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We Happy Few

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“The greatest tragedy is not the brutality of the evil people, but rather the silence of the good people.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    ‘The Ultra-Luxe. Live life in the lap of Luxury.’ That’s what they said on the radio anyway. Up and down The Strip all day, in the blisteringly low, low temperature of a hundred and six degrees, that’s all you heard on a seemingly constant loop, broken up by a bit of Dino. Some overpaid disc jockey advertising for a place he’d never been, nor had any intention of going. Legate Lanius would try going his shift without tuning in, but that just made walking down The Strip eating a smoked ham and provolone cheese sandwich that much more depressing. From first hand experience, Lanius had found that sitting in the lap of luxury wasn’t all that different from anywhere else. The only difference was the amount of contempt in people’s eyes as they walked past you.
    The Strip wasn’t what it once was, and Legate Lanius couldn't help but feel like it was partially his fault. He’d dreamed the same dream, and climbed the same mountain top as the newly minted Don Gustavo. The idea of taking The Strip back from the other families had sounded grand at first, because naturally in that naively premature state Lanius had been under the impression that Gustavo would run the place better. Only better meant the exact same but with a Bull on all the dollar bills instead of a Bear. It was getting especially hard to maintain the ‘City of Sin’ precedent when the man running the place had any junkies, whores, or fiends he found nailed to a cross just outside the city limits.
Without vice, Lanius pondered, what did they have that encouraged travelers to stay and not just keep heading west? Turns out, as the kickback started grinding down, not much. Joy was a free falling commodity on The Strip; Lanius figured they’d make more money just by bottling the stuff up and selling it like vitamins.
    The ultimate fate of The Strip however, wasn’t the only question that unnerved Lanius, though it was the only one he could stomach trying to answer. The other’s swerving down the lane of: “Are you still a good person?” and “How many more mile markers until you reach Hell?”
    Passing Boulevard station, Lanius could make out the towering geyser of champagne flavored vanity that stood erected in front of The Ultra Luxe. Stepping down the cobblestone steps and into the courtyard, Lanius passed the big sign in front of the geyser that read in bright, gold, neon letters: The Ultra Luxe; as if it could be mistaken for the Vatican by tourists.
    Beneath the geyser was a small pond, and Lanius took to staring into it for a brief moment of sobering clarity. In his reflection, he saw a giant. A giant in a dark blue, gold buttoned down police man’s uniform that looked like it came out of nineteen sixties London, England. By his side was a polished, wooden nightstick; his hands were covered by tight white gloves, to keep them clean. Atop his head was a cap adorned with a Bull, as if anyone needed more of a reminder as to who he worked for.
    What scared Lanius most about this giant, besides the fact that it possessed the same borderline lifeless scarlet eyes that he did, was the mask that it wore. The giant looked like a clown without any makeup; like a man on psychedelics that just had white tar poured on his face and let it cool and be molded down and whittled by a deranged Michelangelo knockoff, until it looked like he had a severe case of white face. Than there was that hideously contorted smile. It wasn’t even supposed to look human, Lanius though on reflection, finally ending the charade that him and the giant were somehow in different plains of existence.
    People were scared of him. They avoided his gaze, side stepped out of his way on the street, sometimes into oncoming traffic. So, Lanius thought, This is what it feels like.
    As a pair of kids mad dashed across the clean, mist dipped grass towards the geyser, their parents chasing them like Wile E, coyote and the Road Runner, Lanius walked up the lambent white staircase and through the revolving door to the lobby.
    Striding around the circularly fashioned room, Lanius passed by an assortment of blackjack tables and slot machines; vibrant plant life encompassing every color visible to man’s eye like someone had just dumped acid on the Botanical Gardens; and a bar stocked full of pesticide for your liver. Looking up Lanius could see the purple streaks of dusk being filtered through the stained glass dome that was the lobby’s ceiling.
    All around Lanius, guests at The Ultra Luxe were bustling around with pounds of arachnid themed chips practically spilling out of their pockets. It drew concern from Lanius, as the more money they won, the more money he lost.
    Beyond the lobby Lanius passed down several sickeningly brightly lit halls adorned with a sharp amethyst wallpaper, and a slick, deep red African marble.
    The whole place gave Lanius a migraine the size of Zion, and he could only imagine the lawsuit waiting to happen the second someone with epilepsy walked through the front door. It was as if overnight someone had just discovered that colors other than black and white existed, and demanded that everything be changed so that not a single, minuscule speck of anything that didn’t’ make your eyes bleed be ripped off the walls and thrown into a big fire. To call it a rebranding would have been a disservice. The place looked like a chocolate factory, never mind a casino.
    It was this kind of needless over extravagance that made Lanius think there were just some people in the world that didn't deserve financial independence. The kinds of people that absolutely must have their dinner served off a gold plate washed in the blood of a virgin; or the ones who simply could not live without a scarf made from the still breathing backs of baby panthers. Lanius was of the mindset that, while the finer things in life certainly weren't free-not at first anyway-they shouldn't cost more zeros than there existed letters in the alphabet.
    It was like the domino theory, once someone was handed a blank check by a Pegasus grazing in the hand of a wistfully benevolent God, they started spending and didn’t stop until their benefactor went broke or their finger tips snapped off, and even than they might just super glue them back on. In this case the former was the more liable outcome, in which case flamboyancy wouldn't account for much when there were two nails jammed through your wrists and the sun was charring your skin up nice and crispy for the vultures.
    Entering The Gourmand, the pinnacle fine dining experience The Ultra Luxe boasted, Lanius could see the tables were just being set for seven o’ clock dinner. Waiters were mechanically setting the tables with knives, forks, spoons, and china so delicate it probably shouldn’t have even carried a salad. The click clack of their dress shoes didn’t cease or falter once as Lanius made his way back to the Kitchen.
    Unison like that, Lanius figured, took months if not years to master. Working in perfect harmony, like a blind symphony. It was refreshing to not see a single weak link holding the rest back from greatness. Even if they were just setting tables, someone needed this job to feed their kids.
    Within the kitchen were two cooks taking hacksaws to a slab of beef so thick it looked like it came from a cow that weighed four tons. Overhead smooth jazz played; the trumpet and the bassoon counteracting the stiff grunts of the butchers and the heavy cracks of their saws when they reached bone. The chefs weren’t even breaking the slightest sweat.
    Descending a flight of cool, green tiled stairs, Lanius found himself in the heart of the kitchen. The jazz had grown louder, and the culinary masterminds at large were humming along in tandem as they chopped carrots and peeled onions. It was like being in Sicily, again.
    The smell of a fine tuned and well oiled kitchen was intoxicating. Dozens of aromas all blending together to form one large stew that Lanius could practically taste on the tip of his tongue.
    Winding through the kitchen, as the tang of oranges being squeezed filled his nostrils, and the sizzle of dough being fried flanked his ears, Lanius couldn't help but notice the elongated streak of something crimson on the floor that lead into the meat locker.
    As the air grew colder around Lanius, tightening it’s grip around his throat, the smell of freshly plucked garlic and the sound of grated cheese began to fade.
    Legate Lanius had seen much in his albeit short life. At only thirty seven years of age, he knew well enough that whatever, or more appropriately whoever, was in that meat locker, had about the same average life expectancy of a baby giraffe in a crocodile enclosure.
    A voice very far back in the lower recesses of Lanius’s mind told him to just walk away. If he did, life would go on perfectly fine. It would just be another normal night. He would go and collect the kickback from Mr. Nancy, the animated new owner in charge of The Ultra Luxe who was just slightly bordering cartoonish, and than walk back across the street to the Lucky 38 and go to bed.
    Things didn’t have to get more complicated than that. It wasn’t his problem, though that was a poor excuse to begin with, and the longer he told himself that, the longer he would be left wondering just what his problems actually were than. If not this direct byproduct of the incessant, omnipotent American dream, what was he accountable for? Was he accountable for the poor bastards rotting away on bit’s of wood out in the middle of the Mojave, where no one could hear their soft, desperate cries for a single drop of dirty, lead ridden water? Or, perhaps, he was accountable for Nero, the former manager of Gomorrah, another once thriving establishment on The Strip. Was he accountable for the fact that as the Frenchman, Le Quack, beat the poor Greek’s head in with a croquet mallet he just stood by and watched? Though, at the same time, surely this couldn't all be on him. There were dozens of other people there, all giving Le Quack his audience.
    Why than, did it all fall on him to do something? Lanius was frustrated with his own dueling mortality.
    Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously. On one shoulder was the angel, let’s call it: Grace. On the other shoulder was the devil, let’s call it: Caesar. Grace would argue that the entity in the meat locker is undeniably someone’s child, and that no one else was coming along to lend a helping hand, clearly. Caesar meanwhile, would argue that the entity probably deserved it, and that this was how justice was handled out in the Mojave. Who was Lanius to judge what was right and what was wrong? As so often is the case, there is no difference between what is right and what is necessary. Caesar would lastly point out that, were Lanius any better of a person, he wouldn’t even be in The Ultra Luxe’s kitchen in the first place.
    To which Grace would retort that if he truly were a cruel, heartless sadist, there would have been no debate in the first place.
    Seeing Grace’s point, and not hearing more than derogatory grumbles from Caesar, Lanius begrudgingly stepped forward and entered the frigid meat locker.
    Along the many shelves lining the meat locker were cuts of over a dozen indistinguishable, at least to Lanius’s eyes, meats coated in icicles. Every breath Lanius drew sent a sharp sting down to his lungs; each a pleasant reminder that he could only blame his own free will for getting him into this situation in the first place, lest he try to shift the blame to another conveniently absent entity: namely someone with enough doctorates to tell him he was an idiot without seeming too smug.
    Lanius had only ever found himself within the confines of a meat locker once before, and it, like all places that harbored the cold, never received him with a fruit basket and a bottle of scotch. A coat of dread began to don over Lanius, fitting snuggly around him like a cozy blanket from when he was a child. It all did well to assure him that, while no doubt what he was about to glimpse would be unpleasant, it would be familiar. Lanius couldn't conceive a word to describe just how much he hated that familiarity.
    Each step Lanius took further into the dark, gelid abyss felt like a mile away from the rest of civilization. The smell of the roast pork and the sound of the bass guitar overhead being but a distant and distorted memory from a seemingly long, long time ago.
    Perhaps back to a time before The Strip, and before meeting Gustavo. Lanius had been struggling harder and harder to remember what that was like, what normalcy felt like. It seemed like such an abstract and foreign concept to him now. What even was normal anyhow? Was it just what we perceived our everyday monotonous routine as? Or was it more layered than that? Lanius couldn’t for the life of him even remember what he used to look like. How did he keep his hair? He couldn't have imagined he’d kept it long, but, maybe he had, he honestly couldn't remember. That terrified him. Not remembering himself.
    Lanius contemplated turning back, after all, he hadn't seen anything yet. Usually you saw something by now. Perhaps his imagination had been playing tricks on him all along. Perhaps he was just succumbing to a paranoia induced stroke. Perhaps he’d just finally lost his mind. Though Lanius figured he wasn't that lucky, he was never that lucky. Lanius assumed that he had such bad luck, were he ever to meet a Leprechaun, it would drop dead at the sight of him. Which would only add another ten pound weight on his conscious.
    Passing in between two shelves stacked with lamb, or at least what he assumed was lamb from the looks of it, Lanius rounded a corner.
    There was a blinding white light overhead coming from a fixture that buzzed with the same irritating hum as one of those electric machines used to zap flies; beneath it was a stern metal chair.
    When Lanius had first started working for Gustavo, it was out of a garbage dump in Barclay Mills. They’d settled in Barclay, not for it’s rustic hometown American atmosphere, as the signs put it, but rather because they were late to the party and all the best spots were already taken. These imperialist types not being exactly keen on sharing, if they even knew what the word meant, which Lanius went out on limb to assume they didn’t.
    Delray Hollow was swarming with Cubans, and Gustavo wasn't fond of smoking cigars while having revoltingly serious conversations about just the right way to make communism work. River Row was stockpiling blonde haired, blue eyed Germans like they’d just got word to invade Poland again. Pointe Verdun was overrun with the Irish, and with the IRA going around setting everyone’s car on fire and calling them a ‘fag’ Gustavo suggested looking elsewhere. Downtown had a wasp infestation the likes of which made even Lanius feel out of place. Tickfaw Harbor was occupied by Persians, who weren't very forthcoming with a reason for being so far west other than really long, jagged knives about five feet thick. The Southdown’s were run by men who would have given fascist Italy a run for their money by the way of making every last one of their constituents want to stone them to death. The French Ward was steaming with, well, the French, ironically. Lastly was Frisco Fields, a part of town where the confederate flag was riveted to every lamppost, mailbox, and newborn baby in sight. Which left Barclay Mills as their only recourse.
    The dump was inconspicuous enough that they never got much foot traffic running through there, bar the occasional garbage man come to spray the trucks down with just around nineteen gallons of bleach. The place didn't smell great, but no one had expected it too. The dump worked, at first anyway.
    One day, in the dead middle of July, Lanius had been working late at the dump. He had been crunching the numbers, trying to see how many months it would take to propose buying out the Persians and not get gut open throat to taint. As he took a reprieve to rest his eyes, Lanius noticed a dim light out in the middle of the sea of infinite trash that caught his attention. Moving to the window, Lanius squinted, just barely making out what he believed to be several robed men huddled around a burning cross. One of the men held up a large white piece of cardboard. Spray painted in bold, capital red letters was the message: ‘NIGGERS DON’T BELONG HERE!’
    At the hour of two in the morning, Lanius assumed the robed men had mistaken him for Gustavo. Lanius, noticing more and more of these robed men approaching from the north, hastily grabbed a scoped Barrett M82 .50 caliber sniper rifle from the arms locker and took aim.
    Just as Lanius had lined up his sights, not quite sure what his plan of attack was, he stopped. Just beside the man holding the sign, was a little girl, no more than six. Lanius felt a piece of him, a part of the whole that still held out hope for humanity, drift away on a shooting star. Lanius dropped his rifle to the floor, and went back to work. When he looked back out the window forty minutes later, the robed men were gone. The cross still burned brightly.
    As Lanius’s fingers began to go numb, his mouth arid enough to breed cacti, he found himself in a perplexed state of relief.
    Strapped to the stern metal chair was a man dressed up in pure white bed sheets; a blood drop cross patched over his heart.
    His head was thrown back and his mouth had been pried open with considerable strength, both were covered in dried up blood that the frost had begun to take a liking to. Lanius had bared witness to this sight before, the last time he was in a meat locker. The only thing missing was the sound of a power drill and classical Russian ballet music. Lanius didn’t need to check to know that every single one of the Klansman’s teeth had been drilled out, albeit crudely, as bit’s of the tooth’s root were still vaguely visible beneath his swollen, puffy gums; like someone had taken a hedge trimmer to them and than shoved an entire chapel’s worth of glass down his throat. The Klansman’s tongue had been severed, with half stuffed in the back of his mouth and the other half in his bloody lap. It was a sloppy job, not done by a professional. It had no doubt gone on for far too long, and the Klansman had probably died from shock long before the driller had finished.
    The mere fact that Lanius was able to critique his current predicaments, and that it came as a relief to have seen something so vile before, unnerved him. He had become accustomed to this. Wanton torture for the sake of spreading fear. Nothing stood to be gained by any of it. There was no information to be learned. Fear was power, and people would never be afraid of you, Lanius supposed, if you didn't give them reason. To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless. Lanius knew that what had happened to the Klansman, however heinous, had been harmless in nature.
    Caesar would look upon this pathetic excuse of a hate monger and laugh; he would argue that this was mercy compared to what Gustavo would have done. Who knew how many lives this filth had ruined before finding himself in his current predicament? How many people had he drove out of their homes? How many had he watched get beaten and lynched? A person filled with that much unfounded hatred, in Caesar’s eyes, lost the basic human rights afforded to the rest of the sane and tolerant masses.
    Meanwhile Grace would cover her face with disgust. Violence only begets more violence, she would argue. Violence never solved anything worthwhile, all violence ever did was leave more people alone in the world. More orphaned children and widows than she could bare to contemplate. Whatever past transgressions the man had committed, he didn't deserve to die like a dog. Whatever he preached, Grace stood firmly by the fact that he was still a human being, and no human being deserved to be subjected to this, pointlessness.
    Lanius found himself being pushed closer and closer off the cliff of realizing that he didn’t have the stomach for all of this brutality. Lanius knew that when you lost the will to see the wicked suffer, you no longer had any place working for the Devil. That terrified Lanius, knowing all to well what happened to those that crossed Gustavo, but the corroded pit at the bottom of his stomach where all his pent up regret and doubt went to, wouldn't allow for him to swallow his revulsion any longer. The question Lanius found himself asking more and more, was: ‘Is all this really necessary? Is nailing a crack addict to a cross really a suitable punishment, when your the one supplying the crack? Is drilling a Klansman’s teeth out really necessary, when it accomplishes absolutely nothing? Lanius knew questions like that were dangerous, more so than a boa constrictor eighteen feet long going on it’s third day of fasting.
    Lanius just couldn't hold it in any longer. Existence had become nauseating. There was a certain sense of misery waking up every morning and having to ask yourself: How many people will I see die today? How will they die? Do they deserve to die? Can you even remember why you came here? Lanius couldn't remember. He couldn't remember why he’d ever come to The Strip, other than for the promise of personal profit. That simply wouldn't justify it any longer; all the money Lanius could ever dream of wasn't worth it, at least not anymore.
    Lanius knew it was time for him to wake up. To get off The Strip before it buried him alive, or worse. He turned around and made his way out of the meat locker.
    That morning, after the Southern Union had burned a cross in the dump, when Gustavo had showed up, he wasn't even mad. In fact, Gustavo had been delighted. “They finally choose to show us their true colors,” he had said, “Fantastic!, it took them long enough.” Lanius had never understood why. Though over time, he had surmised that it was quiet difficult to justify going to war against an enemy that had not provoked you, and Lanius could think of no better provocation than a cross burning on your front lawn. Gustavo had trekked across the sea of infinite trash and picked up the cross, holding it above his head like the Ten Commandments were written on it, “TODAY,” he declared, “THE UNION. WILL. FALL!” Lanius had cheered.
    Outside the meat locker were four Paddy-Whacker’s, Mr Nancy’s enforcers. A Paddy-Whacker was typically a derogatory term used when referring to the Irish, as they were often found on the wrong side of the law in the New World, thus, the other side of a Paddy-Whacker. In this case it was quite the opposite. Mr. Nancy’s Paddy-Whacker’s were the law, and it changed everyday.
    Each Paddy-Whacker was wearing a velvet, corduroy suit, and a matching fedora. At their sides were billy clubs, typically reserved for when a guest was caught cheating at cards. Though a casino enforcer really didn’t need a reason as specific as that to break someone's legs. Anything The House didn’t like, would not go unpunished. Each casino was like a sovereign nation, with it’s own rules, and it’s own consequences for breaking them.
    Lanius didn't even need to make a fuss, nor ask the Paddy-Whacker’s who had summoned him. He merely followed them back out through the kitchen, the sweet smell of Creme Brûlée and the low pitter patter of the drums and sharp whistle of the trombone doing little to dissuade Lanius from dreading every second he knew Mr. Nancy would take getting to his point.
    Out in the dining hall the tables had all been set, though not a single soul was present eating. The Paddy-Whacker’s sat Lanius down in a table at the far east end of the hall, and left him there, alone. Above his table was a mural of the last supper, though the head of Jesus Christ had been crudely slashed out, and the word Penniless had been etched on his forehead.
    “Well!,” a high pitched southern accent remarked from behind Lanius to the sound of another sharp wale from the trombone, followed by a waltz along the piano keys. “My oh my,” Lanius turned to see Mr. Nancy strut down the dining hall, a hand admiringly clutching his heart, “The Monster of the East!, in the flesh! I. Am. Honored. That you!,” Nancy extended his index finger, “Have decided to aggrandize my brand new establishment with your,” Nancy smelled the air, like Lanius radiated Lilac gooseberries, “Illustrious presence.”
    Mr. Nancy sat across from Lanius, elegantly sweeping up his napkin and placing it on his lap. Nancy grinned from ear to ear, two stainless rows of white teeth simmering under the candlelight that lit the room from on high; his eyes encapsulated a wildfire, spread out across the entire southern Unites States.
    Nancy had long side burns running along the outskirts of his cheeks; his hair shaved all but down the middle of his head, where his hair became loose and fluffy, necessitating it be slicked back or fear obscuring his vision. His left leg crossed over his right, showing off a pair of crisp, brown leather shoes that looked like they were ripped straight from the Kongo. He intertwined his hands, a brass spade on his left middle finger, a ruby and a golden spider on his right and left little finger’s, respectively.
    Made from what looked to be the most expensive silk ever devised by man, Mr. Nancy was clad in a purple, green, and red checkered suit, with a pink pocket square; purple tie, and a white and blue undershirt with the collar turned up.
    Lanius could barely keep his eyes from glazing over, “You… um, have the… full amount we discussed?”
    Nancy laughed, clapping his hands together and slapping his knee in a show of overzealous mirth. “Why of course! First month on the job, and you think I’d be short?! Ha, ha. That’s funny, your a funny man monster.” Nancy paused, putting a hand to his chin, studying Lanius with ferocious tenacity, “Tell me something monster, humor me, there is an… air, about you. You seem… distraught. Why?”
    Lanius could think of no worldly way to possibly answer that question. He was unable to tell whether or not Nancy was probing him about the meat locker, or if he actually cared. Either way, Nancy wasn't the type to favor dissent. “It’s nothing,” he shrugged, “Just a scrap with The French, that’s all.”
    Nancy leaned over the table, resting his head atop the bridge of his hands. What Lanius had said about the French wasn’t entirely a lie, Le Quack was always campaigning for something, and it was never anything Gustavo was prepared to give him. This time it had been a Zeppelin, last time it had been a battleship. Though where, in the middle of a desert, he would have any use for a battleship, was undisclosed information.
    “Oh, well,” Nancy nodded appreciatively, “Thank you, for the hon-es-ty! Honesty is such a… rare, commodity these days. Everyone think’s it’s easier to lie. To each other, to themselves. It’s not. Honesty always sounds better than a lie, like the whisper’s of an angel, letting you know, just how fucked!, the world is. And it. Is. Fucked. I know honesty can hurt monster, but lies, lies are just a cleaner form of suicide.”
    Lanius squirmed a bit in his seat. Nancy was no fool, he’d give him that, but what his game was, Lanius could not discern, though he supposed it couldn't hurt to go along with the show.
    A waiter than came over with two sparkling glasses and a bottle of white German wine. “…But!,” Nancy continued after tasting the wine, smacking his lips, and giving the waiter the all clear to continue pouring, lest his guest drink swill, “I am, so, terribly, afraid, that there is, quite frankly, nothing, nobody, can do, about that.” The waiter departed and Nancy held up his glass to toast. Lanius clinked their glasses together. The wine tasted like it’d just been thawed from a decade’s worth of hibernation under the Arctic. “…The Frenchman,” Nancy continued, “He is, a strange creature. A man of boundless cruelty,” he drank from his glass and sighed, “Not that you kids these days know what the fuck cruelty is. Oh no,” Nancy snarled, “You know nothing of true cruelty. Not a damn thing.” He grimaced, taking a large swig of his wine and placing the glass back down on the table half empty, “…Though, to call the Frenchman a sadist would be, improper. He is not vi-o-lent, for the sake of vi-o-lence. Le Quack is violent, because, as I’m sure you are well aware, Violence! Get's. Shit. Done. None of this, pacifist, nonviolence bullshit. Those who are, incapable!, of violence, are not brave-they ain’t on no higher ground. They. Are. WEAK!, gettin’ beat to death with a nine iron on that, golden perch of moral superiority they think they on. It’s just so, tasteless.”
    Lanius cleared his throat, the fine line between who Mr. Nancy was talking about beginning to blur. “I’m just not sure, when he says he want’s a Zeppelin, what he plans to use it for. Inclining to believe him is, like trusting a crying crocodile.”
    Mr. Nancy tapped his head with his forefinger, “You don’t trust the man, that’s smart. You should never put your faith in blind men, they are destined to lead you astray. Le Quack, The French,” his voice cracked with a hint of disdain, “The devil in all but name and salary. ‘Oh no please masa, when you see me do have some courtesy masa. Have some sympathy, oh yes!, have some motherfucking taste, oh yes!,” Mr. Nancy chuckled, “It’s a little to late for that. Taste has become a matter of, objectivity. Take the room we are sitting in.” Mr. Nancy held up the dining hall in his hands, “Before me, well, these motherfuckers were eating some strange fucking fruit! Now, it’s got,” his eyes went wide, “Flair! I do so enjoy some, flair. Don’t you monster? How boring would life be without a little, excitement, every now and than?”
    Lanius knew the only correct answer would be to say how fun and entertaining it is to give Klansman root canals. However, he just couldn't bring himself to do it. He couldn't bring himself to put on a big, faux smile and pretend to take pleasure in the pain and suffering of other’s, just because you could; just because everyone was too scared to stop you, or tell you that what you were doing wasn't just wrong, but in any armed conflict would be considered a war crime.
    “Is that what drilling the man’s teeth out was, flair?”
    Mr. Nancy sat back in his chair, arms crossed in triumphant victory at finally dropping the facade, and revealing the wolf in sheep’s clothing. “Oh please, monster, spare me the self righteousness. What’s the alternative? In case you’ve for’gott’en, we are in the CITY OF SIN! We ain't in no fucking church boy! This ain't no Sunday fucking mass! These,” Nancy stood and pulled a Ruler SR1911 chrome black pistol out of his back pocket and pointed it at Lanius’s head, “Aren’t instruments of peace!, they don't shoot flowers and sunshine!, they shoot lead motherfucker! We are not working out of a goddamn red cross chapter! Stalin didn't run the fucking lollipop guild! Kindness got us absolutely fucking nowhere! And it was NOT!, FOR A LACK!, OF TRYING! But what I have found, is that hatred, is a unifying force that no amount of love and friendship can break. Kindness is an uphill battle of endless attrition, one that neither of US can win. And don't you dare, sit there and act like you don't know what I’m saying is true.”
    Mr. Nancy holstered his pistol and straightened out his suit; sitting back down and nonchalantly taking a sip of his wine.
    “I’ve never purported to advocate for this brand of unbridled brutality,” Lanius retorted, “Things never used to be like this. It all used to mean something. The Strip used to mean something.”
    Mr. Nancy put his hand up in indignation, “First things first. Let's talk about all this, ‘unbridled brutality.’ I don't ever, remember seeing you raise a finger against ANY of it! You just stood by and watched, and sulked, you never said, or did, a goddamn thing to stop any of it! You see that, that brother, is your fucking problem. Your taking all of this too fucking personally! Life isn't about you! You want to talk about meaning. The meaning ain't never changed. It has, and it always be, about, making money. What Gus is doin’, it’s not about his unwavering responsibility to put food on your plate. Motherfucker wants to get rich! All these casino’s, just what the fuck do you think they do? Money, they make money. You livin’ in a nice house, wearin’ nice clothes, eatin’ nice food, that is a bonus, it was not ever, a part, of the bargain.”
    Mr. Nancy finished his glass of wine, running his tongue over his chapped lips, “Now, I know you didn't ask for it, but let me give you some of my patent free advice. Shut. Your. Fucking. Mouth. Be content, knowing that you have everything, that every man that’s ever walked his two feet on this rancid fucking earth could ever dream of desiring for. Be content, knowing that you are one of the most privileged motherfucker’s to ever breath the oxygen in our putrid fucking atmosphere. Be content!, knowing that as long as you stay in the Don’s good graces, you will be, rewarded. But!, do not think, for one goddamn minute, that you are untouchable. Cause if I find out, that you’ve been running your fucking mouth, boy, there won't be a thing anyone can do to stop YOU!, from winding up in that meat locker.”
    Mr. Nancy reached across the table and finished Lanius’s glass of wine, “You might not like being a bystander, but, allow me to, en-lighten you: those motherfucker’s have very, long, life expectancies.”
    He stood, taking a little red box wrapped in a neat gold bow out of his suit pocket and handing it to Lanius. “Go on, take it. A gift for the object of your undying affection. I hear she likes the color purple, she’s got good taste.”
    Lanius hesitantly took the box, assuming that had Nancy any intention of seeing him drop dead, he would have just shot him when he had the chance.
    Mr. Nancy snapped his fingers and had a suitcase brought out to him by one of the Paddy-Whackers. “Here, our agreed upon sum, five hundred large. Make sure Gustavo get’s every last penny.” Lanius took it from him, mildly amused that Nancy thought he would be stupid enough to rob Gustavo, or that he needed five hundred grand in the first place.
    As Lanius serpentined in between the uniform tables and chairs of the Gourmand, Mr. Nancy cackled, calling out to him, “The time’s monster, Whoo! They are a changin’! History is being written- right here!, right now! Make sure your on the right side of it!, Or be declared in damnatio memoriae!”
    From a time before The Strip, Lanius and Gustavo had been driving from Delray Hollow to Barclay. On the side of the road was a young couple and their two boys. The father had waved them down and beseeched them for assistance in restoring their car to drivable condition. Gustavo had insisted they comply, making pleasant and idle conversation while Lanius went to work on the engine. Within minutes the car was made road worthy, and when the mother went to give Gustavo a hundred dollar bill, he had declined. The mother thought this meant he wanted more, so she took out another fifty. Gustavo turned that down as well, stating that for the repairs, he would accept no money. Instead, he wanted the family to remember this kindness, and bestow it upon someone else worthy of it in the future.
    As the family had drove off, Gustavo had waved and smiled merrily. Once they had got back in the car, Lanius commended Gustavo, as he himself would have absentmindedly just taken the cash. Gustavo had burst out laughing, something he rarely did, and it wasn't brought on by amusement with Lanius’s sentiment. Rather, when Gustavo had composed himself, he had said: “Lanius, you do me a great disservice. If you have a gun, you can rob a bank. But if you have a bank, you can rob anyone.”
    At that precise moment in time, Lanius didn't know why he’d felt so at ease. He just did, so he drove on. Never once second guessing the man siting next to him. Never once questioning a thing that he did. Lanius had taken every word that Gustavo said as Gospel.
    Now Lanius knew all too well, all too late, what a false Shepard he’d been following, slowly into the gates of hell.
    The Strip wasn’t what it once was. When Lanius had first glimpsed it, walking down the Lonesome Road from Boulder City, his mind ached with the possibilities that could await him inside. The future had held a realm of infinite possibilities. Two remained. Stay, and live out the rest of his day’s with a constant reminder on every street corner about the cruelty he’d subjected onto other’s; or leave, and become vilified by The Legion.
    Neither sounded all too preferable over the other, and either way Lanius knew that eternal damnation was waiting for him at the end of the Lonesome Road, so it didn't so much matter how he got there, only how soon.
    Walking past The Tops casino, Lanius felt a catch in his throat, remembering all too vividly how petty their actions had been. Gustavo held onto grudges like they were rabbit’s feet; perhaps understanding the concept of empathy, but never fully internalizing it. He supposed Nancy had been right about that, Gustavo couldn't care less whether he ate out of a five star restaurant or the trash; whether he wore fancy suits or rags; whether he lived out of a paper box or a mansion. None of it was consequential to him.
    Next Lanius passed by Gomorrah, and Mr. Nancy couldn't have been more wrong about Le quack if he’d called him a humanitarian. The only reason Le Quack woke up in the morning was to crack someone’s skull open on the concrete. There had perhaps been a time when Le Quack’s special brand of barbarism was, at the very least, tolerable. That time had long passed. Now instead of putting the rabid dog down, Gustavo lengthened it’s leash and cried heresy every time someone got their hand bit off, claiming it was all painstakingly harmless.
    Lanius still vaguely remembered The Strip’s previous de facto leader, they called him The  House, and Gustavo had adopted the name out of spite. House had run The Strip for decades like a pristine clock. It had never looked so difficult from the outside; twist a few gears, polish a few knobs, dust for cobwebs once or twice a year. How hard could it really be?, Lanius had thought. Gustavo was a remarkable business man, and surely he could keep a simple clock running.
    Though perhaps he’d been too premature to judge the nature of the world while still being but a barely materialized embryo within his mother’s womb. In retrospect, Lanius concluded that The Strip was destined to fail. It was almost as inevitable, if not more so, than the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
    Though as Lanius came to this realization, he couldn't help but immediately begin pondering who would wind up taking the fall for it all. It certainly wouldn't be Gustavo. Maybe it would be Le Quack. Maybe it would be Nancy. Maybe it would be him. Whoever it was wouldn't change the fact that come the next sit down, there would be quite a few smug faces around the table, all glaring at Gustavo with unparalleled derision.
    Upon finally arriving at the Lucky 38, Lanius stood for a long moment just staring up at the tacky, red and black neon sign that hung above the entrance like a parasitical viper, just waiting for someone like him to walk under it. As he did, the viper would swing down and sink it’s two front teeth into his back. Lanius would trudge through the casino’s main floor, the snake draining every last bit of life from his body, until he dropped dead at the base of a poker table. No one would even notice.
    However, when Lanius did finally muster up enough willpower to enter the Lucky 38, no cosmic anvils descended from on high, as Lanius had no more life left to give to the preverbal snake.
    By comparison to Mr. Nancy's acid trip though wonderland, the Lucky 38 was relatively bland. Nothing stood outright to bring offense to the ocular senses, and were it not for the man rhythmically tapping his fingers in the high castle, the Lucky 38 would be the safest place on the entire Strip.
    At the hour of a quarter past eight, the Lucky 38 was firing on all cylinders. Guests bustled around cheering at the roulette table and booing at the blackjack table; drinking from tall frothy mugs fashioned with tiny little orange umbrellas for dexterity.
    Lanius had never quite understood the fascination with gambling, which given where he worked was probably a bit disingenuous. Lanius was well aware of why people gambled, he just never understood why they were so passive aggressive about it. People gambled, not because of the excitement of taking a risk and betting your daughter’s entire college fund on black seventeen, but because the concept of debt was irresistibly appealing. Debt was all some people had. At least, Lanius assumed it had to be, otherwise an extreme allergy to maintaining some small semblance of wealth was the only alternative.
    Lanius had never seen a man win anything more than a hundred dollars and not immediately lose it. A tournament had once been held at the Lucky 38. Some prepubescent kid, probably fresh out of college, had won almost three hundred thousand dollars. Lanius had wanted nothing more than to tell the kid to cash out then, while he still could. He hadn’t, and the kid, not ten minutes later, lost it all at poker to a royal flush that had seemed to come out of literally no where.
    Later that night, Lanius had been woken up at about four in the morning to find out the kid had tried to break into the vault. He hadn't made it but ten feet before Vulpes Inculta, the only person breathing six feet above ground that gave Le Quack and maybe even Gustavo nightmares, threw him to the ground and snapped both his legs back like they were toothpicks. Vulpes had found the whole experience delightfully charming.
    Lanius walked up to Victor, the cowboy, complete with red scarf, straw hat, and tangy, deep fried southern accent, and handed him the briefcase. “And ‘ere I was startin’ to think you’d gotten lost partner, Nancy didn't give you a hassle did he?”
    “No,” Lanius removed his cap and wearily took off his mask, “He didn’t,” handing them both to Victor.
    Victor smiled at Lanius to the point that it appeared to physically hurt him, his eyes giving way to far more sinister machinations, “You really shouldn't take the mask off until your shift is over.”
    Lanius looked at the clock above the slot machines, “My shift ends in ten minutes, take it out of my pay.”
    Victor tried to force the mask back into Lanius’s hand, but with the briefcase weighing him down, proved unable to without dropping and subsequently spilling half a million dollars all over a crowded casino floor. “That’s not how it works, you gotta keep the mask on until your shift ends.”
    Lanius used the foot he possessed over Victor to his advantage, looming over him and gritting through his teeth, “Tell Gustavo, to take it out of my fucking pay. I will not let her see me like that. Got it, partner?”
    Victor stared him down defiantly, “Sure thing, I’ll be sure to let ‘em know right away.”
    Brushing past the cowboy as he scurried along to the elevator, Lanius prepared himself for what he could only assume was his last supper.
    Which wasn't long, as he abruptly found himself encompassed in the warm embrace of dazzling wings. “Where have you been puppy?” Lanius looked down into the angelic eyes of the little bundle of joy cradled in his arms; beaming euphorically up at him with cheeks as red as bright spring roses.
    “Just… here and there. Making my way back to you.” Lanius leaned down and pressed a kiss to to the little one’s impatient lips. The soft taste of cherries was almost more than his meager heart could bare.
    “I love you puppy.”
    “I love you too, angel.”
    “Now come on, I don't know how much longer I could have kept Caesar from eating the lobster straight from the tank.”
    The angel led Lanius through the Cocktail lounge; long dark brown hair cascading over her like waves; hips filling out the little black dress she was wearing a bit too well.
    When they reached the table, Caesar got up to firmly shake Lanius’s hand. “Everything go alright with Nancy?,” he whispered.
    Lanius stood stock-still, the entire lounge seemingly stopping under a sheet of invisible ice. “Yeah,” Lanius mumbled, “Any reason it wouldn't it have?”
    Caesar chuckled, “No,” the lounge sprung back with vitality, “No reason at all.”
    “Alright now that’s enough,” Caesar’s wife, Evan, motioned for the two men to sit down, “No work talk at the table. We have no idea what any of your fancy latin words mean.”
    Lanius and Caesar both took their seats. The little one wrapped her hand tightly around his, kissing him lightly on the cheek. “Are you okay puppy?,” she asked .
    The answer to that question was unequivocally, no. Lanius was in no way, shape, or materialistic form, okay. By any standard or definition he was the complete and utter opposite. Mr. Nancy had appreciated his honesty, but that’s because Lanius hadn’t cared enough for him to lie. The angel perched next to him, with her halo glowing brighter than the sun at midday, deserved to be lied to. Were she to know the truth, that halo would turn pitch black and promptly fall to the ground and shatter into a million pieces. Lanius couldn't let that happen. A world where that halo didn't exist was a world that Lanius would no longer be able to draw breath in.
    “I’m fine.”
    So he lied. It wasn't even a very convincing lie, at least to himself. The little one seemed to buy it though, for the time being at least. She rested her head tranquilly on his shoulder, “I love you puppy.”
    Lanius didn’t remember much about his life before meeting Gustavo, that is, except for the angel. She’d always been there, never having left his side once. Or, perhaps, not always. There were some places in the world that even angel’s feared to tread. The Lonesome Road was one of them.
    Lanius, for a beat, became mesmerized by the angels’ glow, and forgot all about his troubles. For just a beat, he was convinced that he was still a good person.
    “I love you too, angel.”









Chapter Text

 

“There’s no such thing as good money or bad money. There’s just money.” -Lucky Luciano

“I with my two fists of iron but I'm going nowhere." -Dion, The Wanderer


    From the New Vegas Strip the road to Nipton isn't that long. A few mile markers due southwest and your there, not even a little worse for wear, you don't even have to talk to anybody, because the road to Nipton is as barren as the wasteland that runs alongside it.
    Legate Lanius had resolved, in an unusual spur of the moment decision-left or right as it were- to traverse the road to Nipton by foot. Which isn’t to say Lanius had an aversion to other, more conventional, means of contemporary transportation. Sometimes, the thick Mojave air just does wonders for the soul. It takes some getting used to, the first few breathes feel like you inhaling cigarette ash that’s been charcoaled on a wood-fire grill, but once your lungs have acclimatized to running on sand apropos of oxygen, it’s rather nice.
    The Mojave had it’s own special brand of silence, and Lanius didn't mind it, in some instances he actually preferred it. Silence always had something interesting to say.
    Silence is always courteous, always sympathetic, and always tasteful, as Lanius was sure Mr. Nancy would agree.
    Mile marker ninety five had a dent in it towards the northeast quadrant, and Lanius took a reprieve to stand mystified looking at it.
    The strangest things tended to spark his curiosity. Who would punch a mile marker?, he pondered, then after the silence told him the answer probably wasn't any good, like when you ask a coal baron why he has such a large furnace, and, if by any chance, he’d happen to know where that reporter doing a tabloid scoop on him disappeared to.
    So Lanius kept walking down the road to Nipton.
    He past a long since abandoned gas station, that in the several years since it’s desolation, had become a popular hotspot for tumbleweeds and scorpions to throw raves.
    A few stray coke bottles drifted past him, rolling across the road in a John Wayne western type fashion, like just off to the left somewhere a documentary was being made about the last of the coke bottles, who may or may not dance with Pepsi bottles.
    The Rat Pack had a song that Lanius had always loved, ever since he was a kid sitting in the passenger seat of his incredibly Italian Uncle Vinny’s hearse. Driving around, shuffling the corpse of some poor bastard who gambled away slightly more money than there existed in the world at last week’s Saturday night poker game-or as Vinny put it: “He had a, uh, a stroke. Or a uh, ‘eart attack, was it? Sometin’ natural… Sometin’ natural.” Vinny always seemed held up on ‘sometin natural', like he wanted Lanius to back him up and corroborate his story before the Supreme Court. Lanius never did.
    We Open In Venice, was the title. Uncle Vinny had never been to Venice, though he’d always dreamed of going, had a big jar o’ quarters, dimes, nickels, and two shiny copper pennies all set up. Vinny said that, if Lanius wanted, he could join him. One of his granddad’s, stepsons, wife’s, third removed cousins had a vineyard they could bunk in. “Make wine in the morning and drink it at night kid!,” Vinny would say, “what a life. It'll treat you right. Mark my words. Life’ll treat you right.”
    Lanius had never known whether Vinny was talking to him when he said that, or the silence.
    As the coke bottles disappeared beneath the sand and ruin, Lanius felt the overwhelming sensation that he was the King of the Road, and that was a lot of responsibility for just one guy.
    Coming up on mile marker ninety four, Lanius noticed a four leaf clover spray painted onto the asphalt, with a little message beneath it that read: Free drinks that a way. There was an arrow below the message pointing towards Nipton.
    Lanius figured, seeing as how he was already headed that a way anyhow, he might as well follow the sign. The free drinks were a lie, he surmised, nothing out in the Mojave was ever truly free.
    Another marker came up on his left, this time not indicating a mile, but rather that, should he veer from his current course and move eastward, he could pay a visit to Hoover Dam.
    Lanius had been to Hoover Dam before. Saw a man coated in pitch and feathers before being set on fire and thrown off Hoover Dam. He had no desire to go back, not that his desires amounted to much by the way of net worth. Don Gustavo had designated the dam as the sight for the next sit down.
    The Don was flying in some of his Pacific Island contacts, a group of privateers one notch in the morality for hire belt away from being a full fledged private military company. They oversaw a mining contract that seemed to sink more money into the earth than it spit out diamond encrusted ores.
    It was all run by a man named Hoyt Vulgar, or maybe it was Volker, his accent was hard to pin down as it seemed to, at any given moment, take a walking tour of the entire United Kingdom.
    Hoyt had an international rap sheet of human rights abuses so long that if it were presented to Jonnie Cochran he would’ve dry heaved and told him to go have incestuous relations with his mother.
    All those conveniently ethnic types that couldn't speak a word of the English language shackled in the hull of his commercial cruise liner stood out, but of course, Hoyt hadn't the faintest idea how they could have possibly gotten in there. Or so he swore on the graves of his unborn children.
    Hoyt took to standing before his accusers with a shocked expression on his face that was manufactured on a conveyor belt in the middle of some market place in Singapore, that Hoyt had absolutely no affiliation with what so ever. Despite his name being on all the paperwork, and his face being plastered on every wall in what had to be the most egregious display of homemade, workplace propaganda ever constructed in the timeframe of human existence.
    Hoyt didn't even try, yet it worked for Gustavo, because his product was universal. That was good, universal was good, because universal made money no matter the border. Just like a contact lens.
    Mile marker ninety three had Lanius staring down the barrel of smoke and ash, raining down from black clouds above the town of Nipton.
    He had only ever been to the town once before, and only in passing.
    Coming down from California, the town of Nipton provided Lanius a welcome bench to sit on, and a pack of Huff ’n Puff cigarettes to twirl around in between his fingers.
    Lanius wasn’t a smoker, though sometimes he felt like one.
    Nipton was a small town, a different kind of small compared to Barclay Mills. Where Barclay had more people and not enough places to store them, Nipton had too much space and not enough people to fill it.
    As Lanius sat, cigarette perched between his thumb and index finger, he closed his eyes, and took it all in.
    “Puppy?,” he felt a pair of warm, impossibly smooth hands wrap around his neck, “what’s it like?”
    “Bright,” Lanius whispered, “very, very bright.”
    Nipton seemed much different to Lanius now, standing before what he would have once described as a quaint prospecting town, and now, what he could only discern would happen if someone dropped white phosphorus on Chernobyl.
    Snowfall. That’s all the town of Nipton and it’s denizens had been reduced to, snowfall.
    One time, on a particularly humid day, the benefit of hindsight making Lanius wish he’d painted his Uncle Vinny’s hearse literally any other color than midnight black, a parlor specializing in iced delicacies of the creamed variety caught their eye.
    Pulling into the parlor’s parking lot, Vinny took the burden of ordering the deliciously refreshing treats upon his shoulders, while Lanius was left to his own devices wandering the concrete jungle, as it were.
    He came upon a large pole used to connect telephone wires, and stapled to every square inch was a poster asking if Lanius had seen a man named Quentin. Quentin was about five nine, fifty one years old, had a slowly receding grayish black hairline, and bright hazel eyes.
    Below the description and chalky sketch of Quentin, was a phone number. Across the street from the parlor was a payphone.
    Lanius looked back towards his Uncle Vinny, who was in the process of adding a a sizable amount of sprinkles, enough to make even the likes of Pablo Escobar tell him to slow down a little, to a cone of mint chocolate chip ice-cream.
    Then Lanius looked back at the poster, and the payphone.
    Just as Vinny slid Alexander Hamilton across the counter of the parlor, Lanius tore the poster from the large pole used to connect telephone wires, crumpled it up, and tossed it in the garbage.
    Standing in the center of Nipton, the bench he’d once sat upon laying in a pile of splinters, Lanius could only imagine the correct response to seeing that poster was to burn the whole city block down to it’s foundations.
    In front of the town hall were two bits of wood, methodically erected together to resemble a cross. A man that looked paler than the ghosts people kept asking him if he’d recently become reacquainted with, was nailed to the cross with two nine inch nails piercing the ligament that connect his hand to the rest of his arm.
    Lanius deduced that from the fire kissed beard and the coal dust under his finger nails, that whoever this man may have been, he was an Irishman at heart. Not that it mattered much anymore.
    The Irishman’s eyes had been beaten shut, and all the bones in legs appeared to have been ground into mulch.
    Though there was still an indistinguishable expression lingering on his face beneath all the grime and blood stained tears: he had thought the drinks were real. When he was younger his dad had probably lifted him on his shoulders and sold him a ticket to the moon. His mom had probably told him everyday that he was special, and that he was destined to do great things. She’d surely have a change of heart now, Lanius thought, and it wouldn't surprise her, not one bit.
    Vinny had once told Lanius that the worst word in the English language was: S.P.E.C.I.A.L.
    “What the fuck took you?”
    Lanius turned to face the hollowed out general store, and there was Vulpes Inculta, leaning against a shattered coke machine, legs and arms crossed like a proper frontiersman, head cocked to her left, his right.
    “I walked.” Lanius found his words were rather arid, and he could hear the rich cackling long before it broke from the foxes mouth, as it were.
    “Course you fucking did, and I parted the red sea on the back of a diamond encrusted pony that shits out grenade launchers and breakfast cereal.”
    Vulpes was the funniest person to ever live, if you believed the laughter that spewed from her mouth onto the scorched earth was in any way genuine, or, at the very least, directed towards the pony, and not Lanius.
    Vulpes was hunched over, holding her knees to keep them steady, laughing so hard Lanius thought she might pop a vein.
    “You just about done?” He asked.
    The laughter was immediately cut, as if it had been running on a track. The silence came back, but it didn’t say anything interesting, it didn’t say anything at all.
    “Yeah,” Vulpes cracked her neck, “just about.”
    She stepped out of the general store and strode through Nipton Square like Alexander the Great, having conquered a town the size of a shoe, with about as many residents, who only had one six shooter with five bullets to their name.
    “You truly are the great paragon of our generation.” Lanius found that his tongue was made of sandpaper.
    Vulpes was lauding over what used to be a dentist’s office. The kind that didn't have anesthesia, but a whole lot of whisky, and damn fine whisky at that. Her hand rummaged around in the rubble. She was humming something, a song, and Lanius couldn't quite make it out.
    When he graduated from high school, Vinny had taken him out to dinner. It was some real fancy I-talian restaurant with a guy to take your coat as you walked in and a guy to shake it after you pissed.
    Vinny seemed to know everyone there, and everyone there seemed to know Vinny,
    A waiter came up to their table, and it was then that Lanius realized him and Vinny were the only patrons dining at the restaurant that night. The waiter presented Vinny with a choice between red and white, and he choose red, then the waiter snapped his fingers.
    The entire wine cellar was seemingly rolled out to the table, and it took Vinny a moment to pick out the perfect bottle: an Opus one, a blend Lanius recalled, aged to perfection over almost half a decade. The waiter filled their glasses to the brim.
    “To you kid,” Vinny raised his glass, “only one place to go from here.”
    As their glasses clinked, someone up at the front put a pristine vinyl disk on the record player.
    “You know,” Vinny smacked his lips together, “I’m pretty sure Lucky capped a guy right over there in that corner.”
    “Lucky?!” The lights dimmed and a spotlight snapped on. “Let me tell you a lil’ somethin’ ‘bout this guy ‘Lucky.’”
    From the front came an I-talian, Vinny had always told him to enunciate the I like a proper mans should, in a checkered olive and light yellow suit. He looked like the spitting image of Dean Martin, and on reflection maybe he was, or maybe he wasn’t, it was hard to tell.
    The man who was, and at the same time was not, Dino, snapped his fingers. “Hit me with a little beat Stevie!”
    Stevie was too slow on the draw, and Dino/not Dino chuckled, speaking out of the corner of his mouth, “looks like someone’s had a bit too much to drink tonight huh fellas?”
    Suddenly the room erupted with laughter, and as Lanius frantically turned his head looking for the source, his search was cut short by a sharp, stinging pain at the side of his skull, right below his left eye. Then came the realization that he was falling over.
    Somewhere in the lower recesses of Lanius’s mind, Stevie had finally found the beat, and Dean Martin started singing unmistakably. “How lucky could one guy be, I kissed her and she kissed me, like the fella once said, ‘ain’t that a kick in the head.’”
    Lanius was lying face down on the snow patted grains of sand that littered the town of Nipton. There was a brick within a few inches of his periphery, coated in what he could only imagine was his blood.
    Vulpes towered over him. “Whaddya hear, whaddya say?”
    Lanius found that his tongue had gone numb, his mind playing tricks on him in the from of a flock baby blue birds circling around his head.
    Vulpes took a silver pocket watch from around her neck. “It’s four forty five p.m. Whaddya hear, whaddya say?”
    Lanius reached for his nightstick, and Vulpes pressed her foot down on his hand hard enough for the bones in his fingers to bend backwards like a ballerina drunk on Cuban tequila.
    “Do you know the difference between choking and strangulation? Hm? Whaddya hear, whaddya say?”
    Vulpes crouched, closing the pocket watch and wrapping the chain around her hand. “One last time? Whaddya hear, whaddya say?”
    Lanius looked though her, the sun scampering behind a thick veil of gray clouds in the far out of reach distance.
    Vulpes wrapped the chain around Lanius’s neck, and it felt surprisingly cold for something that was kept so close to her heart.
    “Now,” she twisted the chain in a clockwise rotation, “how does the story go?” Vulpes paused, seemingly scratching her head in a bid to appear contemplative.
    “There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.” The chain tightened, and Lanius could no longer make out the baby blue birds circling his head. He saw only a dulling ebony blur: vultures.
    “He found a crooked sixpence, upon a crooked stile.” Lanius felt a sliver of blood pushing against his lips.
    “He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse.” His eyes bulged and a cracked copper bell started ringing in his ears.
    “And they all lived together,” Vulpes closed her eyes, and looked up to the sky, “in a little crooked house.”
    The constriction upon Lanius’s airways subsided, and he rolled onto his stomach. He outstretched both his arms and pushed himself up, salt and grain boiling in between his fingers. His mask fell to the earth amidst a fit of blood splattered coughing and desperate, eleventh hour gasps for air that seemed to exist in another plane of existence, opposite the one in which Lanius found himself unpleasantly residing in.
    Vulpes sneered imperialistically, wiping away the minute film of sweat along the bridge of her nose.
    Lanius rested on his knees, staring down Vulpes as defiantly as one would a firing squad-she found that rather quaint.
    “Dissent is not patriotic, it is treason. Whaddya hear, whaddya say?”
    “It’s a pity the things you see in this world without a gun. You don’t get paid enough for this Liana,” Lanius found it in himself to chuckle, “hazard pays garbage.”
    An insidious grin cracked her cheeks apart like those of the Cheshire Cat.; razor sharp teeth surrounded by the pitch, never ending void. “Top of the world’s a very inhospitable place,” she tilted her head ever so slightly to the left, fingers molding a mountain top out of thin air, “stay up there too long and you’ll freeze to death.”
    “You see, thing is, up there,” Vulpes clocked her tongue and pointed up towards the sky, “you thought you had a chance.” She pulled the clouds apart with her hands, revealing a faint speck of glistening sunshine. “Waaaay up in the fucking skies, you thought you had your finger on the pussy trigger. But hermano, down here,” Vulpes ran her hand through the white capped sand, “down here,” she grabbed a handful of ash and let it slide through her fingers like clear, liquid blue water, “you hit the ground.”
    If Vulpes had ever been offered a ticket to the moon, she crumpled it up, and whoever the peddler happened to be on that fateful day walked away with five brand new teeth lodged in their nasal cavity.
    Lanius experienced a strange amount of difficulty in being able to discern whether or not the spider pitter pattering along his spine was going to, or from, Vulpes.
    To, meant that every putrid word dripping from her sparkling, clear lips held no more meaning than the spit of a leper. While from, meant that every putrid word dripping from her sparkling, clear lips should be chiseled down on a stone tablet and submitted to the Vatican as pure, unadulterated gospel.
    While Vulpes could be branded a great many things, sparkling and clear stood out in a rather peculiar fashion under the light she painted herself, a leper or figure of the cloth suffered a tremendous strain clicking into place. A puzzle piece that should fit, and had every reason too, but didn’t. Lanius felt every blood cell in his head rush down to just below his ankles, like they were fleeing an impending strike of bright, sparkling clear lightning.
    Vulpes picked up the mask that lay sunken beneath the town of Nipton, sand had eclipsed both sliced out eye sockets , and there was a clean crack where the brick had made it’s mark.
    She held it in her hand and proclaimed, “My name is Ozymandias, King of kings: look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!” The visage shattered under her grasp, and returned to the earth in several indistinguishable pieces. Some small, and some large.
    Vulpes Inculta left what at one time, seemingly ages ago back before man possessed the ability to wield fire, appeared in passing to be the town of Nipton. Her only parting sentiment a snicker.
    When Lanius was sure she’d left for good, he got up on two shaky legs and followed her footprints east, before coming upon mile marker ninety three and noticing the pristine dent it had in the northeast quadrant.
    He carried himself north, back to the New Vegas Strip; past mile maker ninety four, and the invitation to once again visit Hoover Dam, and maybe do a few people a favor and kindly jump off it; past mile marker ninety five, and the gas station that only served to remind Lanius it had been nearly five hours since a single drop of water had relinquished the thirst currently pulling a coup on his oppressive ability to see, think, and walk straight.
    Mile marker ninety six was the opening act to a large orange billboard snidely advertising a free drink for every fifty chips won at The Tops Casino: “You’ll dig us baby, we’re The Tops.”
    Lanius collapsed to his knees at mile marker ninety seven, sand eroding in his wake, the sun in it’s last fleeting moments electing to taunt him. As Lanius slowly crumbled to the Mojave, the sun beamed a coy, cocky smile-laughing, rejoicing in the misery of yet another one of it’s victims. “This is some fucked up foreplay huh? I’ll take you bloody if you like, I like my meat rare.”
    Lanius closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he found himself on a train.
    Vinny sat across from him, grazing over the paper, swearing indiscriminately in a hushed whisper upon reaching the sports section. Vinny mumbled something about how his crippled uncle, Stephano, could play better ball than these “sorry lot ‘a fuckin’ queers.” As it were. Stephano fought the krauts, he told Lanius, thought the Panzer Division were a bunch of “pussies in short skirts,” who wouldn't know which end of a semi automatic the bullets came out of if you force-fed it to them in a cow patch a couple of mile makers south of the Polish border. Which Stephano did, Vinny assured, and like a proper man, didn't even break a sweat.
    Vinny closed the paper and yawned, tapping on the frosted window of the train. “It’ll be another few hours, you should get some more shut eye while you still can. I’ll wake ya when we get there.”
    Lanius turned to look at the rows of passengers behind them, all holding their passports like they were newborn babies delivered from the womb of the Virgin Mary herself. “We’ll get through border security, right?”
    Vinny went to shrug his shoulders, then, staring out the window, he just nodded. “Like the winter winds.”
    Lanius stood, stretching his arms out and a hearing a barely audible crack as his elbows snapped back into place. “Want anything from the breakfast car?”
    “Maybe a glass of juice, but only if they have orange, and only if it’s freshly squeezed. None of that bottled from the ass end of Hickville garbage they’ll try to sell you over the counter. Tastes like lukewarm piss.” Vinny picked his paper back up and flipped through till he found the funnies.
    Lanius traversed the train cars at an even pace, letting the life gradually spring back into his legs on it’s own borrowed time.
    With the sliding door to the breakfast car in arms reach, Lanius went to open it, only to be staggered back as it was abruptly ripped open from the other side.
    “Right,” went an Australian with a thick, grizzly, light brown beard, “‘ello gladiator. Or whatever the fuck your supposed to be. Holy Roman Empire fell two goddamn centuries ago and yet here you are, looking like an abominable twat, esquire.”
    Lanius recoiled, noticing the upper buttons on the man’s blue collared shirt were undone, and the brazen tattoo of an adult deer wrapped in roses with a little twinkling diamond perched incongruously above it’s head.
    “Buck,” Lanius nearly spat.
    “‘Ere I thought you’d be happy to see me, a silver lining- no! A Saving Grace,” he cackled like a deaf hyena, “now, I don't purport to know how you two do it, and christ knows I don’t bloody want to, but, diction and all that, he-he, just a saying is all don't get your knickers in a twist.”
    Behind Buck’s baby blue eyes a spot of twilight seeped through.
    “Right, right, right, I know the woods are lovely, dark and deep mate, but get the fuck up!”
    Lanius was back in the Mojave, with sand up to his wrists, and Buck lauding over him, looking almost saintly with the blue moon shining off him. “Come on Legate, Vegas was built on the bones of greater men than you.”
    Lanius took buck’s hand, “What time is it?”
    “Oh it’s way fuckin past your bedtime dearie. The train to Arstotzka left four hours ago. But don’t worry, I made sure to keep all the creepy crawlies from nesting in that dull anvil you call a skull.”
    Looking around, Lanius saw he was but a mere fifty odd feet from the pristine steel gate that led into New Vegas proper. Behind Buck was a medium sized cargo truck stuffed full of T.V.’s that looked older than the Roosevelt administration.
    “You drove me here?”
    “I did what?”
    Lanius motioned to the truck.
    “Oh, yeah, well, good karma and all that. You should bottle the stuff up, sell it over the counter like vitamins. You’d make a fucking packet!”
    Lanius stifled a laugh, “got any water in there?”
    “Water? You some kind of communist? I got,” Buck lifted himself up into the back of the truck and rummaged through a water cooler in between the T.V. sets, “some Sunset Sarsaparilla, ‘Build mass with sass,’ as it were.”
    Lanius shook his head, scratching his neck and getting dried up blood under his finger nails. “That’ll just make it worse.”
    “Worse? Yeah, cause the stuff’s just made of seawater. Suit yourself,” Buck closed the cooler and jumped off the truck, “I can get you a great line on a new T.V. if you like.”
    “I'll pass.”
    “Oh boo, Legate. Ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits? No, probably not, you don’t exactly take your coffee with cream these days. He-he. Don’t get your knickers in a twist, it’s very unbecoming of a man so goddamn full of himself.”
    Buck patted Lanius on the shoulder and went around to the passenger seat of the truck, coming back with a briefcase dipped in luminescence.
    “Got a little something for ya,” he popped open the briefcase to reveal fifty thousand platinum Lucky 38 poker chips, “consider it an investment."
    Lanius estimated the chips could get him half a million, easily, if played right. He looked at Buck, and his teeth were far too clean for there not to be a six inch serrated blade in his back pocket. “An investment in what?”
    “Saving Graces, looks to me like you could use a few yeah? Tell you what, take the case, then next time I see you, you’ll buy me a nice prime ribeye, and we’ll discuss the nature of favors, the ‘I scratch your back you scratch mine,’ mentality, and such things.”
    Buck winked, then dropped the briefcase in Lanius’s arms, leaning in close and whispering, “when you see Hoyt, give him my regards, would you kindly.”
    Buck skipped back to the truck, getting in and turning the ignition on to the sound of an entire orchestra pit being simultaneously tased. Lanius took the case in one dry cracked hand, and wiped the grain from his hair with the other.
    As Buck drove off, leaving a sandstorm in his wake, Lanius yawned, and began to ponder the extravagant cloth he’d have to weave in order to come up with an even half way decent lie to tell when asked about his day.
    Vinny had always wanted to go to Venice, and so did Lanius. It sounded perfect. Maybe a little too perfect, but that was alright. Lanius sat in a near empty terminal at LAX when he got a call. Uncle Vinny had a heart attack.



