Anderson Massey suppressed a shudder as he stepped through the doorway. On the other (the proper) side of the door, it was an elegant Georgian style paneled door with an elegant entablature. On this side, it was plain wood, with cracked and faded paint. It was also about thirty degrees colder, with a light fog.
"Right, let's go," he said to the guide, a thickset man in a much cheaper suit.
The guide was one of many "specialists" employed by Marshall, Carter and Dark. No one who worked for the Company could ever be described as shabby, but his dark blue coat was a few shades cheaper than Massey's, and the cigar was cheap, with noxious smoke. The man grunted behind a grey scarf, and set out down the alley.
It was always an alley in the Shadow Market. There were no main streets, just narrow alleyways winding their way between the brick buildings with boarded-up windows and locked doors that hid whatever it was the Minders kept in there.
Massey hated the place. It wasn't that it was outside the world he knew. That was part and parcel of working for the Company. No, he hated its shabbiness. It was a low-class world designed for low-lifes. He belonged in his office or the board room, not trudging down a muddy alley under a dingy twilight with ever-present smoke hanging in the air with the smell of tobacco and coal. Gentlemen should not trudge anywhere. They should stride, with purpose.
He stepped in something he couldn't quite see, and bit off a curse. "Not so quickly," he said, his voice sharp. "These streets are a bloody mire, and some of us take care of our appearance."
"Whatever," the man said from behind the scarf. He'd said hardly a dozen words since they'd been introduced.
Massey narrowed his eyes. "I'd watch my tone if I were you. Unless you'd care to find alternate employment." An innocent phrase, outside of the Company. Within it… Well, no one ever left the company of their own will, and a person could be employed in so many ways.
The man simply grunted. Massey ground his teeth. He would have to arrange something unpleasant. Specialists were useful, but they had to know their place.
Occasionally, they passed someone else on their way to an errand. Sometimes they were Minders, in their grey leathers and brass, smoked goggles. Sometimes it was a man from the normal world, shoulders hunched, eyes darting from place to place. Sometimes it was something more… exotic. Tall and thin, or short, squat and scaled.
Finally, the guide stopped at the entrance to a short, narrow blind alley. "There," he said.
"Well, thank you very much!" Massey said, indignation thick on his voice. "Wait here, and don't let me catch you listening on. This is a highly sensitive meeting, and you're not paid to eavesdrop."
The man grunted.
Massey walked to the end of the alley and waited. Naturally, it started to rain. By the time the droplets of water made it through the smoke and past the leaning rooftops, they were a dingy grey. He shivered and wrapped his coat a little tighter. He wished, now, that he'd gone with a coat a bit more like the guide. It would need careful laundering, and that was if it was salvageable. Back-alley deals weren't supposed to be quite this literal.
His guide could be seen only by the faint red pinprick at the end of his cigar.
After a few minutes, he realized he wasn't alone.
Two Minders were waiting with him. Neither turned to look at him, nor did they say a word. They didn't show any discomfort from the rain, though it was hard to tell with their eyes hidden beneath smoked-glass lenses. Only their noses and mouths showed that they were human. Or at least had human-like mouths and noses. No one he'd spoken with was entirely sure on that point.
Massey thought about asking them what they were doing there, but decided it wasn't worth the bother.
Finally, after Massey was thoroughly soaked, a handsome looking man entered the alley. His name was Mr. Fire, though he pronounced it "Fear-a." His smile was a touch too shiny, and his suit (much nicer than Massey's) appeared perfectly clean, if a bit damp. He carried a travel case at his side.
"Anderson!" he said. "I saw you, what, two months ago? How's the wife? Kid starting softball soon?"
Massey forced a smile. He'd never told Fire about his wife or child. "They're fine, fine. Thank you for asking."
"You got here a bit early," Fire said. "Should have called. I could have left a bit sooner, saved you a bit of a soaking."
"Oh, it's no trouble. Besides, I know it's a bit of a hike," Massey said. That was something he'd been briefed on by another one of the company's specialists. "He walks everywhere. Everywhere. Cars and planes, trains and armored carriers, all at his disposal, and stranger means besides, and he walks. From one end of the world to another, however fast he needs to, arriving just when he intends."
"Well, what's done is done. Gents, glad you could make it as well." He turned to the Minders.
"You paid," one of them said, shrugging. The shoulders didn't move quite right, Massey thought.
The specialist who had brought Massey was moving in closer now. Massey felt a twist of annoyance, but also a bit of comfort. He suddenly felt very exposed with the two Minders as well as Mr. Fire there. He wished he'd been a little more polite to the man, but anyone who worked for MC&D was professional enough to get on with a job despite that. And anyway, an executive ranked far above any common thug, no matter how talented.
"Always pay your creditors when you can, or you'll pay even more when you can't," Fire said. "Did you bring it?"
