|26 | A SICK MAN'S DREAMS: REDDER THAN THE ROSE|
Standing in the shade of the garage, Apollo rapidly scribbled numbers and notes on his clipboard. The paper denoted locations, customers, poundage, and dates. He barely managed to keep up with the dozen men loading pallet crates into the caravan. Each man in the long line moved the package from one man to the next. Nearly all one hundred crates were loaded into the 34-foot car in less than an hour.
Inside each crate were four form-fitted packages wrapped in 20 layers of plastic wrap. Powerful smells emanated from each package—coffee beans, garlic bulbs soaked in vinegar, dried peppers. It made the contents easily identifiable, and the heavy wrapping easily exhausted the efforts of anyone so curious to find out what was inside. These packages—intended as concealing agents—were loaded along the walls, in front of the caravan gate, and atop the true product this cadre was marketing.
Nestled in the center of the mountain of selfsame crates was a total of 100 kilograms of fulva vites—equivalent to two million exium. Apollo received the shipment in port from Paludis in the early morning hours. Another hundred kilos of conditus folium was due tomorrow morning, headed to Excelsa from Aridus. There was a grove of ghost fruit trees just outside the walled city facilitating the boss’ wine company, which Apollo also had a hand in.
Concealed within the acre were the first sprouts of a dozen ghost pollen trees. The boss tapped Apollo as one of the supervisors of this operation as well.
Being stretched so thin across the organization’s many schemes was wearying, but it also meant Apollo had curried at least some favor with the head honcho. The previous shipment supervisor vanished without a word the month prior amid rumors of embezzlement. Of all the possible candidates, Apollo, one of the least-tenured members of the syndicate, was selected to take his spot.
A single member flushed with such responsibility might’ve pointed toward a bright future in any other industry. Apollo, however, knew he was functioning under a microscope from multiple sides. His rapid rise didn’t sit quite well with his colleagues, but in truth, no one wanted to be in his current shoes.
The last crate slid onto the top row and the caravan gate closed. Apollo checked his numbers with the markings scribbled on each crate and gave a thumbs up. Two men hopped into the driving seat, guided it out of the compound and down the dirt road towards a guarded port on the Aquilonian sea.
With a heavy breath, Apollo tossed the clipboard onto a bookshelf and fell into the nearby couch. Closing his eyes, ready to call it a day, he removed his trademark teashades and set them on his chest. The redheaded vixen who gifted him those shades almost immediately dashed those hopes.
“Rhea was asking about you.”
Apollo sighed and massaged his throbbing brow. “Is that right?”
Oriana hummed. “She must really like you. All the times you’ve left her hanging and she’s still waiting on you. What’d you do to her?”
Apollo thought not to dignify that with an answer, but replied, “Well, if she’s still willin’ to wait, then . . .”
“That’s not nice, A.P.,” she said, grinning. “If you’re worried about her price, you know I’ve got you on the employee discount.” Apollo dropped his hand and shot her a stare. Oriana batted her hands, apologetically. “Okay, not an employee discount per say, but half’ll be on the house. She might even teach you a few things before the night’s over, you sly devil.”
“I’m sure she could,” Apollo said. “That is her job.”
“And she does it well,” Oriana remarked with a proud smile. “That’s why I hired her. And, boy, is she making her money’s worth.”
Apollo wiped a hand down his face, rolled over, and got comfortable. “You know good friends don’t try to hook their friends up with prostitutes, right?”
“Escort, Apollo. Escort. Get it right.”
“Street walker,” Apollo replied, counting on his fingers. “Harlot, wench, hooker, hoe—”
She tossed a wrench end over end that just grazed his head of finger-length dreadlocks. It pinged off of the wall with a loud clang. Apollo shuddered but sat up and cracked a wily grin at the redhead. “That’s not nice,” he said. “And my point still stands.”
Oriana frowned, got up and stood over him. “Rhea’s a good friend of mine. You know I wouldn’t set my good pal up with any of those other tramps.” She patted him on the shoulder, but Apollo hummed, disbelievingly. Oriana leaned in closer, grinning wider. “Or maybe . . . you’re saving yourself for somebody special?”
Apollo gave her a brief look, then laid back and closed his eyes.
“Maybe I am . . .”
Her heart fluttered. Something about that soft look struck her like lightning. It wasn’t like the man she knew.
She stood straight, squelching the butterflies in her stomach, and gave a forced laugh. She waved a dismissive hand at him and turned away. When she did, her façade crumbled. The redhead went back to her spot and a long silence persisted until Tullus threw the garage door open.
“Hey,” he called out, “We need to head to the city.”
Apollo hissed through his nose. “For what?”
“What about him?”
“He still hasn’t stopped by to see Stad,” Tullus told him. “It’s been a few days.”
Tullus thought for a moment. “Two. Two days.”
