My joy at being in the old hometown of Chicago lasted just long enough for me to remember what Chicago was actually like: long enough for me to step off the private jet and into a freezing drizzle, soaking my Armani despite the umbrella and reminding me I still had a nagging headache from the air on the plane.
"Out in the rain is where a Vecchio belongs, Raymondo, not in your fancy-pants penthouses and private jets," said my dad.
I ignored him.
Marcone's men were there to greet us at the airstrip, of course. A few minutes of the required dominance displays and we were all bundled into sleek black cars, being led - supposedly - to the office where Gentleman Johnny had deigned to meet me.
This whole thing had been a clusterfuck from the beginning, and there was no way in hell that I should've agreed to fly all the way out from Vegas and meet him on his home turf, but my handlers were adamant that they needed some sort of in with Marcone's Outfit - why, I wasn't sure, unless they were entertaining delusions that they could flip him. And it was a chance to revisit the old stomping ground, see how much Marcone had screwed it up and screwed it over while I was out of town - that had been my excuse for conceding to have the negotiations here, with a little bit of subtle threat tossed in to imply I was considering expanding my territory.
I got the impression Marcone was laughing at me while I said it, but I usually got that impression with Marcone. I wanted to meet the man in person anyway, and he never leaves Greater Chicago anymore. You'd think he was married to the place. Jealously. But since he took over he'd also single-handedly reduced violent crime and vagrancy in in the city to record lows, more than the old 27 had ever managed, all the while making money hand-over-fist. I'd kinda been using him as a model. There aren't many examples to follow out there if you're trying to act the part of a mob boss while keeping at least a speck of your soul. Maybe the feds really did think he could be convinced to go white hat.
"You planning to kiss the guy when you meet him or something?" asked Dad. "My son. The only man in history who turns into more of a nancy-boy when he joins the mob."
...Of course, some of us have a soul or two around that we wouldn't mind waving good-bye to.
It was all moot when we got to the place, a floor of high-class offices above a high-class brothel. A red-headed giant and a blonde Valkyrie met us at the elevator, instantly recognizable as Gentleman Johnny's most trusted aides and bodyguards.
"Mr. Langoustini," the redhead said politely.
"Mr. Hendricks," I replied, a touch of feral in my smile for flavor. He nodded with just enough deference not to concede anything and ushered us down the hall to where Marcone was presumably waiting.
The Valkyrie didn't say anything. She was glaring at me - no, actually, glaring just over my left shoulder, right where I could feel the cold presence of Dad, where he'd taken to crowding himself in the three habitual paces between me and my entourage.
I frowned back at her.
"That is one stone fox," Dad said. "Why haven't you found any bodyguards like that yet? You're even a failure at being a creep."
"She is so incredibly out of your league," I muttered under my breath. The Valkyrie shot me a sharp glance at that - which she couldn't possibly have heard - and I leered at her. She frowned again, and looked about to say something, when we were all brought to a halt by something else.
I'd just stepped over a decorative pattern on the floor, I remember that; silver, I think, though the whole place was done in white-and-steel, so it didn't exactly stand out. A sudden wave of chill passed over me, like a goose stepping on my grave, and then the headache burst out so severe I found myself on my knees in the middle of the corridor. Dad tried to grab the back of my jacket, his hand passing right through the wool. I thought in that split-second that he was trying to hold me up - hope springs eternal - but running through events later, I think he was actually trying to drag me back, farther away from that slightly-curved silver line.
Marcone's people had reacted instantly, Hendricks with a gun and the Valkyrie - Gard - with her hands out in some kind of unarmed defensive stance. "What is the meaning of this, Langoustini?" she asked, all velvet.
"Maybe you should ask your boss that," I replied, as I dusted myself off and stood up. One step back from the silver line and I felt good as new again. "Is he amusing himself with some sort of experimental non-lethal weaponry? Because if so, tell him I am very far from amused."
"He isn't the one who's trying to bring 'experimental weaponry'" - I could almost hear the scare quotes - "to this meeting, Mr. Langoustini," Hendricks said, sounding pretty far from amused himself. "What are you carrying? And who gave it to you?"
It was some sort of scanner, then, though nothing I'd heard of, which was disconcerting on its own. "I hope you aren't confused about what sort of business your organization does, if you expected me to come for a friendly visit with no ... safeguards."
Hendricks had positioned himself in the middle of the hallway, directly on the other side of the line; with his arms crossed, he was effectively a wall all by himself. Gard had slipped through a door just down the corridor, presumably to confer with Marcone.
"Mr. Marcone was unaware that your organization was involved with those sorts of ... safeguards," Hendricks replied, mimicking my tone almost perfectly.
