Month: July 2014

Bonus Interlude (Theo)

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“Goddammit!” Mickey Donahue slammed his calloused fist onto the scratched and chipping bartop, wincing as a piece of wood too large to call a splinter nearly dug into the open sores on his hands. Burns from that damn explosion. He grabbed the bottle of rubbing alcohol Chubbs had been using to sterilize his injuries and downed half of it, pouring the rest down his shirt while his underlings looked on in shock.

“Mickey, cool your jets! You’re lucky you got out of that alive, you shouldn’t be-”

Mickey smashed the alcohol bottle and swung it at Gresham Walsh, planting the sharpened glass deep into his shoulder. Gresham screamed, and collapsed to the floor.

“Don’t you ever tell me what you think I am, you fucking prick!”

Planting one foot firmly between Gresham’s lungs and colon, Mickey continued kicking the crap out of his erstwhile lackey until he coughed up blood and passed out. Still boiling, Mickey ripped off his shirt to get at his flak jacket. One of many items Mickey had lifted from the police in the past, the enchanted vest had shielded him from most of the damage he would have taken in the blast. But it was sticking to him now, and it had started to smell.

In the corner, the homunculus watched Mickey, trying as hard as she could to stay out of sight. Her face betrayed concern, but not for Mickey. It was a veneer, an excuse. The only concern she had right now was for herself.

She resisted the irrational urge to express her anger with violence, biting her tongue and staying her hand. Why? Why couldn’t he have just died back there? It was perfect! The kind of scenario that guaranteed an unavoidable death even with a human shield, the perfect timing and flawless execution… those kinds of conditions would never just happen on their own ever again. And still it had failed to kill him. Only cause her more pain.

She squeezed her arm tightly to release her frustration, digging into the flesh with such force that a few of the men around her began scratching their arms in phantom pain. Why? What had to happen for her to be free? If the Fates’ perfect storm had failed to kill Mickey, then what chance did she-

No. She had to breathe. Thoughts like that were born of emotion, not reason. Emotion wasn’t reliable. Keeping her head down, remaining calm, cool, and rational. These were the things that would help her escape her current situation. Not blind fury and pointless frustration. She needed to calm herself. End the cycle before it began. No, what she needed was a hit.

She stopped herself. Not now. Not now. She had to wait. Ration it out. There wasn’t much of it left, and if she ran out…

A voice in the back of her mind told her, Why bother? It’s gonna stop working sooner or later. You can feel it, right? Enjoy it while you can…

She resisted that line of thought. There was no choice but to bear with it. And if running out wasn’t enough of a reason, then not lighting up in front of Mickey was. If he found out, what little she had left would be gone. And then she would have to remember. She would…

Completely at random, the homunculus chose to burn a hole in some of the men nearest to her with her eyes to take her mind off of things for a few minutes. They’d been staring at her for a while now, their eyes wide with lust. Best dispel that before Mickey saw them and got any ideas. She didn’t need that right now.

Seeing her stare death at them made the men back off a bit, their eyes roaming elsewhere. It wouldn’t last long. Eventually they’d regain their bravery and they’d be back, wetting their mouths like hyenas patiently waiting for a piece of fresh carrion.

Let them.

She had nothing to fear from the lingering eyes of other men. Mickey wouldn’t let them touch her without his permission. He didn’t like feeling like he was missing out on any of the fun. As long as they didn’t talk to Mickey, she’d be fine. And he didn’t look like he was in the mood.

But she still felt foul. Like tiny worms were crawling through her capillaries, trying to get at her nerve endings.

She reflected back on her memories of her creator, hoping to find some kind of calm in the middle of the storm. He had been an exceptionally plain man named Erik. Substandard in every way, no considerable detail about him stood out from the ordinary. He was an exceedingly normal human being, and that kernel of truth was the focal point of the one thing that set him apart; the screaming storm of emotions and complexes that raged at him in dissatisfaction, insisting that he was meant for more.

Erik had aspirations to be a man who would do great things. He was just too weak-willed to actually take the steps towards doing them on his own. In many ways, a common human plight. Erik did, however, have an uncommon problem. He couldn’t stand for being ordinary. He hated it. Perhaps that desire to stand out was why he chose to name her as he did: Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.

Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim frowned as her memories faltered. They were nowhere near as vivid, as lucid as they were when she was on her daily dose. She could hear the little imp in the back of her mind talking again, scraping at the door. She had to think back. Remember more of the details. She could never achieve that same recall sober, but if she could just escape for a little bit, maybe, just maybe it would help her calm down.

There was an idea that Erik had gotten in his head that if he were to somehow create a companion who could do the hard work for him, he could surpass his helplessness and mediocrity and take charge of his life. The logic behind this idea always baffled Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, but she suspected it was a prerogative born of emotion rather than logic.

It was that longing that led him to learn alchemy from secondhand 15th century Renaissance manuals (not entirely helpful) and discarded fae grimoires (much more helpful). In his quest he immersed himself in pseudoscientific learning and occultism largely consisting of studies in the creation of artificial life and immortality, and other means by which one could obtain certain forms of power over others.

While never a focal point of his research, sympathetic magic was a favorite of Erik’s. She could vividly remember him reading aloud from textbooks on the subject while she was still in the incubation stage, his voice reverberating through the flask with fascination and passion. As a man with very few friends, he was enamored with the idea of a methodology that could quickly and easily forge a bond between two people, for better or worse.

Eventually, his research hit a critical point, and he decided he would need to do something dangerous if he was to complete his perfect partner, his sword and shield. Nearly getting himself killed in the process, Erik went about conducting illegal experiments involving vampirism when the topic was still a matter of hot academic debate, not to mention a social hot-button for controversy. He would invite vampires into his home to conduct experiments on them at great personal risk to himself, learning a little more from each of his “guests” before releasing them back into the streets. Not all of them cooperated or had any interest in helping him with his scientific pursuits, so he was often attacked. Some of them fed briefly and left. Others didn’t. A few were killed in self-defense, but as mentioned earlier, Erik was a weak and exceedingly ordinary man.

Finally, he had the knowledge he needed to complete her, and release her from the purgatory of the incubation phase. Using what he’d learned in his unorthodox experiments, he attempted to create through her his idea of the perfect sword and shield. A false aegis, born of ethically questionable experiments into vampirism and hoodoo, bonded with an artifact of great power. Or a fragment of one at least.

She shivered, momentarily breaking out of her memory trip. She still felt it, coursing through her bloodstream. After all the modifications he’d made to her organs and other life-sustaining features, he’d taken it, that tiny shard of a mythic weapon, and melted it down into boiling hot iron, barely enough to fill a thimble but potent all the same, and then injected her with it. He’d been confident she could survive it. And she had. That test was the final day of her development, and the day he’d given her a name of her own.

Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim could never remember having any particularly strong feelings for her creator beyond the bond of obligation one feels towards their progenitor, but she had to admit he took care of her all the same. He practically fawned over her day and night, teaching her and filling her head with information, instilling within her a desire to read and develop on her own. He was an adequate caretaker.

Then Mickey Donahue happened.

No, she didn’t want to remember that! She need to think of something else!

You see, the critical flaw in making her the way he did was assuming that having a powerful companion made you powerful as well. No matter how potent the magic that she was imbued with was, it didn’t make him any less vulnerable to the actions of those who would wish to steal it from him. And that was exactly what happened.

She had been gone running errands for Erik as homunculi often do and indeed are expected to, only to return home to find that an armed gang of street thugs had broken in and were holding Erik hostage while they ransacked the house for valuables. She had done what any loyal servant would have and began systematically disabling the threat to her master, until one of them, the man she’d come to know as Mickey, pulled a gun on her master and held it to his head.

From any range there was nothing she could have done. While she had inherited the self-restoring physiology of a vampire, she didn’t have the same speed she would need to save someone from a point-blank gunshot to the head. She had to comply with Mickey’s demands or Erik would be shot.

Unfortunately, her attempts to dissuade his gang from any further action had only piqued Mickey’s interest in her. He was a vulgar man, so she expected he would have made similar demands for other reasons given the chance, but in acting as she did she’d set in motion a series of events that would determine the course of her own future, and Erik’s.

Think of something else, think of something else, think of something else

His demands were simple. A complete transfer of the geas binding a familiar (her) to its master (Erik). He wanted what was inside her for himself, and demanded Erik forfeit the contract to him in exchange for his own life. An exchange of blood between her and Mickey would seal the contract and give him power over the weapon she held inside her, but nothing could be done until the existing contract was rendered null, meaning Erik had to willingly forfeit the geas to Mickey. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t matter if Mickey killed him or not. Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim could only serve the one to which she was bound to by contract. If he died, she would become a free agent, slave to no one.

Unfortunately, Erik was an exceedingly normal, and cowardly man.

He forfeited the contract in fear for his own life, and was immediately shot in the head by Mickey. He forced himself on her and sealed the contract with a bite on her lip, shoving himself into the open wound in an attempt to swap fluids. She remembered the initial sensation, and it disgusted her. His smell. His taste, of which she had become so familiar.

After she had come under the ownership of Mickey Donahue, it had been nothing but misfortune after misfortune. She became his toy, one he and his friends played with roughly and frequently. There was little respite between his abuse and the abuse he made her take in his place, and sometimes she feared she would break, quite literally into pieces, both mentally and physically. Lately she’d stopped thinking like that. She’d come to realize that death, while still undesirable, would be better than remaining Mickey’s plaything. However, she lacked the ability to die, or even end her own life. So that left her with the only remaining option: escape.

It wasn’t easy for a homunculus to disobey its master. There were numerous failsafes in check in the geas system used to regulate binding contracts between individuals, whether they be equals or master and servant, and none of them were easy to circumvent. She could do her master no harm, she could not by inaction or negligence allow her master to come to harm, she could not disobey her master’s commands, she could not self-terminate or willingly put her own life in danger unless it was in defense of her master, and she could not knowingly disobey any of these rules unless given explicit permission by her master. As one would imagine, such laws were made to make escape or resistance difficult. To make matters worse, these instructions were engraved on her very soul, written over her Impetus. If she wanted to revolt against Mickey, she could only do it in the most roundabout way possible.

