They want what we have. The denizens of the Great Below care little for the humans of the Infinite Above except as providers, as resources, as dogs or toys or tools. They rape and kill and feed. They drink our pain, supping at it like we’re each an endless goblet of wine and blood. But we are not endless. We can be used up. And they don’t care, for they are predators and parasites to the last. This is why the intersection of our world and theirs is found most cleanly in the places where the mythic and monstrous Underworld clashes with the more criminal one. For the criminals – organized crime and violent gangs and the whole miscellaneous lot of murderers and human monsters – feed on us the same way. Another set of parasites and predators. And so it falls to these criminals, the most selfish among us, to act against the terrors that lurk and writhe in the darkest chambers of the Earth’s own ugly heart.
– From the Journals of John Atticus Oakes, Cartographer of the Great Below
This, then, is Mookie Pearl.
He’s a high wall of flesh stuffed into a white wife-beater stained with brown (once red), a man whose big bones are wreathed in fat and gristle and muscle and sealed tight in a final layer of scar-tissue skin. At the top of his ox-yoke shoulders sits a head like a wrecking ball with black eyes and shorn scalp and a mouth full of teeth that look like white pebbles fished from a dark river. He’s got hands that could break a horse’s neck. He’s got Frankenstein feet and a Godzilla hunch.
He’s built like a brick shithouse made of a hundred smaller brick shithouses.
Mookie the Mook. Mookie the Meat-Man. Mookie the Monster.
Butcher. Bruiser. Breaker of legs. Some legs human. Most not.
Some call him “Mook.” Most don’t call him anything.
Tonight and every night he’s scarred up like the walls of his bar. The walls are carved with names, and Mookie’s carved with the scratches and teeth-marks of subterranean monsters, monsters who wanted to take what he earned: a shipment of the Blue stuff.
They tried. They died.
He rounds the bar, pops the door on a micro-fridge beneath it. Pulls out a paper plate covered in plastic wrap. The oaken bartop’s got the texture of an old cowboy’s face: creases and canyons in the dark wood. He sets the plate down.
This is Mookie’s bar. He is its sole employee. He is its only customer.
It’s also the place he calls home.
Mookie feels old. Every one of his forty-some years on this Earth have come back to haunt him, each bringing another friend – the age is settling into his bones like a cold damp, the years chewing at his joints like rats eating wires.
He reaches up, grabs a bottle of cheap vodka. Most of the liquor behind the bar is firewater. Bad Polish vodkas and off-off-brand tequilas. But there are a few bottles of good stuff, too. Basil Hayden’s bourbon. Bluecoat gin. Macallen 18, a Balvenie Madeira cask, a Laphroaig 18-year. Somewhere in the back, a bottle of Pappy van Winkle. None of that tonight. He won the day, but it feels hollow. No celebration here.
Mookie sits. Spins the cap off the bottle. Pries the plastic wrap off the plate with a delicateness one would not suspect of his thick, callus-upon-callus fingers. But it’s surgical the way he pulls it off, folds it once over, then twice, before revealing the whole of the plate.
Before him, a variety of meats. A soft square of rabbit galantine. An oily circle of salumi. A couple cold blood sausages, each as black as the Devil in the night. Far end of the plate is his favorite: lardo. Chilled, cured fatback.
There exists a moment when he stares down at the array of charcuterie – meats he prepared himself in an act that brings him peace and satisfaction in this violent life – when the pain almost overwhelms him. It’s not the physical pain, though that’s most certainly there, what with the scabbed knuckles and the fat lip and all the other bumps and cuts and pummeled flesh.
This pain runs deeper. His heart a puddle of slushy water that hides an endless well of regret. His heart hurts. It hurts into his stomach and his lungs, makes it hard to breathe, makes it hard to eat. He breathes deep through his nose, then pops the lardo in his mouth–
The hurt fades. The fat melts on his tongue. Salty and sweet. Faintly herby. A true cold comfort, melting over teeth and gums. Eyes closed. Boulder head rolling back on mountain shoulders. He moans. He can’t help it. One of the few things he truly enjoys: the preparation and the consumption. He’s lost to it. He can feel it in his toes.
His phone rings.
And like that, the moment is ruined. A kite that comes crashing down to earth. Caught in briar. Dashed on rocks.
