Chapter 2 “Snakes” 24

Alma awakes to complete darkness. Lying on her back, apparently floating amidst the shadows, she slowly gains consciousness of herself. Sustained by nothing, her delicate arms lay relaxed and slightly open, her legs following their example. She doesn’t attempt to move or speak. Yes… She knows this place. She has visited it many times before.

As silence and stillness spread around her, Alma allows her mind to drift and shatter, her every thought falling into the darkness like a pearl fallen from a broken necklace. Slowly, her memories of the world she once inhabited escape into the Void. A city… No, there was never a city. People… She remembers no one. Dreams… No, she has never dreamed before.

Images of gods and Bunnies cross her mind, fleetingly, leaving nothing but a blurry trail behind them. Voices… Does she hear voices? No… She is beyond sound. Memory, touch, fear, anguish, pain, nothing can dwell in here for more than a second. She opens her heart to the darkness, offers her mind to the Void and waits, patiently, for it to take everything away. The silence washes over her, leaving nothing but sweet, gentle, forgiving numbness behind. She is nothing, now. Was she really something, before?

Held in the sweet embrace of nothingness, Alma closes her eyes and surrenders to it, feeling herself fade away, her whole being consumed in sacrifice to the Chaos and Void outside which all things exist.

I did not expect to find you here, a voice resonates, deep within her mind.

Ah, yes… nothing can survive here. Nothing, except for him…

Arion, the goddess remembers. How long has it been since she last dared to even think of his name, let alone speak it?

You do not belong here, dear goddess.

I don’t belong anywhere else, she replies.

Anywhere else will not destroy you, should you remain there for more than a few minutes, Arion admonishes her.

As Alma reopens her eyes, she realizes that she no longer lies in darkness, but instead stands in a gloomy, endless meadow. Arion stands before her, a majestic black stallion, his black and white mane blowing in an absent breeze. His ghostly body, slightly translucent, seems to hold within it a piece of the very Void they both stand in.

This is Chaos, my dearest Alma, not Death. A force and an essence that not even you can bear, Arion reminds her.

And yet, here I stand, the goddess says, walking towards him, extending a gentle hand. Unharmed

Yes, you do, the horse appears to smile, as Alma’s hand caresses his jaw and then his broad, powerful neck. But not for much longer. I cannot sustain you, my dear. I cannot protect you here.

I know I can’t stay. Alma presses her forehead against his, placing a hand on each of his cheeks. I wish I could.

You belong elsewhere, goddess, Arion replies in a strict, yet caring tone. As I belong here. Now, please, go.

With a gentle nudge of his imposing head, the horse sends her flying away from the meadow and the Void, and back to realm of the living.

I miss you. The goddess throws him that last thought as she begins to fall back into her body.

And I you… she hears, right before she awakes again, this time to the twilight filling her bedroom.

Her eyes, her real eyes, now wide open and taking in the  familiar shadows of her room, the goddess takes a moment to re-establish communication with her body. She lays on her back, like before, a comfortable mattress holding her relaxed body. A slight pressure to her right, a feeling of weight holding down the covers, makes her look that way. Sage sleeps peacefully and silently by her side, his head resting on a soft, silver-over-black embroidered pillow, one of the many Alma usually keeps on her bed exclusively for decoration.

Slowly, so as not to disturb the slumbering Bunny, Alma moves to the other side of the bed and gets up. Looking around, she finds the rest of her Bunnies sleeping in their comfortable and safe little alcove, the three younger ones gathered around Mayumi while Rosemary and Cherry hold each other in a sleeping embrace.

Once again looking down at Sage, she now notices that there is no blanket covering him, as if he didn’t expect to fall asleep by her side. Alma moves toward that side of bed and, whispering a simple spell, summons a blanket to cover him. She then leans over and softly kisses his head, eliciting a quiet, contented sigh from the resting Bunny.

Not five minutes later, Alma is again dressed in her long robes, ready to leave the room in search of some fresh night air. And just as she is about to close the door, humming an old nursery song about icy peaks and mountain streams and safe in the knowledge that the protective anti-intruder spell she’s cast on the door will make sure the Bunnies are not disturbed as they sleep safely within, an alien thought brushes against her mind.

Kori…Is that my name? My name… Kori.

Turning back, she sees the three younger Bunnies lost in sleep. She will have to test that name tomorrow, to see if one of the males has finally managed to become aware of himself. They are growing so fast…

Her steps take her out into the night, through empty streets and silent alleys. The gloom holds no secret or fear to her. Death gods soon learn to walk in shadows, seeing as clearly in the soft darkness of the night as in the piercing light of day. Glad to find her mana headache is no longer a problem, Alma spends a long time walking the slumbering streets, listening to their empty silence and following the glimpses and whispers of Three Rats. Out of a reflex honed by a lifetime of practice, her eyes scan the world around her, seeing more than just the shadowy outlines of buildings and statues, her ears capturing more than mere sound. Opening her senses to become fully aware of everything around her, Alma looks at a world of brilliant lights and glittering paths, of souls trapped in human flesh and godly lives contained in ever-changing divine vessels, sculpted after the common belief of their mortal followers, all of them linked by the insubstantial threads left as lives connect and destinies become connected. Difficult to master, impossible to hold for long, this is a skill she only uses when patrolling the streets.

But she is not a Guardia Dei tonight. The minor street gang scuffle in that shadowy corner holds no interest to her. The men will not see her, they will make sure not to see her, and she will pay no attention to them. Tonight, she is a daughter to her father, hunting for a prey that cannot evade her. She is Death tonight, and her target is just around the corner, lying in a ditch with a hand over his heart and an already absent look on his milky white eyes.

She comes to stand by the old man, listening to his failing heart and looking down as his body breaks into the final convulsions of death.

“Do not fight it, little soul,” she advises him in a soft, reassuring voice.

“Am I dying?” the old man says, through unmoving lips.

“No, little soul,” she lets him know. “You are dead.”

“Aahh…” The corpse appears to exhale, releasing a small cloud of pure, shapeless energy that comes to hover in front of Alma’s eyes. “It was faster than I imagined.”

“It often is,” she says as the soul-cloud takes the only shape it remembers having, a spectral copy of the body that once contained it.

“And you are?” it asks.

“Here to collect and deliver your soul.”

The greenish-white ghost takes an appraising look at her. “I always expected Death to be taller, scarier… and male.”

“I am afraid Father is otherwise occupied,” Alma replies with a smile.

“Ah, well…” the ghost shrugs. “I cannot complain. If I had known Death could be beautiful and kind, I would not have feared it for so many years.”

