Behind the facade of a stately building, within a clubhouse that could be described as tastefully lavish (or perhaps lavishly tasteful), nested between the high arms of a soft leather recliner, sat Mr. Dark.
He was not in a particularly good mood.
While Mr. Dark would never be considered an especially jovial person by any discerning lady or gentleman, the frown currently inhabiting his features was directed at something other than the world in general. Specifically, its targets were the two other men currently occupying the room. They were standing, of course. When you were in the presence of Mr. Dark, you stood, and none knew that better than Hareton Marshall and Edwin Carter. Mr. Dark made sure of that. Indeed, they have been standing there for the last fifteen minutes.
That was probably enough, Mr. Dark decided. "New competition, you say?"
Marshall cleared his throat, an act that sent ripples through both prodigious chin and even more prodigious mustache. During his lengthy acquaintance with the Marshall family, Mr. Dark didn't recall a single born member of the family who didn't eventually end up sporting one of the ridiculous things. Even the women. Especially the women.
"Well, not as such. Wouldn't call it competition as such. Not in so many words."
Mr. Dark only barely resisted rubbing at his temples. Not out of any worry at offending Marshall, since he was never much concerned with that, but because his hands were itching terribly. They always did that when that time of year came, but he never got used to it. "Then how would you, pray tell, describe the act of selling products similar to our own, to the same customer base, at prices which would make us go bankrupt in a week?"
Marshall rubbed at his mustache, as he always did when he was nervous. Another rather infuriating family habit. "Well, I imagine it would take longer than a week. A few months in the very least."
This time, Mr. Dark couldn't resist. Rub rub. Itch itch. It was a somewhat ironic fact, he pondered, that the Marshalls were never the sharpest knives in the drawer, despite the alarming frequency in which they used them. Oh, they were certainly very good at their specific fields of interest, of that there could be no doubt. Just point a Marshall at an unsuspecting continent, and soon it would contain no piece of ground untrodden by big shiny boots, no natural resources untapped, no historical relic unplundered, and no native populace unharrssed and still in possession of its wealth. You just had to make sure to let someone else handle the finance, since they'd probably spend it all on brandy, gunpowder and hair care products.
The current Marshall was an exemplary specimen of the family. Stout, solid, and with the curiosity and imagination of a brick. The man's mother has been a bit too fond of reading, hence his rather unfitting literary name, but Mr. Dark couldn't really blame the poor woman. When you were married to a Marshall, you had to do something in order to keep your intellect from shriveling and folding into itself, like a dried-up snail.
Mr. Dark shivered. That was a lesson he only needed to learn once.
"Regardless how you want to define it, it is most certainly a problem that needs to be addressed quickly." Carter cut in, probably in order to save his partner further roasting glares from Mr. Dark. He probably regretted that decision when that very same glare transferred to him, but to Carter's credit, Mr. Dark thought, he bore it with far more class.
"You say it's a problem, but you didn't even bother to mention who's behind it. Is it the Factory again? Some new line of blood-powered mixers or something?"
"The products don't really fit their usual style. They don't seem mass-produced at all, really, and if there are, whoever is doing it is putting a lot more money into their production than the Factory."
"So not them. Is it another relic from the Prometheus days then, or some wayward Alexylva experiments?"
"Nothing to tie any of the products to them, and it's usually very easy to tell."
"I bloody well know it's easy to tell! In case you've forgotten, I've been in this business since before you were born, you sniveling welp!" Mr. Dark barked at Carter, who manged to hide his flinch almost completely. Much as he hated to admit it, Edwin Carter had quite impressed Mr. Dark since they first began their business relations, shortly after the death of the former's father. That Carter was an idiot of almost impressive proportions, actually managing to make his contemporary Marshall seem intelligent by comparison, which was no mean feat. Carter Jr. was made of different stuff, however. Under his management, Marshall, Carter & Dark's Acquisitions Department went from a corrupt, barely controllable mess of mercenaries, sellswords and other scum into a well-oiled, well-performing and above all loyal machine. It really was a shame that the man looked like some sort of mix between a cave-dwelling frog and a permanently constipated iguana, but you couldn't have everything.
Said unfortunate hybrid now cleared his throat. "My apologies, Mr. Dark, I didn't mean to offend."
Mr. Dark waved a dismissive hand. "Forget it. So it's not them, fine. Did young Wondertainment finally crawl out of her pile of ice cream and corgis then? Didn't think she had it in her, honestly. Too much like her daft father."
Carter hesitated. "She… indeed has, but we don't think that has anything to do with the current situation. Although what we suspect she's planning on might prove to be a different problem."
"Well surely it can't be Uncle Merl, or…" Mr. Dark's expression turned sour, and the itch in his hands returned with renewed vigor, "Deer."
Marshall, finally regaining some courage, chuckled at that. "We wouldn't have bothered you with those buffoons."
"The truth is," Carter said, "is that we have no idea who's behind this."
"So why don't you, and I know this might seem like a mad idea, why don't you use our terribly vast and terribly expensive intelligence network to bloody find out?!"
Carter gulped. "We tried, Mr. Dark, but every Acquisitor I've sent either came back empty-handed or… not at all."
