Tales from the Underworld: The Murderer of Detective Aragon
Daybreak Ridge annoyed Castilucci. Decades ago, the place had had character: brick warehouses and factories for regular, working stiffs. Then the industry had faded, and developers had bought up the old buildings, repurposing them into artists’ lofts, overpriced stores, and nightclubs. Only a few of them remained shuttered and quiet, like the one he and Aurelia approached through the gathering dusk.
The old building stood well off the busy streets and far from the touristy waterfront area. Its huge front doors looked rusted shut, but a light shone over a side door set off in an alley. Paint flaked from the building’s side, the remnants of an advertisement for a soft drink that hadn’t existed in decades.
Aurelia gestured at the old, rust-spattered door. “The Tarot’s in here?”
Castilucci shrugged with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “Don’t think so. They got better things to do than sit around guarding some hero. My information says they just hired a couple thugs to keep watch on that Topaz guy.”
“Thugs,’” said Aurelia flatly, cocking an eyebrow at him. She tried the doorknob, but it seemed locked.
To his own surprise, he felt a little hurt. “I am not a thug, lady,” he said. He kicked firmly at the door, smashing it open. “I’m a troubleshooter.”
Aurelia rolled her eyes, then shook her head. “You may be a troubleshooter, Castilucci, but I’m a professional. And that’s how we do this: fast and professional. If I tell you stop, stop, and if I tell you go, you go. And no gunplay unless I say so.” Aurelia drew her weapon and held it down at her side.
Castilucci started to enter, but she gestured him back. She carefully surveyed the small room just inside from an angle so that she wasn’t silhouetted in the doorway. Only when she was sure it was empty did she motion him inside.
They passed through a small, dark office, furnished only with an abandoned, dust-covered desk and a broken lamp. Dirt covered much of the cement floor, but a scuffed track leading deeper into the building showed where many feet had passed or where something had been dragged. Aurelia motioned at the track with her chin, and the two of them followed it deeper into the building.
Most of the warehouse consisted of a huge room, lit only by moonlight and streetlight coming in through high windows. Despite the openness of the space, a maze of old, half-moldering cardboard boxes blocked their vision in most directions. Cozy place, Castilucci thought sourly.
A dim light glowed from around the next corner. Aurelia put a finger to her lips, unnecessarily, Castilucci thought. He could hear the quiet voices coming from around the corner as well as she could.
“Why are we doing this?” one voice said. It had a hollow, whining note, like a beat-up tin whistle. “The curses will kill us, anyway.”
Unforgiven, Aurelia mouthed to him, equally unnecessarily. Castilucci fought down the urge to spit on the floor at the thought of those creepy, whiny, magic-touched gangbangers.
“This is our way out,” said another, slightly deeper voice. “He promised. And you know who stands behind him.”
“Impossible,” said the other, sounding even mopier than before. “Antithesis—“
“Don’t say it!” shouted the other one. “It brings bad things.” For a big, bad crook, he sounded terrified.
“Super—superstitious twits,” said a third, muffled voice. The speaker sounded tired, maybe like he’d taken a few punches to the mouth.
Castilucci knew that voice, too. Topaz. Sounds like the heroic idiot really did get himself captured instead of “rescued” by Tarot.
“Quiet, you,” said the deeper-voiced Unforgiven.
“The curses may take us,” said his partner, “but they’ll kill you, too, first.”
Aurelia mouthed, Now. “You’re under arrest!” she shouted as she stepped out of hiding, gun trained forward. “Hands in the air!”
Castilucci rolled his eyes. If Aurelia wanted to give the thugs a chance to kill her before she had to shoot them, it was her business, but he wasn’t about to make himself the first target. He peered around the corner carefully instead.
In the light of three electric lanterns, he saw Topaz, costume soiled and torn, one eye swollen shut and face smeared with dried blood, slumped on the floor. Castilucci couldn’t tell if he was breathing. The kind of chains they used on battleship anchors bound him to a support post.
There were three Unforgiven, not two. He drew in his breath at the sight. He’d seen some rough customers over the years, but Unforgiven always looked especially creepy. All three wore a mixture of dark and pale green clothing and were unhealthily pale, but the similarities ended there. The one in front wore an axe shoved into his wide belt and a tattered backpack. Oddly, it looked completely empty.