“Kind, little soul? What makes you think that I am kind?”

For the first time, the old man’s soul looks down at the body it once brought life into. Gesturing at it, he explains, “You are here, keeping an old, broken man company as he departs this world instead of being off somewhere, enjoying the attention of other gods, as young and beautiful as you. I call that kindness.” He looks back at her. “I was afraid of dying alone.”

“No one dies alone,” the goddess states. “My family exists to ensure that this much is true.”

“Thank you, dear,” the old man says, nodding in grateful approval. “Now, let me repay you with a little piece of advice from an old man at the verge of eternity. Do yourself a favor, and make sure you don’t live alone either.”

Alma gives his strange words a minute to settle in her mind before answering. “I appreciate your advice, little soul, but your time grows thin. I need to know where you wish to go from here.”

“You mean I can choose what happens after I die?”

“Your soul will be restored to the endless cycle of life and death,” Alma explains. “This, you cannot change. But how you get there is completely up to you. A long journey or ascension into the Heavens, or a brief stay in a lavish dining hall, all are acceptable options to keep your soul busy as it is absorbed by the inner workings of Time and Fate.”

The ghost seems to consider these options for a while, rubbing a spectral chin with a ghostly hand. “I’m done walking and am really not that hungry. But… there is one thing I wish for myself, if it’s not much trouble.”

“Speak it and I will see what I can do.”

“I was a slave my whole life, shackled and beaten,” the old man says, looking at the arms of his soul as if they were still held bound by shackles, the marks of which Alma can see adorning the corpse laid by her feet. “And if I can have anything I want for my afterlife then, please, turn me into a mayfly.”

“A mayfly?” Alma asks in confusion.

The old man’s ghostly lips part in a nostalgic smile. “When I was a young man, I was sent to work in a workshop near a lake. Worked there for twenty years, and every year, when the time was right, the Change would happen and mayflies would invade the area, flying frantically in the sunlight and disappearing the next day.” His lips part even further as he says, “I was happy there…”

“An adult mayfly will only last one day,” the goddess notes.

“Yes…” the old man nods. “And that’s what I’ve always wanted. To live only for a day, but be free for a lifetime.”

Alma nods back and assures him, “I will see what I can do.”

“Thank you,” the ghost utters its final words.

As the final strands of the bond connecting the old man’s soul to his body finally break, Alma gathers what was once a grown man’s soul in her cupped hands and quietly leaves the rapidly cooling corpse to be found by some late-night stroller. Moving in solemn haste, she makes her way to the bridge she knows exists nearby as she feels some of her divine power being replenished in the fulfillment of her calling. She stops in the middle of the bridge, looks down at the waterfalls and then up again, to the little glittery form she holds in her hands.

“It is not a lake, I know. But it is the best I can do right now,” the goddess says apologetically.

She opens her hands, releasing a bright, glowing mayfly, made of nothing but energy and promise. As the goddess turns to leave, it flies away, tumbling and twirling in newfound joy, slowly fading away against the bashful light of the rising sun. Heading back to the station, Alma sighs as the old man’s words echo in her mind.

“Free… for a lifetime…”

…Nasceste, ser pequenino                You were born, little being

Para ser livre e ser feliz                      To be free and happy

Nas tuas mãos jaz um destino           In your hands lays a destiny

Construído de raíz                                 Built from scratch

Para ser chão sob os teus pés,          To be a ground beneath your feet

O horizonte à tua frente.                     The horizon in front of you

Nasceste para viver como és              You were born to be as you are

E morrer, por fim, docemente…      And to die, at last, gently…

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Chapter 2 “Snakes” 23

Walking through the streets, the four cops in their armored jackets – two immortal Guardia Dei, two mortal Guardia Popula – prompt night-time conversations to cease and gathered knots of humans and other citizens to stare, and in some cases to break up and slip away. The two gods, Insp Tuma-Sukai and Sgt Gwydion, do not attempt to conceal their divine status now, allowing their natural auras of power to be felt, making them seem bigger, more powerful, more dangerous, drawing the attention of every mortal they pass.

Sky glances back at the two mortal constables trailing them. GC Lamore is even larger in her bulky jacket, but she moves easily in it, graceful and confident. In addition to the usual truncheon, she bears a simple, deadly short sword at her side, having qualified in its use years ago. Probationary Constable Patel carries only the truncheon, and moves awkwardly in his armored jacket, not used to the additional weight. Sky makes a mental note to regularly train with all the station’s cops, two or three a day, unscheduled and randomly, in the basic weapons of the Guardia: truncheon, short sword, staff, and crossbow. Unarmed as well, of course. It would be a good way to get to know them, and to keep them sharp. They would practice on their own, in order to be ready for him.

As they approach the bar Kyri told him about, Sky notices a hesitation from Gwydion. He stops. “What is it, Sergeant?”

“The Singing Cockroach, sir? I, uh…well, I was here last night, actually.”

“Oh really? Doesn’t seem like your kind of place. Kyri said it was a real dive. Very rough.”

“It is, sir. In fact…it seems a lot quieter tonight.” He sounds concerned.

Sky turns to GC Lamore. “Constable?”

She takes a step forward. “Sir. The Cockroach…well, sir, ‘dive’ doesn’t quite cover it. Before the expansion to the new station, Sergeant Machado…Corporal Machado then, of course…gave us standing orders never to enter alone, preferably in groups of four. Even the Zeffrettis just left it alone.”

Gwydion speaks up, “Does it seem…overly quiet to you?”

She looks around the area and at the exterior of the building, then nods. “Normally there’d be shady characters hanging around the outside, making deals and cadging drinks, buying and selling banned items. And the bar itself should be a lot more active. Definitely too quiet.”

Gwydion nods to Sky. “That’s how it was last night, sir. Something’s wrong.”

Sky looks grim. “We’ll check it out. Constables, stay out here. Prevent civilians from entering.” GC Lamore salutes; after a moment, GPC Patel does as well. “Sergeant, be ready.”

Sky walks up to the door and lays a hand on it, lightly. He looks up at the broken sign, then closes his eyes, muttering a small spell. Detecting no immediate danger, he grasps the handle and opens the heavy door, then steps into the bar.

He takes in the centrally placed bar, the heavy tables, automatically calculating positions, lines of movement, looking for doors and other exits. At the cash register, the bar owner stands nervously, watching the entering Dei cops with frightened eyes. A single barmaid is serving a god fitting the description of Eater of Frogs, who is seated at a table at the far end of the room. She is just setting down a full bottle of wine and taking away an empty one. She looks at the cops with fearful eyes that appeal for help, then she moves away.

