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Having lived in Wolfdale for his entire life he had grown accustomed to the many problems of this big city. He had grown to accept it all; social inequality, the polarity between the rich and the poor, daily gang violence, corrupt politicians and law enforcements, staggering crime rates and high unemployment rate. Despite all of the social issues permeating Wolfdale Luca had grown to love this city more than anything else in this world.

Too bad the weather was awful, though. He could accept the social issues, believing that one day he would find a way to solve many of the problems that plagued the city, but even with the influence of the Leone family it would be an impossible task for him to ever solve the constantly gloomy grey skies, unless he became rich enough to be able to fund a dome that would cover the entire city with an artificial sky, but even then he doubted that would be enough to solve remedy all of the pollution.

For now he would have to deal with it.

Dressed in one of his expensive black suits and equally expensive beige trench coat he walked through the crowded shopping district of Wolfdale. Many expensive boutiques were situated in the northern, wealthy side of the city and helped make the district one of the more popular hangout spots for the people who could afford to be here.

The streets were filled with couples, most of them probably on their way to some kind of fancy restaurant for their date, as was usual for a Friday evening. The single Luca couldn’t help but be a bit jealous of all the public displays of affection happening around him, but it would be extremely uncool if he showed any interest in them regardless of whether it was envy or annoyance.

After walking for a while he entered a street packed with restaurants and cafes. For now it was still filled with lovebirds on their way to dinner, but in a few hours this location would change and they’d be replaced with drunk twentysomethings partying till the break of dawn. He never understood the point. Slowly pacing through the street he examined the many establishments he passed by until he arrived at an Italian restaurant.

He stepped into the restaurant and was greeted by its mixed modern and rustic interior. In the far back of the establishment was a wine bar with hundreds of different kinds of wine decorating the wine rack behind the counter. The bartender, dressed in the typical black trousers, white dress shirt, black waistcoat and black bowtie stopped polishing a wineglass to greet Luca with a wave.

Luca nodded in acknowledgement and weaved through the crowded restaurant, attempting not to bump into the many occupied tables before taking a seat on a barstool. The bartender grabbed a cognac glass from under the counter and poured Courvoisier in until Luca signaled for him to stop. “Is Ennio here?†Luca took a sip of his cognac as the bartender shook his head. “Still not back from the Family meeting, huh? He never could stand meeting with the Heads of the other Families. He’s late.†Luca gulped down the remainder of the cognac before stepping through the door with a ‘Staff Only’ label to enter the kitchen. The chefs all took a moment to greet him before he stepped into the office belonging to Ennio.

He shoved his black leather gloves into his coat’s pockets and hung it up on the coatrack before sitting down on Ennio’s expensive leather chair. After taking a quick spin and stretching his limbs to relax he reached out for the telephone and started dialing the number of Ennio’s cellphone. Once he heard the ringback tone he placed the phone back in its socket to put it on speaker, allowing him to spin around in the chair freely while the ringback tone assured him that Ennio had not picked up yet.

Luca shrugged and simply started reading through the paper Ennio had left on his desk. The Don was most likely busy with something and knowing Ennio he’d call back soon. A man who hates being kept waiting doesn’t like to keep other people waiting on him, which was probably Ennio’s only good trait. After a few minutes Luca decided to try again, no answer, and again, no answer. By the third attempt he was starting to get worried, after the fifth attempt worry was replaced by dread and the attempt after that solidified Luca’s belief that something had to be wrong. Ennio would never ignore two calls in a row, let alone six.

He stood up, dashed for his coat, pulled his smartphone out of his inner pocket and started writing an email directed at the underboss and the Family’s many caporegimes. “Ennio is missing. Find him, asap.†Send. It didn’t take long before many of them replied. They were confused and wanted to know what was going on, but Luca’s pounding heart and vicious headache made it hard for him to concentrate normally, let alone focus enough to want to deal with all these questions. “No questions. Just find him!â€

He placed his elbows on the desk and started moving his fingers through his hair while taking deep slow breaths to calm himself down. His fingers rested on the back of his neck as his gaze lingered on the floor. He had to know what was going on, but on the other hand he was terrified of what he would hear once one of the capos called him back.

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 ---

 

Vira stood alongside droves of black clad mourners, head slightly bowed as she stood in line to send her prayers. Despite what the Leone family members were telling the general masses, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out his death had nothing to do with natural causes. Closed casket service, guards littering every corner of the site, and them barring final viewing...she could almost taste the tension hanging in the air. So much for uniting the underworld of Wolfdale; it seems like things weren't as smooth and peaceful as what they would have the rest of the families believe.

 

Keeping her silence, the lady simply placed a single white rose along with the rest of the bouquets arranged on the intricately crafted casket before Luca Brando, right hand man of Ennio himself, took the podium and started delivering his eulogy. Indeed, there's no room for investigation and deductions at that point of time. Despite all the underlying suspicions, the fact that a precious life has been lost remains - and due respect will be given.

