It was a bad sign.
Ruud stopped when he saw Zen-ji standing outside the closed doors to Erasmus’s chambers. The stiletto killer straightened his velvet tie and brushed back his pomaded hair before walking up the last few steps and standing before the giant Japanaman. He didn’t look up. There was no point. Zen-ji’s colorful, curved helm kept his face hidden. Nor was there any point in speaking. Ruud would either be allowed to enter or not. He’d either be killed or not.
After a moment, he cleared his throat and the samurai opened the doors.
Sciever sat on a couch in the waiting room, clutching a highball. He was swollen and covered in bandages, including over one eye, and he popped a palmful of pills while he feasted on the beating in Erasmus’s office.
“Rabid’s dead,” he said without turning.
Ruud nodded as his eyes followed the splatter. Togo smacked a big man in the face with his brass-knuckled fist. The man’s head wobbled but he was still conscious. His arms were tied behind a rickety chair that rested on plastic sheets.
Ruud looked around. The girls were gone. That was unusual. The boss always liked company. “Who’s left?”
“Not many.” Sciever watched the beating. “Zeek’s dead, too.”
Ruud nodded and lit a cigarette. “I heard. Lying in a warehouse with her face blown off. Where are all the girls?”
“Who’s the big guy?”
“Are you nervous?”
Ruud exhaled smoke. “Huh?”
“You always ask a lotta questions when you’re nervous.”
“I gotta talk to the boss.”
“Good luck breaking in on that.” Sciever nodded.
Togo’s tattooed face scowled and he beat the man across the jaw in the opposite direction. Something cracked.
Ruud puffed twice then exhaled. “Yeah, well I gotta try.” He walked through the open doorway into the office. Erasmus was behind his desk facing his prey with floating eyeballs. Tiny bubbles clung to his brain.
Ruud turned and breathed in. The man’s entire face—his eyes, his lips, his cheeks—were red, blue, and swollen. His fat lower lip was cut and his mouth oozed blood and phlegm. He was missing several teeth. Ruud walked toward the bar as the man spit blood defiantly.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Erasmus was quiet.
Ruud reached over the bar for a glass and a bottle. “I have bad news.” He heard the crack of another punch. The faceless man was half laughing, half crying. Ruud turned around but didn’t look. He poured himself a drink.
“You see this tragedy, Ruud? He had bad news, too.”
Ruud emptied the glass in two gulps and looked at his boss as he poured another. “If you wanna kill me, go ahead. Just make it quick. No way I can take a beating like that.”
“’Course not. This man is a fighter. He’s taken worse beatings than this. Isn’t that right?”
Togo hit him again. There was a fat slap.
The man coughed through swollen lips and missing teeth, and his voice rasped like escaping gas. “I dunno where he is.”
“Where does he go? Who are his friends?”
“He dusn hav friens.”
“Everybody’s got friends. Even Ruud, here. You don’t get by in this town without friends.”
“Jus his siser.”
“We already checked the sister’s apartment!” Erasmus yelled.
“I don know.” The man shook his head.
Togo scowled and hit him again. A tooth bounced off the wall and landed on the carpet. The man started to sob.
Ruud nodded toward him. “He know the runt?”
“Spit it out,” Erasmus growled at Ruud. “What’s the word from uptown?”
“The Empire is going to declare martial law.”
“They’re about to roll tanks into Old Amazonus and work their way out to the hills. House to house cultural inquisition. Total purge. Aminals. Mechanoids. Criminals.”
“Criminals, huh? Then they should start at City Hall. What the fuck do we pay those assholes for if I gotta hear this from you?”
Ruud shrugged and puffed on his cigarette. “You hear anything from our contacts in the Capital?”
Erasmus was silent for a moment. “No. What else?”
“Anybody with a passport is getting the hell out. Freecity is about to be a ghost town.”
Erasmus didn’t reply. Togo looked at him and waited for an order.
Ruud cleared his throat. “That means no business at the Dark Red or any of our casinos. And the Empire will round up anyone with Neverod paraphernalia, which means all our customers are about to go bye-bye.” He waved.
Sciever walked into the office. “There’s someone here to see you. Out front.”
Togo shook his head at the swollen man. It was not a good time for house calls.
“He says he’s from the Hand.”
“What the fuck do those nut jobs want?” Erasmus barked.