Sky notes only one other figure in the room. She would stand out even if the room were crowded, however: not only is she gorgeously statuesque, her body is clothed only in smokeless blue flames that lick across her pale skin and red hair as if she had been doused in alcohol and set alight. She is not at all bothered by this, nor do her flames seem in danger of setting afire the chair she is sitting in or the table on which she leans one elbow. She smiles, chin on fist, at Sky and Gwydion, a challenging smile, cruel. Sky recognizes it as an attempt to intimidate. He gives her a dead stare, then focuses on the scaly god at the other end of the room.

His voice rings out. “Eater of Frogs. You’re under arrest for extortion and destruction of private property. Come along quietly.”

The snake god hunches over his mug of wine and laughs hissingly, looking at Sky with hooded eyes. “Inssspector Tuma-Sssssukai! What a pleassssure. Won’t you sssshare my wine? I’ve only jussst ssssstarted another bottle. Wouldn’t want it to go to wasssste.” He raises a glass in mock toast to Sky and Gwydion, then drinks, his lipless mouth scaled black above, white below.

Sky draws his truncheon and strolls into the middle of the room, stopping to stand in a wide stance, truncheon at his side. In a bored voice, he says, “Put down the wine and come along, snake. I won’t tell you again.” Sky can feel Gwydion’s presence behind him, the prickle of magic being prepared.

Eater of Frogs tilts his mug up, drinking deeply, a little wine spilling over the corner of his mouth and trickling down the side of his throat onto his shirtless, dead-white chest. He sets down the mug and looks at the cops with amusement, the shakes his head. “No, I don’t think sssso, Insssspector. Inssstead, I think you’ll be coming with me. My bossssesss want to talk with you. Ssssset boundariessss, dissscusss who getssss to control what, in the new order.”

Sky tilts his head to one side.

“Oh come now, Inssspector! Sssssurely you didn’t think we’d cheat you out of your cut! We don’t much like accommodating rivalssss, it’ssss true, but the Guardia are the biggessssst gang in the Cccccity. We’re reassssonable people. You’ll find working with the Dukaine Organization to be highly profitable.” The god begins to refill his mug.

Sky takes one step forward and swings his truncheon, shattering mug and bottle simultaneously, the bottle exploding into shards and soaking the snake god’s satin jacket. Eater of Frogs sits frozen for a moment, dripping, hand still holding the neck of the bottle in the midst of pouring.

“Well…” Eater of Frogs says with incongruous pleasure, setting down the broken bottleneck. “I ssssuppossse it’ssss Plan B then.” He stands, knocking his chair over. At the same time, the woman in blue flames stands and moves a little closer.

“Does Plan B involve you coming along like a nice snake?” Sky asks.

“No, Insssspector. Plan B involvessss my beating you and your pretty friend until you both beg for mercccccy, ssssso everybody in this ward knowssss that the Guardia can’t protect them from the Dukainessss.” The thuggish god chuckles. “Perssssssonally, I wanted that to be Plan A, but my ssssuperiorsss inssssisssted on offering negotiation firsssst.”

In that same bored voice, Sky says, “Don’t be stupid. As it is now, you’re only going to serve a brief period of incarceration in Purgatory.” He uses the common nickname of the prison for divine criminals. “If you attempt to assault two Guardia Dei, you’ll go away a long time.” His voice becomes inflected with a dangerous rumble. “Not to mention all the damage I will personally inflict on you.”

Sky turns and glares freezingly at the flaming woman as she moves closer. “And you…leave now. I have nothing to charge you with yet, except maybe public indecency.”

In glancing toward the inspector, something catches Gwydion’s attention. “Look out!” He shouts suddenly, shoving his commanding officer in one direction while making a quick but complex gesture with his other hand, a well-practiced generalized counterspell. His target is a shadow that, Sky sees now, is unnaturally extended, having slowly stretched across the floor toward Sky’s back while he was talking with Eater of Frogs.

The spell takes effect instantly, causing the magically stretched shadow to wink out of existence, and a dark shape to appear where the shadow had been. A figure cloaked in shifting shadows stumbles, unbalanced, and falls to one knee, almost dropping a smoky, glassine blade. Without hesitation, Tuma-Sukai kicks the new opponent in the ribs, brutally, lifting the shadowy god completely off the floor to fall groaning nearly two meters away, the obsidian knife spinning away under a table.

Then Sky feels a powerful impact himself, his heavy reinforced jacket only partially absorbing Eater of Frogs’ punch to his kidney. Staggering a few steps, Sky feels a liquid burning in his side that quickly spreads. Poison? he thinks. But he didn’t penetrate the jacket. The pain slows him, and the snake god is far faster than he anyway.

With breathtaking speed, Eater of Frogs presses his attack, slamming Sky with three more massive blows, fists wreathed in an aura of poison. Right shoulder, left cheek, and mouth blaze with pain, both from impact – he can feel his cheek and upper lip split and bleeding – and magically injected venom.

“Whoo!” shouts Eater of Frogs. “Come on, Tuma-Sssssukai! It’ssss no fun if you don’t fight back!”

As he shakes his head to clear it, Sky hears a scream. He turns his head to see Gwydion embraced by the flaming woman, blue flames spreading across him. Rather than burning, the flames leave frost behind, and seem to burrow into the sergeant’s flesh. She kisses him on the mouth as he writhes in agony.

Eater of Frogs laughs. “Cast a love spell on her, Ssssergeant, you get what you dessserve!”

Taking advantage of the snake god’s distraction, Sky swings his truncheon, delivering a strong left-handed blow to the belly. Without oppressed victims to protect, or someone to assist in rebellion, Sky cannot activate most of his divine powers, but he is just as strong as Eater of Frogs, perhaps stronger. Putting his full weight into it, he sends his opponent smashing through a table and into a wall.

Then, grabbing a fallen chair, he hurls it at the burning woman’s back with all his strength, half breaking it against her. She releases Gwydion and falls, arching her back in pain. As Gwydion staggers back and falls as well, the flames enveloping him die, and reaching a hand toward her as she struggles to rise, the sergeant gasps out a single word in a language of magic that Sky recognizes: “PAIN!” Her pain momentarily, magically multiplied many times, her mouth opens in a silent scream and she collapses in an insensate heap.

As he stands, Gydion barely, instinctively dodges a sudden slicing attack from the shadowy figure whose attempt to backstab Sky he had earlier disrupted. Gwydion blocks the next knife attack, forearm to forearm, and then counterattacks with a painful stomp on the instep and a wrenching arm lock, making the shadow-wreathed figure gasp in pain and preventing the knife from being used. But the shadowy god drops the knife and catches it left-handed, forcing Dion to release his hold to block the next attack.

