The smoking lounge was quiet for a Saturday. Doctor Rathra tried not to fidget, fighting a losing battle with his own nerves. He'd been in this room a dozen times already, getting in to the good graces of the three men sitting before him. They conversed pleasantly, occasionally asking Doctor Rathra for a response, or including him in the conversation.
They were surrounded by other tables, though none of them were occupied. This room had been cleared out especially to do business between the four of them. Soft music played over the phonograph in the corner, a soprano warbling out the bars of an aria.
In front of the group lay a table, laden with all manner of foodstuffs, and various illicit substances that "enhanced the evening" as his dinner companions liked to put it. The last item on the table was a plain leather collar, with a small tag on the front. There was some form of script on the tag, though Doctor Rathra didn't recognize it.
He glanced nervously at the three men across from him, doing his best to keep his face from betraying his intention. Each of the men were wildly different from the others, and he couldn't have described them if he was put to it. There was something about them that eluded description.
Doctor Rathra cleared his throat, and tried to affect a casual inflection to his voice. His stutter was coming back with a vengeance, but he forced his voice to comply with his brain. "Tell me again how it works, precisely?" He gestured vaguely to the collar in front of them.
The smallest of the men in front of him, Carter, if he was pressed to come up with a name, spoke. "It's a subjugation collar, dear boy. How it works is a mystery for those negro spirit women to figure out. What it does is what's the ticket. Anyone wearing this is under your thrall. Anything you say, they do, without question, without hesitation."
The slightly overweight gentleman to his left chortled for a moment, before speaking up, "Not that any of us have problems being obeyed, eh?" The other two laughed along with him for several moments, as if this was the funniest thing in the world. Doctor Rathra smiled genially with the men, trying not to shake visibly. The arrogance coming off of these men was as palpable as a blanket, but he wouldn't dare act against them here.
Instead, Doctor Rathra just nodded, and picked up the collar, spinning it in his fingers, in the smooth practiced motions he'd been rehearsing for months as part of his cover for this acquisition. Weeks, months of preparations, smoothing out his speech, shoring up his movements, all to acquire the object in front of him.
They'd already come up with a name for it. It would be Object-227. Procedures were already being drawn up, and several other doctors were eagerly waiting to figure out precisely how it worked. Most assuredly the Administrator would want it locked down, and away from these people as soon as possible.
His smile widened, and he tried to put out a sense of easy confidence. It wasn't very easy of course. "There's this darling little girl that one of my associates loves so dearly. If you saw the lips on this little wench, you'd understand why I require this item." He laughed quietly, forcing it out. To his imminent disgust, the other men just nodded along with him.
"Oh, they're always so pretty when they're young aren't they?" This one was gaunt, and tall. Dark, they called him. They always called each other by honorifics, never by name. Safety, I guess.
The third one, who seemed slightly warier then the others, leaned forward, and steepled his fingers. "I don't think I ever caught your name, actually, mister…?" he let his voice trail off, the unspoken question hanging in the air.
Doctor Rathra cleared his throat once more, a nervous tic he couldn't quite suppress. "Doctor actually. Doctor Anthony Black. I'm a lecturer at Oxford next year, and I couldn't have this little tart slip through my fingers."
The man stared straight in to his eyes, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "We don't see too many doctors come through our esteemed club's doors lately. May I ask what you're a doctor of?"
Doctor Rathra's palms started to sweat, and his free hand touched the hilt of the little holdout dagger in his sleeve as he answered, "Physical Sciences. I'm very interested, especially in electricity."
The portly man chortled again, and slapped Mister Dark on the back, whom reacted with a glare. "Come now, I doubt someone who's engaged in such merriment as he over the past few weeks would be with that group."
Mister Dark sat back, and waved a hand in a dismissive fashion. "I suppose you're correct Mister Marshall. I apologize, Doctor Black." He looked up at the door, almost expectantly, then fixed his gaze back on Doctor Rathra. "May I ask who referred you to our…acquisition department?"
