The dominoes are beginning to fall.
The violence of the Twin Cities has reached even the criminal bosses who rule the city’s underbelly. Criminal boss and owner of the city ports, Francis Foxman, was stabbed several weeks prior and the assailant still remains at large. Not soon after this, during a meeting meant to unite the powerful Romano Family and Campana Family through the engagement of Fortuna Romano and Ambrose Campana, both dons of the Families are stabbed under mysterious circumstances.
Despite being caught up in all of this chaos, Cadence Morello still finds time to visit the Sognare and dreams of Alma, the pianist who had treated an orphaned Cadence kindly only to disappear many years ago.
Twin Cities, Gemini
“Why aren’t you saying anything, huh?!”
Thuds resounded through the near-empty casino.
“You just said you were going to talk!” Another thud. “A minute ago!” Thud. “So why!” Thud, thud, thud. “Are you so damned quiet?” There was a monstrous roar. “Talk, dammit!”
Whistling, Cadence watched as a man was sent flying through the casino hall and crashing into a billiard table. The cue balls lined up on the table’s surface exploded upwards and ricocheted off of nearby poker and roulette stations which sent black and white poker chips clattering onto the waxed floor.
‘Talk,’ Carl had said, but Cadence presumed that the beaten man didn’t have enough teeth to talk at this point.
The man who was now draped across the billiard table let out a croak as if in agreement with her thought.
“You’re making a mess, Carl.” Francis stood beside Cadence while inspecting one of the cue balls that had hurtled towards him amidst his brother’s tantrum. “Is this any way to treat a guest at our fine establishment?”
Carl whipped around with a glower. “What? You want me to get him a chair?!”
Francis smiled. “Well, we could certainly do that. He may not be able to stand with what we have planned for him for the rest of the day.”
Carl arched a brow and then smirked. He signaled for the group of men and women lounging at the mini-bar at the opposite corner of the hall. Two of the men rose from their positions, one picking up a chair from a nearby table and the other grabbing the croaking man off the pool table. Utilizing a level of teamwork worthy of a cricket duo, they threw the beaten man onto the chair and dragged him in front of the brothers.
“And here, by ‘guest’ I was hopin’ you were referrin’ to me.” Cadence chortled and bent down to pick up one of the poker chips that had rolled over to her feet. She glanced at the man that had been dragged in front of them and resisted a grimace. She could barely make out his eyes beneath all that purple and red. “Is it always this excitin’ when ya guys are openin’ a new business?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Francis set the cue ball onto the poker table behind him.
Allen sat at that table shuffling a deck of cards with a v-cig in his mouth. “Don’t break any more equipment, Carl. Replacing it’s expensive.”
Carl wiped his bloody fists on a towel provided by one of his men. “Come on. We can replace things, Allen. But we can’t replace blood.”
Something twisted in Cadence’s gut at his statement. The memory of Olive’s words and the look in the kid’s eyes on that morning the previous week.
Damn, that kid’s self-deprecation was infectious.
Allen rose from his table, pocketed the deck of cards, and walked over to stand beside Carl. Although Allen was smaller than Carl, he held a pressure that was ten times as suffocating. The seated man shrank into himself as that pressure weighed him down.
“If I heard you correctly over Carl’s shouting earlier, you would be Mr. Luigi, right?” Francis asked the man as he pushed between his brothers wearing his usual calm smile.
Out of all of them, Francis had always been the most mild-mannered one. Whether it was delivering business deals to executives or delivering orders to underlings, he always spoke politely and respectfully. Back in the day, she’d joke around with Carl that if Francis or Nico ever stepped foot out of the city, people would assume they were from the good walk of life. Francis had dropped into their conversation to point out that Cadence herself could appear as anyone she wanted so she had the upper hand in that case. But appearances were deceiving.
“Well, am I correct that you are Mr. Luigi?” Francis pressed calmly. “Just nod your head yes or no.”
Luigi swallowed and nodded slowly.
It seemed as if he thought Francis was a ray of mercy.
“We see you here quite frequently, Mr. Luigi,” Francis continued. “And we’re quite familiar with the large debt you owe not only to us but also to your bookie. But, since you also happen to be bringing in a large sum of patrons from your other gambling nooks, we’ve been turning you a blind eye. I understand how this is easy for you to interpret as giving us the slip but—”
“Who was it that told you to jump my brother, huh?!” Carl roared, grabbing Luigi by the throat. “And don’t you dare tell me that it wasn’t you! We have witnesses pinning you on the damned scene!”
“I don’t know!” The man sobbed, spluttered. “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t!”
“That’s not a name!”
“Please, believe me! It wasn’t me!”
Francis straightened himself and glanced at Carl. “What do you think, Carl? Does Mr. Luigi here seem to be telling the truth?”
“Well, I dunno, Francis.” Carl sneered. “You got an idea?”
Francis’s smile thinned. “How about this, Mr. Luigi. How about we resolve this with a simple request. If you do one small thing for me, we’ll let you go. Don’t worry. It’s not anything big. It’s the sort of thing you’d try to do if you maybe had just a little bit too much to drink. How about it?”