Sky feels a scaly grip on the back of his neck, and he is thrown to the floor. He rolls and lands on his back, getting his arms up, holding out his truncheon to fend off the attack. But Eater of Frogs is too fast, pouncing on the inspector, slapping aside the truncheon and sending it across the room, straddling his chest and seizing him by the throat with one hand while drawing back the other to punch Sky’s face once, twice, three times. Each time, more divine poison fills Sky’s veins.

Glancing to see that Dion is still occupied, Eater of Frogs looks down again at Sky and grins, his mouth full of small hooked teeth, his tongue bifurcated. “I have to compliment you, Inssspector! Mosssst godssss can’t hold up againsssst my poissson ssstrike ssssso long.” He punches Sky again, across the cheek, tearing a flap of skin loose. “You ssssshould have taken the deal! After all, we’re grateful to you! When you took out our rivalssss lasssst month, you opened the ssssslave market for a big exssssspansssion!” The god laughs and hits Sky again.

As the words register, Sky realizes he’s dealing with a slaving organization. He starts to laugh along with the snake god. Eater of Frogs stops laughing and looks at him, puzzled.

Sky slams his fists in hammer blows into the snake god’s sides, feeling the sickening crunch of ribs cracking. As his opponent hisses in pain, Sky grabs the lapels of Eater of Frogs’ jacket and jerks him to the side and down, breaking the floorboards as he smashes the ophidean deity beneath him. Holding his opponent down, getting on top, Sky looks at the others in the room with his ruined face. Through a veil of blood, he sees that the flaming woman is back up and preparing to help her partner. Sky’s gore-matted hair hardly moves as a wind smelling of the ocean blows at gale force around him, as his eyes turn the color of a black hurricane cloudbank. Tattoos blossom and writhe across his face, the backs of his hands, all his exposed skin.

STOP!” he says in a voice that cannot be denied, any more than can a typhoon-driven flood. The two who are fighting Dion freeze in their tracks. “THIS WORM IS NOT YOUR MASTER ANY LONGER!” He gestures toward them, and the breaking of their chains of loyalty is almost audible. Suddenly, their reason for fighting at least temporarily gone, they waver.

SUBMIT!” Sky roars. The shadow god drops the knife and kneels. The shadows disappear, revealing a small male god, head shaved, the face of a child. Dion, not knowing how long this effect will last, grabs the shadow god and slams him across a table, locking his arm behind him and slapping on a pair of silver, magical handcuffs. Then he looks up for the flaming woman, only to see her running out the door, her will strong enough to resist Sky’s command.

Dion looks at Sky, but the badly wounded god is focusing on Eater of Frogs, who is laughing again.

“You’re voiccccce doessssn’t work on me, Inssspector!” The snake god tries another lightning-quick punch, but Sky blocks it, and then another. He is visibly healing, wounds knitting together. His reserves of mana seem to be bottomless as he gathers power and sends it throughout his body, repairing it, and burning away the traces of poison.

“And your poison doesn’t work on me, snake. Weak stuff, really.” He slams a fist into his opponent’s chest, shattering his ribs and tearing his heart, knowing the snake god will just heal it, but that it will greatly reduce his mana. The scaled god convulses in pain. “You shouldn’t have told me so much.” Sky hits Eater of Frogs again, crunching more bone. “But now you’ve started, you’re going to tell me more.” Another shattering punch. “Everything you know.” Crunch. “Probably not much…” Crunch. “But…” Crunch. “Everything…” Crunch.

Sky looks down. The snake god looks like he has been run over by a wagon. Sky reaches back and takes his pair of magic-encrusted handcuffs, rolls the ragdoll god over, and almost puts the cuffs on him before Gwydion holds out a hand.

Sky looks up, confused.

Gwydion says, breathing hard, “If you…cuff him…he won’t be able to…heal. He could even…die.”

Sky grunts assent, then stands slowly. “Right. Sure.” He steps away, still holding the cuffs. “I’ll give him a minute.” He looks at the sergeant. “You all right, Dion?”

“Yeah…uh, yes. Yes sir,” Dion responds, his breath coming more under control.

Sky laughs and puts a hand on Dion’s shoulder, then takes it away, leaving a large bloody print on Dion’s jacket. “Oh…sorry about that…”

Dion glances at it and sighs. “This jacket’s been through a lot,” he mutters. Louder, he asks, “What about the one that ran away?”

Sky shakes his head. “We’ll have our hands full, taking these two to Little Falls Station. They have the right sort of cages to hold them until they can be taken to Purgatory.”

“We just let her go?”

“We’ll get her later. Don’t worry.” Sky looks down at Eater of Frogs, who has started groaning in pain. His torso looks a bit more three-dimensional than it did. “Right, I think that’s enough.”

He bends down to handcuff his prisoner.

Chapter 2 “Snakes” 22

Mayumi quietly opens the door to the bedroom she shares with Alma and the other Bunnies, and enters, shutting it carefully behind her. Her large, light-gathering eyes quickly adjust to the dim light from the sun-like magical lamp. She sees Starfax, Alma’s phoenix, perched on a branch and sleeping with its head under a wing, and Alma herself asleep on the bed, with Sage next to her and one of the three younger ones, the younger boy, sprawled lengthwise across the foot of the bed. She has to search around a bit to spot Cherry and Merri, on a makeshift nest of pillows and blankets, spooning together, Rosemary in Cherry’s protective arms, and the other two unnamed Bunnies, the older boy and the girl, the youngest of them all, near them, likewise holding each other as if in imitation.

Mayumi strips off her sweat-soaked shirt and shorts, wrinkling her sensitive nose at the smell, and her underpants, tossing them into the corner. We need to get a basket, she thinks. There will be a lot of laundry to take care of. She pads across the room to the pool and slips silently into it, remembering the piping hot, muscle-soothing baths in her other life, her dream life, knowing that she’ll never be satisfied with bathing in this lukewarm water.

Was it really all just a dream? It did feel less…real than this. So many moments, lost to memory, faded away like a dream. She fights to hold onto those memories, to hold them close. They were – still are – her life! Over twenty years! It wasn’t right that it should all just disappear.

She hears movement behind her, and cranes her neck around to see the halo of Cherry’s afro silhouetted against the light. “Hey, sweetie,” Cherry whispers. “Where ya been?”

Mayumi indicates “upstairs” with a movement of her head. “I was training,” she whispers.