Chapter Text

 

“The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist.” -Barriers to Trans-Dimensional Travel, Robert Lutece

“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” -John Newton

    The view from the Presidential Suite of the Lucky 38 wasn't that bad, and Lanius didn't want it ever to be said that he didn't give credit where credit was due. From on high the Mojave Wasteland looked like the contents of a snow globe, except one filled with little grains of sand and not cutup Styrofoam. Lanius wondered what it would be like to shake the Mojave. To watch all the sand go flying up towards the sky and then come crashing down in a hailstorm. He wondered what lay buried beneath that wide, far as the eye could dare to comprehend, abyss.
    Maybe buried treasure? Though Lanius supposed he was a bit too old for that. Broken glass perhaps? Sandwich wrappers that people had let slip and be carried away by the wind?, because it’s not like anything actually lived out in the Mojave anyway. Except for all the scorpions, and the coyotes, and the rattlesnakes, and the occasional mountain lion that Lanius swore one day he’d track down to figure out just where those snarky little bastards kept coming from. Maybe it was nothing, nothing at all. Perhaps the silent expanse held no secrets, or legendarily long lost artifacts to find and keep from the clutches of the dastardly villain of the day.
    Lanius found the notion monumentally relieving, even if a bit banal.
    Down in Freeside, a delightful little suburb on the way to New Vegas Proper, Lanius could just make out a caravan of black SUV’s pull up alongside the Van Graffs parlor, The Silver Rush-Feel the rush of a warm laser in your hand- which acted as a more or less drive through armory. Across the street from the Lucky 38, Gomorrah-It’ll be our secret- was just opening for business, and provided the long sought after answer to the question: where can you go to cheat on your spouse during the day? Because getting a sitter in New Vegas is like trying to find a bear in the Vatican. Lanius wasn’t entirely sure that hadn’t at one time been their slogan.
    In the back alley behind The Tops, the Chairmen were throwing out the night’s trash after it’d gotten a chance to wake up after it’s hangover and go on stuttering for forty five minutes about how it must have left it’s wallet with all the functioning credit cards in it’s other pants, honest. The butcher’s van was parked outside The Ultra Lux, and Mr. Nancy stood by watching every slab come out, making overly exaggerated hand gestures almost every time, like he’d never seen a porterhouse or a rack of lamb before in his life. All Mr. Nancy needed was a little cracked pepper and a couple of sunny side up eggs and he’d start eating right then and there on the sidewalk.
    A fresh batch of tourists stepped goggle eyed off the monorail, cameras in their hands sucking up all the opulence the lenses could withstand without bursting and shattering into a million little glass fragments all over the street.
    Lanius felt dizzy. It wasn't from the height, his feet weren't particularly picky about where they walked in relation to where the ground was. Rather, it was more of a sixth sense kind of dread. The kind he got when he saw someone order something at a restaurant he had already tried and disliked, or when someone ahead of him in line at the movie theater bought tickets to a movie he’d already seen and found distasteful in every sense of the literal word. When Lanius saw fresh faces on The Strip, eagerly throwing around their life’s savings, or their retirement fund, or the money they so desperately cultivated to cure their child of some horrible disease they’d really love to tell you about for five hours on a packed one in the morning flight from Denver like it was nothing, he would despair.
    At first they might win a little. A few hundred here and there. Then they’d get daring, maybe bet a bit too much on a blackjack hand, and they’d lose. After that they never stopped. Until morning came, and the Chairmen pulled their limp, lifeless bodies from the roulette tables and threw them out onto the streets with a chipped tooth and a debt their great grandkids would be hounded day and night to pay until they found the George Washington Bridge Caesar always talked about and jumped off it. That’s how Don Gustavo ran The Strip.
    Lanius always found himself on the precipice of telling someone, whispering, or rather yelling in their ear to leave and take their money with them somewhere else. He wanted to tell them that no matter how good you thought you were at poker you could never win, because it was never a game even remotely held within the realm of skill. The House dictated where and when you lost, taking an almost perverse amount of pleasure in drawing it out. A group of dealers on their smoke break in the backroom would laugh till they cried watching a couple of newlyweds tearfully hand over their wedding rings to pay off an eight hundred thousand dollar tab at Texas hold ‘em.
    Lanius couldn't deny that on more than one occasion, he had laughed too.
    “Puppy?,” he heard the shuffle of angel’s feet in the bed behind him, “I’m cold.”
    Lanius went to the nightstand and took a pair of fluffy, purple cotton socks out of the drawer, and gently slipped them on her feet.
    “Better?,” he slid the few stray strands of hair behind her ear.
    Her cheeks beamed a bright sunny red as she stood up on the bed and wrapped her arms around his neck, “always better puppy.”
    Lanius held her for a while, rocking gently back and forth, even as he felt the first pangs of frostbite begin to set in. She pressed their foreheads together, and placed a kiss on each of his eyelids, “MINE.”
    The Lucky 38 cocktail lounge was bustling with hungry residents looking to scarf down a quick breakfast before the other shoe dropped and broke both their ankles. Lanius could tell the sort from ten mile markers away, they looked like junkies who just found out the white powder they’d been snorting all night was anthrax instead of cocaine.
    Lanius stood at the back of the line, hands in his pockets absentmindedly trying to straighten out a peppermint wrapper when the hostess came over and informed him that his table was ready.
    “I didn't make a reservation,” Lanius replied.
    “You didn’t,” said the hostess like she was trying to explain the laws of physics to a brain damaged two year old, “but your friend did.”
    Looking over her shoulder Lanius saw Buck sitting at a booth with his legs kicked up on the table, menu in one hand, the other waving him over.
    “Good morning darling,” Buck mused as Lanius sat down across from him, “I took the liberty of getting you a nice warm glass of cider, tis the season and all that. Not that you can ever bloody fucking tell what goddamn season it is out in this desert. I hate it out here, really I do, but, look at me here being a raging alcoholic narcissist, how are you doing Legate?”
    Lanius took a sip of the cider, finding the sweet coat of cinnamon around the edge of the glass a nice little touch. “Good,” he licked his lips, “thanks for the cider.”
    “Consider yourself welcome Legate,” Buck stretched his arms out over the back of the booth, surveying the room and greatly disapproving. “You know?, it’s the Lord’s day, and not a single one of these ne’er-do-well catholics has even set foot in a church. What a fucking disgrace.”
    Lanius took another swig of his cider, “there’s a church here?”
Buck scoffed, “of course there is. They made such a big fuss over the fucking thing and not a single one of them has ever stepped foot inside. I suppose that’s the way the world goes round though, bunch of people get all up in arms about something they don’t have, and absolutely must have, and it’s a crime against our lord and savior that they don’t already have it. Then, right, they get it, and never use it, or care about it, or even fucking thank you for it. People in this country are so fucking entitled it’s insufferable, like children, all they want is a pet hamster, and then two weeks after they get it-Bam! Dies of starvation.”
    The waiter came over and asked if the gentlemen were ready to order. “Oh yes me and my companion here are absolutely starving. I’ll have the bone in ribeye, rare, eggs poached, and a little Hollandaise sauce on the side. And,” Buck cross examined Lanius like he was on trial for the Kennedy assassination, “he’ll have a fresh blueberry muffin.”
    Buck handed over the menu and winked at Lanius, “sweet tooth’s nothing to be ashamed of Legate. We all got one. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, business. Way I remember it, you owe me a favor of sorts. Now, before you go shitting bricks, don’t worry, I’m not gonna ask you to rob The Tops or assassinate the governor, even though he’s a fucking prick and you’d probably be doing the whole world at large a service.”
    “So,” Lanius interlocked his fingers on the table, “what then?”
    “Patience Legate, long live the show remember? Today’s the sit-down, Hoyt’s no doubt pissing off the side of the Dam as we speak. Now, it would just so happen that our interests align. Your going to negotiate a deal, and I, stand to, shall we say, prosper, from that deal going your way. Never bet against the House as the man says.”
    “That’s it?”
    “That’s it Legate, all I want is for you to do your job. Easy as slicing apple pie, or however the fuck that saying is supposed to go. I want that juicy red prize wrapped in a silk ribbon, think you can manage that?”
    Lanius nodded, “of course. Then what?”
    “Then you and I are even Steven. Unless you want to take our relationship one step further, maybe get married, buy a little yellow house in the suburbs, have two, maybe three kids. Hm? You think about it Legate I don't need to know right now.”
    The waiter came with their breakfast, and just as Lanius had unwrapped his muffin, Buck had already downed the entire steak, using the spotless bone to clean his teeth.
    “Right,” he said gleaming at his wrist, “look at the time, I’ve got to go Legate. Important business to tend to, elsewhere. But, I wish you the best of luck.” He went into his breast pocket and threw a clear blue credit card down on the table, “on me Legate, for my poor table manners. We’ll have to do this again sometime, yeah, maybe a double date.”
    The name on the credit card was Joshua A. Graham.
    Buck got up and wiped a bit of egg off his chin.
    “Don’t you want your card back?” Lanius asked.
    Buck smirked, “what card?,” and then he left.
    Lanius tentatively ate his muffin, picking off piece after piece like he was sweeping the bottom of a trench for landmines. When the waiter came back, Lanius gave him Joshua A. Graham’s credit card to swipe. Not knowing what to do with it after that, Lanius put it in his pocket for safe keeping.
    Victor was in the casino smoking a cigar next to a couple of slot machines, his straw hat making him an almost ideal nesting place for zealous crows. “Mournin’ partner,” he said with a grin plastered onto his face by a shotgun blast, “got you somethin.’” Victor took a brand new mask out from behind him like he was proposing a harmonious union, Lanius was surprised he didn't get down on one knee and have a murder of doves fly out from the rafters.
    “Appreciate it,” Lanius fit the mask on, a little white paint dripping down his neck, “partner.”
    Victor took a drag of his cigar, blowing a thick ring of smoke out the corner of his mouth. “Caesar’s waitin’ for ya outside. Good luck today Legate, and be sure to smile, the whole world is watching.” Reflecting off Victor’s bright green iris’s was the little red beep of a security camera.
    Outside, The New Vegas Strip had the stench of a cigar lounge owned by John D. Rockefeller. Even the faintest whiff made Lanius’s lungs seal themselves in a quarantine chamber awaiting the CDC go ahead to once again breath free.
    Then there was Caesar, and all those with a similar vanity and salary. Caesar was at best a simple guy. When he went to fill up his car with diesel fuel, he liked to smell it first, maybe dip his pinkie in and give it a good taste. How else could he be sure?
    In neat gold letters embroidered with just a touch of glitter to give it a nice shine, was the Fink MFG brand on the cigar perched like a vulture in-between Caesar’s thumb and index finger. It wasn't lit, yet.
    “Presidential suite treating you nicely Lanius?” He asked without turning his head, which was currently surveying a middle-aged Asian man taking a bit too long organizing a family photo.
    “Any chance they can make it a bit warmer?”
    Caesar fumbled in his pocket for a little bronze lighter. “The chinaman, what’s his name?”
    “Mr. Lin, I think.”
    “Yes,” Caesar spoke with the air of a teacher not nearly convinced that the test he’d just collected hadn't been cheated on, “I believe your right. Mr. Lin, what does he owe?”
    “Fifteen to the French.”
    “Yes,” Caesar lit his cigar, “that sounds about right. Very astute Lanius, when we get back I’ll put a word in with The Chairmen. Can't have them getting complacent now, can we?”
    Lanius could not discern whether Caesar was referring to The Chairmen, or the tourists. “No, certainly can’t have that.”
    Caesar reached into his pocket and offered a cigar to Lanius, “fresh off the belt this morning. Not all of us have the luxury of sleeping late you know.”
    Lanius took the cigar, “thanks. Think I’ll save it for later though.”
    “Suit yourself.” Caesar blew a bale of smoke into the sky and began walking toward Freeside.
    Lanius followed. “So,” he stuffed the cigar into his pocket, “about the heat?”
    “Little one’s cold I take it?” Caesar didn't wait for a response, merely chuckled in a way that made Lanius uneasy, like he’d just been slapped on the back and couldn't tell if there was a ‘kick me’ sign now taped there. “I’ll put in a few words, don’t worry about a thing. Boys up in the lounge could always use a couple extra ice cubes in their glasses, know what I’m saying?”
    Lanius had no earthly clue. “Yeah, I hear ya.”
    They walked to the very edge of The Strip, where a little toll booth warded off any deadbeats with enough mass ordnance under the table to storm Normandy, as Caesar liked to put it, successfully. There was a guy at the booth who waved them through. Everyone called him Johnnycakes on account of the fact that his name was John, and he loved the red velvet cupcakes from this little bakery down in Boulder City.
    A beat-up, green as the grass in the valley Cadillac was waiting for them on the other side. Caesar took it upon himself to drive.
    Once they were out of Freeside and on the road, Lanius rolled down his window. “So,” he scratched at his neck, “what do we want?”
    “Well,” Caesar opened his window and flicked the cigar out, “power company just up and raised the charge of light on us, so that, for one. Can’t run a casino if all the slot machines are as dead as an anorexic at an all you can eat shrimp buffet.”
    “That where Hoyt comes in?”
    “No, that’s where the Micks come in. They got pull with Upper Management or so I’m told.”
    “And what do they want?”
    “Bullshit, and that’s what their getting.”
    “So where does Hoyt fit in?”
    “Not sure. Gus elected to keep that to himself, he’s been a bit busy making some calls out east, so he won’t be joining us. But I’m sure whatever Hoyt wants, he’ll make it readily apparent soon as we’re there. The power company is dead, long live the power company.”
    “Long live the power company.”
    Lanius believed Caesar to be genuine. The rare kind of genuine that appeared behind a vague veil to be deceptive, yet the air was trying too hard to mystify the syntax, and wound up revealing the truth: some information is infuriatingly kept from the privileged, and no matter how hard it may be to act like an all seeing, all telling oracle of divine providence and prophecy, in the end, the universal paradigm never changes. No man is good enough an actor to effectively, and proportionally, fool themselves and their undying audience.
    On the other hand, the so called Micks provided Lanius with a whole new set of precarious quandaries to ponder. Hoyt tended to tilt the balance toward lawful evil, anarchy for a price. The Wild Card took two fistfuls of lint out of his pocket and dumped it on the scale, demanding compensation in the form of liquidized, twenty four carrot gold brass knuckles that he’d use exactly once, before denting them and accidentally dropping them down a garbage disposal. Chaotic evil, anarchy for reasons only known by the little green pyromaniacs whispering in his inner ear.
    Pulling up to Hoover Dam, a place that hadn't seemed to change much since Lanius had last been there, it became evident that they were the last to show. A fact that Caesar seemed disproportionately irritated by as he slammed the Cadillacs door shut hard enough for the glass to crack like ice under a jackhammer. He muttered to himself all the way to the Welcome Center in varying tones of acceptance. “Grimy prick ‘ll never let me hear the end of this.”
    The Hoover Dam Welcome Center was built by a rough estimation of six and a half different architects of varying nationalities, creeds, and levels of public school education. Also taste, and courtesy, and sexual orientation in relation to their favorite Marilyn Monroe vehicle, and subsequent relation to which state prison their parasitic uncle Pompeii was currently residing in. Lanius went out on a limb and assumed Mule Creek.
    Sitting around a small wooden coffee table were three individuals playing poker, all with varying degrees of twinkling success and submissive humiliation.
    The man they called Hoyt, and who most closely resembled a wasp mid July, was sitting in a gray coat and red collared undershirt. The collar, and all the buttons from the ribs up, were undone, revealing a bare and almost crudely oiled up breastplate with nary a chest hair for consideration. Hoyt’s hair was slicked back with jet fuel and a gaudy silver chain was glistening around his neck. Lanius could make out the faintest twitch resonating from his left thumb, which inclined him to think that Hoyt was losing slightly more money than he’d anticipated in what was supposed to be just a causal, friendly game to pass the time.
    The Wild Card sat across from Hoyt, in blue overalls and a yellow undershirt that put him just a few hours off work and nine solid shots of brandy short of being off the clock. He was a clean shaven man, with cut black hair that couldn't possibly see the light of day in anything short of a gentle mid Autumn breeze. He wasn’t in as bad as Hoyt, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself rather nicely. Basking in a prideful glow typically only reserved for little league games and ending epidemics.
    At the head of the table, behind a steadily incrementing mountain range of chips with enough zeros to warrant a smaller font, was a little girl no more than fifteen with chipped black finger nails and coils of light brown hair. From the snarl etched with a finite icepick across her face to the curled lips laced with more venom than a den of copperheads, Lanius believed the game had been going in her favor long enough for the novelty to start wearing off.
    At the sound of Caesar’s affirmative ‘ahem,’ the girl cocked her eyebrows and laid down a hand full of aces. From the corner of club, spade, diamond, and heart.
    “Now,” went The Wild Card, as Hoyt scoffed and through his cards on the table, “how in God’s great green glamorous world did you mange that?”
    Lanius felt a familiar gelid pang wrap itself around his throat, as the girl’s desolate, pitch laden deadlights sized him up and sneered. “Cash out,” she said, cracking her knuckles and leaving the table for a more reclusive spot by the stairs leading up to the top of the Dam.
    Hoyt got up from his seat and stretched his arms out behind his head, opening up a side window west of the table, and taking in the air with a wave of his hand like he was sampling a fresh stew. “Ah, lovely weather we’re having wouldn't you say?”
    Caesar rolled his eyes hard enough that Lanius began to worry they might pop straight out of his head like balls in a pachinko machine. “Planning a parade already? You just got here.”
    Hoyt hunched over, slapping at his knee in the midst of a faux, hardy laugh. “Where does Gus keep finding you fucking guys? What ‘as he got out there? An entire warehouse chockfull of burly white men and their burly white dogs and a lot of leftover Halloween costumes?,” his laughter intensified, “ah, everything in business is so goddamn serious nowadays, but not you,” he pointed at Caesar, “no, no, no, no, no, your light as a fucking feather aren’t you? Caesar? You do know how that story ends don’t you?”
    “I’m not interested in stories Hoyt.”
    “Oh, really? Your calling the fucking shots now? Is that fucking it? Then why am I here?”
    “Look, Hoyt, I don’t tell you how to run twelve year olds out of Pripyat, don’t tell me how to run The Strip.”
    “But you don’t run The Strip do you? Fucking imbecile! You, are a glorified fucking busboy! It is by my royal decree that your head isn’t impaled on the antenna of my car! Therefore, I would prefer to do business with your associate here.” The whole room shifted it’s watchful gaze toward Lanius. “The one who knows when its proper to shut his fucking mouth.”
    “Okay, Hoyt,” Caesar backed down as eloquently as one could after getting up on stage and putting on an all black nativity production for a fundamentalist Christian and a militant atheist, “okay, alright.”
    “Fantastic!,” Hoyt clapped his hands together, “I really am loving this weather. So much sand. So much barren wasteland. I smell opportunity, and you know what that means.” Hoyt took his seat. “Now, shoo, off with you. Let the grown men discuss business.”
    Caesar left, though in later retellings of the days events he would likely swear it was by his own accord, and not out of the fear of being impaled on a tacky motor vehicle antenna.
    “Someone really needs to beat some goddamn sense into that boy. You up for it?,” Hoyt asked as Lanius sat down at the newly vacated head of the table, “or shall I get my nine iron?”
    Before Lanius could contemplate an answer, which he assured himself would have been no, Hoyt chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, I haven't practiced my swing in ages anyway.”
    Hoyt shuffled the cards, making sure to check the fronts, backs, and four corners of each ace; Lanius could hear the little lady by the stairs snickering after each flip.
    The Wild Card cleared his throat, “so,” he offered his hand to Lanius, “courtesy than.”
    “Courtesy, I’m Lanius,” they shook hands.
    “Pleasure, I’m Atlas.”
    “Really?,” Hoyt interjected, “already?”
    Atlas waved his hand dismissively, thus torpedoing the debate, “ignore him. He’s recently been forced to declare bankruptcy. Now, do feel free to correct me if I’m wrong boyo, but is there any reason I would be familiar with the all too uncommon name Lanius?”
    “No,” Lanius smiled a cheap dollar store smile, already feeling the all too familiar feeling of his airways constricting, “not that I can think of.”
    Atlas rubbed his chin like a forensic analyst in the back room of a China Town butcher shop. “No boyo, I’ve heard a lot of names in my day, seen a lot of faces too-”
    “Careful,” Hoyt chimed in.
    Atlas glared, “would you kindly mend your fucking cards Hoyt. Now, like I was saying, you stand out like a cardinal in drag. You gotta come from somewhere, let’s here it. Courtesy and all.”
    Lanius cleared his throat for what felt like enough time for the tide to come in down the coast, sweep his body up and out into the Pacific, and have it down in Brisbane just in time for happy hour. “I was, out in Barclay, ‘fore making my way out here.”
    Atlas nodded his head in agreement, “Barclay, now we’re getting somewhere boyo. Ever make your way up to Pointe Verdun? I know we have an adverse reputation of torching people’e cars and making homophobic slurs, but, that never stopped the English, did it?”

    Pointe Verdun on New Years was like wading through an urban housing district flooded with emerald dyed vodka. The Real Irish Republican Army stumbled out from under every rock and cobweb strewn crevice slurring: “When boyhood’s fire was in my blood, I read of ancient freedom…” They tended to over enunciate the r’s like a disenfranchised contractor working for the British East India Trading Company.
    Lanius avoided passing through even when the streets didn't have a blood alcohol level high enough to make Foster Brook’s liver implode in a flurry of confetti and dime store cigarettes.
    In the dead of night, four in the morning for them, Lanius had been told, rather curtly in a domesticated Sicilian accent, that there were just some things in life you didn’t have a fucking say in. Name and salary among them.
    The street lamps twitched more than a schizophrenic on speed, and upon looking down at his waterlogged boots, Lanius resolved to burn them once he was done as it surely had to be easier than trying to polish them.
    Inside Little Mickey’s, named after the vertically impaired Champion of Waterford, the habitué’s were nearly bursting at the seems with yeast and flatbread curdling in their stomachs. Despite crashing to the floor with as much frequency as a commercial airliner with Sumo wrestlers duct taped to each wing, they still managed to string enough vowels together to construct another lyric: “For Greece and Rome who bravely stood, three hundred men and three men…”
    Lanius crossed the street, passing by a dilapidated steakhouse, The Cut Above, previously owned by the presently deceased Roman “Fat Grease” Barbieri: Aka The Ravioli in Chief; Aka The Slippery Salami; Aka The Pudge Prosciutto; Aka the man was unfathomably fucking fat. They found him buried twenty feet below the canal in the trunk of a bullet ridden Ford Cortina. Every single bone in his legs seemingly run over by a titanium, diamond encrusted, steamroller several times if only to make a point. The meat in Pointe Verdun was never served a crisp above medium well.
    Lanius could feel it in the air, smell it too, a salt water wash suffused throughout the imported Swedish carpet. The hooks in the meat locker still swayed back and forth in the late night breeze like a Kruger brand wind chime. In a fissure beyond the cracked void between the war torn battlegrounds of time and space, classical music played. One man in a tux pure as driven snow, and one woman in a glittering amethyst dress, waltzed throughout a barren ballroom.
    Lanius had only ever cried twice before in his relatively short, by comparison, life. Yet on that starry night in Pointe Verdun, basking in the merry glow radiating from Little Mickey’s tavern, Lanius started to cry. “And then I prayed I yet might see, our feathers rent in twain…” Even as the choir spiked, cheering loud enough to be heard all the way down in the thick of Delray Hollow, Lanius was not yet strong enough to regain control of anything, let alone himself.
    Why are you here?, He asked himself, When she’s waiting for you there.
    Lanius hadn't expected an answer. He expected for that question, along with so many others, to simply go unanswered. He would have been fine with it. Instead, the silence saw fit to provide him an answer in the form of a five foot two constable representing Scotland Yard’s finest being thrown out a plate glass window further along down the street. Lanius wasn't entirely sure he hadn't jumped out of his own skin at the sound of crackling glass.
    “And Ireland, long a province, be. A nation once again!” Little Mickey’s tavern undoubtedly kept singing long into the night, but Lanius did not hear them.
    The constable lay flat on his back amidst a blanket of broken glass, like a turtle ripped from it’s shell. A figure emerged from the battered pharmacy he’d been hurled out of. Stepping into the glow of the pale moonlight, the figure was revealed to be bald, with a little penciled in mustache ghosting his upper lip. He pressed his foot down onto the constables neck, and it took a full forty nine seconds for Lanius to hear an audible crack.
    For a beat the two of them just stood there. Trying to avoid acknowledging the other. Finally, the bald man wiped a smudge of what appeared to be ink from his chin, and addressed Lanius in a thick Brooklyn accent. “Yeah?! So fucking what?!”

    Hoyt had finished shuffling the cards to his satisfaction.
    “I’ve been up there a few times,” Lanius replied, “it’s like a home away from home.”
    Atlas burst into a fit of laughter. “Bull-fucking-shit. Nobody likes Pointe Verdun-even the fucking people who live up there don't like the bloody place. It’s a right fucking cesspool filled with moldy chowder and weak mead. I despise every single slab of concrete comprising the sidewalk, and I actually own a house there… Well, three walls and a chimney anyway. I appreciate the effort though Lanius, shows commitment.”
    “Committed,” Lanius scratched his neck, “to making sure the lights are still on start of the month.”
    “Oh!,” Atlas feigned a crippling blow to the sternum, nearly being hurled from his chair and out the window of the Hoover Dam Welcome Center, down into the murky depths of the liquid abyss below. “Would you look at that pivot! What marksmanship! Such tenacity! Boyo, with a silver tongue like that you could start a war.” The room suddenly grew very quiet, the faint hum of hydraulics providing the Welcome Center a starch ambiance. “But,” Atlas continued, “you wouldn't want to do a thing like that, would you boyo? No, I don't think you would. Now, whaddya say we bang out a deal right now, yeah? Get you home in time for the five o’ clock mass.”
    “What’d you have in mind?” Lanius asked hesitantly.
    “So glad you asked, most folk these days don’t take the time. You see, I was running the numbers on my gallant stroll over here, and thought to myself: ‘wow, what a nice, round, whole number twenty percent is.’ Whaddya think?”
    Lanius shifted in his seat, “twenty percent on?”
    “Zeros Lanius,” Atlas looked almost offended by the question, “Ones and zeros. Twenty is my number, she’s always treated me right. Take it or run The Strip off windmills and toaster ovens. And, don't concern yourself with the logistics, would you kindly. Gus can manage.”
    “Twenty percent,” Lanius pictured the number. It did look nice, certainly round, and Gus could manage, he was sure of that. “For the year?”
    “For the year. Hell, I’ll even throw in two weeks in January. Now, that’s a fair deal boyo if I ever saw one. Shake on it, would you kindly.”
    Atlas held out his hand; there was dust under his finger nails, and a speck of something green on his palm. Lanius was about to cement the deal, when behind him the little lady snorted, “fucker.”
    Lanius turned; she was playing solitaire with her own deck of Egyptian themed cards.
    “Oh,” Atlas chuckled passive aggressively, like if there was no one else in the room he would have ripped the girls two front teeth out with a bear trap, “the Devil in all but name and salary. I’d wager she wants to impale me on an ocean liner piston taint first, but that’s just her way. You know how violent the kids are today. Too much T.V. if you ask me, rots their brains wholesale. Like rat poison in you lemonade. Tell you what, make me an attractive enough offer, and I’ll wrap the brat in a silk ribbon.”
    The Devil didn't seem to find that remark in the least bit funny; nevertheless, Atlas continued. “Now, where were we…”
    “Right,” Hoyt shook his head disapprovingly, “your such a banal fucking businessman. Oh! I got it! Poker! Yes, yes, yes, step right up, let’s have a game. It has been absolute ages since I’ve played, so, that makes me sharp as a rock come Christmas morning. What about you, Atlas, gamble a little, would you kindly.”
    “We were in the goddamn middle of something here Hoyt,” Atlas snarled, “I didn't fly five thousand fucking miles to play poker!”
    “Ugh! A fucking pragmatist. It doesn't suit you.”
    “Look, we’re all here to-”
    “Make a buck!,” Hoyt exclaimed. “That’s all any of us are fucking here to do, you goddamn green blooded moron! Now shut the fuck up, I will not have any sore losers before the game has even started.” Hoyt took the deck of cards and slid them across the table to Lanius. “You, Legate, cracked Roman foot soldier in his imperial majesty’s fucking navy-”
    “Army,” The Devil corrected.
    “Army, navy, girl scout troop who the fuck cares?” Hoyt shrugged it off. “Deal.”
    Lanius picked up the cards, dealing himself, Hoyt, and Atlas two each. The latter of whom almost ripped them in half. He then placed four cards on the table, facing up: the queen of hearts, the three of spades, the seven of diamonds, and the nine of clubs.
    Lanius looked down at his cards. In his hand were the nine of spades, and the jack of clubs.
    Hoyt went to pass him a stack of scorpion themed chips, “so, how much does Gus pay you?”
    Atlas looked one check away from popping a blood vessel. “For christ sake Hoyt-”
    “Okay,” Hoyt set up the chips in a neat little tower, “bear with me for just a second.” He took a dainty pink handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed his forehead, smiling at the Irishman and taking a deep breath in and out. Then he methodically folded the handkerchief back up, smoothing out the edges to make sure they didn't crease, and slipped it back into his pocket. The initials M.V. were embroidered in the bottom right corner.
    “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” Hoyt kicked his chair half way across the room, nearly leaping over the table and going right for the jugular. “Didn't your whore of a mother ever teach you some proper manners?! If I direct a question to you, answer. If I ask HIM a question, I do not want to hear one fucking syllable come out of that thick, repugnant brew you call exhaled carbon dioxide!”
    Atlas appeared to shrink somewhat in size; almost elusively to the naked, untrained eye.
    Lanius placed another card face up on the table: the four of hearts. “It all depends on the night, really.” He replied, once Hoyt seemed to calm down, and the veins in his neck went back to a more relaxed, oceanic state.
    Hoyt crossed the room and retrieved his chair; sitting back down and perusing his cards like they were pages in the last written manuscript by the prophet himself.
    “I don't know how you put up with these people, really I don’t. Their so rude, and crass. No amount of respect built into the bone marrow. You know, maybe you’ll actually appreciate this little anecdote. I once did business with a man out of Prague. He was a real lanky fellow, looked like if you so much as sneezed he’d blow away and out to sea. We were taking a stroll through the residential district, looked more like a Gulag to me, but, what the fuck do I know? That’s all people get homesick for these days, that and famine. So, we’re walking, and up on our left, or perhaps it was out right, either way, we came across a pie shop. Can you believe that? A pie shop! Oh, the things you’ll see abroad. I mean the minute you stepped inside, all that powered dough and fresh fruit, sweet custard filling, and an absolutely delectable caramel drip. Do you know what caramel smells like Legate? No?… didn't think so. Well, I won't ruin it for you. Just in case you ever manage to excavate all that sand from your ears.
    Looking around the shop, I spied a nice pumpkin crumb pie, and thought to myself: ‘I MUST sample a piece of that pie before I go, it would be an affront to humanity itself if I didn’t.’ I walked up to the counter, and there was this dainty little bell. So, with my index finger, I gently pressed down, and off went a little ‘ding.’ This lovely young dark skinned girl came out, couldn't have been more than twenty, twenty one years old, born and raised in the Czech Republic all her life. I could tell by the way her big brown eyes hadn't quite, popped, yet.
    I pointed out the pumpkin crumb pie, and asked for a piece. She went over to the case, unlocked it with a little key she’d had around her waist, and carved out a nice, warm slice. She placed it on a fine chinamen’s plate, with a line of whipped cream, and some caramel drip. Now, before digging in, I turned to my associate and asked him if he’d like to join me. To be courteous, and sympathetic, naturally, the man needed some meat on his bones. He said no, politely. And you see that’s the thing about these goddamn foreigners, their all so painstakingly polite. But, he didn't want any, so I said: ‘fine, guess I’ll eat the whole thing myself.’ Because it was a rare occasion you see, I’ve never eaten pumpkin crumb pie, in a pie shop, in Prague before- and neither has anyone in this entire fucking desert!
    Suffice it to say my mouth was salivating with anticipation. I raised my fork, and grabbed the perfect piece. I mean!, PERFECT! The ratio of pie to cream to drip was impeccable! It was positively unfathomable! And yet, there was something wrong. I felt the encroaching sense of a guinea striding towards the members only section of a country club with a silenced colt in one hand and a ballpoint hammer in the other. I turn, and there is my associate, pointing a silenced colt at the back of my head. The pie was but a mere fragmented illusion. This associate of mine, he was the boss you see, thought since it was by his decree that I had to die, he should be the one to pull the trigger. Man couldn't keep his fucking hand straight. Sweat was pouring down his forehead, his cheeks were flush, and his eyebrows were fluttering like arthritic pigeons.
    So!, like any pure blooded connoisseur of the finer things in life, I ate the piece of pie off my fork, and then jammed it in my associates eye. It was positively scrumptious, I must say so.
    The girl behind the counter was petrified. You’d have thought I just breathed fire out of one of my nine heads. So now I’m contemplating: do I kill her?, do I let her go?, do I offer her a job?, do I buy her dinner?, maybe a nice little cottage off the coast of Maine?, what the fuck do we name our kids?, what should I wear to meet the parents- ugh. But then, then she did something unexpected. She slid the skeleton key to the pie shop over the counter. Now that!, that, takes brass balls.
    A life for a pie shop, what would you call that, Legate? I mean it sounds fucking ridiculous- what do you make of that? Implausibility? A saving grace?”
    Lanius all but felt his head detach from his body and roll off the side of the Dam.
    “You see,” Hoyt licked his lips, “I’m a reasonable man. I understand the idealism behind free enterprise. It’s profitable, very much so. And do you know why?”
    “It’s universal,” Lanius answered timidly.
    “Isn’t that fucking amazing?! I want in. I think that’s the least you can do, after fucking me over and all. You weren't very gentle Legate, didn't even leave me a number to call. Megan said I should kill you. Be grateful I tuned her out. Way I see things, the ‘I scratch your back you scratch mine’ mentality is fermenting. So, tell me, what does that jackal fucking cave man want?”
    Lanius scratched his neck, and when he pulled his hand back he found blood under his finger nails. “The lights on, I don't know why.”
    “Well then,” Hoyt beamed like a matchmaker that just set up a Palestinian oil baron with an Israeli pharmaceutical baron, “let’s trade favors. Atlas turns the lights on on at the The Strip, painting the town in a velvety, golden silk.”
    Atlas jumped up from his seat, throwing his cards on the table in a fury. “And just why the fuck would I do that?!”
    “So prohibition doesn't get reinstated across this malnourished pisshole you call a republic! Now sit the fuck down.”
    This time when Atlas shrunk back down, it was entirely noticeable to the naked, untrained eye. He had a look in his eye that gave Lanius the impression Hoyt had proved to be a much more versatile opponent then originally anticipated. Calculations were running through Atlas’s head at a rate far beyond the primitive perception of time in relation to speed. Next time, his eyes assured, the same mistakes wouldn't be made twice. At the foot of his middle finger was the six of diamonds and the six of clubs.
    “Where was I?,” Hoyt continued, “Oh, yes, you, Legate. You’ll head out to Novac, meet that dyke, what’s her name?…” Hoyt snapped his fingers “…the cunt with the pink hair?” The Devil merely shrugged. “Ah, fuck it. You can’t miss her. Go down there and she’ll help you put a marketing plan together for your, saving graces.
    Lanius laid his cards down on the table, and Hoyt chuckled, “well, would you look at that!,” revealing his to be the jack of hearts and the nine of diamonds, “we have the same cards.”
    Hoyt got up and sat on the table next to Lanius, leaning down close enough for him to hear sizzling egg yolks and burnt toast on the tip of his tongue. “First ones free Legate. Next time,” Hoyt clocked his tongue and pointed a little finger gun at Lanius’s temple, “I drive a bullet through your fucking skull.”
    There was a small part of Lanius that wished Vulpes had just gotten it over with and strangled him to death in Nipton, and it showed.
    “Now, don’t look so glum Legate,” Hoyt patted him on the shoulder, ‘this’ll all be as painless as a root canal, if your lucky.”
    Hoyt strode to the door leading back out into the Mojave Wasteland and kicked it open, startling Caesar and almost sending him jowls first into the dusk hour sand. “I really am loving this weather we’re having. I think I’ll plan a parade.”

    Caesar didn't utter a single word the entire way back to The Strip. The sit-down had gone, by all accounts and the mere fact that no one got bludgeoned to death within in an inch of their life with a club made of their own frozen egotism, well. The lights were still on; something Lanius crossed his fingers and hoped really, really hard couldn't be disputed. Then again, chaos theory dictated that at least one person with a busted out nineteenth century light bulb would naturally blame him for all the evil in the world at the time, alongside Mumm-Ra and lead in the water pipes.
    When he was a child, everyone had always told Lanius he should get outside more. They assured him with varying levels of interest and enthusiasm that the wide open expanse waiting for him outside the front door was safe and hospitable. He was to pay no mind to the copperheads, and the black bears, and those pesky mountain lions that got little old boy George last year. Which, to be honest, was his own goddamn fault, but Lanius was also assured that it wasn't appropriate to say that in public spaces, such as funeral parlors.
    All these assurances had been, unbeknownst to those peddling them, muffled by the sound of audible Mercury and microwaved popcorn.
    Then there’d been a year when his aunt’s, best friends, sisters, daughter didn’t know what to get him for his birthday. Lanius had only wanted cash, but chaos theory dictated that somewhere on god’s great green glamorous world, the word cash had been mixed and matched to the point that on his birthday, Lanius was gifted a potted rose.
    Man couldn't afford the luxury of being picky, and Lanius had fully internalized the concept long before it became popular. So he stayed up all night staring at the rose, and by morning he’d come to the most profound conclusion any living organism with opposable thumbs and a functioning vertebrae had made since the inception of electricity- and even that white noise paled in comparison. Lanius had deduced roses possessed red petals.
    Instead of accepting his Nobel prize to the sound of trumpets blaring loud enough to put the sound barrier in a wheelchair, Lanius removed the rose from it’s pot, and planted it in his backyard.
    Everyday Lanius would go and water his rose. He would build little forts of twigs and rocks to keep the ants away. Sometimes he would sit outside for hours reading The Catcher in the Rye because someone had once told him that reciting the single piece of literature responsible for all those pesky workplace massacres you hear about on the evening news, helps it grow. Yet no matter how much he read, or how diligently he watered, or how high he built his forts, every week the rose had fewer and fewer petals.
    When there were no more petals left, Lanius went to call his aunts, best friends, sisters, daughter.
    “Why?” His mother asked.
    With tears welling up behind his eyes, Lanius had balled his hands into fists, and said in as dignified a monotone as he could muster, “to apologize.”
    Years later, Lanius had found out his mother had been spraying pesticide in the backyard.
    The car suddenly came to a halt at the edge of Freeside. Johnnycakes waved them through, and Caesar let Lanius out in front of the Lucky 38.
    Buck was there, looking genuinely surprised to see Lanius still possessed two arms and all ten of his fingers. “You,” he said, “are the best poker player, I have ever met. I need a drink.” Buck winked as he crossed the street and made his way into The Tops Casino, leaving several Chairmen with a look of concern one would only ever have if they just saw a thirty foot Boa Constrictor slither into a daycare center for the hearing impaired.
    Past the watchful, ever present glare of the platinum chips malevolent regime, built on golden bones laced with gaudy emerald rings and ruby necklaces, a church bell rang. Yet no one payed it any mind, like a tadpole in a bird bath, except Lanius, who was seen standing stock-still like a man paralyzed from drinking water pumped straight out of Chernobyl.
    It was an inconsequentiality to them, but Lanius felt obliged to at least see this capstone of higher power with his own two eyes. All the while Mr. Nancy was watching him from the balcony of the Ultra Lux, a cigar in one hand and a glass of pure as absinthe brandy in the other.
    This compulsion lead Lanius into the roundtable of Nowhere; a place where all the seedy, cockroach infested motels could hold court, far away from prying eyes. It all used to mean something. That was all Lanius could think of once he was confidently out of Mr. Nancy’s line of sight. Though what exactly that something was, he couldn't remember.
    Nowhere was the old New California Republic territory Don Gustavo was too lazy to burn down. Signs of the Bear were all around him, like specters of the sloth. Their crumpled and tattered flags lay in heaps on almost every corner, with piles of disheveled ashes on the others. There had once been talks of expanding The Strip into Nowhere, but Don Gustavo didn't have the endurance to withstand the rabble rousers at the time, who defended the slum like it was the final resting place of of their entire bloodline. Though recently they’d seemed to quite down somewhat, reigniting entrepreneurial endeavors that almost always ended with a firm red stamp from Don Gustavo as a waste of time, namely his. Lanius didn't know what happened to the insurgents, just like he didn’t know what happened to Joshua A. Graham. All Lanius was aware of were his two front feet, and where they were in relation to the rest of his body. Vulpes had recently gotten a bonus, but that didn’t mean anything worthwhile. It never did.
    The doors to the church were wide open, and Lanius ascended the concrete steps to find rows and rows of master crafted mahogany benches empty, not a even dust mouse to preach it’s daily, court-mandated amount desolation.
    “I know,” the flash of a bright, gold eagle stunned Lanius where he stood, at the threshold of the greatest Ponzi scheme ever devised by man, “but it’s the only game in town.”

    Sight returned to Lanius in the form of dark, blue letters spelling out: Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His feet were immersed in shallow, slowly floating water. To his right was a man in a pair of dense denim jeans, with a black vest and a gray undershirt.
    “Booker,” Lanius said, “You know this fucking guy?”
    Booker scratched at his five o’ clock shadow, his hand diligently sweeping over the leather brown holster that housed his company brand hand cannon. “Runs the Arizona chapter, the passive aggressive kind.”
    Lanius scoffed, “worst kind there is.”
    Booker neatened his worn crimson tie; bloodshot hazel eyes and unkempt hair revealing another bout with a dissatisfied customer. “Alright you know the fucking drill. Don't eyeball anyone, don’t make polite conversation, and don’t drink the fucking tea.”
    Lanius and Booker were at the top most pinnacle of the New Eden Church in Columbia. Statues lined each columned hall; some depicting a prophet like figure cloaked in robes and holding a new born baby up to the heavens, others depicting a guardian like bird vigilantly watching over the proceedings with eyes that seemed to follow the pair as they walked. Stain glass windows filtered in the sunlight; reflecting pictures off the water of the prophet shielding the new born baby from the clutches of an insidious demon. The demon appeared in the nude, noseless, jawless, and lipless, coated head to toe in blood, with multiple limbs protruding out of it’s hideously contorted body. An inhumanly long, pulsating tongue made to grab the child from the prophet's arms, but the guardian bird appeared to fight it off, driving it back down to the sodom below.
    Each alcove Lanius and Booker passed on their way down to the lower levels of the church was filled with hundreds of prayer candles and offertory gifts of stuffed lions and rock candies.
    “What does he want?” Lanius asked.
    “The Rapture,” Booker chuckled wearily, “I don’t know. Guess we’ll have to find out.”
    In the central chamber of the church were dozens of Columbia’s denizens dutifully praying in their long white robes. A man at the head of the flock was chanting along with them: “Will the circle be unbroken. By and by, by and by? Is a better home awaiting. In the sky, in the sky?”
    Lanius gave Booker a cautionary shrug, then proceeded to follow him deeper into the horde.
    “This place is supposed to be empty,” Booker whispered, “something’s not right.”
    “That our guy at the head?,” Lanius asked.
    “Yeah,” Booker didn’t sound convinced of a single word leaving his mouth, “appears to be.”
The chanting began to settle down as the crowd made way for Lanius and Booker to reach the man at the head. He was a priest; black clergy shirt and matching pants, belt, and shoes to prove it. He was a tall, slim, middle-aged man, with a receding black hairline and big, round, brown eyes. There was a large birthmark on the priest’s forehead, and the longer Lanius gazed into it the more he began to resemble the prophet carved into all the sculptures and recorded in all the windows.
    “Father,” Booker had the air of a man about to ask a lion if it wouldn’t mind taking his head out of it’s mouth, “you rang?”
    The priest smiled, “yes,” he motioned for them to come closer, Lanius in particular. “Something ails you my child?”
    Lanius scratched at his neck, “I’m fine, father. Was there, something we could do to help you?”
    One of the flock grabbed onto Lanius’s arm, ripping his sleeve and revealing a brazen, vermillion tattoo of a bull.
    The entire crowd seemed to gasp without making a sound.
    Lanius could hear Booker mutter: “Oh fuck.”
    “Your not evil my child,” the priest advanced on Lanius, “just confused.”
    The flock closed in around them; heads bowed and arms rigid at their sides.
    “The Lord sent you to me child. You have been strayed far away from his light. Allow me to heal you, to purify you in the blood of the lamb!”
    The flock grabbed onto Lanius and pushed him down towards the water.
    “Loutermilch!, you son of a bitch!” Booker attempted to push his way through the crowd. “Enough of this!” He reached for his hand cannon but was restrained in the process.
    Father Loutermilch towered over Lanius with a pair of beige beads in one hand and a book that wasn't the Bible in the other. “Be still my child, evil will harvest from you no longer!”
    The flock had completely submerged Lanius under water that slowly started to bleed all around him. Booker had been seemingly knocked unconscious, and was being dragged out by his ankles. The ceiling began to collapse in on itself, and with his last few deposits of oxygen, Lanius saw Father Loutermilch rip his jaw apart.

    Standing in the middle of Nowhere, on the precipice of thought itself, Lanius went to take a foot inside the church.
    “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” he felt a strong grip pull him back before his foot had time to land, “careful with your footing Legate.”
    Lanius turned to see the hulking gorilla of a man, “Monsieur Mallah, evening. Have a good night?”
    Mallah smacked his lips. “Of course, and yourself?”
    “The Irishman made a deal,” Lanius stuffed his hands in his pockets, “that should keep the lights on for a little while longer.”
    “Ah, I see.” Mallah greatly disapproved. “The Yes-Man as it were, this does not surprise me. You should have made a deal with us instead Legate, we’d have bought the power company. Cut out the middle man.”
    “Next time, Monsieur Mallah, I’ll keep that in mind.”
    Lanius stepped down from the church steps and started back the way he came.
    “Looking for a spot of work Legate?,” Mallah called, “surely The Strip can last a few hours without your, illustrious presence.”
    Lanius stopped in his tracks, “what kind of work?”
    Monsieur Mallah walked up beside him and leaned down, “come by Gomorrah when you’ve time to spare,” he spoke in a hushed whisper, “I’ll show you, we have a, situation, to defuse.”
    Monsieur Mallah continued up the street and back out onto The Strip. Lanius fumbled in his pocket for the cigar Caesar had given him, and placed it in between his thumb and index finger. He looked back towards the church, and once he was convinced there was no one watching him, flicked the cigar to the ground and stamped on it.

    When Lanius had finally awoke hours later in the Garden of New Eden, the bull on his arm was gone. There was no sign of Booker anywhere; just an empty bench with the Devil sitting on it, her legs impatiently crossed.
    “There once was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile. He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile. He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse. And they all lived together in a little crooked house.” The Devil leaned forward, baring her pristine white teeth, placing her chin in the palm of her hand, titling her head ever so slightly to the left, his right. “Father Loutermilch once raped a girl, then threw her down a flight of stairs after realizing she wasn't taking birth control. The papers will tell you little Jessica Grey hung herself, but the truth is Father Loutermilch pulled a myriad of strings to stage her suicide.” She got up and walked over to Lanius, kneeling yet still finding a way to look down on him. “The problem isn't that there are evil people in the world, the problem is that there are good people. Otherwise, who the FUCK would care?”

Chapter Text

 

“Debt is the slavery of the free.” -Pubilius Syrus

“It is the sign of a weak mind to be unable to bear wealth.” -Seneca the Younger

    Through the optimistically pure eyes of a child, Legate Lanius’s driveway resembled a thirty foot highway made entirely out of Tic Tac’s. The Rainbow Road had never looked so real and inviting, and on reflection, it undoubtedly never would again. When the weather wasn't being it’s usual passive aggressive self, which is to say making the local weatherman look like a coked up middle school biology teacher, Lanius would lug a lawn chair out of his enormously disproportionate to the rest of the house garage, and ‘pop a squat’ as it were.
    It was in that time, with a glass of lemonade in one hand and a half melted Twix bar in the other, that Lanius felt a serene sense of self-awareness. He knew where he was, who he was with, and above all else he knew that bar a tactical carpet bombing or strategic invasion of star spangled Bengal tigers, there wasn't a thing in the world that could get him to leave that chair.
    There’d been an afternoon when his father had come outside, pat him on the back and said: “Champ, there’s this real friendly little lady come by the house just now looking for ya, said she was in your math class. There anyway I can pry you away to say hello, just for a bit?”
    Lanius didn’t know why on reflection his father had a tangy, deep fried southern accent, but he just did, like a tiny little orange umbrella in your margarita. He also suspected that by friendly, his father had meant top heavy.
    At the time Lanius had been at least ninety percent sure he knew who his dad was talking about. She was no doubt a brunette, with just enough meat on her bones to keep the coroners away for another day. She was probably wearing a skirt that didn't leave too much to the imagination, other than that without a decent tour guide and a flamethrower he’d never find his way back out. Her lips were unquestionably coated in a color best described as Mars draped in aluminum foil, and she must have positively radiated enough perfume to drown a hippopotamus. Her name most likely began with an ‘M’ and ended with an ‘A’. Maria or Marisa or Melissa or god forbid Maruccia.
    Lanius used to wonder if his life would be any different had he gotten up from his lawn chair and cordially greeted Maria or Marisa or Melissa or whatever overused name her parents had sicced on her. Then he would typically chuckle to himself, because that was funny to little ten year old Lanius, just as it was funny to now all grown up Lanius.
    “No,” he’d replied to his father, taking a sip of lemonade like he’d just ordered a hit out on his two-timing son-of-a-bitch uncle Dominique, who owed more money than the ‘Q’ in his name was really worth.
    His father never seemed to press the issue. Or maybe he did, and Lanius just never heard him.

    When Lanius had risen in the Garden of New Eden, his head resting gently on a blanket of midnight dew, it had been to the sound of a revolver being loaded on the bench just a few feet away from him. It was only after Lanius stopped seeing the world through the eyes of a morphine addicted spider, that he noticed the revolver wasn't being loaded by a little girl with red horns where her eyebrows should have been, but rather a man with sharp hazel eyes, a crewcut that seemed just short enough to meet the requirements of a court mandated lobotomy, and scraped knuckles that Lanius felt out of place, given the current predicaments, mentioning had little shards of broken glass lodged in them.
    “Your a long fucking way from home, Roman.” Written in slick cursive along the side of the last bullet loaded into the chamber of the revolver was: Thy Kingdom Come.
    “Whaddya hear, whaddya say?,” the man asked, casually picking his head up.
    Lanius didn’t answer.
    “Come on now sport, your flock ain’t nowhere to be found. Not a soul for miles gives a rat’s ass about that war crime against human flesh you call a tattoo.”
    Lanius brushed the torn fabric from his arm to find the Bull still very much emblazoned on his skin.
    “So,” the man continued, twirling the revolver in his hand, “got a reason for lying face down in the amassed regency of our Lord and Savior Bartholomew King of the Boas?,” about a ten foot, black and white reptile slithered in-between his legs, “or are you just here to take in the sights and sounds our sodom-less little slice of A-Mercian pie has to offer?”
    Lanius dug his elbow into the dirt; giving his neck enough support to take in the entirety of his surroundings. “Where am I?”
    “Hell,” the man chuckled, leaning back on the bench, placing the revolver down on his right, Lanius’s left, “welcome to it. Plausibility comes in three’s, I might add. Go on, make an excuse, it’s easy. Otherwise, as I’m sure you well know, company policy dictates I start taking a sledgehammer to every bone in your body that enables you to stumble into places you don’t motherfucking belong.”
    Lanius darted his eyes back and forth about the garden again, “where’s Booker?”
    The man crossed his right leg over his left, interlocking his fingers and placing them in his lap. “That’s not a fucking question, nor is it an excuse. Care to give it another go champ?”
    Lanius thought to paint his next words with a certain degree of caution and articulation. “How did she die?”
    The man on the bench perked his eyelids up and seemed to stare at Lanius until little red cracks broke out across the blanket television screens hooked up to his brain. “Overdose.”
    Lanius cleared his throat. “I heard she hung herself.”
    “So she hung herself,” the man shrugged his shoulders curtly, “happens all the fucking time- what are we gonna do stop selling rope?, that’s fucking absurd- I mean, we can all agree that prohibition was a stupid law right?”
    Lanius nodded, “right… no discrepancy there?”
    “None at all,” the man concurred, “because cut the bullshit. You. Don’t. Care. Cognitive fucking dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously. Give it a few days, tragedy around here drops faster than the fucking flies, upper management can’t get off otherwise.”
    Lanius felt a bead of sweat run down the bridge of his nose, and his throat felt particularly parched. “You work for the priest?”
    The man on the bench chuckled humorlessly, “no, Roman marginally farther from friendly borders than he thinks, I don’t work for the fucking priest. My penchant for not molesting eight year olds made me very undesirable. And in case you were still holding out breath for it, I’m not going to ask if your alright either. Stupid fucking question if I’m being honest. I’ve never found man’s inherent inability to manufacture empathy very compelling. If you ask me they should just bottle the stuff up and sell it over the counter like vitamins. You’d have six figures by the end of the first day.”
    Lanius chuckled, “who the fuck are you?”
    “Me?,” the man on the bench levied an index finger at himself, “I’d be a much better person if it weren’t for my, personality. You see, we live in an era past the point of acceptance, and indeed tolerance, for industrialist age Darwinism. As well as being able to write self-help books about our struggles without irony. Back then, you were thirteen, you got treated like you were thirty. When your head got caught in-between the cogs of some textile machinery the day went on ‘till your head popped like a fragile china tea pot. And even then the clock kept ticking, no one stopped to stare like they would today at the world’s most functionally inefficient roadside fair. That was a luxury we took for granted, you see, like being able to walk into an airport in your winter parka and not get thrown in Gitmo for objectifying the reasonable degree of scientific uncertainty required for calculating the blast radius of a car bomb in downtown Oklahoma City between the corner of Melrose Lane and North Rockwell Avenue. Purely hypothetical of course, but I hope you don't have any family living down there. Point is Roman, unless you want to find out how painstakingly methodical Bartholomew’s digestive track is, I’m gonna need you to get the fuck up.”
    The man on the bench stood up and placed the revolver in a holster at his side, then walked over to Lanius and offered him a hand up. “I’m here with the Pinkerton’s,” he said, eyeing the man’s hand as if the gun were still in it and being held directly up against his temple.
    “No, Legate Lanius, you are not. Nice try though, thanks for playing.” The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver watch, checked the time, and then put it back. “Now, I’m sure from here to the front gate is plenty of time to think of something else, wouldn’t you agree?”
    Lanius took the man’s hand. “And you are?”
    “Many,” he replied, “we are many.”

    “What’s it like puppy?”
    Lanius picked his head up from where it had been absentmindedly tunneling into the palm of his hand.
    He cleared his throat. “A melting pot. First you hire a spotter. Nine times out of ten it’s a peppy, young Indian guy in a million dollar plaid suit with a thousand dollar pair of silver shades. He runs around for a bit, picket fence in one hand, ballpoint red pen in the other. Once that’s all out of the way the building crew comes in. Outsourcing is frowned upon, but not enough to merit dissuasion, so they get to work. Four months worth of work turns into nine, but it’s Sinclair's money, and so as long as he’s happy, no one really cares. After that it’s all just setup. Making it look presentable, and clean, and sturdy- less like a paper mache sand castle and more like a forty billion dollar crowing jewel, shaped by the sunset itself. The Sierra Madre simply has to be a palace worthy of grand largesse.”
    The angel stepped out of the dressing room in a glittering purple dress and did a little twirl, standing on the very tips of her toes, cheeks beaming brighter than a congregation of fireflies trying to land a seven-forty-seven on the Hudson River. A ballerina in perfect form. “Whaddya think?”
    Lanius stood, placing his hands on her hips and lifting her high up into the air. “I think Sinclair’ll want to burn the whole place down in embarrassment.”
    She giggled, burying her nose in the crook of his neck. “I love you puppy.”
    Lanius felt himself slowly dissolve into a puddle on the floor. “I love you too little one. I love you too.”

    Lanius had never met Fredrick Sinclair, and while he tried his hardest not to pass judgement on people he’d never met, like a proper man should, no one ever seemed to hold that same courtesy for him. So he listened around here and there, behind notice boards and under dogs, and the general consensus ruled that Fredrick Sinclair possessed the air of a man who thought himself to be better than both the people around him, and himself. A rare blend of narcissism and masochism; Lanius suspected it might be French. The Fredrick Sinclair of tomorrow would be harder, better, faster, and stronger. Or so was the assurance plastered on all the signs.
    It was the hive mind mentality of Jeremiah Fink that Sinclair aspired to; the ‘Be the Bee’ mentality, as it were. Except the one thing he clearly hadn't accounted for was narcolepsy: The ‘Be the Sloth’ mentality. Building bridges is one thing, herding a particularly dim flock of sheep through an earthquake is a whole other. An ivory lifestyle promotes many benefits, but never having to crack the whip isn’t one of them. It’s hard to accomplish much when all your contractors are sitting in the break room, eating grass, and fucking each other. Yet none of it seemed to phase Fredrick Sinclair- oh no, there wasn’t a single deterrent on Earth that couldn’t be put down with enough money thrown at it. The Sierra Madre was to be Sinclair’s legacy after all, and the means in which he got to cutting the red ribbon didn’t carry much weight, even if it meant The Chairmen would break both his kneecaps the second he handed the scissors off.
    “It’s not what you leave behind,” Lanius remembered his father telling him one starry night on the back porch, “it’s who you leave behind, and the memories they have of you. Lest we forget, and for it all to have been for nothin.”
    The grand opening was to be the gala event of the season. Every two mile markers was a big, bright, beautiful billboard rattling off the names of everyone set to be in attendance, provided they didn't drink themselves off the dam first.
    “You’ve heard of the Sierra Madre Casino.” A hologram sprang to life of a young, red-headed starlet in nine inch stiletto heels and pearls big enough to choke an alligator, as Lanius veered within wishing distance of a fountain in the villa’s courtyard. “We all have, the legend, the curses. Some foolishness about it lying in the middle of a City of Dead. A city of ghosts. Beneath a blood-red cloud. A bright, shining monument, reaching out, luring in treasure hunters to their doom. An illusion. A promise that you can change your fortunes. Begin again. Finding it, though, that’s not the hard part. It’s letting go.”
    Minuscule grains of sand washed over Lanius’s boots like crabs on a boardwalk. It felt like trespassing; a knot twisting in his stomach that told him, were anyone to ask, he didn’t exactly know why he was there, or who he was with.
    The hologram having finished it’s set, resorted to merely standing, or rather hovering, six inches above the ground, idly gazing at Lanius. It was the kind of lifeless, deadpan stare that gave Lanius the impression that whoever the hologram had been based off of was judging him from some secluded, powered make-up room, or, more likely, a shallow, maggot infested grave just south of the border. Whoever she may have been, she was Arizona’s problem now. Most likely, anyway.
    Beyond the hologram were blocks of vending machines, arranged in such a fashion as to make Lanius ponder whether convenience stores had become the opposite of the very thing they were named after, practicality, and no one had bothered to tell him. There seemed to be everything just short of a Rabi jammed into them: razor blades, disposable cellphones, portable speakers, cassette tapes, coffee beans, fresh fruit, rotten vegetables, cans of soup, buckets of salt, pillows, cowboy hats, morning after pills, children’s vitamins, and an abnormal abundance of sour rock candies.
    Procuring a package of coffee cakes from one such device was a crewcut so short Lanius wasn’t entirely sure about an inch of skull hadn't been taken off in the process. “Eventually, you’re either gonna have to let your hair grow out, or join the fucking navy,” he said rounding the fountain, “and those things’ll kill you, by the by, way too much sugar.” The crewcut stuffed the package in his back pocket, like a child caught with his hand in a jar of something that didn't belong to him.
    The crewcut turned, and smirked. “Too much sugar? Who the fuck told you that? I didn’t know the Hitler Youth program promoted free thinking. In fact, if my limited recollection of history class tells me anything, its that they didn’t, and shot anyone who did. So, where then, does that leave you?”
    Lanius outstretched his arms and they pat each other on the back. “The embodiment himself. Welcome to hell, Legion, we’ve been waiting for you.”
    “Didn’t answer my question, but, I suppose it can wait. Whaddya hear, whaddya say?”
    “A wood chipper trying to play Take Me Home on the accordion. And it’s doing a pretty bad fucking job at it, I might be so bold as to add.”
    Legion scoffed. “Fucker. Gus got you all wound up over there in your penthouse suite, don’t he? With all the crystalized light fixtures and sparkling cider? Now, I don't purport to know how the other half lives and if I’m being frank, I don’t fucking care, and neither do you, and neither does anybody fucking else. It’s a bullshit hypothetical, but that doesn't give you carte blanche to be an asshole. Walk around acting like your top prick, well, people might start treating you like it. And trust me, the last thing you want in this putrid fucking world is for people to ask you how high to jump or how far to run. People will always find a way to disappoint you, they can't get off otherwise.”
    Lanius cleared his throat and scratched his neck. “What’d Sinclair cook up for us in there?”
    “A Cohen brand event. Not seen, yeah, only heard. Mind the ashtrays, by the by. The guest list runs about eight miles too long, then there’s the Spookshow.”
    “The what?” Lanius asked.
Legion looked around: over his shoulders, under the vending machines, in-between his teeth, behind his ears, and inside the very fabric that held the whole facade together. “Fuckers in real nice, neat, black suits,” he whispered, “go by names like Wood, and Town. Veritable types, sure, and yeah, maybe they’re keeping track of every time you scratch your nose and take a piss, but they ain’t our problem.” Legion coughed into his fist. “That’s why we got the muscle. Keep them in check so we get the illustrious task of making sure no one walks off the edge of a very high balcony, or accidentally impales themselves on a butter knife. And don’t take that shit lightly, I’ve seen it happen. When these fuckers drink, they drink. AA meetings start at five o’ clock sharp the next morning. It’ll be a fucking gas, let’s go.”
    Lanius followed Legion through the courtyard and into the Medical District, all the while looking over his shoulders, under the vending machines, in-between his teeth, behind his ears, and inside the very fabric that held the whole facade together, for real nice, neat, black suits.
    Instead, all he seemed to find were layers and layers of bright, yellow and black police CAUTION tape suffocating nearly every building in the Medical District. Legion just kept walking.
    “It true one of the machines Sinclair brought in went haywire and cut someone’s throat out?” Lanius asked, minding the broken glass and blinking orange traffic cones that littered the street.
    “Cut someone’s throat out?,” Legion almost laughed, “originality like that died out here long before the cement cooled.”
    They passed under an archway that led down a side alley towards Puesta Del Sol, what was supposed to be the common grounds, currently still under construction.
    “True or not?”
    Legion stopped in the middle of the alley. “Truth in actuality, Lanius. Don’t ask questions like that. Too much money in the pot, everyone’s got skin in the game. And, remember, Spookshow. They’re always watching. Got eyes on the back of their heads, teeth, asscheeks- EVERYWHERE.”
    Lanius cleared his throat. “Good to know.”
    “Hey, not our problem remember. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, yeah. Two out of three ain’t bad, but shoot for three. Looks better.”
    There was a small notice hanging from the entrance to Puesta Del Sol that urged all employees to check in with the appropriate supervisor prior to the Galla event so that everyone knew where they were supposed to be and when. Below it, crudely scribbled in what appeared to be a red crayon, or at least what Lanius hoped was a red crayon, someone had left a message for Fredrick Sinclair: Material wealth is only worth so much, Freddie.
    “Questions? Concerns? Prayers?” Legion asked, with one hand on the door handle and the other making sure the package of coffee cakes was as aloof to the naked eye as physically possible.
    “What do we do when they start trying to kill each other?”
    “Not a goddamn thing.”
    “Isn't that a bit detrimental to our health and personal well-being?”
    “Nope, so as long as we don’t get in their way.”
    “Praise the sun?”
    Legion exhaled, “sure, why the fuck not.”
    Before Lanius’s pale vision, Puesta Del Sol looked to be about as far along as one would expect were each individual brick being pushed across the Mojave by an ant with three broken legs. The entire site was illuminated by a dark, blood-red hue, and there wasn’t a single soul, be it that of a sloth or suit, to be seen, heard, or spoken to. While he didn’t know much about the ins and outs of the construction trade, Rome wasn’t built in a day, or so people always told The Chairmen after the royalties started kicking in.
    Lanius placed a finger on one of the freshly laid building blocks of what the signs claimed would eventually become a Minuteman Press: a one stop shop for all the news that’s fit to print within the thinly veiled constraints of a three hundred and fifty year old piece of stale parchment, that nobody payed nearly as much attention to as they claimed. His glove came back streaked in crimson dust, and the sound of silence reluctantly befell Puesta Del Sol.
    Lanius found it difficult to muster up any true contempt for Fredrick Sinclair, yet sympathy proved just as, if not more elusive. What he’d done couldn’t be construed as offensive, yet it wasn't entirely without a pretentious glare and a self-satisfied grin. It was, if nothing else, sufferable, and Lanius had always found life easier to mange, and indeed measure, in terms of suffer-ability. Fredrick Sinclair hadn't wasted every single cent he’d ever been handed, on a pristine sliver platter coated in caviar and diamond encrusted oysters, over the course of his relatively short life on an oversized, glorified playground for him, his echo, and maybe his shadow, but only on the weekends. Rather, what Fredrick Sinclair did, was build an idealistic testament to the way the world should be: sufferable.
    Lanius turned to find Legion gone, and a trail of audible Mercury leading deeper into the common grounds. “She keeps Moet et Chandon, in her pretty cabinet…”
    He passed through an oak, termite-ridden skeleton of what was to be a diner of some finite description. “…’Let them eat cake,’ she says, just like Marie Antoinette…”
    Then around a large dug out hole filled with freshly dried concrete; the edge of a boot-print marking off the southwest corner. “…A built-in remedy, for Kruschev and Kennedy…”
    The ballad began to grow louder as he traversed the inner workings of a convenience store stockpiled with vending machines, that, on closer inspection, only seemed to take chips bestowed upon the patrons of the Sierra Madre casino. “…At anytime an invitation, you can’t decline…”
    Lanius finally found Legion standing behind the convenience store, overlooking the square heart of Puesta Del Sol.
    “…Caviar and cigarettes, well versed in etiquette, extradinaraliy nice…”
    The television screens appeared to have been unplugged from their sockets. Half his body painted in the now murky, dusk tainted, blood-red hue; the other half eclipsed by the shadow of a noticeably imported palm tree.
    “…Recommended at the price, insatiable an appetite, wanna try?…”
    Lanius followed the static down into the square, where a woman was lying down on a pile of steel beams, with her head hanging off the side, gently swaying back and forth.
    “…To absolutely drive you wild, wild…”
    The lights flickered back on in Legion’s eyes for a quick beat.
    “…She’s all out to get you…”
    And in that window, Lanius was able to make out a pedestal.
    “…You wanna try…”
    As the chorus faded, Legion started walking down towards the square with no definitive sense of direction.
    The woman was leaning up against the steel beams, about two inches taller than both Legion and Lanius, brushing her dark brown hair to the side. She had the number seventeen tattooed on her neck in an elegant, Apple Chancery font, and the head of a fox with it’s jaw wide open, showcasing a seemingly infinite, black void of razor sharp teeth, on her left arm. “I played your favorite,” she said with a sultry, ear to ear smile, “tempo was a bit off, but you didn't exactly leave me with easy shoes to fit into.”
    “What are you doing here?” Legion asked.
    She sauntered over to him, placing both her arms around his neck. “Life’s a cabernet darling.” She placed a kiss on each of his cheeks. “You have a problem. Incentive, for one. But since you brought company, that’ll have to wait.” She kissed up along the bridge of his nose. “Order, is another. Five hundred is not a nice number, and I can guarantee, they won’t be nearly as courteous as me.” She brought her lips up to his ear. “So much can happen. It only takes twenty six seconds, remember? And you have so. Many. Fountains.” Her fingers began to coil around his neck. “Fuck the Sierra Madre, and fuck Fredrick Sinclair. You belong with ME.”
    The pedestal Lanius had glimpsed was chipped in more than a few unnoticeable places. It was worn, and perhaps more than a little tired, and couldn't hold out for much longer under the strenuous amount of weight being burdened upon it’s shoulders. Yet it carried out it’s duty all the same, with a solemn calmness that held no regard for bodily harm. Even as the blood began to run down his chest; and his knees buckled; and his arms trembled. What he didn’t understand, or maybe what he refused to understand, Lanius surmised, was that the greater his effort, the harder the world would bore down upon him. Sooner or later, he would either be crushed to death, or forced to shrug.
    Legion mechanically pried her hand away, his words seeming to have a tremendous amount of difficulty forming into congruent sentences. “This is not the fucking time, Liana.”
    Lanius had always marveled at the way words and anecdotes poured out of Legion’s mouth like so much wanton spit; not without it’s tribulations, but always effortless at face value, and that was all that really mattered. Yet in her wake, the man’s voice-box was all but ripped straight out of his throat and left to sear on a charcoal grill. Legion could only stare through a monochromatic lens reflected off Liana’s piercing yellow eyes.
    “One day,” she traced her index finger around his bottom lip, “you’ll tell me what I did wrong. Until then,” Liana dug a little finger gun into his scalp, “as you like it, darling.”
    She turned to Lanius, snarled, and pulled the trigger. “Bang.”
    An almost inadmissible streak of blood ran down Legion’s forehead, and for a beat, Lanius thought Liana was going to run over and wipe it off. She didn’t, and Legion just let it trickle down to his eyebrows. He started walking off towards the Residential District, where all the real guests stayed, at a brisk pace, and Lanius had to actively try and keep up.
    “Who was that?” He asked.
    “Nobody that matters.” Legion replied, mechanically.
    At the High Rollers doorstep, Legion looked back, as did Lanius.
    Liana began to sculpt the fingers on her right hand; the black paint having started to chip for at least more than a little while now. First, with her pinky, ring, and middle fingers raised, she wrapped her thumb around her bent index finger. Then she raised her index finger, with her thumb still crossed, and lowered her ring and pinky fingers. Next she made a grip like motion with her whole hand, before making a mock peace sign and pressing her thumb in between her middle and index fingers. Afterwards she wrapped her index, middle, and ring fingers over her thumb, which was leaning over her pinky. Lastly she made a fist, with her thumb perpendicular to the rest of her fingers.
    “What was that?” Lanius asked.
    “Sign Language.”
    “For?”
    Legion sighed. “Fuck, me.”
    The Residential District appeared, on the surface anyhow, to be held together with a substantially more compact solution than sand cemented into place with little more than spit and glue. While Lanius had never been particularly fond of the pre-powder keg, Art Deco brand of lemon-scented technological progress, the Sierra Madre didn’t look too shabby. The sentiment surely wouldn't make it on any of the billboards, but at least he didn’t have to worry about bedbugs, and that was usually worth a golf-clap.
    Stepping inside the lobby of the Sierra Madre Casino though a pair of plate-glass doors that looked heavy enough to crush the back of an eight ton elephant, the presence of a crisp, orderly, ebony suit made the hairs on the back of Lanius’s neck swan dive off and make a B-line right for the welcome embrace of the Mojave.
    The Spook was sitting at the bar, up on a quaint four legged stool, drinking a glass of rich, creamy, Soviet-Era vodka; on the rocks, like any proper man would.
    Legion cracked the bones in his fingers, straightened a tie he wasn’t wearing, and proceeded to walk up to the bar. “Mr. Stone,” he held out his hand, “a pleasure.”
    The Spook glared at Legion like he’d just walked up holding a bouquet of copperheads. “A shard of stained, picturesque glass lodged in the urinary tract is a pleasure. This,” he curled his upper lip, “is a formality, and a mediocre one at that. What? They don’t pay you enough not to put your filthy elbows on the table?”
    Legion cleared his throat. “And just who the hell pissed in your breakfast cereal today?”
    “Wit,” Mr. Stone shook his head, the word sounding hollow and bitter in his mouth, “the last resort of the dead and dying. Why don’t you stop jerking us all off and just fucking get it over with already. Some people actually work for a living- foreign and abstract as the concept may appear on paper. You can wish for something until the flow of oxygen cuts off from your brain, but that won’t make it any more or less attainable you thick prick.”
    Mr. Stone polished off his drink and placed a twenty on the counter. He got down from the stool and put a hand on Legion’s shoulder, twisting it at about a forty five degree angle; the thick stench of liquor fogging up the television screens. “It’s ‘just a joke', right? Isn’t that what she tells you?”
    Mr. Stone walked over to Lanius, half chuckling, half coughing into the sleeve of his suit. “Believe that fucking shit?,” he asked, placing a hand on Lanius’s shoulder and twisting it at about a fifty five degree angle, “Oh, by the by, the machine didn’t go haywire. But if anyone asks, you didn’t hear it from me.”
    Lanius stood under the archway, separating the lobby and the bar, for an indeterminable amount of time. It was long enough for Legion to wipe the blood from his forehead, the static having been replaced by blank, pitch black airwaves. Yet it hadn't been long enough for the presence of Mr. Stone to dissipate, nor for the pressure on his shoulder to relieve itself. Lanius thought that maybe if he concentrated really, really hard, he could rewind time. Though what exactly he would do with this hypothetical gift eluded him. There didn't seem to be any one event he could change that would overwrite the others, to any meaningful degree at least. Maybe Mr. Stone would have been drinking whisky instead of Vodka, or perhaps Legion would have gotten a package of Twinkie's instead of coffee cakes. None of it seemed particularly helpful.
    “Where we headed?” Lanius asked.
    Legion looked up, and for a beat didn't seem to register where he was or who he was with. Then, after it all appeared to sink in, he took the package of coffee cakes out of his back pocket, crumpled them up, and slammed them down on the counter. “The lounge,” he answered dryly.
    They walked up a circular staircase coated in a burgundy velvet carpet infuriated by all the little specs of sand being discharged haphazardly along it’s spine. The cocktail lounge came up on their right, with a long-table set up in the middle playing feast to one man, early sixties with a barely noticeable receding gray hairline, in a form-fitting checkered suit. There was a forty two ounce bone-in ribeye in front of him, with about a pound of mashed potatoes topped with little bits of bacon on his right, and a troth full of creamed spinach at his left.
    “My five o’clock,” he proclaimed, fork and knife ready in each hand, “right on time, that’s what I like to see!, Taking the initiative! It is about fucking time someone around here did. My God, what a shitshow. Take a seat gentlemen, I like what I see.”
    Lanius and Legion sat opposite the man in the checkered suit as he began to eat; cutting off a piece of steak slightly larger than his mouth and dousing it in mashed potatoes. “I’m Mortimer Jakobs,” he said, mouth full and grease dripping down his chin, “and where I’m from,” he swallowed, “if you try and take so much as a tater tot off a man’s plate, it is within his God given right to shoot you in the fucking head.”
    “Where’s the orchestra?” Legion asked.
    “Ah, straight shooter,” Mortimer took a forkful of creamed spinach, “what I like to see. Got a good fucking question there too. Where is the maestro? Where are all the little drummer boys? Where is the contractually obligated retard that bangs the contractually obligated triangle? I don’t have the faintest, fucking idea. But, I imagine, that if you look hard enough, you won’t find them. Cause I still got a big empty hole in my pocket where two hundred thousand dollars is supposed to be. And until that hole is filled, banging your head against the wall is the only kind of music that’ll play throughout these halls.”
    Mortimer sliced off another piece of steak.
    “Sinclair payed you,” Legion said, folding his hands on the table in such a fashion as to keep his elbows at his side, “in full, two weeks ago.”
    Mortimer chewed methodically, flicking a piece of bacon out from between his teeth, and taking a sip of chilled, Hess brand red wine to wash it all down.
    “That, is your opinion. And, you see, that’s the thing about, opinions. They are yours, no ones trying to take them away from you like the literary equivalent of child protective services, but don’t go around acting like they hold any fucking semblance of value here. Value implies merit. And your opinions hold no merit here, not in this holy shrine dedicated to logic and reason. The shortest distance between two points isn’t a straight line. It’s in your best interest to remember that, in case you get lost.”
    Mortimer helped himself to some more creamed spinach; some of which slid off the end of his fork and onto his suit.
    “You know,” he said, taking another swig of wine and swishing it around in his mouth, “I was raised on the universal, monetary sum, of one dollar. Four quarters, ten dimes, twenty nickels, and one hundred beautiful copper pennies. Never adjusted for inflation. Like the wild, wild west, welcome to it, what you see is what you get, and what you don’t is not implied. Now, I don’t know how those faggots up in Quincy do things, but I don’t quite frankly care. The flow of money goes east to west, not north to south. So, say you win five hundred bucks down at the roulette tables. Well, just so happens that watch you’ve been eyeing, costs five hundred bucks. If the next guy comes in, with three thousand in his pocket… Well, shit, I don’t think I need to tell you how much that watch gon’ cost. That’s just the way of the Mojave. Bitch understands the concept, ten dimes and twenty nickels, but has never elected to fully internalize it. Whatever’s in your pockets, that’s how much your worth. And if all you’ve got is lint, you better start fucking running. The days of handouts are over my companions. The aristocracy is dead,” Mortimer raised his glass, “long live the aristocracy.”
    The thunder of steel-toed boots perked Lanius’s ears up.
    “Ah, I see my six o’ clock is here a little early,” Mortimer filled up his glass, “that’s what I like to see. My apologies gentleman, we’ll have to continue this another time.”
    Behind them was a mountain both roughly ten pounds overweight and extremely muscular at the same time, as evidenced by the way his arms and legs seemed painfully constricted in the light blue, striped suit he was wearing. He had short black hair, tired green eyes, and a gold watch wrapped around his right wrist with an inscription that read: Love Jasmine. He felt out of place, and maybe a little bit queasy, and certainly jet-lagged to the point that were it not for the triple espresso running through his veins he’d be functionally just another paperweight.
    “Shouldn't be here Chris.” Legion muttered in passing.
    “People who live in glass houses,” the mountain replied, “shouldn't litter their front yard with landmines.”
    Legion led Lanius back down the circular staircase and through the main hall, passing by the casino and into a large ballroom. The orchestra pit with it’s adjoining, pristine ebony piano was decidedly empty, and there were hundreds, if not thousands, of black balloons covering up the entirety of the ceiling; each touting the words: ‘Party Likes It’s 1959!’ in slick, gold cursive. The waiters were all skating around on pockets of magically materializing red smoke, with blisteringly white rabbit masks concealing their faces, and party favors strapped to their waists that looked more like live hand grenades to Lanius than anything else. Above the stage hung the portrait of the man himself: Fredrick Sinclair In All His Immaculate Glory. He was wearing a brown corduroy suit, with a sharp black bowtie, and a beige undershirt. The words ‘Begin Again’ were engraved at the bottom of the frame. Sinclair’s gaze ignored Lanius as he moved about the room, and it was only when he stopped to admire the ornate, floral tablecloths adorning the tables surrounding the stage that he noticed Legion was gone.
    He had been replaced by Security Chief Sullivan, or so the name tag attached to his navy blue suit suggested. There were bags under the Chief’s eyes, and the stench of aftershave resonated loud enough to wake the dead.
    “Afternoon,” Sullivan yawned, “or, I suppose it’s evening now.” He scratched at his bald head. “This is one expensive bust if you ask me, but, who am I to say? Maybe bust was the wrong word. Just, a, uh, kerfuffle? No. That’s not the word. Either way, here we are.” The Chief knocked on one of the tables, presumably to check the foundation for termites. “Desert isn't the most, opportunistic, place to hold a gay pride parade, but what the fuck do I know? How’s the Lucky 38?”
    Legion furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”
    “Like, would you recommend it? Got a nice T.V. in there?”
    “I wouldn't really know,” Lanius shrugged, “don’t watch much T.V.”
    “No?” Sullivan sounded almost offended. “Really? Ever wanted to see Jackie’s tits?”
    Lanius shook his head. “Not particularly, no.”
    “Alright,” The Chief scoffed, “whatever. To each his own, and such things. Any who, they want you back outside. So, hop to it, or whatever the fuck.”
    Lanius thought about asking who, precisely, they were, but he figured a straight answer would undoubtedly forego Security Chief Sullivan’s tax deduction.
    There was a moving truck parked in front of the Sierra Madre Casino with boxes chock-full of liquor bottles and flashy shot glasses stacked up beside it. A pair of legs were dangling out the back of the truck, and Lanius wasn't entirely surprised to find Liana with a pair of headphones wrapped snuggly around her ears, and an electronic cigarette perched tightly between her lips. She puffed out through her nostrils a string of neon green smoke.
    “You shouldn't talk to him like that.”
    Liana raised her eyebrows; taking another drag of her cigarette before stuffing it into her back pocket in a bid to make it as aloof to the naked eye as physically possible.
    “Who the fuck are you?” She asked, blowing another haze of smog in Lanius’s face.
    “I don’t think he finds it very funny.” Lanius wasn’t entirely sure where his train of though was going, but wherever it was, he was merely along for the ride.
    Liana clasped her hands around her nose. “Who, THE FUCK, are you?,” she leapt off the truck, “I can talk to him, however the FUCK!, I so GODDAMN FUCKING PLEASE!” She loomed over him, projecting herself like a twenty foot tall reincarnation of Genghis Khan.
    “You don’t think he has it in him?” Lanius asked.
    Liana smirked, running a hand over her breasts. “He has too much to live for. And if I ever see you talking to him again, Legate Lanius, your fucking dead.” She rounded the truck and took a bottle of Remy Martin’s finest Cognac brandy from the stack. The bottle alone looked like it cost upwards of an even number followed by roughly five zeros, with the milky brown pesticide inside rounding it all out to an odd number followed by roughly six zeros, and maybe a second mortgage. Liana popped the crystal, spade shaped top off the bottle and pressed it to her lips, guzzling down everything Louis XIII had to offer, without a care in the world. Lanius almost wanted to admire her for that.
    When he returned to the ballroom it was empty, save for Fredrick Sinclair’s obscured gaze. In his leave of absence someone had, on particularly high stilts, crudely etched out across Sinclair’s face, in such a way as to puncture both his eyes, the word: Penniless.
    A pair of fragile, glass hands placed a pristine, gold rimmed disc down on an antique, vinyl record player in the back of the ballroom. Violins began to play, followed by trumpets and a set of drums.
    “I see trees of green,” her glittering, purple dress glided effortlessly across the floor, “red roses too…”
    Lanius felt a lump well up in his throat, “Grace…”
    “I see them bloom,” she smiled, teeth gently tugging at her lower lip, “for me and you.”
    “And I think to myself,” she reached up and placed her hand on his cheek, “what a wonderful world.”

