Here we are with chapter one of Fists of Iron, the exciting conclusion to the Frank Butcher saga!
“Thank you all for being here,” John Perez, the last and most annoying Peacekeeper in the world, began, “especially considering the troubles that have come down around us in the past day.”
I didn’t want to be there, not even a little bit. I especially didn’t want to be stuffed in Tabitha Marlowe’s office atop the Pendleton Building just for the honor of listening to John, the formerly deceased (though technically he was never actually dead) husband of the lady I was in love with.
It just rubbed me the wrong way, what can I say? Still, I’d put on my big boy pants and shown up along with the rest of the magical folks who had survived the mess that had gone down thirty-six hours ago.
Jealousy wasn’t the only reason for my attitude, of course. Frankly, I was sick to death of all the bullshit, betrayals, and backstabbing from all sides. The last straw had been Rabbi Joseph Krakowski. He had seemed like one of the few pure souls I’d run into ever since Dr. Gabriela Perez had put this ancient Aztec stone into my chest. He’d saved our asses right before sticking a dagger into our ribs in one swift motion.
Still, I was leaning against the wall, all nice and pretty with my scrapes, bumps, and bruises from the past week bound to listen. See, despite my misgivings, there were a couple of things I cared about here. Exactly two, as a matter of fact.
First, Joseph had taken off with Max Perez, Gabby’s son, as insurance that we wouldn’t go after him. Say what you want about me, but I don’t take kindly to people fucking with children.
Second, I still owed Gabriela my life. She’d saved my life with her magical surgery, and la Corazon’s power. Sure, if she hadn’t been a wizard, I might not have needed my life saved, but at the same time, she hadn’t been the one who cast the spell that blew the place up. Besides, she was now the only straight shooter I knew among all these mystical assholes.
All that navel-gazing had pulled me out of the moment. No big loss, it was some back-and-forth drabble between Tabitha Marlowe, the head honcho here in the building and former higher up in the End Society, one of the two clans of wizards I knew about, and John. More political garbage from what little trickled through. Certainly none of my business.
It was Gabby’s voice that brought me back into the conversation. “We don’t need to worry about the formalities, John. The clans are gone now and both of the elders are dead. All that matters is where our son is and what Joseph has done.”
“There is still a right way and a wrong way to go about this.” John glanced around the room, looking from her to every other face in the room. “In the face of this primal chaos, keeping order is of the utmost importance.”
Bluto a.k.a. Tyrone, the building’s head of security, and sweet Molly, ex-soldier for the Whites, the other clan of wizards that was currently falling apart, and full-time Irish spitfire, shared a grumble at that. Maybe they thought John was full of it or maybe they were as sick of the endless layers of bullshittery as I was.
Molly stole a glance at me from across the room, something I decided to ignore for now because even though John’s return had basically axed the slowly blossoming relationship between Gabby and I, well, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on it just yet. Yes, I’m aware that makes me a horrible person, but at the same time… I held out hope, for what, I’m not exactly sure. This was the end after all, maybe he’d go out in a blaze of glory and I’d still get to ride off into the sunset with Gabby. The thought almost made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. That was never going to happen.
Abner, my favorite walking lump of clay, was the first one to say something and his deep, hollow voice rumbled through the room.
“This I understand, Peacekeeper, but we do not know the extent of my father’s plans nor the motivations behind them. Rabbi Krakowski is not a man of ill intent or of impulsive action.” I knew the big guy was attached to the Littlest Rabbi, the guy did create him after all, but it was hard to see how releasing the Lovecraftian monstrosities I had seen in that cube into our world was in anyway positive. “I cannot abide his taking of your son, Max, but we cannot be quick to judge his shattering of the cube. There must be a reason, we just don’t know what.”
“Abner, we have laws in place for a reason.” John’s brow wrinkled, and his face hardened. “If there’s something else afoot, and the evidence shows he had good reason for what he did, things won’t go badly for him.” He glanced in Gabby’s direction. “Kidnapping a teenager, even if he wasn’t my son, will be hard to justify.”
I finally gave enough of a shit to throw in my two cents. Pushing off the wall I’d been leaning against, I said, “Then why the hell are we all gathered up for debate club? Shouldn’t you people be doing something by now? Fuck the rest of it, get the kid back.”
