“Do I hear five hundred thousand pounds?”
“Thank you…do I hear five fifty?”
“Thank you ma’am…do I hear six hundred?”
“Thank you…six fifty?”
“One million pounds.”
“…t-thank you sir. Do I hear more?”
“Sold, to Mr. McCredie. Thank you so much sir. This next lot…”
The bald man who had just spent an absurd amount of money on a small, somewhat tacky yin-yang medallion rose from his seat and exited the small, lavishly decorated auction room, entering a separate room filled with thick leather chairs, a small but well stocked bar, several men and women in very expensive dress, and a sizeable Christmas tree. The smell of smoke was very noticeable, but not unpleasant as the bald man lit a cigarette to add to the general haze. A short, stocky man in a non-descript black suit walked up, bowing slightly before speaking.
“Sir, I take it that you acquired the…um…”
“Yes, yes…” the bald man said, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Marten, bring the car up for me, and have a valet just load the medallion into the trunk; I don’t want to wait for that ‘secured shipping’ nonsense for weeks. We’ll be going to the airstrip in a bit; I’d like to be at the Paris club by this evening.”
Marten bowed slightly again “Yes, Mr. McCredie. If I may, your recent acquisition may attract unwanted attention. I can have it routed through a service in Bhutan that is excellent in dealing with these matters.”
Mr. McCredie took a long drag on his cigarette, waving his hand again as he started to eye a bottle of aged scotch behind the bar. “Of course, do whatever is necessary, but I want that necklace in Paris by this weekend. Also, have Arthur and Grant ready in Paris when I get there.”
Marten followed Mr. McCredie as he strode up to the bar, acquiring a very good and very expensive glass of scotch with a few gestures to the bartender. Marten bowed and spoke again as Mr. McCredie took his first slow sip. “Will Mrs. McCredie be joining you on this evening’s flight?”
Mr. McCredie’s face twisted with a sour expression as he put down his drink. “No, no…she’s still pouting in her new apartment over my having to work on her birthday…but we’ll soon see to that, won’t we!” He laughed, taking another sip. “Send for her tomorrow morning. If she makes a fuss, say…I don’t know, something romantic or some such. She’s young, and still loves to think of herself as a princess…oh, say that she’ll get to meet royalty, that should shut her up and get her packing.”
Marten moved slightly closer, lowering his voice. “And the…special considerations you asked for have been attended to as well. A local funeral home has offered its services and crematorium for modest compensation as soon as we are in need.”
McCredie scowled at Marten, waving him away as he turned back to his scotch. “Really, is it necessary to inform me of every little step? Go; make things ready, I’ll be leaving here in the hour. Really, I don’t know why I still bother with these Christmas get-togethers, they always end on some sour note…are you still here? I said go!” Marten bowed and quickly walked off, leaving McCredie to his scotch and a drab conversation with member of English parliament.
June McCredie came off the jet in bluster of expensive silk, blond hair, and whining. “This isn’t another one of his stupid little business meetings, is it? I swear, if he drags me all around town to meet a bunch of old, stupid men in suits, I’m going to scream. With all the meetings and social stuff he does, you’d think he’d find time to go to one or two real parties! You know, music and dancing and fancy drinks and all that stuff…not gagging on smoke having to listen to fat old guys talk about pricing strategies and having to act interested.” She hurried off the tarmac and into the reception area of the McCredie’s private airstrip, as Marten directed the unloading of her considerable baggage from the jet.
Later, as her car ambled its way down the busy Paris streets, she continued her monologue, directing it at the back of Marten’s head as he drove. “Really, this is it. I don’t need him, if he’s not going to put some time into our relationship, I don’t know how this is going to work. We’ve been married a year, and we’ve only gone on three vacations, just the two of us. Now all he wants to do is stay at that club of his all day and smoke and drink.” She ended in a huff, crossing her arms and pouting out the window.
Marten smiled, looking in the rear-view mirror. “Ma’am, I’m sure you appreciate his position. Your husband is a powerful man, and need to keep up appearances to maintain his position.”
June huffed again, burying herself more into the leather seats and watching Paris roll by. At a stop, she piped up again, still looking out the window. “Marten…is…is John in trouble? I mean…with the government or anything?”
Marten stiffened a little at the wheel, his smile unfazed. “No ma’am, Mr. McCredie has a quite friendly relationship with parliament, as far as I am aware.”
