You ever remember the feeling you get just before you fall and hit your head or break your arm? The one that normally lasts for just a millisecond before you hit the ground but it feels like an eternity of falling? The lightning flash of fear and uncertainty, not knowing what’s going to happen to you when you finally stop falling or even if you’ll get back up? As it turns out, there are ways you can feel that without the risk of accidentally turning your skull into brain pate, though I wouldn’t recommend it.
I swallowed a hard lump, adjusting my tie for the fifth time since we’d all piled into the car. I’d left my scarf at home that day. Thought maybe it was a bit too ostentatious. Then again, coughing in the presence of Frankie Allesandri could make you feel ostentatious. The man had a way of commanding respect, even from a hospital bed with a tube sticking out of his dickhole. He wouldn’t have climbed his way to the top of the New York scene if he hadn’t.
The three of us, me, Marq and Theo (whose presence Frankie had specifically requested, much to my dismay), had all piled in Marq’s new Rolls-Royce that morning to go see him. The car’s radio was on, but the atmosphere was dead quiet. Stifling really, like someone had just dropped a really eggy fart. Wasn’t me though. I hadn’t passed a solid shit in a week since the train.
“… How’s Nayeli doing?” I asked, staring absentmindedly out the window.
“Fine, given the situation we’re in,” Marq said unhappily. “She’s refused to leave her apartment for the last couple of days, so I’ve had to come by and make sure she eats. Apparently she still feels guilty about all this. She thinks that all she does is cause problems for me and that I’d be better off abandoning her. I tried to tell her I’d never do that, but she wasn’t in much of a mood to listen.”
I nodded, watching the other cars fly by us. “Have they set a court date?”
Marq shook his head. “No. I think the investigation is still ongoing. Otherwise we would’ve gotten a notice or some kind of warrant for arrest. Which is good, since it gives us more time to prepare.”
“Yeah…” I turned to look at Marq. “So, uhhh… we there yet?”
Marq sighed. “No, Al. And would you quit asking? This is the fifth time you’ve asked me that. Don’t you know the way to our house? Look out the damn window.”
I did what he said and stared nervously out the window. It wasn’t the same. Nothing looked the same when you were on death row. You look outside and it’s like seeing everything for the first time. I couldn’t tell if we were sitting on the corner of Park Avenue or at the intersection of Broadway in Little Italy.
I started out just wanting to get this meeting over with so they could decide our fate, but the longer the trip took the more I felt like I didn’t want to arrive. Just like that the ride started to feel like it took seconds, and we’d arrived at the Allesandri family manor faster than you can say “arrivederci”.
We got out. The place was modest, for a mansion at least. Which is to say it was only a home the size of a federal office building rather than an entire city block. The Allesandris preferred their territory historic, which is why they bought the house on Fifth from the Vanderbilts some time in 1926 before the BRC could get their grubby little paws on it. I remember coming here once when I was a teenager. I wasn’t allowed inside of course, but you didn’t have to see what’s in it for it to be impressive. And that’s all that mattered to Frankie Allesandri. That it was big, imposing, and could let people know “I wipe my ass with the kind of money you make” with a single glance.
Before long we found ourselves standing at the entrance, a grand ornate doorway not unlike the one Marq displayed proudly at his office. Guess taste in tacky decor is genetic.
The door knocker stared at us, challenging us to open it. Marq stepped forward, ignoring it entirely, and turned the doorknob slowly and quietly. And you know, I’ve noticed a funny thing about doors over the years, especially doors to places you shouldn’t be. They can smell fear, and they tend to open like the legs of a dame. If it’s a door you’ve been in before and you know you’re supposed to be there, if you’re confident and calm, they open without a single complaint. If it’s a door to a place you’re not supposed to be in, if you’re afraid and you try to force it, then they’re going to make noise like you wouldn’t believe.
The doors squealed and moaned, creaking open with the agonizing slowness of a snail hitting the grass, and we all winced as we heard the sound echo throughout the empty halls. I shivered.
“Are you nervous, Master Alfonso?” Theo asked from over my shoulder.
“S-Stop calling me that,” I reminded her again. “Can’t you feel it? This place is goddamn freezing!”
Theo thought about it. “No, I suppose I can’t. My body temperature is self-regulating.”
“Great,” I said. “Good for you.”
Jesus, I could actually see my breath a little if I squinted.
“I thought it was supposed to be summer, why is it so goddamn cold in here?!” I asked Marq. “I did not dress for this!”
“Al, shut up,” Marq said, his words icy as the air. “We came here for a reason. Don’t forget that.”
“O-Oh. Right…” I said. In the heat of the moment (or lack thereof, rather), I’d almost forgotten about that sinking feeling I’d had all morning. Well here we were. Rock fucking bottom. The end of the line.
I worked the last of the shivers out of my system and stood up straight. I was confident. I was calm. I was cool, and I was collected.
