“Alright, listen up everybody! I want all eyes on me!”
Annie looked around nervously. We were sitting in Marq’s office at his invitation. Said it wouldn’t do for us to just let him drive us home, we had to come back for a drink and some friendly conversation. Typical.
I grimaced. My sister’s sitting here antsier than a chihuahua, and all he wants to do is talk business. That was just like Marq. He always liked testing me on how well I could play his game, keep my cool under fire. I’d gotten good at it, but I had a long ways to go before I could compare to him. Having Annie here was just another psychological roadblock he’d set up for the newest round of our little game.
“Mr. Sostene, I didn’t know you were, ummm… familiar with Marquis Allesandri. Didn’t you say you worked with Al at the hospital?”
“He does. He also just so happens to be another one of my close friends and valued clientele,” Marq said, seamlessly lying through his teeth again. Sostene had been working for the Allesandris for as long as I could remember. Calling him a close friend is like saying your uncle is distantly related to you. “And besides, I’m hurt that you honestly feel like you have to use my full name, Annie. We’ve known each other for at least six years, so you don’t have to be so formal. Just call me Marq like everyone else.”
Nayeli glared at her, daring her to do it. Annie jumped up in her seat a little before settling back into her trademark frown.
“Sorry, I think I’ll pass.”
“Ah, right. I forgot to introduce you. Annie-”
“Please just call me Anastasia.”
“-meet Nayeli Knossos. She’s my personal assistant and my bodyguard.”
Nayeli grunted in affirmation, still glaring at me and my sister. Typical guard dog. Doesn’t like strangers. How cute of her.
“Bodyguard?” Annie raised an eyebrow, and I flinched. “Why would you need a bodyguard?”
“As an investment banker I’m very used to handling large amounts of money, especially in the stock exchange,” Marq said, dismissing her question with a wave of his hand. “It would only be natural that I have enemies. Sostene you already know of course, and both you and your brother will be meeting my fiancee at the train station tomorrow.”
I glanced at Nayeli, whose face had involuntarily puckered at the mention of this mystery woman. His fiancee and his girlfriend, sharing the same table in the same compartment with him sitting smack-dab in the middle of the shit sandwich. Couldn’t say I envied Marq.
I chuckled. Still, there was no doubt this was going to be an interesting train ride.
“Now that we’re all re-acquainted, let’s go over the plan one more time.”
“Why do we need a plan?” Annie interjected. “We’re just going to the train station, it’s not like this is going to be incredibly complex.”
Marq smiled in a way I’ve always found to be kind of condescending. “What are you talking about, Annie? A plan is absolutely essential in any undertaking, large or small.”
“Now, I’ve got us booked on the transcontinental City of Cleveland. We’ll be seated in first class, so expect to dress formally.”
“So that’s what the fancy monkey suits were for,” Annie said, rolling her eyes.
“The train leaves tomorrow at 8:30 AM,” Marq continued, undeterred. “I want everybody ready and waiting at the station at least a half an hour before that. We won’t get a second chance to board this train, so it’s important that everyone’s on time.”
“Why this particular train?” Annie asked.
“Why this particular train? You said that like we can’t miss this particular train. What’s so special about it? I’m sure you could get the tickets refunded if you wanted to, so why the emphasis on not missing this particular train?”
Marq’s calm demeanor broke for a second and for once I saw him have to force a smile
“Let’s just say I have a fondness for this particular train, and I thought it would be a lovely way to celebrate my engagement to my new fiancee.”
Annie raised an eyebrow.
“It’s god’s honest truth.”
“Yeah. I’m sure your anniversary with your fiancee will just be enhanced so much by having us tag along. I mean, we all just get along so well. You, me, my brother, his coworker, and miss whatsherface over there. I mean, we’re so close we’re practically a barrel full of monkeys! A laugh a minute!”
“Annie!” I reprimanded.
“No, it’s quite alright,” Marq said, sighing. “If I’m going to be honest, this trip isn’t really about my fiancee anyway. She couldn’t care less.”
“I knew it!” Annie said.
