“You look like a runner in Gamma during the Winter Thaw Celebrations,” Noch said.
Marcus sighed and opened his eyes from one of the couches in the main living area. He’d wanted nothing more than to go up to his bed and forget the day, but he was drained to the bone. Every other thought rephrased his need to move, but the only thing that happened was another rewind of the today’s failures running through his mind.
Noch sat in an adjacent couch in a blue robe sitting sipping from a mug. “I know Uncle Cato and I were talking when we saw each other,” he said. “We really haven’t had a chance to catch up with you being a big dick in the Lions Club and...the other stuff.”
“What other stuff?” Marcus asked, forcing himself to remain still.
“Marcus,” Noch said. “I served in the PSF. And you aren’t exactly...discreet with your appearances.”
Marcus remained silent. A few days and of course Noch figured it out. It took Marcus six years to discover Uncle Cato and that was practically by accident. Wait, did he say the PSF? The Panthir Special Forces was the most feared unit of the Iotan Military. These were the soldiers who went deep behind enemy lines and wrecked shop before anyone even knew what was happening. Men and women who made evil people and terrorists think twice before doing anything to have the military send the PSF after them...and Noch was one of them?
“Where did you go?” Marcus asked.
Noch shrugged and took sip from his mug. “I didn’t handle the death of our parents well,” he said. “I learned some things and I had to run. Run as far away as possible. So I joined the army.”
Marcus frowned. “What things did you learn?” he asked.
“Things that are better left dead in the past.”
“I have a right to know Noch,” Marcus demanded.
“It’s not my place to tell you," Noch said shrugging.
“And this is when you tell me whose place it is to tell me.”
“Or what?” Noch asked. “You’ll clobber me with those powers of yours?”
“We both know I’d never do that,” Marcus said. “But we both know I’m not losing them anytime soon so…”
Noch sat up on the couch. “So what then?” he asked, an over exaggerated tilt to his head like some Old Town street tough. He ruined the impression by raising the mug to his lips and taking a loud sip.
Marcus burst into laughter and hot chocolate spurted out of Noch’s nose. Noch began coughing and Marcus got up to pound on his brother’s back. This was the part of Noch that Marcus remembered the most. Noch was always odd in a way that made everyone around him laugh. That was his thing. Being right but still making people laugh while doing it. He was so good at that. Marcus always admired his brother for that.
Once Noch recovered, Marcus sat down next to him and the two remained silent for a short while, the two brothers watching the twisting flames in the fireplace.
“But how could you have joined the army?” Marcus asked after a while, unable to take his eyes from the dancing orange tendrils. “There’s no way a Minoan could join the army and the family not find out.”
Noch snorted. “I once knew people very good at their jobs,” he said. “I had all the papers I needed to give me a different identity and I wore contacts at all times, even when I slept.”
“I don’t get it,” Marcus said. “With the family you could've been a senior officer. Why disassociate yourself completely?”
“I was done with our family," Noch answered. "Besides, it’s the PSF. They were my brothers. At least until I was...convinced to work as a contract worker in Gamma. Then I bounced around Gamma for a bit before tying up loose ends and coming home.”
Marcus smirked. “You make it seem like you were some kind of assassin with all that ‘tying up loose ends’ talk,” he said.
When Noch remained silent, Marcus turned to see his brother opening the robe to reveal the stylized blue, gold and silver lion crest of the Panthir Special Forces unit on his chest. Only an idiot got that tattoo without serving in the unit. Even Marcus knew that.
“I can’t go into details,” Noch said rolling down his sleeve. “But I was a contract worker in eastern Gamma who currently has no loose ends on that continent.”
Something in Noch’s eyes made Marcus’ spine tingle. There was no warmth anywhere in those eyes. Then again, that was likely to happen after serving in the PSF.
“So what happened today?” Noch asked after Marcus fell silent.
Marcus smacked his lips and sighed. “I’m getting absolutely nowhere incredibly fast in my crusading,” he said.
Noch blinked and grimaced. “What?” he asked. “Nowhere fast in your…what?”
“In my crusading,” Marcus repeated. “As in my crusade against crime.”