But she’d been careful. She’d thought her plan through to the end. If she could not aid in her own escape, then she’d have to enlist outside help to sabotage Mickey’s operation in a way that complied with the restrictions placed on her. She’d need to discreetly get in contact with one of Mickey’s enemies, one whom she could trust for as far as one could trust career criminals. If she managed that, they could arrange a large scale operation that would attack on multiple fronts, distracting Mickey without putting him in any real danger long enough for her to be captured and confined somewhere she couldn’t lash out under Mickey’s orders. Once she was disconnected from Mickey, it’d be trivial for her erstwhile saviors to wipe him and his gang of armed thugs off the map.

It was a plan which would involve an enormous amount of precision, and more than a little luck. She hated that. Luck. She’d had none of it so far in the brief few months she’d been alive. Why should she start trusting it now? Still, she had no other options. The consequences for failure would be harsh, but no humiliation or pain of the flesh could compare to the indignity she faced living as Mickey’s pet. His doll.

The horrible memories she’d tried to repress started trickling back into her mind like dirty tap water, dripping, dripping, dripping until she went insane. There had to be something else she could think of. Anything that would help her take her mind off of this until she could just get her fix somewhere away from Mickey! She couldn’t do this if she was thinking about these things!

Thankfully, she did have one advantage. Mickey was vastly ignorant of the real power the contract afforded him. He only knew the most basic rules and stipulations, whereas she had every clause and sub-clause burned into her brain. As long as he remained ignorant of what he could really do with her, then the chances of her plan succeeding rose tremendously. There was only one remaining wild card.

Her messenger.

Alfonso Anastasio. She had only just heard the name, but chosen him at random to deliver her message. Why was that? Initially she was convinced she had made the decision out of trust in the (somewhat) noble intentions of the Allesandri family. They were an organization of extortionists, smugglers, murderers and thieves, men of a criminal nature just like Mickey, but they still had their principles. A code which they followed, something to keep them honest. While delivering her message to him, she’d come to the conclusion that her decision had been made for these very reasons.

But was she really so sure? Was her decision truly the most logical one to make in this scenario? Did she really trust the Allesandris? Or did she trust him?

She’d seen the way he looked at her. That mixture of pity, muted horror, and anger. She had no way of discerning his true character, but she felt like, in that moment, he had understood her, felt her pain, and extended to her something neither Mickey or Erik had ever given her before.

Empathy

She cried a little inside, betraying no outwards emotion. Stupid. It was stupid to let something like that influence such an important decision. If he behaved unpredictably, the entire plan could be ruined. She had ways of anticipating and calculating Mickey’s actions, as well as the Pescatorre and Allesandri dons. They each had a carrot dangling in front of them. Something they wanted. She could not say for sure if Alfonso Anastasio was the same way. She could only hope. And hope had not served her well so far.

The faint noise of murmured conspiracies freed her, gave her something to focus on. She saw some of the men whispering to Mickey about something. She tensed. Mickey slapped the man.

“Not on your fucking life.”

Like she’d thought. He wasn’t in the mood for sharing or playing. She began to relax.

“Oi. What do you think you’re doing over there?”

His words hit her like a ton of bricks. Even though he hadn’t yet issued a command, she felt the compelling draw of his intent, like voices screaming at her in her head. It looked like she’d been wrong about the severity of Mickey’s mood. Or maybe a little too right.

Smiling sadistically, Mickey grabbed something from inside his jumper pocket. A bag filled with bright, crushed leaves from a dried out plant that smelled faintly and sweetly of honey. Her bag.

It was at that moment she physically felt herself lose whatever hope she’d had left that things were going to be okay, even if it was just for one more day. Where had he found her stash? How did he know it was hers? These questions were irrelevant. All that mattered was that Mickey was holding the only thing standing between her and the talking imp, standing arms open at the gates of Hell. She needed what was in that bag.

“You want it back?” he said, making his intentions clear. So that was his deal. If she willingly humiliated herself for him again, he’d give her back her hope. It wasn’t a fair bargain. But it didn’t have to be.

She swallowed her pride, and approached Mickey, doing her best not to show the pain when he kicked her in the shin and forced her down on her knees. This would hurt, but for now, it was better to just give in. She wouldn’t remember this soon anyway. Don’t resist him. Fighting it would only prolong the humiliation, make it harder to forget. If having the bag back meant she could just make it one more day, and tell herself tomorrow she’d be free, then maybe she’d be okay. One more day would become one more week, and one more week would become one more month, but as long as she kept telling herself tomorrow she’d be free, she’d be okay.

She had to be okay.

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Snatch 2.5

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There might be one thing I don’t remember. I don’t remember waking up. Not when I sleep, and not when I get knocked the fuck out by a massive explosion. All I can recall is my body hurting, my arms hurting, my chest hurting. Everything was hurting, but especially my chest.

I managed a feeble groan. It was almost a given that I’d broken a few ribs. Maybe all of them. Then again, if I was lucky, maybe some of them would just be cracked. I tried moving.

… nope. Not happening.

I tried slowly lowering myself back into the sitting position I’d woken up in. I had to be careful, otherwise I could really hurt myself agitating my injuries. Then again, that may have already been irrelevant.

As I laid back, I realized I’d somehow crashed into a fence, which had now bent into a shape that would accommodate my frame. Kinda like a seat, except a lot harder on account of it being made of steel and all.

The vision in one of my eyes was tinted red and growing steadily redder, and I realized I might have a serious head injury in addition to the literally innumerable bruises and broken bones I’d wake up to tomorrow, assuming I lived that long in this state. Briefly I recall Nayeli’s own wounds, how I could see her skull split open like an egg last time I’d seen her. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to be thinking just then, but all I could muster up about that was a feeble ew, gross.

I tried moving again, this time just parts instead of my whole body. Something had to be working, because otherwise I wouldn’t have a chance in hell of saving myself, much less Nayeli. I’d been blasted so far back I’d taken the fence with me and careened into a back alley, wedged between two overturned dumpsters and well out of sight. I had to let people know where I was so I could get out of here, and move on to more important things.

Like for one, stopping Mickey.

A bit ambitious in my state I know, but you know what they say, it’s never too late to hope. I tried moving a few fingers with some success. A bit too ambitiously, I went on to moving my arms and got nothing out of it but an unpleasant grinding sensation and mind-numbing pain in my rightmost extremities. Okay, broken arm too. No biggie. I remembered something else they said about hope.

Hope in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills up first, motherfucker.

So getting myself out of this wasn’t an option. Had to place my bets on someone else saving my skin then. Never the best option, but often the last. If we were gonna go down that road though, I had to get someone to notice me. I couldn’t move or make any kind of signal that would point people in my direction, so I had to do something pretty dumb.

Yell for help at the top of my lungs in New York City and hope whoever stopped didn’t decide to just take my wallet and leave me for dead.

I tried to yell for help but instead I just coughed violently right after the first syllable. Small flecks of red land on my white suit. That’s blood. Great.

I tried not to be too negative about it. It could just be from my mouth. I had to have shaken something loose in there that was bleeding after being sent flying like that. Yeah right. Okay, so diagnosis currently remains at broken arm, dislocated and/or broken leg, and either cracked or broken ribs that were, at best, uncomfortably tickling my lungs. At worst… well at worst, my broken ribs had perforated my breathing bags and I had serious internal bleeding, which meant one of my lungs was slowly filling up with blood.

Fantastic.

“I hear something.” Oh my god no fucking way. “If you’re Allesandri or Pescatorre, make some more noise! We’re coming to help.”

I tried violently coughing again to get their attention. The voices got closer, and to more of my relief than I will ever be able to explain to anyone else, Marq and Sostene rounded the corner into the alley.

“I see feet, I see feet!” Sostene exclaimed dramatically. Yeah, no shit sherlock. Get over here already and help me up.

“Oh shit, Al…” I hear Marq whisper softly. I try my best to respond.

“Yeah… good to see you too, asshole.” That was all I could manage before I started coughing again. Taking it slower, I tried saying, “What took you so long?”

“Don’t talk you fucking idiot!” Marq said, his bedside manner harsher than mine. “You look like hell! You have any idea how fucking worried we were about your sorry ass?!”

I tried not to laugh. It hurt too much.

“Well, unless you know a really good doctor, you might wanna keep worrying, ‘cause uh… I’m pretty sure like ninety percent of me is busted to hell. I was an aspiring doctor, y’know. And right now,” I coughed, “I’m pretty sure my prognosis is, to use a clinical term, ‘fucked’. Unless of course you know someone with enough mojo to refit about… three dozen broken bones. That and a ruptured lung.”

The effort it took to string that many words together uninterrupted strained me enough that I hacked up another phlegmy wad of blood onto my suit. Marq frowned.

“I don’t, but… I might have the next best thing.”

He carefully reached into his coat to grab something. His grip was ginger and delicate, like he was handling stained glass. Turns out, it was something better. What he held in his hand was liquid miracles. He noticed the smile I’d unconsciously started to make, and couldn’t help grinning a bit himself.

“As luck would have it, I brought some ambrosia I’ve been hoarding for a few years. Lucky coincidence, huh?”

“Luck my ass. If there really is a God, he should be licking your feet right now, you fucking saint. Seriously…” I smile in earnest. “You do me more good than I’m worth, Marq.”

He didn’t bother dignifying that with a response. Instead, he went back to what looked like fucking surgery as he went about opening a bottle that was probably more valuable than the combined property values of this entire street. His motions were precise to the point of being robotic. I got the feeling he’d practiced doing this just in case of an emergency.

He untwisted the cap on the tiny little glass bottle, and stuck a dropper in it. He squeezed the rubber bulb just enough to get one drop of the golden liquid into the tube, and then took it out, making sure it didn’t drag any more than that one drop out of the bottle. I eyed it warily. Even going by the hype, it didn’t seem like enough to amount to much.

“Is this all you’re giving me?”

“It’s more than enough, trust me. My father would strangle me if he knew I was using this to save the lives of soldatos, especially ones from the Pescatorre family. It’s worth literally cannot be overstated, especially on the black market. If they could, some people would sell the moon for this stuff.”

I couldn’t blame them. Ambrosia was a miracle medicine, one of the rarest substances in the world behind adamantine and the three alchemical ideals. It could heal any and all injuries and even rejuvenate the body enough to fight off illness. For a time at least. Supposedly, if you drank enough of it you could become immortal. What else would you expect when making it required you to distill ichor, the blood of gods? That kind of task was beyond impossible. Not only was the brewing process incredibly difficult and liable to go foul with the slightest mistake, but the most basic component was so rare pursuing it was borderline suicidal.

