“Hey Tony--this ever get to you?”
“Eh, maybe when I was a kid. You just gotta stop thinkin’ of the marks as people, and instead think of’em more like...cows. Or chickens.”
The two torpedoes hefted crates from dollies and pallets. Some of the crates clinked when they were set down, the bottles inside rattling in their nests of packing material.
“What? No, not the leg-breaking. That’s just an honest day’s work. No, I mean… this.”
The tough gestured around the area with her chin.
Crates of booze stood stacked in various piles around the yard, alongside cases of baking supplies, syrups, and preserves. Crepe paper, paper stars, and a host of other party decorations were likewise strewn about the place, waiting to be set up.
“No, not parties. Least, not in general. I mean… you know. This.”
“What this, Franc? Help a guy out and talk sense.”
The other tough bounced a little in place, clearly agitated.
“This. This… fish festival business.”
“Fish fes--you’re blowing a gasket over the boss’s St. Talbot’s Day party?” Tony’s eyes grew wide, incredulous.
Franc just bounced in place again in response, looking around quickly.
“You’re for real? You’re not pulling my leg?” Tony asked.
“Well… yeah. It’s not… right. It’s not right with the Church. Talbot’s not even a real saint!”
“Not so far’s the Phenexian Church is concerned, sure.” Tony sighed. “This is really eatin’ at you, ain’t it?” He rubbed the back of his head, under his cap. “Alright, look. My relationship with organized religion is more what you’d call ‘academic’ than ‘spiritual,’ but you seem like a good kid, so I’ll try to set you straight. You act like this around the boss, things won’t go right for you. Catch me?”
“Yeah, Tony, I catch you,” said Franc.
“Lemme explain things then. Maybe put’em in a light that’ll sit proper with you.”
“Can you do that?”
Tony pulled a face and waggled his head “Maybe not for a member of the Inquisition, but for you? Yeah, I think I can manage. Grab a seat.”
The pair each sat down, pulling two crates into position.
“You like working for the boss, right?”
“Course I do! Mr. Cavallaro’s done nothing but good by me, you know that as well as I do.”
“And he’s what you’d call a good Phenexian, right?”
“Well sure. Donates to charity, tithes. He goes to Church regular. I’ve seen’em there myself.”
“Ok. Well, his wife, may her soul rest in peace, was Aldish.”
Franc took a moment to process this, then looked like she’d swallowed something disagreeable.
“Wait, no, you’re not telling me she was a dirty shieldbasher?”
Tony grew very still.
“Franc. Think about this for a minute. I’m trying to tell you that the boss’s dead wife, who he loved very, very dearly, was a devout member of the Chayodyne Order. And the first words outta your mouth about her are a slur?”
“Uh… no. No, ‘course not.”
“Of course not. Because that would be?”
“Because that would be incredibly stupid, right. So let’s try this again.” Tony cleared his throat. “Miriam Wetherly Cavallaro was a devout follower of the Chayodyne Order, and one of the nicest ladies I ever met. That’s no lie. And every year, she’d make a big deal of St. Talbot’s Day. She’d bring a whole truckload of presents down to the orphanage--and I mean a literal truckload, like we had to have four guys do the loading and unloading. I think it was on account of she and the boss not having any kids. Anyway, she made a big deal of it, with the decorations, and the carols, and the Talbados--”
“The what? Are those the fishcakes?” Franc looked confused.
“They’re little cakes shaped like fish. Fishcakes are something else again, but sure, whatever. You know what, we’re way off track here, so let’s do what they’d call a ‘segue’ and back up a bit. What do you actually know about St. Talbot?”
“Well, like I said. He wasn’t a saint, that’s for sure. He was a heretic. A Chayodyne Shield from the Great War.”
“Ok, you’ve got that last part right. Keep going.” Tony nodded.
“Ah… ok. Ok. I know this. Oh! So Talbot was a Shield, but a lot of the damage he was doing was sorta blocked off by Blessed Anton Ivanovich of the Iron Hand.”
Tony gave Franc another one of his looks.
“Franc, did you know that Ironhand Ivanovich is considered a war criminal by the Volskies?”
“By the Collectivists, you mean, and boy howdy do they have that backwards! Blessed Anton was one of the biggest heroes of the Great War!”
“I can’t fault you there. He clocked in near seven feet tall, you believe the stories. And he did do all kinds of stuff to save the Cities from the Realm and all that. But you know what he did before that?”
“No, what?” Franc asked.
“He got sent to the worst prison camps the Volskies had at the time.”
“See? He was a martyr.”
“No, jackass, he was one of the guards. He used to put down riots by decimating the inmate population, and if you don’t know what that means, crack open a damn book. You know, there’s historical evidence he actually shot people under his command if they took a step backwards in battle?”
“What, like a firing squad?”
“Nah. Just pulled out his sidearm and plugged’em.”
“That there was a man who got things done.”
“No, that there was a man who--alright, actually he did get things done. I have to give you that one on points.”
“Darn skippy you do. He was a servant of the Church. Only secret, like.” Franc nodded to herself in satisfaction.
“You know a heck of a lot about a random minor religio-historical figure.” Tony squinted.
“My mom’s pop was half Volskie.”
“Hunh.” Tony stroked his chin. “Anyway, Talbot, right?”
“Right. Shield in the War, worked with the bloodsuckers, generally a bad guy.”
“Maybe, but he was also a close friend of Ivanovich.”
“No way,” Franc dismissed the idea, making a swatting motion with her hand.
“Mmhm. And one night, near the end of the Great War, Ivanovich needed this special part. A piece of a machine, I think. The story’s sorta vague, but basically he needed this thing, but nobody could get it for him. Nobody but Talbot. Talbot knew a guy who knew a guy, who had the thing. But Talbot had to make a deal, see?”
“What kinda deal?”
“The kind you don’t walk away from. Talbot had enemies, and some of them wanted him dead. And some them of them were real close to the guy with the thing.”
“You’re losing me.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time. But, look, it ends up like this: Talbot knows he’s a dead man if he goes down to the docks to get Ivanovich the thing he needs. So you know what he does?”
“He goes down to the docks. He gets the thing for Ivanovich. Sends it back with a runner. And that was it for Talbot.” Tony made a gagging noise and mimed cutting his own throat. “Unless you believe in miracles, of course. Because the Chayodyne Order, right, they say that when Talbot got cement overshoes and got tossed into the drink, Phenex turned him into a fish.”
“Why a fish? Why not, like… a shark? Or a squid?”
“The hell should I know? Maybe Phenex thought it was funny. Why a fish, wise guy. Anyway, Ivanovich, he takes the thing, puts it in the machine, and wipes out an entire Division from the Realm in the blink of an eye. Saved the Northern Front, some folks say. You, my friend, might try thinking of this celebration as more about how the Blessed Ironhand saved Civilization with his good friend Talbot. That work for you?”
Franc thought for a moment.
“So why ain’t it called ‘Saint Anton’s Day,’ then?”
Tony peered off into the distance, over the compound grounds. To the windows, where he could just make out the lonely silhouette of Zacarias Cavallaro looking out at his estate.
“Because there’s no justice in the world, my friend. And because he’s not the one that turned into a fish.”
Franc considered this.
“I guess that’s fair.”
“It ain’t, really. Not by a long shot. But it is what it is. Now let’s finish luggin’ these crates before the boss sees us yappin’.”