The second hid his eyes behind sunglasses, but what Castilucci could see of his face was an inhuman mass of scales, bony lumps, and scars.
The one in back had long, stringy hair and wore an open duster and a mournful expression. He carried some kind of black gadget, a smartphone or something, in his hand. As Castilucci watched, he flung it to the floor and stepped back, screaming, “Get them!”
“Fire!” Aurelia shouted unnecessarily. Castilucci had already put a bullet through the upper chest of the monster-faced one just as he reached for his sunglasses. The Unforgiven sprawled at Topaz’s feet, dead or seriously wounded.
“Hit ‘em before they can use their powers!” Castilucci shouted.
Aurelia fired at the one with the backpack, but she was too late. He’d already closed the distance to her and shrugged out of the thing. As he dropped it, a roiling cloud of darkness coalesced in the air behind him. It billowed toward the Unforgiven—Castilucci could’ve sworn it growled at the gangbanger—but swerved suddenly toward Aurelia.
She shot at it, but the bullets passed through. Tough as she was, Aurelia cringed back, teeth clenched.
Castilucci had fought one of these creeps before. It wasn’t her fault, he knew. It was curse-magic. “You can’t hurt the curse itself!” he shouted. “You gotta—“ The black cloud swerved toward him. A wave of shudders, cold, and terror swept through him, but he fought it down. He ignored the oncoming cloud and shot the running Unforgiven in the back. The cloud dispersed in an instant.
Castilucci scanned the shadows for the last Unforgiven, but all he could see was the thing the thug had dropped and Topaz groaning faintly in his chains. “You all right?” he called to Aurelia.
She nodded, the color returning to her face now that the supernatural attack was over. “Check behind Topaz for the last one,” she said. “I’ll cover you.”
Cautiously, Castilucci made his way toward the bound hero. He passed the thing the Unforgiven had dropped. It was just a hand mirror. “Huh,” he said. As he passed it, he caught a flicker of movement behind his own reflection. He turned to look just in time.
A hulking, muscular thing clad all in black, a thing Castilucci was sure hadn’t been there a second before, swung at him. He dodged. A black mask completely hid its face. It snarled incoherently at him.
Aurelia pumped five shots into the monster, but it only stumbled. Castilucci fired into its face—if it had a face—at point-blank range. The wound didn’t bleed. The thing didn’t flinch.
Castilucci tripped over a couple of broken boards as he retreated. The faceless monster roared and raised its hands to crush him.
A burst of automatic gunfire echoed through the dark warehouse. The bullets tore into the creature. With a scream of rage, it charged off.
Castilucci rolled over to see it attacking a huge, man-like shape covered in black and white plates and emblazoned with a TCPD badge. He caught sight of a determined, grinning face behind a plastic view plate. With one arm, it blasted the monster with more bullets while its other fist crackled and glowed with energy. A COP Suit, he realized.
“Thank you, Lenny,” Aurelia said softly. “Castilucci, while he’s got it distracted, return the mirror to the Unforgiven. He’s gotta still be in here somewhere. That’ll make the monster vanish.”
Clearly, she had fought Unforgiven before. He nodded and grabbed the mirror. He scanned the warehouse again.
He spotted the Unforgiven in the shadows just beyond the dim, electric light, watching the fight between the armored cop and the monster he’d summoned. “This belongs to you, buddy,” Castilucci said. He threw the mirror at the man.
Just as he’d hoped, the Unforgiven’s reflexes took over. He caught the mirror. The monster vanished in an instant. “Blink and eat a bullet, you pasty-faced creep,” said Castilucci as he trained his gun on the Unforgiven’s chest. The Unforgiven glanced at his mirror speculatively.
Another shot rang out, and blood burst from the thug’s head. The cop in the armor crashed through a pile of debris and hurried over. “He was about to drop the mirror again,” the cop said through the suit’s speakers.
Castilucci blinked. He recognized the voice from the night the two cops had burst into his place.
Officer Alvarez,” said Aurelia as she came closer. “Man, I have never been so happy to see you. What took you so long? And where’s everyone else?”
“’What took you so long?’” repeated Castilucci. “You expected this guy? I thought we were doing this together, alone!”
“No offense,” Aurelia said as she holstered her gun, “but how stupid do you think I am? You’re a known member of the Black Rose, a suspected murderer, and a generally brutal man. I’d be crazy not to have another set of eyes on you. I called Lenny from the ferry from South Titan.”
