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Tales from the Underworld: The Edge

This is a continuation of a series of Lore posts containing both an overarching story and many glimpses of planned in-game factions, zones, and NPCs. The previous installments can be found under Tales from the Underworld (the parts from a villain's point of view) and Tales of the TCPD (the parts from the police point of view) title headings.

Frank Castilucci was not a detective. He’d had no idea who killed Aragon, the undercover narc, at that warehouse in Ironport. And for a week or two, he’d spun his wheels uselessly. He couldn’t carry out Father Omerta’s orders to keep suspicion off the Black Rose without involving himself, letting people know that he and the people he worked for wanted to pin the blame on someone … exactly what he didn’t want.

And then some TCPD detective unknowingly reached into his life and turned what looked like an impossible job into the closest thing to a vacation he’d had in years.

Castilucci had been walking down an ordinary street in Highpoint, passing some artsy, hipster, coffee house place that had taken over the site of one of his favorite bars, when he passed a newspaper box. A headline on one the Titan City Herald on display caught his eye. HERO CHARGED IN IRONPORT KILLING, it read. Castilucci had whistled so loudly that some of the local kids had turned around to stare at him.

Earlier today, the story read, a grand jury issued an indictment on homicide charges against registered crimefighter Topaz for the killing of Titan City Police Department detective Armand Aragon. Aragon, who had been conducting an undercover operation involving the so-called Pyrebrands gang of Chaser users, was killed during a raid on an Ironport warehouse by TCPD SWAT units several weeks ago. A spokesman for the Titan City District Attorney’s Office says … The fold and paperbox window cut him off from reading a section. The next column continued, Topaz’s arrest has reignited controversies that have simmered quietly since the superpower registration debates of the 1990’s. While Topaz’s identity has been disclosed to prosecutors, city officials have refused to disclose it publicly as a matter of courtesy. (This paper does not disclose powers registrants’ identities unless they are otherwise publicized.) “This incident shows just how dangerous costumed vigilantes truly are to the rule of law,” stated one Ephesus University School of Law professor in a telephone interview. “One can only hope that this incident will lead to greater oversight to prevent vigilante violence.”

A picture of Topaz’s mug shot, showing his amber uniform in washed-out colors, took up the rest of the space above the fold. He looked even younger than the kids coming into la Rosa Nera these days. Behind his goggles, his eyes showed fear and confusion. For a moment, Castilucci felt sorry for him. He’d been where Topaz stood before. It must’ve been terrifying, not to mention bewildering, to go from the public’s darling to a bad guy in the space of a few weeks. Big changes in your world were scary. Castilucci knew all about that.

Then he’d shrugged off the feeling. Topaz had made his bed, and now it was time to make sure he stayed in it. Castilucci had considered buying a paper, but he felt like he now knew everything he needed to know. Now that Castilucci had his fall guy, it was just a matter of getting enough people to push Topaz off that cliff.

That had been weeks ago. He’d intimidated, fooled, or bribed a dozen different guys into giving evidence against the cape in one way or another. He’d strong-armed a couple Pyrebrands into spreading rumors that they’d seen Topaz fire the fatal shot. A bribed snitch had phoned in a series of tips implying that Topaz had been angry with Aragon over an arrest gone wrong. Taken together, Castilucci felt, they made the frame—if that was what it was—around Topaz fit perfectly.

Tonight, he planned to set up his thirteenth pet informant.

Castilucci met the Rook late at night in Clarkstown’s Garvison Plaza. He barely recognized the park as the same place he and Orlando Rossi had fought in a pitched gun battle with the original Five Dragons thirty years earlier. Clarkstown still had some grime, but neighborhood associations and cops were making an effort to spiff the place up. The phoenix statue looming overhead was free of graffiti, and only a few pieces of litter blew around the grassy space. Castilucci often told younger Black Rose initiates that the campaign to clean up Clarkstown was “taking all the toughness and character and, y’know, edge, outta the place.” But though he hated to admit it, even to himself, he found that he liked the new, up-and-coming Clarkstown just a little. At least slightly safer streets meant that there weren’t any other crooks around to pester him and interrupt this deal.

