“Aren’t those poisonous?” Paul asked as Garth ate a purple heartstone with only a few minor blemishes, courtesy of Gloria Pendleton.
The two of them were seated in Garth’s Bergstrom Office, with a few adjustments of account for potential assassination attempts: A pair of large houseplants flanked Paul, ready to restrain him in an instant.
Paul was reliable, in the sense that he was good at getting work done and thinking on his feet, but Garth didn’t have any illusions that the man had a sense of loyalty. Not yet.
Garth wasn’t interested in getting shot in the head again and losing two weeks of progress.
“So here’s my problem,” Garth said, leaning forward. “I have a somewhat infamous mien.”
“Really.” Paul raised a brow.
“And my public identity eats up a lot of my time. I need someone to help manage…” Garth cleared his throat and pulled out a large book bound in black leather with a gold leaf title:
“Really?” Paul asked, glancing at the cover.
“You like it? I got it made special.”
Paul shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Sure.”
“Anyway. My influence is pretty limited right now, because the Dentons took a piece out of me when The Fire was going down. A large portion of the crews who handle protection rackets got murdered and the rest switched sides. I’m down a lot of muscle and a bit of income.”
“The things I’m still in control of include a whorehouse called The Red Fern rapidly approaching respectability.” Garth said, flipping through his personal notes, looking for a blank spot. He almost had an eidetic memory again, so he mostly used the book to practice for changing his appearance.
“The adamantium mine to the northeast, and you…and a guy named Cole who’s too dumb to bail on a sinking ship.”
What Garth needed was an organization, fresh from the ground up, without any conflicting loyalties. He needed talented personnel that the Dentons were entirely unaware of.
“You’re a detective, right?” Garth asked, lacing his fingers together.
“I’m pretty sure you already knew that.”
“Paul, I want to tell you a story from eight hundred and fifty six years ago.”
“I was playing Call of Duty, and there was this guy-“
“How do you play someone’s call of duty?”
“It’s a game, don’t interrupt. There was this guy who had a party full of monsters. He beat the ever-loving crap out of us. I was the only person who even got close to an even kill/death ratio. Do you know what happened afterwards?”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” Paul admitted.
“He invited me, the best person on the opposing team to join his party, and his party of five monsters became a party of six, and we fucking cleaned up for hours. He did this after every match, inviting the best player from the opposing team.”
Ah to be a teenager in the 2000’s again.
Paul watched him expectantly.
“You’re law enforcement. Are there up-and-coming gangs, Paul? Kids somewhere between fourteen and twenty, scrappy as hell?”
“Five or six.” He said.
“I want you to use your position to crush them. Disabuse them of the notion that they’ll ever make it in a profession like this. Use the opportunity, the conflict, to identify the one or two most talented individuals from each of those gangs, the ones with balls of steel who hold the whole gang up. Isolate them from the others, get them some tailored clothes, a big meal, a bath, a whore…give them everything they’ve ever dreamed of the upper crust enjoying. Spare no expense. Get them addicted to the lifestyle, and then point them my direction.”
Garth gave a big grin. “We’re gonna make a Family.”
“And how do you expect me to afford that?”
“Small business loan.” Garth said, closing his doodle book before reaching into his desk and pulling out one of his modified status bands, with two cubic feet of secret storage.
“There’s two hundred thousand credits in here, don’t spend it all in one place. And please, don’t let me find out you spent this on yourself instead of using it to woo young men.”
“And I suppose I get the shaft?” The greying man asked.
“Well, I was thinking to myself what I could pay a family man with.”
“What, do I get to visit my wife if I dance to your tune well enough?” Paul asked.
“I was thinking more along the lines of actual payment.” Garth said, revealing a small box of heartstones. “For your kids, if you want. I know getting enough for all of them is beyond your income, So I’ll pay you by assuming one of your expenses.”
“Doesn’t show up on my taxes, either.” Paul said, eyeing the box. “Alright, I’ll take it, but I want to see my wife.”
Garth shrugged. “No one’s stopping you.”
Paul put on the status band and after a moment, figured out how to use the smuggler’s stash, stowing away the heartstones.
“How do you intend to fund a crew composed entirely of talented, wealth-addicted, ambitious young men who aren’t afraid of anything?” Paul asked. “Your money can’t be infinite.