Doctor Rathra calmed down significantly, as the questions returned to the purview of his cover story. "Ahh, yes. Mister Braeburn recommended I speak with you gentlemen if I had any sort of issues that I couldn't solve through…ordinary means, shall we say."
Mister Marshall made a soft clucking noise with his tongue. "Shame what happened to Mister Braeburn. I suppose that's what you get for challenging a superior player to a game of darts when the stakes are that high, eh?"
Doctor Rathra smoothly pulled out his pocket watch, doing his best to appear dismissive. "Oh bother. I hadn't realized the time had gotten away from me quite so much. Time flies when
you're in good company, I suppose. Now, as to your payment. I didn't bring the sum with me yet, but if you'll be so kind—"
Mister Carter held up a hand, and grinned at Doctor Rathra with a toothy smile that would have made a harpy shudder, "Now now, Doctor. This is a gentlemen's club. Books are books, and can be settled whenever. It's only money after all. Take your trinket now, enjoy the attentions of this little wench. Bring her back here if you feel so inclined."
Doctor Rathra tried to put on a rakish smile, and nodded. "Now that would be some entertainment." He rose from his seat, and bowed slightly to each of the other men. "Farewell gentlemen, and I hope you have a pleasant evening."
He picked up the collar from the table, and started to walk away, doing his damnedest not to sprint to the door.
Mister Carter spoke up, before he could take two steps, however. "Doctor Rathra? Your hat?"
He turned, and accepted his hat. He realized his mistake, just as he touched the brim of the hat. His eyes went wide, and he expected to be shot at any second. Mister Carter only smiled wider.
"Say hello to old Ezra for me, will you?" Mister Carter said, a predatory grin settling on his face.
Doctor Rathra backed straight up, and this time, did sprint directly for the door. His thoughts were racing through his head. They knew. Oh god, they knew the whole time, and now I'm going to die.
He bounded out in to the dreary London fog, and disappeared in to the mist. Mister Marshall sipped his scotch, and let out a satisfied sound under his breath. "Right again, Mister Dark."
Mister Dark sat down, and fingered the handle of his sword cane. "Thank you Mister Marshall. Mister Carter, did you get down the name of his Alias?"
Mister Carter cocked his head to one side, and scratched a pen across a pad of paper. "Anthony Black. We'll run it down for any associates. Thank you for the idea, Mister Dark."
Doctor Rathra eventually came to a stop, gasping for breath, leaning against a building. He couldn't believe he'd gotten away with his life. He rounded the corner of the building, and stepped on to the long pier.
At the end of the last dock, there was a ship moored, a single light betraying its presence in the darkness. Doctor Rathra stepped quickly up the gangplank, and knocked twice on the cabin door.
A voice called out from the darkness, "What do you wish?"
Doctor Rathra said quietly, "To secure that which could harm our world, to contain that which we can't allow to be free, and to protect the world from anything that would undo it."
The door opened, and Doctor Rathra shuffled inside quickly. Several men sat around the cabin, and three sat around a table in the middle of the room. Doctor Rathra stepped up to the table, and lay the collar in front of them.
"Object-227 acquired. Unfortunately, they already knew who I was. They identified me by name." Doctor Rathra stood there in silence, waiting for a response from some of the most powerful men in the world.
"Excellent work, Rathra. Don't worry about the cover story. This was the last object we were going to acquire in the near future from that group, regardless. They've started to detect a pattern in our accounts," said the smaller gentlemen sitting at the head of the table.
"There…is something else sir. They knew about us. They told me to say hello to Ezra. Whatever that meant."
The man at the head of the table sat up straight, and sighed. "I see. So they know then. We set sail at dawn for the new world."
Every face in the cabin was turned towards the man at the head of the table. He was only known to them as The Administrator. Doctor Rathra spoke up first, "Sir, is there something wrong?"
The Administrator smiled slightly, and rested his chin on one hand. "No. Everything is going exactly as I imagined it would."