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The Sum of Your Parts

by Michelle Gold

@anachrodragon

anachrodragon@gmail.com

 

(This story was written as both a present for my niece and a favor for my husband. The three of us play CoV together weekly, and have a static group of villains with developed personalities that we’ve leveled together. The protagonist in this story is my brute, a stoic guy who refuses to discuss his past. My niece wanted to know about his history, since the present-day character won’t talk about it. My husband wanted me to write about how our two characters, his and mine, originally met: they are on the surface, unlikely friends, but yet over the years have become as close as brothers. So I decided to write one story that covered both the making of a brute, and beginning of a friendship. Hope you enjoy it.)

 

 

 

He woke suddenly, thrashing at empty air. The icy grip of a dark dream still clutched at him; fragments hovering at edge of his vision, pooling in the tangled sheets. A piercing sense of loneliness, shame, fear: they were apparitions of his childhood. The details of the dream were clouded, indistinct, but he could feel something sinister still lurking at the base of his brain.

 

He shook his head, trying to chase the figments away, but it was already too late. The hairs at the back of his neck stood on end, and he breathed in the sharply familiar scent of ozone. Then a white hot barb of pain erupted between his shoulder blades, and his body convulsed. He tried in vain to steel himself.

Get ahold of yourself Riley he thought. Do you really want to start your day by electrocuting yourself?

He decided he didn't.

An electrical impulse snapped like a live wire across his back. His breath came ragged and desperate. God damn it. Calm down he berated himself. You're not that kid anymore. You haven't been for a while. The dream was just a murky blur now, but his heart still twitched erratically, his fingers were claws in the sheets.

 

A raw spike of energy arced down his vertebrae, bringing a wave of nausea. He rolled into a tight ball, squeezing his eyes shut against his screaming nerves. You're a mutant with superpowers he told himself. His shoulders twinged, sparks crackled against his skin. He stifled that train of thought through gritted teeth.

He tried a different tactic. You'll be a respected gangster some day. That was better. His future was more promising, if he could just focus on it. He forced himself to take even breaths. The searing pain relaxed slightly, and he managed to untangle his limbs. And you can hold your own in a fight.

 

He should have felt a flush of pride, but instead the thought carried only a sinking feeling: the fight last night. A dawning realization, he groaned with embarrassment. No wonder about the nightmares and the powers gone haywire. The dream was becoming much less important now, and the agony was receding; tiny needles dancing down his spine. Riley sat up.

He wiped sweat from his brow, and ran his hand down his neck checking for damage. Finding nothing more than a tender patch of skin and a few singed hairs, he decided the danger had passed. A look around the small studio apartment told him he hadn't destroyed his meager possessions either. Good. You didn’t want to wake up to an electrical fire either. Riley's gaze paused at the crate serving as a makeshift bedside table, and his arena ID stared back at him: "Riley Reid. Age 19. Amateur Arena League. Mutant." By now the data linked to it would describe five wins, and one humiliating loss.

Riley still couldn't pinpoint exactly what had happened. He'd been ready for the fight. He'd been training, and he was in good shape: not only physically, but his powers too. He took some satisfaction from his previous wins, but he was still too new at this to be cocky—at least not enough to do anything stupid. He remembered he was hungry with anticipation when the arena's countdown siren started.
*Ten*
*Nine*
He’d stretched his shoulders and flexed his arms; willing energy into focus at his fists. The effort stung, but the surge of power was almost intoxicating.
*Eight*
*Seven*
He’d jogged a few steps in place, trying to work off some tension. Then he’d moved purposefully into the arena's holographic backdrop. It was a generic warehouse: a few blind spots to make things interesting, but nothing he couldn't handle.
*Six*
*Five*
He saw his opponent from across the warehouse floor. The man was smaller than he was: a bit shorter, wiry build. Older too, maybe by ten years or more, Riley couldn’t quite tell. He was draped in a long sleeveless coat and leather hat, and his arms were crawling with tattoos. He met Riley's stare with a crooked smile.
*Four*
*Three*
He was itching to wipe that smile off the guy's face.
*Two*
*One*
An insistent reminder beep from his cell phone startled him from his reverie. Riley searched for the phone hurriedly, and found it on the floor near his foot. He shot it an annoyed glance as he reached for it. The text message was a couple hours old. "Damn" he swore under his breath. He must have slept through it. The message said simply "Blackbeard 1:00." It was from Antonio. His gaze shifted to a nearby clock: almost noon. Blackbeard's pub was across town, so that made him almost late. His discomfiture at the previous night’s fight was temporarily forgotten as he moved to get ready.

Five minutes and one cold shower later, Riley was mostly dressed and shivering. Rifling through his tiny closet for a belt, shoes, socks, he considered that the building’s hot water probably hadn’t worked in years. It was one of Verandi’s buildings though, and he couldn’t very well complain to the landlord.

 

He was sure that, if he asked, Antonio could get him a room somewhere in the Verandi mansion complex--probably some long disused servants' quarters. Yet Riley knew he would never ask. He was relieved that the Family trusted him enough to allow him some space; even if it meant paying rent on a tiny run-down apartment. Plus he'd never be taken seriously if he didn't make some effort to take care of himself.

He met his own gray-green eyes in the mirror as he finished buttoning his shirt. They were muted steel now, with the barest tinge of green. Last night between the adrenaline and his heightened powers, he was sure they'd been molten emerald. A relatively minor quirk of his mutant heritage, Riley could appreciate the anomalies of his appearance now; even though as a child he'd flinched away from any scrutiny.

 

He shrugged into a black blazer, and gave himself an appraising gaze. Clean-shaven, well dressed, he looked every bit the young gangster. Except of course for his hair; his other glaring abnormality. It was bright, intense, glaring red: such a brilliant scarlet hue that it seemed likely to bleed through the average hat. Spiky and wild, it defied every hair care product known to man.

Riley's mutant powers hadn't hit him full force until a couple years ago, but he'd had the hair as long has he could remember. His mother had hated it. She'd shaved it off once, when he'd been about five years old. Even then it had carried enough of a static charge to make the experience uncomfortable for both of them. He'd known better than to protest, but he remembered smirking when the clippers finally shorted out, and she'd had to finish the job with scissors. It had all been wasted effort though. He'd been punished a few days later when his unruly red crown had fully grown back. Riley rolled his eyes at the memory. As if he'd had any control over it back then—or even now for that matter. He ran a skeptical comb through his still-damp hair out of habit, but it served only to send shocks through his fingertips. He wasn't sure why he even bothered, and it was time to stop preening and get going anyway.

 

Riley stepped out of the murky light of his studio into bright mid-day sun. He tried to stretch out a lingering knot in his shoulder as he ambled past the row of drab second floor apartments, and made his way down to the busy street. Port Oaks was a commerce center in the Rogue Isles, known equally well for its beautiful weather as its bustling criminal activity.

 

At the corner of the building, a man clad in a suit and a fedora leaned apathetically against the brick facade--one of Verandi's thugs. Riley nodded in greeting as he passed, and was answered with only a cold-eyed blink. In this neighborhood he was relatively safe, but he had a decision to make. Blackbeard's pub was near the docks, and the only direct route would take him straight through Marcone territory.

