Working alongside Francis of the Foxman Family and Verga of the Romano Family, Cadence Morello has disguised herself as an orphan pick-pocketer named Duccio. Duccio appears to be working for whoever ordered the hit on the Foxman’s TwinStars Pub to silence Figeroli who has been siphoning of modified conductors from the Romanos. When Cadence arrives at Warehouse 13 where Duccio is to meet his payers, however, she is greeted with the sight of passionate, furious children who want revenge on the Romanos and the Foxmans. Before she can wrap her head around it, the warehouse is raided by fake members of ELPIS. She is saved by Jericho who finds her through their psychic link. They are joined by Verga and other members of the Romano Family who have been tipped off by Jericho’s partner.
But now all leads have been lost…
Twin Cities, Gemini
The rain took care of most of the dirty work. It pelted down and washed the red out into the bay. The bay itself swallowed up all the body bags weighted with cement blocks.
Cadence stood beneath the roof at the entrance of Warehouse 12 and watched as the men moved the bodies from Warehouse 13 to the bay in an assembly line fashion. Morbidly productive. She could’ve almost laughed at the sight.
A packet of v-cigarettes was shoved into her face.
“Come on, Francis, y’know I only like the old school kind. V-cigs just got such a weird taste to ‘em. Don’t know how you can like ’em.”
Francis shrugged and shook one out for himself. He lit it and stared out into the bay. “This is a mess.”
“Figuratively or literally?”
“Both.” Francis took a drag. “I may not be a saint, but I’m not the type of person who finds pleasure in seeing dead kids.” He nodded at one of the body bags being carried out. A white-gloved hand was sticking out. “ELPIS, on the other hand…”
“They weren’t ELPIS members,” Cadence said before she could stop herself. When Francis gave her an inquiring look, she shrugged easily. “Overheard the peacekeepers talkin’ about it when they went around askin’ questions. Not the usual ELPIS MO.”
“That explains them being so dismissive. Peacekeepers, huh?” Francis spun the v-cig in-between his fingertips. “They talk to you too?”
“The one with the trench coat did.” A half-truth. “I think he’s got an inklin’ about your business, and he didn’t seem too happy ’bout it. ’Course, peacekeepers never get involved in these parts, but don’t worry. I ruffled his feathers a bit and sprinkled a little misdirection, so he’s got other things to worry about.”
Francis hummed in response. “As reliable as always, Cadence.”
“You know I don’t like receivin’ half-hearted praise. What’s up?”
“Carl’s happy to get a little revenge if you can even call it that. He’s been on about retribution for the past week. Allen’s glad that we’ve cut our losses with this. The reason for the attacks and the connection between the kids, the conductors, and the ELPIS wannabes are the last things on their mind.”
“But you’re not happy,” Cadence figured. “Ya don’t think it’s that simple.”
“And you do?”
“Well, there’s the fact that any person we could remotely ask about this,” Cadence gestured off-handedly to the area in front of them, “is either ten meters under or ten kilometers away from the city. And there’s also the question as to how those kids got their hands on those conductors like ya said.” She grinned crookedly and shrugged. “But at least now everything is cleaned out, right?”
Francis took a deep drag. “Well, there’s still that kid you interrogated earlier.” He glanced down at her. “Do you think he needs some more company now?”
“Name your price.”
The faintest smile graced Francis’s face, and a comfortable silence passed.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Francis said. “How’s Nico doing out on that front?”
Cadence paused and then smiled with a shrug. “Y’know him. Always a bleedin’ heart.”
A black, silent shadow passed over them. Cadence didn’t need to turn her head to identify who stood beside her. The sudden change in atmosphere was all that it took for her to know. It felt like a funeral.
“Clean up goin’ good, Verga?” Cadence asked. “You’re as efficient and tidy as always.” She glanced at him. “Ever thought of startin’ your own business?”
“Flattery gets you nowhere with me, Morello,” Verga returned. “Getting things done does.”
“Hm.” Cadence slid her hands in her pockets and bounced on the balls of her feet. “Well, I thought that’s what I did, so that you could get things done.”
