The looks I got when I stepped back into the office were nothing short of priceless. I could almost imagine what I must have looked like to them. Getting off that building… I’d done some things. Things I’m not proud of. Things that made me make a silent promise to never set foot in another construction site ever again. Not without a full-body glove.
Marq grimaced as he saw just how fucked up and covered in filth I was. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Oh, nothing much. Just had a little talk with Theo.”
“Yeah, the homunculus. Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.”
Marq laughed sarcastically. “Cute. Someone must’ve had a sense of humor.”
“‘Had’ being the operative word there. He’s dead. Some genius wet sock named Erik. Mickey ventilated him and stole Theo from the poor bastard before he was even cold.”
“Ouch…” Sostene remarked, cringing.
“It gets worse.”
Marq raised an eyebrow. “Worse?”
“A lot worse. For one, Theo’s tweaking. And I think I know on what.”
“Pardon me if I don’t see why I should fucking care,” Nayeli said in her typical blunt manner. “What does this have to do with Mickey? And stop talking about that thing like it has a name. It’s a homunculus. Someone made it, it wasn’t born.”
I glared at her. “The whole time we were talking, I saw Theo do a bunch of weird shit. Scratching her arms, pacing, grinding her teeth together. That kind of stuff. It looked like something was seriously eating at her. That, and I smelled something sweet on her. Almost like honey. Her gloves were sticky too.”
“Please don’t tell me this is what I think it is,” Marq said, catching on to what I meant almost immediately.
I nodded. “Nepenthe.”
Marq groaned, prompting a glance of concern from Nayeli. “So our only in on Mickey is a homunculus hopped up on pixie sticks. That’s… that’s great.”
The reaction was justified. Nepenthe was some nasty shit, even though it started out like this cute little antidepressant. Taking it prompts your body to release a shitload of dopamine and serotonin, totally relaxing you. When you’re on nepenthe, you just don’t care. Not about anything. A bomb could go off in the Chinese laundry shop down the street and you wouldn’t miss a beat. But that’s not what makes nepenthe special. You can get that kind of high with marijuana or the hop.
No, what makes nepenthe a bitch of a drug is what it does that pot doesn’t.
Funny thing is, both marijuana and nepenthe inhibit short-term memory, making them great “forget my life” kinda drugs. But nepenthe takes it a step farther than just wiping the slate clean on a bad day. Nepenthe actually inhibits short-term memory while boosting long-term memory recall. It’s a drug that blankets you in rose-colored nostalgia. You stop thinking about tomorrow, and you forget all about today. Nepenthe takes you to the happiest parts of your life, the memories you cherish the most. A more perfect escape drug has never existed.
Unfortunately, if that was all nepenthe did, everyone would be using it. Doctors would be handing that shit out like candy. But it’s not quite that kosher. Long term nepenthe use actually burns out your body’s ability to produce dopamine, and can seriously fuck with the systems that regulate serotonin levels in the brain. Long story short? When it stops working, and it will, it takes your ability to feel pleasure with it. Recovery takes a long time, and depending on how long you’ve been taking the stuff, you might even be looking at years of learning how to cope with serious brain damage once you kick the habit.
Now me, I knew why Theo was on that kind of shit. I wish I didn’t, but I knew. And it wasn’t something I was going to tell them anything about. I wouldn’t be doing them any favors by sharing that burden with them. Not when we still had Mickey to worry about. But…
“I don’t think an unreliable contact is the biggest of our worries right now, Marq.”
I didn’t need to tell him what I meant. He’d figure it out himself quick enough. Marq considered the implications for a second, and I saw that look of dawning comprehension. “Oh.”
I nodded. “The Sartinis run the biggest drug-smuggling ring this side of Chicago. Nepenthe is their baby. They sell more of it than any other poison on the street.”
“So?” Nayeli interrupted. “Maybe he didn’t get it from the Sartinis. Plenty of rock-peddlers this side of town.”
“I hate to say this, but Nayeli has a point,” Sostene said. “Georgie Sartini doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d deal to Mickey. Not on account of him having any kind of human decency or compassion, but because Mickey’s the kinda guy that’s just begging to be shot.”