I had no idea where Marq or his father had gotten this. The only guys I’d ever heard of who had this stuff were people who’d sold their souls to demons for it. That and people like Nayeli, demigods and special mortals who had the gods on speed-dial. It wasn’t something you just had lying around is my point. And it definitely wasn’t something you could let go to waste.

“Now I’m only giving you enough to mend your aches and pains and set your broken bones. No more internal bleeding, and you’ll be able to walk again once it fully sets in. But that’s it. Once it’s done, it’s done. With only this much, the stuff you broke is still gonna be as fragile as stained glass for a few days while your body finishes fixing you up. You take a good punch anywhere, and your bones are gonna snap like twigs.”

“So that means no strenuous exercise?”

“No strenuous exercise.”

“No fighting?”

“No fighting.”

“And no going after Mickey Donahue to punch my ring into his motherfucking face?”

Especially not that. Look, Al, you’re not gonna be anywhere near well enough to do anything until you rest up. Taking on Mickey is a pipe dream in your state.”

“Nuh uh. Fuck that.” I coughed again. “I’ve gotta help out somehow. Sitting back in some hospital bed while everyone else gets to have all the fun? That’s gonna fucking kill me, Marq. Besides, I owe that bastard Mickey for what he did to us back there.”

Marq frowned. “Us? You mean…”

“Yeah, boss-man. He got to Nayeli.”

Suddenly everything about him changed. There it was again. The business face. Eyes dark, pupils slit, and an expression that didn’t need words to tell you what he was thinking. Someone was gonna pay in blood for this. Even Sostene seemed afraid of him when he was like this.

Marq squeezed the dropper into my mouth, and I immediately feel it taking effect.

“Alright, you want to help me you dumb bastard? Tell me where to find Nayeli.

The ambrosia worked ridiculously fast. I could feel a warm, numbing sensation block out all the pain I was feeling, while my bones started moving around in ways that would probably otherwise be extremely painful as they fit themselves back together in their rightful places. The bleeding stopped, and I could feel myself breathe normally again, and finally when the numbness started wearing off, I could wiggle my toes and bend my joints and just, well, move.

I got up, and dusted myself, looking Marq in the face.

“Central Park. Let’s hurry.”

Finding Nayeli wasn’t difficult. Central Park was always pretty much abandoned these days, but no one in their right mind was setting foot in it after what happened in our big blowout with Mickey. No, my concern was what kind of state she’d be in once we got there.

We found her exactly where I’d left her when she’d brought the hammer down on all of us. She was lying flat on her back in the middle of a gigantic crater, blood pooling all around her. You’d think a single, solitary crater would be hard to find after what she’d already done to the place, but this fucker was big.

“Nayeli!” Marq jumped right in with no mind for anything else, sliding down the wall of the crater on his ass just to get to Nayeli. “Nayeli!”

I grimaced as I watched Marq try and shake her awake, like he thought she was just going to wake up. I’d had my doubts about getting here in time after all that had happened, or whether she would even be in any shape to save. I didn’t know much about demigod physiology, but taking that much damage had to kill someone.

I jumped back a few inches as Nayeli started gasping for air, coughing just like I did. Okay, maybe not.

Marq breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “Oh thank god…”

“Boss…?” Nayeli said, still coughing pretty hard. “… what’re you doing here? You’re supposed to be stopping Mickey.”

“That clown can burn five New Yorks to the ground if he wants. You come first.”

Nayeli smiled, embarrassed. “Ah cripes… how many times have I told you, boss? I can take care of myself.”

Marq returned the smile, even though it was plainly obvious he didn’t believe it. “Yeah, sure. I know.”

“Uhhhhh, not to interrupt this happy moment or anything, but you really should be dead,” I interjected. They both glared at me. “… you cut through both of your carotid arteries and got your head split open with an axe. This is a legitimate medical question, how are you not dead?”

Nayeli scowled, lifting the ludicrously heavy axe off her chest like it was only just a nuisance. “Maybe it’s because I’m not some kinda pansy-ass like you, you fucking-“

Marq shushed her. “Demigods are a lot tougher than you’d think. They’re built different than us.” That earned him a look from Nayeli. He quickly blurted out, “In a good way! Now if you could both stop harassing each other, Sostene and I are gonna work on finding us a good hospital so we can get you two some proper medical care.”

“I ain’t going to no hospital!” Nayeli blurted out, pulling away from Marq. “And what the hell’s wrong with him, he looks perfectly fine.”

“Oh don’t start with this now, Nayeli…”

“I agree,” I said, surprisingly. “I’m not going to a hospital.”

Marq groaned. “Not you too, Al. Can’t you use your common sense before your fucking pride just this once?”

“It’s not that. I’m not going to a hospital because I’m not risking bumping into my little sister when I’m at work. She gets regular house calls from the doctors to help monitor her condition, and today’s her monthly checkup. I’m not setting foot anywhere near Kings County today. No way.”

“Then we’ll find a different hospital-“

“And what if we run into one of the doctors from Kings there? You know how those bastards bounce around between clinics, I’ve told you about it a thousand times when I was in training. We go to any hospital in or near Brooklyn and we risk blowing my cover.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, get over it you sister-complex-“

Marq shushed Nayeli again, and she reluctantly shut her mouth. “Alright then Al, if every hospital within ten miles of here is off limits, then what do you suggest we do?”

I got real quiet when he said that. It’s true, I didn’t really have a plan, selfish as it was for me to prioritize my private life over Nayeli’s. But there was no way I could let my little kid sister find out about what I did for a living. That was something I could not allow.

“Uhhhhh…” Sostene said, interrupting the silence. “I think I might know a guy…”

That’s how we found ourselves in the hands of the good Dr. Evans down in Queens. Pescatorre turf was an unfriendly area for us even during this period of momentary cooperation, but we had a few safe zones here and there we could hopscotch to and from to make our way around the borough. Turns out thanks to Sostene, we could add another.

Though I have to say, his friend did not look happy to see us.

Sostene waited outside the room away from the window and the blood bags, Marq was tending to Nayeli’s bedside manner. Figuring I’d make myself useful as well, I started looking around the office to see if there was any way for me to put my knowledge of pharmacology to use. Not many herbs or plants to be found here, but that just made it a little more difficult to work with is all.

We all worked in silence for a while, Marq wrapping Nayeli’s bandages because she wouldn’t let the doctor anywhere near her. I imagined he was getting tired of just standing around doing nothing when he was supposed to be tending to the patient (I know I would’ve), so finally he gestured to Marq to come talk with him outside in the hall.

Since I was curious, and because I was kind of afraid to be stuck alone in a room with Nayeli, I decided to listen in and pretend to be busy.

“You’ve fucked me on this, Sostene. You know that? You’ve fucked me. Are you gonna take responsibility for that?” Silence. “You and your boss here better hope word about this doesn’t get out. If people get the idea I’m running the kind of operation that accepts demigods, I’m going to be swimming in these these fucking wunderkind by the end of the week. You know how often these guys are in ‘mortal peril’? At least once a week! At least once a fucking week! And we got just under a few dozen of ‘em in New York alone!”

“Come on doc, it’s not that bad. Back in the day you used to let me in here all the time when I needed to dump off my uh…”

“Bringing in your bite vics for some bed and breakfast in my clinic is one thing. I put up with it because you’re a real saint of a man, Sostene, and because as far as vampires go, you keep yourself out of trouble. But this? Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t operate on these guys! My tools always break! I’m gonna be outta picks and bonesaws and up to my balls in lawsuits in under a month! And for what? Because your boss here couldn’t take his squeeze to a regular hospital?!”

“With all due respect, doctor,” Marq said, clearly losing his patience, “non-privatized clinics aren’t an option right now. Besides, you know as well as I do federal hospitals are just as ill-equipped and understaffed to provide medical care for people like her. ‘Patient priority’ says we’re just as likely to get turned away at the door.”

“Then fucking let her! Everywhere these guys go, trouble always follows! They’re cursed, the lot of them! Why would you bring that down on my head, huh? I don’t care if you’re a capo or a copper, you have no right to ruin a man’s livelihood like this!”

“Dr. Evans, the oath you took clearly states-“

“No, fuck you. Don’t you ever try that shit with me. I have rights!”

“…”

I pulled away from the door. I didn’t want to hear what was going to happen out there. It would make it easier to deny my involvement.

Sighing, I decided to suck it up and take Nayeli her medicine. I’d mixed together a coagulating agent that would stop and slow the flow of blood around her wounds, but she seemed to have no real shortage of blood to lose, so I’m not sure how effective it would be in helping her.

She eyed me warily as I approached with the tray of swabs and medical tools.

“If you try poking me with any of that shit, you’re a fucking dead man.”

I sighed. “It’s just an herbal mix my teacher showed me how to make. It should help with your bandages. Here, lie back.”

She didn’t. I sighed again. “Fine, be that way.”

I sat down next to her and started dabbing a cotton swab in the thickener. I applied it to the bandages on her head very carefully, trying not to do anything that could get her to snap at me. She squirmed.

“Don’t touch me like that.”

“I’m barely even doing anything.”

“Yeah, well do less of it. It’s bad enough I gotta look this way in front of the boss, I don’t need you molesting me and poking around in my brain-meat.”

“Why would I even… nevermind. Just hold still.”

We sat in silence for the next few minutes as audible thumps and pleas to a higher power went ignored out in the hall. I would dab a new swab, she would try her best to be as uncooperative as possible, and treatment was in general slow-going.

“There. Done. Finally.”

“You’re a fucking nosy bastard, you know that? I don’t get what Marq sees in you…”

Taking that as my cue, I gingerly ask, “So you and Marq-“

’Boss’ to you.”

“… whatever. Are you and him, y’know…”

“You sure you wanna go down this route?”

“Look, all I wanna know is if you two are an item or not. I’ve seen the way he looks at you. He doesn’t do that for anyone else. So what is it? Are you two just friends with benefits, or are you… you know? Lovers?”

“… neither.”

“Pardon?”

“I said neither.”

I sighed. “You can’t be neither, Nayeli. You’re either a couple or you aren’t. What’s so hard about that?”

“It’s not that easy! Look… it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

That seemed to have struck a nerve. But she didn’t lash out at me. Well, not much. It was clear to me this was more of a sad anger than a mad anger. I decided to offer some help.

“Alright then, if it’s complicated then explain it to me.”

She didn’t respond at first. In fact, it took her about two minutes of silence before she admitted, “… it’s my parents, okay?”

“Parents? What, you mean like crappy in-laws?”

“Is that supposed to be some kind of fucking joke?”

