Wretched Wicked

Table of Contents

Episode 4
Bound and Promised

Fritz Friederling was fourteen years old, and in boarding school in the German Alps specifically for young men such as him. Men who were not raised by parents, but nannies and professors. Men from families with money red as blood and old as time. Men for whom anything less than total mastery of the world was unacceptable.

That was where he met his father, Werner Friederling. Fritz had seen Werner once or twice prior to that; he had aged little over the years, remaining a strong-backed man with eyes like shards of glass. He strolled through Fritz’s private room in the dormitory, picking up trinkets that Fritz had built in shop class, rearranging the top of his desk, rolling his eyes at book titles. Werner behaved as though he owned it all, because he did. He held stake in the school. He bought the suits Fritz wore to class. His sperm had donated a portion of the genetics within Fritz.

Nothing was Fritz’s, and everything was Werner’s, including the boy’s legacy.

“You’re a kopis,” Werner had said, taking the seat at Fritz’s desk. He gestured magnanimously to the bed to indicate where Fritz should sit.

“What is a kopis, Father?” Fritz asked. He did not sit.

Werner’s golden brows drew to meet in the middle. “You’ve noticed you’re stronger than the other boys. Faster. Heal better. Superior reflexes. Haven’t you?”

Of course Fritz had. He’d yet to meet a human who wasn’t physically inferior to him in all ways.

“That’s because you’re a kopis,” Werner said. “It’s a special class of gaean created by the Treaty of Dis to protect humanity. I’m a kopis too. Your grandfather was a kopis, and his father was a kopis. Your son will do the same.”

“What does it mean?” Fritz asked. “Am I called to an army?”

“There’s no army of kopides. They work independently. They fight alone. They die young and get replaced by another. It’s uncommon for a kopis to see thirty, and you should know that,” Werner said.

Fritz surveyed his father, surely much older than thirty and still alive. “Why are the Friederlings special in this?”

“Because we’re always special,” Werner said. “We don’t fight on the front lines. We’re too valuable for that, you see.”

“It sounds like cowardice to me.” Fritz would not be a coward. He couldn’t even bring himself to flatter his distant father on a rare visit.

Werner reached into his jacket pocket, and tossed a yellowed book to Fritz. The title was Lolita. “The hero of that book there is seduced by a sinful, filthy girl.”

Repulsed, Fritz moved the book to the bedside table. He had read it before with his literature tutor and was well familiar with the story. “That hero’s a child rapist.”

“He wrote the book,” Werner said, “so he’s a victim of the girl’s seduction.”

“There are no kopides in that book, Father.”

”Be less literal. My point is that we write our stories. We’re not cowards, Fritz. We’re generals who strategize for the pawns on the chessboard.” Werner rose to pick up the book, and Fritz stood too. His father was not nearly as tall as Fritz remembered. “People on the outside will have other narratives for our experiences, but remember: we are heroes. Friederlings are always something worth preserving.”

“Then I suppose I am lucky in that respect, to have the kopis powers without the burden of death,” Fritz said.

“The burden remains,” Werner said. “You’ll watch your loved ones die before you can kill the demons, and you’ll live a long time to regret the memories.”

His father said goodbye by gripping him on the shoulder. There was emotion in Werner’s eyes for once—Fritz thought that was emotion, though eyes had a deceptive way of being mirrors—but his lips were silent, and he only gave a single nod before dropping his hand.

Isobel Stonecrow’s report was accurate: Cesar Hawke had killed a woman, and he was on the run.

“Guess you never really know a guy,” said Janet from Forensics, wiggling her fingers into latex gloves. She’d already covered her shoes in booties, ensuring that she wouldn’t contaminate the evidence scattered all across the floor.

There was a body in Cesar’s bath tub. The victim was named Erin Karwell, and she had worked at the Olive Pit. She was not one of the waitresses that Fritz had fucked. At least, he didn’t think so. He seldom looked at his sexual partners’ faces.

Her murder had been violent. It showed in the handprints on her throat, the disarray in Cesar’s apartment.

When Fritz stood over Erin Karwell, he could not help but remember his father’s warnings. You’ll watch you loved ones die before you can kill the demons, and you’ll live a long time to regret the memories. He had no memories of Erin Karwell to regret, but he had stood over his dead wife like this too—his Emmeline, his Belle, murdered by a client. He’d seen a dead woman’s bloodless face with flawless makeup like this. He’d held her cooling body. He remembered it years after the incident, so vividly that he feared he was about to see it again.

