Month: July 2016

Bonus Interlude (Sylvester)

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No rain fell at the funeral procession that day. Full cloud cover, no sun, but still no rain. Romeo carried an umbrella, even though his suit remained bone dry. When he’d heard the forecast for today, he’d thought it apropos. That even God was crying for Sylvester. But as the ceremony progressed and nobody showed up to grieve, the doors to heaven remained shut, the sky black but unwilling to shed a single tear. It seemed as though God had truly forsaken them this day, when neither the light and the warmth of heaven nor the tears of their Lord Jesus Christ found their way to Sylvester’s tomb.

“We gather here to commend our brother… Sylvester, to God our Father, and to commit his body to the earth,” the priest rambled disinterestedly as the coffin was lowered into the hole, closed and unseen even by the few in attendance. Sylvester’s death had not been a pleasant one, and while his only remaining family consisted of distant relatives, in attendance more out of obligation than genuine mourning, Romeo knew they wouldn’t want to see him so carved up and mutilated.

The chains being used to hoist the body into the ground groaned, rusted from disuse and put under strain by the cold and unfavorable weather. For a second the coffin jerked, catching everyone’s attention, but it was quickly steadied again. The priest continued. “In the spirit of faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, let us raise our voices in song and offer our prayers for Sylvester.”

Romeo quickly made the sign of the cross, offering his prayers in silence.

“I had a feeling I’d find you here.”

The hulking giant Felix, the second of Romeo Vitali’s bodyguards and right-hand men (now singular), put a hand on the young Vitali’s shoulder.

“We read in sacred scripture, ‘This is the will of the one who sent me, says the Lord, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.”

“I’m the capofamiglia of the Vitalis,” Romeo said. “It just… felt like I should be here, at a time like this… you know how it is.”

There was another sudden jerk as the chains went slack, dropping one half of the coffin closer to the grave than the other. Attendants rushed to grab the chains, pulling on them to prevent it from falling any further.

Felix faltered as people grunted trying to hold the chains. “Well it’s a good thing you are I guess. I know no one else would’ve showed up if you hadn’t. Man wasn’t exactly a people-person. Always going on about the killin’ ‘n shit, forgettin’ the mission… made me sick. You can say what you want, but that man was a zealot in all the wrong ways.”

“Yeah, but…” Romeo said, stuttering and trying to maintain his composure. “He was always kind to me. You both were. You’ve been with me ever since my father… and you’ve taken care of me. You’ve been like the family I never had.”

“Boss Romeo…” Felix said.

“I mean, I know he wasn’t the best of men, but he respected my father, and he respected his mission, even if he didn’t understand it the way we do. He was always… he always did good by our family. And isn’t that enough?! I mean, for him to die like this…”

Tears fell down Romeo’s face.

“I don’t know what to do, Felix. I just don’t know what to do. We’ve lost our support from Paulie. Our recruitment’s down. Some of our best men have just been killed. And now this? If I were to lose you too… it’d be like I was losing my father all over again. I don’t think I can take that…”

The young capofamiglia buried his face in the chest of the only true family he had left. His face concealed, he wept without constraint, sobbing uncontrollably.

“Crying like this… I’m so pathetic. Father in heaven must be so ashamed of me right now…”

“It wasn’t your fault, Boss Romeo.” Felix’s voice thundered through his chest.

“Yes it was! I was the one who ordered the strike!” he sobbed as though it was an admission of guilt. “I thought… I thought we could make up some lost ground after we failed to stop the Marquis from gaining control of that homunculus, but…”

“But you failed,” Felix said gently. “We all do. In the face of the almighty we are all judged, and we are all found wanting. You, me… the Marquis too. You have nothing to feel ashamed about, Boss Romeo. You did what you thought was right.”

Romeo sniffed, then gently pushed Felix away as he cleared his eyes of the tears.

“You’re right… of course you are. No one is perfect-”

“Except the Lord, our God,” Felix reiterated.

“-but when other men are found wanting, only they suffer. When I am found wanting-”

“Others suffer for you,” Felix said again.

Romeo glared at him halfheartedly. “Stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop finishing my sentences! Stop trying to make me feel better! I don’t deserve it!”

“Why not?”

“Because…”

“Because?” Felix said, raising an eyebrow.

Romeo looked up into Felix’s eyes. “Because of me, now we are less.”

“Boss Romeo…” Felix said. The giant man knelt so he could give his young friend a hug in his massive arms, enveloping him in his warmth so he could shield him from the harshness of the world. Romeo’s eyes widened as Felix slowly ruffled his hair.

“We were less when your father died. We were less when the faith fell, we were less when this world became twisted with evil and rife with blasphemous magic. We are not less because of you, no matter how many men we lose. Now, because of you, we are more. Because you give us strength. Direction. Leadership. And faith in our cause. Even when we all gave up on your father’s dream for a better world, you never did. It is because of you we are even here at all.”

“Felix…” Romeo whispered before frowning and shaking his head. “No, you don’t-”

“You’ve accomplished a whole hell of a lot as capofamiglia, Boss Romeo. Things you should learn to value more. But you’re still young. No one expects you to be as good a leader as your father. But you will be. One day. So keep that chin up, and stop judging yourself for every damn little mistake. That shit? That’s the Lord’s work. Be free of it. And if you can’t, let me worry about it instead. I worked for your father. I know what makes a good leader, and you’re it. I don’t give a shit fucking good godda-”

“Hey! Language,” Romeo said, reprimanding him. Felix cleared his throat.

“Sorry, boss. I almost took the good Lord’s name in vain.”

Romeo smiled. “You… always did have a way with words, Felix. Thank you.”

Felix released him, returning to his full height. He’d done his duty. Romeo’s heart had been steeled again, freed of doubt. Until the next challenge, anyway. But one day he’d learn to walk on his own. Until then…

“We can only press forward,” Felix said, handing Romeo a manilla folder.

“What’s this?” Romeo asked, accepting the brown package.

“It’s the completed mission dossier. I know you always like to study them. See what you did right.”

“What I did wrong,” Romeo corrected.

“What you did right,” Felix insisted.

Romeo opened the folder, adjusting his umbrella so it covered the creased, weary paper. Even now he still held out hope that it would rain.

“What are you looking for?” Felix asked.

“The eyewitness reports of the attack. I wanna know who killed our men, and how they did it.”

“Uhhhh…” Felix droned, casting a glance at Sylvester’s coffin. “I think it’s pretty obvious how Sylvester died, boss.”

Romeo ignored him. Felix and Sylvester had never gotten along, but he knew he didn’t mean it. You didn’t say that kind of stuff about family if you really meant it.

“Reports say he was killed by…”

Romeo leafed through the portfolio, his eyes darkening.

“… a white-haired girl. With rabbit ears, who was wearing a red dress.”

He handed the folder to Felix, who growled like a coal-burning engine. “That bitch…

“Felix…” Romeo said. “This means Sylvester was killed by…”

“By the homunculus,” Felix growled, crushing the manilla folder in his clenched fist. “I knew we were right! He meant to use it as a weapon all along! That pagan blasphemy against God and nature! Shit!”

Felix threw the folder to the ground, and a wrinkled photo fluttered out. Romeo leaned over and picked it up.

“No, Felix… that’s not it. There’s another photo in here.”

Romeo squinted, stretching the picture out. The young, boyish face pictured in the photo seemed familiar.

Black hair… brown eyes… a white suit and a red scarf…

Romeo’s eyes widened. He remembered. The young man in the picture was wearing newer, nicer clothes, but he hadn’t forgotten his face. Romeo flipped through the folder in a hurry, trying to find the page the photo had been clipped to. Finally he stopped in the middle, his fingers trembling.

“Felix… it’s him.”

“Hm? Who?” Felix said.

“That medium that works for the Marquis,” Romeo said, his voice wavering. “Sylvester wasn’t killed by the homunculus. He was killed by this man. Alfonso Anastasio.”

Felix looked confused. He was a brilliant man, an excellent hunter, and a well-read gentleman (though he sometimes had a foul mouth). Most importantly, his faith was a rock. But because he was a zealot, because he hated magic more than any of them, even Romeo, things like this escaped him. He didn’t have a concept of knowing your enemy the way Romeo did. So Romeo explained it to him.

“A homunculus is a tool, Felix. It’s a machine created in the image of man to serve man. It doesn’t have a mind, a soul, or free will. It’s just supposed to do what its master tells it to do.”

His bodyguard’s eyes widened.

“Do you understand now, Felix? A homunculus can’t kill the same way a gun with no hand can’t kill. Someone needs to pull the trigger. And that person is the killer.”