Gabby gave me a warm look which I tried my best to ignore because there was no use salting my own wounds.
“Right on, boyo. I might still be a bit ragged around the edges, but I sure as hell think we oughta be out there doing some damage instead of twiddling our thumbs,” Molly chimed in, pumping her fist excitedly in the air.
“We aren’t going to ‘do some damage,’ Ms. O’Shaughnessy,” Tabitha announced, pushing her glasses up on her nose. “We are going to go about this in an intelligent manner. We need to not only find Krakowski and Maximilian and devise the best, safest way to retrieve the boy, but we also need to determine the exact damage and danger the destruction of the Cube poses to our world.”
“There’s no need for that, Director.” The Peacekeeper folded his arms over his chest. “We sealed off direct access for all the divinities for a reason, something both of the clans agreed on. We don’t need to do research. We need to bring the rabbi in, lock him up, and restore the seals.” Gabriela had turned her attention back to him, which John seemed to pick up on, causing him to tack on, “And rescue Max, of course. As for debate, this is called planning and organization.” He glanced at me before continuing. “I am going to deputize some of you and we’ll enact a plan to do exactly what I said.”
“So who’s on the team, Coach?” I wanted to give no shits at all, but I couldn’t pull away entirely. After all, I didn’t want the Old Ones or whatever to kill us all.
If John noticed my attitude, he ignored it. “In addition to the deputies I’ll be taking into the field, the rest of you will remain here with the director to look into and deal with the extra-dimensional incursions that are going to follow. The Great Old Ones might be eternal, and they’ve been waiting for this opportunity for eons. As we speak, they are enacting their plans. We’ve got no time left.” His tone was grim and rightly so. “Frank, you might be a bit ignorant about the mystical world, but you’ve seen these things first hand. You understand the threat.”
Gabriela stood up, those green eyes I so wasn’t looking at flashing. “I’m going with you.”
“Aye, me too.” Molly was giving me an expectant look as she threw her chips into the pot. I patently ignored it as she continued on. “Ye certainly ain’t leavin’ me behind when there’s nasty work to be done.”
John folded his arms over his chest. “No. I have a very specific list of people in mind and neither of you are on it.” His jaw set in preparation of the barrage he had to know was heading his way. I certainly did!
Molly fired off a knuckles-out V-sign (a European equivalent of a middle finger, for the uneducated out there) while Gabby’s reaction was more volcanic. She took a step toward her husband and half-shouted, “No, John. While you stuck yourself in a cube, I’ve been trying desperately to get our son back! There’s no way I am going to stay home and twiddle my thumbs when Max is still out there!”
I couldn’t help myself as I leaned back and grinned like a shark. It was amusing as hell to watch Johnny Boy flinch a bit under the doc’s tongue lashing, but I had to give the guy credit for holding his ground even though I really, really didn’t want to. “It’s a simple matter of priorities and effectiveness, Gabriela, not passion.”
Tabitha tried to hide the sigh between her teeth, but I sure as hell caught it. “Let’s not let this drag down into a mire of personal conflicts. We know how this always plays out between the two of you.” She focused her gaze on Gabriela. “I’ve already discussed this to some degree with John. The Peacekeeper is calling on my expertise in combat magic for this situation, so I need someone with an extensive background in magical research and academia to lead the investigations here.” She glanced at Gabriela. “You are the ideal person to lead that effort.”
I might not have cared much about this shit at the time, but I had to stir the pot when I saw one needing to be stirred. “So far, Tabby, all I’ve seen you do is direct people, figure shit out, and splash us with a ton of cold water. Not that I doubt your abilities in the field, but Gabby’s walked through fire and brimstone, and come out the other side with nary a scratch.”
Tyrone saw his own opening and took a shot. “On top of that, Director, we’re in a jam and a half here. Our defenses are screwed, we’ve got a list of casualties that ain’t going away anytime soon, and we barely have a clue as to how the Whites are handling having their leadership turned into salt pillars.” He pointed a meaty finger at Tabitha. “We need you here fixin’ things so these people don’t get completely fucked.”
We both had made some stellar points, but the nightstick I suspected was shoved up John’s ass was inflexible. Before Tabitha could make her own counterpoint, John raised his voice just a hair, but it was an effective hair. “That’s enough now.”
