Author's Note: This story is a prequel to the events of my Dragons of the Darkwave #1 and 2. In chapter 4 of #2, adult Spike has a lengthy dream that touched on his childhood. The threads I set in motion got me to thinking what it would have been like for him … and also it was impossible for me to reveal some things there since they were beyond Spike's knowledge. In #1 I begin with Spike and Vicious being tested at the age of 14, where the nature of there competitiveness is illustrated. I found myself wanting to explore that … then more ideas popped into my head … and then entire sequences. Until I knew this was a tale I had to add to my collection. Spike and Vicious as mere boys in the furnace that forged them. I will endeavor to delve into the foundations of both bad boys. For those who read as I publish: this will be a slower release as I am insane enough to be writing this alongside "Alley Cat Shuffle".
Rhythm and Bruise
Staring at the bald man behind the counter drying beer mugs, Mao Yenrai swallowed his pride. The Red Dragon capo from Tharsis had never been quite so embarrassed in front of other ranked syndicate members. But at the moment that detail did not matter. He stood in the middle of the pool hall in this slum of a crater called Deseado dragged here by the others who wanted to kill some time in a victory celebration. A few rounds of high stakes pool, nothing unusual.
Until that boy appeared at the railing. Even now Mao glanced at the child idly drinking from a beer mug he'd just filled from the tap. A pale young boy with lazy brown eyes beneath of a mop of unruly hair, dressed in ratty jeans with a vest over a chalk-stained shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Unassuming, thin as the pool cue he'd used to rob Mao blind. How had he fallen for the trap? The boy had simply offered to play a game and asked how much they wanted to lay on the table. Mao wondered now if it would have been wiser just to have handed over his wallet then, instead of humoring the situation. The moment Mao missed on his second shot after breaking the balls, the boy took over the table and ran it like the slickest pool shark he'd ever seen. Not only that, but the brash youth practiced another skill Mao only caught by a miracle when he witnessed the slim fingers sliding into Basilisk's pocket to relieve him of his wallet, all while the boy was lining up a shot. A master of diversion—but he was only a child!
He reached into his pocket to discover his own wallet missing. In the course of performing a clean game of pool, complete with trick shots, this mere child had pick-pocketed six ranked members of the Red Dragons. Who was this boy? He had to know.
Mao walked up to the man dubbed Uncle Joe, the owner of the seedy pool hall, and pointed at the young boy. "How old is he?"
Joe glanced up and followed the gesture. "Who? Spike? Just turned twelve last week."
"Twelve?" Mao gave him a covert glance only to find the boy staring straight back and offering a lazy wave. Caught, Mao shifted his gaze around the hall. "Could you tell me who his parents are?"
"Take it you wanna talk to them. They were good friends of mine." Joe wiped a glass and set it aside. "Good luck. Their ashes blew away on the wind about six years back. Spike's been hanging here ever since."
An orphan? Mao couldn't believe his luck. Was there a chance this could work? He turned and watched the boy rub foam of his lip with the back of his hand. This was not a discussion for in front of him. "Is there a place that we can talk in private, Sir?"
Joe held up a hand for Mao to follow. "Be right back, kiddo. You got the taps."
As Mao followed, he glanced back to see Spike vault over to the backside and top off his mug with a grin.
Inside Joe's cramped back office reeking of mildew that creapt up the wall, Joe sat at a desk that had seen better days. An old plaid couch sat against the wall, threadbare with a blanket rumpled in the corner. Joe gestured for Mao to take the duct-taped chair on the other side. Not wanting to offend the man, he sat down and folded his hands in his lap.
Joe took out a cigarette and lit it. He leveled his gaze through the smoke. "What does a Red Dragon want to do with me?"
"You know who I am?"
He shifted his eyes to the braid on the jacket. "Wasn't born yesterday. Know of your kind. The scars are all around this crater from your groups handiwork. Rumor has it your lot took out a whole block today on the other end. So let me guess, you'll give me a choice. Pay you, or you'll destroy my place?"
Mao took a deep breath and shook his head. "On the contrary. I am interested in the boy."
"The runt?" Joe wrinkled his brow. "Why?"
"To say I am impressed with his skills is an understatement. For him to pull such a scheme on members of my syndicate is remarkable. Did you warn him about us?"
Joe lifted a shoulder. "Didn't feel I needed to, far as I am concerned. That boy did nothing wrong."
Mao chuckled. "We both know that is a lie. I know a hustle when I see one."
Leaning back in the chair, Joe's smile broadened. "Not so sure I'd be crowing about being whipped by a twelve-year-old if I were you. Bad for one's reputation and all that. Now, I have a hall to run. You wanna get to the point?"