 

Part of him silently cursed Antonio for choosing Blackbeard's as his venue. Why not meet at any of the local Italian restaurants that were not only accustomed to Family business, but seemed to exist for that very purpose? As quickly as he considered it, he answered the question himself. He was sure Antonio had his reasons; the man never did anything without a good reason. Still, it didn't change the fact that he would have to hike through Marcone territory, or risk being late. He weighed the two options and decided that he was less concerned about the Marcones.

There was no border between Verandi and Marcone neighborhoods, but there were subtle changes, invisible to any but the trained eye. He’d gone only a few blocks, and they practically screamed at his streetwise sixth sense. As he continued, his intuition became shriller, more insistent. Riley finally listened to it and abandoned the street for a nearby alley.

 

He picked his way over a pile of crumbling junk, holding out hope that he wouldn’t be seen in this area of town. Or if he was, he wouldn't be recognized as anything other than an oddity from the arena. He hadn't been involved in any serious jobs for Verandi. Sure there was cleanup work; and he occasionally played bodyguard for Verandi's daughter at times when a pretty face mattered more than sheer muscle. Realistically though, Riley was little more than a lackey himself, and as such shouldn't be noteworthy to the low rank goons here on the street—at least that was what he kept telling himself. On the other hand his hair was about as subtle as a flamethrower. Hopefully they wouldn’t get too curious. He quickened his pace through the narrow maze of moldering debris.

The Verandis and the Marcones had been at each others' throats since old Manuel Marcone’s capture and imprisonment years earlier. As Marcone's highest ranking enforcer, Guido Verandi had all the experience and ruthlessness to step into his former boss's shoes. However, Marcone's son Emil had his own claim on his father's succession. Their vying for power and territory made for routine violence in the streets of Port Oakes.

 

The conflict had started before Riley's own involvement with the Family, and he hadn't had the luxury of choosing sides. Riley had been pressed into service with the Verandis a couple years ago, as part of his parents' attempt to make good on an outstanding debt. He'd been a defiant kid, continually at odds with his parents, and on the verge of becoming a runaway. Verandi had reined him in quickly—probably faster than any military school could have accomplished.

The alley came to an abrupt end at a busy street, and Riley eyed the intersection warily. His ego still felt bruised over the events of the previous few years, but he considered that his parents might have done him an unwitting favor by dumping him into a life of organized crime. The lifestyle was beginning to suit him now, and he recognized that his powers made him valuable; even though maintaining his tenuous control was still a struggle. He was a prototype weapon in an arms race with the Marcones—and the street in front of him was teeming with them.

Riley wiped a hand across his brow and swore at himself. Christ. You couldn't have picked a worse alley. Not more than 100 feet to his left, a small group of obvious gangsters sprawled on the front steps of a high-rise apartment building. He counted at least three. They were partially obscured by a balustrade, and it looked like they were involved in some kind of card game. About half a block to his right there were more, hurriedly unloading a large truck. They appeared busy, and hopefully distracted. There might be a lookout nearby though. Most concerning though, were the two dark-suited men loitering directly across the street. Marcone gunmen, they seemed dangerously bored, and Riley didn't have enough time to backtrack.

None of the Marcones had noticed him yet, but every second he hesitated increased the chances they would. He needed to get moving. He'd never be able to pull off sneaking past them, so he'd better try to look like he belonged. It was a busy public street, broad daylight; he told himself he could do this. Riley straightened his shoulders, set his jaw, and hoped to God his expression was as determined as he meant it to be. Fear was a cold knife in his guts as he stepped away from the shelter of the alleyway.

 

He forced himself to keep a slow, deliberate pace—measured steps toward the thugs unloading the truck. A bead of sweat tracked its way down his ribs. Riley was just a few feet from them when he felt the pressure in his ears, prickling along his scalp. Electrical impulses chafed at his nerves, just barely hidden skin-deep. His resolve was taut like an overstrung bow. He fixed his eyes forward as he passed the Marcones, feigning disinterest and sidestepping large boxes littering the sidewalk. Peripheral vision told him they were still preoccupied. A few more steps and he allowed himself to breathe.

A scant five seconds later, a barrage of shouts rang out in the street behind him. The bow snapped. Riley jerked involuntarily, his heart in his throat. He realized too late that it was the card players, and might have nothing to do with him; but by then he was already running.

More angry voices, they were closer this time. Of course they'd chase him. It was an instinct shared by all predators. Electricity snapped at his heels. He could get some extra speed out of it, but it wouldn't last forever. He cut into oncoming traffic, a zigzag course dodging between moving cars. He didn't bother to look back. It didn't matter how many were pursuing him; more than one and he was in trouble—especially if they had guns. He charged through a group of pedestrians on the opposite sidewalk, his body a swarm of sparks, sending them scattering for cover. Fence ahead, another alleyway. He jumped it effortlessly, power buzzing through his limbs.

He landed with a grunt, feeling the impact in his shins. Then he was up and running again. More obstacles ahead: broken crates, dilapidated boxes, piles of junk. Riley didn't intend to slow down. He kicked away the debris in his path and pushed forward. An errant spark caught a pile of oily rags behind him and set it smoldering.

 

Riley finally chanced a glance over his shoulder. The alley was getting smoky. He could barely make out a dark suit lowering itself down the fence behind him: one of the Marcone gunmen. His attention snapped back to the alley before him. He let his fear spur him on. At least he still had a head start.

 

Ahead, the alley met a building and forked to both sides. He made a quick decision and sprinted to the left. The carcass of a fallen, rusted fire escape blocked the path—it would be harder for the Marcones to bypass. Riley leapt it but misjudged slightly. He came down hard, twisting his right foot. A dull pain in his ankle; he could ignore it for now.

The end of the alley was close; a wooden fence, obscuring whatever was beyond it. He didn't have much of a choice. The sounds of pursuit still echoed in his brain. He knew they were much further off, and they would be hindered by smoke and obstacles; but he was dead certain they were still coming.

 

Riley was slowing now, breathing harder. He tried to vault cautiously over the fence, but landed with a crash in a dumpster: knee-deep in ripe decaying trash. A guttural moan from outside the bin told him he wasn't alone. Tendrils of putrid smoke rose from the garbage; roused by the electricity still dancing around him. He needed to get out of there quickly. Suppressing the urge to gag, he wrenched his legs free of the filth.

 

A dirty, gnarled face appeared at the edge of the container. Riley swung reflexively, glowing energy focused at his fists. He connected with a satisfying crack, sending the man flying. Homeless in this part of town didn't ask for change. They were more likely to eat you instead. He pulled himself over the edge of the bin and dropped to the ground.

Beyond the dumpster was an empty parking lot, bordered by deteriorating warehouses. The transient lay unconscious at his feet. The man was wearing a mess of slimy rags and scrap metal, and there was a weathered axe lying just out of reach. Riley focused a moment on the axe, visibly shaken. At least some of his instincts were worth listening to.

 

His flight had taken its toll. He was getting tired, and his powers were waning. He needed to do something to get the Marcones off his tail. A few yards away, a crooked and dented warehouse door caught his eye. Its cratered surface beckoned, promising a hiding place in the depths of the run-down building. Riley crossed the parking lot to stand before it, and summoned the last of his strength. He smashed the door in with teeth-jarring force.

