Trade War
rating: +10+x
Bridge & Wells' Secure Courier Services Tracking #: 5137699-UE
Delivery Class: Ultra-Express Shipped: 05/07/2053 Predicted Arrival: 04/07/2053
Recipient: Harold Pearce-Rauting VI Payment Status: Prepaid Handler: G-9 Specialist Cotes

Grace Cotes blew a few strands of sickly-blonde hair out of her eyes and looked at the assignment slip again. She was behind schedule for the first time in years. Only behind by a few minutes, as night began to roll over into morning, but behind all the same. She had been on pace to reach Pearce-Rauting before he vanished into the lavish gala, but an incident involving guard dogs and a trampoline waylaid her long enough to throw off the whole carefully-arranged plan. Now she was left perched in the upper branches of an ancient elm, gazing into the shining windows of a Gothic mansion and nursing a blinding headache.

"It's not like I can go barging in without an invitation or anything. Especially not dressed like this," she muttered to herself, voice scratching unpleasantly. The gray polo, khaki shorts, and bulky pistol ensemble was hardly fancy party attire.

The radiance lurking inside the back of her skull made its disagreement known with a bright flare, leaving a throbbing ache everywhere it illuminated. Grace rubbed her temples and watched a black limousine smoothly slink through front gates, engine no louder than a purr. It disgorged a group of men in evening suits, and one in a flowing robe, onto the marble steps of the massive manor.

"I can just wait for him to come out. He'll probably spend an hour or two with clients and move on. It's no big deal."

The light flared again, searing tendrils tracing the grooves of her brain. Someone had paid quite a bit for the fastest delivery possible, after all.

"Okay, ow, okay! The customer's always right and all that." Grace popped one last aspirin into her mouth, swallowed hard, and jumped from the perch. It was the kind of fall that would shatter bones, grass below or not, and more than the ones in her legs if she landed wrong. If her skull split open, would light start leaking out?

Her landing on the checkerboard tile floor failed to shatter anything, bone or otherwise. She looked across the large bathroom once, then back again. It was unlikely she would have ended up here if anyone was watching, but better safe than sorry. Especially with how hard it was to apologize for trespassing with a loaded gun. A few splashes of cold water from the sink were enough to ward off yawns for a while longer, and a mouthful of it washed down a pill stolen from the medicine cabinet. This one was nothing like what she had been carrying, of course. This was luxury aspirin. Designer aspirin, even. It didn't help anyway, but there probably wasn't anything that would help in her current state. Maybe that was the point of the light's caresses.

After that, there was nothing left to do but draw her pistol, take a deep breath, and pull open the door to the bathroom closet. She stepped out into a dimly-lit hallway, walls lined with dour paintings and locked doors, except for one at the far end. That one was already cracked open, leaking exotic aromas, wafting music, and grating laughter. Burning reminders of her delivery still alight inside her head, Grace walked through. Everyone inside the grand ballroom was very old, or very drunk. Nothing to complicate her job. She walked further in and fired three times into the high ceiling, shots echoing across tall pillars and grotesque statuary.

"Bring me Harold Pearce-Rauting, and nobody has to die!"

Harold Rauting, who had never felt any love for his father's contribution to his name, was a creature of disdain. Others disdained him, certainly. They called him a bloodsucker behind his back, a tick feasting away at family fortunes with honeyed words and tightly worded documents. He disdained them in turn. The nouveau riche who were impressed by the world's basest oddities deserved nothing better. Harold had dealt with men and women of true character before the restructuring, a fact that never ceased to cast his current customers in poor light.

Most of all, Harold brimmed with disdain for himself. How else could he feel, peddling tiny wonders off as if they were miracles worth reverence? In his life, he had seen portals to other worlds, messages from the future, and the remains of creatures that could only be called gods. Back when he was still just an assistant to the late Ms. Marshall, he met the Devil itself. And now what? He sold mewling statues to football stars and withering amulets to pop starlets. Exclusivity had meant something once, beyond paying a hefty membership fee. It was a joke at best now, and not a funny one at that.

"Harry, just the man I've been looking for!" said a man with an unpleasantly white smile and too-tight skin. His name wasn't coming to mind, but a list of purchases was. Antique rifles, odd taxidermy, unfortunate pleasures. "I was just, like right this second, telling my cousin here how he had to sign up before your next party. Got any forms for that on you?"

"Just call this number," he said, passing a crisp black business card to the cousin, who had clearly rented his suit. "Our next event will be on the 13th."

"Great! Excellent! You're the best." Unsurprisingly, Harold felt nowhere near the best. His gut was objecting to something, and it certainly wasn't the slow drizzle of alcohol.

These galas were inevitably miserable. Each was big enough that his attendance was officially expected, small enough that he could never avoid anyone, and insistent on serving absurdly tiny flutes of Champagne. Perhaps it was finally time to retire to the company island and enjoy what he had earned over a lifetime of labor. Even so, this night would have to be endured first. He soon found himself cornered by a series of pleased customers, each wanting to express inordinate joy at their tiny, mundane mysteries.

