Tales from the Underworld: One Night in Charleston
Fog choked the streets of Charleston. The district wasn’t the liveliest part of Titan City at the best of times, and the heavy mist only encouraged people to stay inside all the more. Once, decades ago, Charleston had been a thriving center of art. Its boulevards had played host to wealthy socialites headed to theaters, jazz clubs, and speakeasies. Today, the clubs and theaters were now long shuttered, and the speakeasies devolved into dingy, struggling bars.
And the three men striding purposefully down the sidewalk, bundled in long coats against the damp fog, weren’t wealthy socialites, either, despite their suits. Two swaggered with the broad shoulders and rough faces of experienced bullies. The third, an older man, was less bulky, but he had a look of hard authority, the look of a pragmatic man no one would trifle with. The look of a hardened killer.
“Here it is,” he said. He gestured to a flight of stairs leading down from the sidewalk to a lower-level entrance to a brick building. A neon sign above the doorway proclaimed “the Opal Room.”
They stepped into the club’s vestibule, and to the older man, it was almost like stepping back in time. His uncle, the man who’d inducted him into the Black Rose, had told him stories about this place. Being a member of Titan City’s foremost organized crime outfit hadn’t quite lived up to his childhood fantasies of respect, money, and power. But here, where a smiling hostess and coat-check girl approached to take his men’s overcoats and welcome them into the club … it felt right.
He greeted the hostess—the owner—familiarly. “Evenin’, Miz Palinski.”
She smiled coolly. “Please, Mr. Castilucci, call me ‘Opal.’” It was an apt name. Her fair skin stood out in the dimness of the vestibule, and her long, white hair glistened with a faintly opalescent sheen. “Welcome to the Opal Room, gentlemen.”
One of Castilucci’s younger guards smiled at the blushing coat-check girl, but the other reflexively shoved his hand beneath his sportcoat, toward his shoulder rig, as she approached. Castilucci rolled his eyes. That boy had always been stupid.
Opal arched a fair eyebrow at the young thug. “You know this place is neutral ground, right?” she said. “You and the Five Dragons can shoot at each other as much as you want out on the streets, but in here, you boys behave yourselves. Remember, I’m keeping an eye on you.”
The bodyguard puffed up his chest. “Listen, chippie, if you think you can keep me from—“
Castilucci held up a hand, cutting him off before he could make things any worse. It was all he could do to restrain himself from slapping the kid on the back of the head, but that wouldn’t do. Members of the Black Rose didn’t show disrespect to one another in public.
“Don’t you know anything?” he said. “You make a ruckus in here, Opal can mutant-zap you with so much bad luck you’ll cut your own throat by accident.” The threat of Opal’s powers had kept the Opal Room a safe hangout for Titan City’s underworld for years. Making a scene in here wouldn’t just get the kid killed; it’d embarrass Castilucci, and through him, the Black Rose. Father Omerta wouldn’t be happy. Especially given the reason for tonight’s visit.
Castilucci turned to the young-looking woman. “Sorry, Opal,” he said. “Joey here’s new in Titan.”
“Think nothing of it,” she said, smiling in self-satisfaction. She ushered the three men into the Opal Room’s dim, smoky interior. It was a Wednesday night, and the club was quiet. A tired-looking jazz trio played on a small stage. Tables surrounded a deserted dance floor. Most of the patrons were mundane members of the underworld, like Castilucci and his men. A few costumed villains—a man in a full suit of crimson plate armor, a guy in a black robe with glowing eyes, a woman with a cybernetic arm—rounded out the crowd. Castilucci’s bodyguards stared, but he ignored the costumes. Decades of Titan City’s crime world made even the fantastic seem commonplace after a while.
Opal jerked her thumb over her shoulder, toward a booth at the back dimly lit by an overhead, hanging light.. “Your … uh … friends are waiting over there,” she said wryly. Castilucci nodded his thanks, and Opal withdrew gracefully. Castilucci and his men crossed the empty dance floor and stood before the table.
An athletic-looking woman who appeared to be Chinese sat in the back of the booth. She had short, beautifully styled hair and wore a vivid blue business suit. Like Castilucci, she was flanked by bodyguards. One man wore a shiny suit of some cheap fabric with a wide, open collar. He smiled mockingly beneath a thin mustache. The other wore a bright green martial arts robe, a brace of wooden daggers, and a matching scarf tied around his head.
A sharkskin suit and a bathrobe? Stupid Five Dragons got no sense of class, thought Castilucci.
The woman nodded formally. “Ah, you are the emissaries of the Black Rose,” she said. Despite her prim appearance, she had a serious, contralto voice. “I am Miss Yu, Lady White’s assistant. Milady sends her greetings and honors to your Father Omerta, and hopes and trusts that he prospers.”
Castilucci slid into a chair opposite Miss Yu. The shadows beyond the overhead light hid the rest of the Opal Room, making the table seem even more private than it was
Castilucci let his bodyguards loom over the table, but Miss Yu didn’t seem intimidated. “You Five Dragons,” he said, “always gotta be polite, even when you’re shootin’ us in the heart, eh? Pull the other one, girlie.”
Miss Yu pursed her lips. “Pull the other what?”
He wondered if she was making fun of him. “Never mind,” he said. “We got business to talk. Much as our bosses hate each other, those Barons guys are cuttin’ in on both our,” Castilucci paused significantly, “‘businesses.’
“This new bokor boss of theirs in Ironport … he’s crazy. Offin’ our guys and yours right and left, then sending the bodies back to fight us as those creepy zombis--!” Castilucci choked himself off in disgust. Like many of his Black Rose colleagues, he found magic vaguely disturbing and the Barons’ necromancy doubly so. “It’s sick, is what it is!”
Miss Yu, gently raised a cup of … tea? “Indeed,” she said. “This bokor upends every form of order. Milady grows concerned. She proposes we find a … permanent solution to this problem.”
Castilucci’d thought of that, too, but there was a problem. “An’ how do we do that?” he asked. “We move against the bokor, he weakens us, and you grab Ironport. You move against him, we do the same to you.”
“A joint operation, then,” said Miss Yu.
Castilucci threw up his hands. “There’s no way I’m trustin’ my crews around your magic-flingin’ weirdoes on any ‘joint operation!’”
“You misunderstand,” said Miss Yu, unfazed. “Our two organizations will jointly fund a third party contractor. In fact, I’ve invited him here tonight.” She gestured toward a shadowy figure standing just beyond the lamplight.
The figure stepped forward. He wore a suit of matte black Kevlar and plastic plates, vaguely resembling the plate armor of a late medieval knight. A belt around his waist and a harness on his back held an assortment of dark, utilitarian-looking gadgets. His helmet concealed all but the lower half of his face and veiled that in shadows. A dimly reflective, bluish visor hid his eyes. On his back, he wore a high-tech crossbow.
A costume, Castilucci thought. The kind you don’t cross.
“Miss Yu has told me about your bokor problem,” said the man in a flat, steady voice. “I’ll solve it—permanently—just a little cash down, plus a favor.” He smiled tightly. “You can call me ‘Arbalest.’”
The bokor, Castilucci realized, has no idea what he’d gotten himself into. Uneasily, Castilucci realized he felt the same way himself.