Swindler Cadence Morello has been tasked to investigate who was behind the bombing of the Foxman brothers’ TwinStar Pub by Cavallo who is in a senior position of the Romano Family. A show of goodwill. Another senior member of the Romano Family, Verga, claims that it is a waste of time. After running through the streets with the Foxman brothers with little result, Cadence heads to her favorite piano bar where she meets a strange woman named Atienna. A woman whom only she can see.
Twin Cities, Gemini
“I’m tellin’ ya,” Cadence snapped, slapping her hand over her chest, “check me over again! You definitely missed something!”
Doctor Fabrizzio continued to shuffle slowly through the files on his clipboard, undeterred. They were in the man’s office again, sitting opposite each other. The illusion of normal doctor-and-patient reinstated.
“Doc, come on!” Cadence pressed. “This is serious! I’ve been—”
“You’ve been seeing things. Yes. I heard you the first time and the subsequent times after that.” The doctor nodded as he continued to rifle through the papers. He hummed and tapped his chin. “You hallucinated a woman speaking to you. And yet, you had a lengthy talk with the woman even after you realized the bartender did not see her.”
Cadence paused, mouth half-open. “Well, that’s because—”
“Because she charmed you,” the doctor finished. He peered over the clipboard. “You’ve always had trouble with that type.” He set the thing aside and leaned forward with a smile. “Seeing as you had a lengthy conversation with her with little harm or consequence, I don’t see the problem.”
“The problem is that she wasn’t real!”
But what exactly was ‘real’? The only real thing that she could be sure of was herself. Her existence. And since her existence was the only certainty, didn’t that mean that the world belonged to—
“What is it that you want me to do, Cadence?” the doctor pressed. “You seem more amused by this situation than distressed.”
Cadence shook away the pain that pricked her temple and smoothed down the smile that had climbed up her face without her notice. “What if this is some aftereffect of that explosion in the bar? What if I knocked my head real good or somethin’?”
“Physical ailments, I can heal, Cadence. That is what I’m interested in. But you have no lingering physical injuries of concern that I can see, and you know that I am always thorough.” The doctor leaned back in his chair with a smile. “Things of the mind and heart are not my profession, Cadence. I cannot help you with that.”
Cadence frowned, pulled back into herself, and crossed her arms. “And what are you implyin’ by ‘heart’?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the doctor replied. “As I’ve said, I’m not an expert in those matters. But in the physical realm of things, I must say you are perfectly normal. Functioning physically properly.”
Cadence sighed and lifted her hat to ruffle her hair. “As much as I love spendin’ time with ya, doc, if I knew you were just gonna send me away, I woulda spent my time elsewhere. There’s a lot goin’ on, ya know. The city’s a mess.” Cadence peeked at the doctor and found that he was back at flipping through his clipboard. She merely shrugged.
“Nico called again,” he said suddenly. “Maybe you could convince him of what I could not.”
Cadence frowned. “Convince him?”
* * *
It took less than a second for Cadence to connect to Nico on the phone.
“Nico, what do ya think you’re doin’?”
“Cadence?” Nico’s voice crackled. “Are you okay? Why didn’t you tell me about Francis’s bar? I had to hear from Francis about it! Wha—”
“Am I okay?” Cadence huffed. “What about you? Why am I hearin’ from your pops that you didn’t leave with Clive and Rino?”
A confirming pause.
Cadence leaned against the wall and pinched the bridge of her nose. “And why would ya do something like that?”
“I’m going to come back…” Nico tried to reason in a quiet voice. “I just hung back—”
“Just? Whad’ya mean ‘just’?” Cadence leaped from the wall and began to pace. “Nico, I don’t know if ya noticed, but you’re in the middle of a battle-zone. The longer you stay there, the closer you’re inchin’ to death’s door!”