We made it up the stairs without issue. Milo was waiting for us at the top.
“Oh, so nice of you to join us, Marquis,” he said sardonically as he held the fruits of our labor in his grubby little hands. “Fashionably late as always.”
“How’s father?” Marq asked, cutting straight to business.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU CUNT!”
There was a crashing and a clattering noise down the hall where Frankie’s bedroom was. Someone yelped with a voice like a bleating goat.
“… not in a good mood today,” Milo finished.
Marq snorted. “Is he ever?”
Milo frowned. “No, but I get the feeling he will be, once I show him this.”
The door opened at the end of the hall and a confused-looking cynocephaly in a servant’s uniform stumbled out. Marq stepped forward as the goat-headed man tried to pick himself up.
“Everything okay in there, Zeb?” he asked, holding out his hand. Did… did he know this guy?
“He… he let me go,” the man bleated. “Just like that! He let me go! After I’ve been working at his side for the last thirty-two years!”
“Well, you do kinda have this whole thing going on now,” Marq said, pointing to his face. The cynocephaly clung desperately to Marq’s lapels.
“What am I going to do, Marchese?! This… this is all I’ve got left! I don’t think I can…”
Marq sighed. “Look, Zeb. He’s just having one of his moods. You know how he’s been ever since he became sick. Let me talk to him, I’m sure I can convince him to give you your job back.”
The man’s square little goat eyes shimmered. “R-Really? You’d do that for me?”
Marq smiled. “Of course. You were the family consigliere, remember? You think I’d let him just fire you?”
“Oh! Ohhhhh!!” Zebediah sobbed, hugging Marq’s waist. “Grazie, il mio piccolo Marchese! Grazie! I raised you well! Bless your kind heart!”
“Alright, alright, that’s enough!” Marq said as he smiled awkwardly, trying to force Zebediah off of him. “You’re getting snot all over my new suit, Zeb!”
“O-Oh! That I am… I’m so, so sorry Marchese- I mean Marquis!”
The goatman let go, scuttling back a few feet. He was still on his hands and knees, like he was expecting to be beaten. Marq sighed in pity.
“It’s okay if you call me that, Zeb. I’m not gonna get mad because of some stupid little kid name you used to call me. That gypsy really did a number on you, didn’t she?”
The former consigliere bleated pathetically. “She took it all away from me, Marchese. My wife, my job, the rogue-ish good looks of an elderly Sicilian gentleman… Now what do I have? A goat for a head, and a registry card in my wallet!”
He started crying again. Marq knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder.
“I don’t mean like that, Zeb. She didn’t take anything away from you. Nothing except what you let her have.” He sighed. “I’m not gonna lie, what she did to you… it’s not pretty. But the things that make you Zeb, that Sicilian gentleman who raised me and helped keep this family afloat for thirty-two years… those aren’t things that she can take away just by changing your face. You earned those things, and you can take ‘em back, so long as you don’t let this change the way you live your life.”
The goatman sniffled. “I wish it was so easy Marchese, I really do. But the world isn’t kind to demihumans like it is to you. I see that now…”
“Well, I’m working on a fix for that,” Marq said reassuringly as he patted him on the shoulder. “Now go home and get some rest. Think about things a bit. It won’t change anything, but neither will sitting here feeling sorry for yourself, and I know which one I’d rather be doing. You just let me take care of the old man, okay?”
Zeb nodded, then slowly started walking down the steps. I watched him as he went. The drooped shoulders, the slink in his steps… now that was a special kind of sad.
Marq got up, dusting the goat hair off his lapels. Milo sneered at him.
“You always have to play the saint, don’t you brother?”
Marquis glared at him. “I don’t remember asking for your input, Milo.”
“I just thought you’d want to be a little more careful about how you associate yourself with these demihuman types,” he said, looking directly at me and Theo. “You know, after everything that’s happened.”
Milo smiled. Or rather, he found a way to express every synonym for the words “smug” and “asshole” in visual shorthand, and was showing us that. Made me want to punch him. There wasn’t much about Milo that didn’t once you got to know him, and by that I mean spend more than five minutes with the guy.
“What’s happened is none of your business.”
“Oh, I think you’ll find that it’s quite my business. And after today, Father will realize-”
There was a sharp crack of a wheezing cough in the room just down the hall, where Frankie was supposed to be.
“Is that you, Marquis?”
Milo frowned at that, I noticed. “Yes, father, he is here. Shall I send him in alone, or do you wish to speak with us both?”
“… Enter,” he wheezed, more of a command than a welcome. I guess that meant all of us.
I followed behind Marq. It had been years since I’d last met the old man. Though I guess now he was the boss of my boss. The one and only Allesandri capofamiglia. The first time we met I was in awe of him. This time, I was scared shitless of him.