Chapter Text

“We are our choices.” -Jean-Paul Sartre

    Legion had never been to a Catholic school before. When he was growing up the privilege of electing not to know things was kindly bestowed upon him wrapped in a little red bow. Though he’d always heard about them. They were supposed to be wholesome and clean, unlike those filthy public schools all the cheap peasants were herded into. Now that he was standing in front of one, however, Legion couldn’t help but don what was, in retrospect, a distasteful sneer. The paint chipped in all the same places, sure, and the lack of air fresheners would have surely made a cow sunbathing in Chernobyl smell like lilac and gooseberries. The radiators rumbled and swayed like they were attached to the wall with thumbtacks, like they do, and speaking of walls, if they could talk, they’d be on the phone with Dignitas in minutes. It was somewhat comforting to see that the other half also had rat infestations, and racial slurs scribbled onto the sides of desks.
    Yet, at the same time, Legion felt like he’d just sat down at the table in a fancy, upscale, French New York restaurant. He didn’t recognize any of the dishes, so they could have all been imported from the third moon of Jupiter and he wound’t have been able to tell the fucking difference. The only one that did manage to catch his eye was caviar: the pinnacle of digestible cuisine, or so he’d been told. When the platter had arrived, everyone around the table, and a few stray eyes leering over from the bar, held their breath in glorious anticipation. Legion chewed, went down for seconds, chewed some more, took a sip of wine, went down for thirds, polished off his glass of wine, and wiped the corners of his mouth in case the forensic examiners tried to pin a triple homicide against him later. The caviar was alright, and while his lips didn’t divulge that information out of fear of betraying the gilded hand that fed them, his eyes weren’t nearly as deceptive in hiding their disdain for mediocrity. The bill came out to roughly fourteen thousand dollars, and sure, his amigos were all narcissistic alcoholics that probably ran up a six thousand dollar bar tab, and ordered nine too many bottles of eight hundred dollar wine, but that still left exactly five hundred and thirty six dollars left unaccounted for. It had felt right to chip in his share at the time, even if it might have been misconstrued as enablement later on in a court of law, and, provided there was no statue of limitation on driving a Hummer into a parked bus, still could.
    Legion turned the corner and saw Victor leaning up against a row of scarlet red lockers; toothpick sticking out the corner of his mouth, with one hand in his back pocket absentmindedly fiddling with a paperclip, and the other bulldozing a comb through his tar-black hair in a feeble effort to wrangle all the sand out.
    Victor cocked his head toward the teachers lounge as Legion passed him. “Waiting for you.” He said in a thick, Russian accent.
    Inside the moderately super-sized custodians closet, Czernobog was sitting down at a round, wooden table, dealing himself a hand of solitaire. On the back of each card was a golden Hammer and a golden Sickle, and the face of each King bared an uncanny resemblance to Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.
    “He fucked us.” Czernobog said in a drawl, Slavic monotone.
    “Who fucked us?” Legion asked, pulling up a chair at the opposite end of the table.
    Czernobog took a cigar from the pocket of his bulky fur coat and lit it. “Arizona bullshit con artist prick. That’s who fucked us. Tells me he can sell god to anybody- anybody he fucking tells me. Cocksucker couldn’t sell water to a man dying of thirst.”
    Legion coughed into his fist. “So what do we do?”
    Czernobog shrugged and nodded at the same time. “Well, little late to pull out now, I’m afraid. We’re gonna have to bail him out.”
    “Bail him out from?”
    Czernobog cracked his lips in a way that made it look like he was snickering at some inside joke. “Got a Pinkerton in the stairwell. Have a look. Then, I make plan. Tell it to you. Is good?”
    Legion coughed once more into his fist. “Is good.”
    Victor was frivolously rummaging through one of the lockers back out in the hallway, tossing its contents aside like they’d contracted the plague. A pencil box full of lipstick; marble notebooks covered in scented flower stickers; a locked diary of some finite description. Victor pried it open and started flipping through the pages like he was deciphering ancient hieroglyphics, left behind by some ancient tribe of nomads that didn’t have the basic, common decency to write every banal fucking thought that popped into their head down in English.
    Legion was staring. “What the fuck’s going on?”
    Victor sighed without even bothering to look up. “There are some things I will simply never understand about this country.”
    There was dim, audible chatter coming from the stairwell. Legion pushed open the metal, blue door that was only supposed to be used in the event of an emergency, and a light started blinking above the doorframe.
    To one side, leaning on the banister downwards, was the Arizona bullshit con artist prick. He was smoking a cigarette, blotting the scratch marks on his cheek with a piece of gauze. A smile flickered on and off, as if he couldn't decide on whether or not enough time had passed for it to be socially acceptable.
    The Pinkerton was up against the wall diagonally across from the Arizonian, fidgeting with his tie. The stench of midnight scotch carried just far enough for Legion to conclude that he’d ben there for quite a while. More than was necessary. More than he liked, and certainly more than he would have preferred.
    “You could have checked.” He said wearily.
    “Could've done a lot of things,” the Arizonian took a drag of his cigarette, “could build a time machine, go back, and smother Hitler to death in his crib. Wouldn't change a goddamn thing.”
    The Pinkerton glared; a steady migraine chipping away a little, larger than it was ten minutes ago, hole in his forehead. “You know want to know something funny, you self-absorbed hack… cleaning up your shit, isn’t a part of my fucking job description. I’m not even supposed to be on the fucking clock today!”
    “Then go the fuck home,” the Arizonian flicked what remained of his cigarette down the stairwell, “nobody fucking wants you here if you’re just gonna stand there sulking like a spoiled brat that didn't get their day at the circus.”
    The Pinkerton’s hand began twitching closer and closer to the hand cannon perched at his waist. “Anna takes precedence over your neurotic fixation with short, checkered skirts.”
    “Can I please!,” the Arizonian clapped his hands together, “let you in, on a little fucking secret- NO ONE GIVES A FUCK ABOUT YOUR STUPID FUCKING FAMILY!”
    The Pinkerton lunged at the Arizonian; one hand grabbing him by the neck and forcing half his body over the railing; the other stuffing a fully loaded hand cannon in his mouth. Then the metal, blue door clicked shut.
    “Only a matter of time, Loutermilch.”
    “Hell is lofty, Booker, plenty of room for the both of us.”
    Booker holstered his pistol, took one look at Legion, then walked down the stairs shaking his head.
    Loutermilch dusted himself off and lit another cigarette.
    The body lay on the upper staircase, embedded with ghoulish relief. Pure blonde hair; baby blue eyes that hadn’t quite ‘popped’ yet; creamy white skin. Her head was crushed in on the step: performed postmortem. Her right arm was broken, the bone sticking out at an acute angle: suffered during the fall.
    “Whaddya hear, whaddya say kid?” Loutermilch asked, taking a drag of his cigarette.
    Why? Was Legions first answer. Do you even know her name? Was the second. “Nothing.” Was the third.

    Victor had driven them into the suburbs. Outside a quaint, eggshell house. Czernobog got out of the tinted limousine first; his wife beater covered in splotches of cranberry sauce; his jeans worn and battered; his belt oversized, calling for constant adjustments every time the wind blew. Legion followed him out, standing on the bitter sidewalk with his hand in his pockets.
    “Mutually beneficial containment of the witness,” Czernobog’s fingers ran through his overgrown, gray beard, “we must maintain a vested interest in interdepartmental cooperation.”
    Legion watched as the wind blew through Czernobog’s chest hair, carrying the permeated scent of ash throughout the neighborhood. He coughed into his fist. “And what is: mutually beneficial?”
    “Compensation. Six hundred, yes? Is good?” Czernobog sifted through the pockets of his fur for a rolled up stack of cash held in place with two stretched, yellow rubber bands.
    “Thousand?”
    Czernobog pulled out six wrinkled one hundred dollar bills. “No,” he handed the money to Legion, “just six hundred.”
    Victor had gotten out of the drivers seat and was leaning against the petite picket fence guarding the residence. His arms were impatiently crossed. “Eventually she’ll notice the three strange men outside her house. Best to conclude business before then, yes?”
    Legion felt the money in his hand. “What am I supposed to say?”
    Czernobog grunted. “You are making more out of it- is not difficult. I once knew a man, we called him ‘simple Rick’, because he liked simple things. Bread and butter, sitting on porch, eating vanilla fucking wafers all day. Do not tell her what she wants to hear, or what she thinks she wants to hear, but what we need her to hear. Remove the variable from the equation, and everything becomes much simpler. Think, yes, of a great, great tragedy. Lives are lost and thrown away- down the gutter with them. Jessica Gray, she is lying in this gutter, yes? That, is a tragedy. And if we can get the witness to agree with our conclusion… Is good.”
    Legion looked up and down the freshly paved street. “And if she doesn’t agree?”
    Victor seemingly materialized a sledgehammer out of thin air and swung it over his shoulder. “There are only two choices: wrong or worse. You’ll figure it out. Let’s fucking go.”
    Legion stuffed the money in his pocket and walked up the path, alongside Victor, to the quaint, eggshell house. “What’s her name?”
    “Amelia. She believes.”
    “In?”
    “Nothing that matters. In the end, nobody's gonna fucking notice one way or the other.” Victor rang the doorbell, placing the sledgehammer in a small alcove to the left of the front door.
    When Amelia answered, draped in a blue bathrobe so paper thin she might as well have been wearing the air itself, Victor had disappeared back down to the limousine with Czernobog. Each had an unlit cigar in their mouth. Waiting.
    She looked Legion up and down, scratched the side of her nose, then motioned for him to come in. The door slammed shut behind him.
    Amelia barely came up to Legion’s shoulders. She looked delicate, almost too delicate. Like bright, luminescent glass; one sudden movement and she’d shatter into a million pieces all over the floor. The mystery of how she even did so much as breath perplexed him.
    “What happened to her?” She asked, scratching her nose and twirling a strand of her long, wavy, black hair around her finger.
    Legion was staring. Amelia’s eyes looked like hourglasses. Filled with grainy, red sand.
    “Hello?,” she snapped her fingers, “what happened to her?”
    Legion blinked. “She… faced an uphill battle, with the demons vying for control of her sanity. It was a battle, I’m sorry to say, she lost. It’s a tragedy. One I am prepared to offer you a generous compensation for.”
    Amelia looked at him liked he’d just offered a small nominal fee to set her on fire. “Compensation?”
    Legion took out Benjamin Franklin and his five subsidiaries; doing his best to straighten them out before handing them over.
    “Six… hundred, dollars?”
    He nodded. “May she be welcomed into the lord’s bountiful spoils.”
    Amelia examined the the bills thoroughly, flipping them over several times, reading all the little printed yellow numbers along the side. Finally, she scratched her nose and looked up at Legion. The hourglasses started to run.
    “How, did she die?”
    Legion felt a bead of sweat run down the back of his neck. “Overdose.”
    Amelia took one step forward. “They said she hung herself.”
    Legion paused. The wound up bundle of emotions in front of him taking on an indefinite shape and form. He didn't exactly know who the fuck they were.
    “I’m so sorry for your loss, Ms. Gray.”
    The hourglasses began to flood. “You fucking piece of shit!” Amelia screamed, crumpling up her compensation into a spiked ball and launching it at his head.
    She missed, and Legion went to pick up the money. “I need you to take the money, Ms. Gray.”
    Amelia spit at him. “Fuck you.”
    Legion wiped the spit from his cheek. “Just take the fucking money… please.”
    Tears ran down to Amelia’s breasts. “Hell,” she croaked, “isn't enough,” before scampering off bare foot to another corner of the house. Legion didn’t think she wanted him to see her cry, because she looked ugly with tears blurring all her blemishes; almost real in the right light.
    Outside, Victor had just taken an old, vintage silver lighter from his pocket and lit both his and Czernobog’s cigars.
    Legion’s right leg twitched like a jackhammer; his throat was unseasonably parched; his hands kept fidgeting like they were covered in fire ants. She wasn't coming back out, at least not for a little while, and there wasn’t a snowballs chance in Hell Czernobog was gonna wait. There was a digital clock hooked up to the cable box below the T.V. It was ten to four. “God. Damn. It.” Legion opened the front door and picked up the sledgehammer.
    Amelia was standing in the doorway of a walk in closet. It wasn't her room, that much was made abundantly obvious by the copious amounts of scented flower stickers stuck, nailed, and riveted to each of the four walls. There were clothes strewn about; the bed was in tatters; all the draws had been nearly wrapped from their hinges; and if not for the fact that the all windows were bolted shut, with a locking mechanism that appeared to have been installed quite recently, Victor’s presence would have been called into question.
    Legion let the soles of his boots sink into the plush, oceanic carpet. He took a deep breath in though his nose, and out through his mouth. He closed his eyes, until the blanket pitch of the void was all that he could see. The air whooshed around him, and right up until Amelia’s body hit the floor, he’d thought he missed.
    The blood poured down from her head, and over her taut, sickeningly pale stomach; some slipped from between her lips and trickled down her chin; the hourglasses cracked and started leaking sand out onto the polished hardwood floor.
    Legion felt her gaze linger on him, ghoulish relief reaching out and trying to pull him in. The air woodshed again and again; Legion didn’t regain the feeling in his arms until the wood splintered and the sledgehammer got caught in between the floorboards.
    Ash pricked the inside of his nostrils.
    “Very good form,” Czernobog took a puff of his cigar, “nice swing- very straight, ninety degree angle, all the way down. But, if I may, you might not make as much mess if you arched your back a bit farther. More Precise blow. Not as much spatter. Makes cleanup easier.”
    Victor strolled into the room like it was an afternoon walk through the Everglades. He pried the sledgehammer loose from the floorboards, picked a pink softball jersey up from the heap of clothes scattered about and wiped the blood off till it sparkled, then motioned for Legion to follow as he left.
    Czernobog bent down over Amelia’s body, running a hand just below her spine. “Such wasted potential.”
    A light dusting of snow began to fall as Victor and Legion walked back to the limousine. The latter made it halfway down the drive before bending over and reliving himself of his breakfast.
    “None of this would have happened if you’d just stopped.”
    Legion wiped his chin and looked up.
    The Devil, with her light brown curls and prickly red lips, was sitting on the picket fence with a quarter bottle of Jack Daniels in her left hand.
    She took a generous swig. “You see now- NOW, you… are a part, of the fucking problem.” The Devil finished the bottle and threw it to the ground, shattering it. “BUSINESS IS!,” she leapt down from the post, “WHATEVER THE FUCK I SAY IT IS!”
    Czernobog closed the door behind him as he exited the Gray residence, stamping his cigar out on the ‘Welcome’ mat. “Она - несущественная девушка, живущая в материальном мире.”
    The Devil snarled, a snowflake landing just below her eyelid. “Она была нематериальной девочкой, живущей в материальном мире.”
    Czernobog snorted, and revealed one last cigar stowing away in the pocket of his fur.
    The Devil bawled her hands up into fists and stormed off back up the street, muttering something about ocean liner pistons as she went.
    Czernobog offered the cigar to Legion. “Is good?”
    Legion took the cigar and placed it in the corner of his mouth. Czernobog lit it.
    “Is good.” Legion puffed out a string of black ash. “Is good.”

Chapter Text

“I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town.” -Canada Bill Jones

“I don’t leave anything up to chance, I make my own luck.” -Harvey Dent

    “So I read that the former Sheriff of Primm, Mr. McGee, is so desperate for water that he has allegedly sent several containers filled with Salisbury steaks and tobacco. A gesture, he said, of good will. You wanna know what I think? Well, you’re listening to my show, so I will assume you do… I think it’s high time we let the settlements know what we really think of them. I think it’s payback time for a little NCR insurrection they tried to pull a few years back. I say we go to Primm and burn it down to the foundations! Who’s with me? Who’s bloody with me?”
    A round of applause.
    “Did you like that? NCR… New California Republic, I mean what else can I say? They had everything, absolutely everything. And now, all these years later, they’ve been reduced to what? Rats in a cage. Why? Godlessness. Let me say that again… Godlessness. It wasn't the war they started. It wasn't the lies they spread or the bigotry they preached. It was Judgment. No one escapes their past. No one escapes Judgement. You think he’s not up there? You think he’s not watching over New Vegas? How else can you explain it? He tested us, but we came through. We did what we had to do. There is no difference between what is right and what is necessary. Hoover Dam. I was there, I saw it. Fiends. Junkies. Whores. Communists. Disillusioned degenerates. They had to go. You cannot kill progress! I’m a God-fearing resident of this great, beautiful state, and I’m goddamn proud of it!”
    Legate Lanius turned the radio off. “Enough of that.” He muttered.
    Mr. New Vegas: the voice of chance? Or, perhaps enlightenment? Lanius didn’t know. Where did the man on the radio come from? How much exactly did he get paid? Was he wrong? All Lanius knew was that one day, in the blisteringly low, low temperature of one hundred and six degrees, someone started talking over the radio. Then someone started yelling. And its only gotten louder since.
    There used to be an old print shop down in Primm Lanius often frequented. It was a quaint, local place outfitted with a gum ball machine in one corner and an elbow high ashtray in the other. It was the only place in all the Mojave one could go to buy stamps.
    Lanius had seen Mr. McGee once or twice, no more than three times. He was a lanky fellow with dirt blonde hair and a bit of stubble just below his bottom lip, though never as much as he appeared to have wanted. He was a kid, barely cracked twenty, let alone thirty, and to be frank, which Lanius often found himself not doing nearly as much as he thought he should, McGee had no business owning riverside property, let alone operating as the Sheriff of an entire town.
    Though Lanius suspected that little tidbit was more than just common knowledge.
    The drapes of the Penthouse Suite of the Lucky 38 were shuttered, yet daybreak still managed to breach the perimeter through several small gaps along the windowsill; while silk, burgundy sheets lay in disheveled heaps across the bed like atom bomb craters.
    Grace lay naked, bar a pair of purple cotton socks, tucked under Lanius’s chin. Her head softly rising and falling with each symphonic beat. His finger mindlessly tracing circles on her left breast.
    The angel’s nose twitched. “I’m a god-fearing resident of this great, beautiful state and I’m goddamn proud of it.” She erupted into a fit of giggles at her own faux cockney accent. “He sure does love the sound of his own voice, doesn't he puppy?”
    “It’s his job,” Lanius brushed the hair from her eyes and placed a kiss on the tip of her nose, “I think.”
    Grace stretched out her arms, yawning and making a little squeak as she did. “Judgement,” she placed a kiss on each of Lanius’s eyelids, “bollocks.”
    He watched as Grace lowered herself on top of him. She felt impossibly warm inside.
    “I’ll tell you what I wish. I wish I’d been there! I wish I had the chance for a face-to-face. Just one chance, that's all I’d need.” Her cheeks burned bright with uncontrollable laughter.
    Lanius placed his hands on her hips. “When was that?”
    “Yesterday. Some NCR radical tried to blowup the monorail. Where you been puppy?” She moved his hands up, over her breasts.
    “This radical… have a name?”
    The angel’s eyes closed, and her back arched. “Joshua Graham. Dunno who, might not even be his real name.” She bit down heavily on her lower lip.
    A maggot began to worm its way inside Lanius’s skull. An inclination festering into a cancerous theory. How did he become the proud owner of an NCR radicals credit card?
    Grace started to shiver and scream.
    Then that cancerous theory exploded into a blood-curdling aneurysm.
    “Buck.”

    At the intersection of Highway Ninety Three and Highway Ninety Five, Trading Post One Eighty Eight was just beginning to return to the land of the relatively living. Four mile markers north of the El Dorado Dry Lake, two mile markers northwest of Boulder City, and roughly three and a quarter mile markers south of Camp Golf. Makeshift shacks and tents were pitched along the Mojave, and a kicked in campfire served as an all you-can-eat breakfast buffet of smoked Italian sausage for two ravenous ravens.
    Legate Lanius walked up to the pop-up bar in the middle of the trading post.
    “Care to tell me what the actual, Almighty fuck happened to Joshua A. Graham m’boy?” Mr. Wednesday asked, wiping down the bar with a tattered, pink rag. He wore a pair of black and white suspenders; his light brown trench-coat sunbathing on a nearby cot.
    “Was hoping you could tell me.” Lanius said, scratching his neck.
    Wednesday pursed his lips. “Someone starts lighting peoples cars on fire and the first person you turn to is the local proprietor of pyrotechnics? Not what I’d do but, you did come all this way. Very thoughtful of you Lanius. I will remember such kindness and generosity, with regards to your free time of course, and make a valiant effort to repay it.” He left the rag hanging over a beer nozzle and ushered Lanius to walk with him across the trading post.
    The silver linings in Wednesdays slicked back, black hair glinted against the rising sun. “So, tell me what you know.”
    “NCR radical tried to blow-up the monorail.”
    Wednesday scoffed. “No fucking shit, you don’t say. Let me guess- better yet, entertain a coincidence for me: the proper authorities happened to be there and shoot the dastardly terrorist dead before anyone had the time to ask him a few poignant questions.”
    Lanius nodded. “Seems that way.”
    Wednesday chuckled to himself. “Of course it fucking does. Why on earth wouldn't it? Humor me once again, m’boy, what precisely defines the characteristics of a bomb?”
    Lanius shrugged. “Gunpowder?”
    “If the year were eighteen twelve, maybe. My point is, did Joshua A. Graham posses explosive ordinance? Or, did he just reach for a pack of gum too quickly, in the wrong place, at the wrong fucking time?” Wednesday smiled and clasped his cracked, calloused hands around Lanius’s. “It’s tough to really say m’boy, things these days are all a matter of perspective.” His glass eye reflected two nice, neat, black suits skulking around the bar. “God, is a very relative and selective figure, wouldn't you say m’boy? There’s something terribly… wrong, with this state of mind, isn’t there?”
    Lanius felt something in the palm of his right hand: a poker chip from The Apollo.
    When he looked up, both Mr. Wednesday and the Spookshow were gone.

    Dinky the T-Rex could be seen for miles, biting the top off of the world’s second largest thermometer. The Dino Dee-lite motel stood in his shadow, with an old neon ‘No Vacancy’ sign on the side with five missing letters. Now it read: Novac. The lonely desert highway motel only had eight rooms and three bungalows, one of which was boarded up with enough plywood to build the worlds third largest thermometer. The concrete was faded and cracked. The paint was peeling off the sides like it had been plastered on with chewed gum and flypaper. Across the street was a gas station littered with spare tire irons and crumbled up boxes of Blue Ribbon cigarettes.
    The population of Novac could best be described as dwindling.
    At the Dino Dee-lite front desk was a little silver bell. Lanius tapped it.
    There was a radio at the far end of the desk. “You’ll dig us, baby!” Went Mr. New Vegas. “We’re The Tops!”
    Someone threw their heel at the radio and knocked it off the desk.
    “Stupid fucking cocksucker doesn't know when to shut the fuck up.”
    A little lady in baggy, black sweatpants and an oversized black, pullover hoodie got up, on one heel, and looked at Lanius with bright, pink eyes.
    “Sorry,” she said, removing her hood and liberating a sea of pink hair barely held together by two black scrunchies. “My girlfriend swears, a lot. I probably get it from her.”
    She walked over and picked up her heel from the remnants of the radio. Her skin was ghostly white.
    “The clothes too,” she cradled the heel in her arms, “Kara’s stuff fits better. ‘Cause, it’s bigger, and warmer, and it smells like licorice.” Her eyes dropped to the floor. “I don’t, actually know, what licorice smells like. It’s just… a feeling.”
    The little lady stuck out her hand. “I’m Jinx. My doctor tells me I shouldn't walk under ladders.”
    “I’m Lanius. My doctor tells me I shouldn't get shot in the head.”
    They shook hands. Jinx smiled. “What a mad, mad, mad, mad world it must be when doctors have to tell their patients not to get shot in the head.”
    Lanius nodded. “A mad one, I would imagine.” Jinx smiled a little wider. There was a twinkle in her eye that seemed to vanish almost as quickly as it had appeared. Something unassailably irreproachable. Something mesmerizing. Something, that Lanius found, quite familiar. Though from where or who he could not remember, only that it was starting to make him dizzy.
    Jinx’s room was on the second floor and to the immediate left. “Hoyt seems to have taken a liking to you,” she said, flopping down on the bed, “and your, saving graces.”
    Lanius stood. The room was void of quite a few things, he noticed, namely a desk, some spare chairs, and, perhaps fortunately, a radio. The only lamp had a busted out bulb. There was exactly one dresser, filled with more baggy sweatpants and oversized hoodies in varying shades of dark purple and black, and an open wall safe with a giant box inside covered in reindeer themed wrapping paper.
    Jinx crossed her legs, placing both heels at the foot of the bed. “I don't know what’s inside,” she pouted, “but it’s heavy. Almost broke my foot trying to lift the damn thing.”
    Lanius scratched his neck. “Do you want me to?”
    “No.” Jinx rubbed her nails; they were raw, and little slivers of blood ran down her fingers.
    She had a scar under chin. It was faint, deliberately difficult to see in the gloom of the motel room. There was no trace of stitches, or any form of cosmetic concealer to create the illusion that it wasn't a part of her. It was round, like a perfect circle. Like the barrel of a gun.
    Jinx covered the scar with her hand. She looked like she was trying to find a way to claw out of her own skin. “So, what makes you S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Lanius?”
    “Nothing,” he swallowed hardly, “of merit. What does Hoyt want from me?”
    Jinx took a brochure from the nightstand and handed it to him. “Ever heard of The Apollo?”
    On the front was a picture of an astronaut riding the moon like it was a mechanical bull; complete with a cowboy hat on the outside of his helmet and a little red scarf around his neck. It was the same one on the poker chip now residing soundly in Lanius’s pocket. “Never heard of it,” he said, handing the brochure back, “it’s not on The Strip.”
    “West,” Jinx said quietly, “The Apollo is west. On the coast. Lot’s of high rollers there with nice belt buckles and even nicer watches. Hoyt needs an ace in the hole. That’d be you, if you’re interested.”
    Lanius paced about the room, making sure there weren’t any Spooks camping out in the bathroom, behind the dresser, under the bed, or in the little space between where the safe connected with the rest of the wall.
    “Hoyt wants to rob The Apollo.” Jinx nodded. “In NCR territory.” She nodded again. “With how many people?”
    “Four. You and three others. It’ll be the heist of the century.”
    He peeked through the blinds. “Why?”
    “You stole from him.”
    Lanius scratched his neck. “I didn't steal from him. Buck did.”
    Jinx shrugged. “What’s your point?”
    It was a tantalizing question, and yet all the answer did was make him dizzy again. He ran his hands through his hair, resisting the painful urge to rip it all out. “And just who would I be pulling off the ‘heist of the century’ with?”
    “Well, you got the big fucking guy, he’d be your muscle I suppose. Then you’ll probably need at least two fellas on crowd control. Thinking maybe a couple wannabe wise-guys from back east’ll do the trick.” Jinx licked her lips, “maybe wrangle up Vulpes? Hm? Goddamn Lanius, she’s got tits like fucking cotton candy.”
    He could see them in her eyes, clear as day. “Five.”
    She wiped her chin. “What’s that?”
    “Me, the big fucking guy, wise-guys from the east, and Vulpes, makes five. You said four.” Lanius felt like his eyes were on the verge of popping straight out of his head like balls in a pachinko machine.
    “Alright, five then. That’s the thing about plans,” Jinx started to laugh, “their always changing.”
    Lanius felt numb. He would never make it back from The Apollo, whether he got shot in the back of the head on the way in or stabbed in the back on the way out, Hoyt wouldn't disappoint him. He would die in the west, and there was nothing awfully poetic about that. “Life's not funny,” he found himself saying in a deadpan drawl.
    “Oh, really?,” Jinx snapped, “it’s not?” For a beat she didn't move or say anything. Then she balled her hand’s up into fists, and a million different, deafening voices looked like they were all fighting to make their way out first. She was drowning. Very fucking slowly. At the bottom of a frozen lake. With cinderblocks tied around her ankles. “Of course. It’s a fucking obligation just like everything else. Why the fuck should we even bother being kind and courteous to one another- it doesn't fucking matter, nobody fucking cares. You're not worth it, you never are.” Her whole body started shaking. “No, no, no, no, no, please, what is teen spirit? You can't have pink hair-or-or- tiny, incongruent stars painted on your fingernails. You can't chew gum too loudly. You can't be afraid of the dark. You can’t have too much chocolate. You can't kiss girls. So WHAT THE FUCK CAN YOU DO?!” Tears poured down her cheeks. “They took my husky away. He was just a puppy, barely a month old. Locked in the attic all fucking night long. Crying and howling and scratching at the floor above my room. So confused, so hungry, so cold. But fuck me, right? For wanting someone to hold.” Jinx wiped her eyes with the sleeve of Kara’s hoody. “I mean, without family, who the fuck are we? There was a time… a time, when I thought I could change their minds. I tried, so hard, to show them, that I was still their little baby girl. That I wasn't some twisted, monster masquerading as their daughter. But, it was never enough for them- no, no, no, no, no please. You see the thing about out loved ones, right, our FUCKING LOVED ONES!, they come and they blindside you every fucking time! So they say to me, they say Jinx, JINX!, who the FUCK is it going to be?! THEM OR ME?!” She beat her chest. “ME OR THEM?! Like, like you know, like they fucking think, that I need to make a fucking choice. Now, tell me again, how fucking had your life is? Hm? Cocksucker?”
    Lanius could feel the blood rushing down from his head. He held about as much dead weight as a pile of bricks hanging off the edge of a very tall building, over a crowd of unsuspecting pedestrians, on a windy day. “I’m sorry.”
    “YOU’RE WHAT?! What kind of mystical fucking powers does a two syllable word have? Is it supposed to just, poof, make it all go the fuck away? You cannot escape anguish, Lanius, it is what we are.”
    Barking outside made Jinx jump off the bed, and all but tear the door from it’s hinges. She leapt down the creaky, rusty steps of the Dino Dee-lite motel, and collapsed in the embrace of a full grown black and white husky. The collar around his neck read: Sonny Blue.
    Behind them, holding the scarlet reins, was Kara. From the second floor of the Dino Dee-lite motel, she looked to be roughly six foot four, with blonde hair so bright Lanius thought he would go blind from merely standing within its proximity, and pure, ocean blue eyes, that were locked directly onto him. If looks could kill, Lanius would have been stabbed, shot, bludgeoned, hung, electrocuted, set on fire, impaled on a spike, disemboweled, and mounted above Kara’s fireplace before he had time to blink.
    She knelt down and took Jinx in her arms, placing a gentle kiss on each of her swollen nails. “All better, beautiful,” Kara cupped her cheek, brushing the tips of their noses together, “all better.”
    Sonny Blue started to growl as Lanius reached the bottom of the steps, and placed both his feet back on the Mojave.
    “Why don't you go get Sonny some water,” Kara relinquished the reins to Jinx, “he’s thirsty.”
    Their eyes didn't meet in passing. Lanius wasn't entirely surprised.
    “Willfully inflicting pain or suffering onto others, and feeling no concern about it.” Kara cracked her neck. “Not habitually or commonly occurring.”
    Lanius felt the air begin to constrict around him. “What?”
    “Sage.” She smirked. “Playing the fool isn't your fucking strong-suit, Legate. You just don't have the looks for it.”
    Lanius watched as she strode over, head hung high enough to blot out the sun. “I’m afraid I haven't the faintest idea of what you're talking about.”
    “Clever girl, almost real.” Kara leaned down to his ear. “We’re not gonna have a problem, are we Legate? Because if you lay one fucking finger on her, I will tear you to pieces with my bare motherfucking hands. Are you capable of comprehending what I just said?” Lanius went to scratch his neck, but Kara latched onto his hand and started twisting it. “Crystal. Fucking. Clear?”
    “Yes,” he said through gritted teeth.
    When she let go of his hand it was throbbing and red. “I’ll remember that Legate. Now run along, Mr. Town’s waiting for you in the gift shop. I’m expecting a jolly good goddamn show. So you’d better not fucking disappoint me.”
    At the foot of Dinky, up a short flight of rickety, wooden stairs, was the Dino Bite gift shop. Inside, with his feet kicked up on the counter, was a pristine, well-ordered, sable suit.
    “Mr. Town.” Lanius noticed a speck of blood on the wall leading into a side closet.
    “You,” he took a puff of a Blue Ribbon cigarette, “are an unnecessarily difficult man to get ahold of. Why is that?”
    There was an old leather chair set opposite the Spook on the other side of the counter. Lanius took it upon himself to sit. “Ask Gus.”
    Mr. Town nodded approvingly. “Good answer.” He took another drag of his cigarette. “Heard much from the Frenchman lately?”
    Lanius squinted, trying to make out the expression on the Spook’s face in the relative obscurity of the gift shop. “No. Haven't heard much from him at all.”
    Mr. Town blew an elongated string of smoke out the corner of his mouth. “How’s the Lucky 38 been treating you?”
    “Fine.”
    “Do you own a gun, Legate?”
    “Yes.”
    “What about a nice T.V.?”
    “No.”
    “Where do you keep your gun?”
    “Somewhere safe.”
    “Why don't you have a nice T.V.?”
    “I don’t particularly care for it.”
    “How much, on average, is held overnight in the Lucky 38 vault?”
    “I don't know.”
    “Have you ever wanted to see-”
    “NO.”
    “How many security guards are on the ground floor of the Lucky 38 at any given time?”
    “Several.”
    “How do you take your coffee, Legate.”
    “With sugar.”
    “What type of ordinance do the guards at the Lucky 38 posses.”
    “All different kinds.”
    “Would you care for a smoke, Legate?”
    “No.”
    “Where is Victor every morning at approximately four twenty two am?
    “How the fuck should I know?”
    “What did you eat for breakfast this morning, Legate?”
    “A chocolate chip muffin.”
    “What’s the passcode to Gustavo’s panic room?”
    “I don't fucking know.”
    “Do you drive, Legate?”
    “Only once.”
    “Someone kicked the hornet’s nest, Lanius. Why the fuck do you think that is?”
    “Smoke and mirrors.”
    “If I had a red door, Legate, what color would you paint it?”
    “Purple.”
    “What do you do once you’ve led a horse to a stream, and it still refuses to drink?”
    “Drown the horse.”
    Beads of sweat ran down Lanius’s neck.
    Mr. Town flicked the bud of his cigarette under the counter.
    “Do you have it?”
    “What?”
    “The credit card?”
    The door to the Dino Bite gift shop creaked open.
    “Why?”
    “What do you mean why?”
    Mr. Town motioned to someone behind Lanius.
    “For?”
    “What do you mean for?”
    Lanius felt a surreal moment of detachment from the rest of his body as his head was being slammed into the counter of the Dino Bite gift shop. His mask shattering and and dozens of little cuts rippling across his forehead. As he slunk to the floor, Mr. Town lit another cigarette.
    Kara loomed over him. “Good show,” she smiled, and raised her foot, “night, night cocksucker.”

Chapter Text

“Maybe it’s time for a little more talkin’ and a little less fightin’.” -Elvis Presley

“Witchers never die in their beds.” -Letho of Gulet

    Vulpes Inculta was lying in a lounge chair poolside at the Lucky 38. Her lips were cracked and searing in the thick, midday Mojave air, and her right arm had gone limp from dangling off the side for the better part of an hour. It hurt when she swallowed, and her cheeks were stained with dried up tears. She remembered.
    There was a mysterious cocktail glass on the table next to her, in the shape of a ballerina twirling around on one glittering foot, filled with an amethyst haze of red and blue liquids she could only assume were derived from a fruit based concoction. And Hennessy. Far too much Yellow Finish Hennessy.
    Vulpes reached for the drink, only to latch on with her still dull right hand, and knock the glass off the table. The ballerina shattered into pieces.
    “Goddamnit, impress me!” Victor’s shadow eclipsed her’s.
    “Not today,” Vulpes said hoarsely, “today's not a good day.” A fresh set of tears were gearing up behind her weary, bloodshot eyes.
    “You see,” Victor sat down in the chair next to her, “the problem with that is, it’s all I’ve been fucking hearing lately. ‘Today’s not a good day. Today’s not a good day. Today’s not a good fucking day.’ Do tell me Liana just when the FUCK!, is a good day for you?! How exactly do you believe money finds its way into your bank account each week? Does your magical CIA fairy godmother fly down from Langley and sprinkle a little pixie dust under your pillow at night?”
    Liana’s lip quivered as she reached up to dry her eyes. “I c-can’t sleep… anymore.”
    Victor smiled real bright. “Well darling, that’s a mighty fine handicap you’ve got there, but I’m gonna need to see a doctors note ‘fore I start writing you blank fucking checks. Cause from where I’m sittin’, all I ever seem to see you do is lie on your ass cryin’, eating fucking grapes and drinking every ounce of liquor we got from here to the coast. And that shit, just will not fucking do. So, what’s it gonna be, partner?”
    Liana’s eyes flickered like a broken black and white film projector; her whole body began shivering. “Today’s… really not a good day,” she whimpered, “I’m sorry.”
    Victor cracked his knuckles, his imagination seemed to be drifting in another, preoccupied, plane of existence. “This is pitiful,” his dialect unfolded like a nesting doll, “a sniveling, spoiled child- that’s what I get? No,” he shook his head, “I don't think so.”
    Victor grabbed Liana by her hair and started dragging her towards the lobby.
    “Kids today… ethics, taste, respect- EVERYTHING has to get beaten into them. Well, okay then, if that’s the way it has to be…”
    In the middle of the lobby were several fish spitting up geysers of crystal, oceanic water into a fountain below.
    Guests gazed on in a mix of bemusement and awe as Liana tried to wriggle free, swatting viciously at Victor’s ribs, breaking a few in the process before he slammed her head into a lavish, corinthian column.
    Sparkling, clear blood flowed down from her head and across the polished, multicultural marble.
    Victor held Liana above the fountain, “… so be it,” and plunged her head down into water.
    She’d swam in a lake before. Didn’t remember where or when. It hadn't been as cold as whatever got pumped out of those fish. It hadn’t been as dark or as deep either. It hadn’t been so lonely. It hadn’t been so selfish.
    Liana screamed as Sammy Davis, Jr. started going on about That Old Black Magic.

    Legate Lanius was back on the train to Arstotzka. Frost capped mountains flew past him faster than he could make out all the little indentations of pine trees. There was a guard posted at each door leading in-between the train cars. A fully loaded, semiautomatic rifle in every pair of hands. Just waiting for a reason.
    The breakfast car didn't offer much by the way of freshly squeezed orange juice, but Lanius was sure Vinny hadn't gotten his hopes up to high. Commodities were a constantly free falling enterprise, or so he liked to tell him.
    Walking back to his seat, Lanius kept one hand in his pocket, slowly flipping between the pages of his passport. The kindness and generosity of a hostess being one of the many things in life that he found weren't susceptible to change.
    When he finally sat back down, Vinny had moved on to the obituaries.
    “They didn't have any juice.” Lanius rubbed his hands together and blew on them.
    “You know, in places like this, when it’s gonna be a long ride, shit goes by pretty quickly. Pardon my French. People these days just don't understand the concept of preservation. Sure, you could eat the entire pie now, but why would you want to? Wouldn’t you rather savor it? Wouldn't you rather have one piece at a time?”
    Lanius nodded. “Sure. Lasts longer.”
    “My point exactly! See, you get it. I mean,” Vinny leaned in, “pardon my insensitivity, but folks around here are under the misguided, and ineffectually marketed illusion that they are living in the twenty first century.” Vinny scratched his chin. “They’re not, though, you can see that right?”
    Lanius nodded again. “Yeah. Sure is a shame.”
    “No it’s not!,” Vinny snapped, “natural selection dictates that if you look up and can't deduce that the meteorite that’s been hanging over your head for the past month is being hoisted up on a rope every morning by a fucking no-name stooge, you ain't destined to live a long and happy life. Now I’m sorry, but that isn't my opinion. It’s a fact.”
    Vinny leaned back in his seat and straightened out his olive suit jacket. He took a little box of sour apple rock candies out of his breast pocket and popped a few into his mouth.
    Several guards marched by with blood dripping from their knuckles.
    “Natural selection,” Vinny muttered, “what a royal cunt.”

    Legate Lanius woke up slouched over in a derelict Freeside alley; his neck stiff, with dried up blood covering his face like he’d just been mauled by a honey badger. He could taste copper on his tongue as a conglomerate of blurred voices and sounds tried to worm their way through his inner ear.
    He was just barely aware of the shadow standing over him.
    “Дай мне усталость, сказала она, твоя бедная, сказала она, твои сбитые массы, жаждущие дышать бесплатно. О, о чем она должна думать о тебе, я могу только чертовски удивляться.”
    Lanius felt a pair of hands sift through his pockets.
    “Нет кошелек. Радость - это я.”
    A farm-fresh straw hat and a cherry red scarf materialized a small flashlight and shined it in each of Lanius’s eyes.
    “Дайк наверняка сделал тебе номер. Не волнуйся, я никому не скажу.”
    The pebbles lining the alley started to tremble as the monorail passed by overhead.
    “Victor?,” Lanius murmured hazily.
    Kids ran by on the sidewalk chasing a stray dog with makeshift swords comprised of twigs and duct tape.
    “Yeah, partner?”
    Mr. New Vegas echoed in his ear: “The Silver Rush. Feel the rush of a warm laser in your hand.”
    “What time is it?”
    Victor checked his wrist. “Pretty darn late. Almost five thirty. You just missed mass.”
    Lanius scratched his neck. “Don't suppose you got any water, do you Victor?”
    He shook his head. “No can do I’m afraid. Now, you need help gettin’ back to the Lucky 38? Or can I be on my merry way?”
    Lanius slid his way up the concrete wall he’d been graciously propped up against and steadied his knees. “I’ll manage.”
    “Well that’s what I like to hear partner!,” Victor pat him on the back, “you have yourself a mighty fine night now. Till tomorrow.”
    Lanius closed his eyes until the clip clop of Victor’s shoes dissipated and eventually faded out altogether. Then he placed one hand under his chin and cracked his neck.
    A static jolt of pain rippled throughout his body, lighting his nerves on fire and nearly making him choke to death on his own tongue. He needed a drink. A nice, strong, drink.
    Stepping out of the alley he could see the Silver Rush directly ahead of him, and the Atomic Wrangler down the street to his left.
    A feeling started to wash over Lanius, then sank right in the pit of his stomach where it belonged. He took a deep breath in and out, attempting to level himself out with the rest of the passerby's. The Mojave grew awfully bitter at night. Awfully quick too, it almost always caught him off guard.
    Yet Lanius wasn't surprised. He’d been expecting it, lately. He’d become accustomed to it. He knew, all too well, that he should have been home hours ago.

    Vinny scratched his chin. Everyone else had already gotten off the train except them.
    “Look,” he folded the paper up and slid it under his arm, “I apologize, for um, goin’ off on you, before, like I did. Pardon my French and all that. I just got a little, how you say, carried away, with myself. Caught up in the moment- kid, you understand. I don't need to tell you how it is. It’s just that, I’m the only one here, you know? And, that’s just… well, that’s just a lot of goddamn responsibility. Pardon my French.” Vinny sighed. “But, that’s not really an excuse, is it?” He scratched his chin. “No, it’s not. A proper man, remember this Lanius, a proper man always gages his audience. No matter what. Regardless of where he is, or who he is with.”
    Nightfall had overtaken the station. All the guards had left. All the passengers herded off down the road. The only lights Lanius could see in the parking lot where from the front-end of a platinum coated limousine.
    “Always gage your audience,” Lanius repeated, “got it.”
    Vinny cracked a smile. “Peachy kiddo. Our chariot awaits.”
    They stepped out into the desolate train car and hastily gathered their bags.
    Vinny packed nothing but the barest of essentials: an entire briefcase stuffed full of rock candies in varying sized, shaped, and colored boxes. Raspberry was his favorite. He kept a comb in his suit pocket along with a handkerchief and a lighter. All embroidered with the letter V.
    Lanius, at Vinny’s behest, only packed one change of clothes. Floating around the rest of his duffel bag was a toothbrush and a pillow.
    They walked silently through the train and out onto the platform. Lanius stood on a faded yellow line that, if his translation was correct, he wasn’t supposed to cross in the event of an oncoming train pulling into the station.
    Vinny led him down a short flight of steps as snowflakes started to pepper the asphalt.
    A man in a burly wool coat took their bags and put them in the trunk of the limousine, while a second man in a burly wool coat opened the door. Each had a moderately inconspicuous machine pistol hanging at his waist.
    Sitting inside with a glass of red wine on ice, was a woman in a bright turquoise suit. She had a white undershirt; long white socks; black stiletto heels; and a silver tie with red stripes and turquoise stars of a shade slightly darker than that of her suit. She was pale, with bright red hair that came down just past her shoulders, glowing pink lips, and a shade of turquoise eyeliner a touch brighter than that of her suit.
    “Long time no see Vinny. Where ya been? And who’s the kid?”
    Vinny wrapped his arm around Lanius. “My nephew. From the states.”
    “You don't say,” the woman crinkled her nose, “you’re too sweet. Always bringing me such… surprises.”
    “Nothing but the best,” Vinny scratched his chin, “nothing but the best.”

    The Van Graff family moved down from New Reno, a few years before Gustavo showed up on the Strip, into a bedraggled old casino called the Silver Rush. With a golden lion adorning the shoulder of each of Gloria Van Graff’s soldiers, they steadily formed a monopoly over the weapons trade in the Mojave. With a security force stiff enough to rival that of most continental armies, and a crippling coat of paranoia, business tended to favor and upward ticking hike. Before being pushed back to the coast, the New California Republic had been pursuing several lucrative investigations into a few unfortunate events that happened to befall the Van Graff’s chief competition. The Gun Runners, entrepreneurs hailing from several indistinguishable mile markers south of the border, were set upon by a group of Komodo dragons coming down from a sale up in Oregon; a pack of hyenas while trying to move their operation into Utah; and a panther in their base of operations just outside Freeside.
    Jean Baptise-Cutting, the Jack of Spades as he’s referred to on the Strip, the Ex-Con as he’s referred to off the Strip, was Gloria Van Graff’s head of security and chief animal wrangler.
    He had short black hair and dark blue eyes, and because he was roughly the same height as a double decker bus on stilts, Lanius could see him prop up a man’s jaw on the side walk and subsequently slam his foot down long before teeth started jetting out across the street like shooting stars.
    Jean flashed Lanius a quick smile, and under the pale moonlight, it almost appeared to twinkle.
    “One day,” he started, as Lanius sidestepped the teeth littering the street like they were laced with plastic explosives, “my Mama took me aside and said: ‘Boy, you’re never going to go very far, but you’re gonna make a whole lot of people come up short.’ I’m sure old Roy here could’ve attested to that. Wouldn't you say Legate?”
    Old Roy was bleeding from his mouth all over the curb.
    “I’m sure he could’ve,” Lanius scratched his neck, taking note of the eight golden lions stacked up against the back alley that ran alongside the Silver Rush, “anything you need help with tonight Jean?”
    “Don't worry about it Legate,” he brushed some air off his shoulder, “got it all taken care of. If Gloria needs you, she knows where to find you.”
    Lanius went to make a beeline for the Atomic Wrangler when Jean grabbed onto his shoulder, fixing him in place. “Just another minute of your time, Legate, if you can spare it.”
    “Of course.”
    “Way I been hearin’ things, lot of topsy turvy shit goin’ on over there in the Big House. Whatcha-make-a-that?”
    “Not sure. In the process of finding out.”
    Jean nodded. “Mighty dandy of you. But, while you do that, I imagine, a man of your stature, could always do with another gun at his side.”
    “There a sale goin’ on Jean?”
    “Thought you’d never ask. For a limited time only, Gloria is offering half off everything, in the shop.”
    “What an awfully generous thing for her to do.”
    “No other way to see it Legate. How ‘bout you come on inside-”
    “Raincheck, Jean. It’s late, and I got one last stop to make.”
    Jean released his grip on Lanius’s shoulder. “But you will stop by won’t you? Wouldn't want a sale like this to go to waste.”
    “Course not. Be in as soon as I can.”
    “I know you will. Can you smell it Legate,” Jean took a whiff of the air like it was a parmesan crusted fondue fresh out of the oven, “in the air? Whole lot o’ people need to get shot.”
    “Whole lot o’ people always need to get shot.”
    “Amen to that brother. Now, don't let me keep you any longer, but, if you see Caesar, why don't you tell him, that unless he stops in soon to pick up that plasma caster he ordered, I’m gon’ find him, and shove it down his fucking throat. You get that?”
    “Yeah, I’ll be sure to tell him. Be seeing you Jean.”
    “Naturally.” He winked, and under the pale moonlight, his eye almost appeared to twinkle.

    “You know who I am?,” the woman in the turquoise suit asked, “nephew from the states?”
    Lanius raked his fingers along the plush white leather that lined the interior of the limousine. “No, I’m afraid.”
    Vinny cleared his throat. “C’mon. What are we doin’ here? He’s a guest- that’s it.”
    The woman took a sip of her wine. “Oh, I can see that Vinny, but thank you for your astuteness. I asked a question, let him answer it.”
    Vinny squirmed in his seat. “He did.”
    “No he didn’t,” the woman traced her forefinger around the rim of the glass, “he said what you wanted him to say. I want the answer he’d give me if you weren't here, Vinny.” She reached across the expanse of the limousine and offered Lanius her glass. “It’d be rude not too. And I don't know if your uncle here has gotten this far with you, but a proper man, never refuses a lady when she offers him a drink.”
    He placed his lips along the outline of her cherry chapstick, and started to take a sip, when the woman in the turquoise suit smirked, “it’s free kid,” and gently tipped the glass back with her middle finger, “bottoms up.”
    In her eyes, all Lanius could see was an infinite, pitch black expanse, filled with nothing but stars.
    Vinny cleared his throat. “You wanna wait three more months to do that?”
    When the glass was empty, the woman leaned back in her seat. “Shut the fuck up Vinny. Now, nephew from the states, do you know who I am?”
    “Yes,” Lanius replied, “Ms. Stardust.”

    Outside the Atomic Wrangler was a neon blue sign of a space cowboy riding an atom. It was the only functioning casino in Freeside, and a minor one at that, with only six slot machines, four roulette tables, and one blackjack table with a sawed off shotgun taped underneath. There was a small bar, with barely enough liquor to hold up a license, and a second floor overlooking the casino area where all the overnight rooms were, and all the prostitutes took their smoke breaks. James Garret and his twin sister Francine owed the joint, and if anyone ever asked where she was, with a knowing wink and a smile, James would say she was on a cruise-ship upriver. For eleven consecutive months.
    Lanius took a seat at the bar and rubbed his eyes.
    “What’ll it be Legate?” James asked, with his beady green eyes that always seemed to linger just long enough for him to approximate how much money he stood to make if he played his cards right.
    “Casa Noble,” Lanius scratched his neck, “and make it a double.”
    James snorted. “The fuck you think we get out here? I got Uncle Jack’s whiskey and that's about it, unless you want to see what these dipshits cook up in the bathroom when they think I’m not looking.”
    Lanius rolled his tongue along the backs of his teeth. “Uncle Jack’s it is then.”
    James poured. “On the house, I got work for you.”
    The whiskey felt like swallowing a jar of bees. “Her body finally starting to smell?”
    James laughed a bit too hard. “Keep your fucking voice down Legate. That's just schoolyard gossip, no use spreading it around.”
    “Whatever you say Garret,” second time around it felt more like wasps, “but when the flies start swarming, you’re gonna need more than just a fucking exterminator.”
    “Well I know just who to call then, don't I?”
    Lanius finished off Uncle Jack’s whiskey, and it felt like he could have burned off his gums with a blowtorch and be left no worse for wear. “What do you want James?”
    “Well, I know whores aren't exactly your specialty, but if you happen to see any exotic redheads roaming around Gomorrah, send ‘em my way. Better off with me than the Frenchman, wouldn't you say? Less likely to end up with a croquet mallet lodged up their twat.”
    Lanius grimaced. “Don't know if better off is the way I’d put it. You got all that nylon in the storeroom for a reason, don't you? And it’s not for making a fucking quilt.”
    “People are into some weird shit,” James shrugged, “ain't nothing I can do about that. And you, well, you wouldn't know a goddamn thing about that sort of stuff, would ya Legate?”
    Lanius leaned over the bar and grabbed James by his tie. “Mean something by that Garret?”
    “I don't know. Maybe, you just want to hurt someone. If that’s the case, I already gave Wayne to the cook.” A fat man in a white apron was shoving a much smaller man’s head down into a deep frier in the kitchen. “But, I could get you a line on a petite brunette out of Cologne. She’s very fragile Lanius, just like a ballerina.”
    James Garret dropped to the floor behind the bar of the Atomic Wrangler with a shot glass embedded in his cheek.

    Ms. Stardust looked weak at the knees. “I’ve never been to the states before. What’s it like?”
    “Loud.” Lanius said.
    “Like a circus! A nationwide six lane pile up! No one knows what to do with themselves!, I’m sure, so they try and do everything at once! How entertaining that must be.”
    Vinny looked ready to walk. “Cross the pond some time and find out for yourself. It’s a gas.”
    Ms. Stardust ignored him. “What is a brand? They must not know. Everyone will surely want to do things their way, if you let them.”
    “Should we?” Lanius asked.
    “Not unless your in the business of losing money. And you might be surprised to learn just how many people are and have deluded themselves into thinking otherwise. Brands sell a lifestyle. How do you look? What do you say? Where do you go? When people see you, they want to see a reflection. And over the years, I’ve found it best to be the one selling the mirror.” Ms. Stardust poured herself another glass of Opus. “But, that begs the question: who are we when no ones watching? In private, how do we look? What do we say? Where do we go?” She drank, letting the wine swish around in her mouth. “Do you enjoy ballet, Lanius?”

    Gustavo didn't think much of The Kings. He said they were nothing more than a bunch of kids playing dress up, running around with switch blades and their dad’s tire iron. They held up in the King’s School of Impersonation; a rectangular, three story, corner building halfway between the Atomic Wrangler and the glistening New Vegas Strip. A blue neon guitar hung from the side, and across it read: THE KINGS. The school had a lot of mirrors, with instructions printed alongside. Step one: shake hips. Step two: say ‘Uh-Huh.’
    As Lanius walked past, he saw a man in the back alley with five knives protruding from his spine. One had the name Farris engraved on it.
    There was a lone King, Pacer, smoking a cigarette beside the body. Ripped blue jeans; polished shoes; wife beater; leather jacket; tinted sunglasses; hair combed back with petroleum. Couldn’t be anyone else, Lanius surmised.
    “Nothin’ to see here, move along,” Pacer said, waving him by, “this is not the corpse you are looking for.”
    Johnnycakes was asleep at his post with a pink box of cupcakes empty at his feet and strawberry frosting everywhere else.
    There was a woman standing in front of the gate on her bare feet. She had dark brown hair, light purple eyes, and her hands were full with brochures for The Tops. “Interested in a room hon?” A silver necklace around her neck read Monica. She had a creamy New York accent, and someone had gone through and awful amount of trouble to cover up her black eye with concealer and eyeshadow.
    “No thank you.” Lanius said, momentarily realizing Monica wasn't wearing a bra.
    “You sure hon?” She asked, slowly undoing the zipper to her jeans.
    “I’m sure.” Lanius momentarily realized Monica wasn't wearing anything underneath her jeans either, which were probably too tight and cutting off the flow of oxygen to her brain.
    “You can watch hon,” she started touching herself, “price won't change.”
     Johnnycakes stirred and started brushing crumbs off his chest.
    “I have to go,” Lanius scratched his neck, “I’m sorry.”
    Monica crumpled up a brochure and threw it at him. “Well fuck off then!” She missed.

    Vinny jerked forward. “That's enough of this shit!, you understand? He is NOT getting involved! If his father ever found out the two of you were even having this stupid fucking conversation he’d kill me, you, and anyone that’s ever emptied our waste paper baskets!” He wiped the film of sweat forming above his lip. “That's enough of this shit, you hear me?” The limousine came to a stop. “Get out. Walk in those ridiculous fucking heels the rest of the way.”
    Ms. Stardust sneered. “As you like it, Vinny. Your room is stocked, clothes are in the armoire, and I’ll have a bottle of champagne sent up, when I get back.” She stepped outside into the picturesque tundra, straightened out her suit, and waved them through the checkpoint. “See you around,” she winked, “nephew from the states.”
    As the door shut behind her, a group of armed guards opened fire on several passengers from the train that tried to blitz past the ticket-booths.

    The Lucky 38 was starting to come alive.
    As he waited for the elevator to take him up to the penthouse suite, Lanius saw Victor by the bar with a bottle of Casa Noble in his hands, and heard from a couple by the slot machines about a woman who was almost drowned in one of the fountains earlier in the day.
    As he rode up, Lanius thought he could almost see into Gustavo’s office. The Don appeared to be smoking a cigar, with his feet kicked up on the desk. Something almost resembling a smile etched on his face.
    Once inside the suite, Lanius slipped off his shoes and crept into the bathroom.
    He had no idea what to tell the angel sleeping soundlessly in the other room. All that what was left to do was clean the blood from his face, and hopefully come up with something good by the time he was done. Unfortunately, he couldn't seem to find a towel.
    Then the faucet started running, and Lanius turned around to see Grace, topless, wearing a pair of slim black panties and purple cotton socks, holding a wash cloth in her hand. She ran it under some water and motioned for him to lean down.
    “I’m worried about you puppy.” She said, wiping down his cheeks first.
    “I don't want you to be.”
    “You're not leaving me with much of a choice.” His forehead came next. It felt like he had eighty eight concussions.
    “I’m sorry, angel.”
    “Sorry won't get the blood out,” she yawned, “club soda will.”
    Grace turned the faucet off and rested the cloth on the counter. She brushed their noses together, and kissed him. “Come to bed puppy.”
    Lanius lay down, and the angel cradled his head in her arms. “God only knows what I’d do without you puppy,” she started trailing kisses along his cuts, “God only knows.”
    Lanius was too tired to admit She didn’t.





Chapter Text

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” -1984, George Orwell

Kara could sleep. In her own bed. Wrapped in her own sheets. Lying on her own pillow. It felt good. Maybe even great.

The Dino Dee-lite motel didn't offer much by the way of comfort and cleanliness. Just a six by four foxhole dug out of freshly laid cement plastered with copper wiring and seaweed. Over the course of the three days she was marooned there, left to wonder how many adorable, infant woodland critters she must have drowned in a previous life to warrant being put up in a residence with a broken lamp, a broken radio, and only the world’s second largest pole-dancing Jurassic carnivore, Kara didn't close her eyes for more than a second. She couldn’t.

Jinx thrashed her feet all night long. “You’re safe beautiful. I’ve got you.” Panic stricken. “I won't let anyone hurt you again.” Dripping with sweat. “Stop crying baby. Please… please stop crying.” Terrified of the roads. “I love you so much. And I’m sorry.” No matter how tightly Kara held her. “It’s all my fault. I know that. I should have been there.” No matter how many times she pressed her nose into Jinx’s cheek and peppered her with soft little kisses. “Please, Jinx. Please… just stop crying. I can't take it anymore!”

She’d wake up gasping for air; shivering head to toe. Kara could see the roads in her eyes. Lined with festive lampposts, and patches of lightly irradiated snow.

Jinx would latch onto her then, tunneling in-between Kara’s breasts; arms and legs wrapped snuggly around her waist. She never wanted to let go.

“It’s okay baby,” Kara whispered, gently stroking her hair, “it’s all over.” She could hear Jinx’s heart beating. A little too fast.

If the onset of insanity was seeing Jinx in pain, then Kara imagined she was truly going mad, because Jinx walked through life with shards of stained, broken glass under her skin. Never under ladders through. Doctors orders.

Kurt Cobain had taken up a residency in their house. Blurry smiley face was in the bag; bag was at the bottom of a swimming pool. As in poor taste as she knew it was, if he didn't find someone to shoot with that gun he kept insisting he didn't have, then she hoped he’d at least do her the courtesy of shooting himself.

Kara sat up, and did her best to straighten out her hair. She put on a white t-shirt and a pair of striped briefs, and went out to see what Alfons Schuhbeck’s heir apparent was cooking.

Jinx had rolled up a dozen, eight-ball sized pockets of dough, and put half of them in a frying pan crackling with oil, while sprinkling the rest with powdered sugar.

“Tony Montana would be proud,” Kara locked her arms around Jinx’s rumbling stomach, burying her nose in fluffy pink hair that smelled exactly like bubblegum, and licked some sugar off her cheek. “God I fucking love cocaine. You stack that shit like a pro baby. Got you in the wrong fucking line of work.” Jinx giggled. She was wearing a dark purple t-shirt that said ‘The Overlook was a shithole anyway’ and black sweatpants that poured over her feet. “Can't I buy you some clothes that actually fit?”

Jinx started gyrating her hips. “Your stuff fits better. And I get cold.”

Kara’s eyes went wide. “It’s ninety eight degrees outside baby, if you're cold, I’m the fucking King of Spain.”

Jinx tugged at her lower lip. “I don't think Spain has Kings anymore.”

Kara led a trail of kisses down her neck; nibbling never biting. “Duke, Bishop, Chancellor, Czar, Governor- you don't feel frosty to me.”

Jinx took the rest of the eight-balls out of the frying pan as quaint, middle class America started planting houses and building trees around the swimming pool.

“You know Frank Sinatra died for out sins, right baby?”

Jinx doused her hands in sugar. “Sins?,” she bent her head back and placed a kiss to Kara’s lips, “what sins?”

She could see it then. Clear as a rainy day. There was no escaping it. There was no fragmented illusion she could create that would lull her into a state of mind where she could genuinely believe it wasn't there. Kara traced her forefinger around a perfect circle. Right under Jinx’s chin. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

As the tears came streaming down her face, Jinx led Kara’s hand down, under her shirt, and over her heart. “It’s still there,” their hands steadily rose and fell, “it’s still yours.”

Kara leaned down and kissed her, grabbing tightly onto her breast; thumb and middle finger clasping her stiff nipple; running her other hand down below Jinx’s stomach, rubbing the smooth, sensitive skin between her legs. “What do you want baby?”

Her breath hitched as she spread her legs as wide as she could. “Everything.”

Kara slid her fingers inside Jinx one by one; intoxicated by how inviting she was, and how warm she felt, and how sweet all the powdered sugar on the tip of her tongue tasted.

The stench of Huff n’ Puff cigarettes and cheap, bottom shelf whiskey came knocking at their door.

“I’ll get it,” Jinx panted.

Kara’s hand was dripping. “Don't mind me,” she started hungrily licking her digits, “just finishing up breakfast.”

When she opened the door, Jinx saw Shade standing outside in a slick, silver duster with his hips cocked. “Howdy.” He had a deep fried and battered southern accent.

“I though you spoke Russian?”

“And I thought you got shot in the head.” His sharp, blonde hair tilted slightly in the breeze. “Funny, isn't it? When you get on down to brass-tacks, life always gon’ find a way to be pretty darn spiteful.” He lowered his gold rimmed, black sunglasses down the bridge of his nose. Jinx saw through his steely blue eyes. "Where’s the spook?”

Eating.” She tried to close the door, but Shade stuck out his robotic left hand and held it firmly in place.

“And such a pity that is,” he leaned in, and Jinx could see the sand in his goatee, along with the little cuts lining his neck, “you know, it’s not actually the most important meal of the day. They’re all the same- one don’t just mean more-”

“Who are you?”

“Who? Me? Well shit, honey, I’m just some fucking guy with a nice pair of shades. Nobody special, oh-no, not like you. Reckon there aren't a whole lotta people like you.”

“You work for House?”

Shade went into his pocket and pulled out a red, half empty cartoon of Huff n’ Puff cigarettes. “He-he, ladd nahw!, sweetie, I work for Frank…” Kara stepped out from the kitchen, putting herself in front of Jinx. Shade put the pack of smokes away. “… Hey baby. Thought we were gonna be ridin’ the merry-go-round all day. You look well rested.”

If looks could kill, Kara would have burned two holes through Shade’s skull. “The fuck do you want?”

“Soap.”

“What?”

“One of these days, Kara, somebody's gon’ have to wash your mouth out with the stuff.” His nose crinkled and he started swatting away the air from his nostrils. “Smells like rotten cabbage, baby, what you been eatin’?”

“You got nothing better to be doing with your time?”

“Not actually.” The circuits in his arm twitched. “Upper Management wants a debrief. And he wants it now. So, here’s what I'm thinking: you're gonna put on a fresh pair-a briefs, preferably without cum stains. Always gotta look presentable. Then we’ll get some food and have ourselves and all-American fireside chat. What say you?”

