The Stacks

This Thing of Ours

by Lawrence Burton

Craps table, private bar, and a fake gilt edge to every fitting - it went well with the chitter-chatter, the clinking glasses, and the distant trickle of cocktail piano. The crowd could have parted at any second to let Moses through in the form of Donald Trump; eyes might have flown to such a spectacle, but no-one would have been too surprised - at least no more so than Vincent was to find himself in this setting.

Being better acquainted with the men's locker stench of back room dives, it seemed strange that he should feel so at ease in these surroundings. By rights he should have been sweating like some kid on a first date, but he'd waited too long for a day like this. He was too well prepared. These people weren't the usual mercenary collection of bozos and ass-kissers, every single one a made guy, and only a few from the ranks below Capo. This was some inner circle shit.

'I'd very much like you to meet Vincent Maione. He's a friend of ours.' Michael D'Albisola smiled, his mouth clamped tight to prevent the escape of any more dumb crap.

He's a friend of ours - like the kid could have wandered in off the street thinking this was a fuckin' Star Wars convention.

Vincent extended an unsteady hand, hoping his own nerves weren't so obvious as those of his sponsor.

Blank, watery eyes stared back through a pair of goldfish bowl lenses. The moment of recognition failed to arrive and a whiff of senility enveloped the old man like a halo.

Breaking the impasse, the younger guest leant forward, forcing a lukewarm embrace on his bewildered host and rounding it off with an uneasy peck on first the left and then the right cheek. 'My brother told me a lot about you, Mr. Cosenza. This is a real honour.'

'Vincent Maione?' D'Albisola absently circled a hand in the air as though hoping to crank start the old man's memory. 'From Trenton?'

'Oh sweet Jesus! Where are my fuckin' manners?' Sal Cosenza's papery jowls creased with laughter as he took the young man's hand in his own surprisingly staunch grip. 'No need to kiss my ass, kid. I already got all the ass-kissers I can use without reaching outside the zip code. I been hearing good things about your crew.'

D'Albisola's face slackened to a grin which he beamed at his junior. 'I been telling this creaky old fuck about the Protocorp job. That was some nice work.'

'Nice Work?' The old man submitted a burlesque chuckle. 'If the Montinaro family keeps up that kind of action, the Commission's gonna be coming to you for favours.'

'What can I say?' Vincent spread his hands wide, caught out fair and square. 'We came. We saw. We juiced them until we could juice no more.'

Coming from a new guy, this was almost a little too familiar, a little too brash - but Salvatore Cosenza knew this kid had more than earned the right.

Had the Trenton families let on about their plans for Protocorp, they would have been warned off there and then with no chance of appeal. On paper, it should have been a disaster just begging to go off in everyone's faces - blind ambition that would have brought heat crashing down across the entire eastern seaboard.

In practice it came and went without so much as a ruffled feather to set the usual noses twitching. Three months on and no sign the authorities had even noticed the gaping hole in their accounts: like it had never happened - except it had, and Maione's crew still weren't done counting up the take.

'So you wanna let me in or what?'

Cosenza slapped an apparently playful hand onto the younger man's shoulder. 'You got David Silverlake on the team, ha? You got some Broadway finook in disco-duds pulling rabbits out a hat?'

Vincent held his ground, amiable despite the invasive curiosity. 'Just forward planning is all. No mirrors, no hidden wires, none of that.'

'Relax, kid. I'm fuckin' with you.' Cosenza offered a conciliatory smile. 'With the sort of numbers you're kicking up the line, maybe I should be putting trade secrets your way.'

None of the three had paid much attention to a tall, thick set man lurking nearby, an onlooker following the exchange whilst waiting for an opening. Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, he stood alone in the crowd, untroubled by the other guests huddled together in affairs of their own. The giant fiddled with his silk tie and swept a speck of dandruff from the lapel of his tux, wondering how the same clothes could make everyone but him look like Fred Astaire. He felt more like Fred Flintstone.

Noticing the giant's glaring discomfort, a waiter stepped forward, fingers splayed beneath a tray of slender-necked glasses.

'May I offer you something to drink, sir?'

'Thanks.' Lunardi knocked back the champagne and returned the empty flute without further acknowledgement. With a sudden intake of breath, he forced himself across the floor towards his uncle's group - a clumsy, hesitant diving motion as though doubting he'd be able to squeeze his bulk into the brief pause in their conversation.

'Don Cosenza, forgive me for imposing upon you this day. I—'

'Don Cosenza?' The old man craned an incredulous eye towards the newcomer. 'Christ, Bernie - this ain't The Godfather. You might wanna loosen that tie before it cuts off all the air to your brain, ha?'

Lunardi dutifully loosened his tie with nervous glances to Maione and D'Albisola.

'Uncle Sal, I er...'

'Bernie. Please don't insult our friends by assuming they're wired.'

Cosenza pinched the bridge of his nose as though fending off a headache. 'Take a look around and tell me if you think this looks like an FBI ice-cream social.'

The big man swept sceptical eyes about the room before standing down to a reduced degree of discomfort. 'I need to talk with you, Uncle Sal. It's about that guy who used to be a friend of ours but ain't a friend of ours no more, if you know what I'm saying.'

Cosenza sighed and swallowed a smartass remark. 'So then - Jimmy Rosso. You found out where he's at?'

A tinny rendition of a Led Zeppelin guitar solo bled into the hubbub of guarded conversation. Vincent tugged his phone from an inner pocket and examined the tiny screen.

Lunardi ignored the interruption. 'Jimmy Rosso's gone on a long holiday. I don't think he's gonna be coming back any time soon.'

Cosenza beamed happily. 'So where's the problem?'

'No, Uncle Sal. I mean he really has gone on a long holiday. We lost him at the airport and he had on a pair of those shorts with pictures of palm trees on them.'

'I'm gonna have to take this.' Vincent waved his phone by way of illustration and wandered off towards the edge of the room as Aldo's voice buzzed in his ear.

'You ain't gonna believe who showed up.'

The young man shrugged for the benefit of no-one in particular. 'I don't know. I believe a lot of stuff these days. This'll have to be pretty fuckin' special.'

'He calls himself Cousin Pantagruel.'

Standing at the window, Vincent watched his reflection frowning against the New York skyline - streets in shadow, glassy monoliths ablaze beneath the late afternoon sun.

'You're right. I don't believe it.'

Aldo sounded close to boiling point. 'That's some fuckin' balls, ha?'

'No kidding. You need me back there?'

'It couldn't hurt. This is just one guy, but who knows?'

'Right.' Maione glanced over to where D'Albisola gave helpless witness as the old man tried to extract sense from a looming nephew. 'I guess Mikey can take it from here. He only had me show up so Cosenza could get an autograph off the guy who paid for his boat.'

'Okay then. Drive like a good citizen, ha?'

'I always do.' He snapped his phone shut and crossed back to the group.

D'Albisola turned aside from Lunardi's burbling monologue. 'You taking off already?'

'Something's come up.' Vincent's voice fell to an unsettled mutter. 'Faction Paradox.'

'You're kidding me.'

'Relax. It's just the one guy this time.'

D'Albisola spoke through gritted teeth. 'That's some fuckin' balls!'

'That's what Aldo said.'