He paused in the doorway just long enough to let the last of his dying sparks catch in the brittle debris within; then he turned away and headed for the street. With any luck his pursuers would see the destruction, the smoke, and spend the next few hours searching that warehouse. If not, well he hoped they only beat him half to death when they caught him.

 

Lacking the energy to continue his mad dash, he settled into an easy lope, favoring his right ankle slightly. The highway was ahead, the only landmark he recognized. There should be an underpass nearby that would take him closer to the docks. He'd misplaced his sense of direction somewhere in the streets behind him.

He found the underpass eventually—a dingy tunnel punctuated by guttering green halogen. The concrete here was stained with the remnants of old violence and it smelled of unwashed bodies. Still, the light beaming at the tunnel's far end was a welcome sight.

 

This was the end of Marcone territory and his ruse at the warehouse must have worked. His relief was almost palpable. Riley paused in the tunnel and reached into his pocket for his phone. He should check the time, maybe call Antonio. His fingers grasped at nothing. He searched his other pockets frantically. It must be at home—he’d been too distracted earlier. Or worse, he’d dropped it. He didn’t wear a watch. They never lasted long against the high voltage of his bare skin. He’d just have to hope he wasn’t too late.

Riley headed for the tunnel’s exit with renewed urgency. He almost got there. An invisible force darted from the shadows and caught his already-aching right ankle. It snapped him into the air like a leaf in a windstorm, and flipped him once, end-over-end, before the concrete walkway met him mid-yell. The air expelled from his lungs with a wet sigh.

"You make for a good distraction mate"

The words flowed with a velvety thick Australian accent. Riley twisted against the rough ground, craning his neck. Beyond the tunnel’s sickly green light, tattoos and a wicked grin coalesced in the shadows. It was his opponent from last night's fight.

 

Alarms went off in his head. The man was a sorcerer. One look from him had turned Riley inside-out, setting his powers against himself; leaving him a twitching mess of electric current on the arena floor. Here, outside the arena's controlled environment, there was no telling what he'd do to him. Riley was up on his hands and knees instantly, inching his way backward as his feet tried to find purchase under him. Then with a harsh jolt, he was on the ground again. Snared in a vice grip, he couldn't move.

His vision wavered unnervingly. He felt like he'd been kicked in the head; and he could swear he smelled brimstone. Cheek pressed to the dirty sidewalk, he watched the Australian approach him through one bleary eye. The man took his time, circled his prone body with a thoughtful look. Riley's breath caught in his throat, waiting for the final blow: a blast of occult energy with his name on it. It never came though. Instead the man squatted down on his haunches in front of him. His tattooed arms crossed inches from Riley's nose.

One hand held playing cards, fanned out and pointed down, their faces turned away from Riley. The other hand reached into the folds of the long coat, and withdrew a wad of cash. "You see this mate?" He asked, waving the money. "This is turning into a bloody winning streak." The man stared down at him. He looked agitated.

"What's the problem?" Riley tried to respond, but it came out as more of a whistling strangled sound. His limbs were still locked rigidly in place, and his head was throbbing. The man's tattoos writhed near the limit of his vision.

"What's the problem? What's the problem mate?" The Australian leaned forward. His face was uncreased, but his hair was prematurely gray. It carried a malevolent edge in the low light. "The problem is what have you got to do with it?"

 

Riley's blank look only provoked him further.

"Some dodgy bloke comes out of nowhere, asks if I want to win a fight. Well of course I want to win a fight. Who doesn't want to win a bloody fight?"

The tattoos seemed to swell and shrink along the man's arms, keeping rhythm with the painful pulse in Riley's head. Demonic faces, a long twining snake, a grinning skull, they were growing more substantial by the minute. From some disconnected part of his mind, his own faint voice was telling him to do something already—get out from under this guy's spell. He doubted he had any juice left, but he tried to call up what little power he could. Pressure stirred along his spine, across his shoulders, down his arms, and gathered at his hands. Then with a sickening snap, it backfired sharply, sending a wave of agony lancing up his arms. Riley sagged against the ground in defeat.

The Australian paused, speculatively raising one ash-colored eyebrow. He tapped absently with the fanned cards and then continued.

 

"Then today, seeing as you show up out of nowhere—run off with the blokes from my game." He peered at Riley quizzically. "You sure you meant to leave the money with me mate?"

Riley felt depleted. There wasn't anything left to do but answer him. "It was a mistake." The tattoos were leering at him. The snake was coiled and poised to strike; the skull laughing at his plight. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to clear his head. The headache was unrelenting. "I shouldn't have been there. I shouldn't have run."


"Ah bugger." His captor leaned back on his heels. "You saying you wet yourself over my card game and ran away for no reason?" His gaze shifted across Riley for a long moment.

 

"I think I believe you mate."

The Australian stood and paced. The cards and the money disappeared into his coat.

"Ok that could be dumb luck—your dumb, my luck. But what about that bloody fight? Someone else was playing the aces there."

 

He stopped and folded his tattooed arms. "Anyone looking to teach you a lesson mate?"

The question was unexpected, and Riley rolled it around his fuzzy mind. "I don't know—don’t think so." And then because he might as well try: "Are you going to let me up?"

 

"Might be you're better off there."

The words came with a malicious glint, but another card flicked between the quick fingers. Riley could move again. He sorted himself into a sitting position on the cold ground. He wasn't going to try to stand just yet; he still had a splitting headache.

The Australian leaned forward. "You want some advice mate?" he asked, voice like poisoned honey. Riley's only answer was a dubious frown.

"You're some kind of messed up kid. And you don't need enemies. You're doing a bloody brilliant job of screwing yourself up."

Riley gave him a cool look in return. "Did you knock me on my face to psychoanalyze me?"

"Maybe someone needs to." The man's eyes mocked him. Riley stood up brusquely.

His tone became gentler "Look mate, I see your group around. I've seen your mentor--I know the type." They were both standing, an arm's length away in the flickering light. Riley, slightly taller, was looking down as the other man’s face took on a serious cast.

"Blokes like that, they keep their cards close to their chest."

Riley shook his head. "He's been good to me."

"Bloody hell. He can't teach you anything you don't already know."

 

The Australian met Riley’s challenging look, and shrugged as if to say he’d wasted enough time here. He turned, poised to leave, but wavered a moment. “Here.” The man pivoted back, and deposited the card he was holding into Riley’s lapel pocket. “You keep that mate.” Then he danced away and dissolved into the shadows.

 

Riley stared down the dark tunnel after him. He wondered what game the strange man was playing at. Whatever it was, it smelled strongly of black magic, and Riley was probably better off not involved. There were a lot of arcane types wandering around the Rogue Isles and he'd always tried to avoid them. Magic unsettled him, made his skin crawl. He suspected that it had its own malignant consciousness, always trying to corrupt its wielder--not to mention what it did to its victims. He'd met the tattooed sorcerer twice now, and both times wound up not only bruised and helpless, but his mind had come painfully unglued.

Riley retrieved the card from his jacket and turned it over in his fingers: the two of spades, it didn't seem significant. And any symbolism it might be weighted with was beyond him. He flipped it over again and inspected it closely. The back of the card was red inked, thick floral borders and ornate swirls, crossed by two swords. It was a mystery, but he thought, it didn't seem sinister or ominous. Against his better judgment, which was warning "it's still involved with magic, don't touch it," he transferred the card to another pocket.