“Just tryna lighten up the atmosphere.” Cadence raised her hands. “Y’know, you’re the only one I think I can never charm.”
As if to confirm this, Verga frowned deeper.
Francis took the opportune pause to interject himself into the conversation: “Mr. Verga, while I very much appreciate your hand assisting us in this matter, I would have preferred it if you would’ve informed us of your intent before you executed it. We have stakes in this too. Greater stakes than you.”
Verga’s brow twitched, but he shoved his hands in his pockets and cleared his throat. “Well, that Manipulator Ophiuchian sent me that message outta nowhere. Had to act fast.” He reached into his pocket and pulled a packet of cigarettes and what appeared to be a wallet. A denim, diamond-studded wallet. Not seeming to notice the looks he was receiving, he snapped it open, shook out a plain lighter onto his palm, and used it to light a cigarette. He pocketed the pack.
“Can’t say I agree with your fashion taste,” Cadence interjected. She stared at the wallet before gesturing to the man’s coat pocket. “But you know how to smoke ’em. Ain’t it polite to offer a business associate a smoke when ya got some?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Verga waved his hand dismissively before lighting the cigarette and putting the wallet away. He turned to Francis. “Anyways, I get that you’re sore, but the entire thing’s solved now, ain’t it? An eye for an eye. No one’s gonna come knockin’ on your front door anymore.”
“Well, we can’t be sure of that, can we,” Francis stated, taking a drag. “There’s no one to confirm that now, is there.”
Verga stared at him before wringing his hands. “We had to do what we had to do. You saw what was left in there. With ELPIS and everything. You may be in business with Ricardo, but we’re still stickin’ our neck out to help you.”
Cadence stepped between them with cheerfully raised hands. “Y’know what we say in the city. Unless you can remake the world, it is what it is.”
Francis stared at Cadence and then at Verga long and hard before he smiled cordially at the latter. “Of course. I apologize for my rudeness. I’m not in the right profession if I’m questioning things that’re swept under the rug.” He paused, extinguishing his v-cig with a flick of his wrist and repocketing it. “I just can’t help but worry about repercussions and consequences no matter how small it is. We appreciate the assistance.”
“Paranoia gets the best of us.” Verga nodded.
Cadence resisted pinching the bridge of her nose. Verga was many things. A smooth talker was not one of them. But Verga was an important member of the Romano Family. Even as just an associate of the Romanos herself, she couldn’t risk getting on his bad side. Even if he was insulting her childhood friend. That was just the way it was.
Francis’s smile did not falter, and instead he gave his usual musical chuckle. “Of course. Cadence, would you care to join me for a celebratory drink?” Francis asked before glancing at Verga apologetically. “I would invite you, Mr. Verga, but I overheard Cavallo has some paperwork you need to complete.”
Verga grunted before stalking off.
* * *
Duccio was still sitting in the same position they’d left him inside the interrogation room when they arrived. On the chair, head pressed against the cold surface of the metal table in front of him, motionless.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
There was only one thing different from before.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
“What’s the meaning of this?”
The red droplets continued to dribble down onto the floor from Duccio’s pale hand. The sound filled in the emptiness left by Francis’s question. The droplets had trickled down from a trail of red that traced up the adolescent’s arm and ended at his mouth. His open, tongue-less mouth. Duccio’s eyes unblinkingly reflected the overhead lights and stared listlessly at the missing appendage.
Francis turned to the trembling man who stood at the doorway behind them. “I asked you a question, Stefano. What is the meaning of this?” His voice was not raised nor was there an undertone of fury beneath his words. There was not even a glint of fire in his eyes. Even still, Cadence shivered.
Francis was one of the most terrifying people Cadence knew.
“Coherent sentences please, Stefano.”
“I… I only left for a second, sir.”
“Only one second,” Francis repeated. “Mr. Stefano, are you aware of the multitude of things that can happen within one second?”
“Go ask if anyone saw anything strange before this happened.”
Stefano nodded stiffly before scrambling out of the room.
“Looks like a suicide,” Francis muttered once they were alone.
