It’s a short walk to his apartment—a dingy little efficiency on the fourth floor of a fire trap that the city never condemned because it assumed it already had—and Jack’s tense the entire way. When he made his arrangement with Celona he didn’t exactly try to hide his identity. He wasn’t in the business any more, he didn’t want to be disturbed, and Mr. Celona saw to it that as far as anyone was concerned he was otherwise occupied and no longer on the market. But Pasquale Celona has been dead for three years, and Jack has no interest in entering into any kind of arrangement with his son. If Eddie was smart enough to figure out who he was, then anyone who knows he’s still around can probably find him, if they put any effort into it.
All the way home he tries to tell himself there’s no reason to believe it’ll ever come to that. He was never one of the masterminds—he was always the muscle. At one point in time his muscle was in high demand, but he’s not the guy people think of when it comes to plots and schemes. There’s no reason anyone would track me down because of this, Jack thinks, but he can’t convince himself it’s true. Eddie thought he might know something because he was connected, once upon a time. It’s a reasonable assumption to make, and if Eddie made it, others will too.
Might be time to take a vacation.
It’s hot and muggy, more humid than usual, and it smells like it might rain again. The rain is starting to annoy him, and he finds himself thinking the desert might be a nice change of pace. It’s a shame: the warehouse isn’t the greatest job in the world, but he’s had worse. The guys he works with aren’t exactly the cream of society, but he’s worked with worse. And his apartment is a crappy little hole in the wall in danger of burning to the ground any day now, but he’s definitely lived in worse. There’s nothing great about poverty, but when you’re almost impervious to the harsh conditions that come with it you can get along much better than most. It’s a quiet, low-key life. He likes that.
His apartment building is only five stories high and it doesn’t have an elevator. He walks up four flights, listening to his footsteps thud on the soft, slowly-rotting wood stairs, and when he emerges on to the fourth floor he stops cold. His pulse starts racing, he feels his hands curl into fists, and he tenses in anticipation. He smells smoke; not just any smoke, but smoke from a very specific brand of cigar. He only knows two people who smoke that brand, and he’s one of them.
He exhales slowly, forces himself to relax, forces his fists to unclench. No point in running now. Not from him.
He unlocks his front door, walks through the door, says “hello, Artie” and heads straight for the refrigerator.
A low, affectionate chuckle comes from the direction of his couch. “Hello, Jack. It’s been too long.”
Jack opens the refrigerator door. “Beer?”
The smell of cigar smoke swells for a moment. “No thanks. But don’t let that stop you.”
“I wasn’t,” Jack says. He takes a bottle from the top shelf, pops the cap off with his thumb, swings the refrigerator door shut, and turns to face his old boss.
Jack’s apartment doesn’t look furnished so much as it looks scavenged. The efficiency is organized into three basic areas: the wall with the stove and kitchen sink has an old, dented refrigerator with a missing icebox handle, and few cupboards which hold mostly plastic cups and plates. The gas stove has a brick wedged under one corner to keep it from wobbling on its three remaining feet. A card table with two folding chairs serves as a dinner table, though in reality all it does is hold bills and junk mail. The wall with the front door has a small bookcase, which supports an even smaller TV. No cable, but Jack has an HDTV converter and antennae so he can get his fill of useless TV programming. The couch, actually a cheap two-cushion loveseat covered in green cracked vinyl, is placed directly across from the TV. Two milk crates and a plank of wood serve as a makeshift coffee table, and a folding TV tray sits to the right, serving as an end table. The wall with the door to the bathroom has an old army cot Jack sleeps on. The wall opposite the door has a few dirty windows that overlook the alley below. One opens out to a fire escape that Jack is fairly certain won’t support his weight. Cardboard boxes full of Jack’s clothes are stacked in one corner of the room.
In the middle of it all, sitting placidly on the cheap vinyl couch, sits Artemis LaFleur. Overmind. One of the most dangerous criminals in the world. He is also, after a fashion, one of Jack’s closest friends.
He’s taken the form of an older, distinguished-looking man, with a full head of silver hair and glittering green eyes. He’s dressed in a dark, elegant three piece suit, complete with a silk handkerchief in his suit pocket, and an almost blindingly white dress shirt with French cuffs and silver cuff-links. Jack doesn’t know if this is his natural form, but he’s sure it’s the one Artemis prefers to wear. His formal look—the one he uses when he’s making a public appearance, or dealing with flunkies—is far more imposing, and a lot more difficult to talk to.
Jack drags one of the folding chairs over to the “coffee table” and sits, setting his beer down on the plank of wood.. “So you’re not wearing the helmet, the armor, or the cloak. This isn’t a business call.”
Artemis puffs on his cigar and doesn’t answer. The cigar is rolled from a particular tobacco leaf that Artemis bred himself. As far as Jack knows he’s the only one in the world who grows it.
“At least, it’s not about official business.”
“It’s been too long, Jack.” Artemis sounds a little wistful. “Most of the people I work with these days aren’t able to keep up.”
“I can’t keep up either,” Jack says. “I just know that when you don’t say anything, it’s usually because I said something wrong.”
Artemis laughs. “As usual, you sell yourself far too short. You’re quite adaptable, Jack. A trait I have always valued.”
Jack takes a drink and sighs. “Can we not do the dance, Artie? I’ve been trying to keep a low profile for years, and it’s not encouraging to see the Mastermind of Crime sitting in my apartment, talking about old times. I don’t want to play the game any more.”
“What do you want?” Artemis tilts his head to one side and looks at Jack thoughtfully. “Go straight? Become a ‘hero?’”
