Rotwang

New Deals 13-03 (Summus Proelium)

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The building that Cavalcade had brought me to was an old pizza restaurant that had been closed for awhile. The neon sign with the place’s name was still above the door, but several of the letters were missing, and there were boards over the windows. It looked like there should’ve been boards over the door itself too, but they had been pulled off and moved to the side. The interior lights were on, so there was at least still power in the place, and I could hear music. 

Glancing to my escort, I waited until she pointed to the door. Then I sighed and walked that way, opening it up before stepping through with the mercenary right behind me. Here went nothing.

Most of the tables that had been in the dining area of the pizza place were gone. What remained was a single card table that had obviously been brought in just for this, along with a couple metal folding chairs, all of which was arranged in the middle of the room. A single figure sat casually at the chair facing the door where we were coming in, and a couple more were at the far end of the room behind the counter, half-hidden by the enormous pizza ovens. 

The two Touched at the back of the room were instantly recognizable. One was Fabulist, the guy in gleaming silver armor that displayed a bunch of various television and movie scenes in a collage across it. The guy next to him was shorter and wore what amounted to random robot pieces that looked like they were scavenged from an ancient black and white movie. That was the unfortunately named Rotwang, the guy who built robots and stuff like that. Apparently he’d taken his name from some old scientist in a movie from the 1920’s. If you asked me, he should’ve given up on the reference and kept looking for a better name than Rotwang.  

My eyes focused on the woman at the table then. Glitch, of course. Her costume consisted of burgundy cargo pants with dozens of pouches and belts full of bits of equipment (in addition to what was in all those pockets), with a black long-sleeved turtleneck shirt. The shirt had visible scales, making it look like very fine armor. She also wore a white leather jacket. At least, it looked like a leather jacket. But I knew from the news that the ‘jacket’ could expand in an instant to become a full suit of armor, strong enough to take an ongoing barrage of gunfire or a full strength lightning blast from Cuélebre without any apparent ill-effect. And those pockets and pouches of hers were filled with dozens of Tech-Touched toys to totally terrorize towns. 

In any case, beyond the pants, armored shirt, and transforming jacket, the Braintrust leader also wore a metal choker around her neck, but no mask at all. Her face was perfectly visible. I wasn’t fooled by that, however. People had been in the past, when she first showed up without anything apparently covering her face. But that was deceptive, because the choker around her neck was a special shapeshifting toy. It allowed Glitch to make her face look like anything she wanted it to. She could change a lot about her appearance with the collar. The only limits seemed to be that it could only affect what her face and hair looked like. Or her skin color in general, I supposed. It couldn’t change her build, height, or anything else about her actual body. Sometimes she showed up looking like a pale blue-eyed blonde, other times she had darker hair with green eyes, or could even appear to be a black woman. Right now, she looked Asian. But who the hell knew what her real appearance was. She fucked with people constantly by looking slightly different every time she appeared. Hell, until people had found out that her choker allowed her to change her appearance, there had been a rush to identify her from the pictures. An innocent woman had almost been put in prison for looking almost identical to her. But then Glitch herself had shown up outside the courthouse, showed what her choker could do, and actually apologized to the woman who had been mistaken for her. 

Yeah, that had been a huge thing. So now nobody could trust any description for Glitch. Or any of her people, for that matter. There were rumors that Braintrust was working on mass producing those disguise chokers and equipping all their rank and file Prev gang members with them. Which would be just fucking fantastic, really. 

“It’s Paintball, right?” Glitch was saying, already gesturing toward the folding chair across from her. “Take a load off, kid. You want something to drink? We brought soda, coffee of the hot and iced variety, water… sorry, no pizza. Seems our hosts took all the ingredients with them when they left this place. But we could order out if you like. Might be worth it just to see another pizza joint deliver to this place–wait, there’s another one of these places within delivery distance, right? Can you imagine if they had to drop off a pizza here? Come on, you wanna see that?”

Opening and shutting my mouth, I quickly shook myself and moved to take the offered seat. A part of me felt like I should keep standing, but being rude right now felt like a bad idea. Yeah, these guys were Fell-Touched, but they were being casual enough about all this (aside from paying a mercenary to bring me to them) that escalating things straight off was the wrong way to go. Besides, Cavalcade had made it clear that she would only help me get out if I didn’t start shit and played nice. 

