The room had the appearance of an old Japanese dojo, with soft lighting, padded floor and fusuma, or rectangular wall panels. A pair of illuminated fountains at either front corner of the room provided gentle, soothing sounds of water steadily falling. Between and slightly before them knelt a figure whose meditative pose, with his legs crossed beneath him and hands lightly held to the sides, was at odds with the sheer menace of his physical appearance. This did not look like any ordinary man. When standing, he was a solid fifteen feet, his blue-purple skin appearing rough, while his demonic wings and long bladed tail completed the monstrous impression. Even sitting now, as he was, the figure still towered above most men.
A soft, yet still intrusive chime interrupted the peaceful air within the room. It was followed momentarily by a second chime. The first indicated that his attention was requested. The second following it was the sign that it was too important to wait. A third chime would indicate an immediate emergency, such as an attack or something that couldn’t wait even thirty seconds.
Hearing no third chime, and thus understanding that this was important but not an immediate overwhelming threat, the kneeling, meditating figure exhaled slowly. Then he opened his eyes and looked to the single object that stood between the two fountains: a mirror. It was enormous, standing clear to the ceiling of this twenty-foot high room and stretching eight feet wide. The sides of the mirror were decorated by various gothic figurines as knights and gargoyles. Within the reflective surface of the massive mirror, he saw himself as the rest of the world did. But looking further, gazing into his own eyes, he saw the man they would never actually know. He saw the man before the power.
Danilo Taca. It was a name that the man known as Cuélebre hadn’t gone by for quite some time. Given his extensive physical changes, having much of a secret identity wasn’t really in the cards. He relied on his subordinates to do such ordinary, day-to-day things as shopping or making any appearance in public where intimidation or outright violence wasn’t desired.
Some of those who were similarly physically altered, he knew, were capable of transitioning their forms between the more mutated version and something that would more easily blend in. For whatever reason, he lacked that ability. Since the day he had touched the glowing orb and gone from being just another Latino guy being hounded by his parole officer on one side and his dealer on the other to… what he was now, he had been this fifteen-foot tall demon. A demon with more strength and power than almost any in the city. There was a reason he had been mistaken for being an Abyssal for awhile. Very little could actually stand up to him.
It was almost funny, the way being turned into what he was now had entirely solved his addiction issues. For so much of his life, Danilo Taca had been addicted to a pharmacy’s assortment of the usual suspects. Anything he could snort, smoke, or inject. He’d gone through all the normal cycles of trying to get clean, being out of it for awhile, then inevitably falling back into old habits. He even had a kid out there somewhere, one he’d made with an old girlfriend during one of his clean times. He’d told himself back then that he’d stay clean for his girls. But… well, his willpower back then wasn’t exactly the greatest. He’d stumbled and, when one was talking about that kind of lifestyle, a stumble meant one fell directly off a cliff.
So he’d fallen off the cliff and eventually ended up hiding out in the back of a crackhouse, waiting for the day either his parole officer or the dealer he’d stolen from to bribe the parole office the first time managed to find him. The cops had raided the house, and he’d managed to escape through a basement window only to have a couple of the damn dogs start chasing him. With cops shouting, someone shooting back in the house, dogs barking and nipping at his heels, Danilo had, through sheer adrenaline, hurled himself up and over the fence at the back of the yard. Falling on his back in the alley there with sirens wailing and the sound of more cops coming his way, he’d opened his eyes to see the orb floating above his head. He’d touched it, and… among all the other changes, his addiction issues were gone. Sure, he still kind of missed the great way his old vices made him feel at times, but… the physical urge, the feeling of being sick without them… they were gone. He hadn’t touched any of it since that day.
Still, despite the many advantages his size and power granted, there were times when Cuélebre regretted being unable to pass as an average person the way others could. There were no times when he was ever just Danilo anymore. He was Cuélebre now and forever.
But there was no sense in dwelling on such things. Picking himself up, the naked giant reached out to pluck his specially designed and tailored pants from the nearby shelf, tugging them on. Leaving his chest bare, he moved to the sliding door and used a single claw to push it aside. Beyond was a much heavier steel vault-like door with a spinning lever, which he cranked three times before pushing it open with a grunt. Strong as he was, he made it a point that his inner sanctum would be difficult for almost anyone to penetrate. The heavy door was a part of that.