Luigi nodded fiercely.
“Are you sure, Mr. Luigi?” Francis pressed. “Well, while it is a small task, if you can’t do it then we’re going to have an even longer talk afterwards.”
“I-I’ll do it!” Luigi stammered, spitting out blood. “Whatever you want me to do to someone, I’ll do it! Whatever it is!”
Carl exchanged a look with Francis before he barked out a laugh. Francis remained smiling.
“Oh, Mr. Luigi, this isn’t something we’re asking you to do to someone else,” Francis explained. “This is something we’re asking you to do to yourself.” With that, Francis pulled out the cue ball he’d picked back up from the table a minute earlier and held it out to the man. “Think of this as a pill of truth. Swallow it whole, and we’ll believe you and let you walk.”
Luigi’s eyes widened as he stared at the ball. “B-But that’s—that’s—”
“You accepted, Mr. Luigi. A deal is a deal.”
Francis handed the cue ball to Carl who then began to slowly force the thing into the man’s mouth. Gagging and screaming followed.
Cadence felt a bit bad for Luigi. She could tell he was lying. Probably took the job out of desperation for money. Desperation made people irrational and stupid. But at the same time, part of her was a bit happy at his suffering. That was probably because to her the Foxmans had a special—
She was getting too worked up about this. It wasn’t like any of this involved her anyways. This was strictly a Foxman issue. And Francis was fine, so—
Those are impressive mental gymnastics, came Olive’s thought paired with sarcastic mental clapping. Gauging by his demeanor, Cadence assumed that this was not an intentional synchronization. The synchronization was light, so she could only tell that he was eating breakfast and that he felt uncomfortable with his situation. He was not visible to her. So, you’re really doing it then. Thought you were friends with them.
Sure, we’re friends. Doesn’t mean I gotta always meddle in his problems and stick by his side. We’re grownups. Friendship is different when ya reach a certain age, Cadence returned. A smile tugged on the corner of her lips. Which is why enjoyin’ your little friendship breakfast hang out with Claire should be a priority—
Annoyance bled out from their connection. We aren’t—
Man, we’ve synchronized twice today already, kid. I know we’ve been gettin’ along real swell lately but—
“You seem to be in a good mood, Cadence,” Francis said suddenly, drawing Cadence out of her internal conversation. “Never thought you to be the sadistic type.”
During her spiel with the prince, Carl had ordered some of their men to drag out ‘Mr. Luigi’ to the back room where Cadence presumed additional hospitality would be offered.
“Saints, I wasn’t the one makin’ mincemeat with my fists,” Cadence quipped. “I’m a lover at heart.”
Carl scoffed, wiping his knuckles off with another towel. “You just don’t like gettin’ your hands dirty.”
The entrance doors to the casino abruptly flew open, and a woman wearing a fedora stepped in. She rushed to Francis’s side. “Boss, the police commissario is here,” she stammered. “He wants to speak with you.”
“Tell him to buzz off,” Carl muttered.
“He insists,” the woman pressed. “Says it’s important.”
Allen turned to the woman causing her to stiffen. But he brushed past her, walked over to the poker table, and sat back down slowly. He gave a puff of his v-cig and began inspecting the cards again.
Allen really didn’t know how to treat a woman. Well, he didn’t know how to treat anybody.
“I ain’t a fan of ‘the law’ seein’ my face,” Cadence said, pulling the bill of her hat down low, “so I’ll be makin’ my exit—”
The large wooden doors to the casino blew open without warning.
Cadence immediately snapped her ringed fingers and transmuted the form of one of the brothers’ men over herself. Francis glanced at her briefly before turning to face another one of his underlings who had rushed in from outside.
“Sorry, boss,” the man panted. “They wouldn’t listen—”
Francis nodded. “It’s all right, Clarence.”
“‘All right’?” A scoff resounded from the door. “‘All right’? What about the current state of things makes you think it’s ‘all right’?”
In stepped a group wearing familiar uniforms. Gray button-ups with billed gray caps and gray slacks. Very gothic in Cadence’s opinion. Matched the police’s state in the city perfectly. In front of this gray uniformed group stood a man in a suit. His dark brown hair was slicked back, his sharp eyes piercing through the square glasses that rested on his hawk nose.
Commissario Vincente Giustizia. The police commissioner of the Twin Cities of Gemini.
Cadence had purposefully stayed as far from his as possible not only at the dinner party with the Romanos and Foxmans but also in general. She didn’t trust law enforcers and trusted corrupt law enforcers even less.
Not talkin’ about you, Jericho, Cadence thought just for good measure.
“Commissario Giustizia,” Francis greeted the man with a practiced smile. “What do we owe the pleasure of seeing you today?”
“Oh, trust me. If it’s a pleasure, it’s only for you!”
Cadence resisted doing a double-take. Francis and Carl exchanged looks. Allen remained impassive.
“I mean, look at all this.” The officer stomped over to Francis, gesturing wildly around him. “How did this building even get approved by the city officials? What licenses do they actually have to run this establishment? And their restaurants? And their bars?!”