“I dunno, was it funny?”

She glared at me.

“My mom’s an Italian, like you and the boss. My dad is…”

“Not from around here.”

“I was gonna say ’Greek’, but I guess that’s one way of putting it,” she said, sounding irritated. “And you know it is with the families. If you’re not full-blooded Italian, you can’t get made. You don’t get to be a part of the family.”

“And why’s that a problem?”

“Because Marq’s a capo, dumbass. Even if we wanted to be together, we couldn’t. He’s gotta save himself for some important political marriage with some chick from the government, otherwise his father’s gonna go ballistic. And if it wasn’t her, it’d be somebody else respectable, somebody who’s full-blooded Italian with prospects for the future. For the family’s future. Not some mutt demigod he rescued off the street. I don’t have a future, understand? I could never be his… wife. The best I can settle for is to just be his mistress…”

For a moment I felt a profound sense of pity for her plight. To have someone you love but not be able to be with them because of how you were raised… that’s some real Shakespearean shit right there. It’d almost be sappy if it wasn’t happening to someone I knew.

… Okay, scratch that. It was still sappy. Just not in a funny “haha” kinda way.

“I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could do for you two…”

She scowled. “Don’t start with this now. You’re not fucking sorry. And don’t be. It’s none of your damn business who we’re fucking on the side.”

“I don’t think you should be so dismissive of it like that.”

“Bite me.”

“… so do you two have like a ménage à trois type thing going on here, or-“

I didn’t get to finish because she punched me in the back of the head hard enough to rattle my skull. And something else. Something in the back of my mouth next to my jawbone… what the fuck is that?

I coughed a few times and hacked like I was vomiting, trying to get it loose. Eventually it moved far enough into my gum line that I could reach it. It was really sharp and pokey. Felt like metal. I reached for it, wiggling it out. My gums bled a bit for it, but eventually I managed to yank it out.

What I had in my hands was a small rectangular piece of metal. It didn’t look new by any means, and the way it was shaped made it look like it had come off some industrial equipment. The chemical plant Mickey was talking about, maybe? I had no idea why it would be that, but it was the only relevant answer in this situation.

More pressing question was, when and how did it get in my mouth of all places?

I thought back to that morning, starting from when I’d brushed my teeth and eaten breakfast. I didn’t remember putting anything into my mouth that could have concealed a sharp, small piece of metal. Nothing during lunch either. The metal bit was a few inches long and at least an inch wide, there was no way I could have eaten it without noticing. So when did it…

Then I remembered our brawl. The homunculus. She punched me in the face, and hard. Was it possible she’d slipped it in there and I just hadn’t noticed ‘cause of everything else that was going on? It made sense. If my mouth was numb and I was already in panic mode, it wasn’t too likely I would’ve paid the metal bit any mind even if I did know it was there.

I turned the piece of metal around in my fingers. There was a series of small numbers written on one side. It looked like a serial number, or an address. No indicators that would give us any clue what specifically it was referring to though. And on the other side, someone, maybe the homunculus, had left a message.

Help me.

Marq and Sostene walked back into the room with Dr. Evans in tow, roughed and bloody.

Marq checked his pocket watch and took out a smoke. “Byron just briefed me from his hospital bed. What’s our plan of attack?”

I turned the piece of metal around in my hands, memorizing every detail. “I don’t know, Marq. But I think I do know where we can start…”

Previous || Next

Birthday Blues

Today’s chapter is going to be late. Nothing I can really do about that at this point, sorry. It’s my father’s birthday today, so I’m gonna be kinda occupied for most of the day up until the late hours of night. So of course this means the new chapter likely won’t see the light of day until Saturday. Again, my apologies, but there’s simply nothing I can do about it at this point. Perhaps if I was a bit more industrious, but summer spanish class and its nigh-weekly exams have more than a few bones to pick with the idea of me having too much free time these days.

This actually segues me into a different, and very important question, one that I’ve been pondering for a few weeks now. Would you guys, the readers, prefer I release shorter chapters twice a week or longer chapters, such as Snatch 2.4, once weekly? I’ve been thinking of trying out the once-a-week formula for a change of pace until my summer classes are over, but I didn’t want to suddenly change things up so much without listening to the opinions of the people who matter most, the readers.

So please, let me know in the comments which you would prefer, short-order twice-weekly, or longer once-weekly?

Snatch 2.4

Previous || Next

I wouldn’t have expected him to look so ragged if I hadn’t already seen the photos. Mickey Donahue. He was a second-generation Irish immigrant with an Italian mother who had his dad’s build, his mother’s hair, and his drug dealer’s eyes. Last known employment was as an auto-mechanic, and it showed. He wore a beat to hell jumper from his shop with the top tied around his waist (no clue if he still worked there), and a sweaty wife-beater so stained with mystery fluids that it was hard to tell what color it was supposed to be, besides jaundiced I mean. It looked like he hadn’t shaved or bathed in days, and the sweat made his curly chest hair stick to him like a tattoo.

“And here he is, the man of the hour,” the elderly Pescatorre delegate scowled. “Mickey Donahue. Byron Marcucci. I’d be lying if I said it was a pleasure.”

Unbelievably, he extended a hand for Mickey to shake. Business was business I suppose, even if it was with scum like Mickey.

“Heh. Yeah, fuck you too old man.”

Mickey untangled himself from his arm-lock on the homunculus to shake his hand with a greasy palm covered in oil, transmission fluid, and hair care product. The contrast to Byron’s clean-pressed suit and manicured hands was profound. And also disgusting. Looking at Mickey’s grimy mitts made my skin crawl beneath my gloves.

They released hands after a brief but tense exchange, Byron’s hand coming away noticeably soiled. Mickey had to be loving this. But my attention wasn’t on him.

Where was I in all this, you ask? Me, my eyes were on the homunculus. And before you ask, no I was not looking at her rack. I’m a principled man, I’m better than that. Most of the time.

No, I was paying attention to her body… language. I didn’t consider myself an expert in cold-reading, but I’d done some book-learning on it. That plus simple intuition makes it fairly easy to decipher basic non-verbal communication once you’re aware of it. The human being is a very social creature, and the body reflects it, even if it’s an artificial one. And I learned some interesting things by studying hers.

One, we were hardly the only ones here who hated the sight of Mickey, let alone his touch. Even after he’d released her, she kept her arms and shoulders close to her body in a tight hug, crossing her arms. She made no eye contact with Mickey if possible, and maintained a safe distance from him, neither too close nor too far. She was clearly uncomfortable being around him.

Two, there was an obvious history of physical violence in the short time she’d been alive. No guesses from who. She reacted uncomfortably to potential physical contact of any kind, but she especially shied away from Mickey, flinching whenever he so much as reached out to touch her. Fear. It was obvious she felt threatened by him, and for good reason.

I scowled. There was no way to tell just what the hell Mickey had been doing to her, but I could imagine, and it made me sick. She was created to be a slave who would always obey, but jesus christ she could still feel! Just because she was a homunculus didn’t mean she was a doll for him to jerk around with!

Mickey spoke first. ”Yeah, I recognize you now. You’re the Pesci’s number guy. I hope you ain’t expecting me to go along with that Italian kissing shit.”

“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t give my love to a man like you if the world was burning.” Byron reached into his pocket for a handkerchief and wiped his greasy hand on it. “A handshake is the most I think I’ll be able to manage without vomiting.”

“Ooooh, scathing,” Mickey retorted sarcastically. “You hurt me little fishy, you really do. And? Who the fuck are these assholes?

He pointed at us. “I don’t remember inviting anyone else to this little shindig. You trying to grift me or something, old man?”

“They’re the Allesandris’ men. We were the ones who asked them to come. I’d say that’s fair, wouldn’t you? After all, it was the Pescatorres who called for this meeting, not you Mickey. You’re lucky we’re being this generous.”

“Yeah yeah, we’re all fucking scared of the big bad fish tank. Give it a rest, gramps. Not like I care.” Mickey started strutting towards me. “As a matter of fact, I’m positively fucking ecstatic to see them.”

I took a step back. Nayeli took five. Mickey smelled worse than his already disgusting appearance suggested. A feat worthy of the Olympians, had they not built their palaces so damn high to escape the stink. Out of morbid curiosity, I permitted my nose to take another whiff, and was greeted with a delightfully rotten cornucopia of scents hand-picked from a chop shop, the municipal dump, twenty unbathed men, day-old piss, and I’m pretty sure I even caught a sniff of that grimy little hoodoo shop next to the downtown drug dens; the spriggan used to take me to when she needed help running her errands. Oh, and rotten eggs. That smell was the worst one. Totally serious, rotten fucking eggs. Jesus…

I had no idea how one man could look or smell this bad. Didn’t he care at all about his appearance, or hell, common fucking decency?

He opened his mouth to start talking at me, and I tried not to cringe when I smelled his hellacious halitosis.

“So you’re the Allesandri guys, huh? Y’know, I tried to get made for the Allesandris once. Your boss what’s-his-name, ehhh… ‘Mark’ something. Marky-Mark and his funky bunch, whatever.” I couldn’t see her, but I could bet Nayeli was livid. “Anyway, I did some jobs for his family once upon a time, and when I finally asked about getting me made, you know what he said? ‘If a dog shits where you eat, would you let it into your house?’ Almost sounds like he thinks he’s better than me. Can you fucking believe that?”

I could. It sounded like Marq’s style, especially if Mickey had been as much of a disgusting greaseballer then as he was now.

I cleared my throat. “Yes, well, we don’t represent the Marquis specifically. At least not for the purposes of this meeting.”

“But you do work for him, right? Far as I’m concerned, that makes you two bunk-buddies.”

“I would watch,” Nayeli said, not even trying to disguise the barely-restrained aggression, “what you say about our boss. He’s a better man than you’ll ever be.”

Mickey scowled, dropping his annoying grin. “Cry me a fucking river, hon. I don’t see any of us getting nominated for sainthood. Why the fuck is he different just because he wears a nicer suit?”

Or just a suit in general, I thought to myself. But Mickey wasn’t quite done just yet.

“You see, that’s the thing I never got about you mobsters. You think you’re all so fucking clever. You wanna know why I think you wear suits like that?”

“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell us,” I said.