“He says it’s about Jack. And the end of the world. The guys told him to buzz off, but he’s got a box of scythe beetles. Not that it matters, I suppose. Carnival is empty. But he seems set on talking to you, or making one bloody mess.”
“Beetles? That’s clever. Bring him down.”
Togo raised his eyebrows.
“But take the gods-damned beetles off him first!”
“Right.” Sciever walked out.
“What the fuck do those crazies want?” Ruud asked.
“Shut up and get back uptown. I need you to keep an eye on things. Get up to that ship.”
“’Cuz it’s your fucking job!” Erasmus yelled. “I don’t care how. Cunt-lap a ninety-year-old heiress. Just get aboard that ship! I need at least a couple hours’ warning on those tanks.”
“Right.” Ruud downed his drink, snuffed his cigarette, and walked out.
“What about this guy?” Togo asked.
“Shoot him in the balls.”
“No . . .” Dobie sobbed. “Please . . .”
Togo pulled a gun and shot. Dobie started screaming.
“Gag the fucker!” Erasmus moved his spider contraption out from behind the desk as a half-mechanoid man walked into the room. He wore no clothes. Spindly metal limbs extended from his abdomen to the floor. One of his eyes was artificial. “Did you search him? Inside and out?”
Sciever nodded. He held up a set of black robes draped over his bandaged arm. “He’s clean.”
“All right, asshole. You wanted to talk to me. Talk.”
The half-mechanoid looked at the man in the chair, then Erasmus. He spoke with a thick Futurian accent. “I have come to make an offering, and to deliver a warning.”
“Aww, and you thought of me?” Erasmus mocked. “Fuck. Will somebody please dismember this thing?”
“Wait!” The half-mechanoid raised his hands. “The Amazons have returned, as was foretold. Their coming heralds the return of Kraxus.”
Sciever smirked and looked at the floor.
“You think you’re the first hybrid we’ve had down here?” Erasmus asked. “We got a blowtorch in the closet, next to the broom and the toilet cleaner. No bullshit, you cultist fuck.”
“Black Jack the Wanderer has taken refuge in the Old Arcade.”
“So I’ve heard. Tell me something I don’t know.”
“He’s getting a skin job as we speak. Soon you will not be able to recognize him.”
“We won’t allow your people in the Arcade, but we can bring him to you. For a price.”
Everyone but Dobie was silent as Erasmus thought. The fighter gasped through his gag in short rasping breaths as his head rolled about.
The voice box in the mechanical spider clicked on. “I’ll give you five hundred large to kill him. But I want his body as proof. No body, no money.”
The naked assassin smiled.
“And I’ll double it if you find the ray gun.”
The assassin bowed and followed Sciever out.
Togo watched him go. “That’s a lot of money.”
“I want everybody we got left looking for Vernal the Infernal. Everybody! Shut down the casinos. Drag the carnies out of bed. Get the dealers off the streets. Call in the books. I want everybody, and I mean fucking everybody not mothballing the Dark Red out looking for that venereal half-pint and the wisps of hair on his scrotum-shaped head!”
Togo nodded. “And him?” He pointed at the blubbering boxer.
Blood dripped from Dobie’s crotch to the plastic below. He clung to life by a fingernail.
“Take him upstairs and feed him to Archie.”
Togo gulped. “Right.” He hated feeding the giant squid. The beast had twelve very long tentacles. You could never keep track of them all. “And Jack?”
“Zen-ji!” Erasmus moved his contraption back around his desk and settled in. “Don’t worry about Jack.”
“I said don’t worry!” Erasmus snarled.
The ten-foot samurai blotted the doorway to Erasmus’s office. He had to bow to fit under the frame, and his footsteps shook the floor. As always, his face was invisible.
“Go to the Arcade. Keep an eye on things, but don’t engage. You hear me? Stay away from Jack. If those wackos kill him, make sure to get the body. If not, I wanna know where he goes.”
The giant warrior bowed, turned, and strode like a hunting cat out of the room.
The fluid in Erasmus’s glass tank started bubbling and his eyes bounced off each other. “The Hand will slow him down, buy us some time. But in the end, Jack Fulcrum will come to us.”
Togo grunted and lifted the limp, dying fighter over his shoulder. “How can you be sure?”
“Because this has happened before.”
art by Tamas Kerti, pretty much exactly as I imagined the technocrat priests of The Black Hand from my first novel, a pulp called FANTASMAGORIA.