Junior was in Hell.
This Hell was not the sweltering caverns so often found in modern depictions, but rather, the inescapable ice vaults of Dante’s poetic imaginings. He remembered an illustration in a book he had read in college, showing the fate of humanity’s worst traitors: entirely encased in frigid matter, no sound, no movement, experiencing only the biting cold.
The isolation made it all ten times worse. He had no idea what condition his cousins and nephew were in; nobody had even tried to speak with him since he had been brought in the night before. Twice he had been pulled out of the tiny room and taken to a toilet to relieve himself, and then returned to the freezing cell without a single word from the guard. His fierce demands were met with blank looks and stoic silence.
Nor could Junior call his flames to combat the cold. His hands were cuffed behind his back, his body wrapped in itchy woolen clothing under thick winter gear. The layers and blankets were thick enough that they would certainly smolder and burn should Junior bring forth the fire inside him, leaving him devoid of even their inadequate protection.
Junior languished, sleeping fitfully when he could, and making plans when he could not. He still had two cards to play, and they would need to both be trumps for him and his boys to all live out the year.
He had nearly drifted off to sleep when he heard the voice.
Junior forced his eyes open, despite the aching cold, and looked around. “What?”
“Are you Booze? Booze, name with a K?” The voice seemed to come from just to the left of his head, but turning that way he didn’t see anything.
“Buzz Kowalczyk, yes.” Junior forced his weight forward to stand up from the bare mattress frame where he had been sitting. He slowly toddled around but saw no one. “Where are you?”
When the floating face appeared six inches from his own, Junior flinched hard enough to fall backwards onto the cot. “Whoa!” The face, of a lean Asian man, seemed disturbingly two-dimensional without the rest of the body to frame it.
“Calm down. You called in your tickets. Am hear to get you.” His English was clipped but quite clear. The face moved back a fraction and a hand became visible, rubbing the nose. “Ooh, really cold in there. What did you do?”
“I fought the local supers and lost,” Junior replied. “You’re Twixt, then.”
“Yes, that’s me. Rankai, or what you said.” He looked at something outside the cell. “Looks like four of you, but you only bought three tickets. Which three do I take?”
Junior licked his lips. “I will happily buy a fourth ticket,” he began. “You obviously have us at an advantage, so really whatever terms-”
“No deal.” He cut Junior off, his face impassive. “You can buy a ticket later. Right now, am taking three.”
His face floated to Junior’s right, and three ovals opened on the left, each the size of a car tire. Junior peered through each in turn. Big Joe sat on a thin mattress, the heavy manacles on his hands and feet connected by a long chain that ran through a bolt in the floor. Old Joe was restrained against the wall in his cell, his arms and torso bound to a steel camp that also kept his feet off the ground. Mikey laid on the cot in his cell, unbound and asleep.
“Choose two,” Twixt said.
The sound of the Chinese super’s voice alerted the occupants of the cells. “Boss!” Exclaimed Old Joe, his eyes lighting up, at the same time that Big Joe hissed “Buzz!” and shuffled towards the circle. Mikey stirred, sitting up dizzily.
“I choose all three,” Junior stated flatly.
“Not enough tickets,” Twixt insisted. “Choose two, quickly please. Don’t know how long we have.”
“Buzz, look at us.” Big Joe’s face was near the portal now, and he spoke in a confiding, low tone. “Look how they have us. The kid’ll be fine here. They won’t execute a normie. They won’t even torture one.” He blinked rapidly as the cold reached his face. “What, are they freezing you in there? That can’t be legal.”
“I guess it is, for fire starters,” Junior sighed. He flicked his head over to Old Joe. “You already know Joe won’t leave without his son.”
“He will if we promise to come back for him,” the bigger man pressed. “You’re still the Boss.”
Junior nodded, despite knowing better. Their real Boss, the actual Buzz, had died more than a decade ago. But when Pop’s illness had come on so suddenly, he had made his son promise to step in and run the business. Too many families depended on them – and his cousins, the Joes, most of all.
Nobody else had called him Junior since the day Pop passed, but he knew who he was. A college-educated accountant, pretending to be a crime boss. He had done his best; worked hard to see that the business prospered, that books were carefully cooked to fly under investigator’s radar. But now it was over, their little empire brought low by a reckless kid with a death wish. All the legit holdings had good managers and should survive the unwinding, but the underground rackets would get gobbled up by other families or just flounder.
Big Joe still stood at the small midair window, less than an arm’s length away. He squinted against the cold, waiting for Junior’s answer. Finally he added, “If not the boy, then me. I don’t have prints on either of the bodies. Without you there, they got no case against me.”
“I don’t think it works that way, Uncle Joe,” Mikey stepped up to his own window. Old Joe was still clamped against the wall, but the other three were in close proximity, like they could reach through and touch the others. “They’ll tag any of us for both of the two guys, talk about aiding and abetting. But I’m a normie. Worst I’ll get is prison; they won’t fry me.” Implying the feds would execute any of the rest of them, which was almost certainly true.
“Mister Boo…B…Buzz, please make a selection.” Twixt’s tone was level, unhurried.
Nothing had changed Junior’s mind; there was only one answer. “All three, mister Twixt. I am staying. Take my men.”
“Boss, no!” Old Joe’s voice was strained and definitely not hushed. “We gotta protect you! We can’t leave you here.”
“Joe.” Junior steeled himself, let his gaze take on the fire that he knew most of Newark respected. It was a more substantial, more lasting fire than the one he could call to cover his skin. “Head with Twixt and follow the plan. Look after each other. Keep your heads down. I will come find you when I can. Ya got me?!” That had been Pop’s way of closing discussion, giving his orders. It worked just as well when Junior used it.
“Yeah boss.” The oldest of the four seemed to deflate, collapsing against the wall clamp. But his eyes stayed alertly fixed on the proceedings.
“Okay!” The Chinese super’s tone was lively and louder. “Young guy, don’t move. Tall guy, step away from your chain.”
Big Joe moved to the side of the room, still visible in the window but no longer close to it. Mikey’s window vanished, as did Twixt’s, leaving just the Joes’ cells to Junior’s eyes.
A clanking sound came from Old Joe’s cell as the wall clamp slowly parted, disgorging its prisoner. Smacking hard into the cement floor, he took laborious breaths on hands and knees.
Big Joe let out a brief yelp as Twixt – wearing a stylized costume in gold and grey – appeared next to him in his cell. The super hefted a large, black axe over one shoulder and brought it down at full force upon a length of chain laying on the floor. The axe left two separate lengths of chain in its wake, as well as a sizable gash in the cement.
Both Twixt and Big Joe vanished from the cell at the same moment. And when he glanced back to Old Joe’s cell, he was gone as well. The two windows closed, and Twixt’s face reappeared in front of Junior. “Good fortune, mister Buzz. We are going now. I leave a parting gift.”
As the face vanished, Junior felt the rumble of his cell’s ventilation system kick in. The warm air was incredibly welcome, although the change was sudden enough that his extremities ached.
In the much more comfortable environment of the rapidly warming cell, Junior thought again about their situation and his plans. Big Joe’s arguments were sound; he was probably the wrong person to have left behind. He was the one most likely able to do something about their situation on the outside.
But Junior had never forgot the promise he made to Pop. Right call or not, he knew his decision would have made the old man proud. He had taken care of his boys.
The rest, he’d live with.