Noch grabbed his heart and groaned. “Please,” he begged, "my brother, please…never again refer to what you do as crusading. As a matter of fact, never again use ‘crusade’ as a verb. Oh by the Divine and all his Saints that's so corny it hurts.”
Marcus just managed to catch his dropping jaw. Uncle Cato said ‘crusading’ sounded cool…probably shouldn’t say that out loud.
Noch smacked his lips and sighed, mumbling about finding the right way of saying this. After a while he turned to his younger brother.
“There’s no delicate way to ask this,” Noch said placing his mug on a nearby table. “So I just will. Have you ever considered the possibility of controlling crime rather than fighting it?”
Marcus recoiled. “I’m gonna to have to ask you to find a more delicate way of asking that question,” he said.
Was Noch really asking him if he would be a crime boss? Their first real conversation after a decade and this was where he wanted to start his questions? Asking a superhero to become a supervillain? Seriously?
Noch laughed and shook his head. “I asked you if you had ever considered controlling crime,” he said. “Not whether or not you wanted to become a crime boss.”
Marcus’s head cocked. “I’m gonna need you to explain the difference.” he said.
Noch’s mischievous smile blossomed. “If you do things correctly,” he said, “put the right people in the right places, keep a rigorous infrastructure in place, you could control crime without becoming some sort of crime boss. I won’t say it’ll be easy but it’s most certainly possible. Easily within reach with that thing around your finger.”
Marcus stared at his brother, making sure to keep breathing and blinking.
“Distance,” Noch said, his eyebrows flicking up. “It’s all a matter of distance…dear little brother of mine.”
Marcus’s back seized as though he was splashed with freezing cold water hearing that ‘dear little brother of mine.’ He didn’t know if he would have preferred the despised Marky Boy nickname to that.
“You do realize ‘distance’ is almost exactly why crime bosses are considered bosses right?” Marcus asked. “Structuring. Staffing. Placement. Ordering. All done from a distance. All things done by a crime boss. I thought they had plausible deniability laws in Gamma?”
Noch chuckled and waved away Marcus’ objections. “A true crime boss has a certain swagger to them,” he said. “They take money from the crime too. There’s that mightily important fact. I didn’t state my question right.”
“Exactly why I asked you to restructure it in the first place.” Marcus said.
Noch mimed a sarcastic laugh. “Marcus,” he said growing serious. “You won’t be in direct control of the activities. You’ll be more of a force to keep the criminals in line. You can set crime quotas for gangs. You can specify terms and locations of gang wars. Keep the crime localized and then gentrify the crime that does occur. People don’t need to die for a few fex with a…. a kingpin in control of the waves in the underworld.”
“That’s not right,” Marcus said.
“So given the chance to stop alleyway rapes across Damokles, you say no?” Noch asked. “And you think it’s right to allow little girls to lose their cherry stems by the thousands every year because…”
Marcus gaped, his jaw swinging, mouth dry and tongue still. He had to uphold the law but then again, what was law in a city like Damokles?
“I couldn’t do it, Noch,” Marcus admitted.
Marcus shook his head as he turned to look at his brother. “Because I’m the Crusader,” he said. “The hero can’t be in control of crime. The hero has to fight to eradicate crime wherever it resides.”
Noch scoffed and waved his arms dismissively. “Have you been hitting the comic books hard or something?” he asked. “I mean I know that suit is tight but…come on Marcus…who says that? Actually says that in the real world? The things our government has done in the name of the law? The things I have been asked to do in the name of Democracy and Freedom?"
“I think this is one of those common sense things.” Marcus said frowning at Noch. “Something supposedly born into every person.”
“How many times has something everyone knows been completely wrong?” Noch asked as he leaned forward.
“Not everything everyone knows is wrong.” Marcus said. “There are some things you just know.”
Noch chuckled bitterly before falling into the cushions of the couch once more. “And how many people just know that I’m dead?” he asked.
That settled the argument for a minute but Marcus couldn’t stop himself from picking up once his thoughts settled.
“You were dead, Noch.” Marcus said. “You were dead to the entire family. Now, you’re alive to us. There is a difference.”