The funeral rites had come to a close, and the ground swallowed Sylvester, its white tombstones closing around his coffin like teeth. Now that the body had been laid into the earth, it was time for it to be buried. Shovelfuls of dirt were piled on top of it, each slowly erasing the memory of the man that had once been as the vicious circle of life came to its end, curling back up and eating its own tail. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Felix’s stare hardened beneath the spectacles perched atop his bald head. “And by that person you mean…”

“Yeah…” Romeo said.

His fists clenched, he stood completely still as it finally started to rain. And although God Himself had finally found tears to shed, Romeo found that now the moment had come to cry, his tears had been all but dried up. Now, as the last shovelfuls of dirt were hurriedly dumped on Sylvester’s tomb and the attendants scattered to escape the rain, there was only one thing left for him to do. Only one thing left for him to say.

“I don’t care what we have to do. We’re going to defeat the Marquis,” he said solemnly. “And then we’re going to take Alfonso Anastasio, and make him watch as I take away everything from him that he holds dear. Sylvester’s killer will not go unpunished. By the name of the Vitalis, this I swear.”

Felix grinned. This was what he’d been waiting for.

“What do you want me to do, Boss Romeo? To where shall the Lord’s fury be directed?”

Romeo turned to face Felix, who was now kneeling before him as a sign of his fealty. With a strong voice, he commanded, “Gather a group of men to investigate him. Follow his every movement. I want to know where he lives, where he eats, where sleeps. I want to know where he goes most often and when. I want to know everything about him. Anything that could be considered a weakness.”

Romeo’s car, a 1930 Delage D6, rolled up outside the cemetery gates, his chauffeurs rushing to get their capofamiglia out of the rain. As Romeo started walking towards the car, Felix asked him one last question.

“And the Marquis?” he questioned expectantly.

“If this report has reached us he’ll be returning soon, and he’s bringing Hell with him.” Romeo smiled, his expression innocent the same way a child’s is. “Let’s see that we do what we can to push him into it.”

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Street Lawyer 5.3

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I laughed. “Oh my god. Cavvy? That’s seriously you?”

He smiled at me wearily. “Who else would I be? It’s Detective now, by the way. Special Detective Dante Salvo.”

“Psh,” I wave him away. “Who gives a fuck? You’ll always be Cavvy to me.”

Cavvy smirked. “Careful now, citizen. I could arrest you if I wanted. Contempt of cop.”

I snorted. “Like you’d ever do it. You’re way too stiff and straight-laced to ever be the crooked type.”

“I don’t know,” he said only semi-seriously. “They say the city gets to everyone eventually.”

Some of us faster than others, I couldn’t help but think. I know I shouldn’t have been happy. I know I should’ve realized how much trouble this’d get me in down the line. Meeting your best friend again after fourteen years, except now you’re on opposite sides of the law. It was like a bad joke. No, maybe that’s what I wanted to think it was. And the punchline would be me winning Cavvy over to our side, or him revealing he was already a dirty cop. Or maybe he would’ve won me over, and straightened me out. Made me give up this life of crime. The answers are never that easy, though.

But the thought of that never crossed my mind. I was just happy to see my family again.

“Come ‘ere, you!” I said, pulling him into a hug and kissing him on both cheeks.

“Uhhhh..” Officer Thompson finally interrupted. “You two… know each other?”

Sostene didn’t say anything, but you could tell he was thinking the same. I let Cavvy go.

“We were friends when we were kids,” I explained. “We used to play together, eat together. Practically grew up together. Annie used to have a huge crush on him.”

“Annie?” Cavvy asked, looking confused.

“Yeah, Annie. You know, my sister Annie?” I said disbelieving. “I know you hardly ever saw her because she was always too embarrassed to talk to you, but come on! You gotta remember Annie.”

He didn’t respond for a second, but then his eyes lit up. “Oh! Little Anastasia! I can’t believe I almost forgot about her!”

He faked smacking himself on the head. I grinned.

“You sure you’re not going senile there, Cavvy ol’ boy?”

“Why do you keep calling him that?” Sostene asked.

I turned to look at Sostene. “It was our nickname for him back in the old country. Short for cavaliere, ‘cuz whenever someone was in trouble he’d always try to rush in like he thought he was the cavalry, stickin’ his nose in everyone’s business. Guess he thought he was gonna be just like daddy one day~”

Cavvy coughed. “In case you haven’t noticed, I do have my pin now.

“Wait, doesn’t ‘cavaliere’ mean ‘knight’?” Thompson asked. “What’s that about?”

“Wait, you seriously don’t know?” I asked. “He didn’t tell you?”

Cavvy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh here we go…”

“He never used to shut up about it,” I said, continuing. “See that pin on his chest? The motto, Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum? That’s the insignia of the Knights of Malta. His family’s been in the order for generations. It means-”

“In defence of the faith and assistance to the poor,” Cavvy said, sighing. I grinned ear to ear.

“Of course they’re really nothing more than a glorified humanitarian organization nowadays,” I said. “They barely have enough soldiers – excuse me, knights – left to fill three brigades. Can you believe that when we were kids he always used to think that he was gonna grow up and ride around on a horse slaying dragons and rescuing princesses?”

Cavvy grasped my shoulder firmly. He looked mad.

“The Sovereign Military Order of Malta still does more good for the world than you ever will,” he said defensively. “What do you even do, Al? What kind of job do you have?”

“Uhhhhhh…” I said, trying to think of some convincing lie. I couldn’t tell him I worked at the hospital. Cavvy was a cop now, he’d see through that one right away if he ever bothered looking. But what else could I say that wouldn’t make me look like a bum or guilty?

Thank Zeus and Lycaon for Officer Thompson, because if it wasn’t for those ears of his I think that conversation would’ve ended right then and there. Instead, his fluffy little tiger ears perked up and he hollered, “Time’s up, you two! Coffee’s on.”

Saying no more, he headed inside. We all looked at each other.

“Don’t look at me,” I said. “I just got invited here.”

Apparently Cavvy didn’t really want to know what I did for work that badly, because all he did was shrug and head inside the station. I sighed with relief.

“Y’know, I’m reminded of something the boss said once,” Sostene said as he watched Dante walk away.

“Yeah? What’s that?” I ask.

“Don’t shit where you eat, Al,” Sostene said, patting me on the back before he walked in too.

I slammed the cruiser’s passenger side door as Sostene and I crawled into the back of the car, careful not to upset the burning cup of coffee I now held in my hands. I blew on it and accidentally splattered some on the back of Thompson’s headrest, making him flinch. He looked at me.

“Don’t you spill that lava in my car. It ain’t my fault you poured from his pot,” he said, pointing at Cavvy.

I took a sip, and almost immediately spat it out as soon as it touched my tongue, spraying hot coffee all over Officer Thompson. He yowled, hissing and pawing at his face.

“The fuck’d you do to this coffee, Cavvy?” I asked, reaching for a cream-filled donut to soothe my tongue. I took a bite. “Heat it with a goddamn blowtorch?”

“I like my coffee like I like my women,” he said as I groaned at his stupid cop joke. “Hot, sweet, and-”

“-all over your pants?” I said, finishing for him. “Because that’s where I’m about to pour this shit. This is too damn hot.”

“Yeah well, some of us like something that’ll keep us awake when we’re on the job.”

“Yeah, and burn your tongue clean off,” I muttered. “As for me, I like my women to give me a little kick in the ass.”

I nodded as I reached into my jacket. Here’s looking at you, Theo. I unscrewed the top off my flask, then remembered I was in the back of a police car.

“You uh… you mind?” I asked Cavvie. He glared at me.

Yes I mind,” he said sternly, snatching away my hootch.

“Hey!”

“This is against the law, Al,” he reminded me. “Where did you even get this?”

“Company function,” I said, lying through my teeth.

“Figures. Those Wall Street fatcats think they can just bend the law…” he said, muttering. “I’m confiscating this. Be grateful I’m not going to fine you for it.”

“Alright, Officer Killjoy,” I said, grumbling. I kicked back with my donut, waiting for the coffee to cool. Thompson finished wiping his face with the napkin from the bakery box and turned on the radio.

“-still reeling from the shock of this cataclysmic event. Initial reports place current estimates at nearly 800,000 dead and over 150 million injured in the state of Arizona and various shock points around the world, making this the most devastating natural or magical disaster of the last sixteen years. The tremors are said to have been worldwide-”

“Jesus, can you believe this shit?” Officer Thompson said about the radio. “The entire damn state is gone. Whoever did this shit, I hope someone hangs them with their own fucking guts.”

I chewed a little slower, trying not to let it show. Of course he didn’t know. And we couldn’t tell him here. That it was Nayeli. That we were there when it happened.

“Amen to that,” Cavvy said, sipping his coffee. “See, this is why we need stricter demihuman regulation laws if we want justice for-”

“Whoawhoawhoawhoawhoa,” Thompson said. “Stop right there. Guys like me and Sostene ain’t got nothing to do with this shit.”