Lunardi continued his inventory of all the dead ends which hadn't lead to Jimmy Rosso.

'Okay. Okay. Settle down, Bernie.' Cosenza cut in before the giant could add footnotes. 'No-one's expecting you to be Sam Spade. We all know you done your best.'

He lifted another champagne flute from the tray of a passing waiter and threw it back in a sequence of desperate gulps.

'Er listen. I've got to hit the road.' Vincent had doubts about the etiquette of interrupting a boss in this way, even if the boss in question seemed pretty amiable. 'We had an unexpected delivery back in Trenton. I should be there.'

Cosenza twizzled the stem of the glass in his hand and turned a thoughtful gaze upon his nephew.

Lunardi shrank back. 'You ain't mad at me?'

'No, Bernie. I ain't mad.' The old man's eyes fixed onto Vincent. 'I'll be bringing Montinaro family concerns up with the Commission this Friday, but there's something I'd like you to do for me.'

A perfect sunset splashed across the western horizon like the work of a hyperactive child - strokes of red and blue slashed into a pale green as creamy as exotic chocolate. The peacock skyline shone so vivid as to negate the grime at its lower edge - the dark, earthy clutter of industry, silos and vents bleeding smuts of black into daylight's last hour.

Vincent had driven past this place a thousand times, and still he had no idea what went on within all those square metal miles. Oil? Gasoline? Maybe steel?

Well, he'd hadn't ended up there and that was the main thing. No chequered shirt and lunch pail for him - or the backache, black lungs, bitter old age, whatever other shit came with the territory.

His eyes fell back to the asphalt, prompting an unconscious correction between white line and steering wheel. He'd make Trenton in another twenty-five minutes, home in an hour or maybe a little more.

At his right, sunset blazed on like the closing credits of a perfect film. Vincent could see himself in miniature - I made it, ma - top of the world! but without the good guy-bad guy lessons of the movie.

Sal Cosenza would remember him to the Commission, put his name on the books so that when it came up again, they would know to take him seriously. The entire business had been in a nosedive since the '80s. Perhaps history was going to remember Vincent Maione as one of the guys who turned it all back around.

'I ain't never been to Trenton before.'

Lunardi had been silent for a few minutes. Vincent took a deep breath and reminded himself that this favour would grease wheels in New York. Cosenza had figured on some of that old Montinaro magic rubbing off on his ape of a nephew, although it was baby-sitting by any other name. The big guy had a good heart, but otherwise he was dead weight, albeit dead weight with an uncle sat squarely on the Commission.

'I ain't never been to Trenton before.' He said it again.

'I heard you the first time.'

Vincent sighed as a twinge of guilt made its presence felt. Maybe he was being too harsh on the guy. If Lunardi was going to be hanging around for the next few days, he was probably going to find out most of it anyway. Of course, how much he would really understand was another matter.

'So you wanna know all about Protocorp, ha?'

Almost bent double in the passenger seat, the giant made an awkward attempt at a shrug. 'That ain't my business. You said.'

Vincent winced at the repetition of his own scathing rebuke. 'Sorry I got mad at you, okay? If you really want to know, that's fine. I'll tell you.'

Might as well just come right out with it, he reasoned. If all went as it should with the Commission, it would be common knowledge soon enough - at least common knowledge amongst the families.

Narcotics had brought the business to its knees over the past few decades. Pushing weight paid out big money, but the sentences were just too much. No-one could do that sort of time, and it was no surprise that some took the easy option. Never mind a few degenerates who'd sell their own fuckin' mothers for another shot on the pipe, the real price of heroin had been loyalty in the boardroom.

And now here was something that might put the clock back. This bunch of little leaguers from Trenton had found a way of scoring Hollywood budget work without anyone getting their hands too dirty. Concepts of evidence and association would become things of the past - well, not even so much as that. A new generation of untouchables were about to take charge, but better than untouchables - unthinkables!

Vincent could remember the day he got confirmed like a scene from a favourite movie. The blood and the burning image of the Saint, the oath that redefined him as a made man, one of the elite; and the more recent ceremony had played out along similar lines, but the pay off had proven so much greater, and so much stranger. The specifics of becoming an unmade man were just too fuckin' wacky to contemplate; real head game stuff, but it worked, so maybe knowing all the details of whatever was going on under the hood didn't matter.

As an unmade guy, nothing Vincent Maione did or said could be captured on tape; no software would be convinced of his existence; regular photographs came out blurred beyond recognition; even his name slid right off the paper as soon as written.

Lunardi gurgled in the passenger seat. 'So how did you do it?'

Vincent plucked a cigarette from the carton on the dash, flipped it into his mouth and applied his lighter. 'You know anything about the War?'

The giant's dull eyes sank to the floor as he pondered over an answer. 'I seen Saving Private Ryan and Independent Hearts, but I didn't like them so much as The Godfather.'

'No, Bernie. Not a war - the War.' Maione twirled his cigarette hand in the vague direction of the heavens. 'You've heard rumours, right? National Enquirer, that sort of shit?'

'I guess, but I didn't think nothing of it.'

He obviously did - the denial came too quickly. Probably he didn't want to sound like the sort of fool who'd believe just about anything.

'Well maybe you should think again, because it's all true - screwy though that sounds.'

'Yeah?' Lunardi's guard collapsed in readiness to believe just about anything. 'You seen any of that stuff?'

Vincent took a slow, calculated pull on his cigarette. 'About a year ago we had a visit from Faction Paradox - a whole squad of their foot soldiers, or whatever you'd call them.'

'Yeah?' The big man clearly had no idea who or what the name referred to.

'They're caught up in the War, although I couldn't tell you the how or why. Anyway, they had this idea that they were taking over our operation.'

Lunardi fell obediently silent as the car slowed before a junction - a habit driven into him over many years of yelling from his old man. With the oncoming traffic soon cleared, he watched the gleaming hood of the Lexus swing out over a fresh stretch of asphalt.

'These are like aliens, ha?'

'I don't know - well, most of them look like you or me once you get past all that Marilyn Manson armour.' Vincent tapped off the right-turn indicator. 'The point is they figured they could take us down, just suck us right into whatever circus they got going on. They got a serious jones about our image, and image is fuckin' everything with these guys.'

Lunardi looked his uncle's friend up and down for a moment. True enough, the guy was a pretty sharp dresser.

'Anyway, for all their fancy Lord of the Rings routines, we still knocked the crap out of them - and that's how we got to keep their hardware, which is what we used at Protocorp.'

'Like their guns and stuff?'

'So far we only figured out about a third of it. There's things make you invisible, devices that are to do with time travel. I don't even got the words to describe a lot of it. It's more like some sort of voodoo shit than science or whatever.'

Having fallen silent, Lunardi stared at the sunset fading through the car window.

Vincent looked over to his travelling companion. This was probably a lot for the big guy to take in. Hell - the instructions on a bag of potato chips would be a lot for him to take in.

'Okay. So Protocorp - we got this thing that stretches a second of your life out into a year. We had a guy walled up in their vault back in '57 when it was being built. He counted off about a minute, bust the place wide open at a prearranged date, and here we are - three bells in a row. Plus the beautiful part is now we got the means to make sure it sort of never happened. No-one knows shit because there ain't shit to know, and I get to buy a boat with the small change.'