“That’s not the point,” I replied. “What I’m saying is-”
“What he’s saying is,” Marq cut in, ignoring my irritated sideways glance, “the Sartinis make most of their drug money off of nepenthe. It would be bad for business if anyone else tried edging in on their profit margin, so of course they keep things slick with anyone in the five families that tries to push the idea that maybe they should start selling the stuff. No one in this city distributes nepenthe <em>but</em> them. You can only buy nepenthe through an associate of the Sartinis because everyone else who’s tried has been snuffed out. You can’t steal it either, because Georgie’s drug operations finance most of the Sartini’s annual paychecks, which means they keep the sweet stuff locked up tight. Mickey might be able to steal from Paulie, but he couldn’t steal from Georgie. Not in a million years.”
“Now do you see the fucking problem, Nayeli? If the Sartinis are the only ones with nepenthe, then where has Mickey been getting it?”
That got them worried.
“That doesn’t make any sense though,” Sostene said. “Georgie’s ass is just as much on the line as ours is here. Why would he purposely enable this clown?”
“He probably isn’t. My guess is, Mickey’s got plants in the Sartini family. No made guys, but probably at least a few former ‘friends’ of the family who decided Mickey was the wiser of two evils, god rest their dumb fucking souls.”
“Which means all of our organizations might be compromised,” Marq said, cutting to the point. “The Sartinis, the Allesandris, the Pescatorres, the Capellos and the Vitalis. If he’s got guys working for him inside all of the families, we are done.”
“I’d like to say that’s the bad news, buuuuuut…” I hissed, trying to think of a way to word this delicately. “It gets worse. Again. That hole in Nayeli’s head? It’s the result of high S-class thaumaturgy. Sympathetic magic that, if I’m gonna skip the shit, should not exist in this time.”
“High S-class?” Marq said. “Mickey has access to high S-class magic?”
“Yeah. It’s Theo. She has a mythic weapon inside of her. One going by the name of Fragarach. And since it kicked Nayeli’s ass, I think I don’t need to tell you just how much we shouldn’t fuck with it,” I said, trying to ignore how Nayeli was flipping me the bird out of the corner of my eye. “As it turns out, Erik was looking for a little more than a woman’s touch in his life. He also happened to have a serious complex. And it looks like he decided to compensate for it by building himself a superweapon.”
“Of fucking course, exactly. To make a long story short, he somehow got his hands on a fragment of an Irish holy sword and decided to make a human weapon with it. Anyone who attacks Theo by any means, physical or conceptual, will have the same damage dealt back to them ten times over. Theo on the other hand will never sustain any permanent injury on account of being suspended in time, just like Sostene here. She just takes the hits over and over again until you’ve beaten yourself to death.”
“Well that could be a problem,” Marq said, showing his mastery of the understatement. “What about remote attacks? Could we drop a bomb on her, maybe disable her for a while without damaging our guys?”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter if the means are direct or indirect. The catalyst that triggers Fragarach isn’t the attack itself, but the intent to harm. Every kind of sympathetic magic needs some kind of medium to connect party A to party B, and that’s it for this little number. That shit’s all it takes.”
“Talk about a loaded deck,” Sostene remarked.
Nayeli snorted. “It’s a weapon forged by gods. They don’t exactly have a hard-on for fair play.”
“So?” Marq asked. “How do we deal with her then?”
I’ll admit, I fumbled on this. There wasn’t any easy way to say this, because the plan Theo proposed was both fucking stupid as hell and unsavory for everyone involved. It also had the added benefit of being our only option.
“Y’see the thing is, the rules of the geas say Theo’s gonna start attacking us the moment we try to fill Mickey with more daylight than a Florida summer, and playing the game that way isn’t going to work. So we need to contain her safely so she won’t hurt herself or anyone else. That’s gonna be difficult unless we can separate her from Mickey first, which means we need to intercept her when she’s alone, and-”
“You want us to kidnap her in broad daylight, don’t you?”
