There were a lot of private places in Old Town. Places where a man could work, or have his fun. Little spaces tucked away in abandoned houses and hotels, all of which could be made serviceable with the addition of a few accoutrements: a large tub, some candles, a generator, a sturdy bed frame - preferably a four-poster, ropes, plastic sheeting, and of course, duct tape. Old Town was the spot for tonight, everything had been arranged, although, maybe for the last time. Things were starting to get too crowded for recreation. Sad, but no bother. There were plenty other places a fellow could go.
Cartwright stood over the creaking bed and rotten mattress, absentmindedly wiping his blade, considering his possibilities. You stalk, you grab, you deliver. That was the job, but the rules had gaps and you could squeeze a lot in those gaps with the right imagination. The boss liked the prime cuts, but he was a choice man himself. How you cut depended on the meat and you didn’t always know what you had until you got close. The variety kept things fresh, even after so many years.
The shiny, straight blade with its mother of pearl handle had a magical look about it. It had taken a while to find Jack. Cartwright had spent days wandering in and out of pawn shops and antique stores with his sad, rusty switchblade hiding in his pocket, ready to retire. He didn’t want one of those cheap bastards flooding the online shops. He wanted a real one, handmade and perfectly balanced, something that fit the curve of his palm and the length of his fingers, and that was Jack. Jack’s hilt was engraved with small circles representing the lunar cycle, ever waxing or waning, depending on your perspective. The depth of his inlay was mesmerizing, the play as he rolled in the light, one could find themselves lost for hours in his charms.
The terror of the woman tied artfully to the bed still raised the fire in his blood. It’s funny how some things are just a part of you, how you gravitate towards ‘em, often without realization, or even with denial, but they always hang about. Like the whore who couldn’t close her legs, or the drunk who drowns himself in ale. Cartwright never had a problem with whores or ale, and he hated seeing so much potential squashed under the ‘Good’ Book. Most had shaken the damn thing before Rapture, but there was nothing like a plague to bring fuckin’ God back to life.
There were a lot of gods, but he’d only sampled two or three. Jesus was Cartwright’s first go, and He seemed a reasonable fellow. You could get away with almost anything if you were willing to pray about it once or twice a week, but He never grasped the quid pro quo. Take Communion. It had never done anything for him. He’d found power in blood, power in the carving, but bread and wine were a poor substitute. Cartwright couldn’t help but wonder if he had a bight of the real Chap if it wouldn’t have given him the power of the Apostles? Academic at this point. No matter how thinly the Christians sliced Him there wouldn’t be a morsel left by now.
Cartwright had almost settled on the primal cut when his phone began to ring. With a fierce disgruntled groan he walked to the rickety table where the tiny buzzing intruder flashed and begged for his attention. Bringing the phone to his ear, his face immediately turned to violence, his fist clenching reflexively, crushing the folded blade so hard his knuckles popped with a loud snap, the angry sound of Jack fighting back against the misdirected rage.
“Cartwright, here.” His voice was incredibly restrained given the obvious fury in his body. He listened with the patience of a consummate professional, before eventually saying the only thing a true professional could say.
“All right, on my way.”
And with that, the call was over. He took a breath to calm himself, releasing Jack to find the small circles of the lunar cycle impressed on his palm.
Moving again to the bedside, Cartwright looked down at the missed opportunity, the tears streaming down her face.
“Well, love. Looks like it’s your lucky day.”
Cartwright flipped open the blade and with a single, surgical strike, Jack ended the life, her blood gushing, the eyes going dark.
“Huhm…off to work, then.”
Cartwright pulled his van into the loading bay at the back of a large warehouse. The van was modern and in good repair with the nondescript stylings one would associate with a tradesman or handyman. The Company found it prudent to rotate vehicles with newer models occasionally, in case any were tagged by nosy parkers. Cartwright had found no end of fun passionately extolling the virtues of whatever profession his van happened to feature that month, separating the canny from the mutenheads. With drones in high supply and surveillance everywhere, it didn’t pay to be sloppy, or follow a pattern, or do any of the normal things people fall into as creatures of habit.