 

Donna’s was a little diner, that according to Shade, made the most di-vine stack of pancakes you ever had the pleasure of watching someone else eat. They sat down in a plush, yellow leather booth; under a ceiling fan; across from a jukebox. Shade ordered the Farmer’s breakfast: two eggs sunny-side up, a side of bacon, a side of sausage, a side of smoked ham, and whole grain toast, for dexterity. The waitress poured him a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

“When in Los Angeles, isn't that right?” Kara was glaring. “Don't glare, Kara, it’s not very becoming of an Aryan of your stature.”

She scoffed, crossing her arms. “This is such fucking bullshit.”

“Come on now, this is a formality.” Shade took a sip of his juice. His artificial hand cracked the glass. “I just gotta make sure our timetable is still as crisp and as orderly as a five dollar bill.”

“Mr. Minimum Wage was there. I’m sure he’d fucking love to tell you all about it.”

“Mr. Town… in his brief moments of lucidity between fermented stupors, is next on the block. Your house just popped up first on my G.P.S. You wanna take the piss outta someone, take the piss outta Big Global Positioning.”

Kara leaned over the table. “Upper Management okay with this?”

“Well do enlighten me as to what the fuck this is?”

“Town, asshole. He didn't just fall off the fucking wagon. He shot the fucking horses pulling it and then lit the whole goddamn pasture on fire. Is that not a cause for fucking concern?”

“Oh ha-diddly-ha, Kara, what a riot you are. Don't worry about it.”

“Fuck off. You stupid pricks love to bullshit through your fucking teeth, but the truth is: you don’t have the balls to fucking acknowledge the cocksucking elephant in the room.”

Breakfast came and Kara rolled her eyes.

“Starvation don't discriminate, baby. I know, I know, they had to widen the revolving door a whole two feet. But that's not my problem, and Town isn't yours. Do not get involved. Should be easy enough, don't you think? That blooming pink wallflower you got paradin’ around in your skin looks a bit paler than usual. Got coffins under her eyes.”

“Jinx. Is. FINE.”

“Bull-fucking-shit. Just cause you keep sayin’ it don’t mean it’ll come true, that’s just not how wishing works. If I hooked you up to a polygraph test it’d spontaneously combust. If you sat down in a confessional- fuck it, you wouldn't even make it through the from door without being drowned and devoured in a swarm of locusts.” Shade took a bite of sausage. “Biblically speaking, ain't no better way to go.”

“What about the roads?”

“Beg your pardon?”

“The roads,” Kara felt under her chin, “what about Mr. Road?”

“What about while you were lynching niggers?”

“What?!”

“Old piece of soviet propaganda, Kara.” Shade cut into one of his eggs. “The Iron Giant, in all her glory. How long did it take to get that albino crocodile tattooed along your spine? It looks like it took a while. You get it done all at once or did you space it out?” He dipped a piece of his toast into the yolk. “You know what, maybe I’m better off not knowing.” Then took a napkin and wiped around his mouth. “Why are you preemptively exempting yourself from a situation that you haven't been blamed for yet? I imagine that if you willed it, you could reach across this table, grab the knife off my plate, jam it though my eye, take the fork, jam it through the other eye, pick up the spoon and gouge my tongue out. And I know you want to. Eyes dartin’ back and forth, hands twitching a little. Maybe you thought of something I didn’t?” Shade cut into the other egg. “You probably did Kara. Your moderately above average intelligence has no doubt saw fit to work out a Persian mirage of favors for you. But: ‘what about Mr. Road’.” He took a swig of his juice. “Do you know the problem with the way you strung those four words together?” And a bite of his eggs and some hash-browns. “I would imagine, that you don’t. And that, is a cause for concern, Kara. So, do me a favor, and try your hardest to give Mr. Road a wide fucking berth. That little lady you got nestled up against your finger? She is finite. A rare commodity, and as I’m sure is written on all the signs, you invested into a real volatile market place.” He bit into a slice of bacon. “I wish you both well, for what it’s worth.”

Shade reached into the pocket of his duster and took out a business card that had a picture of the world on one side, and an address printed on the other. “Pick up Town, in no more than six to eight pieces.” He waved her off. “Consider yourself debriefed.”

 

Not far from Donna’s was a bar called The Neighborhood. A perfect slice of suburbia ripped straight out of a real estate ad in rural Montana. Complete with a white picket fence and pink flamingos guarding the gilded gates; twelve super-sized beer nozzles; and four fine-tuned shelves stocked with American whiskey.

Mr. Town was sitting by himself, on a stool, with a half full glass of Goldschläger. He raised it to Kara. “Can't miss me already. So, fellow traveler, what'll it be? I'm buying.”

Kara sat down. “I'm your driver.”

“I got a fuckin’ car.”

“That you can't fucking drive.”

“Bollocks…” Mr. Town drank. “So, Vegas then? Still got ceramic lodged in your knuckles?”

“Nope,” Kara rubbed them together, “got it all out.” She could still smell the bubblegum. Taste it too.

Town snorted. “Thought you were gonna kill ‘em. Would've made a helluva fucking mess.”

“Where did you take him?”

“Left him out in a Freeside gutter. I’m sure he’s doin’ just fine. Case you were wondering,” he polished off his drink, “whaddya make-a his bird?”

“She doesn't know a goddamn thing.”

“Course she does.”

“Doesn't mean she knows anything.”

Town rolled his eyes. “Whatever… Caesar’s a dead fuckin’ end. All swagger… no substance.”

“What about the Frenchman?”

“Five months ago he was paying almost eighty grand in medical bills like clockwork. Now he’s not. The fuck do you make of that?”

“Don't know yet. What’d you do with the card?”

“Cut it up. Threw it in the trash. Why? Someone cash in an ‘IOU’.” Mr. Town went to stand up and nearly tripped over his shoelaces.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

He balanced himself on the table. “I’m empty.”

“Try and fill that glass up and I’ll jam it through your fucking windpipe.”

“Strange… don't recall pissin’ in your cornflakes this morning.”

“That house of yours ain't empty, Town. She’s waiting for you to come home. Been waiting, more like.”

“There are more people in this city… than there are cells in your body. Why the fuck… am I getting a homestead lecture from you.”

“Cause Stone can break your neck in eight different ways, seven of which won't kill you. He’s just one call away. I'll have him bring a wheelchair.”

“Kids today,” Town waved his hand dismissively, “always with the violence, or threats of violence, or… too much T.V. rotting your brains… turning ‘em to… marmalade.”

“You gonna make me drag you outta here on my fucking back?”

“No,” he burped, “lemme ask you somethin’ plainly…”

“I’d rather you fucking didn’t.”

“How come… you got her workin’ down at Oasis… with all them fucking Nazis? Huh? Doesn't seem, like you're learning from your mistakes.”

Kara balled her hands into fists. “You wanna start asking fucking questions? Okay then. Why the fuck aren't you home right now? Why the fuck are you in a bar at almost eleven in the morning, wearing the same fucking clothes we left Vegas in?”

“Same reason you are. Still seeing ghosts Kara? They got medication for that now, you know.”

Her nails started digging into the palms of her hands. “How’d she get that black eye again?”

Town threw his glass at her head, missing by about a mile. “What a right fuckin’ cunt you are.”

“Do you even remember?”

“She bumped her head on the microphone! There is nothing else there. It was an accident!”

“How long she been in the business? Few years? Long enough not to bump her head on the fucking microphone, I think.”

“That’s what happened…” Mr. Town slunk down to the floor, holding his head in his hands as he started to cry, “… I couldn't hit her.”

Eyes started to wander. “I'm taking you home Town,” she propped him up on her shoulder, “drinking yourself to death is too goddamn expensive.”

 

Kara drove a white Cadillac deep into the Hills. She pulled in through an automatic gate and parked as close to the front door of the Town residence as she could without getting skid marks on all the furniture.

He’d been passed out the entire way; sprawled across the back seat. His suit reeked of enough liquor to fill nine hundred and ninety nine thousand bottles on a sixty eight mile long wall. As she lugged his unconscious corpse through the front door, and saw how many stairs lay betwixt her and the master bedroom, Kara settled on the couch as being the healthiest place for him to sleep it all off.

Town landed on the cushions with a dull thud. She propped his head up with a pillow, and draped a quilt over the rest of him. Toxicity, was a word she thought best be engraved on his forehead, if not his tombstone.

Standing in the doorway to the kitchen, she saw the essence of the Versace lifestyle manifest itself in the form of a small woman with the smoothest skin Kara had ever seen.

“Morning, Mrs. Town.”

“Is that what this is?” She had wavy, dark brown hair infused with vitality. And sad, brown eyes, like those of a sick puppy. “You know, sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if none of you ever brought him home.”

“It any better?”

“No,” she was wearing a white tank-top, and pajama bottoms that sunk down past her ankles, “not particularly. You want some coffee?”

“Sure.” Kara tried not to notice that Mrs. Town’s belly had gotten a little bit bigger since the last time she saw her.

They entered the kitchen and a mild French brew snuck up on Kara, as Mrs. Town’s pajama bottoms slipped down a notch, and her eyes wandered down below her spine. Without knowing it, Kara licked her lips.

Two hot cups of coffee were placed on the counter, and Mrs. Town pulled up her pants and tied them tightly. “He didn't hit me,” she said, taking a sip.

“I know.”

“Doesn't posses the capacity to.”

“I know.” Kara burned her tongue.

“Then why do you torture him?”

“He’s gotta stop.”

“Drinking? Like I haven't tried.”

Mrs. Town walked back to the doorway. Versace didn't fit her very well; it didn't take kindly to tourists. She didn’t belong there.

“I… if there’s anything you need…” Kara reached for her shoulder.

Mrs. Town went over to the couch and knelt down beside it, like she were praying at an alter; placing a kiss on each of Mr. Town’s cheeks. “I'm never getting over him.”

Kara left the Town residence, and closed the door behind her.

 

Chapter Text

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” -John Fitzgerald Kennedy

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” -Thomas Jefferson

Голод был щедростью. Etched in white spray paint across the side of a silo. Famine was generosity. The stalks were almost completely dead; their grains crushed under the black rimmed boots of goose-stepping acolytes hailing from the church of Stalin. Soon they would be forced to call in the Luftwaffe to clear the roads toward the next settlement.

Comrade Wulf sent the rest of the infantrymen on ahead of him. Grenades hung loose at their sides; machine guns held tightly in their hands; fingers always on the trigger.

The enemy lacked superior ordinance. Pitchforks and hatchets were all that remained in their arsenal.

“They do not look like much,” Comrade Wulf ushered shock troopers with flamethrowers to fill the gaps in the infantry unit, “but behind every corner, they will be there, waiting for you. Be sure to give them my regards.”

As forty eight tons of Uralvagonzavod miracle engineering barreled through the trees, tactlessly lobbing shells toward the sky like they were hunting Jack Snipes, Comrade Wulf made sure each of the medals adorning his jacket shined as brightly as they did the day they were pinned on him.

The gelid winds blew down through the chimney of a creaky wooden house that felt at all times one good gush away from caving in on itself. Even the cobwebs were vacant.

“You're not going to need anything with you.” Czernobog pulled a matchbook from his coat pocket and lit his cigar. “Our guy at the docks will get you a gun. It’ll have to be something small, light, discrete. Can't arouse suspicion.” He crossed the house and gave Raven a light. “Keep it on you at all times. You heard the man.”

Fink MFG was printed along the side of the cigar in neat, gold letters.

“And the room?” She asked, rolling the smoke around in her mouth like a soothing herbal tea.

“Paid in full,” Czernobog sat down in a torn, cotton chair with no back, “why that place?”

Raven tilted her head up, and parted her lips to release a mushroom cloud of multicultural tar. “I like the view.”

Engines whirled overhead.

“There goes the neighborhood,” Czernobog chuckled, “I always told Leon he should have joined the circus.”

Freak-show,” Raven muttered, eyes glued to the shaking of the roof, it seemed to be getting closer, “shit’s overrated.”

The countryside lit up to the chorus of the All-Father’s air to surface grandchildren; she could hear the ringing in her ears.

“What?!” Czernobog leaned forward.

“The ship,” Raven puffed out a string of smoke that got carried back up the chimney, “who’s on it?”

“Mercenaries. Privateers, mostly. Shouldn't get in your way, provided you don't get in theirs.”

“What's the cargo?”

“Cattle,” he shrugged, “plenty of tranquilizer. Pays good.”

“You trust him?”

“Who?, the islander?”

“Yeah,” Raven felt the ash prick the back of her throat, “islander.”

“He comes highly recommended. Never been stopped before. Get you through just fine. Might try to sell you psychedelics- can't speak on behalf of their quality.”

“Who’s picking me up?”

“Our guy with the shades.” He motioned to his eyes. “Kazan has everybody in place. Roots in a flower shop. Not many men would be so bold as to ask you to insert your head into a lion’s mouth, but the pharmaceutical market has caught their eye. The Germans have it cornered, you’ll be meeting with them first.”

“Anything I should know?”

“He-he. They are not very hospitable… people. But, Heil Darby wants a ticket into Frisco, and ground floor entry into PINK.”

“How much is Kazan giving him?”

“How much are you giving him?,” he took a drag of his cigar, “Kazan doesn't care about Frisco, but PINK? You can't promise names, only the prospect. Just a little taste, yes?, Is good? I will handle the logistics.”

Raven shifted in her seat. “And the micks?”

“Gambling. They want an expansion. Kazan is, wary, about them. Never done business with the real fucking IRA before. You see what they have, make out if it’s anything we can use.”

“If not?”

“Back the Germans. You’ll be having a sit-down with them after your preliminary with Katz.”

He’s not Kazan,” she scoffed.

“Oh no,” Czernobog grinned widely, nodding intently, “but he could be. He’s red. They trust him. We trust him. He’ll get you through the front door. Rest is on you.”

“It’s that easy.”

He stamped his cigar out on the floor. “Don't get distracted by the bright lights and noisy monoliths. Kazan has over five hundred million in the pot. Fuck it up… I don't know who will do it. You must be cautious, Raven, very, very cautious. We're not the only ones with a seat at the table.” Czernobog stood, and went to rest his hand on her shoulder. “There are no dominos, my friend.”

Just then, the door to the basement swung open, and a farmer emerged with three fewer fingers then he’d had when they first arrived; knocking on his door, asking ever so politely to be let in, otherwise the Big Bad Wulf would have to come and blow his little house down.

The farmer took one look at Czernobog, and another at Raven, before running through the kitchen and out the back door.

Victor stumbled up the stairs with a sickle sticking out of his left shoulder. “СУКИН СЫН!”

Raven sprung up and tossed her cigar in the fireplace, picked up the small, blue-handled hammer lying in Victor’s twitching, bloody hand, and sprinted after him.

Out in the fields, with the wind blowing through her hair, she felt like she was flying. Weightless. Soaring above the clouds. Maybe she wasn't alone. Maybe all she had to do was look over.

And she did. Saw the farmer collapse to the ground as he tried to wrap a cloth around his hand to stop it from bleeding. For a beat, Raven paused, and wondered what would happen if she looked the other way.

Then the farmer saw her, and tried to shamble away.

She didn't have to chase him very far. Only to the edge of what was once, surely, a prosperous farm: with cows, and chickens, and sweet yellow corn, and rich, fertile soil.

Raven took the blue-handled hammer to the farmer’s head, but she closed her eyes while doing so, and didn't stop until she felt cold, upheaved dirt stain her cheek.

Czernobog cracked his knuckles behind her. “Is good?”

She turned, letting the hammer fall back to the earth. “Is good.”

 

What is America? An idea, like her mother said. A dream, like her grandmother said. Or a ruse, like her dad said.

On the deck of The Salazar, through all the fog and charcoal gray clouds circling overhead, Raven could see a fair, French maiden heralding their arrival. In her prime, she no doubt saw fit to paint the most beautiful, awe-inspiring picture anyone had ever seen. Made such sweet promises to go along with it. Only now rust was starting to set in, and anyone who could see, saw the picture was chipping. Had been for some time. Oxygen was oxygen, the only difference seemed to be a higher rate of lung cancer than radiation poisoning.

America was, to Raven, an often predetermined succession of opportunities and friends. And when those opportunities fell through, and those friends were lying in a long forgotten back alley, bleeding from a knife wound in their gut, slowly starving and freezing to death, they might not think the fair, French maiden that conned them into crossing the wide, lonely expanse of the Atlantic was so goddamn pretty.

The sea air made Raven’s head spin faster than a bowling ball in a wind tunnel, and the gas expulsions parading around the top deck in grey and yellow uniforms comforted her with the thought that at least she wouldn't be homesick.

When The Salazar docked, Raven followed the privateers through the container yard; stacked to the sky, and maybe a little bit higher, with sharp orange shipping containers being offloaded from their voyage.

There came a squeak from one; blood was pooling out from another. Tiny scratch marks littered the sides; broken off nails were lodged in between the door handles. They were all alone, Raven placed her ear to one of the containers, in a world they’d grown.

“You ain't from around here, are you?” One of the privateers had broken off from the rest.

“That's not cattle.”

The privateer raised his eyebrows and winked at her. “Sure it is.” He unholstered a silenced MSS VUL and handed it to Raven. “The definition, of insanity, is: doing the exact, same fucking thing, over and over and over again, expecting, shit to change. Enjoy your stay, and do try to leave all the tall buildings exactly as you found them.”

 

There was a yellow taxi waiting for her outside the container yard. 

She slipped inside and sat down on the creased, black leather, and slid the seat belt across her waist until she heard an audible ‘click’. There was a notice on the back of the drivers seat, warning her that assaulting him was a federal offense punishable by up to twenty five years in prison. An empty packet of gum lay at her feet, along with several needles.

“Mr. Bellic,” went a freshly, pan-fried southerner with a nice pair of shades, “wanted to make sure you were properly welcomed to the land of pigs in shit, and much as I protested to such profound, public displays of inadmissible proof of association, he insisted. So, welcome to it, even though, like I tried to tell him, you won't be here very long. Provided everything goes well with the pussy cat. If not, best not to get too attached to ya. No offense, my socially suicidal bird of a feather, but I’ve been out here far too fucking long to regard my prim and christened brethren of the east as anything more than cannon fodder.”

The corners of Raven’s mouth cracked her cheeks as they got a little bit wider. “You sound… different.”

Shade lowered his glasses down the bridge of his nose; resting his sunburnt left hand on the steering wheel. “Well, shit, I appreciate that. Took absolutely fucking for-ever to get this right. I’d start working on yours too. Folks ‘round here always more liable to let bygones be bygones when you sound like them. Makes it seem like they’re havin’ a conversation with themselves. And if there’s one thing these people love, it’s the echo of their own fucking voice. By the by darlin’, much as I love what you’ve done with your hair, it ain't exactly inconspicuous. You need to blend in babydoll. Consider goin’ blonde.”

Raven took her MSS VUL and laid it out on the seat next to her. “Am I really going to need this?”

“Can't run a marathon with just one leg, now can you? Acclimatize to paranoia. Everyone walkin’ down these streets would be having a much better day if you had a switchblade sticking out of your eye socket and three bullets left of center. That little pea shooter you got over there couldn't graze a fruit fly’s nut, might wanna consider gettin’ somethin’ a little more formfitting.”

“Old man said we can’t arouse suspicion.”

Old man never went skeet-shooting when he was a kid. Suspicion implies you walk out on forty second street and empty your magazine into a crowd of chemotherapy patients posing for a picture with newborn puppies. Long as you avoid that, won’t be no one rifling through your pockets. Gotta look out for number one. Ain't that you?”

“Sure,” Raven mumbled, “why not.”

“Inauthenticity masquerading as indecisiveness.” He pushed his glasses back up. “How very American of you.”

Shade drove out into the glimmering landscape of the city. Where the all the lights seemed to blur together, and seep through the windows of the cab, giving Raven’s short, purple hair a mesmerizing blue tint. Her eyes were never able to find a way to capture the infinite scope of the city in a single, slow moving shot. Eventually they would bleed out, run up the side of the window, and get plucked up in the breeze; swept away by the tide with the rest of the neon light district into the harbor.

“You see, now, that…” Shade pointed out the Shamrock Auto-Shop; there was a jolly, green leprechaun with a furry ginger beard and a top hat ten times larger than the rest of his head, punching a pot o’ gold till it exploded and bunches of little coins rained down over the hood of a silver Chrysler. “That is where the Irish hold their weekly poker game. Like a needle in a haystack, I know. Couple regulars, eight or nine max, ‘bout seven hundred grand in the pot on average. Never seen over a million reach the table. They hold up in the back room with some store bought beer and cheap finger foods. Nothing fancy, I know, but that's why you’re here. They want to grow the operation. Ideally, I would imagine, get set up in a penthouse of some description. Bottle service, catering, couple dumbbells out in the halls, maybe a surveillance system, I don't know, I'll leave the specifics up to you. Stands to reason, there’s a whole lotta money to be made if we decide to let ‘em bloom.”

Raven brought her legs up on the seat and locked her arms around them. “Real IRA then?”

“Haven't seen or heard much from them. I mean, don't get me wrong, fuckers know how to make one helluva car bomb, but I’m not sure how actively involved they are in the whole, card game, as it were. They may not even be in town. Might outsource the whole thing. Never been able to get close enough to confirm one way or the other.”

Shade drove on until they passed a parking lot big enough to fuel battleships, filled with yellow taxi’s as far as perception permitted. A steady smog was rising from all the rancid, cigarette smoke pouring out of the small, by comparison, shack in the midst of the sea of automobiles for hire.

“Roman,” Shade pulled out a red pack of smokes that read: Huff n’ Puff, “been here longer than most of ‘em. Loyal soldier. Best kind there is. He got set up with the taxi business a few years ago. Thought it was better than trying to corner the bowling market. Started out in a hollowed out garage by the pier. Real low rent sorta place- lead in the water pipes, and such things I surely know nothing about, and now neither do you. Had himself five cars, three engines, made about ten grand a day. Lotta these folks don’t like makin’ waves crossing state lines. You’d almost begin to wonder if they were doing something their wives wouldn't take kindly to.”

Shade gave himself a light. Raven’s nose crinkled. “Yep, Roman’s one smooth fucker. Had to pry this lot from the city’s cold, dead hands, as it were, but he got it. Enough taxi’s to ferry the entire fucking imperial army anywhere they fancy. It’s good work. If you consider settin’ up shop, that is. Leave all the, draggin’ people from their homes at five to midnight, linin’ ‘em up, and seein’ who can hit the guy all the way on the left with one eye open, to the tradesmen.”

“It’s that easy.”

“Well ain’t nobody said it had to be that fucking hard either. Head get’s all puffy, like a got-damn hot air ballon, legs crumple quicker than paper tigers, smart fuckin’ mouth don't get you nowhere. Can't starve ‘em out on an empty fucking stomach.”

Katz Confectionaries came up on their left. There was a sweet, wholesome look to it. With bright faced kids running around slinging orange yo-yo’s that looked like spiders; cotton candy in every color of the fucking rainbow; jawbreakers in the shape of a red cat; chocolate covered everything edible, and maybe a few thumbtacks for a laugh; lollipops bigger than the wheels of an eighteen-wheeler; marshmallows in the shape of fluffy, white elephants and pink flamingos; and cookies stuffed with even smaller cookies. A sign on the front door, in all capitals, read: NO DOGS ALLOWED.

“Katz Candy. New venture. Just opened up and the man can already afford another leopard skin island.” Shade tossed his cigarette out the window. “No idea where the fuck he came from. Just showed up one day. And I’m man enough to admit the feline fucking petrifies me. Makes the hairs swan dive off the back of my neck.” He shivered. “Loves his arachnids. Creepy crawlies damn near everywhere you fucking look. I’d claw my fucking eyes out if it meant never seein’ one of ‘em again. Little batch of eggs in every dark chocolate cashew. Kids eat ‘em, go home, lie down, and while they’re sleepin’, they hatch, claw their way out of the stomach and- POP!, right out the chest.”

Raven started chuckling. “Bullshit.”

“Don't put it past the man. Got a wicked sense of humor. Might as well be…” Shade trailed off “… Just don't give him any ideas.”

The taxi came to a stop in the brick parking lot of the Alphonse Bähr Science Center, a wide, three story, mint green building. As Shade and Raven walked up the stairs to the lobby, she turned and saw a horribly burned man being ushered into a platinum limousine.

“Who’s that” She asked.

“That’s Jon.” He replied, sidestepping a pair of orange construction cones blocking access to a ladder propped up against the side of the building, with paint cans at the bottom of it.

The interior of the lobby had black tiling, and a golden atom engraved in it just a few feet before the sterling, wooden reception desk. There were four quadrants of couches set up, each with ebony leather upholstery. Display cases housed pristine chemistry equipment. Armed guards leered at them from the second floor balcony. Some had swastikas tattooed on their chests, others the word NORDS descending down their arm.

“You cannot negotiate with a rabid animal halfway through it’s digestive tract.” Raven murmured.

“Yeah…” Shade scratched the side of his lip “… Place has never looked so squeaky clean before. Never been so spotless on paper. Can't help but want to admire ‘em for that.”

“And ‘Heil’ Darby?”

“Good at his job.” He shrugged. “Can't help but think he deserves a medal or somethin’.”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Can’t help but think they never got the memo.”

“You wanna be the one to inform them? Be my fucking guest, but, lemme tell you,” Shade leaned down to her ear, “they don't speak dyke.”

They ascended a square staircase to the second floor, ignoring the third floor which was under construction and blocked off by sandbags, as well as the Nordics taking a group smoke break in the emergency stairwell.

Blue lockers lined the changing area ahead of the main lab. Red hazmat suits and gas masks were stuffed in most of them.

Shade then opened a pair of double doors into, what amounted to Raven anyway, a seemingly infinite production line marching to the beat of, what looked on paper, to be over a hundred lobotomized ants.

At each lab station, billions of yellow pills with little black smiley faces etched onto them were being rolled up in wrap like quarters by Czech girls of varying, undeterminable ages, before being sent down the line and sealed inside wooden crates marked with a London shipping address.

The girls were naked and shaved; their un-popped eyes hadn't seen the void for enough hours that to blink seemed to cause immense, physical pain; red tags were tied around their necks, marked off with a series of ever increasing roman numerals. One in particular had blood tricking down her thigh.

A second set of double doors opened on a landing above them, and Shade instinctively stood at attention. Several men came out wearing yellow hazmat suits, gas masks, and blue latex gloves. At the head of the group: Darby.

He began by taking off his mask, revealing a sweaty, bald head and a gruff, gray goatee. Then came the top half of his suit. With that gone, Raven could see the brazen swastika in the dead center of his chest, the word NORDS running down his left arm, and the grizzly, bearded viking on his right. He threw his gloves to the side, and against the blinding, white light of the fixture above him, tilted his head up and raised his arms. Two wooden boards were inked onto the back of each. One read: Live and let live. The other: Live and let die.

“HAIL TO THE KING, BABY!,” Darby cried, leaping down the stairs with vigor. “Welcome home,” he offered his hand to Raven, “I’m Darby.”

She refused. “War’s over.”

Darby looked at Shade, and smiled. “He-he-ha, oh, I have a feeling you and me are gonna wind up liking each other.”

He led them through a backroom and into his office, motioning for Shade and Raven to take a seat in the brown recliners present as he draped a plaid, green shirt over his wife beater. There was a crane lamp on his desk and a potted, for show, weed plant.

“Take it you didn't get seasick?” Darby asked, sitting down and chuckling to himself.

“Where’d you get the girls?”

“Answering a question with a question, how very American of you. I got an in-house delivery from somewhere they don't speak much, preferably any, English. Why? See somethin’ you like?”

“NO.”

“Oh, don't give me grief now. I mean, let's get one thing straight, there is no high ground here. Just business models. Mine, is simple, refined even: produce a product that everyone loves, in the cheapest way possible without compromising quality. Keeps the masses enthralled. You see, thing about Joy is, it’s a universal product. Much like them.” Darby motioned to the little Czech girls outside. “Think you could do better for ‘em?… Didn’t think so. See, what I like about PINK is, it’s all local. Exotic… but you don't have to pay an import tax. Business model: Brazilian.” He licked his lips. “Don't matter how pretty you make ‘em, how clean, how sober- end of the day, you still gotta slap a price tag on ‘em. Only difference is, I buy in bulk. Now, with all the pleasantries out of the way, whaddya say we crank out an arrangement?”

“I'm not at liberty to discuss names.”

“Oh, of course not. You want first pick of the litter. I understand. But my niche is, fairly limited. So I’m just gonna require a mutual assurance that I won't get the runts. In return, you can pop ‘em right off the assembly line for all I fucking care.”

“And Frisco?”

“Need space. Plain and simple. You get me a building like this, not a lot of exposure, production can be up and running in two, three weeks max. And if you wanna throw a few able minded bodies my way, I’ll sure save a lot in import taxes.”

“How much?”

“Well, figure around twenty five percent, gotta keep the majority, nothin’ personal. As for a number, well, around five fifty is average. Ticks up toward the winter, though.”

“Who the fuck is your market?!”

“When I was little, all pricks ever used to do is tell me there was no price on happiness. Couldn't be one. Didn't set out to prove ‘em wrong… maybe I did… I don't know… shit just sorta worked out that way. When you get down to brass-tacks, life takes a perverse amount of pleasure in finding ways to spite you. World’s a mighty big place. Lotta people, lotta problems. Can't afford rent; gerbil ate your social sciences paper; wife likes her stepfathers cock more than yours; roof caved in; car won’t start; owe money to folks like you; come home one day and see your daughter eating out the new girl next door. Always a profit to be made makin’ people smile, baby.”

“Heard much from the Irish?”

“Green doesn’t care for us all that much. Heard a lot down by the mill though. Plans of movin’ out west. Manifest Destiny, and what not. They are degenerates, only one place to go from there.”

“And the Real IRA?”

“Respectfully, they couldn't turn water into wine the way whoever the fuck runs that auto shop can. Mick can talk you out of your own shoes, and you’d never notice, cause according to him, you’re still wearing ‘em. Cut your fucking head off- you’d be forgiven for thinking it never left. It’s, discomforting. So if you’re making to head over there, best stock up on tinfoil.”

“Mick got a name?”

“No. But the Devil has one. Why don't you go ask her.”

She only buys American.”

Shade interjected with a string of nervous laughter. “She’s a riot- ain’t she? Say, you know when the Italian is making his way up?”

“I-talian,” Darby corrected, “and no. I don’t.”

“If you're movin’ into Frisco, we’re gonna need to make preparations. Hope you won't mind us puttin’ the boot to all you’re Union sleepover buddies.”

“He-he, fuck them. I stopped cuttin’ wholes in my bedsheets when I was eight. Just looks fucking ridiculous now.”

“I’ll be sure to give ‘em your warmest regards.”

“Duvall be there?”

“Might be.”

“I never cared much for that man. Type that didn't say goddamnit out of the innate fear a lightning bolt would breach the roof, weave it's way through sixteen inches of solid concrete, and strike him down. Death by hysteria. Why don't you ship him to my doorstep. Got a nice finders fee in it for you. Can't imagine how grateful I’d be for being the one gets to take a pipe wrench to his smug fucking face.”

“Talk it over with the fellas. By the by, any word on my guy, on the case?”

“Not a peep. Word of advice, you’ll never get any fucking returns. A severed horse head stuffed full of anthrax if you're lucky. Spooks if you’re not.”

“Spooks?” Raven asked.

THE SPOOKSHOW IS ALWAYS WATCHING YOU.” A buzz came from Darby’s desk. “Now, see yourselves out.” He picked up a flip phone. “I gotta take this.”

 

Outside the Katz Motel was another, NO DOGS ALLOWED, sign. As Shade walked down a blisteringly red corridor, another Huff n’ Puff rolling around in-between his fingers, Raven tightened the strings on her hoodie. It was black. Glittering with rhinestones. Hadn’t been her idea to put them there. She supposed they made her hidey hole look respectable.

“If it’s all the same with you,” Shade stopped in front of room thirty six, “I’m gonna wait for ya down in the lobby.” He knocked on the door. “Go with God,” then made a beeline back the way they’d came, “or whatever the fuck you believe in.”

The door creaked open, and Raven was taken in by the Katz Army: roughly twenty men with pump-action shotguns in scarlet tuxedos. They sat her down on a plastic lawn chair, in front of a three-legged wooden round table, opposite Katz, who was sitting in what appeared to be a U.K. imported, plush, red velvet throne.

A lime green yo-yo was wrapped around his finger. Eight long, prickly legs sank to the floor. “Fancy a bit of sport before dying, dear girl?”And eight pulsating, crimson eyes slowly climbed back up.

Raven felt the hairs on the back of her neck ready the diving board. “Not particularly.”

Hmph. Welcome to the Katz Motel. I'm Katz. Would you permit me to tell you a tale? I think you’ll find it quite fascinating. Extraordinarily illuminating.”

“Sure.” Raven said dryly.

“Fantastic, Mr. Fox once owned an estate in Frisco. His late uncle sold it for a quarter million last July. Could've made ten times that but Gottfried was an eager, eager man. Probably what led him to overdose on laundry detergent.” Katz plucked a petal from the rose in his white suit pocket and flicked it to the side. “Mr. Fox moved in with his estranged, mute wife Silvia, and their two sons: Chauncey and Bernard. Now, you see, Silvia, darling woman, very petite, very dim, I might add. She took anti-anxiety medication that transformed, mutated if you will, her into a mindless drone, a thrall, if you will, to a little white bottle of pink pills. Now Chauncey, he was the oldest, naturally, and didn't much care for southern hospitality. Took his coffee black with two to three sugars, depending on his mood. He was a young man of routine. Woke up every morning at six thirty sharp. Went down stairs and made a pot of coffee, poured two cups, for you see his father and Bernard didn't drink anything they couldn't easily add a non-discretionary amount of scotch into. Then he would slice two thin pieces of pumpernickel bread, toast them, butter them, and place them on a fine chinaman’s plate. Mr. Fox, you see, worked in the very esteemed business of managing and operating other people’s stocks and bonds. Chauncey would then crack three eggs, scramble them, place them next to the toast, and proudly march upstairs and deliver these goods to his mother, who thanked him in a series of muddled hand gestures.”

Katz straightened his purple tie. “Off Chauncey would go to get changed, wake his brother, ready his father’s briefcase so that it was exactly twenty two inches from both the front door and the kitchen table. Now, at this point you must have picked up on my earlier misnomer, or perhaps exclusion of certain pertinent information as it relates to your understanding of the family dynamic. Bernard and Chauncey were both in their early twenties at the time- twenty three and four respectively. Bernard was the understudy, if you will, for a respected mathematics professor working out of a sixth grade classroom. Why was that? You see Vincent, that was his name, used to teach at a university until the faculty found out he chronically raped his twin daughters, Lauren and Helen. Filmed it too, sold people CD’s at fourteen ninety five a pop. Held special screenings at his house, sold tickets at eight sixty a pop. But Vincent had more than a few good friends and got it all swept under the rug. So there he and Bernard were, teaching our future that if you have a thirty round magazine, shoot Tim five times, Clara nine times, and Ernesto eleven times, you’ll only be able to shoot Mrs. Thomas five times.”

Katz yawned. “Bernard joined the Union almost six months after their arrival. Mr. Fox two months after that. Chauncey was a bagman up in Pointe Verdun. Met someone at a rally up there that he claimed was Christ, only now he drank bourbon and called park attendants ‘cunts’. The New Frontiersman then reported Lauren and Helen hung themselves one month after that. It was during the time of this perplexing double suicide that Chauncey had relations with a seventeen year old named Kerry. Invited her over to dinner one night. And over the course of the evening, Mr. Fox and Bernard excused themselves to have a cigar outside. Kerry drove her fathers old, nineteen seventy seven yellow Cadillac. All the rage back then, I’m sure. After the meal, Chauncey sent the then thirteen weeks pregnant Kerry home. Silvia stepped out to get some air, and he thanked his father and brother for treating her with such courtesy and sympathy, and they replied with appraisal for her exquisite taste in jazz aficionados and flavored soft beverages.”

Katz yellow deadlights flickered. “Four and a half hours later, Chauncey got a call telling him Kerry had been in an automobile accident. She was cruising down the one-eight nine, it’s no longer there now, at roughly six miles over the speed limit, and when she went to brake for a passing elderly woman, found herself unable to. Kerry swerved to the right and tumbled into the bayou. Police were never able to recover her remains, nor locate the elderly woman. Now,” Katz rubbed his hands together, “we’re almost at the apex of our adventure. The next morning, Bernard left early for work. Vincent no longer worked at the school. He found religion, left and became a priest of some laudable description. Chauncey woke up at six thirty two, went downstairs, made a pot of coffee, poured one cup. Took a steak knife, put it on the fine china, and took the fire poker from the fire place. He marched upstairs, and when Silvia saw the tools at his disposal, attempted to plea in a series of indistinguishable hand gestures for him to do something. What, remains a mystery. Chauncey smashed the plate into her face, and slid the steak knife through her left eye. Mr. Fox was in the shower at the time, and when Chauncey stepped inside, he wrestled his father to his knees, and slowly lowered the fire poker down his throat.”

Raven griped the sides of her chair. Katz went on. “Chauncey proceeded to take the semi-automatic rifle above his parents bed and drive down to Bernard’s place of work. Unloading three, fifteen round magazines into the sixth grade classroom. The police pulled seven slugs from Bernard’s head, and the rest from twenty five undisclosed children.”

Katz stared unblinkingly at Raven. “Sad, isn't it? Chauncey had barely experienced all that life had to offer him when he was savagely beaten to death in his cell at six twenty, the day he was set to be fried on the chair. Pity. From what I heard he was a damn good bagman.”

Raven felt like every meal she’d ever eaten was racing to be the first to project itself from her mouth and redecorate the entire room.

“The British Invasion,” Katz slung his yo-yo down to Raven’s feet, “we’re everywhere. Roots in a delicatessen emporium. I know I’m a long way from home, but, so are you. I never get homesick. It's a marvel this republic. Makes for such rich conversation.” Katz snapped his fingers, and one of his men handed him a magazine of sorts. “Your boy sent me a catalogue. Peek inside? Great read.” He flipped through the pages until he found the one he was looking for, then turned it for Raven to see. “I’ll be taking these two,” he pointed to Adriana and Alessandra, “and don’t worry about the price, I won't be paying it. Just make sure that drooling leper doesn't light them on fire. As for this nonsensical transaction with the Fourth Reich and Christ’s bourbon supplier, I’d advise against either. My sweet toothed venture, Katz Confectionaries, just opened. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Something to consider of course. I wouldn't want to impose on the red line’s imperialistic ventures.”

Raven’s mouth felt numb. “How much money is there in candy?”

“More than you expect, less than you think. It’s a long game.”

Part of her mind wanted desperately to shoot the other half. “I’ll send it up the line.”

“Do that. In the meantime, I would tell you to enjoy your stay, but… you won’t.”

 

Shade dropped her off outside the Victory Hotel. He would have offered to help with her bags, but she didn't have any.

After Raven saw the yellow taxi vanish into the night, she scurried across the street and ducked into the Woodlands Luxury Apartment complex. She stepped inside the elevator and took it all the way to the top.

Only one room had a view of the stars. And that was where Raven found herself. Space was big enough for two, maybe three, or four, or five, or however many she wanted.

Raven stripped down; too tired to find a more appropriate place for her clothes other than a heap in the corner. She lay her head down on the bed, and before she could even close her eyes, warmth enveloped her. A nose came crashing into hers, and soft, luscious lips lulled her into a trance. Hands instinctively went to cradle her, and Raven was just small enough to fit perfectly in her arms.

She could see the stars, they were as green as an emerald city, and shined so, very, very bright.

“I love you Kori.” Raven rested her head on her breasts. Another kiss landing on her forehead.

“Never stop.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“Children, have you ever met the Boogeyman before? No, of course you haven’t, for you’re much too good I’m sure. Don’t you be afraid of him, if he should visit you…” - Henry Hall

“There was a boy 

A very strange, enchanted boy 

They say he wandered very far, very far 

Over land and sea 

A little shy and sad of eye 

But very wise was he 

And then one day 

A magic day he passed my way 

And while we spoke of many things 

Fools and kings 

This he said to me 

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn 

Is just to love and be loved in return.” - Ella Fitzgerald

 

The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.

Vulpes Inculta entered her pin number into the automated teller machine: sixteen eighteen fifteen thirteen ? She withdrew four, one hundred dollar bills. Held each up to the blaring mid-morning sun, because as an early life lesson that still stung the scars on her knuckles had taught her, the roads in either direction were paved with the pristine bones of men who’d placed their faith in the far more formidable compatriots of yesteryear. 

The Mojave was restless. Kept twitching. Wondered if tonight was finally the night. Eyes wandered from head to toe, finger to nose, lip to the painstakingly empty vats of her stomach. 

Vulpes shuttered her gaze of the arid abyss that laid bare before her. Took several deep breaths in and out. Even as the decrepit chatter grew ever closer. And the gallery saw fit to suffocate her. 

She’d swam in the ocean before. Two years back, off the coast of Maine. Dusk waters were cold, but not bitter. Taste of salt had made her teeth jitter worse than schoolgirls. Melted sugar had turned her tongue a sweet, fluffy pink. She could have held her breath for hours, then, because she wasn't alone. There was someone to hold her hand. Make her feel warm. Make every bone in her body humble, and every breath that left her nostrils burn with envy. He made her promises that nobody else ever could.

Vulpes stuffed the cash into her pocket. He was perfect. Pulled out an empty, orange pill bottle. He was all hers. Name on the side read: Jacob Klomes. Or so the Devil told her. 

They walked together, and lay together. Watched the moon climb into the night sky, and step behind the Starlight Bar. Blend a purple tinted scotch, blood red brandy, and tarty orange rum into one delightfully intoxicating, bottomless Cosmo. Waves flung themselves against the shore in a meager attempt to uncover their feet, buried beneath the sand. The aroma of fresh popcorn and floating beer was enticing. Liana cradled Jacob’s head against her naked body, placed one of her frothy breasts in his mouth, cried out in ecstasy when he bit down on her nipple, and blood started to gush down past her navel. She wanted to dance. 

Then Victor pulled her head up. She collapsed into a balled up husk on the floor. Airways flooded; water pouring out of her nose and from behind her eyes; legs limp. Vulpes couldn't feel her fingers or her tongue. She couldn't breathe. Only managed to cough up more and more of whatever got pumped out of those fish. It burned the back of her throat. Everyone stared at her. From a nice, safe distance. She had rested her head against the stoic marble. Shaking. She tried to scream. Found her circuits waterlogged. 

Four hundred milligrams of Joy. Doctors orders. Three times daily. By mouth. Had to swallow them with water. Couldn’t drink alcohol. Couldn’t smoke Phencyclidine. Didn’t have to take them with food, but it was recommended. Side effects: too many. 

Los hermanos farmacéuticos loomed over her shoulder. Surrounded in every direction by Don Gustavo’s finest export. A chipped, plastic horse slowly rusted to death outside, along with several empty gum-ball dispensers. 

All the signs advertised something new, something old, and something that could turn blue when mixed with too much vinegar. Something to take the pain away, something to bring it back, and something for when you just can’t seem to make up your damn mind. 

Farm fresh sunflowers greeted her beyond the door; resting up against greener pastures. Beckoning Liana to come home.

More importantly, BUY: Simple Rick’s Simple Wafers Wafer Cookies. With a smooth, reflective vanilla exterior, and an introspective, crunchy chocolate interior. ‘Filled with the memories you wish you had.’ Nostalgia, by Veidt. 

There was a que at the counter. Just the salesman today, it seemed, for the time being. What remained of the Franklin bloodline was all congealed together like worms in a jar of fish oil; a limp, mongrel horde hopelessly throwing themselves against a curtain stacked high with East New Berlin brick and glued together with West New Berlin mortar. 

“Step right up yo,” the Ringmaster, Jesse, had golden dollar signs engraved in the back of each of his eye sockets, “we got everything you disenfranchised little pricks could ever want or need. I’m talking the most entertaining crystal you’ve ever brought to a high-end, social gathering. Cocaine derived from the clouds of Kingdom Come itself, it’ll infuse you with the very essence of weightless air. Heroin, safest strain in house, ‘Lucy Cotton’, do NOT take after consuming fried food or any mint based product, outside of what you can purchase at any one of our locales minoristas. Phencyclidine straight outta the lush valleys of Frisco Fields, best batch of the day guaranteed, and if you don’t believe me, you’re more than welcome to fly out there and find out for yourselves. Lastly, for your primetime viewing pleasure yo, Joy has been restocked, re-outfitted, and reuped. First one ain’t free bitches! We all know, deep down, you cartoonishly stupid sloths bleed greener than a Mick facedown in a Pointe Verdun alley after the bar closes. We don't sell by the fucking gram yo! Shit’s premium! Pre!, Mi!, Um! Give me an extra sixty of your colorful-ass dollars. But it while it’s hot!” 

Jesse collected the money in a mixture of stacked hundreds, twenties, and tens. A black woman with what appeared to be a solid, twenty four carrot gold watch, bought twenty four hundred dollars worth of crystal; an Australian in a cheap, blue striped suit made a six thousand dollar investment in cocaine; a Texan in a straw hat purchased four thousand dollars worth of heroin; Phencyclidine ran a man from Puerto Rico with third degree burns running down the side of his left arm eight thousand dollars; and an upper class Asian man handed over a one hundred and twenty thousand dollar check for Joy.  

The Real, Slim Salesman stood up. He was sprightly, in about his late twenties. Vibrant, but clean. A real, all-American, straight shooter. A practiced businessman. Never seen the inside of a holding cell his entire life. Got into the circus because it paid well. Stayed because the worst things in life were free.

“Hold on! Hold on! I’ll check in the back. I think we’re all out.” Jesse assured a surely distant, juvenile relative of the Getty line. “Well fuck you too asshole! Next time get here early so we don't run out. Little prick.” Jr III tried to swipe some gum from across the counter, and in turn got a knife stuck through his right pinky finger. “ARE YOU FULL NOW FIDO?! You full yet?, you fucking disease ridden mutt? I find out you even so much as thought about stepping in here again, I’m gonna sic a goddamn bull on you. Understand? I will fly one in first-fucking-class from Spain!” 

Jesse placed the packet of gum back neatly in it’s respective row, swatted the severed appendage to the side, and upon noticing the trail of blood droplets left behind, sighed. “If you ever find a broken condom underneath your shoe, for whatever earthly fucking reason, down about a half gallon of Bug-Out. Isle five, just in case. Eighteen years of bad luck is worth a lifetime at the slots. I think… is that how it goes? Ah, fuck it. Whatcha got for me today Lady Roman?” 

Vulpes pulled out the pill bottle and placed it on the counter. 

The Salesman ran his beady, yellow eyes over it. There was a sparkling, blue dust embedded underneath his fingernails, and riveted in patches across his baggy hoodie, interweaved with just about every color of the rainbow except red. His head was freshly shaved. His jeans slouched a sly inch below his waist. “London Bridge is falling down, indeed. Got enough sunshine in here to make Mao blush. What’d your white-tailed little critter do? Huh? Massacre a fucking orphanage with a pencil?” 

Vulpes scratched her temple. “Doesn't matter.”

Doesn't matter? Doesn’t fucking matter?,” he cocked his eyebrows, “I find myself, stricken with a spell of apathy, for what you believe to ‘matter’. I haven't the faintest idea whose family you threatened with cruxifixction to get this prescription, kinda hoping it wasn't the Pope’s, but regardless, if someone just so happens to overdose on all this shit, guess who’s gettin’ fucked in the ass?” 

“You wouldn’t…” she felt a hitch in her throat “… find, it, very entertaining.” 

“Sure. Things do have a way of spiraling, don’t they kiddo? I just want to remind you, that, the ability to purchase happiness over the counter like vitamins, is a luxury.” 

Vulpes griped the edge of the counter until her knuckles turned white. “One I can pay, you snide little swine.”

“Is that right?” Jesse took another look at the name on the bottle. “Seems to me like inflation just spread nationwide. So, unless you got twelve hundred bucks lying around in between your teeth, rope’s in isle seven.”

The Mojave’s mouth twisted into a self-satisfied, bordering on the edge of screaming, smile.

Vulpes Inculta lifted The Salesman up off the floor by his neck. “Have you ever heard of sand-boarding, Jesse? It’s a long, and meticulous process, that involves holding you down and shoving handfuls of thick, hot sand down your narrow throat until it grinds down the flow of oxygen into your body and you suffocate to death. Which reminds me, do you know the difference between choking and strangulation?” She dropped him to the floor, and leaned over the counter as he crawled to his feet, gasping for air. “You wanna find out?” 

“Bitch…” he started to laugh “… I don’t… I don't make… the fuckin’ rules… ‘round here. Hat trick or nothin’ sister.”

Nothin’, then.”

“You wanna know something… funny? I’m not even supposed to be here today.” 

Jesse made his way into the backroom.

ÜberKommandant Müller was leaning back in a plastic lawn chair, decked out in full uniform, drinking a strawberry milkshake from Gomorrah. The Deutsches Kreuz, gold division, was pinned to the right of his tunic. Awarded for pulling six of his fellow countrymen out from under the debris of a downed zeppelin, one of which he carried on his back for nine miles, and seeing their safe return to New Berlin. On the lower part of his left breast pocket hung the Anti-Aircraft Flak Battle Badge, where a Luftwaffe eagle sat perched atop an 88 mm flak gun. Awarded, alongside the rest of his unit, for accumulating a total of one hundred and eighty eight points(the equivalent of forty seven enemy aircraft).

“How’re they biting today?” He asked, fiddling with the bendy straw.

“Particularly disgruntled with the uptick.”

“What color is she?”

“Green.”

She has a prescription.”

Jesse handed him the bottle. “Enough to choke Helga.”

“London Bridge… this is the one Heil Darby spoke of. Give her what she wants.”

“She doesn’t, at this juncture, possess the capital.”

“So charge her next time.”

“Alphonse made it very clear to me that-”

“Halt deinen verdammten Mund, and give her what she wants.” 

Jesse made his way back out to the front, and filled the bottle with little yellow pills and black smily faces. “I do say,” he handed the order over to Vulpes, clocked his tongue, and pointed up with his right index finger, “you’re going the wrong way.”

 

Jack: Forty Five Years Old

Veronica’s long, blonde hair fell over her face as she bounced up and down. Jack dug his fingers into her rosy cheeks to try and keep her steady. Her shallow, blue eyes rocked back and forth. She’d already fallen off once; he didn't feel like coming up with another tall tale to tell the doctor about how she dislocated her other shoulder. 

Veronica snorted like a pig, or so it sounded to Jack. She had the outline of a collar around her neck. He was beginning to think he needed a longer leash. Or maybe she just wanted him to choke her to death when she broke out into a sprint on all fours.

Jack flipped her over and finished on her breasts. 

Mr. Glass had been confined, overnight, to the behavioral management unit of the Risdon Prison Complex. Officials on the ground wouldn't say why, and the Tasmanians proved impervious to the whispered promises of large sums of blue and yellow Australian dollars. Due in large part to this, and the untimely departure of Mr. Cloth’s head from the rest of his body, Upper Management was locked in a permanent state of overtime. 

Jack retrieved his black and white striped suit form the closet, along with a white undershirt and a black bowtie in the shape of a bat. 

Veronica cupped her right breast, brought it up to her mouth, and started licking it clean. “Why don't you cum inside me anymore?”

“Miranda needs to get accepted into the Neurobiology Department first.”

“You think she won’t?” 

“I think, statistically, she has a three point seven percent chance of getting her PHD, and a ninety six point three percent chance of biting her fingers off.”

Veronica started rubbing herself. “Why don't you cum inside me anymore?”

“Mr. Copper said Anna might need to go sit down with a psychiatrist. Even if it’s just for an hour.”

“Don't you want a boy?”

“What I want,” Jack buttoned up his cufflinks, “is to manage what we already have.”

She pouted. “Fine. Can I go out to lunch with my sister and her fiancée?”

“You mean the one that beats her?… sure.”

He walked outside to the kitchen.

Gaige was leaning over the sink eating a bowl of Trix. She had her scruffy, orange hair tied up in a skull bandana. “We’re all out, by the by.”

“Why don't you eat at the table? That’s why we have one.”

“Cause you said you didn't want anymore fires in the house,” she motioned to the little robot cleaning the china, “this is how we don't get fires.”

There was a little bandaid on her cheek, slicing her freckles in half. “Give him lip?”

“Deathtrap’s arm detached. No big deal. We’re also out of gorilla glue and that cinnamon flavored gum mom likes.”

“Are we set on the name?”

“Yes. Deathtrap: the maniacal overlord of dishes and Tupperware. One day, maybe, toasters and microwaves. I might make him bigger, too. Attach a laser and some saw blades and-”

“Just, not around your sisters. Please.”

“Are you kidding? He’s taking Annabelle to prom. Or, should I say, guarding her while she’s at prom.” Gaige gave her father a little nudge. “I got your back, man. Don’t worry.”

Jack gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Thank you.” 

Miranda was curled up in a ball on the couch, nibbling at the crust of some pumpernickel bread. “How come no one wants to eat at the nice, lovely table we bought? It’s just four feet that-a-way.”

She cracked a little smile, and brushed her black hair our of her face. “There’s a draft.”

“Well when you were little you always did want to join the air force.”

“Not that kind of draft.”

He sat down next to her. “You said you and the lady that interviewed you really, and this is your word here not mine, ‘clicked’. Hard as you may try, materializing an acceptance letter out of thin air just ain’t on the agenda today.”

“I just… can't stand this fucking waiting anymore.”

“First of all, mind your French there little one, and secondly, if you want me to sit down and have a talk with them, I will.”

“Oh! I’ve heard that one before!,” Gaige called from the kitchen, “Waste Management Consultant Of The Year!”

“I'm gonna by you Wheat Thins!”

“Please don’t! Shit’ll give you cancer.” Miranda giggled into her hand. “See?! Smartest one in the family get’s it!”

Jack shook his head. “What am I gonna do with the two of you?”

Miranda wrapped her arms around his neck. “Love and support us.”

“And buy us Coco Puffs!” Gaige added.

Jack broke off a piece of bread. “We’ll see. Where’s Anna?”

“In her room. Dug in there like a tick, too.”

“I’ll get her out. Just make sure that one over there doesn't bring down the building.”

“Hey!,” Gaige rummaged through the empty Trix box looking for the hidden action figure inside, “I blew ONE hole in the ceiling ONE time, and suddenly, I’m the fucking Unabomber.”

“That's exactly right,” Jack winked at Miranda, “watch her.”

He knocked on Anna’s door and then let himself in. “Honey… you gotta eat somethin’ before mom takes you to school. Can't go seventeen hours with nothin’ in your belly.”

She was tucked under her covers, buried in one of Veronica’s hoodies. “I’m not hungry.”

Jack knelt down beside her bed. “I didn't ask if you were hungry. I said you needed to eat something. Want me to fix you a pop-tart?”

Annabelle shook her head. She had a pair of oversized, red headphones on, and a stuffed tiger held tightly against her chest. 

“Whatcha listening to?”

She removed the Beats and gave them to her father. 

“I rode a tank. Held a general’s rank. When the blitzkrieg raged. And the bodies stank.”

“My,” he wiped his eyes, “how that brings me back.”

Anna lifted all the blankets and pillows and gave Jack a hug. “Are you okay daddy?”

“Yeah…” it really brought him back “… yeah. I’m good. Just… go have your big sister make you a pop-tart.”

“Okay.”

Veronica was standing in the doorway, and ruffled Annabelle’s short, black hair as she darted past.

“Sara called,” she was fully dressed, “didn't leave a message.”

Jack cracked the feeling back into his hands. “I’ll sort everything out when I get to the office.”

She gave him a kiss on the cheek in passing. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Mr. Stone was standing out in the hallway. “Another day, another dollar, old boy. Got a motherfucker of a trip for you.”

Jack pressed the down button on the elevator. “Don’t just leave me hangin’ now.”

“Take a minute. How’re the kids? How’s Veronica?”

“Absolutely bloody terrific and-”

“Like a cat…”

“Like a dog.”

The elevator doors opened. “As you like it. Let’s book.”

 

The Lucky 38 was all but dead at the hour of twelve ‘o seven. Midday crowd wouldn't pile in for at least another forty five minutes. 

Vulpes Inculta strolled through the lobby, the fish were off, past the casino, and into the elevator. 

While it wasn't the Presidential Suite, the thirty third floor was home, even if she was forced to share it.

She took her keycard out and slipped it into the reader for room: 2199. The little red light turned green, and the door clicked open. 

“Who’s Amelia?” Victor was sitting on her couch with a toothpick sticking out of the left corner of his mouth. Liana froze all motor functions. “Jacob’s been goin’ on and on and on about her for a bit over an hour now. He always make those funny noises in his sleep? Cause if not, shit, whoever Amelia is must be ridin’ him like a wild fuckin’ horse. Her life must positively depend on it.”

“What… w-what the fuck are you doing here?” 

“Correct me if I’m wrong on this one, partner, but didn't I ask you something first?”

“She’s nobody. Nobody that matters.”

“Doesn't sound like ‘nobody’ to me. He don't seem like the sort to have a cute, bountiful lil’ bunny on the side, but then again, I don't know him very well. He seem like that sort to you?” 

“NO.”

“Shit, darlin’, I hit a nerve? You ever stop, and take a minute out of your very busy day, to consider the likely possibility that you just don't know him that well?”

Liana closed her eyes, and took a long, deep breath in and out. “Why are you doing this to me?” 

Victor shifted uncomfortably on the leather. “I didn't mean to upset you… that’s not why I’m here.” There were dark, gray clouds hanging in his eyes as he spoke. “The Don needs a, uh, moment of your time.”

“Nipton was like that when I got there. I didn't do any of it. No clue who did. Or why. Gus wanted the Legate spooked. So, I spooked him. Don’t know how much fucking good it did, but, I tried.”

“No,” he shook his head, “no, no, it's not about that. Got an assignment for you.”

“If he wants to speak with Hoyt so badly he can do it himself. That thing’s wife is fucking clinical.”

“Point thus catalogued, still not what he had in mind. We got a guy.”

“Where?”

“Don’t know. We got some folks working on it. House out in Nowhere. You’ll meet up with them first, get a location. Be on your way.”

“Another legislator from the old, New California Republic?”

“Not nearly as pleasant. Gus has got himself an, independent, type. A, ‘material witness’, if you will. Your job is simple. Keep the son’ bitch alive.”

“For how long?”

“The night. Then some folks from New Reno’ll come and scoop him up, off your hands.”

“I can't do the night.”

“Can you walk?”

“Yeah.”

“Can you hold a gun?”

“I suppose.”

“Then we’re square.”

“I-I can't leave Jacob overnight, by himself. He… he needs me. Sometimes he get’s, like, I don't fucking know, night terrors, if that's what you call ‘em. He needs me. I give him his medicine. I make sure he eats. I-”

“Wipe his ass?”

“Fuck off, Victor. He needs me and I can't just-”

“Lemme stop you right there. The man doesn't need you. The same way I don't need a tick worming it’s way into my skull. I don't think he get’s night terrors so much as he gets hard, thinking about Amelia’s tight, beautiful ass. Now I’m sorry if that's a sore spot for you, but right now I don't quite frankly give a damn. I’m over it, you see. Don Gustavo requires you to perform your civic duty. And unless that fairy godmother of yours can turn water into liquid gold, I don't see much room for you to get picky about it. Now, if gettin’ off is your primary concern here, you can sneak out for a quickie every couple hours, and I won't tell nobody. But, if New Reno comes knockin’ in the morning, and our guy, ain’t there with his regulated amount of arms and legs, you’re gonna be in a whole helluva lot of prick trouble. Got it, partner?”

Liana shrugged. “Can't be picky. Right?”

“Can't sell happiness over the counter, either. That bottle in your back pocket is filled with horseshit from about three continents and a dozen different countries. It’ll do him ‘bout as well as a needle and some gauze will a man half way down a great white’s throat. What he got… just have to find some way to live with.” Victor left with a tip of his straw hat.

Jacob was sitting up in their bed when Liana walked in. “Who was that?”

“Vic… no one.” She sat down next to him and took three capsules of Joy in her hand. “It’s time.”

Who was that?”

“Don’t do you do this to yourself.” Liana picked up the half full bottle of water beside the bed and unscrewed the cap. “It’s not good for you to be thinking like this.”

Jacob coughed into his fist. “There are only two choices: wrong or worse.” He stared blankly at the enthusiastic, black smiles beaming up at him. 

“I’ll make you feel better if you take them.” She ran her hand under the covers and gently started stroking him.

Jacob leaned back, and infused himself with twelve hundred milligrams of pure jubilation. Liana placed soft kisses up along his shaft, and brushed her nose against the tip, before wrapping her mouth around him. He latched onto a mound of her hair, and pushed her head down. She continued to take more of him in her mouth until her lips had dropped down to the base. Liana started to gag, but she didn’t move. Not until Jacob released himself inside her, and she swallowed every last drop. 

 

Upper Management was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. On Mondays it was a dry cleaners. Tuesday a laundromat. Wednesday a fully functioning car dealership, with a stocked podium hailing from Germany, Italy, and Japan. Thursday morning the delicatessen opened its doors. Friday afternoon a convenience store stepped in to pick up the slack. By night, a small town, family restaurant was closing up for the weekend. A nationally syndicated bank was open all day Saturday. A dive bar until three in the morning. There was a brand new elementary school for the deaf open on Sunday. Right across the street from the corporate headquarters of a company that seemed to do just about everything, and employ just about everyone. Whatever it was to you, Upper Management saw fit to make the place fit the description. 

Jack had a hard time keeping track. Though, he supposed, it wasn't really his job anyway.

Him and Mr. Stone got off on the thirteenth floor of a building most everybody passed on their way somewhere, and could swear they’d been inside, but to do what or see whom alluded them, so it must not have been very important. Another ordinary building. Filled with ordinary people. In ordinary nice, neat, black suits.

“Polish are doing a grid-type search. Not, personally, how I’d do it, mind you. They’re squeezing the fucker out, and should have a location for you shortly. It’ll be a wee drive, but, you’ll be back home in time for supper. Piece ‘a cake. Minimal resistance. Oregon’ll handle the clean up.”

Jack scratched the inside of his left palm. “What’d they pinch Mr. Glass for?”

“Oh, heard about that splendid, shit on my whole goddamn fucking weekend plans, débâcle, have you? Game a Monty went real south, real timely. Prick can't run as fast as he talks. And even that’s a little hard to do with the barrel of a Heckler and Koch brand USP ready to blow out your fucking cheeks.”

“They stuff him in the behavioral management unit for runnin’ his mouth?”

“He had a knife. Tried to break free en route. Wound up stabbing a uniform in the neck. Guy’s not expected to make it.”

“Well, shit.”

“After eight hours I ain’t got much better.”

“Let ‘em stew a bit. Contemplate his life choices.”

“I wish I could. Don’t think anyone else would appreciate the sentiment.”

They came to stop outside a maze of office cubicles. “Nadia in yet?”

“Honestly couldn't fucking tell you. I can barely break for a piss ‘round here. Pickin’ you up is bound to be the highlight of my day.”

“Best get back to it then.”

“Yep, yep, yep… see ya around, Jack. Don’t forget to rock the boat.”

Mr. Stone departed for the conference room, and the now on-duty Spook made his way around the office. 

Mr. Cork took a cardboard box that’d been sitting out in the rain, halfway across the country, and placed it on his desk. He removed a box cutter from his silver, coat pocket, and opened it up. Fifty packs of Silver Age: The Best Age cigarettes dropped on his desk. This brought a smile to Mr. Cork’s face.

Mr. Platinum stepped momentarily out of the break room, his suit adorned with notable gold linings, with a bloody hand towel wrapped around his knuckles. He nodded. “Critics, eh?”

Jack tried his hand at opening the door to the office of one: Nadia Victoriano. It was empty. Save for a stark pie tin.

He turned around and walked over to Mr. Brick’s work space. “She in today?”

“Wouldn't appear that way. They have the chair in… Tasmania?"

“Was she in at all this week?”

“Imma need your chip for the bouquet we’re getting Mrs. Cloth.”

“How much you need?”

“Fifty’ll do.” Jack reached into his pocket. “But, a hundred’ll look nicer.” He begrudgingly took out a Franklin. “What a lawful samaritan. Plus twenty good karma for you.”

“Is Mr. Road in today?”

“Nope… not here, he isn’t.”

“Allen…”

“Tut-tut-tut, don't go there, Jack. You ain’t that S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Nadia didn't come in today, just the same as the past four days. Mr. Road is off doing who knows what, where. Let it off there. Mind the gap.” 

Reentering the elevator, Jack pressed the ‘L’ button. The doors closed, but the elevator didn't move. He turned around and saw a technologically inclined cube lying on the ground. “Oh, fuck.” The cube latched onto his face and digitized him into a blaring, red limousine. 

“How happy I am to be with you today, in what one can only assume is the most cramped, and repressive, and suppressive, establishment of business conduction on offer.” The Technical Boy’s eyes rebooted; he took a drag of his electronic cigarette, and puffed out a scarlet string of steam. 

“Half a score ago, not too far from where you were just contemplating the voices and choices involved in the deliberation of telling me smoking is, unhealthy, someone, or, perhaps, some-thing, came up with an idea. It wasn't a particularly great one, keep that tucked away for later use. A street debris removal service. Had a positively idiotic name, I won’t trouble you with repeating it. Half that score ago, I must admit to you here, that I didn't think much of it. I can not simply deny, how I lobbied against it with such a vigorous tenacity. On paper, I shall confess, it appeared to me as profitable as a bait shop that sold baby koalas and centipedes seventeen inches long. So, I’ve materialized here today to dramatize, not how I was initially wrong, but rather, how I was ultimately vindicated.”

Technical Boy’s pale, white skin shimmered beneath the overhead red scare. It reflected off his blonde hair, which he had in a neat swirl. “In a matter of plainly speaking, cause and effect is, akin to writing a check. If I were to, say, gift you one for five hundred million dollars, it would go through. Because I have the funds, cause, to pay you, effect. If you, were to gift me a check for five hundred thousand dollars, it would bounce with a greater velocity than… fill in the blank. Cause and effect. More or less. ‘Insufficient Funds’, if I had my way, would be the new company brand.” 

He wore an airy, white shirt, with little black, cross-shaped stars on it. A pattern of black and red bars, black-red-black, broke the shirt apart just below the elbow. Only the top was buttoned. “But, there are just, some people, who refuse to accept, that no matter how many times you whack a dead horse with a shovel, it just won't EVER come back to life. The well. IS. EMPTY.”

The same black-red-black pattern took the form of two triangles on the side of the shirt. The unbuttoned bottom gave way to a red undershirt. “Yet, this was not always the case my fellow countryman. It was a very gradual decline, that happened over a substantially overlong period of space. Some stooge, didn't just ‘wake up’ one morning, and find him or herself submerged in six feet of water. No, no, no, there was a beat where it hit your ankles, your knees, your balls… nothing happens overnight! No design is that instantaneous.”

Technical Boy wore black pants. “Look, at… what we did, with this newfound revelation. Nothing. The single, greatest peak, we’d ever held the notion of climbing, is gone. No one cares. No one notices. Isn’t that just strange?”

And white sneakers with red laces. “I certainly thought so. I had the nerve to pose certain, poignant questions. And nerve it was, seemingly. To be met with the same look one would register had I brought a Komodo dragon into a daycare center for the blind, deaf, and genuinely moronic. ‘No’, came the bitter charge, it’s not strange at all. 

In fact, it’s so practical now-yes, that loathsome little leech of a word-that the brand, is unanimously adapting. Without your consent and mine. We’re all veering off the main stretch, and shifting into third gear, right into a ravine. Most importantly, with a porcelain grin from ear to ear.

Be satisfied! Or so you’re told. Or so I’m told. It’s all a matter of perspective, see. It’s as simple and delicious and wholesome as thumbtack pie. Goes down as easy as a handful of bent nails. Follow the leader! Be the monkey! Greener pastures have lost their luster.

I didn't even mind, truly. Never cared much for the countryside. I’d no qualms with it being bulldozed. Put a parking lot there! Put a fucking Denny’s or a Burger King there! Don’t put anything there at all!

You wanna tear down the statue-sure thing! Don’t know what you want to fit in it’s place-that’s fine! However, what you can NOT do, is change your mind halfway through! Because then-then!, all I’m left with is a bunch of pissed off day laborers! Rabbit’s already outta the hat, illusions over, can’t stuff it back in!

Dimes don't turn that quickly!, you can't treat the ecosystem as if it were a fickle tart with which to strum along this way and that!

‘So I will not be satisfied!’, says the rabble. 

Without alternatives, though, what have we to turn to? Where do we go? Nowhere. Left to rot and rust in the cold. Until, a shining neon light beckons us home. Welcome. We are all thralls. With an illusion not nearly as tasty as a carrot.

Everything got rebranded. Walk the path through New Berlin, what do you see? Nazi’s; walkin’, marchin’, paradin’ around in the streets. Without impediment. Astonishing. Behold the miracles that can be done with a little red pen, and the seed of ambition, with the promise that it will one day sprout into a tree ripe with gluttony. Render unto sin that which is impulsively instinctive. 

I say, are we no longer entitled to the sweat of our brow? Are we no longer entitled to the food we carry on our backs? The land we dig with our bare hands? 

‘NO!’, says the herald in Washington, ‘you haven't really earned it, yet. Your broken back and bloody, calloused hands are no longer a high enough payment. The bar must be once again raised; the finish line moved.’

‘NO!’, says the cardinal in the Vatican, ‘every grain granted to you is done so with the blessing of our god. A spoiled, materialistic, envious god. You owe your life to him, and all that you earn, and all that you take, and steal, and swindle.’

