|23 | THE WOLF AND THE BARKING DOG|
Apollo disembarked the carriage as it came to an uneasy halt. It was far less sumptuous than the one that picked him up earlier today. The running board nearly snapped in half under his foot as he got off, and the seating was far from plush. The smell of cigarette smoke and some other unidentifiable odor was deeply rooted in the wood frame. And the driver had the nerve to try and charge him 100 bigs for the trip.
Apollo gave him 70 and told him to fuck off. Wisely, he did.
He came to a pause in front of his shop, looked left and right down the avenue, and laughed. No sign of any clean-up crew. Every shard of glass strewn across the entrance was right where he’d left them. Looking deeper inside, Apollo noticed the workshop door was lying on the floor. Sprinting through the shattered storefront, he raced into the workshop and breathed at least a partial sigh of relief.
The metalworking equipment and most of his tools were still there. The multi-spindle lathe was either too heavy to carry or the random scavengers that came to pick at his shop’s corpse had no idea what it was. Anyone that did know would’ve netted at least a tidy thousand bigs hawking it. Tipped over in the nearby corner, the green locker holding his personal arsenal was disfigured by numerous blunt impacts.
The janky padlock he’d forgotten time and again to replace had apparently done its job. Apollo silently prayed there was someone rushing back here with a pair of bolt cutters. Then, he’d have someone to take his anger out on.
Apollo moved into the store to survey the damage up close. Glass fragments from the under-counter displays were littered everywhere. Large rents, likely from a hammer or crowbar, were punched in the countertops and walls. The acrid scent of gasoline overwhelmed his olfactory. It was as if they were going to torch the place but decided to go easy on him.
Fortunate for Apollo, but a mistake on their part.
“Mercy” had vanished from his vocabulary. Astylos could call this “business” all he wanted. Apollo was on the war path now.
The old man knew Apollo better than he thought, though. Regardless of how pissed off he was, Apollo wasn’t about to crawl back to him and demand an actual repair crew. Stubborn pride wouldn’t allow it. This was slap in the face – his third one.
Not only that, but the flagship store in Excelsa was on their radar, as he’d figured. If Aeneas had any clue someone other than Calvinus’ goons was watching him, he would’ve told Apollo about it by now. Although, in light of recent revelations, to say they didn’t know what was going on at Gorgines’ old shop the entire time might’ve been an underestimation on his part.
Did they know about Calvinus? Was Astylos trying to run the same gambit on him here in Terminus?
Apollo looked over the documents on the ride home. Every page confirmed his suspicions. The old man wasn’t buying shelf space. Over three-quarters of the total goods on display would be Astylos-branded merchandise – firearms, ammunition, accessories, apparel, all of it. His own products would be lost in the shuffle, and his profits would be cut in half.
What Calvinus was doing seemed generous in comparison. And it was that pitiful thought that pushed Apollo over the edge.
A decade ago, both of them would be dead already. Astylos, Tycho, Calvinus, all of them, tied to ankle weights and thrown into the Copiae with a bullet in their stomachs to boot. It took everything in him not to return to his old ways. The image of that cold cell in the Arx still shook him down the bone. To their credit, it was an effective deterrent.
But, if this is how life worked on the right side of the law. . .
Getting caught simply wasn’t an option.
Aeneas slithered out the forest surrounding the formal garden and took cover behind a bush shorn to a conical shape. Holstering his pistol, he slung the double-barrel shotgun from his shoulder and clicked a small lever on the stock. Just as quickly as the shotgun hinged open, Aeneas folded it back shut; two cartridges chambered with a pocket-full more in his vest.
He peeked downrange at the manor. It sat on a plateau in the mountainside with a wide cleft in the elevation zigzagging up to the entrance. The building itself was essentially a box of beige bricks with a crimson roof. Vast but wholly ordinary as if it were a storehouse in a past life. There was no real cover between here and there, likely by design, save for a line of trees edging the garden. Aeneas swept the narrow windows on the first and second floors, but no light emanated from within. It was anyone’s guess as to whether the old man was even home.
Moreover, Aeneas wasn’t even sure where Apollo was.
A low whistle further downrange startled him. Aeneas looked left and right, but saw nothing. Suddenly, the narrow silhouette of one tree trunk jutted out as if sprouting an odd growth. From the growth, a thin stalk protruded with a smaller one underneath: a barrel and foregrip. It was him. Aeneas breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment, he thought it might’ve been a bark snare far from home.
Apollo held an arm up and made a chopping motion toward the manor. Aeneas shook his head, pointed two fingers at his eyes, and held his hands out, palms up. It was as close to “I can’t see shit” as he could think of on the fly. Neither of them moved for a moment, then Apollo suddenly burst from his position to the face of the zigzagging cliff. Aeneas cringed, eyes darting through each window, waiting for someone to ring the alarm or blow his head off.