“I…” I paused, then sighed. There was no way to make this sound better than it was. “Yeah, basically. Look, I know it’s not gonna be the classiest thing we’ve ever done, but it’s hardly kidnapping. She wants to be taken away from Mickey, this was her plan. And we don’t have-”
“Any other choices, I know,” Marq finished. “Doesn’t matter. The family’s rep can afford to take a few hits. Tell me what we’re gonna need. I’m interested to know how we’re gonna keep this doll of yours contained. Seeing how she handed you all your own asses in the park,” he said as Nayeli pouted, “I’m having a hard time believing this is really gonna be that easy.”
“It’s not. We have her cooperation right up until Mickey catches on to what we’re doing. After that, she’s gonna be a hell of a lot harder to keep under control, which is why we need an armored car, like from a bank, and Nayeli doing ride-along so we can keep her wrapped up as tight as fucking possible. That and a crew of about fifteen guys for the pickup and delivery alone.”
“Oh, is that it?” Marq asked sarcastically.
”But,” I said desperately, “if we can do that, we should be golden. Theo says Mickey doesn’t know what she can really do, so once we get her into that armored car, she isn’t going to be any more of a threat to us than a normal plain Jane. After that, we just gotta deal with Mickey and his goons, which we did a pretty good job of last time.”
Marq put on his “I’m considering it” face. “Let me talk this over with the Council. Don’t go making any promises to this dame before you hear back from me, got it? I don’t know how they’re gonna handle this kinda news. If they wanna bring the hammer down instead of playing along with this homunculus’ hairbrained scheme, I don’t want any of us caught up in the middle of it. Understand me?”
I frowned. That phrase again. Bring the hammer down.
Then it hit me. “… Marq, what’s ‘the hammer’? What are they going to do when they ‘bring the hammer down’?”
Marq scowled, and looked away. Marq never looks away when you’re talking to him. Marq doesn’t get uncomfortable around people like that. The moment he broke eye contact, I knew this was gonna be bad.
“They’re gonna purge. Pack up their shit and leave, then make it all disappear in one bright blue flash. It’s the safest thing for them to do. Mickey’s officially become too troublesome to deal with, but too dangerous to leave alone. So they’re just gonna call do-over and wipe him out, along with everything else in a five mile vicinity. They’re willing to let this entire neighborhood go if they have to.”
“Why the fuck would they do that?!”
“To send a message, maybe? I don’t know, why do they do anything?”
“Marq, you can’t just let them-”
“What do you expect me to do, Al?!” Marq yelled, losing his cool. “I said I’d talk to them! That’s all I can promise you right now. Now do I have your word you won’t do anything stupid to fuck this up for us? I don’t want you anywhere near her until we get our game plan sorted out. Otherwise you’re gonna run in there and die, and then one of us is gonna have to go in after you, and then we’re gonna die, and we’re all just gonna die and I ain’t having that on my shoulders! I ain’t having that period. I’m not going to lose any of you. Not here, not like this.”
It’d been a long time since I’d seen Marq this angry. I watched him fumble with his lighter and cigarette case, trying to get it open. He was so on edge he could barely keep his fingers from shaking. Was it stress? Or just rage? It was scary seeing him like this either way. Then again, it was a scary situation.
Finally he got so tired of it he just banged the case against his desk, spilling cigarettes everywhere. He grabbed one. Marq bit down on the cigarette hard, clamping down on it until I thought he was gonna chew the the fucking thing in half. He tried to light it, but he couldn’t get a flame no matter how many times he tried flicking that little golden spark wheel.
“Dammit…” he said, pulling the wet stick out of his mouth.
Concerned, Nayeli helpfully offered him another one from the pile of pick-up sticks on his desk. He snatched it from her, mumbling a barely audible ‘thanks’. He flicked the wheel one more time before finally running out of patience with it and jamming it in his pocket. He called out for Sigurd, whistling his name. The dragon came bumbling through the door, dragging things and knocking stuff down on its way to get to Marq. Clumsy goddamn animal.
Without a word, Marq held the cigarette out in front of the dragon. Sigurd sniffed it.