It took him another fifteen minutes to reach the docks. The east edge of the Port Oakes docks district was a cluster of old pontoons and splintering wooden structures, catering to an offbeat collection of watercraft. The inhabitants of the area were just as diverse, but all dangerous in their own ways. Luckily the business of loading, unloading, and guarding ships and cargo was vitally important. It made for an uneasy truce between the various factions represented here.

Blackbeard’s tavern was on a rise overlooking the docks. The place looked almost like a shipwreck turned on end. It was a tower of corrugated steel and weathered wood, stacked haphazardly into a distorted caricature of a building. Riley approached with some trepidation. He'd been worried he might be late before, but he was sure of it now.

He reached the building's eccentric facade, and let himself in one of the many doors. Inside were brass fixtures and burnished wood, warm lantern light and the smell of old leather. It was a strange contrast to the building's exterior. The clientele seemed to be the denizens of the docks, oblivious to everything but the drinks in front of them.

Riley found Antonio on the building's top floor, seated near a window with half-finished coffee and a pair of black mini-binoculars on the table in front of him. Antonio Violi was a made man. He was a broad-shouldered and thickset, and his stance was always loaded with deadly confidence. He had hardened features and impregnable dark eyes that stared right through you. According to rumor, he had business interests in St. Martial, and connections as far away as Paragon City. The Port Oakes scene would be small-time for a guy like him. He was only here as a favor to Verandi: to help make something of his troubled young protégé.

"You're late Reid, and you look like shit." Antonio's voice was flat. "You wake up on the wrong side of the gutter or something?"

Riley stood uneasily under his scrutiny. Antonio had never raised a hand to him--he'd never needed to. The man's very presence demanded respect.

"I ran into some Marcones, got a little banged up. And--"

Riley would never understand why he stopped himself; why he didn't tell Antonio about the tattooed Australian and his mind-warping card tricks. Instead he shifted gears and let his hesitation look like awkwardness over his powers. This could be a dangerous game to play with Antonio. He knew he might regret it later.

"--And my powers are acting up. I had an attack this morning."

Antonio frowned. "It's been what, a year? You have seizures?" The mobster's black eyes bored into him.

He met Antonio's stare. "No. I stopped it in time."

"I don't need you short-circuiting on me. You got that? You need drugs--neurosuppressants, anti-anxiety pills, whatever--you let me know. I know a guy at Crey who'll take care of it."

Riley shook his head slowly. "No I'm alright. It's not like it's a regular thing. It was just a weird dream that started it, something about my family."

"Yeah well then it's time you got over it. You ain't the only kid in the world who had a rough home life."  Antonio gestured dismissively at a bathroom door on the far side of the room. "Go clean up. We'll talk when you're back."

Riley turned away. He was relieved to put some temporary distance between himself and Antonio's scathing look.

When he saw himself in the bathroom mirror he had to stifle a groan. So much for trying to make a good impression. His disheveled appearance was only a slight improvement over the transient he'd encountered earlier. There was dirt on his face, greasy stains on his shirt, some disgusting crusty substance on his shoes. Only his hair was unmarred. For once, its scarlet disarray seemed normal by comparison.

He'd been ignoring his physical discomfort, but now he looked down at his hands. There were blisters forming at the tips of his fingers, and one fingernail looked scorched. He'd toasted himself pretty well when his powers had backfired in the underpass. Riley could almost hear the tattooed sorcerer's mocking laughter. He lifted his right foot to the edge of the counter and inspected his ankle. It was sore, but it didn't seem overly swollen; he could deal with it. He ruefully admitted that the man might have been right about one thing: he didn't have anyone else to blame for his injuries but himself.  First, there was his ill-timed flight through the streets, and then his dysfunctional powers.

No, he wasn't being fair to himself. The Australian had done something to his mind--something that caused splitting headaches when he was in close proximity. He'd told Antonio he was ok, but that wasn't exactly true. Riley pressed his fingers to his temples and closed his eyes. He could still feel, more than see, the man's fiendish tattoos watching him with their demented grins. There was no chilling, hair-raising outside influence of magic though, not like before. Maybe it was just a side effect, like a psychological aftertaste. He splashed cold water on his face and looked into the mirror again. You're screwed if he wants you to do anything useful with your powers.

Riley composed himself as best he could, and returned to find a second cup of coffee waiting on the table for him--an offering of conciliation; it said his tardiness had been overlooked for now. Antonio was looking intently out the window, but he turned back as Riley took a seat across from him.

"Reid, you ever heard of Vince 'The Brain' Rizzetti?"

Riley hadn't. He looked back blankly over the rim of the raised coffee cup.

Antonio continued. "One of Manuel Marcone's guys, from before Emil took over. He was Manuel's information man for years. Ya know, hacker-type, spying little weasel." His voice was full of contempt. "He and Emil don't get along so good, so Rizzetti found himself some new prospects. A couple months back, he tells Emil to shove it and takes off."

"Wait, he told Marcone--he left?"

"Not that simple. But yeah, he left. Problem is he took a lot of data with him, and he ain't an easy bastard to track down."

Antonio swiveled back to the window, and stared down for a long moment, letting Riley digest his words. It was obvious Antonio was waiting for something or someone, but why get involved with Marcone's business? A blow to Marcone should be good luck for Verandi.

"You think he'll show up here? And isn't that Marcone's problem?"

Riley's questions hung in the air. Antonio didn't turn around; instead he gestured at the window. Riley felt a flicker of annoyance, but he left his seat to stand behind Antonio at the window. He looked down to a spit of concrete projecting from the shore into the harbor. Its only features were a run-down shack, almost indecipherable from a pile of old shipping debris, and an old stone wall with a longshoreman leaning against it.  He didn't know what he was looking for.

Antonio spoke again. "Drea the Hook, down there, does business with the local freelancers. He cares about two things--money and his reputation, in that order" He folded his arms and looked up at Riley. "Our guy should come out of hiding to chat with him today. You're lucky he hasn't already."

Riley retreated back to the chair and reclaimed his coffee. It was going to be a long wait.

Several hours, and as many cups of coffee later, Riley was cultivating a pleasant buzz and ruminating over the day's events; when Antonio tensed and motioned him to the window again. He stood and moved to Antonio's side. Twilight had rendered the harbor as a dusky collage of flattened panes and jagged silhouettes. Below, two men stood at the outside edge of an illuminated circle cast by a nearby streetlight. He could tell one of the vague figures was Drea, the dockworker Antonio had pointed out earlier. The other was lanky and dark-clothed, but he couldn’t make out any features.  From their positions and motions, he could tell they were arguing.

 

Riley's gaze shifted back to Antonio. The mobster was poised hawk-like, rigid posture, eyebrows furrowed over the binoculars. His body language spoke of latent violence. Whatever else was going on, Antonio was dead serious. Riley had expected that someday Antonio would involve him in something real—something more important than playing lookout boy, or running messages between gangsters, or cleaning up after a bloody conflict. He just wished it wasn't today.

 

The drama below looked like it had played itself out. The scene ended abruptly with a rude hand gesture from Drea; and the darker figure slunk off into the shadows. Antonio rose smoothly, deliberately, as if he'd been waiting for that cue.

