The pitch had gone just about as well as expected. When even Marq didn’t have confidence in a plan, you knew it was stupid from start to finish. However, the relative merits of a stupid plan become readily apparent when the alternative is so much shit hitting the fan it could splatter-paint an entire barn.
I sighed. “Listen, sirs, I know what this sounds like-”
“Do you? Do you fucking really, you piece of shit?” Georgie spat at me (or would have, if he could spit through that gas mask). “I don’t think you have any idea what this sounds like, because if you did, you’d go jump off a bridge and save me the fucking trouble!”
“Please, sir, I’m not trying to waste your time, I honestly think-”
“No, you don’t think. You don’t get to think. You’re not paid to think. If you were, you’d be me, and you’d realize how much more valuable my time is out there compared to how it’s being spent in fucking here. But you’re a soldato, a nobody who’s barely graduated from licking the mildew off his landlady’s crystallized vagina to make rent, and you’re trying to tell me what’s best for my fucking business?”
I finally lost my patience. “No, I’m trying to tell you what’s best for the city your business depends on, you arrogant dick. And pardon me for saying this, but do you mean the business that got us into this mess to begin with?”
Stunned silence. Georgie stood.
“What the fuck did you just say to me?” Georgie’s arm made a whirring noise and a tiny silver derringer appeared in his hand, attached to a retractable mechanism in the sleeve of his coat. A sleeve gun. He pointed it at me. “Say that again, you cocksucking little fungus. Say that again so I can blow your fucking brains out!”
“Mind the laws of the Council, Georgie,” Marq reminded him. “This is neutral ground. Open threats of violence are tantamount to declarations of war here, you know that.”
“You don’t get to tell me what to fucking do either, you snot-nosed brat! I should just shoot both of you, and save us all the fucking trouble!”
Georgie stared at me through his mask, making some kind of noise I interpreted as a growl. I had no doubt in my mind that were we not sitting around this table, he would’ve killed me. Right then and there, in front of everybody and anybody who cared to watch. So you can imagine I was mighty fucking relieved (but mostly just surprised) when the Capello brothers of all people came to my aide.
“Now now, Georgie.” “The poor boy was merely trying to make a point.” “It’d be beneath you to execute him just for constructive criticism.” “That’s the behavior of an ill-tempered soldato, not a don.” “He could learn some respect, but…” “Are you sure you really want to do this?” “We won’t stop you if you do, of course.” “We will say we expected better of you, though.” The two brothers exchanged glances. “Okay, that was a lie.” “We really don’t expect anything of you, Georgie.” “Because really-” “-who would?”
The two Capello brothers snickered. I don’t know why they came to my defense. To this day, I still don’t think they actually did. They just wanted to fuck with Georgie. Georgie twitched. I could almost see him pull the trigger before the gun rolled back up into his sleeve and he sat down.
“I want to see that kid punished for his disrespect, Marquis. By you.”
“Sure,” Marq responded. “Right after you explain to us why you thought it was a good idea to let your people sell to Mickey Donahue of all people.”
“Does it matter if it was a good idea? If he’s got money, he’s got drugs. That’s the family motto. Don’t see nothing wrong with it, seeing how it’s worked out pretty fucking well for me so far.”
“Does that include nepenthe?” I asked accusingly.
“Not to mention berserkergang, if these toxicology reports are anything to go by,” Marq added, flipping through a folder of autopsy records for the men killed in yesterday’s skirmish. “Quite a lot of it too. It’s probably how he’s been so successful in dealing with our men, that homunculus notwithstanding of course.”
Paulie choked. “Berserkergang? You sold the Broncos berserkergang?”
Georgie scowled. “Hey, don’t look at me like I just waltzed up to the guy and handed him needles of hulk juice. I had no fucking part in this. Do you know what your pushers are doing out there on the streets?”
“No we don’t, because not all of us have pushers,” Romeo quipped. “The drug trade is distasteful Georgie, and I hope you see why now.”
Paulie snarled, obviously annoyed with Romeo’s holier-than-thou attitude. “Look pretty boy, they sell the drugs, they make the money. No one asks questions as long as the quota is met. They could be selling it to sweet Polly fucking Oliver for all I care.”