Cesar Hawke had killed Erin Karwell.

The OPA had little patience for employees who crossed lines.

And this would qualify as a line regardless of motive. Cesar’s reasons for the killing would be pure. Erin must have tried to kill him or a loved one first. There was no doubt in Fritz’s mind about this, not even for a moment. Yet upper management at the OPA wouldn’t care enough to hear the reasons.

Indeed, his BlackBerry was ringing at the moment. Lucrezia de Angelis, Vice President of the entire organization, wanted Fritz’s attention.

Fritz was about to watch Cesar die. One more person he would outlive and remember.

He answered the phone. “Lucrezia,” he said.

“Fritz,” she said. “Cesar Hawke has escaped police custody. Find him.” She hung up, but Fritz was barely a heartbeat behind her, and only another heartbeat elapsed before he was calling Agent Takeuchi to track Cesar down before Lucrezia could.

Until Cesar Hawke’s recruitment to the OPA, it had been years since Lucrezia de Angelis last showed her face in Los Angeles. Even when she hadn’t loathed Fritz—in the days where she told everyone they were destined to begin a new dynasty via marriage—they had rendezvoused outside the city, far from the Office of Preternatural Affairs or other business interests.

Ending his sexual relationship with Lucrezia meant she seldom communicated with Fritz directly anymore. She certainly wouldn’t show her face around him. Some bitter ex-girlfriends would burn a man’s clothes or slash his tires; Lucrezia had arranged for one of her businesses to forcibly acquire a Friederling business, then tanked it, along with the stock in most other Friederling businesses. He’d lost a fraction of his billions. She couldn’t have been more repulsive spitting into his eye.

He was startled to see Lucrezia waiting for him in the bleachers within the OPA indoor track. Not least of all because, in a fur-lined white jacket and red-soled stilettos, she was dressed more elaborately than anyone else in the gymnasium. But if Lucrezia had been one of Fritz’s male business rivals, he’d have responded to that invasion with his fists.

She was not a man, and she was allowed to be there. The Vice President could go near anywhere she wanted, much to Fritz’s irritation.

“It’s time for you to pick an aspis,” Lucrezia told him, while OPA agents raced around the track. They thundered past in a near-uniform clump.

Fritz lounged insolently against a railing, pushed back by the unspoken history between them. “I told you before, I’m not going to be pushed into a pairing like other OPA kopides. I’m not like them. I’ll pick someone when I pick someone.”

And he would never pick someone.

Fritz had only ever known two witches he could begin considering as aspides. His dead wife, Emmeline, would have been perfect as an aspis, except her powers were too weak to form the bond.

And Cesar Hawke was running the track right now, sweat flying off his forehead, lingering neither in the front nor the back of the pack. It was his last physical trial before his hiring could be confirmed. Fritz would never make an aspis of the man. He didn’t deserve to be stuck with a Friederling.

Cesar was almost too good of a detective. The man who couldn’t keep ketchup stains off his tax paperwork was elusive in the streets of Los Angeles. This should not have been an issue. Cesar had been in LAPD custody and should have remained there until Fritz could fabricate the paperwork required to free him. But the police had not expected to detain a witch with magically augmented strength; they’d barely realized he’d torn the window off his cell before Cesar was over the fence.

The ensuing whack-a-mole was charmingly frustrating. Fritz kept arriving at scenes after Cesar was gone: at the Olive Pit, where he’d been questioning potential witnesses; at a cemetery, where he absconded with Isobel Stonecrow to advance the investigation; at a library, where Cesar’s mysteriously pustule-riddled face had terrified several patrons. (It later turned out that Isobel had cursed Cesar in their brief encounter, as Isobel had mistakenly feared for her life.)

At some point, Fritz accepted that there was no point trying to catch the former private investigator, and he was right.

It took little time for Cesar to find his way to Fritz’s Beverly Hills mansion. He showed up looking rumpled, exhausted, and dirty. Fritz had barely a spare thought for what his distant celebrity neighbors must have thought about a murder suspect stumbling to his front gates. He swept Cesar inside the amniotic safety of the Friederling mansion—nearly a city-state unto itself, immune from mundane police enforcement—before even realizing why Cesar had come.

