“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.”
“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-“
“And you’ve done this on other-“
“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.
“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-“
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?”