“I’ll get a burger later,” I finally managed to reply while starting to sit. Partway through, however, I stopped. Hovering without actually sitting, I rose once more, watching the woman in front of me while I picked up the chair and turned it over to look at the bottom real quick. I’d seen enough movies. The last thing I wanted was to sit down on a seat that had some kind of pressure sensitive bomb on it or something and end up trapped there. 

Right, nothing visible. Which, given the gang I was dealing with, didn’t actually prove anything. But what else could I do. Shrugging, I put the chair back down and sat. 

Glitch had watched through all of that, finally chuckling once I was down. “You see, boys?” she called to Fabulist and Rotwang. “I told you our boy here was a smart one. Wouldn’t’ve survived through half the shit he’s already been thrown into if he wasn’t smart.” Her voice adopted a conspiratorial tone. “Wang over there wanted to play this rougher. It’s why he’s not the negotiator. Or the leader.” 

Rotwang’s only apparent response to that was to fold his arms tightly across his chest. The weird bulky, square 50’s alien robot head that functioned as his helmet had two little glowing rounded antennae sticking out either side of it that turned colors. Both went from being white to red, which I was going to guess meant he was annoyed. But he stayed silent. 

“You can relax, kid,” Glitch informed me. “We’re not here to fight, or play hardball. We just wanted to have a little chat. Sorry, I just wanted to have a chat. Wang over there thinks we should say something about making your friend work for us or else yada yada bad things threats, you know how it is.” 

“Friend?” I made myself echo, watching her reaction. 

Her reaction, as it turned out, was to laugh. Her head shook as she chuckled. “Come on, let’s not treat each other like idiots, Paintball. Fabulist already told you that we have ways of detecting T-Tech. Obviously, you’re not the one making it. And it’s no one we know about. The style’s different. You’ve got a Tech-Touched working with you. One that has annoyed Cuélebre a great deal, from what I hear. And you are the only person they seem to be working with. What are we talking about here, is this a sibling? A brother maybe? Or a sister. Ah, maybe a younger sister, one you feel like you have to protect. That would explain why you’re the only Touched they’re working with.” 

I didn’t react at all at first. Honestly, let Glitch go off on her wrong assumptions. The more she thought that Wren and I were siblings, the less chance she had of actually figuring out who either of us were. I wasn’t going to dissuade any of that. 

Instead, I simply replied, “If you know I want to protect them, you’ll forgive me for not talking very much about them. Especially not with people whose entire thing revolves around recruiting Tech-Touched into their gang. And for the record, have you thought about expanding out into allowing other types of Touched? Cuz you’re really pigeonholing yourself with that one.” 

“Why?” came the casual response as the ‘Asian’ woman eyed me, “were you interested? Because if that’s what it takes to sign up your friend, maybe we can find something for you.” 

Yeah, I supposed I deserved that one. Grimacing behind the helmet, I shook my head. “Sorry, I prefer not being a wanted criminal. Makes it easier to get around town without all the cops chasing me.” 

“Well, from what I hear,” Glitch reminded me, “you already have enough people who want your hide as it is. Cuélebre is very unhappy with you. Pretty sure Janus is too. And there’s even rumors that you’ve managed to annoy Pencil himself. You have been a busy little bee. And you know how busy little bees survive and thrive? By being part of a hive. You could use some friends to help you pull through whenever one of those enemies you’re racking up makes a move.” 

“Sure,” I agreed quickly and easily. “You’re right, having friends is a good thing. You and I just disagree a little bit on who my friends are.” Pausing, I decided that might be a little too rude, and added, “But if I was into your side of things, I could probably do worse than signing up.” There, that was going to have to be good enough to fit Cavalcade’s request that I play nice. Which, judging from the very slight snort I heard from her direction, it was. 

“Yeah, I guess we do disagree a bit on that.” If Glitch was annoyed by my words, she didn’t show it. Instead, she remarked, “Since it’s been brought up, I guess I don’t have to ask if you know how our little Braintrust works. The more Techs we’ve got, the better off we are. And let me tell you something, kid, from everything I’ve heard, this new Tech of yours is a good one. One we’d really like to have around.” She paused, then added a bit more pointedly, “One I’d really like to have around.” 