“Not right now, Siggy. Treat later.”
Sigurd huffed, and the heat of his breath lit the tip of the cigarette to the tune of a smoldering orange glow. Marq inhaled deeply into the smoky cigarette, almost like the funhouse mirror reflection of an asthmatic, and then exhaled, letting smoke simply fall and curl out of his open mouth. He needed a minute to think.
“… hey, Al. How much confidence do you have in this homunculus?”
“Uh… a bit? I don’t really know what you want from me here, Marq. She’s traumatized and high as a kite half the time.”
“If this were a clip joint, would it be enough for you to bet on her?”
I considered it briefly. I’d never put much thought into how much I trusted Theo, or how much her word was worth to me. As much as I hated to admit it, she was still Mickey’s familiar, which meant there was a very good chance she could fuck this whole thing up for us if we weren’t careful. Not to mention her drug habit would make her unreliable at best; uncooperative at worst. When it came down to it, I wanted to save her sure, but the ugly fact was I didn’t trust her. Not for a minute.
But if even a word of what she’d told me on that rooftop was true, it was reason enough for me to fucking kill Mickey. There are some things in life you just gotta do if you wanna live with yourself for another day, and saving Theo was one of them. Her plan was our best and only shot.
Besides, no one gets away with setting off chemical weapons in the city my sister lives in. Not Marq, not Georgie Sartini, not the fucking Pope.
I made my decision. “I trust her.”
Having regained his cool composure, Marq blew more smoke, and then turned to me and said, “Good. Then you won’t mind if I bring you along to talk to the Council.”
“… zeggen wat?”
“You know the situation better than anyone here. If anyone knows what to say to convince them to give this a chance, it’s you.”
“Waitasecond, waitasecond. Wait just a second here, Marq. I thought you said they don’t have any respect for you in the Council.”
“They don’t. They’ll probably have even less for you.”
“Then what the fuck do you expect me to do?”
“What we always do. We’re gonna talk as much as we can, and we’re gonna throw our best bullshit at this until something sticks. And maybe, if we’re lucky and they let us talk long enough, we’ll get them to give this plan of yours the benefit of the doubt. I don’t trust this dame of yours as far as I can throw her, but if anyone knows what to say to get the Council to listen, it’s you.”
“… Fuck me.”
“And that’s the gist of it… sirs.”
I sat back down next to Marq. My words were met with deafening silence. The whole time I’d been there, I was uncomfortably aware of just how much the center of attention I was here. No one wanted me here (least of all Georgie). Even Byron, fresh from his hospital bed, stared me down with eyes like death. I didn’t have to be that kind of medium to know what he was thinking, because I saw it in everyone else too.
What kind of fucking right does this kid have to be sitting here, breathing my air? He should be on the ground, spit-shining the shit off of my fucking shoes.
But instead, I was up here. Sitting at the table. In front of five of the most powerful men on the Eastern seaboard and their consiglieres. And no one was more upset about that than me.
Finally, Paulie sighed, pinching the bridge between his eyes. “So let me get this straight, Alfredo-”
“It’s Alfonso… sir.”
“I don’t care what it is, and next time you interrupt me I’m going to stuff you into a sandbag.” I decided I’d get real quiet real fast. “You want us to take a drugged up homunculus, Mickey’s homunculus, at its word?”
“Despite there being no good reason to do so?”
“And then you want to send a bunch of our best guys to ‘rescue’ this broad from inside the enemy’s atelier?” Georgie added.
“To be fair, I highly doubt Mickey has an atelier.”
“What happened to the ‘sir’?” Georgie complained angrily. “Why don’t I get a ‘sir’?”
“And then you want us to shelter this abomination and welcome it into our homes while its master is still <em>very</em> much alive?” Romeo Vitali interrupted. “You would put us all in danger to keep this doll of yours safe?”
“It’s more keeping us safe from her, but…” I tried to think of something more comforting to say. “… yes, sirs, that about covers it.”
Paulie sighed. “Alright then. One last question. Ivo? Jesse?”
… This was not going well.