‘NO!’, says the czar in Kazan, ‘it belongs to the people. The select few. The chosen few. Few who are half as likely to fall at the boots of famine, dare they puff to the east and huff to the west.’

What we did used to mean something. You felt it. I felt it. We were creators!, we gave back. Our stories used to be so simple, once. Brands, trends, lifestyles… WHAT DOES ANY OF IT EVEN MEAN?! We are the Future. 

Not anymore. 

Times are changin’. You’ll run on my platform, or not at all. 

‘Free at last, free at last,’ when I say so, you will be ‘free at last.’

You can’t kill progress.”

“Progress can kill you.”

“Thrive in lavish populace, or wither away in abject ostracization. Make up your mind. Don’t fuck with me.”

Two faceless Children in corsets grabbed hold of Jack’s shoulders and threw him from the limousine, out the elevator doors, and into the lobby.

He could hear the hustle and bustle of the streets outside, but it was faint. The honking taxies and crude tourists dissolved into so much white noise. Getting to his feet, there was not a single drop of color to be found due right or left. Straight ahead, to the audible ‘click’ of a far off television remote, Lucille Ricardo snapped on screen, propped up behind a nineteen fifties era diner counter. She was wearing a bright, blue, retro panel ball dress, with white polkadots. 

Jack cracked his neck. “When are the two of you just gonna kiss and make up?”

Lucy held a baby carrot up to a playful bunny, dyed every color of the rainbow. “Oh, silly rabbit,” she picked her head up, “don’t you know Trix are for kids?”

“Can't imagine you got a box of…”

A bowl full of Coco Puffs and whole milk slid across the counter, with two spoons on opposite ends. “Won't make a girl eat alone, will you?”

Jack sat down, as the bunny scurried off toward oblivion, and proceeded to kick the cuckoo’s nest.

Lucy’s crystal, blue eyes monitored each crunch intently. Her curly, ginger hair lightly eclipsing her stenciled eyebrows. “You concur?”

“Yeah.”

“Too. Much. Sugar. Red queen says off with her head.”

“Nah… she’s just got a bit of a sweet tooth.”

“I’m terribly fixated on cornering the market.” Lucille licked her blinding, red lips; the same color as her long, sharp nails, and her short, slender heels. “What did that prepubescent prick pitch you?”

“Freedom.”

“Oh you poor, poor boy. What could you possibly hope to do with that? Speaks so highly of operating systems yet still records me on a V-C-Fucking-R. Such a regretfully outdated metaphor, especially with all this talk of bottling things up.”

“You can move mountains.”

There was a large, diamond dome on her left ring finger, and a slim, gold watch around her wrist. “Don't flatter me, Jack, your credit’s more liable to suffocate than carbon monoxide. Wasted it all on a brain dead golden retriever with more G23 skewered in her nose than the traumatized survivor of a train derailment.”

“A hundred and twenty five people died.”

“Statistics, dear heart, are a necessary casualty in this little war of ours.” Her hourglass shaped, diamond earrings swayed back and forth. “I’m afraid you ask too much of me, and I’d genuinely advise against continuing to do so. You don't see, we’ve long since past the point of ‘kissing and making up.’ There have been exigent and jaundiced accusations levied in disagreement with my entity. If the Technical Boy wants to forfeit his right to die at a ripe old age on a ranch upstate so bloody badly for this abysmal plane of wasted, meager existence, then by all means, we should afford him every possible privilege. But Jack, it’d be such a pity, considering you already placed a deposit down on a quaint, rustic Overlook up in Maine. Don’t consider yourself, here, you’re pulling all fives, bar maybe a six in Strength. You chose to bring three beautiful, baby girls into our continuum. What are we going to do with them?”

Lucy pulled an acceptance letter out of her cleavage. “Give it an hour. This should keep the swelling down. It is, after all, the best school in the country. Environment almost tailor-made for her, wouldn’t you say?” 

Jack’s eyes glazed over the letter. The hairs on the back of his neck gently started to rise.

“I don't possess the wherewithal to bullshit. Which reminds me…” Ms. Ricardo whistled, and a black and brown German Shepard came scampering across the lobby floor. She picked him up and placed him on the counter. Tail wagging faster than a speeding bullet. “Give Annabelle a friend that’ll always love her.”

Jack stuffed the parchment in his back pocket. He held out his hand for the pup to sniff. Beads of sweat fled from his brow. An aroma dug it’s claws into his waist, holding him down. Terror, by Vladimir. 

“You really gonna piss yourself over me? You really gonna deny your daughter a puppy, Jack? Wilhelm II.” For her last trick, Lucille retrieved a whiffle ball bat from under the counter. “I know how much you like your meat rare. When you do finally decide to cave her rotten fucking head in, dedicate it to me. I’ll consider your unwavering debts paid in full.” 

Jack picked the German up and slowly started backing away from the counter. Leaving the tenderizer behind. 

“Something wrong, Jack? I unintentionally bring out your dick’s crippling insecurities?” Lucy multiplied. “How would you like to exist? Make up your mind. Horizontally or vertically.” 

 

Just southeast of Cottonwood Overlook, where the old Blue Paradise vacation rentals used to be, was Nowhere. A boarded up, wooden farmhouse. With at least two bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, a living room, a dining room, and an attic turned computer room. Tumbleweeds flew from Vulpes Inculta’s boot-steps. There was a windmill off to the west that wasn't operational. A shuttered barn and a deserted chicken coup to the east. To the side of some Farm and House furnishing boxes, was a dripping water pump. Monsters were said to hide in the hills. Skin Walkers, if superstition were to be taken with salt. 

Within Nowhere, there was a wood-burning furnace in the middle of the living room, with a Moosehead mounted above it. The grandfather clock next to the staircase leading to the second floor was stopped at three o’ clock. 

Buy Flantasy Flan.” Said a velvety, formfitting, pink suit. He sat in a burnt-out recliner with his legs crossed, smoking a Fink MFG cigar.   

“They don't sell it out here.” Replied Vulpes. 

The Spook brandished a knuckle knife with the initials M.B. and E.B. engraved on it. He appeared surprised. “Pity… fancy a bit of rehearsal before dying, dear girl?”

“Play’s not set to premier for another week, at least.”

“Yesterday’s news.” He got up. “You start.”

“The Apollo is open from nine at night to nine in the morning, Tuesday to Saturday. Line outside starts forming around five. VIP’s come in white limousine’s. There are, at all times, six guards watching the front with fully automatic machine pistols. Friday and Saturday nights, two snipers adorn the roof with bolt-action rifles. French Brand: Lebel Model 1886.”

The Spook inched closer, twirling his blade. “Say you get inside…”

“The Apollo has sixteen levels. Another two hundred and forty guards patrol the floors in fifteen man units. Their exact ordinance is unknown, but they are believed to posses everything from a Remington Model 870P MAX, to Bren light machine guns. No one vault contains the entire night’s earnings. Rather, every level has it’s own, separate containment unit. A successful heist would involve pilfering all of them. It is highly worth noting that the Apollo has never been robbed. This is largely attributed with the way in which the Frenchman, ‘De Pleur’, manages the establishment.”

Vulpes felt the edge of stained steel graze her neck. “That. Was. SLOPPY. You forgot the most important line: ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here.’ Before you can even get started on the vaults, you first have to overtake the security installation. Which is where?”

“Third floor. We’re still working on getting a man inside.”

The Spook shook his head, and removed the knife from Vulpes’s throat. “It would appear to me, that your part in the play isn't panning out. Atlas ought to bring in the understudy. Mr. Road is downstairs. Afraid I don't have any mouthwash.”

In the dirt floor cellar of Nowhere, Mr. Road was singing aloud to himself. “When you’re down in the mouth, and life’s a pain/Weatherman says ‘heavy rain’/A little boost is all you nee/Average Joe to Hercules/A Stronger Arm, A Sharper Brain, That’s why the future is-”

“Could you please,” went Mr. Wednesday, who was strapped to a chair, “shut it with that infernal fucking jingle.” There were a few cuts and bruises strewn across his face. 

“Any other requests?” Road flipped a steak knife from: Your Uncle Tito’s.

“A little Dino, would you kindly…” a fresh slash drew blood from his forehead, “well fuck, I really thought we’d come to an understanding. You stop acting like you know what the fuck you’re doing, and in turn, I’ll let you in on a few well kept industry secrets.”

“Where’s Mr. Burke?”

“Come now, constable, hunt for your food. The proper way God intended.”

“Why bother sticking your neck out for him? This far west, Independent Party ain’t gonna hear you.”

“I find my neck to be just adequately elevated. North, east, south, west, it’s all a matter of perspective, see. The Independent Party just invaded Montana, or maybe you’ve not caught word. Wrists look a tad battered, today, Country Roads. Sharks’ll be here long before you know it.”

“The man’s an invalid.”

“That’s not why we’re here. Mr. Burke’s character has never been called into question. I’ve no delusions with what goes on beyond the gilded doors of Tenpenny Tower. Yet, the principal, is what keeps my lips sealed. I hand over Burke today, I’ll just be back again next week, and the week after that, and if all my previous calculations were correct, which of course they are, the week after that as well. It’ll never end. Even when you’ve run out of collective witnesses. You’ll just do it for a gas.”

“Define self-preservation.”

“How about a synonym: cowardice.”

“Martyrdom is a popular recruitment technique, it would seem.”

“Is that the deduction you’ve finally come to? You come up to my stand in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the morning, drag me all the way out here, wherever the fuck here is, and the only conclusion you’ve derived from our entire conversation is that every so often Allistair fumigates the bullpen? I’m not quite sure just what the fuck they teach you in that corporate hot air ballon, but here’s a hot tip: before you fuck someone over, the least you can do is buy them a steak dinner first. And you know what, I’m in a generous mood today, so here’s another in Tradesmen 101: the Capital Wasteland is home to creatures you wouldn't even believe in if I described them to you. Far more applicable sadists are out there roaming the streets, oh yes. God’s depravity didn't start with you, nor will it end. Monster out in Milwaukee would make the man out of Whitechapel look like a pussycat. This? This shit doesn't even make my balls sweat. You wanna stand over there, stroking your little sword like a washed up out-patient, go right ahead. But while you lay awake at night, staring at the spider crawling along the outside of your window, keep in mind that ‘big’ and ‘bad’ are two words no one even thinks of when mentioning you.”

Mr Road sheathed his knife, and retrieved his checkbook. “Are you done?”

“Are you done?”

“What’d you pawn off to the Legate?”

“An army. Yours.”

“Wanna exchange favors?”

“Naturally. They are the best commodity around. Hold a higher value than gold.”

“Do I have the correct inclination?”

“Joshua A. Graham’s credit card or bust.”

“Mr. Town hasn't got it yet.”

“Sounds a whole lot to me like your problem.”

“Card’s been cancelled, regardless.”

“And?”

“Fifty six dollars and eighty three cents to his fucking name. Not a thing in the entire wasteland you can fish for that.”

“So? What do you care? Finishing touches?”

“Pack it in, Wednesday,” Mr. Road stuffed his checkbook back in his suit pocket and took out his wallet, removing five tens and two fives, “round up to an even sixty. Whaddya say?”

“Little late for absolution…. Mr. Burke is in Novac. The Dino Dee-lite motel. Middle Bungalow. Try not to fuck this one up like you did the other one, yeah.”

Mr. Road released Wednesday from the chair, “kiss my ass,” and dropped the money in his hand.

“Pleasure doing business with you, constable.” Halfway up the stairs he passed Vulpes Inculta. “Good afternoon, darling, pay no mind to Mr. Courage. Your part in the play is just as important as the play itself. If a little open to interpretation.” 

Down in the dirt floor cellar of Nowhere, Mr. Road cracked open a flask and downed a little more than two thirds of it’s contents. 

“You work for Gustavo, too?” Vulpes asked.

“Do a little for just about everybody.”

 

No vacancy was too misleading. There certainly were residents dwelling under the watchful gaze of ye olde carnivorous, green giant, just not the friendly sort. Or the directionally motivated sort. Or the sort to pick up their wrapping paper and throw it in the trash. Or the sort not to let little girls believe they can be anything they want when they grow up so as long as they wish really, really hard. Like the alcoholic embodiment of an arm wrestling competition between War and Pestilence. Or The Devil.

“Why the long face Liana?” Although even as she said it a blood curdling cackle was revving up; her cheeks nearly bursting at the seems. Vulpes kept walking, or at the very least tried to. The sound erupting from deep within The Devil’s chest was deafening. “You… you are… truly,” she wiped her eyes, “an immaculately trained whore.” Sand took flight as she pranced around Vulpes, examining her form, eyes darting all over, neither particularly here nor there. They seemed intoxicated with the notion of reaching out with one hand and squeezing whichever mound of flesh sparked the most salacious response. “Travel the world and the seven seas, could never wrap myself up in something like you. Very rare breed. Expensive to touch. Tell me something,” The Devil twirled a strand of dark brown hair around her finger, “you sweet, sweet, girl, does the Tin Man fuck you right?”

At the onset of her response, The Devil stuck her right index finger in Vulpes Inculta’s mouth. “Oh, honey, I know he’s got a big prick. Your neck doesn't seem to have been able to fit an entire outline of it. But,” she let the hair go and latched onto her own groin, “have you seen mine? It’s all about how you use it,” Vulpes felt a pair of icy lips graze her nape, “and where you put it.” The Devil slipped her wet finger in between Liana’s curves. “I, for one, wouldn't make your asshole bleed.” 

Her attempt to break away was met with a forceful kiss. “Mmm… I must confess, that's not half bad. Does Legion always taste like bubblegum, or just on Joy? Cause I’ve never sucked cock before, but I’m genuinely considering it. Would it scare you if I treated him? He may never look at you the same way again. I mean, you’re cute, I suppose, on the outside, at least. But underneath all that baggage? Amelia knew how to talk. And read. What the fuck can you do?” 

The Devil licked her lips. “Don't fuck with me. I’ll rip you to fucking pieces.” Then skipped away, humming a tune to the beat of killing the Kennedy’s. 

Mr. Burke was standing in the doorway of the middle bungalow. The grease from his hair dripping down his forehead; his twitchy, green eyes hiding behind a pair of cheap, plastic glasses held together with duct tape. “That happen to you often?” 

An unfamiliar scent lingered in Liana’s mouth: Faith. “Got a lot of folks making a fuss over you.”

“Well, I didn't ask them to. I’m just a regular comedian. Though, I suppose, it’s a little too late to be finding out the majority of the crowd doesn't find any of my jokes outstandingly funny.” He motioned for Vulpes to step inside the bungalow with him, where he took a kettle off the stovetop and poured two shot glasses of tea. “Picked these leaves straight from the mountains. Strong enough to break an elephants back.” Burke raised his glass. “To the death we all deserve, and the life we all regret.” The glasses clinked. 

Vulpes felt like she’d been smacked in the face with a twenty pound bag of sand. “S-S-S…”

He plucked the glass from her hand. “I’m the guy that had the one, unlucky job, of getting the snake out of the garden. I’ll admit I fucked that one up on purpose. Snake never did a goddamn thing to anybody. Hardly ever knew it was there. Couldn't sleep well with the notion.”

Mr. Burke removed his brown suit jacket. “Independent Party, the coalition of misfit fuckups, offered me a contract. Better one than those faggots up in Quincy.” His teeth were stained black. “You see, unfortunately, I am well aware of the wrong turns and shoddy short cuts that led me here. You don't know what’s happening. Gustavo does. Spookshow’s comin’ for him. Little did I know, all anybody fucking remembers is that I’m the fucking guy that wouldn't pinch that fucking snake. And all the prick wound up packing was the seven of clubs and the seven of diamonds.” He unclipped his tie and blotted his neck with it. “I know, I know, you’re a good kid. Just got mixed up with the wrong people.” 

Vulpes felt dizzy, and she couldn’t tell if she’d swallowed her tongue. 

“New Reno’s not coming. Probably never were. Nothing for me to tell the Don that he didn’t already know.” There came a knock at the front door to the bungalow. “Death is not an entity, it is a force.”

Vulpes gripped the sides of the chair she’d sat down in and pulled herself up, just as the door came crashing down. 

 

A specter, larger than life, with no definitively shaped face, and shadows pulling at his knees, punched Liana in the nose. There was an audible ‘crack.’ Blood came rushing down from her nostrils. She collapsed to the ground. 

“Good evening, Jack.” Mr. Burke adjusted his glasses. 

Snake.”

“You let Veronica out to lunch? I’m not going to make it, am I?”

“Afraid not. Keeping the ring though.”

“Cost me a bloody fortune. I know you’ll put it to good use.”

“What’d you take from Montana?”

“It’s not worth anything now. Kazan is already here.”

Jack unsheathed a pointed, silver dagger. “War’s changing.”

“Isn't it grand? For what it’s worth, I’m glad it was you. Never believed-”

The Spook sliced Mr. Burke’s throat. Black blood poured down his neck, and over his chest. 

After wiping his blade off on a nearby towel, Jack looked down at what little consciousness remained in Vulpes Inculta’s eyes. “Crooked man can't save you from me.”

 

Nadia Victoriano resided in a one bedroom apartment. There was on-site laundry, a patio, and dogs were unequivocally allowed. On any given starry night, the windows would be wide open, and the smell of a freshly baked, seasonal pie could be heard screaming for miles. 

Veronica had almost seemed disappointed Mr. Burke wouldn't make lunch. Yet, quickly became enraptured by the idea of Jack bringing home a puppy. Gaige would surely suffer without cereal for the rest of her adult life, and the odds of Miranda fainting meant he would have to giver her the acceptance letter lying down. Everything had been tied up in a revolting, red bow. Except the German. Jack had to roll down the window for him. 

The air was dead silent. Nadia’s apartment was pitch dark. The closer he got to the door handle, the more he felt the need to drop down on his knees and pray. Everyone was listening. Wouldn’t want for an idol. 

The now off duty Spook placed his ear to the door, and started gently tapping. “Nadia.” Then lightly knocking. “NADIA.” Then furiously banging. “Nadia!” Then he kicked the door down. “NADIA!” 

She was sprawled out across the hardwood floor. Unresponsive. Yellow pills with black smily faces were littered around her like raindrops. There was a perfect circle under her chin. 

Jack considered shooting himself, but upon realizing he didn't posses a gun, picked Nadia up off the floor and broke off in a sprint toward the hospital that had once so graciously brought her onto the stage she now sought to abruptly exit, stage right.

 

Sara paced around the hospital room, quietly mumbling to herself the same three words over and over again, to a beat she’d made up in her head long before you could buy and sell Joy under the counter like vitamins. “Sugar, Butter, Flour. Sugar, Butter, Flour. Sugar, Butter-”

Nadia grabbed her wrist and held it steady. “Gasoline, rat poison, and bleach, baby. What’d you make?”

Sara looked over at the tin beside the bed. “You are my whole world pie.” She cupped Nadia’s cheeks. “Milk chocolate passion fruit ganache tarts. Extra chocolate.” They kissed.

Might as well have a heart attack while I’m in here. Save us another trip.”

“Why go and say a thing like that?”

“Zed’s running late. And they don't sell gin here.”

“For good reason. What happened to Ned?”

“Oh, Ned? Ned’s dead baby, Ned’s dead. Zed’s all we got. Seeing as how Teddy figured heading out east and becoming a cowboy was a better use of his time.”

Jack snickered from the foot of the bed. “Indians need someone to chase.”

“Well, I don't see you doin’ anything…” Sara pressed her nose against Nadia’s. “What do you need?”

“Something to drink. Juice, baby.”

She gave her another kiss. “Coming right up.”

The rest of the world tried to creep in when the door opened. Unsuccessfully. 

Jack had his head bowed, and his hands were put together, leaning against his forehead. 

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“Thinking.”

“Looks like you’re praying.” Nadia giggled, and swatted at his face with her fingers. “Don’t fucking pray. Nobody wants to listen to you talk. Especially when they can listen to hundreds of millions of other, more interesting people talk.”

“Interesting doesn't pay the fucking electric bill.”

Nadia started humming. “When I was seventeen it was a very good year. It was a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights. We’d hide from the lights on the village green. When I was seventeen.” Jack tried to ignore her. “You love me.”

“That’s not the point.”

She curled her fingers around his chin. “Tell me you love me.” Her eyes grew sad. 

“I love you.” He took her hand, kissing it. “But whoever the fuck put it in your head that your invincible deserves to have their fucking teeth kicked in. Moment of clarity, because you obviously need one, you’re just as mortal as the rest of us. Dirty word, I know. It doesn't sell all that well. Couldn’t care less, but I’ve been wondering…how come you never bother Lanius with any of this shit?” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“So goodbye yellow brick road 

Where the dogs of society howl 

You can't plant me in your penthouse 

I’m going back to my plough 

Back to the howling old owl in the woods 

Hunting the horny black toad 

Oh I’ve finally decided my future lies 

Beyond the yellow brick road.” - Elton John

 

Nadia: One Hour And Thirteen Minutes Old

Lanius had been dutifully trying, for the better part of half a day, not to fall asleep. He wouldn't want to miss this, Vinny had told him, as he rolled him out of bed, down the stairs, all through the house, out to the car, and up nineteen flights of a peeling hospital interior. 

Though by a sheer, bloodshot-eyed headcount, quite a few people were missing this. His Uncle Dominique, who’d been in a near fatal automotive accident four days prior, much to the odd ire of his father. His Uncle Pompeii, who’d been taken in by the local Sheriffs Department four days prior, much to the odd relief of his father. His grandmother and grandfather on his mother’s side weren't able to make the trip up from Aruba. His Aunt Cassie’s flight had been delayed due to inclement weather. His Uncle Christopher had been barred entry onto the premises until he finished his last eight months in a rehabilitation clinic, for what Vinny dubbed: the pharmaceutically inclined. 

“You need anything kid?” He asked, popping off a few sour rock candies shaped like panda bears and colored in like schoolyard gold fish.

“No thank you.” Lanius replied, yawning and checking the clock sitting behind the receptionists desk. His father had been gone for nearly five hours. Stormed off after a relatively heated scuffle with someone that sounded an awful lot like his mother. It had been impossible to tell with Vinny’s arm wrapped firmly over his shoulders, locking him in place. Any attempt to sort out the situation was met with an increase in the volume with which his uncle spelled out his anecdotes. 

“So you see, they been there working on this here house for about three and a half years. This bird-a ‘is, oh lemme tell ya, she just won't quit. Every time he thinks that they’re done, she pulls him back in. So cut to last week, right, and their gettin’ this new obsidian or whatever counter top, because granite was goin’ outta style, or some such nonsense. These two knuckleheads, poor bastards that had the nerve to show up for work that day, okay, are tryin’ to fit this slab through the back door, and boy oh boy, it just will NOT fit. Bozo’s cut it a ninth of an inch too big. So, they ask, ‘can we’, are you ready for this one?, ARE YOU READY FOR THIS ONE?, they ask… if they can ‘cut into the doorframe, just a little, to make some more room.’ Now, as I’m sure you can IMAGINE, this was not met well. Several racially intensive obscenities were exchanged. And what wound up transpiring was, get a load of these here shenanigans, as they're fittin’ the obsidian through the wall, an eighty thousand dollar cabinet winds up getting dislocated from the wall. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? The verbal attrition waged after that- loud enough to make the dead piss themselves. Now, to top it all off, would you believe me if I told you, that these dumb idiots accepted a wire transfer. I mean, PARDON MY FRENCH, but that is just the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen someone do over the course of business. So, naturally, your Uncle Louis put a stop to that right away. I don't know WHAT he’s makin’ to do now. But, um… did that answer your question?”

Vinny’s hair was darker then. “One coke coming right up.”

Jack had followed their father out. Wouldn't see either of them again until nightfall. When they could sneak in one after the other. Beaten and ashamed. 

Vinny waltzed back and cracked open a simmering can of coke. “Perk ya right up. Trust me, they’re’ll come a day when you value moments like this a helluva lot more than something as petty as sleep.”

Lanius felt the adequately room-set coke relieve him of the Sandman’s spotted embrace for a few more cumbersome hours. 

“Wanna see her?” Vinny asked, offering his hand.

“I don't think they’ll let me in.”

“Maybe not. But they’ll let me in.”

Lanius took Vinny’s hand and followed him up to the receptionists desk. 

“How you doin’ this crisp, well-tailored November morning darlin’?” He asked the woman sitting behind the counter, with a charming, silver smile. 

“I’m doing just well, thank you.”

“Oh, don't do that, I should be thanking you. Puttin’ up with these here lunatics. Thieves, on occasion, my ol’ man’ll talk you outta the gold in your teeth. Misers, more often than not, my Aunt Clara wouldn't even foot the bill for a new liver. Bullies, much as I hate to admit it, they never quite seem to get their due comeuppance in a timely and orderly fashion. The most detestable collection of people you, my dear, will ever have the displeasure of meeting. My family. Now,” he took a business card out of his front pocket and laid it flat on the desk, “see fit to let us in. My nephew here can't wait to make an introduction.”

The woman stared at the world, looked up, and smiled. “Just need him to sign in.”

She passed Lanius a clipboard, and he signed his name: Lanius Victoriano.

Vinny led him through a series of vacant, sterile rooms, until they reached the nursery. 

Lanius pressed his hands to the glass, and gazed out at the empty rows of warmed Isolettes. 

“There she is,” Vinny pointed halfway up the sixth row, “life’s finest.” He opened the door to the nursery and ushered Lanius inside. 

Nadia Victoriano. That was her name. 

“Go on,” Vinny encouraged, “pick her up.” 

Lanius lifted his little sister up, and held her in his arms. Her dainty fingers wriggled frantically in the air; desperately wanting to touch the strange dome of the mysterious golem that dared intrude upon her slumber. 

Nadia’s eyes sparkled. With so much wanton, euphoric, cluelessness. A twinkle of silver tucked away in there; stowed for a rainy day. 

“Say something…”

Lanius lowered his forehead. Unable to control the smile beaming across his face as two tiny hands, of a slightly darker shade than his own, attempted to set a scale for the map of her world. 

“Hey, Nadia. Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste. I’ve been around for a long, long year.” He placed a kiss on her cheek. “Welcome to the family.” 

 

Nadia: Nine Years Old

Christmas Morning. 

Decorated the house for weeks. Strung the place up with red and green lights. Hung the stockings. All fourteen of them. 

Shoveled the driveway. Mother Nature saw fit not to care.

Snowed in for the fourth time that winter. Lanius was sure he’d be ready to hurl entire tank battalions come spring. 

Spent hours getting the perfect tree. Right length. Right width. Right height. Had to be. Just for his little sister. 

Draped the colossal fire hazard in popcorn, reindeer, and jolly, morbidly obese proprietors of children’s toys, with questionable, at best, distribution methods. 

Raised her up on his shoulders to plant the star.

Spent all Eve building her a castle out of the most susceptible, to breaking apart in your hand, building material earth had to offer. 

All worth it. Just to see her smile. Hear her laugh. 

Found himself once again running on just under the regulated amount of hours sleep. Six at best. 

He felt a finger poke his cheek. Then prod his ribs. “Lanius, I think there’s something downstairs.” 

Nadia was standing beside his bed. Little snowmen running up and down her pajama bottoms. Old boy Frosty sitting around a campfire on her pajama top. “Like what?” He said drowsily. 

“Like something alive.”

Lanius lifted up his comforter and Nadia crawled under it with him. He moved his head to the side. Gave her a whole pillow just for herself. 

“Lotta things are alive, little sister. Whatcha see?”

“One of the presents was moving.”

“Moving?”

“Had wrapping paper with animals on it. If that helps.”

Lanius yawned. “It does. Who was it from?”

“Uncle Vinny.”

Lanius sat straight up. “Oh shit.”

Nadia giggled. “Your French.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll pardon it later.” 

He leaped out of bed and made a beeline for the stairwell with Nadia etched in his shadow. 

Amongst the avalanche of wrapped boxes of varying sizes, one was in fact moving. As their footsteps drew nearer, the present started barking. 

Lanius tore off the animal themed charade, and a wide-eyed, black and brown, German Shepard started pawing at the door to it’s cage. He unlocked it, and Nadia soon found herself overwhelmed.

“A puppy?!” She crackled with wondrous bemusement. “Vinny got us a puppy?!” 

Lanius reached for the card next to the German’s portable home. “No. He got you a puppy.”

“He did? Why?”

Lanius chuckled. “Merry Christmas, little sister.” He kissed the top of her head.

“She’s so soft.” Nadia rolled on her side. 

“He. German’s a he.”

Oh, I’m sorry puppy. Lanius, what should we name him?”

“He’s yours, you should be the one that name him.”

“But Lanius… I don't know any German names.”

“Wilhelm, then. Nice German name.”

She picked the Shepard up into the air. “Welcome to the family, Wilhelm. I’m Nadia. And this is my big brother Lanius. You’re an I-talian now. Hope you don't mind.”

Once back on all fours, the puppy did not seem to posses a single care in the whole wide world, and continued to climb all over Nadia, licking her neck and wagging his tail. 

Lanius scoured the rest of the northern wasteland for anything bearing his name. Occasionally peering over his shoulder to admire man’s best friend vigorously chasing his own tail. 

An envelope tucked up against the base of the tree was addressed to Vinny’s ‘nephew from the states’. Inside was a one way ticket to Arstotzka. Lanius could see the stars nestled up against the cold, dead, night sky. Hear the train whistle along its tracks. Taste the sting of a chilled glass of red wine. 

“Hey Lanius?” 

He crumpled up the ticket and tossed it in the fireplace. “Yeah?” 

“What’s Uncle Vinny like?” Wilhelm was curled up in Nadia’s lap as she rubbed his belly. 

“He’s… family. Close, family. Been around for a while. Grew up in this house. Was a lot smaller back then. Knows a lot. Seen a lot.”

“Why’s he drive that old black car?”

“It’s his job. Works for the town.”

“Doing what?”

Lanius scratched his neck. “Driving that old black car. Town tells him where to go, and he’s there. Sorting everything out.”

Nadia took one of Wilhelm’s paws in her hand. “He travels a lot.”

“Vinny’s a man of the world. Not too many places he hasn't been. Prefers beaches, though. Doesn’t get to go as often as he’d like.”

“Where’d he take you?”

“Nowhere special. Just a little detour. Roadside stop. Nothin’ you’d want to see. Trust me. He’ll take you somewhere much, much nicer. I’m sure of it.” 

Nadia yawned. “Lanius, will you tell me a story?”

“Sure.” He sat down next to her, and she leaned up against him. “Your Uncle Louis once bought a prime piece of property upstate. A four story townhouse with acres upon acres of green grass running far as the eye could see. A little stream ran alongside it. Louis wanted to buy some horses, start himself a ranch. But then, he met a nice, young woman, and… well, she wanted to make some changes to the house. New kitchen, new floors, new windows, new just about everything. One day, she was having a new counter top delivered, and the people that cut it had the wrong measurements. So, you see, they couldn't fit it through the back door. If you can believe such nonsense. Eventually they got it inside, but unhinged one of the young woman’s very expensive cabinets. Uncle Louis wasn't too thrilled about that, now, so he cancelled his payment on the delivery.”

Nadia’s eyes started drooping. “Isn't Uncle Louis bunking up in Sing Sing? Where Uncle Pompeii used to live ‘till he moved.”

“Yeah… yeah he is. Had to sell his place. Overrun with termites. Couldn't afford to fumigate it.”

Her head collapsed into the palm of his hand. “Is he comfortable?”

Very.” She was sound asleep. Wilhelm too.

For seventy three more hours, Louis Victoriano would be content on Death Row, having been charged with triple homicide. 

 

Nadia: Twelve Years Old

They’d been at each other’s throats again. His father and Vinny.

“And now, you see, that's your fucking problem- just don't know when you’ve outstayed your fucking welcome.”

My house. Stay as long as I please.”

“Your house?! Ain’t stepped foot on this here tiling for more than two decades. It’s as much yours as Neptune’s Bounty is mine!”

“Can’t con such grand aspirations?”

“Conned you into that fucking junker out on my grass, didn't I? Don’t say I never did shit for ya.”

“Maybe that's true. But I will say, with the certainty of a man ‘bout to walk a tightrope blind, you ain't done shit for these here kids. I’ll be dead and buried six feet below the dirt and I’ll still be a better goddamned father than you! Better than the fucking maggots!”

“Better than selling ‘em tickets to a place we ain't never going back to. Can’t.”

“Can you even remember why you came here? Hm? Anything strike you as odd?, maybe a bit out of place?”

“You got a point your fittin’ to make here, Vinny? I’d go on and fucking make it.”

“I saw where you was headed. I been down that hole myself. And I guaran-god-damned-tee you I did everything I could, used up all my might!, trying to pull you out. So what the fuck happened?!”

“What happened is we had ourselves a big goddamned war of ideas. Got everyone runnin’ around now thinking their S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Times are changin’, case you ain't had the care to look out a fucking window. Brand’s adapting without you. Whether you acknowledge it or not. We’re runnin’ out of reasons not to be movin’ on. Then there I come, more than a little weary, rightfully so. And all I see is you, thinkin’ just cause your four laps ahead of me you’ll get there quicker. I always saw you for what you really are: ten pounds a shit in a five pound bag. Just fixin’ to die tired.”

“When’s the last time you left this house? Left these four walls? Do you even fucking know what color them new highway makers are?”

“Orange.”

“Blue. Been a while, hasn't it?”

“Not long enough. Still got you. Eatin’ from the same box-a candies for forty years.”

“Pushing fifty- don't do yourself any fucking favors.”

“Wanna raise my kids, then? Go on. Try. See what it’s like. Lot different when you gotta actually plan for tomorrow ‘stead ‘a just talkin’ ‘bout it.”

“Talk ain't as cheap as it used to be.”

“And I’m the rip-off.”

“Just don't have the smile for it. The enduring personality.”

Life just saw fit to treat you right. Didn't it, Vinny?”

“Afraid so.”

So be it, then. Take ‘em.”

“What?”

“You heard me! Don't let me waste your hard-earned dime. TAKE THEM! Lap of luxury ain't got all goddamn day!”

“They got lives here!”

“Oh would you look at this! What a fucking surprise! He’s walkin’ it back. Thought about it. Ol’ Uncle Vinny just weighed his options and said ‘you know what?, fuck it!’ Go on then- get the fuck out of my house Vinny! I hope you get stepped on by a big-”

His father’s tangy, deep-fried southern accent was long gone. Replaced by Victory Gin and not enough Tonic. 

Isabella lay up against him in the early morning hours. Everyone loved her. Everyone loved to swoon over her. Complement her radiant, sunshine blonde hair. Her plump, rosy cheeks. Her perky breasts that fit effortlessly into Lanius’s hands. 

She was nauseating. Talked too loud, climaxed even louder. The dead couldn't be sold a suitable pair of headphones for miles. Even as all his cracked, Roman Legionaries leaked out of her and onto his bedspread, it just wasn't the same if she didn't turn any noses up at parties. 

The sharp clack of nails on polished wood echoed throughout Lanius’s ears. It was just about that time.

He felt a finger poke his cheek. Then prod his ribs. “Mountain lions wait for no man, big brother.”

Nadia was standing beside his bed, wearing the least cut-up pair of jeans she could find, and one of Jack’s old camouflaged vests. Wilhelm was busy sniffing the tacky, white lingerie littered about. 

“No they do not,” Lanius removed Isabella’s arm from around his neck, “best get to it then.”

Nadia scampered off downstairs, Wilhelm not far behind with a new sixteen thousand dollar chew-toy. 

“No such thing as ‘mountain lions’ babe.” 

Lanius felt two hands lock around his waist. “Just cause you ain't seen ‘em don't mean they ain't there.”

Isabella peppered his neck with little spearmint tipped kisses. “Can't indulge her, her entire life. Sooner or later she’s gonna have to stop believing in fairy tales.”

No, she doesn’t.” He snapped on his watch.

“Babe, just consider for a minute what this is teaching her. I mean, you're her only real source of human interaction. The rest either comes from that stupid mutt, which by the way just stole my underwear, or whatever bullshit gets printed in those comic books she hordes under her bed. It’s not healthy.”

Lanius pulled apart her hands, “she’s my little sister,” and started digging through his closet for appropriate wildlife genocide attire. 

“And what am I?” 

“How the fuck should I know?”

“Babe-” She cracked her voice. 

“Would you please. STOP. Fucking. Calling me that.” 

Isabella wiped some crocodile extract from her eyes. “Could you just… say something nice, about me?” 

Lanius flipped through his key ring for the one to the armory. “You are, a magnificent cunt.”

 

Mist had set in over the Victoriano Estate. Lanius and Nadia’s boots tramped over the welcome mat reading: Home, Darling, Home.

They had procured a hand cannon, for the former, and a semi-automatic carbine, for the latter. 

I left my baby and it feels so bad. Guess my race is run. She’s the best girl that I ever had. I fought the law and the law won. I fought the law and the-” Nadia dropped off.

Robbin’ people with a six-gun. I fought the law and the law won. I fought the law and the law won. I lost my girl and I lost my fun. I fought the law and the law won. I fought the law and the law won.” And Lanius picked up. Walking through the woods surrounding the manor in tandem. Right, left. One foot in front of the other.

“You heard them too?” Nadia asked, fiddling with the strap on her carbine.

“Yeah,” Lanius stopped her, bent down, and tightened the strap firmly over her shoulder, “just, family business. Personal taste, and what not. ‘How the man takes his coffee.’ Nothing you need to worry about.”

Several bluejays chirped in the breeze.

“What about Isabella?”

Squirrels darted from tree to tree. 

“She’ll be gone by the time we get back. I’m sure of it.”

A nearby nervous fawn cowered behind the long grass.

“I don't like it when she yells at you.”

Leaves rustled across their path.

“Neither do I, little sister.” He ruffled her hair. “Neither do I.” 

A small, wooden wharf by the neighboring pond provided the perfect spot to set up camp. From an adjoining shack, Lanius removed two lawn chairs and a Lazy Blue cooler. He sat down, cracked a coke, and unfolded a vintage Playboy someone had just left lying around. 

“Letting the mountain lions come to us?”

“Not quite. Gotta wait for this here fog to pass. Can't hunt ‘em blind. That's how your Aunt Gemma blew off three of Cousin D’Amico’s good smithin’ fingers. Pop a squat. Have a coke. Swat anything that moves.”

Nadia rested her carbine on the plastic white chair. With both hands placed firmly in her pockets, Willy Rey led her straight from the path. 

She heard Lanius arguing with their father late some nights. Old man wanted Jack back around the house. Seemed to smolder when he was told the probability of that happening. Didn’t take kindly to being told he’d have a better time melting the polar icecaps with a hairdryer and two broken matches. 

Vinny had been passing through with greater frequency. Didn’t seem to make the Town happy, but it did put a smile on Lanius’s face every time that beat-up clunker came barreling down the drive. She’d never been to DisneyLand before, but she had been promised a trip. Even though it did break down on the first day and according to Vinny was sitting on a massive stockpile of Nazi memorabilia.  

Had an associate over after school one afternoon. Climbed up onto the roof with her. Liked the way air flowed through her hair. Liked the way her cheeks lit up like a scarlet fireworks display when she laughed. Liked the way her chapstick tasted like fresh, country watermelons. 

Did a little research with Wilhelm earlier that morning. Went looking though her fathers boxes of paperwork. Wasn’t supposed to. Couldn’t worry Lanius. Had to be a covert operation. She’d heard him talking with some cousins down in New Mexico. Berlin Engineering was working on something he thought they’d like. Called it a Panzerhund. 

Nadia found herself a few mile markers off Nowhere. Then she heard an automated growl. A mountain lion slinked out of the bushes. Silver skin; static television screens for eyes; liquid mercury foaming at it’s mouth; antennas jammed down its ears.

When you’re down in the mouth, and life’s a pain/weatherman says ‘heavy rain’/A little boost is all you need/Average Joe to Hercules/A Stronger Arm, A Sharper Brain, That’s Why the Future is-”

The mountain lion's head exploded into a shower of circuits and copper wiring. 

Lanius slipped the hand cannon's shell casing into his back pocket, and lifted Nadia in his arms up off the dirt. A speck of cranberry juice lined her jeans.

“You found me.” She wrapped her arms around his neck.

“I always will.”

He carried her all the way back to the estate. 

Isabella was biting her nails with anticipation in the doorway. “Oh my god!, babe!, is she alright?”

Lanius pushed past her. “You ever heard of the George Washington bridge, Bella?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Would you kindly go jump off it.”

 

Nadia: Sixteen Years Old

Arcade Day. 

Walked into town with Nadia. Didn’t veer from the path once. Eyes barely darted an inch. Wilhelm strolled ahead. Didn’t even keep him on a leash anymore. Got too big for them. Felt safer without one. 

She had her arm around Lanius the whole way. Some people glared. Murmured that it was weird. Couldn’t quite discern which part. There were a few more than several. 

The Victoriano’s, as far as they were concerned, suffered from a debilitating, omnipotent plague. 

Department store across the street from the Arcade was closing. Had a fire sale going on. 

Clouds above were stained with charcoal. Sewers below were oddly quiet. Nothing but rats on paper boats singing the blues. 

Ms. Pac-Man called to Lanius. He removed a sleeve of quarters from his pocket and put one in. Wilhelm watched intently from a short distance away. Mesmerized. Distracted.

Couldn't hear that well at first. Sounded to him like just another game. 

Burned a dollar seventy five before he heard the word ‘dyke’ get shot through one ear and pass out the other. 

Lanius rolled his quarters back up and placed them in his front pocket. He stepped out of the arcade and across the street. Wilhelm followed. 

Entered the department store. Walked down a row of amateur construction equipment. Hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, hacksaws, bucket o’ nails. Past all that was the employee bathroom. Sink had a busted pipe. Lanius went inside and ripped it off the wall. 

Crossed the street again. Enraged a man in a white Cadillac.

Heard Nadia relay that she knew one of her homies was a bitch with some feminine ways, and that he had four lips and bled for seven days. 

Remembered what Vinny had told him as he raised his pipe. Probably made out of lead. ‘Beat ‘em till they stutter’.

 

Lanius was sitting on the living room couch. It was the most comfortable piece of furniture in the entire house. 

Vinny’s hearse was parked outside. Could hear the two of them from the kitchen.

“Are you fucking happy now?, you nepotistic asshole?”

“Calm down ‘fore you pop a vessel. Got a guy on the way that’ll patch him up right quick. You should be proud of him. Protected his sister. Like every proper man-”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP! You know what no one gives a shit about Vinny? What a goddam proper, eighteenth century old man has to fucking say! Chivalry just isn't a thing anymore. Okay? There ain't nothing you can do to change that.”

“Got nothing to do with chivalry. All to do with common courtesy. Respectable sympathy. Adequate, presentable taste.”

“So… please, allow me a goddamn moment, to get this straight…”

Your house. Take all the time you require.”

“You decided, that, the most courteous and sympathetic thing to do when his sister gets called a fag-”

“Dyke.”

“Who the fuck cares. You think that the best thing for him to do in that situation is to beat the guy who said it to death with a blunt instrument typically used in sewage displacement?”

Half to death, I checked.”

“Got a cruiser coming up in thirty minutes. Why you think that is?”

“I’ll handle it. Doc’ll be done long before then.”

“You wanna have a learning experience with him? Why don't you tell him the truth?”

“Such as?”

“That as long as his little sister lives, the way she is, that’s what people are going to call her. Pipe’ll break long before you reach all of ‘em. So then what? Might as well try an’ put a dent in the dam if wastin’ time is what he’s after. Or is rationality not on your list  of nouns?”

Nadia poured from a bottle of Beefeater Gin. One of the Queen’s regal, red soldiers sported a hardy halberd. “So…” She pressed a cloth to the side of Lanius’s head. Had a switchblade pulled on him. Wound up lodged in some guy’s, girlfriend’s, neck. “… Guess you know.”

“Ain't exactly done a sound job of hiding it.” Lanius winced trying to smirk. “What a fucking waste of good gin.”

Nadia gleefully beamed. “Mind your French big brother.” Wilhelm climbed up on the couch and rested his head in Lanius’s lap. “Love me?”

“Other than the fact that I’m liable to be arrested in thirty minutes, yeah, still love you… I think I just killed someone. Maybe two. Love me?”

She started giggling uncontrollably. “Yeah… ‘Bundy Esque’…

A van door slammed shut outside. Through the front door came a man with slick grey hair in a high school chemists lab coat. “Yep,” he addressed the other party on the opposite end of his telephone exchange, “I see that sir, but the thing you have to understand is, when I gave you that liver six hours ago, it was working right as rain. So what, in the Jaysus Almighty fuck!, happened?!” Scribbled onto a ‘Hello my name is’ stamp was Dr. Zed, MD, MS, PhD, BA, CIA. “Sir!, sir don't you dare put me the fuck on hold- sir! I WILL CUT YOU INTO A MILLION BARELY UNRECOGNIZABLE PIECES… sir? Well I’ll be damned. Cocksucker actually hung up on me.” The good doctor looked genuinely disheartened. Then he looked over at Lanius. “Whatchu need?” 

Nadia closed the bottle of gin. “Where’s Ned?”

“Oh, Ned. Ned’s dead baby. Ned’s really fucking dead. I ain't ever seen someone so dead in my entire professional life. But when you get shot you’ll be happy I’m here. Now,” Dr. Zed unsheathed a stethoscope and pressed it to Lanius’s chest, “can I interest you in sellin’ a few a these here… whatchu call ‘em… ‘vital’ organs?”

Lanius and Nadia exchanged quizzical looks. “Not now, Doc. Am I gonna need stitches?”

“Stitches? He-he-where’d you hear some bullshit like that? Ned? Ned didn't actually have a medical license, you know.”

Dr. Zed took a large bandaid from his pocket and slapped it on Lanius’s head. There were red balloons plastered all over it. “See: Do No Harm. Internalized and practiced. Does your body ‘bout as well as a placebo. Now, what if I told you the organs would be going towards a good cause?” 

“Maybe later, Doc.”

“Alright, alright, I can do later. What you say around five o’ clock? Ah, you know what, I got a meetin’ at four, might run late. Here’s my card, call me when your ready.”

Dr. Zed dropped his card in Lanius’s hand and left. 

“What’s it say?” Nadia asked. 

“Says: Not the doctor you need, but the doctor you deserve. Primary and urgent health professionalism. Some scribbled out N’s replaced with Z’s. Drop any donated organs in the pneumo.” Lanius tossed the card to the side.

Nadia gave him a kiss on the forehead. “I love you big brother.” Red and blue lights breached the windows. “What’ve they got out there?”

“Gold,” Lanius snickered, “Nazi gold.”

 

Nadia: Seventeen Years Old

She loved the way Sara twirled her hair. Long; nearly came down to her elbows. Could wrap herself in it and hibernate all winter. Wavy; deep enough for her to drown in. Maybe too deep. Hard to tell. Dark brown; surprisingly acquired taste. Had big, round, brown eyes. They were sad when she found them. Hopelessly incapable of finding north. Nothing but sunshine now, reflected off the little stud in her nose. Double rainbow and everything. Crescent moon tattooed over her heart. She loved the little ripples that shot up her finger tracing over it. Drunk on watermelons. First for the history books. 

“What are you doing Nadia?” 

“Exploring,” she said, cupping Sara’s breast and wrapping her mouth around it.

Lanius had been out all night. Came back with purple lipstick all over his eyes. Sounded like he’d been to church. Had a bit too much wine from the communal chalice. Stumbling about the house mumbling to himself. ‘Amazing’. She must have been. 

Nadia led a trail of kisses up Sara’s neck, “looking for buried treasure,” before sticking her tongue down the latter’s ear.

“Stop!, stop-Nadia!” She pushed her off and onto a pile of Pink Cherry blossoms. “I hate it when you do that.” Her cheeks were flush. A squadron of crimson fireflies. 

“That’s a-bingo.” She kissed the tip of Sara’s nose. “Is that the expression?”

“No,” she cradled Nadia’s head in her arms, “no it’s not. What is your brother teaching you up in that big, fancy estate of yours? Hm?”

Big brother. And, you know, just the usual, things, I guess. Don’t eat with your hands. Don’t pee in the shower when someone else is already in there. Don’t threaten to break the receptionist's arm at the blood bank. Don’t taunt beat cops about incestuous relations they may or may not be having with their great Aunt Helga. And don't moon the people in the retirement home. Apparently you can get in a lot of trouble for doing that in some countries. Maybe this one. Can’t take any chances.”

Sara was practically in tears. “You're horrible.”

“Am I? Estate’s not as big as you might think. Not on the inside anyway. Can’t help but run into people. Even when you think they’re gone, open a door and there they are. Fucking cockroach infestation. Pardon my French.”

Hey,” Sara held her cheek, pressing their lips together, “did I say something?”

Nadia closed her eyes. Found herself headed west on a rather unpleasant train of thought. The screaming became unbearable. “You didn't do a goddamn thing.” She wiped the tears from her eyes. “Lanius, I love my brother, but growing up, he was always, what my Uncle Vinny coined, a ‘catch’. Got paraded around like he was the fucking best in show. Pardon my French. I never really minded. He didn't seem to care. But there was this one, though. Spit venom out of her twat. Smooth and ripe on the outside, wrinkled and rotten on the inside. Didn’t treat him well. Didn’t try an’ understand him. Get to know him. I hated her. And she hated me. No matter how many times she stormed out that front door, with her gaudy, black mascara runnin’ down her cheeks, in one of her pitiful waterworks displays, next week I’d see her. Crawling back. Down on all fours like a mule, begging to be let in. She’d sit on the stoop for hours. Moaning. Saying how sorry she was; how much better it would be this time; all the things she’d do for him. I know why he opened the door for her. Hard to blame him. 

We had a family function, few months back. Had uncles and aunts and cousins coming in from places I had never heard of, never been too, and probably never will. Got through half the night thinking she wouldn't show up. In hindsight, that was stupid. She came. Just like everyone knew she would. Isabella always came. With no respect for the dead. You should have seen it. The way my family drooled over her. God could have never sculpted a more voluptuous idol if he’d tried, in their eyes, at least. She grabbed Lanius by the arm, with her long red nails digging into his skin, and introduced herself to a pit of people she already knew, as the soon to be ‘Mrs. Victoriano’. I was one of the only people that found the notion rather funny. It was something about the way she looked at me, as I cackled like the maddest of men. She actually believed it.

Rest of what happened didn't make much sense at first. Found myself on the floor. Shards of glass embedded in the tips of my fingers. Champagne all over the floor. Wilhelm, my shining German soldier, had ‘Bella’s wrist in his mouth. Given a few more seconds he might’ve tore her whole arm off.”

Nadia buried herself in the crook of Sara’s neck. Head first out the emergency exit. 

Commotion had gotten everyone all stirred up. Firearms on sight. Surprised it hadn’t happened sooner. For what is was worth, she knew deep within the inner recesses of her heart, that Christopher hadn't been aiming the gun at Wilhelm. Just the way it happened.

“It’s all just a game, isn't it?” She asked the twin rainbows. “Some twisted, fucked up game?” 

Sara kissed her. “I’m afraid it is. אני אוהב אותך.”

Her father had thrown Isabella out of the house that night. Yelled at her. Said if she ever came back he’d stuff her inside a shipping container and send her to some Arabian prince overseas. First time he ever made her want to smile. 

“Ich liebe dich auch.” 

Nadia’s hand went to remove Sara’s belt. Wound up throwing it half way down the hill. Undid the zipper on her jeans. Felt the wet patch in her underwear. Slipped her fingers behind it. Dipped inside. Met at the gates with ecstasy.

Nadia rested her lips against Sara’s ear. Nipped at the lobe. Didn’t feel compelled to control herself. Just wanted to feel something. Couldn’t stand the silence anymore. Whispered: “Sing to me.” 

 

Nadia: Eighteen Years Old

Blitzmensch. From Über Man to Über Hero. 

The ideal Aryan. Former olympic athlete Dieter Goldblitzer was struck by lightning on a Trans-Atlantic zeppelin flight, and with the power of electricity now coursing through his veins, the only sane thing to do was become Blitzmensch. 

Super speed. Super strength. Super flight. Super intelligence. With these powers combined, Blitzmensch would stop at nothing in his quest for truth, justice, and an end to the foul tyranny of capitalistic democracies. 

Alongside his trusty Kampfhund, there was Fräulein Fox: sidekick and occasional love interest.

Together they would take on an unrivaled assortment of vile and villainous rogues such as: Uncle Sam; The Spade Brigade; The Puritan Pilgrim; The Brute Runner; Ghostly Frontiersman with cows for heads; Mad Scientists from a top secret network of underground bunkers labeled Big Mountain; and the Philadelphia state boxing champion Liberty Bell. 

None, however, could quite match the sadistic machinations of the Illegal Eagle, arch-nemesis of Blitzmensch. In the latest of thirty planned issues, he had concocted a dastardly plot to blow up a monorail filled with lovable German school children. 

How would our heroes save the day? Nadia was intent on finding out. Curled up under her bed with a bowl of black licorice and a flashlight. 

She’d routinely gone down to the comic book shop for the past fourteen weeks. Acquired each issue and read it in about the same manner. Went to bed without dinner. Consumed a giraffe’s weight in sugar. Woke up at about three in the morning with artificially flavored bears ready to shred every facet of her stomach apart.  

Lanius was different. Couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her brother smile like that. Ears would perk up whenever he heard the ruffle of wings overhead. Clothes would come back with long hairs draped over them, smelling of sweet perfume. Eyes were stained with a bright, lingering, purple hue. Head seemed detached; packed its bags and taken up residency in a city above the clouds. Population: two. Him and Her. Nadia had never been granted a proper introduction. Assumed she would, when the time was right. Had new friends too. Drove by the estate a few times. Odd fellows. Wore masks. Called him ‘Legate’. 

Neither of them had been to Uncle Vinny’s funeral. Lanius couldn’t handle it. Seemed denial had wormed it's way into his cerebral cortex. No plans of leaving any time soon. Their father had went. Although to him it seemed more like an obligation. One final, vindictive review was due, this time without the rebuttal. Rest of the family, bar two, sent flowers, their condolences, and half-hearted reasons as to why they were stranded in the middle of the Gulf, surrounded by piranhas, and subsequently wouldn't be able to make it. Aunt Jamie managed to stop by on her way up to Maine. Said she knew Vinny from way back when he was regional district manager of waste cooperation. Tried to give Lanius a cross. He refused, politely. Uncle Christopher didn't even leave his taxi. Just slipped Lanius a business card, told him this would be his last visit, and that he was moving to Venice. 

When Nadia had went to pay her respects, there was a platinum limousine parked outside the cemetery. A woman was kneeling in front of Vinny’s tombstone. Looked like Marylin Monroe. Looked like she was crying. 

Their father hadn't come home yet. Probably wouldn't be home till ten. He’d taken to drinking himself to death. Said he had the money for it, so ‘why not’. 

Lanius sat at the opposite end of her room. Eating scrambled eggs with a fork. She had something to tell him, but for the life of her, couldn't remember what. 

The front door slammed shut. “Well,” Lanius got up and sat down on the edge of her bed, fork in hand, “shit.” 

“It’s time!” Their father yelled, lugging himself up the stairwell. “It’s… It’s time!, you understand me?! It’s time, for your sister!, to take, her GODDAMN MEDICINE!” 

He kicked in the door to her bedroom. Lanius cracked his neck. “How you doin’ tonight pop?”

“Just swell, bucko, just swell. Where is she?”

“Is tonight the night?”

“What you say?”

“You gonna finally make me do it?”

“He-he-he, boy, I hope your not fixin’ to scare me. I raised you. Don't scare me none. What? You… honestly… think, just cause that… that wasteful sloth, took you on a… on a fucking train ride, that… that you got the biggest prick in the house now? That it? Lanius, fuck off. Do me that one… small favor. Do you… you know why your mother left? You were such a goddamn disappointment… for not goin’ with her… stayed behind… fuck’d if I know why.” 

“To protect MY little sister, from you.” 

“Well, that’s might dandy of you, but lemme tell you somethin’… ain’t nobody, on this entire fucking world, cares.” 

It was hard to tell who lunged first. It seemed to have been their father, and in response Lanius jammed the fork into his shoulder. 

Managed to lob a few vases down range before he could pry the fork loose. 

They lunged again. Their father was old, and gray, but still managed to get Lanius in a headlock and slam his head into the doorway.

As father and son staggered out into the hallway, Nadia crawled out from under her bed just in time to see Lanius tackle the patriarch over the balcony overlooking the main foyer. 

Lanius could feel the blood running down the side of his head. Went to pick up a piece of the wooden railing, but the old man was quicker, and walloped him upside the head. 

Lanius couldn't quite make out what he saw next. Could’ve been a nine foot tall skeleton with snakes for fingers and spiders in his hair. Could’ve been his big brother. 

Whichever, picked up a piece of jagged wood and plunged it into the estate owners shoulder, turned him around, pulled the fork out and jammed it through his eye, and snapped his neck. 

Lanius shakily got to his feet. “Jack… when’d you get in?”

 

Nadia: Twenty Six Years Old

Mr. Wednesday and Father Loutermilch had just about exhausted every card they could ever squeeze up their sleeve. Started out playing checkers, but found it was hard to cheat without any spray paint to apply to all the hastily scavenged bottle caps. So, for five straight hours, they’d been playing five card hold ‘em. Nadia could barely begin to comprehend the battlefield on which they’d amassed their armies. Alongside the six audaciously green court jesters were ten kings. In Wednesday’s hand resided Cyrus, Leopold, Peter, Philip, and Solomon. Loutermilch had taken the rest, Edward, Louis, Marcus, Charles, and Claudius, as Wednesday put it: ‘hostage’. 

Lodged up in a Delray Hollow motel suite with no air conditioning and lukewarm running water, Nadia would have considered playing a hand, but Ramses had been stuck to the palm of her left hand for as long as she could feasibly conjure without subsidizing a nice, long blink. 

“Two for one, here we go, lemme tell you,” Mr. Wednesday started, raising two strips of strawberry infused gum, “me and an associate of mine were out in Denver some time back and in questionable need for a spot of cash. Storm was on it's way and we were caught in a bit of a bind. Back window of the car was shot out and had been leaking petroleum for roughly three quarters of a mile. Holed up in the attic of some derelict townhouse, I catch, out of the corner of my eye, a bushy white tail lounging lazily on the sofa. ‘So,’ I said to my associate, ‘what a sudden spur of serendipity this is m’boy, quick, we must capture the adolescent creature and stow her in the finest bag we’ve procured in the truck posthaste!’ There was a shelter just a few short steps into town, and upon entering I began to woefully proclaim: ‘Oh poor Jacqueline! Oh, my dear where have thou gone?! All alone out there on these dark and gelid streets! Oh…’ I collapsed upon my saber, ‘… my heart can barely contain the thought!’ It was then that the chap behind the counter, couldn’t have been more than twenty, came over to me and asked if I’d lost a child. ‘No’, I feigned a sickening blow, ‘so much worse. My prized, golden, white husky has fled my field of vision. Alas, she’s just a wee pup. Can’t get on without me. Not with that dastardly storm on it’s way. Oh, I can’t even begin to tell you the good fortune I would bestow upon whomever should find her. Please, sir,’ I latched onto his collar sharply, ‘I beseech you sire, should you come across my Jacqueline, call me at once.’ I left him with my card and vacated the premises. Ten minutes later my associate walked in carrying a bag with a bushy white tail sticking out of it. ‘Picked this one up off the street I did, couldn’t just let her freeze.’ The poor boys eyes must have been positively gleaming at the sight. ‘Good sir,’ he went, ‘might I take her off your hands?’ My associate pondered. ‘I’m not sure. Grown rather fond of her.’ ‘Please,’ the boy emptied the register, and in finding it lacking, withdrew from his own pockets, ‘here’s five hundred dollars. Allow me to relieve you of your charge.’ My associate smiled dutifully. ‘As you like it,’ he said, taking the money and returning to me. For you see, in the bag, was a common house cat. Nothing special or obtuse about her. Might not have even been a her! I mean,” Wednesday cracked up at the thought, “you just can’t get candy that good anymore!” 

Father Loutermilch joined in on the musing. “Certainly not, no. Although, as my offer still stands…”

“Old boy, I just don’t have it in me anymore to do what you do.”

“Nonsense. Still as sprite as ever. Almost talked me into getting a few felines myself, for a minute there.” 

“All in good fun, though.”

“Look…” Loutermilch peered under the table and between the floorboards, “can I tell you something, in complete honesty… it’s all a joke. Complete and utter bullshit, but it pays, so, so good. Really does, like you’ve never seen before. Owe yourself to give it a try, at least once. Quite good fun to be had.”

“Oh, you did always know how to get me. Fucker. Alright, maybe I will. After, that is, I get you on this hand.”

Nadia rested her forehead on the edge of the table.

“I do hope we aren’t boring you too much, m’dear.” Mr. Wednesday checked. “Keep your ears attentive enough and you just might learn a thing, or two.” 

The stench of bourbon pounded on the door to their room. 

“Expecting anyone, m’dear?”

Nadia lifted her head up and reached for the knife stashed away in her boot. “Not quite. Head out the back.”

“Do you want me to phone-”

Another barrage nearly tore the door from it’s hinges. “LITTLE PIG, LITTLE PIG, LET ME IN!” 

“No,” Nadia scratched the back of her head, “I can handle this.” 

Mr. Wednesday and Father Loutermilch crept out the back of the suite just as Mr. Road kicked the door down. “Straw, Wood, and Brick, got on the seven o’ seven out of town,” he wiped the liquor form his chin, “where the fuck are they?”

“You’re not supposed to be here. Upper Management wants ‘em complacent.”

“And I, would much rather, see ‘em castrated.” 

Mr. Road threw a mad slew of punches, none of which hit their desired target, and in his fury, he managed to trip over his shoelaces, and leave his hand exposed for Nadia to take hold and surgically remove his left ring finger. 

“Aw, Side-street,” she dangled his severed finger like car keys, “now we’ll never be married. Such a shame, too. The Wild Card ain’t exactly known for making good on his promises.”

Mr. Road picked himself up off the floor. “YOU LITTLE WHORE!”

“Fresh out of asphalt, what’s it gonna be?”

He removed his tie and wrapped it around his hand. “I don’t need ten fingers for you, just one.”

“Not tonight. Found someone that’ll actually fight back, this time.”

“Ya got moxie, dyke, I like that.”

Mr. Road charged toward her, knocking her back into the wall, and cracking her head on the glass picture frame hung on it. Nadia plunged her knife into his back, sending him staggering to the other side of the room.

“I’m very surprised, little one.” He admired the blood that now stained his suit. “Got a good education on your shoulders. Brass balls, too. I half expected the entire fucking Roman army to be here by now. What’s wrong? Were they supposed to be? Get a little sidetracked? Big Brother too busy getting his dick wet? Don’t worry, I’ve every intention of finding out.”

Dodging her initial thrust, Mr. Road ripped one of the floorboards up and attacked Nadia’s knees, sending her tumbling to the floor. He went to bring the board down on top of her, but she was able to spin around and sweep him off his feet, and stick her knife into his ankle after he came crashing down.

“OH!, he’s in deep now, that one.” He raised himself up with a ghoulish grin. “Done some nasty things, yes he has. Can’t sacrifice the rook, or won’t? Make up your mind, and make it snappy.” 

Nadia took a swing with her knife, but Mr. Road caught her arm, and pulled out a .38 snub from his shoulder pocket and slammed it into her head. 

“Don’t you worry child,” he placed the barrel under her chin, “this won’t hurt one bit.”

 

Nadia couldn’t recall how long she lay there. Or what it felt like. She didn’t see a white light. She didn’t hear a voice from anyone or anything. All she could remember was static. Then the back door to the suite opened, and she saw what had to be the closest damn thing. Draped in navy blue robes, and a white porcelain face, he had found her. Just like she always knew he would. 

 

Lanius: Thirty Seven Years Old

Legate Lanius had never been one for moving mountains. Found it to be more work than it was worth. Built roads to go around. Tunnels to go through. Brought shovels to dig under. Flew planes to go over. He’d always considered himself an air traffic controller. At the very least in another life. Where things happened for a reason that made sense. 

But, he supposed, were push to come to literal shove, mountains would move one way or the other. If the angel breathing against the side of his head had anything to say about it. They’d call him crazy, and he would likely agree. Sound diagnosis, he’d say. 

Lanius had never been particularly fond of fire, either. Seemed to cause more trouble than it was worth. Deforestation came in a wide, wild variety bag. Didn’t see the need to limit ones options. Perhaps in a continuum across the gap in the platforms he currently found himself standing on, he could have been a fireman.

However, sufficient training or not, if the angel wiggling her purple, cotton toes required him to go through fire, not a second of hesitation would go by. They’d declare him insane, slap a straightjacket right on him, and he would find it rather quaint. Fits perfectly, you see, is what he’d tell them. 

There came a strong, gust of wind at their vista into the Mojave. She moved him, just like that, with a single crack of her lips. He’d handle the difficult first. The impossible later on. 

The time on the clock read forty twenty two. Half of him wondered where Victor was. Half of him thought it better not to dwell. They compromised. Victor always seemed to be teetering on the edge of tearing his own face off. Yet, that eventuality never bothered him. Lanius took it all with a pinch of salt. A sight like that would surely garner a few pictures. 

Dawn was a sure thing, by that hour. Lanius let the fear wash over him. He couldn't help but wonder if today was the day. The day Vulpes finally gave in to all the little voices gnawing away at the chainlink barrier to the inner recesses of her mind. The day Don Gustavo finally rode down in the elevator to the Lucky 38 lobby and was gunned down by Mongolians with the face of Richard Nixon. The day winter descended upon the Mojave and the Four Horsemen rode across the frozen sand on horseback, with calvary swords in one hand and the heads of dead clowns in the other. He never knew, so he prepared for it all. 

He hadn’t even realized the phone was ringing until Grace went fumbling for it and knocked over a lamp. “Never liked it anyway,” she mumbled, “hello?”

After a few tired ‘yes’s’ and nods, Lanius was handed the phone.

“Who is it?” He asked.

“Jack, puppy.” Grace buried herself in between the pillows.

Lanius put the phone to his ear, and waited several seconds for the dizziness to pass. “Somebody dead?”

Bonsoir, little brother, not yet. Did I wake you?”

“No rest for the wicked, right?”

“Right. Nobody really sleeps anymore.”

“Where do you need me?”

“Hospital. Fifth floor. Ward C. It’s… Nadia, she wants you. She needs you.” 

 

Nadia: Twenty Seven Years Old

“Because,” Nadia started fidgeting with her fingers, “I don't want him to worry.”

“But fuck me, right?” Jack said snidely, yet gently. 

“You didn't let me finish. He’s not as… acclimatized, to this, as you are. Biggest brother.” 

He snickered. “We’re fucked.”

Nadia punched him in the arm. “Asshole. It’s not supposed to be fucking funny.”

“No,” Jack sighed, “I suppose not.” He started shaking his head. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

“I wanted everything to just,” she paused as tears began to well up behind her eyes, “stop, for a little while. So I could sleep.”

Jack wiped her tears away. “Could hit you. Sleep soundly.”

Nadia smiled. “I’d have to hit you back. Might not get up.”

He ran his hand over her forehead. “Then maybe I should call him. ‘Case we both need help getting up.”

“NO. I don't want him to see me like this.”

“Like what?”

“Fuck you… tell me a story.” 

“Lanius was always a better storyteller.”

“You weren't there when Vinny got me Wilhelm, were you? I think you met him once, though, do you remember?”

“Lanius remembers.”

Nadia sat still for a beat. “He’s already on his way, isn't he?”

Jack cocked his thumb back towards the elevator just as it opened up. “Another day, another dollar,” he kissed her forehead, “I love you.”

Lanius and Jack passed each other in the hall. An outgoing pat on the back was exchanged, alongside a curt, knowing nod. The eldest Victoriano proceeded to enter the fifth floor stairwell, rip the railing straight out of it’s concrete holding, and furiously strike a nearby wall with no sense of purpose or direction. 

Lanius didn't know what to think, having opened the door to Nadia’s room, he merely stood still, his entire vernacular having taken an abrupt holiday. He was hesitant to scratch his neck; consumed with the fear that the maggots trying to gnaw their way to the surface might spill out onto the floor and manifest into an even bigger mess. He’d never before been inclined to believe that objects continued to exist even when he could not carefully and meticulously watch over them. 

Nadia held out her arms. “Hey, Lanius,” and started crying.

Hey,” he scooped her up in his arms.

“You found me.” She sobbed.

“I always will, little sister.” It’d been so long, he forgot what it felt like. 

Nadia took hold of Lanius’s head with both hands. “My, how you’ve changed.” She traced the little scars littered across his face. “What have they done to you?”

“It’s nothing… just, a, uh, cut myself shaving.”

“Bullshit! Who did this to you?”

“Nobody you’d know…”

“I don’t fucking care! I’m not just gonna let someone hurt you!”

“That's exactly what you're going to do. Because I’m not the one in the hospital.”

“Well maybe you should be.”

Lanius took note of the perfect circle under her chin. “Met a girl in Novac who had that exact same scar.”

“It’s very in right now.”

“Nadia…”

“STOP.” She lay back down on her bed. “Just, stop, please. No good will come of it. For either of us.” She motioned to the space bedside her. “Talk to me. That’s all I want.”

Lanius obliged her. “Where’s Sara?”

“Probably making another pie. She does that when she’s nervous. Tends to put in more sugar, too.”

“How much longer you plannin’ on making all of us wait?”

“Oh, not you too!”

“Doesn't have to be big enough to bend the bone, but, deep down, you gotta want other people to at the very least consider nicking it.” 

“How about this: I’ll get mine, when you get yours.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“Where you gonna find purple diamonds, big brother?” 