The second the vault door had been pushed open, the meditative peace of his sanctum was filled with blasting, piercing hard rock music that reverberated through the large hallway. It was coming from the nightclub and bar that lay directly above. That club served as one of several public fronts for the Oscuro gang within their territory. The corridors he now stood in (as well as his actual sanctum) were actually heavily refurbished alcohol smuggler tunnels from back during the days of prohibition. The bootlegger who’d had the tunnels built originally had designed them large enough to drive a truck through to reach the basement of his illegal bar at one end. The other end of the tunnel, meanwhile, came out several blocks away through an ordinary-looking storm drain. Cuélebre had paid a hefty fee to have the tunnels shored up, put new entrances in leading to various buildings in the neighborhood for his people to get in and out of, and added a few defenses and security here and there in addition to rooms that would fit his size. It’d cost a pretty penny, but being safe (not to mention comfortable) was worth it.
Stepping out of his personal meditation chamber, he was immediately addressed by a woman in what appeared to be a circus ringmaster outfit, with a long red tailcoat fashioned so that the front only covered the top third of her torso. The front-center part of the ‘coat’ (such as it could be called one) was black with several rows of silver buttons. Beneath the tailcoat she wore a matching red vest that covered more of her upper body, leaving only the space from her navel to her waist bare. Black pants, dark gloves, a black top hat resting atop braided blonde hair, and a black, Zorro-like bandanna mask completed the look. She wore a whip on one hip and a pistol on the other.
This was Grandstand. She had an assortment of powers. One allowed her to command the attention of anyone who could hear her voice, forcing them to focus on her and forget about anything else going on around them, though pain or injury would snap them out of it. She was equally capable of shunting attention away from herself and onto something else, allowing her to essentially disappear unless she took some direct action against them, breaking the effect. While the first power was in use, she would gain strength and durability for each person paying attention to her. While the latter was in effect, she would gain speed for each person whose attention was being drawn away from her. And she was capable of using both at the same time, forcing some to pay attention to her while the attention of others was diverted, allowing her to mix and match an assortment of strength and speed while controlling who noticed her. Beyond that, Grandstand always possessed an enhanced sense of timing and balance, as well as a constant awareness of how many people were looking at her.
“There’s been a problem,” she informed Cuélebre curtly as soon as he emerged, standing a few feet away with her hands clasped behind her back. “It’s Handler.”
Pausing, Cuélebre took a moment to consider his response before carefully guessing, “His secret project, the one he said was coming to fruition tonight. Something went wrong.”
With a nod, Grandstand replied, “Very wrong, sir. You aren’t going to like this. And neither is the Ministry. This falls directly under something they would have had to give permission for. And they wouldn’t have given it for this.”
Starting to walk down the large, refurbished tunnel, Cuélebre ordered, “Let me worry about the Ministry. They may control the city, but my people are mine to judge. Tell me what happened.”
She did, and he immediately regretted his previous words. Stopping in the tunnel, he dropped his head and heaved a long sigh. “He should have told me what he was planning. I could have told him that it was stupid. I could have told him to leave it alone. Or negotiated to pass the information to the Ministry so they could handle it, making them owe us a favor. As it is…” He exhaled, turning to punch the wall with his massive fist with a sharp curse. As reinforced as it was (for just this very reason), the blow still left a visible dent and spiderweb cracks. He stood there, fist against the wall as he continued in a flat voice, containing his anger beyond that single outward expression. “As it is, we’ll be lucky to get out of this without substantial losses, monetary and otherwise. Correction, we won’t get out of it without substantial monetary losses. We’ll be lucky if that’s all it is.”
Some might have been surprised to hear the way a former lowlife thug, who had spent his life in and out of prison and never graduated high school, turned giant monster spoke. But the truth was, Cuélebre had done more studying and learning since his transformation than he ever did before it. After realizing that he no longer felt those old addictions, he’d worked to improve himself as many other ways as possible. His body was about as strong as it could ever get, so he’d worked to exercise his mind. Not being able to go out in public helped with that. He couldn’t waste time going to bars, stadiums, arenas, or anything else where people would see him. His free time, for quite some time, had been taken up by learning more than he ever had at school. He’d had college professors brought to him and paid to teach him. By his count, he’d actually learned enough to have both earned his GED and at least one Master’s Degree over the past three years or so. Hell, he’d even considered reaching out to find that kid of his and her mother a few times, but had dismissed the urge. There was no reason to drag them into this kind of life.
Not that it mattered. Learning was a way of passing the time, a way of reminding himself that he was more than his outward appearance, and a way of ensuring that he knew more than others might expect. He’d figured out long ago that he could run Oscuro as an iron-fisted thug and keep it going for awhile, but that if he really wanted to achieve anything, he needed to be more than that. His people, generally, respected him more for that.
