The quiet moments leading up to a conflict are interesting. There’s a sense of impending doom that can scramble your thoughts or focus them or do both at once. People in power count on that, whether they’re aware of it or not. Their confidence allows them to approach a conflict without being burdened by the fight or flight response. Fear and adrenaline can amp up your physical abilities but it’s calm that enhances your most powerful weapon. Being able to think when those around you are driven to stupidity can make all the difference in how a conflict plays out.
Often, the powerful don’t even need to do much thinking. They know what they want, and experience and confidence tell them they’re going to get it. They may have a set of strategies they employ to make that happen with a minimum of fuss, or they may just bull through encounters by sheer force of personality. Either way though, their minds aren’t chewed up by worry. Worry is for the little people. Or so the theory goes.
In practice, on at least some level though, everyone is aware of how small they really are. As the top gang boss in Los Diablos, Eddie Stone was the most powerful man in the city, and one of the most powerful men in the state. For all that power though, anything from a single bullet to bad plate of shellfish could still spell the end of him. If that thought didn’t keep him up at night, there was the more obvious problem that the power he held was largely given to him by his supporters.
A guy who got to the top by backstabbing, double dealing and cheating the system couldn’t help but be aware that his empire of “loyal guys” would be loyal right up to the moment when it benefited them more not to be. Some gangsters let that make them paranoid. Some lived in denial. Some did both.
Boss Stone had developed his own form of craziness to get through the day. Where some gangsters hid what they were, Stone erected monuments to his sins. The Chimera Club was more than a popular night spot. It was an invitation for the law, his rivals and anyone else who thought they were up to it to attack him. In place of security he had cigarette girls, in place of locks and fences, Stone had the main doors permanently wedged open. It was a declaration to the world that Stone was ready for anybody who wanted to try taking his place.
I had to wonder as we walked into the dim entryway if there wasn’t a part of Stone that regretted that arrogance at times like this.
Shurman’s death had drawn attention to the club, but much worse than that it had brought chaos to it as well. Eddie Stone could handle attention. From the police, from the media and from high society. He lived for it. Chaos though was another matter. Chaos threatened to destroy the illusion of control he held.
If Stone has shot and killed Shurman on stage that would have been fine (in Stone’s eyes). It would have shown that he was brutal, but in charge, which was pretty much exactly the image he liked to convey. That someone in Stone’s “house” had been murdered without Stone’s approval though showed that he wasn’t in charge. That things could happen that Eddie Stone had no control over whatsoever.
Like many men of power, being reminded that he was weak was the one thing “Boss” Eddie Stone could not tolerate.
“Looks like Mr. Stone is in a meeting.” I said as the two thugs that were escorting us lead us into the auditorium. The theater crowds had gone home for the night when the police closed the club down for their investigation. A new crowd had taken their place though, one that was made up of tough guys, thugs and other low level gangsters. Stone stood on the stage along with his giant bodyguard. The men in the audience were silent and still as church mice. Stone on the other hand was pacing and swearing like a sailor with ten stubbed toes. These were the minions who had failed him, who had let chaos catch him unawares, who had allowed him to look weak. He hadn’t had a good night, so they were going to have a miserable one.
He was on a roll with his cursing but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. Seeing us enter shook him out of whatever train of thought he’d been riding and brought him back to focusing on the people he was chewing out.
“So this is what we’re gonna do. You all are gonna put the word out. Let everybody know that I want this guy and I want him alive.” Stone said to the assembled gangsters.
“What are ya gonna do to him boss?” someone called out from the crowd. Directions to go make someone else’s life miserable were exactly what this audience was waiting for.
“I don’t know yet. I’m thinking I’ll get…creative. Maybe have us a Red Christmas and decorate the Dwan.” Stone said with a big cruel smile. The ‘Dwan’ was one of the bridges that led to Fairbanks Island. The image of a “Red Christmas” made it all too clear what they’d be decorating the bridge with if they could catch the shooter.
I remembered to recoil from that idea after a second. It wasn’t always easy to remember to be a human. There were parts of me that could have given Stone lessons in “creative cruelty” which would have melted his mind. Even on a world like Earth Glass I knew how to hurt people more than they could believe. That wasn’t who I wanted to be though. Ever.
It was hard to keep hold of that resolution when dealing with people like the assassins who were after us though. They’d shot at me and, worse, at Way. They’d killed someone who I knew was at the very least a decent man, and possibly a pretty good one. And they’d burned down a building with families inside it. Part of me was quite on board with Eddie Stone’s plans for the shooter.
I was a dreamlord though and that part of me was one that I had a responsibility to control. Eddie Stone’s options were limited. Violence and cruelty weren’t the only tools he had, but they were the ones he understood best. Even limited as I was on Earth Glass, I had a lot more available to me, both in terms of options and understanding.
