Aleksander knew there was going to be trouble when the woman pulled up to the airport curb in a cherry-red Porsche convertible, wearing a low-cut blue dress and a flower-patterned silk scarf. "Aleksander Foxx?" she asked.
"Yes, that is me," Aleksander said.
"Andrea S. Adams. I'm your ride." She opened what would have been the hood in a sane, sensible car, revealing a miniscule trunk space mostly filled with an oversized travel bag and two hard-sided plastic cases. "Toss in your bags."
Aleksander complied, then climbed in the front passenger's seat. "This vehicle is hardly inconspicuous," he said.
"Trust me. Where we're going? An economy car would stick out even more."
"I don't suppose you'd like to explain where that is? Dr. Clef was not exactly forthcoming in his mission briefing."
Adams smirked. "I wouldn't dare ruin the surprise."
Aleksander sighed inwardly. This was going to be one of those missions.
"I need you to head down to Arizona and serve as backup for Adams," Clef had said the day before. "Something came up and I need her to take care of something for us."
Aleksander had not yet met his executive officer since joining Lambda-2: she'd been down in the Southwestern United States helping with the investigation of an incident involving a reality bender. What information he could glean about her from others painted a series of contradictory images, but the three most common descriptors were "lethal," "competent," and "attractive."
Aleksander added "unpredictable" to his mental profile of Senior Special Agent Adams. She was, after all, the type of woman who rented a cherry-red Porsche as her travel vehicle.
The hour-long drive through the desert was the very definition of uneventful, and the conversation limited to pleasantries. Their drive ended at the front gate of a luxurious resort hotel inexplicably located in the middle of nowhere. "Do you know where this is?" Adams asked.
Aleksander considered lying, then decided against it. "It is Ruby Mesa Resort," he said. "Run by Marshall and Carter Vacation Enterprises."
"Yup. Not quite as highbrow as Diamond Mountain, but it definitely has its charms."
Ah. Much became clear. "This is about the youth camp incident from May, yes?"
"In a manner of speaking. It seems that someone from your old workplace has some information about that incident they want to pass on to us. But they want to do it discreetly, hence why I'm coming here for a weekend getaway."
"I have been here before," Aleksander pointed out. "They will certainly recognize me."
"They're going to recognize me too. I'm not using an alias." Adams grinned as she pulled up to the valet. "Being one of the agents who helped settle Camp Granada has to be worth a comped weekend getaway, right?"
"Not really," Aleksander said. "That is not the way that Marshall and Carter do things."
"It should at least get me through the door." Adams parked the car and climbed out, wrapping her scarf around her neck. "Besides, having you around kills two birds with one stone. It lets me attend this meeting without taking an entire MTF with me, and it assures your former employers that this isn't a setup for a Foundation raid."
"It isn't?" Aleksander asked.
"Not that I know of," Adams admitted. "This could be some kind of elaborate double-blind. But let's pretend it isn't."
They walked into a hotel lobby decorated in the kind of opulence generally reserved for Pre-French Revolutionary aristocrats and Middle Eastern oil barons. Aleksander was painfully aware that the marble floors alone cost more than most people would make in their entire lives (and that was before one figured in the gold trim and the mother-of-pearl inlays). It was a reminder that the people here didn't live in the same world as the other 99.99% of humanity.
They were greeted by an immaculately dressed man in a three-piece suit, who inclined his perfectly coiffed head politely as they approached the reception desk. "Welcome, Agent Adams. Pleasure to see you again, Mister Foxx," the concierge said. "You will be in the Gilded Suite."
"You know who I am?" Adams asked.
"Ruby Mesa Resorts takes great pride in anticipating the wants of our customers before they even know they want them," the concierge said, smiling mechanically. He passed them a small leather portfolio containing two keycards and a thin brochure for the resort itself. "If you would follow me?"
"Our bags…" Adams began.