For a man who was rumored to be cool, suave, and level-headed, Vincente sure enjoyed shouting maniacally.
Cadence had heard many things about Vincente from the people of the city. That he was a handsome gentleman, that he was kind and considerate, that he was fighting for a safer city against the darker underworld. But people of that underworld knew the truth about him. And as Fortuna had so eloquently put it years ago, he “was a soulless, greedy pig who would bend over backwards for money only to flaunt it on women half a second later.”
Carl glowered, taking a step forward.
Francis held up a placating hand and stepped forward himself. “If you want our licenses, I’d be happy to provide them, Mr. Giustizia, as long as there’s probable cause for it. That is the law which I’m sure you—”
“The law?” Vincente huffed. “The law? I am the law! I’m more of the law than—”
“Why’re you here?” Allen asked plainly. “If you don’t give us a reason and continue to make a scene before our business opens then you’ll have to arrest yourself for disruption.”
What a funny person.
For a moment, a laugh tickled Cadence’s throat. But even though she did not allow the laugh to escape, Vincente whipped his head in her direction.
“You—are you laughing?”
“Uh, no, of course not. Sorry, sir,” Cadence responded, voice deep and gravely. She coughed and slammed her chest with her fist. “Bad cough. Tryna quit smokin’ but it’s givin’ me a hard time.”
Vincente scrutinized her.
Something about the man’s gaze made her skin crawl. It was almost familiar—the feeling. She couldn’t quite place it. An unpleasant nostalgia. A memory was on the very tip of her tongue. One of the others. Before she could reach out to any of them, he looked away from her and the itch faded.
“Well, you do have a point. My apologies.” Vincente cleared his throat, straightening his uniform. “That isn’t like me, is it?” He glanced back at the officers behind him who shook their heads with a collection of ‘ No, chief ’s. “I shouldn’t have been so straightforwar—”
“You still haven’t answered our question,” Allen said. “Why you’re here. Did Fortuna or Cavallo send you? Or are you here to complain about not receiving your pay off from Ricardo? I’m sure you know why that payment’s late.”
“You know why I’m here,” Vincente replied, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“This is about what happened last week. The unfortunate circumstances that fell on Ricardo and Mr. Campana,” Francis concluded. “If you’re here to look into our involvement, you won’t find anything. We weren’t there on that night. And we’ve been in good business with the Romanos and wouldn’t dare to disrupt that.” He frowned, eyes hardening. “To even think that we’d raise a hand towards someone who we’ve been working with for years is an insult.”
“Why don’t you look into the Campanas?” Allen asked loosely, still not looking up from his cards. “Heard their don is already making a speedy recovery. Suspicious.”
Vincente didn’t acknowledge the man and instead placed a hand on Francis’s arm. “Look. I’m just here to ensure nothing else happens. For your sake—”
Several of the Foxmans’ men stiffened at this and directed their steely gazes towards Vincente.
Keeping his smile in place, Francis held up his hand to keep them at bay. He then grabbed the officer’s resting hand. “Commissario Giustizia, while your concern is warranted…” Tightening his grip, he removed Giustizia’s hand from his arm. “…your accusations and suspicions are not. Frankly, I find them very rude.”
Vincente rubbed his hand once Francis released it. He took a moment to study Francis long and hard, and Francis held his gaze in turn. Finally, the police commissioner turned on his heels and signaled for his officers to leave. He left a beat afterwards, stating rather ominously that they’d be seeing each other again soon.
“Who does that bastard think he is waltzing in here like that,” Carl spat once the doors to the casino had slammed shut. “Bet those damn Campanas are tryna get that guy to plant something on us or somethin’.”
“Ricardo owns him, not the Campanas,” Allen corrected.
“Seems like suspicion is comin’ in from all angles.” Cadence sighed, shaking her head. “It was pretty awful—that night. Can’t get his body outta my head—Ricardo’s, I mean. It just didn’t look right.”
“Yeah, always thought the mean old bastard would outlive us by at least fifty years,” Carl grumbled.
“Stop talking like he’s dead,” Allen interjected. “He’s in good hands with old man Fabrizzio.” He grunted. “Though I feel sorry for his bill.”
“How’s Fortuna, Cadence…?” Francis asked suddenly.
“Ya know her. She knows the boss’ll pull through so she’s not even sheddin’ a tear.” Cadence chuckled. “She may have been a bit cold in the doc’s waitin’ room that night, but she really does appreciate the flowers.”
Carl turned with a grimace. “Yeah, well, good.”
“And is Fortuna the one that sent you here, Cadence?” Allen asked without hesitation.
“Come on, Allen. There’s no need to bully Cadence,” Francis sighed. “She may be many things—” He paused to chuckle at his own joke. “—but she’s a friend first and foremost.” He turned to her, wearing his usual smile. But his eyes were as hard as steel. “Right?”
“‘Course, I mean I can’t forget all the stupid stuff we’ve done together.” Cadence spread her arms wide. “Ya know, after Fortuna and Ambrose started gettin’ along together, I thought everything’d get sorted out… Thought it’d even somehow sort out your bad blood with the Campanas too.”