“Sure looks like one,” Cadence agreed. “But you and I both know that appearances are.” She frowned, pinching the bridge of her nose as a sharp pain pulsated from the back of her head. The familiar sensation of déjà vu followed soon after, causing her to search the mirrors of the room. Nothing. No one.
“Is something wrong?”
“Still can’t stand the smell,” Cadence lied easily.
Francis didn’t question it and nodded before returning his attention to the scene. “It could be an act of retaliation. One of ’em might’ve snuck past the lax security. An in-group kill,” Francis reasoned. “It may not have been intentional, but he did rat out the group.”
Cadence paused. Didn’t that mean that this was—
She shook her head. No, of course not. What happened was because of circumstances. No one was at fault. Everything was up to chance and circumstance, and there was nothing anybody could do about that.
“Then there’s the question on how they knew Duccio spilled to begin with.” Francis placed a hand over his mouth in thought. “But maybe I’m just being a pessimist. Maybe Verga was right. The main point is that their operation was shut down without much cost on our side.”
Yeah. It would be simpler that way.
“Hey, watch it. My mental wellbeing is worth a fortune.”
Francis finally cracked a smile.
Really, it was simpler that way. She was used to leaving incidents that were ‘a little too good to be true’ as is. ‘Don’t question good things that come your way’ was the saying. But for some reason, with this case, she felt an itch that wouldn’t go away.
That ridiculous-looking wallet that Verga had. Duccio’s gruesome death. Which was not her fault.
But what would she gain from pursuing this itch?
Cadence hit the Sognare as she mulled. There, she played the piano, had an odd conversation, and reached a conclusion.
In the end, all decisions were the result of an intensive cost-benefit analysis. It was a term Cadence had learned from an economics book she’d stolen from a student tourist visiting the capital a couple years back. The book had sold for a good fifty Cens, and she’d managed to convince the buyer to read the first couple of chapters out loud to her for free. She hadn’t recalled the term until recently, but now it was her bible.
The benefit: possibly finding a rat within the Romano Family and earning some more reputation points with the boss and the streets. But the cost: dying while doing it. A pretty high cost. But the higher the cost, the higher the reward.
Besides being daring was–
Cadence rubbed her temple.
* * *
It wasn’t hard to disguise herself as one of Verga’s men. All it took was a coupon to a one-Cens store that she transmuted into a free ticket to the Casa delle Bambole, a self-transmuted disguise as one of the most popular hostesses working at the establishment, and a flirtatious wink. The fact that Verga’s hand-selected men were dumb as bricks was a bonus. Not much finesse required.
And so, in less than an hour, Cadence had adopted the appearance of a gruff, short, heavyset man and ambled her way to Verga’s favorite joint. A general conductor store that specialized in v-cigs. Ceremoniously named the Vitae Roll.
It was a small building only two stories tall and was nestled in the city’s less grandiose side. The windows were boarded over with planks of wood. Thin streams of smoke trickled outward and up from the spaces between the planks.
As she drew nearer to the building, the acrid smell curled in her nostrils and caused her stomach to burn. She stopped in her tracks at the sensation, but that only exacerbated it. A swift pounding formed at the back of her neck.
—she was standing in the middle of a red-carpeted hallway. Light spilled in from the long windows lining the walls around her, giving the carpet an unnatural glow.
She recognized this hallway. But at the same time, she didn’t.
She didn’t have time to dwell on the contradiction long. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. A sensation she wasn’t all too unfamiliar with. She often wandered the less than pristine streets of the city at night alone, after all.
Someone was behind her. Watching her.
Before she could think of a way out of whatever this was, some unknown force made her head turn in the direction of the presence.
A vaguely human shape stood there just a couple meters away. Its form was undefined, devoid of color, and pitch-black. Rippling, shifting, quivering—breaking apart at its edges. Breaking apart into something that fluttered, that flapped, that sent thin jet-black feathers swirling through the air.
Yes, whatever this thing was, its entire being was made of pitch-black birds.
White holes formed where its eyes should have been, and a white smile cracked there.
“Thank you.” An inhuman voice spilled out from the crack of its mouth. “Thank you for letting me in. Thank you for helping me.”