I’d known this was where this whole thing was going from the moment Cavalcade had made it clear who wanted to talk to me. Hell, I’d basically known it was coming from back when Fabulist told me they could detect the Touched-Tech I was using. I’d just hoped it would come later, when I didn’t have so many other things to deal with. But that was obviously a stupid hope. 

Exhaling, I looked to the woman and chose my words carefully. “My Tech isn’t interested in your organization. Sorry, but they’re not. And you should know that it’s a bad idea to try to force Techs to work for you when they don’t want to. I mean, you can only use your power to stop them from retaliating against you so much. And this Tech has friends. Friends like me, and others, who won’t just let you abduct them. Saying this as… respectfully as possible, going after my Tech is not worth the hassle it would be for you. It would be a huge fight, one involving more people than I think you realize. Yes, they’re really helpful. But I promise, they are not worth what you’d be pulling onto your head by forcing this whole thing. Find someone else.”

There was a long pause as the Braintrust leader watched me. It was really different to be able to see the whole, unmasked face of one of these Fell-Touched people. I was used to staring into a mask, trying to judge their reactions from body language. But in this case, there was nothing covering the face I was looking at. And yet, in some ways it was even harder to guess her thoughts. Her expression was completely unreadable, flat and emotionless through those few seconds. I didn’t know how much of that was the shapeshifting choker helping her hide any reaction and how much was her natural poker face. But either way, I couldn’t read her. 

Finally, Glitch gave a very short nod. “That’s about what I figured.” She chuckled slightly as I stared at her. “Don’t be so surprised, kid. I run a whole gang full of Techs. You think I don’t know how dangerous they can be if you piss them off? Yeah, we play hardball on recruitment. But there’s a fine line between playing hardball and being stupid. Braintrust works because we put our heads together and work to make the best toys we can possibly make. If we have a rotten egg in there, it’ll spoil everything. I’m not about to kidnap your friend, chain them to a workbench, and start cracking the whip. That’s a good way to get shitty results at best. And probably explosive ones. And it affects everyone else’s work. We don’t have the vast majority of Tech-Touched in the city because I’m a slave driver, Paintball. We have them for two reasons. First, because Techs like working with other Techs. It helps to collaborate. Not just in the normal way, but literally. There’s been studies that show two Techs working together produce better results than working alone. Their own gifts get stronger. Make it a whole group, and well… yeah. 

“Anyway, the second reason we have the most Techs is because I pay my people very, very well. I provide resources, workshops, privacy, and other Techs to collaborate with, other people who understand them. You don’t win this kind of game with sticks, you win it with carrots. Between that and my own gift to improve what they make… it’s a good system. And don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but I’m not about to mess up a good system by chaining up an unwilling Tech and trying to force them to play nice. Bad egg, you see? I don’t care how good they are, it’s not worth that kind of pain.” 

Blinking a couple times behind my helmet, I hesitated before offering her a shrug. “Oh. Well, in that case, good luck on all your–wait I can’t say that, I’m one of the people who’s supposed to stop you from all those criminal things. Um. See you later, I guess? Glad this went so well.” 

There was a soft chuckle from the seemingly Asian woman, before she shook her head. “It has been going well, yes. But we’re not quite done yet.” She held a hand up placatingly. “Almost. We’re almost done. But there’s still something important about your friend we need to discuss. As I said, I’m not about to force them to work for me. That’s not how we do things. But see, there’s another part to all this. Yeah, we won’t make your friend work for us. But if they’re a Tech-Touched operating in the city, they still have to pay the tax.” 

I squinted at the woman for a moment before remembering that she couldn’t see that expression. “A tax,” I echoed almost flatly, allowing a hint of disbelief to enter my voice.

Grinning at me, Glitch confirmed, “Yeah, a tax. See, Braintrust is the official Tech-Touched organization. We… let’s just say we pay our dues. And part of that involves collecting taxes from people who don’t work for us. Put simply, if you’re not part of the organization, you don’t get the tax credit.” 

I watched her for a moment, glanced to Fabulist and Rotwang briefly, then turned my attention back to their leader. “You’re saying that you’re not going to force my friend to work for you, but in exchange for operating in the city, you want them to give you money.” 

She winked, leaning back in the chair a bit. “That’s right. Your friend pays a monthly fee to operate in the city. In exchange, we leave them alone. We don’t try to recruit them, we don’t try to drive them out of the city, we don’t cause problems for them in general. Because let me be clear, while it is not worth the effort to chain an unwilling Tech to a workbench, it very much is worth it to drive them out of the city if they don’t cooperate with the system.” 