“You can go,” Apollo told him, “and bring Aerugo with you.”
Tullus looked to Oriana, sharing incredulous looks. The redhead cringed internally at the sight of that monster in her head. His mere presence made everyone around him shrink—and rightfully so. Aerugo was the syndicate’s primary enforcer, but he was little more than a ravenous beast on a long leash.
Oriana could swear he was more the spawn of a snarling ridge than the velen that supposedly gave birth to him.
“You sure?” he asked. “I was just gonna go check in with h—”
“Bring ‘em,” Apollo reiterated. “You’ll get there before he closes shop if y’all leave now.”
Tullus’ reputation spoke nothing of cowardice, but he couldn’t help but think what the old man was about to be subjected to. Aerugo wasn’t the type to negotiate or respond to desperate pleas. None of them could actually remember him speaking a single intelligible word. The brute communicated in grunts, head nods, and ghastly scowls.
Standard protocol on a briefly undue payment didn’t warrant his involvement. Since taking over collections, Apollo had set them on a starkly different approach.
“Alright,” Tullus said. “I’ll let the boss know . . .”
He left and shut the door behind him. Silence reigned.
That was more like the man she knew.
The last seven years had changed all of them. The world had that kind of effect on displaced orphans like them. Luckily, the three of them had found a new family in place of the ones they left behind, disjointed as it was. However, they also found a world fully shaped by the predator-prey complex, both in the wilderness and modern civilization. They quickly learned they wouldn’t stand a chance in this world remaining on the wrong side of that equation. They quickly came to look on their own youth and lack of prejudice with distaste, and cast it all away.
Thus, they became wolves.
The bright-eyed girl who once loved frisking about fields of mountain flies was gone. That little girl was now a woman in charge of string of brothels in Terminus under the syndicate’s banner—and she ran them with an iron fist despite her young age. Apollo had cast away his naivete and adopted a rigid, impervious cast that was hard to peer through even to the girl who had known him for so long. Beneath that hardened exterior, however, she was certain was the same little boy who would stand before Bellator himself for her honor.
Azaris, though . . .
Even she wasn’t sure if he had become a wolf . . . or simply stopped pretending he was ever anything else.
“Open the gate!”
Apollo and Oriana were both startled by the shout. One of their cohorts, Pyris, and another member rushed to the main gate and heaved it open. A truck peeled down the dirt road, skidded to a halt, and backed into the compound. Peering into the cabin, Apollo saw a smear of blood across the side window. Oriana did, too, and they shared a look before going to check things out.
Apollo walked up, looking both ways down the secluded street, finding no one in pursuit. Oriana remained within the shaded garage, biting her fingernails nervously.
The passenger side door flew open with a kick. Shouts of anguish from within echoed across the valley. Phrynon hopped out, his shirt covered with blood, but Apollo could tell he wasn’t the casualty. The redheaded terran reached in and hauled another man out of the center seat. The driver, Eryx, rushed around the vehicle to help, covered in blood as well.
“What the fuck happened?” Pyris demanded, walking up.
Phrynon hissed, “’The fuck you think?” and helped Eryx four-hand carry the critically-wounded Aethon into the building.
Oriana winced at the blood pouring from the bullet wounds in his stomach. His white shirt and jeans were soaked in red, and his legs dangled in their grip—one had likely struck his spine.
To ask what happened was pointless. The situation seemed obvious enough.
On the boss’ orders, they had been sent out days ago as envoys to negotiate a deal with a potential associate in Prodest. The principal figure in question was a harmless yet unyielding merchant with a fleet of caravans that would’ve provided the perfect cover to move tons of merchandise on their behalf. Little resistance was expected so only four people were sent to negotiate. There were a million ways this could’ve gone right, and only one possible reason it went south.
That particular X factor sat up in the truck bed, yawning and stretching. Apollo locked eyes with him, scowling. Azaris simply smiled and nodded.
“What’s up, A.P.?”
The spiky haired blonde climbed out of the truck bed bereft of his companion’s hysteria. Oriana noticed his clothes were completely unstained, save for some dust on his back from where he was lying. Up close, however, Apollo saw specks of blood spatter on his cheek—the kind earned shooting a target at point-blank range. Beside Azaris in the truck bed was a long object wrapped in several layers of blankets.
Two protrusions, likely a pair of feet, stuck up on one end.
“Same bullshit as usual, huh?” Apollo remarked.
Azaris huffed and dropped the tailgate. “I’m fine by the way. How’re you?”
“No, you ain’t,” Apollo said. “Ain’t shit fine about you.” He nodded to the veiled corpse. “I knew he shouldn’t’ve sent your ass. ‘The fuck happened?”