This was different from her conversations with Atienna and that Capricornian soldier.
Cadence’s heart thundered in her chest. But her legs remained still, stiff, frozen in place.
The thing took one step forward, and the carpeted floor beneath its foot immediately burst into flames. Another step, another burst of crackling red. Closer and closer it drew to her with an inferno following at its feet.
Run. Run. Run—
“Thought you weren’t feelin’ well, Averci.”
And just like that, Cadence was back on the street corner. The familiar, heavy humidity in the air greeted her like an old friend and the smell of mildew from the wet cobblestone streets coated the back of her throat. Cold sweat clung to the back of her neck.
Was that… a memory? A flashback? She’d used to get them sometimes when she was younger and in a half-asleep state but not to this extent.
“What the….?” She whipped her head in the direction of the voice in a panic.
It was one of Verga’s men she’d seen around. Bell. He was standing at the doorstep of the v-cig store with a bored look on his face. He seemed so bored that he couldn’t care enough to look her over. Cadence used the opportunity to even her breathing and order her thoughts.
Obviously, this was a sign from the saints for her to not go through with this. Cost-benefit analysis be damned. This—
Her temple throbbed.
“Threw up a lung and now I’m fine,” Cadence found herself saying. As soon as the words flew out of her mouth, she felt like truly throwing up. “Gotta get some cash for another round at the game house.”
The man regarded her for a moment, before he cracked a crooked smile and grunted in agreement. He jerked his head back toward the door and rubbed his fingers together.
“Apparently the big boss is plannin’ something even bigger than the last big thing. And bigger means more big money.”
Cadence had underestimated how stupid Verga’s men were. In street smarts and book smarts.
“Well, I like my women like I like my money,” Cadence sneered in response as she made her way up the doorsteps. “How about we get this cracking then.”
“I like the sound of that,” came the guffawed response. The man held the door open for her and followed her inside.
Cadence was immediately greeted with an even more intense wave of acrid smoke. It filled out all the corners of the shop and coated everything in a thin wash of gray. The man sitting behind the counter was somehow even grayer than the haze around him.
This was definitely Verga’s style.
“So how big we talkin’ here?” Cadence asked with a yawn as she followed Bell to a door at the very back of the store. She took a quick glance at the glass cases that haphazardly sprouted up from the carpet. They were filled with different models of v-cigs, each seemingly more bizarre than the last. She turned back to Verga’s man and tried, “Bigger than a gig killing the next generation?”
“Yeah.” The man glanced at the shop owner and wrinkled his nose. “I knew entering this business wasn’t going to be all sunshine and rainbows and I’ve seen my fair share of offing husbands and wives, but kids… well…”
This goon was really acting like he had morals. Cadence resisted chortling at the very idea and instead dissected what he’d revealed.
‘Kids.’ Plural. The warehouse incident was probably what he was referring to. But…
Duccio’s corpse and the diamond-studded wallet flashed into her mind.
No. That wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t specific enough.
“Really? It was hard for you?” Cadence gave a dismissive wave. “Piece of cake.”
“You’re sick, Averci.” The man crinkled his nose, then rubbed it with a shrug. “Then again, I’m sure Verga knows what he’s doing.” He paused, shaking his head. “All for a single kid. I don’t even think my life is worth all that trouble.”
So her hunch had been right.
The door opened, revealing a musty room with a boarded-up window and a round table set in front of it. The table was topped with various cheap wines. The light shining in from the windows was gray and barely illuminated the men seated in the chairs around the table.
Giving the seated group a nod, she stepped into the room and―
The door locked softly behind her.
Every cell in her body screamed in alarm. Escape. Where was the exit? Through the window? No. Keep cover? Blend in. Safer.
She kept her arms and legs steady as she fell into place beside the other men by the window and settled on the ledge. She glanced up at her captor. It was Verga, hand still wrapped around the doorknob. Like always, he looked like he’d come straight from a funeral. Just another reason to skip this joint. But… As much as she wanted to leave now that she’d gotten the ‘who,’ Cadence figured that she could at least get the ‘why.’ The dots were there, but the connection was not.
Ah, that phrase could apply to more than this situation, couldn’t it?