Noch grunted. “My dear little brother has truly become a man is it?” he asked with a smile “Or is it that ring of yours that has you feeling…red oily. Ready to pop as they say in Gamma.”
“Divine's sack,” Marcus said grimacing. “What kind of slang is that? That doesn’t even make sense? You think I’m angry?”
“No...I mean kind of but...it’s like more...something when-”
“Come back to Iota, Noch.”
The two brothers erupted in laughter again. Marcus hadn’t realized just how much he missed talking and laughing with a man who wasn’t gray in the hair. Home schooling and ostracization in college didn’t lead to a wide net of friends. Still, Marcus wasn’t sure of where his brother was taking this conversation.
“I know you see it, Marcus,” Noch said. “There’s so much more that can be done from the top of the inside rather than from the outside. No matter the heights of you come from on the outside, there will always be remnants that will rebuild.”
Marcus turned to look at the fire once more. “Explain to me how you would go about it,” he asked. “I’m not agreeing to anything but…just tell me how you would go about it.”
Noch’s eyes snapped open and he turned to Marcus, that mischievous smile on his lips again. His cheek was also twitching harder and harder the longer Marcus looked at it. What was that about?
“I once heard this story,” Noch said now sitting upright.
“Heard the story…right…” Marcus said nodding.
Noch chuckled. “Yes, heard this story,” he said. “There was a man in this particular city in Gamma who wasn’t just a known figure of the criminal underworld, but the Patron of the Underworld in this particular city. Nothing major happened in that city without his approval and he got a piece of everything everyone made.”
“What about this particular Patron brings him up tonight?”
“Well, this particular Patron entered the political realm,” Noch said. “What began as an incredulous joke ended with the Patron becoming Mayor of his city. Much to everyone’s shock and surprise.”
“How is that even possible?” Marcus asked. “Aren’t there laws that prevent something like that?”
A laugh escaped from Noch’s lips. “You would think so, right?” he asked. “But no. Even as a Patron of the Underworld, he was still free and clear to join the political spectrum as long as people voted for him.”
“How long before the people were calling for federal forces to remove him from office?” Marcus asked.
Noch shook his head. “He was Mayor for ten years before being elected Governor,” he said.
Noch nodded slowly. “He ran for Governor on a platform of peace in the streets,” he continued chuckling. “Boasting years of no gang related deaths as Mayor, he won the election in a landslide. Then true to his word, peace spread throughout his region.”
“Alright,” Marcus said. “So that worked over there. Awesome. Something like that would never fly in Iota. Think of all the anti-gang laws there are. Then there is the Eight…”
“The whole point of my story was that as the top man of the underworld,” Noch said. “The Patron was able to instill discipline. He maintained strict rules in his organization and the civilians flourished because of it.”
“I can't purposefully kill a man for violating my technically arbitrary laws.” Marcus said. “That's illegal in and of itself. I already have the DPD all over my ass as it is.”
Noch nodded as though considering Marcus’s words but then he raised a finger. “How many men have you killed to uphold the laws as they stand today?” he asked, finger jerking to keep Marcus silent. “Before you answer that, know violators of your arbitrary laws would've had to commit a crime in order for a violation to have occurred. There's no conflict of interest. Just a... concentrated interest.”
Marcus smacked his lips and sighed, but said nothing as he turned to stare at the fireplace once more.
“Look,” Noch continued. “We’re already looking down at everyone in the underworld. Even the Eight. We could reinject honor and manhood into the underworld. Keep women and children safe from the horrors I know you've seen in your patrols.”
Marcus’s eyes narrowed as something tickled his ear. Nothing his brother said sounded wrong but the way Noch was talking made the skin on the back of Marcus’ ear tighten. This whole…whatever this was, sounded too…speech-y.
“You been dwelling on this?” Marcus asked.
Noch flinched but he covered up the involuntary movement by adjusting himself. “I’ve had a lot of time to dwell on these issues during my time travelling the world, yes” he said smiling.Before Marcus could say anything, his phone began ringing. He walked back over to the other couch and saw Ali’s name on the screen. He only partially heard what Ali said before he was running out of the door and flinging himself into the air. He didn’t need to hear much to hear the panic.