 

---

 

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"I told you, I didn't kill the bastard! Why would I go out of the way to make an enemy out of the goddamned Leones? ... You can't be serious, can you? Oh, fuck it. I can't argue with you."

With a stream of Chinese expletives, Xiao Ming slammed the phone down, burying one of his trademark knives in the antique century-old wood of the table. The table was already pockmarked with several such gouges, to the great consternation of his father. That old geezer was a traditionalist to the core; he clearly hadn't realized that flat-packed Swedish furniture, not Qing Dynasty-vintage tables the size of the average European car, were the way to go for a go-getting criminal organization -- among other things. He may have been his own blood, but Xiao Ming held little love for the man. Some respect, perhaps, but he saw their relationship as purely professional.

The Lis hadn't been invited to the funeral. Xiao Ming knew not if it were oversight or a deliberate snub -- the Lis had once been strong; strong enough to challenge the Leones...and perhaps win. But that had all changed a decade or so ago, when the Kagutsuchis had laid claim to the turf the Lis claimed as their own. Their clan had come to the precipice of extinction before Father had grudgingly signed a truce -- and given up most of their power and prestige to the interlopers. Despite Father's thoughts on the matter, the Lis were a mere shadow of their former glory -- a broken shell of a Family. It wouldn't have surprised Xiao Ming if the Leones had simply seen their Family as beneath notice.

The sudden death of Ennio had made things terribly interesting over the past few hours. Already, the Families of Wolfdale were vying to fill the power vacuum, and Xiao Ming fully expected an all-out war to break out in due time. The streets of Wolfdale would run with blood -- a regrettable tragedy, but a golden opportunity for a man like himself. War was good business, and if he played his cards right, ingratiated himself with the right people... His Family could come out of this fracas a whole lot stronger than before.

The phone rang again, and without bothering to take his feet off the table, he leaned forward and picked up the phone. Immediately, he was greeted by the sultry, honeyed voice of a woman.

"What? Really?" He said, a toothy grin spreading across his face as he listened to what she had to say. "Now that's an offer I can't refuse..."

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Only seven Stormhearts turned up for the urgent meeting.

 

Well, it was to be expected, really. There was something in the blood of their family that made them naturally rebellious, strong-willed, and obstinate, even towards one another. It was already considered a great respect towards the family head that these seven had even turned up in the first place. The Stormheart family mansion wasn't very large, but it was definitely grand. Chandeliers of gold and crystal hung overhead as the attendees of the meeting took their seats around the vast marble dining table, positioning themselves apart from one another. There were a great number of empty seats, but none of them seemed to mind it one bit.

 

At the head of the dining table sat Lazarus Stormheart, the Head of the Stormhearts. Deciding that it was time, the broad-chested man pushed his chair away, standing up to address his family members. "Ladies and gentlemen," he spoke, the ground rumbling lightly in response to his voice. "I'm sure all of you have heard the news, but for the sake of common courtesy, allow me to repeat it once more. Ennio Brando is dead."

 

"No need to use Vectormancy, pops," a man with spiky red hair replied, placing his hand on the table. The ground stopped rumbling. "You should save your energy for the scuffle that's about to break out."

 

Lazarus looked unfazed at the man's suppression of his magic. "The purpose of this meeting is to decide on the Stormheart's stand in the war that will undoubtedly ensue in the following days. It is good for us as a family to project a united stand."

 

"Why don't we just kill them all?" Another person spoke; this time, a middle-aged lady sitting with her legs propped up on the table. Above her open palm, a pair of large ball bearings were slowly rotating in the air, and she examined them with great interest. "Turning the other families against Leone, and then mopping up the fools who remain... Mmm, wouldn't that be fun!"

 

"You forget your place, Rachel," the hard-faced man in the corner spoke. "We are not anarchists."

 

"Enough." Lazarus's voice was soft and unassuming, but the force that emanated from it was hardly insignificant. Immediately, all eyes on the room darted towards him. "You are all free to act as individuals, for that is in the blood of every Stormheart. But no one will act on behalf of the Family without seeking my approval first. Do I make myself clear?" Then, with a pause, he cast a glance around the room. There were only six people left. "Where is Isabel?"

 


 

Isabel Stormheart whisked through the streets of the town like a blur, using her Vectormancy to propel herself across the sky with each step. That meeting had been so boring! While everyone's attention had been drawn by Lazarus, her father, she managed to slip out of the open door and escape into freedom. She should never have come in the first place. In fact, she wouldn't have appeared at all if Lazarus hadn't threatened to confine her to the house if she didn't appear. Such were the troubles of being the next heir of the Stormhearts.

 

She could think of a thousand and one things that would be far more interesting to watch. A clan war, for one. Stopping by a phone booth along the street, she pushed a coin into the slot, picked up the receiver, and dialled one of the numbers that were stored in her memory. "Hey, Xiao Ming~" She said in the most honeyed, sultry voice she could manage when she heard the other side pick up. "You remember me, don't you? Rachel Stormheart? Now, I've got a proposition for you. How would a cooperation between the Lis and the Stormhearts sound...?"