And then one of them went and did something this utterly idiotic, and made him want to revert to a far less mature mindset. He had to take a minute to collect himself before sighing. There was no sense in waiting any longer. “Where is he?”
Pointing to the nearest vault-like door (there were many spread along the tunnel), Grandstand replied, “He’s waiting for you above, in the back of the club.”
Without responding, Cuélebre reached out and opened the vault door. It led into a large basement room. As with all of the rooms beneath the Oscuro holdings, the basement had been refurbished and updated to suit his size. This one appeared to be a living room, though one where everything within it was scaled up, with much larger chairs, dressers, a desk, even a television with a remote intended for use by his massive hands. Stepping in, he moved to the enormous, specially made plush leather chair in the corner and sat. His tail went through the convenient hole, idly dragging back and forth along the floor as he waved a hand. “Bring him down.”
Obediently, Grandstand moved to the heavy metal ladder against the far wall and pressed the button against it. There was a buzz as the intercom activated. “He’s ready, come down.”
A moment later, the circular hatch at the top of the room was hauled open, and Handler climbed down the ladder. Out of his costume, the man was a thin, balding figure named Luis, with an intricate patchwork of religious tattoos on his left arm depicting the life of Jesus.
Hopping off the ladder, Luis turned to Cuélebre. “So, I suppose you heard that–”
“Stop,” Cuélebre ordered, holding up a hand. As his subordinate fell silent, he exhaled long and slow, watching him as several thoughts ran through his mind. Finally, he said, “You don’t know where the girl is.”
“No,” Luis admitted. “We have people looking, but to be honest… I don’t think we’ll find her in time.” He said it quietly, but definitively, standing straight as he awaited the judgment of a man who could cut his head from his shoulders with a simple flick of his tail. “I made a mistake. I should have brought the girl to a secure facility before letting her wake up. I was… eager to begin. It would have been an incredible gain for–”
“Stop,” Cuélebre repeated, watching as the other man’s mouth obediently snapped shut. Again, he watched the man in silence for a few moments. His eyes glanced toward Grandstand, who was standing quietly in the corner, before flicking back to Luis. With a sigh, he came to a decision. “You need to get out of town.”
“Sir?” Luis asked, blinking up.
“The authorities will want your head,” Cuélebre informed him. “We need to get you out of town before they start looking. You can lie low up north. Keep your head down, take a vacation. We’ll bring you back in a few months, maybe longer.” He paused before adding, “And I will be taking from your accounts to pay the Ministry for the complications.”
It was clear that the other man didn’t like that, but he accepted it with a bow of his head. “Of course. Whatever’s needed. I’ll pack my things.”
“Do that,” Cuélebre nodded with a dismissive wave. “Be ready to go in fifteen minutes.”
As Luis climbed the ladder once more and the hatch closed, Grandstand looked to him. “Sir–”
“Get the Ministry on the phone,” Cuélebre interrupted, his tone resigned. “They’ll be expecting the call.”
He waited then, while the woman used her own phone. Once she had them on the line, a couple button pushes transferred it to the oversized phone sitting on the nearby table. As it buzzed, he let it do so for a second or two before slowly picking it up. “This is Cuélebre.”
“Minister White,” came the response. It was the woman, the female leader of the Ministry, the secret organization who kept the criminal underground of Detroit in line. She and Minister Gold were the secretive heads of the organization. They held more power than anyone really knew, with deep access into almost every Touched organization in the city. Anyone who pulled a job within the city owed the Ministry a tax, and they always collected. They had ways of either keeping the attention of the authorities away from you, or directing them your way. For a price, they could ensure that a job had a much higher chance of not being interrupted. The Ministry ran things in Detroit, and as far as Cuélebre knew, none of the authorities had the slightest clue they even existed beyond the occasional dismissed whisper. Most in his own organization, aside from Grandstand, were utterly unaware of them.
“Minister,” Cuélebre started once it was clear the woman wouldn’t say anything else just yet. “I assume you’re aware of the situation.”
After a brief pause, she confirmed, “We’ve taken steps to contain it. But we require an explanation.”
“Handler worked on his own initiative,” Cuélebre informed her. “I was aware that he had a secret project, which he believed would be a great boon for Oscuro. I was unaware that he had designs on a member of the Minority, let alone the youngest. He intended to surprise me with… a gift. Had I known, you would have been informed so that the girl’s mother, who came to us to begin with, could be dealt with sufficiently.” And if that had happened, they would have been having a much different conversation. A conversation where the Ministry would owe him, rather than the other way around. God damn it, Luis.