“I arranged this trip as a thank you to your brother for being such a dear friend all these years.”
“What did you think this was about?” Marq asked. “You’re certainly right about one thing, Annie. I wasn’t always on the straight and narrow. In fact, I’ve worked with a lot of shady people over the years. Dangerous people. My needing a bodyguard to feel safe is testament to that.”
“But your brother was always there to bail me out whenever I was in too much trouble to handle. And now that I’ve put that life behind me, I feel like it’s only right that I repay him for all his kindness.”
Annie was left speechless. I smiled, giving her a dose of that good ol’ sibling telepathy.
Told you. Changed man.
Her look said, Piss off, brother.
“Alright, now that we’ve settled the matter of my trustworthiness, all that’s left is to take care of all the boring legal junk. Finances, etc. We’ll only be a few minutes. Nayeli, do you wanna escort Miss Anastasia to her car?”
“… Allow me to rephrase that. Would you please escort her to her car?”
“Why should I?” Nayeli said. “I’m not her damn nanny. Let Sergeant Sister-complex do it. She’s his problem, not mine.”
“Yes, but Al and I still need to discuss some things-”
“I’ll do it,” Sostene said, getting up out of his chair. “Anastasia and I are already acquainted. I’m sure she doesn’t mind. Do you, Annie?”
Annie shook her head. I made a mental note to poison Sostene’s food with garlic later for calling her “Annie” like he was her damn brother and not me.
Marq sighed. “Alright then. Sostene, if you would show our guest out. I’m sure she’s just dying to leave.”
Annie stuck her tongue out at Marq before they left, and Sostene shut the door quietly, leaving us three alone to discuss the important stuff in private.
I whistled. “That was some smooth talking, my friend. How’d you do that? I know I’d love to be able to lie like that when she starts giving me the stinkeye.”
“The best lies start with the truth,” Marq said, tipping his hat. “That’s all there is to it. Though I’d hoped Sostene would be here to hear this-”
“Why? What’s wrong with me?” Nayeli said defensively. “Am I not important?”
“Of course you are Nayeli, you just… well you tend to break things more than follow the plan,” Marq said about as delicately as he could. “I figured rather than bog you down with the devil’s little details, I’d just let you do that thing you do, by which I mean kill lots of people and look damn good doing it, and work it into the plan as we go. How does that sound?”
Nayeli pouted. “Fine, I guess.”
She tried her best to look angry but it was obvious Marq had a way of defusing her just as quickly as a K-9 defuses a bomb. Flattery really is the way to a woman’s heart, apparently. Then again, I thought, reflecting on Theo and my numerous ex-girlfriends, maybe that isn’t the best tactic to try on the women in my life.
“Alright, let’s hear it,” I said. “What’s the plan? The real plan?”
Marq cleared his throat. “It’s quite simple, really. They already know we’re on to them. They’ll be on the next train out, and if we tried to book on the same train, they’d just give us the slip and we’d be right back where we started. So the plan is this: we take a ride on the City of Cleveland, which just so happens to intersect with their train in Arizona. They’re hitching a ride in the VIP car of the Monkey King’s new circus train, the Nimbus.”
“Waitwaitwait,” Nayeli said. “Did you say ‘circus train’? As in, the Monkey King’s Magic Kingdom Menagerie?”
Nayeli reached into her suit and pulled out a piece of paper. She slapped it down onto the table in front of her.
“New to the Monkey King’s Magic Kingdom Menagerie… Righteous Robert the Racing Unicorn? Come see the famous race horse on his retirement tour around the world…”
“Says here Bob broke fifteen world records,” I added, reading the flyer. It was adorned with an airbrushed portrait of a stereotypical white unicorn and its rider rearing up on its hind legs with the finishing line tape from the track billowing around its horn. In the distance you could see the rest of the racers, who hadn’t even finished the lap yet.
“Is this what you’re so excited about, Nayeli?” Marq said.
“Of course!” Nayeli said, practically shaking. “I’ve always wanted to ride a unicorn!”
Marq and I exchanged looks that said ‘we’ve seen some shit, but this takes the cake’. Nayeli just beamed doe eyes at Marq like she was trying to get someone to pick up on her radio station.