Not for protection. No.

He intended to turn himself over to the OPA’s punishments for killing Erin Karwell.

Fritz said, “I wish you had come to me when you left the police station.”

Cesar looked so grim. “Would have made your job easier, huh?”

There was nothing easy about the job Fritz had chosen to perform, and not because the tasks themselves were onerous; fabricating paperwork to clear Cesar’s name wouldn’t be simple even with Fritz’s contacts. And that falsified paperwork was only necessary because Fritz had chosen to work within the OPA’s bureaucratic confines.

That was neither here nor there. Fritz ached from the idea that he could trust Cesar to kill for him, but Cesar didn’t trust Fritz to shelter him from the consequences.

“I might have been able to help you,” Fritz said levelly.

“I don’t think there’s any helping me now.” Cesar glared hatred at his own hands—the hands that had formed the imprint of bruises on Erin Karwell’s neck, as verified by Janet’s measurements.

“You’re a good agent, Cesar. I don’t have many good agents under me—and fewer that I could trust.” None that would fire a bullet to save Fritz Friederling, their boss who was loathed at worst and tolerated at best. He swallowed against the harsh scrape of dryness in his throat. “I’d hate to lose you.”

“I’ve always appreciated my job,” Cesar said, ducking his head, looking up at Fritz through his bangs. “But you didn’t send anybody to pick me up from the 77th Street station. I figured you’d written me off.”

Of course Cesar expected that disloyalty from a Friederling. Fritz couldn’t begrudge him for it.

“The paperwork takes time. You’d never have gone to trial.” Also true. Fritz would have rather had his witches blow memory spells through the brains of half of Los Angeles’s judicial system than let Cesar slip beyond his grasp.

Fritz surveyed Cesar’s taut features. He looked so angry, so confused. How much angrier would Cesar become if he learned that he’d had his memory augmented before? That further holes were likelier because of previous alteration? At least Cesar would know to blame Fritz rather than himself.

But then he would blame Fritz.

Right now, Fritz was only a few minutes and a couple of signatures away from making Cesar’s problem disappear. They would need another culprit for the murder—someone that was equally plausible so that OPA management would forget their suspicions—but one life was nothing to sacrifice for Cesar’s safety. Fritz had done worse for people far less deserving.

The real issue was Lucrezia de Angelis.

Fritz had a teleconference with her in regards to the case shortly. He would have to exonerate Cesar in the most subtle of ways. Something that left no room for the OPA to punish him.

She was as composed as ever on the video call, wearing a tailored white suit that matched her icy hair. Lucrezia wore a locket nestled between her cleavage. Fritz had given her that locket during a lengthy affair, and he knew she wore it to taunt him.

He could not address the locket in this meeting. There were others from the OPA with them, which Fritz hadn’t expected. Several were from the Los Angeles OPA office.

“About Cesar Hawke,” Fritz began.

He didn’t get to continue from there.

“You should be ashamed, an agent in your department doing something so heinous,” said Director Trask. “What’s your plan for dealing with Agent Takeuchi?”

Fritz’s mouth had been open to defend Cesar.

Instead, he asked, “What about Agent Takeuchi?”

Suzy Takeuchi was a convenient fall guy. Fritz sent her to the same facility as Black Jack, and he planned to give her as little thought as the witch who’d been detained before her. It turned out that Suzy hadn’t committed the murder—it had, in fact, been Cesar Hawke, and he had been acting out of self-defense against the half-demon called Erin Karwell—but the distraction of her detention meant that Cesar got away Scot-free.

Almost Scot-free.

Of course, Lucrezia became suspicious after the first high-profile incident with Cesar. As her suspicion grew, so did her scrutiny; Fritz began fielding calls from her on his BlackBerry daily, though there was no reason for Lucrezia to be involved with his current case. He had responded to unusual infernal activity in Reno, Nevada because no other OPA official of his stature was available. And he had taken Cesar with him.

“You seem to have an unusual interest in this particular agent,” Lucrezia said all too knowingly. “One would think there’s a reason you’re keeping him so close.”

“I also brought Agent Takeuchi,” Fritz said, sounding bored. “Why aren’t you asking questions about her?”