The Rook grinned eagerly at Castilucci. He was barely out of his teens, with a bad complexion and crooked teeth. His black-and-white, checked gang outfit hung loose on his bony frame. “So, you’re saying this’ll gimme an Edge?” the Rook asked. Castilucci could hear the capital letter in the young punk’s voice.

“Sure, kid,” he said. “This’ll make you tough.” He held out a battered Black Rose energy pistol. The ray gun had maybe ten shots left before it broke irreparably, but the Rook didn’t need to know that.

Castilucci bit his lip to hide his disgust. The only thing more revolting than a stupid mask was a stupid wannabe mask. Much as Castilucci disliked it, most of Titan City’s large underworld groups, even his own Black Rose, relied on powers at least a little. But for most of them, the powers were just sort of … there. A means to an end. The Rooks, on the other hand, practically worshipped the idea of getting powers. It was exactly that attitude, Castilucci suspected, that kept them at the bottom of the underworld heap.

The Rook’s eyes lit up like a puppy presented with a new toy. “How much ya want for it?” he asked.

Castilucci resisted sneering at the Rook. “No money,” he said. “I just need a favor.”

“Sure!” said the Rook. “Anything!”

Castilucci wondered if he’d been this embarrassingly eager, not to mention stupid, at the kid’s age. He hoped not. “I need you to go to the cops and rat a guy out for me.”

“The cops!” It brought up even the Rook short. “They’ll put me away for sure!”

Did Castilucci have to think of everything himself? “Don’t wear your little black and white chess club outfit,” he said. “You’re just a concerned citizen, passing on something you saw. Besides, the guy you’re ratting out is a cape. That Topaz guy.”

The Rook squeaked in surprise. “That guy from the papers? From the Ironport thing?”

Castilucci nodded. “Just say he braced you that day, demanding to know where that Aragon guy was, screaming about how he was gonna tear the guy apart for … whatever ya wanna say, really. Make up something you enjoy.” Castilucci regarded the Rook’s dull eyes. “On second thought, just say he said, ‘I’m going to kill Aragon.’”

The Rook shook his head. “That Topaz is bad news. He killed that detective, right? What’ll he do to me, if I lie about seeing him?”

“Ya dumb mook,” said Castilucci. “He’s in the Hardlock, waiting to go on trial. There’s no way he can get you.”

“I dunno …”

Castilucci smiled and held out the pistol again. Beaten up and crummy-looking as it was, the Rook grabbed for it eagerly. “Not so fast, kid,” said Castilucci. “Gimme your word first.”

That brought the Rook up short for the first time. “My word?” he said. “Seriously? How old are you, man?”

Kids today, thought Castilucci. No class. “No promise, no deal.”

Lust for power won out over cynicism. “Oh, all right,” said the Rook. He took the ray gun from Castilucci’s hand.

Castilucci kept his other hand on the grip of the gun in his shoulder holster. Even with a shoddy energy pistol and an idiot like this Rook, it didn’t pay to take chances. Especially with a shoddy energy pistol and an idiot like the Rook.

“There’s a—“ The Rook began, but he never got to finish.

“Hey!” shouted a voice. “What’re you two doing here in the middle of the night?” Castilucci turned to see three men approaching from the park’s shadows. They wore windbreakers and carried nightsticks and strange-looking, plastic pistol-things. Their white baseball caps were stenciled with the letters “CAP.” The hats’ pristine white almost glowed in the shadows.

Castilucci groaned. “Ugh,” he said under his breath. “The freakin’ Hat Squad.”

Other guys in the Black Rose always said that the Hurricane had marked the end of the good times for Titan City’s crooks. Castilucci knew better. The end had begun in 1996, when three third-stringer heroes had gotten a bunch of squarejohn citizens together and taken out an entire gang all on their own. They had started forming neighborhood watches, charity relief efforts, and community support programs. They called it the “Citizens’ Alliance for Protection,” which Castilucci had always considered kind of a showy name for a bunch of amateurs patrolling the streets or out building houses wearing street clothes and ball caps. When the “Alliance” had helped some two-bit hat factory weasel out of paying protection money to one of the Black Rose’s client gangs, the owner had been so pathetically grateful that he’d given them thousands of those white baseball hats marked with “CAP,” and now, guys on the street called them “Cappies” or the “Hat Squad.” Castilucci had heard that their bosses actually wore top hats.