I sighed. Oh lord…
Nayeli glared at me. “Got a problem? Unicorns are majestic fucking creatures, and it’s been my dream to ride one since I was little.”
“No, it’s just… not what we were expecting from you,” Marq said. “I mean, you never told me anything about this…”
“Because it never came up!” Nayeli said. “Come on boss, we gotta go see Bob the racing unicorn, we gotta!”
Marq sighed. “We can’t, Nayeli. Even if Bob is on that train, we won’t be able to go see him anyway.”
“Because once both trains come to a stop at the station to let off passengers, we’re going to sabotage the Nimbus and force the remaining passengers to board the City of Cleveland. I’ve rented out one of the cars and turned it into my own private atelier for the duration of the trip. We detain our friends, bring them back home with us for questioning, and leave the Nimbus for the cinder dicks to detain while they obtain a search warrant. We get our friends in the federales to empty out the cargo for us, and by the time we get home we’ll have three new hostages slash torture buddies and we’ll have made off with the stone.”
“But… but Bob!” Nayeli blubbered.
“We’re gonna have to leave him behind on the Nimbus,” Marq said.
Nayeli’s shoulders sagged. She looked like a baby whose parents had taken away its candy, almost like she was ready to cry. Marq patted her on the head.
“Don’t worry, we can always go see him another time. Here, howsabout this? Once we’re done with our little vacation, you and I will go see Bob at the Monkey King’s next show, just the two of us. I can even pull a few strings and get you backstage to meet him. Bob, I mean. How does that sound?”
Nayeli’s eyes lit up and she made a high-pitched noise I can only describe as a cross between a whistle and someone strangling a cat.
“Alright, this whole thing is sounding pretty airtight so far,” I said. “How are we gonna sabotage the Nimbus though? I thought those new generation trains were supposed to be one hundred percent private atelier. How you gonna make the passengers bail out on the fucking thing when it’s in its own pocket of altered space?”
Marq grinned. “I’ve made arrangements for a new type of bomb to be shipped to us from the Chinese. They call ’em atelier busters. Guess what they bust.”
“Your balls?” I joked.
“Cute,” he said. “I have it on good authority that these are the real deal. They’re packed with a special kind of shot that’s been enchanted to pierce areas of altered space. They’ll crack the Nimbus open like a nut, mark my words.”
“What about the animals?!” Nayeli asked nervously.
“The animals will be fine, Nayeli,” Marq said, sighing. “These are controlled explosions. Small enough to sabotage the train without damaging the contents inside. If we just blew up the train willy nilly, we might risk damaging the stone. This way, we make it look like an accident. See, look. They’re like firecrackers.”
Marq held up a small cartridge of the explosives, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand with space left over.
“That’s it?” I said. “That thing looks about as intimidating as Mr. Wang’s buddy Little Wang, and probably just as disappointing.”
Marq snorted. “You would know.”
“All I’m saying is I’m not feeling this plan,” I said. “Why don’t we just use gas instead?”
“Because gas might arouse suspicion and delay our train as well.”
“Wouldn’t explosives be a little more suspicious than gas?”
“These are small enough that they can be passed off as technical failures.”
I sighed. It was obvious he just wanted a reason to play around with his new bombs.
“Alright, whatever. I just don’t like playing around with untested magic, so pardon me if I’m feeling a little fucking skeptical.”
“Hey, who’s the master magician here?” Marq asked.
“… You are.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of your complaining.”
“Damn straight,” Marq said. “Now go home and pack. Bring anything you think you might need. Guns, knives, etc. I’ll be bringing along a few new toys myself, so don’t feel bad arming yourself to the teeth. We’re not taking any chances on this job.”
“You mean besides the obvious one?”
“Can it, Al.”
I got up, stretching. “Yes, boss man. Sure thing, boss man.”
“Alright, good. Now get out of here before I decide to just cut costs and replace you with a talking monkey.”
“Hey, come on. Could a talking monkey ever be this handsome?”
Marq grinned. “Do you want me to answer that?”