"… will be brought to your rooms shortly," the concierge finished. "Again, if you would come this way?"
They followed the concierge out of the lobby and down a hallway lined with luxurious burgundy carpets and walls. Adams ran her fingertips along the wall, frowning. "Silk wallpaper," she said thoughtfully.
"Only the finest for our guests," the concierge said, face still locked in that perfectly practiced smile.
Aleksander smirked. He knew what to expect from a Marshall, Carter, and Dark resort. It was obvious that Adams did not.
They were led into a five-room suite lavishly furnished in dark hardwoods and gold trim. The ceiling chandelier glittered with what looked at first glance to be cut-glass crystals, but were more likely diamonds. The furniture was upholstered in off-white velvet, embroidered with gold thread. Fresh flower arrangements — dark-red orchids and purple lilies with a spray of baby's breath — were arranged in cut-glass vases that rested upon hand-crocheted white lace doilies.
What drew Aleksander's attention, however, was the basket of fruit sitting on the dining table with the cream-colored envelope leaned up against it. He picked up the envelope, read the writing (hand-drawn calligraphy), and handed it to a somewhat stunned-looking Adams. "It's for you."
Adams accepted the letter awkwardly: her eyes kept being drawn to the rich upholstery and luxurious fittings. When she finished reading, some of the enchantment was gone from her expression, replaced by sourness. "Our host regrets not being able to make it to our planned meeting tonight," she reported. "But they will meet with us first thing in the morning and encourage us to enjoy the resort's hospitality for tonight." She rubbed the cream-colored parchment paper with her fingertips, held it up to the light, even took a lighter out of her pocket and heated up a section of what appeared to be (and actually was) blank paper. Finding nothing, she folded it up and tossed it back onto the dining room table. "Looks like we're being given the run-around."
"That seems to be the case," Aleksander said. He picked up one of the fruits: (a small, light green pear with a pale pink blush) and gave it a light sniff. "Comice pears," he said. "Very nice. Not exactly easy to find at this time of year, either."
Adams shook her head. "I don't like being kept waiting."
Aleksander shrugged. "It is what it is. It is not like we have a choice."
"Agreed." Adams sighed. She ran a finger along the polished marble mantelpiece, gazed upwards at the chandelier, then gave Aleksander a wry smile. "Well, as long as we're here in the lap of luxury, we may as well milk it for all its worth. What's for dinner?"
Dinner (as served in the hotel restaurant) was a dry-aged filet mignon (medium rare with white truffle butter) for Adams, and roast lamb (served with a side of grilled summer vegetables) for Aleksander. Aleksander found his meal a bit disappointing: competently made, certainly, and flavorful, but not nearly up to the high standards of a Marshall Carter resort's dining room.
Adams, on the other hand, seemed to be on the verge of rapture. "It just melts under your knife," she said, taking another bite and making a happy cooing sound. "It's like butter."
"Certainly a step up from the Foundation's cafeterias," Aleksander admitted.
"Not that Flames and his minions don't do their best, but they don't exactly have the budget of this place," Adams agreed. She took a sip of her wine: a Cabernet recommended by the Maitre'D (a vintage that Aleksander personally found a bit fussy when paired with red meat). "Damn, that's good," Adams said, then hurriedly added, "Not that I'd want to eat like this all the time, but it's nice to indulge once in a while."
Aleksander picked at the remains of his meal as Adams finished cleaning her plate, sighing in satisfaction as she took the last bite. As if on cue (possibly because it was), a pair of silent waitresses emerged to remove their empty plates. Shortly afterwards, a cut-crystal dish containing a complicated-looking chocolate dessert topped with a light dusting of honest-to-god gold powder was brought out to their table. "Compliments of the chef," the waiter said courteously, before retreating from whence he came.
Adams took one bite of the dessert, closed her eyes, and just moaned. "Oh my God, if this dessert were alive I'd fuck it right here and now."
Aleksander flinched. "Please watch your language," he said. "This is a fine dining establishment."