He’s just an old man, I reminded myself. A sick, dying old man. You could take him out if you really wanted. What’s there to be so scared of?
But those were empty assurances. I didn’t fear the man. I feared what he represented. What he stood for. This was the guy who built the Allesandris from the ground up. A criminal empire that stretched across the sea and into twelve states and more than fifty major cities. He had more money and connections than even big-shot politicians and Wall Street bankers, and he could have just about whatever he wanted. Drugs, dames, magic spells and artifacts, you name it. Excepting just two, there wasn’t a man in the world he couldn’t buy out or buy from, and the ones he couldn’t were even scarier than he was.
They say that in this world, money is power. If that was the case, Frankie Allesandri may very well have been one of the most powerful men in it, hospital bed or not.
“Remember, Theo,” I whispered. “Head down, hands where he can see them, and don’t say a word.”
Milo opened the door, and that’s when we all saw him. He looked worse than I’d thought. His giant antique bed of which he used to brag was no more. Instead, he lay under its canopy inside an iron lung, hooked up to an IV with an oxygen mask wrapped around his face. He was wearing his formal clothes, and it made the iron lung look like his coffin, and him a walking, talking corpse.
Marq took a step forward. “Hello… father.”
Frankie chuckled. Or maybe he was just quietly coughing up a lung. He tried reaching out of the metal tube with both arms to offer a hug, but could only make it part way. Marq walked over to him instead, and they embraced, just like any other father and son.
“Marquis, my boy! How long has it been since you’ve paid your dear papà a visit? I’ve missed you so much. To come see your only father for a few minutes every couple of days just to deliver medicine… it’s too cruel.”
“No, what’s too cruel is kicking poor Zeb out on the streets again,” Marq said, taking a step back. “Besides, I’ve been busy with work.”
“So I hear. From the sound of things, your brother has been having you do his dirty work,” Frankie said, glancing at Milo. “And Zeb can take care of his own damn self. What happens to him is not my problem, capisce?”
Marq sighed. “You already demoted him from consigliere to a lowly manservant, do you really have to fire him? It’s not his fault he got cursed by a gypsy.”
“Yes it is!” Frankie retorted. “Why do you think the gypsy cursed him?”
Marq sighed. “Father, just give him back his job. You know you can’t run this family all by yourself.”
Frankie was quiet.
“… Feh. Enough about Zeb,” he said, changing the subject. “He’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. I wish our meeting today could be under happier circumstances Marquis, but… you know what has to be done.”
Marq’s expression flipped upside down. This wasn’t a happy family visit anymore. Now we were gonna start our march down the green mile.
Frankie continued. “You made a mistake out there, and it’s going to cost us dearly. This will bring undue attention to us, and to our… operations. Now that we’re in the spotlight, the police won’t be so willing to look the other way, and we’ll have lost the support of many of our most loyal allies and friends, the Four Beasts included.”
Frankie sighed. “No… I made a mistake. I should have never let you bring that demigoddess into our house. I knew she would bring nothing but trouble.”
“Father,” Marq tried to argue. “That may be so, but you can’t deny she’s helped bring in a lot of money for the family-”
“Which was almost immediately spent covering for her in court every time she destroyed something. Or someone.” Frankie sighed. “Listen, my child. You know I cannot ignore this. If it was anyone else, you know I would have already cut out their eyes and tongues and laid them to rest at the bottom of the river. Do you know how lucky you are, Marquis? That I am your father and you are my son?
“… The punishment is this. Whatever happens as a result of her actions, you will have to deal with it by yourself. The family isn’t going to waste its resources backing you on this one, Marquis. We will have no part of it. As of this moment, she is no longer an associate of the Allesandris. If I see her in this house again, I’ll turn her in to the authorities myself.”
Marq knew better than to argue. Once Frankie Allesandri said something, it was final. Milo didn’t seem to agree.
“Father, what are you doing?! You’re being too easy on him! This punishment is far too lenient, even for family! He should be stripped of his position and rank, at least!”
“Quiet!” Frankie hissed at Milo. “If I’m going to punish him as a capo and not as my son, then the blame should be shared equally with the one who sent him on that suicide mission, and practically declared war with the yakuza when I told you to settle it cleanly! None of this would have happened if you’d just done it your damn self, so shut your mouth! You’re just lucky the yakuza disowned them.”
Milo backed off immediately, looking a lot like a kicked puppy. So his relationship with daddy was his weakness, huh? Isn’t that a cruel twist of fate. The eldest son, tossed aside for the bastard. No wonder he had a complex.
“Speaking of the Yamadas…” Marq started.
“We won’t be offering them shelter, but we also won’t be handing them over to their friends. You chose to spare them, I presume because they now owe us a debt. As before, the responsibility lies with you. I expect better of you in the future, Marquis. Now then. On to our next order of business,” he said, turning his gaze towards Theo. “Is this her?”
He licked his lips.