“It’s because you’re fucking showoffs. You eat the best food, fuck the best dames, and you kill whoever you want just to show us all that you own the place. The five families of New York: ‘We’re invincible and unbeatable! We are so strong with all of our men and our guns!’.” Mickey’s face darkened, somehow becoming even more deranged. “But at the end of the day, that act is all that sets you apart. You’ll still get down on your knees in the shit and do the same dirty work we do to make ends meet, and then later when you’re lying in bed, you’ll try to make yourself feel better about it by telling yourself that you’re different. You eat the best food, you fuck the best dames, and you can kill whoever you want because you earned the right by being born into the right fucking family with the right fucking pedigree. You’re snobs with gats, and it makes me fucking sick. You think you’re better than me?”

“No, Mickey. We know we’re better than you.” I don’t know why I said that. He looked like he was ready to go full-bore whack-a-mole right then and there. But somehow despite what I may have thought, he managed to turn the crazy up even farther with what he said next.

“Heh. Well we’ll just see about that, won’t we kid?”

“I feel as if our time is being wasted with this pointless banter,” Byron interrupted. “Mickey? May we please, if it’s not too difficult, get to the fucking point?”

Mickey’s smile returned. “Fine, if that’s what you want, gramps. But hey, you’re the ones who called this meeting. So spill it. What do you want to talk to me about? Most be something pretty important.”

“Your recent aggression towards our operations would be a good place to start. You know, just to pick the most relevant out of a long, long list of offenses against us.” It helped his point that Byron looked like the kind of guy who would’ve kept an actual list. “You killed three of our men in that warehouse raid, and hospitalized fifteen others.”

“Yeah, and I’m real broken up about that.”

“The typical punishment for such an act of aggression would be death, not discourse. Please try to understand the monumental patience and goodwill we’re extending to you here, Mickey.”

Mickey groaned. “For the love of God almighty, can we stop with the fucking pillow talk already? We both know why we’re here. I one-upped you. You’re here for revenge, and I’m here to gloat because you’re not gonna get it, a and because that’s what a good bad guy does when he makes the other bad guys look bad. That’s how it’s supposed to fucking work.”

“If I were a younger man, I’d kneecap you right now for that insult. Don’t patronize me or this family, boy. You may not like what happens.” Even at the slightest provocation, all the Pescatorres’ men had their hands at their guns, ready to draw if they needed to. Byron held up his hand, signaling them to stand down. “Alright then Mickey, I’ll play your little game. Why isn’t that going to happen?”

“Like I’d fucking tell you. Why don’t you give it a go and find out?” Mickey said, issuing a direct challenge to Byron and his men. No one moved. “Really? No takers? And I thought you guys were supposed to be big bad gangsters. Alright then, how about this. A threat.”

Byron raised an eyebrow. “A threat?

“Yeah, a threat. I’ll explain my little plan to you instead of giving away my ace in the hole, how’s about that? That shit’s good villain material.”

“You’re as crazy as you are stupid, Mickey.”

“‘Blah blah blah, I’m a boring old fart with a flaccid cock who can’t remember what he had for breakfast this morning. Do you wanna play parcheesi with me and my grandkids?’ See that? That’s you right now, gramps. Quit spoiling my fun and shut the fuck up. Now where was I…” Mickey wracked his brain for answers, but from the looks of things, he was coming up blank. He growled in frustration before yelling at one of his friends. “Donny! The fuck was I gonna say again?”

“The plant, Mickey!”

“Oh yeah! You’re one-in-a-million, Donny! Remind me to pour you a glass of hootch in this old man’s braincase once we’re done with ’em.” He turned his attention back to Byron. “Like I was fucking saying, the plant. You see this?”

Mickey fished around for a thick iron key he wore on a string around his neck. It was an old-looking thing. If I had to guess, it went at least as far back as the War. Maybe farther. Large and imposing as it was, years in Mickey’s care had not done the solid iron key any favors.

“This here is the key to an abandoned chemical plant somewhere in the 5th Ward. You can check it out some time if you don’t believe me, assuming of course that you live that long. My daddy used to work there during the War, making all sorts of nasty chemicals for the Allied powers. Willie Pete, phosgene, chlorine, sulfur mustard, sarin gas. Real fun stuff.” Mickey spun the key around his finger. “Nowadays, I’m the only one who can get in and out of the plant, and let me tell ya, I’ve found some interesting fucking things that got left behind in that place once the War was over. You wanna guess what they are, old-timer?”

Byron’s face darkened as he realized what Mickey meant. ”You insane bastard…”

“If your answer was ‘a hundred tons of leftover chemical weapons’, then congrats! You get a fucking prize! See, I knew you’d never really ‘negotiate’ with me. So we’re skipping ahead to the fun part. The part where I tell you that I’ve already hidden twenty tons of unprocessed dirty bombs all throughout this shithole city. How many bombs? Who knows! Most of it’s in Pescatorre turf of course because, hell, why wouldn’t it be, but I think we got enough coverage to have each of the five families ducking and covering by the end of the day, don’t you Donny?”

I stood stock still. Chemical weapons. This fuckhead had chemical weapons. Military-grade ones too, not the kind of kiddy shit you can mix up in an off-the-books chem lab. And he was planning to use them right here in New York City. Normally I wasn’t a very religious man, but right then and there, I prayed that this was a joke.

“I don’t believe you,” Byron said flatly, struggling to regain some of his composure. “Your gang is only thirty men strong. How could you have managed to assemble and disseminate that many bombs in just a week?”

That just made Mickey laugh. “You don’t give us enough credit, old timer. You really think this,” he motioned to the men standing behind him, “is all I’ve got? No, the Broncos have grown since the last time you saw them. Unlike you, we don’t turn people away because they’re not Irish enough or some shit like that. If you got a beef with the five families and want to see them all get righteously fucked up, you’re welcome to join. Turns out, you say those kinda things in the right places and you attract a lot of attention.”

“Clearly not enough,” Byron said through grit teeth. You could tell he was cursing whoever was responsible for managing the Pescatorres’ local intelligence. I felt much the same way.

“What do you want?

“Huh?”

“What do you want?” I spoke up. I didn’t realize I was doing it at the time, but I was clenching my fists so hard I could feel my nails through the leather. “Why do this? Why go this far? Is this about revenge? Some pretty grudge against the five? Tell me, Mickey.

He never stopped smiling. Even though he was toying with the fate of entire neighborhoods, even though hundreds, thousands of people might have died in the worst act of terrorism and gang violence this city had ever seen, that inhuman bastard somehow managed to smile.

“What do I want? I just want to see your boss choking and gasping for air all twitchy on the floor of his nice little office, shitting himself out of both ends while his skin breaks out into pus-filled blisters because he was too much of a dumb fuck to give me the respect I deserve. I wanna get down on his level, and watch him die slowly as I pop the gooshy bubble wrap on his skin, poking him with a stick just to prolong the agony. I wanna watch him cry like a little bitch. And when he finally asks me why I did it, just like you did, I wanna be there to tell him, ‘I guess because I’m just a stray dog that shits wherever he eats’. And then, I want to do it over, and over, and over again. To all of you.”

Mickey turned his attention to the Pescatorres. “That goes for you too! Tell everyone in the five families that Mickey Donahue is coming for them, and he’s not gonna stop until he’s skullfucked you, your family, your friends, and everyone else in your worthless pathetic lives from your tax collector on down to the guy who sells you your fucking five-dollar gourmet hot dogs!”

The ground cratered, and Central Park’s elevation dropped by nearly ten feet. Trees were uprooted, concrete pathways smashed, and entire ponds of water were thrown into the air to fall back down like rain. The scale of it was unbelievable, but there was no mistaking who was standing at the center of it all, axe in hand.

“You’re gonna do that to him? The boss? Who the fuck do you think you are, you shiteating snatch-rat? Do you think you’re fucking God or something?”

“No… but I’m the next best thing.”

The ground shook again as Nayeli took another step forward, pounding Central Park into the dust. Mickey scowled, while a few of the Broncos took a step back. As I started to piece together just what Marq’s gal pal really was, I realized they were the smart ones here.

Nayeli turned to glower at Mickey. To say there was murder in her eyes would be like saying New York Harbor was a little wet. “If you’re gonna kill Marq I guess that just means I’m gonna have to kill you first. Yeah… that’s a good plan. First I’ll kill you, then I’ll feed you to Kerby down at Grandpa Hades’ house, and then maybe if there’s time leftover, I can play eight-balls with that shitbiscuit you call a soul.”

Mickey, realizing he stood alone with the homunculus, looked back at his retreating Broncos.

“Well? What are you waiting for, dipshits? A fucking flag? Kill their dumb asses!”

Mickey’s group was nothing to be underestimated. I’d been taking an inventory of each member since the beginning of the meeting. It was true what he’d said about the Broncos becoming an equal opportunity employer. I counted numerous demihuman species in their ranks. They had the usual mainstays like vamps and lycans, but I counted a few incubi too, and even a doppelgänger. That and at least a few of the humans in the crowd had to be either mages or mediums passing off as normies. It was a tough group.

But it wasn’t going to do them any good.

The following clash was too fast for my eyes to follow. A blur closed the gap between it and Nayeli before I’d even finished processing it had moved. A vamp no doubt, or a lycan maybe, head of the charge. Nayeli saw him coming, but she didn’t move, at least not that I saw. Instead, she just tapped her foot and a large chunk of topsoil and rock righted itself in response, changing the landscape and launching the vamp sky-high like a rock in a catapult, the momentum of his supersonic movement completely cancelled. He’d lost any ability to right himself or do anything besides fall straight to the ground, where Nayeli would be waiting for him.

Taking a stance just like the great Bambino, Nayeli gripped her axe and swung, catching the poor mook with the blunt of the chop-stick. Home run.

I winced as I watched the guy go flying through at least a few different brick walls on a window tour of downtown’s best apartment blocks and office buildings. Well, at least he’d have an interesting story to tell now that he could claim to be the world’s first human baseball. Can’t say you’ve met many people who know what that feels like, can you?

Mickey seemed equally impressed, but not discouraged. Quite the opposite, actually. He looked riveted, jumping up and down inside like a kid who couldn’t wait to open his present on Christmas morning.

“Oh-h-hh-hh-ho yeahhhh…” He jammed his hand into his pocket and came out with a rusty, taped-together switchblade. He licked it. “I am going to enjoy fucking you raw, sister.”

“Heh. Good luck with that…” I said under my breath. I couldn’t manage much more than that because at this point, I could barely breathe. Unbelievable. Marq didn’t just have a dragon and a vamp waiting in the wings. He’d recruited a fucking demigod into the family. Mickey Donahue was a fucking dead man.