"A ha!" Adams grinned as she took another bite of the incredibly decadent dessert. "I knew there was something human behind that bland exterior."
"Bland?" Aleksander asked.
"Maybe not… bland. Reserved, maybe. The type of person who lives most of their lives as a living adjunct to another person." Adams ran her spoon along the outside of the dish, took a delicate nibble of the gooey chocolate sauce. "You know, one of the little people. MC&D doesn't exactly encourage an excess of personality in its employees," Adams said.
"Our clientele prefer to live their lives in private, without disturbance," Aleksander said. "I would say that your organization has the opposite problem."
"You think that we encourage too much personality?"
"One need only look at your 'Four Horsemen' to see what your Foundation thinks of 'personality,'" Aleksander said.
"Touché." Adams scraped the last of the chocolate sauce from her dessert bowl and gave a happy little sigh. "Well, that was delicious. I wonder what else there is to do here?"
Of course she packed a swimsuit. And of course it's a black bikini.
Aleksander sat poolside, keeping watch for threats while Adams swam slow, lazy laps back and forth across the otherwise empty pool. At this hour, the place was nearly empty: aside from a couple of guests using the hot tub, he and Adams were the only ones here.
Adams paused in the middle of her endless laps, clinging to the side of the pool. "Not a swimmer?" she asked.
"I am not fond of swimming," Aleksander replied. "Chlorine does not exactly agree with me."
"Huh. I never really thought of that." Adams said. "I guess anti-algal treatments wouldn't go so well with your new lungs."
"It would not kill them, but it would be very unpleasant," Aleksander said. He was unsurprised that the woman knew about the moss-based matrix that had replaced his alveoli. She seemed remarkably well-informed.
"What's it like?" Adams asked. "Having so many alterations shoved into your body?"
"Not too much different from before," Aleksander admitted. "Some things are easier. Other things are harder. You just have to remember that you still are who you were before, inside."
"Guess that could be a double-edged sword." Adams climbed the ladder and emerged from the pool glistening and wet, her mahogany hair plastered to her head and back. "Depends on whether you like who you were before, or not."
"It's not a matter of liking or disliking. It is what it is."
Adams stretched her arms out over her head. "I'm gonna go check out the hot tub."
"So what exactly is it that you do for a living?" the silver-haired man asked. He had his arm around a sprightly young blonde woman less than half his age who spent a lot of time fiddling with a jewel-encrusted smart phone. Neither of them wore swimsuits.
Aleksander kept his eyes off of them, checking the gates and balconies for threats.
"I'm a junior executive for an international firm, specializing in security and acquisitions," Adams said. She had chosen to retain her swimsuit, and sat on the edge of the hot tub with her feet in the bubbling, steaming water.
"Interesting," the man said. He was staring at Adams' scantily clad body like a wolf staring at a steak. (The girl seemed mostly interested in playing Candy Crush Saga.) "My company does some work in that area. Maybe we've worked together in the past, miss… ?"
"Simmons," Adams said. "Veronica Simmons. And I doubt it, Shanghai Consumer Products doesn't have too many interests in America itself."
"Shanghai, huh?" the man said. "You know, I've been meaning to expand into the Chinese market. I think maybe we could work something out?"
"I don't have the authority for that," Adams said. "But if you give me your business card, I can pass it on to my superiors…"
"I think maybe it might be better for you if you presented them something already wrapped up and ready to go with their signatures," the man said, smiling. "It would show some initiative. Maybe open up a career path above that of 'junior executive.'"
"Mmmm," Adams said. Her smile showed a few too many teeth to be friendly. "My bosses do appreciate a little… initiative…"
"Why don't we go to my suite? We could talk a little more over a glass of champagne… or, if you prefer, something a bit harder…"
Aleksander twitched. He took a closer look at the man in the hot tub, shuddered, and cleared his throat twice. Adams glanced over, surprised, then gave the silver-haired man a winsome, yet apologetic smile. "Unfortunately, I need to call it an early night," she said. "I'm meeting with my client early tomorrow morning, and as important as this is, I'll need to be well-rested."