“That’s none ‘a your business, Cappie!” shouted the Rook. “Clear off!” He waved his pistol around.

Castilucci began backing away. Sometimes, you could talk CAP down. “Sorry, boys,” he said. “We’ll move along. We don’t want any trouble.” He kept his hand well away from the gun hidden beneath his sportcoat.

“That’s a Rook,” one of the CAPs told his two pals, ignoring Castilucci. He felt vaguely insulted. Did he really look that unthreatening?

“You bet your stupid hats I’m a Rook!” he cried. “I’m a Rook, and you better show me some respect!” He pointed the ray gun at the three Cappies with trembling hands.

The three men drew their odd pistols. “Stand down, kid,” said the CAP who’d spoken before. He stood a little more confidently than the others, and his hat looked a little more broken-in. Castilucci pegged him as their leader.

“I’m not a kid!” screamed the Rook. “I got an Edge here!” He fired the ray gun. A beam of white-hot energy flashed from the barrel with a tremendous, crackling buzz. One of the CAPs howled and collapsed. Castilucci smelled the scorched fibers of the man’s jacket.

“Fire!” shouted the CAP leader, but the other one still on his feet needed no urging. Instead of the metallic snap and gunpowder bang of a firearm, their pistols fired with loud hisses and a sharp click. CAP’s fancy weapons, donated by the techno-geeks at New World Technologies, fired nonlethal, rubber “mercy” bullets.

But Castilucci still had no interest in getting shot with them. As the Cappies focused on the Rook, he withdrew further, edging across the street and into the shadows around Garvison Square Mall.

The Rook staggered as the CAP rounds struck him, but he stayed standing. For the first time, Castilucci felt a vague glimmer of respect for him. The kid may’ve been an idiot, but at least he had guts. The Rook raised his pistol and fired again. This time, he kept squeezing the trigger, sweeping a beam of energy back and forth in the vague, general direction of the CAPs. Of course, they dove prone right away. The Rook did little more than slice some small limbs off a tree or two and set a bush on fire.

Energy arced around the gun itself in the Rook’s hand. Uh-oh, Castilucci thought. Guess ten shots left was a little bit of an overestimate. The Rook screamed again, not in fury but in surprise and pain as the crackling energy grew brighter. Seconds later, with a blinding burst of light, the ray gun exploded in his hand. The Rook sprawled to the ground, scorched and bloodied.

The CAPs scurried over to him as soon as it was obvious he wouldn’t be doing any more fighting. “I think he’s just stunned,” Castilucci heard the leader say. “Call for the cops to come pick them up, and get an ambulance for him.” The CAP gestured toward their injured friend.

Castilucci slipped away before they thought to start looking for him. He walked carefully and quietly around the far side of the mall.

It had worked out better than he could have hoped. The Rook was on his way to lockup, where he’d either tell the story Castilucci had planted or, more likely, try to blame the whole thing on Castilucci himself. He didn’t care; the Rook had no idea who he was and even less knowledge that he worked for the Black Rose. All that really mattered was that the Rook show up at a police station badmouthing Topaz. With all the evidence Castilucci was planting against the hero, some of it had to stick.

All in all, a good night’s work. Castilucci whistled an old Sinatra tune as he sauntered back to the subway.

Castilucci didn’t see the cloaked, black-swathed figure watching him from the shadows atop the mall. It drew out an encrypted communication gadget from a pouch at its waist. “It’s me,” it whispered into the communicator. “I saw Castilucci making another deal to incriminate Topaz.”

A pause.

“A Rook this time. CAP captured him. By tomorrow, he’ll be at the Clarkstown TCPD substation, telling some ridiculous story meant to incriminate Topaz.”

Another pause.

“I agree. Mr. Castilucci has become a liability.” The figure gazed at Castilucci, now receding down the street. “Connect me with Arbalest.”

Written by - Jack 'Olantern' Snyder

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