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The Devil You Don't

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On the monitor, Anthony Marconi enters the building, a gun raised in front of him, head twitching left and right as he scans the foyer.

From the bank of screens a couple of blocks away, Elias watches his back, mouth pursed. He’d set the old group home up as a decoy office, rigged it with cameras and enough explosives to bring the whole thing down if necessary, but he doesn’t ever go there if he can help it. None of them do, not even Bruce, whose office it’s ostensibly supposed to be. Too many unpleasant memories folded up into those walls. It makes his skin crawl. Wouldn’t surprise him if the others felt the same way too.

Anthony doesn’t look too happy either way. In contrast to its usually unruffled state, his face twitches slightly in the flicker of the camera feed, looks uncomfortable. He’s not a man to be fazed by much at all, but Elias supposes that the site of a screwed-up youth is a reasonable exception. They were all glad to get out of there, after all.

With a visible sigh, Anthony shakes his head as if to clear it, steps into the doorway of the front room off the foyer. It’s only a small one, didn’t get its own camera, so Elias just watches the back of Anthony’s leather jacket and his neatly slicked-back hair as he stands in the doorway, leaning a hand against the door frame.

Elias had received a call from John earlier, bleating about some new anomaly showing up on his territory, that he was in danger—as if that wasn’t usually the case, with the business he was in. He hadn’t thought much of it at first. John and Harold both know full well that a black market trade in items that aren’t entirely bound to the conventional laws of reality comes with its own set of dangers that Elias is fully prepared to deal with. He’d accepted the warning and fobbed them off, figuring he’d handle whatever it was himself. He prefers to keep himself not too indebted to them—it always complicates the working relationship. Still, he had long ago taken to heart that whatever the source of Finch’s information, it was worth paying attention to, so Anthony had volunteered to make a lap of their territory, take the lay of the land to be on the safe side.

That was when he’d seen the face in the window.

On the monitor, Anthony backs out of the doorway, having lingered there several seconds longer than he should have needed to. His brow is knitted into a frown, the sort he’d pull when there was trouble over curfew or some other such rule back when they were kids. Back in that context, it looks eerily familiar in a way Elias doesn’t like.

Anthony pulls his phone out, taps it, holds it to his ear. There’s only one number he has on speed dial. Elias takes out his own phone, waiting for the ring, but it doesn’t arrive. He tries to call Anthony instead; no dice. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with the signal, but Anthony just shrugs and pockets the phone again with a soundless sigh. Glances up and seems almost to meet his eye. His mouth moves noiselessly at the camera. “I got this”, his lips say. Elias nods, an automatic response to someone who can’t see him, but he knows that Anthony knows anyway. They both have each other’s back.

If it is just the one person in there, Anthony can handle it. There’s no one else on the monitor screens, but that probably just means that they’re hiding in one of the side rooms, out of view of the cameras. Anthony will flush them out soon enough. What troubles Elias is how they got in—and, worse: who they are. The decoy office in the penthouse is supposed to be a last resort. A failsafe. He keeps the building itself under a mild antimemetic field, one bestowed by tagging it using a certain anomalous can of paint he’d managed to confiscate off a student back in his Charlie Burton days. Only those who know about the building and its supposed use as Bruce’s office can see and interact with it, and the rest just pass it by. It's not that they see nothing at all—rather, their mind is simply dissuaded from acknowledging the building's existence. Which can only mean one thing: that one of his own men has betrayed him. Who is it? Gino, perhaps?

While he turns the question over in his mind, Anthony’s gone to the back stairs that head down to the basement. Elias can just about make out the short passage containing them in the corner of the screen, where the older kids would attempt, with mixed success, to trade cigarettes and alcohol when the adults weren’t looking. He watches Anthony’s descent down the steps, which slows and stops just before his head disappears behind the level of the floor. He appears to waver there for a few seconds, then backs out unsteadily. Heads back into the foyer, and even in the grainy quality of the camera footage he’s pale and sweating. Looks down at his hands—somehow his gun’s gone. Shakes his head slowly.

