Month: December 2014

Stealing Stones and Breaking Bones 3.4

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I was totally confused. Seeing those two acting so friendly after all of Marq’s talk was just a mindfuck. Listen, I know Marq. I may not always be able to tell when he’s telling the truth or not and I don’t think I or anyone else will ever be able to, but I’ve at least gotten pretty good at judging his emotions. Marq was never so quiet and reserved unless someone was really fucking wrong. He was one of those people that just wound themselves up tighter and tighter the worse the situation became, keeping everyone at arm’s length until he’d either solved the problem or the problem had solved him. So to see him act so unguarded when just moments ago he’d been so, so afraid was just giving me all sorts of mental whiplash.

What was I supposed to do? I wasn’t as good an actor as Marq. If something’s on my mind, you’d better believe I’ll fucking tell you, and I don’t like people keeping secrets from me either. That was the biggest hurdle I had to come overcome working for the Allesandris. But here, like this? I wasn’t sure what to do.

I looked around nervously, studying Milo’s office and taking it all in to calm my nerves. His office wasn’t clean like Marq’s. It was piled high to the sky with all sorts of odds and ends, and make sure to mentally affix an emphasis to “odd”. Cracked crystal balls, dirty amulets, wrinkled specimens in glass jars, shrunken heads and whale testicles, replicas of famous or even cursed paintings hanging crooked on the walls, antique chairs with carvings in glyphs I’d never seen and questionable-looking bloodstains on the seats, and bones from creatures I’d only ever read about littered the whole space in no particular order, at least not one that made sense to me. It was just weird shit as far as the eye could see. A real emporium of the bizarre and fucked up. Milo himself was no different. He looked right at home amongst the menagerie in his puke-green plaid suit, salmon undershirt, purple feather hat, and tacky jewelry, and he was constantly smiling at us like he knew something we didn’t.

I gulped. I was beginning to feel like one of those schmucks who buys something from the devil in one of those creepy shops that weren’t there yesterday.

“Please, everyone take a seat,” Milo said, gesturing towards the seats set up in front of his desk. “I haven’t had the luxury of having visitors to my office in a long time, so I’ve prepared some seats for you from the finest furniture my little collection has to offer.”

This was a little collection?

Marq took the seat directly in front of Milo. Nayeli opted to refuse his offer and just stand by the door, and Sostene quickly excused himself to use the bathroom. I looked around. Marq said anything in this office could be a potential death trap. I was not gonna be done in by a fucking chair.

Marq turned to look at a glass cabinet filled with artifacts. “These are some pretty nice finds. Are those seven-league shoes?”

“Cloud-walking boots, actually. Much harder to get ahold of. There are only sixteen pairs in the world, if you’ll believe that. If I’m not mistaken, one of the other sixteen pairs is owned by the Monkey King.”

“Yeah, that’s… that’s really great,” I said, nervously looking at the chairs.

There were four chairs, one for each of us, and I didn’t know how he knew all four of us were coming. Did that mean that there was a chair for each of us, each tailored to an ironic death? No, obviously not. The whole plan would fall apart the instant one of us took a seat. He’d claim one life, two at best before we realized what was happening and tied his ass to one of his own chairs. No, if he was going to kill someone with fine furniture, it would need to be a single target who wouldn’t realize what was happening before it was too late. Then again, I couldn’t discount the possibility that these chairs were all part of a set and not cursed separately, meaning they were all made to work only when all four had been sat on. They didn’t look like a set though…

I wracked my brain trying to figure out the trick, but I just wasn’t seeing it. Milo looked at me expectantly, and Marq wasn’t giving me any signals or clues. I was running out of time. Then it came to me. I’d just sit in a different chair. I looked around and found the chair that looked the least cursed, an armless, reclining, red leather sofa lined up against the wall next to a nightstand with a globe on it. I sat in it, smiling smugly because I thought I’d figured out his trick. Nayeli just sighed, probably thinking I was a total dumbass.

“Now that everyone who’s sitting has a seat, let’s get down to business,” Milo said. “Do you know why I’ve called you here today, brother?”

“That’s easy,” Marq said. “It’s because you need my help.”

“What? Was it really that obvious?” Milo said, feigning surprise.

“I doubt you would have called me for any other reason. Isn’t it you who said we Allesandris work best when we work alone?”

“Yes, but you’re not really an Allesandri, are you brother?” Milo said, retaining his calm, pleasant demeanor as Marq frowned. “Regardless, a rare circumstance has occurred where I do indeed need your help. It concerns the family business.”

“Alright, I’m all ears,” Marq said. “Let’s hear it. What’s the job?”

“Nothing too major, I just need you to attend a meeting in my place. I’m supposed to conduct negotiations with some prominent figures in an up and coming criminal organization here in New York. It’s called the yakuza. It’s a Japanese group from what I hear. They want into our world, and father thinks it would be good for business to have them on our side. They’re willing to pay quite a good price if we give them what they want.”

“Japanese, huh?” Marq said. “Didn’t know we had that many here in New York.”

“There are more of them coming into port every day,” Milo said dismissively. “And it should be obvious that they’d bring their own spin on organized crime with them. I mean we certainly did.”

“So you want me to win this guy over while you do what? Spend a day at the gambling parlor?”

“Hardly. Today’s my anniversary, and I just so happen to be scheduled to meet with our new friends tonight. Because I actually love my wife, unlike you and your fiancee, I’d like you to go in my place, seeing as you have no real plans as far as I’m aware. You’ll speak with Kichirou Yamada and his brother Yoshirou. They’re here on a business trip, and they’ll be returning to Japan shortly, first by train and then by sea. You’ll speak with them, and you will convince them to ally themselves with us.”

Marq sighed. “Not that I’m not flattered by your asking for my help, but I’m not seeing what it is that I get out of this. What’s the point? To be entirely honest, I don’t even understand why father wants to align with these men. They’re still a fledgling organization, what could they possibly have to offer us?”

Milo’s smile took a dark turn.

“Nothing. You’re right at least that they’re newcomers, and not of much value to us. But there’s a rumor going around that they have something we desperately need. Something about yay big, shaped like a tear drop, flows like a liquid but is solid like a stone and glows bright red?”