Happy just to be reminded of his own good fortune, Vincent uncorked a gleeful chuckle.

Again he looked across to Lunardi.

Aldo had once told D'Albisola's bratty kid that not only did Santa Claus not exist, but Jason and Freddy did - and here was that very same face scaled up to adult proportions.

'Take it easy, Big Bernie.' Vincent squeezed the giant's shoulder. 'You'll see it for yourself soon enough. All this stuff I been telling you about - it won't seem quite so crazy this time tomorrow.'

Lunardi's gaze remained rooted to the darkening skyline as all the tiny orange lights winked on before the encroaching night.

'I ain't never been to Trenton before.'

Aldo Chiattone stared at the components loosely assembled across the desk in front of him: parts that could have been ripped from inside a transistor radio; an inch square block comprising at least a hundred tiny sheets of paper; seven small bones of differing sizes, possibly from a chicken. None of the elements matched up, not even with themselves.

The circuitry presented a conundrum in that, for the product of an allegedly time-active culture, it looked stubbornly basic. He'd prised more sophisticated devices out of telephone receivers. This seemed closer to something constructed in order to create the appearance of technology which, given its source, would probably explain a lot. It was like those cargo cults in the South Pacific with their TV sets made from a packing crate and a newspaper photo.

The sheaves of paper bugged him the most - like a wad of post-it notes minus the gummed strip. He'd been through them several times over - each a blank, excepting the one time when at least half had carried scribbled symbols from an unfamiliar language, if it was a language. Since then, they'd all returned to their previous pristine condition.

As usual, it was a complete mystery, but he'd been here before having divined the purpose of larger and messier devices. He'd told Dean Montinaro it was like trying to map out the floors of a building using only the sense of smell - not impossible, but a way short of falling off logs.

A noise rose up from the kitchen.

Reminded of his baby-sitter status, Aldo dispensed an irritable grunt. They could have seen to the prisoner last night had Vincent not turned up with Mighty Joe Young in tow - just another distraction they needed like a football bat.

Ignoring the noise, he returned to the task at hand.

A symbol resembling a number halfway between eight and seven had appeared on the uppermost square of paper. Aldo gathered up the flimsy stack of cards and shuffled through, noting a preponderance of new pictograms unlike those seen earlier, but no less inscrutable.

Concentrating hard, he could almost feel the purpose surrounding this collection of outwardly unrelated objects. No doubt the assembled whole would be biodata activated, as theoretically was most Faction technology - but the details were still too vague to make out.

Of all the stuff they had acquired since that day when it all kicked off, no single item had yet defeated his scrutiny - but it was still a royal pain in the ass that these things always took so long to figure out. It was like each piece needed quality time, like the weaponry needed to build up trust in its new owner before putting out.

Of course, none of it should have worked at all, at least not for a dime-a-dozen bunch of baseline humans, but Aldo had a few ideas about that.

Perhaps their face-off with the Faction had somehow infected the whole crew with whatever it took to get this stuff up and running. Then again, Faction technology didn't seem to come packing any equivalent of an on-off switch. Most of it appeared to be activated by ritual practice, which - it could be argued - only amounted to a slightly fancier version of belief, or faith, or maybe even self-confidence.

Being as just about every guy with a claim on the Montinaro family name regarded himself as the absolute centre of the universe, they all had this latter resource coming out of their ears. So maybe it wasn't a great theory, but it got the job done; plus it made more sense than Davey Crackers with his dumb crap about mutant X-Men genes, or whatever hokey garbage he'd been duped into believing this week.

There it was again, an increasingly familiar tickle on the edge of senses. The device had something to do with control; influence over others, like a little red book where the presence of a name could reel in the listed individual like a fish on a line.

'If you ask me, they just threw that together to fuck with us.'

Aldo sighed as his delicately mounted train of thought went west.

Vincent shut the door with a foot and strolled in, still chewing through a mouthful of chicken wing. He pointed a greasy bone at the rubbish cluttering up his colleague's desk. 'Look at all that crap - stationary supplies, the guts from a tape deck, and what's left at the bottom of a party bucket. Some guy stopped by KFC after a Radio Shack office social.'

Aldo watched Maione take his seat behind the other desk. 'Thank you, Albert Einstein.'

Vincent reached forward, opening a drawer with a quiet snigger to fetch out a can of diet coke. 'Sorry, Aldo. I spent a whole car journey with Barney the Dinosaur. Every time he opens his mouth you feel your IQ dip down into double figures. You know what I'm saying?'

'I hear that.'

Vincent let his spent chicken bone fall into the waste paper basket, popped the can and took a swig. 'Don't get me wrong. Bernie's got a good heart.'

'Big fuckin' deal. Since when did this place become a kindergarten?' Aldo knew the argument was futile, but he had to vent his anger somewhere. 'The guy don't even curse. I'm all for good manners, but how do you trust a guy who can't even say a bad word?'

'I guess I got a few rap tapes I could let him hear, otherwise take it up with Sal.' Vincent's smile lessened. 'You know, I wasn't exactly falling over myself to be his study buddy.'

'All right. All right. The prosecution rests.' Aldo stood to spark up a cigarette before wandering across the room to where a group of filing cabinets sat beneath the great frosted window occupying most of one wall. He stole an absent glance at his wrist watch.

'He's gonna be late.'

Vincent ignored the observation. 'I say we look on the bright side. Bernie might not be packing a full deck, but it'll be a sad day when we can't find work for a good old fashioned bruiser just like mom used to make.'

'Great! So now we got Luca Brasi on the team. Let's bake us a fuckin' cake.'

A dark shadow slid up behind the frosted glass scored to the warm drone of an expensive engine. The silhouette drew to a halt as the hum died to nothing. A door slammed, footsteps smacked on paving, and the door creaked open disgorging the baronial bulk of Dean Montinaro into the dimly lit interior. Waving back the greetings, he looked over to Vincent with eyes like stones. 'What you got for me, Vincenzo?'

Maione put on his best good news face. 'Well, it looks like Sal Cosenza's gonna be working our corner.'

'I know. I just spoke to Mikey. I mean the nephew - what you done with him?'

Vincent indicated the inner door leading to the kitchen and restaurant area. 'Ronnie's fixing him something to eat. The kid's got an appetite like you never seen.'

Aldo stubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray on top of the filing cabinet. 'Maybe we should train him to eat evidence. That would be kind of useful, I guess.'

The boss chuckled to himself. 'That's Sal Cosenza's flesh and blood you're talking about. Where you and me are concerned, that kid lays golden eggs while he's under our roof, okay?'

Aldo forced his face into a compliant smile. 'The kid shits gold. Got it.'

Montinaro's gaze crept over to the room's darkest recess where chalk lines described both a door shaped rectangle and a number of scratchy symbols scrawled within.

'Sally junior should see this. One of you go fetch him.'

Vincent sighed at Aldo's stubborn grin, then scraped his chair back across the floor and headed off towards the kitchen.

Montinaro marched over to the holding cell, eyeing the scrawled chalk sigils with distaste. Fumbling in his pocket, he produced a key - actually the thigh bone of some small mammal criss-crossed with expressive slashes of bright paint.

'I don't mind looking stupid if there's a reason, so it's a good thing this crap works.'