Nothing happened. Crazy bastard, he thought. Aeneas scrutinized the rooflights once more, then sprinted across the yard at top speed. He skidded to a halt next his partner and crouched low. Heavy breaths hissed through his nose more from heightened adrenaline than fatigue.
“You crazy son of a bitch,” Aeneas whispered. “Did you see anybody?”
“Did you?” Apollo said. “Think if there was even a decent security setup here, we woulda seen it by now.”
Aeneas had the same impression. “True. Doesn’t look like he has a drone patrol set up. That’s one less headache. But I think you might be a little too eager for this one, A.P.”
Apollo hummed in acknowledgment. He spun the smooth cylinder of his revolver by his thumb, rechecking each chamber. “Maybe,” he admitted. “Keep up. And watch the tree line.”
Rifle leveled, Aeneas followed behind Apollo as he skirted the sheer wall. Further down, a cascade of thick green vines with sharp leaves curtained the hard stone. Apollo tugged on one of them: it seemed strong enough. Holstering Hebenus, he carefully ascended the hill. His gloves and layered clothing, even his dreads, kept the pointy flowers at bay. Aeneas wasn’t so appropriately groomed.
“I’ll circle around back, I guess,” Aeneas said with a sigh.
By the time Apollo reached the top and looked down, there was no sight of him. Peeking just over the edge, Apollo was five meters away from the building’s corner, but still saw no activity inside. At this distance, the enormity of the manor came into view. There were likely a dozen rooms on both levels and, were he anything like the overly-paranoid Theodorus Messor, innumerable traps hid around every corner. Apollo struggled up onto the plateau, staying low. A moment later, Aeneas poked his head out around the distant corner, motioning for him to follow.
Apollo slinked to the wall and ducked under each window sill until he reached the other side. Turning the corner, he saw Aeneas tucked under the deck of an elevated patio. The wood frame was bare bones and black netting covered the base railing, but the topside was open – so were the double doors leading into the home. Apollo crept up to the side railing, quietly crunching dried leaves under foot, and climbed the patio.
The framing groaned and creaked as he did. Aeneas pinched the bridge of his nose so hard, it hurt. Not realizing it until he touched down, Apollo noticed the light on in an open room – and the ovoid shadow shuffling back and forth on the wall.
The brunette sighed explosively and scaled the patio. “You’re unbelievable,” Aeneas hissed.
He and Apollo stacked the opposite sides of the entryway. The two peeked carefully inside, searching for possible traps like turrets hidden beneath flush panels. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but that was obviously the idea, Aeneas thought. Apollo made a low humming sound to get his attention and nodded once.
Aeneas steeled himself and returned the gesture. In synchronous motion, with their weapons leveled, they popped inside. Apollo strafed every possible fortified cover position, checking corners high and low with deft motions. Aeneas did the same, creeping toward an ornate pillar in the middle of the sitting room. His partner melted into the shadows, barely visible on the dark wall adjacent. Every step was precarious, and liable to activate any number of pitfalls.
So far, though, nothing.
Begrudgingly, the two quietly admired the palatial interior design – high ceilings, slate tiling, ornate moldings, velvet drapery, and numerous and likely priceless paintings. The image of the old man’s cheap outfit flashed in Apollo’s head. So, this is where all the money went to, he thought. Then, almost in unison, they both realized the shadow had disappeared.
They shared an uneasy look, and Apollo nodded behind him to the narrow hall passing the back of the room. His stark silhouette slid silently across the wall, coming partially into view as he entered the ambient glow. Aeneas snuck around a small table on his way to the room’s entrance. Giving Apollo a moment to get in position, he steadied his breathing and slowly pied the corner.
The room, a kitchen with high walls, opened up to the right. Slowly, Aeneas swung and trained the shotgun’s parallel barrels that way. A long island ran the length of the space. It was just high enough to conceal a small, old man.
Two sharp clicks sounded behind him. The brunette’s green eyes flashed wide open.
“Drop it. . .”
The particular pitch was immediately familiar to him – not the speaker’s tone, but the sound of two hammers snapping into place. It was a long double-barrel the same as his. Two buck-shot rounds at this range would tear him in half easily.
Aeneas swallowed the knot in his throat and slowly placed the shotgun on the island. “Take it easy. You got me.”
“That I did,” the voice said. “I’m afraid the kitchen’s closed. Though, I have to wonder if you know exactly where you are, young man.” Hands up, Aeneas slowly turned around, finding an old man half his size nestled in a recessed wall section. “If you did, I’d have to commend you. No one’s been foolish enough to step foot in here uninvited in quite a long time.”