Marq’s eyes widened. “You’re joking. Them?”

“Them. They have the philosopher’s stone. Allegedly.”

No way. No fucking way, I thought. Was he joking? A philosopher’s stone is real serious shit. Anyone who controls the stone controls the very fundamental forces that make life. With a philosopher’s stone, you can transmute one chemical element into another, turning blocks of wood into gold, and change matter into energy, and vice versa. It’s a source of unlimited power, and it’s even said that the stone can produce an elixir of life superior to ambrosia, making it a medical miracle that can prolong life indefinitely and heal any injury or sickness, no matter how severe. With a philosopher’s stone in your hands, you may as well be a god.

That’s why no one’s been able to make one for the last five hundred years.

That’s the funny thing about unlimited power. There’s always a catch. For the philosopher’s stone, that catch is actually making one, which is a task so ludicrously fucking difficult it’s started to become synonymous with impossible. You see, you need three ingredients: astrum, azoth, and alkahest. The three idealized alchemical substances, also known as “prima materia”, “universal medicine”, and “universal solvent”. Each plays a critical role in forming the philosopher’s stone, and each is painfully rare and difficult to obtain. Azoth by itself is said to equal five times its own weight in ambrosia, astrum’s been impossible to find since the big bang, and alkahest has only been successfully produced a handful of times in human history. Bring it all together and you’ve got a pricetag no human alive could possibly pay. Not even a demon would take that deal. So did these guys have one?

“Alright, I see where this is going,” Marq said. “You want me to negotiate to buy their allegiance for as little as possible, and if an opportunity presents itself, steal or purchase the stone from them.”

“Precisely. I hope you realize just what I’m offering you, brother. If you were offer father a cure for his illness along with the homunculus, I’m sure it’ll look good come time to decide who gets the inheritance.”

“Milo, please don’t talk about that around-”

“Speaking of, how is the homunculus doing?” Milo said, continuing with a smile. “Is she ready to serve a new master yet? If I remember father correctly he said that it’s urgent that we put her to work immediately, and he’s very interested in having a new nurse.”

“Oh no…” Marq sighed.

“Waitwaitwaitwait,” I said. “Marq, what is he talking about? What does he mean by ‘ready to serve a new master’?”

“Al, I was going to tell you-”

“Tell me what? I can’t believe you! I thought we agreed Theo was free. That was the deal! You’re just going to go back on that? Now?!”

“Al, it’s not that simple…”

“We rescued her, or more accurately I rescued her just so she wouldn’t have to be a slave to Mickey anymore and have god knows what done to her, and now she’s just going to become another victim of your fucking politics? Are you fucking joking? How is that any better?”

“Al-”

“I’m not gonna fucking listen to this. I told you I’d skip town, yeah? That’s exactly what I’m gonna do. You just try to fucking stop me. Theo and I walk free, or she’ll tie your men into knots.”

“Al!” Marq yelled. “Would you just listen to me?! It’s not that simple!”

I stopped, and Marq took a deep breath. He continued.

“Think for a second, Al. What is Theo? Specifically?”

“A homunculus.”

“That’s right. And homunculi are designed by their creators with a specific purpose in mind. To serve a master.”

“That doesn’t mean you can just-”

“Listen to me, Al. Let me finish. They’re created to serve a master, and the one that created Theo was what? A delusional, codependent wet sock who was so desperate to have a woman in his life that he was willing to make one. What kind of homunculus do you think a person like that would design?”

“I dunno, one that wouldn’t leave him I guess.”

“Correct. And how exactly was she made?”

“By infusing her body with a holy sword in vitro.”

Marq waved his hand for me to continue. There was something I was missing, apparently. I thought about what she’d told me. Then I realized.

“Experiments into vampirism…”

“Correct again. Erik was so dependent on having Theo in his life that he made sure she could never leave him. She had to be dependent on him as well. And how exactly do you think he did that?” He folded his hands. “A vampire’s curse relies on the life energy of its victims, most commonly found in bodily fluids like blood and semen. Without it, the curse fails and undeath reverts back to death. That’s where the bloodlust comes from. Sostene can tell you all about that, I’m sure. So in order to stay alive, what would a vampiric homunculus need?”

“Life energy from its master…” I whispered.

“Correct. Third’s time the charm, Al. Pat yourself on the back,” Marq said bitterly. “She needs a master she can form a contract with, Al. She can’t survive without one. With Erik gone and Mickey dead, she needs to find one soon, or she’ll die.”

“And you’re just going to give her to Frankie?” I said accusingly. I could see it in my head. All the things he’d do to her. How she cried in her sleep cradling the broken dream of a better life and how she whispered my name as things touched her in the dark, asking me in one simple word why I’d betrayed her the way I did. I knew I couldn’t live with that. I wasn’t going to be her Judas. But I couldn’t be her messiah either. I couldn’t save her from what Erik had done to her. So what was I supposed to do?

I stood up.

“I’m not gonna let that happen,” I said. “If she needs a master, fine. Give her to me. I’ll take responsibility for her.”

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Stealing Stones and Breaking Bones 3.3

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In the end we ended up buying Annie a new bird’s egg blue blouse and a frilly sort of gothic dress. Not sure what the word for that kind of dress would be. Ostentatious? I kid.

As for me, I settled on a new white suit that Marq insisted on having fitted first, along with a white fedora so the color of my hat would finally match my suit (and it looks damn good with my black hair too). And as a piece de resistance, I picked out a red velvet scarf that wraps around my collar and helps me look a little more distinctive. If I was gonna start caring about looking respectable, I wanted to go all the way and work on cultivating my new image. A made man’s gotta stand out if he wants to get promoted.

That being said, it didn’t come without its fair share of pains in the ass. Aside from the meeting, Marq put on this whole lecture about “making a proper made man” out of me, and started making some really fucking unreasonable demands. For one, he wanted me to start looking for a better house and start showing up to work for my cover job at the hospital. Both bits of good advice, but somehow it felt like it would disrupt my normal daily life to do either of those things.

The other demand he made of me was that I learn how to do magic, and learn it in a month. Yeah.