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Rachel Stormheart, one of the elder members of the Stormheart clan -- certainly a force to be reckoned with, and a name he certainly couldn't forget quickly. In better days, the Lis had occasionally worked together with the Stormhearts on several ventures -- his father wouldn't stop harping on about that great heist the two families had cooperated to pull off several years back, that had netted them a priceless Rembrandt painting they'd sold for a fortune on the black market. Of course, Father usually didn't dwell on the bit where he double-crossed the Stormheart working with him, took all the winnings and then tossed his trussed-up accomplice into a river, probably because the Stormhearts had withdrew their support from the Lis thanks to that little incident, costing them a valuable ally in their war against the Kagutsuchis which had ruined their family.

 

However, now one of the Stormhearts had offered an olive branch to him, offering an alliance in the face of the gang war that would erupt. While his family would probably not be a target if they kept their heads down, considering they had little left to steal, an alliance with the Stormhearts might make them strong enough to carve out more turf and prestige for themselves. The Stormhearts were unpredictable, and he certainly didn't expect the whole Family to commit to a stable alliance, even a handful of allies was better than nothing. Of course he couldn't have refused the offer.

 

"I suppose you'd like to discuss terms. In person, of course." Xiao Ming replied smoothly. "Will sometime tonight work for you?" The woman on the other side gave an affirmative. "Well, alright then. The Rat's Nest, 8 pm. I'll be waiting. Ciao." 

 

That night, 7.58 pm

 

The Rat's Nest was the proverbial seedy bad guy bar -- it was dimly lit by a handful of ancient fluorescent tubes on their last legs, several ceiling fans speckled with dust and grime that creaked whenever they turned, and stereotypically enough, a pool table, with one end held up by a stack of crates where someone had broken the legs in a bar brawl. No honest person would want to set foot in that bar, and frankly, Xiao Ming found the place distasteful -- there was perpetually a strange smell in the air, badly masked by the smell of cheap pine-scented air freshener, and he swore that no one had mopped the wooden floor in months, considering how it seemed to stick slightly to his shoes. If he wanted to make a good impression, this was certainly not the place to do it in. However, the Lis had fallen on hard times, and he'd be hard pressed to get admittance to anywhere swankier. He probably couldn't even pay the cover charge at Inferno, let alone the cheapest drink they had.

 

A twinge of doubt seeped into his mind. He wasn't exactly sure why a Stormheart had requested an alliance, considering the Lis were, frankly speaking, small fry right now. In fact, he was almost certain that his opposite number would somehow double-cross him. Perhaps they'd offer a contract for some kind of job, only for him to end up the fall guy, sacrificed to cover up their own operations. For all he knew, this might have been a trap, perhaps an attempt to capture him and hold him hostage. Well, if that's the case, joke's on them. We've got nothing to give you but a handful of twenty-dollar bills from our coffee funds jar and a third-hand Ming Dynasty vase, cracked and repaired twice.  This was probably why he'd chosen this time and place to have his meeting -- he was certain his counterpart could offer a far nicer venue, but at least he'd be dealing on his own terms here. Besides, he'd brought Yang, one of the few henchmen the Lis could still afford -- the bald, sunglasses-wearing giant of a man wasn't particularly bright, but he was loyal and happened to be able to punch people very, very hard. 

 

He couldn't let this get to him, though. It was fraught with risk, but in this line of business, what wasn't? It was still the best opportunity he'd gotten in months; if this worked out, maybe the Family wouldn't be a laughing stock any more. Perhaps he'd get enough support to boot his thrice-damned father off the seat of leadership in the Family. He shrugged, and sauntered through the door and to the counter. "What's yer poison?" the bartender slurred, his hands endlessly polishing a glass with a faded brown film on the bottom and his eyes glued to an ancient, boxy TV at one corner of the bar. It was apparently airing a soccer game -- not football, but soccer, the game those Europeans played that seemed to be predicated on how well one could fake being tackled.

 

"Get me a Shanghai Gut Punch." Xiao Ming said crisply, placing a grimy twenty-dollar bill on the counter. 

 

"You mean the drink, right?" The bartender grinned; his smile was a crooked. buck-toothed one, showing a set of yellow teeth. Frankly, it couldn't be called a set, considering how many were missing. Then, he laughed, a raspy, humorless cackle that set Xiao Ming's nerves on end.

 

He had half a mind to whip out the butterfly knife secreted in the inner pocket of his coat and bury it in that man's brain, but he resisted.

 

A few moments later, Xiao Ming collected his drink and headed over to a secluded corner of the bar, and Yang wordlessly followed, pulling the chair out for him before taking a seat himself. He sat down and took a sip of his drink, and immediately regretted it -- what was in this stuff, jet fuel?! He sighed, setting the drink to one side and half-heartedly eyeing the soccer game happening on the screen. He tapped his foot on the floor impatiently -- the Stormheart woman was late. Maybe he should just play a round of billiards while waiting for her to arrive. He resisted the urge though, and carrying on watching the game, silently marveling at how Europeans could enjoy such a farce.

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