Doctor Braddock nervously walked to the table where the guard guided him. He'd never been in such an elegant club before, and felt terribly out of place. His clothing was rumpled, his long black hair mussed, and his eyes red.
"Thank you for meeting me on such short notice," he said as he sat down.
"No trouble at all, sir. Thank you for your time," said the suave man in the business suit, as he shook Braddock's hand. He smiled broadly, showing off perfect teeth. He was in stark contrast with the researcher, not a single hair on his wavy blond coiffure out of place.
"I've… thought about your offer," said Braddock.
"And?" The other man raised a neat, trimmed eyebrow.
"Well…" Braddock trailed off. "I think I'd like more information. Your e-mail was, well, a bit vague."
"Of course," the man said. "Now, we're not asking a lot. Certainly nothing your… employer will miss. Just a few knick-knacks. Odds and ends. We'd be willing to pay handsomely."
"I think I could do that," Braddock said slowly. "I need money awfully badly, Mister..?"
"I think it's best if we keep things on a first-name basis, Jim," the man said smoothly. "Call me Jeremy."
Braddock nodded. He was already feeling much more at ease. "All right, Jeremy. Ah, did you bring any money with you?"
"Of course, of course. Just a little up front, to help with those little costs." Jeremy handed Braddock an envelope. "My… associates understand how sometimes, the cards just aren't with you."
"Thank you, thank you so much," Braddock said, nearly crying.
"There, there," Jeremy said, patting him on the shoulder. "Now it's time for drinks. What's your pleasure? I'm buying."
Braddock made his way to the familiar table. This was his fourth visit. The second time he'd brought something with him.
"Ah, Jim, glad you could join me. Please, sit." Jeremy stood to shake his hand. "Tell me, how are the races?"
"Not bad. I won a hundred dollars yesterday," Braddock said as he sat down, failing to mention that he'd lost twice that in other bets.
"Glad to hear it, glad to hear it. Now, what have you got for us this time?" Jeremy leaned forward in his seat expectantly.
Braddock looked around nervously.
"Don't worry, Jim. We're among friends." Jeremy touched Braddock's hand reassuringly.
"All right." Braddock reached into his suitcase. He pulled out a leather jacket. "I reported this destroyed this morning. I was supposed to put it in the incinerator. But don't worry. I got a substitute. No one knows it's gone."
"That's great, Jim. Very clever," said Jeremy. "Now, what does it do?"
"Wearing this lets you breathe underwater," he explained. "Just make sure it's zipped up all the way."
"That's great, Jim," said Jeremy. "I know someone who'd just love something like this." Jeremy put it into a much fancier leather briefcase. "And here's your money, as promised." He pulled out the now-familiar envelope. Braddock took it from his hands eagerly, and took a swift intake of breath when he looked inside.
"This means a lot to me," Braddock said as they shook hands again.
"I know," Jeremy said. "I know."
It had been eight years since Braddock had met Jeremy, and he'd changed a great deal in that time. He had a higher-paying position in the Foundation now, and his graying hair lent him an air of authority he'd lacked. And yet, the money still seemed to slip away. At least he had a good, steady, secondary source of money.
"Jim!" Jeremy gave him a warm handshake. He looked the same as he had eight years ago.
They sat down at the club's bar. Braddock pulled out his latest acquisition.
It was a black sleep mask, kept sealed in a plastic baggy.
"Looks interesting," Jeremy said. "What does this one do?"
"Ah. Yes." Braddock coughed. "When worn, the wearer experiences extremely, well, erotic dreams. Full sensory perception. But of rather… kinky sorts of sex."
"I see." Jeremy's blue eyes lit up with humor. "Have you tried it out?"
"I… Yes. Once." Braddock's cheesed flushed. "I… found it more disorienting than anything else. But the D-Cla— That is, the test subjects found it rather addictive after a time."
"Hmm. Yes, I think this will do nicely. Well done, Jim." Jeremy took the plastic baggy from Braddock and placed it into a velvet-lined box.
"I should warn you. If it's used long enough, the subjects… Well, they die." Braddock looked even more embarrassed.
"How extraordinary. What of?" Jeremy asked.
"Er, auto-erotic asphyxiation," Braddock said, his blush crawling up his face.
"Well, I'll be sure that it doesn't get put into the, ah, wrong hands," Jeremy said.
"Getting it wasn't easy," said Braddock, a trifle glumly. "They wanted to test it. I had to make it look like it was destroyed in an accident."
