The box had arrived in Site 17, and been accepted as an object worthy of containment. Its sender had been correct that it could not be opened from the outside, at least, not by them. Nor could they see what was actually inside it. Like any hunt, the best way to appeal to prey was via their hunger or curiosity. The box was an appeal to both.
The trap, however, had sprung too soon. The thing inside, bought and trained at disgusting expense, had proven impatient. Even more, it had also proven unable to see its quarry with as much clarity as they had been led to believe. At least it'd had the sense to slither back in and wait, but their hand had been tipped. Still, he was not a man to throw out a tool, no matter how inappropriate. The time would come again, even if it was not the one they had hoped for.
Mr. Dark tapped a hard nail against his thin teeth, thinking. The greatest opportunity for acquisitions in years, and it was all going tits-up. Their old doll, Kramer, was finally out of the toybox. In the wrong hands, yes, but her random lethality and crippled psyche could still tip against those same hands. That twit Scud had been mopped up, finally. He'd stopped being useful months ago, and the expenditures could now be routed to better purpose, but it still rankled. More troubling, Cutridge had somehow fallen prey to that fat lush Harken at the worst possible time.
Incompetence everywhere. Lack of vision. Even worse, pure profit being flushed down the sewer by the hour. The kumiho had escaped, and none of his people were even looking for it? A gorgeous, deadly creature, able to change form and slaughter at will… what could be done with that lean and hungry spirit once it was properly brought to heel? Recording options alone could cover a good portion of this budget hemorrhage.
Dark's lips curled in a wintery, predatory smile. He played with a pen, doodling blasphemy as he looked over a small spray of photos on his desk. He lifted one, depicting a hulking brute with a bag head, blurry and unaware of the observation… or uncaring. The Bagman had been content to do its own business for some time now, rising from time to time to devil those witless enough to still hold to magic and faith. Rogue, yes, dangerous, yes, but sometimes a mad dog was better then no dog at all. Perhaps others should be made aware of its "usefulness." No need to mention the absolute disdain for authority and control.
Dark hated to travel. He had not enjoyed any of his visits to the States since helping that Anderson fellow set up his factory. Too bad Anderson was gone; HE wouldn’t have let things get out of control like this, or at the bloody least, gleaned a profit from it. He prepared a note to Marshall and Carter. They would not be pleased – they liked Dark out of day-to-day operations as much as he wished to stay out of them, warmly ensconced in The Museum. Still his best "purchase" to date, regardless of the undying animosity of The Library and its parasites. Still, sometimes it was required to stir the ashes, remind everyone of what their damn jobs were. They were here to provide wonders beyond limit for their discerning club members.
It was about bloody time to cause some wonder.
He snatched up a glossy black phone headset, punching numbers and causing a distant phone to ring. Dark sighed, tapping fingers on the smooth dome of a yeti skull. Finally the other end picked up, and he shifted forward, starting to scribble.
"Were you off for a bloody coffee break, Cheryl? So sorry to upset your routine, but I need the New York club notified to have my rooms ready within the hour. I'll be flying out shortly, have Mr. McCreedy ready up a ten-man team for quick action, have Bobby head it up."
"… What? Why the bloody, bloody hell was he committed? … Really? That's tragic, Cheryl, but that's no reason to take him off active roll. Get him loose and cleaned up and over to the club immediately. I'm going to get this goddamn rubbish back on track manually, and I want him right on the point."
"… That's a good girl, Cheryl. Oh, and one more thing, dearie. Call Boomer, and have him blow a little kiss to Agent Harken. He's thumbed his sodding nose at us a bit too much, it's time he knows that we have taken notice."
He hung up, leaning back and looking up to the bust of Caligula over the door. Mr. Dark smiled with true warmth, tapping his lips. That dear boy Boomer… not the sharpest razor in the apple, but a sweet lad all the same. He had the rather useful opinion that anything worth doing was worth doing with massive property damage. Inelegant, yes, but the idea of Harken burning or splattering in his bed was enough to warm even Mr. Dark's pinched heart.
Carter was waiting on the tarmac when Dark's jet landed. Various attendants, along with the New York club director were ranked behind him, every one of them with the same strained, nervous smile. Nothing good ever came from Mr. Dark visiting the States. It immediately put him in poor humor at the best of times, and with things as they were right now…
Carter repressed a shiver as the door slowly opened. Two tiny Asian attendants (identical female twins) scrambled out, carrying a cigar case and a opened umbrella. Next was Dark's longest-running secretary Cheryl, looking harried but still hard as a iron wrecking ball.