Cherry moves closer, touches Mayumi’s face lightly with her fingertips. “You been cryin’, girl. What’s wrong?” She takes a deep sniff, her nostrils flaring, and she looks surprised. “Hey, you been with Inspector Sky,” she whispers slyly, smiling, but then she frowns. “Did he make you cry?”

Mayumi sighs. Can’t hide anything tonight, can I? The thought reminds her of the sphere of mana that the Inspector had given her, and she is glad she tucked it into the back corner of a cabinet in the bar rather than bringing it here and trying to find a place to hide it. “It’s nothing. We just talked. He was kind.” She pauses. “Cherry…do you remember your dreamworld?”

“Sure I do.” Cherry sits on the edge of the pool behind Mayumi, her legs to either side of Mayumi’s shoulders, dangling in the pool. She scoops water up from the pool and starts to gently rinse Mayumi’s hair. “Me and Merri had us a bar.” Mayumi hears the smile in her voice. “We had loyal customers, and great times. A little trouble now and then, but nothin’ we couldn’t handle.” She chuckles almost silently. “May, you should hear Merri tellin’ off a customer for bad behavior. I might be standin’ there with an axe handle, ready to whup some ass, but that girl can make an ogre apologize and beg her not to ban him with just a mean look.”

As Cherry starts to shampoo her hair, Mayumi asks, “Did you have anyone who…took care of you?”

Cherry is silent for awhile. “No,” she whispers. “We took care of each other. I can’t really remember a time when we didn’t.”

Mayumi nods, then shuts her eyes as Cherry rinses her hair. The suds drift away in the water, going…somewhere, and fresh water coming in from…somewhere. Like a stream in a forest. She takes a piece of soap that Cherry hands her and stands, lathering up her body. It still seems almost sacrilegious to her to be washing herself with soap and shampoo in the bath rather than beside it.

Though making as little noise as possible, she sees that the splashing has woken Sage, who is sitting up, looking over at her. Alma, fortunately, continues to sleep deeply. Cherry holds out a towel and envelopes May in it as she steps from the bath, drying her vigorously. May relaxes into the massage, marveling at how strong Cherry is despite being smaller, especially when Cherry wraps her in a tight hug at the end and kisses her on the cheek. “Wanna sleep with us?” she whispers to Mayumi, nodding toward Merri, who is still fast asleep.

May smiles and shakes her head, looking toward the bed and Sage, who has lain back down but is still watching her. Cherry nods and releases her, returning to Rosemary. Mayumi towels her hair a bit more as she steps toward the bed, then tosses the towel on the pile of dirty clothes, and takes a moment to run her fingers through her hair. She climbs into the bed slowly, not wanting to disturb Alma or the unnamed Bunny, and she puts her arms around Sage, pressing her forehead to his.

She listens carefully to Alma’s breathing to make sure she is really asleep, then she says to Sage, her voice barely audible to anyone without ears of Bunny sensitivity, “I’m sorry.” She knows he will understand what she is apologizing for.

“Where did you go, May?” he whispers. She had not answered him earlier in the day.

“It was a café,” she replies, “called the Copper Pot.” She pulls him closer, her skin against his, and she presses her face against his shoulder. There is a goddess there, who pulls you into song…”

Chapter 2 “Snakes” 21

As he reenters the station, Sky sees Sgt Gwydion casually seated on the edge of Cpl Kaur’s desk, smiling seductively and chatting with her. She is seated, chewing on the end of a pen in her hand, eyes wide, looking up at him, smiling shyly. Gwydion says something with a smile, and she looks shocked and delighted, her blunt-featured, lightly freckled face blushing before she bursts into loud laughter, her head thrown back. Gwydion looks slightly surprised at her earthy reaction, but pleased as well.

At the next desk, Constable Lamore sighs heavily at Aliyah’s laughter and looks daggers at the back of the beautiful god. For a moment Sky wonders if she is jealous, but no…that look is not one of jealousy. It is a protective, quiet fury. If she had a weapon that could slay a god, Sky thinks wryly, Gwydion’s name would soon be decorating a mausoleum’s wall.

Two other constables – Sky takes a moment to remember their names, Silva and Patel, the former short but burley, hair shorn very close; the latter a local, nephew of the same Patel who owns the nearby grocery, fresh from the Academy, skinny and standing like someone unsure of himself – stand near the coffee pot, watching all this with amusement.

Just then the door to the street opens and the goddess Kyri peeks around the edge, smiling. “Goodness me,” she calls out, “it sounds as if things are going well in here!”

Aliyah stands, breaking free of Gwydion’s alluring hazel eyes, and swiftly walks toward the plump goddess, looking concerned. “Dona Kyri! I heard you came for a visit this morning! Are you all right? Is your café all right? Oh, did you hear about Rocco?” Aliyah presses her palms together in a perfunctory prayer and bows her head to Kyri for about half a second, then takes both of Kyri’s hands in hers.

“Oh, yes, yes, and sadly yes, my dear,” Kyri says as she clasps the mortal’s hands affectionately. “In fact, on that last point, I need to speak to your Inspector – hellooo, Inspector!” she sings out, releasing Aliyah’s hands and waving. “May I have word with you in private?” At his nod she switches her attention back to Aliyah, unslinging a bulging cloth bag from her shoulder and handing it to her. “This is for the officers on duty, my dear.”

Aliyah opens it, breathes the aroma in deeply with closed eyes, and exclaims in joy. “Oh, Kyri, you make the best pastries in the City! Thanks!”

“Thank you, my dears, thank you all,” the goddess says to all the cops as she follows Sky into his office.

Sky closes the door behind her. “Dona Kyri, please sit. Now, if you’ve come to ask me to take Zeffretti back, I’m afraid –”

Oh pish-posh, Inspector – Rocco was never much of a cop, and I’m not here to question your decision. No, no, please, no time for tea,” she says, her voice transitioning to song, perhaps something titled “No Time for Tea,” as catchy music fades in, but she slaps both hands over her mouth and squeezes her eyes shut, face turning red from exertion. The music trails off, with a final dopey-bassoon note, and she releases her mouth and breathes deeply. “Sorry…sorry about that…I’m here to tell you that Rocco knows where Eater of Frogs is!”

神兎神兎神兎神兎

Sky escorts Kyri out, thanking her again, then turns to the officers in the station. “Sergeant Gwydion, my office. Corporal, choose two constables to accompany us. We could use some assistance with crowd control. Full riot gear.”