“So? Can you honestly tell me that you don’t think the world would be safer if people who could do stuff like this weren’t behind bars? Or at least back in the forests or Mt. Olympus where they belong.”

“How do you even know it was a demihuman, huh?” Thompson said angrily. “Maybe it was just a bunch of humans messing around with magic they shouldn’t have.”

Humans couldn’t do something like this,” Cavvy said. “Not without help. It’d take decades to build a ritual big enough to do this, and you’d need to have more money and manpower than all the five families put together.”

“So what, you’d just have us all thrown in prison, is that it?”

“No!” Cavvy said. “But I would make sure the people who were capable of doing stuff like this weren’t allowed to live in places where they could hurt innocent people! I’d make the gods take them back!”

“So yeah, you’re just gonna throw us all in prison, put us in camps! Just like the Spanish!”

“Yeah, that’s seriously not kosher,” Sostene said, talking for the first time.

Cavvy put his arm around the headrest and looked back at me. “Al, back me up here.”

I threw my hands up. “Hey, don’t look at me to back up your crazy ‘build a wall’ plan. I’m a demihuman too.”

“What?” Dante said, acting surprised. “No way!”

I pulled out my card. “Read it and weep. Only… don’t use it as an excuse to have me picked up. My powers aren’t really the type that’d protect me from inside a jail cell.”

I joked, but the threat was all too real. Discrimination against demihumans for… accidents like the ones that seem to follow us around lately accounted for more than fifty to sixty percent of arrests these days. Sometimes it was warranted. Sometimes it was because a cop just needed a target no one would defend.

But not Cavvy, I thought. If he’s anything, it’s so hung up on the rules that he’d never be unfair to anyone.

Cavvy stared at my card. “You’re… a medium, huh? With the power of memory recall. Funny, I could’ve sworn I was gonna look at that card and see vampire. That’s how most of the cases go. When someone who didn’t use to be demihuman turns out to be one, I mean.”

He cast a suspecting eye at Sostene. I raised my eyebrow. Well, maybe not. The city does get to everyone eventually.

“See?” Cavvy said to Thompson. “That’s what a responsible demihuman citizen looks like. He carries his card with him.”

“Oh give it a rest!” Thompson snarled. “I’m a cop! The way I see it, I should get to enjoy certain privileges.”

He folded his arms, pouting. Good. He had the good sense not to say anything about me or Sostene-

“Besides,” he said, pointing at us. “If you only knew what these two chuckleheads get up to when you’re not looking-”

Sostene and I both jumped to shut him up, shoving donuts at his open mouth.

“What’s he talking about?” Cavvy asked.

“Nothing, nothing! It’s nothing!” I said, hoping Bobbie would take the fucking hint. Just a few… rowdy nights out, that’s all. Bobby already cleaned us up, we paid our dues. Isn’t that right, Bobbie?”

Cavvy looked at us funny, then grumbled and folded his arms. “Well, whatever. But you agree with me right? We gotta do something. Maybe a less extreme solution exists, but we can’t just allow maniacs who do stuff like this to keep roaming free!”

“Well… maybe they don’t mean to do it,” I said without thinking. Immediately, I knew I had made a mistake.

“So?”

“So… maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge,” I said. “Maybe we should cut them some slack. They’re not trying to hurt anyone, right?”

I didn’t get it. Why was I defending her? I couldn’t even say for sure if she was really sorry for what she’d done. But something about the whole situation just felt-

“Unfair.”

“Huh?”

“That’s unfair, Alfonso,” Cavvy said. “How do you think the victims of that attack would feel if you told them that? That the one who killed them all, cut their long lives short and ripped their family members away from them, shouldn’t be punished just because they’re ‘sorry’? Because ‘they didn’t mean to’? What if it was you and Annie who’d been in that attack? Would you have forgiven them?”

I bit my tongue. We were in that attack, I wanted to say. But I couldn’t let him know that.

“Why do you think manslaughter is a criminal offense, Al? What you meant to do or the mistakes you might have made are irrelevant. All that matters is the result. The law must treat everyone equally.”

Cavvy sat back in his seat, folding his arms. “This is why demihumans are dangerous. It’s this very line of thinking. That just because someone didn’t mean to do it means we should forgive the crime or alter the punishment. They present too great a threat for unintentional, uncontrolled violence to be allowed to just walk around without any regulations.”

“But we have regulations!” I shot back.

“Then we need better ones!” Cavvy snapped. “Do you know how many people I’ve seen get hurt because of magic and demihumans since I’ve started this job, Al? Since I arrived in this city? I’ve had to clean up more bodies than anyone should ever have to, me and Bobbie both. You think this is unfair? Ask him what he knows about demihumans in this city.”

“Alright Bobbie,” I said. “Waddya got to say about that?”

I sat back, confident that Thompson would back me up here. He and Sostene both. Nayeli was a pain, but she was still a part of the family as far as I was concerned.

But they were quiet. Both of them. Even Sostene, who I was sure I could count on to defend one of our own.

“Hey, come on,” I said, slightly less confident. “You… don’t actually agree with what he’s saying, do you Bobbie?”

Thompson sighed. “I won’t say if I agree with him or not. But…”

“But he’s got a point,” Sostene said. “And we both know it. Bobbie, you’ve got your harnesses all fixed up for you and your little girl, right? Full moon’s coming soon.”

Officer Thompson lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, breathing out a cloud of rough smoke.

“Yeah. Had to adjust little Mary’s this year. She’s been growing so much. You want me to fix up yours too?”

“Please,” Sostene nodded, taking a cigarette from Thompson. “Maybe you can make it a little tighter this month?”

“Hold on, hold on,” I said. “Slow down. What do you mean ‘harnesses’? What are you talking about?”

“Protection, Al,” Sostene said, fruitlessly spinning the ignition wheel of his lighter. “For us and everyone else.”

I looked to Officer Thompson to explain. He sighed.

“Look, kid, you’re a medium, and one with a pretty harmless power to boot. Do you have any idea how lucky that makes you?” Thompson said. “You can take a walk down the street and nobody’ll know what you are. Nobody can finger you in a case you had nothing to do with it and say, ‘I’m sure it was him! That freak killed my husband!’ just because you got the same claws or the same fangs or the same magic as some other bozo. People don’t like you, but they’ll never be able to blame you. The rest of us aren’t so lucky.

“Those harnesses me and Sostene were talking about? They’re for lunar madness. Guys like me and my little girl who are a little furrier than the rest of you, we get a little stir-crazy around the full moon. If we don’t straitjacket ourselves, people might get hurt.” Officer Thompson smudged the butt of his cigarette against his palm, wincing. “You were right about one thing. We can’t help it. But we can take responsibility for our actions. If we say we don’t want to hurt nobody, we damn well better act like it, something this mook has clearly never heard of doing.”

“You see? Prohibition exists for a reason, Al. It’s the only reason we haven’t ended up like Africa yet, or worse, Australia.”

I bit my tongue. It’s not like that, I wanted to say. It’s not the same. We tried, we did everything we could to minimize the damage. But I couldn’t rightly say that. Not without admitting to being there.

“What if they were fighting someone else who kept pushing them to the limit?” I said. “What if things just escalated really quickly?”

Cavvy raised a suspicious eyebrow. “That’s… an awfully specific scenario you’ve concocted there. Mind telling me exactly how you came to that conclusion?”

I froze, stuck to my seat like glue. It was like waking sleep paralysis. Oh crap. Oh crap oh crap oh crap.

“Well…” I started without knowing where I was going with this. My pupils dashed around the car frantically, looking for a point to latch on to.

The radio.

I gulped. “… the thing is, it’s like feedback.”

“Feedback?”

“Yeah, like in an electrical circuit. You couple part of the output signal into the input circuit and it amplifies the output. It feeds into itself. A feedback loop. So in this case, if this mage or demihuman was fighting another mage or demihuman, or maybe even some kind of monster, we can model the input as aggression from party A to party B. The output would then be turned into violence, which would circle back and amplify aggression. When the next circuit or attack is complete, aggression is higher, so violence becomes higher, for both of them. They just keep feeding into each other until one of them breaks and the circuit is disrupted.”

Cavvy considered this. “Interesting… but it still doesn’t explain why you’re assuming this was a fight at all. Why couldn’t it just be some random act of terrorism? In fact, that’s what this person should be labeled. A terrorist.”

Sostene ribbed me, hard. This was my cue to stop. But for some reason I didn’t want to. I wanted to see this through. Allesandris look out for their own.

“So Al? What’s your explanation?” Cavvy interrogated me.

“… Self-interest.”

“Hm?”

