Nearly two weeks had passed since Nayeli left, and Marq was getting desperate. He’d had our guys comb the entire city trying to find her, and when that failed to turn up anything, he’d resorted to taking Sigurd out on joyrides and flying over the countryside, trying to pick up Nayeli’s scent. So far, no luck. In the meantime, I’d been asked to pick up the slack in taking care of our three fugitives hiding out at the docks.
I stopped in front of Mickey’s old studio warehouse on Pier 6, the one I’d nearly burnt down a couple months ago. There were still scorch marks toasting the place and nobody had bothered to replace the broken windows. All in all, it couldn’t look more abandoned if you stuck a tumbleweed in front of it.
Balancing a food tray with my one hand, I knocked on the rolling shutter door with the other. Faster than I can react, the terrible end of Yoshirō’s turgid metal deathstick speared through the door’s thin sheet metal only a few terrifying inches from my face. I think I almost pissed myself.
“Who. Is. It.”
Kichirō’s voice asked me tersely from the other side. I swallowed, trying to regain my composure.
“It’s Alfonso. I’ve got your food. Y’know… soup’s on…”
“… Oh. You can let him in, Yoshi.”
The shutter doors rolled up and I walked on inside, looking around for the three of them. Were they hiding?
“You know,” I shouted into the darkness, “you really don’t need to do that every time I stop by. Can’t you just tell it’s me by sensing my ki or whatever?”
“True,” I heard Kichirō say as he stepped into view. “But Yoshi doesn’t like you.”
I felt a snort of hot air on my neck and nearly dropped the soup all over my new loafers. The big guy was right behind me, wasn’t he?
“H-Hi, Yoshi…” I squeaked, turning around slowly. “How’s it going?”
“Don’t call him that. He’s still mad about how you drugged him back on the train, Kichirō said, snacking on a tiny bag of circus peanuts. “He says you’re lucky he doesn’t turn you into sashimi.”
“Duly noted…” I said, slowly backing away. “Do I at least get some soy sauce?”
Kichirō raised an eyebrow at me.
I set the tray down on a toolbench and unwrapped the bread, breaking off bits of it in their soup. The chunks float for a few seconds before sinking to the bottom. Typical New York cuisine. Soup was so watery you could stick a boot in it and call me Ishmael.
“You know, not that I don’t enjoy these daily chats of ours, but why don’t you just go and lay low with the Four Beasts again?” I asked as I literally broke bread with my enemies. “I mean I like the smell of mildew and stewed human flesh just as much as the next guy, but this isn’t exactly a five star hotel you got here. Don’t you want some better digs?”
“Asking the Four Beasts for help again would be… unwise,” Kichirō said. “They seem to have heard about how we treated their men, and now they want revenge. They’ve already sent men after us numerous times.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell us?!” I said, dropping half a loaf in one of the bowls.
“We going to, but…” Ren started.
“… they don’t seem to be particularly thrilled with the Allesandris right now either,” Kichirō said.
“Yeah, and whose fault do you think that is?” I said, sighing. “Here’s your soup.”
The bowl clanked to the floor, spilling a few precious drops of its liquid sustenance. My immediate instinct was to reach for my hanky and wipe it up, but I held myself back. I figured the floor could stand to get a little dirtier. Once you reach a certain point of no return (like say, burnt clothing and human flesh), any new mess you make kinda just gets lost in the background. No point in dirtying a perfectly good handkerchief then.
Ren hesitantly picked up her spoon and took a nibble, then immediately spat it out.
“Bleh! This taste worse than yesterday!”
“Oh really?” I replied sardonically.
“Yeah! It taste like nuppeppō pus!”
“I have literally no idea what that is,” I said. “It’s cream of mushroom soup from a can. Just eat it.”
“Canned? I thought they use fresh ingredients?” Ren said, or rather accused.
“Yeah, right,” I replied, snorting. “Fresh water, maybe.”
“Ren,” Kichirō chided. “It’s impolite to criticize the food someone’s given you out of the kindness of their hearts.”
Kichirō raised his spoon to his lips and tasted the soup, smacking his lips.
“That being said, I have to agree. This does taste an awful lot like nuppeppō pus.”
“Still don’t know what that is,” I said. “And I thought you said it was impolite to criticize.”
“I also said the food had to be given out of the kindness of their hearts,” Kichirō said with a wry smile.
“Fair enough,” I sighed, taking a seat. “If the food tastes like crap it’s because our local kitchen just lost one of its biggest supporters.”
“God-girl, right?” Ren asked, blowing on soup.
“Yup,” I said. “Without her around they’ve had to switch to canned to keep up with the demand. Her disappearing act is throwing a lot of monkey wrenches in a lot of peoples’ plans.”
“Why you think she did it?” Ren said, blowing on her soup.
“Who knows?” I said, sighing. “Wouldn’t have been my first choice. All that matters is that Marq is tearing his fucking hair out trying to find her. If she doesn’t show up before a formal arrest is issued, they’re probably gonna send the Untouchables after her, and that’s not going to end well for any of us.”
“The… Untouchables?” Kichirō asked.
“Yup.” I cracked another loaf in half and offered it to Kichirō. “They’re an anti-magic law enforcement division, beholden only to the highest authority within the US government. Sorta like secret agents crossed with cowboys by way of Merlin.”
“Uh-huh. So what make them so special?” Ren asked, chomping on bread.
“Easy shortstuff,” I say, enjoying my one chance to say that to someone else for a change. “Each of them is given a special mythical weapon that only they’re allowed to wield. Y’know, astra and holy swords and all sorts of cursed shit. Real nasty stuff like that. They’re the government’s last line of defense against monsters and magic users.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Ren commented.