 

"Gonna be right back. You wait here"

 

Riley's gnawing doubts got the better of him. "Antonio, you're not doing favors for the Marcones are you?"

 

The mobster's face was impassive. "Don't you worry about it kid. Let's just say I'm looking to collect on a bet." He clapped his hand against Riley's shoulder, as if a signal of reassurance, and then he was gone down the stairs.

Riley considered for only a second before he slid into Antonio's seat and picked up the binoculars. He adjusted their focus. This was better, he could see Drea close-up and more clearly, even in the low light. Drea was a big man, who looked like he'd be at home on a fishing vessel or hauling cargo. He seemed unsurprised when Antonio appeared, like they'd met before under similar circumstances.

The two men appeared to be talking calmly, affably; a scene in contrast to the earlier confrontation. He wished he could tell what they were saying. The conversation stretched on, and Riley restlessly waited for some hint of understanding. Finally, Antonio was nodding and withdrawing a bundle of bills from his coat. He handed them to Drea and then clasped his hand in a rough shake. Riley thought Antonio might have even smiled.

Riley was standing when Antonio returned. He handed him the binoculars and asked "Did you lose your bet?"

"Nah, not yet. The money, that's about compensation. Drea don't give up his sources easy, but Rizetti's been wrong a few too many times." Antonio's eyes motioned at the doorway. "You ready? We're leaving."


Riley didn’t move. "This is a hit isn't it?"

"You got a problem with that?"

"No. It's just; you want me to go with you? My powers--"

Riley bit back his words. He wanted to tell him, wanted to say "sorry, there's this strange little man who messed with my head, and now I don't think my powers will work," but it sounded like the worst sort of excuse, even to him. To Antonio's ears it would be sheer cowardice.

"Sorry you don't feel like it. What do you want, a formal invitation?"

He tried to start over. "No. I meant--"


"Look."
Antonio withdrew a gun from under his coat, and offered it grip-first to Riley. "Here's some backup if you're worried about your powers. You know how to use it right?"

 

"Yeah." He was familiar enough, if unpracticed.

 

Riley took the gun and turned it over in his hands. It was a black .22 semiautomatic. Too small to be of any use in a shootout, it was a weapon better used for assassination. Firearms were so pervasive among the Family that it would have taken more effort to avoid them than to simply learn to handle them. Given the choice though, he would rather stick with his fists. Guns felt too detached, too impersonal, and Antonio's gun felt like holding death.

 

Antonio's dark eyes studied him, perhaps waiting to see if he would refuse the gun. When Riley didn't, but pocketed it instead, Antonio nodded and turned on his heel.

 

There was a car waiting for them outside: a large dark sedan with bullet-proof windows. Riley didn't recognize the driver. He hoped it was one of Verandi's guys, someone he'd never met. Antonio took the passenger seat, locking eyes with the driver briefly, but no words passed between them. Riley slid into the black leather back seat. He felt disconnected from the men in front, like he was a mile away with only his own thoughts for company.

He tried to convince himself it was like the anticipation before an arena match. There was something warm and genuine about the promise of an honest fight. That was a language he understood; and on a good day, his body could speak it intuitively. This felt different though, colder, and cloaked in designs he couldn't grasp.

Riley flexed his muscles and his nerves. Whatever else might happen, he needed his powers to work. This couldn't turn out like his last arena fight, or his clumsy attempts in the tunnel. He felt the static rising, willed it to take shape over his skin. It dragged across him, raspy like electrified sand paper. A wave of power ran up and down his spine, a steady rhythmic prickling sensation, and it was mostly under control.

SNAP

It was under control, except for one snapping tail of electrical current he couldn't extinguish. Like a whip cracking of its own volition, it counted its own erratic time against his body. It felt alien, not wholly his own, and it taunted him with implied criticism, as if waiting for him to take his first misstep.

SNAP

Just try not to screw this up Riley.
The car was slowing, crawling past a high-rise office building at the north end of Marcone territory. It pulled around a corner and rolled to a stop.

 

Twilight had given way to a dark skyline; high-rise buildings flecked with stray spots of light. They walked to the building's entrance. Antonio's long-practiced steps seemed to avoid the streetlights out of habit. Riley didn't try to emulate him. It was enough effort to maintain the aura of electricity crackling around him, and to keep from betraying his discomfort. They reached the door, and Antonio punched in a security code—probably courtesy of Drea.

 

Riley drew the gun with cold hands as they entered the building, but Antonio shook his head and waved it away.

 

"Sixth floor—only one guard. Don't get ahead of yourself."

 

The building's foyer smelled of musty carpet and astringent chemicals. The light was weak, and Riley guessed that the yellowing wallpaper was a few years his elder. The place seemed deserted: no sounds, and no movement. They found an elevator and took it to the sixth floor.

 

The elevator doors slid open.

 

SNAP

 

It was too loud, wasn’t the sound of his own powers. Something else—sound of snapping electricity down the hallway. Cardboard boxes in the way. Piles of corrugated metal and discarded circuit boards.

 

There was a large shape lumbering in the room at the end of the hallway. It looked like a cross between a junkyard salvage pile and an industrial refrigerator, with the only vaguely recognizable form of a wasted human figure underneath.

 

Freakshow. The word rippled through his mind unbidden. Riley had heard stories about the cyborg anarchists. Dealers in high-tech weapons and cybernetic hardware, they were disorganized, but still managed to plague Family operations in Sharkhead Isle with trouble. He’d heard stories, stories about their fixation on technologized, drug-fueled chaos; but he never faced one.

 

He was still staring at the hulking form when Antonio walked forward, arm extended, and with a forceful movement of his hand, the air around the monstrosity seemed to congeal and lift upward. Riley had only seen him use his powers once before. Antonio had ripped a pool table out of a vortex in thin air and lobbed it at car that had been tailing them. Now he'd trapped the cyborg junk pile with the weight of its own reversed gravity.

 

Antonio took a thoughtful step backward, and rested a hand between Riley's shoulder blades.

 

"That'll last maybe one minute, which ain't as long as I need. So you're gonna keep it busy in the meantime."

 

"What?" A visceral shock jolted him low in the spine.

 

 

"Don't worry. I ain't going far."

 

Antonio shoved Riley forward with the heel of his hand. Then he strode out of the room without looking back.

 

Riley regained his balance quickly, now within arm’s reach of the massive cyborg. His chest was hollow, but he stood his ground. How do you even fight something like that? His eyes wasted precious seconds tracking over its metal frame.

 

The steel-clad monster was two heads taller than Riley's six feet, and the armored body was more than twice his width. Protrusions attached to the cyborg at odd angles, forming a lattice of sharp metal edges like crystal structures. The thing's arms ended in massive hammers—scuffed, battered, well-used hammers.

 

Maybe go for the head? Try to stun it. Its head was human—pasty skinned, misshapen, with hostile piggish features—but still human underneath all that metal.

 

Riley tried to center himself, slow his runaway pulse. His hands became a focal point, and he poured his concentration into them until they glowed. It had beady spiteful little eyes for a monster—he drove his fist into the thing’s face. He put more force into it; threw another swing, and another.

 

Then the eyes moved, and with them the armored bulk came free of Antonio’s lingering grasp. The hammers came together above Riley's head; a clap with the power of a shockwave. The sonic force threw him backwards down the hallway.