“Humans and demihumans act based on self-interest. Anything we do, we do because we expect that it will benefit us somehow, either in the immediate future or the far-off one. What would anyone stand to gain from this? There’s been no statements or admissions of guilt from the perpetrator, so this isn’t an act of terrorism meant to further some agenda, and as far as we know, there was nothing at the bottom of that crater worth having. Just magma. So if a demihuman was involved, it had to be a fight.”

Sostene ribbed me again, even harder.

“What?!” I hissed, still pretty pissed off that he didn’t have my back here. He tapped the face of his wristwatch. I checked mine, and remembered the feeling I’d just experienced trying to explain myself to Cavvy.

Oh crap.

I swung open the door, dinging it on a lamp post.

“Hey!” Thompson shouted.

“Sorry fellas but I gotta beat it! I’ve got an appointment I gotta keep!”

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Street Lawyer 5.2

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Fifteen hours later, Milo arrived back in New York. After freshening up, he made plans to visit a certain restaurant again. Alone this time.

Milo pushed open the front doors, disturbing with the toll of the bell a silence so poetic one couldn’t help but feel disdain. In the wake of the recent national tragedy, the Le cinq á sept was understandably empty. Except for one person, that is.

“Revisiting the scene of a crime? How unlike you, Milo.”

His sister’s voice rang sweetly in his ears from across the sous-chef sepulchre. Following it across the creaking floor of the dark restaurant, he found her sitting alone at a table for two, a solitary candle amidst an ocean of empty seats. Smiling, he unfolded the cloth covering the red-gold stone and held it aloft.

“Ohhhhhh…” Priscilla almost squealed. “And there it is! The famous cintamani stone. Said to be one of the most powerful magical artifacts in existence! May I see it?”

She held out her delicate hand. Milo frowned. Reluctantly, he handed her the stone.

“Be careful with it,” he reminded her. “This stone is my last chance to impress father. If I can cure whatever ails him…”

“Mhmmm,” Priscilla replied, her eyes fixed on the stone, which shimmered in a multitude of colors when held up to the light. “Look at that. It’s beautiful. You can practically see the magic etched into its facets. The cleavage is sublime.”

Milo nodded absentmindedly as he looked down, admiring the sublime cleavage.

“Can I have it back now?” he said impatiently.

“Just one more second,” Priscilla said dismissively. She stared deep into the stone’s rough surface, its uncarved angles. Never once had this stone been touched since it was pried from the meteorite shell it had arrived in, for fear of tainting or lessening its power. Those ancient fools. How much of the true stone had they left clinging to the insides of that meteor, like placenta from a babe? Every reflection of this divine geode was an enchantment, every cut a mark of magic left by the stone’s last owner. Every one was precious. And now she would add her own.

With a brief and tiny spark, the stone lit up, a bolt of lightning arcing from the surface straight down to the heart of the stone, where it terminated in a bright spark lasting only a second. Milo never even noticed a thing.

She handed the stone back to him. “Alright, go. Heal father.”

Milo frowned. “Don’t you think we should study it first? Get a better idea of how it works so nothing goes wrong when we do decide to use it?”

Priscilla just chuckled. Milo raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

Priscilla wiped a tiny tear from her eye. “Oh Milo. Do you really think father will want to wait once he knows what you have? You see, this is what sets you and Marquis apart. You deliberate while Marquis does. He doesn’t question his decisions like you do. It’s why father loves him more.”

Priscilla knew she’d said the right words when she watched Milo’s face warp into something ugly.

Sorellona…

Now before Milo’s anger could erupt, she needed to apply some balm to it, to soothe his bruised ego.

“I’m only telling you the truth because I want to help you, Milo,” she said gently. “Do you think I enjoy seeing Marquis wrap our father around his pinky while your valuable contributions to this family go completely unrecognized? What I’m trying to do is give you a chance to succeed in front of father.”

“Then what would you propose I do, sorellona?” Milo said, the anger in his eyes not diminishing but, at the very least, no longer growing.

“Show him how much he means to you,” she said. “Show him your resolve. Use the stone.”

Milo’s anger grew. “Are you mad?! I just told you sorellona, we don’t know how it works-”

“Do you think those ancient fools who pried it out of a rock that fell from the sky knew how to use it either?” Priscilla responded. “When I touched just now I felt it, Milo. The stone wants to be used. By you. If you just have a little faith in yourself it’ll show you what needs to be done.”

Milo looked down at the stone he held with his handkerchief. Gingerly, he touched it with his bare skin, and he immediately knew Priscilla was right. He could feel the magic inside it working, just like a normal enchantment only far, far greater. A whole index of spells was thrown into the forefront of his mind for him to pick from. Hundreds. Thousands. Each with a name and a designation hinting at their function. And he was willing to bet all he needed to do was run his mana through it and they would run, just like any other enchantment. It felt… right.

He looked at Priscilla, his rage evaporated. She smiled.

“Do you really want to let Marquis steal the spotlight forever? It’s time for you to shine, Milo.”

Milo looked down at his hand, at the little miracle he held in his palms. He gripped the stone, his mind made up.

As Milo turned to leave, Priscilla smiled at his back, waving him goodbye and good luck. But with each empowered step he took, Priscilla’s smile curled, morphing into something completely unlike a smile at all. She covered her twisted grin with a gloved hand.

All lies, of course. The stone was nothing more than a stone. It didn’t want anything. But Milo did. He wanted to hear a fairy tale about how he could cure father and finally earn the stony old man’s affection, what little of it could possibly be pried from his crusted charcoal heart, anyway. And that’s what Priscilla had told him. She had fed him a few little white lies, given him an encouraging slap on the rear, and he’d filled in the rest himself and been on his way. And when the stone did fail him, he would have no one but himself to blame.

Poor little Milo. Oh my dear, sweet little Milo. You only want what’s best for this family, but you have no idea what that is, she thought as she watched her brother climb into his car. But I do. The old man can’t die fast enough, and this illness of his, whatever it may be, has nothing but my thanks for speeding up that process. I’m not about to let you stand in the way of it.

She watched as the car sped off, leading Milo inexorably towards the predetermined conclusion of today’s meeting, the outcome that had been decided by her. Knowing what was to come, she felt a small little flower of guilt bud in her chest, like a scilla after the first spring rain. She felt bad for her brother, for lying to him. She had nothing but love for Milo, but… there were some things in this life much more important than love.

I’m sorry Milo, but this is for the best. Just this once, allow me to break your heart.

Just like that she grabbed that little scilla and crushed it, stomping it beneath her heels. The future was supposed to be a wild forest, not a delicate little flowerbed. It could not be allowed to be shaped by the perennial cuttings of the last generation. Too long had the shadow of Frankie and men like him hung over this city. Now, it was time for a woman’s touch~

Dark. Cloudy. High chance of rain. It was days like these that made you look up and feel like you should start taking stock of your life. And mine… well, mine was coming up depressingly short these past couple of days. Annie still wasn’t speaking to me, Sostene had been even more withdrawn than usual, my insurance premiums were going to absolutely skyrocket after this court case came to light, and I hadn’t even been able to turn to work to take my mind off it. Marq had been busy the past couple days just comforting Nayeli and planning for the trial. I guess the only positive thing I could take away from this whole experience was that my leg was healed now.

I sighed. You know it’s bad when you have to count not being sent to the hospital as a plus. Sometimes it just feels like the whole world is out to get a man. Sometimes, a man just needs a drink. And I’m not talking about hitting the bottle like some pathetic boozer schlob, I’m talking about a New York classic. Sometimes, the best way for a man to calm his nerves is a fresh pot of joe.

I hummed along with myself, nodding. A cup of joe, with cream and sugar, and maybe a bit of hooch to spice things up or to give yourself some of that much needed hair-of-the-dog. Now that was a New York breakfast. Nothing else required. Just a man, a pot, and some beans.

And so to that end, I invited Sostene to come have a drink with me that morning. And, well, when he suggested we score a free pot from his good friend Officer Thompson down at the station, who was I to say no?

See, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just fear and a few corrupt cops that keep the police in the mafia’s back pocket. We both want the same thing. For crime in this city to be controlled. Anyone who’s spent time in either profession can tell you crime isn’t something you can just get rid of, so better for someone to control it than let it run wild, right? We do that. We provide a service to this city, cleaning up the lesser villains like Mickey so only the five families can claim absolute power in the criminal underworld. The cops in this city are smart enough and have seen enough to know that this is a mutually beneficial relationship. You may call it “a corruption of justice” or “encouraging the expansion of a vast criminal empire”, we call it “efficiency”.

I was looking forward to it. It had been a while since I’d had good bean juice. It was a luxury we couldn’t exactly afford. But Sostene seemed to be in considerably lesser spirits.

I looked up. He just stared ahead blindly, looking as out of it as a guy who’d just been knocked around-side the head with a baseball bat. Was this an aftereffect of his little rampage on the train?