"And I talk to the mirror every day. The wife thinks I'm crazy, but you wouldn't believe-"

"To be honest, I think it's working even better than they said during the auction. Why, the other day this woman-"

"I can't help but feel like a new man after each bleeding, but the damn thing's doubled in size already! When did you say-"

The guests all winced at once as gunshots rang out across the room. Harold might have called the crisp cracks refreshing compared to the endless droning of vapid conversations were his own safety not suddenly in question. The source of the noise was obvious, the out of place woman that everyone was busy recoiling from.

"Bring me Harold Pearce-Rauting, and nobody has to die!" Her voice carried easily over the room of lowered heads.

A braver man, or a more compassionate one, would have stood up and announced himself immediately. A man more dedicated to his current business partners would have thought about how well such action would reflect on them. Harold was not another man though, and was occupied wondering when security would arrive to gun down the deranged woman, who immediately fired another two shots upwards.

"I'm going to count to ten, and then people will start dying," she screamed hoarsely. "One! Two! Three!"

"Here! He's over here!" shouted a woman he had been talking to just a moment before. A less disdainful man would have inspired more loyalty, but Harold was himself.

This sort of retirement might not be so bad in the end, at least when compared to a slow decline surrounded by fading opulence. He stood straight, making sure to note the customers scurrying wordlessly out of his path, and walked to meet the gunwoman. Everything could have been resolved if all the millionaires and billionaires had simply rushed at her, but no one made a fortune without letting others take their falls. He adjusted his glasses, gave a slight bow out of habit, and said the words that encapsulated his entire life.

"Harold Pearce-Rauting VI, at your service."

"Good, good."

"If you're hoping for a ransom, my associates will not negotiate."

"Nah, I've just got a delivery for you. Sign here."

Harold's hands were were mercifully steady as he took the clipboard from her, shock or alcohol stilling their usual tremble. The form on it was standard, confirming that he was indeed himself, that he was authorized to receive delivery on his own behalf, that he accepted full responsibility for the package, and that he was not currently under duress. The last point was questionable, but he signed anyway, handwriting cleaner than it had been in years. Harold offered the clipboard back to the woman, and she grabbed his wrist.

The room erupted in fierce, searing, consuming light. It was like staring into a wildfire, no, into the sun itself. The white light poured through his eyelids, flooded down his optic nerves, and engulfed everything that he was. It was not a painful experience, not in the way he knew pain, nor was it pleasurable in any way he could understand. The sunlight did not fulfill, or enhance, or respect. It bared everything inside him, good and bad, treasured and disdained, and it cared not for any of them.






The bright oblivion receded, pooling in some unseen place inside him. Harold could still feel it throbbing gently, like the loose grasp of a lover's hand. He could feel the words it had imparted too, each seared into him in a way that may never heal. Even so, he had somehow endured. He had survived.

The same could not be said of the party's other guests. Charred skeletons were the only remnants of most of them, a few still clad in bits of smoking flesh and melted jewelry. An eventful end for a group of deeply, profoundly uneventful people. A light rain began to fall though the gaping hole in the roof, extinguishing what few embers were still burning around him. Harold could hear sirens within earshot already, firetrucks and ambulances no doubt followed closely by agents of Salvage Collection & Processing or Superior Castle Protection.

Slipping away from them all was a pleasant return to better days, even if his joints creaked the whole way. A precursor to a pleasant return of a different sort and scale.

The Bridge & Wells executive offices were nearly empty, but that was nothing new. Why would anyone important want to spend their time surrounded by beige carpets, grey walls, and bad florescents when they could curl up in some cozy den instead? Grace slipped past the dozing receptionist without a word, taking three quick rights down narrow corridors to reach the owner's office. She opened the door without knocking and stepped inside.

The features of the room hadn't changed much since when she played there as a child. A swamp distributed across several large planters. A snow globe containing the Howling Pillar. A series of unidentifiable stains in the carpet. Of course, there was also still a spindly, scaled creature folded up behind the long wooden desk, manifold arms clattering away at a series of keyboards, manifold eyes focusing on a hundred different things.

"Great-Uncle, hey," said Grace, crumpling up her assignment slip and tossing it into the trash.

It opened its five-part maw and chittered loudly at her, exposing a seemingly infinite array of teeth.

"I know, I know. It won't happen again."

The chittering repeated, two series of tones undulating in opposite patterns.

"I'm sure he'll be satisfied anyway. I wasn't that late."

A third pattern joined the first two, weaving in and out of the audible spectrum. Several of the larger orange eyes came to focus squarely on her.

"Nah, but I was carrying it around long enough to know he'll have plenty of work for us. I'll be ready."

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