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    October 29th, 2022


    Finger Lakes Winery


    Winding through the quiet roads outside Finger Lakes Winery, Tom rolled down the windows and enjoyed the crisp autumn air flooding inside his black BMW SUV. Tom smiled briefly as he remembered Matteo’s apprehension about having to speak to Victor. No one liked dealing with Victor if they didn’t have to. Victor wasn’t…as personable as many others. If there were an antithesis to Matteo’s oily charm, it was Victor’s rough, no-nonsense, curmudgeony bluntness. Tom often thought Victor saw Matteo the same way an octogenarian saw teenagers. Tom chuckled softly as that comparison came to his mind. It was fitting.


    Tom rather enjoyed Victor’s company, however. Of the other caporegimes, Victor and Tom understood each other better than the others. There was no doubt that their shared lycanthrope condition played a role in their relatability to one another. It went deeper than that, however. In both of their previous, smaller, families...they were often regarded as the cold tacticians. They were both valued for their ability to see past the drama of “who was disrespected” etc. Not that respect wasn’t important, it was very important. However…delayed “justice” could wind up paying off better than immediate justice. Tom had, as well as Victor, been the few voices that saw that wisdom and had the power to convince others of that path as well. The two of them were alike in more ways than one. Although, they weren’t totally the same.


    Their struggles with the Nevus were different. They were both ‘touched’ as Eris had put it. Changed without having been bitten. To the best of Tom’s knowledge, only he, Victor, and Tom’s father were ‘touched’. He knew there had to be others, however he hadn’t devoted any attention to locating them. He suspected there was value in knowing who those were. There may be a way to undo the virus effects if they could locate the others like them. The shocked look on Eris’s face while in the chopper came to his memory as he thought of that. No. The fear/awe on her face haunted Tom’s memory. There would be others looking to do collect them as well. It was best to keep that knowledge of himself, Victor, and his father to himself. He had no intention of becoming a lab rat.


    Victor’s burdens of the change were different from Tom’s in some respect. He didn’t have the same ‘hyper-were’ traits that Tom did. The typical ‘were-qualities’ were stronger in Tom. He was stronger than many, healed faster, senses were stronger, etc. He also had a stronger allergy to silver. The rage within Tom from the were-nature was unequaled by any other lycanthrope he had encountered. It seemed to Tom that he just received a double-helping of all were-creature traits. The lunar cycle timings also appeared to be unique to he and his father. He hadn’t encountered any others like the two of them where they weren’t utterly worthless the day after the full moon.


    Victor, however, was much more typical…as typical as weres can be. His strength would crescendo with the full moon, and then plummet the night after. Slowly, as the next full moon approached, it would build and build until it was full again. It was often because of this, that Tom chose to schedule his visits to Victor around the New Moon. While Tom wasn’t sure who was physically stronger in their beast forms…he suspected that his wolf might have the edge if it ever came to blows. Tom suspected Victor knew this. This meant that visiting Victor when Tom was at his weakest while Victor was approaching his strongest would set up the better, instinctive, power dynamic. It was never acknowledged openly, but Victor recognized this calculation. It was smart for a subordinate to not have anything that could be viewed as a challenge to his superior. Tom was a smart kid.


    Victor had also been better able to control his ‘beast.’ Tom wasn’t sure if all other weres had internally personified the rage inside like he had. But from what Tom could see, Victor was able to keep a lid on his rage. Like a snarling hound on a leash, Victor’s beast was neatly put into the cellar for three nights each month, and then he proceeded with business as usual. Tom envied that level of control. Tom’s knuckles turned white as Tom was squeezing the steering wheel while he drove. The thought of Victor’s cage for the turn summoned something akin to a fight or flight response…even now. Tom didn’t even like having his office door closed closer to the moon. That confined space…no. Just no.


