Family Reunion: Part One
The spotted Lupe stood behind the young green Krawk, watching his son examine the shining imperial armour in the mirror.
"I shall be leaving in the morning," the Krawk instructed.
He was a lanky teen, the armour ill-fitting. He gave the impression of someone that was very poorly trained, but there was a fire in his eyes – one that seemed to intensify when his eyes met those of his father in the mirror.
"The staff have packed my things," the Krawk added.
There was a certain confidence to his voice, one that belied both his age and appearance. He chose the words he used carefully, aimed in the hopes of causing pain to the Lupe behind him.
"You do not have to do this," the Lupe stated somewhat sadly.
"Unfortunately I do," the Krawk replied. "The Imperial Army does not permit soldiers contact with families. They are a weakness. For me, it is hardly an issue. After all, Mother is gone, and you... well, we've hardly ever been what I would call 'family'. 'Lodger' is even stretching it a little."
"You know what I mean, Ji," the Lupe stated.
"I'm not sure I do," the Krawk told him, ignoring the Lupe's pleading eyes and focusing instead on polishing his shoulder plate. "You have been away from home more often than you are here, and when you are here your presence has been... less than beneficial."
"I never intended to hurt you," the Lupe said.
"An interesting accident, then," Ji considered bitterly. "Certainly, it is comforting to learn that a string of alarming misunderstandings is what drove mother to..."
The Krawk bit his lip, absently playing with a pink locket that he held in his hand.
"I love you both very much," the Lupe insisted.
"It's a little late for love," Ji snapped. "So very convenient that you only desire a family when it is in tatters around you, but when you had one, by all accounts, you could not have cared less."
"That which is broken can be repaired," the Lupe told him.
"Some things cannot be repaired," Ji answered bluntly.
He turned at last to face his father directly.
Ji Qin never did forget that last meeting with his father. The words somehow haunted him. In time, quite by accident, or perhaps by experience, he would come to agree with him. That which was broken could be repaired.
The Imperial Army was inefficient? Simple. Become the General in charge and remodel it to something better.
The Emperor's decisions are clouded? Simple. Make them for him.
The Empire had exiled you? Simple. Plot the overthrow of the Emperor.
And then... then he had arrived in Neopia Central. He had become Mr. Jennings, crime lord triumphant.
Neopia Central was broken? Simple. Fix it.
And how he had fixed it. Criminal empires the likes of which the city had never seen spanned district to district.
But then, quite by accident, he had almost died. Imprisoned on a distant shore, the city had begun to tear itself apart as millions of Neopets each pulled in their own direction.
Jennings had freed himself from Mystery Island, of course. And now, as he beheld the damage the city had brought upon itself, he found doubt creeping into his mind again.
Perhaps he had been right as a teenager. Perhaps some things were just too broken. Perhaps they could not be fixed. Jennings certainly couldn't see an easy way back from this one.
There were entire streets that had been demolished during running battles between the Defenders of Neopia and a host of super-powered criminals that had broken out of the cells. The Catacombs were taped off, several tunnels having caved in during a fight with Khan the Unstoppable. A giant ice floe in the port was still there, only melting very slowly – a relic of a battle with Lady Frostbite.
There were rumours that the Zombies had fought a great battle in the rich Hills district, losing many of their number but also taking their fair share of victims from rioters. People had fled the city. Some would return, but others would not. The Thieves Guild had pulled out of the city entirely.
Rioters had started fires that had consumed some districts. The Twelve Ways, a magical traffic junction, had exploded in a hail of green fire that was still burning. Most keenly felt for Mr. Jennings though, was what had happened to his imposing tower in the Docklands.
It had been set alight, and had crumbled to the ground. He stood amidst the ruins, contemplating his next move. The very heart of his empire had been ripped from the body. The beast that was Neopia Central would flail for a new target, the madness would continue. Jennings had to stop it, but how?
One thing was clear, he would need to speak with Judge Hog.
The Defenders of Neopia Headquarters did not look like it normally did. The mass breakout of prisoners had been one thing, but the super powered among them had certainly left their mark. Khan the Unstoppable, for example, had used his super strength to demolish most of the front wall.
Now the Defenders were showing off more of their innards than they would normally allow. Entire offices and even some of the cell block opened directly out onto the street. They hadn't had time to cover it, the entire staff had been roped in to deal with recapturing the super criminals that had been rampaging through the city streets the night before. Luckily, the Defenders had succeeded. Most of the regular criminals had escaped, but those with a tendency to freeze entire neighbourhoods in ice like Lady Frostbite had been recaptured.
With most of the cells still out of action, Judge Hog had been forced to bring several of the containment facilities in the building's basements back into action. They were relics from the previous administration, Judge Irons and his well known brutal regime. The rooms were more torture chamber than jail, but a hasty refit had seen them made fit for purpose, at least until repairs on the building had finished.
If nothing else, the destruction was giving the Judge a lot of exercise. With the lifts out of action, he was forced to take the stairs to his office on the top floor. Pushing open the battered door, he almost had a heart attack. A green Krawk was sitting at his desk, quietly sifting through official documents.
"Do come in, Judge," Mr. Jennings greeted him politely.
"Please tell me you're a ghost," the Judge said.
"Why ever should I do that?" Jennings asked, pausing in his reading.
"Because if you're not a ghost, then last night has finally tipped me over the edge," the Judge answered. "I'm hallucinating a dead man."
"Well, please give this dead man my regards." Jennings smiled. "I, however, am quite alive, I can assure you."