I couldn’t believe this guy. First nepenthe and now berserkergang? Just what kind of hard drugs were the Sartinis dealing in? I mean what was next? Discount aphrodisiacs? Buy one date rape get another one free?
I sighed internally. Why couldn’t they just hook junkies on coke and opium like normal people?
Still, unless we wanted to sit around and accuse Georgie of aiding and abetting Mickey until the city exploded into clouds of poisonous gas, this meeting was going nowhere fast. Figuring I’d already shaved years off my life mouthing off to the don of another family, I decided I’d just take matters into my own hands and play my trump card.
I took the stand, interrupting their conversation as I got up out of my chair, the squeaking of polished wood against cement rumbling in my ears. I immediately got everyone’s attention, which was not a good thing in this kind of environment. This was bona fide insanity. What I was about to do would get me killed for sure. My career as a mafioso would be short-lived, and absolutely pointless with how much fucking good it would have done my sister and me.
I didn’t even know why I felt so strongly about this. Theo’s life wasn’t my concern. It was tragic, desperate, and even maddening in the tortuous cruelty of it all. But so was everyone’s. No one shuffles off this meat grinder they call the mortal coil without some kind of damage. If I’d never gotten involved, never met her, I would’ve gladly been able to carry on with my life. So was it because I’d gotten involved in the first place that I was doing all of this for someone I’d only just met?
Or was it because there are some things you just have to do if you want to call yourself human?
“This is getting us nowhere,” I said, going all in. “None of you take me seriously me anyway, and that’s fine with me, because that means I can just dispense with the niceties and just say it like it is. Look, this dame has been raped, drugged, and beaten for months in your turf, right underneath your noses. If none of you have an ounce of fucking sympathy for her, that’s fine. We all sold our piece-of-crap souls years ago, for whatever the hell they were worth. But at least consider what this means for your communities first before you just write her off as just another victim.
“If Mickey Donahue can get away with doing this kind of shit to a woman in damn near broad daylight for this long, what does that say about our protection rackets? What does that say about us, as an institution? That we’re willing to just let this kind of shit fly? The community relies on us to protect them from these kinds of soulless rat bastards. If something bad happens in New York, we’re supposed to be the ones responsible. We gotta hit Mickey hard for this. Give to the community and the community gives back. You let people know that the five families are just gonna let common breeds of criminal like Mickey get away with stuff like this, and they’re gonna lose what little faith and respect they ever had for you. And what do you think that’s gonna do for your ‘business’, Georgie?”
Everyone was in shock after I said that. The last thing anyone in this room was expecting was for me to say these kinds of things to men who’d had fellas killed for lesser crimes than what I’d just said, like botching an apache job or getting too much blood on their favorite suit. I’d pushed it too far. No… I hadn’t pushed it far enough.
“And if that isn’t enough for you, then how about this? Theo spends every day with Mickey, which means she knows the locations of each and every bomb in this city, and how to disarm them. She can save the people in your Wards. Hundreds of lives. More than that, she knows the names and faces of the men who have betrayed your organizations, the moles digging holes in your garden. You take her in alive, and she can give you all of that.
Confident I’d pushed it just far enough to light a fire under their asses, I mixed it up, toning it down and appearing to be reasonable. This was the killing blow.
“Look, I know the plan is crazy. I know it’s stupid. I heard it from the horse’s mouth. But unless you want Harlem to become hell on earth, it’s the only plan you’ve got. And it’s damn well worth the risk. You can shoot me if you want this time… but I got a good feeling you know I’m right.”
There was silence. Sigurd growled in the corner. No one made a move, but I could feel what they were thinking through the way it radiated through the air. Anger. Hesitation. Doubt. Indecision. Mostly anger, except from Romeo Vitali. This was gonna make or break whether or not they decided to kill me or listen to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did both.
Georgie made the first move. “You think you’re so fucking clever…”
I heard the whirring of his sleeve gun underneath the table, and started to sweat. I did just invite them to shoot me if they wanted. Knowing what little I did about Georgie Sartini, he’d make good on that offer immediately.
To my surprise, it was Paulie Pescatorre of all people who stopped him, firmly holding his gun hand at his side.