I sighed, carrying an armful of books stacked so high I could barely see over them. He’d loaded me down with all sorts of textbooks, grimoires, and supplementary material and told me to memorize it all. Not a huge problem for someone with my skillset, but the way he said it makes me think he’s confusing having something memorized and actually knowing how to do it. I may have the information to hypothetically perform a lot of different jobs, but unless you’re a chef and you’re following some sort of cookbook, you’re gonna need practical experience to not look like a total ninny putting that knowledge into practice. Magic was a science, sure, a very formulaic science, but there was a rhythm, a rhyme and a reason to everything that I just didn’t quite grasp with magic. When I was putting together that voodoo enchantment, I messed it up fifteen times before I got it right, and ended up wasting so much goddamn paint. And animal entrails. I could never forget the animal entrails. It was a good thing Marq bought me a new suit, because the legs of my old pants were just never going to feel right again after that.

But there was no reasoning with him. He’d insisted on me taking the books and that was the end of that. Now I had an obligation to read them all in a month, and memorize every word, right down to the index and the table of contents. I probably should clarify that at least half of these books weigh around five pounds. Some of these sons of bitches unabridged. Do you know how much of a nightmare that is?

Eventually we parted ways once we reached the Lower East Side, Marq returning with Nayeli to the Allesandri family mansion. Annie and I went home, eager to count our blessings. I’m sure she had a whole fucking earload of things she had to say to me, but right now, I was just glad we were back together as a family, and I think she was too. That was good enough.

Turns out, Annie didn’t need my help getting up the stairs this time. She insisted on doing it alone, and even whacked me in the kneecap with one of her crutches when I tried to pick her up and carry her up the stairs. So instead I just trailed behind her, waiting to catch her if she lost her balance and fell down the stairs. It felt so weird seeing her act like this, first at Spanky’s and now here at home. She’d never complained about needing my help before now, so what had changed?

Nothing’s changed, ya goof, I thought to myself. She’s just growing up is all. She’s getting to be that age where she doesn’t want to be babied anymore. She’ll grow out of it sooner or later.

When we got to the door though, that’s when I knew things had indeed well and truly changed while I was gone.

“Hello master Alfonso, mistress Anastasia,” Theo said as we opened the door, curtsying. “Welcome home.”

She looked at Annie.

“Did I do it right this time?”

“Yes, perfectly!” Anastasia said a little too happily.

I stared, unable to comprehend just what exactly I was seeing. From what I could tell, what I was looking at was Theo, dressed in what appeared to be a fetishist’s French maid outfit. She had a feather duster in hand, and was bowing and curtsying to my sister and I like a proper French maid to her masters. So many questions came to mind. Why was Theo wearing a French maid outfit? Where did it come from? Why did it look like it was four or five sizes too small for her? Who had modified it to have a puffy little tail sticking out the back?

“Annie…” I asked. “What is this? What’s going on here?”

“Our live-in maid. You know, the one you got for us without asking me first,” Annie said, still sounding angry but trying to cover it up with sugary sweetness. “I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of teaching Theo a few tricks while you were gone. I hope you like it, brother.”

I was utterly silent. Can you blame me? What the fuck was I supposed to say to that?

“Annie…” I asked with trepidation. “What did you do to our maid?”

“Isn’t that obvious? She was lacking in maid skills when you first dumped her off on me, so I trained her for you. Thanks for telling me about that, by the way.”

“Right, I probably have some explaining to do,” I said, sighing. “You’re probably curious why I got us a maid, aren’t you?”

“Oh no, Theo told me the whole story already.”

“Wha- She told you?!”

I looked at Theo, who remained her usual abnormally calm self as I felt panic begin to set in.

“Yeah. She told me she’s here working for us as a favor to you for saving her from Mickey Donahue. Apparently you stormed Mickey’s hideout with a gun in each hand and took down an entire warehouse of heavily-armed thugs just to rescue her. She said it was very courageous and brave of you.”

“Well I don’t know about that-”

“She also said it was incredibly stupid and that you nearly got yourself killed by not waiting for the police to show up. Now I don’t know if I believe the part about your heroic rescue, but the stupid part? I can definitely see that.”

I tried to say something in my defense, but as always I fell very short of the stunning repose I’d imagined and managed to say a few “uhs” before Annie was done listening. She sighed.

“I honestly don’t know if I should hug you or slap you, Alfonso. You did good, even if only half of what she’s said about you is true, but I’m still tired of always having to worry about you, because you clearly don’t! We’re still gonna have a talk about that, by the way! Don’t let me forget it!”

I was totally gonna let her forget it.

As soon as Annie was out of the way, I pulled Theo aside and whispered to her, “You didn’t tell her about me? You know… about my business?”

“I am socially maladjusted, not inept,” she responded flatly. “I will not reveal your secret unless asked.”

“Oh, and she also said something about some ‘secret’ you were keeping,” Annie shouted from the bathroom. “I’m guessing the secret was Marq being your financial advisor? I mean I was gonna ask, but…”

I glared at Theo.

“… I said I would not reveal your secret if you told me not to. You did not forbid talking about your secret.”

“Doesn’t that just go without saying?!”

“It does?” she said, tilting her head at me like a lost puppy.

I sighed. “Yes, it does.”

“Oh.” … “… I have begun caring for the garden in your room. It seemed rather neglected, so I thought I should feed and water it for you while you were gone.”

“My garden…?” Suddenly I remembered everything. It’d been so long since I’d even spared a thought for my garden. The poor plants were probably all dead by now.

I rushed into my bedroom and found plants that were very much alive despite my absence, their vigilant caretaker nurturing them excellently and with care. Wow, I thought. Now I know what it feels like to be the third wheel.

“Theo, this is…”

“I followed all the instructions left in your journal. I hope they’re okay.”

“Better than okay,” I said, leaking laughter. “They’ve never looked this good before! You’re my goddess, Theo!”

“Incorrect,” she said. “I am nothing like a god. I just happen to have the sword of one implanted in-”

“Shhhhh!” I said, silencing her and hoping Annie didn’t hear. “I was just giving you a compliment! Don’t be so literal all the damn time!”