Cadence resisted frowning, shook away the intrusive thought, and focused her attention back on Verga. The man was looking at them all like he was sizing them up to figure out what casket he could fit them into.
That’s a funny way of describing him!
Another piercing headache.
“We got a rat here,” Verga said reaching into his pocket and turning to face them. “Someone here’s been snoopin’ around without my permission.”
Damn. But how did he know? Keep calm. Let them talk. Play along. Verga didn’t know she was here. But she might as well go and ask him straight up.
What?! No. Stupid!
“What are you talkin’ about, boss?” It was Bell. He’d settled in on a chair right beside her and had been perusing the bottles of wine when he’d started at Verga’s accusation. “We’re all pals here, aren’t we—”
A soft click answered his question.
Verga had drawn the object from his pocket. A small pistol.
Well then. This wasn’t good.
A heavyset man seated next to her rose to a stand with a flabbergasted expression. He swung his hands wildly and stammered: “What’s this all about?”
Stupid move. Which was confirmed when Verga pointed the pistol squarely at him.
“Are you the rat?” Verga asked the man calmly.
“What?!” the man sputtered. “Of course not! I’ve been working for you through thick and thin, boss. I’m loyal.”
“And how do I know that for sure about that?” Verga pressed. “The only way I know if you’re loyal is if you die for me.”
There was a loud bang, and then the standing man was face down on the floor. There was a hole in the back of his head, and a pool of red formed a halo around him. But Verga’s gun had not fired. Instead, it was Bell’s gun that had. Where Bell had procured the gun from, Cadence hadn’t a clue. Nor did she have any idea where that seemingly daft and innocent man that greeted her at the doorstep went. Talk about a change of face.
This was getting sticky.
“Call it ironically old-fashioned, but…” Verga tightened his grip on his gun with a shrug. “I really prefer these things to conductors. Much less trouble with insulators crackin’ and whatnot.”
Two of the other four men in the room leapt from their chairs while two remained frozen in place. The moment both men came to a stand, they found the noses of the two guns pointed squarely at their heads. In the same moment that those two men rose to a stand, Cadence subtly shifted so she was wedged between and behind all of them.
“Speaking of conductors,” Verga continued, “did you all know that with the Treaty that ended the war, the amount of conductors each country is allotted is required to be inversely proportional to the amount of vitae reservoirs each country has? The idea is countries with fewer reservoirs’ll be allowed to have more conducting generators to harvest the vitae. But as it turns out, there’s nothing in the Treaty that specifies what kind of conductor a country is allotted. Now, there’s a loophole the Capricornians took advantage of.” He pointed the gun at the gaunt man standing to Cadence’s right. “Have you found a loophole workin’ for me?”
What the hell did that even mean.
“Wha—” The gaunt man shook his head with raised arms. “No, I’m not—”
The bullet came from Verga’s gun this time, which he reloaded slowly as he watched the gaunt man’s body fall across the body of the first victim.
What the hell. Was he planning on killing all of them? She had to get out of here. She could buy time by convincing the remaining group to fight back. Would they be able to? Yeah, if they listened to her. But they were already sitting there like gamblers who’d just bet their entire life savings and lost. They’d already accepted what was going to happen. No good.
But wasn’t Verga being counterproductive by doing this? If he was planning to kill all of them then why put on a show? Unless…
A chiming laugh rang through the air. And for a moment, Cadence swore she could taste sea-salt on her tongue.
“My, my, my, to break things that belong to you with your own hands—are you not strong enough to protect them all?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Cadence could faintly see a woman with brown curls and sun-kissed skin. A hazy image that would go out of focus every time she tried getting a better look at it.
“You…” Cadence began before she came to a startlingly horrifying realization.
The words that the woman had said. Those taunting, unfearful words—
The words had come right from Cadence’s own mouth. The smile was just barely leaving Cadence’s own lips now, and the laughter was just beginning to die away in her throat. As the smile and laugh left her, Cadence felt cold nausea occupying the hollow that they left. She whipped around to fully face the brown-haired woman, but only found a confused looking Bell in her place.