“Oh,” she sighed, “I was worried…some men came by, asking about him. They said it was about some delivery to India or something…it sounded like he was in trouble.”
Marten smiled and shook his head, ignoring the sweat starting to form on his palms. “I’m sure it’s some kind of mix-up, nothing to worry about.”
She nodded, resting her chin on the edge of the door, looking out the window. “I’m sure…they said something about a foundation or something when they were in the hall…probably just some charity looking for a handout.”
Marten nodded, quietly wiping away a bead of sweat on his forehead as they started forward again. “Yes, that must be it, very good ma’am…”
After dropping June off at a suitably ostentatious hotel to “freshen up” for the evening, Marten worked his way down a network of side streets to the Pairs chapter clubhouse of Marshall, Carter, and Dark Ltd, buried in a mass of hotels and boutiques. After parking in the private underground lot, Marten walked to the elevator, punching in the code for Mr. McCredie’s private room. Almost as soon as the doors opened, he was roughly grabbed and hurled inside by Arthur and Grant, landing in a heap. Lifting his head, he took in the room for a moment, decorated in late Victorian style, except for the oddly out of place steel door on the far wall. Mr. McCredie sat in a huge leather chair, smoking and looking down at Marten with mild amusement. Arthur wrapped a huge hand into Marten’s collar, lifting him back to his feet as Grant took position next to McCredie’s chair.
McCredie spoke, smoke drifting from his mouth. “Foundation agents were at my home yesterday. Care to explain?”
Marten swallowed hard, sweating under McCredie’s lazy but piercing gaze. “Th…they know nothing, sir. If they knew it was you, they would have already raided the club. They are not the police or government; they don’t have to justify anything to anyone. Shooting in the dark is all they can do now.” His voice carried much more confidence then he felt, and he was sharply aware of the gun-shaped lump in Arthur’s jacket pressing into his spine.
McCredie took a long drag on his cigarette, thinking, before waving his hand, causing Arthur to drop him again. “Honestly,” McCredie said, “I believe you. However, we can’t have these things happening again, understand? I pay you bloody well enough; I expect things to be taken care of in the proper fashion. Speaking of which, did you manage to get my darling wife to the hotel in one piece?”
Marten nodded, adjusting his suit. “Yes, she should be here by this evening.”
“Excellent,” spoke McCredie, rubbing his hands together. “We should have this all wrapped up by dinner. Grant, you and Arthur make sure everything is ready for June, will you?” Both huge men nodded, moving back and opening the heavy steel door, given Marten a view of the bare tiled walls and stained concrete floor drain beyond before the door swung shut again. McCredie rose, stubbing out his cigarette out and grinning “Well, let’s give her an hour, and then we’ll get this mess over and done with!”
“Ugh…why do these places always smell like smoke and old people? Why can’t we ever meet at some club or something? God, I really think he goes out of his way to bug me sometimes…” June flipped her hair back in disgust, looking around at the sitting room, her black dress shining with small interwoven crystals. “Why did he want me here even? Aren’t we supposed to be going out for dinner?”
Marten nodded, smiling. “Yes ma’am, and he will be along shortly. In the meantime, he wished for me to give you a small gift on his behalf.” Her eyes immediately lit up, a grin spreading over her face as she squealed happily.
“Really? Where is it? Oooh, I love presents…”
Marten gestured to the steel door, and she hurried over, pulling it open with some effort. “Ugh…what a heavy door…ooh, is that it? It’s…just a yin-yang with a little chain. How is that…what is this place? Arthur? What are you doing…let…let ME GO!” The start of her scream was cut off sharply as Marten gently closed the door.
McCredie reclined in his chair, chuckling slightly as he looked to the small speaker planted on the coffee table before him. “You’re a loon, Harper, you know that don’t you? It takes real dedication to keep playing a game you’re bad at.” A short burst of laughter from the speaker quickly devolved in to a coughing fit, before the voice gave a gasp and replied. “McCredie, you’re not any better then me at the cards, you just cheat better then anyone else at the table. Besides, don’t you still owe me two from that Easter game?”