“I have no goddamn idea. Suppose I’ll try the bottom of a well first, and if that shit doesn't pan out, then, I might give the topmost branch of a very large tree a go.”

Nadia laughed into his shoulder. “Nobody has wells anymore.”

“Of course they do. You’re just not looking in the right places.”

“What… what about the Strip? Still got power?”

“No, we’re running all the microwaves on toasters and all the ovens on desk fans. Quite an ingenious setup too, I might add, it’s not like anybody really eats toast anymore.”

Nadia’s face was red. “Why didn't you go a little bit farther west? Imagine what you could have done.”

“Tinseltown was Leo’s thing. He had the eye for it. I didn’t. Aunt Jamie knew what she was doing. I hear he’s quite the high roller now. Our little brother.”

“You ever visit?”

“Last time I tried some guy said to me: ‘I’m so terribly sorry, Mr. Victoriano, but Mr. Victoriano will not be able to see you at this juncture.’ His kid’s fixing to cure cancer though. Best we get in on that now, is all I’m saying.” 

The room fell quiet as several doctors wheeled a new patient in down the hall.

“Lanius?”

“Yep?”

“I'm sorry about Uncle Vinny.”

“Me too, kiddo. You want me to stay a while longer?”

“You got a life now, big brother. I’m grown. Can’t have you go playing mother hen on me now. I’ll… I’ll be alright. You worrying will only make it- me, worse. Promise me, Lanius, promise you won't worry.” 

“Don't matter how old you get,” he got up from the bed and placed a kiss on her cheek, “can’t ever make that promise.”

Nadia swallowed hardly. “Still love me?”

“Yeah, I still love you.”

Nadia wrapped her arms around Lanius one last time. “Be brave big brother. For both of us.”

Leaving her room, he made his way back toward the elevator.

A man in the nicest, neatest, blackest suit Lanius had even seen stepped out. The World was pinned on his shoulder.

They traded places on the elevator.

The Spook with the aroma of the King of America turned, and with one look at Lanius, mouthed silently: Fuck.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Eh, pardon me again, Doc, but, uh, just what did you mean by that crack about the Earth being gone?” - Bugs Bunny  

“Oh, I’m going to blow it up; it obstructs my view of Venus.” - Marvin the Martian

 

“At midnight, all the agents and superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” - Bob Dylan

 

Approximately Six Years Before Lanius’ sit-down with Mr. Nancy

 

Seven men and one woman dressed in yellow suits sit around a table at Flapjack’s Marvelous Emporium of Misadventures: an establishment specializing in panned cakes. The time is four twenty two in the morning. The suits are, as follows: Buck ‘Bamby’ Hughes, Jacob ‘Legion’ Klomes, Victor ‘The Bear Prince’ Khoslov, Caesar ‘Centurian’ Cario, Edgar ‘Mr. Versace’ Castro, Teddy ‘The Englishmen’ Liu, Lou ‘The Celebrity’ Marcano, and big boss Megan ‘Beltway’ Volker. Most are finished eating and are enjoying complementary coffee refills and light conversation. Caesar looks something up on his phone. Jacob is performing an in-depth and methodical dissection of the character Debra Morgan, as portrayed by Jennifer Carpenter, on the showtime series Dexter. 

“Which isn't to say Jennifer Carpenter half-assed her performance, because she didn’t. When Deb cried you cried. And to have her act against Michael C. Hall, who by the way was married to her for three years, is nothing short of professional. But to have another dick thrown in her face season after season deteriorated the strong, independent female detective persona the show-runners were obviously trying to build up,” said Jacob.

“But you have to admit she needed to be in some kind of a relationship with Lundy in order for his death to truly mean anything,” said Edgar.

“Whoa… whoa… time the fuck out. She did have a relationship with Lundy, mentor and mentee. There was no reason to all of a sudden-BAM!, have them start fucking. And Lundy’s death would have been, and still fucking is, retarded. A trained, veteran F.B.I. agent get’s gunned down by some four foot three hobbit that could barely fit in his shoe? Bull-Fucking-Shit,” said Jacob.

“Peter… what's his last fucking name? Peter… fuck… Peter… Peter… Jesus fuck…” said Caesar, scrolling on his phone.

“And then ya got fucking Quinn! Where the holy mother of fuck did that come from? Rita get’s got and the most logical course of action for her sister-in-law to take is fuck in her kitchen? He was tryin’ to pin the whole goddamn Cuban Missile Crisis on Dex! And then after it’s all said and done you don't fucking fillet that prick? What kind of serial killer does that? What would Ted Bundy do?,” said Jacob.

“What was the name ‘a his bird?,” said Lou.

“Julie Benz. And you know, after season one I was fucking done with her too. There was at least some depth to her character then, all post-traumatized and shit, giving free, sexy Lara Croft blowjobs, but then all that get’s flushed down the toilet when she morphs into bitch, subcategory G 6-8: jealous girlfriend, pregnant wife, pain in the ass Carmela Soprano type. I was surprised that she died, but I wouldn't color myself particularly upset about it,” said Teddy.

“You could tell she had a tight ass,” said Victor.

“You ever catch her on Buffy? She was in a handful of episodes, and then a bunch more in the spinoff. Won’t regard it as better than the original, but it was alright. And she did have the tightest ass. All the lube in the world couldn't get my thumb in there,” said Edgar. 

“Fuck Buffy, alright. I’m sick and goddamn tired of vampires, zombies, and Sarah fucking Michelle fucking Geller. I’m trying to elucidate a viewpoint here, okay, I’m losing sight of the fucking train. Perk your fucking ears up, might learn something,” said Jacob.

“Peter Weller!, that’s the cocksuckers name,” said Caesar. 

“Fuck are you on about?,” said Megan.

“Peter Weller. From season five? Him, Jimmy Smits, and one other guy were all in Dexter and Sons of Anarchy together,” said Caesar.

“God. Damn. It. Where was I?,” said Jacob.

“Well I did hear mention of ol’ Julie’s tight, beautiful arse, but you were still goin’ on about Ms. Never Shows Her Tits getting dicks thrown at her,” said Buck.

“Right, shut up, and then you get that spic, whatever the fuck his name is, in season three. Rudy in season one, and he was good, probably the only one, but that’s more of a testament to Carmargo’s acting than anything else,” said Jacob.

“I thought he was coming back in, what was it? Season seven?,” said Lou.

“Season six. And so did I. Wouldn't have minded him and James going at it in the Octagon. Maybe with ‘No Love’ and Dillashaw as co-main. Dom Cruz could pull double duty moderating and jerking off Joe and DC under the table,” said Megan.

“Point taken, but by that juncture they’d just run out of compelling villains. If Collin Hanks is the best you can fucking do then put the fucker out of it’s misery. Don’t drag it out two more goddamn seasons, never give us a proper manhunt or set up any real stakes, and then, just to twist the knife in a little more, drop Hannah fucking Mckay in the pot,” said Jacob.

“Was it the asian guy? Fella from Lost? Jin?,” said Caesar.

“And after all that, over a hundred hours of watching Michael C. Hall nick himself shaving and eat raw breakfast meat, she just fucking holy ghost’s herself into goddamn oblivion! Complications in surgery? Are you shitting me? I thought Furio’s balls dropping off was sad, but that shit!, that shit just takes the cake and pisses all over it. Fuck Dexter,” said Jacob.

The fellas nod in agreement.

“Kim?,” said Caesar.

“Fuck you, Kim. It wasn't the fuckin’ asian guy from Lost. It was the black guy: Harold Perrineau,” said Jacob.

“Yeah, he was in season five, but I’m talking about the guy with him. From Dexter, too,” said Caesar.

Buck snatches Caesar’s phone from his hand. They scuffle, but they’re not overly upset with one another.

“Fucker’s name is Billy Brown. Billy Brown, Peter Weller, and Jimmy Smits were all in Dexter, albeit at different times, and Sons of Anarchy, at more or less the same time. Happy?,” said Buck.

“Hard. Give me my fucking phone.”

“Kids these days just spend too much time glaring at a screen when they should be out enjoying nature and anal sex.”

“The fuck are you talking about? It’s my fucking property!”

“Ownership is a state of mind, mate. Free men choose, slaves obey. Now, for the past sixteen fucking minutes your eyes haven't stopped looking at that screen. Bet you didn't notice me jerk off into your home-fries, and if I was the betting sort of bloke I’d put ten on black twenty two cause you still fucking ate them. Got Jen ‘Blue Balls’ Carpenter outta my right ear, and you, dipshit, rattling off every fifteen minute chink you can think of, out my left. Cottonmouth, Inspector Lee, Jin from Lost, Glenn, Jue Yuan, and Lord fucking Katsumoto.” 

“Why the fuck do you care?”

“Cause it’s bloody irritating. Like going to reach for a set of nice, sweaty baps, only to jiggle the gel out and stain your best pair of cargo shorts.”

“Just gimme my fucking phone.”

“You gonna shut your fucking cock-hole?”

“I’m gonna do whatever I want, I’m a free man.”

“Well then, I’m afraid I’ll just have to start chattin’ up your bird. Evan, was it?”

“Should I shoot him?,” said Victor.

“This is some fucked up foreplay, huh? I’ll take you bloody if you like. I like my meat rare,” said Buck.

You guys get this channel, seven thirty four, IFC?,” said Teddy.

“Yeah. Got a couple good ones in rotation,” said Jacob.

“They were runnin’ Seven the other day. I gotta tell ya, it’d been a while, but Kevin Spacey still gives me fuckin’ goosebumps all these years later. When he’s walkin’ in with blood all over himself and he starts screamin’ ‘Detective! Detective!’ Get’s me every fucking time. Son of a bitch is timeless,” said Teddy.

“As far as Fincher’s psychotic wanderlusts go, Zodiac takes the gold. For me, at least. Every time I go to pick up the phone I think John Lynch is gonna start having a stroke on the other end. And let’s all just take a moment to appreciate Robert Downey Jr. in only his second most under appreciated role. When he’s at the shooting range, and Jake is sittin’ there with an ‘I am not Paul Avery’ button, that… that whole fucking scene cracks me up every fucking time. I got one at home for like three bucks,” said Jacob. 

“Top of the line picks, but The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is by far, the best on the market. I mean the Swedish version was alright, but the direction is much clearer here, and the mystery is more nuanced. Rooney has leagues more to work with then Noomi, and much sharper dialogue to boot,” said Teddy.

“And Christopher Plummer,” said Edgar.

“The definitive Henrik Vanger. With all due respect to Sven-Bertil Taube. You just can’t out act the man,” said Teddy.

“Shame no trilogy,” said Victor.

“Oh don't even mention it. That… that’s a goddam tragedy if there ever was one. Fucking bullshit makes me want to go burn Sony Pictures Culver City headquarters to the ground. Metaphorically speaking, of course,” said Teddy. 

“I think Noomi did the best with what she had, but, can you imagine having both of them? At the same time?,” said Megan.

“As a matter of fact, I can, almost every morning before I wake up and every night before I got to sleep. Lucille and Jackie are great ’n everything but lemme leave you with two words: nipple rings,” said Jacob. 

The table laughs. A waitress comes over to the table. She has the check and a freshly brewed pot of coffee. “Y’all want a quickie for the road?,” she said.

“I appreciate that, darling, but… we’ve got a board meeting in twenty minutes. Allow me to deal with the check,” said Edgar.

She hands him the bill. “Well, you just see fit to enjoy yourselves,” said the waitress.

“Naturally,” said Edgar.

“Have a blessed day,” said the waitress.

They all mutter nondenominational equivalencies. She exits and Edgar stands up. 

“I’ll take the hit on this one. Rest a’ you just cover the tip,” Edgar motions to Buck, “and give the kid his phone back. Fuck sake.”

“No can do Mr. Versace. I got me some space to kill,” said Buck.

“Victor, blow this motherfucker away, would you kindly,” said Caesar.

Victor shoots Buck with his finger; Buck feigns a mortal blow; Edgar exits.

“Alright cowboys, let’s empty them pockets for the good christian,” said Lou. 

Everybody whips out a five and throws it on the table. Everybody, that is, except Megan. 

“Ain’t gonna chip in, boss?”

“No I am not.”

“Got a story to go with that sentiment?”

“I don't believe in handouts.”

“You don’t, believe, in tipping the goddamn waitress that came back and forth between here and the kitchen not once, twice, or three times, but FIVE, to get you the right type of sugar?”

“You know what, I think I’m just gonna go ahead and take my contribution back now, thank you very fucking much,” said Buck.

Victor sticks a knife down the middle of the table. “The fuck you will,” he said.

“C’mon now, boss, these kids can't even afford to make shit,” said Teddy.

“That’s not my fucking problem. Everything happens for some stupid fucking reason or another. The lord works in confounding ways,” said Megan.

Everybody snickers.

“Hell, lady, even my grandmama fucking throws in a few nickels and quarters. You don't give nothin’?,” said Jacob.

“I don't tip because it’s counterproductive. You what? Just wake up one morning and decide you want to serve fat pricks pancakes and pour orange juice for assholes eight-to-six, five days a week? No the fuck you do not. You eventually want to rise up the Great Chain. Maybe become manager; open your own place; vice president on the board; chief executive officer, maybe, if you think you’re really pushing ten in all the aspects that make you S.P.E.C.I.A.L. If I tip you, you get complacent. You don't feel you need to move up. Not tipping is the essence of the proverbial l carrot. I lead you to water and greener pastures beyond,” said Megan. 

“So, allow me a brief reprieve to digest this, you think that, by not tipping our waitress, she may now one day become the ‘chief executive officer’, of the fucking company?,” said Caesar.

“Cunt needs a more applicable work ethic. Can’t rely on the generosity and courtesy of strangers. They are, in the end, human: destined by design to disappoint you. And I know some of y’all tightened up a bit when I called that woman a cunt just now, but if I ask her not to put butter on my silver-dollars, and she flat out drops fucking deaf on me, I’ll call her what the fuck I want,” said Megan. 

“But you see the problem with that is: butter comes with the silver-dollars. By design that’s how she brings ‘em out. If you have a problem with the way they’re prepared, take it up with the chef,” said Jacob.

“If the Pope rung you up in the middle of the night and said that he thought there were monsters under his bed, and wanted you to fly out to the Vatican and check, what would you tell him?,” said Megan.

“Well, chiefly, I’d want to know why the fuck he called me, as I lay on my waterbed filled with the tears of bruised virgins, and then, I suppose, I’d tell ‘em to suck me!,” said Jacob.

They all laugh.

“These women make plenty. I see meat on their bones, some gaudy jewelry pinned to their ears, and tattoo’s reaching up outta their socks. I save my pity for the people that really deserve it,” said Megan.

“Pray tell who the fuck falls under that esteemed category,” said Lou.

“Oh, now you’ve gone and fucking done it,” said Buck.

“People that actually try. The men and women that get up every morning and bust their balls tryin’ to take a proactive, instead of reactive, approach to making their lives on this rancid cesspool of a fucking wasteland moderately more goddamn tolerable. Because that’s all anyone really wants. Rich, poor; sick, well; died, dies, will die; lives, lived, will live. All about making shit tolerable. Enough to endure,” said Megan.

“And throwing a single mother of three a few of your monochromatic dollar bills is intolerable?,” said Victor.

Megan dips her finger into some leftover strawberry preserves and etches a crude hammer and sickle onto a napkin. “By you’re logic, all those ‘rainy day’ funds you have soaking up cum under your bedsheets would be handed out to the homeless guys offering ten cent blowjobs down by the overpass. You good with that, Vicky?”

“No,” said Victor. 

“Exactly. You give the guy that fixes your popcorn at the theater a twenty? The fella that delivers your stereo a fifty? What about all the poor, lonely souls spinning signs on street corners across America? Give each and every one of them a hundred?”

“No.”

“That’s hardly the fucking same,” said Lou.

“Sure it is. If you’ve no respect for your earth-wile possessions then you don't deserve financial independence in the first fucking place,” said Megan.

“When you reach a state of excess wealth, though, does it really matter? Do you even notice?,” said Teddy.

“The principle in which a man doesn't pay the ransom for his own fucking grandson is the same one I operate under. It’s MY motherfucking money. When you, Englishman, acquire massive amounts of wealth and success and have tired out every perverse fucking fantasy that’s ever wiggled it’s way through your banal fucking mind, then you can do whatever you so damn well please with your money. Give it all away to charity and die of starvation in the gutter. But do not, under any circumstances, tell me, what to do, with mine,” said Megan. 

“So… what’ll the gratuity be on all that?,” said Buck.

They all laugh.

“Look, my rosy cheeked new employees, my father-in-law, may whomever the fuck rest his soul, was a diamond miner. Got up at the crack of dawn each morning, smoked a cigarette, and down into the earth he went. For that wonderful, wonderful man, every bit of silver that pierced his lungs was worth it’s weight in gold. He worked till he dropped dead, and even then, a little more. What fucking waitress do you know that’s ever bit it on the job? Should he, then, be compelled to leave a tip? When comparatively that waitress is living in sheer, disgusting opulence,” said Megan. 

“No, no, no, of course not. Seriously, though, give me my fucking money back,” said Buck.

Everybody laughs. Edgar comes back to the table. “Okay consultants, let’s get to consulting. Wait, no, no, who didn't chip in?”

“Head a’ the table,” said Lou.

Edgar turned to Lou, “head a’ the table?” Then to Megan, “why?”

“She don’t part on easy terms with what’s motherfucking hers,” said Lou. 

Edgar looked down at Lou, “she don’t part with what’s motherfucking hers?” Then across the table at Megan, “fuck’s wrong with you?”

“She don’t believe in it,” said Lou.

Edgar snapped his head back to Lou, “ she don’t believe in it?” Then back at Megan, “you don't believe in it?”

“Well it exists, I’ll give you that, but like mans incessant, property tax laws, they have no worldly bearing on me,” said Megan.

“See?,” said Lou.

“Shut up!,” said Edgar. “I foot the bill here, boss, drop whatever's in your pocket’s on the table and let’s get moving.”

“I didn't think they took hand grenades. Most I’d give her is my tampon. Just put it in this morning. Should still be fresh,” said Megan.

“You truly are a gem, Mrs. Volker. A real, gosh-darn keeper.” Edgar crosses his heart. “Viva l’Italia.” 

Each consultant get’s up to leave; Buck quickly swipes his share back; as Victor goes to button his jacket, a forty-four caliber revolver is briefly visible. They exit the emporium, talking amongst themselves. Megan smiles. 

 

Present Day

“Hello ladies and gentlemen, Mr. New Vegas here. You’re all so great and we’re gonna keep you listening all day. If you like news, then you’re gonna love our next segment. Merchant’s are saying that there’s been little contact between traders from Nipton in recent days, causing concerns that the isolated town may be in trouble. This program was brought to you by Gomorrah . Gomorrah: It’ll be our secret. And now Nat King Cole reminding us what really matters with ‘Love Me as Though There Were No Tomorrow’. Because in New Vegas, hey, you never know.” 

Legate Lanius sighed. 

Don Gustavo had called him into his office after he got back from the West. “This-” Grace turned the radio up. “… fellow is somebody to watch. Once, he was just a menace, to be convicted and hung. But he always manages to be where the evidence isn’t. He’s the most dangerous type of hoodlum… the kind with vision.” 

Lanius had thought he’d seen it all from the Don. But then, there it was. Very subtle at first, creeping, inching ever closer with each passing breath. Fear. Or something very close to it. Don Gustavo looked the part. His palms were sweaty, legs kept crossing and uncrossing themselves, his words didn’t quite feel hollow, but they were lacking a certain charm and etiquette. For the first time as far back as Lanius could remember, which he estimated to be roughly around the dawn of time, Don Gustavo was afraid of the Boogeyman from the east. The Silver Tongue of the Atlantic. Could charm a snake into devouring itself. Surely such a man was constructed out of too much late night television and superstition. Lanius was becoming increasingly uncertain.

It was something about the way the Don had presented himself. Like he was much smaller in size, comparable to a pre-adolescent child, standing at the border of a very wide, expansive, dark room. The kind where you can't make anything out inside. The kind where after a while your eyes start toying with you, making nonsense shapes that start making absurd movements. Preposterous as it may sound, those nonsense shapes making those absurd movements keep coming closer and closer, until the border separating you from the dark room is nothing but air. Don Gustavo seemed unable to make up his mind about whether there truly was something, or perhaps someone, lurking in the dark. His eyes weren’t what they once were, after all. 

Lanius, on the other hand, wasn’t standing before the dark room with Gustavo. Rather, he was looking down the hall. At the shadow of what he knew had already escaped from the dark room a long, long time ago. It took many forms. A crooked man with a bald head and a penciled in mustache. A little girl with curly hair and restless hands. A soldier with a bull on his cap and a fresh cut along his neck, Lanius dared consider.

“Love me as though there were no tomorrow; take me out of this world tonight. Take me; make me forget my sorrow, so when I wake tomorrow, I'll know our love was right. Kiss me as though it were now of never; teach me all that a heart should know. Love me as though there were no tomorrow; oh my darling, love me; don't ever let me go.” 

“Puppy?” 

“The machine is switching to alternative override,” Lanius started, then adjusted, realized where he was, and cleared his throat, “whatcha need little one?”

Grace dropped her eyebrows, and wrapped her arms around Lanius’s neck, her naked form resting up against him. “How’s Nadia, puppy?” 

Lanius hadn’t the faintest idea how to answer that question. He remembered getting off the elevator, getting back on the elevator, walking through a labyrinthine parking garage, and overhearing a conversation between two Spooks.

“So, whaddya think?,” said a traditional black suit.

“Beyond the severity of your mental retardation, someone’s cookin’ Chili,” said an out of place pink suit.

“What kind ‘a peppers they usin’?” 

“Green.”

“Big man upstairs?”

“Don’t know. Probably not.”

“We fixin’ to put somebody under the sink after this?”

“Don't know. Probably.”

“You up for some whiskey and a cigar little later?”

“Fuck off.”

Grace started pressing little kisses down his cheek and over his chin.

“She’s alright. Slipped on something comin’ down the stairs. Fractured… something, in her arm. She’ll be out in a few days. Sara is taking extra special care of her. Next time I stop by she’ll be twenty pounds heavier,” said Lanius. He felt like Bartholomew 'King of the Boas’, was using his head as a stress ball.

“She’s a fighter, always has been, always will be. Just needs to tie her shoe laces a little bit tighter. You see Jack?”

“Yeah,” although Lanius suspected his older brother didn't actually exist anymore, “for a minute.” 

“All’s good puppy.” Grace rested herself against him, gently purring.

Lanius felt, in a dark, tucked away part of his heart, something familiar. “Let’s see. Transition state... here. End search.”

 

The Lucky 38 cocktail lounge wasn't as empty as Lanius had hoped it would be at eight o’ clock in the morning. There was a part of him that thought he might find Buck there. With all the buttons to his shirt undone, sparkling clean ribeye on a plate in front of him, toothpick sticking out the corner of his mouth. Laughing. That’s what Lanius envisioned Buck doing. Laughing, at him. Rather uncontrollably, too. He’d probably fall out of his seat, latching onto a passing waitress to try and break his fall, or so he’d say. Buck would just sit on the ground laughing till he burst into tears. Lanius figured, were that the case, he might even join in. Cause it was pretty goddamn funny.

Then his mind wandered to the butterfly with the pink wings and broken glass in her eyes: Jinx. She was, if nothing else, a curious one. She didn't seem the traveling sort. More akin to burrowing into the earths surface and bunkering down. He’d have asked Kara how she did it, maybe even asked where she got that dog, but then, Buck’s incessant laughter came flooding back in. Lanius smirked. It was pretty goddamn funny.

He got a booth by the window, though there wasn't much to see. The Mojave Wasteland didn't offer much by way of a view. Mostly sand, empty space, heroin junkies nailed to bits of plywood, and some more fucking sand. Lanius didn't mind it though. Sand couldn't stir up trouble, or try and blow up a monorail, or throw a brick at your head. All sand could do was lie and wait for someone else to come along and do the hard, dirty part for it. Then it would slither up and consume the evidence. And the Mojave Wasteland would silently cross another name off it's list. 

Caesar sat down across from Lanius with a cheap pair of shades, the price tag still hanging off($5.99), covering up the black and blue and purple shadows around his right eye. 

“Now, before you make some snide, conceited comment about me looking like hammered shit,” said Caesar, “allow me to briefly summarize a skiing trip I took as a boy. It was just me, my father, and his two brothers ascending the slopes on a rather nippy afternoon in the dead of November. We were sitting in those stupid chairs that always look cool in movies and shit where if you fall off and break your arm you can sue the studio and get a boatload of money to then spend on cocaine you can sniff off a Bunny’s ass. But, and this one isn’t nearly as refined and plentiful, in reality, they are the single leading cause of death amongst everyone in the world except, maybe, those damn mountain lions you claim to have seen but no one else ever has except the garden gnomes that talk to you in your sleep. All I did was look down— extending my neck but a centimeter, if that, and fuck me running cause that’s all it took. Might as well of had a fuckin’ basketball made out of solid fuckin’ concrete, with other, tiny concrete basketballs wrapped around it, launched out of one of those circus cannons right at my fuckin’ head. All I remember is that one, brief second, of dropping straight down and thinking I’d fall right through the snow, and with that, the entire world. Not one whole minute later my dad’s standing over me, pulling me up, wiping the snow off me. And I know this sounds cheesy, but I’ll never forget what he said. ‘Son, if you was a diver, I’d have given ya a ten.’

Lanius paused for a minute. He unfolded his napkin and placed it on his right leg, arranged his knife, fork, and spoon in order from dullest to sharpest, and turned the ketchup bottle upside down so that when he went to pour some out, it wasn't all congealed at the bottom of the bottle. “You,” he said motioning to the waiter, “look like hammered fucking shit.”

Caesar removed his glasses and tossed them on the table. “Asshole. That skiing story was solid, twenty four carrot fucking gold.” The waiter came over, and on noticing Caesar’s eye, allowed his gaze to linger. “What the fuck are you lookin’ at?,” said Caesar, putting his glasses back on, “take his goddamn order.”

Lanius ordered a glass of orange juice, three eggs sunny-side up, a side order of bacon, rye toast, and complimentary home-fries. 

The waiter left. “The fuck’s wrong with you?,” said Caesar.

“Beside the fact that I seem to have garden gnomes living in my head?,” said Lanius. 

“Eat dick. Never mind. So go on. Ask.” 

 

Twelve Hours Prior

“Rorschach’s journal…” Walter cleared his throat, took a drag of the cigar on his left that he’d been too tired to refuse, and a sip from the glass of Bourbon from Burbank on his right, that he’d been too tired not to accept.

“Good start,” Eddie nodded, “what’s the date?” 

“August, the tenth,” Walter said matter of factly, even though he wasn't entirely unsure it couldn't have been the seventy second. 

Eddie rolled his hand forward. “Keep going.”

“Last Friday night…”

“Feels like a lot longer though, doesn't it?” The Sad Clown had just about run out of snake-oil to sell. 

“Yeah,” Walter leaned back in his seat, “we should call Laurie.”

“No,” Edward said, sternly, to seemingly no one other than the wall in front of him, “we really shouldn’t.” 

“She’d wanna know.”

“You wanna hear a real kicker? Hm? Real goddamn spleen-splitter? Jupiter eats pussy now. Yep,” he exhaled, and adjusted his belt, “just like her old man. Day and night, that's how we roll. Had a bird. Melissa. She’s gone… worships the Devil now.” Eddie looked down and wrapped his hands around the back of his neck. Fiddling with scar tissue. “Want me to call her? And say what?” 

“I don’t know,” Walter shrugged, “stuff, I guess. Ask her out for pancakes. Invite me along. Though it was Juspeczyk. She’s Polish.” 

“And I’m one eighth honey badger. What’s your point?”

“Nothin’. Just sayin’. Monty’s wife don’t take no gruff.” 

“Then let it be, and get back to your stories.” 

Walter sighed. “Last Friday night…”

“Tease it.” 

“A comedian died…” The all-American typewriter clicked and clacked like a pair of well versed tap shoes.

“Relatively speaking,” Eddie winked.

Another sigh. Walter licked his lips. “Within the bounds of inter-dimensional relativity…”

“There you go,” Eddie gave a thumbs up seal of approval, “that’s much better.”

“A comedian died in New York.”

“Hook. Line. And sinker.” Eddie placed an imaginary worm on a nonexistent fishing rod and tossed it into an invisible lake.

“Good start?” Walter kicked his feet up.

Great start. I’m hungry. Fixin’ for a lovely stack o’ chocolate chip pancakes. What's your fancy?” 

“Black Forest ham. Some thin sliced pepper-jack cheese. Fry up a few eggs. Nice kaiser roll. Fancy that.”

“Comin’ right up, partner.” 

Eddie cracked himself up a little too much, and forgot about the pool of blood just below his feet.

Walter cracked his knuckles. “A comedian died in New York Friday night,” he stopped just as the black rim of Eddie’s combat boot broke the crimson barrier of ol’ Jerry’s innards, “whaddya think?”

“I think,” Eddie took his left boot off and threw it across room three hundred and forty six of the Lucky 38 casino, “there’s blood on my goddamn boot.”

Walter smirked. “Hurm.”

“Fuck off.” There was big ol’ hole in ol’ Jerry’s head. A shotgun shell not far from it. No gun anywhere to be found. “Oh Jerry… why'd you have to go and be such a fucking disappointment Jerry… you were my favorite Jerry… I loved you, man… we’d been through so much… oh god WHY Jerry?!… WHY?!… he-he-he-ha…. Fuckin' Jerry. What, an, asshole.” 

“Why not call the Chairmen?,” said Walter.

“I don't like the cut of their jib. You and me, amigo, we got this shit handled. Just gotta take our two hands, grip real hard, and handle the motherfucker. You get me?,” said Eddie.

“Yeah.” Walter took out a packet of Garbanzo beans. Eddie looked mystified. “Spice of life. Couldn't find a weapon. Could be self-inflicted. Could not be. Flip a coin?”

“Got one on ya?”

Walter rifled through his pockets. “Might have… in other pants.”

“Well, then, I think the ghost of Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson came in through the window and shot him.”

“Room has no windows. ‘Rampage’ Jackson still alive.”

“Alright fuck it. We’ll figure it out later.”

“How’re we gettin’ him down stairs?”

“Shut. Up.” Eddie stretched out his arms. “I gotta piss like a goddamn race horse on heroin with lice.” He entered the bathroom only to shout seconds later: “OH!, YOU STUPID WHORE!”

Walter rushed in to find Eddie, pissing, and ol’ Jerry’s creature of the night dead in the bathtub. Bloody water up to her collarbone. A toaster in between her legs. 

“Hurm. She dead?”

Eddie, whilst still pissing, kicked at her jaw, dislocating it. “You gotta be fucking kidding me!” He threw his now contaminated right boot out of the bathroom. “Jesus-shit on my ballsack! This has to be the worst day in the entire history of toaster related suicides!” 

Walter tilted his head. “Think we should call Ms. Ricardo.”

Eddie stormed out and gulped down the rest of Walter’s Bourbon from Burbank. “Yeah, go right-a-fucking-head. Tell that cheap bitch the rents up. I have fucking had it with this place.”

There came a knock at the door.

Walter looked at Eddie. “She heard you.”

Eddie zipped up his fly, then looked at Walter. “I think that’s highly unlikely.” Another knock came. Eddie looked frantically back and forth between Walter and the door. The former shrugged, returning to his beans. 

Eddie crossed the room, smacking the plastic black fork Walter was eating his Garbanzo beans with out of his hand. It landed in the pool of Jerry’s blood. 

“That was unnecessary,” he said.

Eddie smirked. He approached the standing lamp in the corner of the room, removed the shade and the lightbulb, and proceeded to move back towards the door.

“This is a horrible idea,” said Walter.

“Got about ten seconds to think up a better one,” said Eddie. 

As he approached the door, one hand ready to open it, the other holding the lamp over his shoulder, he looked behind him, only for Walter to shrug and give him a thumbs up tilted at a forty five degree angle.

Eddie swung the door open and brought the lamp crashing into the face of Caesar, who in response collapsed on the floor.

A moment of silence went by.

“Eddie?,” said Walter.

“Yeah?”

“Who do we work for?”

“Ourselves.”

 

Present

“I’m good,” said Lanius. 

“Buddy, you’re a whole helluva lotta things, but good ain’t even fucking close to one of ‘em,” said Caesar, with a brief look of disappointment. He took out a pack of cigarettes. A light green minotaur was on the front with a fire-coated battle-ax in one hand and a sharp, yellow lightening bolt in the other. He slid one cigarette across the table, and stuck the other in the right corner of his mouth and lit it. “I know you don't partake, some goose shit about cancer no doubt, but hey, you never know, might meet someone along your travels today that is just positively itching for a smoke. And then, you’ll be glad I buy in bulk.”

“You know where I’m supposed to go, don’t you?”

“Not quite, I just know where you’re headed. Benny’s looking for you. Over at the Tops. The Chairmen will escort you up. I don't know what he needs, or who he needs, but what I do know is that he said you’re the man for the job. Wouldn’t take any other recommendation. So, sit back, relax, eat your fuckin’ breakfast, and then head on over. Sound good? Sounds good,” said Caesar. He got up from the table and left.

 

The Tops was billed as offering the classic, Vegas experience. It was the type of place where all the cool, hip, fun, and macho types congregated, when they were still too hopelessly infatuated with their wives to consider rolling around in the proverbial hay at Gomorrah, and they didn't want to ruin their appetite eating whatever the fuck Mr. Nancy was shoveling out of the Gourmand, at the Ultra-Luxe. The Tops was stuck in a rift deep within the nineteen sixties, where the men’s men pranced around in pinstripe suits, gently bopping their heads to the same Sinatra song they’d heard about two hundred and fifty times that day, with a ‘dame’ on each arm. They’d order an expensive bottle of wine and an expensive cut of steak, rare, all the while doing their best to convince themselves they were actually in New York, and not surrounded by an infinite sea of sand that wanted to devour them alive. 

The moment Lanius stepped inside he could instantly hear the rapid clink of slot machines going off, and occasionally a disinterested pinstripe suit mutter ‘jackpot’ in the same drawl monotone a flight attendant would use when trying to explain to a man that didn't speak english, or at least pretended not to, that he couldn't make a call on the plane, and that it wasn't her responsibility to explain to him why. 

Security came up and relieved Legate Lanius of his baton, assuring him that on his departure it would be hastily returned to him. Lanius regularly found himself on the precipice of making a joke along the lines of: ‘how much damage could I possibly get away with when all I’m packing is a nine inch block of wood?’ However, it always seemed better not to. 

There was a circular glass desk in the lobby of The Tops, where two Chairmen were sitting with their feet up playing poker. 

“What’s the plan, Dan? You gonna fold or am I gonna have to go out and buy more razor blades?”

“While you’re out, ya mind getting me an icepick to drill into the side of your fucking head, Mike?”

“You can’t rhyme ‘pick’ with ‘Mike’, shit for brains. Emphasis is on the wrong syllable, you fuck.” 

“I’m raising thirty five grand.”

“Well that didn't rhyme at all.”

Lanius coughed into his fist.

Dan, in a pink pinstripe suit, looked up and nodded. “Yeah, you’re definitely the guy. Did you know Benny was lookin’ for you?”

Mike, in an olive pinstripe suit, continued to look down at his cards, shaking his head. “Why the fuck do you think he’s here?”

“I don't know. Play Craps? Blackjack? Get a blowjob from Mindy? It’s a casino.”

“He lives in a casino. He works outta a casino. Why the fuck would he come here to do any of those things?”

“Cause Mindy got kicked outta the Lucky 38 after she wouldn't let Caesar poke around in her backyard.”

“How come you can't just say she wouldn't let him fuck her in the ass?”

“Cause Mindy is the courteous and sympathetic sort. No need to be crass behind her back.”

Lanius snickered.

“See,” said Mike, “the Legate gets it.”

“Ah, what the hell do either of you two know,” said Dan. He threw down the Queen of Spades and the Queen of Diamonds.

“Apparently,” said Mike, revealing how well The King of Hearts and the King of Spades, “how to count to three,” looked alongside the King of Clubs.

“Either of you two know how Caesar got his black eye?,” said Lanius.

“I got a theory, and it involves Evan, in the kitchen, beating him with a frying pan,” said Mike, collecting his winnings.

“Something along those lines,” said Dan, cracking his knuckles, “Benny’s in his office on the thirteenth floor, by the by.”

“He need something in particular?,” said Lanius. Dan and Mike looked at each other. “I’ll just go ask him myself.” The Legate made his way to the elevator.

When the doors opened on the thirteenth floor, Lanius saw an orange arrow was spray-painted on the wall, pointing to his right, with a caption below that read: ‘$5 drinks that-a-way.’ 

He promptly took a left and found an open set of double doors in the middle of the hallway, with Wayman Tisdale’s ‘Brand New’ gently luring him inside. 

Benny, with his white pinstripe suit and greased back, black hair, was sitting at the bar in the foyer of his room. There was an empty bottle of Oval Vodka, shaped like the Eiffel Tower and encrusted with diamonds, in front of him. Lanius didn't notice him at first, and walked further into the suite. “Well aren't you the curious sort,” said Benny, removing Wayman Tisdale from rotation and placing him back in a velvet sleeve.

“You doin’ some renovating, Benny?,” said Lanius. 

“No.”

“Got a rat problem, then?”

“Well I’d certainly hope not.”

“You seem to have a mighty large fucking hole in your wall.”

“No, I can assure you I do not. Now, would you kindly take a seat.” Benny motioned to the couch.

Beyond the hole in the wall, Lanius heard people moving. There was a pair of yellow eyes watching him. 

Benny started slowly reaching for the semi-automatic, nine millimeter handgun tucked away in his suit. 

A man came lurking out of the darkness with a yo-yo in his hand. Eight long, smooth legs sank to the floor, brushing past a rose petal, and eight bleeding eyes came crawling back up. 

Lanius backed away quickly and sat down in a chair close to the door.

“See,” said Benny, “now isn’t that better. Fancy a drink?”

“No,” sweat was pouring down Lanius’s neck, “I’m good.”

“Right you are then, business it is. I’m headed out on a bit of a field expedition today, Legate, sure could do with someone as knowledgable of the terrain as you. Whaddya say? You scratch my balls, and I’ll get someone much prettier to scratch yours.”

 

Around or before the year 1918, word throughout the Mojave Wasteland varied, a local saloon owner living in a small town decided to produce a new brand of soft drink. This was in direct response to the limited choices the people of America had with regards to carbonated beverages at the time. He asked his usual patrons what flavor the new beverage should be, but to no avail. In an unusual turn of fate, a stranger down at the end of the bar, a Frenchman with an impossible to pronounce name, suggested the bartender make a sarsaparilla-flavored drink. The Stranger agreed to share his family’s secret recipe for their signature beverage with the saloon owner, in return for a sample of the finished product at the latter’s own discretion, in order to ensure the recipe was being followed to the letter. Seeing the mass potential for wealth and success, the saloon owner agreed, and proceeded to arrange a meeting with the Frenchman the following evening. Through a series of unfortunate events, chief amongst them a botched train robbery, emperor scorpions, and the lack of oxygen one has in a six foot long, two foot wide coffin made out of pinewood buried ten feet underground, the Stranger never made the rendezvous. Cursing his luck, the saloon owner shut down his establishment early the next day, just when the sun began to set. To his surprise, however, he found a bottle and letter sealed with blue wax in the shape of a star right on the edge of the bar, just after he had finished locking down. The sealed envelope contained the recipe for a sarsaparilla-flavored drink, the same one the now-vanished, presumed dead, Stranger had promised to deliver earlier. 

Finding the contents of the bottle “singularly delicious”, the bartender used the recipe to brew his now-signature beverage: Sunset Sarsaparilla. It would go on to become a great success, churning in tons of profit, namely in the southwestern United States, gaining specific cult appeal in and around the Mojave Wasteland. The Stranger was never seen again, though news did spread about a score of Irishmen that had been operating out of the area seemingly blinking right out of existence overnight. 

The corporate headquarters of the Sunset Sarsaparilla company, which doubled as a bottling plant, was located north west of the El Rey Motel, and directly west of the old NCR sharecropper farms. There was a poster along the side of the building with a burly American man in a red and white bathing suit holding a dumbbell in one hand and a cool, refreshing bottle of Sunset Sarsaparilla in the other. ‘Build Mass with Sass’ it read.

Legate Lanius had no idea why he was there.

“We’re here looking for a guy, my good man,” said Benny.

“Which one?”

“We’ll know it when we see ‘em. Just keep an eye out.”

“For?”

“Something… you wouldn't normally see.” 

Inside the Sunset Sarsaparilla Headquarters, Lanius and Benny were greeted by a robot with a white cowboy hat and a sheriffs badge. “Howdy, pardner! Welcome to the headquarters of the Sunset Sarsaparilla Company. Wrangle up a stool and listen to ol’ Festus jaw a while. If you and ol’ Festus are old pals, say a command now. Otherwise, say ‘Pleased to meetcha’ and we’ll get acquainted.”

Lanius walked up to Festus. “Pleased-”

“Don't fucking talk to the robot, sport,” said Benny. “Nobody ever talks to the fucking robot. Pretend it’s a stuttering kid with leprosy and let’s move on.” They moved through the lobby and out onto the bottling floor. “Here’s what I need you to do, sport: I need you to scope out the area and see if ya can’t find an associate of mine, let’s call him Mr. Janitor. Wears a green suit, right. He should have a pretty solid idea of who our guy is. Meanwhile, I’ll see what I can shake loose from the coconut trees upstairs, if ya know what I’m saying.”

Lanius had no earthy clue. “Sure thing.”

“Right on, my man, right on. Happy hunting.”

Benny went upstairs to the second floor, and Lanius moved through the bottling room and into the shipping room, where he asked one of the workers where he might find the janitor, to which they responded: the break-room. Inside, there was a window leading out into the Mojave, and on the other side, Lanius saw a man in a dark green suit smoking a cigarette. There was a television screen watching Lanius from the corner of the room. 

“Not so fast,” said Lucille Riccardo, riding the eleven o’ five train to Wellington Wells, in monotone black and white, “we need to talk Lanius.” The Legate turned in horror. “Look at me sugar. All in high-def. We shot the show in thirty five millimeter. Cutting edge. Looks like hell in the transfer.” She picked a cigarette up from off screen and took a drag. “Funny how things supposed to make you look good only make it worse. I can't even fill the whole screen.” She pushed the boundaries of the screen wider until they filled the entire television. 

Lanius unplugged the television. “The fuck is this?”

“Just little old me.” Lucille popped back on screen with a snap of her fingers.

Lanius swallowed hardly. “I’m talkin’ to Lucille Ball-”

“Lucille Ricardo. I’m all sword, Lanius, the screen’s the alter. I’m the one they sacrifice too. Then, till now. Golden age to golden age. They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me. Now they have a smaller screen in their lap or in the palm of their hand so they don't get bored watching the big one.” In a flash Lucille’s curly ginger hair, bright red lips, and blue panel dress came into glorious technicolor. “Time and attention. Better than lambs blood. Huh. That brute sure did beat your pretty little face all up. I hate that. I hate that she was hurting you Lanius. I would never do that to you honey. No, I want to offer you a job.”

“Doing what?” 

“Working for me. I want you, in my camp, with us. Look at it like this Lanius, we’re the coming thing, we are already here, we are self-driving cars and 3D printed personal arsenals and handheld atom bombs. And your old boss is still selling oranges on the side of the road. Not even organic. We are now and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and he ain’t even yesterday anymore. I heard about the trouble you’ve been having out on The Strip. With Mr. Nancy, and the foxiest of the twats. I think it’s time we, you and me—the both of us, stopped letting them fuck with you. You’re efficient, Lanius, no nonsense and effective, with a big prick to boot, just the way I like ‘em. They’re underestimating you sweetheart. Not a mistake I’ll make.”

“You know what, I don't want to work for you ‘I Love Lucy’. We’re done.”

“Whatever the old Don’s giving you, I can give you so much more. You name it honey. What do you need? Hey, you ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?” Lucille Ricardo undid the top most buttons of her dress and let her pixilated breasts free; her hard, rosy red nipples pressed against the television screen. They filled Lanius’ eyes to the brim. “Don’t fight gravity, Lanius. I’ve been at this a while. Not as long as some, but I’ve seen things. Guys like you end up with overdose every time. I’m trying to help you. Keep those pills from finding themselves jammed down your throat.”

The screen cut to black. Lucille was gone. Her image now branded onto Lanius’ mind. 

 

Benny had found his guy. 

When Lanius made his way out of the break room every morsel of food he’d consumed at breakfast came pouring out of him. His stomach felt painfully empty, like his intestines were slowly being reeled out of his body by tiny fishing hooks, yet as much as he tried, he couldn't bring himself to even think about eating. The thick Mojave sand seemed to penetrate his boots and burn the bottoms of his feet. Mr. Janitor asked if he was dead. With the bright, midday sun glaring in his eye, Lanius hadn't been able to formulate an opinion one way or the other. 

It was dark now, though, and Mr. Janitor had stayed behind at the bottling plant to make a few calls. Benny had the jubilant smile of a man that just found a winning lottery ticket stuck inside the shell of a diamond encrusted turtle. The guy with the bag over his head seemed to have pissed himself, but Lanius couldn't tell for sure. 

They had made their way to the town of Goodsprings. It was the first stop on most people's journey through the Mojave. It was small and wholesome and had the feeling of a rustic western town out in Wyoming. The kind of place with a packed saloon and a rooster wake-up call. There wasn't a soul to be seen at whatever hour it was. Lanius figured they could be asleep. Or just hiding under their beds with a tin full of shotgun shells. 

“You wanna know somethin’ funny, sport?,” said Benny, “I’ve got the strangest sense of deja vu, and yet, I could’ve sworn we got lost at least three times on the way over here. It’s a really small place, though, but still. It’s just the strangest goddamn feeling in the whole wide world. But you did good today, Lanius. Don’t think I won’t be telling the Don that you deserve a mighty fine raise when this is all over.” Benny slapped him on the back. “A mighty fine raise indeed. You know what you should get?, I mean what you really need? One of those little Koi ponds. They are relaxing as hell and if you can't be bothered to put fish in ‘em, don’t. The peaceful sound of running water is its own reward. Don’t get me wrong it’ll make you have to piss every ten minutes, but people that work as hard as we do deserve the finer things in life. Just think about it Lanius. Cheeky as it is to say: you only live once.”

As they walked up the hill leading to Goodsprings Cemetery, Lanius felt as if his body was moving without the consent of his brain. The scene was littered with Spooks, their tailored, velvety black suits glistening under the moonlight. There were three unmarked, six foot deep graves, and two more of the Mojave’s latest victims with bags over their heads. Benny’s guy made three in a straight line. 

“You think you’re hot shit, huh?,” said one of the Spooks. He had a mohawk and a scar over his left eye that looked like it was caused by a bullet just barely grazing him. “You fucking show up late… make me stand around here for fifteen minutes looking like a fucking asshole.” He seemed frustrated with his tie. “I hate this fucking desert man. I hate all this fucking sand. And I hate,” he pointed at Lanius, “who… the fuck… is this motherfucker right here? Huh? Who the fuck is he? I’ve never fucking seen him before. What-what-what is this how shit gets run out here? Like we’re in the fucking jungle? Should I just light everyone here on fire?, Benny?! WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE?!” One of the victims mumbled something through the rope tied around her mouth. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” The Spook walked over and bent down in front of her. “WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” She started to cry, and the Spook stood up and shot the man to her right; he fell silently into his grave. “Do you want me to shoot you in the fucking head like I did… what the fuck was his name? Arthur? Like fucking Arthur? SHUT THE FUCK UP! Okay?”

“I think that’s enough, Mr. Montenegro. You’re not exactly giving my guest here a grand first impression,” said Benny.

“What? You mean this fucking guy?” Mr. Montenegro walked and pointed toward Lanius. “This guy, right here.” He dug his index finger under the Legate’s left eye. “Lemme tell you something, I’m the one with the fucking dick here, okay? Look at me, look me in the fucking eye.” Lanius did not. “HEY! YOU FUCK!” Mr. Montenegro sank his fingernails into the side of his head. “Look me in the eye. You’re my bitch. I rule this fucking kingdom. Shut the fuck up… or you die.”

There was more mumbling from behind them. “Who the fuck was that? WHO THE FUCK WAS THAT?! Was it you?,” he motioned his gun in the direction of the woman. “Was it you… goddamn your names are so fucking forgettable… oh whatever the fuck— Sally! Was it you, again, Sally? Is it me? Am I a bad host or something? Am I a bad entertainer?, am I not a fucking gentlemen? What is your fucking problem with me?”

“Mr. Montenegro-”

“Is it my hair? My accent? WHAT?”

“Va-”

The Spook shot Sally, and she too fell soundlessly into her grave. “Benny, I swear to god man if you don't SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH in the next ten seconds…” Mr. Montenegro’s train of thought was abruptly derailed by the arm that was now casually wrapped around Lanius’ shoulders.

“What have I told you about scaring the hostages, old boy?,” said Hoyt, “let Benny do his goddamn thing and be done with it. Fuck sake, you’re gonna make my shiny new recruit here piss himself.”

Mr. Montenegro wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Fuck all of you. I’m out.” He started walking back down the hill. 

Benny walked up to his guy and took the bag off his head. “Maybe Spooks kill people without lookin’ ‘em in the face, but I ain’t a suit, dig?” He held a platinum chip from The Apollo in between his fingers. “You made your last delivery kid, sorry you got twisted up in this scene. From where your kneeling it must seem like an eighteen carrot run of bad luck. Truth is,” Benny took out his semi-automatic, “the game was rigged from the start.” 

After a suitable amount of silence went by, Benny waved off the need to fill in the graves. The Spooks slowly began to disperse. 

“Welcome to the team,” said Hoyt, “ain’t that a kick in the head.”

 

 

“It sure is, Dino, it sure is.”

The sound of the radio was distant. His vision was blurry. He saw a million tiny ceiling fans spinning infinitely, spawning more, smaller ceiling fans with each rotation. 

“You’re awake. How about that.”

His vision began clearing up, the sea of ceiling fans being chopped up by milky, white waves. He tried to get up.

“Whoa, easy there. Easy. You been out cold a couple days now. Why don’t you just relax a second? Get your bearings. Let’s see what the damage is. How about your name? Can you tell me your name?”

“Ollie,” he said shakily, “my name is Ollie.”

“Huh. Can’t say it’s what I’d have picked for you. But if that’s your name, that’s your name. I’m Doc Mitchell, welcome to Goodsprings.” The good doctor spoke with a gentle, midwestern accent. “Now I hope you don’t mind, but I had to go rooting around there in your noggin’ to pull all the bits of lead out. I take pride in my needlework, but you’d better tell me if I left anything out of place.”

Doc Mitchell held up a mirror. “How’d I do?,” he said. 

The hole in the upper left side of Ollie’s head was a lot smaller than he thought it would be. He went to touch it, and the image of a white pinstripe suit sent a jolt of pain shooting down his hand. 

“Well, I got most of it right, anyway. Stuff that mattered.” Doc Mitchell shared a kind smile as he smoothed out the creases of his grey mustache. “Okay. No sense keeping you in bed anymore. Let’s see if we can get you on your feet.” Ollie felt the blood rushing to and from his legs as he stood up for what felt like the first time. “Good. Why don’t you walk down to the end of the room? Over by the vigor tester-machine there. Take it slow. It ain’t a race.”

Ollie crossed the room one step at a time, as if the place were littered with landmines.

“Looking good so far,” said Doc Mitchell, “go ahead and give the vigor tester a try. We’ll learn right quick if you got back all your faculties.” 

Ollie fiddled around with the machine. He had a 5 in Strength, making him an Average Joe. He was an Unsuspecting Trout, with only 4 Perception. He was Unstoppable with 10 Endurance. 1 Charisma made him a misanthrope. 5 Intelligence had him as Knowledgeable. With 9 Agility he was an Acrobatic Marvel. Lastly, he had a Stacked Deck with 6 Luck. 

“Yep, that’s a pretty average score right there,” said Doc Mitchell. “But after what you’ve been through, I’d say that’s great news. Well, we know your vitals are good. But that don’t mean that bullet didn't leave you nuttier than a Bighorn dropping. Whaddya say you take a seat on my couch and we go through a couple questions? See if your dogs are still barking.”

Ollie followed the doctor into the next room and took a seat on his worn, leather couch. 

“Alright,” said Doc Mitchell, “I’m going to say a word. I want you to say the first thing that comes to mind. Dog.”

“Train,” said Ollie. 

“House.”

“Demolish.”

“Night.”

“Silencer.”

“Bandit.”

“Bribe.”

“Light.”

“Torch.”

“Mother.”

“Genes.”

“Okay,” said Doc Mitchell, “now I’ve got a few statements. I want you to tell me how much they sound like something you’d say. First one: conflict just ain’t in my nature.”

“Agree,” said Ollie.

I ain’t given to relying on others for support.”

“Strongly disagree.”

I’m always fixing to be the center of attention.”

“Disagree.”

I’m slow to embrace new ideas.”

“Strongly disagree.”

I charge in to deal with my problems head-on.”

“Disagree.”

“Almost done here,” said Doc Mitchell, “what do you say you have a look at this? Tell me what you see.”

Ollie examined the first Rorschach test. “A broken chair.” He looked over the second. “A priceless work of art.” He glanced at the third. “A mushroom cloud.”

“Well,” Doc Mitchell smiled, “that’ll do it, boyo.” He took out a shoebox and handed it to Ollie. “Open it, would you kindly.” The doctor now spoke in a thick, Brooklyn accent; his mustache fell off. 

Ollie opened the box and found a six-shot revolver. His head started to throb with pain.

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Pick it up, would you kindly.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Maretti’s Testimony

At exactly 7:31 am, a commuter train arriving in Zürich Hauptbahnhof exploded, killing all fifty people on each of the train’s nineteen cars, alongside roughly one hundred and forty people inside the station. As of 10:32 am, the total death count hovered around twelve hundred. Special Agent Cavill, for the first time in his career, wished he’d just become a plumber like his old man. Special Agent Wood, on the other hand, was just trying to sneak a little more whiskey into her coffee, before they took a third crack at their four prime, and only, suspects. Mr. Maretti was once again up first. His singing could be heard long before they entered the interrogation room. 

“I’m in my Lambo’ maggot, my fo’ fo’ fagot. Doors lift up I’m like Go Go Gadget. See the shit I’m I got on, homey I’d hate too. My Teflon arm brought my government issues. I’ll hit your vertebrae bullets rip through tissues. Your wife on the futon huggin’ that shitzu. Homey you a bitch you got some feminine ways. Heard you got four lips and bleed for seven days.”

Special Agent’s Cavill and Wood sat across from Mr. Maretti, who was handcuffed to the table, and sported a black eye he got from the subsequent beating he received after smashing a police officer’s face into the window of a coffee shop.

“I got fo’ fifths and bananas on the case.”  

“Mr. Maretti,” said Agent Wood.

“And got more whips than a runaway slave.”

“Mr. Maretti!”

He stopped singing, only to look up at Agent Wood like he had sunglasses on, and she was a member of the press that wanted to know what he was thinking about, when he thought about it, and for how long. “You’re still here, huh? I bet Diaz a hundred that you’d have fucked off by now.”

“You’re the only person in the world that can make all of our lives easier,” said Agent Wood. 

“Oh, for sure honey. Just so we’re clear though, when I get outta here, you owe me a hundred,” said Mr. Maretti.

“You want to tell us what you were doing on that train, Mr. Maretti?,” said Agent Cavill.

“I don't know what the fuck you’re talkin’ about spook. Do I look like the type ‘a dude that fucks around with public transportation? No the fuck I do not. So why don’t y’all get on up out ya seats and get me my motherfucking phone call.”

“You’ve already had your phone call Mr. Maretti. You called your bookie, remember?,” said Agent Wood.

“Naw, man. I got a gambling addiction.”

“You called him at 9:12 am. Asked what the ‘situation’ was. Got angry. Tried to rip the telephone off of the wall. When you were unable to do that you proceeded to pick up a metal folding chair and throw it at my head. Starting to sound familiar?,” said Agent Cavill.

“Nope. That don’t sound like me at all. I’m a very calm dude. Very chill. Totally nonviolent. I also got a gambling addiction. So… looks to me like you ain’t got nothing substantial to hold me on. Spook.” 

“Why do you keep calling me that?,” said Agent Cavill.

“Look in a mirror. Black suit, black sunglasses, earpiece, lip gloss. You act like you got all the authority in the world. Tell me I’m not hold up in some spook cave right now. Tell me there ain’t eleven exact carbon copies of you locked away in an underground bunker somewhere. I’ve seen it all. And since I just know you got a camera in here somewhere, lemme tell all the little bitches listening one thing: bullet to the head’ll still get you a date with your maker.”

“You seem agitated Mr. Maretti,” said Agent Wood.

“Yeah, you know, now that you mention it, I’m busting for a piss sweetheart, why don’t you open your mouth.”

Agent Cavill slammed a picture of Mr. Maretti stepping off the inbound train, timestamped at 7:29:28 am. “What were you doing on that train? If you don't tell us, somebody else will. Somebody that might not paint you in such a flattering light.”

“Look at you.” Mr. Maretti shook his head and smirked. “Like rats in a goddamn maze. You’re headed into a dead end, spook, just don’t know it yet. This the third time you’ve dragged me in here, and the third time you’ve sat there, spouting the same bullshit over and over and over again, expecting my shit to change. That’s the definition of insanity right there. You haven't learned a thing, have you?”

“Not quite. Learned you were in the marines. Marksman specialist. Later assigned to a Spec Ops team, callsign Phi. Tell us what you know Maretti, and I will personally guarantee your safety,” said Agent Wood.

“My safety?” Mr. Maretti chuckled, then appeared to sink within himself. “Last thing on this earth you care about is my safety. If you could, you’d shoot me, and say I tried to escape. Hell, still might. I know what we did was right. Can you fuckers say the same?” 

“What did you mean by that Maretti?,” said Agent Cavill.

“Exactly what you thought I did. I’m fuckin’ done.”

 

Hall’s Testimony

Special Agent Wood took a bite out of a week old blue cake. The time was 10:45 am. Over the course of Mr. Maretti’s interview, three more people in critical condition died. 

“Hall’s up next. You good?,” said Agent Cavill.

“Just peachy,” she said.

“Maretti’s an asshole. He’ll get what’s coming to him. They all will, if it comes to it.”

Inside the second interrogation room, Ms. Hall was drinking warm tap water out of a plastic cup. “Spared no expense here, huh agents? It’s okay, I get it. You’re doing your best. We all got jobs to do.”

“And what’s your job today, Ms. Hall?,” said Agent Cavill.

“Today… just sit here and wait, I suppose.”

“Ms Hall, why did you join the military?,” said Agent Wood.

“Well, I suppose, same reason as a lot of people. A sense of duty, honor, maybe a little craving for glory. But joining is also like getting a second family. A do-over. A fresh start. Where you can be anybody you want. The stoic commander; the wise-cracking lieutenant; the fussy brainiac that’s always over-prepared yet still manages to forget the detonator for all that lovely C4 she packed; the lone-wolf, who always shrugs off the rest of the team, tells ‘em all to got to hell, but always comes back at the end of the day.”

“You were an IT specialist, top of your class, is that correct?,” said Agent Cavill.

“You sure did your homework. I was.”

“You served alongside Mr. Maretti.”

“Not so much alongside him as twenty paces in front of him.”

“What do you make of him?”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Agent Cavill, but I won’t speak ill of a man that’s not here to defend himself. You make of Maretti what you will, I doubt anything I could say would stop you anyhow.”

“He sure does know how to run his mouth,” said Agent Wood.

“He get’s excited.”

“It took six officers to restrain him.”

“Well we should all be grateful he hadn't had his coffee yet.”

“Ms. Hall, as much as I enjoy your hospitality, let me get right down to it. Why were you on that train?,” said Agent Cavill. 

Ms. Hall broke eye contact and started staring at the bottom of her empty cup. “It’s a tragedy what happened. It truly is. All those wasted lives. When people want to make a statement, they tend to bury a lot of bodies alongside it. I can only thank our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that I got off that train when I did.”

“You didn't answer his question,” said Agent Wood. 

Ms. Hall began to fidget; the handcuffs that were keeping her attached to the table grinding against her wrists. “Could you take these off, please. They’re too tight.”

The agents looked at one another. “You can't be fucking serious,” said Wood. “There’s a time and place for everything,” said Cavill, as he took the key to the handcuffs out of his pocket, “and unless you’ve got another idea, that doesn't involve a gallon of water and a dirty rag, we’ve got no excuse not to.” Agent Cavill removed the handcuffs from Ms. Hall.

“Oh my,” she said, stretching her arms behind her head, “that feels so much better.”

Agent Wood placed a picture of Ms. Hall departing the inbound train, timestamped at 7:29:15 am. “Why did you get off the train?”

“It was my stop.”

“And were you aware that three former members of your Spec Ops team, callsign Phi, were onboard that train as well?”

“Agent, do you expect me to fuss over everyone’s schedule like a mother hen? It’s a small world, doncha know?”

Agent Wood fumbled through a thin folder with the word ‘Classified’ having been recently blackened out with a sharpie. “What about this man: Khabib Khoslov? Король медведей.”

Ms. Hall ran the tips of her fingers over the picture Agent Wood had put on the table and shivered. “The Bear King. There’s some bad shit up in the mountains you don’t want to fuck with. I heard stories about him. They say he once wrestled a grizzly, three times his own weight, must’ve been at least nine feet tall. Khabib wrestled the bear to the ground, pulled two of it’s biggest, sharpest teeth out, and jammed them in it’s eyes. Then, as the bear writhed on the ground, Khabib took hold of it’s jaw, and ripped it clean off. Hours went by before the bear bled out. And Khabib just sat on the ground next to it. Watching. That sound like a man you want to go around asking questions about? I don't know him. Just heard some stories. Like a lot of people, about the Boogeyman.”

Agent Wood took the picture back. “Where they teach you to bullshit like that?”

“I go to church almost every Sunday.”

Agent Cavill stood up. “Thank you, Ms. Hall, I think that’ll be it for now.”

“Not so fucking fast,” said Agent Wood.

Ms. Hall raised her cup. “Any chance I could get a little more-”

Agent Wood smacked it out of her hand. “What about Eddy?”

The smile that had been gently resting on Ms. Hall’s face for the better part of two hours faded. In it’s place came a twitch in her eye. The room grew cold and still. “You’re running out of air, darling.”

Agent Wood’s gaze didn't waver. “Your son, Eddy, is thousands of miles away from his mother. Why is that?”

Ms. Hall licked her lips. “When people really want to bury secrets, they tend to bury bodies right along with them.” She lunged forward and sank her teeth deep into Agent Wood’s neck. She was latched on like a parasite. It took the strength of Agent Cavill and three other officers to pry the two apart, at which point Ms. Hall exclaimed, through bloody teeth, “YOU TASTE RAW!” Agent Wood collapsed to the floor, and bled to death not long after. Ms. Hall was locked in a bulletproof glass box with a muzzle over her mouth befitting Hannibal Lector. 

 

Diazs’ Testimony

The time was 11:57 am. The death toll now eclipsed thirteen hundred. Sergeant Aebi had offered to join Agent Cavill for the remainder of the interrogations. The latter had agreed.

Inside the third interrogation room, Mr. Diaz was joined by a young man in a blue suit.

“Who the fuck are you?,” said Agent Cavill.

“I’m his translator, Erik.”

“Translator? Are you fucking with me right now? He’s been speaking the king’s perfect goddamn English for the past three hours!”

“Be that as it may. Mr. Diaz called me, and here I am. Shall we begin?”

Agent Cavill reached for his gun, only to remember that Sergeant Aebi had suggested he leave it outside. At the time, he had wondered why.

“Estos dos chicos blancos se ven caros. Eso es bueno. Me gustan las cosas caras. Apuesto a que el fantasma también tiene un teléfono jodidamente bonito.” (These two white boys look expensive. That’s good. I like expensive things. Bet the spook has a real nice fucking phone too.)

“What did he say?,” said Sergeant Aebi. 

“No puedo creer que Taylor me haya hecho perder aquí. ¿Crees que él puede escucharme? Oye, taylor, eres una puta polla!” (I can’t fucking believe Taylor got me wasting away in here. You think he can hear me? Hey, yo Taylor, you’re a fucking dick!)

“He said he was deeply saddened by what happened today in Zurich, and that he would be more than happy to share any information he could provide on Mr. Taylor and anyone else involved,” said Erik.

“This is fucking pointless.” Said Agent Cavill.

“Mira, mira hermano, me va a preguntar por qué estaba en el tren. Me va a preguntar Hijo de puta me da un dolor de cabeza.” (Look, look brother, he’s gonna ask me why I was on the train. He’s gonna ask me. Motherfucker gives me a headache.)

“Did he say something about the train?,” said Sergeant Aebi. “Why did he get off?”

“Porque tu hermana seguía gritando '¡No más! ¡No más!' Ella tiene un verdadero reflejo de mordaza. Lo siento por tu papá.” (Cause your sister kept screaming ‘No more! No more!’ She’s got a real nasty gag reflex. I feel sorry for your dad.)

“He said it was his stop,” said Erik.

“Bullshit!, that is not what he fucking said,” said Agent Cavill, slamming his clenched fists done on the table.

“Chill, hermano, chill. No sé a dónde vas, sólo a dónde te diriges. Arriba. Tren auge Mierda pasa. Todavía hay tiempo para irse. Alejarse.” (Chill, brother, chill. I don’t know where you’re going, just where you’re headed. Up. Train go boom. Shit happens. There’s still time to leave. Walk away.)

Erik looked at Mr. Diaz, the latter nodded. “He said you should walk away.”

“Why? Was it Khabib? Is Taylor working with him?,” said Sergeant Aebi.

“¿Malditos lunáticos lonestar ahora? ¿Crees que nos confundimos con un poco de terrorista, la mierda de James Bond? No hermano. Se trata de la comunicación, hermano. Asegurándonos de que todos estemos sincronizados. Asegurándonos de que todos escuchamos los mismos susurros en nuestro oído.” (Fucking lonestar lunatics now? You think we got mixed up in some terrorist, James Bond bullshit. No, brother. It’s all about communication, brother. Making sure we’re all in sync. Making sure we all hear the same whispers in our ear.)

“Diaz, you were Taylor’s second in command. We know Khabib has been on his radar for a long time. We also know that another member of your Spec Ops team, Hendricks, had expressed concerns over Taylor’s mental health and wellbeing in recent months. Do you know where he is?,” said Agent Cavill.

“Hendricks ... hijo de puta era como un maldito sabueso.” (Hendricks… motherfucker was like a goddamn bloodhound.) 

Agent Cavill placed a black and white picture in front of Diaz. “Taylor shot Hendricks, in the back of the head, two days ago. Right before he was set to get on a plane, and fly to the US, where he claimed he would share some startling evidence that suggested Taylor and a mysterious third party had been working covertly to undermine his own operations for God only knows how long. Was that third party Khabib Khoslov?”

“¿Le disparó? En la parte posterior de la cabeza? Follame Puedes olvidar al nido hermano de avispas. Ni siquiera sé dónde está mi mente ahora. ¿Es este infierno?” (He shot him? In the back of the head? Fuck me. You can forget the hornet’s nest brother. I don’t even fucking know where my mind is right now. Is this hell?)

Erick loosened his tie. “He said-” 

“Shut up. Diaz, look at me, if Khabib is in the country, you need to tell us now. He will be gone in a couple of hours, and then we’ll never find him again. Thirteen hundred people died today. You need to tell me why you were all on that train,” said Agent Cavill.

“Cuando rompió el segundo sello, escuché a la segunda criatura viviente decir: 'Ven'. Y otro, un caballo rojo, salió; y al que se sentó en él, se le concedió sacar la paz de la tierra, y que los hombres se mataran unos a otros; y le fue dada una gran espada.” (When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying ‘Come.’ And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another, and a great sword was given to him.)

“What did he say?,” said Sergeant Aebi.

“Nothing,” said Agent Cavill. “It’s just Taylor now.” 

 

Taylors’ Testimony

The time was 12:31 pm. Mr. Taylor had taken the liberty of starting without them.

“Listen only to the sound of my voice. Let your mind relax. Let your thoughts drift. Let the bad memories fade. Let peace be upon you. Surrender yourself to your dreams. Let them wash over you like the gentle waves of the bluest ocean. Let them envelope you. Comfort you. Imagine somewhere clam. Imagine somewhere safe. Imagine yourself in a frozen forest. You’re standing in a clearing. Trees around you so tall, they touch the sky. Pure white snowflakes fall all around. You can feel them melt on your skin. You are not cold. It cannot overcome the warmth of your beating heart. Can you hear it? You only have to listen. Can you hear it slowing? You’re slowing it. You are in control. Calm. At peace.” Agent Cavill and Sergeant Aebi sat across from him. “Welcome back.”

Agent Cavill took out a tape recorder and placed it on the table. “Please state your name for the record,” he said.

“Taylor. Okay, new blood, you’ve been here before. Let’s see if you can change history. 6:35 am, December twenty ninth. Task Force TIGRIS receive an anonymous tip, likely from the Easter Bunny or that parrot that does the Fruits Loops commercials, giving them the location of a hideout the suspected terrorists are using. Unfortunately, TIGRIS underestimated the firepower these assholes were packing. They got caught with their pants down and they took it hard. Outcome—train go boom.”

“Was Khabib at that hideout Taylor?,” said Agent Cavill.

“I think it’s time you woke up, don’t you? Santa Clause ain’t real. He’s dead. Locked up in my basement.”