Aliyah looks alarmed. “I-I’ll come with you myself, sir! And –”

“No,” he says firmly. “I need you here. You’re the ranking officer while we’re gone. Also,” he takes her aside and speaks to her quietly, “Sergeant Alma is…resting.” At the woman’s confused look he says, “It’s…a god thing. Just, if there’s any trouble, you go pound on her door. But, um, don’t try to wake her yourself.” He’s not sure what an ill Death Goddess’ reaction might be on being forcibly shaken awake by a mortal, but he imagines it might possibly be unfortunate. “Get Mayumi to do it.”

“Do you think there might be trouble here, sir?”

“I don’t know, but it’s best to be prepared. A little paranoia goes a long way.” He lightly claps her on the shoulder and heads to his office, where Gwydion is already waiting.

He shuts the door. The sergeant looks at him expectantly.

Sky takes off his jacket as he walks to a stand-up locker in the corner. “Corporal Kaur,” he says.

After a brief pause, Gwydion replies, “Yes, sir?”

“She’s a fine officer, isn’t she?” Sky opens the closet and takes out a wooden hanger.

“She appears to be capable, sir,” Gwydion says.

Sky hangs up his jacket and pulls out a heavier one of leather, reinforced with metal plates and studs. “Attractive too. Pleasant, good-humored, cute smile. Freckles.” His voice sounds stoney, with a hint of anger.

Gwydion chuckles. “Oh…earlier. That was just…a conversation, sir. A little friendly flirting –”

“Does she know that?” Sky interrupts, shooting the sergeant a hard look.

Gwydion opens his mouth to reply, then, smile fading, closes it.

Sky’s expression softens a little as he slips on his armored jacket. “Gwydion…have you had much experience with mortals? I mean, romantically? No, forgive the personal question. You don’t have to answer. But even if you have…you’re from the First Ring. The mortals there, the palace servants and priests, they know the score. They know affairs with gods are brief. They don’t expect more from us. But here…” Sky sighs as he buckles up his jacket. “She’s probably never met someone like you. And mortals’ hearts…they break, perhaps more easily than ours…and they don’t have as much time as we have, to heal.”

Gwydion’s back straightens as he addresses his commander formally. “Are you saying the Guardia Popula are off limits, then, sir? As per regulations?”

Sky pulls a beautiful, long, handmade truncheon out of the locker. The wood is nearly black, highly polished, carved with sigils of power along its length up to the well-worn sharkskin grip. He hefts it, then slides it into a loop on his belt. “Well, there’s a reason for the regulations. However…I wouldn’t cite regs at you if both of you were serious.” He looks Gwydion in the eye. “But you’re not… Are you, Dion?”

“No sir.” Gwydion pauses, considers. “Understood sir.”

“Good.” Sky grins at him, and takes out a pair of silver handcuffs, encrusted in charms. “Now, gear up. We’re going to arrest a god, and he’s new to the area, so the cops I spoke to about him earlier today weren’t able to tell me anything about his powers. All we know is, he’s deaf and he hisses a lot. So be ready for anything.”

Chapter 2 “Snakes” 20

Leaping, spinning, crouching, kicking…muscles burning as Mayumi performs the kata she was taught in her dreams. It is a variation on the standard Guardia combat training, modified for one of her smaller stature and greater speed. As she passes a broom leaning against the wall, she seizes it and immediately changes the kata from unarmed to armed, making quick debilitating jabs at her imagined opponent’s vital spots. There is little that is flashy about this style. It is meant merely to end a fight as quickly as possible, nothing more.

She feels a breeze waft across her sweaty skin and realizes the door to the bar has opened. Automatically, she turns to face the intruder, weapon at the ready…then sees the tall form of Inspector Tuma-Sukai in the doorway. She straightens to attention, controlling her breathing, and bows as she says, “Keibu.”

In Japanese, his voice mildly amused, the inspector replies, “At ease.” He looks around. “Where is everyone else?” he asks in Urbia. She sees he is holding something in his hand, something spherical wrapped in a colorful cloth.

“In Alma’s room,” she says, setting the broom back against the wall. “She’s resting.”

“Good. And you? It’s getting late and I know you got up early.” He moves over to the bar, leaning against it, looking at her, then around the room. She glances down at herself: a pair of shorts, modified for her tail, and a too-loose t-shirt with a cutesy pony on it and PONY!!! in huge rainbow-colored letters, now soaked with a broad V of sweat down the front. She frowns and longs for a chance to buy her own clothes. Cpl Kaur’s choices don’t quite suit her.

“I was…restless.” She goes to the bar and hops up to sit on the edge of it, near him. “Thank you, for not telling her,” she says quietly.

“Well…I’m not sure that was the right thing to do, but she won’t find out about your excursion from me. And Corporal Kaur knows it’s a secret as well.”

Mayumi hangs her head. “I’m sorry. If she finds out, she’ll be very angry at you, too.”

He chuckles ruefully. “Angrier, you mean.” He shrugs. “It’s done.”

They remain silent for a moment, not looking at each other, then both try to speak at once, then fall silent.

Tuma-Sukai smiles and says, “Please, go ahead.”

“I, uh…I was just wondering about Constable Zeffretti.”

“Ah…Zeffretti has resigned.”

“Oh.” Mayumi reflects on this, surprised at her mixed emotions. Was he a good cop, otherwise? Should he have been given another chance? She shakes her head to clear it of unworthy thoughts. He was corrupt. There is no place in the Guardia for one such as him. But she is still unable to free herself of a feeling of guilt, for her part in ending the man’s career.

After a brief period of silence, the Inspector says, as if attempting to change the subject, “What did you think of all that at the Copper Pot?”

She laughs, almost silently, and looks at Tuma-Sukai. “The singing and dancing?” He nods. She considers, then says, “It was…well, it was a lot of fun. But a little strange, to let myself be…controlled like that. Even a little frightening. A bit like being drunk.”

“Yes. That power…it would be terrible in the wrong hands. We’re fortunate that Kyri is so benevolent.”

“Sorry about hopping onto your lap like that.” She laughs again.

“Oh…nothing to be sorry about. I’m just glad you didn’t miss.” He looks away, smiling, and she’s surprised to detect a hint of a blush in his dark face.

Then he looks at her again. “You said it was like being drunk. Have you ever been drunk? Did you mean, in your dreams?”

She nods.

“Your dreams. I don’t really understand how that works. Did you really live twenty years of life there?”

“Yes.”

“But…who raised you? How did you grow up?”