"And do believe me, if I had known, these negotiations would have gone very differently," someone said quietly. Marcone. Emerged from the conference room with his Valkyrie behind him. Radiating power the way I was generally convinced I could still only fake on my better days, immaculately dressed, but with a hint of that inexpressible tiredness around his eyes that I wouldn't've noticed if I hadn't recently gotten used to seeing it in the mirror.
Well, this was going to shit even faster than I'd expected.
"I have no idea what you are talking about," I told him, attempting to subtly mirror the body language while hiding the fact that I was telling the absolute unvarnished truth.
He raised his eyebrows and stepped forward. "This line," he said, gesturing, "Is part of a ring that keeps any supernatural influences from crossing further into my territory without my permission. Now, if you had any sort of experience with such matters, you would almost certainly have recognized it. Not to mention known better than to try anything so blatant on the Freeholding Lord of Chicago. Which implies, to me, that you have been dealing with certain of my enemies. So I must repeat what Ms. Gard asked you: What are you carrying? And who gave it to you?"
"Oh," Dad said, as if something had just occurred to him. He stepped around me and stuck one arm over the line, then jumped back with a curse and a sizzling sound, cradling the arm.
I manfully resisted the temptation to sink back down and bury my head in my hands. Of course this is my life.
Instead, I said, "You need to get that paranoia looked at, Marcone. Supernatural influences? Seriously?"
He just glared at me some more, with the bodyguards backing him up. Apparently that wasn't going to cut it.
"Not everything's about you, Marcone," I said finally. "Maybe I've picked up a few ghosts. Who doesn't in this job? But I don't see how they're any of your business. Believe me, they ain't interested in you."
Marcone blinked. Looked like I'd finally managed to say something he wasn't expecting. He gestured to the Valkyrie and she whispered something at him. He muttered back. She shrugged.
He turned back to me at that. Not friendly, still, but with half a smile. "If you were having ghost problems, Langoustini, you should've said. I know some people who can take care of that for you. Ghosts gone, problem solved, and we can get back to business."
So, either this guy was crazy or he really did believe in all this stuff and could send Dad wherever he belonged. I'd owe him a favor, of course, but that would probably be easier to live with than the alternative had been. "That's a tempting offer," I admitted.
"Anyone he knows who can get rid of me could also hear me," Dad hissed at me. "You really want him to know you're working undercover for the Feds?"
I turned around and stepped right up in his face. What-the-hell-ever, clearly we were in crazy town already, so talking to him would only back up my story. "You wouldn't dare," I told him.
"Try me," he smirked. "Not the best way to convince you you're making a fool of yourself and a stain on the family name, but whatever works."
I stepped on his foot as I turned away. Hard. It didn't have much physical effect except reminding me that my socks were wet, but it was satisfying for all that. "I can handle my own ghosts," I growled at Marcone.
"Can you?" he replied. "Well, if you change your mind, you still have my number. In the meantime, I just can't take the risk. I'm sure you understand. Sorry to drag you all the way up to Chicago for nothing. Gard, if you would see them safely out?"
"What?" I said. Listen, I know I'm not the baddest guy in the continental US, but I'm not exactly used to being treated like small potatoes anymore. Marcone had shut me out as smooth as anything, though, and slipped back into the conference room with the door shut behind him. "Marcone!" I shouted, but it was pointless. Short of starting a firefight right there - and I was still half-hoping we could salvage something of this mess, so that was out - there was nothing to do but let the blonde Valkyrie escort us back to the cars in the rain. Dad, of course, had disappeared as soon as he couldn't make it any worse.
It wasn't till Marcone's guard was safely out of earshot that I turned to my men and said, "Right. Why did nobody see fit to warn me that Gentleman Johnny Marcone is batshit fucking insane?"
Several of them looked away or cleared their throats guility. I crossed my arms and glared. All my bodyguards are also undercover Feds at this point; it's a hell of a lot safer for my cover, and it reduces the chances of some other operation colliding with ours. They'd started out treating me like a rather stupid dog they needed to train, but I was starting to get the hang of this, and it wasn't long before one of them crumpled.
"Okay, yeah, there've been rumors that he's into weird shit," he said. "The last big operation with him went a bit screwy. But he doesn't usually mix that stuff up with regular business, so we didn't - good improv with the ghost thing, by the way, really convincing, you might've just managed to pull it out, good call on turning down the exorcism, too, though we might have to concede eventually--"
"A bit screwy?" I asked, icy.
"There -- might've -- been some agents who got turned into werewolves," he said, very quickly while staring about fifty miles over my shoulder.
I slumped back into the leather seat. "Werewolves. Of course," I said, and started massaging my temples.