There was a long stretch of silence before Allen waved his hand of cards in the air. “Let’s play a round.”
“A round of cards?” Cadence huffed, feeling the corner of her mouth tug upwards as Carl joined his older brother at the table without question. “Now?”
“Why not?” Francis asked, joining Allen at the table too. “They’re always interesting, aren’t they?”
“Interestin’?” Cadence arched a brow. “Ya mean interestin’ in how we all end up somehow havin’ royal flushes at the end?”
Francis offered a musical chuckle in response.
* * *
After the game—after Allen won three times in a row—Francis offered to accompany Cadence on the way back to her apartment. She’d moved again recently and Francis had stated he wanted to check out the front.
It took a lot of convincing for Allen not to send them off with five additional men. Cadence assured the man that she of all people knew how to get out of sticky situations and that she was sure to pass on the knowledge swiftly.
The two were strolling along the sidewalk commenting on their previous card game when Cadence spotted a familiar candy store coming up around the corner. A sign in the shape of a lollipop hung from its window.
“Hey, Francis, ya remember when we used ta do a trio routine with Nico t’pull one over on that candy shop owner?”
“Mr. Ferrari,” Francis recalled, glancing at the store in question. “Yes, I do remember that. It worked like a charm. We ended up stealing two hundred cens worth of candy over the years. The cops wouldn’t look into it, so Ferrari ended up putting up wanted signs he drew himself.”
“Yeah, didn’t he try ta put ‘em all around town or somethin’?” Cadence threw her head back and cackled. “Wait, I remember now. No one—”
“No one would let him put his signs up, so he ended up just placing them all around his store,” Francis finished. “And people started to think we were child candy brand models.”
“Man, the look on his face when we made our last heist. Cleaned out his entire stock of candied nuts.”
“And that’s how we discovered I was deathly allergic to peanuts.” Francis chuckled.
“Yeah. Never seen Nico cry that much before in my life. I had ta practically drag the both of ya ta the doc’s.”
“Don’t know what was worse. The anaphylactic shock, meeting Doctor Fabrizzio for the first time, or Allen beating us over afterwards.”
“Eh, Allen doesn’t even come close to the doc. No offense—”
“Matilda and her group remind me a lot of how we were before we started getting more involved in the city. Do you think a couple of years from now, she’ll also be…?”
Huh? That was random.
Cadence turned to address the odd change in conversation but paused when she saw a familiar figure peering into the window of the candy store they had been discussing. It was the Sagittarian tourist from that night in the alleyway with Feliciano and two of Matilda’s girls.
“Give me a sec,” Cadence said, patting Francis on the back as she approached the tourist from behind. She cleared her throat when she was in front of him. “Well, talk about a twist of fate.”
The Sagittarian’s head perked up as he turned around. He squinted at her for a long and hard moment before he threw his hands up in the air.
“It’s you!” he exclaimed, suddenly wrapping Cadence in a tight hug. “My knight from the night! Cadence, was it?”
Cadence was taken aback but returned the gesture with a pat on the back. “For someone who doesn’t know up from down, ya sure got a knack for rememberin’ names. By the way, what’s your name?”
The man pulled away before dipping into a low bow. “I am Kuroihoshi Hideyoshi.”
“Your friend there…” The man popped up a beat after and seemed to register Francis standing behind her. With raised brows, he muttered, “Isn’t he…”
Cadence glanced back at Francis before placing a hand on Hideyoshi’s soldiers. “Listen, Hide—can I call ya Hide? Number one tourist experience be damned. Ya don’t want to be barkin’ up that tree.”
“I swear that he…” Hideyoshi rubbed his chin. He startled suddenly and whipped back to look inside the store. “Saints! They’re almost sold out.” He whipped around again and grabbed Cadence by the shoulders. “The limited-edition Cioccolato bar! How can I call myself an extreme tourist if I don’t get my hands one of these?!”
Extreme tourist? That sounded a bit familiar…
Without another word, the man spun around again and dashed into the store. Cadence watched with mild amusement and confusion as the man began to shout ecstatically to Mr. Ferrari’s son who was currently manning the counter within.
“What was that guy’s deal?” Francis asked, approaching Cadence from behind.
“Touristy type,” Cadence explained as she nodded down the street and started walking again. “Met him a couple of nights ago while Feliciano was kickin’ him in.”
Francis frowned, falling into pace beside her. “Donato’s son?”
“Yep. Seems like he’s got a coupla screws loose—the tourist, I mean. Directed him to the Sognare to keep him off the streets for a little while—I mean, I do perform acts of kindness every once in a blue moon.” She chortled before she sighed. “This city keeps gettin’ weirder and weirder.”
It was more like the world, actually, that was getting weird.
“The Sognare…” Francis frowned. Realization flickered in his eyes. “Wait, Cadence, don’t tell me that you’re still—”
“What?” Cadence shrugged. “I gotta keep ‘em in business. ‘Specially since Nico is off playin’ soldier, you and your brothers are rakin’ in business, and Fortuna is Fortuna. One of us has got ta stick to the roots.”