“I know that!” Nico’s voice was rising. “But if you just saw the people that’re here, Cadence… I—and I’m a Transmutationist. I’ve been training like a medical Conductor my entire life. I…”
So that was what it was. Cadence returned to her place against the wall and swallowed a sigh. She twirled the phone cord around her finger as she glanced at the wall opposite her. She turned over numerous responses in mind and played out their reactions in turn. Nope. Nada. Bad ending. It took her a while to settle on something that’d get her the response she wanted: “Nico, you’re a kind person. You wanna do what ya can for others. And ya feel guilty. Guilty because you were the one deliverin’ the goods that may or may not have gotten them into that situation.”
“That’s not it. That’s not it at all.”
As expected, Cadence thought. Hook. Line. Sinker. She crossed her arms and rolled her neck before asking, “Then what is it?” A practiced pause. “Is it that you wanna rebel against your old man? Usin’ the stuff he taught ya to do things he wouldn’t want ya to do? Nico, there’s better ways of doing that stuff.”
There was a long and lengthy pause. And then, “Cadence, what are you doing?”
Cadence frowned. “What do ya mean? I’m just tryin’ ta understand—”
“You didn’t think I’d notice?” Came the quiet, calm tone. “Cadence, I’ve known you for years. I know how you sound when you’re tryin’ to twist someone around your finger.”
Well, that much was true. Cadence would have been more surprised if he hadn’t figured it out by now.
“I can’t believe that… that you’d try to do that to me… of all people…”
Was that judgment? Disappointment?
Cadence shook her head.
No, it couldn’t be. Nico would never. She was only acting out of concern.
“I get that you’re concerned, Cadence,” Nico murmured. “But you could’ve just said it instead of—”
“Fine, I’m concerned, aight?” Cadence half-sighed, half-snapped. “I’m concerned that you’re makin’ a reckless decision and that you’re gonna get yourself killed.
“Reckless? Cadence, who do you think we work for? It comes with the job—and didn’t you say the city was too small for the both of us? Shouldn’t you be happy that I’m going off on my own outside the city?” There was an almost audible frown with the question. “Or were you just tryin’ to string me along then, too?”
“Look, I ain’t tryin’ to string anyone along,” Cadence said. “I just don’t understand why you’re doin’ it. By the sound of it, it really does sound like you just want to get at your pop—”
“I want to help people, Cadence! Help people other than the ones that the Family and my dad say are ‘worth saving’! What does that even mean? Everyone is worth saving! If not, then what’s even the point of being alive?” A deep breath. “Cadence, this is what I want to do. My choice. I can’t stand standin’ here and doin’ nothin’. My drea—”
“If you’re sayin’ that your dream is to go out there and play on death’s door, then that’s a stupid dream, Nico!” Cadence snapped despite herself.
“Stupid…?” A shaky, deep breath. “I thought you said there was no such thing as a stupid dream.”
A loud drone blared through the speaker, causing her to jerk back with a wince. It took a moment for the meaning of the sound to settle in.
“He…” Cadence stared at the phone. “The jerk hung up on me!”
* * *
Cadence stepped out from the office building and squinted up at the crack of skyline. Orange light bled down, just barely reaching her face.
“You look like you need head back inside and have another round with Doctor Fabrizzio.”
Cadence turned her head and feigned a lopsided grin as she registered Francis Foxman standing at the mouth of the alleyway. “Same to you. Look like work’s been stressful.” She glanced to Francis’s right and then left. “Where’re Carl and Allen? Feels wrong not seein’ ’em by your side.”
“Oh right, you were in the doctor’s so you probably haven’t heard.” Francis reached into his pocket, pulled out his v-cig, and lit it with a shake of his hand. “Some Ophiuchian agents have come to the city. Requested an audience with us and Ricardo.”
Cadence whistled. “Jeez, no wonder you look like you’ve had a bad morrowheat trip.” She slid her hands into her pockets and kicked a stray wad of paper aside. “So the boss too, huh? Man, bet he’s not too happy ’bout that.”
“Yes, it’s rather sudden.” Francis took a drag. “Apparently, they’re here because—”
“An Ophiuchian agent’s gone missing and was last seen in the city,” Cadence murmured. But how did she know that? Her mind went to Atienna. ‘Problems of the mind and heart,’ huh? If anything, Cadence figured that the doctor’s words had created more problems for her than the hallucinations did. The doctor’s words and Nico. Damn, Nico. What in the world was he thinking? Was there any way to drag him back? Probably not, seeing how the doctor hadn’t lifted a finger yet. The doc probably thought he’d sit back and see how this played out. And seeing how that phone conversation ended… Damn… Did Francis even know…?