 

He was on his butt, in a swirling swarm of electricity, with the giant cyborg advancing on him. Christ. What had Antonio been thinking?

 

Riley fumbled to draw the gun. It felt tiny, insignificant. He raised it and emptied the clip into the Freak. Barely any recoil, and the bullets plinked off the thing’s armor plates like pebbles.

 

Protruding wings of metal rose from the cyborg’s shoulders, opening to reveal gaping multi-barrel muzzles. Riley scrambled to his feet, dropping the useless gun. Some kind of artillery, grenade launcher maybe—he needed to move.

 

His electrified skin could take a few hits. It would disperse some force, but nothing as powerful as that. Low bass boom of a shell being fired behind him. He ran for the elevator.

 

A burst of explosive heat—the impact threw him sidelong into a pile of boxes. His head clipped something sharp before he slid to the floor. A thin edge of pain at his scalp line; there were drops of blood on the ground.

 

The massive metal form towered over him. It raised one sledge-hammer arm, and swung down with a wide arc. It hit him like a wrecking ball; hurling him across the hallway. His shoulder wrenched unnaturally as he crashed against the opposite wall.

 

Riley flailed at his attacker's legs from low on the ground. His last chance: he would try to throw it off balance. He'd lost the focused energy around his fists, and his electricity was sputtering. With his last desperate hope he tried to bring the armored monster crashing down.

The cyborg swatted him away like a fly. The hammers come down again, pounding him into the wall. Each vicious blow rained down a new layer of agony. His ribs creaking like brittle branches, his final strength used to protect his face with his hands. A glancing blow to his skull, and his head rebounded against the wall.

 

Light flashed behind his eyes.

 

He felt stretched thin, like reality had twisted and started to unravel as the circuits in his brain systematically shut off. He blinked and found a hole in his vision, a pocket of inky clouds growing more expansive by the second; and something else too, sinuous like a tattooed serpent, blending with the darkness.

 

Pain was receding into silent numbness. Riley fought frantically for any remaining thread of consciousness. He wasn't going to die like this. He wouldn't let himself die like this. Grasping, clawing, he found a strand of old memory buried deep: like a lifeline, like a garrote, cutting into him as the black curtain closed.

"No" he breathed "Don't show me this. I don't want to see this."

***********


He was a child again, ten years old, and he was blind, petrified in the darkness. He'd gotten into a fight; a scrape with another boy from his neighborhood. Insolent and furious, he'd been locked in the unfinished basement, with his mother's promise that he'd be dealt with later, when his father came home.

He'd hugged his knees, shaking. She knew: knew he was afraid of the dark, knew it would halt his rage and shut him up. The blackness had devoured him; thick and heavy and terrible. He'd imagined the gloom coiling and reaching for him, taking root and boring into him. Fear was a high-pitched keening noise whistled with every shuddering breath.

There was a lonely smell of naked earth and mothballs in the stagnant air. He was lost in a cavern; buried alive under smothering darkness. He'd wondered if he'd be forgotten, left there forever. Would he even be missed? He'd bitten down on his lip, sobbing silently, until he tasted blood.

 

Another memory grasped him; stronger, more distinct; electrified filament throttling him.

 

Riley was fifteen and he could feel the storm. He was sitting on the roof above his bedroom window, legs dangling off the side in the raging wind. Rain had soaked him to the skin, but he'd barely noticed. The raw energy of the thunder, the lightning: something was stirring there and it was calling him.

The gathering storm had been making him edgy all day. He'd been distracted in school, and an hour late getting home because he'd missed his bus stop. His mother had cornered him, yelled at him, told him to go to his room--he was grounded. He'd bristled and shouted back "Yeah well I don't care what you think!"

 

Then she'd grabbed a fistful of his shirt collar and hissed in his ear "You little freak. You think anyone is ever going to care about you boy?"

 

She thrust him away and stalked off; and Riley had looked up imploringly at his father with wet eyes. His father had only offered an annoyed shrug.

Stomping up to his room, he'd been hurt, fuming, and thinking bleakly that he really did feel like a freak today. What kind of freak got so stressed out about storm clouds and electric-charged air? He'd paced and kicked at the walls and furniture until he heard a warning shout from downstairs. He'd stopped, but couldn't calm down: couldn't do school work, couldn't distract himself with comic books, couldn't sit still. When he couldn't sleep, he'd decided to climb out on the roof.

He inhaled the storm, feeling a bizarre sense of kinship with it as lightning flashed overhead. The smell and sounds, and even the taste in the air were exhilarating. Riley remembered that he'd wanted desperately to be inside the storm, to become the storm.

He knew, from foreboding slivers of conscious thought, where this was leading him. Two years, ago he had become the storm.

 

By then his parents had disposed of their unwanted offspring by selling him off to the Family. Ostensibly it was an agreement to resolve a debt, but he’d known his own family would be happier without him. He hadn't understood what the mobsters wanted from him though--just that their heavy-handedness and his adolescent defiance didn't mix well.

 

Then some dormant, restless and volatile thing within him had finally snapped.

 

The storm he'd craved was an awakening vengeance from deep beneath his skin; and he was left convulsing on the floor. The ground heaved under him, kicking him as he jerked spasmodically; his spine brutally twisted and splintering with pain. He'd become the storm and it was eating him alive.

 

He screamed--a shrill and feral sound--until his throat was scraped dry, and his lips peeled back from electrified teeth. Pulsing electrical charges burned his pores; like being flogged with a thousand tiny live wires. A white haze, cramping and scorching, was punctuated by bright bursts of light. His senses had melted and warped around him. He could taste only dull metallic madness under his fevered breath; he could smell only a ruin of ozone and charred flesh.

 

From somewhere instinctive, he knew the broiled flesh was not his own. There was a second body on the floor, with smoking blistered skin and locked in rigid finality. An image slicing past his animal hindbrain like a razor: one of Verandi's lieutenants had hit him, fist to his jaw, over some small perceived disrespect. He'd fallen hard, and then what? Somehow he'd exploded in a squall of power and killed the man?

 

His body convulsed as if possessed by a broken drumbeat. There were heavy boots coming, a growing rumble in the floorboards. Then harsh voices shouting; Verandi's men, they would kill him over this.

 

Unwelcome hands on him, thick gloves. He wanted to scream "don't touch me!" but it was lost, choked in foamy spittle. He tried to bite them instead.

 

There were more hands grabbing him roughly, vice grips on his shoulders and ankles. A backlash of power cut a cruel arch in his spine. A voice from above--Verandi himself--barked sharp commands. They rolled him on his side, held him down. One gloved hand at his throat forced his head back, another jerked at his waistband. Then the stab of a needle in his buttock, and he was being swallowed by a deep void. 

The threatening darkness became a serpent--black ink with forked tongue and laughing eyes. Riley caught it in one fist and crushed it. Now he had possession of his mind again, and he was seething white-hot anger.

 

The Australian sorcerer was standing before him, tattooed arms crossed casually.

Riley advanced on him and growled through bared teeth "I said—"

 

"I DON'T WANT TO SEE THIS!"

 

The memories were like weeping scars; memories he would kill over, sooner than relive.

The man's maddening grin answered him. "Just because you don't want to see it, doesn't mean other blokes can't. And it doesn't mean they won't use it against you."