    Tom wondered idly as he drove if Eris would actually come to the Masquerade. He suspected it would be an instinctive ‘no.’ Those events were certainly not her thing. Nor were they Tom’s, honestly. However, an event this important must be attended. The fact that Halloween fell near a New Moon this year was fortunate. He’d be at his calmest then. He would also be at his physical weakest. Tom had a clearer head during those times, though, and it was then that people remembered that Tom was dangerous long before he howled at the moon. He smiled slightly as he considered whether or not Victor would attend. He would likely come up with a reason not to. But maybe not this time.


    Tom pulled his vehicle to a stop at the gate where a couple of guards strode out to either side of Tom’s car. Each of them was dressed in khakis and polo shirts with the winery’s logo on the chest. To the untrained eye, they were simple security guards checking IDs and the like. Tom knew them, however. One was Strollo’s great nephew who also had a very comfortable hand on the handle of a 9mm hanging on his hip. The other was Cavalli’s nephew. He too had a confident look on his face. As he got closer, Tom could see that the young Cavalli was more cocky than confident. The exaggerated swagger and smug look on his face betrayed his arrogance. Gaspari had integrated the families together deliberately to prevent sects from forming. This young Cavalli seemed to think better of himself than he ought to.


    As he approached Tom’s driver-side window, he greeted Tom with a sneering, “Who are you? Winery is closed to the public.”


    Tom looked at the kid with a confused face. Was this kid serious? Tom never got hung up on status, but did this kid really not know who Tom Gallo was? He clearly had been living off the Cavalli name and hadn’t bothered to take his jobs seriously. Also, how did the young Strollo not know? Once quick glance in the other kid’s direction gave him his answer. A barely suppressed smirk was on young-Strollo’s face as he saw Cavalli’s arrogance present itself. Clearly, he did not care for him and was hoping to get some entertainment at young Cavalli’s expense.


    None of this was acceptable, and if Victor had seen it, these two would have some serious repercussions coming. A wicked grin played out across Tom’s face as he feigned scratching his face with the hand where he wore his ring denoting him as a Capo. When the Cavalli kid saw the ring, his jaw dropped as he mentally replayed every word that had come from his mouth. Tom looked the kid in the eye and inhaled as if to say something…but then shook his head in disgust and drove forward without another look at the kids. Victor had some teaching to tend to it seemed.


    Tom pulled up to the large building that had once been a public restaurant when the winery was open…and now it was where Victor took up residence and conducted business. Before Tom stepped out of the vehicle, multiple people streamed out of the building to see to it that Tom’s needs were taken care of. Apparently, the guards had radioed ahead with the news of the botched introduction. Wordlessly, Tom handed his keys to one of them, and held his jacket open to denote no weapons. None of those workers dared touch him at this point, however Tom still followed the rules. As he strode through the doors, Victor was emerging from behind his desk in greeting.


    “Tom, good to see you. Come and sit.” Victor greeted him while motioning to a restaurant style table that already had glasses of wine poured.


    Tom grasped the man’s hand in greeting, placing a friendly hand on his shoulder. “Good to see you as well, friend.” Tom sat down at the table as Victor sat opposite him. “The Cavalli kid needs to be doing something else. He didn’t recognize me until he saw the ring. The Strollo kid with him let the arrogant kid walk right into the trap. You may wish to separate them unless you want them to hurt each other.”


    Tom loved that he didn’t have to navigate through minutes of pleasantries when dealing with Victor. They could talk about what they wanted to talk about without having to tend to each other’s sensibilities. Victor glowered briefly at Tom’s remark and shook his head.


    “I’m running out of suitable jobs for the Cavalli kid. Kid has nothing resembling humility within him. Maybe the Strollo kid will help him learn to fake humility eventually. They’ll either kill each other or make each other better. I’m fine with either.”


    Tom nodded. Victor wasn’t joking. He never joked, really. It was a shame that some people could only learn sense through violence. Some could only learn that way it seemed.