“Nico is going to be back in town soon,” Francis murmured. “I almost forgot. Should we throw a welcome party for him?”
“Nah.” Cadence waved off the idea. “Ya know he’s not into that kinda stuff.” Plus, with everything going on…
Francis seemed to consider this for a moment and stopped suddenly in his tracks. She turned to look back at him.
“Cadence. Don’t take what Allen said too seriously. About you being hired out by Cavallo or Fortuna. He just has to put up that front for the men. Honestly, you can just forget it ever happened.”
“And done.” Cadence snapped her fingers. “And should I forget what you said too?”
Francis shook his head with a wry smile. He stared off across the street before pulling out a v-cig from his pocket and igniting it with a flick. “You ever think back and wonder how things would’ve turned out if we made different choices? I mean, you always said you wanted to play on the Ophiuchian Way, and Carl and Allen wanted to open a bar of our own. Without all the extra things we’ve added on the side, I mean.”
“Not really.” Cadence shrugged. “That was a bit random, Francis. What’s got ya reminiscin’?”
Francis half-sighed, half-laughed. He took a drag and then rolled the cigarette between his fingertips. “It’s nothing. Forget what I said.”
They reached her apartment fifteen minutes later. Francis politely declined her invitation to stay for lunch and then headed on his way.
Not suited for this business, huh? Cadence mused, waving to him from her apartment window. As if anyone was suited for this business. People were just making due with what they had.
* * *
On the dawn after Ricardo Romano and the Campana head were attacked, Cadence had been called into Ricardo’s main office. With all of the chaos that had unfolded shortly after that night, Cadence was surprised at how swiftly things were dealt with.
Ricardo and the Campana don sent to their respective medical Conductors. Increased security for executives. A full investigation launched by the commissario that tore through both sides of the city. Not even a single drop of additional Campana or Romano bloodshed that night despite the circumstances. Not even a rumor of the events slipping out besides those who had attended the party and additional high-profile parties related to them. Really, the city was terribly efficient.
When Cadence had stepped into Ricardo’s office, she was rather surprised at her lack of surprise at seeing Fortuna sitting at her father’s desk. For anyone else to do it, it might’ve been seen as disrespectful or callous. But Fortuna was different. She was putting her foot down. Her position of power nailed firmly in place. A sign for the other caporegimes to lower their greedy eyes.
So much for family.
Cavallo had stood beside Fortuna with a steely expression, but Cadence didn’t pay any mind to him. She approached the table swiftly.
“Fortuna, is everythin’ all—”
“I have a job for you, Morello.”
Cadence had paused, spreading her arms. “Already? Well, aren’t we workin’ fast—”
“Don’t look at Cavallo, Morello. I am the acting head,” Fortuna stated, folding her hands on the table. “And I am the one giving this order.”
Morello, appearances. Werner’s voice had ghosted the edges of her mind.
Cadence had lowered her hands, folded them behind her back. Cavallo arched an eyebrow at her but she had kept her gaze focused on Fortuna.
“The Campanas have already set their own paid police dogs loose in the city,” Fortuna had said. “They’re turning over every stone in sight to find the ones who did this. Starting with the Foxmans.”
“Now, I ain’t one ta be involvin’ myself in drama and gossip, but that seems a little suspect, don’t ya think? I know the Romanos and the Campanas have a good thing goin’ but…”
Fortuna had held her gaze before speaking, “The engagement between the Campanas and Romanos has obviously been postponed. Goodwill aside, we can’t allow the Campanas to handle this investigation on their own.”
Saints, Cadence had thought. An entire engagement postponed just like that. Was the whole romance between Fortuna and Ambrose broken off with a snap too? All that love gone—rather, put on hold—in an instant? Was there even any love to begin with, or were they both batting eyes at each other at face value?
But none of it had involved her. No use thinking about it.
It was then that Cadence had finally noticed the flowers sitting in the vase on the table behind Fortuna. “So ya want me ta look into the Campanas? I heard their don is makin’ a fast recovery, so it does seem a little weird. ‘Course, intentions aside, the idea that a don would knock himself into a hospital room just ta gain the upper hand does seem a bit extra—for both sides.” —She knew she had been rambling. Too much time talking to Atienna— “Then again, this city is—”
Fortuna had clarified after noticing Cadence’s gaze: “You’re mistaking my intentions, Morello. Yes, I want you to look into the Campanas, but I also need you to look into the Foxmans. One of them may have gotten their hands on a Specialist who was capable of doing something like that. I don’t care about why someone did this. I want to know who. And how.”
“Ya sure that’s a good investment of time? I mean, they weren’t even there.” Which made them even more suspect.
“Morello. You call yourself a freelancer, but a major source of your income comes from work from this Family. You are employed by us, Morello. Not the Foxmans. I hope you haven’t forgotten this.”
Cadence had kept her voice even and a pleasant smile on. “How could I? Black knight, right?”
Fortuna had only sighed. “Again that ‘knight’ talk. We’re a business, Cadence. The Foxmans are a business. Nico is an associate of our business and so are you. We’re not children anymore. You could argue that we never were.”
Do people really say these things and think they sound cool?
