Chapter 18:

The words muffled by a gasp or sob.

UnCrowned


It was ten in the morning and Commissioner Caldera was considering a third cup of coffee. They’d already gone through a dozen assaults, robberies, grand theft autos, and a few murders too. Even for Minerva, this was a lot. Bookmark here

In the few weeks since Khan’s death, Veragreen had completely dissipated and with it, the entire drug market. The whole police department should be ecstatic, but after more than a year of being strung on Madrid, the addicts were having a hard time going back to heroin and meth. Even Caldera had to admit, Madrid was as much an invention of genius as it was malice and without Khan, the true recipe was lost. What bits of Madrid leftover were being sold for exorbitant prices, leaving the market open for a flood of imitations and knock-offs.Bookmark here

Imitations, thought Caldera. Too nice a word for what was essentially laundry detergent with purple food colouring. Bookmark here

His wrist was starting to ache from the paperwork when a knock came at his door. “Come in.”Bookmark here

One of his detectives walked through. It took Caldera a moment to remember her name.Bookmark here

“Detective Anderson, how can I help you?”Bookmark here

“Sir,” she greeted. There was a slip of worry in her tone. “We got someone who wants to talk to you.”Bookmark here

“Is it friend or family?”Bookmark here

“No. He’s in the sweatbox.”Bookmark here

“A suspect?”Bookmark here

“It’s…Zek.”Bookmark here

Caldera stood. “You say that name as if I’m supposed to know it.”Bookmark here

She nodded and held the door open as he approached. On their way to the interrogation room, Anderson continued, “His actual name’s Ezekiel, but nobody calls him that. He’s ex-military, enrolled when he was just seventeen.”Bookmark here

“And what’s so important about him?”Bookmark here

“He’s a Warlord, sir. For one of the Crowns. Brontes.”Bookmark here

“What?” His gaze leapt to her. “Why didn’t McGraw’s notes say anything about him?”Bookmark here

Anderson hesitated, her hands twitching. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to answer that.”Bookmark here

Zek was waiting for them behind the one-way glass, sitting chained to the table. He was a well-built man, both his eyes and bun-tied hair a shade of deep swamp green. He was large, yes, but not as large as the rumours said he was. Orcish, they called him. And as ugly as one, with silver tusks. Bookmark here

It wasn’t that he was ugly, but that with his square face and metal jaw, he was not as notably handsome as the King of the Underworld, perhaps. Bookmark here

There were already a few officers waiting outside, greeting the Commissioner as he arrived. Bookmark here

“How long has he been here?” asked Caldera.Bookmark here

“About fifteen minutes maybe,” said one of the officers. Bookmark here

“How’d you arrest him?”Bookmark here

“About that.” The officer scratched his head. “He walked in and asked to turn himself in. When we said we couldn’t unless he committed a crime, he smashed up the desk and computer.”Bookmark here

“So he’s here on destruction of property?”Bookmark here

“On paper, sir. He kept insisting on seeing you.”Bookmark here

Caldera rubbed his temple and sighed, signalling them to unlock the room. When the buzzer went off, he shoved open the heavy iron door and Zek’s eyes flew up to meet his. Bookmark here

“Commissioner Caldera,” said the Warlord, stern. “Welcome to Minerva.”Bookmark here

Caldera sat down across the table. “Thank you.”Bookmark here

“How are you liking the city?”Bookmark here

“Still getting used to everything. Crime numbers are appalling but the food’s pretty good. There’s this food truck on 24th Street that sells the best chicken taquitos I have ever tasted.”Bookmark here

“I’d drink to that. No place in the world has a food scene like Minerva’s.”Bookmark here

“Yeah.” Caldera’s gaze sharpened. “But I hope you don’t take my inexperience as naivety. I intend to fill Commissioner McGraw’s shoes to the best of my ability.”Bookmark here

Zek looked him over. “You’re ex-military.”Bookmark here

“As are you.”Bookmark here

“Private military,” he clarified. “Zaytsev Corporation, Security Division.”Bookmark here

“Enrolled when you were seventeen. An awfully young age to be risking your life for others.”Bookmark here