She thinks. “I don’t really remember the early years. I…I think I must have been like the younger Bunnies are now. Asleep. Not knowing my name. But I was pretty young when I began to…think, be aware. Maybe ten years old?” She pauses, straining at memories. “There was a man. I lived with him. He was strict…but also very kind. He taught me everything. How to read and write, how to eat and dress properly. How to fight. How to read a crime scene and handle evidence…”

“He was a cop.”

“An inspector, actually. Like you.”

Tuma-Sukai raises his eyebrows in surprise. “Popula, or Dei?”

“Popula. Mortal.”

“And you grew up speaking Japanese with him?”

“Yes.”

He studies her face. “Was he a father to you?”

She nods and is shocked to feel her eyes filling with tears. Still seated on the bar, she pivots away and squeezes her eyes shut, but the tears spill over onto her cheeks as she does. She wipes at them with the back of her wrist, angry at herself.

She hears him move nearer. “Mayumi…I’m sorry. Are you all right?” He very lightly lays a hand on her upper back.

“I am, I just…I…I don’t know whether I’ll ever see him again.” She tries to get herself under control, but suddenly she sobs loudly, just once, and buries her face in her hands. Her shoulders shake as she cries almost silently. She can feel the god’s hand resting on her back.

After a few moments, she takes several deep breaths and reasserts control over her emotions, internally cursing herself for her childishness. She feels the warm, friendly hand leave her back, and when she takes her hands away from her face, she sees in front of her the brightly colored cloth that had served as a wrap for the spherical object the inspector had been carrying.

“A furoshiki?” she asks, recognizing the large square of cloth, decorated with images of plants – bamboo – in front of geometric patterns of gold and blue on a field of crimson. It seems old, the stitching of the narrow hem unraveling at one corner. Where she had grown up, in her dreams, such beautiful but utilitarian cloths were used for many purposes: as small tablecloths, as scarves, as wrappings for lunchboxes or other packages, and even as handkerchiefs.

She takes it and wipes her eyes and cheeks. “I’m sorry…I don’t know what came over me.”

The god says gently, in Japanese, “Now, everything is different, isn’t it?”

She sniffles. In the same language, she replies, “Yes. I was there. I had my whole life. Friends and…family. My job. Now…”

“Now you have reality. And you have your family…a wonderful family. And…you have friends too.”

She turns back toward him and looks up. Even though she is seated on the bar, he still towers over her. His smile is kind. She holds the cloth out to him. “Thank you.”

He gestures for her to keep it. “You’ll need that, to wrap this in again.” He holds up a sphere made of a smoky glass, filled with a thick liquid that seems to slosh about more slowly than it should. Within it, motes of light wink in and out of existence. It seems to be all of one piece, with no way to open it.

Seeing her puzzled expression, he says, “This is mana, in its liquefied, transportable form. The stuff of magic, and the result of prayers.”

She looks up at him, confused. “Why…?”

“I would like you to hold onto it until Alma is fully recovered. And if she is in need of it – if there is some emergency, for example, and she needs to be able to function at peak efficiency – I want you to give it to her. If she hesitates, I want you to tell her, from me, that I order her to take it.”

Mayumi looks concerned. “Why would she need to be ordered?”

“Well…she’s very proud.” He smiles a little at that, and she can hear admiration in his voice. “I don’t know if she would accept it. But this mana…it’s not my personal mana, you understand. It’s just from my monthly allowance as an officer of the Guardia. Part of my pay, really, just like the mana she receives each month. It’s gathered from the millions of daily prayers directed at the greatest gods, so homogeneous that it has no particular resonance.”

“But if it were your personal mana, from prayers you received, it would be more…” She remembers Sgt Gwydion’s offer to share his mana with Alma.

“Er…that could be a bit more…intimate.” He looks embarrassed. “Anyway, just please keep it for now and, if she is fine tomorrow or the next day, you can give it back to me.”

She spreads the damp cloth on her palm and accepts the sphere from him. It is warm, like something alive. She carefully wraps the cloth around it and ties it so that there is a little loop at the top, making it easier to carry.

“I’ll make sure she takes it, if she needs it, sir.”

“Mayumi, if you really want to call me ‘sir,’ go ahead, but I would be pleased if you would call me by my name, as I call you by yours.”

“Tsumasukai?” she asks, altering it to fit Japanese phonetics.

“Sky is better.”

She nods and smiles. “You can call me Mai, if you like.” She pronounces it like ‘my.’

He chuckles. “The others call you May, don’t they? It’s not really a proper way to shorten your name, is it?”

She shakes her head, smiling ruefully. “But I think I’m stuck with it.”

“All right, Mai-chan.” Hearing him say her name with the affectionate, diminutive suffix, the same way the man in her dreams used to, tugs at her heart, but she keeps it from showing on her face. Even so, he corrects himself: “Sorry, perhaps I should say ‘Mai-san’.”

“‘Mai-chan’ is good,” she says, quietly.

He grins. “I’ll leave you to your exercise. I hope you can find sleep soon. And…I hope that you can still find that other place, in your dreams.”

He leaves, and she finds herself alone again in the dimly lit, empty bar.

Chapter 2 “Snakes” 19

In the deepening evening, Kyri stands behind the counter of the Copper Pot and surveys the tables. There is only one customer, a large man who sits, dwarfing the little table in the corner, his faded shirt pulled tight across his shoulders. Amused by the bias of her observations, Kyri corrects her first thought, he only seems big because I’m so small. She continues observing the man as she makes his coffee, looking puzzled by his aluminium hat. Try as she might, Kyri cannot get any sense of the man and where he fits in the dramatis personae. The goddess is disturbed by this – it is the first time Kyri’s inner casting director has failed her and she cannot tell if the man is a hero or a villain, a dramatic lead or the comic relief.

As Kyri finishes making the coffee, two little bluebirds pick up the mug and saucer, slowly flying it across the cafe. Suddenly, she is startled out of her reverie, as the two bluebirds vanish with a pop, leaving the mug to come crashing to the ground, splashing her customer with hot coffee and causing him to spring from his chair, swearing loudly. 

“Oh dear! I’m so very sorry – I don’t know happened then! I’ve never seen the birds just disappear like that!” Kyri exclaims apologetically as she rushes to the little table, clutching a cloth to clean up the spilt coffee. As she gets closer to the table, Kyri starts to feel strange, and the pimple she had been using her powers to prevent appears, red and irritated, on the end of her nose. Perfect! the goddess thinks to herself, vanishing bluebirds, spilt coffee, unreadable strangers in my shop, and now a pimple?!

“Your ‘god-tricks’ won’t work on me” says the man, pointing at her accusatorily.