“Because,” Lucrezia said, “Agent Hawke is somehow different, and I think I know how.”

Fritz doubted that to be true. He still wasn’t entirely sure how Cesar was different, or why the world seemed brighter when he was around. He only knew that he wasn’t ready for the brightness to leave him. That he wasn’t sure he could survive the darkness that would follow when Cesar inevitably died, and Fritz was left to only remember sunlight.

“I’ll indulge you,” Fritz said. His tone was so flat. “How is he different?”

“You’re considering him for aspis,” Lucrezia said.

The OPA had been telling Fritz he needed to pick an aspis for months, and Fritz had resisted it. The OPA hated having unmatched kopides in its ranks. They were a vulnerability, apparently.

The idea of taking an aspis left Fritz feeling far more vulnerable.

Fritz glanced through his bedroom’s doorway. Cesar was brewing potions with Isobel Stonecrow in the kitchen. They flicked spoonfuls of potion at each other, laughing at the sparkly mess it left behind, and his chest hurt as though Lucrezia had kicked him with spike-heeled pumps.

“I am considering both Takeuchi and Hawke, but I’m in preliminary stages,” Fritz finally said. “I’ll notify you of my decision when it’s made.”

It was enough to make Lucrezia drop the subject for that day.

But only that day.

In the end, it was not a dramatic incident that closed the trap around Cesar’s throat. It was an accident. Fritz had been abducted by a werewolf (not a huge cause for worry) and Cesar had panicked. He’d used Fritz’s BlackBerry to call Lucrezia de Angelis for help. And that was that.

“We have such careful information security rules,” Lucrezia said, looking pleased as a cat with nip, “that I’m afraid we’re going to have to terminate Cesar Hawke’s contract with the Office of Preternatural Affairs.”

And that had left only one route for Fritz to protect Cesar’s employment, life, and memory. The same route that Fritz could have used to get Black Jack out of detention.

“Have you chosen him?” asked Lucrezia de Angelis.

And Fritz said, very casually, “I have.”

“I’ve never thought about being an aspis before,” Cesar said.

They were back in Los Angeles and in between cases. Things should have felt normal, but the rapid change of events had shifted the hues in the world; lazy Los Angeles summertime felt like a feline in the moments before pouncing. The heat was sticky and no amount of wealth could keep Fritz from sweltering on the golf course.

“Think about it now,” Fritz said. “Think hard, Hawke. This is your life.” He swung the club. Its angled face met the ball, and the ball soared into the air, vanishing against scalded blue.

Cesar watched it go, as if he could somehow see it all the way to the sixteenth hole on the bottommost terrace. He managed to look as though he glistened rather than sweated. Good genetics were something money could not buy, and the Hawke family had it in spades.

Taste was possible to purchase, and Cesar had not. He hadn’t had any appropriate golf attire. He wore Nike shorts and a House Stark t-shirt. Fritz would ensure he had a new wardrobe soon to make sure Cesar blended in with Fritz’s ilk. And then, if Fritz made sure to drink enough brandy, Cesar almost wouldn’t look like an innocent dragged into the tarnished Friederling world.

“This is my life now,” Cesar mused, squinting against the sunlight. “Ha. Domingo would give me shit forever if he saw me doing this old man stuff.”

“Old man stuff? Golf is a precision sport,” Fritz said. “Importantly, it’s a language of business. I don’t maintain this skill for fun but for socializing with business partners. You’ll need to learn it too.”

“Can I just serve canapés and carry your golf clubs?”

“You’re going to be my aspis, not my servant,” Fritz said. “That means we’re on near-level footing.”

Cesar stared around at the golf course with a scoffing laugh. This was Fritz’s private course at his Beverly Hills Mansion with uniquely difficult landscaping to ensure his skills remained on point. It was maintained by a small, dedicated staff, and the green glittered.

“I haven’t even wiped the toothpaste off my faucet in two years,” Cesar said. “You’ve got one guy whose whole job is to get golf balls out of a pond.”

“We don’t have to be on level footing in regards to money. What’s mine is yours. We’re bound indefinitely, if you choose to see this through.”

“What’s the other choice?” he asked. “Forgetting everything from the last few years? I’d rather eat uncooked donkey balls than have my mind screwed with like that.”