“A compliment?” she said, puzzled. “I don’t think anyone’s ever given me one of those before.”

“That’s not surprising,” I said, fishing a fivespot out of my wallet and giving it to Theo. “Here. I know it’s not much, but I feel like I owe you for going the extra mile with the flowers. I really appreciate it, Theo.”

She looked at the bill for a few seconds, staring at it like she didn’t know what to make of the situation. Eventually she shook her head and pushed the bill back towards me.

“I do not require any of your money. Your generosity and kindness in allowing me to live with you and your family is more than enough. I am happy just to be here.”

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair, trying to think of something. “Well you’re very welcome. But, as a part of this family, you’re going to have a monthly allowance just like the rest of us. This is money you can spend on whatever you wanna buy. The rest of it goes towards living expenses. Take it, Theo. It’s yours.”

“You mean-”

“I said it before, didn’t I? Welcome to the family, Theo.”

She beamed, accepting the five dollar bill. “Master, may I go out and purchase something?”

I smiled. “Knock yourself out. And quit it with that ‘master’ shit. Just call me ‘Alfonso’ like always.”

Theo nodded until her head was about ready to fall off and then hurried to the bathroom to get changed into her street clothes. I heard Anastasia yelp in surprise as she barged in, probably already half-naked, and I couldn’t help but snigger.

Now that I was finally alone, I looked around at my bedroom. It was clean as a whistle, and filled to the brim with potted plants and hanging pots. Someone had dusted it until it shined.

I ran a hand along the dresser, and flipped the tiny rotating mirror so it faced the wall. The room used to be ours, as in me and Annie’s, before Anastasia got too sick to sleep in her old bed and had to be moved into the living room. Ever since then I’d been using it to grow plants like the spriggan had taught me. They’d been neglected for quite a while now since I never used any of them like she did (because let’s face it, what whackjob would grow and prepare dangerous toxins and other drugs in the same house where his little sister lived?), but now? After Mickey, I realized it might be a good idea to arm myself less traditionally. Maybe some day I could make a few poisons and bring ’em into work with me, try ’em out on the local goons.

Maybe I could grow some poppy for Marq on the side, earn a bit of extra clam… I thought for a second. They were both good ideas, but I couldn’t seriously contemplate either until I had a bigger workshop that was a bit less close to home than my own bedroom. I would’ve liked an atelier, but god knows I didn’t have the money or the magical experience to make one on my own.

“Theo!” I heard Annie yell. “What are you doing?!”

“I’m changing, Mistress Anastasia! Do not mind me, I will be done soon!”

This time I couldn’t help it. I laughed.

My life was certainly gonna change now. Mickey was my wakeup call. Now, things were gonna have to be different between Annie and me. They’d have to be if I wanted to balance this new lifestyle, and protect this little corner of heaven I’d made for myself here in this shitty old apartment building. This was where things made sense to me. This was my life, my real life, and it was constantly under siege by people and things from that other life, the life I led in secret where I was Alfonso the gangster instead of Alfonso the brother. I had to draw the line here, the line between reality and dream, and defend it. Out there, Al the mobster could do whatever he needed to to get the job done. In here though? This was where I was Al the brother. This was who I really was, and I wouldn’t let anyone destroy that peaceful illusion.

That’s what I promised myself anyway.

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves outside yet another office building, a tax firm this time. Sostene, Nayeli and I waited patiently in the car with Marq, who was compulsively checking his watch and straightening his tie in the rearview mirror.

“So,” I said, breaking the ice, “this is where your brother does business, huh?”

“Yup,” Marq said tersely.

“So… are you gonna tell us anything about him?”

“Nope.”

Marq opened the driver’s side door and walked out, more silent than I’d ever seem him before. Well that was unsettling. I followed him.

“I mean, don’t you think we should at least know what he’s like so we won’t say anything that’ll get in the way of your meeting-

“Listen, Al, because I don’t think you understand just how dangerous this is. Just sit down, shut up, and keep your eyes open for traps. Don’t accept anything he offers you, and don’t say anything unless he says to. Don’t tell him anything you wouldn’t tell the government, and always check your wallet and your pants pockets before and after leaving his office. Do that, and I’m sure you’ll be fine.” He looked around nervously. “Probably.”

Probably?

Our trip up the building’s private elevator was just as slow and agonizing as before, although the layout of Milo’s elevator was a bit different. Marq sat in the mirror, still checking his tie, while Nayeli was cracking open an ice cold beer. Several of them.

Not sure what else to do, I took out a bottle of brandy and poured some for Sostene and I. But before I could finish, Marq said, “Not that one,” and put it back and grabbed a bottle of rum for us instead. Pouring two glasses, one full and one half-full for me, I sat back on the couch next to Sostene and watched Nayeli go to town on a twelve-pack of beer.

Finally, the elevator stopped on the same floor as Milo’s private office. Marq stopped just outside the door.

“You said you wanted to know what my brother’s like, Al?”

I stood there uncomfortably. “Yeah, I guess.”

Marq breathed deeply. “Alright. I’ll tell you. He’s a stone-cold psychopath, a narcissist and an egotist who would put his own brother in the slam, steal his girlfriend and all his worldly possessions, and then wait outside the prison yard to have him killed the day his parole was up just for making him look bad. What happened to Louie Allesandri, my other half-brother? That was him. Milo is not a career criminal, Al. He’s not a professional either. He’s a psycho dandy who can’t stand it when someone outshines him. There is not a doubt in mind that he would kill us all without regret if presented with an opportunity, so be on your guard. If you see something, hear something, think something is wrong, do not hesitate to act.”

I gulped. Suddenly the suit and those train tickets felt a lot less worth it.

Marq opened the door, and entered Milo’s office silently. He stood in front of Milo’s desk, quietly waiting for him to finish correcting and filing a pile of tax returns. Finally, Milo looked up from his work, saw Marq, and smiled devilishly. He got up and approached Marq, stopping mere inches from his face. For the longest time they just stared at each other. And then…

“Milo!”

“Brother! It’s been too long!”

And then they hugged.

… What.

