"Wait in the car. I've got this one," Harken said.
Kramer fixed him with a cold, hard gaze from her oscilloscope-green eyes. "I can't back you up from out here," she said.
"If I need your brand of backup, it means that I've fucked up badly enough that getting killed would be preferable to telling the O5's what happened. Wait in the damn car. I'll be back in half an hour."
Kramer turned away from him and looked out the passenger side window at her reflection in side of the burgundy-red minivan in the next parking space over. Her internal cybernetics whirred and clicked as she moved. Fingers with too many joints flexed and relaxed, inch-long razor-edged blades snapping in and out from under her fingertips. She looked like a tensing cat getting ready to spring. She always did.
Harken liked Kramer, he really did, but his partner and fellow agent was a hammer who saw everything around her as a nail. Some situations, like this one, needed a little more finesse. Thankfully, finesse was what he did. "Don't worry about it," he said. "This should be simple."
A man in a dark blue uniform, wearing a waist-length cape, opened the front door for him as he approached the front door of the hotel. Harken strode past him straight to the elevators, showed the bellman the black card with the gold lettering and the fractal pattern along the edges. The bellman nodded and touched a control on the sixth elevator, the one that never operated except for a very select few.
Though the hotel had thirty floors, there were only two buttons in this elevator. He pressed the top button and checked his pockets for his smokes. They were still there. Thus reassured, he leaned back against the wall and whistled a jaunty tune as the elevator headed to the thirty-first floor.
The elevator doors opened, and Harken was faced with a massive man with biceps the size of footballs, who looked like he could pop a man's head like a pimple. The giant waved a scanning wand over the agent's body, frowned when the wand beeped. Harken very carefully reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his Zippo. "Just this," he said, flipping the lighter open and igniting the flame. "For my smokes."
The giant shook his head and held out a small silver tray. Harken nodded and left his lighter behind. "I'll want it back on my way out," he said, with a small smile. The giant seemed unamused.
Past the doors was a dining room with white walls and marble-tiled floors. In the dining room was a cadaverously slender man dressed entirely in white. He held a silver fork and knife in his delicately fingered hands, and he was cutting into a grilled chicken breast: small, precise pieces which he transferred to his mouth and chewed with all the delicacy of a ballet dancer. There was a crystal goblet in front of him which, Harken knew, contained distilled water. Distilled water was the only thing Mister Cutridge ever drank.
"Agent Harken," Cutridge said, as he put down his knife and fork and patted his lips with a silk napkin. "I was wondering when I would see you again."
"Cutridge," Harken said. He flopped down into one of the high-backed chairs and pulled out his smokes and a book of matches. "How goes it?"
"It continues as well as can be expected. My division is expecting to acquire some new merchandise in the near future, for which I believe I have your own people to thank."
"Not my division," Harken said, lighting up a cigarette. He took a long drag and blew a big puff of smoke into the air. "No blood off my back. Ask me if I care."
"You may not care about the losses suffered by your company, but I do care about you smoking in my home. I dislike…"
"Oh, bite me, Cutridge. I've had the shittiest week of my entire life. The least you can do is let me have a smoke while we shoot the shit." Harken took another deep drag of his cigarette and blew a smoke ring at Cutridge's face, was gratified to see the man screw up his face trying not to cough at the acrid vapors.
"Very well," Cutridge said, in a brittle, angry voice. "I will allow you to indulge this once. But speak quickly and leave even more quickly. My patience is limited tonight."
"Then I'll make it simple. My guys have taken a hit. A HARD one. Simply put, there's blood in the water, and the sharks are circling. Now, I know you've been looking at a little warehouse downtown filled with all sorts of fun things that could make a certain Mister Cutridge very popular with his higher-ups at Marshall, Carter, and Dark. I know you've mentioned this to said bosses in the past. I want you to show some prudence. Keep your boys at home for this one. Keep quiet. Don't stir up trouble. The artifacts that got loose are fair game. Don't get greedy and try to set loose a few more."
Mister Cutridge was quiet for a long time. "No," he said, curtly.
"Seriously? After all I've done for you? After all the times I've pointed you towards artifacts that could make you a tidy profit?"
"You've pointed me to trinkets that your organization is unwilling to make the effort to secure for themselves. No, Agent Harken, I believe that this time, it is I who am arguing from a position of strength. Your Foundation cannot even protect themselves from a small group of college students with delusions of grandeur. How can they expect to defend against us?"
"Fine," Harken sighed. "In that case, wait three minutes and we'll see who's arguing from a position of strength then."
Harken stubbed his cigarette out onto a tea saucer. "My smokes are laced with a nerve agent. I'm inoculated. You're not. The dose you took should be lethal in minutes."
Cutridge's eyes bulged out, and he leaped up from his chair, knocking it over in his haste. "GUA—"
There was an explosion on the foyer. Harken smiled. "It's amazing how much plastique you can pack into a cigarette lighter when you really try," he reflected.
Cutridge gasped and turned purple, grabbing at his throat and making nasty wheezing noises as Harken leaned over him. The agent pulled a small vial filled with a bright blue liquid from his coat pocket. "Now, there is an antidote," Harken said, "But if you want it, you need to agree to my terms. Stay at home for this one. All right?"
Cutridge nodded. Harken handed the man the vial, and he snapped it open and swallowed the blue liquid in one gulp. Harken smiled and patted him on the face. "See you around, Liam," he said.
He was walking past the still-smouldering body of the big guy (slumped over the reception desk with a surprised look in his lifeless eyes) when he heard the familiar but unpleasant sound of a handgun being cocked behind him. He sighed. "Can't let it go, huh, Liam?" Harken said.
"Can't let you live, not when you've managed to waltz into my home and nearly murder me," Cutridge said, in that cold, reptilian voice. "It's not good for business."
"Yeah, I can see that," Harken muttered. "People might think there was blood in the water."
Cutridge laughed. Harken laughed too.
Cutridge was still laughing when he shit himself and died.
"That was blue Kool-Aid, you asshole," Harken said.
He tried the elevator button and was surprised to see it was still working. "God bless the Otis company," he murmured. The trip down seemed very long. He forced himself to walk out of the hotel at a measured pace.
Kramer was still staring at her reflection in the minivan as he climbed back into the car and started it up. "How did it go?" she asked.
"Not well," Harken said. "It's sad how few businesses are willing to do a little charity work nowadays. Who's next?"
"A couple of agents from the UIU are investigating a warehouse fire. We need to make sure they don't investigate too much."
"Ah, Wolfram and Uecker. Pair of good kids. This should be simple."
The car pulled out of the hotel parking lot and drove off to its next destination.