He waggled the bone at the door and stood back as the chalk lines reconfigured themselves into new patterns. The room beyond opened out like a dark sore. A bare bulb dangled from the ceiling by a ratty strand of wire, aglow with feeble light.

The cell was a repository for all the shadows they had excised from terminally inconvenienced opponents, and efforts to further illuminate the place had as a consequence proven futile. With neither guiding minds nor instincts, the shadows were gathered mostly around the edges of the room, remaining inert but for the occasional listless flicker. No-one had quite figured out what they were actually going to do with all these shadows, but it seemed like they would probably come in useful sooner or later - which had turned out to be a pretty good hunch.

Aldo's face loomed from around his boss's shoulder, grinning at the cell's token physical inmate. 'Room service!'

The captive was just as they had left him - still in a pair of Ronnie's old pyjamas, knotted immobile in the wooden chair by a mesh of vines. His head lifted from his chest revealing tired, red eyes which blinked at his captors, then towards a table in the corner.

Montinaro glanced over at the tattered heap of detritus that had served for their prisoner's armour. In use, it had come across like something from an alien slasher flick. Now it resembled a melange of slaughterhouse leftovers and archaeology dig.

Eyes still trained upon his captive, the boss called back to the outer room. 'Vincenzo!'

'Yo!' The response was immediate, if somewhat distant.

'Fix our guest a sandwich; bring some water too.'

'One minute.'

The two men strode into the cell on dark, heavy feet. Aldo lifted a chair from against the wall and set it down before the immobilised Faction agent, facing away so he could be seated with his arms across the backrest.

Montinaro sighed. 'Don't sit that way. You look ridiculous.'

With slow deliberation, the other man got up and rearranged his chair in a more orthodox configuration, eyes still fixed on the Cousin.

The boss flashed a briefly reptilian smile at his prisoner. 'I guess you're still wondering how come your patented sentient shadow ain't stepped up to the bat and bailed your sorry ass out of this mess.'

No response, no measure of confirmation in the bloodshot eyes.

'Well, maybe we ain't so fuckin' backward as you people seem to figure. You ever think of that, ha?' Montinaro fell into a knowing silence, savouring the taste of power.

Unable to move, Cousin Pantagruel stared back with neither resistance nor malice. Ordinarily his shadow could move independent of both owner and light source, wielding a weapon in silhouette no less deadly than its physical equivalent - not that this marked him out as particularly special. Most citizens of the Eleven-Day Empire were armed in similar fashion. For the moment though, this faculty had deserted him. Possibly his darker twin lay immobilised beneath the memetic weight of all the other shadows enmeshed within the cell - he couldn't say for sure.

Lunardi entered, absently chewing as he carried a plate bearing a sharp knife and one half of a formerly immense spicy sausage coated in peppercorns. His steps faltered as he saw the prisoner, but after a moment he seemed to relax.

'He's just a guy!'

'Big Bernie! How you doing?' Montinaro laughed, hugging the new arrival before backing away. 'Let me look at you.'

The giant recovered his balance, relieved to see that his food hadn't rolled from its plate. 'I'm good, Don Montinaro. My uncle sends his best regards.'

'Drop the Don shit, okay? It's 2005.' The boss grinned. 'Vincenzo brought you up to speed on this stuff, right?'

Lunardi nodded, still a little unsure of himself. 'Yeah. But I ain't told no-one.'

'I know you haven't, Bernie.' He gestured towards the captive. 'I'd like you to meet Cousin Pantyhose. He's with something that calls itself Faction Paradox, which means he very much ain't a friend of ours.'

Still unruffled, the prisoner stared back at his captors. 'I could be.'

'You get to speak in a minute, okay?'

'This is a gooood sausage, Don Montinaro.' Lunardi had taken a chair set against the wall and sat carefully slicing off circles of meat, ready to watch and learn.

Vincent entered with a plate of sandwiches, two great paving slabs of thick crusty bread. 'Whose order did I just take?'

Ignoring the encroaching surrealism, Montinaro nodded at the captive.

Aldo held out an object like a sea-slug carved in wood, waving it at the prisoner as though it was a TV remote. Within seconds, the vines binding the man's upper torso had turned brown and withered to brittle dust.

Lunardi's eyes bulged wide as his champing jaw stepped down to a lower gear.

Cousin Pantagruel winced, stretching cramped arms and reaching out for the food. He plucked a sandwich from Vincent's plate and stuffed it into his dry mouth with vicious hunger. Chewing, and then chewing again more slowly, he swallowed with obvious discomfort.

'I'm a vegetarian. This is meat.'

A ripple of amusement passed between three members of his audience.

'Che peccato!' Aldo sliced the air with a dismissive hand. 'We're the fuckin' bad guys! That's the sort of twisted shit we do, and there's more where that came from, my friend - believe me!'

The prisoner took the bottle of spring water from Vincent's hand and emptied it into his parched gullet. Gasping, he stared at the rest of his sandwich for an uncertain moment, then took another savage bite.

'Okay, Pantyliner - here's how it goes.' Montinaro grimaced and drew himself up to full imposing height. 'We're all very flattered by your little truce thing, but frankly it ain't of interest. We already got all we need from your people and we don't want nothing else. Your choices are therefore as follows: you can join all your other little brothers and sisters at the bottom of the Hudson; or you can leave in one piece - which kind of rests on you telling us what it'll take for all your Faction Paradox cousins and uncles and mommas and poppas to get some business of their own and stay the fuck out of ours.'

Cousin Pantagruel reached for the second sandwich, staring back at his captors as he ate.

Montinaro pulled up a chair and sat, drumming impatient fingers on his knees. He turned his head, sending a somewhat redundant smile to Cosenza's nephew.

Lunardi failed to notice as he sliced off another helping of salami.

Somebody sighed.

Cousin Pantagruel swallowed the last hunk of bread and meat, and quickly finished up the rest of the water bottle.

Vincent set the plate down on the bare concrete floor, raising an eyebrow to Aldo.

The Faction initiate began to lick stray morsels of food and grease from his fingers.

'You people barely comprehend the nature of the technology you've acquired. It's a minor miracle that you've got any of it working, and even your successes bear little relation to the primary functions of those devices you think you understand. We could change that for you.'

Montinaro rolled his eyes to the ceiling. 'Thing is, the stuff we can work does what we want just fine. We ain't got much use for all your other Tom and Jerry contraptions.'

He paused, standing to light himself a cigarette.

'I mean I love animals, right? And I'm sure all those animals that never existed are just as cute and cuddly as the ones that do, but I'm trying to run a business here. So once again, how about we come to some sort of agreement where your people stay out of our fuckin' faces?'

Cousin Pantagruel shook his head in a mime of pity. 'The Djinn cannot be put back into the bottle once it is free.'

Aldo returned Vincent's helpless shrug. 'Beats me. I'm a scotch and soda man.'

Montinaro looked over to Cosenza's nephew. 'Bernie. Would you mind coming over here a second. I'd like you to smack Cousin Pancreas in his stupid face - quite hard if possible.'

Stirred by this return to familiar territory, Lunardi set down his plate and got to his feet. Eyes twinkling like Christmas, he lumbered across and slammed a ham-sized fist into the prisoner's jaw.

'How was that?' He smiled over at the boss. 'You want I should hit him some more?'