“Things like this always come from the direction you least expect them to,” Fortuna had continued. “That’s why they happen. I want you to keep an eye on the Foxmans. See if they’re up to anything and what they were up to last night. It doesn’t matter if you find it out as yourself or as one of the Foxmans’ men. The same applies to the Campanas. I want you to keep an eye on the acting head in particular.” She had then reached into the desk drawer, pulled out a case, clicked it open. “This is the first half. You’ll receive the rest after you complete this.”
It had glittered alluringly—the stacks of cens all nicely wrapped up in a clear plastic packaging, all lined up in stacked up rows. The money Cadence had gotten from her most recent odd job swindle was nearing its end, and her monthly bills were coming on down the road—
And there Olive had appeared behind the Fortuna and the table looking at Cadence with an expression of both disinterest and judgment. A judgement that she felt curl up in her own chest.
“Look, the pay is swell and all, Fortuna,” Cadence had said, reaching out to close the case. “But I’m actually kinda booked at the moment—”
Fortuna had placed a hand above Cadence’s, effectively stopping her from closing it fully. “You have unusual monetary habits, Morello.”
Cadence had frozen, had released the case.
“Splurging half of your pay as you please and storing the other half in a deposit at the city bank,” Fortuna had said, pulling the case open again. “What exactly are you saving all that money for? No. Who?”
“For myself, of course,” Cadence had returned smoothly. “Y’know Allen’s always preachin’ about savin’ up for a rainy day. Heard it so many times, thought I’d at least try practicin’ in.”
Fortuna had seemed to consider this before chuckling and pulling the case back open. “The owner of the city bank passed away a week ago. We were able to get one of our own into the vacant position. We’ve asked him to keep a special eye out on the accounts of the people who are associated with us. For protection’s sake.” Fortuna’s smile had thinned then. “Don’t you think you at least owe us something for the extra measures we’re going to ensure the safety of your funds?”
The threat had been clear. As clear as Olive’s piercing green gaze.
Regardless, Cadence had taken two steps backwards and offered an overzealous bow. “Of course, my liege. How can I forget your wonderful generosity?”
Olive had grimaced and turned away.
* * *
Near the end of the week after her stroll with Francis, Cadence opted to forgo her Foxman investigation in favor of a Campana investigation. She reasoned that she wouldn’t be able to get much from the Foxmans since they were too focused on their own personal investigation.
Unfortunately, however, the Campana’s security had increased tenfold. They checked for conductors at the entrance to all of their establishments and even had the city police running around every block and checking every pedestrian in sight. It was as if the universe was directing Cadence in the Foxman’s direction. At this point, it wasn’t her fault.
Brushing these thoughts aside, Cadence made her way through the city and towards the Sognare. A soft tune was already drifting out of the bar as she approached. Her heart skipped a beat at the sound, and she continued further albeit a bit more slowly.
As she neared the entrance, the melody became clearer. Like water trickling down a stream into a still pool. The way of play—Cadence recognized it. There was only one person who could play in such a melodic manner.
Taking in a deep breath, Cadence snapped her fingers. She did not need to check a mirror to see that she was now dressed in a crisp suit instead of a beat down oversized one.
She pushed through the entrance. The bartender didn’t greet her as usual—but this time it was not out of habit. This time his negligence of her arrival was due to his attention being drawn away to the center of the stage at the back.
Standing there beneath the spotlight in front of the old grand piano was a woman. A woman with short black curls, with pale ivory skin. Her small, thin frame was wrapped in deep black dress that glimmered with stones—like stars in the night sky. But even the stars paled in comparison to the glimmering smile the woman gave Cadence as she turned away from the instrument.
Cadence drifted past the tables, nearly tripping over her own two feet as she neared the stage. Alma neared the edge at Cadence’s approach and sank down to a crouch.
Cadence extended her hand out to the other woman while taking a gracious bow. Alma accepted the gesture, bowed even more graciously, and pulled Cadence up onto the stage.
“My, this is more dramatic than when you stopped by our hotel with flowers,” Alma finally said as she guided Cadence over to the piano. “You still haven’t told me how you found me. We’d barely settled back into the city, and there you were with your roses. You left me so curious that I didn’t have any choice but to accept your invitation to come here. Playing on my curiosity like that.” She tutted.
Cadence had known the exact moment Alma stepped foot in the city. It had been exactly one week prior to the Romano-Campana meeting on a sunny Tuesday morning. 8:09 am to be exact on Werner’s watch. And while Cadence had known Alma was in the city the moment Alma had arrived, finding Alma had been an entirely different story. This was because, for these past ten years, Alma had been in the company of a dangerous party.
“Well, maybe if you swing by here tomorrow then I’ll tell you. Or the day after that. Or the day after that.”
Alma chuckled at this and looked Cadence up and down before the corner of eyes crinkled. “You’ve really matured so much since then. It feels wrong for me to keep calling you ‘Cucciolo’. I wouldn’t have even recognized you if it weren’t for…” Alma trailed off, raising a hand to twirl a lock of Cadence’s copper locks around her index finger.