“I’m going to expand into drug distribution.” Garth said.
Paul’s eyebrows rose.
“The drug trade is set in stone. You’d be competing with the Gonzales family, who practically own their own separate fortress city to the north, in some of the only farmable land available. They’ve got enough free land to raise hidden plots of poppy, marijuana, and coca, which they use to pad their more legal income. They don’t tolerate competition well. You could probably sell a little here and there for chump change on a streetcorner, but the minute you tried to establish a presence or start your own plantations, they would crush you.”
“Let me deal with that problem, you woo me some go-getters.”
“Alright,” Paul said, standing up. “Is that all you wanted?”
“I don’t want you too deep in my business just yet, for plausible deniablility,” Garth said. “So yes.”
Paul gave him one last look and turned on his heel, walking out of Garth’s office. In the moment the door was open, he made out Ragnar approaching Paul, his tail wagging.
“Did you get another one of those cigars?”
Garth chuckled and reopened his notebook, picked up a piece of charcoal and began sketching. Garth needed to develop his artistic visualization before he changed his appearance.
While he doodled naked men, he pondered his problems.
Paul was right: he was hemorrhaging money.
Two million to keep the Bergstroms afloat, two to outfit his whorehouse with noble-level bouncers. One hundred thousand for a months worth of heartstones for Paul’s kids, two hundred earmarked for recruitment.
He wasn’t making any money from the Adamantium mines, in fact he was breaking even stockpiling the tiny crystals the size of his pinky he bought from the smugglers with the tax revenue.
Garth hadn’t intended to get back into the drug trade, as lucrative as it was, for fear of being outed as Garth.
Now that he’d had time to think about it, all he had to do was maintain the status quo: not heavily modify the product or make it float or cast spells on the people who snorted it.
The last thought anyone ever had was that he was Garth, mythical ancient evil wizard. Paul hadn’t even bought it. He’d panicked a bit at first, but once he’d had time to process it, he’d believed Garth was a male Garthspawn.
“If anyone thought twice about it though,” Garth said, running his off hand through his short green hair. “Garthspawn don’t have green hair.”
The people he really needed to avoid were the extremely nosy ones like Paul, and ones who knew him personally from before.
Not a whole lot of those.
In the trillions of worlds, a drug distribution ring changing hands from one gang to another would draw precisely no attention.
It probably wouldn’t even show up on the Empire’s radar.
The Gonzales family wouldn’t admit they were getting pushed around. Something told Garth that their secret fields were going to wilt and die, soon.
Garth started working on sketching his ideal V muscles, working down toward the junk. Chicks dig the V muscle. Well, Sandi hadn’t really been able to tell one human from another very well, but Nat had liked ‘em, along with every other chick he’d ever met.
Muscular, but not intimidatingly muscular. Some ladies don’t want to be smothered.
Garth started drawing the hips and thighs.
Then again, some do.
Garth worked downward until the feet, then realized he hadn’t given his prototype ideal self a penis, leaving a gaping blank spot in the center.
Garth sighed and started filling it in….
Garth stopped and looked at his work, finding it not quite what he wanted, erasing the crudely drawn dong and starting over.
That one didn’t turn out good either.
Suddenly, Garth realized he’d been obsessing over drawing dick for over half an hour.
There’s gotta be something better to do.
“Screw this.” Garth set the charcoal down and pushed the book away. Garth stood up and left his office, heading down the stairs to the main hall.
“Where are you heading?” Rachel Bergstrom asked as he stalked toward the door.
“Gonna hit a bar and see if I can get l can get lucky.”
“That’s stupid, why don’t you just get-“
“Because,” Garth said, rounding on her before falling silent. ….because the Garthspawn are my kids? Because there’s a power dynamic? Because I’m the whore’s boss? Because everyone who knows me wants something from me, and sticking my dick in them is tacit agreement to whatever their evil plan is?
“Just because.” Garth turned back and clomped out the door.
Garth walked down the dark streets, out into the trade district where the foot traffic picked up, heading for the closest bar, a bit higher quality than others, due to its proximity to the noble quarter.
Garth was drawn to the lights and music, angling toward the door and coming inside, the smell of beer and food washing over him.