“You’re basically a protection racket,” I pointed out. “You’re extorting Tech-Touched who don’t work for you. That’s the real reason why there’s so few independents in Detroit. Because they can’t afford your taxes and it’s easier to either agree to work for you, or leave to go somewhere else.” 

“What can I say?” Glitch shrugged. “I don’t like competition. But I’ll put up with it in exchange for cash. You tell your friend they’ve got two weeks to decide if they want to play ball or move to a new city. It’s totally up to them. Two weeks. If they agree, we can talk about the specifics. Oh, and they can pay either in cash or donations of tech. Or consultation time.”

“So if they don’t have cash for you, they can give you pieces of their technology that they made, or agree to ‘consult’ on your own projects?” I managed, thinking about how Wren would react to all that. 

“Or leave the city, yup. That’s plenty of options.” With that, Glitch gave a sharp wave of her hand. “Two weeks from today. I’ll send someone to get an answer from you. And hey, looking forward to the first time we get to actually have a little scuffle, kid. You seem fun.” 

She stood, turning to walk toward her two minions then. Even as she left, Cavalcade spoke up. “Let’s get out of here. I wanna get to the La Casa casino before all the good tables are gone. Actually, you wanna go too? Cuz I’m about to have five hundred bucks burning a hole in my pocket, and I wouldn’t mind making some more off you.”  

Shaking my head while muttering that I’d give her the money once we were out of there, I stood and headed past my mercenary escort to go out the same door I’d come in. In the parking lot, I brought my phone to my hand. Because there was someone I needed to talk to about all this. Pack. She was friends with Wren too. If anyone would understand the complication of this whole Braintrust situation, it was her. She knew Wren, she knew about Braintrust, she knew (at least some) about the Ministry. She was basically the best person possible to bounce this off of. 

Quickly, I typed a message, asking where she was and that I needed to talk to her about Wren, adding a joke about how Cavalcade had invited me to the casino if she wanted to meet there. I figured that would get her attention. 

I had no real intention of going to the casino with Cavalcade, of course. I had way too much to think about and deal with. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t want to make a point of hanging around a Fell-Touched place like that, even if it was supposed to be neutral ground. The rules, as I understood them, were that any Fell-Touched or Sell-Touched who weren’t actively at war with La Casa were welcome, as well as any Star-Touched who were independent/not connected to an actual official government team. If you didn’t start shit, you could be there and play. 

I had other things to focus on besides gambling. Actually, come to think of it, I was doing an awful lot of gambling lately. It just all had to do with risking my parents finding out what I knew or who I was, or one of the other Touched finding out I was a girl, or any of my other issues rather than money. Or even getting hurt. It was still a risk, still gambling every time I went out like this.  

And yet, barely a few seconds after I’d sent the message to Pack, my phone buzzed. It was a message from her, reading: ‘Come 2 casino. Have 2 show u. Huge’

Had to show me? Had to show me what? Frowning, I looked up to Cavalcade. “Uhh, well, I guess I’ll take you up on that offer after all. 

“Let’s go see this casino.”

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Interlude 2A – Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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Three Years Ago

A black car, indistinguishable from any other similar luxury sedan, pulled around the corner of the parking garage. Ahead, a dozen men stood in the open space near a couple of lonely cars, while the rest of the spots remained empty. Of those men, ten held odd-looking submachine guns and wore what appeared to be white lab coats over dark body armor. Their outfits signified them as members of the so-called Braintrust, the Fell-Gang focused around inventions and super science.

The remaining two men, meanwhile, were even more clearly members of that gang. The first, a taller man (just under seven feet) and rather heavyset, wore a white surgical mask and what looked like medical scrubs with various scalpels and other tools filling the pockets. His white hair was very long, falling to his shoulders. The man beside him was much shorter, standing just a hair over five and a half feet. His own costume consisted of several pieces of what appeared to  be scavenged robot pieces haphazardly stuck to his body, and a helmet that was straight out of an ancient black and white sci fi movie. It looked like a metal ball with a grill around the entire front like a small car radiator and several antenna sticking out of it in every direction.

The pair, who worked together quite often, were known as Leech and Rotwang, respectively. Just in front of them on the ground sat a silver briefcase with a thumbprint scanner. All of the dozen assembled figures watched the dark sedan without moving or speaking.