“What was that now?” Verga growled as he gestured the two last standing men to move aside with a jerk of his gun.
Obediently, despite everything that had occurred, the two stepped away from her. One of the two gave her a questioning look and whispered the name of the man she was disguised as under his breath.
She could feel all of their eyes on her. Looking her up and down. Trying to gauge the meaning behind what she’d said—not that she even knew herself the meaning behind them. Eventually, if they stared long enough, they might be able to actually guess what was up. Intuition and stupidity were in two different categories after all. And Cadence wasn’t going to let them—more so Verga—enjoy the satisfaction of unveiling her. Not without her letting him have it that way.
Cadence stepped forward, hands in the air. “Okay, okay, you got me, you got me, boss.”
Unconvinced, Verga cocked his gun. “That’d be the first time you’d be callin’ me boss. Morello.”
Cadence paused before she sighed and snapped her fingers. Her illusion fragmented, starting from her conductor, and then cracked along the rest of her body. In a flash of copper light, her work shattered, and she was left looking much like her usual, charming self. There was a collection of surprised gasps as usual, but she ignored them and said: “Well, it was worth a shot. Guess Francis was right about you bein’ too sharp to trick.”
A lie. Francis had in fact stated clearly that Verga was as dull as a rock. Regardless, Verga sneered.
“That woman you tried to seduce Averci with—she was my woman,” Verga said. “After all that crying and begging, I started to believe her when she said she hadn’t tried flirting with another man. But that left me wonderin’ how that could be possible since I saw it with my own eyes. And the answer is standin’ right in front of me.”
“I admit it. I’m gettin’ sloppy.”
Verga’s smile slid from his face. “How’d you figure it out?”
“Figure what out exactly?” Cadence returned.
“Don’t play dumb!” Verga snapped, jabbing the gun aggressively in her direction. “About the kid! About the conductors we’ve been siphoning off of Romano!”
Siphoning off conductors? Well, that was new and that explained a whole lot. But Verga didn’t have to know that she didn’t know that.
“Yeah, well, I might know all that.” Cadence shrugged. “But I don’t know the ‘why.’ And y’know me, I don’t usually question the ‘whys,’ but I couldn’t help scratchin’ this itch.” She raised her head and met his eyes. “I mean, Romano practically saved ya like a saint. Ya got good workin’ perks along with that, and I heard that he was finally gonna appoint ya capo, so I’m tryin’ ta place why—”
“Uh, loyalty?” Cadence offered before she shrugged. “But I guess jealousy trumps that.”
Verga crinkled his nose. “Jealousy?”
Verga’s smug expression morphed into something much more unpleasant, which made Cadence queasy. The man lowered his weapon and clenched his fists.
“Am I wrong?” Cadence frowned and scratched her head. “I mean, ya both joined the Family at around the same time, but Cavallo’s been holding the position of capo and a large amount of turf to govern for five years now.”
“And that’s exactly why!” Verga growled, using his gun as a pointer. “I’ve done more for Ricardo than Cavallo has, and I’m still second rate. It’s not enough.” He shook his head. “They call themselves a family, but they’re only lookin’ out for themselves. Everyone’s expendable.”
“It never was that kind of family to begin with,” Cadence said. “You had a good thing goin’ for ya, Verga. Just needed to bide your time.”
“Funny hearin’ that from you,” Verga said, voice regaining its gravely calm. The smirk returned. “You can take whatever appearance you want and have everything at the palm of your hand.” The smirk grew. “Well, almost everything. Which brings me to my point.”
“I was hopin’ you were gettin’ to that,” Cadence sighed, eyeing his gun. “Not sure how much longer I can handle this tension.”
Verga pulled out a small pouch with his free hand and tossed it to her. Cadence caught it with her left hand. Heavy.
When she opened it and peered inside, the familiar glint of Geminian Cens met her eyes. By gauging the weight of it in her palm, she could tell there was more than five hundred Cens in there.
“And that’s just the down payment.”
Cadence took a Cens out and rolled it in-between her fingers before holding it up to the light. It was real, alright. She put the Cens back into the bag and tossed the bag up and down. “So, basically, long story short—you’re tellin’ me to join ya in exchange for a couple of Cens.”