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Stealing Stones and Breaking Bones 3.2

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Y’know, it’s not very often a guy like me gets to go buy some new clothes at a high-end joint like Spanky’s Dress Emporium. They have great stuff there, stuff that’ll bankrupt you if you’re not tight with your money, which means of course I never get to shop there. So, on another day, being told by my boss I can have anything I want from there on his dime would probably result in me whooping and hollering and dancing my fucking ass off. Instead, today I was just feeling sorry as shit.

“Explain this to me, big brother,” Annie asked. “Step by step. Why are we in Spanky’s picking out fancy dress clothes we can’t afford?”

I sighed as I fumbled with her dress in front of the changing room mirror. “Because Marq is paying for it. He gave us carte blanche to buy whatever we wanted.”

“And why did he do that?”

“Because has, so very graciously might I add,” I said as I helped her into her new clothes, “invited us to join him on a luxury trip in first-class aboard the state of New York’s newest cross-continental train, City of Cleveland.”

“And why is that?”

I sighed, grunting as I worked with a stuck zipper. “For the last time Annie, I told you already. It’s because Marq is my financial advisor. He has been for years.”

“And when did you decide to make him your financial advisor? Why did you never tell me about it after all these years?! And stop trying to help me with my dress, it’s weird…”

“When did you start using crutches instead of your wheelchair?” I said, ignoring her squirming as I stared the two sticks of armpit wood propped up by the door. “See? Doesn’t feel good to be questioned for you personal decisions, does it?”

“How could you expect me not to question it?! He’s a criminal, Al!”

“That’s not true,” I lied, trying and failing to sound convincing.

“His dad is a mob boss, Al. I know it, you know it, the whole state of New York knows it! How could he not be a criminal?”

“Maybe because he’s his adopted father?” I said defensively. “Just because Frankie Allesandri decides to take in some kid from off the streets doesn’t necessarily mean he’s gonna bring him into the family business. Maybe he just wanted to give him a fighting chance.”

“There’s a difference between ‘adopted’ and ‘illegitimate child’, Al. Just because the fruit grew on a different branch doesn’t mean it isn’t from the same tree,” she said, still squirming. “Example. How many times did Marquis Allesandri get you arrested?”

“Fifteen times.” Another lie. It was actually more in the ballpark of twenty-three.

“And how many times has he been arrested?” she asked accusingly.

“None, as far as I can recall,” I said as I finished, fluffing up her sleeves and pulling her hair out from the back of her dress. I turned her around to look at her new outfit in the mirror.

“That’s exactly my point! And how many of your arrests were because he roped you into some hare-brained scheme that you ended up taking the fall for?”

“Are you talking about that time we swindled Santa Claus out of his bag of toys during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade? ‘Cuz we were like, twelve.” Sixteen, actually.

“I’m talking about all of them, Al,” she said. “The Marquis is and always has been a delinquent, and he always will be too. I can’t believe you’ve been going behind my back and getting involved with this guy again after all this time! I thought we agreed ‘no more funny business’?”

I looked around nervously. “Well, we did, but…”

“But what?”

I sighed. “But he’s family, Annie! He’s been like a brother to me for as long as I’ve known him. And you know, maybe you’re right that he got me arrested more times than he did. But you know who always bailed me out? Marq did, and I mean literally. He paid the bail, he hired the lawyers, and he fought for me to keep me out of the hoosegow when I was doing all sorts of ‘funny business’ with some real funny people just so we could eat. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

Annie went quiet. I could tell without a doubt that I’d upset her. Stupid. Fucking stupid, Al.

Finally she said, “… If he’s your family, then what does that make me?”

I dropped down on my knees and hugged her. “It makes you my baby sister. Nothing’s ever gonna change that.”

“Then why don’t you care about what I have to say?”

“I-”

“Al!” Marq yelled, poking his head in. “You done in there? I need to talk to you for a second.”

I sighed.

“We’ll finish talking about this later. You’ll see on this trip, Marq’s changed. He’s a different man now, emphasis on man. We’re not kids anymore. We’ve both grown up, and so have you.” I stepped out of the changing room, but stopped at the door. I turned back around to look at my sister. “I love you, Annie. You know that, right?”

“… mm.” She nodded her head. I wasn’t sure if that was a yes, a no, or a maybe-so, but I didn’t have time to sit around in that doorway forever. I wish I did.

I left the changing room area and caught up with Marq, who gave me a weird look.

“You help your sister put on her clothes?”

“Yeah, why?”

“… That’s pretty weird, ya sheik.”

“It is not weird!” I protested, embarrassed. “She can’t do it by herself, and I am not leaving her alone with some powdered wig weirdo!”

“I can too do it by myself!” I heard Annie yell back. “And I think he’s right, it’s so weird!”

Ouch. When Annie agreed with Marq, you knew Big Red just started feeling a draft down in Hell. I almost felt hurt. My own little sister…

Marq sighed. “Whatever. You’re the man of the house, it is whatever you say it is. Alright?”

“No it’s not!” Annie protested.

“Anyway, there’s something we need to discuss, and something I need to tell you. Little column A, little column B. You mind going for a walk?”

“Hey! Where are you two going? Get back here! I’m still mad at you big brother, and we’re not done talking! Heyyyy!”

We wrapped around to the men’s department of Spanky’s and, true to form, Marq started browsing the coat racks like a pile of old magazines (a habit which I never understood, given that he always wears the exact same outfit every day even on holidays). He handed me a brand-spanking new (hence the store’s name) white suit, and told me to hang on to it for him. I raised my eyebrow at him.

“Marq, I thought we were here to talk about something important, not to play dressup. I mean come on man, what are you? A peacock? Stop preening.”

“Looking good is important in our line of work. You gotta look respectable Al, and that suit of yours is a mess. It looks like an old bedsheet.”

“Hey, don’t diss the suit! I’ve had this thing for five years now.”

“My point exactly.”

He went back to hacking through the forest of monkey suits and I sighed.

“I’m just gonna go now.”

“Wait.” He signaled for me to stop without sticking his head up for air. “There’s a reason I’m bringing this up now. I haven’t told you this yet, but… “

This time it was Marq’s turn to sigh. I frowned.