I coughed, but he didn’t say anything. I coughed again, louder this time. Still nothing. I frowned. You were really gonna make me say it, weren’t you Sostene?

“… hey,” I said, and his eyes flashed open. It seemed like that finally got his attention. He turned to the right and looked down. Dammit, why did he always have to remind me how much taller he was?

“Yeah?”

“You… feeling okay, man?” I asked. “You’ve been out of it all morning.”

He sighed, and groaned a little. “Yeah, sorry. Things… haven’t really been the same since the train.”

I thought so.

“You… wanna talk about it?” I approach carefully, not wanting to push any of his buttons.

“No.”

“You sure?

“Absolutely.”

Now I started overstepping my boundaries a bit. “Come on man, I can guarantee it’ll make you feel better-”

“I said I don’t wanna talk about it, Al!” Sostene yelled at me. But he didn’t watch his step, and as soon as he stomped down on a passing manhole cover, his strength made the sewer lid flip like a giant penny and it smacked him under the chin. I winced.

“Ouch…”

“You’re sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

Yes, Al.” Sostene said, rubbing his chin.

“You’re absolutely, positively-”

“Oh my god, for the last time, yes!” he barked as we made the turn onto 67th St. “What part of ‘I don’t wanna talk about it’ don’t you understand?”

“Well, can I guess then?”

“Sure,” he said wildly, throwing his hands up in the air. “Whatever makes you fucking happy!”

“Hmmm…” I thought. “Is it about Nayeli?”

“Pffft. What? Now I know you’re just goofing off,” Sostene said. “Why would I care what happens to her?”

“Maybe because you work together and she’s Marq’s favorite? You know this is hitting him harder than any of us.”

“Their private lives ain’t none of my business,” Sostene said coldly. “As long as the boss lets me keep doing my job, I don’t really give a shit.”

There was a pause.

“… I mean I do feel kinda bad for her, I guess. But what she did is what she did. A lotta people died at the bottom of that hole, Al. People aren’t just gonna forget it, and she’s gonna have to live with it, whether it was her fault or not.”

Sostene’s eyes took on a dull quality, the thousand yard stare.

“Trust me, I know.”

I thought about that.

“You’re on the run from a handsome spanish baron! You seduced his daughter-in-law and killed his son in a duel, becoming El Sostene Magnifico!

Fuck you!”

I shrugged. “Well then I’m all out of ideas.”

“Halle-friggin’-lujah.”

“… You really think the charges are gonna stick?”

Sostene shrugged. “Hard to say. We don’t even know what they’re charging her with yet. No formal arrest has been issued.”

“Yeah, but, we’ve made some pretty big stuff disappear under the rug before, haven’t we? All it takes is a few strategically placed dollar bills…”

“What, you talking about Central Park?” Sostene asked. “I don’t think this and that are really the same thing, Al. That was the local boys vs the away-team. This is a whole new ball game. A whole new goddamn ball game…”

We walked the rest of the way in silence. Officer Thompson was waiting for us at the precinct when we got there. He seemed like a scruffy kinda guy, the type with permanent 5 o’ clock shadow and rough, scratchy whiskers, which was actually pretty funny when you thought about it. A pair of fluffy little tiger ears poked out of the top of his head, and he was chewing on a bagel and lox while he waited for us.

“Hey Sostene,” he said with his mouth half-full. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added “Hey pipsqueak.” He must’ve meant me.

He stuck his fingers in his mouth and licked the cream cheese off of them, then wiped them off on his uniform. My skin crawled.

Please don’t shake with that hand, please don’t shake with that hand…

He stuck his hand out. It was the cream cheese hand.

Goddammit!

Sostene sighed. “Bobby, that’s disgusting. At least use the other hand.”

“Oh give it a rest, will ya?” Thompson groaned, pulling his hand back. “You sound just like my new ‘partner’.”

Sostene raised an eyebrow. “They gave you a partner?”

“Pffft,” Officer Thompson spat dismissively. “More like another boss, if you ask me. All he does is order me around like I’m some new recruit. Little shit’s barely any older than the pipsqueak here-”

“Oi.”

“-and he thinks he can order me around just ‘cause he’s some sort of fancy ‘special detective’? Give me a break…”

Thompson sighed, running his hand down his face melodramatically. I had half a mind to punch him if he didn’t stop calling me “pipsqueak”. Thankfully, Sostene covered for me (sometimes I wonder who really has the anger issues here).

“What’s his name?” Sostene asked.

“Dante,” Thompson said. My blood froze. I recognized the name. Knew it all too well, in fact. But no. Couldn’t be. Not after so long.

“You mean like the poet?” Sostene asked.

“Nah nah, more like the actor,” Thompson said. “Takes himself way too seriously. Thinks he’s some sort of knight.”

My heart leaped in its cage. That definitely sounded like him.

“Bobby!” a voice yelled from the next floor up. “Do you have that bag from the evidence locker?”

I didn’t quite recognize the voice. Maybe it wasn’t him then. But voices could change a lot in 14 years…

Officer Thompson winced, growling. “No! I told you, Arn is taking care of it! You don’t need to yell either, I can hear you.

“That him?” Sostene asked.

“Yeah, that’s him,” Thompson said, rubbing his ears. I heard the clattering of footsteps marching down the station stairs. “Sostene, pipsqueak? I’d like you to meet…”

The doors to the station flung open. I took a step back as he walked out.

“Special Detective Dante Salvo.”

I couldn’t believe it. The guy standing in front of me was taller than I remembered, a bit lankier too, and it looked like he’d been run over by a truck since the last time I saw him but it was definitely the same kid. The black hair and blue eyes. The way he kept his clothes immaculate and perfectly cared for. And that pin he kept stuck on his chest. Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum.

Cavvy?” I asked cautiously.

The reaction was immediate. The way his muscles tensed like a rubber band snapping back you’d think he’d been shot, but he and I both knew that name. It was a shared memory, for both of us. A way to say goodbye… and now a greeting.

He turned to look at me. Fourteen years of misplaced emotion raced between us like a current.

Alfonso?”

Previous || Next

Street Lawyer 5.1

Previous || Next

Finally the train arrived at the station and we all piled off, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. We’d left the scene of the disaster behind us, but it was only a matter of time before they tracked us down. Right now, what we needed to do was take the stone back to New York as quickly and quietly as possible. The rest we could ad-lib from there. As much as it’d pain Marq, I’m sure the Cintamani stone would make some pretty slick bail for-

“Hello, brother~”

Oh no. No. No. Not now. Marq and I swiveled our heads in unison to find ourselves confronted with the absolute last person we both wanted to see. Milo Allesandri. He smiled.

“You look upset, Marquis. Is there anything I can help you with? A certain stone that needs smuggling back into New York, maybe? Or perhaps you’re suffering from a guilty conscience? This is all your fault, after all.”

Theo brandished her knives while I stood stock-still. How. How was he here? How did he know? Wait, that’s a stupid question, I thought at I stared at Leo and Figaro. Who else could’ve told him?

Getting over his surprise, Marq cleared his throat, straightening his tie. “Sorry Milo, but the stone was a fraud. We don’t-”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Marquis. You’re better than that. We both know the stone is a fake, and we both know it’s hiding a much better prize.”

“The Cintamani stone,” they both said in unison. Milo’s tone was loud and triumphant. Marq’s was subdued and defeated.

Crap…

“How-”

“Did I know? Please brother, we both know I have my ways, just as you have yours.”

“… It was Figaro and Leon, wasn’t it?”

“Huh?” the two goons in question replied.

“You put them undercover on the train and thought we wouldn’t notice, but we did. I erased their memories of the stone, but they must’ve been bugged too. Clever. You knew even if we caught on to them we wouldn’t bother checking our own men for surveillance devices, didn’t you?”

“…”

“…”

This was it. Would Milo admit to it? No, of course not. No logical person would. Even if you knew they knew too, admitting to it doesn’t benefit you at all. It only gives them ammo to use against you later, even if it’s brick-shittingly obvious you did it. The only one who’d admit to that would be a narcissistic psychopath. Then again, that’s what Milo was.

And that’s exactly what Marq was banking on.

“Uh, boss Marquis?” Figaro asked. “What are you talkin’ about? What stone?”

“I’ll admit, it’s a pretty brilliant scheme. So clever I’m a bit surprised you came up with it. You even used low-tech bugs too, didn’t you? Something basic like a pocket mic I’m guessing? So we wouldn’t think it was you, the amulet-obsessed magic tchotchke-freak. You’ve surprised me for once, Milo. Congrats.

Don’t push it, I thought. Feeding into his psychotic ego was all well and good, but sarcasm wasn’t going to help.

Milo frowned. “… I have no idea what you’re on about.”

What?!