“Oh.” Verga’s face split into a very unfitting grin. “We’re making more Cens than you can even imagine. You have no idea how many people I’ve gotten on my list.”
“Your list. Ya mean the people you’re selling the conductors to?” Cadence frowned. “I’m pretty sure Romano and the Foxmans have all the high-end customers in their pocket. I mean, ya can’t get much better than the Aquarian army.”
“I know you can think bigger than that, Cadence. Times are changing. People know that the peacekeepers are just that in name only. Completely useless. Won’t protect anything when it hits the fan.”
“No need to get into politics with me, Verga. Sorry to say that I’m not into that kinda stuff.” Cadence waved him off. “But from what I’m gatherin’ you’ve been sellin’ our conductors to regular old citizens.”
“I just found my own loophole. They pay as good as the governments do. Sometimes even better.” Finally, Verga lowered his gun with a grimace. “Though I do admit that they ain’t as bright in usin’ ‘em. They get petty sometimes. Shoot parents and kids. Shoot the delivery men when they don’t get what they want. And you know how it is. Injured delivery men in this kinda business is a liability. They start demanding stuff and threaten to spill. You just can’t have ‘em around.”
So that was how it was.
“So the kids at the warehouse…”
“Just a couple of brats who I gave work to. Want revenge for what I did to their no longer capable members. Course, they think it’s all on the Romanos and the Foxmans since they own the ring and I’m smart enough not to show my face. Brats did me a favor with explodin’ the TwinStars. Nicked Tulio. I gave him a cut, and he got too cocky.”
The dots connected. One last dot to go.
“So you want me to work for your enterprise ya got goin’ here.” Cadence hummed. “Well, do ya really think I’m that disloyal?”
“Not work for me. Help me clean up this mess. And what’s this about loyalty? Yeah, anyone who looks at you would think you’re loyal to the bone to the Romanos. But I can see right through you. You nearly fooled me. It’s easy mistakin’ that eagerness and reliability as loyalty. But you’re not even really part of the Family.”
Cadence lowered her hands and looked the man over. “Never said I was. That’s what the word ‘associate’ means.”
Verga snickered. “You’re like me. A coward with big dreams. Sure, you seem like you’d lay down your life for the guy next to you, but I know how it is. When really bad things go down, Cadence Morello ain’t around.”
“You’re flatterin’ me.”
“Damn, I even heard Ricardo offered you a position as capo and you flat out denied it,” Verga continued. “Wouldn’t keep your opportunities open enough swearing loyalty that way.”
She resisted rolling her eyes.
“You’re speakin’ too vaguely.” Cadence scratched her head. “What exactly do you think a common goon like me could possibly ever dream of?”
There was a long drawn out pause of silence.
“All I need for you to do is to use your skillset to gather the rest of those brats here without Ricardo or the Foxmans finding out. Those brats are the only ones tying me to this. Just get them here and let me take care of the rest. A pretty good deal if you ask me, seein’ that you’ll be receiving not only a triple payment of what I already gave you there, but also the opportunity to sweep all of this under the rug. Done and over with.”
“Sounds like you’re tryin’ to reassure yourself with the last bit there. If I take up this job offer, then it really is buried since I won’t be able to tell the Family or the Foxmans after without getting a round.” Cadence hummed. “And after all this is sunk into the deep blue sea, you just continue on your merry way collectin’ Cens without repercussions for… how long?”
“After this next round of sales, I’m leaving this city. Taking a leave of absence from the Family.” Verga paused. “So I can take care of my real family.”
Cadence perked up at this and then raised a brow. “Y’know, I may be a bleedin’ heart, but ya gotta tell me a more convincing lie than that to try to win me over.”
Verga frowned. “No, it’s true.” He reached into his pocket with his free hand again and drew out a black-and-white photograph for her to see. Captured in its white frame was a pair. A slender, smiling man who looked as if he’d just walked out from a zen garden and a grinning girl with pigtails who looked around eight years of age. “She’s in Alhena right now waiting for me.”
