Castilucci had holed up in some pretty terrible dives over the years, but this cheap room in the Highpoint Corner Savpoint Inn was one of the worst. Discolored stains marred the cracked plaster of the walls. Some kind of goop oozed from a corner of the ceiling; Castilucci hadn’t wanted to examine it too closely. The dirty carpet was worn down to nothing in a half-dozen places. The exposed pipes rattled whenever someone in an adjoining room used the water. Flyspecks dotted the single lamp, and rips in the stuffing of the cheap chairs exposed the upholstery. Castilucci considered himself a fairly tough guy, but the stains on the bedspreads and the dirt everywhere had scared even him off actually getting under the bedsheets.
Worst of all, the loud, rattling air conditioning unit was stuck on a high setting, making it too cold to sleep without leaving on his suit jacket and the ugly, gaudy tennis shoes he’d bought on the street. They were his warmest options. He hadn’t had time to pack a bag when he’d started running.
As he lounged on the bed, watching the lights of nighttime traffic sweep over the closed curtains and listening to the TV news, he reflected on what had happened. Just a week earlier, he’d stood in a meeting with Orlando Rossi, Father Omerta, going over what had happened at the trial of Topaz.
“I just don’t think Topaz offed that Aragon narc,” Castilucci had said, leaning back in one of the leather office chairs in this nondescript office—a front the Black Rose rented through a series of cutoffs— in Highpoint. “Too much about it doesn’t add up.”
Orlando glanced quickly at the bodyguards standing behind his chair. “Joe, Charlie,” he told them, “excuse us.” The two men stepped out.
“Frank,” Orlando went on once they’d shut the door, “you gotta let this go.”
“You ordered me to find who killed Aragon,” said Castilucci. “I’m trying to follow orders.” He leaned forward, warming to the subject. “Why would Topaz hire Tarot to break him out? And so publicly? Even assuming Topaz was dirty enough to kill an undercover cop, there’s gotta be a smarter way to play things than to get caught, go to trial, and then have a bunch of freaks break in and all but shout, ‘Hey, this guy’s a crook.’”
Orlando sighed. “I ordered you to find the killer or hang it on someone else,” he said. “La Rosa Nera doesn’t give a rip about whether that cape really killed Aragon or killed freaking American Star himself. The suspicion’s off us, and John Q. Public is looking at heroes suspiciously now. That’s a good enough end to the whole business for me.”
“Father Omerta,” he said, “what if it was the Five Dragons or the Barons or, I dunno, a new player, who hired Tarot to make Topaz look bad? This could be part of a whole new power play. The whole thing could still blow up in our faces, make waves all through the underworld.”
Orlando waved a hand dismissively. “Frank, let me worry about that. You just do your job like a good soldier.”
Castilucci bit his lip. He was used to persuading with fists and bullets and broken limbs, not this kind of argument. He struggled to put what he was thinking into words. “It … it ain’t right to leave a loose end like this. We’re men of honor.”
“Our honor is for our friends,” Orlando said flatly. “I’m gonna forget this conversation, Frank. I suggest you do the same.” He pointed to the doorway in dismissal.
Two days later, at Frank’s apartment in Little Venice, they came for him. He’d just gotten in and had barely had time to take off his shoes when he heard a sharp knock on the door.
Castilucci looked up from his place on the couch as the knock came again. “Mr. Castilucci! Open up! Titan City Police Department. We’d like to ask you some questions.” The heavy metal of the outer door muffled the voice, and it spoke in standard-issue cop tones, but Castilucci thought he recognized a familiar, nasal whine to it. He couldn’t be sure, but he suspected it was Roth, that detective from the Topaz trial.
He stood silent and strained to listen. He didn’t dare peer out through the peephole in his door, lest his visitors see the light coming through it cut off and deduce he was home. He heard the voice speaking to someone else outside. “… should break it down,” a second voice was saying.
Roth shot back with, “We have no probable cause, Lenny.”
Another voice said something that sounded like “antithesis,” then more that Castilucci didn’t catch.
But as the cops continued to argue and he continued to listen, he heard something else: the soft slap of water against the banks of the canal his apartment overlooked. Castilucci frowned. He hadn’t lived several decades in a very risky business without developing strong instincts for danger. The canal was two stories down. He shouldn’t be able to hear it unless a window was open.
Someone had broken into his place. Of all the times, Castilucci thought. He clamped down on his anger and planned as quickly and carefully as he could. He didn’t want to face a potentially armed intruder, but he couldn’t just walk out the front door with the cops standing there. He took a deep breath, quietly drew out the gun he’d left in a table drawer, and softly padded toward the darkened bedroom at the back of the apartment, the only place an intruder could be hiding. He carefully stood away from the doorway so he wouldn’t be silhouetted against the hall light. He gazed into the darkness, letting his eyes adjust as much as he could. Then, as fast as possible, he dashed into the bedroom.
The window was broken, lying in pieces on the carpet. Some kind of short, dark rod lay amid the shards of glass. It was clearly what had broken the window. Castilucci picked it up and stared. It had a wicked point and vanes at the opposite end. A crossbow quarrel. Arbalest, he thought. He gazed out the broken window, across the canal, and saw the hitman perched beside a caryatid statue on a building opposite, pointing his crossbow right at him.
Decades of experience took over. In a second, he had his gun up and firing. Arbalest was too far away for him to hit reliably with a handgun, but even the most bulletproof supers tended to flinch away from unexpected gunfire. Arbalest ducked partway behind the statue.
“Open up!” shouted Roth. The apartment door shook as the cops hammered at it.