'We're good for now, Big Bernie, but that was some nice work.' Montinaro watched the man mountain shuffle back to his chair, then turned to glare at the prisoner-cum-punch bag with renewed disgust.

'What the fuck is it with you people? Why you got such a hard on for us, ha?'

Pantagruel dabbed useless, groggy fingers at the blood streaming from his cut lip. His voice emerged as a lumpen mumble. 'The outlaw archetype; the criminal impulse as the highest expression of the will to power, and nowhere is it stated in so vividly classical terms as with the Honoured Society.'

'Honoured Society!' Montinaro threw up his hands, exasperated. 'So what you're saying is you just wanna hang with the cool kids at the back of the class.'

Aldo scowled, his voice a singsong growl. 'This ain't getting us anywhere, chief.'

Choking back a cough, Cousin Pantagruel raised a bloodied hand. 'Faction Montinaro could become a major player if you would just think beyond the confines of this planet and century. You have a ruthless dedication to your work equalling that of any higher power.'

Well - that was the message he'd been told to deliver.

'Faction Montinaro?' Vincent skipped an incredulous look amongst the others. 'We could make club badges, plus some of those little membership wallets - you know, like that thing Mickey and Donald got going.'

'Okay. Okay. This is getting old.' The boss gestured for Aldo to secure the prisoner.

Once again, Cousin Pantagruel felt a chill of accelerated time as the vines raced around his arms, dark green leaves exploding into life as stems drew themselves taut.

Montinaro plucked the thick plug of meat from Lunardi's plate and brandished it at the prisoner like some bizarrely peppered truncheon.

'Now you be a good boy, Mr. Vegetarian, 'cause by my watch it's about five minutes to sausage time.'

He slapped the edible weapon back into the flummoxed giant's paw and stepped back out into the other room. 'Come on, Big Bernie. Let's leave Cousin Pantaloon to think about how hard you're gonna hit him next time.'

Lunardi carried his plate back out. Aldo and Vincent followed as the door folded in on itself, smoothing into a seamless expanse of damp plaster.

Alone again.

This was not going well, although given that Cousin Pantagruel had regarded it as a suicide mission in all but name, he was still ahead of the curve.

If they let him free - an option which appeared entirely subject to luck - there would at least be the pleasure of reporting back to Father Platyhystrix with numerous sarcastic variations on the theme of I told you so. Not that the old fool would be likely to learn anything from this entirely pointless fiasco. You might be able to take some of these people out of their Great Houses, but not always could you take the Great Houses out of them. No amount of biodata revisions could cleanse the more stubborn strains of idiocy that at least one or two Faction elders had contracted during former lives on the Homeworld.

'Pardon my reservations, Father, but this is organised crime we're dealing with. Our previous engagement with this same group of individuals could hardly be termed a roaring success by anyone's standards, suicide cults notwithstanding.'

'Success is only a more commodious means of asking who ate my porridge?' Father Platyhystrix savoured his student's momentary bewilderment before moving on. 'You're a local, are you not? From Melbourne, Australia in the year of your erstwhile Lord 1994.'

Ignoring the somewhat scathing subtext, Cousin Pantagruel conceded it to be true.

'Then I find it difficult to believe you could fail to have noticed the cultural volume of this particular genus of organised crime, as you call it. Even more improbable is the thought that I should be required to further explain myself to one who has achieved the rank of Cousin.'

Resigned to his subservient role in the conversation, the student conceded a reluctant half-shrug, knowing that nothing he could say would make a difference.

Father Platyhystrix allowed for a slight curl of his upper lip before diving in.

'The Sicilian Mafia; the Neapolitan Camorra; the Honoured Society; the Black Hand; the Moustache Petes; the mob; Cosa Nostra,' - he paused, either for breath or dramatic effect - 'facets of a discrete entity occupying a unique role within history.'

Cousin Pantagruel made a show of interest, although he'd come across enough discrete entities occupying unique roles within history to know they were pretty much ten a penny.

'Recruitment is usually limited to a specific blood lineage; inauguration is conducted by ritual means, as is much of their business practice - given that it is prosecuted by agency of implied threat and the currency of a tenacious reputation.'

The Father hesitated just long enough to give an impression of having finished, then resumed his monologue. 'The Cosa Nostra might best be characterised as a shadow or reflection of the larger society which it inhabits - capitalism in microcosm, yet without the schizophrenic aspiration of purporting to be something which it is not. Hence the criminal status - because the wider society is repelled by this unashamedly carnivorous self-portrait. When civilisation produces porridge, only the truly guilty will castigate Goldilocks for her terrible hunger.'

Yet another arbitrary Three Bears analogy - the latest in a long, long line. The student wondered for a moment if Platyhystrix got away with this sort of rubbish amongst the higher echelons of Faction society. Probably not.

'Are you suggesting that the Cosa Nostra is to North America as we are to the Great Houses?'

This hadn't occurred to the Father. He narrowed his eyes and smiled. 'I don't know, Cousin Pantagruel. Am I?'

None of which had left the novice any wiser as to why a truce with these people should be particularly desirable. Even given Dean Montinaro's recent acquisition of biodata-reliant technology, he could hardly pose a threat to the Faction or its initiates - present company and circumstances excepted.

In the outer office, Montinaro's impatience was coming to the boil. His crew had beaten one group of Faction cultists, and even if their current prisoner didn't look like much, the fact remained that these people were very much an unknown quantity. Their apparent motives made no real sense, and their numbers could run into millions for all anyone knew. There might be enough of the creepy bastards tucked away somewhere to turn the whole damn planet into an Alice Cooper video.

'Anybody got any thoughts on this, or are you all just gonna kiss my ass like usual?'

Vincent sat at his desk, idly carving his initials onto the side of an empty coke can. 'The ass kissing suits me, so long as that was a figure of speech.'

The boss looked to Lunardi for a single hopeless moment before turning his attention to Aldo, now back at his desk figuring out the gizmo he'd been working on earlier.

'How about you?'

'I don't know. That stuff we boosted - I'm making my way through the catalogue but it's a slow process. It'd be nice to get done before I reach retirement age.'

If Montinaro could see his consigliere's point, still he remained unconvinced.

Faction Paradox had first shown its hand about a year before. The whole experience had been like waking up one day to find that everything written in National Enquirer was pretty much on the money.

Earth was not alone. The little green men were real. Worse still, the whole universe was at war with itself and nobody had thought to tell the Montinaro family; and not just any war - the War, as it had been called by the few Faction cultists still standing after Trenton's own tribute to 1930s Chicago.

The legend ran that the trouble had started on a planet so ancient that no-one could remember its original name: the Homeworld, as its people sometimes called it - although people might not be quite the right word either. These people - or whatever they were - had learnt to travel through time, how to change the past even; and much more besides - seriously twisted shit that wouldn't make sense unless you were part of it.

Needless to say, words couldn't really do justice to the scale or scope of their War. Homeworld strikes out with Operation Buttkiss and wipes out the enemy; the enemy hits back, erasing Operation Buttkiss before it happens; Homeworld comes back, wiping the enemy before they make their move to stall Operation Buttkiss whilst it's still on the drawing board; and so on and so forth until no-one can remember when or where they are - or even who the enemy is, were or will be.