“You’re willing to put your own life at risk just to get this girl of yours some help. That’s either really brave, or really, really stupid. I admire that kind of dedication.” He looked me straight in the eye. “… Alright, boy. We’ll go along with your plan. But when this fails, and those bombs go off, it’s on you,” Paulie said, making no idle threat. “After what you said here today, no one’s going to come to your rescue. Success will only mean you get to live another day. Understand?”
I nodded. Fail and I die. Succeed, and I get to apologize by licking the dirt off of Paulie’s boots.
Paulie sighed, likely fully aware how bad of an idea this was. “Alright, so tell us. What will you need?”
“At minimum? A strike team of about seven to ten men just to retrieve Theo.”
“The homunculus,” I said.
“Ahhhhh…” Paulie said. He’d probably already forgotten she even had a name. “And?”
“Bomb squads, preferably some of our pocketed police but I’ll take whatever you can spare. Mickey’s probably building 4000 lb. bombs for maximum effect, so if we take his claim of twenty tons of gas at face value, we’re gonna need at least ten teams. Also, if we’re dealing with Willie Pete, we’ll need a few hazmat suits in case those bombs do go off. Also, I’m gonna need three dozen pounds of belladonna.”
Paulie raised an eyebrow.
“He means deadly nightshade,” George cut in, surprising me for the first time that day. “It’s a plant that produces atropine, a tropane alkaloid that neutralizes the effects of sarin gas. They used it in these little pills they gave to G.I.s during the war. You know, in case of a gas attack. The little shit’s got brains, I’ll give him that.”
“Why thank you, Georgie.”
“He’s lucky I don’t splatter them all over that wall.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, to be honest.
Paulie sighed. “Alright. And?”
“And I’ll need twenty four hours to get in touch with Theo and work out our rendezvous point, as well as our time of arrival and egress routes.”
Paulie nodded. “And I’m assuming you’ll want to make use of my atelier?”
“Well I want a parade held in my honor and a handjob from the mayor’s wife, but you don’t see me loitering around Gracie Mansion with my fly open like some greaseball doucher. Just cause you want it doesn’t mean you should get it, kid.” Paulie pinched his nose. “I’ll spare you one of my panic rooms. They’re basement-level, twelve locks, steel doors three-and-a-half feet thick with reinforced walls. Better than a bank, and that’s the best you’re getting.”
But Paulie, sir-”
“To ask a wizard to enter his atelier is to ask a man to enter his home,” Paulie said solemnly. “You would ask me to open my doors to a stranger, to feed them, clothe them, give them a place to rest and endanger my entire family? My livelihood? The answer’s no, and if you ask again you won’t be getting the panic room either.”
Well, it was a long shot to begin with. An atelier is the greatest security a man can afford, a magical safe haven of his own design. And as a man with a lot of money-no, the most money, Paulie’s atelier was the safest place to be in the entire city. But it was also his biggest investment. Magical research, ingredients for spells, expensive artifacts and charms, money and jewels… If you’ve got something worth keeping, you keep it in an atelier.
Still though, I couldn’t guarantee Theo wouldn’t break out. I know it sounds stupid to you, don’t think I don’t. A homunculus is only an artificial human, nothing more than that. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many humans who can break down bank vault doors with their bare hands, so it stood to reason there was no chance of her escaping either way. But something about not having that extra layer of protection scared me anyway. No matter how tough something is, if you hit it hard enough or long enough, it’ll break. That’s just a basic law of the universe. Magic’s different. Magic is like space, or time. It’s an abstract concept, and you can’t break those.
Call it paranoia, but I’d rather have that atelier and not need it rather than the other way around.
I sighed. “Thank you, sir.”
“You have your twenty-four hours to get everything you need ready. We’ll help if we can, but I expect you to handle this shitstorm yourself. I don’t know you personally-”
“I wouldn’t expect you to, sir,” I replied sarcastically, somewhat pushing my luck again.
“-and even if I did, I wouldn’t stick my neck out for you just because you’re dizzy with some dame. This plan is fucking stupid.”
“With all due respect sir, that remains to be seen… but I know my odds, yes.”
“… Well, that being said, I wish you luck. For all our sakes.” Well that was surprising. He paused. “And don’t even think about asking for a promotion once this is done! You’ve caused enough trouble around here.”
Not so surprising.