He was in nothing but a robe and fluffy moccasins. As Aeneas guessed, there was a long shotgun clutched in his gaunt grip – and, fortunately, he wasn’t in a rush to pull the dual triggers.
“If I said I was lost, would you believe me?” Aeneas quipped.
Astylos cocked his head to the side. “Oh, you seem quite lost, indeed, my friend. More figuratively than literally, I’m afraid.” He eyed the shotgun on the marble countertop. “Appropriate choice for the task, but you let an old man slip behind you. Not good. You need work checking your corners, son.”
Aeneas shrugged and gave him a wry smile. “No disrespect, old man, but before you point the finger. . .”
Astylos stiffened up, looked right and then left, and froze. He first noticed Apollo’s head and long hair draping around the corner of the opposite egress. His grey eyes then dropped to the matte black revolver aimed at his center mass. With a sigh, the shotgun dipped in the old man’s tight grip.
“Right. . .”
“Drop it,” Apollo said, emerging from the darkness.
Their standoff lasted a few seconds longer before Astylos finally relented. He walked the island and tossed his firearm on the countertop.
“Check ‘em,” Apollo told Aeneas.
The brunette gave him an incredulous look. “You wanna pat down an 80 year-old geriatric essentially in his birthday suit, be my guest, A.P.” He scooped up his shotgun up and shoved Astylos’ further down the island. “I’ll take my chances. That a safe bet, old man?”
Astylos chuckled under his breath and muttered, “72, actually.” Apollo moved up to the island. Both men bracketed him with weapons trained on him. “So, gentleman. . .” However, nothing about his expression betrayed panic or fright. “Now that you’ve got me cornered, where do we go from here?”
Apollo opened his mouth to speak, but his partner cut him off.
“Quick question, first,” Aeneas started, leaning against the wall. “Where’s the big guy at? This guy over here had me under the impression you had some big blue monster shadowing your every move. He did say when he followed you yesterday that the big guy only dropped you off here, though. I was honestly expecting a much more eventful introduction.”
Says the man shivering in his boots moments ago, Apollo thought.
Astylos lifted a bushy eyebrow, quizzically. “Scylax is home with his family, of course. Why do you ask?”
Aeneas matched his confused look. “A bodyguard might’ve came in handy right about now, don’t you think? I half-expected a whole platoon to be up here, guarding the head honcho’s head.”
Astylos frowned and shook his head. “That hasn’t been necessary in quite some time,” he replied. “Though, in hindsight, I might have to reconsider.”
“Well,” Aeneas said. “That’s with the gift of hindsight. . .”
Astylos smirked under his prickly mustache and gazed at Apollo. “I think if you two were here to do that, you’d have done it by now. I think you came to negotiate.”
“This ain’t a negotiation,” Apollo declared. “You fucked up my shop. And then, you lied to my face.” There was zero compunction evident in the old man’s eyes. It made his blood boil. “So, you’re right: if I wanted your ass dead, you’d be dead by now. Every second your old ass is still breathing after this is the only gift you’ll be gettin’ from me.” Aeneas was right. Apollo wasn’t his usual, calm self. Those dark teashades did little to hide his ire. “And it’ll stay that way so long as you and your lil’ goons never show your fuckin’ faces around my shop again.
Aeneas recoiled in the wake of the tirade. Utterly unbothered, Astylos simply frowned and shook his head. “I’m afford not, my friend.” The old man continued before Apollo exploded. “I believe there may be certain factors you haven’t considered. . . one of them being your business partner here.”
Astylos motioned to Aeneas, who raised an eyebrow.
“And, by that, you mean. . .”
Apollo thought on it for a moment and eventually arrived at the answer. He shared another look with Aeneas, who remained oblivious. His friend shook his head, but the brunet shrugged cluelessly.
“Your brother. . .”
If there were one button not to press, that was it.
“Anchises, is it?”
Aeneas’ blue eyes flashed, and he rushed the old man in a rage.
With no regard for his frail frame, he tossed Astylos up against the tall cabinetry behind him. Strangling him by his velvet collar, Aeneas flicked the dual hammers forward on his shotgun and jammed the barrels into the old man’s foot. Astylos grunted as the cold steel dug in between his metatarsals.
Aeneas wore a ferocious scowl and fiercely gritted teeth. The old man remained calm, if only slightly discomforted.
“Say his name,” Aeneas growled. “Ever again in your life. . . and it’ll be over.” Apollo stepped up and patted his shoulder. The brunet’s tunnel vision was stark, though. “You understand me?”
Astylos huffed and looked to his partner. “I’m sure you understand the implications should your partner act on present emotions. . .”
Apollo scoffed, and had to forcefully pull Aeneas off of him. With his other hand, he carefully pried his friend’s finger out of the trigger guard.
“Relax, A,” Apollo whispered. “Relax.”