For a moment, the car remained motionless as well. Then it rolled forward the rest of the way, approaching to within ten feet or so before the engine was shut off. The sole figure within the car watched the group for a brief handful of seconds, before opening the door to get out. This new arrival was also clearly Touched. He wore a pair of perfectly tailored black slacks, dark leather shoes polished to a gleaming shine, a black shirt with a matching bolo tie that had a red gem sitting right at the collar, and a white duster coat that fell to his ankles. His entire head was covered by a black helmet with an attached golden mask in the shape of a face. Finally, the thin gloves he wore matched the gold mask.

“That’s far enough, Blackjack,” Leech spoke up the moment their guest had stepped out of his car. The tall man nodded to one of the nearby troops. “Go scan it.”

It was impossible to see the newcomer’s face, but his body language expressed something resembling amusement, as he gestured to the car once before starting to put his hands in his pockets.

“Hey!” That was Rotwang, the robotics-focused Fell-Touched pointing. “You–you get your hands out where we can see them.”

Head tilting a little, the man known as Blackjack obediently took his hands from his pockets. He showed them, first his palms and then the back of his hands, like a magician proving he had nothing in them just before a trick. Which did nothing to ease the trepidation of the men watching him, for some reason.

By that point, one of the Braintrust troops had picked up a long, tube-like device the length of a rolling pin, with a bright blue light at one end and buttons at the other. He ran it over the car, moving slowly from the front to the back, then up again on the opposite side. He tensed up a bit while passing close to Blackjack, finishing his work and quickly stepping a bit further away before looking to his bosses. “Nothing. No one else in the car.”

“You did say to come alone,” Blackjack idly reminded them, his body language far more relaxed than the openly armed and more numerous group.

“Yeah,” Leech agreed, “we did. But you know, call me crazy, lots of people do, I just don’t see the leader of La Casa actually going anywhere without back-up. You don’t seem that stupid.”

In response, Blackjack simply lifted his head slightly. “We’re here to do business, gentlemen. It’s a simple transaction. Although…” He turned just a bit to look at the case on the ground. “As technologically-apt as your organization is, I would find it surprising if you were to fit what I came for into something that small.”

Quickly, Rotwang blurted, “We’re not ripping you off. Business transaction, like you said.” He pointed at the case, the robot-like gauntlet on his arm glowing blue as the case floated up from the ground and came to him. “Right in here, we’ve got just what you need. Three doses of super soldier serum. They’ll make any trio of people you want as strong, as fast, as good as any Olympic level athlete, as good as the best special forces soldier out there.”

For the first time, a hint of something other than amusement entered Blackjack’s voice. “That is quite impressive. But it’s not what I came for. It’s not what we agreed to.”

“Yeah, we know,” Leech assured him. “You came for Worth. And he’s here. He’ll walk you through whatever you need to make sure you understand how to use that stuff.  But sorry, he can’t go with you. But like my friend here said, we’re not ripping you off. You asked for Worth’s help in producing one super soldier. We’re giving you enough serum to make three, and not charging you any more than you already agreed to. You’re coming out plenty ahead in this deal.”   

After a very brief pause, the La Casa leader exhaled. “When one comes to an agreement, it is best to stick to that. I didn’t come for three doses of a super soldier serum. I came for Dr. Worthy himself. He and I agreed to the terms of his temporary employment by me. Not for some of his medicine, for the man himself. He will be coming with me. That is what was arranged.”

“Now, see, you’re not listening.” Leech shook his head. “That’s okay. We’ll work this out. Worth!” Raising his voice, he looked over to one of the nearby cars until another man emerged. This one wore no costume, though he was indeed Touched. A personal preference. He was an older man, his head mostly bald with some remaining gray hair. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans.

“Dr. Worthy,” Blackjack greeted the man. “I’m told there’s been some discrepancy in our deal.”

“Ah, well, that is…” Worthy winced a little, glancing to Leech and Rotwang before looking back to the La Casa leader. “My apologies. It seems I may have agreed to your request too hastily. My… work demands that I stay with my current organization. I simply cannot spare the time for a one-on-one situation with you. But, ahh, as they said, the vials in that case will provide everything you’re looking for. Three times what you were looking for, in fact. You wanted me to help you enhance one person. That briefcase will allow you to enhance three.”