“Well, A.P.,” Azaris said, sliding the body out. “Obviously, things didn’t go as planned. Contrary to what you might believe, this guy’s the one who shot first.” He patted his head with a depraved casualness about him. “The situation wasn’t completely fucked away at that point, but then he hit Aethon so I made a . . . judgment call.”
It was a weak excuse, at best. In reality, only a lunatic like him could see things from that perspective. Even worse, it was a blatant lie. Azaris was always the type to shoot first and try to negotiate with whoever was left standing. Seeing as there was only one man to bargain with, the caravan fleet idea was fucked away as soon as the boss chose him to go.
Phrynon burst out of the building in a rage. Trampling dirt, he snatched the blonde up by the collar. Azaris didn’t react at all. “You fucking dickhead!” Phrynon shouted, positively fuming. “He’s dead! He’s fucking dead, you little fuck! What the fuck were you thinking?!”
The brutish terran cocked back to knock his head off, but Apollo stepped in and caught his arm. “What happened, Phry?” he asked.
Phrynon jabbed a harsh finger at the blonde. “He calls you a fucking name, and you fucking decide to shoot him?! What are you, a fucking baby?! Are you fucking stupid?!” He brushed Apollo off of him, but checked his anger, even if imperceptibly. “You fucked everything away! Two whole fucking months and we don’t come up with shit but two dead bodies and probably a hundred fucking witnesses! You’re gonna be the one answering to Torvus tomorrow, bitch!”
Azaris kept his stubborn gaze away from the man.
“I know . . . My bad.”
Livid, Phrynon made to wallop him square on his pretty little chin, but realized it was futile. Even more than that, he knew the boss’ favorite little protégé would get off with little more than a slap on the wrist. All four of them knew that, Azaris included. No one knew exactly why Torvus allowed him such a wide breadth, but it was exactly why the blonde acted with so much abandon.
Oriana caught his eyes. The look in her crystal blues was familiar. He remembered the fear edging her gaze. She looked on him with the same aversion as the many sea wolves and basilisks he’d led them away from years ago. Via the man strangling him now, Azaris had finally found the three of them a home—a place where they wouldn’t have to worry about monsters like that anymore . . . or so he thought.
“I’ll talk to ‘em,” Apollo whispered, patting Phrynon on the shoulder. “I got it, Phry.”
Phrynon grumbled and stormed away.
“Can I get some help with this?” Azaris asked, motioning to the body.
Apollo socked him in the shoulder, hard. Thankfully, Phrynon didn’t hear him. The door opened just in time, and he brushed past Eryx who was still working off his own anger.
“Hey, dipshit,” Eryx shouted across the lot, holding a vox. “He wants to see you, A-S-A-P.”
Azaris gave an explosive sigh, scratching his head. “Alright. We’ll be there in a few.”
“Just you, dipshit.”
Apollo, Oriana, and Azaris turned to him simultaneously: that was unorthodox. Ever since the three of them joined the organization, they were considered more or less one entity. Inseparable as they were, it wasn’t abnormal. It, unfortunately, also served to separate them from the rest of the organization’s soldiers. That didn’t bother them, though.
Azaris and Apollo shared a look. Azaris frowned, and turned on heel. One foot on the truck’s step bar, he looked back to Oriana. “You need a ride?” he asked.
Oriana glanced at Apollo, then shook her head. She was still biting her nails.
Azaris steeled his nonchalant façade and hopped into the cabin. The engine roared to life, and he waved a hand goodbye out of the window before pulling away. The truck disappeared over the crest of the hill.
Apollo looked back to Oriana, and recognized the same thin line in her eyes.
“You know he’s not coming back . . .”
Oriana sipped her glass of wine under starlight, avoiding eye contact with him. She was hated those shades, the way they darkened his expression, the way he hid his emotions behind them. She wasn’t sure the man she knew existed beyond those veils anymore. The man she knew was never this vicious—never this spiteful.
“You don’t know that,” she said.
“We both do.”
Aestus and Lacunar loomed overhead. It was just past the midnight hour. The streetlights were on, and most patrons had already deserted the bar patio after last call. More importantly, the two of them needed to get sleep for the week-long journey ahead of them. The blonde’s trail was already lukewarm, but it was the best lead they had on him in years.
Apollo booked them separate rooms in the lodge upstairs. He finished his glass of whiskey and closed out his tab.
“I wish . . .,” Oriana started, tracing the rim of her glass with a finger, “I wish you’d try and see things from his perspective.” She knew he wouldn’t, but she knew he remembered Thaleia’s warm smile the same as she did—and his smile, too. “He lost everything. You can’t imagine what that feels like.”
Apollo nodded to the bartender and walked off.
Her words didn’t quite go through one ear and out the other. It was true. Apollo didn’t know what that felt like. Losing ten years of your life, though, was something neither of them could imagine, either.
Apollo whispered to her as he walked off.
“Not everything . . .”