Tales from the Underworld: Burns (Lore)
Castilucci heard buzzing and clicking as a younger guard shifted his weight back and forth. He glanced over to see the kid scratching at the smooth, elegant cybernetics on his forearms. The other guard pulled out his energy pistol, pointed it at a dark corner, and pretended to fire with a mouthed, “bang!” for the fifth time in half an hour.
Not for the first time, Castilucci felt out of place, not just here in this moldering factory in Charleston’s Blacksmoke Row, but in the organization. In old Giovanni Rossi’s day, the Black Rose had had class and integrity. The new kids were just longhaired goofballs using fancy ray guns and robot-parts to beat the odds. “Quit fidgeting,” Castilucci ordered. He’d never fidgeted back when he’d served as honor guard for Giovanni Rossi.
His boss twisted around in his chair. “Frank,” he chided, “you sound like an old man.”
Castilucci bowed his head respectfully. “I am an old man, Father Omerta.”
Orlando Rossi — Father Omerta of the Black Rose, the most feared man in Titan City’s underworld — twisted around in his seat. He wore a quiet, conservative suit with a black-dyed rose in the lapel. The first wrinkles of experience lined his face, and he wore his silver hair pulled back. He held an ornate cane in his right hand. “Then since we’re the same age, clearly you think I’m an old man, too,” he said. He smiled thinly.
“No, Father Omerta.” Castilucci’s guts squirmed. Orlando might’ve been teasing … or he might’ve decided Castilucci had outlived his usefulness as a lieutenant and would serve better as an example. Orlando had always been able to put him on the defensive, even when they were kids younger than the two bruisers attending them. Castilucci had always hated it.
“You both old men!” said a new voice. He approached at the head of a crowd of ten or so, all dressed in haphazard, loose street wear. Even in the old building’s shadows, Castilucci could see them clearly. Faint lines around their hands and their hard faces glowed like hot embers. Some gripped guns or hand weapons. As the speaker drew close, his face seemed to be a skull, outlined in fire, hovering in the shadows. He sprawled casually in the chair. As he entered the sunlight, it became clear that the “skull” was a pattern of cracks in his skin. He was a huge, powerful man, with the build and the arrogant stance of the professional football player he’d been before a Chaser-driven accident ended his career. Now, he led the Pyrebrands.
“You’re late, Mr. Washington,” said Castilucci.
“Don’ call me that,” he said, squinting up at Castilucci in the sun. Castilucci could feel heat rolling off him in waves. “Call me ‘Skullcharred.’” He leaned toward Father Omerta. “Where’s your flunky get off, hasslin’ me, old man? I’m Skullcharred, man.” The cracks along his hands and forearms blazed brighter. “I’m the baddest villain in this town, man.”
Father Omerta lifted one gold-ringed hand. “Please, Thomas. I think all of us are adult enough to do this without empty threats.”
“You just see if his threats are empty,” murmured one of the Pyrebrands in the back.
Skullcharred shut him up with a look. “All right,” he said. “You wanted to see me, old man. What’s a washed-up old dude like you need from the baddest mutha in Titan?”
After decades of meetings on criminal business, Castilucci easily stifled a laugh. Father Omerta had called Skullcharred, a much weaker gang leader, onto the carpet, and Skullcharred was so arrogant that he acted like the meeting was all his idea. Castilucci remembered Washington’s football career. He’d been diva then, and he remained a diva now.
Father Omerta ignored the jibes. He crossed his hands on the head of his cane serenely. “Send your men away,” he commanded.
“Hey, man, no one gives orders to Skullcharred!” The gang leader leaned forward and screamed in Father Omerta’s face. “No one, you hear me!”
Father Omerta didn’t so much as blink. He simply stared. All at once, Skullcharred sat back, cowed by the display of cool. Father Omerta glanced casually at Skullcharred’s attendants. “You may go now,” he said. Looking vaguely confused, the Pyrebrands withdrew.
“Now,” said Father Omerta, “let’s discuss this like men.” He sighed. “The Black Rose has done a lot for you, Thomas. My friends provided you with Chaser when you were playing for the Captains—“
“An’ you gave me bad stuff,” Skullcharred whined. “The accident was all your fault.” He sounded exactly the same as he had ten years earlier, Castilucci thought, when he’d blamed losses on his teammates “not backing him up.”
Father Omerta let that pass. “When you got in trouble, our lawyers helped you. When you had no place to go, we found you a place managing the Chaser trade. When you get arrested, we break you out.” He waved one graceful, age-spotted hand. “And all of that’s fine, just fine. That’s all favors between friends. That’s what good people do, right? Help people out when they’re down?”
He leaned one hand on Skullcharred’s shoulder. “All I ask, in exchange for everything I’ve done for you, as a friend, is that you don’t break a few rules. You were an athlete, right? You understand about rules.”
Skullcharred nodded. Castilucci watched, fascinated. Orlando had drawn the Pyrebrand leader in like an elementary school teacher leading a slow student.
“One of those rules is that you don’t deal with people who aren’t your friends,” Father Omerta went on. “You don’t smile at your friend and then stab him in the back, right?”
Skullcharred shook his head.
Father Omerta’s thin lips grew thinner still. “Then what were you doing, trying to find your own Chaser supply back in September?”
“You can’t blame me for that Ironport fiasco,” said Skullcharred. His voice had started to waver. “I din’ know that dude was no cop!”
Father Omerta ignored the outburst. “I can forgive you being fooled. It happens. I could forgive your sloppiness in killing him.”
Skullcharred’s skin-patterns flared. “My boys didn’t kill him!”