"Like you are now?" he snarled.

"This?" The Australian raised his eyebrows and cocked his thumb back at himself. "This is friendly advice mate."

 

His hand made a sweeping gesture, which ended in a finger pointed at Riley. "Now all this other bloody mess in your head, that’s a real beaut. You can barely fight when it counts, and you’re crazy if you think no one sees it.”   

The sorcerer's words had weight, they bore down on his heightened senses; and infuriating though they were, they weren’t wrong.

Riley's world ground to a halt. His heart was pumping hard; he could feel it through his white-knuckled clenched fists. His eyes narrowed to pinpricks of green firelight. Think. You are not an animal. Think God damn it.

Who knows you, why would they use anything against you? Antonio? Not without reason at least, but maybe there was someone else involved.

Maybe someone who's business it was to know things. Someone who was selling information: who probably had, buried in his files, a story about a boy who'd killed a seasoned gangster in a furious explosion of electricity—and that boy's undefeated arena record.

Antonio's words came back to him: Rizetti had been wrong one to many times. That was why Drea had finally given up his source; the informant had been giving bad advice. Had Antonio manipulated the circumstances, used the spy's knowledge against him, and made that advice bad?

Wagers on arena fights could be big business. Riley wondered how much money Drea had lost.

He'd been set up. He knew it with stubborn certainty. Pitting him against magic and mind control would look like a sure-fire defeat to anyone who knew him. Doubtful it had been malicious, but rather he'd been used as a pawn—which felt somehow worse. And Antonio's bet, he could guess what that was: probably a test of his ability to pull himself together.

Riley took a deep caustic breath, and exhaled with a snort.

You used to get angry like this. What happened? Did they beat it out of you? Or dissolve it slowly? Somewhere over the years, it had been grudgingly replaced with fear and self-doubt, and a fragile illusion of discipline.

He touched his brow and his hand came back sticky crimson. The vision was fading, the harsh retrospective that was his life. And what was he left with? Anger and blood: coating his fingers and running through his veins.

 

Maybe that was enough. His blood—his mutant blood—that he had railed against so many times. The memory of its taste burned sweet and salty. He knew with grim determination that his fate would never be found in star signs, or some long-forgotten prophecy. It had been etched in his blood before he was born; and that was where he would have to find it.

 

He would stand up and face the Freakshow monstrosity. He would take it apart piece by piece if he had to. Then, he promised himself, after this business was done, he would have a talk with Antonio.

 

Riley mouthed the words "thank you" at his last fleeting image of the tattooed sorcerer.

 

Then, with a howl of fury and hunter-sharp senses, he was back in the office building and leaping to his feet through a cloud of pain. There was blood spray, seeping into a cracked indentation in the wall, a souvenir of his body's impact. There was more blood running down his face. Lashing tongues of electricity turned scarlet where they met his blood—scarlet like his hair, scarlet like his rage.

 

He couldn't have been down long: a couple minutes at most, though it felt like longer. The cyborg tank must have left him for dead. He could hear its mechanical bulk moving through the next room. It would be heading for Antonio, and there was still enough time to catch it.

 

He followed its sound. He dashed after it, electricity singing in his brain like a rising red tide. His powers had never quite obeyed the pleas of his rational mind, but they would obey his anger.

 

Riley ran past the wreckage of the grenade blast: scorched carpet, wallpaper, damaged office equipment. He paused to retrieve the gun. The steel-plated form was ahead of him, back turned, moving rapidly despite its size. He hurled the gun like a cruel joke. It struck the Freak's armored carapace with a metallic clang. The cyborg turned ponderously toward him.

 

A challenging roar loosed from his throat before he leapt at monster. He struck it square in the chest, with the raw force of hammer against anvil. Sparks flew from his energy-hardened fists. Now he could stun it.

 

He went for the head again; this time with more force, more focus. Base instinct told him to smash it, before it could react, raise those deadly hammers. A thundering need demanding fulfillment; wrath fueled his arms, his fists, until the cyborg buckled beneath him.

 

Riley stepped back as the Freak collapsed on the ground. His eyes, emerald scorn in a rivulet of blood, studied its prone bulk.

 

He waited a full minute, and almost turned to leave when he heard a familiar loud snap of electricity from the massive metal form. It was getting back up. He scowled. You didn’t really think it would be that easy did you?

 

The cyborg rose to its feet again, electricity scuttling around it.

 

Riley straightened his back and faced it. He knew detachedly that his body was screaming in agony underneath the adrenaline. There would be a price to be paid later, but right now it was just more fuel for his burning core. He’d found a place of savage harmony and embraced it: a knife-point where hurt and power and blood and anger had all mingled and become a single urgent drive.

 

The hammers clapped together with a sonic tremor. This time he was ready for it. He dropped to a low crouch as the shockwave hit him. It threw him backwards, but he landed balancing on the balls of his feet, taking the impact in his haunches. His hackles were raised. He charged forward.

 

The Freak brought its sledgehammer arms up defensively. It was ready for him too. It wouldn't let him at its head again easily. Sharp metal appendages were moving behind it—rising off its shoulders. It was bringing out heavier weaponry.

 

Riley changed course, veering to the side and then behind the monster. He had a storm in his veins, electrical current in his nerves. He was lightning-quick, while the cyborg was confined in a steel shell. He wouldn't give it an easy target.

 

Keep circling, stay behind it. There was a drumbeat in his blood, furious and resonating.

 

A mechanical whirr launched a spinning saw-disc from a shuttered opening in the Freak's shoulder.  He skirted its trajectory easily. The razor-sharp wheel lodged in the wall. A hammer spun at him, but it was laboriously slow. He moved out of its arc.

 

Riley could see gaps between steel plates: chinks in the armor at the monster’s joints. He dove low for the cyborg’s knees—but he underestimated the thing’s momentum.

 

A hammer slammed into his side, knocking him away with a spray of sparks, a bright wash of new pain. A split second and he was on his feet again, fierce and delirious with rage. A low murmur of a growl was rising in the back of his throat.

 

He lunged headlong at the Freak’s legs again. Crashing into its knees with a violent tackle, he threw a brutal jab at the joints in the metal shell. What was under there? Human flesh, muscles, ligaments? Or delicate robotics? It didn’t matter, and whatever it was, the massive, top heavy form was finally loosing its balance.

 

The leg was folding. He threw his weight against it, felling it like a tree. The cyborg collided with ground in a peal of thunder.

 

Riley was on top of it, pounding his fists’ blistering energy into the monster’s armored chest. He was a frenzy of spitting, hissing blood-red electricity; grappling with the Freak, crushing through steel plates. Layers of metal, circuit boards, and creaking fiber optics gave way under his fury. His powers were a bloated, riotous electrical storm, filling the room with scarlet chaos.

 

He was on the verge of splitting from the seams when he finally stopped himself. The air was heavy with the taste of smoke, an acrid smell of burning metal. He was left exhausted and empty, straddling the cyborg’s ruined form, breathing its defeat.

 

Now the pain was creeping back, sinking its hooks into him.  He felt feverish, light-headed. There was barbed wire constricting his chest, and a spike driving into his forehead. His hands were cracked and blistered; red and white patches of scaly broken skin.