In response, the Minder pulled out a broken pocket watch. Presumably it was a dream or a memory. Massey had been briefed on that. They could take on almost any form, from old casettes to tourist trinkets to worn coins. In Carter's office was a fragment of obsidian which was supposedly the oldest memory the Minders had ever stolen.
Fire took it from the Minder and showed it to Massey. The jangling of the chain echoed faintly with a man's laughter, and he could just make out a smiling face in the shining surface.
"What is it?" Massey asked. His eyes darted to the specialist, who was now hovering behind the smiling man.
"A memory," Fire said. "Fresh from the Black Queen's mind. You've had some trouble with her in the past."
"Not as much as you," Massey said, suspiciously.
"Ah, but I already have the information from this memory. It might do you a bit more good. I think it should cover the records we discussed and then some."
"We didn't discuss any—" Massey began.
"It's a deal," the heavyset man said. "The records from the camp tomorrow, and the rest paid later."
Massey glanced back at the heavyset man. He'd hardly said a word on the way in. What was he doing?
"Glad to hear it! And great to see you out of that chair and back on your feet." Fire said. "Tell you what, though. I've grown rather fond of Andy here. Throw him in and we'll call it even."
To Massey's growing confusion and horror, the heavyset man nodded, spat into one massive hand, and held it out. Fire returned the gesture.
The heavyset man made a gesture then, a peculiar one, and Massey felt his legs give way beneath him. His eyelids felt strangely heavy.
"Delivery will be the usual place," the heavyset man said. "And there had better be no tricks, Four."
"Tricks? Never." As he started losing consciousness, Massey heard the smiling man laugh. "Would I cheat my good friend Carter?"
Back in the office, Carter carefully put the memory away. It could be reviewed later. For now, the Happy Acres incident needed his attention.
Every good company needs to do three things to succeed: handle the money, deal with the customers, and do the work. Marshall dealt with the customers: he would be consoling grieving parents and smoothing ruffled feathers. Carter handled the rest. Let Dark stew in whatever hell he came from. Let Marshall be the smiling face of the corporation. They couldn't do shit without Carter.
There was a stack of printouts and folders on his desk: everything he could gather, steal, and extort about the Happy Acres incident. That stack of folders had cost him dearly: field reports from a bent GOC agent. The best information his Serpent's Hand contacts could get him. A pet senator who had given him access to the UIU's database in exchange for certain favors.
Knowledge was power. So was money. They could be exchanged for each other if you knew how, and Carter was an expert. He'd spent much of the latter two to gain as much knowledge as he'd found. Now that he had it, it was time to put it to work.
He picked up the first folder and started reading.
One wall of Carter's office was a corkboard. He didn't trust computers for this kind of work. He liked something he could touch. Over the next few days, it became covered in an increasingly intricate pattern of papers, photographs, pins, colored strings, scrawled notes. One by one, he eliminated the usual suspects. The GOC was otherwise occupied. The Insurgency was incapable of operating so openly in the area by reason of blood. He'd have heard about any Hand members planning such an attack, and besides, there were no Ways nearby…
There was one index card left uncrossed when Carter finished his analysis.
Now, there was an interesting thought. It was rather byzantine, but the Overseers were so enamored of playing games, it took Dark to keep it all straight. They could have… They might have…
No. He knew every word that had passed between the Overseers for the past two weeks. He would have known if they were up to this. A rogue operative? Unlikely. The Overseers kept a close eye on their assets. Had done so ever since…
… ever since…
"Jennifer," Carter said to the woman-shaped thing that manned his desk. "Fetch me our reports on the Foundation from… Mmm. Make it 2006. September."
"Yes, Mister Carter." There was a tinny quality to her voice. He'd have to talk to R&D about that before they announced the line for their customers.
The secretary passed him an old, dog-eared file that smelled of dust and old paper. He saw the name he was looking for on the first page.
Carter put down the file and picked up the phone. His hand didn't shake, but the veins on the back of it stood out, and there was a slight twitch in his left eye. He dialed.
"Carter!" Marshall's voice was as smooth and practiced as Four. "I was just talking to the Goldbergs. What can I do for you?"
"Trouble," Carter said.
"Oh, it can't be too bad, not with you handling it. How bad is it?"
There was silence on the other end. Then, "Shit."
"I need a meeting of the entire board as quickly as possible," Carter said. "How quickly can you settle with the families?"
"I can be there first thing in the morning," Marshall said.
"That will be fine." No need to contact Dark. Dark would arrive without needing to be asked. Carter rubbed his back where the tubes had, until recently, connected him with… Jenkins? Franklin? No, it had been Cho. No matter. Gone now. Good riddance.
Carter put the phone down, picked up the red marker and drew a broad slash through the index card marked "FOUNDATION". He picked up an index card and pinned it over that card.
He wrote a single word on that card.
After a little more consideration, Carter added a question mark.
He hoped he was wrong. He really did.
Otherwise, this was going to be very bad for business.