Examining his gold-gloved hands for a moment, Blackjack was quiet. The assembled group of Braintrust Touched and troops looked uncertainly to one another until the man finally spoke. “Our arrangement will be fulfilled as originally stated. You will come with me, I will compensate you for your time, and then you will be released to travel wherever you would like to go with your quite substantial payment.” He spoke matter-of-factly, leaving no room for doubt.

Even as he finished speaking, the ten assembled troops all snapped their guns up into position, aiming at him. At the same time, Rotwang pointed at him with his metal gauntlets, which hummed with energy. And Leech took a step back behind his companion, a scalpel appearing in his hand. “Now, now,” the tall scientist announced, “we can all walk out of this without losing anything. You take the case with the serums, we take the money, everyone’s happy…ish. This doesn’t have to get ugly. But if it does, you are at a disadvantage.”

“So it would seem,” the other man replied vaguely, his attention seemingly focused on the case before he lifted his head to slowly look along the line of weapons pointed at him. “But looks can be deceiving.”

“Now don’t you go starting anything,” Leech snapped, clearly trying to sound more confident than he felt. “We outnumber and outgun you. But we don’t want to start a war with La Casa.”

Rather than reply, Blackjack allowed his gaze to sweep over the group once more. Eyes hidden behind his golden mask, he focused on his Touched-gift, his power.

Some Touched out there had what they called a danger-sense. Blackjack, on the other hand, had an opportunity-sense. It would tell him when there was something he could do to achieve his immediate goals, allowing him to pull knowledge seemingly out of nowhere, so long as that knowledge related to his goal at the time. It wasn’t perfect or all-knowing, but it was pretty damn helpful. Such as now, as he looked toward one of the armed men.

Hates being some random thug for a bunch of geeks and nerds, his power informed him. Thinks they’re stupid, but needs the money because he has a family to support and no one will hire him.

His gaze moved on, sweeping a bit further before slowing as it found one of the guns another man was holding.

Hasn’t been maintained properly. Will fatally misfire the next time the trigger is pulled.

Clearing his throat, the man finally spoke up after that long silence. “Three hundred thousand dollars, and permanent employment within my organization.”

“Um.” With a frown, Worthy shook his head. “It’s not the money, I assure you. And even if it was, three hundred thousand is substantially less than we originally–”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Blackjack informed him. He lifted his gaze once more, looking straight at the first man his power had informed him of. Despite the mask covering his face, their gazes locked. The man understood. He knew.

He moved, quickly jerking his weapon over and shoving it up against the back of Leech’s neck (though as tall as the other man was, he had to lean up to do it). “Nobody move!”

That, of course, prompted every other person to whirl that way, weapons moving off of the La Casa leader to point at their own man.

“You… idiot,” the tall man snarled. “Do you really think we’d give you guns that would work if they were pointed at one of us?”

“No,” his Benedict Arnold retorted. “And I don’t trust this Star Wars shit anyway. That’s why–” With his other hand, he produced a pistol from the inside of his lab coat, using that to point at the man’s head instead. “– I like bringing my own. Now nobody fucking move!”

“You can’t possibly think you’ll get away with this,” Rotwang snapped, torn between looking at Blackjack and looking at the traitorous henchman. “You’re really gonna trust that psycho to pay you?”

“That’s the thing,” the armed man retorted without taking his pistol away from being pointed at Leech’s neck, “This guy doesn’t lie. He makes a deal, he keeps it. That’s the reputation he’s got. He promises something, he’s gonna get it for ya. And call me crazy, but I see more opportunity for advancement in his organization than with a bunch of psychos who call themselves geniuses but are too stupid to just take a government research contract and make millions.”  

Speaking calmly, Blackjack announced, “Now then. Dr. Worthy. If you would please get in the car. And if anyone tries to stop you, my new friend here, Mr…”

“Sorn,” the turncoat supplied. “Elarc Sorn.”

“Sorn,” Blackjack repeated with a nod. “Mr. Sorn here will complete a science experiment of his own, in determining how many bullets can occupy the same space as the good Dr. Leech’s skull.”

Slowly, Worthy did as he was told, moving over to the car before stepping down into the front passenger seat. The entire time, the assembled goons bristled, torn between trying to stop it from happening, and the much more important duty of keeping their employer alive. They also, as he had silently predicted, spread out a bit to surround the car.