It didn’t take long for things to devolve into a full-on brawl in a messy sea of faces devoid of distinctions like “Pescatorre” and “Bronco”. It was just carnage. Nayeli tore through anyone who dared try their luck again like the vamp did, either pounding them so hard they actually sunk into the damn ground (or whatever tree or rock was nearest to them) or just splitting them wide open with her axe. The latter was actually a merciful death. The former was not.

I even got to get a good look at what the big guy could do firsthand. Useful for next time, if we ever met again. I wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be, but he was using some kind of Eastern martial art, and absolutely manhandling anyone who got in his way. He managed to take down a lycan in a chokehold and snap its neck so hard its head fell clean off. Then he threw that at the next guy hard enough to make his internal organs decorate the tree behind him like streamers.

If there were any two people on this battlefield with any real presence, it was those two. Compared to the amount of broken and dead bodies they were leaving in their wake, everyone else’s little squabbles might as well have been so much window dressing for the main attraction. Mickey had brought more than enough tanks to the fight, but I wondered just how many of those guys were gonna regenerate from this.

I got snapped out of my role on the sidelines by an incubus bum-rushing me with a pigsticker. I twisted my body out of the way just in time for the knife to barely miss me, then I pulled out my own. The obsidian blade cut as clean as adamantine, slicing right through his steel kitchen knife. I momentarily considered disarming him further.

Nah, he’s gonna need that limb when he wakes up.

I twirled the knife around and jammed it deep into his abdomen below the lungs, pushing my fingers into the wound a bit. I was careful not to kill him or inflict any mortal injuries, but I exacerbated the damage just enough that he wouldn’t get up. I kicked him off the blade, and the black shiv slid right out with no resistance. I took a minute to admire Marq’s craftmanship. Maybe I should’ve taken a finger or two off his knife hand. The cut’d be clean enough they could stitch ‘em right back on at the hospital.

Unfortunately it looked like I’d have time to try that theory out. An orc, a human, and a cynocephaly were boxing me in.

Well that was annoying. I dusted myself off, and hit a few bruises inflicted by the bozos lying at my feet. I hissed. That shit would hurt tomorrow.

The brawl had left each side utterly decimated except for ours, and considering we were just two people, “ours” was never really a side to begin with. But the good news was there were more Pescatorres and Allesandris on the field than Broncos, whose numbers had been systematically reduced down to Mickey and the homunculus.

“Tch.” Mickey spat at the ground. “What the fuuuuuuuck? Is that really all you goombas had in ya? Huh? You’re a fucking disappointment, the lot of ya!”

The incubi I’d stabbed earlier groaned in protest.

“Especially you, Donny!”

Mickey stomped on his trachea, probably crushing it. I winced. Well keeping him alive appeared to have been wasted effort.

“It’s over, Mickey,” Byron said casually, wading through a misdirected river alongside the big guy. “Tell us the location of the bombs and we’ll kill you now.”

Mickey sneered. “What kind of fucking offer is that?”

“A good one, believe me.”

The leaders of the Broncos put his hand on the homunculus’ shoulder and rubbed the back of his neck like he was thinking about it. He kinda looked more like he was on the fence about whether or not to buy a used tea set from the china shop. I have to admit it made the whole moment just a tad underwhelming. But that was just at first.

Finally, he sighed, chuckling, and said, “You drive a hard bargain, sir. But I think I have a better idea.”

This is the moment I distinctly remember realizing just what kind of man Mickey Donahue was. It’s not a pleasant memory. He shoved the homunculus forward, causing her to stumble in the mud and stain her red dress. She looked back at him.

“Get going.”

The homunculus almost seemed to plead with him, asking him not to make her do it. Mickey would have none of it.

“Go on, get your fucking ass in there!”

He kicked her in the back, and she fell face first into the muddy mess our rumpus had created. She got back up, half of her face coated in a thick, gritty brown. With reluctance, she started walking forward.

Byron scowled. “What are you playing at, Mickey?”

That’s when things went pear-shaped. As it turns out, Mickey was confident enough to give the homunculus a gun. None of us had really grasped that fact until she pulled a fully-loaded 1911 out of her leggings and plugged the big guy.

He took a step backward. Excess musculature made for a good bullet shield, but it wasn’t armor, and she’d hit him in all the right places before we’d caught on to what she was doing. Two in each knee, one in the shoulders, and a foot shot just to make him lose his balance. Like that the big guy toppled, down for the count. Byron was the first to react.

“Oh fucking hell, he gave that bitch a gun!” Drawing his own 38 pocket pistol, he centered the homunculus in his iron sights, opened fire, and to my amazement, missed every shot. Then he got the same in return, just more accurate.

Six shots was more than Byron could take, and he called it quits just like the big guy. I’d been worried about this. A homunculus isn’t born, it’s made. A homunculus isn’t taught, it’s programmed. Given memories, information, and a brain so, so much faster than ours. A human computer. Using only the visual and auditory input from its environment, it could instantly determine the most statistically sound course of action based on a series of physical equations predicting hypothetical scenarios and act on it preemptively with machine-like precision.

Short version: she was killing us with math.

She pointed the gun at me, and I could tell by the look in her eyes that she didn’t want to shoot me. But she would. Because Mickey Donahue told her to.

I grabbed my own bean shooter and shot back, but before I knew it she’d gotten me too, right above the hip and in the foot. Then she punched me in the face. Hard. I fell back into the mud, and she lowered her gun. So she didn’t mean to kill me. Good news. I guess Mickey could only ask her for so much. Either that, or he wanted to kill us himself. But it wasn’t going to work. We still had Nayeli, and demigods had a reputation for being bulletproof.

The homunculus fired on her too, but it didn’t even make Nayeli flinch. The bullets that gun was chambered for had way too little in the way of stopping power for hunting big game, much less someone with a bulletproof vest for skin. Nothing short of an elephant gun would even make her miss a step. But the homunculus kept trying.

Finally the homunculus ran out of bullets, and they entered melee range. Nayeli let her axe hang casually at her side.

“You know what? I feel sorry for you, so I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to make this quick and painless. Be grateful.”

The homunculus didn’t seem to react to that.

“Tch. Fine, be like that. Boss says this axe weighs some fancy number of tons with a bunch of decimal places. But I’m not really that good at math, so I’ll just go with what pops told me and say it’s heavier than a mountain. If I swung it without holding back like I did with these, you wouldn’t feel much anyway. So… meh, I guess.”

Nayeli swung, the arc of her swing perfectly lined up to take off the homunculus’ head in one swift, uninterrupted motion. As much as I pitied her, fight was over.

Or so I thought at the time.

Nayeli stopped and stood still. Her axe hadn’t failed her for a second. So then why was the homunculus in one piece, and why was she the one bleeding?

She reached a single hand up to the side of her neck, and pulled it away covered in golden scarlet blood. A shallow nick to the carotid artery, right where she’d swung at the homunculus. The bunny girl sighed, sounding defeated.

Nayeli stared at the crude ichor on her hands, uncomprehending of how or why she’d been injured. But confusion quickly turned to pain and rage, and she swung again.

This time, the cut was aimed at her side. No good. Nayeli doubled over and winced as a smaller but identical cut appeared on her own body in the same place, and swung again at the other side of the neck. Same result. Realizing how much blood she was beginning to lose, Nayeli abandoned her axe hand and just started pounding on the homunculus, hoping to inflict some kind of tangible damage with her fists, but she only kept on bruising herself, growing more angry and desperate with each hit as she blindly struck at the homunculus, hoping something would work.

I didn’t understand. No sympathetic magic worked like this. No connection between the two had been established, and there was no ritual that could’ve been performed in this span of time to set something like this up. The homunculus didn’t have any personal effects of Nayeli’s, and as far as I could tell she hadn’t even touched her. So why was she the one being hurt?

Then I remembered it. Something important. I’d never forgotten it, but I’d let it fall by the wayside. At a time like this where even implausible answers would have been better than nothing? Stupid.

Retaliation.

“Nayeli, stop!” I futilely tried to command her. “This isn’t going to work! Just stop!”

But she didn’t listen to me. The only explanations for it that I could think of were that she wouldn’t stop for me, or that she couldn’t. Or, worst of all, she just didn’t know what else to do in this situation. Fighting an enemy like this was a new experience for us all. Finally tired of beating the snot out of herself, she raised her axe one last time in a final desperation attempt. She looked like she was going to crush the homunculus’ head.

“Nayeli, stop!”

The axe came crashing down, and Nayeli’s own forehead cracked open with an ugly splitting sound, blood spilling down her face. There was no way she could fight anymore. We’d lost.

Mickey could barely contain himself. He started jumping around, whooping and hollering. “Yeah bitch! Secret weapon! Ohhhhh yeah! Get some, get some!”

The axe shrunk somehow with an audible creaking noise, reverting to a small facsimile of itself hung around Nayeli’s wrist by a length of rough twine. Collapsing to the ground just like I had, Nayeli was helpless to resist Mickey. She was barely conscious. And the noise had made him remember her. Sneering, he kicked her onto her back.

“What did I tell you, you dipshit moll?” Mickey sat on top of her chest, his crotch uncomfortably close to Nayeli’s face. My eyes widened as Mickey’s smile did too, becoming uncomfortably, perversely pleased with himself. “Didn’t I tell you this was exactly what was gonna fucking happen? You mess with the best, you get wrecked like the rest. And now, I’m gonna do exactly what I said I would.”

Dawning comprehension screamed at me. Please. Not that. Beat her, kill her, do anything to her but that, you sick son of a bitch. Prove to me that there’s at least something left in you that’s human.

Mickey grabbed her hair, and lifted her head up to level with his fly. He can’t do it. She has someone back at home. Someone who I know loves her. But he’ll do it anyway. He’ll do it anyway, and he’ll do it gladly. I watched with horror as he starts fiddling with his zipper.

“I’m going to fuck you. I’m going to fuck that pretty face of yours raw.

“Heh… heheh… heheheheh…”

“Huh?”

“Hey, Mickey…” Nayeli said weakly. With the last of her strength, she lifted her hand into the air, right in front of him. The axe bracelet swung weakly in the wind. She smiled.

“Fuck you.

She let the axe grow and it broke the twine thread easily, the immense weight snapping it like a single strand of scotch tape supporting the Empire State Building.The axe fell less than a foot onto Nayeli’s sternum, but it was enough. Pressure and heat built as the monumental mass dropped through the air, forcing everything beneath it out of its way in one enormous swell, a shockwave to rival the bombs of the Great War. For the second time that day, Central Park exploded, and we were all blown away.

