate that.”
I noticed some of the girls take a step back. They seemed afraid. Had they misheard something I said?
The Madam took a step towards me, her eyes as hard as plate-steel. She slapped me open-hand.
“I will take full responsibility for myself and my actions, but leave my girls out of it. I will not tolerate threats to my employees.”
Dazed and confused, I just apologized without even knowing what I’d done wrong.
Was it something I said?
“So, do you have any ideas about what we do next?”
I sighed, still rubbing my cheek. “Honestly? Not a one. We have no idea who’s spirit this even is, so we have no idea how to go about burning their remains, and we can’t give in to its demands without abandoning the place entirely, which would be…”
“I suppose it’s inevitable then, isn’t it?” The Madam allowed herself a moment to look downcast, then returned to her previous composed demeanor. “Very well then. If you are to burn the Castaway to the ground, will you at least grant me, grant us one final request? I want to be there when it happens. The Castaway holds fond memories for us all, and while I know it would be impossible for all of us to share in its passing, I would like to at least be able to shoulder the burden in everyone else’s place. Anything else would be an insult to its memory.”
Hearing somebody talk that way about a bar… it wasn’t something that you heard someone say every other day.
“The Castaway really means that much to you girls, huh?”
The Madam shook her head. “Not just us. We’ve been a cornerstone of the night life in this district for years. Looking back and remembering all the lonely, the sad, and the broken we’ve taken in and sheltered from the cold, and the smiles we’ve all shared between passes of the glass… I’d be shocked if even half of them said they wouldn’t miss the Castaway.”
I resisted the temptation to snort. “What about the hobos, the drunkards, the politicians and the slime?”
She shrugged. “Every family has its black sheep, Mr. Alfonso. Despite their defects or their deviances, they’re still your blood. Even when my ex-husband and I split on less than friendly terms, I never regretted the time I spent with him. Not once.”
I won’t deny it. It made me stop and think a bit. About me and Annie. Was I her black sheep? Would she forgive me like the Madam would if she ever found out what I was doing to support her, keep her healthy? Or would she despise me for paying for her bills with blood money?
As a brother who loved his sister, it was a question worth asking. But the answer I kept coming back to was that this wasn’t about me or my feelings. This was about Annie. I decided a long time ago that if it ever came to that, she could hate me all she wanted. I’d still do whatever I could to get her the money.
Did that make me a horrible person? Maybe. I’d kill anyone for her, do anything to save her. But wouldn’t any older brother?
“She gave you her blessing to burn the place down, huh?” Marq raised an eyebrow at me.
“Yep,” I sighed. “She seemed really torn up about it though. Can’t imagine what the poor lady’s going through.”
“And you’re sure there’s nothing we can do to save it?”
“Am I sure? No, probably not. In fact, I’d say it’s probably still possible. But we’d need more time, more men… and a lot more money for fixing the place up when we’re done. I know I’m not really used to being your employee yet, so try to understand I’m being as respectful about this as I can be. Leave it. It isn’t worth the shit, Marq. Not unless you wanna ask for a favor from the Vitalis-”
“Don’t even start with me.” Marq leaned back in his chair and sighed, looking for all the world like a guy who’d just gotten the worst news of his life. “Dammit… you said it hasn’t gotten to the safe, right?”
“Yeah. Which really don’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I mean, even if it is a poltergeist proof safe, why not just destroy the wall around it and drag it off? Is it just not interested? It’s been making off with booze and the rest of the money in the register…”
I watched Marq’s expression change. Darken.
“Why hasn’t it?”
“You sure that’s the question you want to be asking right now, Marq?”
“Just answer the goddamn question, Al. Why hasn’t it attacked the safe?” Marq’s silhouette had gone dark. Obscured entirely in his own shadow, the only light he was reflecting was coming off of his yellow, snake-like eyes. I’m not too proud to say it. In this moment, he intimidated me more than the poltergeist had.
“Well…” The more I thought about it, the less it made sense. The ghost was willing to wreck, destroy, and steal everything that wasn’t nailed down, but it hadn’t taken the safe. It hadn’t even tried. If it wanted to, really wanted to, it could have ripped the entire thing out of the wall and dragged it halfway across the city in one night. But it didn’t, even when we’d clearly seen evidence of a manifestation immediately surrounding the safe.
So if it was having fun smashing booze and making money from the register mysteriously disappear, why was it leaving the safe alone?
“… You think we’re being played, don’t you?”
“Like a fiddle.”
I groaned. Unbelievable. “At least tell me the damn thing’s actually real.”
“Who knows. Someone capable of binding a ghost like this could easily control it. That is, of course, assuming the ritual itself wasn’t a fake.”
Sostene finally spoke up. “So you’re telling me I got sliced up because some asshole thought faking a haunting would be funny?”
“‘Fraid so, Sostene.”
“Goddammit!” Sostene lost control of himself again and punched a hole clean through the wall. Marq just sighed.
“You do know it’s stuff like that that gets you funny looks from the pigs, right?”
“Uh…” Sostene said lamely, just now realizing he’d stuck his hand so far through the wall he could open the door on the other side. “Sorry…”
“If you were really sorry, you’d learn to control yourself a bit better.”
“… you know it’s not that easy…” Sostene mumbled.
“Look. Just get back to the Castaway. This isn’t done yet, and I don’t want you back here until it is. Find out who’s playing us, and take him out like he’s yesterday’s trash. Got it? If you still can’t get rid of his ghost friend once that’s done, bring everything in the safe back to me and torch the place.”
We both nodded.
