We were back inside the walls with the gates closed behind us when I turned to Pete. Circe was standing close to him, his arm draped over her shoulders. Despite the ordeal she'd just been through, she seemed fine. If I had to judge by the jagged scars all over her face, she'd had worse days. The right sleeve of her dress was spattered with blood.
"What the hell just happened there?" I asked.
"You were there, Mack. Do I really need to explain it to you? The Fatally Hip learned that they shouldn't try to muscle me. I may be mostly out of the game, but that doesn't mean I can't protect what's mine," Pete said.
Circe chuckled and gave him a kiss. "Thank you, my prince."
I had a ton of questions, and a lot of my assumptions had just been turned upside down. Was this really a world where you could have a gun fight in the city, the cops would show up and not arrest anyone?
"But the cops," I protested weakly.
"Oh yes, we got lucky there," Pete allowed. "If Warner wasn't on shift we might have spent some time in a holding cell. He's a good cop though. Once you buy him, he stays bought."
"Come on, let's go sit down. I'm starving. Pete, will you cook us some dinner?" Circe asked.
"Of course, my lady."
The three of us moved deeper into Nirvana. The center of the compound with the fire pit and tables was relatively untouched. There hadn't been much for the cops conducting the search to destroy. Pete opened up a mini fridge I hadn't noticed and fished around inside it.
"I'm not looking forward to straightening up. Let's just have a nice meal and relax," Circe said, settling down on a worn plastic chair. "Mack, sit down."
I picked a chair and sat. Pete was placing ingredients on the table in front of us. Ground beef, tomatoes and cheese.
"What was that out there? The whole prince/princess thing?" I asked.
Circe cackled, an unnerving sound. "My Pete is a clever man."
"Mercurial is one of our code words," Pete explained as he sliced a tomato. "It means drop to the ground."
"That shitheel had me and wasn't letting go when I went limp, so I had to convince him," Circe added.
That wasn't how I remembered it. She'd collapsed and used the knife in the same deadly motion. I wasn't going to contradict her.
Z emerged from the main building, carrying my holstered pistol in his left hand. He set it on the table in front of me and then turned to Pete, rapidly signing.
Pete nodded. "That's good news. I'll help you put the shop back together later. Now sit down—I'm cooking."
Z joined us and I put my pistol back where it belonged. It had felt strange not having it there.
"What did he say?" I asked.
"The cops busted up his workshop searching but nothing is missing," Circe said.
"How could they possibly have missed the guns?" I asked.
Circe gave me an intense look, her smile gone. "Do you really want to be poking into our secrets, Mack? My man here could have just exchanged you and saved himself a lot of trouble."
"Sorry, I just don't get it."
Pete laid a hand on Circe's shoulder, silencing whatever reply she had.
"Peace, Circe. Mack, maybe one day we'll have enough trust to let you in on such a sensitive topic, but today is not that day."
"Fair enough. Hey, thanks for not just handing me over. I appreciate it."
"Even if they hadn't taken Circe, I wouldn't have been inclined to. Threatening her was a big mistake," Pete said.
There was a sudden, loud pounding on metal. Three rapid knocks on the gate.
"That must be Duke," Pete said. "Circe, would you get the gate?"
Circe stood up and went over to the gate to let Duke in. He gave Circe a quick once over and a hug. They had a quiet conversation before joining us at the table. The chair creaked under Duke's weight but held.
"I heard the gunfire and came back as soon as I could," Duke said. "What happened?"
Old Pete and Circe gave him the short version. When it got to the part where I'd been given the battle rifle, he gave me an assessing look.
"Why weren't there any bodies out there?" Duke asked.
"I'd never fired a rifle before," I said.
"It was a near ideal result for us," Pete said. "We hurt them and drove them off without leaving a body to explain to the police. That would have been too much for my arrangement with the lieutenant. The one that had Circe may yet die. I hit him, and Circe left a blade in him."
Circe shook her head. "I don't think so. They were all wearing body armor, my love."
"Ah, too bad," Pete said. He'd finished preparing burger patties and placed a cast iron pan on a rack over the fire pit.
"Wait a minute, how is this possibly an ideal result? Me and Manny have been running scared from these assholes. They're crazy—you've seen that tonight. Magnus doesn't let go of grudges and he's psychotic. He's going to come after you."
Duke chuckled, but didn't say anything. He leaned back in his chair and looked at Pete, who didn't disappoint.
"You must have had a very sheltered upbringing, Mack. This surprises me, as you have some good instincts."
"Let's say I did. What's to stop Magnus from sneaking back here in the middle of the night and firebombing this place? You know he'd do it."
"Nothing but our vigilance. Speaking of which, Duke if you wouldn't mind taking a shift in a tower? I'll bring you the first burger."
Duke nodded, standing up and climbing into the tower nearest the gate I'd come in. He was tall enough that standing he'd be able to see people approaching in nearly all directions. It wasn't flawless security, but better than nothing at all.
Having built up the fire, Pete placed five seasoned burger patties into the large, hot pan. They started sizzling immediately and the smell made my mouth water.
"The thing about gangs like The Hip is that while they are obviously wealthy and well equipped, they are weak. There are only six of them, and now two of them are out of action. Their real weakness is not their size, it is their isolation. They have no allies. No one will care if they suddenly cease to be."