There it was, as told by a spotty kid dressed in half a dead horse, just before Davey Crackers gave him a hands-on demonstration of how outlaw archetypes expressed their displeasure.

Dean Montinaro had spent the following days in a stupor before coming to a sudden and sobering conclusion: never mind New Jersey or the here and now, never mind numbers games, spread betting or phone card scams - they'd just stumbled across an oyster that would have choked Alexander the Great, and it was theirs for the taking - the world, the universe, history and everything in it.

Twenty-four hours later, he had already changed his mind.

They'd had a golden egg-laying goose once before, and look how that turned out. The families were only just getting back on their feet after the crackdown of the previous three decades. The Sicilian heroin connection put made guys in an economic bracket that their fathers' hadn't even considered an option, but the payback had ripped the heart from the entire business.

If benefits were to be had from this new technology, they would be taken one step at a time, and not by rushing in like some kid let loose in a toy store. The bosses from the '80s were all gone - either dead or may as well be dead, but the lesson had been learned. Like Roosevelt said, better to speak softly and carry a big stick.

This could be a new golden age and no-one was going to blow it this time. Hence no fuck ups; no running with scissors; no loose lips; no unknown quantities; no third parties; and definitely no climbing into bed with a bunch of degenerate half-breeds from a planet he couldn't even pronounce.

Montinaro stared at the clutter of ritual detritus spread across Aldo's desk. 'You seem to be doing okay so far.'

'Sure, but some kind of owner's manual might be kind of helpful.'

'Well it ain't gonna happen, so I suggest you get used to the idea.' Somewhat wearied, the boss scratched the back of his neck. 'So what do we do about the messenger boy?'

'I say we let him go.' Vincent ignored the ensuing stony silence. 'The cops will think he's a street crazy.'

'That's nice, but don't you think he might just flutter off back to whatever the fuck that place is he calls home?'

'Maybe so, but who gives a shit? He don't know anything he didn't already.'

Lunardi had been silent all this time. He'd been listening closely, but the effort of working out what was being said held less appeal than the ongoing demolition of his peppered sausage. Now however, he found himself able to offer an informed suggestion.

'How about we just disappear the guy?'

For a split second, Montinaro couldn't quite work out who had spoken, then it dawned on him that Cosenza's nephew was still stood over by the wall.

'Now that's more like it.'

The boss stared at Vincent and Aldo. 'Pity you two fuckin' geniuses can't just tell it like it is every once in a while, ha?'

Lunardi smiled like a big happy bear.

Cousin Pantagruel could follow little of the muffled discourse going on behind the wall, but he'd picked up enough to know that his time was running out. Escape would not ordinarily have presented a problem. A few deft movements from his shadow and with a single bound, he would be free - but not this time, so it seemed.

It didn't even make sense that this environment should have such an effect upon him. Either the Montinaro family had done something to those shadows kept here in the cell, or they'd hobbled him by some other means - and neither potential display of ingenuity made for comforting thoughts.

There must, he reasoned, be something within the room he could work on. He scoured the surroundings, making a mental inventory: plaster; plastic shielded copper wire; 60-watt light bulb; three dead houseflies; five wooden chairs; table with laminated top; six discarded cigarette ends; his presently inaccessible armour; earthenware pot; one vine of the genus Parthenocissus quinquefolia - recently saturated with positron radiation; assorted microscopic flecks of human skin and hair; dust; dust mites; oxygen; nitrogen - this wasn't getting him anywhere.

Then suddenly he saw, or rather felt it - right under his nose, literally.

A smear of blood had dried onto Cousin Pantagruel's stinging lip, not all of it his own. Judging by the dull throb in his upper gum, Lunardi's huge pink fist must have grazed a tooth and left behind a sample.

Perfect.

The prisoner reached into the foreign biodata with a spike of the same impulse that would ordinarily have sent his shadow dancing across the walls. Progress was awkward, but not impossible; down through his assailant's mundane DNA, beneath the nucleotides and into the skeins of raw time, seeding the continuity with tracers leading directly back to his own consciousness.

Montinaro pulled the clip from his handgun and plucked out the bullets, depositing them in a coffee-stained saucer someone had left on the filing cabinet. He looked over towards Aldo's desk. His colleague was presently hidden behind a stack of loose-leaf files emptied from one of the lower drawers.

'Maybe you stashed them someplace else?'

'Nope. Here they are.' Aldo sat up, shifting the files to one side to make space for a scrappy-looking shoe box. 'Although I gotta say, I think we might be using a steam hammer to crack a nut here.'

'Maybe we are, but I don't wanna take the chance. Last time we got static off these Herman Munster types, we caught them with their pants down. They just knew they'd kick our asses, and that's probably why they didn't.'

Montinaro crossed the room and stared into the shoe box. 'We gotta assume these people learn from their mistakes.'

'Or not.' Vincent glanced up from clearing out the chamber of his own gun to be met by blank faces. 'Well, they sent us Mister Pantyhose, didn't they? How is that learning from your mistakes?'

'Failing to take a hint is different.' The boss picked a bullet from the box and held it up for a closer look. 'These'll work, right?'

'My own secret recipe.' Aldo gathered up a handful of slugs, panning them around in the palm of his hand like gold from a river bed. 'These puppies will slice clean through a Great House environment suit.'

Vincent stood up and came over. 'You told me about that, all that stuff that went down in Mexico, right?'

'Right.'

'Shame you couldn't get hold of that suit.'

'I don't know. I still say we made good out of the whole thing.'

'I guess.'

The three fell to silence as they loaded their weapons with magic bullets.

Montinaro jammed his clip back into the grip. He held up the gun with both hands, checking it over as he spoke. 'We just gotta see to this, Big Bernie, then we'll find something for you to do around here. How you like to go round on Davey's pickups?'

No answer.

'Bernie?' He looked over to Cosenza's nephew.

Plate, knife and the last slices of sausage clattered to the floor. Lunardi swayed upon his feet, face bleached, eyes flooded in the terrible glare of something beyond the visual.

Aldo looked up. 'Bernie, what the fuck?'

Lunardi's shadow swept towards them like black lightning.

Vincent yelped and sailed ten feet across the room, twisting in mid air just as his back slammed into the wall. He crashed to the floor and lay there in a tangle of limbs.

'The shadow! The fuckin' shadow!' Aldo leapt from behind his desk as a wave of darkness rose up before him. 'That fuck's gotten Bernie!'

Montinaro jerked back towards the window, eyes chasing the silhouette as it whipped about the room.

Aldo smashed into the wall above Vincent, arms and legs splayed like Wile E. Coyote on the receiving end of another backfired scheme.

The boss levelled his gun at the shadow and squeezed. There was a dull click as the firing mechanism caught against its safety catch, but even in that split second he knew he couldn't shoot. Whatever was happening here, this was still Cosenza's nephew. Whacking this dumb bastard would bring heat like no-one needed, regardless of whether he'd been turned into some sort of Faction sleeper - although that didn't seem too likely given the look of pants-filling terror on the big guy's face.

Lunardi stood paralysed in his own private hell as a dark cloud wearing his body flexed itself for another sweep of the room.

Cousin Pantagruel could hear crashing and wailing but mercifully no gunfire. Although his senses were stretched to their limit, he was still able to read an ominous tingle of metal at the edge of the borrowed shadow - clusters of bullets, but bullets cooked in something unpleasant and probably time-active. For a group of amateurs, these people were learning fast.