"Now, Jim," Jeremy said, a finger raised, "you know as well as I do that the old trinkets of yesterday just aren't in as demand with my clients as they used to be. I just couldn't pay you as much for those as I could in the old days."
Braddock winced. He couldn't afford to take a cut in payment. Not at this point. Not with his debts. "Right. Right."
"Hey, you're a pro, Jim. I'm sure you can handle just about anything, right?" Jeremy gave him one of those brilliant smiles.
"Right," Braddock said, his confidence returning. There were times he almost felt like a secret agent, going undercover. Just call him 005.
"Here's your payment. I think you'll find it's more than sufficient." Jeremy handed him the customary envelope.
Braddock didn't bother opening it. Jeremy had never once failed to pay him enough once satisfied. Not in the entire time Braddock had known him.
They shook hands, and Braddock hurried out. There was just time to place a bet.
Braddock walked into the club, escorted by a frightened young woman with mousy brown hair. He cooed reassuring words to her, and she calmed down. Certainly, these days Braddock presented a rather harmless front, with his balding pate and prematurely lined face. Not even forty, and he was already starting to look old. He'd always hoped he'd age gracefully, like his father. No such luck.
Ah well. No use griping about the inevitable. "Right this way, my dear," he said, in a fatherly tone.
"Ah, Jim, there you are. And who's this enchanting specimen?" Jeremy asked.
"This is Renee," Braddock said. "She's the girl I told you about." Renee was an amazing discovery. By chance, he'd found the order for her capture, and managed to find her before the MTF did. It had been a risk, but Jeremy had been so blasted picky these days.
He didn't seem disappointed today, however. "Enchanté," he said, bowing gallantly, taking her hand lightly.
Renee blushed, and smiled shyly. She looked more relaxed than she'd been since Braddock had found her the day before. "Thank you," she said softly.
"Renee has a special gift," Braddock said. "She can regenerate parts of herself. Quite quickly, too, I'm given to understand." That was an understatement. In the incident that had brought her to the Foundation's attention, she'd lost her arm in a car accident. It had grown back by the time they got her to the hospital. The official story was that the paramedics had simply made a mistake, but Braddock knew better. He'd even been able to experiment a little, with Renee's permission. Just a few tests, with full anesthesia.
"Oh, Mr. Carter's going to love you," Jeremy said. He turned back to Braddock. "And here you go, Jim. Come back in a week. I think you've earned a bonus."
"What's going on, Doctor?" Renee asked, suddenly suspicious.
"Just a little business between us," Jeremy said smoothly. "Nothing to worry about." He stood, and held out his arm to her. "Why don't we just go arrange transportation for you? Jim, order whatever you like, and put it on my tab. I'll see you next week."
Braddock nodded as he watched them leave. He felt a little… troubled by the affair. He'd given them plenty of objects in the past fifteen years, some of them almost alive, but this was the first time he'd ever sold a person.
Well, she was better off in their hands than in the Foundation's. Probably. Anyway, what was he supposed to do? His funds were going dry. He just needed a little more, so he could make that big win…
Braddock stumbled into the club, wheezing for breath. He cursed his body, letting itself become so old, so young. "Jeremy! Where are you?"
The club was deserted. The lights were turned off, the decor removed. Even the furniture was gone. All except for one familiar table. Jeremy seemed to be the sole occupant of the building. "What can I do for you?" he asked politely.
"They know!" Braddock said, miserably. "I don't know how, but they found out!"
"I was afraid something like this would happen," Jeremy said. He was as smooth as ever, but there was something… distant about him. "You shouldn't have tried siphoning that money from their accounts."
Braddock did a double take. "How did you know about that?"
"We've watched your finances for a long time, Jim. How do you think we found you?" he asked. "Knew about your debts? When we saw all that money appear in your account, well, it had to come from somewhere. Where else could you have gotten it?"
"What am I going to do?" Braddock asked. "Jeremy, you've got to help me."
Jeremy sighed, and placed a hand on Braddock's shoulder. However, rather than reassure, it simply pushed him down. He felt the strength leave his legs, and he collapsed to his knees. "I'm afraid not, Jim. You've become a liability to us. You're just no use to us now. At this point, you're just a loose end. I'll leave it to your friends to clean you up. I'm sure you gave them a nice, clear trail to follow."
"Jeremy! You can't do this," Braddock whimpered, unable to rise. "Jeremy!"
"Sorry, Jim. But hey, thanks for your time." He turned away, paused, and turned back. "Oh, and Jim? It's Mister Marshall. Good day."