Castilucci cursed himself for an idiot. The sound of the gunshots had given the cops an excuse to break down the door and charge in.
“Kick it!” Roth shouted. “That’s why you’re here!”
“Let’s see you try kicking this thing down!” came the other cop’s voice as the door took another impact. The doorframe began to crack.
Outside, Arbalest dispassionately slotted another bolt into his crossbow. Its head looked heavy … like a grenade.
Castilucci looked back toward the hall. The doorframe tore to splinters. Roth, wearing a cheap suit, and another, uniformed cop Castilucci vaguely remembered from the trial burst in, guns up. They loomed in the doorway. “TCPD!” shouted the uniformed one. “Drop the weapon and on the floor, now!”
“You don’t understand!” shouted Castilucci. “There’s a mask here, ready to take you out!” He backed toward the window, carefully stepping around the broken glass.
“I said, drop it!” shouted the uniformed cop.
“He’s threatening us!” said Roth. “Take him down!”
Castilucci glanced over his shoulder at the black water of the canal.
Arbalest fired, and the bedroom exploded around him.
The explosion hurled Castilucci out the window with the force of a giant’s hand. He plunged backward into the canal, flung down through the water until he bounced off the muddy bottom. Castilucci flailed frantically in the watery darkness. Every scare-story he’d heard as a kid about things in the canals came back to him.
Something, a bullet or another quarrel, whizzed past him. He held his breath and swam as fast as he could in his waterlogged suit, hauling himself through the dark water until he reached the next intersection. A canal or two away, he finally ran out of air and burst through the surface, gasping and spluttering.
He heaved himself onto a quayside and sat shivering for a second. His apartment, gone. If Arbalest was hunting for him, maybe his place with la Rosa Nera gone, too. Even if he managed to dodge Arbalest, the TCPD would be looking for him now, thinking he’d blown up those two cops. This time, they’d shoot first, then knock.
He flung his gun, now completely soaked and probably already rusting up, into the water. Stupid capes, he thought. Stupid powered killer. Stupid everything. When did my life turn into this crazy, superpowered mess? For a moment, he wished irrationally to be a kid again, playing with Orlando along these very canals.
He staggered to his feet. Wishing wouldn’t keep him alive. He’d been hunted before and survived. He would survive again. He thought about the stash—another gun, a disposable phone, cash—he’d concealed in a bus station locker nearby. He had to snag it, and fast, before anyone caught up with him, then vanish. He shivered in his wet clothes and started walking. The first thing he intended to buy was a new set of shoes.
An hour later, Castilucci had collected his stash and begun drying off. He bought some shoes from a kid selling them on the street outside the bus station. The only ones he’d had in Castilucci’s size were a set of bright red sneakers, the kind those Pyrebrand goofballs might wear, but they were better than going barefoot. He didn’t dare linger. He’d already seen six police cars, lights blazing, racing down one of Little Venice’s few roads in the general direction of his place. Worse, he knew Arbalest was still out there, too.
Castilucci fled, across Titan City and back again. For two days, he ran, doubling back more than once, not even pausing to sleep. Halfway through the second day, outside the Central Transit Terminal in Downtown, he’d spotted Arbalest, watching from the shadows of an alleyway. He’d only just managed to dash inside and make it onto the first subway train he saw.
He paid cash for everything and kept his head down when talking to people. He steered clear of underworld hangouts, knowing they’d be watched. He dodged the TCPD three times, slipping out of buildings through back doors and staying to back streets. He evaded Arbalest four times, twice more by boarding fast-moving trains, once by ducking through a crowded movie theater, and once by piling into some guy’s cab and begging him to “just drive.” The cabby had spent the whole time babbling on about famous getaways from the city’s history.
And finally, Castilucci had ended up here, registered as “Frank Smith” at the Highpoint Corner Savpoint Inn, an insult to Savpoint Inns everywhere.
A well-coiffed reporter on the TV news started on a new story. “The TCPD is still trying to locate Francis X. Castilucci in connection with an explosion in Little Venice two days ago,” she said chirpily over video of smoke pouring from his apartment window. “Two TCPD officers suffered superficial injuries in the blast but are expected to be discharged from the hospital today.” A new graphic popped up, an old photo of him—had his hair really looked that stupid, back in the ‘80’s?—alongside a crummy, computerized “age progression” of him that made him look like he was made of wrinkled plastic. “If have any information about Castilucci, please call our tip line …” If the Black Rose hadn’t already sent Arbalest after me, he thought, they’d definitely cut me loose now.
A knock on the door brought him out of his moping. “Mr. Smith?” said a woman’s voice. He heard a key rattling in the lock.
Fine, he thought. They could only push him so far before he stopped playing nice. “Step away from the door!” he cried. He snatched up his gun off the cheap dresser and pointed it at the door.
The flimsy door flew open so fast that its knob smashed a hole in the wall as it bounced off. The woman who’d spoken before stepped into the doorway, shoulders square in a firing stance. “Freeze!” she shouted. “TCPD! Francis X. Castilucci, you’re under arrest!”
Castilucci blinked but held his pistol steady. It was the lady cop from the trial, the one who’d attacked Captain Sun and tangled with Judgment.
“Drop the gun!” she screamed.
Castilucci prepared to fire.
This update brought to you by the letter X. Also by Jack 'O'Lantern' Snyder. I have to tell you, the man spins a heck of a yarn. Could be a Parker novel.
Discuss this update at: http://cityoftitans.com/forum/discuss-tales-underworld-hideout and stay tuned for the 4th of July.