Activity behind the wall ceased as the prisoner concentrated on the door of his cell, tickling the shadow back and forth across the chalk markings whilst one by one the memetic tumblers of the lock gave way.

The wall irised out upon a hulking silhouette.

Lunardi cast a wide, watery eye over one shoulder as dread squeezed his voice through the stranglehold of the passenger within his biodata.

'You done this.'

Pantagruel ignored the question, or the accusation, or whatever it had been. The giant's shadow swam into the room, across the floor, towards and then over him. With another shiver of accelerated time, the vines binding him to the chair withered and crumbled to nothing.

Lunardi remained immobilised as a dark pool spread out beneath his feet. The only sound came from a liquid tongue clucking inside his mouth as it fought a losing battle to add to those words already spoken. This was far beyond his experience, and even the real threat had paled before his imagined terrors.

'I'm not going to hurt you.' Cousin Pantagruel stood slowly on numb legs and staggered to the other side of the cell. His armour lay spread around on the table top. Despite Aldo's rudimentary dissection, the lattice of bone, fabric and circuitry looked to be more or less intact.

A grinding plea rattled in Lunardi's throat without quite gaining the momentum to exit his forcibly sealed lips.

'I've taken charge of your shadow, which is why I'm in control for the present. Please try to stay calm.' Pantagruel began rooting through the morbid jumble of his armour, soon finding the seam marking an arm's beginning and a shoulder's end. He traced across the collar bone to the other side and lifted the carapace, inspecting it like a tailor.

Slowly he began to dress himself, piece by bony piece. Without the assistance of a Faction squire, he would have to settle for just the basic functions of the suit's vulgar technology. Other more esoteric armaments had to be ritually primed by ceremonial means - hardly an option at present. Still, it should be enough to get him away from this place.

Flexing fingers inside one glove, he felt through Lunardi's shadow to the room beyond. His three interrogators were each currently slumbering through different stages of concussion. The eldest lay sprawled behind a desk at an awkward angle - Aldo Chiattone, clearly the more dangerous of the three. For a baseborn human, he was packed with some very peculiar trails of biodata: contact taints reeking of both the Faction and the Great Houses. He would be near fully recovered in a little over five minutes.

Cousin Pantagruel hurried himself on, resisting the impulse to rush the more delicate procedures. Finally he was ready, or as ready as he could hope to be.

Had Lunardi not already emptied his bladder, he would certainly have done so as the beast sidled past him into the outer room - something between samurai warrior and the skeleton of a vicious looking prehistoric reptile. He'd once seen a similar monstrosity in a movie, one that had given him many sleepless nights as a kid. Realising this, the reality of the situation tumbled and he felt his fear beginning to wane. It really was just a guy - like he'd said - albeit one with a whole heap of special effects. He could never figure that stuff out even when it was on the screen, and this probably wasn't so different.

Fear collapsed into curiosity - or at least a timid variation thereof - and Lunardi found himself mesmerised by the guttural words emerging from behind the skull-mask.

Was this guy speaking to him? Maybe it was hypnotism - David Silverlake stuff.

A wave of calm swept over Cosenza's nephew as he realised that this Cousin Pantagruel could have made a killing during trick or treat. Then with a silent gurgle of amusement, he blacked out.

Father Platyhystrix had been expecting the message for some time. His soup had gone cold and heavy, and the pasta letters were lining up with a maddening lack of vigour.

HELP! GET ME OUT OF HERE!

Although credit might perhaps be given for the improvised alphabet soup exclamation marks, each formed from broken fragments of other letters, the novelty could hardly disguise the sheer poverty of linguistic imagination.

Help! Get me out of here! - the appeal of a square jawed hero as some moustache-twirling villain watched his helpless legs-akimbo progress towards a spinning band saw.

No matter. Cousin Pantagruel had evidently blown the mission with flying colours whilst failing to get himself killed in the process - a dereliction which would soon be set to right.

Platyhystrix pressed back his stool and marched over to the wall, taking care not to scatter the totems arranged across the floor of his chamber: a clay goblet of Pantagruel's blood courtesy of the records department; the last cigar plucked fresh from the dead lips of Camillo 'Carmine' Galante, assassinated head of the New York based Bonanno family; a copy of The Trenton Civic Advertiser, issue dated February 14th 2008. Admittedly it wasn't the most concise grouping of symbolic co-ordinates, but the spirits would just have to do their best.

As indeed they did. The Father pricked his thumb with a hat pin taken from the personal effects of Virginia Hill, consort of Bugsy Siegal. A droplet of blood fell, only to be whipped away into a swirl of space-time before it could hit the floor. The ancient granite wall began to buckle, the doorway opened, and a giant in an ill-fitting suit stared back, his face a frozen veil of horror.

The dark sockets of a skull peered from around the edge of the vortex. 'Father —'

'Yes. Yes. Come along now. I can't stand here all day.'

Cousin Pantagruel stepped through. 'I have failed. There will be no truce.'

Platyhystrix wasn't listening as he rummaged beneath his cloak, at last producing a child's water pistol moulded in bright green transparent plastic, which he aimed squarely at the novice.

Although doubtless no more than a trick of light and shadow, the unyielding skull mask seemed suddenly confused as the voice warbled from within.

'Honoured Father, what are you doing? That's —'

'Correct! A water pistol filled with beer.' The elder grinned, savouring the glorious absurdity of this senseless situation. He squeezed the soft plastic trigger and a thin stream of lager spat from the nozzle, splashing across the monstrous ribcage of its target.

Cousin Pantagruel had never been born. He had never been recruited into Faction Paradox. Neither had he just been murdered with a child's toy and a single fluid ounce of strong lager beer once advertised on television by actor Ray Liotta.

Platyhystrix afforded himself a brief smile of congratulation. So many esoteric methods of execution looked fine on paper, but so few bore any practical application. Once again, the Father felt vindicated by his faith in the often derided mathematics of quantum absurdity.

The protocols of the chamber would have been enough to edit the student from established history, but Platyhystrix had decided to err on the side of caution. Even the retroactively non-existent could leave traces of their passing, as would be true of Pantagruel; but at least this kind of assassination would ensure that neither curiosity nor interest could become enmeshed within the man-shaped gap in which the victim had lived. The murder weapon had devalued the boy to the point where even his own mother could not have found herself particularly bothered by the sudden absence of a son from her since overwritten youth.

Cousin Pantagruel would not be missed.

Trucks rolling over dusty tarmac, plus the unending song of police sirens from somewhere within the maze of housing blocks across the way - not the sort of street where you would have expected to find a pavement cafe. Sure enough, the chairs and tables had been spread across the sidewalk outside Bagnetto's Finest Imported Coffee solely for the benefit of employees - in this instance, a category encompassing friends, relatives and business colleagues.

Sipping at a rapidly cooling espresso, Dean Montinaro squinted through the dust and sun. As a view, this one fell maybe a little short of Niagara in the scenic grandeur stakes, but the streets of Trenton, New Jersey held their own beauty in the eye of this particular beholder.

The city had given him a lot - albeit under a certain degree of duress - and even its less polished arterial reaches were a warming reminder of their contractual obligation to one another: the good shepherd and his domain.

