A chill ran up my spine. No, actually it was more like being spooned by Jack Frost. I swallowed a hard lump and took a step forward to cover Theo. Frankie grinned upon seeing me.
“Alfonso Anastasio, associate no more,” he said, addressing me in an almost fatherly way. “Come on over here, let me get a look at you.”
I did as he asked, getting close enough that I could stand over his bedside. He looked me over.
“God you seem different. How many years has it been?”
“Ten, sir,” I said. “At least I think.”
“Shhhshhshh,” he lisped. “I don’t care what you think. I’m just happy to see one of my son’s oldest friends finally joining the family. We never talked much, but the way you two looked out for each other, I’ve always regarded you as one of my sons. You’ve been a good brother to my boy, Alfonso. Now you’re brothers by blood. How does that make you feel?”
I looked at Milo out of the corner of my eye. His sights were set squarely on me. That wasn’t good.
“… Honored, sir.”
“Then tell me,” Frankie asked. “Why did you disrespect me?”
My heart skipped a beat when he said that. I could feel it coming as I broke out into a cold sweat and my mouth dried up like a turd in a litter box.
“I-I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t really understand-”
“You stole from me, Alfonso,” he said, his voice hard like a rock. “You took what wasn’t yours without permission. The homunculus. That’s her right there, right?”
His wandering eyes passed over Theo, and I could see her stiffen up as she tried her hardest not to show what she was feeling. She was shaking, but I felt paralyzed.
“Well? Tell me, boy,” Frankie commanded. “Is it?”
Slowly, I nodded. “Yessir. Her name is Philippa Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von-”
“Homunculi don’t have names,” he said dismissively, waving his hand.
“Well… this one does,” I said.
Frankie grunted. “And? What made you think it was okay to steal her from me, when she wasn’t yours to take? I punish thieves very harshly, Alfonso, and traitors even harsher. Why shouldn’t I just kill you, and be done with it?”
Finally Theo couldn’t take it anymore. She flashed her knives which she’d hidden in her dress, and pointed them at Frankie. Milo immediately reached for his gun.
“You may try,” Theo said through grit teeth. That just made Frankie laugh.
“I like her! She has spunk. She would’ve made an excellent little dollie for me to play with,” he said, licking his lips. He turned his attention back to me. “I think I’m beginning to see the full picture here now. Alfonso, you did not enter into a contract with her of your own volition, did you?”
“… No.” Not necessarily, anyway…
“And you didn’t do it to steal from me?”
“No,” I said. “I was… incapacitated. About to be killed. She came to my rescue. Without that contract, I don’t think I would have survived.”
“And if you could go back in time and do it again, this time under different circumstances, would you still have done it?”
Theo looked at me. Did I defend her and say what was really on my mind, or did I say what he wanted to hear so we could all still leave this place in one piece? It felt like no matter what I picked, I would be burning a bridge and betraying my family. Except one of those bridges was built over a deadly fall.
“Well?” Frankie asked, urging me to get on with it.
I gulped. I had to answer honestly. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t. The Allesandris always came first, but the people I shared that tiny tenement with came even before that. As long as I didn’t give him the contract, he could never have Theo, even if I died. Annie would have the life insurance, and Theo to look after her. Everything would be fine if I just died here. That’s what I had to tell myself.
“… Yes,” I said. Frankie’s gaze hardened, while Theo’s looked relieved. “I would have done it exactly the same way. She deserves to be free, sir. She’s earned that.”
“And yet all I see is her calling someone else her master. Someone who isn’t me,” he intoned threateningly.
“With all due respect, sir,” I said. “She chose to be with me. That’s… as close to freedom as she’s ever going to get.”
And it was still wrong. But it was better than whatever Frankie had planned for her.
It was in thinking about that that I made my mistake. Frankie reached into his pillow case and pulled out a revolver, pressing it square against my chest. Theo gasped and drew her knives, panicking, but I held out a hand to tell her to stand down. If she attacked now she might very well kill me herself.
“I’m gonna give you one last chance, Alfonso,” Frankie said with his finger on the trigger. “One last chance to rethink what you just said, and hand her over.”
I gulped. What were my options here? Was Theo fast enough to go for the save? Would I survive a shot to the heart? Unlikely, to both of them.
Did that change what I had to say? Ditto.
“Sorry sir, but my answer’s the same,” I said. “Theo isn’t property we can just pass along, and I’m never going to let her be property ever again.”
Frankie and I locked eyes. There was no give and no take between us. Either this ended when he put the gun down, or when I bled out on his lavender fucking carpet.
Frankie’s face twitch. Mine loosened for a second, betraying my surprise. He made a noise like snorting, then after a few agonizing moments of him making confusing noises, broke out into raucous laughter. He lowered the gun.
“That’s great! That’s really great! The balls on you kid; I just cannot believe it!” he said, guffawing. “When they told me you’d been mouthing off to Paulie and Georgie, I thought he was telling me tall tales, but you really do have some, don’t you?”
I laughed nervously.
“Eheh… heh… Ummm… I’m confused,” I said. “Does this mean you’re not going to shoot me?”
“Alfonso, I would’ve shot you if you had given her to me,” Frankie said. “It’s clear to me now how strongly you feel about this, and I have no place in this organization for men with weak convictions. If you couldn’t defend your girl there, how could I ever expect you to defend our family? You gotta have resolve, kid. If I really want a doll like her, I can just find one somewhere else. But I can’t just replace good men that easily.”