“Oh, and Al. Before you go, I got these for you. Forgot to give ‘em to you at the ceremony.” He pushed a revolver and a classic Italian switchblade towards me from across the desk. The knife in particular caught my eye due to its quality. Polished royal oak with gold-embossed pearl and a decorated obsidian blade sharpened to the width of only a few molecules. It was a high-roller kind of knife. “Our standard benefits package. The gun’s loaded in .357 magnum and the knife is enchanted. Self-sharpening. They’ve both been engraved in your name.”
I looked, and sure enough, they were. It was carved into the barrel of the gun and the heel of the knife in loopy, italicized calligraphy. Alfonso Anastasio.
“You didn’t need to do this, Marq.”
“Do what? Like I said, we do this kind of stuff for every made guy,” he said, even though he was obviously lying. “Let me know if the gun feels weird or anything in your hands. I can have someone fix it up for you. Longer barrel, tighter grip, the works. It’s on me.”
I smiled at my new boss in spite of myself. “Thanks, Marq.”
“Thanks for what?” He returned the smile knowingly. “Now get out of here. I said I had a job for you two and I want you to finish it. We can go out for a nice steak dinner once it’s done.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
Whatever her feelings were, the Madam sure as hell looked confused when we showed up back at her door that afternoon. She mustn’t have had the foggiest why we were back after we’d told her the place was getting torched this very night. After a while she just greeted us with a shocked “You’re back,” then let us into the club. Some of the girls gave us dirty looks, but most of ‘em just didn’t know what to think either.
“Not the warmest of welcomes,” I mumbled to Sostene.
“Really? This is pretty tame by my standards.”
I cleared my throat. “Relax ladies. I come bearing good news.”
“And that would be?” the Madam questioned, still somewhat suspicious of our motives.
I grinned. “We have determined with the help of our employer, the Marquis, that the Castaway Club may yet be saved. Please, hold your applause until the announcement is over.”
“And how did you come to this conclusion?” the Madam said coldly, eyeing us with steel and venom. “Hopefully you put more thought into it than your first deduction, because clearly it wasn’t as sound as you first thought.”
I backed up a bit. “Whoa whoa whoa, easy Madam. What’s gotten into you? I thought you woulda been the happiest to hear this.”
“Normally yes, but given how quickly you’ve changed your minds, I’m beginning to doubt the worth of your ‘professional opinion’.”
“Are you saying you doubt the Marquis?”
“No. Far from it, I trust him implicitly. But that same trust doesn’t extend to you just because of mere association. I’ve known you for less than a day, and already you’ve told me the club I’ve suffered and bled for has to be burned down for insurance money, only to turn around and tell me it can still be saved less than twelve hours later? I don’t know what brought on this sudden revelation of yours, but you’ll excuse me if it feels opportunistic.”
“Please, Madam. We don’t intend anything of the sort.”
“Good. Because I won’t allow you to raise my hopes only to mercilessly crush them. Only a thug treats a woman like that, and I would expect better from the Marquis’ men. Are we understood?”
First the slap, now this? This was just getting humiliating. “Come on lady, you can’t just go around talking to made guys like that. It really pisses all over our image-”
“Are we understood?”
I sighed. “Yes’m.”
What can I say? I know when I’m defeated. And like many healthy young men, that’s when I’m faced with a good-looking doll in a one-piece dress.
“Good. You may continue your investigation as needed. I won’t stop you, and neither will the girls. But if any more damage befalls my property under your watch, I will consider you implicated. Understood?”
Sostene and I both replied in turn this time. “Yes’m.”
Such a great knife, and this is the first thing I’m using it for.
Working carefully, I carve out the sigil out from under the wooden bar until it fell into my hand, a neat little circle of wood. The sigil was thankfully spared from the glass assault of the previous night.
“Remind me why we’re vandalizing the Madam’s bar again?” Sostene asked me. “That woman scares the piss out of me. She’s like a momma bear…”
“Because we still need this,” I said, clutching the wood circle tightly. “If we can’t get our hands on any of the remains, we might need to try spell deconstruction, assuming this thing exists. I doubt we’d be able to get our hands on the specific ingredients we’d need to break apart this little number, but it’s worth safeguarding just in case. Plus, if someone were to damage the sigil itself, it might fuck with the spellwork, which would be… bad.”
“That’s… pretty bad.”
“No shit, sherlock. Anyway, I need you to take this to the Madam. Have her throw it in back in the safe, at least until we’ve figured all this out.”
I tossed the sigil to Sostene. He caught it, nodding.
“Where do we go from there?”
“Standard operating procedure. We check out anyone who might have a connection to this place and a motive for wanting it gone, and we work from there. The ex-husband she mentioned this morning sounds like a good place to start. Gotta be a lot of happy memories there.”
Funny how things work out sometimes. My first job as a member of the family and I feel more like a detective than a mobster. Go figure.
Sostene left, and for the next few minutes, everything was quiet. The girls who were still with us went about their business with cleaning and maintenance, and some of them even sang onstage. But it was all background noise. No one listening, and nothing to hear.
After I’d gotten up to go to the bathroom in the back, the oppressive silence was finally broken. I just wish it could’ve been a more pleasant sound.
A sharp scream tore through the club. I could tell immediately from the club’s acoustics that it was coming from the stage. Concluding my business, I made myself presentable before wrenching the door open so hard I felt some of the hinges squeak. The poltergeist manifests in the middle of the investigation and I’m caught with my pants down. Inconvenient.
I rush out to the club atrium in front of the stage, and immediately the worst case scenario is confirmed. We’ve just found someone’s body on-stage.