 

An itinerant thought ran through his weary mind. The first thing he would do, when this was all over, was to buy some insulated gloves.

 

Riley grabbed one of the Freak's spire-like metal appendages for leverage, and forced himself to his feet. There were thorns tugging at his guts, claws digging furrows in his ribs. He swayed on his feet. Smoke in the air, in his eyes—he should find Antonio and get out of here.

 

He stumbled through another door, another hallway. Staggering, he leaned against a wall. You're almost there. Only a little further. He dragged himself agonizingly closer to a smoky office doorway.

 

Then Antonio was stepping through the smoke, with a grim expression and carrying a laptop computer under one arm.

 

Riley was close now. He felt a wave of heat. His gaze traveled past Antonio, and into the room. A room full of computer equipment and smoldering fire—Antonio had likely ignited the flames.

 

There was a figure there, hanging grotesquely like a broken marionette, pinned against a tall bookshelf. A crumpled face, eyes bugging out, throat crushed. There was a silver plate covering half of the man's shaved head: swollen skin and protruding electronic nodes. Twisted cables hung from jacks in the skull, swaying in the rising heat. Stunted cybernetic limbs attached to the body, crooked and vestigial. The mechanical appendages were still twitching like a dying insect. Smell of cooking flesh and metal.

 

The scene was too much—too intense, too much pain.

 

He doubled over, gorge rising, dry retching. A throbbing pulse caved in his knees, and then carried him to the floor.

Riley was vaguely aware of Antonio standing over him, pulling him to his feet—his weight heavy against Antonio's shoulder. The mobster's rough voice:

"Get your feet under you Reid. I ain't gonna carry you."

He must have dragged him back to the car though. Riley remembered only that each step was swaying sightless torment, except for Antonio's solid form—which was an anchor in a mad sea. When he fell across the leather car seat, he knew it was over, and the depths claimed him mercifully.

 

***********

 

Riley awoke gradually to dim grey light. His eyes were gritty and raw, like they'd been coated with sand. His body was a web of pain.

 

He was alone in his apartment, lying on his own bed. Someone had removed his shirt and taped up his ribs—probably Verandi's pet doctor. Mottled patches of purple and yellow across his chest, like he'd met the wrong end of a meat tenderizer.

 

He touched his face: tender, bruised but no blood. There were stitches at his scalp line though; a small wound that probably wouldn't even leave a scar. The damage would heal, he was mostly unscathed.

 

Images of the broken ex-mobster swam through his head—a budding cyborg, covered in fresh implants. Antonio hadn't wanted him there while he tortured the man; downloaded his brain or whatever he'd been doing. It was just as well. What little Riley had seen would stay with him, filed away in his subconscious. It would be another nightmarish memory to add to his collection.

 

He sat up gingerly, wincing. His fingers found the glossy surface of a playing card stuck to his back. It must have come loose when they'd undressed him and dumped him in bed. He peeled it away from the dried sweat of his skin, and studied it.

 

The card was as enigmatic as its owner, but he thought he understood it now. It held no power of its own. It was a mark of a newly forged relationship, like a calling card. Maybe it was even an offering of friendship.

 

Riley imagined the tattooed Australian sorcerer, all cocky stance and wicked grin, holding a deck like a stack of business cards. A wizard's card would be a gift rarely given, a symbol deserving of respect. He placed it carefully on the crate at his bedside.

 

His cell phone was lying there too, where he'd forgotten it earlier—it felt like ages ago. Next to it, sat a bottle of pain pills. Someone must have left them for him, knowing how much he'd hurt when he woke up.

 

He weighed the phone and the bottle of pills, one in each hand. His left hand promised pleasant benumbed sleep, his right only an uncomfortable conversation. He flipped open the phone and dialed. He needed to talk to Antonio.

 

"Yeah?" The veteran mobster's greeting was curt.

 

Riley was too drained to waste time with trivialities. He would just have to get this over with.

 

"So, did you win your bet?"

 

There was a long pause, then what sounded almost like a hint of pride in Antonio's voice.

 

"Yeah kid. You did good. You think you can handle more jobs like that Reid?"

 

The answer came easily to him, like second nature. Riley felt the anger, a low simmer in his blood. He could remain civil when it suited him, but when he called it, it would be there waiting. It would come to a boil at his command, along with his powers, which would obey.

 

"Yes. I'm fine. I found something that works."

 

Then because he needed to raise the stakes, show Antonio he wasn't stupid, wasn't a mere pawn:

 

"It's too bad all that information Marcone wanted burned up in a fire."

 

"Yeah. That's a real shame, ain't it?"

 

Image of the mobster carrying a laptop out of a burning office—Antonio would never admit his motivation, but Riley knew. He knew, and the knowledge gave him strength.

 

"Look Antonio, I'll fight for you and Verandi. I'll kill for you guys. But I'm not going to be your pet dog. You need to tell me upfront if something like this comes up again."

 

There, he’d said it. His demand hung in the air for long heartbeats before Antonio answered.

 

"Ok Reid, maybe you earned the right to say that. You'll know as much as Verandi's other guys."

 

Antonio's words were calm and calculated, and promised nothing; but they took him seriously, and that was enough. It would have to be enough.

 

"Thanks."

 

He was answered by a click and dead air. The conversation was over.

 

He’d never challenged Antonio before, about anything. Maybe it was time. Maybe he needed to for the sake of preserving his self-respect. The mobsters would treat him like property if he let them—valuable property, but property none the less. He couldn't blame them for manipulating him if he allowed it.

 

The tattooed sorcerer had warned him; told him that Antonio “kept his cards close to his chest.” That was probably true. But everyone had secrets didn't they? He had his own too, and he would keep them more carefully guarded in the future.

 

Riley stood up stiffly, one palm braced against his tortured ribs. He closed his eyes and ran his other hand through his hair. There was matted blood on his scalp, and a familiar sting, like saw-grass in a lightning storm. It bit at his blistered fingers, welcoming him home.

 

You're still alive and kicking Riley. This was looking like a good day so far.

 

He tossed the pain pills in the trash as he headed for the shower.

 

 

*****The End*****

 

 

There you have the events wherein Riley Reid (later known as Payback in Spades, for reasons outside the scope of this story) met his lifelong friend, who he came to call Stack of Cards. In the time that followed, Riley saw less of Antonio. They still met weekly over dinner to discuss Family business, new jobs, and occasionally Riley's powers. However, they traveled in different circles. Riley became entrenched in the Port Oakes scene and Antonio had farther reaching pursuits.

 

Riley never told Antonio that he'd met the tattooed sorcerer again--outside the arena where Antonio had arranged their first meeting. But he did tell Stack all about Antonio. To this day, Riley and Stack are the only two people alive who know about Antonio's stolen cache of information: a database containing many names, some prominent, some incidental, some cloaked in secrecy.

 

If you were to run into the two of them today, you would find that Riley still has his wild red hair, intense red lightning, and knows when to let loose his fierce red temper. Stack still has his wicked grin, biting wit, and of course, his bewitching tattoos. Together they are formidable foes.

 

Finally, if you managed to catch Riley during one of the rare moments where he might discuss his past, he would say that though he resents much of it, even detests parts of it, he doesn't know where he would change it. It is too much a part of him, too entwined in his being, and it could never be cut away without diminishing the rest.






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