My chest lightened, and filled with air. “So does that mean-”
“Yes. In exchange for a forty, fifty… ehhhh… seventy percent increase in your tribute, I will ignore this transgression. Just this once,” Frankie said. “In the name of good faith and family bonds. You have potential, Alfonso. I expect a lot from you. But the next time this happens, you know what I’ll have to do.”
“Yessir,” I said, a growing relief rising in me.
“Good,” he said, waving his hand. “Now go.”
Relief washed over me. Marq and I nodded to each other. It was time to go, before things had a chance to turn pear-shaped. But just as we had turned to leave…
“One moment, father. Aren’t you forgetting about that other thing we discussed?”
“Huh?” Frankie said. “Oh, right right. The cinnamon stone.”
“Cintamani stone,” Milo reminded him.
Frankie scowled. “I don’t give a damn what it’s called, just bring it here if you’re so worked up about it.”
Milo beamed and approached him.
“I know it’s not exactly what I promised, but it can do everything the philosopher’s stone can and more,” he said.
“Hmph,” Frankie snorted. “I find that hard to believe. Well, let’s see what you’ve brought me this time, Milo. Maybe this one will actually work.”
Marq and I stood rooted in place, waiting to see what would happen. There was nothing else we could do. Events had long since conspired to take matters out of our own hands, a state of affairs that had for the longest time been known by its proper name “being Fate’s bitch”.
Milo unwrapped the stone after pulling it from an antique wooden box, making an elaborate show out of the whole thing. Frankie looked like he was getting impatient.
Then the stone appeared, the veil concealing it lifted. Its humble, unpolished appearance belied its power, but to someone who didn’t know what that power was, looks could be deceiving indeed.
Frankie huffed. “What’s this?”
Milo looked at him, confused. “It’s the cintamani stone.”
“That?” Frankie asked incredulously. “I wouldn’t give a stone like that to a whore! You expect me to believe that’s some kind of great and powerful artifact?”
He narrowed his eyes.
“Milo… you better not be wasting my time again…”
“Of course not, sir!” Milo said, practically pleading. “Here, watch!”
He tapped the stone, causing a tiny light to flare up inside it. It looked like he was about to use it.
“I just have to find the right spell…” Milo said, his eyes glazed over. A few silent minutes passed. Frankie harumphed.
“I knew it. You have no idea what you’re doing.”
“Please, father! Just give me one more moment!” Milo begged. His eyes twitched frantically like he was reading an invisible book.
“There! I found it!” he said. Looking back, I’m pretty sure he was lying. The only question was to who.
The stone started to glow faintly, like there was a candle inside it. Milo pressed the stone to Frankie’s chest. The Allesandri patriarch jumped.
“What the hell do you think you’re-”
The effect was immediate. With a sound like wrapping paper crinkling in reverse, Frankie’s chest started to expand, taking deeper and deeper breaths. Color flushed back into his face, and his weakness went away. Whatever Milo was doing, it was working. I heard Marq click his tongue.
“What… what is this?” Frankie asked, then demanded. “What’s going on?!?”
“I’m using one of the enchantments inside the stone to heal your sickness, father,” Milo said, concentrating. “Please, hold still.”
Frankie took a couple of experimental deep breaths. After he realized he could breathe clearly again, he laughed heartily. It sounded… normal. “Haha… well, Milo, this… this really is something.”
Milo smiled. Miraculously, Frankie rose from his iron tomb and pushed aside the door, setting his feet on solid ground again for the first time in years. He balled his hand up in a fist, testing his grip. It was strong again. New, like a young man’s.
Slowly, he stood, his squat frame juxtaposed against Milo’s tall, lanky body. He looked up at his boy, and smiled.
“Not bad… Not a bad job at all, son! This is wonderful! I feel ten years younger!”
Milo’s eyes brightened. “Th-Th-Thank you very much, sir!”
Frankie put a hand on Milo’s shoulder. “You know, son, I… I have a confession to make. I never thought you’d amount to much. You lacked the imagination to really succeed like your half-brother. Didn’t have an independent thought in your head, is what I thought. But… I misjudged you. And I’m sorry. When I learned what the stone really was, I thought it wasn’t worth pursuing. But you looked at what it could be, saw something I didn’t. And now… now I’m healed! Thanks to you!”
He smiled wryly. It was barely a nudge at the corners of his lips, but it was the most genuine emotion I’d ever seen from him.
“Son, I’m prow of you.”
The mismatch didn’t register at first. We all just thought it was a slip of the tongue. Milo’s smile broke for just a millisecond.
“What did you say, father?”
“I said I’m prow fuf you.”
There it was again. Milo stopped smiling, concerned.
“Father, are you okay? You don’t sound quite right.”
“Wuhya mean? I feelfin… feel fin… feel… fine…”
Frankie started to mumble.
“F-Fine. F-F-F-Fuh-Fine. Fiiiiine. Fiiiiaaaace. Face. Face. Face. Face. Face! Muh face!”
The Allesandri capofamiglia, the boss of bosses, started twitching spasmodically, fingers clawing at the left side of his face. He just repeated that same word over and over again, spittle dribbling out of his mouth.
“Fuh-fuh-facee… Fuuuuuh-fuf-faaaaaace… C-can’t…”
He slumped down, back against the iron lung, still twitching. His arms fell uselessly to his side.
“Father, what’s wrong?!” Milo said, shaking him by his shoulders. “What are you trying to say, father? What are you trying to say?!”
“Call 911!” I shouted, shoving Milo out of the way. I grabbed Frankie’s twitching shoulders and held him down, doing my best to keep him lying on his side. I loosened his tie. “He’s having a stroke!”