Marq maintained his cool. “Sure you don’t. And I’m guessing you just happened to come here because you wanted to meet your beloved half-brother at the station to make sure he was alright? I’m touched, Milo, really.

Milo sighed. “My sources, of which you will not be made privy to, have never and will never incorporate either of these two. Doubt me all you want, brother, but I didn’t send them.”

Marq and I exchanged quick glances. Something was definitely wrong here.

“That being said however, I suppose I am here to congratulate you on what can loosely be called ‘a job well done’. Believe me, it’s the only one you’ll be getting after the devastation you and your… friends caused here.” He looked at us with disdain. “Make no mistake, I have no intentions of defending you or that raging bull of yours in front of the federal court, let alone father. Your best defense right now is compliance. Make me look good in front of father, and it makes you look good by association. I’m sure as a fellow attorney you realize this is your best option at this point, yes?”

Marq nodded. “Yeah.”

“Then hand over the stone.”

Marq didn’t do anything for a second. Then he nodded slowly at Kichirō, who nodded back. Approaching the banged up boxcar of the Nimbus, Kichirō forced open the sliding door with his good arm, revealing stacked cages of animals. Nayeli squealed, the prospect of getting to see Bob making her momentarily forget her funk, and clambered inside.

“Ohooo…” Milo sneered, mildly impressed. “So you hid the stone with the animal feed.”

“Not quite,” Kichirō said. “We actually hid it in the cargo container. It’s connected directly to the boxcar containing the animal’s cages, so no ordinary passengers would be able to fumble in here by mistake. Or by design.

The tone of his voice showed just how much he trusted Milo: only about half as far as he could throw him. Which judging by the look on his face was something he had definitely thought about doing.

“Stay here, Annie,” I said. But she glared at me and propped her crutches on the rim of the car, pulling herself up. After what had happened between us earlier, I decided not to press the issue.

Everyone clambered inside, carefully stepping over the strewn hay and bountiful craps of the animals that had been released in the chaos earlier that morning.

Hmmm… in retrospect, maybe that doesn’t clear things up a whole lot. The chaos at the train station then.

We all followed Kichirō, who stepped with confidence. Worst came to worst, we all figured he’d do his new allies a solid by offing Milo rather than letting him get his hands on the stone. Sadly, fate and a certain gassy ungulate had other plans.

“Where’s Bob?” Nayeli asked, looking around the empty cages. But everyone ignored her.

“We hid the stone in a bottle of ceremonial champagne the shipping company included as a gift for the Monkey King. He likes having little presents hidden in the bottles,” Kichirō explained. “The boxcar should be just up ahead- oh. Oh no.”

Everyone leaned and took a peek over Kichirō’s shoulders. It was difficult to see in the darkened boxcar, but the door had been opened. Violently. Crumpled in like the lid on a pack of goddamn cigarettes.

No one rushed. We all tiptoed in slowly, dreading what we might find.

“What the hell happened to this place?” I asked. “It looks like a damn minotaur got loose… They didn’t actually have a minotaur in here, right?”

“No,” Marq said, sighing. “They had something much worse.”

I looked around. There were some holes poked in the side of the car where dim light shined in from outside. Did I say “poked”? I meant more like “stabbed”. Splinters of wood and broken glass were everywhere, making the place look like it had been torn apart.

Who was I kidding, it had been torn apart. But by what? What could stab a hole through a sheet of solid magically-reinforced steel and looked like it munched on hunks of wood and glass bottles?

Wait…

I groaned. Oh no. I hated it once I figured it out, but I caught on to what we were gonna find just a few seconds after Marq did.

Finally the light beaming in revealed enough and Annie gasped. Nayeli just flipped the hell out.

“Bob!” she yelled, running over to the prone, horse-like animal lying on its side. About eight feet long and seven feet tall if it were standing upright, it had a bright white coat with brown age spots and was unmistakably a unicorn. It also was unmistakably slurping alcohol from a bottle it held in its drunk-ass purple lips, noisily smacking it down.

“Ohhhh, now I remember!” Marq said, going “aha!”. “Bob was retired from the races ‘cause they said he had a drinking problem!”

I look at him weird. Weirder. “Horses drink?

“Oh yeah, all the time, Al,” Marq said in a calm, relaxed tone that made it clear he was completely fucking serious. “Their jockeys feed it to them all the time. They especially love hoppy beer.”

He turned his head. “Hey, Nayeli? You might not want to do that.”

Nayeli, for her part, was trying to get as close to her dream animal as possible (hopefully to make some good memories before we all sailed down piece-of-crap street here in the next few weeks). She had tiptoed her way most of the way there already before stopping to kneel, the unicorn so ass-blastingly drunk it hardly noticed her. She reached out to touch Bob with her outstretched hand. Then she started to stroke him.

“There there, Bob…” she said lovingly. The horse-monster’s eyes snapped open. Forgetting that it was supposed to be drunk and thus sloppy and uncoordinated, it flipped its head around and clamped its chompers around Nayeli’s outstretched fingers.

“Owwwch!” she yelped, pulling her fingers back. Surprisingly, they were red and starting to swell. “B-bob… why?”

The unicorn neighed wildly, bucking and flailing even though it couldn’t stand up on its own. It tried jabbing Nayeli with its horn but to no avail now that she was ready for it.

“Bob!…” she protested, obviously feeling let down.

“That’s a unicorn for you,” Marq said, sighing. “They don’t like anyone who’s not a virgin. They can smell it on you. Drives them crazy.”

“B-but that’s not fair…” Nayeli said with tears in her eyes as she looked at Bob, who’d settled back down now that she’d backed off a bit.

No, I thought. What’s not fair was Marq not telling you this from the beginning.

“These uhhh…” Milo said, picking up the empty bottles scattered around the floor. “These wouldn’t happen to be the bottles you hid the Cintamani stone in, would they Kichirō?”

Our tall Japanese friend sighed. “As a matter of fact, they are.”

Bob belched.

“Oh, that is just disgusting,” I said, plugging my nose as everyone else tried to waft the scent away.

“So what do we do now?” Milo said. “I don’t think I have to remind you what happens to your crew and that homunculus should you fail to hold up your end of the bargain, do I Marquis?”

Not on your fucking life, I thought. Nayeli was already in the shit, but I wasn’t letting Theo join her.

“Well Kichirō?” Marq said, sighing and letting his hands fall to his sides. “What can we do?”

“We can wait for the creature to pass it.”

How long will that take?”

“A few days… a few weeks… who knows?” Kichirō said.

“Okaaay… any other options?”

“We could surgically remove it?”

Marq clapped. “Great! Al, get on it.”

I froze. “What?”

Marq motioned at the prone, bloated Bob blob. “Get on it. You’re Mr. Medicine Man, right?”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said. “Slow down. In fact, back up. You want me… to do gastrointestinal surgery… on a unicorn?”

“Yeah… What’s the problem?” he asked me dangerously slow-like.

I gulped. “Well… do you realize how fucked up that is? I mean, it’s a goddamn unicorn!”

“Oh grow the fuck up, Al!” Marq shouted out of nowhere. “This isn’t some fairy tale with pretty pink little princesses, and I’m not going to let you fuck us because you don’t wanna cut open the poor widdle unicorn! It’s a goddamn animal! There’s nothing special about it! I thought you said you’ve worked in the operating room before!”

I stared at him. “I’ve assisted in an operating room before. I’ve memorized how to perform certain surgical techniques, and practiced a few. This isn’t one of them. And even if it was, what makes you think just because I can operate on a human means I’m qualified to chop up a goddamn horse?”

“What’s the difference?!”

“They have four stomachs, Marq! Horses have four stomachs! How am I even supposed to know which one the stone went through?”

“That’s cows, Al. Horses only have one stomach,” Annie said, correcting me. “It’s separated into a front and hind gut.”

I sighed. “Fine. You want me to cut up the goddamn unicorn?”

Yes,” Marq said through grit teeth.

“Well too bad, ‘cause I can’t!” I said. I regretted saying it right away, but I was too angry, too caught up in the moment to stop. “You saw what Bob did to Nayeli when she tried to get too close, right? Well some of us here don’t have adamantine skin, and I’m pretty fond of my fucking hands. How about you?”

“Well there’s gotta be someone here who can!” Marq said, his desperation obvious. He was losing his cool. “Come on Al. Give me something. Give me anything. Isn’t there anyone here who’s a virgin?”

I hesitated. We were pinned down here. We needed that stone, or all of this, literally all of this, would’ve been for nothing. There had to be something we could salvage from this, something that had even the slightest bit of meaning that we could look back at and say “well at least we did that” when we were thinking of just how much this job had cost us all. But there was nothing.

Milo sighed. “Well, this has been fun, but if no one else has any ideas, I propose we just shoot the damn thing and take the stone out from its body by force. Any objections?”