Once Worthy was seated in the vehicle, Blackjack addressed Sorn again. “Your turn. You and your tall former employer there have a seat in the back.”

“Now you just hold on with that,” Rotwang snapped. “If you think we’re just gonna let you walk away with my partner, you’ve got another thing coming. Maybe we don’t want to start a war with La Casa, but you sure as hell don’t want a war with the Braintrust either. If the others find out you’ve taken one of our own, you’re gonna have every last one of us coming after you.”

“A horde of utterly unhinged mad scientists and their parade of experiments does not sound like a picnic, no,” the La Casa leader agreed. “Happily, it will not come to that. I’ve no intention of harming Dr. Leech, or taking him any further than the exit of this garage. So long as each of you wait here until he returns.”

Letting that sit for just a brief moment to allow the group to believe it was the only choice on the table and see how unsavory it was, he then added something better for them. “Of course, if you’d like a bit more assurance, perhaps your man there can come with. There is room for three in the back, after all. If you squeeze.”

As expected, Leech preferred that option. The man was far more a doctor than a fighter, even if he was a villainous one. Having a trained and armed guard along as well made him more comfortable with the idea.

Considering the man who was holding a gun on him had also been one of those same trained and armed guards mere moments earlier, perhaps he had yet to truly think that through.

Regardless, the trio moved to the car and slowly, carefully got in while everyone pointed guns at each other. Through it all, Blackjack waited calmly. As the doors closed, he let his gaze sweep over the assembled group of tense, angry faces. In full view of their stares, he took a few steps forward, bending to take up the case from the ground.

“We’ll consider this a bonus to compensate for the hiccups in this transaction.” Straightening, case in one hand, he added, “You’ll find the agreed-upon payment in the trunk of the yellow Toyota there.”

“What–huh?” Turning a bit to look at the car in question behind them, Rotwang shook his head. “How could you possibly have the money waiting here? That car’s been there since we arrived, and we didn’t tell you where the meeting would be until we made it. There’s no way you could have known where to leave the money. You’re making that up.”

Head tilting, Blackjack simply asked, “Am I?”

Staring at him for a moment, the armor-clad man finally waved for one of the men to go check. The guard did so, finding the trunk already popped. As he pulled the door open, the man tugged a black duffle bag from within, unzipped it, and whistled. “Cash, boss. Lots of cash. Looks like all of it.”

How?” Rotwang demanded in disbelief. “How the hell could you know what the meeting point would be before we did, when we set it?”

His smile hidden behind the gold mask, yet fully audible in his voice, Blackjack replied, “Perhaps you should look into being less predictable. It will serve you well in the long run.”

There was no way, of course, that he would spoil the effect by revealing that he’d simply identified two dozen of the most likely places for this sort of meeting to take place, based on territory close to the edge of what Braintrust called their own. All he had to do was look for secluded, protected areas away from prying eyes that could be quickly and temporarily secured, and then have his men deposit identical bags of cash at each one ahead of time. As soon as this one had been identified as the proper location, the others had been quietly retrieved.

It was a bit of work for what amounted to theatrics. But making your potential opponents believe that you could predict their actions with that level was often worth it. Especially if it made them start second-guessing themselves, or wondering if there were (more) traitors in their midst.

That and it was fun seeing the looks on their faces.

Quietly wishing them all a good day, and promising once again to release Leech at the exit to the garage, he moved to take the driver’s seat once more. “Now then, gentlemen. Shall we conclude this?” With those words, he started the car, slowly reversing past the guards before turning and heading for the ramp once more.

“The rest of the Trust isn’t going to be happy about you taking Worth away,” Leech informed him. “He has incredibly sensitive and important work he still needs to do.”

“He will be back eventually,” Blackjack absently assured him. “When he’s done with his new work.” He parked at the exit then, the dark street ahead of them. “I believe this is the stop for you and your escort.”

For a moment, it looked as though Leech was about to say something else. But he seemed to think better, opening his door and extracting himself. His bodyguard followed, standing there with the door open.

“We’ll keep the arrangement,” Leech informed him, as though he had a choice. “Fine. But you know what wasn’t part of the arrangement? Turning one of our own men into a traitor.”

He nodded to the guard beside him, who smirked, lifted his energy-weapon to point at Sorn in the backseat, and pulled the trigger.