“Yeah. Exactly,” Francis replied from beside her. “How did you know that?”
Cadence cracked a grin automatically and shrugged. “Y’know me.”
“I’m not sure I do even after all these years.” Francis chuckled. “Anyways, Allen and Carl are getting ready for the meeting.”
“Skippin’ out then, Francis? That’s surprisin’.”
“I wish that were the case, but I’m here for something else.”
Cadence arched a brow.
Francis chuckled in turn. “Unfortunately, I’m not here for you either, Cadence.” He twirled his cigarette between his fingertips. “We got a lead on the TwinStars incident.”
Cadence grinned, arms spread with hands in pockets. “Now what’s with ya doin’ my job for me? I’ll be replaced with ya before y’know it.”
Francis chuckled again. “You know that I don’t have your skill sets.”
“Which is why you’re here, I’m assumin’.” Cadence made sure that her smile did not reach her eyes. “One of these days I’m hopin’ that you’ll swing by with a bottle of champagne to invite me for a double date instead.”
“Maybe one day.”
Francis led Cadence through the city and into a well-furnished brick building on a rather busy street. The inside was set up like an office. A few nice desks lined the walls, and there was even a potted fern growing in the corner. One of the men sitting at the closest desks jumped to a stand and approached them nervously.
“M-Mr. Francis, Ms. Morello, you arrived earlier than expected,” the man said.
“Did we now?” Francis smiled.
Cadence pushed past him and placed a reassuring hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Come on now, Stefano, how many times have I told you now to just call me Cadence.” She threw a glance at Francis. “No need to change things up just ‘cause the boss man is here.”
“Um, sorry, ma’am, that’s—”
“All right now, Cadence, you’ve had your fun.” Francis nodded at Stefano and addressed him politely. “I take it our guest is still in good condition?”
“Oh, yes, sir, but Mr. Allen did have to pull Mr. Carl off of him earlier when they were both here…”
Cadence spread her arms wide. “Well, show me what ya got.”
Stefano led Cadence and Francis through a door at the very back of the office. The door led into a hall, which led into another room that was dimly lit. A window was built into its farthest wall that peered into another room.
A two-way mirror, Cadence thought as she peered through it.
“What—y’know the brat?” came a voice from behind.
Cadence turned her head and found a familiar figure leaning against the wall behind her. “Well, Verga, can’t believe you got invited here before me. Gotta say I’m hurt.”
“Verga helped us bring him in when we first got word of him,” Francis explained. “Do you know him, Cadence?”
Cadence rolled her neck and covered her mouth with her hand. She studied the boy who sat in the other room, hands bound, with purple bruises kissing his eye and lower lip. Studied the scar that ran across the boy’s face. Stupid kid. Getting caught like this even after she’d given him the money. What a waste. But it was what it was. “Not really. May’ve seen ’im on the street once.”
“Well, the info broker said he was seen leaving the scene right after the tavern went up,” Francis said. “Obviously seeing his age, he most likely isn’t working alone. So—”
“Surprised you didn’t beat the answer outta him,” Cadence muttered. “I mean, I’m surprised Carl didn’t.”
“Oh, he was very close to it.” Francis smiled thinly. “But I don’t think that would be the appropriate punishment nor would it get the answers we need so—”
“So, it’s about time to put your skills to use, Morello,” Verga grunted. “Always wanted to see how you worked.”
Cadence snickered. “Well, ya got me flattered.” She turned to Francis. “Got a face I can use?”
* * *
When Cadence entered the interrogation room, the boy with the scarred face gasped and rose to a stand. The boy’s hands were cuffed behind him, and the chains jangled as he came around the table.
“Marzia, what are you doing here?!”
Yes, that was the name of the face Cadence currently wore. Marzia Belle, a fourteen-year-old orphan who did odd jobs around the city. Small and slender with curly chestnut hair and gap teeth, she was often seen in alleyways alongside Duccio Carrego. Duccio Carrego who was a boy easily identifiable by a scar that ran diagonally across his face.