Then uncooked donkey balls were on par with being trapped as Cesar’s aspis. “Losing a few years is better than a lifelong commitment you can’t reverse,” Fritz said tightly. “And if you do become an aspis, you must know that this means change.”

Cesar shrugged. “Sure.”

He wasn’t really thinking about it. Didn’t realize how bad things would be tied to the Friederling legacy.

But Fritz was too selfish to make Cesar see the truth.

He fished around in a side pocket on his golf bag, then handed Cesar a box from inside. “Happy birthday.”

“Whoa.” Cesar hooked a finger in the wristband of the watch, lifting it out of the box. It was so glimmery-bright that it reflected gold against his irises. “Holy crap, look at this!” There was obvious glee in his face as he put the watch on, figuring out how to settle the clasp just right against the pulse inside his wrist, and Fritz watched him without smiling somehow. Cesar’s joy was more infectious than the venom of Lilith’s Touch.

“It’s a reminder that your life will change as my aspis,” Fritz said. “Most much more jarring than the watch, unfortunately.”

Cesar’s eyes narrowed. “Wait, how expensive was this watch?”

Adjusting to the luxuries of the Friederling lifestyle was the least of it. Fritz shrugged and named a sum of money that was meaningless to him. He low-balled it, knowing the actual value would stagger Cesar.

Even the smaller amount made him look nervous. “This is great, man. I just don’t know if I can accept a gift like that.”

“I earn thrice that in a minute collecting interest,” Fritz said. “It’s just a birthday present. Don’t sweat it. It’s not as though I can walk into Walmart to get you a tacky tie.”

“That’s what I want for my birthday next year,” Cesar said. He was grinning like an idiot as he held up his wrist to appreciate it with the watch in place. “I’m going with you to Walmart.”

Fritz dropped his club into his golf bag.

Next year. That assumed that Cesar would be alive to see the next year.

Being drawn into Fritz’s orbit meant, after all, that Cesar was going to die.

It never occurred to Fritz that he might be the one who was killed.

Being abducted by a fallen angel was different than being abducted by a werewolf. The werewolf had been a calculated man who became a monster twice a month. He’d had an agenda.

The angel was madness packed within the shriveled body of a monster.

She abducted Fritz from his garage. He’d tried to lock himself in his armored SUV when she appeared, but even inches of plate steel couldn’t stop the wildness of a fallen angel. Naamah, her name was. Cast down to Earth for bearing a son that Adam hadn’t permitted. Stripped of her sanity and beauty, she was forever seeking her husband: the father of her forbidden son, and a lover long since slaughtered.

Fritz looked like Naamah’s husband, Shamdan. And for that, he was targeted.

The fight was short. Fritz’s years of training weren’t up to the staggering reflexes of the fallen angel. Her mere presence disabled every technical security system and his wards were nothing to her.

In the end, he was dragged unceremoniously out of the car by an old lady, and she flew with him to Helltown so fast he couldn’t breath.

He retained consciousness up several stories of the bell tower that Naamah dragged him, thumping Fritz’s head along each stair with a jolt. The amount of pain sent him into shock. He dozed on the waves, in and out, only occasionally watching the angel’s cloven hooves stomping in front of him.

Fritz was only awake long enough to think it was funny—that he had been attacked by his most powerful enemy yet, and it was a mistake, not because he was a Friederling.

Then he was hanging in the bell tower. He wasn’t aware of time passing. It was probably a concussion, and it only felt worse the longer that he dangled.

She had wrapped a chain around his ankle, leaving him upside-down like the clapper of a bell.

He tried to swing and could not. He was too weak. He could sit upright for a few moments to try to release his ankle, but his fingers wouldn’t work. What little strength he possessed was drained after the first few hours hanging upside down.

Night fell, and Fritz remained alone, strung up in the bell tower. The OPA hadn’t come looking for him. They wouldn’t. Helltown was untouchable.

Fritz had no plan to escape.

He wasn’t sure that he would.

Even if Fritz got out, what would he do against a fallen angel so powerful he couldn’t stand against it?

He would die.

It was a fear that he had never felt—not even once—since that day his father had told him that Friederlings were privileged in all ways. They were the narrators of their own stories. They were special, worthy of preservation.

With a chain tight around his ankle and blood rushing into his head, Fritz realized that he could die young. That this could be it.