"It won't take long," the man said, smiling disarmingly. His hand clenched around the waist of his young companion, who gave a little squeak of dismay. "Not much longer than half an hour…"
"Good night, sir," Adams said, still smiling. She stood up and slid into the fluffy white bathrobe Aleksander held out for her.
"Perhaps tomorrow night!?" the man called out. "I can buy you a drink…"
Adams gave him a dismissive wave as she and Aleksander walked back into the hotel. "What the hell was that about?" she asked, once they'd stepped into the lobby. "Imminent danger, abort immediately?"
"I remembered where I'd seen that man before." Aleksander said. "He's Richard LaFontaine, a former client. His hobbies are young women, drugs, and surreptitiously dosing young women with drugs."
Adams froze. "Holy shit."
"Indeed," Aleksander said. "Best not to join him for that nightcap."
Adams glanced over her shoulder. Through the tinted glass, she could see the silver-haired man knock the girl's smart phone into the hot tub, saw her shout in dismay, which triggered a loud argument. "You know," Adams said coldly, "maybe I should take him up on that offer of a drink. Switch glasses on him and see how he likes it."
"Wouldn't work. He doses the bottle directly." Aleksander's expression was grim. "He also spent a lot of time and money having himself rendered immune to Rohypnol, among other things."
"Christ on a fucking crutch! How is this asshole not in jail?"
"Enough money can help a lot of things go away."
Adams clenched her hands into tight fists. "Now I'm thinking that he should suffer an unfortunate accident," she said. "Like drowning in a hot tub or falling off a balcony…"
"Don't say that," Aleksander interrupted. "Don't even think that. Not unless you want to become the subject of a charity auction."
"Traditional MC&D punishment for harming another guest on their property. They sell the offender to one of several… specialists… by silent auction. If you're lucky, you'll be picked up by The Inquisitor or The Butcher. If you're very, very unlucky, the Identify Thief."
"He steals your credit card number?"
"And your face… your mind… your past… your family… your friends. And then he resells them to anyone who wants to live your life and can afford his fees."
"Jesus," Adams whispered.
Aleksander shrugged. "The proceeds go to the victim, or their families. Less processing and handling fees."
"But wait," Adams asked. "If he drugged me on MC&D soil, then wouldn't he be put up for auction too?"
"If you could prove you were drugged against your will? His word against yours? One woman did." Aleksander led Adams into the elevator. "LaFontaine's friends pooled their funds and outbid her. Sent him to the Courtesan for ten lashes with a riding crop."
"Son of a bitch," Adams said sourly.
"It is what it is," Aleksander said.
The elevator doors closed.
They returned to their suite, and Adams took a shower. Aleksander took a moment to call home.
The phone picked up on the third ring, and a young girl's voice answered. "Hello?"
"Hi, Lucille," Aleksander said. "This is Daddy."
"Hi, Daddy. How are you?" Lucille asked.
"I'm doing fine. How was your day?"
"It was good. The caterpillars at school turned into butterflies. Painted Lady Butterflies. They're pretty…"
"I bet they are. Guess what Daddy did today?"
"I don't know. Shoot somebody?"
Aleksander frowned. "What makes you think I shoot people, Lucille?"
"I told a kid at school that you were a security guard for a big company, and he said that security guards sometimes shoot people, like with zappers and stuff."
"Yeah. They're little plastic guns that shoot sparks and go 'ZAP' and make people get electrocuted."
Aleksander glanced at his gloves on the table next to him. "Lucille, I do not have a gun like that."
"You don't have a zapper? But what if somebody attacks you?"
Aleksander's gaze now shifted to the two loaded pistols sitting next to the gloves. "… I just punch them really hard."