“Looks like they won’t even work near you,” replies Kyri, mopping up coffee. “Though I’m not sure I like the way you refer to them as ‘god-tricks.’”

“If you’re gonna make me that coffee, you’ll need to do it like a real person. And no trying to read my thoughts either!” he says, pointing to his foil hat.

“Since you don’t like mind readers, I’d better ask your name then,” comments Kyri, smiling as she pours another cup of coffee. “Most people call me Kyri,” she adds, ducking behind the counter to heal her pimple.

“I don’t have to tell you anything!”

“No, you don’t, but if you’re going to come here often, it sure would be nice to know your name. I promise I won’t use it against you,” responds Kyri coquettishly, thinking to herself, I don’t need to use “god-tricks” to make you like me.

“They call me Atheist Jack.”

“Well Jack, here’s your coffee. No tricks, but since you wore the first mug, this one’s on the house.”

As Kyri walks back to the counter the bell over the door jingles and Zeffretti enters the cafe.  He’s dressed in snug jeans and a wide-collared shirt, open far further than is tasteful.

“Constable, this is a surprise visit,” says Kyri by way of greeting.

“Not a constable no more, Kyri. The ‘spector kicked me out.” snarls Zeffretti, his lip curling into a sneer at the word inspector.

“Oh Rocco, I am sorry, but you were never happy in the Guardia, and I’m sure that there are so many other things you could turn your hand to.”

Rocco snorts derisively as he flings himself onto a chair.

Reaching under the counter, Kyri produces a large plate of tiramisu and places it in front of the dejected young man. Returning to the counter, she opens a cupboard and grabs a large bottle of clear liquid and three glasses. The goddess then walks back to Rocco’s table and sits down.

“Wha’s’at?”

“Don’t ask,” responds Kyri as she pours two glasses, “Hey Jack, you want some?” she asks, gesturing with the bottle.

“Why not, but only one. And don’t think this means that I trust you so-called ‘gods,’” answers Jack, dragging his chair over.

After draining his glass, Rocco turns to Kyri and asks “Hey, what’s happened to the music? I don’t hear them violins no more.”

“I’ve discovered I can’t use any ‘god-tricks’ around our atheist friend here,” she answers, raising her glass to Jack.

“You’re a pretty useful guy,” comments Rocco. “But seriously, she’s ok. Doesn’t want worshipping, makes good dolcé…”

“She still pretends to be a god. Makes good moonshine though,” replies Jack, downing his glass and standing to leave. “You just be careful,” he says, slipping out the door, his eyes darting furtively over the street outside.

Kyri pours another round of drinks, which she and the on-time constable quickly drink, repeating this routine a third, fourth and fifth time.  Eventually, she stares intently at Rocco. “Cop or not, you owe me some answers. So, tell me about Eater of Frogs…”

Zeffretti looks around as if someone else he just hasn’t noticed yet might be hiding in the café. Then he leans forward conspiratorially. “Funny you should bring him up. Guess who I just saw over at the Singin’ Cockroach? He just walked inta the place and started bossin’ the owner around. Sounded like he was plannin’ to settle in for a long night, too, and he didn’t care who knew it. Me, I got outta there fast.”

“Oh my goodness, Rocco…perhaps you should tell the Inspector!”

“Me? No way…people see me goin’ to the station, they’re gonna finger me for a stool pigeon, and then they’ll be fittin’ me for concrete waders! But you, Kyri…”

Chapter 2 “Snakes” 18

After a long time in the Inspector’s office, Sgt. Machado opens the door and fixes Constable Zeffretti with a cold stare. “Zeffretti,” he intones, his voice dead. “Get in here.”

The nervous constable enters Inpector Tuma-Sukai’s office. The inspector is seated behind his desk, sipping tea. The sergeant is standing beside the desk. Zeffretti remains standing, looking ill.

Looking into his tea, the inspector says softly, “When were you going to tell us about the Dukaine Family, Rocco?”

Zeffretti stutters, “I-I mean, I d-don’t –”

Machado steps forward and slaps Zeffretti across the cheek so hard he nearly knocks him down. “No more lies! To my shame, I gave you a second chance! Now I have to bear that responsibility!” He raises his hand again as Zeffretti cringes.

“Sergeant,” the inspector says. Machado steps back, still looking furious. The inspector continues, “Rocco, I understand family loyalty. But my family is the Guardia. Yours…is not. You are, let’s face it, a spy. You are using your position in the Guardia for financial gain. You are extorting local businesses for protection money, and passing along information to your family’s criminal organization. Is this not so?”

“Yes, sir,” he moans, hand pressed to the side of his face. “But sir, we was keepin’ the peace. There just wasn’t enough Guardia here in Three Rats! All I was doin’ was coordinatin’, you know? So my people could take up the slack! Things woulda been a lot worse otherwise!”

The inspector sighs. “You may be right. But your family also traffics in banned addictives, unlicensed prostitution and gambling, and all manner of other crimes. Think about how it would look, if someone up the chain found out one of my cops is involved in all that.”

“I guess…it wouldn’t look too good, would it?”

“No, Rocco. And besides…how is your family going to fare now that the Dukaines are moving in? Be honest now.”

“For once in your miserable life…” mutters Machado.

Zeffretti stews in uncomfortable silence. “Well…ta tell the truth, we ain’t gotta chance. It’s one a’them can’t-beat-’em-join-’em type a’situations.”

The inspector nods. “Well, you’ll have to do what you have to. But that means you will be part of the Dukaine organization. Even more reason we can’t have you here.”

“Am I…gonna serve time, sir?”

Tuma-Sukai smiles. “Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary, if you resign without a fuss. In fact, I’ve already drawn up your resignation.” He pushes a piece of paper across the desk toward Zeffretti. “I put down ‘family reasons.’ I thought it appropriate.” He holds out a pen.

Zeffretti moves forward to take the pen, looking both grateful and sad, but stops when the inspector says, “However, there is one thing I want you to do.”

“What…what is it, sir?”

“For years, you’ve been a spy for your family within our organization. Now the situation will be reversed. You – and whomever in your family you trust – will be spies for us within the Dukaine Organization. You, Rocco, will be our go-between, and you will report to me or to Sgt. Machado. Only we will know of this arrangement. You will gain their trust and bring us intelligence of their plans when you can. Together, we will bring down these Dukaines. And your family, rising from the wreckage, will find the Guardia grateful.” He leans forward and looks Zeffretti in the eye. “You could even be reinstated. I do believe in second chances, Rocco.”

Machado growls, “Take the deal, Rocco. It’s better than you deserve.”

Swallowing, Zeffretti nods assent and signs.