Metal swayed upon hinges and Aldo Chiattone emerged from the front entrance of the building with a tray of pastries, his own coffee steaming in its midst. Balancing on one foot, he scraped a chair from beneath table with the other and sat, setting the tray down.

'Thanks.' Montinaro reached over, hesitating for a second before choosing a slice of pampepato. 'So tell me, how's business?'

'Another light envelope from Equiano Tanning. I got the two Larrys going over this afternoon to convey my disappointment - but aside from that, it's good.'

'I meant the other thing.'

Aldo dipped a spoon into his coffee and stirred. The boss had never been known for his patience, but this was getting kind of tiring. 'Same as ever. I can't go no faster than I am.'

Squashing the remains of the cake into a ball, Montinaro popped it into his mouth and chewed in silence. Most obstacles, he had realised, could be overcome through the simple application of pressure - however quick you needed the result just depended on how hard you wanted to push. This problem was obviously different. Aldo had already given an estimate of at least another year before he could work his way through their haul of Faction technology - an estimate that still stood, so it would seem.

Chiattone returned the teaspoon to the tray and took a hesitant sip from his cup. 'One old heap of junk turns out to be some sort of brain eraser; another might just be a weird looking waffle iron. I can't tell what none of that shit does until it does it.'

'Okay. I hear you.' Montinaro knew better than to press the point.

Silencers, viral non-words and field monotonisers might have seen off the Feds, but they held little sway over the people who first built them. One niggling irritant had only made room for another - then a nosey government, now the prospect of further incursions from the Faction and its affiliates. The family needed an equivalent of garlic or crosses or chalk circles, a sign that said no entry and meant it.

Montinaro's hand returned to the pastries, hovering like a hawk before swooping down on the chiacchiere. 'I been thinking. Maybe I should send someone to Haiti or one of those places, ha? Get some bona fide witch doctor on the payroll.'

'Why not?' Aldo conceded a shrug.

If all that ex-Faction junk was to give up its secrets, it seemed that it would more likely yield to voodoo types than Cal Tech graduates.

'So long as he speaks English, I guess it couldn't hurt.'

The boss bit into his diamond of crunchy brown dough before responding with crumb flecked lips. 'What if he don't speak English?'

'So long as its something my translation doodad can handle, I couldn't give a shit.'

Montinaro swallowed, washing down the chiacchiere with the rest of his coffee, drowning the vanilla aftertaste beneath a blaze of hard caffeine. He lit a cigarette and watched as a group of three container trucks rolled past, each bearing the grinning turtle of Diplomat Construction - all heading down to Canal Street, no doubt.

He'd been at the site only last week, ensuring the union rights for twenty new employees contracted directly from Carluccio Hiring. Even if the men had no physical existence beyond names on a hard drive, they were still due a paycheque at the end of every month, not to mention the same productivity bonuses enjoyed by their more tangible colleagues.

Aldo sighed. 'It'd help if we had some idea what the deal is.'

Mislaying the thread of his present thoughts, Montinaro blinked. 'What deal?'

'The deal with Faction Paradox: I don't buy that truce shit for one minute.' He pulled a cigarette from the carton on the table and flipped it into his mouth. 'It's like the White House moving to sign a nonaggression pact with Staten Island.'

The boss blew out a smoke ring and smiled. 'As a matter of fact, I been giving that some consideration.'

'Yeah?'

'Big Bernie tell you what he saw right before the wall closed back up?'

'Sure.' Aldo paused, recalling the bumbling details from whatever part of memory he had used to file all the other garbage drooled out by Lunardi. Most of the big guy's anecdotes sounded like something that had happened to Yogi Bear.

'Our former house guest got himself clipped off his own Capo, or so Bernie tells it.'

'Right, and why do you think that would happen? What would make some Faction Paradox big kahuna want to pop his own guy?'

'The kid went back empty-handed. No truce. No nothing.'

'That's fine if you buy the truce shtick - though maybe a little harsh - but I think we both agree that it all sounds pretty fuckin' lame.' Montinaro chopped a dismissive hand at the air. 'All that criminal archetype bull crap - these guys murder you before you're born; they can hop back into the past or future like catching a train, so why the fuck should they give a shit about us?'

'You lost me.' Finally recalling the dormant cigarette glued to his lower lip, Aldo fetched out his lighter and applied a flame.

The boss paused, gathering his thoughts behind a pensive scowl.

'The way I see it is this whole thing has been off the record. There never was no truce. It was about something else, and Pantagruel's boss didn't want his bosses getting wise to it. I'm thinking they sent us a fake olive branch knowing we'd tell them where they could stick it. They already stirred up trouble with us once before, and this truce bullshit was in aid of making sure it stayed stirred up.'

'So you're telling me it was tactical; just something to keep us on our toes?'

'More like pouring hot water over an anthill.'

Unsure of how to respond, Aldo drew in a lungful of smoke and stared blankly at the cluttered facade of a Vietnamese liquor store across the way. The boss hadn't actually brought up any link to the Masons, the Kennedy assassination or faked moon landings, but his theory sounded like it might be heading in that general direction.

Montinaro waited for the noise of another passing truck to subside, then continued. 'It's like how during the war they used to load cannons with scrap metal and fire it up into the sky, and our pilots would be forced to fly over it providing they could pull up in time.'

Aldo nodded, deciding he might as well go along for the ride. 'Flack - scatters radar and rips a plane to bits if you catch it in the engine.'

The boss absently crammed another slice of pampepato into his face and chewed, swallowing maybe half and then speaking anyway. 'I think that's all we are to these people: time-active flack; something to fuck up the engine of any power that wants a piece of the Faction. We draw their heat, and no-one holds them accountable.'

Aldo could see it now. Cousin Pantagruel's mission had worked far better as an insult than as any serious attempt at building bridges - one arrogant fuckin' puppy left on their doorstep like they were going to start shitting themselves with gratitude. If, as the legend claimed, Faction Paradox really were so hung up on surface grammar, the message wouldn't have been much more blatant if they'd sent Pee Wee Herman demanding a sixty-forty split for the use of their technology. No notion of a truce had ever troubled the Montinaro family agenda, and this incident had ensured that it would stay that way.

'Pawns.'

'Porn?' The boss knotted his eyebrows at the other man. 'What the fuck's got into you?'

'We're just pawns in a big fuckin' chess game.' Aldo scoured the tray hoping for a pampepato, but his senior had apparently eaten the last one.

Montinaro smiled. 'You know what I think's so beautiful about this thing of ours?'

'Go on.' The other man shrugged, absently wondering if he could be bothered to go back inside for more pastries.

'Get your pawn across to the other side of the board and you're a King.'

Montinaro's gaze drifted back to the dusty labyrinth of buildings across the street. Next to the liquor store was Casale's Book Mart where he'd worked as a kid - after school and sometimes during. One block along was a Buddies pizza outlet - the place he'd picked up payments when he first started earning. That was some while ago, and the world had changed between then and now, although his own world had changed a whole lot more. Cugine to wiseguy to made man, then to unmade man and now the boss - or Godfather, as both Tinsel Town and Faction Paradox would have it.

Somehow, amongst all possible futures, he just couldn't seem to see one that wasn't even brighter than the present.

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