The Lieutenant stood waiting for him, impatiently tapping her feet on the concrete dock. She was always like that. Lucky he wasn't late or he’d really get an earful. It’d be almost as bad if he’d been early.
Once the van was backed in and the doors opened, the deacons moved forward to retrieve their offerings. They were in plain-clothes today, their usual ceremonial robes would’ve just gotten in the way of the manual labor. Cartwright didn’t recognize any of ‘em. Much like the cars, they were on rotation. He didn’t know where the endless stream of ritual men came from exactly, but in a city like Delphi life was cheap, the desperation of those at the bottom meant deacons were a dime a dozen. Everybody had a sob story. Cartwright didn’t care. He’d heard ‘em all before.
One by one, black body bags were removed from the pile in the van and taken inside. The bodies had been frozen, most of ‘em, so the bags were rigid and heavy. Easier to move than a limp one and better smelling, to boot.
The Lieutenant moved forward to stand vigil over the process. She was a lass of thirty or so. Head to toe 168 centimeters of power suit wrapped soft skin, manicured nails, and long brown hair. Too bad she was such a bitch or they might have some fun.
The Lieutenant opened a bag and peered inside, checking the cargo.
“God, you’re one sick fuck.”
“The boss says I can do as I please, so long as I leave the important bits intact. I’ve been at this a while you know, and I know all the rules. Have it down to an art.”
“Jesus!” The woman exclaimed, unzipping another bag and glaring at its contents. Reaching in, she lifted out an arm, all the joints severed or broken and sewn together with thin, almost invisible string. The flesh was plasticized, dried like a mummy, only...fresher in some way that was hard to pin down.
Cartwright smiled as he watched the Lieutenant almost gagging at the sight. She didn’t have much weakness in her and never complained about getting her hands dirty, but it was nice to see that some piece of her was still human.
“What did you do to her?!”
Cartwright shook his head, the smile never leaving his face.
“Wasn’t me. Was that Other thing. I’ve been trying to tell you, things are getting weird out there and it’s worse by the day. You haven't seen half of what I’ve pulled out of Old Town. And now I think somebody's gotten wise.”
“Really, who? The police?” The Lieutenant dropped the arm back into the bag and leveled Cartwright with a disapproving stare.
“Don't think so. Some skinny fellow in a suit. Seems like he’s always right on top of me. I’ve tried to get him twice now, but he’s luckier than a five footed rabbit.
“Okay, I’ll look into it. In the meantime, the boss has asked us to provide our guest with everything it needs. Don’t forget.”
“Forget Lulu?” Cartwright said, reaching in and pulling out the plastic arm again to punctuate his point, “Not bloody likely!”
“Money isn’t your problem, Senator. You’ve put out more propaganda than any campaign in a generation, and you’re still not getting traction. If you think another ad or pamphlet is going to make a difference then you’ve been talking to the wrong people. You’re fighting tooth and nail for moderates and swing voters because you think those are the votes you can win. You make a token effort to mobilize new voters, but you don’t put much faith in that because that’s a war no one has won in a century. But even 5% of the nonvoting populace is enough to win any election in almost any jurisdiction. If you could get the potato off the couch it would be like printing votes, like pulling them out of thin air. That’s where I come in. I swing votes where I can and mobilize votes where I need to.”
Xavior Baines wasn’t in the habit of meeting like this. His position mandated a more hands-off approach. He’d become a master of delegation, by necessity rather than birth, but sometimes business allowed for face-to-face interaction, and he relished the chance to be center stage. Stupidity was one of humanities more irksome characteristics, and Senators were amongst its most adept practitioners, still, it was intoxicating having one of the world’s most powerful men grovel at his feet.