"Oh. That's good."
"What else did you do?" Aleksander asked. He continued to nod along while his daughter prattled over the phone about her day. He was on the phone for another half-hour after that, telling his daughter a tale of Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house, and finally ending with a round of soft kissy noises into his phone and a promise to bring back a souvenir. Finally, he hung up his phone, sighed with satisfaction, and locked the screen.
"How often do you have to lie to your daughter?"
He looked up and realized Adams was leaning against the mini bar, nibbling on a strawberry. How long she'd been standing there, Aleksander did not know. "I did not lie during that phone call," he said. "I do not carry a zapper gun. I do prefer to punch people. Everything I said was the truth." He put his phone in his pocket, and walked over to join Adams at the mini-bar. "How often do you lie to your kids?"
"I don't have any," Adams said. "Guess I never really had the time. Or found the right father. Or something." She tossed the strawberry stem into the trash and picked up a pear from the fruit basket. "Only ever really heard of one woman who managed to balance this job and a family, and she eventually chose the latter."
"Who was that?"
"Agatha Rights. I never really knew her. She was before my time." Adams sliced off a thin sliver of the pear and ate it off the back of her flick knife. "You're right. This is some damn good fruit. Wonder if I could take some back home for the boys?"
"I'm certain that the concierge could prepare you a gift basket, if you were so inclined."
"Heh. Never would have thought of that. I don't often stay in places that have a concierge," Adams admitted.
"I could tell. It is probably why Mister LaFontaine took an interest in you. There's a… naiveté… about you that marks you as an outsider. Someone who does not move in these social circles."
"I can't say I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth." Adams frowned. "Actually I can't tell you too much about how I grew up at all. Don't remember anything before my first day at the Foundation."
"That is unusual?"
"It's not unheard of. But it usually happens when something about your past life would be a security issue." Adams shrugged. "Whatever it was, I chose to join the Foundation anyway. Probably wasn't that important to me."
"You have never wondered? About the person you were before?"
Adams shrugged again, took another bite of the pear, wiped the juice off her chin. "It's bad enough worrying about the person I am here and now," she said decisively. "How about you? Any regrets about your past?"
Aleksander thought back to a winter cabin filled with blood and the scent of fear, of a smiling man with a shotgun, and a hard, impossibly old woman in bear furs. He remembered the smell of gunpowder, his daughter's first cry and his wife's last breath. "The past… it is what it is," he concluded.
They mulled over this fact together for a few moments.
Aleksander awoke before dawn. Took a shower. Put on his suit. Made sure his gloves were on and charged. Slipped the PAVISE into his inside jacket pocket. Made sure his pistol was loaded and his two extra magazines were in place. Emerged to face the day.
Room service had already arrived with their breakfast: Adams was tucking into an herb omelet with just as much enthusiasm as she had last night's filet mignon. His own platter was still resting under its cover: he removed it and was greeted with the delectable scent of freshly made pancakes. He added some butter and maple syrup and savored his first bite.
"Our contact sent a message with breakfast," Adams said. "We're to meet him in an hour at the Imperial Suite." She took another bite of her omelet. "Seems there was a new development last night. The negotiations might have changed."
"Will that complicate our mission?" Aleksander asked.
"Not by much." Adams used a a piece of toast to wipe up the last bits of egg from her plate, sighed happily, and got up from the table. "I've got to go get dressed," she said. "Take your time."
She retreated into her bedroom as Aleksander enjoyed his breakfast. He'd finished eating and was relaxing with a cup of coffee when the woman re-emerged wearing a slate grey business suit and…
Aleksander carefully put his coffee cup down on the table. Adams' hands were covered in slick black gloves, and her "socks" were made of the same material. It even peeked up over the collar of her blouse, riding up to her chin line. "Is that the combat suit?" he asked.