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Update

This is a status update on today’s noticeably late chapter. Due to issues I’ve been having with my internet connection and Google docs, I’ve decided to skip today’s usual update in favor of a double-length chapter which will be released on Monday. I apologize for the delay, and hope you’ll be patient with me until I finish.

Snatch 2.3

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“What am I looking at here? It can’t be a homunculus.”

“And yet it is.”

The picture was damning. The person in it looked like no other human ever would; or could, for that matter. Their skin was too soft, too pale, too free from imperfection. Their body didn’t look like one someone had grown over years and years, but rather something sculpted in a fortnight from clay or chiseled from a block of marble. Breasts too round, hips too wide, facial features arranged in meticulous symmetry, and muscles toned in just such a way that its skin remained smooth and unstretched rather than marred by the strength it hid. It was too perfect, too idealized to actually be human, even if for a moment it did a convincing job of faking it. The hair was paler than the skin, like silk or even alabaster, and the head it grew out of had set in it eyes that looked like rubies. It was a work of art. Not a person.

But the most telling detail was… I guess you could call it a signature. A watermark, left by the artist who’d created that living statue. Excess cartilage, taken from parts unknown and molded onto the head in the shape of furry bunny ears. Crass, like a caricature of the famous symbol of America’s booming pornography industry. Obviously meant to be an overtly sexualized feature. And it worked, let me tell you. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her the first time I saw that photo. No one could blame me either. Men and women alike were captured by the sexual imagery combined with the artistry of the design, like the exact opposite of the compelling lust inspired by succubi. It was sensual, but it was also beautiful in a way that touched you on an emotional level. Like I said, art.

Conclusion: she had to be a homunculus.

I tore my eyes away from the photo before I made this conversation weirder than it had to be (and it was already pretty weird). It wasn’t… art appreciation day. No, there was work to be done here. That was the most important thing for me take to away from that.

“Where did they get her?” I asked Marq, curious. “I mean you don’t just find homunculi. Using alchemy to make artificial humans is intensive, time-consuming, and expensive work, not to mention shit-your-pants illegal.”

“No idea. The identity of the pants-shatter remains a mystery. Probably always will, ‘less we get lucky.” Marq reached for a smoke. “But we do know when they got her, and a tentative where. No news yet on the how, otherwise I wouldn’t need you and Nayeli for this.”

“Nayeli? Is that…”

“I believe you two have met?” Marq said, taking a potshot at me. Pretty obvious he was still upset about what had happened earlier.

“Well, you know what I always say. It’s great to meet new people, right?” I sighed. Was Marq doing this just to punish me?

“Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite,” Marq said, lying to my face. “Much.”

“You would know,” I responded in turn. A little back and forth was good. Helped take my mind off the fact I’d be trusting my back to someone I’d just humiliated in the middle of sex. You know, fun times with coworkers.

Speaking of the devil, the door opened and in walked Nayeli, or “Thistles” as I’d taken to calling her, looking simultaneously pissed off and ready to work. Mostly pissed off at me, Marq was all smiles. Or at least what I presumed to be her equivalent of smiling.

“You wanted to talk to me, boss?” she said, keeping an eye on me at all times like she was scoping out the perfect opportunity to mount my head on a pike.

“Indeed I did, Nayeli. I need some guys to meet up with the Pescatorre’s crew for a little diplomatic chat with Donahue and his buddies. See if we can’t… make peace, you know? I’ve already chosen a diplomat, and so has Paulie. They will need to be closely guarded. That’s where you come in. Paulie’s already got his diplomat and his muscle picked out, so I need you two to work together as best as you can to make sure this doesn’t blow up in our face, with Donahue or Paulie. We don’t want to start anything until we know what Donahue is actually capable of.”

“And then?” I asked. It wasn’t an expression of curiosity, just an obligation to lead Marq into saying the obvious conclusion.

“We bring the hammer down.”

“Uh, boss? Can we hold on a second here? I have a question.”

Marq raised an eyebrow at her. “What is it, Nayeli?”

“Well, you said ‘we’. I must have misheard you, because that would mean you want me to shadow him,” she pointed at me, “at this meeting. But that can’t be right, can it? I mean come on.”

Marq smiled. “There’s nothing wrong with your hearing Nayeli, that’s exactly what I said.”

“But boss-“

“No buts. You two are gonna work together on this. You can do that for me, right Nayeli?”

Nayeli was just… the look on her face… you had to be there I guess, it was just BEYOND description. She didn’t know what to say to that. You could see the gears turning, just trying to think of something to retort with, but coming up totally blank. Eventually she just went limp without ever saying a word, defeated by Marq without him even trying. She just sorta slunk out of the office, shutting the door behind herself as she pouted her way on out. And believe me, she made a racket once she thought we were out of earshot.

I was gonna have one hell of a bad day because of it, but I will be god-damned if that wasn’t the funniest thing I’d seen in a month.

“She’s a real spitfire,” I said offhandedly, still snorting as I tried to contain my laughter. “How the hell did you get her so whipped?”

“It’s not like that,” he said, mildly amused himself. “We just trust each other. More trust than I think I’m worth some days.”

Not the answer I expected. I decided to change the subject, before things got all weird and emotional.

“So, I’m your diplomat, huh? Not the kind of decision I would’ve expected from you, Marq. What’s going through your head?”

“Come on, don’t sell yourself short, Al. Sure you’re crass and rude, and you’ve got the manners of a drunken sailor, not to mention the mouth…”

“Hey, I resemble that remark.”

But you’re also one of the smartest people I know. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and you’ve proven to me time and time again that you’ll always be the one to get the job done, and get it done right. That’s why I’m handing this over to you, Al. You’re the one I trust to figure out how we can hit Donahue back, and hit him hard. Just… try not to die when you’re talking to Nayeli, okay?”

“No promises.” I turned to leave. “So… just to be clear, you two-“

“Yup.”

“And you’ve done this on other-“

“Yup.”

“How many times?”

“Once on the couch, once on the rug by the fireplace, twice on the desk, twice in the broom closet, four times in the kitchen-“

“Ah jeezus, Marq! Too much information! Don’t tell me where you’re doing it!”

“Don ‘t be such a mood killer then,” he said like that excused him.

“Well I’m sorry for unintentionally barging into your sex life! Believe me, I promise never to do it again.”

“… You might want to avoid the poker table too just to be safe.”

I pointed my finger at him. ”That’s disgusting. You’re disgusting. You disgust me, and I am so, so jealous of you right now.”

He just laughed.

Words were sparse between Nayeli and I as we walked to the designated meeting place in Central Park. It felt like the kind of situation where that might have been a good thing. I mean, what do you say after something like that? Marq was an understanding guy, but I got the feeling Nayeli was not the same way.

“So…”

“Shut up.”

“I didn’t even say anything yet.”

“Okay, what did you want to say?”

“Well I was going to say-“

“Doesn’t matter. Shut up.”

“If you’d just let me talk-”

“You know, my aunt fed the last guy who saw her naked to his fucking dogs. I wonder what I should do with you. We could make a game out of it, see how long you last. Would you like that, fuckface?”

“Are you really this determined to hate me?”

“Let me think about it… yes.”

Finally, we met up with the Pescatorres’ group in the heart of Central Park. Their security detail was noticeably larger, one bodyguard surrounded by a swarm of lesser soldatos. They looked like practiced killers, especially the bodyguard. He stood at least a foot taller than everyone else in the group and had a shaved head decorated with geometric line tattoos. Judging by his face and his complexion, he probably wasn’t a full member of the family. Not enough pure-blooded Italian in him.

Even their diplomat looked more intimidating than us. He was an older kind of guy, young enough to still look spry and fit but old enough to have that sort of air of dignity that surrounds the elderly when they’re not shitting themselves and forgetting their grandkid’s names. He eyed us sharply.

“Is this really all the infamous Marquis can afford to spare? The new kid and the family’s pet bulldog? The Allesandris have got to have something better than you two.”

“Funny, I was just thinking the same about you,” Nayeli says before I can spout off my own retort. “A bunch of low-level meatheads, a hired gun, and a geriatric diplomat is all you got? Jesus, the Pescatorres must have been hit harder than I thought.”

If the comment had gotten to him at all, he didn’t show it. Didn’t even twitch or break eye contact. Stone cold professional. I can’t imagine what a bitch it would be to play poker with this guy.

“I believe you’ll find us more than adequate for the task at hand,” he said, never once betraying irritation or anything besides snide disdain. “Worry about yourselves before you show concern for the affairs of others. Lord knows no one else is going to look out for the attractions in the Marquis’ little freakshow.”

Nayeli developed a visible twitch. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you. Do you want to fucking repeat that for me?”

I saw a double-headed battle-ax slide out of Nayeli’s sleeve (where the fuck was she keeping that thing?) and hit the pavement, cracking the cement. It didn’t take a genius to see what she wanted to do with it. She was pissed.

We hadn’t even been here five minutes and things were already going to hell. How were we gonna work out this thing with Mickey if we couldn’t even keep the peace between ourselves?

The old man remained silent, his veneer of arrogance solid and unbreakable like an aegis. He wasn’t backing down. Someone had to find a way out of this soon, because Nayeli wasn’t backing down, and I wasn’t convinced I could talk her out of it.

“Say it again,” Nayeli commanded. “Go on, say it. Just one time, just one more goddamn time. What the fuck did you just say about us?”

His eyes narrowed, finally showing some kind of an emotional reaction. “I said you’re just a bunch of-“

“They’re here.”

The big guy’s voice was just as deep as you’d think. Yeah, believe it or not, it was the Pescatorres’ hired gun who broke it up. Well, him and a little help. Mickey Donahue.

Everyone’s attention turned to the Broncos as they met us on the bridge overlook. They were a group twenty-eight strong, more than twice our number if you left out the homunculus and Mickey. Donahue looked as crazy as his actions up until then would have suggested he’d be. His particular style of shit-eating grin was positively manic in how excited he was to be here making fools out of all of us. The homunculus who stood beside him was the exact opposite.

She looked dead.

I don’t mean literally. Nothing that nice. No, she looked like someone who’d died a long time ago, but was still up and walking, like the zombies they used to tell stories about. A doll going through the motions of life. It was a step beyond misery. I frowned.

“So,” Mickey began, combing through his slick brown hair with his fingers, “what’s all this noise about?”