“Okay, spill the beans. What’s this an apology for? Because I know you, and the only time you get me nice things is as an apology for some really sick shit you’re about to pull.”

“That is not true!” he protested, finally showing his face again. “I got you that knife and your gun!”

I snorted. “Yeah, immediately before I had to put them to use whacking some broad and her pet ghost.”

I immediately regretted reminding myself of that. Something about how I handled the Madam still wasn’t sitting right with me, in that “your little sister’s gonna find out you’re a murderer one day” kinda way. Killing Mickey’s goons was one thing, because they’d made it personal. Executing an unarmed woman in cold blood… I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. It’s not my greatest shame, because I have plenty of other candidates for that looking back on it all, but it’s not exactly my proudest moment either. And somehow it’s always the little things that stick with you the most even when you’re staring down the apocalyptic shit, like how you never said goodbye to your ex. Or in my case, how I murdered a woman because it put food on the table.

Marq sighed, running a hand through his hair like he was thinking.

“Okay, full disclosure. I got a call from my brother this morning. You remember Milo, right?”

“… Oh.”

Yeah. “Oh.” There’s a story to be told here, and I feel like I’d be doing you all a criminal injustice by not explaining it because, as the kids are saying these days, “spoiler warning”! It’s gonna get real important real soon. So on that note, allow me to regale to you the story of the Allesandri family feud.

Frankie Allesandri was… not a conservative man, let’s put it that way. At least not when it came to his women. Frankie had a wife, a mistress, a girlfriend, a call-girl, and every other kind of girl you can think of. Man was a horndog is what I’m saying. He didn’t know how to keep it in his pants, like his pecker was some sort of sentient sea beast he was physically incapable of controlling. So you might have guessed that this guy had a lot of kids. So many kids in fact that no one had any idea how they were going to nominate a successor once the approaching specter of Death made Frankie abdicate his throne one grubby little claw at a time. The answer they came up with is just about as simple as it is disturbing. After all, there can be no argument as to his successor if there’s only one person left to argue with.

Yes, it’s an unspoken truth that Frankie Allesandri’s kids are all at war with each other, trying to ice their own brothers and sisters for a shot at Frankie’s inheritance. That or discredit and publicly humiliate them before their inevitable incarceration, whichever comes first (or in the case of Louie Allesandri, the poor bastard, both). As you can imagine, this makes things unbearably awkward during the holidays. Nothing says family like a semi-incestuous blood feud of murder and fantasized hate-fucking.

Now me, I’ve always found the practice to be bloody disgusting. But Marq doesn’t exactly have that luxury. Even though he’s the exact opposite of Frankie in pretty much every way, that doesn’t stop him from having a giant target hung over his head. He’s got no choice but to cast his chips into the pot and stake his claim to the inheritance too. So for Milo to reach out to Marq when the Allesandri siblings work alone 99.99% of the time on account of trying to murder one another, something was definitely up. Either Milo intended to play him, or he was really in deep enough to need his help.

Then again, I thought, no reason it can’t be both.

Marq continued. “He says he wants to meet with me, to discuss… family business. It sounds like he’s asking for a favor. You know how big this is, right?”

I nodded. Bigger than any job I’d been involved in yet. The fiasco with Mickey didn’t count since I was more a representative of the community than the Allesandris when I helped put the bastard down. Besides, it wasn’t officially sanctioned work.

“So I’m guessing the reason you brought us out here to get all dolled up is…”

“I want you to accompany me during the meeting along with Nayeli and Sostene, and assist me in any way you can with his favor. In exchange I’m willing to offer you a complete change of wardrobe, the train tickets and a month off your rent to make up for the hospital time. How’s that sound?”

It sounded pretty damn good.

“Okay, so when’s the meeting?”

“Tomorrow.”

“… Yikes.”

“You’re telling me. Now try this on, Snow White, and tell me how it fits.”

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Update

So I’ve been basically crippled by a pretty bad headache for most of the evening after coming home from the movie theater. Increased sensitivity to sound, nausea, a relentless pounding sensation that makes it impossible to finish a coherent thought, cold sweats, an aversion to light that makes it feel like the sun is trying to hate-fuck my brain through my corneas. That sort of thing. That factored in with the late release of Friday’s chapter for holiday reasons means I wasn’t able to finish this chapter on time either. So instead I’m going push this chapter’s release back to Friday so I can get us back on track and make it double-length too (so either one 5000-6000 word chapter or two shorter ones) as a sort of Christmas present/apology. Let me know what you think in the comments (and don’t be afraid to chew me out either 😉 )

Stealing Stones and Breaking Bones 3.1

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There

Mayor Overscore never once liked hearing the phone ring. Blame it on his job maybe, the misconception he had that every time the phone rang something bad happened. That little red bastard in his office never seemed to budge for good news, but whenever he missed an anniversary or someone on the cabinet died or the budget needed reevaluating it was always the first to know, and it taunted him with that knowledge, ringing without rest and making him sweat and stew in the anticipation of the dark unknown until he gave in and answered it. And he would always answer it no matter how much he tried not to. That was just the kind of man Mayor Overscore was. “This is the job you wanted”, is what he’d always tell himself, and somehow knowing that made the bad news just a bit more bearable.

But even then, there was one phone call he always dreaded receiving. A phone call from the Marquis, just like the one he’d gotten today.

Now, Mayor Overscore was not unfamiliar with the mafia. Far from it. Anyone who grew up next door to Franky Allesandri and spent their weekends playing poker with Paulie Pescatorre obviously couldn’t be too uncomfortable with the idea of associating themselves with organized crime, or else they’d have a more wholesome hobby with more wholesome friends. When he first took office, his predecessor had given him some very valuable advice. No matter what you think your principles or obligations are, having the five families on your side in this job was an invaluable asset. You could never hope to control them, but if you could befriend them, you’d make your life that much easier.

