Zero (3/7)

Cadence Morello, Geminian Swindler

The air was thick with smoke and the smell of booze. The dim v-lights barely had the power to pierce through the veil of grayness that was seeping down from the cloud of ash in the air. The haziness was the perfect blanket for her to hide in.

They were sitting at one of the many round tables that dotted the room. On the table before them was an array of playing cards with small tokens interspersed in-between. The man who sat across the table from her was looking at her like he could read her like a book.

Damn. He was so easy to read. 

The v-watch he wore on his wrist was a knock off brand which indicated that he was a show-off who was easily swindled. His tight monochrome suit that strangled his wrists and neck indicated that he was in denial of his current circumstances and that he may not have the funds to get a purchase a new one. In other words, he was desperate for money and respect.

The man sneered at her as he tugged at his collar with one hand and waved his set of cards in the other. “Looks like this game is just about to wrap up, Antonio.” 

That was not her name, of course. That was who she looked like at the moment, however. Yes, Antonio Figeroli was the guise she currently wore. Antonio Figeroli was a middle-aged man with a hanging gut and a sadly receding hairline. He had a terrible demeanor and often threw his money at whatever caught his eye be it women, clothes, or alcohol. He frequented this tavern so often that the bartender always prepared his drink before he arrived in order not to face the man’s impatient wrath.

It had not been difficult to pick up Figeroli’s mannerisms. All she had to do was swing by the tavern a couple of times and chat him up when he was drunk. He’d been even easier to read than this buffoon. At the moment, the real Antonio Figeroli was passed out in an alleyway somewhere in the city — courtesy of the Romano Family.

The fact that this man truly believed her to be Antonio Figeroli just highlighted how stupid he really was. For saint’s sake, he was in the left Twin City, home of thieves and birthplace of everything underground. If someone in this city approached you out from the blue that meant that they either wanted your money, wanted your life, or wanted your body.

“Damn,” she swore in the deep and rumbling voice of Antonio with a spit for good measure. She slammed her fists onto the table with cards still in hand just as Antonio would and bowed her head. Her rings clacked noisily against the wooden surface as she tapped her fingers in mock impatience. “This can’t be right. You must be cheating.”

“Not cheating,” the man across from her grinned. “I’m just that good.”

She narrowed her eyes at him and looked him over carefully. “Say, I’ve seen you here before once or twice. Always drunk as hell. Made me feel better about myself. So, what’s with the sudden confidence and mood?”

The man considered her for a moment and then smirked. 

Hook. Line. Sinker.

The man leant across the table and glanced around the tavern with narrowed eyes. She leaned forward to meet him and pricked her ears.

“Just between you and me,” he whispered. “I recently got myself a new gig distributing some state of the art conductors to some very generous buyers. You wouldn’t believe how desperate people are nowadays for one of ‘em.”

“Don’t ya mean how desperate people are to make money sellin’ ‘em?” She returned.

A pause, and then: “Your voice—”

Rising to a slow stand, she wiggled her ringed fingers and felt them prickle where the metal of the ring touched her skin. Orange light blossomed from the prickling area and crawled up her arm before reaching up to her face.  When the light faded, the man sitting across from her let out a shout and fell backward on his chair. 

“Y-You’re not…!” The man stammered, pointing a shaking finger in her direction. “You’re a kid!”

This gave her pause. Raising a brow, she lifted up her hat and scratched her head. “Not what I expected to hear, but what can I say?”

“Who—?!”

Holding out her cards for him to see, she let them slip from her fingers and onto the table. As they left her hand, they glimmered orange just as her body had. The two of spades became an ace of hearts. The five of clubs became a queen of hearts. The jack of diamonds became a jack of hearts. And the king and tens of spades became a king and tens of hearts.  An illusion broken. A royal flush.

“The name’s Cadence Morello.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Personal associate of the Romano Family at your service.”

At the family name, the man paled and then greened and then paled again. In an instant, he was on his knees and crawling to her ankles. “I… I… I…, please. I meant no disrespect! I have a family I need to provide for! You understand, don’t you? My children! Please, I’ll give you all the conductors I have and—”

She took a step back from him with raised hands. “Ey, ey, I get it. These are hard times. People get desperate. But you can only go so far and get sympathy, ya know? I mean, did you really think you could go tryin’ ta encroach on the Romano Family’s business turf and scrape away without a single problem? Even I’m not that lucky.” She fell to a crouch and met his gaze with a reassuring smile. “Look. If ya tell us who’s been providin’ ya with those conductors then I might be able to get in a good word for ya. Maybe only two fingers cut off instead of all ten.”

The man’s eyes widened. For a moment, it looked like he was going to pass out then and there. 

“Woah, don’t go passin’ out now,” she sighed. “I don’t want ta have ta drag your body to the boss, ya hear?”

The man did not move. And then it clicked for her. He was not staring at her in fear. He was staring at something behind her.

She turned her head just in time to see a flash of bright light followed by a gust of heat. The gust knocked her clean off her feet, and she was thrown backward into the bar. Glass rained down around her in clicks and clacks — a sound which seemed to match the beat of the crackling and popping that echoed in the background.

Blearily, and with much effort, she cracked open her eyes. 

The air was clouded in smoke. A shroud of smoke. But this time the shroud did not aid her. No, it was suffocating her with its gray hands.

She couldn’t breathe.

Not only that.

She couldn’t move.

Flames danced on the outskirts of her vision. The flickering embers were reflected in the shards of glass that were snowed around her. 

No. No. No. It couldn’t be. Not like this. Not when she was so close.

She gagged, hacked, coughed.

Was this—

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