“Just live,” Jack said. “Put in an eight hour day, have a beer after work, go home, and watch TV. Or not. Maybe read a book. Maybe see a movie.”
“The quiet life.” There is a hint of derision in the old man’s voice.
“Hey Artie,” Jack says, “Why don’t you take your opinions and—”
“Apologies.” Artemis looks around the room and frowns. “I’ll admit, Jack, I don’t understand this. I’m a man who believes in the value of understanding the motives of everyone around him, and this… is not the man I know. You are not given to a lavish lifestyle, I understand that, but… why do you live in squalor? You could have so much more. You could be so much more.”
“I have my reasons.”
Artemis nods. “That, I believe. I don’t know what they are, but I don’t doubt you have them. And so I apologize.”
“Fine,” Jack says. “So why are you here?”
“To ask a favor.”
Jack narrows his eyes. “What kind of favor?”
“A very complicated and dangerous one,” Artemis says. “One that will very likely force us to make unpleasant and difficult alliances. I’m about to do something very dangerous, and believe me when I say I need your help.”
“What are you going to do?” Jack asks, curious in spite of himself.
“I’m going to find the people who murdered Liberty,” Artemis says. “I’m going to find them, and I’m going to destroy them.”
Jack isn’t sure what to make of it. “I see,” he says finally.
“I am not a particularly good man, Jack. This isn’t something that, I think, surprises you very much. I do what I must to build a better world, but I am not a man who represents a better world.” Artemis broods over the glowing tip of his cigar, watching the ash slowly build up on the end, until in a sudden, swift motion he knocks the ash into a cheap, tin ashtray sitting on the TV tray. “Our approaches to the future couldn’t have been more different. Incompatible, even. I see the world as it is and break it, in order to build something better. He saw what the world wanted to be, saw what it was, in those few instances when it lived up to its ideals, and moved it forward. He was a man who represented a better world. I hope you aren’t offended when I say he was the most remarkable man I’ve ever met. One of the few I admired and respected.”
“No, I get it,” Jack says. “Most of the guys we know would have to admit respecting him a little. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a pain in the ass.”
Artemis laughs. “Yes, he was indeed. If you’ll indulge an old man changing his mind, I believe I would like a beer.”
Jack grunts, gets a second beer from the refrigerator, pops the cap with his thumb and hands it to Artemis.
Artemis raises the bottle in a toast. “To the pain in the ass.”
Jack raises his in return. “So who did it?”
“That’s just it,” Artemis says. “I have no idea.”
Jack raises an eyebrow.
“Hard to believe,” Artemis agrees. “When I first heard of his death I was furious, of course. Times have changed, mores have changed, but enough of us are still around that I was certain we could maintain some of the old codes. That one, at the very least. But here’s the interesting thing, Jack: it wasn’t any of us. Of that, I am absolutely certain.”
“What do you mean?” Jack asks. “That doesn’t make any sense. Had to be some outfit.”
“I immediately conferred with some of the other groups with which I maintain terms. Groups that still supported enough of the old codes that I was confident of their cooperation. We can find no one in any of our communities who had any knowledge of it. So I began to investigate other avenues, using my contacts in various world governments to determine if it was a political matter.”
“Yeah?” Jack leans forward. “What did you find?”
Artemis purses his lips in annoyance. “Nothing. I found nothing at all. I found nothing in a way that leads me to suspect I was intended to find nothing. I told Curveball as much the day of Liberty’s funeral.”
Jack’s eyebrow goes up again. “You met Curveball at the funeral?”
“The viewing, actually. A short conversation. He did not seem happy to see me.” Artemis appears vaguely amused by the memory.
“Big shock, that,” Jack says. “How’s he doing?”
“Hasn’t aged a day,” Artemis says. “Still angry at everything, I imagine. More so now than ever. Still looked like a drawn weapon in a room full of sheep, even in that rumpled suit. I offered him my card. He took it. He didn’t commit to using it, but at some point I believe he will.”
“You think he’s investigating Liberty’s murder.”
“I’m convinced of it,” Artemis says. “That evening, a disturbance was reported in Liberty’s apartment. There were signs of a fight. Only hours later, Martin Forrest’s house is attacked by a large force of highly trained and woefully unprepared soldiers of unknown origin, only to be repelled—quite forcefully—by Curveball and Regiment. And now, according to my sources, Curveball is nowhere to be found. That is less than 24 hours after our meeting.”
“He does know how to stir the pot,” Jack says.
“He does indeed,” Artemis agrees. “But I believe he is getting in over his head. And while it may seem strange to you, Jack, I have come to believe that Liberty’s death is more significant than I first thought. How can an organization with the resources to murder Liberty exist while managing to evade my detection entirely?”
Jack nods. “I see what you mean.”
“The circumstances surrounding Liberty’s death are ridiculous. No mere mercenary would be able to assassinate him, no matter how well trained or prepared. It defies logic. There’s more to this story. Because of my regard for him, and because I will not allow a group to operate in the secrecy this one apparently enjoys, hidden from my sight, I will see to it that the people responsible are exposed and destroyed.”
“So,” Jack says, “personal and professional.”
“Quite. And I need your help for this.”
Jack sighs. “Yeah. OK, I’m in.”
“Thank you, Jack.” Artemis smiles warmly. “I appreciate it.”
“What do I do first?”
“Hmmm. Yes.” Artemis reaches inside his jacket and produces another cigar, offering it to Jack. “First, we smoke. It’s really been too long. After that I need you to contact your… brother.”
Jack takes the cigar. “Well. I guess I see why you came here first.”