Milo spun the chamber on his revolver, leveling it at Bob’s head. Nayeli sprung into action.

“Yeah! Here’s a few!” she said, shielding Bob with her body. “Go fuck yourself! You want me to kill you right here and now?”

“Go right ahead,” Milo said. “But know you’ll only be adding to your list of crimes by doing so, and once our father gets word of it, expect Marquis’ head to be next on the chopping block once he learns his pet bitch offed his other son. That’d certainly kill his chances in the war for succession. Or would you rather just keep standing in the way like an idiot so I can tell our father Marquis refused to cooperate in retrieving the stone?”

Nayeli was sweating like crazy, and it wasn’t just because the boxcar was damp with animal shit. Milo had had her trapped like a rat again. I bet she wasn’t eager to relive the same experience.

There was nothing we could do. Every way out was a dead end. It seemed silly, but this one little fucking unicorn had become a symbol for this whole fucking job, and if we let it die it’d be like fucking this whole thing up all over again. Something good had to come of this. Anything. But unless we could think of something fast, nothing would. We’d be right back where we started. Totally defeated.

That’s when we all heard a sound no one was expecting to hear. Bob nickering in his sleep.

“Ummmm… I could do it.”

I turned around to see my sister kneeling next to Bob in a sea of booze, broken glass and horse piss. The smell was was so bad it was almost physically repelling, but she just knelt there, bearing it as she stroked the incensed unicorn to calm it down.

“And who are you?” Milo said.

“She’s my little sister,” I said. “And… she’s the only one that can do this.”

I hated saying it. I wanted to protect her, protect my little sister from anything that could hurt her, but right now we didn’t have a choice. Either she operated on a wild, dangerous animal in my place, or we all paid for it. Theo, Marq, Nayeli, me. This was the best option. The only option.

“Lil’ squirt…” Nayeli said, almost teary in the eyes.

“Don’t get me wrong!” Annie said, looking at Milo and Marq. “I’m not doing this for any of you. I just want my brother and Theo back home safely. And this unicorn doesn’t deserve to die either! Is violence all you people can ever think about? There are other solutions!”

Milo snorted. “Feh. Fine. Do as you wish. It’ll probably just end up dead anyway.”

Annie looked at me, asking me what to do first. For just this second, I had some of her trust back.

I sighed, and flipped open my knife. I passed it to her gently.

“Here. Use this. It’s sharpened to surgical standards. Bob should be okay on pain, he’s kind of already… self-medicated.”

The unconscious unicorn farted loudly, and we all pinched our noses.

“Okay,” Annie said, taking the knife. “Where should I cut first? Shouldn’t we sterilize the equipment and move him somewhere clean?”

“We can’t really worry about that right now,” I said. “We’ll leave those problems for the vet. Speaking of…”

“Right, already on it,” Marq said, exiting the car to find the station’s phone.

I looked around. Dark. Damp. Smelly. Probably full of shit and other things that could cause infections. This was hardly the ideal operating room. But we didn’t have much else. It was time to start.

“Alright, first you need to shave the area you’re going to make an incision into. In this case, that’d be his midline,” I said, instructing her as I pointed where to cut and what needed to be shaved. “We’ll use some of the leftover booze as antiseptic. Wait for me to pour that stuff on before you make the first incision.”

Angling the blade carefully, Annie made a few ragged passes, shaving a rough patch into Bob’s belly. Dabbing part of her dress in alcohol, she sponged the area down with our makeshift cleaning agent and antiseptic. With me guiding her, she slowly, very slowly, made the first incision.

Almost immediately Bob whinnied and neighed, but quickly fell silent again. I felt ready to jump in at any minute to yank Annie back. If Bob hadn’t been so completely trashed, I doubt we would’ve been able to do this. A conscious unicorn would turn us into a horn kebab.

Annie finished the long first incision, stopping after more than a foot. Perhaps a bit too generous, but this was my sister’s first impromptu veterinary surgery. All things considered, I thought she was handling it pretty well.

“Okay Annie, this is gonna be the hard part,” I said carefully. “Things are gonna get kinda gross, but I want you to stay strong, okay? Now, you gotta reach in there-”

Without even hesitating, Annie dove into Bob’s guts up to her elbows, smearing blood all over her hands and dress.

“Okay,” she said, turning to look at me calmly. “What am I looking for?”

Damn, I thought. My little sister was a bit more hard-boiled than I’d thought.

“Uhhh… the small intestine,” I said. “You need any help describing what that looks or feels like, or-”

“Nope,” she said, dragging a coil of guts out onto her lap. “I got it.”

“… Alright then. You see a bulge, feel any bumps where the stone might be?”

Annie squeezed the unicorn’s gut-piping in her hands, groping like a pro doctor administering a mammogram. Wrong form, but you had to admire her enthusiasm. Finally, her fingers closed around a section of intestine with a slight bulge in it.

“Find it?” I ask.

She nods. “I think so. It’s big. You want me to make another cut?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Gently, though. You don’t want to poke the tip through both sides.”

She did so, a little squeamishly at first with shaky hands, but in the end she made it through without perforating Bob’s intestines. Pantomiming what she’d need to do, I slowly guided her through the process of squeezing the stone out of the hole she’d made.

A few pushes later and it was finally done. The stone clattered to the floor, a dark orange, almost blood red color like amber. I breathed a sigh of relief, and grabbed my sister in a hug.

“Hrrmmmm… Al,” she said, but ignored her. “… Al. That’s enough.”

She shoved me away, or tried to. I was much stronger than her weak little arms. I let go of her.

“Ah, and there’s the prize~,” Milo said, reappearing just in time to scoop up the stone. “With this I should be able to heal whatever it is that ails father. That should be more than enough to ingratiate myself into his will. Though admittedly, it does stall our family’s little feud somewhat. Such a shame, isn’t it Marquis?”

“Yeah,” Marq proffered with venom. “Should paint a nice fat target on your back now that you’re the frontrunner for the inheritance.”

Milo just smiled. “We’ll see.”

He turned and walked away. And that was the last we saw of him. Till that dreadful day when Nayeli’s fate would be decided.

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Interlude 4.c (Asmodeus)

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Hmm? Why hello there, reader! It is I, Asmodeus! Prince of thrones and… wait, we already did this bit. Nevermind then. No use in making you sit through it again. It’s been a long time since we last saw each other, hasn’t it? A bit too long, I’d say. Here I was starting to think you might’ve forgotten about little old me. I was only introduced in the last arc, you really ought to pay more attention. Tut tut, reader.

Wait, where was I again? When was I again? Oh, right! It’s been far too long since we’ve had a chance to talk, you and I, which swings me back to the topic at hand. Time. It’s a funny little thing, time. It’s simple yet magnificent, like a bagel or a mint julep. Yes, time is like a bagel. It’s circular, which means it never ends and often repeats itself, and much like a bagel what makes it delicious is often underappreciated and so deeply misunderstood.

You see, a good bagel is all about the preparation. There must be specific ingredients of a specific quality (in this case let’s say Philadelphia cream cheese, smoked salmon, capers, and parsley), and they must be prepared in a specific way and in a specific order. Mix the cream cheese, capers and parsley in a small bowl with some lemon juice, salt and pepper. Next, place two slices of the salmon in a cross pattern on a flat surface. Place one-fourth of the cream cheese mixture in the middle of the cross (why yes, silly, of course demons can make this recipe~) and fold the flaps until you have a package roughly two inches to a side. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Then, simply butter each half of the bagel and place your salmon package in the middle to make a sandwich. There you have it! The perfect bagels and lox recipe! Notice how if you’d mixed the ingredients after putting them on your bagel instead of before the end result would have been completely different (not to mention much messier)? Well, that’s what time is like. A few small changes to the preparation or the quality of the ingredients can lead to different and sometimes undesirable outcomes.

And time, much like a delicious bagel and lox prepared with exactly the right ingredients in exactly the right order, is something we demons don’t have the luxury of enjoying the same way you humans do. We experience it out of order.

Oh yes, time is not a simple linear progression as you experience it. It’s far greater than that. And you humans have the luxury of having it prepared and served to you so you can experience it the right way. Your puny, three-dimensional lives are so simple. Demons like me aren’t just served time in the right order. We’re given our bagel and lox in all of its individual pieces, then told to assemble it ourselves, without a recipe. It may sound simple to you after learning my easy five-step recipe, but when you’re given all of time to work with, your choices of ingredients are a bit more vast. Four point four-one-five-oh-four times ten to the power of sixty vast. That’s the total number of distinct instances in history since time began relative to you. And it’s going to go on a lot longer than just that.

Yeah. Imagine making a bagel with that many ingredients.