There were maybe two women there, obviously with other people, and the rest looked like tired paper pushers after a long day in the cubicle.
“Nope,” Garth said, spinning on his heel and heading for the next.
“I think he’s gone,” Alicia said, raising her head above the hedge to peer at the mansion.
Aunt Maggie had asked them to see if they could get any more information on the phytomage, potentially uncover the secret behind his magic, if the man was stupid enough to leave it lying around.
None of them thought he was that stupid, but the man’s behavior was often erratic. There was every possibility that they would find something valuable in his office.
“Third floor, second window on the left,” Benedette said, hiking the rope up on her shoulder.
They glanced around, made sure no one was watching, then crept up to the side of the Bergstrom estate.
“Didn’t even hire guards,” Alicia scoffed under her breath. “The Bergstroms were practically asking for it.”
Benedette put her hands on the ground and Alicia stepped on them, launching high up into the air, where she caught herself on the third floor window. The wood of the windowsill creaked for a second before settling under Alicia’s modest weight. She tested the window: Locked.
“damn,” she muttered, fishing a bit of adhesive skin from a Sticky Toad out of her belt pouch, dangling one handed. She slapped it on the window and tapped the glass with her knuckle hard enough to shatter it, peeling the sticky skin away to reveal a large round hole.
“Watch out below,” she whispered, tucking up the glass and tossing it past Benedette. Alicia hauled herself up with one hand and reached up through the hole in the window, opening the lock before sliding the window up and crawling through.
Once Alicia was inside, Benedette tossed the rope up, and she pulled her sister up into the window. Benedette had invested more of her allowance into looking pretty and buying gifts for her friends. Alicia didn’t quite understand. Everything fell down to you in the end, why not make yourself as tough as possible?
On the other hand, Benedette had a lot more friends, and that was a problem that had reared its head more than once.
Once Benedette joined her, the two of them stopped and waited a moment to see if anyone was coming to investigate the quiet noises.
A minute later, and the house was still silent.
Once they were sure no one was coming, Alicia lit the lamp while Benedette scanned the office.
“Criminal Enterprises of Edward Bergstrom?” Benedette asked, hefting the large black book on the table.
“He thinks he’s funny.” Alicia said, glancing over before setting the lamp back on its wall-mount.
“I think he’s gay.”
“Huh?” Alicia asked, returning to join her sister, who flipped through page after page of doodles of naked men. At the beginning they were awfully amateurish, but page by page, they were improving…
That wasn’t what caught her attention though.
Beside each drawing were notes, detailing Edward’s businesses:
They were far more limited than their worst case scenario. Where is he getting the money?
As Benedette flipped through the pages, chuckling, Alicia spotted a note that gave her a clue as to Edward’s goals.
Mcdonnel family has the skills to create heartstone refiner. Look for recipes?
Alicia glanced at Benedette, who was perhaps enjoying the illustrations a bit more than she should be. Why isn’t she reading the notes?
“Hold on a second,” Alicia said, pausing a page and staring hard at the notes.
Tax Carnifax’s infrastructure. Hire lawyer? Need a projected yearly income.
“Oh, so this is one your type?” Benedette asked with a raised brow. “They actually all seem a little…same-y to me.”
Alicia ignored her, staring hard at the notes…that seemed to wriggle under her gaze. They’re mana! I’m the only one who can read these!
Without waiting for her, Benedette flipped forward, revealing a drawing of a naked young woman lunging forward with a rapier, a curvaceous butt jutting out suggestively behind her. She had a slim build down to wide hips, and straight black hair down to her jaw.
At the bottom was a bit of scrawled text.
“Oh look, it’s you. Maybe he’s not all gay. Like, ninety nine percent gay?”
“My butt is not that big!” Alicia hissed, looking up at Benedette. “And it doesn’t look like that when you lunge, she’s practically breaking her spine to stick her butt out!”
“Umm…” Benedette glanced at Alicia’s behind with a pensive look. “You kinda do look like that when you do lunges. All I can say is…take it as a compliment? Men would kill for you to sit on them with that thing.”
Alicia took a deep steadying breath, fighting the urge to murder her sister.