Zek turned to glare at the one-way mirror. “On paper.”Bookmark here

“On paper?”Bookmark here

“There’s an orphanage just outside of the city, owned by Zaytsev. In exchange for good funding, the children are trained and encouraged to join the Security Division once they’re of age.”Bookmark here

“And if they don’t?”Bookmark here

“Orphanage doesn’t have the budget to keep kids after seventeen,” said the Warlord, not taking his eyes off the mirrorBookmark here

Caldera pressed his hands together. “Is that even legal?”Bookmark here

“I’m not a lawyer, Commissioner. And that’s not the issue I wanted to discuss.” Zek looked down at his chains. “Can we speak alone?”Bookmark here

Caldera was silent for a second, then signalled at his reflection in the mirror. “Detective Anderson, I think I’ll take that third coffee after all.”Bookmark here

He turned back to the Warlord. “Is that better?”Bookmark here

“Alone,” Zek repeated louder. Bookmark here

“The only people there now are officers and I can’t send them away for protocol reasons. I already sent away my only detective as a show of good faith. I’m asking you to compromise.”Bookmark here

“Fine. I came here today because I wanted to make you an offer.”Bookmark here

“An offer? You came here to negotiate with me?”Bookmark here

“Yes.”Bookmark here

“With all due respect, Ezekiel, you turned yourself in to the police. You’re in handcuffs and there’s a good twenty armed cops on this floor alone. I have all the power here.”Bookmark here

Zek’s eyes lifted. They were deep and murky. “Do you?”Bookmark here

Two words. That was all it took to kill Caldera’s rebuttal before he even had the chance to conceive of one. When he struggled to find another, Zek continued, “I know Khan dying made things…difficult. Your men are stretched too thin. I can help. The offer is simple. Brontes keeps the streets quiet and the cops stay out of my business.”Bookmark here

Caldera’s mouth narrowed. “You’re trying to bribe me.”Bookmark here

“Yes.”Bookmark here

“You’re awfully confident for someone committing a felony.”Bookmark here

“So was your predecessor.”Bookmark here

Caldera couldn’t help but flicker his gaze to the mirror. So that’s what made Anderson so nervous. “Why would I take that offer up with you and not the Fox?”Bookmark here

“The Fox killed Khan. All this is his fault to begin with.”Bookmark here

“Even still, he is King and Vulpes is the strongest of the Crowns.”Bookmark here

Too easily his reply came to him. “But are you satisfied with that? He killed Khan for revenge. All this, the drug power vacuum, was because of revenge. Should a man like that be King?”Bookmark here

“I don’t think any man should be King.” The Commissioner’s voice clawed the walls of the tiny room. “I don’t even think the Crowns should exist. I am shocked that such a system ever became a thing, and I am disgusted that my predecessors played a part in it.”Bookmark here

Zek’s face wore the beginning of a scowl. “So you won’t take the offer?”Bookmark here

“I won’t be a pawn in one criminal’s ploy to defeat another.”Bookmark here

“What about all the people you’re letting die?”Bookmark here

“Their blood will be on your hands.” Bookmark here

Caldera growled those final words. He expected Zek to be startled or angry, but the Warlord only sighed. “Disappointing, but at least you have a backbone.”Bookmark here

Zek stood, as much as his bonds allowed him to. “We’re done here.”Bookmark here

His arms whipped apart and with a sharp metallic crack, the chain between his handcuffs shattered. Caldera reached for his sidearm but by the time he aimed it, the table between them flipped. His first shot pierced the wood and nothing else. Bookmark here

He pivoted, eyes tracked on Zek’s shadow. Before his second shot, the gangster had one hand tight around his throat. That one hand, grip tight as steel, was enough to lift Caldera inches off the ground, then smash him against the mirror. Whatever pain Caldera felt, it came out a choked rasp.Bookmark here

Zek wrestled the revolver out of his hand. He angled it at the glass and shot. It shook the room and left a cracked web on the pane, but did not go through. Bookmark here

“Bulletproof,” Zek whispered under his breath, pulling the Commissioner into a chokehold. He changed targets, pressing the muzzle against Caldera’s head. “Open the door or he dies!” he shouted at his reflection.Bookmark here