Then he’s striding for the door, arm outstretched to push his way out of the building, but he doesn’t quite leave the camera’s field of view. Elias can see the top of his head and shoulders at the lower edge of the screen. It’s not clear, but he seems to be reaching for something, possibly the door itself, but he can’t grasp it and staggers backwards, blinking like he’s been hit. He’s panting now, eyes darting around the foyer in alarm. Glances up at the security camera, then his face freezes like he’s realised something. His gaze follows the line of sight of the camera to all the places he’s been so far—and the places he somehow can’t go. Looks back up at the camera and meets Elias’ eyes once again. “You seeing this, boss?”

Elias is seeing this. He snaps into action, bringing up the security footage history on a side monitor and flicking back through it while keeping half an eye on Anthony. If he’s right, someone’s messed with the system in a serious way. Anthony, meanwhile, bashes the elevator call button. Looks inside when the doors open and spots the security camera mounted in the elevator ceiling. For a moment there are two of him on screen—one in view of the foyer camera and one in view of the elevator’s. Then the doors close and he’s punching the button for the second floor. Takes a slow breath in and out and swipes a hand across his forehead. By the time he steps out into the view of the second floor hallway camera, he’s somewhat more composed.

As Anthony checks the doorways of the second floor rooms, Elias gets on his phone and continues to study the archival footage while the dialing tone sounds. No one else has approached the building in the last week except for one instance, timestamped just an hour before he got that first phone call from John. And that one’s just a kid, some short boy with neat hair who walks into the field of view of the outside camera and stands there staring at it for a full minute in the centre of the screen, before turning around and leaving.

It looks as if the boy is speaking at one point. The footage is a little grainy and hard to make out—Elias has to play that part through a couple more times to lip-read what the kid’s saying.

“Can you find them all?”

Unsettling. But Elias doesn’t have time to dwell on it once his call is answered. Without knowing who among his men is the traitor, he’s called someone he knows he can trust.

“Oh, Harold?” He affects a sweet and unconcerned tone. “Regarding that anomaly you brought to my attention—if you don’t mind, I’d like to borrow John. And a video camera.”

John’s there in ten minutes. Elias already urged him to stay out of view of the security system, so all he can do is listen to the metallic rattle of John climbing the steps of the fire escape up the outside of the building, while watching Anthony’s progress through the inside. He’s made it up to the penthouse and armed himself with the snapped-off leg of one of the chairs. He looks far more himself with a weapon in hand—judging by his pursed lips, he’s even whistling to himself, in a grimly defiant way.

“Are you sure this is going to help?” John’s soft voice comes over the phone, accompanied by the clatter of him unpacking his equipment and the crack of duct tape. Presumably, he’s securing the camera to the window that Elias specified.

“Just go up and connect it to the phone wires like Harold told you, please.”

John gives an annoyed huff at that, but there’s further clanging as he climbs upwards with a bundle of cables. About a minute later, a new feed makes itself available on the monitor, just like Harold said it would. Elias doesn’t question how that worked, simply enjoys some satisfaction at how reliable John and Harold can be when their interests aren’t opposed to his own. The camera points through the window, directly into a particular empty bunk room two floors below the penthouse, seeing through the open door to the corridor beyond, where its field of view overlaps with the other camera on that floor. Anthony’s making his way back down the building in a far more thorough fashion now, carefully probing the edges of the map with some amount of exertion, pushing the boundaries of his access and emerging each time looking a little more strained.

It takes him a minute or two to reach the corridor two floors down. But his eyes go directly to that room the moment he does, out of sheer habit—just like Elias knew they would. And he notices instantly. Bounds into a room that he couldn’t enter on his way up, a room they both know as well as their own skin, out of the gaze of the corridor camera and into the view of John’s new addition. Approaches the window and leans down to look the camera in the eye.