So I tucked away my bloodlust and frowned at “Boss” Eddie Stone as he looked to the back of the auditorium where we stood. We were too far for my expression to register but my body language threw him off enough to do a double take. Apparently he was expecting us to be cringing or cowering or in some other “girly” pose. Anyone who knew how to fight could take one look at Way and know from how she moved that she wasn’t the “cowering” type. As for me, a room full of thugs wasn’t even enough of a threat to register on my danger scale given the things I’d faced in the last four years. I didn’t project the same quiet, deadly competence that Way did. I think I just read as unnerving and inhuman when I was in a bad mood.
Stone waved the two goons to take us into one of the rooms that adjoined the back of the auditorium. Apparently we weren’t going to questioned in front of the group. That was good for us and for Stone, given how I expected the conversation to go.
“You two wait here.” the thug who’d driven us to the Club instructed as he shut us into a lavishly decorated private suite.
“I take it you’re planning to interrogate the gangster?” Way asked after the two thugs left.
“We might have it all wrong. Stone might be our dreamweaver. It would explain how he built his empire so quickly.” I said.
“Possibly. There are a lot of ‘disappearances’ that can help explain that too though.” she said.
“You’re probably right. I’m not seeing any reality fractures here, so odds are he earned his money via good old fashioned “murder”. He’s tied up in this though, so even if he’s not our dreamweaver he may know something we can use.” I said, passing a table topped with elegant crystal knick-knacks that had been set up as an attempt to add a touch of class to the environment. It, along with the rest of the decorations in the room, failed in that endeavor and instead screamed that the decorator had more money than artistic sense.
“His bodyguard might be an issue if we need to leave before we’re invited to.” Way said as she settled onto one end of a small couch in the center of the room.
“He is pretty big.” I agreed as I settled down into the couch beside her.
“He’s a fighter too. Don’t tangle with him if you don’t have to.” she warned.
“Are you calling dibs this early?” I asked her.
“You get to have your fun chatting with the big bad gangster.” she reminded me.
My attempt at a witty reply was cut-off by the door to the room opening. Stone and the wall of muscle that was his bodyguard entered, still talking to one of his underlings.
“Yes I want you to talk to the cops. Talk to everybody! I want this guy delivered to me before my morning paper gets here!” Eddie Stone bellowed. The underling he was talking to fled without asking another question. I clucked my tongue and shook my head.
A guy who was in charge of as many people as Eddie Stone was should have been better at people management than that. Leadership through anger bred subordinates who couldn’t think for themselves and were paralyzed with indecision in any but the simplest of situations. If we hadn’t been otherwise engaged, it would have been fun to take the cities gangs away from Stone by simply training up a replacement who had some actual people skills.
“So do you dames know why you’re here.” Stone asked after his bodyguard closed the door.
“Your boys said you liked our act and wanted to give us a job as the headliners for the show.” I said. No harm embellishing a little.
“Like your act? Yeah, I liked your act just fine. Right up to the part where somebody dropped a stiff on my stage.” Stone said, pacing forward to loom over us as he spoke. He wrinkled his nose in disgust as he got close. It took me a second to figure out where that came from; I still reeked of smoke from the burning building I’d been in.
“That bit wasn’t part of our program.” I said, looking up into Stone’s eyes without flinching. He wasn’t a big man, but since we were sitting he managed to loom over us.
He held my gaze a couple of long moments before breaking away to start pacing the room again. Before he turned his back to us, I saw a scowl of confusion and irritation on his face. We weren’t behaving how he expected us too. We weren’t terrified by his mere presence.
“From what I hear, it didn’t seem to bother you much though.” Stone said.
“Should it have?” I asked.
“Most broads would at least bat an eye at a dead guy.”
“We’re not most broads.”
“Yeah, so who are you then? Cause how I see it? It looks like you knew the stiff and I can’t see how that’d be true for a pair of no name stage girls working tryout night.” Stone said, waving his cigar at us so violently that he shook its ashes all over the room.
“What makes you think we knew him?” I asked. I kept any trace of concern out of my voice, but I was interested in the answer. If Stone was our untrained dreamweaver he’d have some wildly improbable story to support how he’d found out about our connection to Shurman.
“Don’t play dumb with me. The stiff was a P.I. and you were in his office not an hour later when a beat cop got shot in the head there. So tell me, you been going around offing private dicks and cops tonight?”
“Wait, how could you know that? About the office I mean?” I asked. I didn’t care about covering up our involvement with Shurman. If Stone was a dreamweaver than it was worth revealing secrets more dangerous than that to find out. If he wasn’t then we could deal with him in a lot of ways.
“How could I know? I got people on the force, I got people in the dispatchers office, I got people in places you don’t even know there are people. I know everything that happens in my town!” Stone yelled not two feet away from my face.
That’s when the first gun shots erupted outside the room.