Before he went unconscious again, he thought it was lucky that Cesar had not yet performed the ritual to seal the aspis bond.

At least, Fritz thought, Cesar would be free.

Fritz really should have died then.

Oblivion swallowed him, and there was no reason for him to rise from the nothingness on the other side. Fritz wasn’t even cast into Hell. He wasn’t that important. Death was endless, lonely nothing.

Until it was not.

He saw stars and thought he was dreaming, at first. They were so vivid. Fritz felt like he’d never seen stars until that night, not really, and only now could he perceive the multidimensional facets of ice glimmering in the expanse.

The fresh air on his face was too real to be a dream. And Fritz did not think he would have dreamt such a feeling of painful pressure on one wrist, so sharp that his fingers tingled. He could barely feel them.

Fritz lifted his head to look. He found his arm bound to Cesar’s, blood seeping between them. The witch wasn’t even looking in his direction. He was shouting at the shadowy sky that swirled with nightmares, wind whipping his shirt against his collarbone.

Are we on the roof of the church?

He got dizzy trying to look down.

Darkness enveloped him again.

It wasn’t the absolute darkness he expected from death this time, but a powdery-soft blanket swaddling him. He wasn’t alone either. There was another heart beating alongside his, and a golden thread to bind them.

Sword and shield. Kopis and aspis.

Cesar did the ritual.

Fritz shocked awake this time, instantly clear-headed. It felt as though ever sense were honed. He was attuned to the nightmare demons circling him, but not susceptible to their fear; he felt the fallen angel nearby, but remained cogent.

The only thing missing was Cesar.

He had climbed out of the dormer to chase the angel up the roof. Fritz could see their silhouettes against Los Angeles’s smoggy glow, chasing each other through combat. Shriveled monster against unprepared witch.

Fritz could kill Naamah now. He was certain of it.

He tried to stand and fell against the window, catching himself on the frame. The leg that had been chained inside the bell had no feeling. His toes were black.

It was useless underneath him, making his ascent to the apex of the roof a one-legged effort. Cesar was pinned by Naamah. Most likely, he was moments away from being slaughtered by the half-angel. He was still streaming blood from his arm.

Yet when their eyes connected, the world stopped.

Fritz and Cesar were bound. Neither of them had died. And it took both of them to sever the angel’s wings, cut the heart from her body, and sever the head from her neck. Fritz did the dirty work—the smallest way to show his gratitude. Cesar verified that all parts of Naamah had died sufficiently, and he carried Fritz down the stairs. It took both of them to get through that long, dark night in Helltown, surrounded by nightmares and unable to escape until dawn.

Lucrezia de Angelis visited Fritz in the hospital that day. It was not a friendly visit.

“You seem to be doing fine, thanks to your new aspis,” she said.

Fritz wasn’t on so much morphine that he missed her acid tone. “You must be delighted to have performed a successful matchmaking.”

“Yes,” she said. “Delighted.” She folded her arms and glared at him.

“Were you surprised that he passed the test qualifying him to become bound as my kopis? I understood you planned to fire him if he failed.”

“I would never set up one of our valuable agents to fall like that,” Lucrezia snapped.

He noted that she didn’t specify if Cesar was one of their “valuable” agents.

“It’s too bad that you didn’t get to fire Agent Hawke, isn’t it?” Fritz asked mused, smiling lazily at her through the haze of the morphine. They’d given him enough to murder a horse. “You must be so disappointed.”

She stepped over, lifted the blanket on the bed, peered at his heavily bandaged leg underneath. “I may not have gotten to destroy your pet witch, but I’ll settle for watching you two make each other miserable,” she hissed in a low voice. “You got one of the OPA’s weakest witches. He gets a broken, useless kopis. How long before you two drag each other into death?”

“Whenever it happens,” Fritz said, “you’ll still never have been good enough for me.”

Lucrezia jerked back. She dropped the sheet, white knuckling the strap of her purse.

“And Cesar Hawke is?” she asked.

Had it not been for the morphine, Fritz never would have said, “Absolutely.”

Days later, Fritz woke from surgery without a leg.

He barely looked at the place where his blankets laid flat against the mattress instead of curving over a foot and shin. He used the remote to bring his bed upright, pulled the bamboo tray over his lap to hold a water glass, and then pressed the button to summon assistance.