“No!” It took all of Caldera’s strength to get the word out. “Don’t let him leave!”Bookmark here

Zek popped open the revolver’s cylinder. After confirming how many bullets were left, he blew a hole in Caldera’s thigh. This time, Caldera’s scream was audible to all. Bookmark here

“Femoral artery,” said Zek. “Less than five minutes before he bleeds out.”Bookmark here

There was a dull silence, the passage of time marked solely by the growing pool of crimson on the concrete floor. On that border of life and death, they seemed to wait an eternity, until even the soft dripping of his blood was deafening to Caldera. Bookmark here

Finally, the buzzer sounded.Bookmark here

“Damn it!” His disappointment was stronger than his pain. “Forget me, shoot him!”Bookmark here

Zek dragged him outside, trailing red, where three officers awaited with pistols raised. Bookmark here

“I said shoot him!” Caldera repeated, white teeth bared between purple lips. “That’s an order!”Bookmark here

The officers looked to each other hesitantly, then to their Commissioner, none of them brave enough to pull the trigger. Bookmark here

“Can somebody tell me the time?” asked Zek, as if talking to strangers at the bus stop. “Please.”Bookmark here

One officer glimpsed his wristwatch. “Ten-thirty.”Bookmark here

“Thank you. We’re just on time.”Bookmark here

Zek’s grip vanished and Caldera fell to the floor, gasping. Almost the exact moment he hit the floor, as one officer prepared to fire, a shrill noise shot around the room. Red and orange flashed in the air and the officers toppled to the floor, engulfed by a bloom of dust. Blinding daylight flooded in with the stench of sawdust. Bookmark here

Caldera twisted his head back just enough to see the hole in the wall. There was the silhouette of another man, eyes black like tar. He couldn’t tell if it was a trick of the light or his own dying hallucinations. Bookmark here

“Zek, my dude,” said the black-eyed man. “You couldn’t do this over a phone call?”Bookmark here

“A little respect goes a long way.” Zek approached his friend, who leapt through the hole. Before he did the same, the Warlord called over his shoulder, “For your conviction, Commissioner, I’ve given you your life, but you should know: honest cops die young in Minerva.”Bookmark here

Those were the last words Caldera could hear clearly. His officers surrounded him, one tying cloth around his wound and another shouting something muffled.Bookmark here

“Forget me,” Caldera spoke with his last breath, the edges of his vision darkening. “Don’t let him escape.”Bookmark here

                                                                                ❖
Bookmark here

The Black Lion’s knife jabbed, but his assailant took the point with her own, thrust it aside, and darted back into the fray. Her blade flashed and Lev Zaytsev dashed away, untouched. She tried again, this time being blocked. Knife met knife with a metallic clang and Lev continued stepping back, each small retreat a boost to the girl’s confidence. Bookmark here

At last, Lev’s back hit the wall and the girl sneered. She put all her power into one last finishing strike, her edge-point lancing out like a viper. However, her arm was too outstretched, too open and vulnerable, especially against a bigger opponent. Lev clutched her forearm with his free hand and with her own momentum, pivoted on his heel, swinging her into the wall. They had exchanged places and now she was the one pinned.Bookmark here

Lev made a cutting motion on her neck with the dull knife. “The way you are now, you’re not going to win any fight with brute strength. Your size is your advantage: use it.”Bookmark here

He released her.Bookmark here

“Fuck you.” Priscilla massaged her arm. “Another round. I’ll win this one.”Bookmark here

Lev gaped at Quill across the hospital courtyard, laid on a bench with his hands cushioning his head. He was still in a hospital gown despite his wounds already having healed. “You seriously couldn’t get anyone else to train her?”Bookmark here

The King had a folded newspaper rested over his face to block the sun. Without taking it off, he said, “In ‘Quill’s Academy for Badass Bitches’, knife fighting is a compulsory course. Unfortunately, we only have two professors: Dibs and Arc. Dibs is on important business and Arc…”Bookmark here