The gun promptly exploded in his hand. Because of course Blackjack had ensured that the man who came to escort Leech was the one with the gun that was about to critically misfire. The resulting explosion was small, but it burned both the guard, and Leech beside him. They stumbled back, half-falling.

Blackjack, meanwhile, hit the gas and pulled away with his hired scientist and new employee. “That, I predict, will not go over well back at your base.”

*****

 

A short time later, Worthy stood with Blackjack in what looked like a hospital room, though it was actually deep in the heart of a safe house. Sorn was being briefed by one of the La Casa lieutenants on exactly what would be expected of him as a member of the organization.

“I don’t understand,” the scientist started. “Why are we here? Who’s the… the girl?” He nodded to the small figure lying in the bed, her body filled with tubes as machines beeped steadily through their work of keeping her alive. The tiny, pale girl with light brown hair was dwarfed by all the medical equipment, and couldn’t have been older than five or six.

“This, Dr. Worthy,” Blackjack informed him, “is your patient. My daughter, Melissa. I didn’t hire you to create another soldier for me. I hired you to save my daughter’s life. Her… condition is critical. She has an advanced case of–”

“Rot Bone,” Worthy finished for him, his voice breathless. “She’s suffering from Rot Bone, isn’t she? The worst case I’ve seen in a still-living patient, I would guess.”

There were other names for it, but Rot Bone, as it was most commonly known, was a disease that had been created by a Fell-Touched who went by the same name. There was no known cure, and once infected, the disease essentially did as advertised. It caused the bones within a person’s body to (some more slowly than others) rot away and disintegrate, turning to a poison that gradually killed them.

Rot Bone, the disease creator himself, had already long-since been thrown into the inescapable Breakwater prison. If not, Blackjack would have taken the man apart and made him beg for the honor of saving Melissa’s life. But he was unreachable, making Dr. Worthy the next best candidate.

“Your best work is in enhancing the human body, making one more powerful, stronger, better,” Blackjack reminded the man. “I need you to do that for my daughter. I need you to make her strong enough to survive this. Enhance her.

“Do this, and I will make certain you never lack for anything for the rest of your life.”

*******

Two and a half years later/six months ago.

 

“You’re dying.”

The simple words came from Blackjack, as he sat at a hospital bed, watching the man lying within it. A man who was far more at home on the other side of the bed.

“Yes,” Samuel Worthy confirmed quietly before coughing. “Afraid you can’t hide from the devil forever. We had some fun times though, didn’t we, old friend?” He gave a weak smile, his exposed face pale and drawn. “I had a good run. Gotta say, didn’t expect to spend so long on this one project. Didn’t expect to stay with you through all this.”

Slowly, Blackjack reached up, taking his golden mask down to reveal his own face. He had often been told that he looked like George Clooney in his first days of playing Danny Ocean. Now, however, his expression was far more lost than that famous leading man of such charisma and charm. “I didn’t expect it either, my friend. You saved Melissa’s life. She’s okay now, thanks to you. If I could do anything for you–”

“Don’t,” Worthy interrupted, shaking his head. “I’m done. I’ve done enough with my life. You though… you take care of that girl. She’s a good kid. Deserves every chance she’s got. Took a long time, but these last few treatments should finish stabilizing her.”

“Last few treatments,” Blackjack… or as his family knew him, Eric Abbot, echoed.

“You remember what I said?” Worthy asked while reaching out to grasp his hand weakly. “One syringe per month, every month for the next year. Do that, finish her treatment, and she’ll be okay. The enhancements we’ve done, she’s beaten the disease. But if we don’t stabilize them properly, they’ll fall apart again.”

“One syringe per month for twelve months,” Eric confirmed. “I understand. Thank you. You–what you’ve done for my family… what you mean to Melissa…”

“Just keep that kid safe,” Worthy insisted, before suddenly coughing violently. That went on for a minute, until the man was left lying weak and exhausted, his eyes barely open. “I’m sorry… there’s not time to make more. Twelve… that should be enough. Make sure the… the syringes are kept in a safe place. You… have a safe place, right?”

Taking his friend’s hand and squeezing a little, Eric nodded. “Yes. Don’t worry about that. We’ll keep the syringes safe. I know just where to put them.

“La Casa owns a bank. They can go in a safe deposit box there.”

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