“Hey boss.” He grins slightly as he speaks and Elias doesn’t need to hear his voice to know the relief in it. “Knew you’d figure something out.”

“John, are you still on the roof? Get back down to the camera, quick as you can.”

“One sec.” He hears the clatter of John sorting out whatever equipment he has with him, and wills him to hurry. On the screen, Anthony’s still speaking, and Elias stares hard to make out the words.

“Outside the view of the cameras there’s…” Anthony trails off a moment, his eyes going distant and unfocussed. An involuntary shiver passes through Elias at the expression. He’s not seen anything like that on his face since the first time he told him about his mother. “...well, there’s no one else here. Don’t worry about me. I’ll work something out. I mean this,” he gestures at the camera, “this is great, this means that we can change—” He stops abruptly. Elias can still hear John descending the fire escape steps. “I got an idea.” Anthony reaches out to pat the window and heads for the door.

“No, no, no, wait! John, do you see him?”

Anthony’s feet disappear around the door frame, and the corridor camera shows him dashing back to the elevator.

“No, I don’t see anyone in the room. Door’s closed.” There’s the dull chime of John tapping on the window, but Anthony’s already gone.

“You just missed him,” Elias sighs. “Can you stay there a minute, please? In case he comes back up.”

“Sure.” John hunkers down on the fire escape, and Anthony stops by the penthouse for a chair, then emerges in the lobby a minute later dragging it behind him. Sets it up under the foyer camera, stands on it, reaches up and wrenches the camera downwards. The back walls disappear from the view of the monitor, and the handle of the door beneath the camera comes into view. Anthony grins and steps down. “See you soon, boss.”

He pushes his way through the now-accessible front door and the outside camera—on the corner of the building, covering the entrance—picks him up. He bursts into the open and stops short. His expression seems confused at first, he blinks hard, rubs a hand across his eyes. Glances up at the camera then looks back out into the world. Elias doesn’t know what he sees. Can only watch his jaw slacken and his breathing accelerate, wincing in some severe discomfort.

“Boss?” He looks up at the camera. “Are you there? Can you see me?”

Elias feels a lurch in his stomach. What was it John had said? Door’s closed. But he looks back at the bunk room camera feed, with the door flung wide where Anthony had opened it the first time and hadn’t shut it since. He’d been too distracted, he’d missed it—

“John,” he says urgently. “Can you see the front of the building? Can you see Anthony?”

“Not from here. I could maybe get onto this window ledge—”

“Do it. Now!” All pretense of calm has vanished from his voice. He watches Anthony, still frozen outside the front door, eyes darting between the camera and the ground, one hand clutching his head and the other still gripped around the chair leg like he’s ready to swing it, though nothing emerges for him to swing at.

John’s voice comes slow and cautious through the phone’s speaker.

“Elias. There’s no one in front of the building.”

“Dammit!” The word tears itself from his teeth along with a good deal of his composure. He flings the phone down onto the table in front of him and covers his mouth with one hand, watches as Anthony gives the outside camera one last glance and goes back inside, reappearing beneath the foyer camera pale and shaking. Anthony leans against the door for a moment, chair leg dropping out of his hands, then climbs up to tilt the camera back upwards enough to reveal the rest of the lobby again. Looks wearily into the lens, then just at it. Lashes out in anger and frustration.

As Anthony’s fist impacts the camera, the feed fizzles and goes dark for about half a second. As it comes back, with a new crack in the lens snaking its way across the screen, Anthony’s mid-way through recoiling as if struck, crashing from the chair onto the ground. He spits as he gets up again, grins around bloodied teeth. “Didn’t like that, did you?” he snarls at the camera. His face drops a little. “Sorry,” he adds, as if he’d thrown the punch at Elias.

“No, no, Anthony, that’s okay,” Elias replies softly. He can hardly blame him for fighting back. Especially not in this place that’s seen such a history of punches thrown and blood spilled, and not always by him. Especially now that it has become entirely apparent that Anthony’s not trapped by the cameras at all. He’s trapped in them.