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Snatch 2.2

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Maybe I should’ve said something about this before now, but the office building where Marq did his business had an infamously creepy appearance. You know the look. Old, dusty windows, always a light on somewhere, utterly untouched by graffiti like it was protected by some kind of voodoo curse. Gargoyles ’n shit. It even had a knocker in the shape of some… thing’s head instead of a doorbell. I don’t think Marq would’ve wasted the money to make a shapeshifting door knocker (he’s got questionable decorating sense, but not that questionable), but I swear to God every time I stopped by that office the thing looked different. It freaked me out, to be honest.

I look up at Marq’s office on the top floor and sigh. Not even a day off and I was already on my second job. Gimme a break, man. I even had to leave Annie with Sostene instead of walking her home myself. The job was apparently that fucking important.

Doubts about my decision to leave my little sister alone with a vampire sloshed around in my head drunkenly like cold soup. Even if it was Sostene, there are just some things an older brother shouldn’t risk when it came to his sister. The way he was talking the other day didn’t really leave me feeling very confident about his behavior around kids either. Sorry Sostene, but no matter how you say that kind of stuff, it’s just gonna sound creepy coming from you.

But I ended up having to entrust her to him. Sad story was, Annie specifically requested that I go on without her. She demanded Sostene be the one to walk her home, because I had “urgent business at the clinic”. Funny how innocent little lies like that always seem to go off without a hitch except when it’s me telling them, isn’t it?

Making a note to myself to return Sostene to re-death if anything happened to Annie under his care, I stepped inside the office building, scuffing the dirt off my shoes on the welcome mat which read “Come on in!”, adorned with a friendly barbershop face. The thing looked so out of place once you knew what kind of shit went down in this building that it made me laugh. “Mr. Tweak says, ‘Come on in! Make yourself comfortable, because you’re gonna be here for a while!’”

Marq’s office connected to the main floor two ways. One was by express elevator, reserved for those with appointments. Publicly, Marq was the head of a small but successful law firm (the irony was certainly not lost on him, I’m sure) which employed most of the family’s defense attorneys. Most of the time, you had to get through an army of pencil-pushers and yes men before you got to talk to Marq. Family was different. We always had an appointment.

I jabbed at the button, expecting the tiny little light to flicker on beneath my finger. Nothing happened. I tried pressing it again. Nothing. Was the thing broken?

Can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. I’d always wondered what riding in that elevator felt like back when I was hired help. Guess I’d have to keep on wondering. I sighed. Guess it was the trap door for me.

That brings us to the second entrance I was referring to. A spiral staircase with a trap door which led directly to Marq’s office. The whole thing was hidden in a broom closet on the first floor, and opened up into another closet in the office, which presumably was not for brooms. I didn’t know. I’d never seen the thing full. All I knew was that the whole “secret passage” thing smelled fucking awful except for that closet. It was a really dirty, sweaty, mildewy kind of deal, with a little bit of rat shit mixed in for good measure, I’m sure. Not to mention the whole place was so sticky with the fumes and shit from the cleaning supplies you could hear your shoes making that peeling noise tape does whenever you took another step up the staircase.

Maybe it goes without saying, but I tried not to breathe in too much whenever I had to use that entrance.

I held my handkerchief to my mouth with one hand so I could breathe better, and held on to the staircase with the other. This was one of the many reasons I wore gloves. As I ascended, I couldn’t help but notice it was getting weirdly quiet. Shouldn’t Marq be doing something while he waited for me to get here? I dunno, yelling at an intern or something? Just something that’d help with this supposedly important problem. I did hear some muffled noises coming from his office, but it hardly even seemed like conversation level hubbub. More like a whimper and some occasional wet thumping sounds.

I grimaced. Please dear jesus tell me he isn’t torturing someone in there.

I opened the trap door. Nope. Just fucking someone.

They’d stopped as soon as they’d heard the trap door opening, but it was already too late. I’d seen everything. The recipient was, to my surprise, the thistle-haired girl from my induction ceremony. Y’know, the one who looked good in a thin-cut suit and had a great set of knockers but who looked like she’d kill you for saying it. Let me tell you, she looked a lot less intimidating from the position I was in just then (not to mention her position, but I’ll spare you the details more for my sake than yours).

We all just sort of did nothing for a few seconds. The only changes were in the body language. Suddenly both of them looked incredibly tense, and Ms. Purple’s face was turning a shade of violet a lot darker than her hair. I, on the other hand, had developed a minor twitch, with different parts of my body telling me to do different things in any kind of workable attempt to get me out of that incredibly awkward situation. Sadly, none of them were working. All three of us were glued to where we stood, frozen like deer in the headlights. Well, some of us stood less than others, but… wait, why am I telling you this? I said no more details.

Thistles was the first to make a move. Not so much yelling as grunting in what I could only guess was incomprehensible anger, she picked up a paperweight and hurled it at my head. Marq’s gal pal had one hell of an arm, because I barely managed to move my face out of the way in time for the little hunk of glass to go hurtling through the wall behind me like a bullet, taking some of the woodwork with it.

It didn’t take a second shot to convince me I needed to leave, but she threw one anyway, another cheapo ornament that made for better ammo than decoration. I’m pretty sure the trap door saved me there, because the lid of that thing was the only reason her fastball bounced off-course and into another wall instead of my face.

I shut the door in a hurry and put a few flights of stairs in-between me and Marq’s office. I wasn’t sure if she could throw one of those things hard enough to make it through a steel hatch door, but I was not taking any chances. I was just gonna head back downstairs, and wait for that elevator instead.

It didn’t take long for Marq and his friend to make themselves look professional again. The door to the express elevator opened, and Thistles walked out straightening her tie, all glares. It looked like her desire to put as much distance between the two of us was winning out against her overpowering desire to start throwing things at me again, which was good because if she spared another second to hate me to death, I’m pretty sure she would’ve literally stared a hole through me.

I hurried past her into the elevator. No buttons on the inside, the tiny metal box only made two stops. Well, I say tiny, but the thing had dimensions that resembled a shipping container than a box. The thing was bigger than my bedroom, for crying out loud. It wasn’t even enough that it was huge either. No, it had to have amenities, like mirrors, a wardrobe, coat hangers, armchairs, and a fully stocked icebox. One of those fancy freon ones, not like the monsters you kept in your house. I reached inside it and grabbed a beer, helping myself.

Something told me I wouldn’t want to be sober for the following conversation.

The office building was about ten stories tall, give or take, but the ride up the elevator took a leisurely five minutes, presumably enough time to change, have a drink, chat, or whatever it was you were supposed to do in that… I hesitated to even call it an elevator anymore, actually. It finally arrived at the topmost floor, which housed Marq’s apartment and office. Man was so busy he lived where he worked. I did not envy that.

This time, I gingerly knocked on the door to his office. If I was going to avoid getting any more paper weights thrown at my head, I needed to start making it a habit.

“Excuse me…” I trailed off as I entered the office, still holding the beer.

“Y’know, I locked the elevator for a reason. It occurred to me you might be early, but I didn’t expect you to come up through the trap door. People who use that entrance need to schedule an appointment so I know they’re coming. That’s ‘cause that thing’s for hired help only, Alfonso, not family men.”

Oh boy. He was calling me by my full name. That couldn’t be good.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

He sighed. “Whatever. Just.. whatever. Let’s talk business, okay? Can we do that?”

I nodded.

“Good. Sostene told you why I called for you, right?”

“Yeah.” I cleared my throat, reciting from memory. “‘We’ve got a patient in critical condition back at the clinic. Big fish. From what we can tell, it looks like he was attacked in broad daylight. Gang violence. He’s not dead yet, but he’s pretty angry.’ That means the Pescatorres got hit, don’t it?”

Marq nodded. “I know this doesn’t sound like our problem, but the circumstances here are different than you might be imagining them. This attack wasn’t just some punk with a death wish, and it sure as hell wasn’t random. They busted up an entire warehouse in the twelfth ward, right in the middle of Pescatorre turf. Fifteen injured, three dead. All of them Paulie’s boys. It was the kind of job only a man with a lot of muscle backing him could pull off.”

“Donahue, right?”

“You know him?”

I shrug. “Just the name. Heard it tossed around here and there on the streets lately. Didn’t really seem important until I heard it coming from Sostene.”

“Then I suppose it’s about time you wise up.”

Marq opened a folder, its contents spilling across the desk. Police reports, photos, mugshots, birth certificates, criminal records, and detailed notes describing the various activities of the individuals within. A dossier for an entire gang. And at the center of it was Mickey Donahue. Second-generation Irish immigrant, twenty-nine-and-a-half years old. Information on him made up the largest percentage of the dossier, more than half of the combined total of every other individual whose records had found their way into this folder.

I picked up a few of the papers, scanning them and committing their contents to memory. I spared nothing in that folder. I wasn’t going to be caught without the right information again. Not after what happened with the Madam.

“Yeah, this looks like the guy I’ve been hearing about. Small-time street gang, right? The Bulgin’ Broncos. Real classy name, by the way. I like the innuendo. What the fuck are guys like these doing on the Pescatorre hit list?”

Marq raised an eyebrow at me.

“Rhetorical question. You know what I mean. Why bother with these guys? ‘Small-time’ doesn’t even begin to describe them. I was better than these high-roller wannabes when I was fourteen! Guys like us don’t even wipe our asses with these kinds low-lives.”

“Watch your mouth, Al. Using that kind of language around a capo can get you the stink-eye from some of the other wiseguys around here. It’s just not good manners.” Marq shook a box of cigarettes he’d had stashed in his desk, and lit one up before he continued. “Anyway, you’re right. These guys aren’t worth our time. They aren’t worth anyone’s time. They’re the lowest of the low, even among the underbelly of society. Just crumbs. But what they’ve gotten their hands into lately… it’s too big for them. They’ve been taking the credit, but there’s no way these bozos were the ones responsible for taking out eighteen of Paulie’s guys and an entire warehouse of product. Either they’ve been getting some outside help, or they’ve got a new weapon.”

“What kind of weapon are we talking here? Can’t be a new kind of bomb, can it? Help from any of the city’s best and brightest is out of the question, since they’re all in bed with the five…” I kept thinking, but coming up blank. “Is it magic or mundane?”

Marq grimaced. I didn’t like the look. Not one bit. He sorted through the pile for a specific picture before clearing away everything else and sliding it towards me. The picture was of a homunculus.

“Magic. Definitely magic.”

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