Fritz expected a nurse.

He got Cesar Hawke.

“Hey!” The agent hung back against the door, his bandaged arm dangling in the room. “You okay? Are you dying? Do you need a surgeon?”

“I wanted my BlackBerry,” Fritz rasped.

“What, so you can work? Don’t even think about it.” Cesar whispered something to a person in the hall then entered the room. He took the chair next to Fritz. “Your surgery went good.”

“I’m missing half a leg,” Fritz said with more sharp points than the succulent on the windowsill.

“You get to keep the knee. Could be worse.”

“I could have a leg,” he said.

Cesar snorted. “Pity party for the gimp in room two! Shoulda brought strippers to liven it up.” He grabbed the newspaper off the bedside table before Fritz could get it, then flipped to the sports section. He spent a few minutes reading before quietly asking, “How do you feel?”

Fritz felt like he wasn’t missing his leg…until he looked down.

The rest of his injuries had already healed. If the kopis healing hadn’t ensured that, then his expensive Friederling-owned doctors would have. There was grogginess from the anesthesia—a dose to keep kopides unconscious was huge—but Fritz felt otherwise physically normal.

The rawest wound was a new awareness of time.

The leg would never come back. No privilege could repair it.

He was aging, slowing down, unable to keep up against fallen angels.

Fritz might die before Cesar, and he had no idea what to feel about that.

“I want the newspaper,” Fritz said.

Cesar pulled out the section with the comics and tossed them to Fritz’s lap. “No stocks and bonds and shit for you. Read Peanuts. You’re relaxing.”

“A comic about a depressed bald child isn’t relaxing.” But Fritz was somehow…smiling?

He read the comic. It was puerile.

“We might as well get used to this stuff,” Cesar said, propping his feet up on the bed and reclining in the chair. “Like, hospital shit. Because we’re gonna be stuck with each other the rest of our lives, and that includes being grumpy old men together.”

“The rest of our lives,” Fritz echoed quietly. The idea of a long-lived future sounded so different from Cesar than it did from Werner Friederling. “I know you’re looking forward to this about as much as eating uncooked donkey testicles, but…”

He grinned. “You rank better than donkey testicles. Just a little.”

Maybe Cesar had put more thought into what the bond meant than Fritz realized.

“Here’s the rest of the newspaper.” Cesar tossed it at Fritz. “I’m gonna make myself a protein shake. Want me to hunt up someone to give you the nightly nutrition suppository?”

“You’re mixing shakes here?” Fritz was recovering in his private clinic, which was on the back of the manor. It used to be used by his many cousins, aunts, and associates, but he’d kicked them out for stealing OxyContin.

“Not here,” Cesar said. “The big house. I’m staying here with you until you’re better. Drive you around and stuff.”

“I have drivers,” Fritz said, baffled. He paid a lot of money for his highly trained staff to cater to his every need, real or imagined.

“And I’m your aspis,” Cesar said. “I’m the magical muscle. The guy punching away paparazzi and hell-spawn. Your personal PI.” He feigned a few punches at an invisible enemy.

Fritz had almost forgotten where Cesar began—his inauspicious origins in Los Angeles’s filthiest trade. At this point, it felt as though the man had always been part of Fritz’s life. Obviously it was untrue. Cesar was much too interesting to have originated from the cesspool of the upper class. But even if he had not come from the same place, they were stuck together from now on.

For the rest of their lives, until grumpy old men.

“Then get me whiskey,” Fritz said, flicking up the newspaper to read Garfield.

“Nurse says no booze until you’re off morphine,” Cesar said. “Even for a kopis. I’ll run out and get you a jumbo Slurpee like I always got for Pops after knee surgery, how’s that sound?”

Fritz couldn’t even envision how it tasted. “It sounds perfect.”

“I’ll get you a red one. Don’t argue, red is best.” Cesar stepped out, but hesitated by the door. “Sorry I didn’t get there soon enough to save your leg, Fritz.”

He left Fritz alone, but not lonely. And he did drive Fritz around in the weeks to come. Perhaps it was an excuse to get behind the wheel of Fritz’s exotic sports cars, but he didn’t care.

At that point he’d already given Cesar half his soul.

The rest of it were only things.

Lonesome Paladin: CoverFritz and Cesar’s story continues in
Lonesome Paladin

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