Castilucci grudgingly nodded. He wondered if Aurelia’s cop instincts would extend to letting him walk if he didn’t make any trouble. He holstered his weapon, too.
“All of SWAT’s going crazy about you, Aurelia,” said Alvarez, the one in the suit. “I didn’t think it was safe to tell the Chief about your message. He mighta arrested you when you stepped off the ferry. There’re all kinds of reports that you’re hanging out with scum.” He glanced at Castilucci. “No offense.”
Castilucci just rolled his eyes.
“I’ll … explain when we get back to Preszewski Center.” Aurelia looked vaguely uncomfortable. Maybe keeping Castilucci in the dark about Alvarez was bothering her. “Let’s get Topaz out of those chains.” She made her way over to the hero.
“Aurelia,” Alvarez said, “look at him. Topaz is done for. I’ll radio for medical attention, but …”
“Yeah,” said Castilucci, still standing apart. “I mean, look at the guy.”
“I’m not just leaving a hero lying chained up to die!” said Aurelia. She bent over beside the hero. “Come on, Lenny. Maybe the suit’s energy fist can melt the chains.”
“You’re such a nice person, Kathleen,” said Alvarez. He sighed. He lurched closer to her, the COP Suit dwarfing her as he leaned over her. Topaz’s head stirred slightly. He murmured something.
“Did you say ‘antithesis?’” Aurelia asked the hero.
“Dang it, Aurelia.” Alvarez’s whisper echoed in the warehouse’s silence. “You just never know when to quit.”
He raised the suit’s gun-arm and shot Topaz in the forehead.
Castilucci jumped in surprise. Aurelia screamed wordlessly. Topaz slumped in his chains.
Aurelia rounded on the COP Suit. “You,” she screamed inarticulately, “you!” She went for her gun, but Alvarez backhanded her with his energy fist, flinging her away.
“Always having to charge in!” Alvarez shouted. “Always making a name for yourself! Always kissing up to those heroes!” He fired a burst at her, the multiple barrels on his suit’s arm whirling, but Aurelia ducked behind a heavy, metal crate.
Castilucci stepped away as slowly and quietly as he could, keeping the COP Suit in sight the whole time.
Alvarez stalked over to Aurelia’s hiding place and flung the crate out of the way. She fired at him point-blank, but the bullets left only scratches on the COP Suit’s plates. Alvarez grabbed her with his energy fist and smashed her face against the floor.
Castilucci stumbled against an unstable pile of debris. Wood and metal scraps clattered to the floor.
Alvarez twitched around. He flung Aurelia into a heap of containers that collapsed on top of her. “Oh, I didn’t forget about you, you scum,” Alvarez said. He pointed his gun-arm at Castilucci and fired.
The aging gangster dove behind a shipping container, but a bullet caught him in the leg. He yowled in pain.
“It was supposed to be so simple!” Alvarez raved. “The blame hangs on Topaz, the Unforgiven kill him, then get taken out by their own curses. I just come in and discover the tragedy, and everything’s all right again.”
Castilucci ignored him. He tried to stand and couldn’t.
Alvarez shoved the shipping container aside like a cheap shoebox. “But you had to shove your nose into it!” Castilucci twisted around, teeth clenched, and emptied his magazine into the COP Suit’s faceplate. All he got for his trouble were some scratches.
Behind the clear plate, sweat poured from Alvarez’s face. “You people are always making trouble for me!” He grabbed Castilucci’s jaw with the glowing, crackling energy fist and hefted him into the air. “Always ruining things for me! Well, I’m going to ruin your life!”
Castilucci’s skin tingled painfully at the energized touch. He choked at the scent of his own skin cooking. He’d have a burn if he survived this, he realized. “I think the city will accept you as the murderer of Detective Aragon,”
Alvarez said. Then he began to squeeze.
Castilucci had lived a long, savage life in Titan City’s underworld. He’d been shot, stabbed, beaten, and blasted with everything from magical beams to stun-rays. But he had never felt pain like this. He screamed as his jaw began to flex.
“Can’t have you talking,” said Alvarez. Castilucci blacked out as his jaw snapped. The COP Suit carried him away, leaving the warehouse silent. Except for a soft clatter of movement under the fallen heap of shipping containers.
Next time: The Series Finale!
By Jack 'Olantern' Snyder
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