"Yeah," Adams said. "I'm not going to use the helmet, but it would be stupid to go in there without at least bringing some protection…"
Aleksander raised his hand, interrupting her. "I wish to make a suggestion…"
When the concierge came to collect them for their meeting, he found them sitting on the couch together. The man, perfectly dressed in his immaculate suit and tie in hunter green, and the woman, dressed in a slick black skintight suit with red piping, her face hidden behind a featureless black helmet.
The concierge paused. His brow furrowed and his jaw worked as he struggled to process what he was seeing. His practiced words died on his lips.
The woman stood. She wore a pair of high-heeled black pumps with the combat suit. They clicked loudly as she walked up to him. The concierge gulped as he looked up into his distorted reflection in the featureless, mirror-like surface. "Is it time?" a female voice asked, cold and metallic.
"Mister…" The concierge licked his lips nervously, stood at attention, summoned up all of his inner reserve and smiled. "Your meeting is ready. If madam would please follow me?"
The woman nodded. The man stood, holding a hard-sided locked case in his arms, and followed them into the hallway.
They caught more than one stare as they walked through the lobby. Adams saw Richard LaFontaine sitting alone in the hotel dining room, eating steak and eggs. The silver-haired man stared at them, slack-jawed, as they walked past. His fork clattered to the floor from his nerveless fingers.
Behind the mask, Adams smiled grimly.
They stepped into the elevator, and the concierge slid back a hidden panel and pressed a button that glowed when he touched it, holding it down until a light next to it turned from amber to green. "Fingerprint scanner?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," the concierge said nervously. "Also heartbeat sensor, to prevent unauthorized use of… severed body parts."
"What happens if an unauthorized person tries to use it?" Adams asked.
"The elevator goes into lockdown and is flooded with knockout gas," the concierge said. "In most cases, the guest is interrogated, amnesticized, and released. In other cases…" He shrugged and smiled apologetically.
Adams nodded. The concierge coughed nervously, drumming his fingers against the seam of his trousers. He kept stealing glances at them in the mirrored elevator door. Adams amused herself by trying to stay as still as possible, which just seemed to make the man even more nervous.
Aleksander, she saw, had his face turned aside. Supposedly looking at his watch, but she thought he was smiling.
The elevator door opened into a room even more luxuriously appointed than the one in which she'd spent the night. Two men in perfectly tailored suits stood at attention.
"Andrea S. Adams," she said. "I have a ten o'clock appointment."
The guards nodded silently, seemingly unperturbed by her appearance.
A low, hacking laugh came from inside. "Bravo," a low, sonorous voice said. "You certainly do know how to make an entrance."
Adams turned to face the sound. There were two of them: both incredibly old gentlemen, one toothless but bright-eyed, the other with a radiant, perfect smile but eyes as dead as glass.
"Miss Adams," the tall, smiling one said. "I am Jeremy Marshall. This is my associate, Thomas Carter. Our third partner, Mister Dark, sends his regrets, but he is unable to be here today."
Aleksander wanted to run. Turn around and leave. Just run as fast as he could and get the hell out of this room.
Jeremy Marshall was dead. Everyone knew this. Everyone knew he'd died decades ago and passed on the running of his portion of the company to his heirs and descendants. But there he stood, tall, smiling, and very much alive, looking just like he did in the faded photographs that hung in every MC&D corporate office.
And Thomas Carter… everyone knew that he was still alive. But anyone who had been in the corporation knew how and why. That alone was enough not to want to be in the same room as the man.
He looked over at Adams. If the woman had flinched, or shown any sign of turning to run, he would have been right behind her. His hand was already inching towards his gun: a useless gesture, given the number of guards in the room: he would be gunned down in seconds, and not even his armored clothing would protect him from a headshot…
Adams straightened her back. Inclined her helmeted head. Extended her hand with graceful aplomb. "Andrea S. Adams," she said. "Charmed."
Marshall shook it. Carter kissed the back of the gloved hand like a bad romance novel hero. Aleksander exhaled and let his hand drop to his side.