"What are you saying, Pete? That we just have to kill them all?"
"I'd be fine with that," Circe supplied.
Duke shook his head at her, amusement on his face. "My bloodthirsty little witch."
Circe stuck her tongue out at him.
"While that would work, it's never my first solution," Pete said.
Z had been intently following the conversation and signed something.
"Very good, Z! Yes, that's exactly right," Pete said, smiling. "When a gang is isolated, then they don't need to fear only their enemies. They must also fear their suppliers and their customers."
"That makes no sense," I protested. "Why would they fear their customers? Some pothead is going to kill them?"
Pete flipped the burgers and put a piece of cheese on top of each one. "Get the buns and condiments ready, would you Z? These will be done soon."
Z nodded and walked over to the fridge while Pete kept speaking.
"You're making an incorrect assumption, Mack. The Hip aren't just small scale weed dealers. They're distributors. I don't know who their customers are or who their connect is, but I will tomorrow."
Distributor implied that they were selling large quantities of weed to other gangs. Kind of like the Brass Dragon Tong. If that was true, then Pete was right. They'd have to worry about pissing off their customers without a bigger organization to fall back on.
Pete was making it sound like there was a possible diplomatic solution to this. I doubted that. With Zeke in the hospital and Circe stabbing Byron I couldn't imagine Magnus being in any kind of mood for diplomacy. My strategy of keeping my head down still seemed like the best approach. I just wish I'd known how they'd found me at the library.
"Circe, any idea how they knew I was at the library? Or how they knew to grab you?" I asked.
"They didn't say anything about you. It's usually some little snitch. That's how they knew about me. They had someone watching us in the library," she replied.
That wasn't helpful. I couldn't think of how some random guy in the shadows could have placed me there. I wasn't particularly unique looking, and there were other people walking in shadows hiding their names. It just didn't make sense. It would have to be someone that already knew what I looked like, waiting there and watching for me. Was that too paranoid? Would 'watch for a generic white guy hiding his name and also wearing this style of sunglasses' have worked? I hoped not.
A stack of mismatched plates had appeared from somewhere, and Pete was assembling burgers. "I've got more beef, so if you're still hungry after this I'll make more."
When the first burger was assembled, Pete picked up the plate and brought it over to Duke. He set it on the platform at his feet. "Just the way you like it, big guy. When you're ready for number two let me know."
The burgers were great. I'd had two, and after that was completely stuffed. Duke had three, calmly eating each while he stood his watch in the tower. He still wore the trench coat, body armor and had the AK slung underneath. It seemed like appropriate gear for standing a watch.
"Mack, you should stay here tonight and leave at dawn," Pete said. "It would be too easy to miss an ambush in the dark. We'll give you a place to sleep, and I'll ask you to stand the next watch after Duke."
The thought of the Hip waiting somewhere nearby to ambush me hadn't really occurred to me. Since I still hadn't figured out how they'd placed me at the library I wasn't ready to dismiss the possibility. It wasn't like the Orange House was some kind of fortress. If they followed me home, I'd be screwed.
When Duke was done one and a half hours later I took his place. Everyone else had retired for the night, and three hours of standing and watching an empty riverbed was mind numbing. I was incredibly grateful when Z came to relieve me, and collapsed onto the air mattress they had laid out for me beside the dwindling fire.
Shortly after dawn I started awake, reaching for my gun. I was disoriented, but soon remembered where I was. Pete was standing at the fire, using a cloth to remove a percolator of coffee from the rack over the fire.
"Morning. Want some coffee?"
I coughed to clear my dry throat. "Sure."
Gratefully, I accepted the cup of coffee he poured for me. It was painfully hot, and I blew on it while waiting impatiently. Pete sipped at it, not seeming to mind the searing liquid's temperature.
"Before you go, let's talk about the Hip. I'm going to make some inquiries today. If I find a weakness to exploit, I expect your cooperation."
"I'm flat broke, Pete. I can't pay you anything for this."
"There is always money to be made in the destruction of someone else's empire. We'll find some."
"Then fine, I'll help however I can if it means getting these psychos off our backs."
"Wonderful. Where can I find you today?" Pete asked.
"You know the Lyle Street Soldados?"
"El Gato Azul? He's in prison."
It was interesting to finally hear Gato's full name. The Blue Cat. Didn't sound that scary, but Pete seemed to know who he was.
"I've got an arrangement with them. Flattop's running them now. I'll be near their shop, you know where that is?"
"I do. I'll come by sometime today if I find something useful."
I finished my coffee, setting down the chipped cup. Pete let me out of the compound, and a few minutes later I emerged onto the street just above the river, the bright morning light washing over me.
Finding a phone booth wasn't hard—they were everywhere. I called a taxi and a few tense minutes of waiting later I it arrived and I jumped in the back.
I'm a tech consultant and a part time author (full time during this plague).
I have five books currently on Amazon, my Land of Dreams series and my new sci-fi series The Last Enclave. They're both gamelit/litrpg.
Capo is an experiment to see if I can make gangster a legit subgenre of Gamelit/LitRPG. I hope I can pull it off.