Elias rallies himself, picks up the phone again. “John? You still there?”

“Yeah.” John’s voice is low and sympathetic. Elias doesn’t need that sort of sentiment right now, though he can put it to good use. He swallows down a weight in the back of his throat.

“I need you to do something for me.”

“We’ll get him out of there,” John affirms. “What do you need me to do?”

Anthony’s stood on the chair again, looking right into the camera. Up close he looks awful—bruised and bloodied, with a sheen of sweat and pain over his scarred face and hair hanging across his brow in damp waves. “Hey boss.” He doesn’t look afraid. Just tired. Resigned. “Don’t send anyone in after me. That’s… I figure that’s not going to help.”

“John, I need you to destroy the security camera out front.”

“What? Isn’t that his way out? There’s got to be some way—”

“Think I know how this works now. I can damage one of them, but if it goes out, I’m done.”

“That’s not going to happen, John. There are other options we can explore, but what I don’t need right now is some passerby wandering off the street into the view of that camera and getting caught in the same trap. It’s an active danger on my territory and I need it gone.”

There’s a long pause, followed by a quiet, “All right,” from John.

“Reckon I can take out as many as I can though. But I’m going to need something from you.”

The outside camera’s feed flickers and goes out. “It’s done,” John says.

“Thank you.” Elias grits his teeth and holds his voice steady. “I’m going to need you to do one last thing for me, then you need to stand well back. Get across the street if you can, keep an eye on the windows.”

“I just want it to be done, boss.”

Elias nods, and purses his lips against the threatening onset of grief.

When John shoves the notebook under the front door, it slides along the floor to appear in the foyer camera’s view. Anthony’s face mirrors his own for a moment as he bends to pick it up, the corners of his mouth tugged downward as he reads the two words and six digits dictated by Elias and scrawled onto the front page by John. Takes a shuddering breath and, collected once more, gives a solemn nod to the camera. Gets into the elevator, rides it back up to the penthouse.

That damned penthouse. Elias had once had a childish ambition of sitting up there, lounging victoriously in the seat of his enemy. Some of that residual feeling might have bled over back when he bought the place and did it up, cleaned it out, filled it with fine furniture and lined the walls with C4. Now he once again simply wishes the place had never been built in the first instance. Should’ve torn it down as soon as it became his own.

The penthouse office camera’s positioned just above the booby-trapped safe. Anthony has to tilt it down in order to get at the keypad, so that it’s just him in the corner of the room on screen. He punches in the numbers. Looks up at the camera one last time and still manages to grin. “Morior invictus.” And then there’s a shudder and the feed goes dark.

Elias watches mutely as the explosion cascades down through the floors, rubble raining down from above followed by the camera feeds cutting out, one by one, floor by floor, until each feed shows nothing but static. He hears nothing from the outside world, not even through the phone to John. He dreads the answer even as he levels his voice and asks the question, “You all right, John?”

“Yeah, I’m across the street. Don’t see anything in the windows. Why, did something happen?”

He screws up his eyes, chokes down a helpless sound. At least if the anomaly’s been destroyed, it won’t have been for nothing.

When he opens his eyes, the camera feeds are coming back online—one by one. The group home they show is untouched, the penthouse pristine. Legs on all the chairs, and rooms entirely empty of people.

Elias can’t keep the anguish from his voice this time. “Anthony. Anthony’s gone.”




I respect your decision to have the group home demolished. And you know that I am committed to making sure that whoever took Anthony from us pays a hefty price for it. But I couldn’t abide by your insistence that I avoid the building before you tear it down. I know what you told me. But I needed to see it one more time.

I saw his face in the window, Carl. And I believe you when you say you saw him die, but if there’s a chance at all I’ll take it. I’m not going to be cowed by this new threat. I’m going in to get him out of there.

Maybe it can still be the three of us when I see you next.