Clearing his throat, Mao crossed his arms. "I can understand if you would be reluctant to part with a relative."
"Relative?" Joe's shoulders shook as he laughed. "I ain't related to the Spiegels, just knew 'em is all. The kid's been working for me to keep a roof over his head is all."
Spiegel? That name struck a chord. But Mao didn't have time to tease that out of his memory. At the moment he needed to seal this deal. Had he noted a tinge of annoyance in the man's voice? A new angle to explore. "Providing for a child is expensive."
Joe rolled his eyes. "Swear some days that boy drinks more beer than the clients. You saying you want to take him? Heh, that'll be the day. The racket that little shit rakes in with his games tripled my income. I'm not letting that walk out my door for a song."
Every man had his price. Mao met his gaze evenly. "So, we have a number for how much the boy is worth it to you." He extended his palm. "I will need my wallet back."
Joe threw his head back in laughter. "He pinched you too? Well now, fair enough. Here's the deal, you give me a years worth of what he rakes in for me and you can have him."
Rubbing his chin Mao nodded. "Sounds fair."
"Good. Cause the little shit hasn't wisened up yet and asked for a partnership. Figure that'll occur to him soon enough and I won't be able to keep it all to myself." Joe padded to the wall and opened up a drawer. Mao noted it opened into the wall, inside all the Dragon's possessions from their pockets in a drop box through a hatch on the other side. Joe tossed the wallet. "Fifteen million woolongs. The kid's that damn good. Transfer the cash, and you got a deal."
Mao pulled out a card and punched through the transfer.
The moment it was finished, Joe closed the device and a broad smile crossed his features. "You got him and all the trouble that comes with that punk. Suggest you watch yourself. I didn't teach him everything, some of this shit he figured out for himself." Joe spun a key ring on his finger. "He gets places I never knew existed. And no pocket is safe from those fingers. Now you can deal with his bad habits."
The vehemence behind those words caught him by surprise. The shrewd man stood up and opened the door. Joe searched the hall as Mao came to the door, he smelled the whiskey on the man's breath. Joe snapped his fingers and waved a hand.
From behind the bar Spike sauntered over and leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Under the yellowish lights Mao looked down to the runty boy's lazy eyes as Spike simply asked, "What's up?"
"I'd like you to met Mao Yenrai."
Mao offered a hand. "Have you ever been to Tharsis, Spike?"
Spike blinked half-hooded eyes at the hand and seemed to consider the shake for a moment before he took the offered hand. The grip was strong for such thin hands. "Naw. What's that?"
Mao smiled, this would be simple. Easy as all the others he had brought to his place. He didn't always have to pay for them, but he also didn't usually get this grand of a demonstration. This was an investment in the future of the syndicate. Walking beside the boy, who brought nothing with him, Mao wondered what time they would arrive back at Tharsis. Lifting his arm he found his watch missing. The one that had been on his wrist when he'd offered his hand.
The gold watch now gleamed on Spike's thin wrist as he whistled.
Mao entered his mansion accompanied by the squeak of Spike's canvas tennis shoes on the marble floor. He noted that those soles were nearly worn smooth, the seams frayed. By that and the ragged holes in the knees of his jeans, he'd need new clothing soon. The scent of tobacco and beer clung to the boy, a telltale signature of his origin. But Spike remained oblivious to all of this, his eyes searched the corridors of the house as they walked through, passing servants. Mao gave a nod and several vanished to do their tasks, aware of the new arrival he had called ahead about.
Spike peered into a side room and mouthed a silent wow. "Shit, this place is huge. The whole pool hall would fit just in that one room. Bet a whole lotta people live here."
Mao chuckled, his hands grasped behind his back. "No. Just me."
"This place is as big as the police station."
The largest building in Deseado, if one counted the holding cells. Which lead Mao to wonder two things. "Spike, have you ever been arrested?"
He shrugged a shoulder, still distracted. "Been picked up a couple times. But those shitheads couldn't prove a fuckin' thing. They get so mad every time they have to let me go. Suckers."
Well, that was one thing. Good, he didn't have an official record. At least that he knew of. Mao made a note to check that. "Have you been out of Deseado before?"
He studied his reflection in a marble column, rocking back and forth on his heels. "Heh, didn't even know there was an outside of it. Didn't know it was a crater."
Care would need to be taken with this one. Mao had taken in some rough youths before. But it seemed those most deprived of social experience struggled the greatest. Growing up as a squatter in a pool hall indentured to a man who extorted his skills was hardly normal.
