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.”
“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?”
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.”
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…
“Brother! It’s been too long!”
And then they hugged.