And then the puppeteer himself, Mr. Dark, elegantly shabby, like a bitter old owl, snapping at everyone in reach, hitting his attendants with the tip of his cane when they fell so much as a step behind. Staff swarmed to the jet to get his voluminous luggage as Dark snatched up a cigar, the attendant ready with the match almost before he had it in his mouth. He turned, and caught sight of Carter standing at attention. He turned and faced him, a thick cloud of smoke pouring slowly from his nostrils. Carter stiffened, swallowing thickly.
Oh shit, here we go.
Dark crossed in a haze of smoke. Behind him, an unlucky porter dropped a heavy steamer trunk of luggage with a loud crash. "Fire him," Dark said, without breaking stride. Carter felt some of the tension leave him. Dark was in a good mood: the last man to damage one of his possessions had been shot in the head.
All too soon he was there, glaring up at Carter, the thick and oddly spicy smell of his cigars curling around him like strangling hands. "Well, so good to see you, old boy," he said. "The way things have been I'd assumed you were dead."
"It's nice to see you too, Dark. No need to be snide."
"Oh, but I feel there is, my good man. You see, I give you and Marshall all the rope you need, and it seems you've made a noose, put it around your own necks, and are ready to jump off the bloody chair with it. You're letting these bastards run circles around you, and you're ignoring it because everything is all right at the club. Just because the fire hasn't reached the back yard yet doesn't mean it's not still on the way.” He hissed, pulling deeply on his cigar and glaring.
"I understand that Dark, we've just been forced to move a little slower because of the publicity. I have a team-"
"Oh, bugger your team. Who do you have, Finnegan and that twat Logan on it? It is, isn't it? Those two wastes of tissue aren't worth the air they breathe. I've got a ten-man staging now, and I'm putting Bobby on this."
"Bobby?" Carter almost gasped, eyes wide. "Isn't that a little… much? I mean, think of the Thanksgiving incident, I'm not sure if he's comp-"
"Oh sod off, you twit, Bobby's on this now, and I want your fat fingers out of it. A fox girl who can shape-shift into any desire or dalliance is running around free, and you've sat. A woman who can cause or end any sickness is strutting about like a goddamn starlet, and you've twiddled your thumbs. You begged me to be here, Carter, your silence screamed to me again, and I'm going to handle things for you."
"Dark, goddammit, enough wi-"
Dark smiled then, and Carter didn't feel nervous or angry anymore. He was afraid. That was a smile of a man who knew too much about you, who was fumbling your dirty secrets about in his dirty head. Dark slid closer, his cold hand pulling Carter down to look him in the eye, close enough to kiss.
"You called me before, Carter, and I fixed things then too. I've always done right by you, dearie, even if I am a bit… gruff. So tell me, sweetheart, do you have something to say?"
"I asked if you had any opinion to express, Carter."
"… none at all, Mister Dark."
"That's a good lad." Dark released him then, patting his chest. "Have the girls draw a bath for me, I need a cup of coffee and I have to piss." He steamed away in a haze of smoke, throwing the lit cigar at a staff member who he felt was moving too slowly. Carter watched, breathing slowly with effort. Now, win, lose or draw, he'd been benched. Dark was calling the shots now, he'd been pushed aside, like a child who'd been playing in the kitchen. There was no telling what Dark would do now… there was so much to collect.
"This is Kramer."
"Hey, sweetie. Are you still at the store?"
"I am going to punch you in the throat. No, I'm on the way back."
"Can you get me a burger and a cup of coffee? The machine at the hotel doesn't have shit in it."
"Harken, are you drunk?"
"No, no, no… well, maybe, why, do I sound drunk? I was drunk last night I think, does that count?"
"Damn it Harken, you need to be lucid."
"Oh come on, I'm as lucid as I ever am. You were gone for two days, what am I supposed to do to keep amused? A man can only masturbate so much."
"Sweet lord, Harken, sober the hell up fast. If you're like this when I get there, I'm getting a transfer. After I beat you senseless."
"Oh stop… get me food, please? Please? No booze for the rest of the week, I swear."
"It's Saturday, Harken."
"Oh… well, for a while then, OK? I'm really… Kramer, I need to go."
"What? What the hell is going on?"
"There's a fat man with no shirt yelling in the parking lot, and he said my name."
He hung up without looking at the phone, eyes glued to the fat man on the ground floor. The hotel was a big, cheap horseshoe-shaped building on four levels. He'd gone to the third floor on the opposite side to hunt for snacks (and, ideally, medication for his throbbing head), and had an excellent view of his hotel room on the ground floor. The big man with no shirt was standing in front of the door to Harken and Kramer's hotel room. Harken leaned on the railing, squinting in the sun and watching with more amusement then fear.