I didn’t have to go looking very far for Theo. She’d be right where she was last time, standing atop the Empire State Building’s 102nd floor, just like she’d been expecting me. I can’t tell you how I knew that, but it just felt right that she’d be there.
I stepped off the steel beam onto the skeletal frame of the 102nd, and looked around for Theo. It occurred to me just then just how small everything was as I looked out over the city, the New York skyline stretching out like a carpet over the Eastern Seaboard, building after building pointing straight up at the sky like a challenge to the gods.
Last time we tried pulling this kind of shit, we built Babel thirty feet high out of brick, mortar and clay. Look at how far we’ve come since then. How long would it be before the heavenly asshole brigade decided to remind us where we stand in the grand scheme of things?
It was strangely comforting to think about it like that. Divine intervention. Cities laid to waste, maps redrawn, entire civilizations disappearing overnight. That’s what we really had to worry about. Compared to that, this charade with Mickey didn’t seem like such a big deal. A proper sense of scale really helped keep me from worrying too much about what would happen if we failed. If I failed. That kind of thinking was what got goodfellas shot.
Finally, I saw her. She didn’t wave to me, so I decided to take the initiative and greet her, waving my arms back and forth in the air like a fool. She apparently didn’t find that funny. Or just didn’t know what to make of it.
“Have you acquired the help we need?”
I nodded. “Yeah, and it wasn’t any skin off my bones either, thanks for asking. If we mess this up, I’m getting the kibosh.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“No, not really. I just felt like it was the appropriate thing to say. I suppose you’ll be wanting your payment now?”
“Yes. Payment. Compensation for services rendered.” That was when Theo started doing the last thing I expected. Up on top of the Empire State Building, in the middle of the coldest night of the month, she started undressing. Right in front of me. And while I can’t say I didn’t appreciate the view, let’s just say doing the deed was the last thing on my mind right now.
“Whoawhoawhoa!” I said, trying to cover my eyes to preserve her modesty. “What the hell are you doing?!”
She slipped out of the straps of her red dress, her shoulders bare and her breasts covered only by the flimsiest pretenses of modesty. “I don’t have any money, and I can’t offer you my contract either, not so long as Mickey has it. My body is the only thing of value I can offer you. Please accept it.”
She wrapped her arms around me, pushing her mostly naked body up against mine. I really wanted to. I mean I really did. But not here. Not like this. And definitely not for these reasons. After what she’d been through… it didn’t feel right. Wouldn’t I just be taking advantage of her? How would that make me any better than Mickey?
So, I did what felt right. I wrapped my arms around her, drawing her into a hug. A real nice one. Nothing sexual, just physical intimacy for the sake of physical intimacy.
“What are you doing?” she asked, squirming. “Is the payment not enough? What more do you want me to do?”
“Nothing. I’m sorry for everything he’s done to you. And I promise I’m going to start making it up to you, any way I can. But not like this.”
“What are you talking about? I’m trying to make it up to you.”
“Then come work for me. No contract, or at least nothing permanent. You can live with me and my sister in my apartment. Maybe work as a maid or something. You can pay me back that way.”
“I can’t accept that. How can I expect you to trust me if you won’t hold me accountable? You have no guarantee I won’t go back on this deal.”
“Because I’m not like Mickey or Erik. I’m not just thinking about what I can get you to do for me. Most people aren’t like that. I’d like to show you that, if I can. Show you that the world isn’t as cruel as the people you’ve been with up until now.”
She huddled in closer, burying herself in my shoulder.
“How would you do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we can go to Coney Island sometime. Ride the rides. See a show. Have some fun. Maybe I’ll treat you and Annie to a nice steak dinner sometime, or take you for a ride on that new transcontinental train. We can take one of those three day trips, just the three of us. Y’know, like a family.”
“Yeah, family. And family doesn’t leave family behind.” I hugged her tightly. “I promise, no one’s going to hurt you ever again. I’ll make sure of it.”
The knowledge of her addiction to nepenthe lingered in the back of my mind, a reminder of the twisted shit Mickey did to her, and how long it would take to heal those wounds. The things he did could never be undone. Not ever. They’d always be with her, reminding her of the past. She’d always be damaged goods. But that didn’t matter to me. I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. Right now, there was only one thing that mattered.
There’s no question. Now I have to save her…