Not a good or smart move for him—showing his daughter like this, but Cadence would take what she could get.
“Saints, Verga. Maybe you really do need retirement. Workin’ in this line of business isn’t doin’ wonders for your age lines.” Cadence sighed. “You said Alhena? Ain’t that one of the poorest cities in Gemini?”
Verga nodded before pocketing the photo. “The war left me broke and my wife dead. I left to come here and make money so I could give my daughter a better life.” He abruptly stared at his hands and suddenly looked somber, tired. “This isn’t me. This city made me into this.”
All due to circumstances, huh? An excuse. But—
“Well, I gotta say that I empathize with you. Who am I to deny a father and a daughter a happy ending? But above all that, money talks.” Cadence slipped the coin bag into her coat pocket and nodded to his gun. “You make a compellin’ argument.”
With that, Verga raised his gun back up and pulled the trigger, as did Bell. The last two men slumped over, dead.
“Not good future job prospects if you ask me,” Cadence said evenly, keeping the tremble out of her voice.
Verga shrugged. “They were stupid. Expendable. Knew too much.”
Cadence whistled, extending a hand. “Man, Verga, you’re really goin’ all out with this then, aren’t ya?”
Verga smirked and accepted the gesture. “That ain’t me goin’ all out.”
Cadence pulled back and eyed Bell before she paced toward the window and peeked out through the shudders. “But, really, workin’ with ELPIS wannabes isn’t goin’ ‘all out’ to ya?”
“Who said it was just wannabes?”
Something clicked into place inside her head.
Cadence turned away from the window slowly.
“Like I said, Morello, I find the loopholes. No customer is denied.”
She tried focusing on what Verga was saying, but there was a static sound at the very fringes of her hearing making it difficult to understand anything.
“Of course, I’m not stupid or desperate enough to sell conductors to them. But they sure are desperate. Shipped somethin’—well, someone—out of Gemini for ‘em a couple days ago. No idea how they managed that. Doesn’t matter. Got another order comin’ in for them as we speak.”
The static ate away at the corners of her vision. Pinpricks of black, gray, and white. Whiter than the bleaching light that bled through the shutters. A pure white.
She could barely make out Verga’s silhouette against the whiteness.
“Morello… er, what’s with that look, Morello?”
Look? What look? Her face?
She could barely think enough to control the monstrous feeling that was now spreading like a wildfire out from her chest. The feeling had come so suddenly that, at first, she hadn’t known what it was. It was a feeling she rarely felt and never to this extent.
Anger. Rage. Suffocating. Snapping through every muscle in her body. An overwhelming itch somewhere deep inside that needed to be scratched. It was agonizing.
Working with ELPIS? ELPIS? How could he? How could he? He—
The static pin pricking her ears suddenly went silent. An unfamiliar voice cracked out—
“Haven’t you heard about love and peace?”
A flash of scorching white.
And then an explosion of pain. Out from her stomach, there was an explosion of pain unlike anything she’d felt before. Pain. Saints—
Had she been shot?
Verga wasn’t brandishing his gun and neither was Bell.
But she felt a damp and warm wetness at her abdomen. Sucking in a breath, she pressed her hands against the area. Dry. What? She pulled her hands away and saw her pale, unstained hands—
Saints. It hurt.
She stumbled forward, grasping the edges of the table in front of her and nearly tripped over one of the bodies on the floor. The pool of blood had spread, making it slippery and wet.
Was she dying?
In an instant, the world became clear again. There was Bell standing in the corner looking confused and Verga looking concerned of all things. The smoke from the shop below curling up from the floorboards suddenly looked alluring. A nice cloud to rest in.
She fell into it with open arms.
And then there was nothing.
“The Romano Family controls the east side of the Twin Cities. They do a lotta underground work. Don’t know what exactly but heard it’s got somethin’ to do with conductor manufacturin’. Heard they work with the Foxmans to ship those things out. Makes me wonder why Ophiuchus ain’t done nothin’ about them yet. Anyway, they’re rivals with the Campanas out on the west side. Last turf war was about five years ago. Not pretty.”Melodia Calla, barista at the Lumiere Cafe