Lev recalled their last encounter. His shoulder still hurt. “And Arc would kill her. Even with training knives.”Bookmark here

“Alas, you’re my plan C.”Bookmark here

“All I wanted was a bit of help.”Bookmark here

“I’m not running a Salvation Army here, Mr Lion. You want help, you’re gonna have to put your back into it.”Bookmark here

Lev opened his mouth to reply, only to be cut off by a sudden side strike. He bent back and Priscilla’s knife twisted in midair to follow him– a well-trained motion. It was almost impressive.Bookmark here

He parried her blow, shoving her blade-hand outwards. It was too late for her to bring it back when Lev’s other hand shot out. Priscilla flinched, anticipating a punch, only for Lev to flick her in the forehead. It was no less painful though. Bookmark here

Almost, he thought. Bookmark here

“Do you at least have a solution in mind?” asked Lev.Bookmark here

“Always,” said Quill. “But as I said, I can’t tell you without you putting in some labour first.”Bookmark here

“You can’t skip knife fighting and have her learn something like toxicology?”Bookmark here

“Who the hell am I gonna get to teach her that?”Bookmark here

“Vein.”Bookmark here

“Much as he likes to joke about that and as much as he is good at it, Vein won’t work poisons unless he has to. Besides, I’ve got him on something important.”Bookmark here

Quill raised the edge of his newspaper just enough to peek at him. “How about we flip a coin? Tails you keep teaching her, heads I’ll help you out right away?”Bookmark here

“Or maybe I should find someone else,” said Lev. “That might be quicker.”Bookmark here

The King chuckled. “Alright, alright, I was just playing.”Bookmark here

Pushing himself up, Quill stretched and yawned. From his back pocket, he took out his phone. “I sent your request to Chase, Vulpe’s information broker. Eidolon Limited, right? It’s not real.”Bookmark here

“Not real?”Bookmark here

“Got no office, no employees. All we got is registration on paper.”Bookmark here

“So it’s a dead-end?”Bookmark here

“Not quite. One thing that could be tracked was their wallet. These people must be paranoid as hell ‘cause they reroute their money through at least five different banks every time.”Bookmark here

“En garde!” Priscilla called out, leaping at his head, knife out. Their blades clanged as Lev blocked. In one clean motion, she landed on the pavement, swivelled back and swung again. This time, where he expected metal, there was fabric. Bookmark here

A rag, likely ripped from her sleeve, caught him across the face, blinding him. He slashed where she had stood before, finding nothing but air. He could still hear her move and turned as best he could to face the sound. Bookmark here

“Long story short,” Quill continued. “After some more digging and cross-referencing, we managed to link some of Eidolon’s funds to another company: Priam Armaments.”Bookmark here

Priam Armaments. The name echoed with something in his memory. He was certain he had heard the name before, though it was hard to concentrate with Priscilla’s constant jabs.Bookmark here

“Priam deals with the same sort of shit Marinton does. Arms, defence, some information security. Thing is, it’s actually not the biggest fish.”Bookmark here

“What does that mean?” Lev swung again blindly and again missed. Priscilla’s blade caught him in the leg, a sudden stinging blow. “Ow!”Bookmark here

“Priam Armament’s a subsidiary company. So it’s possible the money came from higher up the food chain.”Bookmark here

Subsidiary? All of a sudden, everything clicked and Lev felt a cold pain far sharper than any Priscilla could inflict. Bookmark here

He heard her breath and his arm flashed towards it, the back of his knuckles connecting with flesh. She fell and by the sound of it, hard. Yet, that didn’t stop him. In that haze of stupor and shock, he dug his knee into her chest, pinned her neck with his arm, and brushed her forehead with the point of his knife. Bookmark here

When that drunken moment passed, Lev saw Priscilla’s widened eyes and pinpoint iris, genuine fear caught across her face. She had cried out something, the words muffled by a gasp or sob. Bookmark here

Eidolon Limited paid Khan to pretend he killed Sehyun. Bookmark here

Eidolon Limited was a shell corp for Priam Armaments.Bookmark here

And Priam Armaments was a subsidiary of Zaytsev Corporation. Bookmark here

Bookmarked
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