I could kill her right here, and no one would know. No one at all…
A large leaf from the nearby potted plant wrapped around her wrist, nearly startling Alicia out of her skin.
“What the hell!” She shouted, reaching for her sword with her other hand. The potted plant bent down and curled more of its long leaves around both arms, suspending her in the air.
“What’s happening?” Benedette cried, standing in the center of the room completely unmolested by the plant behind her.
“How should I know?” Alicia whispered, struggling against the plant, barely able to pull her arms inward toward the pommel of her blade. “Help me!”
Benedette reached toward her knife when the plant behind her sprung into sudden motion, lashing a dozen long, flat leaves around her and dangling her up in the air with a yelp.
The two sisters struggled in midair for a good five minutes, and Alicia was finally able to reach her blade, but she wasn’t able to draw it.
Damn it! Alicia, increasingly desperate, leaned her head over to bite the leaves around her arms, but three more bands locked around her head, pinning her in place.
At that point, the powerlessness made her lose it, thrashing mindlessly in the plant’s grip, just shy of screaming her lungs out. The only thing that stopped her was the knowledge that if the Bergstroms found her here, incapacitated, they would make her disappear.
Drawing attention to themselves was a sure way to get killed.
In Alicia’s mindless thrashing, she felt the pot rock a bit, and she realized if she toppled the plant over she might be able to kill it and get free.
As soon as Alicia thought of rocking back and forth, more leaves wrapped around her waist and held her completely motionless.
“You still haven’t figured it out?” Benedette asked, drawing Alicia’s attention to where the guardian plant was gently lowering her to the ground.
“Stop trying to struggle. Sometimes you just gotta relax and let them have their way with you.”
“Why do you have to make everything about sex?” Alicia whispered, but followed her sister’s advice, relaxed and just…waited.
The bands around her waist slowly retracted, followed by her head, and finally the plant set her down on the ground and released her arms.
“C’mon,” Benedette said, “let’s look for something actually useful.”
Alicia caught her breath, rubbed her wrists and glanced at the black leatherbound book. She couldn’t keep reading it while Benedette was in the same room, or she’d tip her off that there was more to it.
I wonder what the note at the bottom of my page said, a little voice said in the back of her mind, curious to know what he thought of her.
They scrounged through the office, not bothering to leave everything the way they found it: They’d broken the window on the way in.
They found a couple hundred thousand in cash, and confiscated it.
They found six torn apart Status Bands tucked in the bottom left drawer, a stash of cigars, and little else. The books in the room all belonged to the Patriarch before Edward had confiscated it, and none of them held anything but a bit of mold.
Alicia was drawn back to the book, her fingers itching with the desire to read what he thought of her. If it even is about you…
Finally Alicia gave in, deciding it would be less suspicious to take a quick glance than to hover around the damn thing all night.
She flipped the book open again, to a chuckle from her sister, until she came back to the drawing of her.
You make the Rockin’ world go round!
What does that even mean!? Alicia thought, studying the text and shaking her head. Curious, Alicia flipped to the next page, where the whole page was dominated by another drawing of a naked man, with notes pointing to various parts of his anatomy, noting head to body ratio, shoulder to waist, v-muscles?
New body must be ideal. Find a way to average physical attractiveness data. Perhaps use information tracking with a revised version of succubi’s Lure? Reset to male and find an average.
“So he knows how to enchant. This is good information.” Benedette said, hands on her hips. “We also took another bite out of him with the cash. That and the gay thing, and we can modify our strategy.”
“I don’t think he’s gay.” Alicia said, reading through more
“Even gay men can appreciate a bubble butt.”
“You notice how all the drawings are similar?”
“That’s his type.”
“I think he wants to change the way he looks.”
Benedette’s eyebrows raised. “That’s…a possibility I hadn’t considered. Can he do that?”
“Idunno.” Alicia shrugged, absorbing more of Edward’s secret plans as she flipped through the book, trying not to let on that she was reading until she got to the end of the notebook.
“Oh wait, I just realized something!” Alicia said.
“What?” Benedette asked, glancing up from where she was preparing to climb back down the rope.
“I didn’t see you in here at all.”
“That’s pretty petty, Al.” Benedette said with a scowl before dropping below the window sill.
“Should have left you to get molested by the plant.” Her voice came through the window.