Mookie palms the phone in his pocket, brings the tiny digital brick to his ear. “Yeah?”
It’s Werth. The old goat.
“How’d it go?” Werth asks, stepping across all the pleasantries, which is what Mookie prefers anyway. “It get done?”
“It always gets done.” Mookie looks down at the knuckles on his left hand. As he flexes, scabs split. Red runs fresh. He rolls those knuckles on a bar napkin. “I ran into problems.”
“There’s always problems. What kind?”
“The gobbos. They’re all riled up. Like wasps that know winter’s coming.”
Werth is silent for a moment. “Was bound to happen.”
“Yeah. But this is different. They’re agitated.”
“But the shipment’s good?”
“Good. Good. Real fuckin’ good. Hey. The Boss wants to see everybody.”
The Boss. The big man at the top. Konrad Zoladski. He’s been out-of-sight for the better part of a year, now.
A spike of worry lances through Mook’s chest. “Why?”
“Tomorrow morning. You want me to pick you up? I’ll bring the car.”
“No. I’ll take the train.”
“Call me when you’re in the city. I’ll text you the address when you get here. I need you to dress like a…”
Werth keeps talking, but Mookie stops listening.
Because he smells something.
He smells flowers.
The bundled flesh at the back of his neck prickles and turns to chicken-skin. That scent crawls into his nose. All-too-familiar.
“Did you hear me?” Werth says on the other end. “I said, don’t dress like a thug tomorrow. I need you to dress like a professional. Put on a fuckin’ shirt. Something with buttons. Definitely nothing with bloodstains on it. Hey. Mook?”
“I gotta go.”
“Hey, goddamnit, I’m talking to you–”
“I’m tired,” is all Mookie says.
Then Mookie ends the call with a punch of his thumb.
He slides off the barstool. Big boots make the floorboards whine.
That smell again. Like snippets of a melody in the air, a song you know but thought you’d forgotten, a song whose sound conjures memories of long ago.
“Nora,” he says. Voice a croak. “I know you’re here.”
From the back booth, a shuffle of a heel scuffing the floor.
But nobody’s there.
Until she is. One minute: nothing. The next, Nora stands there like she was nevernot there. That smile, curled up at one corner like it’s tugged by a fish-hook. Those eyes, mean and bright like match-tips at the moment of striking. Chestnut hair down over her shoulders, longer than Mookie remembers it.
She appears, plucking something out from under her tongue. He doesn’t see what.
She still looks like a schoolgirl. Tartan skirt. Blue cardigan. It’s her look these days.
“Nora.” He feels like a tree hollowed out by termites. Ready to fall in a stiff wind.
“Don’t. Don’t do that to me. Please.”
Her eyes flash: sympathy? Pity? Something more sinister. “Fine. Daddy.”
He lets out the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. Another whiff of perfume–
A little girl, brown hair a mess, squealing as Daddy bounces her on his knee, each squeal interrupted by each bounce – “Eee! Eee! EEE!” The same little girl, a little older now, crying and hiding under her bed as Mommy and Daddy scream at one another and throw lamps and then Mommy stabs Daddy with a fork and Daddy punches an old microwave into a lump of glass and metal and sparking circuitry. The little girl, not little at all now, watching out her window as Daddy goes back to the city, both of them knowing it’ll be months before they see one another again, and truth be told, even that’s being optimistic. Finally, the little girl mostly-grown-up, with a revolver in her hand, a smudge of blue at her temples, a wicked boomerang smile on her once sweet face.
Behind him, his cell phone on the bar top vibrates across the wood. Vbbbbt. Vbbbbt. Werth again. Mookie grabs it, turns it off. Wings it back onto the bar. Never once taking his eyes off Nora.
He says, “Maybe I should call you – what is it they call you?”
“Persephone.” A flicker of amusement in her face.
“Yeah.” That’s the name she’s been going by on the streets. “Why that name, exactly?”
“Uh-huh. At least you didn’t bring a gun this time.”
She shrugs. “Decided I didn’t need it. I know where we stand.”
“You know.” A wink. She goes to the bar, curls the tip of a red Converse Hi-Top around a stool-leg and pulls it to her. She sits on it, slumps forward: the posture of a surly teen. And that, Mookie has to remind himself, is what she is: a surly, pouty, pissy, mean-ass, don’t-give-a-shit-about-nobody-but-herself teen.