“And you expect me to just… believe you can do this? Based on what? I’ve no proof other than your word, and a handful of unsubstantiated analytics that are clearly tailored in your favor. You expect me to believe that you can just...” the Senator raised his hand and gave his fingers a snap, “Snap your fingers and I win.” Senator Perkins was a severe looking man, the wrinkles of his face set in layers that defined and magnified what Xavior suspected was an almost permanent frown. His hairline was a wave of steel gray that was undoubtedly surgically crafted and he sat in the leather armchair with an open, splayed posture that was almost presumptuous in polite company.
Xavior gave a smile and a single nod, which resulted in a rather bemused expression settling on the Senator’s face.
“Your friends sent you here for a reason. I deliver results. Five senators last year.”
Nice little trick that, couldn’t have done it a year ago.
“You’re asking for as much as my entire campaign up to this point. Even if I wanted to pay you, I couldn’t hide such a large transaction.”
Xavior adopted a patient tone. “Senator, I’m telling you there’s no other place the money can go, not if you want to win. Anything else would be just throwing it away. I’m not asking you to hide the money, that’s not the point, but if it makes you feel better, I can promise that nobody will look into that money. Did anybody ever ask about the seventy-five mill that vanished from Alcott's campaign?”
“...what seventy-five mil?”
“Ask him about it the next time you see him.”
The Senator's brow had begun to furrow in distracting fashion and was now so deep set, Xavior thought he could plant hedgerows in the trenches of the man’s forehead.
“How can I be sure you’ll deliver? You’re promising the moon, but I’ve yet to see anything that would convince me to take this leap of faith.”
Xavior could feel it now. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. The Senator was ready, the crackle of neurons sparking the path of decision.
The Senator might think he needed more information before making his decision. More data, more time, more input from his friends…but he was wrong. It was never his decision to begin with, it was forfeit the second he walked through the door.
“I thought the recommendation of your colleagues would carry more weight, but I understand your reticence. It is, after all, a lot of money. Maybe ask your friends at Vergeron what they think about my tactics.”
The Senator was shaking his head. “I know full well the results of last November, but no one on my team can verify you played a role in the elections. It’s far more likely you’re taking credit for a fluke and have managed to convince my colleagues of your involvement, though I don’t know how?”
“Senator, I would implore you to at least consider it. You’re going to spend that money anyway, trying to run a campaign doomed to failure. I’ve done my homework too. Your own analytics show you behind your opponent by at least nine percent in the jurisdictions necessary to win. Let’s be honest, you wouldn’t be here unless you were desperate. So please, take a moment to think about it. I guarantee you won’t regret it.”
The Senator’s face had settled into a kind of soft scowl, which seemed to be his neutral appearance. His eyes wandered from Xavier for a moment, a pensive expression appearing on his face. If the Senator accepted the proposal, Xavier had done his job. If the Senator was unsure, Xavior had done his job all the same. Uncertainty and indecision were his domain. Hesitation was like a door into someone's mind, someone standing on a beam, waiting to be pushed one way or the other, any way that Xavier pleased.
The instant the Senator’s mind flared Xavier struck, filling the gap between thoughts with his own will. The Senator sat for a moment dumb, his mouth hanging open like the bloated fish he was. When he returned, he’d made up his mind.
The Senator stood up and took Xavior’s hand in his own. “You’ve got a deal. I’ll have my accountants forward the necessities to you first thing in the morning.”
“No rush Senator. I know you’re good for it. And once you find yourself in that big white house, you can sit back and think about what a good decision you made today.”
With a nod that didn’t move a single hair out of place, the Senator made his exit and Xavior was alone with his thoughts, triumphant.
Xavier poured himself a well deserved drink - scotch, neat, in an Old Fashioned glass. The scotch was in good supply, but his distilled water, of all things, was empty. Not even the drop or two he needed to open the drink properly was left in the bottle. There was tap water, but unlike many others, Xavior could taste the chlorine strong enough in his nose to ruin what was otherwise a very fragrant vintage. He would suffer through, but you’d think seventy-five million would be enough to earn a man a god damn bottle of water.