“D-Duccio,” Cadence stammered as she ran to him. “Are you hurt?”
Duccio looked away with a grimace. “I’m fine. But you. Why are you here?”
Cadence lowered her gaze and glanced nervously toward the mirror behind her. “I’m here for the same reason you are…” She met the boy’s gaze again. “I… think they know about it, Duccio.” A couple of blinks and tears leaked from her eyes. “What do we do if they know?”
“Know?” Duccio repeated with a frown. His eyes then widened. “You don’t mean that they know about… damn!”
Hook. Line. Sinker.
“Will the others be okay?” Cadence whispered.
Duccio’s eyes widened and he stared bullets at the mirror. He then closed the distance between them and whispered under his breath, “We need to warn them somehow…”
Cadence did not respond and instead pressed her body against Duccio’s own.
“It’ll be okay, Marzia,” Duccio murmured, pressing his chin gently on top of her head. “We’ll get them out of the warehouse somehow.”
The warehouse. By the docks at the bay? No. The Foxmans owned nearly all the docks there. Then…
“Maybe we could get them to move…” Cadence whispered, glancing nervously over her shoulders. “Trick them by moving to a different warehouse nearby. They won’t expect it.”
Duccio frowned and glanced down at her. “We can’t. Thirteen is the only one that’s not owned by any of the city officials.”
A warehouse given the number thirteen. An abandoned warehouse. There was only one warehouse that fell under both of those categories.
Cadence pulled away from Duccio with a grin. He frowned in turn.
It was time for a showy revelation.
Sometimes it’s better to live on in ignorance.
Cadence’s head spun as the familiar, gentle voice echoed in her ears. She whipped her head around. Her reflection—rather, Marzia’s reflection—in the two-way mirror met her gaze.
Cadence ignored Duccio and instead tried to focus her vision, which was dimming and brightening in a dizzyingly repetitive cycle. A shadow flickered in the corner of her eye just behind her reflection in the mirror. It was the woman from before. Atienna.
They made eye contact through the mirror. Atienna’s lips were faintly upturned but her eyes were dark and faraway.
Cadence could feel it. Feel her judgment. Which was a strange sensation because it felt as if Cadence was expressing that judgment. Expressing that judgment toward herself. It felt so raw and real, she could feel it pressing down on her chest. Was this maybe real, maybe hallucinatory woman judging her? Like Nico had…?
Cadence had to know. Had to ask. But if she did now, she’d look crazy. And she had to keep up appearances, after all. Because appearances were…
Atienna abruptly broke off their eye contact and looked away as she drew her arms around her waist. She said nothing but her smile remained as did her dark, far-away expression.
Even if Atienna was judging her, what did Cadence care? She’d been judged for doing worse things by people she knew for certain were real. So why now…?
The pressure on her chest increased tenfold, almost leaving her short of breath. It was suffocating. Like smoke. Curling around her and strangling her.
“It’s all right, Duccio,” Cadence found herself saying as she turned to the boy. She pulled his head toward her shoulder and stroked his hair. “We’ll make it out of here somehow.”
* * *
When Cadence exited the interrogation room and entered the observation room, she was met with the watchful gazes of Francis and Verga. Unfortunate, seeing as how she’d just managed to escape the gaze of Atienna. Closing the door behind her, she took her original form with a snap of her fingers and a flash of light.
“You looked like you’d seen a ghost or something for a second there,” Francis noted, v-cig hanging forgotten between his fingers. “Surprised you didn’t do your usual dramatic reveal.”
“That wouldn’t be too smart now would it?” Cadence shrugged it off easily. “He could be lying. Can’t put all our cards onto the table.”
A clapping sound cut their conversation in two. Verga was grinning. “Well, you really are something else, Cadence. Your performance really does live up to the rumors.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Cadence waved him off before placing her hands on her hips. “We’re lucky he didn’t notice anything off. Any expert would’ve. Not enough info and too short notice.”