Mao escorted him to the dinning room. On the black granite table, surrounded by eight high back chairs, a servant placed a heaping bowl of Ramen garnished with sliced egg and chunks of simmered meat and vegetables accompanied by a glass of juice. Mao gestured to the chair.
Spike glanced at it, blinked, and looked again. He hesitated, with eyes studying Mao as if this might be some cruel trick. But it was no imagination on Mao's part. He could see the hollow in the boys stomach sucking in and back out again, anticipation. Hunger overcame any apprehension and he soon scrambled to close the distance.
Spike barely crawled up onto the chair before he dove into the bowl, shoveling and slurping it faster than he could possibly taste it. As soon as that bowl was empty, the servant replaced it.
The comparison could not be helped. From the cautious approach down to the ravenous gulping, the behavior called to mind that of a stray dog who had happened upon a rare meal. At any point that boon could be taken away in a punishing blow. Mao wondered, given how thin he was, if Joe had bothered to feed him at all, or if Spike had been forced to forage for himself in the rough streets. And even as little as Mao had walked through those slums, he knew they were treacherous for a full grown man. New found admiration that this boy still drew breath.
Mao's phone rang. He turned away and answered it. "What is it, Gates?"
"Wanted to let you know I can verify that those White Tigers that were sniffing around are buried. We sent a message back."
"Good. Make sure everything is tied up."
He hung up and turned to find Spike resting his head on his crooked arm. Eyes closed. His other arm hanging limp at his side. The time was late after the drive between crater cities. Mao crossed the room back to his side. Apparently cleaning him up would have to wait. He gently nudged his shoulder.
Spike opened bleary eyes. But the moment Mao gestured he slid from the chair and shuffled along beside him. To Mao's surprise, considering the three empty bowls on the table, the boy didn't have anything to show for the feast. His chalk-stained shirt hung just as straight beneath the rough open vest.
Another servant opened the door just as Mao approached it. The man nodded, "The room is prepared."
Mao waved him off and pointed inside the simple bedroom, reserved for just such occasions. "Go ahead, lie down and get some rest. This has been quite a day for you."
Spike trudged past him, rubbing his eye with his knuckle. He yawned and flopped into the bed, curling up in the blankets. His eyes shut, breathing deepened almost in one move.
He'd never asked what Mao figured he would, what he'd heard nearly every other time, when am I going back?
No, Spike had simply followed. The hungry stray wandering along, chasing a vague unspoken promise. Blind trust.
Mao shut off the light and locked the door behind him. He was no fool. And the servants had orders to watch the hall to make sure the new guest stayed put for the night.
Wandering back to his office, he couldn't help but ponder.
Spiegel. Spiegel. Why is that name so familiar? Parsing though the computer files, he first looked to see if the name belonged to an enforcer or an officer in the ranks.
The thorn twisted in his mind. He knew that last name for some reason. Searching again, in a more general sense. A file came up.
"Aha! I knew it." Mao opened the file. His eyes locked on the information, the series of photos. His jaw loosened the further he looked at the file. Surveillance photos showed a dark haired man and woman. Both in lab coats and bland expressions. Staff photos at a lab. More photos taken through a telephoto lens filtered through scum crusted window of them working in a lab. Chemists, both of them. A married couple.
Mao scrolled further down. Photos showed a run down apartment building. Curtains billowing out a second story window. The woman reaching to shut it. Another photo outside the building showed the woman walking down the street, a young child reached up and gripped her hand. The next photo featured a covert shot of the man walking down in front of Uncle Joe's Pool Hall with a smiling young boy riding on his shoulders. Brown eyes shining in the sunlight, messy hair framed by his thrown back hands. Inside the hall, another hidden shot of the boy standing on a chair staring at the pool balls while his father lined up a shot.
Mao swallowed as he scrolled further. The final photos, a burnt out hollow of the apartment. A soot covered watch around an ashen bone among the rubble. He recognized it from the man's wrist in the other photos.
Location: Deseado. Target: Spiegel. Attempted to recruit for drug lab. Unable to turn. Threat of competition or even exposure. As ordered by the Van, both terminated via demolition. Known child, one male approximately age 6, was not present. Whereabouts unknown. Deemed inconsequential.
The screen flickered in his darkened office. Mao leaned back in the chair and ran a hand through his hair. Of course he had known the name. His enforcers carried out that hit, six years ago.
Walking back to the room, he opened the door. The shaft of light fell over the boy, dead to the world. His eyes softly closed, one hand gripped the blanket. The other arm hung down, Mao's gold watch dangled, fallen from the wrist too thin to hold it and caught by his fingers. He retrieved it and put it inside his pocket for safe keeping, once more taking in the boy he'd found.
Spike Spiegel … inconsequential.
See You Space Cowboy