And for the most part, he’d been right. Staying on Paulie and Franky’s good sides and cooperating with the rest of the Council had allowed him to do his job mostly unmolested, and had even put him in a position where he was allowed to ask for certain small favors, like protection or financial aid. Many might not see this as truly taking responsibility as mayor if he was just going to allow a cabal of criminals to run the city for him, but they failed to understand that for Mayor Overscore, this was the best possible outcome. An arrangement where all parties could conduct their business freely and openly without interference was an arrangement where the minimum amount of innocent blood would be shed, and Mayor Overscore could continue going about his work pretending nothing was wrong.

His conversations with the Marquis had a habit of shattering that delicate illusion.

Imagine, if you will, the difference between the Marquis and any normal mobster as represented by a crow, a corpse, and a hatchling of maggots. If a normal mobster was like a maggot that quietly feasted on the insides of a decaying carcass, then the Marquis was like a crow, or a vulture. Some giant, black, scavenging bird that swooped down out of the sky from nowhere with all the subtlety and grace of a freight train to devour the maggots and scour the corpse clean of its flesh, consuming everything with no regards to the maggots or anyone else. It eats and it eats and it eats, and when it’s finished it leaves nothing but bones and sour memories in its wake, cawing triumphantly as it plucks the eyes from the desiccated corpse, taking off on black wings that celebrate death. It was both an omen and a worshipper of death that could not be caught and whose presence would not stand to be ignored. And what’s worse, just like the crows that followed you expectantly on your walks through Central Park, cooing for crackers, it could make you like it. Make you ignore what it did and how it lived, taking advantage of other people’s misery. That was the kind of man that illegitimate bastard child Marquis was.

And yet the Mayor had no choice but to love him, for he loved his foster-father like a brother. As children, they had once made a promise to each other that should they ever have children of their own, they would be married and become a family. Now here he was years later with a daughter of marrying age and a city in desperate need of financial aid, and the Marquis was both available and profitable. What choice did he have, especially since his dear Felicity had been so insistent upon agreeing to Franky’s terms?

He sighed. That was his dear daughter. Always putting business before her feelings (or anyone else’s, for that matter).

“Something the matter, mayor?”

The mayor lifted his head. What he saw was the Marquis smiling pleasantly, sitting across from him with his lovely bodyguard, her head hung low and her hands folded in her lap. The mayor’s own assistant was busy in the corner brewing coffee.

“Nothing, my dear boy. It’s… it’s nothing,” the mayor said dismissively, giving a cursory nod and a thanks to his assistant as she placed a cup of coffee in his hands. “You were saying something about the… the…”

“The Ásketill Guðmundr-Allesandri nuclear fusion reactor?” the Marquis finished, stirring a spoonful of sugar into his cup followed with a drop of milk.

“Yes, that thing. Don’t you think it should have a simpler name? Something easy to remember?”

“What’s so difficult to remember about the word ‘nuclear’?”

“Well no one knows what it bloody means for starters!” the mayor protested. “Do you know what it means, Ariel?”

His assistant shook her head, and took a seat at her crowded, much smaller desk.

“We don’t have a bunch of physicists running around reading the papers and paying our taxes for us,” the mayor continued. “If you want public support for this project, it needs a simpler, catchier name. Like…”

“Liquid fire?”

“Like that, yes. How did you just come up with that off the top of your head?”

“I’m a magus, we’re good at naming things,” Marquis lied.

“A what?”

The Marquis sighed. “A wizard, Mayor Overscore.”

“Ah,” the mayor said, pretending to understand the distinction. “So tell me, how does this…”

“Ásketill Guðmundr-Allesandri nuclear fusion reactor?”

“Yes, Ásketill Guðmundr-Allesandri nuclear fusion reactor of yours work?”

“The name says it all, really,” Marquis replied. “It’s the prototype for a new form of hydroelectric power I hope to implement cross-country should this reactor yield promising results. Basically what we’re doing is constructing a specialized cage for infantile salamanders and undines that will force them to ‘react’ to each other and begin producing fire and water in the form of ice and nuclear fusion (like you find in the sun). Both of these things are necessary, because power generation without them is simply not possible.”

The assistant asked, “How so?”

“Well I’d be happy to explain,” the Marquis said, sounding pleased with himself. “We’ve found through rigorous scientific study that salamanders create trace amounts of plasma as a byproduct of their unique respiratory system. They quite literally breathe fire, like tiny little suns. Which, when you think about it, isn’t exactly an unfair comparison. Just like the sun, the nuclear fusion that powers a salamander’s metabolic processes dumps a large amount of excess heat energy into the atmosphere. Depending on what stage in its life cycle the salamander has reached, this heat may be hot enough to melt steel or even ionize the molecules in the air into a free-floating soup of particles. We counterbalance this destructive dearth of useless heat energy with two or three undines for every salamander. The undines cool the salamanders by transmuting atmospheric oxygen and hydrogen into fresh water in the form of ice, which melts and absorbs the heat. This has the added benefit of producing large quantities of steam which in turn powers turbines that convert the otherwise useless thermal radiation into useable energy such as electricity.”

“Wow. That’s quite something,” the mayor said, pretending to understand.

“Indeed it is,” the mayor’s assistant said, frowning. “So much so I have a hard time believing you came up with it on your own.”

“Ariel, that’s quite enough!” the mayor said nervously. “Don’t speak to our guests like that!”

“Well, I can’t take all the credit,” Marquis admitted. “Part of the original design should be credited to the fae. As I understand it, they’ve been using a similar form of power generation for centuries now, only cruder and less efficient. Their culture somewhat abhors progress, you see.”

The assistant narrowed her eyes.

“But even then they were still producing more power in a year than we have in the entire history of the human race,” the Marquis quickly added. “Just imagine what we could have accomplished if we had that kind of power! Almost makes you wish the human world had tried to destroy itself sooner, doesn’t it mayor?”

“Heh… yes…”

“And, if all goes according to plan,” the Marquis said mischievously, “it will cost the city almost nothing to maintain, paying back its own pricetag in less than a month.”

The assistant couldn’t help but think he sounded quite pleased with himself. What an arrogant man.

“New York will be the first city in the world to have clean, self-sustaining energy. We’ll be trailblazers, mayor. Honest to god trailblazers. Now how does that sound?”