“Take a damn compliment, Morello,” Verga snapped before grinning again. “Anyways, since you worked so hard already, just leave the rest to me. I’ll send some of our men to handle that warehouse situation. To dispose of the trash, if y’know what I mean.”
The pressure on her chest returned, and Cadence frowned. “That’s a little bit trigger happy, don’t ya think?”
Verga raised a brow.
The pressure on Cadence’s chest increased. “We still don’t know why the children are doing this.” The words felt strange in her mouth, but she continued nonetheless with a shrug: “And then there’s how they managed ta make a mess of the pub in the first place. Pretty sure the kid in there ain’t masterful enough to pull it off himself, and if he was, that’d be pretty embarassin’ for all of us. Someone’s pullin’ the strings.”
Verga looked like he was about to burst a vein, but Francis interrupted him with a hum: “I agree, Cadence. Warehouse 13….” He tapped his fingers over his mouth. “The Campana family might be involved in this then. If that is the case, Cadence, how do you suggest we go about answering those questions?”
“I’ll go in as Duccio.” Cadence shrugged again, and the pressure lessened.
* * *
Warehouse 13 resided on the very outskirts of the east side of the Twin Cities. It belonged in a cluster of fifteen warehouses that lined the Castor River. Despite its location, it did not see many ships because right across the river were the warehouses of the west side. Warehouses that belonged to the Campana family. At best, they were friendly rivals with the Romano Family. At worst, they were bitter enemies. Fear of the fallout of friendly rivalry kept even the most desperate investors away from the area.
“And yet I’m here.” Cadence sighed.
Despite the cold, she couldn’t see her breath. The fog over the area was too thick and heavy. Like smoke. The haze of it obscured the sun, which wasn’t able to touch the top of the warehouses despite the lack of skyscrapers within the vicinity.
Warehouses 13 was built at the very end of a long line of wooden, rickety warehouses. A large steel-plated sign that designated its number hung above its doors. The doors were rotting off their hinges. Through the cracks in the wood, she could make out shadows shifting in a backdrop of light.
Shrugging herself more into the guise of Duccio Carrego, Cadence stepped into the building. The inside of the warehouse was unexpectedly warm. Several trash fires dotted the floor and coated stray stacks of metal and wood in a red-orange glow. There was a wooden boat missing half of its hull at the very center of the room.
About two dozen people occupied the building, and when Cadence entered, several of them turned their heads toward her. Some nodded, some waved and smiled, one even came over to smack her on the back before dashing off again. Another came to clap a hand on her shoulder and gave her a shake and said, “What’s wrong, Duccio? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Cadence stared into that person’s face. His wide eyes and chubby cheeks burned into her retinas. Child. He was a child. Probably no older than twelve. In fact…
Children. All of the occupants within the building were children. None of them could have been older than sixteen. Were they all being used?
Cadence shrugged her shoulders with nonchalance. “Just waitin’ for the boss.”
The boy gave a returning shrug before thumbing behind him toward the boat. “Heard she was preparin’ a big speech this time ’round.”
Cadence turned her eyes toward the boat just in time to see a figure walk out onto the very tip of the ship. It was someone of short stature. Even shorter than herself, Cadence gauged. The girl’s hair was dark and frizzy, and her dark skin was splattered with a birthmark that was concentrated around her left eye in an almost butterfly-like pattern. A pair of plaid overalls were pulled up over her pin-striped blouse, and a pair of dirty boots hugged her feet tight.
After a long moment of silence in which all eyes turned toward her, the girl finally spoke: “We did it, you guys. We did it.”
There was a beat of surreal silence. And then there was a deafening roar. Cheers, whooping shouts, claps, laughs, fist pumps, literal jumps into the air. Every child and adolescent in the area was absolutely ecstatic. Except Cadence, of course. She glanced around the room and tried her best to keep her bewilderment hidden.
“We sure are some devilish kids,” Cadence said to the boy who stood beside her, “to be cheerin’ on the deaths of a dozen people like this.”
“Well, Duccio…” The boy’s smile faltered. “I mean they’re… they’re the ones who…”
He trailed off as an odd, reverent silence settled into the room. As the last of the cheering died down, all eyes once again turned to the girl who stood on the boat.