"Hallucination it is then," the Judge sighed. "You died. Washed out to sea."
"And then washed in from the sea," Jennings corrected him. "Tides, like street artists, can be decidedly unpredictable."
"You've been alive this entire time?" the Judge asked. "These past few weeks? You've been watching the whole thing happen? Even last night?"
The Moehog's eyes drifted to the paper in the Krawk's hand. It was a list of the prisoners who had broken out.
"You arranged that!?" the Judge exploded, rushing forwards in an effort to grab Jennings in a maddened rage.
"No," Jennings replied firmly, stopping the Judge with a raised palm before he could reach the desk. "I have been imprisoned on Mystery Island – sufficed to say, I did not wish I was there. I got back, and all this appears to have transpired. It really is a pickle, I must say."
"I have your word you weren't involved?" the Judge asked.
"You and I both know my word means very little," Jennings chuckled. "But for today, perhaps, you may have it. You really think I would ever plan a situation in which this would happen?"
He gestured over his shoulder. Beyond the cracked glass of the office, several fires in the ruined districts of the city were still smouldering.
"It seemed a little coincidental," the Judge explained. "You've read that list? Lots of people got out, but a very specific few didn't – they were killed in the breakout. Poisons stolen from the evidence locker. The list of names that didn't make it out alive... the Governors of Area 26, Alfonso Might, Sheikh Al-Balim... they all seem to have something in common – a desire to kill you. If I hadn't have thought you dead, I'd have said they were revenge killings."
"Nothing to do with me, I assure you," Jennings replied. "Or rather, everything to do with me. I've studied this list, and I believe they were... pre-emptive strikes of a sort."
Jennings handed over the list to the Judge. A single name had been highlighted.
"Brodman?" the Judge asked.
"The former head of Area 26," Jennings confirmed. "Appointed by the Governors, captured by me, imprisoned by you. He would certainly know the blueprints of the Defenders building well enough to locate the evidence locker quickly. Brodman was a slight man – unless he was the killer, I can't imagine he'd make it out while men like the Sheikh did not."
"You think he will be looking for you?" the Judge asked.
"You weren't my first port of call," Jennings revealed. "I went to my tower. I think he may have been behind it."
The Judge frowned, the hint of a smile on his face.
"Not often I get to tell you something you don't know," he laughed. "You really must have been out of the loop. Brodman wasn't behind the destruction of your tower. If Crooked Tony is to believed, and judging by the number of broken bones he sustained last night, I think he is, someone else wanted to make a point. You ever heard of the Smuggler?"
The Judge heard a sharp intake of breath from Jennings.
"Of course," Jennings answered quietly. "There's not a soul in Shenkuu who hasn't. A... most unfortunately adept criminal. Even I could never catch him."
"He's in the city," the Judge revealed. "Turned up just after you died... well, after you did... whatever you did. Little Shenkuu is in lockdown, and it seems like Johnny Twobit is taking quite a beating from this Smuggler's goons."
Jennings stood up abruptly.
"Then I must deal with it," he announced.
"Wait a minute," the Judge said. "Last night there were riots, explosions, and criminals running around the streets – the daylight has calmed people, but there's no reason to think tonight will be any better. You can stop it. If people know you're alive, they'll fall back into line. You need to make an announcement."
"Not with the Smuggler in the city," Jennings told him. "Trust me, there are few people on the planet I would consider more dangerous. And I mean that, Judge. I really mean it. Back when I was a General, if the Smuggler had decided to attack the Emperor, I wouldn't have been able to stop him. He needs to be dealt with. Quickly. Efficiently."
"You think you can?" the Judge asked.
"I've died once, my dear Judge," Jennings remarked. "I think any more would be quite rude."
A bucket of water was thrown over the orange Wocky, bringing her back to consciousness.
"Saline," the maddened voice came from a few inches away. "We're not finished yet."
The Wocky's eyes focused on the blue Blumaroo kneeling in front of him.
"I... I told you everything, Brodman," she spluttered.
"It's been a long night," Brodman announced. "There have been fires outside, you know? Oh, of course you don't. You've been here all night."
'Here' was a small interrogation cell, previously used by Area 26 but long forgotten. The two way mirror was smashed, the paint peeling. Saline herself was tied roughly to the one remaining chair.
"I told you everything I know," Saline repeated. "Everything that happened since you got arrested."
"Yes, you did." Brodman smiled.
The expression didn't sit right on his face – as if he'd heard about smiles but had to guess how they worked. He absently stroked a rusty blade in his hand.
"But now I need you to tell me something else," he added.
"Then you'll kill me?" Saline asked, anticipating his next move.
"Perhaps," Brodman admitted. "You know, I really haven't decided yet. But first, Saline, I need you to tell me everything you know about the Smuggler."
"I told you..." Saline murmured.
"Yes, you told me he's in the city – but I need specifics," Brodman demanded.
He grabbed her by the shoulders, lifting her tired frame to meet his eyes. He was not known for being a strong man, but the madness that had overcome him seemed to have given him new power – the grip was vice-like and Saline could not break free.
"Where is he, exactly?" Brodman demanded. "Is the building secure? How many guards does he have, how frequently do they rotate? His physical health, how is it? Does he suspect an attack from outside agents? You must tell me, Saline. You will tell me. I know you have the details. Area 26 collects such things without even trying. You will tell me. I must have access to the Smuggler."
"You know why," Brodman sneered. "The Smuggler must die."
To be continued....