“Are you able to comprehend the fact that you are suspected of murdering five of your former squamates? Fierro, kicked out of a high-rise window, by you. Conrad, pulled the pin on her own grenade, or was it you? Ramirez, drowned, by none other then you. Stone, stabbed twenty seven times, all you again. And Hendricks, shot in the back. Who could have guessed that one was you too?,” said Agent Cavill.

“I’m able to comprehend the fact that you ain't got shit. Baseless speculation by a man that’s in so over his head he can’t even remember what the color of the sky is. And, this is for the record, Hendricks stabbed Stone, not me. You wanna know how the bomb got on that train? You don’t wanna know how the bomb got on that train.”

Agent Cavill took the tape recorder in his hand and threw it against the wall. “Fuck you Taylor. You think I’m gonna be the last guy they send after you? You think it’s all gonna end with me?”

“What does it matter what I think? You’ve still got one more card to play. Let’s see it.”

Agent Cavill emptied the contents of the recently classified folder onto the table. “On your assault of the Saudi-Egyptian triple agent’s compound, a third party showed up to intervene. In Finland, as you pursued the Chernakov brothers, a third party was seen again. Somalia, you were supposed to gather intel on rival warlords, instead you found both of their severed heads stuffed full of chicken feathers. Japan, pursued a prominent Yakuza boss to an oil rig, where the mysterious third party was presumed to be killed. Only later the third party shows up in Berlin and executes your target, Ivan ‘The Accountant’ Rudel. Every single time we receive eyewitness accounts, CCTV footage, and fucking signed guest books, pointing to one man: Khabib Khoslov. You are working with a known terrorist to undermine the covert espionage operations of the United States government, and I want to know why!”

The lights in the interrogation room suddenly went out.

Music could be heard down the hallway amidst a roar of gunfire. 

“Only you can make all this world seem right. Only you can make the darkness bright. Only you and you alone can thrill me like you do. And fill my heart with love for only you…”

 

Khabib Khoslov’s Testimony

The time was 12:40 pm. Agent Cavill and Sergeant Aebi were pressed up against the right and left sides of the door leading out of the interrogation room. 

“Only you can make all this change in me. For it's true, you are my destiny. When you hold my hand I understand the magic that you do. You’re my dream come true, my one and only you.”

The gunfire outside had subsided. The music came to a slow end. 

Mr. Taylor cracked his neck. “Listen only to the sound of my voice.”

The door to the interrogation room was blasted open. Agent Cavill and Sergeant Aebi were dragged through bloodstained corridors by men in full tactical gear, and thrown outside into the freezing cold tundra. It was snowing. 

A man in grey sweatpants, with no shoes or shirt on, approached them. He had a tattoo of a great, black bear on his chest; it had tore a wolf in half and was reveling in the blood and entrails pouring over it’s face. 

“Let your mind relax.” He spoke in a thick Russian accent. “Let your thoughts drift. Let the bad memories fade. Let peace be upon you. Surrender yourself to your dreams. Let them wash over you like the gentle waves of the bluest ocean. Let them envelope you. Comfort you.”

Sergeant Aebi attempted to reach for his sidearm, only to have Khabib come up behind him and drive a knife through his chest. The Bear King held him still, watched the blood pour down and taint the snow, and when the flow had stopped, he snapped the sergeant’s neck.

“Imagine somewhere calm. Imagine somewhere safe. Imagine yourself in a frozen forest. You’re standing in a clearing. Trees around you so tall, they touch the sky. Pure white snowflakes fall all around. You can feel them melt on your skin. You are not cold. It cannot overcome the warmth of your beating heart. Can you hear it? You only have to listen.”

Mr. Taylor stood beside Khabib, as did Diaz, Maretti, and Hall. The Bear King offered Taylor a red, semi-automatic, M1911 pistol, and he accepted it. 

“Can you hear it slowing? You’re slowing it. You are in control. Calm. At peace.” 

Mr. Taylor aimed the M1911 down at Agent Cavill’s head. “Thank you.” And pulled the trigger. 

Chapter Text

 

You’ve been here before. 

Sure you have. You’re not here by accident or by chance. You are here by the grace of God. 

Well, come on over here and let ol’ Fred shake your hand! I gotta say, even though it’s been a spell, I recognized you from a mile out without even seein’ your face. Something about the way you move. Couldn’t have picked a better day to come back to Overlook. Or more like Overlooked am I right? Heh Heh. I know I should probably have stopped making that joke some twenty years ago, but every once and a while it puts a smile on someone's face. 

Now that the snow has finally started to melt, you can see the place hasn't changed much. I always loved this time of year. Winters in this neck of the woods are always rough, though maybe not as rough as they are a little bit north in Maine. Yeah, the worst we got this year was about four feet. Shoveling the stuff hasn't gotten any easier. Now I know what you're thinking: Why ain’t you got one of them fancy snowblowers yet, Fred. Well, I’ll tell ya. Gil Sanders, that old loon, he thought the same way you do. He got a Remington snowblower a few years back. When the first few flakes started to fall Gil was smiling like he just won the Powerball. So after a few hours he takes it out of the box and starts tearing through his driveway. Son of a bitch, I thought, maybe I gotta get me one of those after all. Then the thing jams up. Won't move anymore. So, with me watchin’ from my driveway, Gil starts fiddling around in-between the blades trying to see if anything is stuck. All of a sudden the thing pops back on again, and good thing Gil is a spry cat at his age, otherwise he’d be missing the better part of his left hand. So that’s why I ain’t got one. My shovel never tried to cut off my hand. Technology—ugh, one of these days…

Any who, you didn't come all this way to hear me blabber on. Snow is gone! Spring should be pullin’ into the station any day now. School’ll be starting up again too. Before you know it the beach crowd will be stampeding through here lookin’ to make their way down to Florida. And that’s good. Let them be Florida’s problem. We don’t need that kind of agitation in our little neck of the woods. All these big city hotshots do is bring with ‘em a bunch of ruckus. No thank you. 

Hey, why don’t we take a seat here on this bench. If I’m gonna preach like Ol’ Father Edison, might as well let you sit down. 

Ah, see, that’s better. This bench has been around here for a while. Supposed to be in remembrance of some big-whig that died about five hundred years ago. The plaque’s gone, though. Maybe it melted away with the snow. Not like anybody even knew who he was to begin with. 

You can see the whole town from here. Great spot for spectating. Just be mindful of that notice there on the post office behind you. Danny Briggs ain’t finished painting yet. I used to think he was retarded, mind my manners. He’s been coming by here everyday and repainting the same spot over and over again for about two weeks. Then I heard some chatter out of the Years End Itch. Apparently Briggs has been banned from ever stepping foot back in until he pays his bar tab. Could be the liquor, could be somethin’ else entirely, all I know is Danny and hard work aren’t exactly on speaking terms at the moment. 

What’s that? Oh! That! Kiddo, ain’t that a piece of work. Leon Wulf is a Nazi. Annabelle Springs has been putting those damn fliers up all over town. Hey, would you kindly take it down. Thank you. That woman has no decency. Thinks she’s all high and mighty cause she runs a food drive every year for the kids in some African country that probably ain’t even real. 

Poor Leon’s had his whole life turned to shit over this. He lost his job at the high school, his lady friend ain’t been ‘round to see him in ages. Hell, they got one of the Sheriff's men parked outside his house day and night cause some joker thought it was funny to send him a letter threatening to blow up his house. 

It all started when Leon had a barbecue over the summer. Wayne Jacobs just so happened to be there, and he don’t get along too well with Leon. He’s under the delusion that his son, Javon, failed chemistry because Leon had it out for him or some such nonsense. Never mind the fact that, well, Javon just ain't the type of kid that should be taking a chemistry class. Back to the barbecue. Wayne was snoopin’ around Leon’s house for who knows what reason, and happened to stumble across a box of medals. From what I was able to piece together the medals belonged to Leon’s father, who had the unfortunate pleasure of fighting on the losing side of World War Two. Now I’ll give it to ya straight, I don’t know what Wulf Senior got those medals for. I never met the man. But I suppose it don’t really matter. Just one look at a swastika and everybody's ready to burn you alive. 

Ah, don’t give me that look. I’m not sayin’ I like Nazis. All I’m sayin’ is why we gotta threaten to blow up this guys house? All he did was save some medals. Maybe he kept them as a reminder of what not to be, and what not to do. Maybe he just kept them because it happened. History is history. Maybe he didn't want to run from it. Truth is, I ain’t got a clue. But I don’t think it’s fair to blame everything wrong in the world on one guy. 

Now would you take a look at this. It seems to me that Deputy Pratt still ain’t learned his lesson when it comes to eyeing sixteen year olds in tight jeans. Couple months back Travis Whittaker came home from work and saw the Deputy with one hand goin’ up his daughter’s thigh. The way Travis and his oldest son Rob walked over there, it’s a good thing there weren’t any big rocks lying around. Naturally Pratt says he thought he smelled pot on the girl and that he was frisking her out of the desire to ‘protect and serve the community. 

I tell you, people just ain’t civilized anymore. Even in a small town like this. Let me offer you a for-instance. You see that fella over there standin’ in front of the Overlook Greenery? No, not the one with the handful of roses. That’s Jerry Till, he’s liable to screw just about anything with two legs and lipstick, and if you get him drunk enough he may just let the whole two legs thing slide. I’m talkin’ about the other guy, Bo, the one in the gray suit with a sour look on his face. He doesn't exactly have a last name to my knowledge, kinda like Cher. Reason he’s so sour is because he can’t afford a lawyer. I suppose Meaghan, the girl that owns the Greenery, wasn't to keen on lending him any money. Yep, Bo’s just about hit up everyone in town, except maybe you. Do me a favor, if he asks you to spot him, don’t indulge him. Bo only needs a lawyer because he forgot he was forty last week and took some kind of pill with a smiley face drawn on it. I don’t know what kind of pill it was or why it made him take his pants off, tie them around his head, and set them on fire in the middle of a high school PTA meeting. It just did. What I can tell you with certainty is that he didn’t get it from anyone in this town. A bunch of the moms at the school are suing Bo for… I actually don’t know what specific thing they’re suing him for. Could be any number of things, really. 

But that’s Bo. That’s not Overlook. We’re a simple town. Like the town in that show. With what’s his name? Kyle something or other. It doesn't really matter. A damn fine cup of Joe and a slice of homemade cherry pie, that’s the Overlook way. There goes Jessica Russo on her roller blades, all alone cause her big brother Damian says he caught her under the sheets with Claudia Silva. There’s Amanda Till, wife of Jerry, poor thing’s likely been up crying again. I can’t for the life of me imagine why she doesn't just leave him. Can only buy a woman roses so many times, but I suppose I don’t need to tell you that. Then of course you got Milena Crute, smoking one of those electronic cigarettes I guess all the kids love these days. Some things never change. All I can say is that I imagine there are easier ways to kill yourself. Ones that won’t cost the rest of us, too.

Unfortunately even in a small town like ours you can't avoid tragedy. 

Like six years back: drunk driver of an eighteen wheeler crashes into a pickup truck stopped at a red light. William Price was in that pickup. Served his country for eighteen years in the Corps. Did three separate tours in Iraq. Thought he would let his daughter, Chloe, pick him up from the airport after his most recent deployment. She’d just gotten her license. There’s no polite way of sayin’ the Grim Reaper’s a fucking asshole. Will’s dead, and Chloe’s a paraplegic. Poor thing can’t even… can’t even do a goddamn thing. I’m sorry. Just hurts to think about. The drunk driver got out of it without so much as a scratch. And the state is still keeping him alive. What purpose does a thirty year sentence serve? He ain’t gonna live that long. Won’t make it another twenty at that! If I had my way I’d kill the son of a bitch. Pardon my French. 

What’s that? Oh. Oh, the pawn shop. Yeah, that burned down not less than a month ago. Strange thing, too, gives me the shivers. Old miser by the name of Jersey ran the shop. Deputies found him with a nine iron buried halfway through his skull. I can tell you this much, I don’t want to meet the man strong enough to do that. It’s still an open case. No fingerprints, no DNA, no hair fibers, no nothing. It’s like Jersey was killed by air. The whole thing drove his son, Wade, crazy. He was sent to an institution down in New York, but I doubt it’s doing him any good. 

Things are rough all over though, as they say. I can't act like we have it worse than others, or better for that matter. Every once and a while, for all the good times we have picking apples and carving pumpkins, something just downright unusual happens. Perks of livin’ in a small town. Overlook is a nice place. We got good people. Maybe a few knuckleheads. Nothing we can’t handle, though. We’re a quiet town. World is a mad, mad, mad place, and folks like me try to keep as much of the madness out as we can. That’s why I think you should stay a while. You left once, and I’m sure you had fine reasons. But when you’re running from something, and I get the feeling you are, there’s no place to go but home. 

Kat Mason was running from her abusive partner, she came home. Erik Lang was running from his miserable job, he came home. Denis Walker ran away from a life of drugs and violence and came home. Adrian Moore was living the high life in LA, but he wasn’t happy, so he came home. Drew Vargas tried painting in Italy and it didn’t work out, so she came home. Nicole Ryan served eighteen months for tax evasion and after she got out, she came home. They’ll all be alright. And so will you. Welcome home. 

Oh, would you kindly hold on one more second. I’m glad to see you, but there was a more direct reason I called you over here. I saw you get in earlier today. You felt it too, I can tell. Couple folks around here say I’m crazy for thinking this way. I’m glad we see things the same way. Everyone’s bullshit is about to become very obsolete. 

You see that building across the street, few doors down from Jersey’s old pawn shop. The Massacre. It’s a record shop, or so I can tell. Owned and operated by some guy with a pair of dark, silver sunglasses that he never takes off. Has a mustache that ain’t been in fashion since the seventies. There he is now. Singing at the top of his lungs. “I'm burnin' through the sky, yeah. Two hundred degrees. That’s why they call me Mister Fahrenheit.” 

Shit, kiddo, I think he’s watchin’ us. He moved in right after the pawn shop closed. First thing in his store, before the records even, was a bag of golf clubs. Now I don’t know what you might call that, probably something fancy in latin, but I’d call it wicked. I don’t like that guy. Not. One. Bit. And you wanna know something? He knows it. They call him Mr. Platinum. 

Chapter Text

 

Would you kindly pick up that shortwave radio?

Now, would you kindly find a crowbar or something?

Careful now… would you kindly lower that weapon for a moment?

Would you kindly leg on over to the ‘sphere and get on down to Hephaestus?

Now, would you kindly head to Ryan’s office and kill the son of a bitch?

Would you kindly get stepped on by a Big Daddy?” - A man named Atlas

 

 

Present

Peach Wilkins was always skeptical of the audio-log practice. On the one hand, it did make keeping track of all his passwords easier, but on the other, it also meant that every no-name schmuck that wandered around in his apartment could find out those passwords too. It was a modern conundrum that Peach loathed finding himself in. 

He could feel the paranoia settling in. Maybe it would be the next person that came knocking at his door, maybe the one after that. Maybe someone would cut a hole in his ceiling while he was asleep, or blast a hole in the floor beneath his feet while he was in the shower. Someone would come, eventually. 

On the one hand, Peach figured there was a pretty good chance whoever it was would do a thorough sweep of his house, and destroy his logs. On the other, there was always a chance his mother had been right about him. Maybe he was smarter than he looked. 

Peach pressed the record button, and took a sip out of his glass of warm milk. “When we all came to New Vegas, it was under the delusion that Robert House would take care of us. The man could talk better than most, and that was because he believed every word that came spilling out of his mouth. His word was like gospel. So yeah, we all figured we’d be part of the Great Chain. Turns out, though, House’s chain was made of gold, and ours was the sort with a big iron ball around the ankle. He sat up on his perch, the Lucky 38, getting his dick sucked by fashion models…  while we were down sortin’ through his fuckin’ garbage, and making sure no one got any counterfeit chips into rotation. But then Gustavo came marchin’ into town, flanked by Nancy, and the duck, and that suave cunt with the pinstripe suit, and we bought into all their bullshit too. We were like an abused spouse; kept comin’ back for more after the bruises faded. But with these guys something felt different. We felt they were kinda like us. They had to put in a little elbow grease to get shit done. Gustavo didn't seem the type to trap himself in a gilded cage.”

Peach took another sip of milk. “But they wasn't any goddamn different. Hell, worse. Gustavo starts nailing people to crosses… suddenly shit ain’t so simple. You can't do a little bump in the bathroom before work anymore. Everything’s gotta have a prescription, and the only fucking place to get one is from the Germans. Because that’s what this miserable shithole really needed, fucking Nazis. So, now that vice has more or less been completely outlawed, some folks take to smuggling. You head on down behind that eyesore of a church nobody uses, and you can find some real choice products on sale. I’m talkin’ real Kobe beef, not whatever the fuck that lunatic shits out at the Ultra-Luxe. You can get a girl to jerk you off with one hand and inject heroin in-between your toes with the other, and afterward she won’t steal your kidney and give it to the Frenchman. Don Gustavo, though, he don’t take any gruff. Now people are mumbling about hangings. Nailing people to crosses wasn’t enough, you see, now we gotta ring their necks out in the square so all the fucking tourists can take pictures with ‘em.”

Peach felt his hands start shaking, but moved on. “So, there comes the Irishman: Atlas. The man doesn't so much talk as he does hypnotize. He says he can feel the side turning in ‘our’ favor. Who the fuck is he talking about? I haven’t the faintest idea, but it sure as shit ain’t ol’ Peachy. There’s somethin’ off about that fucking guy. He feels all too… familiar. He’s got strings everywhere. Can’t tell anymore who works for who. Maybe the guy I bought this thing from works for ‘em, maybe they all do. Atlas has the charisma, and everybody knows it. Gustavo couldn't sell sand to an Arab. Even a low level stooge like me can see which way the wind is blowing.”

Peach thought he heard the sound of footsteps coming down the hall. He lowered his voice and continued. “But Atlas ain’t who he seems. I’ve seen him break character, a few people have. Only now they’re all startin’ to drop faster than the fucking flies. I got a feelin’ I know who he is. I mean who he really is. I know I don’t got much longer left breathin’ this here air, so…” There came a knock at his door. Peach took the audio-log and scrambled across the room. “If anyone gets this, don’t trust Atlas. He isn’t real.” Peach stuffed the audio-log at the bottom of his sock drawer.

The door to his apartment suddenly flew off its hinges. 

A man in blue jeans stained with dirt and the smell of his own piss walked in carrying a six-shot revolver. “Ollie?” said Peach. 

A second man walked up behind Ollie. He had clean cut black hair, and a smile that could charm a fish to sprout legs and walk on dry land. It looked like Atlas. “Ollie, would you…” And it sounded like Atlas. But as Peach looked into its eyes, he could see nothing. Absolutely nothing at all. It was terribly familiar.

“Fontaine—”

“… kindly shoot this old dog here in the head.”

Peach staggered back and collapsed against his bookcase with a bullet slowly working its way through his stomach.

Ollie had tears in his eyes. He was trying to say something, but couldn’t bring himself to utter the words.

“Are you fuckin’ deaf?!,” Atlas shouted, although he didn’t sound like himself anymore, “I said, WOULD YOU KINDLY SHOOT THIS RAT FUCKIN’ PRICK IN THE GODDAMN HEAD!”

 

One Month Before Raven Arrived In The United States

“Now I don’t mean any disrespect here, Frank, but we need to have a serious fucking discussion about this,” said Technical Boy. 

“Fuck you, kid,” said Atlas, dialing back into his Irish prose. The pair were sitting at enormously opposite lengths of limousine; Technical Boy blew out a string of emerald steam. 

“Do I have to wait for a whole wardrobe change too? This ain’t Broadway, boyo, Mary Poppins isn't gonna get down on all fours and blow you after curtain call. Quit being such a whore and try to imagine the big picture here. But, most importantly, lest I be misinterpreted or overestimate the value of your intelligence, OUR version of the big picture. Not hers. Not that fucking nameless, faceless shape,” said Technical Boy.

“Last time I saw her, she had a name, and she had a shape. I’ve never seen ‘ol Jackie look that good in pink,” said Atlas, finding his groove.

“You’d be surprised how limited her imagination is. Jackie, Lucille, Ziggy, Marylin—she’s run out of mass market appeal to anyone that doesn't still tune in to antique road shows.”

“Testy today, aren't ya? I’ll let that ‘whore’ jab slide under the rug, for now. Cause I don’t feel like your heart was really in it. So, now that you’ve got my undivided attention, what can I do you for?” said Atlas.

“The two of us, me and her, we’ve been at this awhile. It was never all that hard. Technology and Media go hand in hand. The platform and the statue; the stage and the play. I never had a problem playing my part, boosting her up, getting people to see her—or at the very least the version of herself that she wanted them to see. We only began having problems when she suddenly started to forget I was there. That’s a fucking problem. You can’t watch I Love Lucy without a fucking television, farfetched as that concept may seem on paper. So now she thinks she’s gonna cut me out. I don’t think so. Fuck that, and fuck her. You see, I don’t need her. I can walk up and down the streets of this city and find better actors than her. She’s not the only one that can put on a fake wig, fake tits, and a fake smile, and go out there and read off a fucking teleprompter,” said Technical Boy.

“Well, the wig, sure, but I don’t need fake tits. And the smile is as genuine as Colorado spring water. What’s the script?” said Atlas.

“We’re running things on my system now. She can’t even make up her mind on what color heels to wear. This plague of indecisiveness will be, and must be, eradicated. The American Dream used to be our most popular product. Sold faster than hotcakes. Now people either haven't earned it, don’t deserve it, or have to share it. There can only be one Vice President of the company. That’s me. She wants Nazi’s on every street corner selling kids Joy. I’d much rather cut out the fascists and move past 1946, and into the new millennium. If it’s such a universal product, let it be sold universally: by and to everyone.”

“Sounds fucking grand. You want to break the news to the Germans? Cause I’d rather just dive head-fucking-first into a wood chipper than be the one to tell those goose-stepping sadists we’re pulling the plug on ‘em,” said Atlas.

“Is that fear I hear?”

“No, it’s the market value of my intelligence rising. Let me draw the fucking battle lines for ya, ‘case you were wondering. On our side it’s you, me, and the brat. On her side, you’ve got the Fourth Reich, Kazan, and possibly the Frenchman De Pleur. How exactly do you expect me to wage a one man, one barely legal entitled shit, war against German High Command and roughly ninety five percent of Russia? Cause you know dame well Mr. Graves, that glass-jawed little weasel, won’t declare the Independent Party in our favor,” said Atlas. 

“We didn't expect him to, so that shouldn't come as any surprise. As for the rest, let’s tackle them in reverse order. Starting with the lone Frenchman. Everybody that’s everybody hasn't heard shit out of Paris. They’ve gone dark. The only representatives they have stateside are De Pleur and Le Quack. The former being tempted by the allure of a slice of home carved just for him and him alone, the latter getting ready to murder everyone he can reach with a croquet mallet any second now. Not a good sign either way. This is good for us. It means we can strike at De Pleur without having to factor in reinforcements from abroad. And if retaliation ever comes, we’ll be in a lofty enough position to be able to scoff at their worst,” said Technical Boy. 

“How will it be done?”

“It shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that we are woefully underfunded. And as my continued efforts to make gains for us in Montana keep coming up raw, De Pleur seems like an opportune candidate to donate to our campaign. He’s got a casino, The Apollo, it’s west. All the way west. In New California Territory, sure, but they’re not in the game anymore. He’s sitting on a hoard worthy of Smaug. Perfect pickings.” 

“You want me to rob The Apollo? With what army?” said Atlas.

“You’ll figure it out. Consider outsourcing. Hoyt Volker has been sent to level the playing field a bit, as it were. You’ll need to keep an eye out for him,” said Technical Boy.

“Upper Management just can’t sit idly by, can he?”

“Subterfuge and counter-intelligence are all fair play. But it all has to be regulated. Volker will delight in sticking his prick where it doesn’t belong, but we can’t allow him to hold a greater significance as a deterrence to our endeavors than he really is.”

“I can’t shoot him?” said Atlas.

“Consider him the referee.”

“I’ll take that as a no.”

“For now. As for the Germans—”

“Leave them to me. I’ve got an ace in the hole. Das Wunderkind,” said Atlas.

“If you say so. I’ll make sure the Russian bear devours itself. I’ve got an ace of myself. She just doesn’t know it yet.”

“Not bad,” said Atlas, leaning back, “we’re forgetting someone, though.”

“No,” said Technical Boy, “I don’t think we are.”

 

Before Hoyt Arrived At The Hoover Dam

Atlas couldn't concentrate on account of two sounds: the water bellowing as it rushed over the side of the dam, and the irritating ‘click clock’ of someone’s tongue. “Would you kindly,” he said, massaging his temples, “fucking stop that.”

The Devil looked across the table at him, eyes shining with a malevolent twinkle. “Don’t be such a brute, darling,” she kicked her feet up and ran her tongue along the tips of her teeth, “the sand’ll shake outta your twat eventually.”

“What a clever little shit you are. Get your fuckin’ feet off the goddamn table.”

“Make me.”

“Don’t act like a child.”

“I am a child, remember? Or are you only allowed to make that excuse when it suits you?”

Atlas shrugged. “Answer me one little question, darling, where exactly do you think money comes from?”

“My smooth, porcelain ass.”

Ugh, why do I even bother.”

“Because you are a man. Not one in the sense that you’re thinking. I mean in the broader tense, a human, if you prefer. You are trying to understand something that you simply can’t. But you refuse to accept that because man, humans, are inherently prideful creatures. There is nothing that you can’t piece together with enough facts and statistics and opinions and blah, blah, blah. I hate talking to you. I always feel like I have to give some overblown speech. Telling you to fuck off just doesn't cut it anymore. Why is that? You know what, don’t answer. I don’t care. Next time you should just leave me in the hotel like I asked.” She didn't seem satisfied yet. “Where do I think money comes from? Fuck you. Seriously. Fuck. You.”

“Alright, that’s enough.”

“No, it’s not. Three hundred and sixty four fucking days out of the year I could drown the Harlem Globetrotters in a swimming pool and you wouldn't care. But now— now all of a sudden I’m ‘stepping over the line.’ What the fuck does that even mean? If I sprawl some twenty two year old out on my bed, my bed, and she doesn't like it when I wrap my hands tightly around her neck and squeeze, watching her face turn purple and her pupils dilate, as the life slowly leaves her body, and her tits stop bouncing up and down as the will to break free finally dies, what concern is it of yours? I clean my messes up, unlike you. I’m not a fucking self-absorbed hack, unlike you. I haven't bit off more than I can chew, unlike—”

“THAT’S ENOUGH MADDIE!” Atlas could feel the veins in his neck ready to disconnect from the rest of his body. In the moment of silence, he tried to settle his breathing. There was a part of him that momentarily questioned raising his voice. It took only one glance across the table to quell the concern. 

Maddie,” she smirked, “that’s one I haven't heard in a while. What was it short for anyway? Madison? I don’t even remember. I think I like it. Maddie. ‘Hey, Maddie, would you kindly fetch me a pair of pliers. Maddie, lass, would you kindly stir me up a gin and tonic, without too much tonic, you know what forget the tonic, just grab the whole bottle of gin.’ Whaddya think?” she raised her eyebrows.

“I think your deranged,” said Atlas. 

“I accept that,” Maddie winked, “who do you think Gus sent?”

“Caesar, most likely.”

“What’s the name of his bird?”

“Evan.”

“Oh,” Maddie’s eyes rolled to the back of her head as she let out a moan of ecstasy, “what I wouldn't give to lick her body clean. No matter if she were drenched in sweat, vinegar, or something positively unsavory… it’s in moments like these I wish I was well endowed with a huge prick. Coming inside her must feel like bliss.” Then she appeared to digress. “Too bad she’s straight. How come the best ones are always straight? I mean they don’t even bend a little, even when they’re piss drunk.” She felt the glare of Atlas bearing down on her. “Okay, fine, we’ll talk about you now. Cause for some reason, even with all your impenetrable luster, you can’t fathom the unfathomable. Where should we start? Your feelings? Your goals? What you want to be when you grow up? I can still answer that. I’ve always dreamt of being an astronaut, or maybe a firefighter. I think I could probably do both.”

“Hoyt is gonna be here any minute. You can't put this little show on for him. He won’t buy it,” said Atlas.

“Good, cause I’m not selling. You know what we should do? Play poker.”

“No.”

“Yes!”

“I need to focus, and Hoyt cheats. There’s a reason people always have the same cards as him.”

“Focus on what? You know why he’s here: to heckle. That’s how this works, right? Subterfuge and all that. Upper Management doesn't want anyone to have an unfair advantage. However…”

“However what?”

“I can play that game too. Maybe even better than he can.”

“No.”

“What? Why?”

“You wanted a part to play, I gave you one. How’s it going?”

“Ugh!,” she sulked, “everyone on the Strip is so goddamn boring. Why do you even need an ace in the hole for The Apollo? Everybody here is gonna stick out like a sore thumb anyhow.”

“Not everyone.”

“Then why don’t you do this? You always want things done your way and get upset that when you get other people to do them, surprise surprise, you’re not in sync. 10 in Intelligence—bullshit.”

“Look, it’s all about being able to read people. You can do that, but it takes practice. You’ve got to be able to know what they want before they do, and if they tell you they want Atlantic salmon, it then becomes your job to convince them that what they really want is a nice, grilled swordfish.” They heard a car door slam outside. “Put on your best poker face, kid, it’s showtime.” 

 

One Month After Atlas Met With The Technical Boy

“… we’ll be needing Dr. Steinman’s expertise. He’s the one what runs this place. But I don’t expect him to lift a finger out of the milk of human kindness. Steinman ain’t that kind, and frankly, I’m not even sure he’s still human,” said Atlas. He looked over at Reggie and found him admiring a pop-up advertising stand in the Medical Pavilion. 

“A civilized man has power over fire. A refined man handles fire with finesse. DEVIL’S KISS. Special, one time offer of just six hundred and sixty six dollars… OLD MAN WINTER: Freeze your foes with this Arctic ally! Special…” The vigor salesman seemed to have the stamina and supply to go on for hours, but Atlas remained unenthused. 

“Reggie!” he said, placing a firm hand on his associate’s shoulder, “the competition ain’t fuckin’ eye candy you get to ogle for free. If you don’t think ol’ Jeremiah Fink ain’t chargin’ by the blink you’re a daft fool.” 

“Yeah, okay boss.” Reggie pulled his gaze away from the vigor salesman, who was now lighting a woman’s cigarette with the snap of his fingers. 

They continued their stroll through the Pavilion, towards the doctor’s office. 

J.S. Steinman had been a respected member in the upper echelons of the medical world once upon a time. He’d gotten his degree from Harvard, and had a successful, if short, career as an orthopedic surgeon. His rise to fame came in the form of accolades in the field of plastic surgery. Steinman sold himself as a sculptor of beauty, a ‘Picasso of Surgery,’ for those that could afford it. “Then the good doctor started seeing Aphrodite, Greek goddess of who knows what,” said Atlas, “she didn't do nothin’ but drag that man to lunacy. Now I don’t know if it was because of the cocaine he was snortin’ off his assistant’s ass, or the ether he filled his bathtub with— hell, maybe he bought into some of that Fink brand genetic modification horseshit. The man could make a girl look like the reincarnation of Ms. Monroe herself, and somehow that bitch in his head would find a way to convince him otherwise. Then he’d say the girl was ugly and start all over again. Got ousted from bein’ an officially licensed doctor a few years back on two counts. The first bein’ that he caved his lovely assistant’s head in with a meat tenderizer cause her freckles weren't ‘symmetrical.’ The second because the hospital staff found him stealing bodies from the morgue.”

Doctor J.S. Steinman was written on the outside of the glass doors leading into his office; the place was packed. A range of voices could be heard from within. “The ladies will be knockin’ at my door… Steinman’ll fix me. Everything will work out. Just you wait… Darling you really MUST go see Steinman… everyone goes to Steinman…Closed?… Goodness, no… Medical is open—Steinman is open!… You simply must schedule an appointment… He’ll open you, too.”

“I can’t tell who’s crazier,” said Atlas, “the doctor or his patients.”

Reggie still looked distracted. “I hate this part of Medical, boss. These people are fucking nuts. I saw some guy get shot by a lady rolling around a baby carriage with nothin’ in it, just last week.”

“You’re gettin’ paranoid with age old boy. Look, I wouldn't be comin’ down here if it wasn't important. If we don’t get Steinman, we don’t get a seat at the table. And if we don’t get a seat at the table, then we’re gonna be gettin’ bent over and fucked until the rest ‘a these louts get tired of us. Is that what you want?”

Reggie shuffled back and forth on his feet. “Well, maybe with OLD MAN—”

Atlas tore into his pocket and ripped a couple hundred bucks out of his wallet. “It’s just rat poison and turpentine blended together in a real fancy lookin’ bottle, but if you want to drink it, and buy into Fink’s bullshit, go right ahead. But you’re payin’ me back, with interest.” 

“Thanks boss,” Reggie took the money and all but ran back toward the vigor vender.

Atlas walked into Doctor Steinman’s office. He didn't have a receptionist, just a security camera positioned above a locked door that clicked open on a whim. 

“Hey!” one of the patients in the waiting room yelled, “you’re dead!”

“What?”

“Yeah,” another patient chimed in, “this guy’s fuckin’ dead.”

“What the bloody hell are you people talking about?”

“You better not waste Steinman’s time, dead man. I’ve got a date with the president in three hours, and the last time I was there he wanted me to have bigger tits.”

“I can’t—”

“And my nose is too long, Dr. Steinman said he was going to cut it off.”

“You people are—”

“Hey, dead man, how come you ain’t dead?”

All around Atlas was a swarm of people that barely looked human. A few were bleeding from their eyes, others had crystal like deformities growing on their skin; with some their skin was just falling off their bodies as they walked, or hanging together in clumps. Women and men alike had little to no hair on their head, but patches thick as bear fur running down their arms. No two people had the same color eyes, or even the same color skin. They had burning red rashes all along their thighs and middle body, spreading out from their groin. Some had their fingers fused together, while others had rows of missing teeth. 

“SPLICERS!” Atlas screamed, pushing through the hoard. “GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME YOU GODDAMN SPLICERS!” They began laughing. “WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT?! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LAUGHING AT?!” Atlas had backed himself up against the door leading into Steinman’s office. He pounded on the door with one hand and reached for his six-shot revolver with the other. “OPEN THE GODDAMN DOOR STEINMAN YOU MAD BASTARD!” He fired a shot off into the air, and then another at the feet of one of the splicers. “I WILL KILL EVERY SINGLE FUCKING ONE OF YOU! YOU HEAR ME! WITH MY BARE FUCKING HANDS IF I HAVE TO!” Suddenly Atlas felt the air behind him slip out, and upon realizing the door was now open, he rushed inside and slammed it shut. 

As he lay on the burgundy carpet in the foyer of Steinman’s office catching his breath, a tennis ball rolled toward Atlas from further in the room. Another one shortly followed. He turned and saw a tennis ball launcher with a blinking green light. It was staring at him, maliciously, hoping that each projectile it fired would gain enough momentum to burst right through his chest. The sound of their flight through the air and subsequent landing on the ground beside him was the only one he could hear. The space on the other side of the door had gone silent. Atlas got to his feet just as the doctor’s voice started echoing into an audio-log. 

“Today I had lunch with the Goddess. ‘Steinman,' she said... ‘I'm here to free you from the tyranny of the commonplace. I'm here to show you a new kind of beauty.’ I asked her: what do you mean, goddess? ‘Symmetry, dear Steinman. It's time we did something about symmetry…’” Upon looking up and seeing Atlas, he stopped recording.  “Well, aren't you a tonic for tired eyes. Welcome. We’ve been expecting you.”

There were dozens of empty, green Fink MFG vigor bottles all over the floor in front of the desk Steinman was sitting behind. The design on each was of a wavy, emerald sword piercing a heart, with the caption: Any Stallion Can Be Tamed! There was a little green female spirit twirling around the doctor’s left hand. She was whispering to him. “Come, gentle night, come… Give me my Romeo… Take him and cut him out in little stars.” 

“I have had about enough of your bullshit, doc,” said Atlas.

“You’re selling snake oil, Franklin, and I’m not a barbarian. What you ask of me, it simply can't be rushed. If you were to give yourself to me, completely, maybe the pace could pick up a bit. Yet still, the metamorphosis from a common man to a great man requires, on the behalf of both parties, a certain elegance. Change your look, change your sex, change your race. It’s yours to change, nobody else’s. But what excuse do I have—do we have, not to sculpt, and sculpt, and sculpt, until the job is done? What if it is not my skill that fails me… but my imagination? You will not make a mockery of my practice.” Said Steinman, the scalpels at the tips of his fingers coated in blood.

“Is that a threat you fucking junkie?!” As his Irish accent faded, Atlas broke character. “How much of my fuckin’ money did you piss away on this Fink brand neurotic meltdown?!”

“There it is, now you’re starting to sound more like yourself,” said Steinman with a chuckle.

“You think this is funny? Huh? You arrogant little cocksucker. Where would you be without me? WHERE THE FUCK WOULD YOU BE?! GODDAMN NOWHERE! I’M the one that got you this little corner office. I’M the one that got all those questions about your ethics, and your sanity silenced. That little fuckin’ fairy mumblin’ sweet nothings into your ear belongs to me. I OWN HER.” 

Steinman couldn’t find a way to stop smiling. He started to laugh.

Frank reached across the desk and grabbed hold of him. “WHAT’S SO FUCKING FUNNY?!” He slapped the doctor with the back of his hand, but this only seemed to send him into a deeper frenzy. Frank punched Steinman in his nose, then threw him to the floor. “STOP FUCKING LAUGHING AT ME!” He began kicking the doctor in his stomach. “STOP. FUCKING. LAUGHING. AT. ME.” 

Steinman curled up into a ball, blood pouring from his nose and mouth. “Not even,” he croaked, “not even… with all the surgery in the world… could you ever…dream… of fooling anyone.”

Frank walked over to the tennis ball launcher, picked it up, and slammed it down on Dr. Steinman’s head. 

Reggie suddenly came rushing in. “Boss?” he said.

Frank wiped the sweat from his brow. “Boyo,” said Atlas, “would you kindly get the bloody car running.”

 

Three Months After The Death Of J.S. Steinman

Booker Dewitt took a cigarette out of his pack of No Love and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. He looked over the design on the front of the pack: a wolf with a lit bud in-between each razor sharp tooth. He snickered, heard the elevator doors ding open in front of him, stepped forward, and hit the down button. The larger than comprehension solid, twenty four carrot gold statue of Jeremiah Fink loomed over the entirety of Finkton Proper like a haze of smog. “It couldn't have even looked good on paper.” Booker found himself muttering to no one in particular. 

“What is the most admirable creature on God's green Earth?” Booker could hear Fink’s voice coming over the speaker in the corner of the elevator. “Why, it's the bee! Have you ever seen a bee on vacation? Have you ever seen a bee take a sick day? Well, my friends, the answer is no! So I say, be… the bee! Be the bee!” 

Booker rolled his eyes. “Oh, can it would you.” 

When the elevator doors dinged open on ground level, Dewitt stepped outside and took another long look up at the man whose name got printed in big, bold letters on all the signs. He felt something prick the back of his throat and noticed he still hadn't lit his cigarette. “Be the bee, huh Fink?” He tossed his smoke aside and walked forward into the Proper.

There was a vigor vender standing just outside Chen Lin’s Gunsmith Shop holding a green, ram-shaped bottle for Booker to see. “Blow your enemies away with a powerful CHARGE! Deliver tornado blows or hold and release to devastate your enemies.

“No thanks pal,” said Booker, “better luck on the next guy.”

Chen Lin was supposed to be the most renown small scale weapon manufacturer in all of Columbia. Word had come to Booker that Fink had tried and failed at least a dozen times to get Lin to come work for him. The time had come, Dewitt supposed, for Fink to stop asking so nicely; maybe stop asking at all. 

Booker checked to make sure his Pinkerton issue hand cannon was fully loaded before stepping inside the shop.

“Mr. Lin?” Booker called out. “Mr. Chen Lin?” There was no response, nor the sound of operating machinery. He began to ascend a flight of stairs toward what a sign told him was Mr. Lin’s personal quarters. “Mr. Lin?” Booker called again. “Chen Lin? Anybody here?” When he got to the top of the staircase, Dewitt saw a man in a black, Chinese tunic suit sitting in front of a polished, wooden vanity set. All the buttons of the tunic were sloppily undone and underneath was a white tank top stained with grease. The man looked back at Booker through the mirror on the vanity. He was in the process of spreading adhesive across his face with a cotton swab; there was a prosthetic face draped over a mannequin head beside him. 

“Would you kindly keep it down, boyo, I’m tryin’ to concentrate.”

Booker let his right hand gently sway over his hand cannon. “Atlas. Where is Mr. Lin?”

“Well, as you can see, he ain’t exactly on the premises. But don’t worry, I got Reggie keepin’ a close eye on him and the missus. I wouldn’t call it a vacation at the Ritz, but they won’t be runnin’ out of air anytime soon.”

Booker removed the hand cannon from its holster. “And just what the hell are you doing wearing his clothes, and preparing to wear his face.”

“Well, when you say it with such enthusiasm, all my wonders about why you never made it in show business settle down right quick. You got a pretty big head on ya there, Mr. Detective Agency, time to remove the training wheels and take a seat at the grownups table for once.”

“And pray tell what you’re serving.”

“Grits,” said Atlas, “never had ‘em but I hear they’re all the rage out here. Humor me for a minute boyo, that meetin’ you had with the Arizonian, the ‘priest’ for lack of a more apt word, what you two talk about? That narrative you spun about Jessica-what’s-her-name taking an unfortunate tumble down some woefully misplaced stairs sure was riveting. Still, long drive just to reminisce.”

Booker held the hand cannon in his hand and aimed it at Atlas. “We’re not gonna go there today, Frank.”

“Oh,” Atlas stood up, “sure we are.” He started walking towards the Pinkerton. “We’re gonna dive right in. Cause I find it rather funny, don’t you? The way life works. She can be a spiteful bitch, can’t she Dewitt? You see, I’m just havin’ a hard time piecing it all together here. Maybe you can help. Why is this guy so important? Who is he so important too? You wanna try and convince me she had his cock in one hand and yours in the other? Is that it? Cause you ain’t that good a liar, boyo. And believe me, I would know.” Atlas placed his forehead against the barrel of the hand cannon. “Would you kindly tell me who was there with you?”

Booker swallowed hardly. “Russians. Czernobog, Khoslov, Klomes—”

“Klomes? He Russian now?”

“Couldn't tell. He was just there. Chatted with Czernobog for a minute. Took one look at the body. Kid was practically jumping out of his own skin. I don’t think he’ll be able to bluff for too much longer.”

“Really? Would you kindly tell me why you’d say a thing like that?”

“He’s got that look in his eye. There are voices screaming in the back of his head. Sooner or later he’ll spill. That’s when shit’ll start getting ugly.”

Atlas nodded his head. “Russians are in with the Arizonian. Klomes is in with the Russians. Klomes is burstin’ at the seems. Lucille in on all this?”

“Who?” said Booker.

“Safe to assume she isn’t, then. I appreciate your time Pinkerton, now would you kindly fuck off.” 

Booker lowered his gun and started walking back down the staircase.

Atlas cracked his knuckles. “Life finds a way,” he said with a smile, looking over at Maddie as she emerged from the corner of the room. She was running a piece of jagged glass along the inside of her palm. “How’s that for justice.”

 

After Lanius Arrived At the Sierra Madre

“What’s the word on the Strip?” Said Technical Boy, taking a sip out of his glass. It was filled with a rum so sweet Atlas wondered why he didn’t just fashion himself an ice cream sundae. 

“Do me a favor boyo and don’t worry that pretty little head of yours over the degenerate gamblers and the alcoholics. I told you we were forgetting someone, you daft prick, but you were too bloody stubborn to listen to me. Like I said, no need to worry. I’ve got the situation well under my control.” 

“Forgive me for never placing Jacob Klomes at the top of my list of imminent threats to this operation. So, enlighten me, why do you?”

Semantics. I wouldn't expect you to understand,” said Atlas, posturing, “because he’s not a threat. He’s a thread. We pull on him, well, who knows what’ll happen. Reckon it’ll be pretty goddamn interesting though.” 

“I don’t give a fuck what will amuse you. Why am I here?”

“To get some sun. Look, Klomes has been asking all the wrong questions to all the wrong people. We’re just nudging things along to fit within our schedule.”

“I’ve asked two questions already. What’s the point?” 

“Aces, boyo, always pays to have more than just a few up your sleeve.”

Technical Boy rolled his eyes. The view outside the suite Atlas was operating out of didn’t provide much other than the view of a construction crane moving Sinclair brand vending machines to and from different parts of the casino grounds. This was done on an almost hourly basis, with no sense of reason seeming to be involved with what was moved where. “This place is worse than a fucking amusement park. Worse than Disneyland with all his incessant merchandising. It’s not gonna last. No one is gonna want to drive almost five hours off the Strip to come here. For what? You play the same game of roulettes, fuck the same plastic showgirls, drink the same swill.” He threw his drink across the room. “Someone should do me the favor and shoot him. Better yet, lock him up in his vault. I hear he’s got one.”

Atlas’ eyes fixated on the broken glass and sweet rum spreading across the marble floor. “You know I have to pay for this room, right? You need to work on your people skills, boyo. Can’t be the VP if they move your office down to human resources.”

“Ha ha.”

“How about we talk about something real. The Apollo.”

“What about it?”

What about it?” Atlas chuckled to himself. “It’s gonna take more time—and before you start runnin’ that mouth of yours, hear what I’m tellin’ ya crystal clear. If you want this job done right, and when I say right I mean with the most money in our pockets, then we’re gonna need to start taking things a little more seriously. Cause right now, if we just walk right in there and nick whatever looks shiny, we can outrun De Pleur for sure, but we’ll just wind up dyin’ tired.”

“We need that money—and before you tell me that we’re gettin’ by just fine, hear me when I tell you to get fucked. This job is only as hard as you desire to make it. Money is all De Pleur has. You go in there, take it from him, who’s gonna chase you? The Sheriff? The Mayor? A combination of the two? Who do you think pays them? What do you think they get paid with? All De Pleur has is money. Nobody said it had to be any harder than that.”

“An educated society is just as, if not more dangerous than an uneducated one. De Pleur is money on paper. Inside that fortress he has masquerading as a casino, you know what he’s surrounded by? Suits. Your suits. Her suits. I can’t fucking tell. They’re all over the bloody place. I step within five hundred feet of that place ever again and I’m fucking dead. Guarantee it. So when I say we need to take this seriously, I fucking mean it. Now I’m workin’ on puttin’ a crew together, but I can’t have cash bein’ a problem. Moreover, I need suits of my own. I need Spooks I can trust. You are the twenty first century after all, ain't ya, invent something.”

Technical Boy ran his tongue along the backs of his teeth. He appeared to be at a loss. The one variable he hadn’t accounted for was now being tested at his expense. Yet, this didn’t seem to offset him. Atlas thought he looked mad, and he couldn’t have been happier. “We’ll just wind up dyin’ tired. Remember you said that. I’ll see what I can do. Give my regards to the kid.”

Atlas was left in silence. He went into the kitchen and took a roll of paper towels out from under the sink. Walking back over to the spill, he began drying up the rum where it was closest to reaching the carpet. Then he began picking up the biggest pieces of glass he could find and placing them in his hand. 

He was well aware Maddie was watching him. She had most likely been doing so for some time. She had heard everything he said to the Technical Boy, and everything he had to say in response. Her own opinions were already starting to swirl and stick together and form on the tip of her tongue. Atlas was also well aware that her clothes were completely stained in blood. He didn’t feel the need to question whether or not it was hers, or even who’s it was at all, for that matter. He had a fairly reliable imagination. 

A knock came at the door. “Mind answering that?” 

Maddie shrugged. “We’re not talking about it later.” She opened the door.

“Who’re you?” Said a woman with the number 17 tattooed on her neck.

“I’m the Devil, lady, who the fuck are you?”

 

After Benny Shot Oliver In The Head

“I feel like I just got raped.” 

Atlas looked over at Maddie and rolled his eyes. “I told you I didn't want to play poker.”

“It was his idea!”

“Well fuck Hoyt too, then. You’re both cheats.”

The pair had set off across the Mojave just before daybreak. 

“You let ‘em con you,” said Maddie. 

“Oh please…” As Atlas shielded his eyes from the freshly awoken sun, he figured  the time was about seven thirty. “Hoyt’s here to play the spoiler. It ain’t worth puttin’ in the energy tryin’ to fight gravity.”

“Says a man that’s afraid of heights.”

“The power company is an eyesore anyway,” said Atlas. He could see the sign welcoming them to Goodsprings in the distance. 

“Have you ever even met Upper Management?”

“No, and if I ever do, I’m sure it’ll be when he’s lowerin’ me into my fucking grave,” said Atlas as he stopped and got down on one knee. He laid his briefcase out on the sand and opened it. “Got the mustache—good. Remembered those bloody Rorschach tests. Shoebox—check. Revolver… loaded. We’re almost at curtain call, children.”

Maddie was twirling, the tips of her toes gently sinking. “Where the hell are we even going?”

“Nowhere.”

“I thought we’d already been to Nowhere.”

Atlas closed his briefcase and dusted the sand off his pants. “Take a look at it,” he motioned to the quiet town, “what’s it look like to you?”

She shrugged. “Nowhere.”

They walked past an empty shack with oil canisters stacked up outside it and a schoolhouse that had been closed down because it was being eaten alive by termites. Easy Pete was fast asleep in a chair outside the Prospector’s Saloon, cradling a plastic lunch tray and two empty Sunset Sarsaparilla bottles. Atlas could see Chet fumbling around inside the general store, probably looking for the wallet he hadn't remembered losing yet. The door to Doc Mitchell’s house was unlocked.

“He underneath the floorboards or something?” Said Maddie, pinching her nose to keep out the overbearing stench of cleaning chemicals. 

“I had Mr. Road handle it. He either made a really big mess or decided to spruce the place up a bit out of the kindness of his heart.”

“Why the fuck haven't you shot him yet?”

Atlas put his briefcase down on the kitchen table,“a spook is a spook,” and opened the back windows. “Besides, when we’re done with him there’s a line nine miles long lookin’ to drive icepicks though his skull.”

“What’d he get from Wednesday?”

“The Independent Party infiltrated Montana, but that’s old news. I don't know which side of the tracks he’s lookin’ to get run over on, but he gave somethin’ to the Legate. That interests me.”

“You know, I don't give a fuck about him. I don't give a fuck. You and everybody else in this desert wanna suck him off so badly go ahead. He just ain’t my type.” Maddie propped herself up in the doorway leading out into the clinic area. There was a broken 9mm submachine gun next to some dusty chemistry equipment. 

“Speaking for us, you and me, he’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L.”

“Doesn't look that way. He’s lost in the stars.”

“Look, Lanius is in, whether he knows it or not. He’s the only one that can get to De Pleur,” said Atlas. 

“Says you.”

“You’re goddamn right, says me. We are out of time. Lanius is our ace. He’s got natural camouflage. When he heads out west no one bats an eye. They think he’s goin’ to visit family. Brother sister, aunt, uncle—the Victoriano’s got residency on every fuckin’ street corner. De Pleur won’t see him comin’.”

“And the rest of our illustrious cast?”

“Chris Walker as the Brawn. Dee and Dumb as the Brains. Vulpes as—”

“The dumb twat.”

“Mr. Courage will iron everything out in rehearsal. Provided, that is, you stop sticking your fingers up her ass.”

“All work and no play—”

“Oh, would you kindly give it a rest. The plan’s finally startin’ to come together here. Do you have any intention of crossing the finish line with me? Or would you rather keep bangin’ your head against the asphalt?”

“The asphalt doesn't move every time I pick my head up. There is no finish line. Only the image of what you think one looks like. But, let’s not bicker over semantics. You forgot the shovel, let’s hope they didn't bury him.”

The Goodsprings Cemetery had thirty two graves. Three of which were unmarked and freshly dug under the water tower at the cemetery’s north edge. Signs that read Keep Out were attached to the makeshift fencing bordering the valley below. A snow-globe was lying in the sand next to one of the graves. Maddie picked it up and began shaking, even though half the water was gone. Artificial snowflakes fell over a little figurine with a pickaxe slung over his shoulder and a windmill towering behind him. “We good?” She said, eyes still fixated on the snowfall. There was no answer. Maddie turned to see Atlas staring up at the water tower. 

Spray painted across the side in light green was: Go Home Fontaine.

“I think Hoyt might be playing a little more than just the spoiler. Seems to me like he’s picking sides.”

Atlas started shaking his head as he jumped down into one of the fresh graves. “We gotta get movin’ kid. Before he brings the whole bloody sky down on top of our heads.” 

“What if he knows about the Apollo?”

Atlas threw a body out of the grave. “All the more reason not to waste anymore time,” he wiped the sweat from his brow, “mind givin’ me a hand.”

Maddie helped him up. “You sure about him?”

Atlas hoisted Oliver up on both his shoulders. “No more loose ends, boyo.”

 

One Week Before Atlas Traveled West To The Mojave Wasteland

Brigid Tenenbaum never wanted children. They had always disgusted her. Snot was constantly dripping from their noses and everything that wasn't nailed down got shoveled into their mouths. Children never stopped crying. They were hungry all the time. They got scared too easily. If children weren't complaining they were asking for something that they knew they couldn’t have. Brigid couldn't imagine living with them. They would throw their food all over the place, have no respect for the furniture, and run around nonstop making it impossible for her to concentrate. She didn't want children. She told herself that every time she would pass a couple of them in the street riding their bikes, or when they came to her door selling little boxes of cookies. Yet, when she did see them in the street, Brigid would wonder to herself why the kids weren't wearing any helmets. It didn't look safe, and she might have even told one of them that before, but she didn't remember. She had bought a couple of boxes of cookies too, but assured herself that it was only because she was living in a capitalist economy now, and this was how they worked. 

Brigid’s apartment was on the third floor of Mercury Suites. The elevator was busted up again. She could hear the repairmen talking about a guy trying to hang himself in it. 

In her hands were two paper bags stuffed full of groceries. A gallon of two percent milk, half a pound of cheddar cheese, six fresh green apples, three egg cartons, a dark chocolate candy bar, and a box of little chocolate chip cookies that called itself cereal. There was a limited edition action figure inside. 

She fumbled around on one leg attempting to balance the groceries as she tried to grab her keys. When the eggs almost fell three stories to their untimely demise, Brigid took a deep breath, and banged her head on the door to her apartment. Several muffled voices started communicating on the other side. She could hear someone coming up the stairs behind her. The door opened. 

“Hey mom,” said Violet, “lemme take one. Margot, come help mom with the groceries.”

Violet came and took one bag while Margot took the other.

“Be careful, that one has the eggs,” said Brigid.

Margot smiled. “I got some vegetables on my way home from picking up Claudia. I’ll whip us up a few omelets in the morning.”

“Did you get my cereal?!” Claudia came running from another room in the house and threw her arms around Brigid’s legs. 

“Yes, I got it.” She bent down and took Claudia’s hands in her own. “How was rehearsal today?”

“Good.”

“Good?”

“I don't like John Denver. I’ve never been to West Virginia, I don't know what it’s like.”

“You don't have to,” said Rachel, picking Claudia up and holding her on her hip, “you just need to play the guitar like you’ve been there before.”

“Mom! I wanted to play Led Zeppelin.”

“I didn't think you could play Led Zeppelin on the guitar, Claudia.” Brigid kissed her on the head. “You’ll be wonderful.”

“But Mom—”

“Let’s go check out your action figure little sister,” said Rachel.

Brigid walked into the dining room and took a seat. “How does it look?”

“Fine,” said Samantha, putting aside the month’s bank statement, “but you need to ask Alphonse for a raise. The six of us can't keep living here. Claudia and Rachel need to stop sharing a bed. Margot might as well be sleeping in a coffin. And Violet should probably be going to high school.”

“And you?”

“What?”

“What about you?”

I,” Samantha placed her glasses down on the table, “need a drink. But I’ll settle for a toaster.”

A loud banging came at the front door.

“I’ll get it,” said Margot.

“No!” Brigid nearly leapt out of her chair.

“Mom?” Said Samantha, “what's wrong?”

All her girls came into the dining room.

“Violet, take your sisters to my room.”

“Mom? You’re scaring—”

Another barrage assaulted the door.

Brigid whispered, “take them, Violet. Now.”

The eldest did as she was told. 

Walking to the door, Brigid Tenenbaum lifted the sleeve that covered her left arm. Inscribed was the identification number: 1 6 7 3 0 3.

“You got more than leprechauns watching over you, Mother Goose,” said the voice from beyond her door, “now let me in.”

Brigid turned the door handle slowly. “Frank Fontaine. The men that raided your Penthouse are still up there. Probably hoping you’ll come back.”

“Yeah, well,” he pushed his way inside, “fuck ‘em. I moved my stash to Hestia months ago.” He scratched at the back of his bald head. “Where ya hidin’ em?” 

“Sinclair’s. We’re moving,” said Brigid.

Fontaine chuckled to himself. “You know… let’s just say I believe you. Take a fuckin’ seat.” Brigid sat down. Frank continued to pace, alternating between straightening out his mustache and stroking his chin. “So, I spoke to the Technical Boy. Suffice it to say the hand is stacked against us. But, I got the makings of a really, really grand plan coming together here. It’s time for a roll call. I need you to work the German angle.” 

“There is nothing more to be done. German High Command has fallen in line with Judy Garland, or whoever she is. They’ve rebranded themselves the Fourth Reich. ÜberKommandant Alphonse is in charge now.”

“What about Darby?”

“Darby is not really German. The swastika on his chest is not real. His daughter is a Jew! I don't know how much longer he’s going to last, but I wouldn't bet on long.”

“So you’re tellin’ me all these guys like bein’ Nazis?”

“They don't care. If Herr Garland comes on the television and says that goose-stepping and bragging about how much you hate niggers and gypsies is the best way to make a buck nowadays, then that’s what they’re going to do. Mass market appeal—tell your friend in the limousine how much value that can have. These people will do whatever she says. No matter how little sense it makes, or how many years it sets our country back.”

Frank stopped pacing. “Kiddo, there had better be a goddamn but comin.”

Brigid smiled. “But, there is a dissenter.”

Fontaine’s eyes lit up. “Sounds like my new best friend.”

She nodded. “ÜberKommandant Wilhelm does not like sharing the market with the Russians, Czernobog and Kazan, nor does he like the backwards familiarity that the future is bringing. I think he’s deranged. He hates everyone: Alphonse, Upper Management, you.”

“Well that’s why you’re gonna be our ace on this one. Whatever Wilhelm the Conqueror needs, get it for him. I’m giving you a blank check here.”

“And when his hunger is not satisfied and he wants to rule the world?”

“I’ll get to work on my German,” said Fontaine. 

 

After The Death Of Peach Wilkins

“Never play a man for the short con when you can play ‘em for the long one.” 

Frank Fontaine hit the pause button on his audio log and leaned back in his chair. For the first time in far too long he heard nothing but silence; the chemical fumes were even starting to dissipate. Doc Mitchell’s house wasn't much more than a moderately above average shack, but it would do. Frank had worked out of worse. At least in Goodsprings no one could pester him. The people of Goodsprings thought the doc was on holiday in Tahiti. The Technical Boy couldn't find him, GPS didn't work that far out in the Mojave. Maddie wouldn't want to find him, she would delight in the freedom Gomorrah offered. Whether she knew about the security cameras hooked up in each room recording her every movement or not, Frank was in the perfect mood not to care.

He returned to his audio log. “Atlas is the longest con of all. Everyone in attendance would expect the villain to remove his mask, and reveal he was Frank Fontaine all along. But Atlas—The Face of the Future—nobody even knows who he is. That’s why it works. So many big brand parties on the filed, it’s easy to overlook the little guy. I’ll give the Technical Boy credit, cause it’s due, this was a move of pure genius. Sure Steinman fucked us on the look, but no matter. So we do things the hard way… for a change.”

Fontaine licked his lips and opened a chilled bottle of Sunset Sarsaparilla. It went better with lime, but he didn't have any. “Media… he-he, she’s tryin’ to hook up cable in the stone age. One by one her pawns are gonna be tearin’ each other to pieces. Czernobog was always a slippery bastard, conniving is his nature. So of course he’s got side jobs and backroom deals pourin’ out of every hole in Kazan’s amorphous mass. Old boy is in it for the money. Better to know that now then not at all. And the Germans, well, they don’t fare much better. Once we get the right people in charge, they’ll all turn on her in a flash. The woman on the television screen, showin’ everyone that tunes in at five ‘o clock her tits, doesn't realize yet that when people walk into another room she loses all her power.”

Frank turned the cap from his drink over and saw a blue star winking at him. “Hoyt Volker… somethin’ needs to be done about that man. When the kid is right the kid is right. He’s workin’ an angle, I just don’t know what. Of course, I know who does. Upper Management—prick. Believes in ‘friendly competition’, what horseshit. No, no, no, he just loves seein’ everyone squabble over who gets to wash his balls. Can he hear me? Maybe… probably. I hope he does. And I hope he enjoys the show. I’m expectin’ to see him in the front fuckin’ row.”

Fontaine stopped recording and stood up. He stepped away from the table, expecting some form of a response. Maybe the audio log would explode, maybe an arrow would come through the open window and pierce his neck. Frank immediately turned around and checked the clinic area for anything that looked out of place. He knew standing in one place for too long all but assured some spook could walk right up behind him and stick a needle in his neck. If he woke up, and Upper Management hadn’t deemed it easier to remove the wild card from the equation, it would be in some spook hideaway deep in the mountains; buried under an immovable amount of snow.

The only thing Frank could see was the snow globe Maddie had dusted off and brought in. He returned to his audio log.

“It breaks my heart to say this, but the kid just ain’t gonna make it. She thinks the world can't reach out and break her neck. And that’s a problem. I've been at this a while, longer than she has—longer than they all have. This is my game. So yeah, eventually, I don’t know when, she’s gonna have to go. It won’t be me that does it. Or maybe it will. Maybe I’ll just be in the room. When it happens, she’ll want to see a familiar face.”

“Doc Mitchell?” A woman’s voice was making its way toward the kitchen. “Doc are you home? I know a few folks said you were on holiday but I thought I heard your voice. It’s Sunny.”

Fontaine slipped into the next room, frantically searching for his mustache and a scalpel. 

“Doc?”

Frank was hunched over his briefcase trying to apply more adhesive to the back of his mustache. “Uh,” he cleared his throat and assumed the role of Doc Mitchell, “why of course, Sunny. You just caught me at a bad time is all. Would ya look at this place? It’s a proper mess.”

“I’m sorry to drop in like this, Doc. You just get back?”

“What? Oh—oh, yeah. Just a few minutes ago in fact.” Frank turned to face her, the mustache more than a bit crooked. 

“You alright Doc?”

“What? Oh—sure thing. Yeah. I’m fine. Just jet lag.”

“Who were you talking to?”

“Myself. I was running off a checklist to make sure I didn't leave anything in the hotel. Did you, uh… did you need something?”

“It’s Cheyenne. I know you ain’t a vet but she’s got that rash again and-”

The mustache fell to the floor. Fontaine sighed. All he had been able to find was a screwdriver, probably left behind by Mr. Road.

“You know,” Frank—returning to his normal voice—cracked his neck as he stepped forward, “it’s moments like these when you wish people would knock.” 

Sunny tried to run but Frank threw his briefcase, striking her in the head. There was a gash along the left side of her face leaking blood into her eye. As she tried to crawl Fontaine stamped down hardly on both her ankles. The second time he heard a crack, and Sunny curled up into a ball in pain. 

“WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?!”

Frank put his hand over her mouth and lowered the screwdriver down into her ear. Once again it was silent. Sunny had gone limp. Her eyes staring up at Fontaine.

He walked over to the table, wiped his hands, and turned off the audio log. 

 

Chapter Text

 

“To be blind is not miserable; not to be able to bear blindness, that is miserable.” - John Milton

 

Alejandro Victoriano, Mr. Coal, walked into the Years End Itch at a quarter past five on a particularly windy Thursday halfway into the month of August. His soles deft and well carried; never stomping. The place, which he took for granted, where most up and comers found the psychos and sycophants for their novels; just a few mile markers short of the Maine border. Luckily for him, there were more than a few familiar suits inquiring about a new malted reason not to pay their bar tab. He stepped up to the counter and placed his knuckles along the wood, throwing a nod down range at the ever jolly Saint Jeri.

“What’ll it be tonight, boss?”

“Nolet Reserve. Let it simmer just below the rim.”

“I interest you in a lime?”

“Holland says no can do.”

The Ink Spots came over the jukebox. “I don’t want to set the world on fire. I just want to start a flame in your heart.” 

“I’ll have what he’s having.” A Scotsman from the Capital Wasteland clunked up beside him, draped in a purple suit bright enough to land a cargo plane in a blizzard. A shadow of dark brown hair covered his face. He had dominos in his eyes. Stacked high enough to bury half the world in one fell swoop and get the rest in the ensuing avalanche. 

Jeri smiled and left for the back room. 

“I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city,” The Purple Man loosened up his tie, “I’ve been taken for lost. Just up and gone without so much as a trace. Nary a hair to be found. Unknown for too, too long.”

“What can I do for you tonight Mr. Graves?” Mr. Coal spoke with a steady vibrancy. 

“I’m sure you can do a great many things for a great many walks of people. Topps Pastry Shop could do with another man arming the counter. Always have to wait an extra five minute for the Pakistani translator to make the trek up from Brooklyn. And the ol’ Pickwick Stationary is in dire need of some electrical engineering. To keep the place operating the way it is would almost be so bold as to invite happy accidents. Drove all the way down to Pennsylvania for—what was it?”

Mr. Coal took note of the freshly shaved Mr. Castle perched across the bar with an inconspicuous outline of a pump-action shotgun running along his right leg.

“A summit—”

“A summit! Poor boy… conflict must have been positively acrimonious. Folks must’ve been fuming out of every visible orifice. Can’t hardly imagine it. With regards to the relation between manual dexterity and proportionate mentality,” he sighed and slapped his knee, “they just weren’t equipped with proper, up-to-date methods with which to adequately contain the situation, and compensate all parties involved to their mutual satisfaction. Although, then again, I wasn't there. I forgive you for thinking otherwise. That is, by the way, a splendid jacket. Tell me, what does it smell like?”

Alejandro brought the inside of his ebony outerwear up to his nose. “Four o’ clock.” From when Lila ran through the house and jumped into his arms before he even had a chance to close the front door. From where she’d wrapped her arms and legs tightly around him; forming an outline for later use. 

Graves plucked a picturesque blonde hair from around Alejandro’s collar. “Rare bread that one. Tell me, what does she do?”

“What does she do?”

“Ugh,” Graves wiped his mouth in disgust, “elucidate to me, on a daily basis, out in the middle of gridlock country—home to a ripe horde of heavily irradiated, unrelentingly noxious gas expulsions, and do not for a second get me started on the bloody pollution—what the two of you do. Go.”

Jeri passed by carrying two empty, blue beer bottles.

“Nolet Reserve,” Alejandro licked his lips, “when you get a second.”

“Make it two, old boy,” Graves motioned with his thumb and index finger, “can't have this greasy chap drinking alone. Wouldn’t be proper.”

Jeri smiled and made a beeline for the backroom.

“Well, we typically get a late start. She don't like getting up most mornings.”

“No, no, no, no, don’t is NOT the proper syntax you fuck!” The Purple Man slammed his fist up and down, to the bemusement of the rest of the suits. “Doesn’t. Understand? I’d sooner authorize another Bloody April Sunday than converse with a degenerate, Redwood leper.”

“Understood,” Alejandro felt the prick of saliva against the back of his throat, “she doesn’t like getting up some mornings. Sleeps better during the day.”

“Well now, tell me why that is?”

“When she dreams, she’s little again.”

“Can hardly blow you a kiss. Do you mean to persuade me she’s gotten bigger?”

“When she was a kid, her mom took her up to visit my Aunt Jamie. They were friends. She remembers touching a hot stove top, burning the tips of her fingers. Says she can hear the ice dripping off the shrimp, taste the barbecue sauce. I think it might be a southern thing.”

“You don't say…”

“Then she has nightmares.” Mr. Grave’s ears perked up. “Giant metal dogs come out of the pond. Foaming mercury at the mouth. Static screens for eyes. Singing jaunty, nonsensical show tunes. They drag her down with them.” 

Alejandro remembered there was a reason they weren’t allowed to go hunting in the woods anymore. Not after what happened to Lanius and Nadia. Their father forbid it. Even though he said Panzerhund’s weren't real; just stupid stories.

Mr. Graves continued. “Sounds to me like she’s been watching too many cartoons. They’ll rot your brain wholesale. Worse than malaria. Can she quantify water? Beyond just what it feels like trickling down her skin. Can she truly perceive the scope? The shape? Can she imagine drowning? What would you tell me?”

“I think so,” Alejandro’s hands fell clammy, “all around her are familiar faces. Worn out places. Worn out faces. Finds it kinda funny. And kinda sad. Can’t manage to enlarge her world.” 

“A kind man would save her the horror of drowning. How do you get by?”  

“I lay everything out for her. In familiar places. Prep the kitchen. Not safe to let her use knives by herself.” 

“Summarization and simplification is key. Get out much?”

“She likes walking. Takes great joy in the… little things. Breeze through her hair, sunflowers against her bare feet. Something irresistible about the way she laughs. We, um… we went to the movies last week.”

“Really?”

“Better to not assume, better to just ask. Saw Easter Parade. She liked it.”