“You could call me darling instead,” Cadence suggested, resting her hands on the piano keys and playing a C major. “And I’ve been reading lately, so I hand my maturity off to the that.”
A beautiful chuckle followed by a short musical staccato. Cadence returned the sound with a staccato of her own, albeit a bit faster.
“I meant to ask when you visited,” Alma drew, “how is Miss Agape? You must know her well now if the rumors that I’ve been hearing are true. She always treated me so kindly when I was working at the Casa…” Another smile crinkled the corner of her eyes. “I wouldn’t have been able to practice at the Sognare if she didn’t give me the time off… and then I wouldn’t have been able to meet you.”
“She keeps trying to get me to join the Casa or one of her other clubs.” Cadence sighed, playing another C major. “She’s always looking for profit—”
“Don’t do that, Cadence,” Alma whispered, eyes wide as she cupped Cadence’s cheek with her hand. “Not at the Casa or the clubs. You’re too talented, too precious to me to do something like that.”
“Hey, the workers at the Casa and the clubs are plenty talented.” Cadence chuckled, stroking a B flat. “I mean, I’m sure they lost a lot of talent when you left. Agape complained about it all the time.”
Alma’s eyes suddenly lost their light. “So, if you really do know Agape well enough for her to speak to you like that.” She pulled away her hand. “Then it really is true. You really have been working with the Romanos all these years—”
“No!” Cadence shook her head. “I haven’t joined them. I’m only working for them. I’m not on any of their rosters or anything. Just odd jobs here and there.”
Alma remained silent.
“…I only decided to stay with them because I knew one of the executives bought you out from the Casa de Bambolle and—” And she had needed the funds.
“—and gifted me to the Campanas. As some temporary truce,” Alma reached her own conclusion. “Because one of the executives from the Campanas thought I was charming.”
Cadence stared down at the black keys in between all of the white.
“Oh, don’t look so sad, Cadence. He’s been very kind,” Alma drew. “Enzo, the one who bought me. He was just a capo for the Campanas then but now he’s second in command. Truth be told, I hated him at first. I did everything I could to upset him. I broke his favorite vases, called him names in public, and refused to speak with him at home. But he was very patient and always paid attention to me. When he found out that I missed playing the piano, he bought one for me. When he saw me get frustrated playing a complicated piece, he bought me a teacher.”
I can do that too, Cadence thought. I can do that for you too. And then she thought of Fortuna and her bank account. Fortuna really knew how to hit it where it hurt.
“He even rented a stage for me to play in front of an audience recently. Can you imagine that?”
“It sounds like he certainly knows how to treat people.” Cadence faked a smile.
Alma’s eyes twinkled again but in a different way. “He calls me his songbird even though I have a terrible voice. I thought he was being silly at first, but it turns out he really does think of me that way.” She glanced at the piano. “Like a bird in a cage. The only thing that’s changed are the surroundings.” She turned back to Cadence smiling. “He kept me in his villa in Cancer, did you know? It’s a very beautiful country.”
Alma shook her head. “My feelings for Enzo—and Agape, the Campanas, and the Romanos—are still complicated, but I have a lot to thank them for. I mean, without the union between the two Families, I would’ve never come back here. I would have never been able to see you again.” She stared at the piano. “Cadence…. you’re special, you know that? You made me feel like I could do anything.”
Her words were like a dream.
Cadence felt her chest swell. “I guess I have a lot to be thankful for too. Since you’re here again. I… I’ve been making decent money here… and… maybe… I was thinking…” After this all settles down. “I could make a decent place for you here. Like your own piano playing joint—place, I mean.”
“A place for me here?” Alma remained smiling but the light in her eyes changed. “This city is as suffocating as I remember it. The skyscrapers remind me of the bars of a cage. It smells worse than before somehow, and there’s trash everywhere. And then there’s everyone else—those sad people clogging up the streets all thinking they’ll do something big someday.”
It wasn’t that bad, was it? Cadence hated the place too, but she’d grown up on these filthy streets. It wasn’t quite home, per se, but it wasn’t not-home either.
Cadence paused at her own thoughts.
Wait a moment.
Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago that she’d been dreaming about kissing the city goodbye? And playing on the Ophiuchian Way with Alma? But recently, she had been thinking that it wasn’t too bad staying here—that it was bearable. What exactly had changed…?
A cold began to creep up her spine as her mind drifted to the other five.
She was fickle. That’s all it was.
Snapped out of her thoughts, Cadence looked back at Alma and found her frowning.
“Something’s happened, hasn’t it?” Alma asked quietly. “Enzo has been distant these past few days. Cold. Stressed. Angry. He told me that the union between the Campanas and the Romanos was postponed, but he hasn’t told me anything else…. But—this involves little Francis and his brothers, doesn’t it…? I overheard Enzo speaking with the other executives the other day…”
The Campanas were talking about the Foxmans? Did they suspect them? Or were they trying to frame them? Or?
“They’re not so little anymore.” Cadence threw up an easy smile. She had to find a way to steer Alma off this conversation quick—wait. “‘Angry’? What do you mean angry?”