Jeremy Marshall gestured to the chair across from him and Carter. "I would offer you tea and refreshments," he said, "But I think, given the circumstances, that would be… less than genteel."
"Indeed," Adams said. She sat down, crossing her legs and leaning back with what Aleksander read as affected carelessness. "Shall we get down to business?"
"That does seem to be your modus operandi," Marshall said. "Do you have the object?"
Adams gestured to Aleksander, who laid the case he carried on top of the coffee table. Adams fiddled with the combination locks for a moment, then undid the latches. She lifted out a fine china plate with swirling inlays of gold and platinum, studded around the edges with a single row of quarter-carat diamonds.
A white-gloved guard took the plate from her and handed it to Carter, who studied it closely through a jeweler's loupe, then placed the plate on the coffee table and snapped his fingers. A young woman approached, bearing a silver tray with five uncooked sausages resting on a platter. She placed the dish on top of the golden platter.
Instead of sausages, there were now five severed human fingers resting on the silver dish.
"Your Foundation is good at many things," Marshall said, "but one thing they were never particularly good at is etiquette. Serving food directly on a charger? How barbaric."
"We usually have more important things to concern ourselves with than remembering which fork is for salad," Adams said.
"Short tines, placed to the left of the dinner fork," Marshall said. "Rule of thumb: start at the outside, work your way in."
"Hm." Adams tilted her head in acknowledgement.
"This case," Carter barked. "It's not nearly large enough to hold the entire set."
"There is enough here for eight table settings," Adams said. "More than enough for small, intimate dinners. We will hold onto the rest."
"Hmph," Carter sneered. "Maybe we should do the same with the information we've picked up…"
"Thomas?" Marshall interrupted. "With the lady's permission, perhaps you should inventory the goods? In the next room, perhaps."
Carter scoffed, but he gestured to a guard, who, after glancing at Adams, lifted up the case and carried it into the kitchen. The door closed behind them, and Aleksander and Adams found themselves alone with Jeremy Marshall (and, of course, a couple of discreet guards). "My apologies," Marshall said. "Thomas is a dear friend, and no one has a better head for business than he, but when it comes to customer relations…" He shrugged and gave a disarming chuckle.
"I know the type," Adams said. "As it happens, I'm not exactly a fan of roundabouts myself. So let's talk."
"Very well," Marshall said. "Let us cut to the chase." He leaned forward, and his smile fell away. "Someone has hurt us. They have hurt our customers. But more than that, they have hurt our reputation. That I cannot countenance. We have spent quite a bit of resources trying to ferret out these people who had the audacity to carry out that barbaric attack on our clients' children, and we believe we have a name… one I'm sure you have heard before."
"Spit it out, then," Adams said. "I haven't got all day."
"General Ulysses Bowe," Marshall said.
Aleksander saw Adams flinch. "Say that again."
"General Ulysses Bowe. The former head of the United States' Bowe Commission. The Foundation's former benefactor, and the architect of its original weaponization program."
"General Bowe is dead," Adams said. "He died nine years ago. Got his head cut off by…"
"Yes," Marshall interrupted. "But it is said that a man is not truly dead as long as he is remembered. And there are those who remember General Bowe, and remember his dream, and hold a deep grudge against those who brought on his death." He smiled, and his smile was like a drawn knife in a dark alleyway. "Or did you think it coincidence that the first attack was on you?"
Adams did not answer. Jeremy Marshall laid a gold-plated USB drive on the coffee table. "You will find all of the information we have managed to gather on General Bowe's heirs here," he said. "All we ask is that you find the perpetrators and allow us to have our pound of flesh when it comes time for them to pay for their wrongdoings."
Adams did not move. Aleksander took this as his cue to pick up the device, run it under his nose, and study it closely for traps or tracking devices. Finding none, he placed it in his inside jacket pocket for safekeeping. "Was there anything else?" Adams asked.