But we’re not here to talk about my troubles. We’re here to talk about a specific bagel I mean story, one not too far in your future. The day Alfonso Anastasio came to visit me, for the second time. Let’s see if we can’t piece these ingredients together into something delicious. Shall we, reader?

Alright, where did you leave off again… ah, right! The train ride, right after the apocalyptic punch-up but just before well… you know (you don’t know yet, but it’s fun to keep secrets, isn’t it?). Okay, so. Working from there… hrmmmmm… let’s try this ingredient first.

“Are you sure this is wise, Master Alfonso?” Theo asked, lifting the bed sheets to cover herself as she sat up. “To renege on your promises so quickly? You do remember what we talked about while we were aboard the train, right? Or perhaps the drugs have addled your memory?”

Alfonso sighed as he slipped into his boxers.

“For the last time, I remember, Theo. And I thought I told you to stop calling me ‘master’?” Alfonso groaned. “Look, I agree that promises are important. So is being able to trust your family, and I have not been doing a good job at either of those things lately. But do you know what’s more important than that?”

“What?” the homunculus asked.

Protecting your family. And to do that, sometimes you gotta lie, for their own good. Do you think Annie would want to know I’m doing this?”

“She would not want you to be doing it at all,” Theo replied. “So why are you?”

Alfonso slipped on his chalk-white suit, freshly laundered and re-stitched after last week’s incident.

“Because it’s necessary. Because money is money and bills are bills, and if I can’t pay them then Annie gets taken away from me, or worse.

“I understand the difficulty of the situation you’re… we’re in,” Theo said with patience. “But there has to be a better way-”

“Does there? Because from where I’m sitting, it looks to me like life is just one big string of impossible decisions that you gotta make, and then hope you guess right. But then again, I’m not as smart as you are. Tell me Theo, what would you do, with that big computer-y brain of yours? Do you think there’s any rational way to solve this problem?”

“You know that isn’t true, Mas-… Alfonso. You are very intelligent and-”

“Theo? Answer the question.”

She sighed. “I cannot think of one, no.”

Alfonso’s shoulders sagged. “I was actually kind of hoping you wouldn’t say that.”

Theo watched as Alfonso continued to dress himself in his usual work clothes.

“You know that as your familiar I will always support you. Just let it be known that I do not approve of this decision.”

“Yeah…” Alfonso stared at himself in the mirror. “You and me both, Theo. You and me both.”

Hmmm… that seems a little far. Let’s rewind a bit.

“Master Alfonso, are you forgetting something?”

“Hm?”

“We still need to formalize the contract. And then there’s the matter of the first…” Theo cleared her throat. “Feeding.”

Alfonso’s eyes opened wide. “Oh. Ohh.

Oooookay, that doesn’t seem like any of my business, so let’s move on. Though I might go back and finish watching it again later just to see what happens…~

“Dammit!” Alfonso yelled as he pounded on the rickety walls of his tenement building with his fists. “Dammit dammit dammit!

“Master Alfonso!”

Theo quickly ran to his side, restraining him.

“Please be quiet! You will wake Mistress Anastasia at this rate!”

The mafioso struggled uselessly for a few minutes, trying to worm his way out of her grip so he could continue to vent his frustrations. Finally he just broke down, and stopped struggling altogether, losing all motion and momentum and every spark of life like a marionette with its strings cut.

“It didn’t work, Theo.”

The homunculus’ eyes became downcast. “… I see. Do you wish for me to tell Mistress Anastasia?”

No,” Alfonso said very clearly, and calmly. “Don’t do that. Don’t tell her anything. She doesn’t need to know this yet.”

“But Master Alfonso-!”

Please. I don’t want to make her life any harder than it already is. If this is what stops her from suffering, then… I’ll do it. You… understand, right Theo?”

The homunculus was quiet for a moment. Then she bowed slightly. “I understand. I shall honor your wishes.”

Nono, that’s still too far. But it seems like we’re getting closer. Maybe we should just start with the instance where he’s walking into my office. Alone this time. Yeah, that’ll do.

Alfonso stands before me on my throne. And here he is. What does he have to say to me, dear reader?

“Take my soul,” he says, patting his chest.

In the moment, I frown. Well he certainly doesn’t waste time.

Setting down my book, a little tome called “The Gospel of Perfection” from before all that New Testament business took off, I say, “And what are you asking for in return? Don’t tell me this is a charity.”

“I want you to save my sister’s life. Do that, and you can have my soul.”

He says it with the utmost seriousness. It seems like he’s really ready to do it, too. Alfonso Anastasio isn’t the kind of chickenshit who backs out of a deal. So I’ll give it to him straight then.

“… I refuse.”

“Huh?”

“What makes you think one soul, one life is worth an amount equivalent to another?”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m asking you, smart one. What makes you think that? Would you trade the life of the Pope to save some nameless hostage? Would you expect the President of the United States to donate his own still-beating heart to save the life of a voter on the operating table? Of course not. If we all made deals like that, the world would be in complete chaos. Not even the fun kind, either.”

“So are you saying you won’t take it? I thought the deal was one wish for one soul! What the hell is this supposed to be?!”

“That is the deal, but what you can buy with that wish all comes down to worth of each individual soul. Your life expectancy, your assets, the domino effect you have on the people around you… all of them are important. Ask yourself how you compare to her. What do you think the answer is? Do you really think your lives are equivalent?”

“So then why won’t you take the deal? You said it yourself, she has so much more ahead of her! I have nothing! If my life can save hers, then why won’t you take it?!”

“That’s precisely the point. If she lives, she’ll help change the world someday, and someday soon. If she lives. Now do you understand? Because one of you has so much more ahead of them, they also have so much more to lose. I can’t just trade the life of someone so important for the life of someone who has no future.”

“You think I have no future?”

“Isn’t this little meeting of ours proof enough of that?”

“So what? You’re saying that you won’t take the deal because you want to see that all go to waste?!”

I shrug. “It’s in my nature as a demon to only take deals that I think will compensate me adequately, whether it be in the form of payment for services rendered or my own entertainment. Take Aster here. After I told them their souls were no good, his parents sold him to me for a quick 10k to pay off a couple of loansharks and never looked back. You think I want souls like that? No. No no no, not at all. Aster’s much more valuable. And he’s much better off with me, where I get to decide how he lives and how he dies. He’s the only human I can touch because he’s mine. Isn’t that right, Aster?”

“Yes, mistress.”

“So as you can see, trading your soul for her life wouldn’t be fair. I’m nothing if not honest, and as an honest businessman or woman, would you really expect me to bite on this one? I’m sorry to say it but your sister’s path is set in stone.”

Alfonso snarls.

“Screw you then,” is all he says to me before he walks off. Aster watches him as he goes.

“Do you think he’ll be back, mistress?”

“Who knows? Maybe one day, when he learns just how valuable his sister really is. To everyone besides him, at least.”

I cradle him closely. That’s right. You’re the only one who’s mine, Aster. The only one I want. Your soul. So innocent. So pure. I want to spend eternity defiling it. Twisting it until it’s completely mine, until no one will ever be able to take it away from me, not even that wretch, Death.

And yet… I’ve already seen you die. I’ve already lived a future without you. When the sun is snuffed out and this renaissance world reaches its very end, death and entropy will claim you too, and there’ll be nothing I can do about it. Because I already own your soul.

And when he dies, it will be because of you, Alfonso Anastasio. Everything that happens next… that’s all on you. So I won’t tell you the truth. I will tell you no lies, but nothing honest will escape these lips either.

But I have to know. Why? Why did you do it? Why will you do it? What reason could you possibly have?

The phone rings. Annie’s asleep. Everything is quiet except Al.

“Hello?”

“Mr. Anastasio? Oh thank god. This is Dr. Evans. We’ve been trying to reach you for days. I’m afraid… I’m afraid we have some bad news. We’ve been reviewing your sister’s x-rays since she was last in the hospital with us and… well, it seems like her cancer has spread.”

Alfonso was completely quiet, stunned into silence. Uncomfortable with his complete lack of a response, the doctor continued.

“… It’s metastasized in her kidneys and bones, sadly. Our best guess is that it crossed over from her lymph into these areas. Now, since your sister was already an on-watch cancer patient, we managed to catch these very early on, so we’re hopeful about her five-year survival rate-”

But that’s all he heard. “Five years”. Without saying anything to the doctor, he gently put down the receiver and started to cry.

Ah. So that’s why. As you can see, dear reader, assembling these moments in time so they make sense can sometimes be a difficult affair best left to a storyteller rather than a demon like me.
Well, enough blustering. I should let you go so you can resume your simple, peaceful lives and enjoy this story in the order it was meant to be shown to you in. With that in mind, enjoy the dawn of the newest chapter in Alfonso’s storied little world as it unfolds for you next week. Until next time, dear reader.

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