“You don’t know the half of it. If they caught wind that any of us had dealings with the Cintamani stone, we’d all be locked up right now faster than you can say ‘I plead the fifth’. We should thank our lucky stars they haven’t perfected the technology for audio-based psychometry yet.”
“Hmmm… If they’re law enforcement like you say though, shouldn’t the Marquis just be able to buy them? That seems to be your family’s preferred way of doing things. Bribing people until the problem goes away.”
I grunt in annoyance. Cheeky little…
“Wouldn’t work. These guys? They’re incorruptible. The textbook fuckin’ definition of fanatics. Assassination, blowing up family-owned trucks and boats, smashing up entire warehouses then burning them to the ground. And that’s just the stuff they do to harass us. When the real monsters come knocking and the big guns come out, I’ve heard of entire towns getting written off in the name of their mission. Tabula fucking rasa, like they never existed. All to keep the peace, supposedly. Nobody knows where they find these psychos but they make the Vitalis look restrained by comparison. If you ask me, they dig ‘em up from the deepest pits of Alcatraz, give them a badge, then just turn them loose.”
“And your government let them get away with that?” Ren asks. I shrug.
“We live in crazy times, I guess. It all makes about as much sense to me as it does to you. All I know is that they’re tough, they’re mean, and they’ve got a license to kill. If they’re brought in to deal with Nayeli, we better just pray they bring her back in one piece.”
“Really? You worried about god-girl? When she can give Yamata-no-orochi a run for his money? It don’t matter what kind of weapons they bring. She tough enough. She can take it. God-girl is invincible.”
“Against an enemy like you who just uses brute force, maybe. But you weren’t there at Central Park.” I paused. “Anyway, you should always remember one thing. Demigods? They’re weak against magic.”
I soaked up the last of my soup with my half of the loaf, and stuck it in my mouth. Forcing my arms into my coat’s sleeves, I brushed myself off and got ready to go.
“You leaving already?” Kichirō asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I got two more mouths to feed back at home.”
Light shone through the slit in the door Yoshirō had made. Working my hands under the door, I lifted with my knees, and pulled up the metal sheet like a blind. Dark sunbeams from a cloudy but-not-too-cloudy sky pierced my eyes, flushing me back into the kind of daylight you only find hanging over New York City smog. I look back over my shoulder.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. Let us know from now on when the Four Beasts start to give you any trouble. We’re… working on a fix. Things have just been… well, you know the way they are right now,” I said. “I’ll let you know once Marq has something he wants you to do. For now, just stay put.”
“What you think we’ve been doing?!”
I walk out and let the door drop behind me, drowning out the incensed oni’s protests. The way things are right now, huh? And what exactly was that? What way were they ever supposed to be to begin with?
The stairs creaked softly as I walked up to our apartment on the second floor, carrying a bag of groceries. I only mention this because normally the stairs make noise like a pissed off cat whose tail someone just stepped on. I can think of a few good reasons for why today was different. For one thing, the bag’s lighter than it should be, on account of me having to skimp now to pay Frankie. I don’t know how much extra he wants, but I’m not about to go overspending and test the man’s generosity any more than I already have.
Second, they’ve been doing renovations around here lately, something they say is finally gonna have us all caught up with the new building code they instituted a few years after war. Been a miracle they managed to get away with not doing it for this long, but then again nobody’s in a hurry to pay for the living conditions of the working class.
Dwarves – excuse me, dvergr – clung to the architecture wherever I looked, hammering away and tearing down walls, ripping out electrical wires. That part was probably gonna be easy. Not much in the way of commodities here. We were lucky we had our own bathrooms, let alone lights. A few of them muttered something in Old Norse as I walked past them, which made me frown. If you’re gonna say something about me, at least say it to my face in the King’s English.
I walked to the other end of the hall where our apartment was, and noticed there was one thing they weren’t touching. The spriggan’s old room. So far it had been spared the hammer and the hacksaw. Not a single soul had touched it. I snorted. Probably because they were still figuring out how to get inside. The spriggan had always been a private old girl, and now that she was a tree she was going to be even harder to convince to leave.
As if to prove my point, a vine crept out of the mass of roots and flower buds that had already grown out of the wall surrounding her apartment and coiled around the doorknob, its slow, deliberate movements more than making the tenant’s wishes clear. She’d move when she was damn well ready to. As for us, I wasn’t sure what we’d do when they started fixing up our place. Probably sleep downstairs in the basement until it was fixed like everybody else. I could ask Marq for a place to crash, but I don’t think Annie would like that, and she’s plenty pissed at me as it is. Besides, he… needed his space right now.
I fished for my keys, trying to keep the contents of the bag from spilling over. Turning the key in the lock, I heard that satisfying ka-chunk that let me know “I’m home!” and then I shut the door to our apartment behind me.
“Annie? Theo?” I announced to seemingly empty space. “You guys here?”
I didn’t expect to hear much back. Theo wasn’t the talkative sort most of the time, and she said she would be out doing the laundry this afternoon anyway. As for Annie, she was still mad at me, so I didn’t really know what to expect.
To my surprise, I heard her call back, “Yeah Al, we’re in the living room!”
Funny, I could’ve sworn she still wasn’t talking to me this morning. “You’ll never guess who’s here!”
“Who’s here?” I asked, immediately suspicious. Had that shitty agent stopped by again? Dr. Evans?
I looked down and noticed an extra pair of shoes by the door. Spit-shined leather oxfords, with their laces carefully tied.
“Oh no…” I said to myself. I turned the corner into the living room, walking as naturally as I could. There I saw Annie in her wheelchair, and setting next to her was…
He looked up at me. “Oh, hello Alfonso.”
I tried smiling as convincingly as I could. “Hey there, Cavvy.”