McCredie scoffed, waving his hand at the speaker as if it could see, his head turning slightly as Marten quietly opened the steel door and strode over to him, the sound of a muffled sob quickly squelched as the door re-closed. Marten leaned down, whispering “Sadness, sir” quietly in to McCredie’s ear, causing the bald man to shake his head, face pinched as if he’d bitten something sour “Oh, lord, no, not at all…that’s a good chap.” McCredie shook his head twice and Marten slipped back behind the steel door, the short, soft thud that came several seconds later muffled by Harper asking about McCredie’s plans for the following evening.
“Going to take the wife out for walkies? You’ve kept her so tight under wraps people are beginning to talk old man. Or perhaps there’s another reason for your social hermitage? Young blood for old bones?” Harper ended with another gale of laughter and coughing, McCredie sighing and placing his hand over his face, even as he sported a slight grin.
“You know how it can be Harper. Just getting her presentable before I go trotting about and making a fool of myself.” He missed Harper’s reply as Marten slid silently up to him again. “Jealousy, sir.” McCredie thought for a moment, before shaking his head again. “No, no…a little green can liven up a woman, but more trouble then it’s worth.”
McCredie turned back, chatting with Harper about tomorrow night’s gala, occasionally broken by Marten stepping out to whisper in to McCredie’s ear, or a louder then normal sound from behind the door. As Harper droned on about his new system for poker, there was a sudden, sharp knock on the steel door, followed by several other, soft thumps. McCredie twisted in his chair, Harper’s disembodied voice all but forgotten as the steel door handle suddenly wrenched open, and a bloody, shrieking banshee lunged from behind it.
McCredie shouted, and attempted to run from the room, hide behind his chair, and strike at the screaming wrath before him, which caused him to succeed only in sending him tripping in to a heap on the floor. The lank, howling form before him ripped the chair aside, bloody blond hair sending a spray of crimson droplets across the room, her yawning mouth drooling a stream of blood and saliva. Lashing out with hands twisted in to talons, she gouged and ripped her way closer to McCredie, who was quickly backing away along the floor, eyes locked on the twitching, screaming horror.
She leapt, and landed at his feet, blood splattering on his face and hands, McCredie giving a cry of revulsion and horror as her arms pulled back to lash and rip against his face. Before the mutilating blow was struck, however, there was a loud, solid thud, much like dropping a melon from a small height. The bloody, screaming thing went silent, her arms frozen a moment, before seeming to drift to her head as if she were under water. Locked in that pose for what seemed a eternity, she suddenly pitched to the side as a sizable block of dark wood connected with her temple, sending her sprawling to the side, her temple visibly dented as blood began to drool over her silent, still face.
Marten stood, panting, behind where the woman had stood, blinking as he looked at a broken chair leg in his hand as if it had somehow magically appeared there. A large man was lumbering his way from the room behind the steel door, hand over his face, which was leaking a great deal of blood. Another man’s feet were just visible through the doorway. They did not appear to be moving. McCredie rose, trembling, and looked between the far room, and the broken, bleeding thing on the floor, mouth working soundlessly.
It was several seconds before he was able to speak, and when he did, it sounded nothing like him. Gone was the bluster, the pompous flash, leaving the hollow, rattling husk of a whisper, emanating from a man who had just seen death, and knew that it missed him dearly. “W-what…what was…” he trailed off, unable to muster the strength to continue, eyes wide with shock. Marten placed the chair leg down on the table, gently, before adjusting his shirt sleeve. “Anger, sir. We were…not expecting the ferocity. Arthur may have lost a eye. I think Grant is dead.”
McCredie nodded, not hearing a word, looking at the twisted, broken body on the floor. He rubbed his face, and looked in renewed horror as his hands came away bloody from the splatter she had sprayed. “Oh…oh god…I…need to go. I need to change, I…I…” he trailed off again, sputtering and going silent as he slowly started to back away from the bloody scene before him. Marten nodded as Arthur stumbled in to a chair, groaning as he continued to hold his face. “Of course sir. The car will be waiting for you, I will attend to things here sir.”
McCredie mumbled a “quite right…very good…” as he stumbled like a sleep walker to the door, glancing back only once, before rushing out the door and down to the car. Marten had been pulling the gun from Arthur’s free hand as the man moaned, blood dripping between his fingers and down his chest. However, it wasn’t that which sent him sprinting to the safety of his car, nor even the broken wrath on the floor. It had been the sight of June, taking two hesitant steps from the small room behind the steel door. June, arms lifeless at her sides, shivering slightly and unheeding of her torn dress or bloody feet. June, who’s eyes had found his for a split second, and shown him a deep tunnel in to a being who’s entire existence had shrunk to a heart beat and expanding lungs.