He had that presence that a seasoned cop has, that commanding voice that reminded you he had the full force of the law behind him. Of course, that was kind of a bluff. He was the last one of his kind after all, but it was still enough authority to shut the traps of all the magic types in the room. I was tempted to keep on coming, but I decided not to push all his buttons quite yet.
Shifting his posture to a more diplomatic one, he leaned forward as he grasped his hands behind his back and paced. He made eye contact with each and every one of us as he began to talk. “The Peacekeepers were destroyed to engender just this kind of chaos in the world. We need to stop this kind of squabbling to move forward, which means all of you need to listen and do as I ask.” He stopped and did a slow pan of the room. “We’ve dealt with this threat in the past, and we did it together. We can do it again.”
Maybe it was the simple fact my love life had been carpet-bombed by his return, but there was something that rang a bit hollow in what would otherwise have been a rousing performance worthy of any action movie hero. It was a little twitch of the eye, probably nothing, probably blown out of all proportion in my attempt to find the barest crack in what seemed to be an absolutely perfect shell. If it had really happened, no one else seemed to notice or mention it.
Instead, the audience was silent and at attention. Even the quiet grumbles from Molly and Tyrone had ceased.
Johnny Boy lowered his head, a gesture of respect. “Thank you. Now, as I said, we will have two teams. Going with me to apprehend Krakowski and free my son will be Director Marlowe and Abner. Our first move will be to go to the White’s enclave on the outskirts of San Diego to recruit more deputies.” As if to preempt any criticism, he raised his hands. “We need to do this as a unified front, White and Ender alike, so I need to go to them.”
Gabriela put out the point I was tempted to make myself. “John, the longer we wait, the more danger Max is in. We need to do this swiftly and in force!”
That was enough to bring me back into things. “Amen, sister. All this pussy footing around and playing all nicey-nice with everyone is only going to move our asses from the frying pan into the fire.”
Call me a sucker, which I certainly was, to fall into line behind Gabby. That ship had sailed, and while I was still spinning my oars in its wake, one thing was certain. Max was still in trouble. If John wasn’t concerned with him because of the bigger picture, that was his prerogative, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to get the boy back anyway.
John ignored Gabriela, going for the convenient scapegoat, me. “Butcher, I appreciate all you’ve done, not just for my family but for the world at large.” Yeah, there was a ‘but’ coming. “But despite the crash course you’ve had about magic and our society and all the things that were hidden from you for most of your life, you’re still vastly ignorant of what’s going on here. I’ve been doing this a long time, I know what I’m doing.”
While I might not have given two shits about how these wizards were going to fuck each other over again, Magic Cop had struck a nerve. I’d always hated guys who thought they knew better than everyone else. After all, that was pretty much what had started this whole mess.
From the Enders to the Rabbi, every one of them had thought they’d known best and plunged forward no matter how many people got fucked in the process. John may have been right, but at the same time, maybe he wasn’t. Either way, I was pissed.
I straightened up to my full height, an effective gesture because I was a couple of inches taller than John.
“Yeah, and doing things the way you guys did worked out really well,” I grinned, allowing my words to hang in the air for a moment. “Was getting locked up in a living acid trip part of the master plan too?”
That had probably been uncalled for and a bit too soon, but it was the damned truth. Most of the room, Gabriela included, was shocked by that little pipe bomb, but Molly was trying her damnedest not to break out into laughter.
John’s jaw set as he tried to keep his anger hidden under a cool façade. “Well, Frank, if you’re not going to be part of a positive solution, I suggest you leave the meeting. We have a lot of planning left to do, and we don’t need your kind of disruption interfering with it.”
Well, if that’s how he wanted to play it, fine. I didn’t need him anyway. I’d gotten us this far by myself, and all he’d goddamned done was sit in a glass box.
“Sure thing, big guy.” I turned on my heels and headed toward the office door. “Good luck with that. When you actually decide to do something for real and get Max back, you know where I’ll be.”
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or at least it broke Molly’s control over her laughter. She started giggling like mad as I stalked out of the room, ignoring Gabriela’s belated attempt to defuse the situation. I stalked out of the room, more than happy to slam the door behind me as I left the office.