Father Omerta narrowed his eyes in silence for a moment. Then he went on, “I could even forgive your two-timing, if this were just the two of us in this thing together. But it ain’t just us, Thomas. This is a matter of business.”
Castilucci’s hand reflexively twitched toward the pistol in his shoulder rig. Over the years, he’d learned that when Orlando said “business” in that tone of voice, it usually meant someone was about to start bleeding.
“H-hey, man,” said Skullcharred, “don’t you threaten me. I’m Skullcharred!” His voice cracked like a mouthy kid’s. “I’m the toughest man in Titan! You better show me some respect, or I burn all yo’ wrinkly old a—“
“You know why we’re called la Rosa Nera?” Father Omerta interrupted. He plucked the flower from his lapel and gazed idly at it. “Years and years ago, back in Rome—I don’t just mean in the old country, I m. He plucked the flower from his lapel and gazed idly at it. “Years and years ago, back in Rome—I don’t just mean in the old country, I mean ancient Rome—the guys who really ran things would get together to decide what was best for the empire. They’d hang a rose over the table. And they’d swear that anyone who blabbed about what was said under the rose …” He smiled. “Well,” he continued lightly, “the old boys looked out for each other, and they made sure anyone who blabbed would never say anything ever again.
“I have my empire, too,” Father Omerta said, all humor drained from his voice. “And I make sure no one makes any waves. Just like those old Romans.” He glanced significantly at his bodyguards. He stood and loomed over Skullcharred, tall and straight despite his years. “I know you think you’re tough, Thomas. I know you think you got something to prove. But I also know you ain’t stupid. You could try to flame-broil me, sure, but even if you leave this building alive, the Black Rose will hunt you down and destroy you.”
His voice grew hard and sharp, like a steel blade. “So don’t you come in here and bark at me like some yippy little dog, got it? Only a weak man has to boast about how tough he is. Yeah, you think you’re tough. You say you’re tough. But a real tough guy doesn’t need to say it to himself to prove it. You don’t wanna cross a real tough guy. Got it?”
And to Castilucci’s astonishment, the big, strong, fire-flinging ex-footballer slumped back in his chair and nodded. Orlando’s force of personality had never failed to amaze him.
“Now,” Orlando went on, “you do anything that stupid again, I find a new quarterback for the Pyrebrands team, got it?”
Skullcharred nodded again.
Father Omerta placed a hand on Skullcharred’s shoulder. “As long as we understand each other. Just don’t let it happen again, all right?”
“You got it,” said Skullcharred.
“Good. I’ll make sure to fix up your people who got pinched with lawyers and alibis and the usual. As a show of good faith.” Father Omerta ostentatiously turned away, facing into the sunshine coming through the window. “You can go now, Thomas.”
“Thanks, Father Omerta,” said Skullcharred. He actually bowed before he left.
“That was incredible, Father Omerta,” Castilucci said when the Pyrebrand was gone. He might’ve been Orlando’s comrade in arms for decades, but familiarity only went so far with someone of Orlando’s rank. “Are you sure it was safe to let him off so easy?”
“I’m the one who took in a noisy dog.” Father Omerta nodded slowly the way Skullcharred had gone. “I shouldn’t be surprised when it starts barking and chewing up the nice sofa.”
The two younger guards chuckled obligingly.
“Besides, that kid isn’t as stupid as he acts. He’s just too lazy to think things through. He’s much more useful to us alive than asleep under a warm blanket of Steward’s Bay. And he knows not to push this far again. The real problem,” he went on, “is this dead undercover cop. Skullcharred wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t kill the narc.”
“He’s dead, Father Omerta,” said one of the young guys. “We fight the cops. One more dead is good, right? What’s the difference?”
Father Omerta cocked a thumb at the kid. “You see this, Frank?” he asked Castilucci. “This is what we have to work with in la Rosa Nera these days.”
He turned to the bodyguard and spoke slowly, as to a child. “We don’t ‘fight the cops,’ kid. Not if we can help it. We aren’t some buncha villains in tights, punching some cape around the street for fun. We’re in this to keep the city under control and to keep our names clean. Getting their hands dirty is for goombas like Skullcharred. Some narc, murdered prominently and with an energy weapon” — he pointed to the kid’s ray gun—“is exactly the kind of thing we don’t want. Nothing stirs up the cops like one of their guys getting shot in the back. And the fact that the killer used a blaster or something …”
“It’s like someone’s trying to hang the killing on us,” said Castilucci. He’d known those fancy weapons were a stupid idea.
Father Omerta nodded. “It may not be like the good old days of the ‘90’s, but we’ve still got a few contacts on the force. They’re telling us that the TCPD’s up in arms over this. We gotta nip this in the bud.”
“Right,” said Castilucci.
“Frank,” said Orlando, “you look into this. You either find the real killer or find someone to pin it on. And do it before the cops start smashing down doors and taking heads, got it?”
Castilucci blinked in surprise. “Y-yeah. Of course, sir.”
“Good,” Father Omerta said. “Boys, why don’t you go ahead and start warming up the car? I need to talk to Frank alone.” He waved the younger guards off.
As soon as they were alone, Castilucci said, “Why me, Father Omerta? I’ll never refuse an order, but … you gotta know this way outta my line. I’m just a regular guy. I’m no gumshoe. Why me?”
Orlando sighed. “Because you are a regular guy. You remember what things were like before the underworld got all crazy, before we were all packing cybernetics and energy pistols.” He grasped Castilucci’s forearm. “You’re the only one I can trust with this, Frank. Don’t let me down.”
Castilucci smiled at his boss and his oldest friend. “I won’t, Father Omerta. Orlando. I never will.”
Written by - Jack 'Olantern' Snyder
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