His words were greeted by silence for a few seconds, before Minister White spoke again. “I see. You are aware that there must be repercussions for this. The authorities will raze your territory to the ground to find someone who attacked the youngest Minority member in her own home. Let alone one who threatened to enslave her through torture. They have to. An example must be set, or no one will trust the Minority program.”
“I know,” Cuélebre confirmed, his voice dark. His hand gripped the phone tightly. This was the part he had known would come since the moment Grandstand had told him about the situation. “I am prepared to make things right. First, one million dollars to your organization for the trouble all of this has caused.”
“A fair start,” Minister White replied simply. “But hardly what will calm things down and ensure your organization doesn’t become the target of a full-city sweep the likes of which even you could not survive. The Star-Touched will be enraged by this act, Cuélebre. They will be united in coming after you, and none of the other gangs will intervene. They won’t want to draw that kind of heat to themselves. You’ll be alone out there, if something isn’t done to appease the authorities.”
Cuélebre’s response was a gruff, “I know.” He took a breath, steadying himself while turning a look toward Grandstand. The nearby woman was watching him with an impassive look, having taken off the mask as she played with it in her hands. Watching her briefly, Cuélebre continued. “You want him.”
“We want to contain the situation,” came Minister White’s response. “You know the only thing that will do that.”
“Of course I do,” he grunted, reminding himself not to throw the phone against the wall. “This will slow our income.”
“We will take that into account,” Minister White assured him. “You have always paid your dues for the territory you hold. We understand that this will affect what you are able to tithe, and will of course allow for it. We may be able to point to a few future jobs that will bolster your coffers to make up the slack. But we must know, will this affect your actual organization?”
“You mean are half my people about to suddenly change their minds about who they’re loyal to if I lose access to Handler?” Cuélebre snorted. “No. I’m not a fool. Handler has been useful for the growth of Oscuro, but not that directly. I’m not stupid enough to keep people close to me who were only obedient through torture. I used him to raise my army through training his… subjects and selling them to organizations outside of the city in exchange for cash or in trade for one of their own Touched. None of my people were his subjects.” He paused before amending, “None of the Touched, in any case. Like I said, it’ll slow income, it won’t cripple us.”
“You may wish to warn those you have done business with, in that case,” the woman noted. “As I assume you are prepared to make the necessary arrangements to bring this under control.”
Again, Cuélebre paused, looking over to the wall for a long moment before giving a low growl. “Yes. I’ll give you the address where Handler will be. You provide it to your contacts and have the authorities pick him up. But when they do–”
“When they do,” Minister White smoothly assured him, “the heat will fade. Or, more accurately, it will be directed to the courts. He will be made an example of. I have no doubt that he will end up in Breakwater for what he’s done. And there will be a great deal of scrutiny. Anyone within your organization who is arrested at any point in the future will likely have a strong legal defense that they were taken by Handler, and it will be difficult to prove otherwise. Though I believe the confusion and uncertainty that raises will be more of a boon for your people than a hindrance.”
“Small compensation for a grand mistake,” Cuélebre muttered before straightening. He gave the Minister the address she would need, exchanged a few more words, and dropped the phone back onto its hook. Turning, he cursed before putting his fist against the wall.
Through gritted teeth, the giant, demonic man ordered, “Contact anyone we sold a Touched to in the past year. Let them know there may be issues and that they should be prepared to contain the subjects themselves, and that we will provide a certain level of refund if such problems are severe. And get me in contact with Sandon.”
“The Ninety-Niners leader?” Grandstand inclined her chin curiously. “Do they have–”
“No,” he interrupted. “They don’t have Handled subjects. I wouldn’t provide such a resource to any of our direct rivals. But they have made certain… offers of an alliance in pursuit of these vials that Blackjack wants so desperately. I’ve refused before now, but we may need the kind of boost such an alliance could provide. With their aid, we can sell the vials either to someone outside of the city, or to Blackjack himself. As desperate as he seems to be, he’ll pay any price for it. That could help recoup our losses from this disaster, even if we have to split it with Sandon and her people.”
“This… Paintball,” Grandstand began carefully, “he seems to have the best lead on the vials, from what we know. He certainly has Ashton Austin, or knows where he is.”
Cuélebre was silent for a few long seconds, thinking about the embarrassment he’d felt at chasing that boy all over the city, only to have him disappear at the last second. But this was more important than any embarrassment. “Then have our people watch for him,” he ordered. “Don’t attack. Don’t make themselves known until the vials are in sight. I want eyes everywhere watching for that boy to go gallivanting around with his paint. When he makes a move, our people will be ready.
“He can do all the work to find the vials, and then we’ll take them from him.”