Or is that underestimating her? A year ago she shows up, tricks Mookie into clearing out a major nest of goblins and leaving their stash of Blue untended so she can steal it, then shows up at the bar and shoots Werth in the gut? Then she sets up shop in the city, paying off players and buying up resources with money that couldn’t have come from the Blue she’d just stolen. Suddenly: Mookie’s own daughter, a new player in town. One who doesn’t play by the Organization rules. A constant thorn in everybody’s paw. Depending on who you ask, she’s either a cryptic mastermind or a talented – and lucky – amateur. Mookie’s not sure which it is.
Nobody in the Organization knows who she is to him. Nobody but Werth.
“How’d you hide from me?” he asks, standing there in the middle of the floor, feeling like a broken thumb.
She shrugs. Coy. Playful.
He takes a guess. “Snakeface trick. Gotta be.”
Nora grins a Cheshire Cat grin – as a girl he rarely saw her smile and even this one doesn’t seem all that happy. She always was a good actress.
“Got it in one, Daddy-o.”
Daddy-o. So she has been hanging out with the Get-Em-Girls. “Why are you here, Nora? Ain’t safe.” He starts to feel weird. Dizzy in her presence.
“I’m always safe with you around.” She twirls her hair. “I want to put my offer on the table one last time.”
“Not workin’ for you, Nora. I got people. I got loyalties.”
“Your ‘people’ don’t know what’s coming.”
“And you do?”
“Maybe I do. And maybe I’m giving you a chance to be on the winning side of things. Because it’s all gonna fall apart and if you don’t move from where you’re standing? You’ll be underneath it when it does.”
He snorts. “You gotta lotta nerve, little girl. Last I checked your apple had lost its shine.” That isn’t just him being cocky. Her stock has dropped in the city. She made her move and for a while it worked, but the gobbos came back, the gangs got her measure, the Boss made his own play to block her at every turn. He bought back her allies. Killed a few of her customers. Her circle of influence is growing ever tighter. Nora – Persephone – doesn’t have much left. “Go home. Go back to your mother. Quit playing like you’re a gangster. You don’t have it. We both know you just did it to piss me off.”
The smile falls away like the last leaf off an autumn tree.
“Why I do what I do isn’t your concern. I’m here offering you a chance.”
“I’m good where I’m at.”
“Something you ought to know about Zoladski.”
The Boss. You didn’t say his name out loud. Not if you worked for him. Not if you didn’t want to end up in the river.
“I know all I need to know,” he says.
“Then you know he’s dying.”
That hits Mookie like an ice-ball to the face. He flinches. “What?”
“Cancer. The real bad kind. His expiration date is coming up fast.”
“How do you know this?”
Mischievous twinkle. “What can I say? I’m good.”
“That too.” She shrugs. “But you’re not exactly a boy scout, Daddy.”
“I do what I have to do.”
She taps her temple then. A sign. A gesture from one Blazehead to another. That kills him. That little acknowledgement – a recognition of a shared sin – cuts all the way through the fat and meat and gristle.
“Hey, we are who we are, Daddy. We all have our roles to play. I just thought you’d like one last chance to get onboard. Boat’s leaving. Once it’s out of port, you’ll be shit out of luck, old man. Stuck on shore as the world burns.”
“I told you, Eleanor. Go home. I know your mother misses you.”
Nora bristles. Goes quiet for a few moments and her gaze is a pair of hot pins through his eyes. Again he feels dizzy – sick, too. Nora unmoors him but this is different. Something’s wrong.
“You don’t know anything about Mom,” Nora hisses. “You never did.” Those words, dripping with poison, like a sponge soaked in snake venom. “You don’t look so hot. How was the lardo?” At first he thinks she cares, but then he sees her lips tug into another smile.
“You…” He can barely find his words. Snake venom.
“Poisoned you?” She laughs. “Just a little.”
He tries to step forward. His leg doesn’t comply. It feels mushy. Like a rubber band dangling.
“Something big is coming, Mookie. I’m going to change the game.” Nora waggles her fingers. She mouths, “Buh-bye.”
Then Mookie drops like a hammer-struck bull.
The Blue Blazes © Chuck Wendig 2013