“Please, do,” Astylos huffed, straightening his robe. “If you’ll allow–”
The brunet’s right hand shot from his waist and buffeted Astylos square on his nose. The old man winced at the pain and fluid flooded his tear ducts. A bit of emotion peeked through his unflinching façade there. It was gone almost instantly, though.
“You understand, Apollo,” Astylos said, coddling his nose. “Why there is no security system in my home.” Blood dripped from his hands, but it didn’t seem enough for Aeneas. “And why I said it hasn’t been necessary. Should anything happen to me. . .” He looked at the fuming brunet, as if making sure Apollo had a solid hold on him, “it does not bode well for the opposition. I implore you to think of the bigger picture.”
“If a single fuckin’ hair on his head is touched–”
Apollo stopped him before he could continue.
“You’re fuckin’ with the wrong people,” Apollo said. “I don’t know who else you’re runnin’ this bullshit game on, but I ain’t the one.” He stepped away from Aeneas, who miraculously managed to keep his cool – or at least a steady hand. “And neither is he.”
Astylos huffed and walked across the room to fetch a towel. “That’s certainly true for him.” He was clearly referring to Aeneas. “But, for you, I’m afraid it’s already proven effective, has it not?”
Apollo’s brow furrowed. Had he not expected this, Apollo might’ve been the one devoid of restraint.
“You know Calvinus?” he said.
His delivery implied it was more of an affirmation than a question. Astylos nodded once again, and Apollo frowned. “Indeed,” the old man confirmed. “In fact, he’s a partner of mine.”
“So he’s your bitch,” Apollo spat.
Astylos grimaced at the expletive as if he were too chaste. “Not at all. Partners, as I said. Even in legitimate business, connections such as these are necessary. That is, unfortunately, especially true in our field. Truth is, I’ve been well aware of you and your friend here for quite some time.”
“I figured,” Apollo whispered.
He looked at his partner. Aeneas stared daggers into the old man, but was still present in mind. Apollo saw his own anger reflected in his blue eyes. It felt hollow, though. Astylos still held all the cards. It was precisely why the old man was so calm through all this. They had to scratch something out of this effort, though.
They couldn’t go home empty-handed.
“Alright,” Apollo said, pausing thoughtfully. “Then you’ve got a choice to make.” He turned to Astylos, who pretended to listen. Apollo would make him listen, though. “If we pop you right now,” he said, “we’ll make it back to Secare before they find a single finger.” Astylos nodded, not willing to dare either of them. “By then, me, him, and his brother’ll be long gone before your goons even catch a whiff of us. But, seeing as I don’t intend on duckin’ your people forever, we’re gonna make a deal. Now.” Apollo nodded to the brunet. “You wanna die tonight, be my guest. But don’t count on it bein’ quick.”
With a hand still cradling his nose, Astylos deliberated on some thought. And then, he smiled. His grey-eyed gaze found Apollo with unwanted admiration.
“You’re negotiating skills are improving,” Astylos remarked.
He pulled the rag from his nose. Dried blood dirtied his upper lip, but Apollo didn’t care to let him know. A long moment of silence passed. A full thirty seconds of uneasy quiet as Astylos seemed to ponder deep calculations in his head. Apollo saw his partner thumbing the hammer on his shotgun as his impatience began to grow. Then. . .
“Fuck you,” Aeneas spat with disgust.
The brunet lifted off the counter and loomed over Astylos. Apollo gave the old man an incredulous look. Astylos explained, “The price to end any and all correspondence between us – and it is non-negotiable. That is my offer, Apollo. The choice is now yours.”
The price was steep. Aeneas’ blue eyes bored into him in disbelief at the consideration Apollo was giving such an onerous proposal. Despite the fury in his eyes, Apollo knew they both realized it was their only option. Aeneas was a friend, one of the few he had left, but he wasn’t willing to go to war with the underworld for him or his brother. Protocol dictated he would be a marked man. Even if he were able to outlast their pursuit, Apollo would still be targeted on sight wherever he went. And, after spending ten years inside the Arx, he had no intention of hiding away in some cold, damp corner of the world forever.
It pained Apollo to admit the old bastard might’ve been right. But he was: this was business. Apollo decided to play the cards he was dealt for now. If a reprisal was feasible, it would have to wait – but not forever.
“Twenty-thousand,” Apollo repeated.
Aeneas struggled to hold his emotions in check. Astylos nodded and held a hand out. Holstering his revolver, Apollo knocked the outstretched hand aside as he brushed past him. Alone together, the old man and brunet eyed one another for a moment. A shallow grin escaped Astylos’ practiced façade.
Aeneas made to clock him, but the overt flinch from the old man was enough.
By the time he opened his old grey eyes, Astylos saw neither of them.