The view from Xavior’s penthouse was always a breath of fresh air, especially at night when the slums of Delphi all but disappeared and the towering industry that made the city great took the spotlight. Thousands of tiny points of light, thousands of tiny thoughts buzzing and mixing with the city’s own beating heart to create the rhythm of power that dominated the world.
Suddenly, a sound tore the city skyline, a huge concussive boom that filled his ears and shook his body. All time seemed to slow as the energy passed through him. Xavior could almost see it, the wave, like an ocean of glass crashing against him. Then with a flash, time shot forward, as he watched Delphi changed, the sun rose and set a dozen times and then a hundred. Buildings aged, rising and falling with the years. His eyes felt like the eyes of God, as if he could see everything at once, as if all of creation were a tiny ball he could roll between his fingers. Another instant and it was gone. He was exhausted, his whole body limp. Xavior made his way to his desk as quickly as he could, rushing to sit before his feet came out from under him, dodging broken glass where his drink had fallen and shattered.
What just happened?
He needed it. He would never again be whole without it. All of existence had been his!
Xavior was only just getting his legs under him when the door opened and Lieutenant Lilith Morgan stepped in.
“All of the bodies for the ritual have been delivered. Some of them still need a little trimming, but that shouldn’t be an issue now that they're with the clergy.”
“...did you hear that?” Xavier asked, all but ignoring Lily’s report.
“That incredible sound… Never mind. If you’d heard it you would know.” Xavior stood and faced the window again, hoping for that wave to hit one more time.
“Are you okay? You’re a mess.”
“I’m alright. Did anything interesting happen tonight? Is it a special date? A holy day or a ritual I didn’t know about?
“Not that I’m aware of.” Lily looked worried and Xavior realized he must really look like shit. He straightened himself, running his fingers through his hair to let it settle back into its trained arrangement.
“Do me a favor. Dig around a little. See if anything noteworthy occurred anytime in the last 24 hours.”
“Is that it or are you going to give me a hint.”
“Sorry, I don’t know any more than that. I couldn’t give you a hint even if I wanted.”
Lily hesitated for a second and then gave a nod. She moved forward in the room and took the seat the Senator had vacated just a few minutes before.
“I spoke with Cartwright earlier. He says the situation in Old Town is escalating. He thinks someone’s on his tail.”
Xavior moved back into his chair and pulled two more glasses from his desk, pouring scotch into both and pushing one across the table.
“I’m honestly not surprised. We’ve worked hard to avoid suspicion, but this new thing has no subtlety about it. I’m amazed it’s remained hidden as long as it has.”
Lily took the glass and swished the contents around before taking a sip. “So what should we do?”
“Nothing for now. If our friend follows it’s pattern it will move on soon and everything will go back to normal. We’ll avoid Old Town for a bit and wait for the cases to go cold.”
Lily slammed the rest of her drink and put the glass back on the table with a loud plink. “Why do you put up with that twisted fuck anyways, Xave?”
Here we go again.
“He always fills his quota and he never gets caught. More than I can say for the rest of the ‘twisted fucks’.”
“What if Cartwright gets caught?” Lily sounded more hopeful than anything and it brought a smile to Xavior’s face.
“I’d hate to lose him, he’s a pro. But the organization will survive the loss of one soldier, even one so talented. See if we have anyone in the minors we can call up if things go wrong.”
“There are plenty of guys who would jump at the chance, but I doubt you’ll find anyone who can contain things if our friend decides to extend his stay.”
Xavior knew she was right, but he didn’t have a lot of options.
“There’s a chance the brother will come. If he does, we’ll try to make it his problem.”
“Do you really think he’ll show?”
“There’s no guarantee. Even if his curiosity gets the better of him I’ve been told he possess no sense of urgency.”