“The families that run the city—we were nothing to them,” she continued, her squeaking voice ringing clear. “They probably forgot our existence already despite everything they did. We were probably just like ants to them. Something they didn’t even care or think about when they stepped down on us. Squashing us.” Here, the girl paused and seemed to make eye contact with every single person in the room, including Cadence herself. “But we gave them a taste of their own medicine. We showed them what the bite of an ant can do.”
Taste of their own medicine? The explosive conductor. It couldn’t be—
No one clapped, yet there was determination in the air. All eyes were locked on the girl’s form, all heads nodding in agreement.
Cadence was missing something. She knew she was definitely missing something. Where was this animosity coming from? Sure, the crime families operating in the Twin Cities kicked in a few dozen people or so, but that was business. They never did anything involving children. Ricardo was fond of children. What was this?
“Tomorrow we’re hitting them even harder.”
Of course they were. Cadence resisted sighing.
“Thanks to Francisco and Frieda, we just got the conductors for the job.” The girl continued, making eye contact with Cadence. “In three days, we’re going for their cover-up joint in the downtown Gamma District. Now, they’ll have to see us.”
So they were planning to hit up a joint in the Gamma District. That obviously was in reference to the Geminorium Gamma dining spot that the Foxmans owned. Yet another front for the conductor circling business. A very, very busy and successful front. But how in the world did these kids get their hands on those conductors? And why were they out for the Foxmans and Romanos? The Romanos kept a leash on production and the Foxmans a careful eye on distribution. Unless—
A clap resounded through the area, and its echo seemed to seep into all corners of the room. Cadence looked around. No one else seemed to react to it despite it ringing loud and clear. So loud and clear that it kickstarted a migraine at her temple.
Cadence swept the area in search of the source and found her gaze settling on the very edge of the boat. Sitting cross-legged on the pointed bowsprit of the ship was a woman with wind-tousled dark brown hair that framed her sun-kissed face. Even from this distance, Cadence could see the woman’s long lashes and the almost unnatural glow of her bottle-green eyes under them. The bright white smile that was cracked right beneath those eyes was unnerving. Regardless, the woman was stunning. Her sharp, wolfish features contrasted startlingly with what she wore, however. A loose and partially unbuttoned white blouse was thrown loosely over her toned frame, and a bright red sash hung at her waist. Tucked in that sash was what appeared to be a sheathed sword. She looked more like a picture-book privateer than anything else.
“How wonderful! Such a passionate speech.” The woman laughed a musical laugh that put Francis’s to shame. The woman swept her gaze across the room before locking eyes with Cadence. “Things are starting to get exciting, don’t you think, my mysterious friend?”
Abruptly the doors to the warehouse flew open behind Cadence, and she turned toward the doorway. Outlined in the misty darkness of the threshold stood a group wearing blank white masks. Cadence looked back at the ship. The woman was gone. The girl who’d been standing behind the woman was gaping in shock and horror. Cadence flicked her gaze back to the white-masked figures just in time to see them pull objects from behind their backs.
There was a bright flash of green light, a terrible whine, and then a squelching sound—like the sound boots made when stomping on muddy wet ground. Cadence felt something warm splatter against her left cheek. Her gaze flicked in the direction. Lying on the ground there was the boy who had been talking to Cadence earlier. Half of his face was missing. Carved out, leaving only red.
As she stared at the blood pooling out from his head, Cadence couldn’t help but think that she hadn’t gotten to know his name. Distantly, someone screamed.
“We are ELPIS,” hissed one of the mask-wearers, “and we are here to bring you to justice in the name of hope.”
Foxman Family. A crime organization within the Twin Cities. Headed by the Foxman brothers: Allen, Carl, Francis. They control the port territories at the Pollux Bay. Their existence is permitted as long as they offer their full cooperation regarding the suppression of smaller, more dangerous organizations within the city and regarding assistance with Ophiuchian Agent cases. Further investigations regarding their business to ensure it does not overstep Ophiuchian international regulation are underway.Report XX, Gabrielle Law, General Investigations Department of Ophiuchus