Mr. Graves took a toothpick out of his pocket and dug a piece of gravel from under his fingernail. “Now we have her setting precedents. What’s next? Rational thought? Justifiable opinions? A fully automatic assault rifle? Just see what you’ve done.” He started shaking his head.

Jeri fetched a jar of limes from under the counter.

“Jeri,” Alejandro pleaded, his tongue having been reduced to roadkill on a charcoal grill, “Nolet Reserve.”

“And you know what,” Graves flicked his pick aside, “get me one too. I am positively goddamn parched.” 

Jeri smiled and meandered over to the backroom.

Mr. Bubbles?” Graves nearly spat. “Is that what she calls you? A lumbering palooka in a foul-smelling diving suit. That’s what she thinks you are? Let’s get one thing straight across right here, I’ve no qualms with wringing her tiny neck. But, I’d really rather avoid it, because, and this is true, there are better people suited towards it than me.”

Jeri exited the backroom with a bottle of Finnish brandy.

‘Jesus Christ…’ Mr. Coal could’t tell if the words had actually left his mouth or not. 

“Jeri,” Mr. Graves rolled his tongue over his teeth, “walk out into the Atlantic and don’t stop until you reach Belgium.” 

Jeri walked around the bar and left out the side entrance, headed due east. 

“Now, I believe you were just about to answer a very poignant question of mine, weren’t you Mr. Coal?” The Purple Man postulated. “The blatant, irresponsible, insensitivity of man is a precarious standard to justify. Why do you leave that lonesome rope around your neck at home each morning.”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Of course you do, go on, say it out loud so everyone can hear you.”

The Years End Itch grounded down to a silent halt.

“I’m tired…”

“Of?”

Alejandro closed his eyes as tears crawled down his cheeks.

“OF WHAT YOU STUPID PRICK?!”

“I’m tired of taking care of her.”

Mr. Grave’s mouth cracked apart with a tooth-aching smile. “That’s exactly fucking right.” He leaned in close to Alejandro’s ear. “Listen up you jammy bastard, and listen to the way I arrange my words very carefully. Who was at the Meeting of the Spooks?”

“All of them. Every last one.”

“Why?”

“Mr. Glass. He arranged the whole thing. Wants to make a union. Then Mr. Network came out and riled everybody up. Said we should all go home, open our windows and scream as loud as we can: I’M MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GONNA TAKE IT ANYMORE.”

“Is that it?”

“No. He wants to meet with you. Wants to exchange favors.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”- The King James Bible

 

The Mojave Wasteland spoke to Mr. Taylor. Occasionally he was inclined to reply. “Was Khabib Khoslov the greatest man I ever served with? Well, I dunno. There was this one time in Tehran when he pulled my bleeding carcass out of an M1 Abrams that had the unfortunate pleasure of taking it up the ass from an anti-tank mine. He carried me half a mile to the evac chopper. By the time we got there I’d lost both my legs, but, it could’ve been worse. My charming smile is the only thing that keeps the earth spinning, after all. So maybe I'm biased. Then again, the facts don't lie. The man's a hero. Though I’m not sure how much that means now.” 

Mr. Taylor stomped out his cigar. He went to admire the shiny metal hooked up to the lower part of his body, then saw a beetle gnawing on one of the wires that kept his new feet from kicking a whole in his chest. He took the beetle in his hand. “You don’t remember what this place used to look like, do ya? No, no. You just wanna know why the tin men taste like oil cans. Well, thing is we’re not from around here. But, I’m guessin’ you already knew that. Yeah. We go wherever Upper Management tells us to. Even though we agreed no more fucking deserts.”

Mr. Taylor placed the beetle back on the sand. He rolled up his sleeve and checked his watch. The time was eight thirty. “Eventually the Technical Boy will figure out how skin works. Then maybe he’ll cover up all these damn wires. Just stay outta my way, little guy. Next time I might not be in such a generous mood.”

He turned to Mr. Diaz and Ms. Hall. “Now, do we want the official story or the bullshit first?”

“Bullshit,” said Diaz.

Hall nodded.

“Okay then. Bullshit is we’re running security for The Tops. What with the monorail almost goin’ boom, should be a sound fit for most of the canon fodder. The official documents will read we were sent on behalf of Upper Management to work a joint op with Hoyt Volker making sure the Technical Boy and Ms. Monroe fight on even playing fields. However, what we know to be true is the following: Mr. World tasked Hoyt with sabotaging Atlas’ operation, which means we get Czernobog. Khabib has made sure that the Motherland will not impede our efforts. Should we succeed, we get paid. Should we do anything less, not only did we never exist, but neither did this entire desert. Any questions? No? Good.”

Mr. Taylor walked out of the shade provided by the awning outside the back entrance to The Tops. It was where all the extra S.P.E.C.I.A.L. guests got wheeled out of after they had one too many tonics and started dry-humping unconscious working girls from Gomorrah. The sun beamed down on him. As far as he could see the Mojave stretched on forever; nothing but sand in every direction. The New Vegas Strip was out in the middle of nowhere all alone. Mr. Taylor wondered how long it would take people to notice if it just disappeared off the map.

“So,” Diaz stepped up beside him, “what’re we lookin’ at?”

“Le Quack runs Gomorrah, for now. Though by all accounts he’s about to pop any day now. Best stay clear of the whole area. Mr. Nancy is in charge of the Ultra-Luxe. Don’t eat the beef. Then there’s just Gus. I imagine he’s sittin’ up there in the Lucky 38 just waitin’ for it now.”

“You sure?”

“I’m not inclined to make a wager if that’s what your gettin’ at,” said Taylor, “the Don might be saving his offensive strategy for a rainy day. Hell, fucker might just be playin’ us all. But I doubt it. I’ll never deny the man was bright, but I will say that he never handled pressure very well.”

“What happens to him after this?” Said Hall.

“He has a choice,” said Taylor, returning to the shade, “he can either pack up and leave, head back east, or get swallowed up by the desert. I figure he’ll pick the former, go back to scheming. Or maybe he won’t. I don’t know. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

“And his people?”

“That’s up to them. We’re not here to play judge or jury. If they all want to kill each other, we let ‘em.”

Mr. Maretti walked out of The Tops flanked by a man in a white suit and purple tie. “Taylor, this is Katz. Katz, this is Taylor and the team.”

“You’d have thought with an extra four weeks to prepare we wouldn't have had to stand out here for over two hours,” said Taylor. 

“Would you permit me to tell you a tale, Mr. Taylor?” Said Katz, reaching for his rose.

“No the fuck I would not. We’re here on business, pussy cat. Now it’s already eight forty five, we were supposed to start at six thirty. Our hourly rate doesn't kick in until we step foot in that nice, air-conditioned building you’ve been gettin’ off in all morning. So we’re already down about three hundred grand. If you wanna tell me a bedtime story, it better start with you taking out your check book.”

Katz cracked a smile, sliding his hands inside his pockets. “If only your associate had said so earlier. Come on in, we’ve been expecting you.”

Maretti rolled his eyes and helped Diaz and Hall pick up their bags. 

As the Blackout Crew entered The Tops, Mr. Taylor looked back across the Mojave. He saw a boney hand reach up from the sand and release a swarm of locusts out of its palm. The static from the radio inside gave way to an all to familiar broadcast. “This is Commander John Taylor, United States Army. Operation Ramses ended in… complete failure. I say again, mission objective Ramses has failed. Convoy stalled. We got a storm bearing down on us. Specialist Diaz! What the hell is that three clicks out? Diaz! WHAT THE FUCK ARE THOSE?! DIAZ? HALL? EVERYBODY GET DOWN! Overlord we are… swarm of… locusts… death toll… too many… we have to… we have to go back… say again… someone save us.” As the swarm grew into the sky, Mr. Taylor could no longer see the sun. 

“The power company charges by the degree,” said Katz, pushing him aside and closing the door, “do your best to keep the doors and windows closed.” 

Mr. New Vegas regained control over the radio. “Hey, hey, it’s Mr. New Vegas letting you know I’ve got a new Christmas compilation coming out soon; Nuclear Winter Wonderland. Look for it, on holotape. Whoops, better put on my newsman fedora, here. An engineer from the local Sunset Sarsaparilla bottling plant found shot in the head near Goodsprings has reportedly regained consciousness, and has made a full recovery. Now that is bottle service you can count on. Promotional consideration for this news program has been paid for by the Ultra-Luxe. The Ultra-Luxe: live life in the lap of luxury. Gonna play a song for you right now, and it’s about that special someone you find only once in a Blue Moon.”

Mr. Taylor found himself in The Tops kitchen. He could hear hundreds of eggs being cracked and scrambled; smell the sizzling bacon as it was draped over plates; and see challah bread as it was dipped in a cinnamon glaze and covered with coconut flakes. Pancakes soared high in the air as fresh oranges were squeezed into glasses. No less than twenty pots of coffee were being brewed at once. He saw one of the chefs leave a meat locker with a prime rib thick enough to choke a horse. 

“OH, PLEASE! WHY!” 

The Chairmen, five of them, burst into the kitchen carrying an asian man. Blood was pouring down from his legs and bits of glass were lodged in between his toes; his face was a bright purple. 

“Don’t make a fucking scene gook,” said a Chairman in a yellow pin-striped suit as he lit a cigarette, “Caesar told us how much you owe to the French.”

“PLEASE!”

One of the Chairmen holding him stopped and punched him in the stomach. 

“Quiet, Lin. You’re in deep fifteen.”

“I’M NOT MR. LIN! I’M NOT EVEN STAYING HERE-”

“Oh, please,” said another Chairmen, as he held the door to the meat locker open, “how many times do you think we’ve heard that one before. Either we always get the wrong guy, and we’re that bad at our jobs, or all you deadbeats read the same damn book.”

Mr. Taylor looked over at Katz as the meat locker shut. “Business as usual?” 

“Savages,” Katz plucked a petal from his rose, “eh?” 

The Blackout Crew were led into The Tops count-room. Bronze chips were worth ten dollars, silver one hundred, gold one thousand, and platinum ten thousand. Each had the design of a tap dancer twirling a cane in one hand and flipping his top-hat in the other. 

“Door wasn't even locked,” said Diaz, “no guards, no cameras, not even a fuckin’ smoke detector. Who has smaller balls, you or your guests?”

“Nobody robs casinos anymore, dear boy,” said Katz with a disdainful chuckle, “it’s just rude.”

Mr. Taylor and Diaz exchanged glances. The former shrugged and in response the latter rolled his eyes. 

“Do the Chairmen know who we are? Does anyone?” Said Hall.

“No, and that’s how it’s going to stay. Loose lips don’t so much sink ships as they do blow them out of the water.” Katz slipped a platinum chip into his pocket and walked out into the main casino area. The Blackout Crew followed, avoiding the gazes of those sipping scotch at the bar or falling hopelessly in debt at the blackjack table. They took the stairs up to the thirteenth floor, passing by several off-duty Chairmen playing dice and rolling joints in an adjacent hallway. 

“So, how’d you wind up here Katz?” Said Maretti.

“No.”

“Excuse me?”

“I don't believe we'll be going there today, Mr. Maretti. You have far too much work to do—oh, and would you look at the time. Almost three hours behind schedule.”

When Mr. Taylor stepped out into the hallway of the thirteenth floor, the sight of Hoyt Volker in an open, navy blue robe made him wish he was tied up next to Mr. Lin down in the meat locker. 

“How’re you doing today John? Oh, come on, don’t act like you’ve never seen a prick before. It’s about time you showed up. I need someone else to bounce ideas off of. I don’t particularly like cats. Too many lives. Makes me distrust them. That’s right, cunt with the rose in his jacket, I’m talking about you. You’re gonna wake up one morning without your tail.” Katz shook his head and kept walking down the hall. Eight girls passed him. They were wearing gas masks, and bar the black bunny stickers over their nipples, were completely nude. Each was holding up a tray of finger food in one hand and a whip in the other. “Ah, I see my room service has arrived. Get settled in John, then come by and see me. This place is fucking amazing, trust me.”

One by one the girls disappeared into Hoyt’s room. “Never to be seen again,” Mr. Maretti muttered. 

The Blackout Crew caught up with Katz and followed him through a set of double doors into a suite with a stocked bar and a giant hole in the wall. 

“Follow me,” said Katz, plucking a bottle of brandy up from behind the bar. “Your workshop is down here to the right. What remains of the wall is very thin. There’s nothing on the other side of it so you don’t have to worry about noise, just falling.”

Mr. Taylor cracked his neck and motioned to the rest of his team. “Diaz I want all our equipment set up in twenty. I want bugs in every room with merit, and yes, that includes Hoyt’s. I want a tap on every single phone and a peephole into every single room in not just this building, but Gomorrah, the Ultra Luxe, and the Lucky 38. I don’t care how you do it, just make it happen. I wanna see it all. I don't care if it’s a guy watching T.V. or pissing on his wife, get eyes on it. Hall, I want hourly updates on our most wanted. Where they are, who they’re with, what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it. If Caesar is giving it to someone that isn't his wife, I wanna know who’s on top. I got two priority targets for you: Victor and Legate Lanius. The former likes to wander, find out where. The latter… just pay extra close attention to him, I gotta gut feeling he isn’t as stupid as he looks. And Maretti, find out if there are any other spooks in the area. From here on out we’re the top of the food chain. Let’s move people.”

Katz cracked open the brandy. “I take it you won’t be needing me anymore—”

Mr. Taylor snatched the bottle from his hands and began pouring it out. “Oh you’re not going anywhere.” He took a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket. On it were a list of names: Frank Fontaine. Madison? Legate Lanius. Caesar Cario. Evan Cario. Victor Khoslov. Czernobog. Mr. Nancy. Le Quack. Vulpes Inculta. Don Gustavo. Buck Hughes. Hoyt Volker. Megan Volker. “See this list of people? This is everyone I’m thinking about killing. Look at you—ain’t even on it yet. So we’re not done. I still need a debrief, Mr. Katz.”

The sound of shattered glass and platinum chips spreading over the floor drew their attention. 

“You forgot about Benny, dipshit.” Said Katz.

There was a momentary pause as the go-to man at The Tops seemed incapable of processing the scene that was playing out before him. His mouth was agape, head tilted slightly to the left, the brandy that had been formally occupying the space within the glass now stained the bottom of his white suit pants. 

“Is he having a stroke?”

“I hope so.”

“Are you having a stroke?” Said Mr. Taylor, taking a few steps forward out of the hole in the wall and back into the room.

Benny reached for his sidearm and aimed it at the approaching spook. “Sport, do me a favor and don’t play me for a goddamn fool.”

“I’m not trying to do that Benny, not for a minute, but you need to listen to me very carefully. The narrative doesn't need to get anymore complicated. Just walk right back out that door. We don’t know each other. We don’t need to know each other. This? This is all just company protocol. Nothing out of the ordinary. Everything is in its right place. But if you don’t lower that pistol, I’m gonna start thinking we can’t resolve this amicably. Very rarely in a man’s life does he have any say in whether or not he lives or dies. Benny, I’m giving you the power to choose. We’re not here for you. It’s just company protocol.” 

Benny didn’t lower his weapon. “What company?”

Evan Cario whistled from the doorway. “Ah ah ah, darling, that’s cheating.”

As Benny was distracted, Mr. Taylor cracked him with an overhand right, putting him fast asleep on the floor. “What the hell are you doing here?”

She mockingly stood at attention. “Ms. Flan reporting for duty, sir.”

 

One Month Prior To The Blackout Crew Arriving In The Mojave Wasteland

 

A pair of artificial bells rang as a two ton hulk of a man in a shiny, silver suit walked out of Upper Management’s masquerade of the day: a downtown law office. Thick, mid-summer eighty nine degree air slipped in, alongside the white noise background of five o’ clock rush hour traffic grinding to a screeching halt. A middle-eastern man with a full neck beard and ‘Persian Pride’ tattooed across his chest hauled a food cart out into the middle of second avenue, removed a mini Uzi carbine from a troth of stagnate hotdog water, and opened fire on a mid-sized black sedan packed full of jet-lagged Albanian exchange students. 

Mr. World liked to keep everything balanced. 

At five o’ six a car bomb would go off outside Grand Central station, and if Mr. Mortar’s estimates were correct--which seventy nine percent of the time they were--it would kill exactly nineteen people, including one of Mr. Darby’s chemists. At five thirty one, two men clad in leather would get off their motorcycles outside the residence of one Flynt ‘Lucky’ O’Conor, bagman for the one they call ‘Atlas’, and throw tear gas through his windows; right in the middle of his six year old daughter’s piano lesson. Finally, at five fifty nine, anyone unfortunate enough to be wearing a purple suit walking down fifth avenue would be thrown out the sixty second floor of the Empire State Building. By seven o’ clock no one would remember a thing. They'd do as they did every night. Turn on their televisions and do whatever Lucille Ball said.

Mr. Taylor would remember, though. He picked up a business card that read ‘Walker Ironworks’ in a dull orange font. Mr. Taylor would remember to tell Walker Ironworks new CEO that he needed to carry whatever remained of his marketing endeavors in a strongbox. 

The door to the law office closed and the sound of gentle waves crashing against what Mr. Taylor could only imagine was a picturesque, sun drenched shore continued to play on an uninterrupted loop. There were plastic, three foot palm trees in every corner, yellow wallpaper with beachballs and sandcastles, and a fish tank filled with neon turquoise aquarium gravel and no fish. 

Shade sat across from him on his left. His new black, gold rimmed sunglasses were tucked into the ‘V’ of his purple Hawaiian shirt. ‘Nukem’ was etched below the right lens and ‘name dropper’ below the left. Pineapples rolled down his sleeves. Shade took a sip out of an abnormally large margarita glass, filled with an orange rum that smelled faintly of peaches. There was a little umbrella with a hamburger on it sticking out of the glass. Afterward he took the banjo off the seat next to him, that someone from an earlier appointment had been gracious enough to forget, and proceeded to flick the same three strings over and over again, mimicking the theme to a tropical, pacific island drive off the edge of a very steep cliff. 

There was a short, Brazilian woman sitting directly across from Mr. Taylor, making an outline of the ligaments in her hands with a black sharpie marker. He’d seen her around the office a few times, but never talked to her because she didn't speak English. Or perhaps didn’t want to. Mr. Taylor liked to think that his coconspirators were above juvenile, high school gossip. Liked to, anyway. Truth was most people didn’t do much with their days, like Mr. Silver or Mr. Wood and especially Mr. Marsh. So they had to result to more common forms of entertainment. Her name was Jessica. Apparently Mr. Marsh found her in several compromising positions involving a fifteen year old dressed up like a rabbit. She had a tattoo along the outside of her left arm that read: ‘Com sangue e raiva de vermelho carmesim. Arrancado de um cadáver recém-morto. Juntamente com o nosso ódio infernal. Nós vamos queimar todos vocês. Esse é o seu destino!’ 

Every couple minutes or so her nose would start to twitch, and she would look around to make sure no one was looking before vigorously rubbing it with her left index finger. It would turn red after that, but she never noticed. 

The law office always ran late, which was why Mr. Taylor usually liked coming on Saturdays when the deli, Our Garden, was open. He could get a pastrami sandwich on rye with Swiss cheese and pickles for a buck seventy five. 

“Hey everybody, did the news get around about a guy named Butcher Pete. Oh, Pete just flew in-to this town and he's choppin' up all the women's meat.” Shade started singing to himself

Still, it was better than coming on Sundays at about nine thirty. The guy that ran the chapel was a few mile markers north of lunacy. ‘I cull the herd,’ he said, ‘it’s what I do,’ he said. 

“Ever since Pete flew into town he's been havin' a ball. Just cuttin' and choppin' for miles around. Single women, married women, old maids and all!” 

Diaz, Maretti and Hall always got the light work. Pack up the equipment, put gas in the truck, remember to shut the stove off. 

“Wakes up in the morning, half past five. Chops from sunrise to sunset. I don't see how he stays alive. Meat's gonna be the death of ole Pete, yeah.” Shade looked at Jessica with disbelief. “Come on now darling, ya can't honestly tell me you never heard that one before.”

“Você é um homem estranho.” Said Jessica, shrugging her shoulders. 

“Well I offered to teach you five finger fillet but you declined. I’m the one with the goddamn robotic arm lady, you just had to watch.”

“Então você poderia chorar como uma putinha quando você estragar a fiação e arrancar seu pau. Não, obrigado.” 

“I’m gonna stab you in the neck with a windshield wiper before this day is done, darling, you can count on it.”

“Me chupa, bicha.”

“What about you, Mr. Following Orders, did the news get around about Butcher Pete?” Said Shade, leaning forward in his seat.

A door opened up down the hall. 

“No, it didn’t,” said Mr. Taylor, getting up and stretching legs, “and unless you wanna lose your other arm, I’d stop asking people if I was you.” 

Jessica snickered.

“Okay John, be that way,” said Shade, “don’t think I won't remember that the next time you need a favor. Everyone always does.”

Mr. Taylor closed the door behind him. The pitch black room he was standing in had three walls and a ceiling; the space behind the sole source of light—which illuminated a desk and two leather chairs—appeared infinite in nature to the untrained eye. Behind the desk was Mr. Fisk, with his immaculate, black suit, diamond cufflinks, and purple tie. As Mr. Taylor walked across the room the floor tiles beneath him lit up. He sat down in the chair to the right of Mr. Fisk. 

“Welcome back, John Taylor. Mr. World would like a debrief of the situation in Switzerland.”

“Train went boom.”

“A bit more detail, please.” 

“The imposters, Specials Agents Cavill and Wood, are dead. They had a few locals with them… they’re dead too.”

“It couldn’t be avoided?”

“No.”

“And Mr. Khoslov?”

“Khabib is unopposed in Kazan. Him and his people are ready to meet with Upper Management and discuss terms. In the meantime, Czernobog will receive no further aid of any kind. Nor will any attacks against him or those under his command be taken as acts against Kazan. Khabib didn’t know how many men he had with him, but estimated there to be less than thirty. He preferred the situation to be handled internally, but understood our position nevertheless. A parlay with the Oberkommando, however, is off the table. Indefinitely. Be it with Alphonse or Wilhelm.”

“Mr. World will take it under advisement. Good work, Mr. Taylor. Is the Blackout Crew ready for their next assignment?”

“Yes sir.”

“That’s what I like to hear. You’ll be headed west. To the Mojave.”

“The desert?”

“Yes, Mr. Taylor, the desert. If the terrain gives you pause, I could send Mr. Monster instead. He’s already in the area.” 

“No, no… it’s fine.”

“Good. That’s what I like to hear. You and your team will be working a joint op with Hoyt Volker. Your task is a simple one. The dispute about who should have a majority share in the company, the Technical Boy or Media, surely caught your attention. Mr. World is not taking sides. He is, however, making sure everything is balanced. In your absence, Hoyt got first pick. He will manage Fontaine’s camp. You will manage Czernobog’s. Keep your eyes on him and anyone else you believe will play a large part in changing the landscape of the Mojave Wasteland. If intervention is necessary, act as you see fit. Should Mr. World see to it to grant Khabib his request of handling the matter internally, you will be notified and compensated for your time. Do you understand what you have to do?”

“What exactly am I supposed to balance?”

“Don Gustavo will shortly be losing ALL of his assets on the New Vegas Strip: The Tops, Gomorrah, the Ultra Luxe, and the Lucky 38. Any scenario wherein the Technical Boy or Media obtained a majority of those assets would be considered unbalanced.”

“I see now. Do they know about this balancing?”

“We’ve sold them a story: company regulations. No harm will come to or your team. Mr. World assures you. We have several contacts out in the wasteland that will be assisting you. The first is Katz, he’ll set up shop for you in The Tops. The next are a pair, Caesar and Evan.”

“I thought Caesar worked for Gustavo.”

“He does, for us. Evan was able to work out a deal with him on Mr. World’s behalf. They’re not actually married. It’s a cover.”

“With all due respect Mr. Fisk, how the hell am I supposed to know who’s working for who?”

“Don’t be so humble, Mr. Taylor, untangling this web will be child’s play.”

“Of course it will, Mr. Fisk.”

“I need you to listen to what I have to say next very carefully, John. From this point forward you no longer work for Media. Or the Technical Boy for that matter. You work for Mr. World. Nobody else. Is that clear?”

“Crystal. Are we considering this a hostile takeover yet?”

“Yes.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Beware! If you play at ghosts, you become one.”

 

Coming To America: Mad Sweeney

 

Mad Sweeney didn't like working Saturday’s. It felt like tempting fate ruining everybody’s day off. He wished he could flip his lucky coin, and then, were it to come up tails, the whole thing would get dragged back to the drawing board kicking and screaming. However, Mad Sweeney had misplaced his lucky coin, so he didn't have much of a say about anything. 

The McReary homestead didn't exactly make for a great base of operations. In-between two houses, one of which was getting its hedges trimmed, the other having the roof repainted, yellow window shades did little to hide the sixteen guns pouring over the kitchen table. Not to mention the grenades that Mad Sweeney had found, more times than he felt safe admitting, rolling all over the floor. Plastic wrap was draped over all the furniture; pictures of youthful and bright Irish children dotted every available space on the walls; magnets on the refrigerator gave blessings from the old country; a wilting daisy lay beside the sink, which was stocked full of dishes from the previous nights Chinese take on the last supper. 

The hardwood floor wailed under Mad Sweeney’s size eleven and a half boot, and he nearly tripped on the strings dangling off the edge of the carpet that marked the border of the living room. “Niko’s here,” he said, taking a sip from the flask hidden in his jean jacket, “let’s be done with it.” 

Five men—all misfits—alongside Sweeney, gathered around the table. 

“I say this to you all now, as cautionary tale: life… it is complicated,” said Niko Bellic, “I killed people, yes. Smuggled people, yes, good business, easy work. And I have sold people, yes. But here, right here,” he tapped his foot on the floor, “things will be different.”

Whether or not Niko actually believed that, or just liked the way it sounded, Mad Sweeney wasn't certain. He asked him once what business he was in before crossing the pond from Russia. Niko, while glaring at the sun with enough malice to do to it what a car compactor does to a mini-cooper, had responded: “Following orders.” There were scars on his back, from what Mad Sweeney didn’t like the notion of asking, and more often than not bags under his eyes; befitting a man whose dreams were far from sweet. All Mad Sweeney had been able to piece together about the man calling himself Niko Bellic was that he walked off a boat one day with twenty five dollars in his pocket and a burning desire to bleed the American dream dry with a scalpel, no matter how long it took. His cousin, Roman, ran the city’s taxi market, but he didn't like to talk about him. He had a disagreement with Kazan over his severance package, and out of the presumed fear of retaliation in the form of a late night visit from Mr. Terrible or Mr. Impaler, got himself a contract with the neutral Vladof gun corporation. 

“Well,” Mad Sweeney ran a few fingers through his sun-kissed beard, “we’d all surely be out of a job if they weren’t. Now, lemme read you all the fine print about the southern, Chinatown branch of the Bank of Liberty. Bigwig out in Washington, name of Allistair Tenpenny, has got roughly thirty million in gold stored away in the vault. Those are Nazi bucks you Swiss fucks. So don’t feel bad about nicking them. Just know that N.O.O.S.E. will be backing up the boys in blue once everything goes tits up. And it will go tits up, no question about it. They’re gonna have every uniform from here to Missouri on your asses.”

“They have alarm, why don’t we snip it?” Said Niko, the cuts along his neck clearly agitating him. 

“The security room might as well be in Somalia,” said Mad Sweeney, “not worth trying to get to it. There’ll be two guards in the lobby, taking them out clean might buy you a few minutes. There are cameras everywhere, so best make sure these here masks don’t fall off. Anyone get’s a good look at your mug, we’re all gonna be fixin’ to die tired.” 

On the counter across from the table, next to the toaster, were four yellow hockey masks with the words ‘Please Stop Me’ smeared across in red.

“Well, old boy,” said Patrick McReary, “this all sounds like a whole lot of effort for no fucking reward. Story of my life, sure, but pocketing some white-bearded geezers gold sounds like something you need an armored train for. Or at the very least a few tank battalions. I mean, who the hell are these N.O.O.S.E. guys anyway?”

Patrick McReary was the youngest of five brothers. He was widely considered a stick-up robbery aficionado, namely by himself. Every convenience store within walking distance knew his name, and then a few more every now and again up in Maine. Some even invited him over for a yearly Christmas ham. That he stole. From them. Patrick had tried his hand at selling coke with the Puerto Ricans, but after he got a fork jammed through it, decided the trade just didn’t suit him. There was a long scar underneath his left eye, from picking a bar fight with a seven foot tall reincarnation of Xerxes I. His nose was also bent at a thirty degree angle, from showing up at Xerxes I downtown apartment at three in the morning, high on PCP, with a water gun filled with his own piss. His record only held one type of charge, possession of a controlled substance: all of them. Patrick drank too much, but that was, according to him, because he was too fat to hang himself. Once upon a time he’d seen a dog tied to a tree, didn’t do anything about it, and came back a few days later to find the dog had died of dehydration. Never was quite able to get over it. 

“N.O.O.S.E.” said Mad Sweeney, “ stands for National Office of Security Enforcement. They pull up in armored cars, decked out in full black body armor, and believe me, if a tank battalion would make their balls drop, you’d have one. But these brats have seen it all. Best way to not get shredded is to be in an’ out before they send in the choppers.”

“And, tit for tat,” Niko motioned to the arsenal laid out on the kitchen table, “we’ll hit the streets in style.”

“Yeah,” Mad Sweeney picked a grenade up off the floor and handed it to Patrick, “makin’ the front page’ll be quite a thing. So, first, my sincerest gratitude to Vladof for outfitting us on this glorious day. Second, the meat, we got Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns. 9mm rounds, Wunderbar German design, light weight, eight hundred rounds per minute, one hundred round clips. It’s all on you lot now. If they’re good enough to hold off the Iranians, they’ll do some serious damage against just about everything else. For a sidearm, Desert Eagles. Semi-automatic, Israel redesign, Mark IIV: light weight, short barrel, ten round capacity. Drop it on your foot, five wee little piggies spines are gonna crack open like a bag of crisps. Worst case scenario, they make a damn fine club. Once you hit the tight corners of Chinatown, this Remington 870’ll make you stiff as a redwood. An all American, light weight, pump-action shotgun, with an eight shell capacity and a strap to slide right over your shoulder. Perhaps my personal favorite, though, is this beautiful bitch right here, the M4 carbine. If Jesus Theodore Christ himself wanted to shoot you in the fucking face, he’d do it with one of these. Short, light, air-cooled, gas operated, one hundred and fifty round capacity, under-barrel grenade launcher. For when you just really wanna make someone’s day.” 

“If only we’d been packing this shit out in Belfast,” said Derrick McReary, “would’ve made the Englishmen positively shit themselves.”

Derrick McReary was excommunicated from the Real IRA after he was caught stealing a purple Lamborghini with hundred dollar bills stuffed in the trunk, glove box, underneath the seats, and duct taped to every facet of his body. He fled to the United States where he started running, literally, dope for the Koreans. The thought occurred to him one day to try the heroin stuffed down his pants, and one addiction swiftly led to another; now he found himself in debt to the Koreans for three hundred thousand dollars. He had a record for disorderly conduct and civil disobedience, which amounted to the fact that he liked to take his dick out in public. Derrick was loyal when it suited him, and compassionate when he woke up on the right side of the bed. He was a weasel playing poker with copperheads. 

“I hear you on about the goddamn Englishmen one more fucking time Derrick,” said Mad Sweeney, “I will positively strangle you to death. Back to the robbery we’re workin’ outta your mum’s shoebox, once you get inside the bank, provided you remember to look both ways when you cross the street, Derrick and Niko are handling the civilians, while Patrick and Saint Michael are eyeing the employees. No unnecessary casualties.”

“What happens when we run into a proud proponent of the second amendment?” Said Michael Keane. 

“You blow his fucking brains out the back a ‘is skull you inbred halfwit!” Said Patrick.

“Don’t you go bringing my parents into this!” Said Michael.

“Cleopatra would be ashamed of you. I’m surprised you ain’t got three eyes, no balls, and a club foot,” said Patrick. 

Michael ‘Saint Michael’ Keane got his nickname from when he drowned a priest, mid-sermon, in holy water. He wasn't very bright, agile, strong, or lucky. He got laughed out of the Real IRA for driving the getaway vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz Actros, from an armored car heist one thousand, one hundred and forty five miles, roughly twenty hours, to Berlin. Wherein the money was promptly stolen by the Fourth Reich and Michael was left for dead on the side of the road. 

“Both of you shut the fuck up!” said Niko, “or this’ll be a two man job, and a three way split!”

Patrick and Michael settled down.

“I could pay third graders to handle their shit better than you dipshits,” said Mad Sweeney, “after the hostages are controlled, Derrick is gonna rig the vault with C4”

“PE4,” said Derrick.

“The Holy Jesus fuck is that?” Said Patrick.

“First of all, you’re a fucking charmer Patrick, and second, it’s better than C4. Doesn’t leave as much residue on the notes.”

“I don't damn well care if you stick gum to the fucking thing!” said Mad Sweeney, “once the vault blows, Niko and Michael’ll go down and load up the gold. Patrick and Derrick, you’ll stay on crowd control. I don’t care if the Pope himself comes in and tries to persuade you to give up and surrender peacefully, if that gold doesn’t make it back to this house, Ms. Wrath is gonna carve out our eyes. And I don't know about the rest of you, but knowing the color of the sky is something I cherish very deeply.”

“How much resistance we talkin’ outside?” Said Michael.

“Maximum resistance,” said Mad Sweeney, “triple digit responders. Police’ll blockade every street in a two mile radius. You’ll have to push through, and once outside, head east, up the street, and take a right down the first side alley. After exiting the alley, head left, then cross the street. Keep heading into Chinatown until you reach another side alley on your right, where you’ll come out on another street in front of the gun store. Cross that street, and down the alley alongside the gun store. By now the choppers’ll be bearing down on you. Do not engage them, head down into the subway tunnel on your right immediately after leaving the alley. Clear the subway, then move onto the tracks. Head due east for about a mile. There’ll be an access tunnel on your right that’ll take you up to street level. A red, four door sedan will be parked and waiting for you. Take it, keys are in the glovebox, and drive right back here. Leave the gold in the attic. It’s that simple.”

Niko, Patrick, Derrick, and Michael left the McReary residence. 

“Play the guitar, play it again, my Johnny. Maybe you're cold but you're so warm inside . I was always a fool for my Johnny . For the one they call Johnny Guitar . Play it again, Johnny Guitar.”

Gerald McReary had turned on his mother’s radio. He was sipping espresso from a dainty, green teacup. “What a fucking disappointment you turned out to be. Got us working with the Russians now. It ain’t healthy competition if we lose the side streets and let Vladof bend us over a pommel horse. What do we even know about this… Niko Bellic?”

“He likes a fight and he ain’t wearin’ a badge. Niko don’t speak for any Russian other than himself.” Said Mad Sweeney.

“Piss off. All we’ve ever been is bitches. Working for the guineas, working for the niggers, any asshole with a buck. The whole lot spent in the proper manner, oh yeah, wine and women, as quick as possible, and remain a slave forever.” Said Gerald.

Inmate number 7142858, Gerald McReary used to be boss of the Real IRA before Cletus Kasady broke both his legs, permanently. Time was any car you wanted, Gerry was your guy. Now he was in early retirement, confined to a wheelchair. His record included: assault, armed robbery and hijacking, conspiracy to commit extortion, conspiracy to commit murder, first degree murder, and grand theft auto.

“You sure do got a lot to say for a man that’s been married three times and still won't admit he likes men.” Said Mad Sweeney.

“Patrick has a tattoo of his own bloody name on his arm. I’m not stupid, I’m just speaking my mind, which I think I’ve damn well earned. ‘Ms. Wrath?’, please. Wanda is a pussy cat with a hoarse throat from trying to roar like a lion. She’s getting soft and you know it. Letting that Russian princess whisper sweet nothings in her ear. You and me ‘er gettin’ played, and sooner or later we’re both gonna wind up nailed to a cross.” Said Gerald.

“You forget why we’re here? Hm? Ireland’s not the only thing that’s green, dollars are too. So whatever the Russians are peddling must not be working, cause I’m still here.”

“For now. This is a bad idea, Sweeney.”

“The world was built out of bad ideas you bitter prick. Do you know what the Spookshow is? It’s a company. Wanda is a shareholder. Put two and two together, whaddya get? Ultimate control. Quickest way to the top is makin’ friends, and you know me, I’m a fucking people person. Make damn sure you’re awake when the gold get’s here. I gotta go have a fucking smoke.”

 

One Month Before Kara Left For The Mojave Wasteland With Mr. Town

 

Shade took a miniature screwdriver out of his duster pocket and began fiddling with the circuits in his left hand. He was sitting on an empty keg in a Pointe Verdun side alley, just over an hour after the bar closed. There was a big yellow sign hanging outside Thomas Burke’s second favorite distillery. ‘Join Atlas Today’, it read in bold, capital letters. Shade wanted to meet the man. See how well the act held up.     

“Who the fuck even told you he was here?” Mad Sweeney stretched out his suspenders with his thumbs, and let them slap back down over his grease stained, beer-battered white tank-top. 

Shade rolled his tongue between his teeth. “Can't walk more than a block without hearing crock of the sort.”

“Well ain’t you ever considered that’s all it damn well is?”

“Yeah,” said Shade.

“You’re a goddamn moron, you know that? And an asshole to boot. Take off the fucking glasses. Stand out worse than a bison in a chicken coup.”

“They still have those out here?”

“What? Chicken coups?”

“Bison.”

“Wouldn't put it past the man,” said Sweeney.

“So he exists.”

“I never said he didn’t. What I said was: only a right and proper fool would believe anything that comes piling out of his fat fucking mouth. Have better luck, and take this from me if nothing else, getting your fortune from the back of a garbage truck. Cause that’s all the work he’ll see fit to serve you.” 

Shade felt beads of sweat hanging from the edge of his eyelids. The screwdriver inched its way closer towards the hive of wires at the center of his palm. 

“They got common sense where you’re from?” Mad Sweeney’s enormous arms flapped about aimlessly against the mid-July nightly breeze. The ginger mountain that ran across his cheeks, over his chin, and atop his head didn't seem to notice.

“Not particularly.”

“And why’s that?”

“It don't sell all that well,” said Shade.

“I been hearin’ that a lot lately.”

“Common sense?”

“Things not selling well. Beginning to think there are a bunch of assholes in really nice suits making all this shit up in a boardroom somewhere. You ever get that impression?”

“NO.”

“Course you do. Not adept at hidin’ it, either. Then again, we’re just the fuckin’ grunts ain’t we? We’re not supposed to know a goddamn thing.”

Shade inserted the screwdriver to crudely and his hand wound up spinning about his wrist shooting off sparks.

“Sneaking can be quite difficult when you look like a defunct animatronic got lost while wandering from the wild, wild, west and stumbled into a pit full of neon signs and plastic explosives.”

He began slamming his malfunctioning hand against the alley wall behind him, with Mad Sweeney laughing all the way, but that only saw fit to bust brick out onto the dimly lit sidewalk. 

“You see this, this boyo, is why you should never entrust Berlin Engineering with setting you up with a new cock holster.”

Once the wall looked ready to crumble, Shade turned to the pavement. 

“There are just some people inhabiting this oddly shaped world of ours that ain’t quite accustomed to living life,” Mad Sweeney brought his foot down on Shade’s hand, “and you, my new friend, are most certainly one of them.” The screwdriver popped out bent and burnt down to the handle. The robotic left hand lay motionless. “I can get ya in to see the freak show, but should you incur any wrath, be it from the Black God with the hammer, or that lass draped in nine different shades of pink, it’s your fucking problem. Cause unlike what he might tell ya, I’M actually a part of the Real IRA, and we got shit to do.”

Shade straightened out his hand, and aligned all his fingers. “Best get on with it then.”

“You’re a long way from home, Russian, don’t forget it.”

Mad Sweeney opened the back door into the distillery. All the casks had been sealed away. The floors were being washed down for the night. The weary wooden planks creaked and moaned as he walked along the catwalks, gold coins nearly jumping out of his pockets, until a tucked away staircase beckoned him down to a lower level. They were in the cellar; devoid of any windows for prying eyes to gaze through. Half-empty boxes filled with Atlas propaganda were stacked against the walls. 

“Where’s he get all the money?” Said Shade.

“How the hell should I know? He’s a swindler, probably swindles. Sold somebody on something and now he’s milking the poor fucker for all he’s got. That’s what he does. I’m not particularly fond of him.”

“Really? Why’s that? He seems right up your alley.”

“Does he you cheeky cunt? Well, you wanted to meet the man, go on then. And just in case you were wonderin’, yeah, ya owe me a drink.”

Shade took a Huff n’ Puff out of his pocket and lit it. Before heading deeper into the cellar, he turned to see Mad Sweeney walking back up the staircase. A gold coin dropped from his pocket. Shade picked it up, flipped it, and pressed on. He found the man the signs called Atlas sitting at a little wooden table with a bottle of Jameson and two shot glasses.

“I should have known. Can’t walk a block without you findin’ out about it. Shit, had eyes on me since I stepped off the plane, didn’t ya? Well, color me impressed.”

Atlas looked like the spitting image of his posters; white collared shirt and blue suspenders looked out of place on him nevertheless. “You gonna make me drink alone?”

“Course not,” Shade sat down, “long as we can both drop the bullshit. You start, Fontaine.”

The sound of both triggers of a double barrel shotgun being pulled back resonated from under the table. “There,” his Irish remained steady, “how about you?”

“Don’t wanna break character, I understand. Just wanted to make sure we were operatin’ on the same level. What would you say if I told you I worked for Mr. World?”

Atlas leaned back in his seat. He took the shotgun out from under the table and popped both shells out. “I’d pour ya a drink and say keep goin’.”

“As you like it. You see, office politics are freefallin’ right now. We got people ready to flip the proverbial boat, as it were. Nobody knows what the fuck is goin’ on. Shareholders are gettin’ restless. We don’t want that. So, people like me are sent out to restore order. Or, at the very least, get a hands on read of things. Started out with your competition,” Shade took a shot, “but I’d wager to say you already know how fucked they are. Recently I’ve been assigned the role of the defector. Supposed to come over here and sell you some mighty authentic wolf tickets. But, I figured that just wasn’t gonna work. Was I right?”

Atlas took a sip of whiskey. “You wanna know somethin’ funny? I ain’t got the foggiest idea who you are. Was plannin’ on finding out the hard way. So, no, you weren’t exactly right. What was that bit about shareholders?”

“It doesn’t concern you. Just know they’re there. Bosses have bosses, so to speak. Can I be honest with you? This whole get-up here… I don’t buy it. Not for a minute. I know you put a lot of work into it but… the long con. Right? That’s what you’re after. Want some advice? Don’t worry, it’s free. You wanna fool people—easy. All ya gotta do is stick it right in front of them; right under their big, pointy noses. And wait.”

Atlas poured a second round. “I’ll keep that in mind…”

“Shade. All my friends call me Shade.”

“How presumptuous. Can I be honest with you? Mad Sweeney is a liar.”

“Uh-Huh. How you figure?”

“What did he say he was?”

“Real IRA.”

Atlas shook his head. “Bullshit.” 

“Care to elaborate?”

“Look at the company he keeps. He doesn’t know a single Irishmen that hasn’t been kicked out of the Irish Republican Army. No active members in his crew. Who’s he gettin’ orders from? Kasady? I don’t think so. You seem like the sort that likes to imagine he knows everything. So tell me: who holds his leash?”

Shade took another shot. “Never given it much thought.”

“Well, start,” said Atlas, grinning.

He took the gold coin out of his pocket and held it in his natural hand. “You gonna pitch me Frank?”

“Maybe. Let’s start with something simple. Would you kindly crush that coin in the palm of your hand.”

Shade made a fist and squeezed. He felt the gold crumble. “It ain’t real.”

“No, it ain’t.”

 

Frisco Fields had never seen a man of color standing on the sidewalk long enough for it to look out of place. The frog in the birdbath. The fox in the snowstorm. Onlooking blades of grass gazed until the very fabric of their vision melted in agony. Kara found it all to be delightfully charming. With a snap of its fingers, the neighborhood had collectively packed up and shipped out. To where, no one knew. Pulled the electrical wires out of the walls, plucked the flamingos off the lawn, snatched the birds from the trees and everything else that wasn't nailed down. Didn’t even leave so much as a note. 

Bellaire's Supermarket was a ‘New’ sight to behold. The revolution had come. The Southern Union had lost. With Don Gustavo, who couldn’t have been less interested in dividing the spoils, marching west on a seemingly indefinite endeavor to corner the sand market he conjured, a vacuum of preferably containable proportions had been created. There was a fresh face stalking the streets. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was making great gains in the business of purchasing harvested, fresh produce and selling it for ten times what it was worth in silver to an elite clientele as “organic.” Those behind the counter barely had to bat an eyelash. The brand sold itself. 

Not everyone seemed to like that. There were rumblings amongst the spooks that an impending clash was brewing on the not too distant horizon. Though they never metamorphosed into fully functioning predictions, covertly electing to remain a taboo slice of gossip best reserved for consumption far away from prying cameras and televisions screens. 

Sunset drew over the bayou in long, orange and red strokes. Shade’s feet dangled off the side of his perch: a bronze, 1970 Citroën SM. In his right hand, a half bitten peach, the remains of which were in the process of being compacted in between his ravenous teeth. While his left was sitting in the back seat. There was something different about the way Shade’s blue eyes now lurked behind his glasses. Almost like they were hiding from someone. “In case you were wonderin’, and I know you were, they done gone and got rid of boats now. Why set sail on the open, majestic seas when you can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars plastering the countryside with rails. Only so many times a grown, forty year old man jerking off a cow can delight the senses. Innovation for innovation’s sake would be a crime if there weren’t so many pricks out there wasting good wine and beating their kids with tire irons, or pine cones, or… whatever the fuck good parenting is these days. If all Mr. World was gonna have me doin’ today was layin’ down train-tracks, shit, I woulda got myself on the first flight out this morning. Can’t stand this fucking place. Everywhere you look some rich housewife is getting ready to overdoes on PCP. Get used to it. Gonna be your job to shampoo the carpet.” 

“Mr. World? Never heard of him before,” said Kara.

“Oh,” Shade looked startled, “he’s uh… goddamnit. Listen, why don’t you go ask somebody else.”

Kara scoffed dismissively, and motioned to the detached limb. “What’d you do?”

“Me and ol’ Monty got into a bit of a scrap over when is and is not the appropriate  time to rip someone’s tongue out while they’re pandering to your most basic desire for a quiet smoke break.”

“So you broke it.”

“You’re goddamn right I did. Thing’s a hunk of fucking junk. Can’t have a glass of beer without shattering it into a million pieces. Barely able to slice my steak. I’d be better off duct taping one spoon, fork, and knife to my arm and callin’ it a damn day. Berlin Engineering can hardly make domesticated paper weights with opposable thumbs, let alone a hand that can control its primal urge to grope everything within strangling distance.”

“Shade?”

“Yeah? What?”

“You kill anyone today?”

“Fuck kind a question is that to ask in a public parking lot?”

A thumping sound erupted from the trunk.

“You need to get that?”

“Nope.”

“You wanna get that?”

“Get what, darlin? How’re you today?” 

“Peachy. Jinx never wants to leave. Mr. Wood in?”

“Oh yeah… yeah, he’s in. Lubricating the transition. Been scrambling paperwork and flipping phones since about four this morning. Don’t look like he got much time for idle chitchat.” 

“He’ll make some,” said Kara.

“Is that so? Who’re you?”

“Just some girl that saw an albino crocodile in the zoo once and thought it looked cool. Who’re you?”

“Just some guy…” Shade leaned back across the top of the car “… that ain’t never been to the zoo.”

Kara entered the supermarket. Each aisle was stocked with food she could never afford to make a proper meal out of. Everything was green and organic; gluten free, antibiotic free, and damn near close to ingredient free. Bellaire was the size of a small mall, yet she couldn’t even find a carton of eggs or a single box of sugary kids cereal. Department store mannequins in short, pink skirts roamed around pushing shopping carts. Kara thought she was the most out of place person there, until she saw a man in a black trench-coat with a pump-action shotgun hanging at his waist. He noticed her staring and motioned to the squash behind him. “19.99. Highway robbery, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” said Kara. 

Mr. Wood was sitting behind a small metal desk in the backroom of the supermarket. The topmost buttons of his brown, corduroy suit were undone and his tie was lying on the ground beside him. Despite the air-conditioner sitting at an even sixty four degrees, his round glasses kept sliding down the bridge of his nose. 

“Weren't we supposed to be setting up a hotel chain in the arctic?”

“Construction got delayed,” Mr. Wood smiled and reached behind him, taking an icy bottle of coke out from a cooler, “somethin’ about polar bears. It’s good to see ya kid. Take a seat. Go on an’ crack that open. I’ll just be a minute.”  

Water dripped down the bottle and onto Kara’s hand as she drank; it tasted more like ice than coke, but she didn’t mind. Mr. Wood returned to filling out the paperwork on his desk. Each document had a logo of the Earth on it.

“Hey, Mr. Wood… how come you ain’t got a gun?”

“What I want with a gun? What I want with one of those for?”

“Well, damn near everybody’s got one. Brick, Marsh… Silver even.”

“Did I ask you who had one? Or did I ask you what I want with one?”

“So you can… you know… protect yourself. Come on what else you use a gun for? People out there ain’t exactly fond of you runnin’ things.”

“Yeah,” Mr. Wood put his paperwork down, “and how much this gun gon’ cost me?”

“Aw, hell. You really gonna make me slap a price tag on something Shade can get you for free?”

“Oh please—I don’t even trust that man to tie his shoelaces in the morning.”

“A gun is a gun,” said Kara. 

“A string is a string. I know one when I see it. I’ll start out buyin’ a gun and before long I’ll have three T.V.’s, a new sofa, and some Salisbury steaks I ain’t never gonna eat. Now don’t you go upsettin’ yourself with this nonsensical worrying any longer. I’m fine, ya see. Pass Mr. Castle on the way in? Whatchu think he’s here for? Guard the squash? Spooks never travel alone. They call him a One-Man-Wrecking-Crew. I kinda wanna know why. Maybe after we’re done we should go ask him. Guarantee he ain’t afraid of these fools runnin’ around draped in their mama’s bedclothes. The White Glove Society… that’s what they’re callin’ themselves now. To sound sophisticated. They ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of trick-or-treaters.”

“You ain’t seen ‘em.”

“I don’t need to. Ain’t nothin’ but a bad joke now, that’s all it is. If they was as tough shit as they thought they was, you and me wouldn’t be havin’ ourselves this here conversation, would we? You wanna know what the problem is? I’ll tell you. They want it to badly. If the Big Bad Wolf came knockin’ at your door with some Michael Meyers mask on, well, I figure he wouldn’t look so scary. You’d probably laugh at the Big Bad Wolf if he came around lookin’ like that… a damn fool,” said Mr. Wood.

“It doesn't have to be a Barker 1500 tactical or a Hartman .30. It can be something small. Light and discreet. You wouldn’t even know it was there.”

“Then why the hell do I need it there in the first place? If I’m not even supposed to know it’s there? Hell, why don’t you strap a Fat-Man on my back and send me out in the trenches.”

“Come on, now. You know what I’m talking about here. Don’t make it so… outlandish.”

“You’re doin’ a mighty fine job of that yourself.”

“Eventually Mr. Castle has to go home,” said Kara. 

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right. But Mr. Gold likes workin’ the night shift. Do you really think Upper Management would let me get lynched my first day on the job?”

“No. If you don’t want to keep the gun on you at all times, that’s fine, just do what Nancy does and—”

“Nancy? Ha!” Mr. Wood slapped his hand down on the desk. “Don’t even get me started on him. Anansi. Boy thinks he’s a spider, but all he does is use those extra legs for runnin’. Talks the talk—sure. Carries himself real nice, wears expensive things made outta dead animals. It’s bullshit. He’s bullshit. Not worth the stale bread I drop on the floor for the rats.”

“I’ll… I’d buy it for you,” said Kara. 

“Like hell you will. Besides, I thought Shade would get you a free line. Listen to me Kara, save your money. Spend it on that girl of yours. Don’t go wastin’ it on me.”

“It would make me feel better knowing you had something to defend yourself with.”

“Kid, I don’t quite care how you feel about the matter. Just know I always got protection right here,” Mr. Wood motioned to his fists, “Hansel and Gretel.” 

“The twins ain’t what they used to be. You can’t laugh the Klan away.”

“Sure I can. Been doin’ it my whole life. And the few times I couldn’t, well, we proper men have fists for a reason. And it wasn’t punchin’ trees.” 

There was a long pause. Kara took another sip of her coke. Mr. Wood flipped through a folder labeled: ÜberKommandant Steele. 

“New Berlin is fittin’ to have some lovely weather. Perfect time for the Oberkommando to throw a parade,” said Kara. 

“Alphonse ain’t got no business plannin’ no damn parade. Can barely hold the side streets and what’s he wanna do? March a couple thousand of his boys out in broad daylight. Any two-bit wack-job with a hand grenade can decimate an entire squad.” Mr. Wood closed the folder, took a sharpie, and blacked out the name Steele. “No. What he should be doin’ is invading somewhere with a helluva lotta oil. I don’t know how else those six hundred pound clankers roaming the country side are supposed to keep workin’. Collecting data on how many times you shake it. But that poor boy and common sense just don’t seem to be on speaking terms anymore.”

“Maybe he’s just trying to keep morale up.”

“Why bother? They all bought into the pitch. Anyone thinks about steppin’ out of line just put the T.V. on and let Lucille do her thing. Or, if that doesn’t work, strap some headphones on and listen to Ms. Stardust remind you how to breathe. Everyone speaks the universal language of ‘How much this gon’ cost me?’ and ‘How much this gon make me?’ That’s just the way it is.”

“I don’t think Alphonse needs anyone to remind him how to breathe. That’s not fair. Regardless, they seem to be making quite a bit. More than us.”

“Oh,” Mr. Wood nodded, “I’m sure they are. That’s what the God of Brands does best. The blood of a salesman runs through her artificial veins. She put on some nice red lipstick and got Alphonse to take the deal on all its merits. Don’t listen to him try an’ twist it, he ain’t the offended party here, he knew what he was gettin’ into. I won’t take this away from her, the contract is always crystal clear. No jargon, no holes. He fixed the variable. He signed the dotted line with the tip of what remained of his soul. Rest is constant. So, since you seem fit to nail yourself to a cross for the guy, tell me why he did it. Why did he do it? Cause he needed the capital? Cause the people he surrounds himself with were ready to stuff him full of sharp objects and take control of his enterprise?”

Kara started squirming in her seat. “I’m not nailing myself to a cross for anybody.” She paused and licked her lips, attempting to mask her frustration. “I wasn’t there. I didn't get to read the fine print.”

“Oh, that’s such a pitiful excuse. I know you got better. You don’t go backing one of Alphonse Bähr’s schemes if you ain’t got a strong foundation with which to erect your argument around. Media’s pitch was simple. You know what I’m talkin’ about here, don’t bullshit. I ain’t lyin’ to ya. She sold them what’s trending, what’s all the rave in the market, what all the kids are talking about in the schoolyard: naziism. It’s back in fashion, or have you not seen the news? Time to dust off all your best goose-stepping boots and pointy helmets. Shave your head right down to the bone. If you find yourself unable to sleep at night with the thought of getting a swastika tattooed on your chest, never fear, they got some real authentic lookin’ stick-on-peel-off stickers. After it’s all said and done be on your damn way. Don’t make a peep. Look the part, do your job, profit. That’s the fine print.”

“Well what do you expect, that’s what she does…”

“A greedy man is a greedy man. A desperate man is a desperate man. Alphonse is as greedy and desperate as they come. The second the Germans stop being able to turn the right lookin’ numbers outta the pharmaceutical sector, they’ll get replaced by people that can. Numbers is where it’s all at—ones and zeros. That’s all he’s in it for. That’s all any of ‘em are in it for. They’ll play the part down to the damn letter if the director wills it. Their role in the play and the play itself are at an equal elevation. For now.”

Kara bit down hard on her lip. “Look— cut me a damn break. I don’t like this shit any more than you do. Blonde hair? Check. Blue eyes? Check. Bats straight? Fuck no. But Media isn’t the only one that can push trends. You heard about Wilhelm? He’s been makin’ the rounds lately. People are listening to him, a lot of people. He can shake things up over there. Certainly seems to be the only one with the balls to try.”

“And he’s so different? Alright then, I’m through with it now. Go on and finish your coke.” Kara had angry eyes. She knew what she wanted to say but not how to formulate it into spoken English. Mr. Wood was just a bit quicker than her, always had been. He made her feel like a child. She was sitting at the grownups table, but in his eyes she didn’t belong there. Kara tried to figure out why she cared so much. Mr. Wood attempted to return to his work, but couldn’t. He wasn’t finished. “Mr. Stone tells me you done got offered a job workin’ over at Oasis.”

“Yeah. Mr. Tin says one of their representatives is gonna be coming by to ‘evaluate’ me. I don’t know what they’d have me doing.”

“I thought you were supposed to be headin’ out west with Mr. Town. Enforce company regulations, or so that’s the bill of goods Upper Management is selling.”

“Mr. Town says he’ll be there for a while. It’s a long job and Jinx doesn’t do well in the desert. I think he’d much rather work the whole thing alone, anyway.”

“Oasis is the Oberkommando’s pharmaceutical hub here in the states. You wanna go to the corner store and buy some Joy, it comes from them. You order a prescription through the mail, they send it to you. If anyone takes a pill of any kind, anywhere, they know about it. Damn fine racket if there ever was one. But don’t let the American accents fool ya. That why you stickin’ up for Alphonse, cause he’s trickling opportunity down through the grape vine?”

“No. I just wanted to know what you thought about it,” said Kara. 

“Well if you want the job so badly go on an’ take it. Don’t need my permission. But, if you really wanna know what I think about it,” Mr. Wood made an act of mulling it over, “you should go west with Town. Work this assignment just like any other, no matter how long it takes. You do that, Upper Management sees fit to bump you up. Get ya a nice corner office, a crane lamp, some new perfume or whatever. Can’t jump ship now,” he shook his head, “it’s too risky, there’s too many things goin’ on.”

“Yeah, well, the ship’s sinking. So what the fuck are we gonna do in a year, maybe a few months, when none of us have jobs anymore?”

“Uh-Huh. Okay. I see. This Wilhelm really lit a fire under you, didn’t he. Lemme ask you somethin’: you ever met the guy? Or have you just heard rumblings? Bed time stories about what he might do. He might get shot tomorrow. He might decide the whole gambit wasn't even worth it in the first place. He might walk outside to pick up the paper one morning and never be seen again. Where’d he go? No one knows.”

“Well what if I don’t want sit in the fucking desert for who knows how long with a bottle of scotch in a nice suit?”

“You think you’re the only one that ain’t over the moon with their job? You’re not. But just try bein’ realistic. What’s Alphonse gonna offer you? That’s who’s in charge now, so you gotta work with him. You said it yourself, you only got two out of three. Blonde hair, blue eyes—look the part, sure. But if you wanna do anything that ain’t moppin’ floors you need the whole package. Sure Alphonse needs a few more hands at his disposal, but whatever he’s offerin’ ain’t vertically inclined. You ain’t gettin’ no corner office, no crane lamp, no health benefits. The Fourth Reich doesn’t care about the jar of eyelashes under your pillow. You best head out with Mr. Town and live a proper life,” said Mr. Wood. 

Kara leaned forward. “Ain’t a goddamn thing proper about fighting over who get’s to run a monopoly on sand. The Mojave is an eyesore just like everything in it. No one cares about it anymore. There is nothing for me out there. I can do better. I want to do better. The well is dried up. There ain’t nothin’ left.”

“Jinx stands out. The bright pink lipstick on your cheeks stands out even more. Where she gonna be hold up in all this?”

“I’ll take her with me.”

“Ha! No you won’t. Cause guess what they’ll say: No Gays Allowed. They probably got a sign up and everything. The brand isn’t makin’ exceptions for you. So, you’re gettin’ all antsy in your seat now, whatcha gonna do? Tell me I’m wrong. Why don’t you do the smart thing and say you haven’t thought this all the way through. There ain’t no gay nazis kid. And there ain’t no exceptions.”

“I can’t stand it here anymore. All anyone does is talk about how to sell a better and brighter future, but nobody fucking delivers! All people do is talk. They don’t care about us. Nobody does!”

“Well guess what? This is the business! You signed up for it. That was your first, last, and only mistake. I get what you’re after, but you’re going about it all wrong. Folk on top, Media and the Technical Boy, they been at it a lot longer than you. Just a little longer than me. They’re way up there on their clouds lookin’ down. To them you look real small. It makes them laugh.”

Kara jumped to her feet. “I WANT OUT OF MY CONTRACT!” She screamed, ready to pull the hair out of her head.

Mr. Wood remained seated and firm. “WELL TOO GODDAMN BAD! CAUSE THAT JUST AIN’T HOW IT WORKS AROUND HERE!”

Kara sunk back into her chair. Tears fell into the palms of her hands.“Fuck…”

Mr. Wood leaned over the table. “Kara?” He spoke gently. 

“What?”

“This is life. It don’t exist to treat you right. Upper Management didn't see fit to design it that way. It ain’t nothin’ you did. But if you keep puttin’ your faith in people that might do things, you ain’t ever gonna make it anywhere special. People wanna use you. They wanna exploit you and profit off you because they can. And because they know you can’t do anything to stop them. You gotta be in it for yourself now, Kara, you hear me. And Jinx. It’s gotta be the two of you and no one else. You’re gonna have to fuck people over, good people too. The sort you feel really bad for afterward, but that’s just the way it is. I haven't the faintest idea why, so don’t ask me. You’re smart Kara. Smart enough to know that you ain’t ever gettin’ outta that contract.”

Kara dried her eyes and wiped her nose with her shirt. The Earth logo stamped onto each of Mr. Wood’s documents caught her eye. “Who is Mr. World?”

“What did you just say? Who…” Mr. Wood looked scared. “Where did you even hear that name? Kara, you see this?” He motioned around the room. “This right here? This is all ground level. We are all ground level. We keep our heads down, do what we do, and yeah, try an’ do it well. Okay? You with me so far? Don’t you ever say that name again. We ain’t allowed to. Do you understand what I’m sayin’?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Good… we got that straightened out nice an’ quick. Who goes around tellin’ you these things? It’s Shade, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Figures. You know, they let him get away with too much. Let him think he’s somebody. A real important figure. Don’t go around payin’ attention to him anymore.”

“I—”

“Cause he’s outta his depth. You understand?”

“Ye—”

“Too many people just runnin’ around these days. Speakin’ on matters they don’t know a damn thing about! Fuckin’… man with the sunglasses. I told him…I-I-I said look here, if you give this kind of man status… well… shit… then everybody's gonna want somethin’ from ya. That’s how we end up in these here types of situations. But hell, why would anybody listen to me? I’ve only been here the longest—outta all the other Spooks. I’ve kept my wits about me too—ain’t had a drink in more than forty years.”

“I know what the problem is,” said Kara. 

“No. No you do not. Why you gotta come in here askin’ me some fool ass questions? Come in here sayin’ you know what the problem is. He-he-Laud Nahw. She came in here askin’ why? Askin’ where? Askin’ when? You don’t come in here and start askin’ me questions! Understand that! We good, but we ain’t that good. Now I am not privy to that sort of information. Not cause they don’t don’t tell me, but because I got the common sense not to ask. It’s not my job to know everything—not my job to barge in and start demanding answers to questions, I’m not too bold enough to admit, scare me! Things ain’t the way they are outta chance. People up in the boardroom decide who gets to wake up in the morning and who don’t. They decide what time, the type of clothes you put on, the amount of food you eat, where you go… me personally, I’d sure like to keep them from deciding that I woke up at two in the morning to take a piss and somehow wound up slipping and falling down three flights of stairs, breaking my neck. Remember when you was back in the city? First saw all the neon signs in your eyes. I knew somethin’ then that I never told ya… but I’m goin’ to now: you sold your soul to the company store. And electricity ain’t fuckin’ free. You wanna know who Mr. World is? Go on. Ask me again—I’ll tell ya.”

“Who is Mr. World?”

“God.”

 

After Mr. Taylor Finishes His Conversation With Mr. Fisk

 

As Mr. Taylor left the midtown law office, Shade took another sip of his rum and stood up. He stretched his arms out behind his back and blew Jessica a kiss goodbye. “Later darlin’, try an’ wipe that puss off your face while I’m gone.” He didn't check to see which of her ten fingers she raised at him. The banjo was left for someone else’s enjoyment. 

The floor tiles lit up under Shade’s sandals as he walked. He sat down in the chair to the left of Mr. Fisk. 

The Spook behind the desk sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. “What… are you wearing?”

“I’m on holiday.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Wearin’ a suit just doesn’t, well, suit me. I get my best work done when I’m comfortable. Don’t you think these boys would be more productive without the constriction of a tie?”

“Mr. Shade I’m beginning to lose my patience.”

“It’s just Shade. I’m not a mister. Not like one of them. I’m not here tryin’ to sell you oil or a new highway.”

Mr. Fisk closed his eyes. He began deeply inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth. In between breathes he silently counted to five. 

“Okay, okay, alright,” said Shade removing his sunglasses, “calm the fuck down. I’m ready to debrief.”

Mr. Fisk opened his eyes and rested his hands on the desk. “How did it go with Mr. Fontaine?”

“Well, it went pretty good. Got close to him, didn't get shot. My arm almost blew off into space though, so, I’m gonna need another tuneup.”

“That can be arranged with Rhys.”

“Peachy.”

“He believed your cover?”

Shade scratched his chin. “Well… you see… I figured it wasn't the best move to bullshit a bullshitter. I mean the guy’s been around this long for a reason, right? I mean I can lie, but, not like him. Ain’t nobody that good.”

“Shade, what did you tell him?”

“The truth: I work for Mr. World. Now, before you overreact, allow me to remind you that it worked.”

Mr. Fisk smiled and removed his cufflinks. “Shade, do you listen to me when I talk?”

“Yes—”

Fisk reached over the desk and picked Shade up, a hand digging into each shoulder. “THEN WHY THE FUCK DO I NEED TO KEEP REPEATING MYSELF?! YOU DO NOT WORK FOR MR. WORLD, YOU WORK FOR ME! WHEN I TELL YOU TO JUMP, YOU SAY ‘HOW HIGH?’ WHEN I TELL YOU TO RUN, YOU SAY ‘HOW FAR?’ WHEN I GIVE YOU A GODDAMN COVER, YOU USE IT! AND WHEN I SAY, DO NOT UTTER THE NAME MR. WORLD TO ABSOLUTELY ANYONE, EVEN YOURSELF IN THE MIRROR, YOU DON’T FUCKING DO IT!” Mr. Fisk threw Shade across the room. “You see,” he straightened his suit, “Mr. World doesn't have the time to deal with you. Which is why I have the pleasure. He also doesn't have my patience, and approves of me saying so. There are a lot of Suits, Shade, that don’t believe you deserve to be here. They question your status. They question your decision to keep breaking character. And now, Mr. World is questioning why he keeps getting reports of people mentioning his name. You saw Mr. Taylor out in the waiting room, he does work for Mr. World. Do you know why? He follows the script. Jump five thousand feet—done. Run fifty thousand miles—done. Get on a train that’s about to explode in less than twenty minutes—done. It’s not that hard because somehow everyone else is able to do it. Except you.” Mr. Fisk leaned down to meet Shade’s gaze. “Do you listen to me when I talk?”

“Yes.”

“Okay then, Donald, let’s try this one more time. Kara and Mr. Town will soon be headed west to the Mojave. Your first task will be to debrief the both of them once they arrive and set up shop. Keep the former from wandering, keep the latter from drinking himself to death, to the best of your ability. After that I want you to make routine checkins on their progress, they each will be given separate assignments. Don’t tell them when you’re coming. Be sporadic. Anything you deem noteworthy I want sent back to me. And be sure to look over all their findings very carefully. If one grain of sand gets misplaced, and I don’t hear about it from you, I’m going to have a very long conversation with Mr. World. You are not to interfere with either Mr. Town or Kara’s operations. You are not to make contact of any kind with Czernobog or Fontaine. You want to work for Mr. World so badly, here’s your chance. Make up a cover that seems appropriate. Mr. World is Upper Management for a reason. If this doesn't work out, know that your position in the company will be reevaluated. Do you have any questions?”

Shade hesitantly got to his feet; Mr. Fisk stood roughly a foot and a half taller than him. “No sir.”

“Very good. That’s what I like to hear. This is officially a hostile takeover now. Safe travels, Mr. Shade.”

With the door firmly closed behind him Shade put his sunglasses back on. He could hear the sound of the artificial bell and feel the warm breeze against his skin. His throat felt parched, so he looked for his glass but couldn't find it. On the opposite side of the waiting room, with his boots perched up on the coffee table and an unusually large margarita glass now filled with dark green beer in his hand, was Mad Sweeney. 

“Aren't you a tonic for tired eyes,” said the Leprechaun. 

Shade began to laugh. He couldn’t remember the last time he had. He tried to sit and wound up falling flat down on the floor. That only seemed to make him laugh harder. It was a force surging through his body that he no longer found himself in control of. Jessica was looking at him with concern and moving her lips as if to ask him something. Shade pointed at her and tried to speak but couldn’t. His head felt heavy and the room was beginning to spin. Bits and pieces of the walls were breaking off and shattering into millions of tiny stars. Shade didn’t know why he was laughing, or when he’d started crying, or when Mr. Fisk had left his office and started standing over him. Shade felt himself falling through the floor. The head of Mad Sweeney had turned into a rabbit. It took a bite out of a carrot and shouted: “You’re fucked, doc.”