The big man hammered at the door, then stepped back. He was rather fat, long hair, scraggly beard… he looked like he'd had a rough go at life… missing three fingers on his left hand, too. Something about him rang a bell, somewhere. The fat man laughed, then yelled in a strained voice.
"Wakey Wakey, Harken! Mr. Dark sends his love!"
Mr. Dark? As in MC & D? As in the people-
Why would this slob know about th-
Missing three fingers.
Harken tried to take cover, but the exposed walkways offered nothing for protection. The fat man pressed a small device in his hand, and the entire left side of the hotel vanished in a oily black explosion. The walkway, held up by little more then rusty bolts and hope, dropped with a shrieking crash, taking Harken with it. He screamed, trying to find something soft to hit in the kaleidoscope of concrete and metal. He failed, crashing to the ground flat, most likely cracking several ribs, plus a few other things he would have preferred uncracked.
He lay there, the wind knocked out of him, groaning and slowly trying to turn over. He didn't have to, as a meaty hand grabbed and hauled him up like a side of beef. He was suddenly looking into Boomer's sweaty, giggling face as he gripped Harken's now-bloody shirt. Boomer smiled and giggled more, then smashed his thick, stupid skull into Harken's face. It was like being hit by a car.
"Huh. I knew you'd be here, Harken, I knew it. Mister Dark never tells me wrong, Harken. Do you feel bad, Harken? You look bad, Harken. Huh."
Harken was working on something witty when Boomer's fleshy fist smashed into his cheekbone. He moaned, feeling his eye already starting to swell, ears still ringing from the blast. Boomer slapped him twice. Each hit was like getting hit with a cutting board wrapped in a thin layer of padding.
"Mister Dark wants me to tell you to stop it, Harken. He says that you're being too mean and need to stop it, Harken. You got lucky, but if you keep it up he's gonna kill you dirty and slow, Harken. Huh. Heh. He's so mad at you, Harken. I think I'll kill you, Harken, and make Mister Dark happy with me. OK?"
Boomer followed up this with another fist to his face, then his throat, making Harken gasp and croak, trying to wheeze down breath. Over the ringing in his ears was an even more annoying and lovely sound… sirens. Boomer heard them too, swearing breathlessly as he pounded out a few more meaty hits, finally spitting in his face and knocking his head on the blacktop.
"You have a good day, Harken. Huh. Be seeing you later."
He rose and ran off, leaving Harken pounded and bloody on the ground. It seemed like hours later, but finally someone came and started fussing over him. He could feel the heat from the burning hotel, the throbbing of his own bruised and smashed flesh. Not just beaten, no, but beaten by that giggling retard Boomer. He was almost unsure what hurt more, his ego or his body.
Someone he couldn't see washed his face, swabbing away blood and grime.
"What the hell happened?"
Harken smiled painfully, trying to laugh through pulped ribs.
"Man, I just got here myself."
Kramer drove too fast, looking in the rear-view mirror every few minutes. Harken looked like a man who'd rode inside a cement mixer full of gravel. He moaned occasionally, turning over in his deep, drugged sleep.
She'd seen the explosion just as she pulled off the freeway and realized something had gone wrong. Getting to the hotel wasn't hard: she'd fought the urge to speed there and proceeded to the site at a normal pace. Upon seeing the flashing lights, she'd driven on past. Kramer had parked in an alleyway a mile up the road, waited for more people to respond, readied her FBI credentials and twisted her face to match. After a reasonable delay, she'd threaded her way in, drifting to the ambulances with random flash of ID here and there.
Getting Harken out had been more difficult. She'd been forced to create a distraction. Just a little disconnected heart monitor in another ambulance, enough to make the focus shift. She'd piggy-backed him out through the still-smoking rubble, tossing him into the back seat of her car with as much grace as she could muster.
No way Harken could go to a civvie hospital. Grims was already in the wind, the last thing they needed was another Agent in public hands. Site 46 was close, and had full medical facilities: a bit far, but Harken was tough as a cockroach (despite his near-constant whining). He turned over with a groan, waving a hand feebly. “Jesus, I feel like ass.”
"You don't look much better."
"I'm hurt… aren't you obligated… to be nice… to me?"
Harken hissed in pain and pressed a hand to his forehead "…it was that… tubby bitch… Boomer… Dark's private… dog. Oooh, shit…" Harken rolled over and vomited. There were flecks of blood in it. "He blew the room… moron… thought I… was in it."
"Shut up. We'll be on-site soon."
"How about… we leave the… rich boys… alone… for a bit? Go… fuck around… with the Hand… or the Insurgency… or some shit?"
"Before or after we carve up Boomer like a flabby ham?"
"Oh." Harken's blood-flecked lips curved up into a feral grin. "After… obviously."