Alma’s lips drew downwards. “They own the ports now, don’t they—Francis and his brothers? And little Nico is probably working with his father, and cute Fortuna is probably…” A hum. “I really did love when you would bring them by.”
“Yeah, but Alma, what do you mean by angr—”
“Cadence,” Alma said, “can you do something for me?”
“Anything, Alma,” Cadence said before she could stop herself. She was being watched by some of the other five. She could feel their gazes prickling her skin, ghosting her consciousness.
The others wouldn’t understand. The others weren’t like her. They had all grown up differently than her. And that was fine. That was just the hand fate dealt them. There was no helping it. Yes, they wouldn’t understand that—
—before Ricardo, before the Foxmans, before Nico, there was Alma. And before Alma—well, Cadence didn’t want to think of what came before Alma, so Alma to her really was the beginning. Alma, the pianist who would play a tune at the Sognare every Thursday night. Alma, the mysterious young woman who drew in all types of late-night walkers to the bar. Alma, who had beckoned an eight-year-old Cadence in from the cold winters outside with a pale finger. Alma who had ignored the words of protests from bar patrons and had allowed Cadence to sit at the table closest to the piano. Alma, who had taken Cadence into her small flat, not caring about how grimy Cadence’s cheeks were nor how dirty her worn-down shoes were. Alma, who had taken Cadence’s hand and twirled around her flat to music droning off the record player. Alma, who had given Cadence a home. No. Alma who had become home.
“I’m scared, Cadence,” Alma whispered, voice as breathy and lovely as always. “The Foxmans must have something to do with what’s going on. Could you look into it for me, please?”
Yeah. The universe really was directing her into the Foxman’s direction. There was no helping it now.
“It’s your move, Iota.”
“I know that, Tau.”
Conversing in a small room lit only by an assortment of wax candles, a man and a woman sat across from one another observing a game board on top of a stack of books. The man was wearing glasses and was dressed in a crisp suit. The woman was wearing a polka-dotted blue dress and had a red bandanna tied into a bow on top of her head. There were no windows present to provide better light nor were there any doors present to let in air, but this did not seem to deter the man and the woman at all.
The game board in question consisted of approximately 10 by 10 squares and was littered with small token-shaped black and white pieces. There were twelve white pieces left on the board and only two black pieces. It was evident who was winning.
After a longer beat of silence, the woman named Iota reached forward—the white snake-tattoo on the arch of her hand glowed in the candlelight—and moved one of the white pieces diagonally up and over the second to last remaining black piece. She tucked the black piece beneath under her palm as she did so and dropped it on her side of the table.
Iota’s opponent reached for his remaining black piece on the board and used it to jump across three of the white pieces—
Iota slammed her fist against the side of the makeshift book table, sending the playing pieces jumping into the air. She clicked her tongue and slid three black pieces over to the other man Tau. The man picked them up, removed the white pieces he had jumped over, and arranged the black pieces in their place on the board.
“Forget it!” Iota snapped, slapping her hand onto the board. “We’ve been playing for hours.”
“So you’re saying that I win the argument then?” Tau inquired, rubbing his wrists.
“Of course not!”
“Well, if we can’t resolve our arguments with words, we play the game. Whoever wins the game wins the fight. If we don’t follow this rule then we’d argue all the time and nothing would get resolved, and then we wouldn’t get anywhere with anything. That’s the law and order!” Tau said, starting off calm and then ending irate. Pausing, he turned his head to the corner of the room that was clustered with piles of books and warmed by soft candlelight. A figure sat there, sitting in silence and reading a book. “Isn’t that right, Theta?”
“And if the game remains unfinished then that means the fight wasn’t important enough to begin with,” came the affirmation from the direction.
“The children went looking for you again, Theta,” Tau said after a pause.
Iota glanced into the corner. “Your identity will be discovered soon, won’t it…?”
“And then the city will discover us,” came the quiet reply. “You sound like you don’t like that idea, Iota. Is it that you want to remain hidden for the rest of our time here?”
Iota threw her head back as laughter wracked her body. “Of course not!” Her eyes went wide, and she slammed her fist onto the board sending pieces clattering to the ground. “I’m just dying to tear this city limb from limb.” Her legs began shaking. “I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting—watching those bastards walk around this place like they own it and throwing around those modified conductors like—”
“Calm down, Iota. Don’t be rash. We don’t want a repeat of what happened to the former mayor and the heads of the Families. When you act independently like that, you cause problems for the entire group.”
Iota shut her mouth immediately and grimaced. “Sorry, I…”
“I understand your frustration, Iota, but we must be patient.” The flutter of a page turning. “There’s no use rushing to the ending when the ending remains the same.”
“Right, ‘leader.’ Patience I can do.”
Sitting in this room that had no windows and no doors—no exits—Theta smiled and continued to read in the dark.
“Ah, yes, Alma. I used to play duets with her down at the Sognare. She had big dreams, that one. Very kind too. Took in some orphan a while back. Kid became attached to her hip. Alma always did seem a bit… off though. Anyways, I haven’t seen them in years. I wonder what they’re up to.”Sebastian Faux, former player at the Sognare