    “I brought you something.” Tom said as he slid a bottle of near-ancient scotch across the table at Victor. Tom had been tracking that bottle down for some time now. “Hope you find this to your liking.”


    Victor opened the bottle and took a long whiff. Tom could smell it from where he sat. It was what Victor had wanted. Victor smiled a small smile of thanks.


    “You get that issue with your supply chain sorted?”


    It was Tom’s turn to glower. This was where Tom had to be less honest than he would like. Tom trusted Victor with more than he even trusted Matteo with…at least he was more willing to be vulnerable here at the winery than he was at club Bakkhos.


    “We have control of nearly everything again. There have been no reports of tainted shipments in months. Those responsible appear to have either abandoned this tactic, or are laying low to try again later.”


    Tom left out all the Sheut information, of course. Eris’s superior was trying to sabotage Thyrsus because he was not convinced that Eris was doing a good enough job of making a puppet out of Tom or anyone else within Bakkhos. Tom wasn’t sure if Victor knew of the Sheut, and if so, how much he knew of them. Tom was reasonably sure that Victor had encountered Mythos at one point or another…but he didn’t know if Victor understood his nature or not.


    Victor nodded, accepting Tom’s explanation before moving on to other business matters. Wine shipments: quantity, location, timing of deliveries, etc. As they were discussing some final details concerning which Cabernet would be introduced to Thyrsus next, Tom’s phone buzzed several times for multiple back to back calls. Tom looked up at Victor, and Victor nodded his assent and Tom opened his phone. Two missed calls. Tom’s brow quirked upwards in alarm. One from Eris and the other from Ahanu.


    Tom dialed his voice mail to listen to the two messages.


    First was from Eris. “I appreciate the Bakkhos invitation, but I will unfortunately have to decline. I wish you the best with your event.”


    Tom shrugged slightly. He had expected as much. Something was off. It was a bit too…polite. It was as if she were politely declining an invitation to attend an event for someone she didn’t know. His brow furrowed slightly, despite himself, as he moved on to the next message.


    “Mr. Gallo. Ms. London is honored to accept your invitation. Be sure to pick her up at the hangar at precisely 8pm. I will be unable to accompany her, as you know, I am attending with Roderick and will have to trust that you are grown up enough to not be late.”


    Tom smiled slightly as he shook his head. Clearly the two of them were not on the same page and were actively working against each other. Ahanu was an emotional mirror for Eris. If you were clever enough to observe Ahanu, you’d be able to deduce what Eris thought about a particular topic. Top hung up his phone and put it back in his pocket.


    “The same person has both accepted and rejected the invitation to the Masquerade.” Tom offered in explanation.


    “Ms. London, is that right?” Victor asked, knowingly. Darn it. Victor knew more than he let on and it was time for Tom to come clean. This was a test. Tom gave Victor a twenty-minute summary of the happenings from the Blood Moon to now. He tried to gloss over the interpersonal interactions between he and Eris, but it was clear to anyone who was listening that something was there.


    “Tom, you must be careful. I’ve been keeping an eye on you’re the last year or so, more than what was obvious. You are clearly deserving of your position. Your discretion and careful planning has made you an invaluable asset that even I’m not fully sure I know the entirety of. A woman such as Eris London can make your normally shrewd decision making become…less so. Do you follow?”


    Tom nodded. He had seen this face on Victor before. He was not looking for a verbal answer from Tom. Victor was not yet done speaking.


    “Based on the care with which you chose your words, you clearly know about the Sheut and Sheut-Ka.” Victor paused to allow Tom a moment to digest that Victor was on the same page. Tom was thankful for that pause. He hated playing catch-up with someone in the midst of a conversation. But this was more of a lecture than a conversation though…


    “The closeness with which you and Eris have worked makes it clear that you know that she is Sheut-Ka. She is also a powerful player in their organization.” Victor paused to gauge Tom’s reaction. All of this Tom knew. Victor now knew that Tom knew this as well and continued.