"And that's not all," Marshall added. "Three hours ago, our connection with the Singapore Auction House went silent. When the men I sent there arrived, it was empty, I do mean empty."
God damn, but Mr. Dark's hands itched. He peered at them, keeping them in the corner of his eyes. He never liked how they looked in the middle of the process, elegant as it was. The left hand was pale, thickly veined, covered with liver spots. The right was darker, almost brown, and as smooth as Mr. Dark's credit record. "What do you mean, 'and I do mean empty?'"
"I mean that there was nothing there. All of the items stored, all of our sales personnel and my security staff, even the bloody furniture, down to the power sockets and wallpaper. Everything was gone."
"And you say you have no idea who's responsible for this? For the contents of an entire Auction House disappearing off the face of the Earth?"
Marshall stiffened. "I assure you, my Downsizers are at this very moment applying themselves to the task of finding whoever's to blame for this. They never fail!"
Downsizers. Mr. Dark remembered the days when the Club's group of head hunters and assassins were called something rather different. He was quite fond of the old name, though in retrospect he did understand the decision to change it. It wasn't really keeping to the spirit of the times. Plus, it was more than a bit racist, and the Club did always try to cater to as wide an audience as possible (within reason, of course). The only color that mattered, after all, was the color of currency.
"Regardless of Marshall and the Downsizers' never-failing efforts, Mr. Dark," said Carter, his tone making clear his opinion on their chances of success, "And whether or not there's a connection between our new business rival and the recent incident in the Auction House, I took the liberty of acquiring a few of the items that the competition recently introduced to the market. I think you might find them of interest."
Mr. Dark nodded, absent-mindedly scratching at a liver-spotted hand, and Carter reached for his pocket, taking out a small box of polished, deeply colored wood. Connected to the box was a round silvery button. Carter left the box on the liqueur table next to Mr. Dark's recliner, and exited the room. A few moments later he returned, this time carrying with him a covered cage. He positioned the cage next to the box, and lifted the cover to reveal a live hen, quietly clucking to itself.
He pressed the button. The hen shifted slightly, and began clucking louder. After a few seconds of that there was a sudden popping sound, and seemingly out of nowhere, an egg appeared next to the hen.
Mr. Dark didn't quite know what to make of that. "Is this… is this some sort of zen questions solver or something?" he asked, but Carter just shook his head and pressed the button again.
Cluck. cluck cluck CLUCK!
And now next to the egg were a raw green potato, a tomato, a head of lettuce, some olives, and what appeared to be half an ingot of sliver.
"Er…" Another shake of the head, another press of the button.
Cluck. Cluck. Cluckcluckcluckcluckcluuu-Biff
"And this is the reason, Mr. Dark, that I believe we have a problem." Carter said.
Mr. Dark could only nod, as he reached a slightly shaky hand to the cage and removed the top. And from the cage, he collected what was now a perfectly roasted and garnished chicken, with a side of mashed potatoes and a green salad. All served on a flawless silver platter. Disconcertingly, of the tomato there was no sign.
Marshall approached and, using his rather sizable pocket knife, skewered a piece of roast chicken. He chewed it thoughtfully, and declared, "It's alright, I suppose. A bit bland."
A certain distance from the stately building which housed the lavishly tasteful (or perhaps tastefully lavish) clubhouse, a man sat at his office. At a first glance, and probably at the few following that one, neither appeared particularly special, and indeed, the office wasn't, other than the wasp nest hidden in one of the walls. The man, however — if a discerning gentleman or lady were to look carefully — did in fact have something to distinguish him from your mundane Joe or Jane. Namely, the fact that he was at the time conversing with a god.
And that he was smiling.
"And so you see, aha, we simply cannot continue on our current expansion schedule with the current production roster. How can I be expected to work in these conditions, is what I ask you? The forms aren't neat, there are candles everywhere, and I'm sure one of them tried luring me into a circle at one point, which is not something I appreciate, no I don't. And don't even get me started about break room etiquette. No, you know what, you need to hear what I have to say about their break room etiquette- it is below acceptable standards, I tell you, considerably below acceptable standards, and another thing-"
Not because of anything the god said, mind you. The man lost track of that hours ago. It was something about the high costs of thaumic levies and how mages these days couldn't fill a MAG-97 form to save their wrinkly skins. For a being of immeasurable power and presumably intelligence beyond the ken of mortals, the man was surprised to find out that his god was a very boring person indeed. He wasn't really sure why it surprised him that much, since the god was, after all, an extension of the man himself, and didn't this whole thing begun in the first place because the man found himself to be so utterly, disgustingly boring? Indeed it had. It seemed that he couldn't escape that truth about himself, not even by summoning the vast, unknowable powers of the grand cosmos.
"Are you listening to me? Doesn't look like you're listening to me. I can smite you, you know, I could do it right now, leave a greasy stain on the floor and everything, and wouldn't you feel silly then? Yes you would. Although… that would get me in trouble with the cleaning ladies. No, that wouldn't do, wouldn't do at all, that. They'll have me running about cleaning the trash bins for weeks, and that's no task for a god, no it is not. And that's without even going into-"
The man smiled again. Well, if the vast, unknowable powers of the grand cosmos couldn't break the monotony that was his life, he'd have to turn to an even greater power, the most powerful force there ever was.