“It sounds very good indeed,” the mayor said, laughing anxiously. “It’ll certainly make my life easier if it saves as much money on heating and lighting as you say it does.”

“You have my word, Mayor Overscore, that it’ll deliver everything I’ve promised you and more. Now, speaking of promises, I believe you made a promise to me.”

The mayor’s face lost its cheerfulness. “Yes, I… I certainly did, didn’t I?”

The Marquis smiled. “In exchange for the gift of this power plant which has so generously been paid for almost in full by the Allesandri family, you’re going to secure me a spot in the city council come next election. I hope you haven’t forgotten.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“And the support you promised me for my proposed alterations to the Scarecrow Joe laws that would grant full or partial legal rights of citizenship to New York’s demihumans?”

“Let’s try to change the world one step at a time, shall we Marquis?” the mayor said nervously. “You know as well as I do that such a law just isn’t possible in today’s sociopolitical environment-”

“Enough bumping gums, Mayor Overscore. It doesn’t suit you,” the Marquis said. “If you’re going to say no, just say no. Oh, speaking of politics. Mr. Mayor? There was one other thing I wished to talk to you about today. Do you mind?”

“Ummm… no, certainly not. What is it, my dear boy?” the mayor said, trying to appease him.

“I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but I’ve been observing your lovely assistant for the past few minutes and I’ve just now come to the startling conclusion that, despite your best intentions, you’ve been working with a fae. Am I wrong?”

The assistant’s eyes darkened. No, it wasn’t quite fair to say that. It was more like their eyes had sunk so far back into their skull that the dark pits had begun casting a shadow over their features. Its once full lips had shriveled into a flat slit across its mouth like a lizard’s lips, and although some would just dismiss it as the eyes playing tricks on you, its skin seemed like it had taken on a shrunken gray pallor, like a corpse’s, its hair dying and receding back into its head. The assistant groaned like a creaky old house as it opened its mouth, the most hideous and unearthly sounds emerging as whisps from the corners of its stretched flat face. Fetid breath articulated words that sounded like the blaspheming hymns of the damned, if what passed for speech where this thing had come from could be called words.

The Marquis smiled, his hands shaking. So this was a fae.

The mayor began to panic. “Ariel, that’s quite enough! I don’t know what you’re thinking, but uh… s-stop! Calm down! Please calm down… please?”

“My my, mayor. This is quite a surprise. You, working with the fae? You of all people? I mean, my goodness. This is illegal, you know. The Interspecies Nonaggression Pact of 1916 clearly states-”

“I know what the damn pact says!” the mayor said in a panic, trying to placate his “assistant”.

“-that fae and humans are in no way allowed to interfere in matters concerning each other’s governance and peacekeeping,” the Marquis finished. “There are no humans planted in the Seelie court as far as I know, so why is a fae undercover in the mayor’s office? Why, if there’s one here they could be anywhere! Imagine the outrage that would cause if it went public…”

“Just calm down, Mistress Ariel! They mean no harm to you! They aren’t a threat!” the mayor consoled the fae. Offhand he spat, “What do you want from me, Marquis?”

“Now that’s a silly question,” the Marquis said. “I want everything.”

“Specifically!”

“Hmmm…” the Marquis said, faking thinking. “Well, if I had to pick, I’d say right now I want to change the world. Anything less and I might just have to go public with this, and we wouldn’t want that, now would we?”

“Alright, alright! I’ll support your damn law! Just get out of here! Out!”

The Marquis dusted off his bright pink hat and massaged his left leg. Something about it had been bothering him lately, and the fae only seemed to agitate it. He said his customary thanks to the mayor and left his office quietly, his bodyguard trailing behind him.

“A fae. Jesus… I never thought I’d see one in person,” Nayeli muttered, still visibly shaken. “What’s it doing here?”

“I wish I knew…” the Marquis replied. “But it’s gotta be something important if it’s willing to violate the nonagression pact. And if I know anything about the fae, it’s that they never do anything alone. Not since the fracture of the Courts…”

The two of them left City Hall without any further problems (miraculous when angering a fae). But before they could get in their car and drive off they faced a rather… interesting delay.

“What the hell is this, Marvin.” The Marquis said flatly regarding the well-dressed servant holding an unwired telephone on a crushed velvet cushion.

“Your brother, sir. He told me to contact you right away.”

“… fuck.”

Here

“Alfonso?” my little sister asked, looking down on me in my hospital bed.

“Yes, Annie?” I said fearfully.

“What the hell is this?”

“Oh, hello Anastasia,” Marq said casually, looking unusually cheerful. He was holding a box of chocolates in one arm and a bouquet of flowers in the other. Nayeli stood behind him, looking up at the ceiling and tapping her foot impatiently. And my sister was sitting next to me, the guy caught with his metaphorical pants down because his employer, a well-known affiliate of one of New York’s most famous mob bosses, had decided to pay a surprise visit at the last minute when I was trying to explain things to her in a way that wouldn’t get me caught.

Now that we’re all on the same page, feel free to sit back and watch me suffer.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Marq said. “If I’d known your little sister was going to be here I would’ve bought a second bouquet. So tell me…”

He reached into his coat pocket and for a split second I was afraid he was going to draw a gun on us. I don’t know why I thought that, but thankfully what he pulled out were two tickets on the transcontinental train City of Cleveland.

“How do you and Ms. Anastasia feel about taking a ride on the Reading Railroad?”

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Secondary Update

And a choice. Some of you may have noticed Friday’s chapter is late. Certain holiday festivities like post-finals parties I planned with friends and the annual production of A Christmas Carol at my local theatre downtown have postponed my activity at the digital typewriter, and I haven’t gotten as much done the past few days as I hoped when I first posted to you on Tuesday about Friday’s chapter. As it is right now, the chapter is maybe half to three-fourths done (1621 words out of a projected 2400-3200).

What I want to ask you all is would you rather I post everything I have right now as it is or would you rather wait until sometime Saturday (early Sunday at the latest) to receive the whole thing? Please comment and tell me which you’d prefer. If I don’t receive any comments, I’ll just assume you’d rather I finish the whole chapter before posting it. Sorry for the delay after such a long time everybody.