    “They seek to be puppeteers of the world, I’m told. Little fuckin’ blood suckers trying to control the world from the shadows.” There was a growl in his voice as he spit out those words. He clearly didn’t like that notion.


    “Most of Bakkhos doesn’t know of the Sheut, as I’m sure you are aware. But you must know that myself and the other bosses do. I would be curious to see if you knew more than me about them, but that is a conversation for another time.” Victor sipped from his wine as he watched Tom process this information. It should be more shocking, honestly to Tom. After all the secrecy and information withholding that Eris stressed, it was odd that the bosses already appeared to know as much or more than Tom did. But…it didn’t strike him as all that odd, honestly. In fact, it was oddly comforting.


    “Should this relationship you have with her become more personal in nature,” Victor began, “then you had best be careful.” Tom was suddenly feeling really uncomfortable about this conversation. Some mix of ‘the talk’ a boy had with their fathers about feelings and hair in weird places…and the discomfort that came from warnings of danger.


    “You must be prepared to defend every action you take. Cavalli and Strollo are going to be particularly interested in your activities for quite some time…especially if they start to vary from what they have come to expect from you already. Me too. I know you better than any of the other bosses. If something doesn’t smell right, I’m not going to let it go.”


    Tom nodded uncomfortably. He understood. Of course…Family First. Always. Then Victor’s features softened. This was less of the ‘scolding father’ from before and more of the nurturing ‘coaching father’ that Tom was one of the few to ever have the pleasure of experiencing.


    “If this becomes something more than professional, know this…Jacqueline would want you to be happy. You need not feel guilty about something such as that.”


    If that had been any other man. Any at all, Tom would have leapt over the table to enact terrible terrible violence on the man.  But it was Victor. Victor knew. Victor understood. Only Victor could say these things to Tom. Tom’s chest rose and then sank as he exhaled one long breath that was nearly a roar of fury, but was instead a sigh of acceptance. Jacqueline was gone and wasn’t coming back. She would want him to be strong. Happy. Strong.


    Victor, sensing Tom’s demeanor, paused a moment before continuing. “You have done much to honor her memory. She didn’t need a champion as yourself to protect her image anyway. Your honor of her has only strengthened the love we all had for her.” Victor then raised a glass in salute to Tom’s late wife.


    “Trust me when I say that, if something comes from this, it would undoubtedly have Jacqueline’s blessing if she were able to communicate it.”


    Tom stared at the table for a long while. Many conflicting emotions playing out in his mind at the same time. Victor was right, of course. Jacqueline would likely chastise him for the amount of time Tom forced seclusion upon himself out of respect for her and her family. She’d tell him to quit being a baby and go out there and live the life that he still had. A small smile came to his face as he pictured her lecturing him about squandering a life she no longer had and that she’d rap him in the head with his pistol if he continued to waste opportunities to make himself, and the Family stronger.


    “You are right, Victor. Jacqueline would not abide me being timid about anything. But I will be cautious. You have my word.”


    Victor smiled over his wine glass at Tom and added, “I’m sure you will. If your relationship with Eris amounts to anything resembling the one you had with Jacqueline…the Sheut and Bakkhos would be nearly unstoppable you realize.”


    Tom raised an eyebrow at Victor. He was objectively correct, that was certain. But Tom didn’t like the feeling of being a chess-piece either.


    “I trust you will leave all of those decisions to me, Victor. Stop me if you think I’m about to do something to damage the family…but stay out of the way if it is simply ‘sacrificing potential strength’ for the family.” This wasn’t a question. It was just on this side of a request rather than an order. Tom still knew where he was. Victor locked eyes with Gallo and simply nodded.


    “I am not going to the costume party. Make sure you tell Gaspari, please. Tell Carducci that I haven’t decided yet.”


    Tom laughed out loud. Apparently they also shared the same joy out of making Matteo uncomfortable when able.

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