Much later, Marten called McCredie, to inform him the re-integration had proceeded without incident, and the events of the afternoon had been erased. McCredie replaced the receiver without speaking, mentally screaming that they had bloody well not been erased. Walking to the drawing room, he pulled a large bottle of whiskey and a glass from the bar, before tossing the glass aside with a dull thud and drinking deeply from the bottle. To his credit, he did not finish the bottle, but that was only because of his falling through the floor of wakefulness like a millstone through plywood. There, he slept the sleep of the numbed and horrified, the whiskey clouding and dulling the clawing, shrieking horrors that would swirl on the edges of his awareness for a long time to come.
“Bloody hell old man, why didn't you tell me? She's a vision, no wonder you've been dabbling with hermitage! I doubt I'd have the strength to rejoin society, with that strutting about the house!” Harper clapped McCredie on the back, hunching over with another laughing bout of coughs. McCredie twisted away slightly, still somewhat tired from the night before and not in the best humor. He turned to face the direction of Harper’s comment, wincing slightly at Harper’s loud, rattling cough.
June McCredie stood on the far side of the ballroom, a vision in a simple black dress, her laughter bubbling around the room and drawing admirers like moths to flame. Mr. McCredie had been getting comments all night on his “diamond in the rough”, and those who had previously met her begged to know what had caused the sudden, dramatic shift. Gone was the spoiled little rich girl, to be replaced by a charming, funny (and even a touch flirtations) high society girl. So what if she laughs a little too long, and appears to be about as deep as a soap dish, his fellows said, too much depth can lead to complications.
McCredie could only offer a cheap smile and shrug his shoulders, as he did now with Harper. The coughing man straightened up with a small amount of difficulty, and clapped him again on the back. “Fine, you old tom, you keep your secret. I’m off to the green room for a round and a game, I think I’ve been around you enough for the good luck to rub off!” chuckling slightly, Harper limped off, snatching a drink from a passing tray, and leaving McCredie alone for the first time that evening.
He stood, watching his new wife framed with a ring of admirers, and shivered. Where the others saw the bubbling, fawning beauty, all he could see was a shrieking, bloody horror, screaming and snapping for his flesh. He shuddered, and looked away, catching the eye of Laura DeFoe, who was leaning against the bar. She nodded to him, then smiled, looking away and shaking her head, before turning back and raising her glass, her smile much more coy. McCredie broke in to the first genuine smile of the day, and tipped a imaginary hat to her. A bit older then his normal fair, she was never the less a very handsome woman…
“Honey, I was just talking to your friends, and they wanted to go out for a party tomorrow, just a small group. It sounds like such fun, but I wouldn’t dream of doing anything without you darling!” June gushed, grabbing McCredie’s arm and nuzzling it slightly with her cheek, breaking his revere. He reflexively flinched away, before relaxing a bit, still eyeing her with a degree of suspicion. “June, I’m rather tired, why don’t you go back to the car, Marten will take you home. I’ll be along presently.”
June looked up, her smile never flickering, but her eyes were glassy, and her movements seemed ever so slightly jerky. “Whatever you say my love, I’ll go right away! I’ll be waiting for you when you get home.” Her voice was a lilting tease, and she gave him a gentle poke with her finger before moving away, her dress swishing as she strode across the room. McCredie turned back to the bar, hoping DeFoe had not seen, and was pleased to see her engrossed in conversation with Harper, the old man doubled over in another fit. McCredie straightened his tie a bit and started over to the bar, feeling the thrill of the safari as DeFoe started to turn back to him.
His advance was halted just feet short of his goal by another associate, who took his hand and shook it vigorously, Heaping him with congratulations. He bore it in good humor, as DeFoe was now watching, and he extracted his hand with a smile. “She’s beautiful, I mean, just radiant. I’m stunned, she’s…she’s…” the young man fumbled, and McCredie turned to face DeFoe directly, her smile a promise and a invitation. He took a glass from the bar and raised it to her, his broken wife and the stuttering young man forgotten even has he finished the fumbling sentence.