"Nothing that I can think of for now," Marshall said. "You are, of course, free to stay another night, on the house. It is the least that we can do for you, given the prior aid you gave us."
"Your offer is… generous," Adams said, "but given these developments, we will be leaving for home immediately."
"If you wish," Marshall said. "There is actually one last thing. A personal matter." He nodded to the guard standing behind him, and the bald-headed man approached, laid a small silver case on the coffee table between them.
Marshall undid the latch and opened the cover, revealing twelve nine-millimeter cartridges laying in purple velvet. "Two of my great-great grandchildren were victims of the attack. I do not deceive myself that I will have the chance to personally wreak the vengeance I so greatly desire. In that light, I have had these prepared for you to use."
Adams lifted one of the bullets out of the case. The casing was gold-plated, and engraved with the Marshall, Carter & Dark insignia. The bullet had an odd, sickly shine to it, and seemed to thrum in a low, steady rhythm. "Use these," Marshall said, "and I guarantee you that your enemy will die, and their suffering will be severe."
He smiled again, and this smile was the very worst one of them all.
Three hours later, Adams and Aleksander were sitting in a Skyline Charter Planes E-Jet, heading home.
Adams was staring out the window, the gold USB drive in her hand, flipping the protective cover open and closed, her brow furrowed in concentration. Aleksander sipped his Bloody Mary mix and waited patiently. It didn't do to interrupt someone who had that kind of thoughtful expression.
At long last, Adams slid her ID card through the credit card reader on the arm of her seat, bringing up a screen that had nothing to do with ringing up a purchase. A few button presses later, the image of a man in a cheap suit (his head a flickering array of various pictures and patterns) appeared. "Clef," the man said. "Talk to me, Adams."
"This one's hot and I can't talk about this over the air," Adams said. "But I think you're right: we need to expand. The problem runs deeper than we thought."
"Lurk and Bridge are on their way in," Clef said. "As for the others… keep your eyes open, and I'll do the same. What's your ETA?"
"Four in the afternoon, local," Adams said. "We'll be heading straight to the Site from the airport."
"Got it. Clef out." The image flickered and disappeared, replaced by a symbol of two concentric circles and three inward-facing arrows.
"Aleksander," Adams asked, "how do you think this mission went?"
Aleksander shrugged. "We got what we needed and came away alive. That's about as good as we can hope for."
"You're not disappointed that you didn't have a chance to beat up anyone? Or kill anyone?"
Aleksander shrugged again. "Unless I misread the situation, I think there will be plenty of that coming in the near future."
"You're goddamn right," Adams said. Her fingers clenched tightly around the USB drive. "You're goddamn fucking right about that."
Aleksander put down his drink. "Something bothers you?"
"Just thinking about justice. And money. And the intersection between the two." She leaned back in her chair, staring up at the ceiling. "About how one rich bastard gets to run around slipping drugs into girls' drinks and doesn't even get a slap on the wrist, and another rich bastard puts out a literal hit on the ones who did him wrong. And how all of this seems okay to them."
Aleksander nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "You know," he said, "when I first found out you would be lead agent on this mission, I was… unhappy."
Adams scoffed. "Because I was a woman heading straight into the literal heart of the patriarchy?"
"Because you were an outsider entering a world that you didn't understand." Aleksander said. "I won't say you did as well as you could have, but as I said before: we got what we needed and came away alive." He downed the rest of his drink and laid it down on his tray table. "Which is about as well as we can hope for at this point."
"I suppose that's true," Adams said. "Still, I kind of wish I could have done something more."
Aleksander nodded sagely. "It is what it is."
The jet flew on.
Text of an Intercepted Communicade From an Unknown Party
FROM: "Nathan Hale"
SUBJECT: DO YOU WANT A BIGGER DICK? CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE!
2AGT SCPF MCND UNKN MSSN PSBL COOP IDNT SECR UPDT 2FLW
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