Ronald Holt sits in his office, stares out his window, and sips his coffee with a contented sigh. The TriHealth building isn’t the tallest in Farraday City, not by a long shot, but it’s the only building on its block, and the top floor gives him a good view of their part of the Uptown business district. The rain disappeared at dawn, but everything is still quite wet, and the streets glisten in the early morning light. It’s quite pretty: the sun shines off the water like a veneer of silver coating the entire city.
A beautiful veneer, he thinks. Just like the city itself.
He frowns slightly, his mood momentarily spoiled as his thoughts drift to the day ahead. He’s going to have to work hard to mend fences after the other night. He sighs, turns away from his window, and returns to his desk.
Holt’s office is large and very upscale. The carpet is thick and white—proper carpeting, not the cheap office fuzz you usually see—and the vaulted ceiling has a skylight that allows for plenty of natural light. The office is a large space, larger than many apartments. The center has his desk, his computer, chairs for visitors, and a small closet by the door. To his right is a full entertainment center, complete with couches, chairs, and a fully stocked wet bar. At the far end of the room is a private bathroom, complete with shower. To his left, at the far end, is a wall-mounted zen waterfall. Next to that is a climbing wall that he never uses. There is absolutely nothing between his desk and the waterfall/climbing wall on the far end. He tells himself it’s because he really doesn’t need anything else, but the real reason is that he likes people to notice how ridiculously big the office really is.
It is nothing but excessive, and it’s his. He likes that. Other people hate it. He likes that, too.
He stares down at the report on his desk. INCIDENT REPORT: TRIHEALTH SECURITY BREACH, SEVENTH FLOOR, FLAG M. “Flag M” meant metahumans were involved in the breach. Unfortunately they have no footage of the people involved, just descriptions taken from the surviving members of the security team sent to apprehend and neutralize.
He sets his coffee down on his desk and picks up the report, paging through it with increasing agitation. He wants to fire the security team. He can’t, apparently—the security chief has refused to do it despite being given a direct order, and apparently she has more political pull than Holt knew. He grits his teeth, fighting back a wave of anger. Someone needs to be held accountable for this travesty. How much data was stolen? They don’t know. Where did the metahuman and his accomplice go? They don’t know.
Someone knows. Based on the questions he’s getting from the Executive Board, he’s absolutely sure that at least one of the Vice Presidents who sits on the TriHealth board knows exactly who this metahuman was, who his accomplice was, and what they were trying to do. But no one is willing to share that information, which leaves Holt in the unenviable position of trying to fix this mess without being able to accurately assess the threat this metahuman poses. He puts the report back down on his desk, leans back in his chair, and rubs his eyes.
The phone beeps.
Holt opens one eye and stares at the phone. His assistant knows better than to contact him before ten.
The phone beeps again. It’s his assistant’s number. He growls in frustration and hits the speakerphone.
“What is it?” He keeps his tone short and clipped, so she knows he’s unhappy.
“I’m sorry Mr. Holt, but a representative from the city is here to see you.”
He scowls. “Do they have an appointment?”
“Sir, it’s a representative from the city.” The way she stresses the last word clarifies the situation. Holt sits up straight in his chair and grips the edge of his desk tightly.
“Ah. I see. Thank you, I’ll be there in a moment.”
His hands are shaking so badly he almost knocks over his coffee as he turns off the speakerphone. He takes a deep breath and forces himself to calm down. The last thing he can afford is to look nervous in front of the mob. He stands, straightens his tie, then walks over to the door. He takes his suit jacket from the closet and puts it on, forcing himself not to hurry. His hand drifts to the door, but he hesitates; he walks back to his desk and stares down at the incident report. He frowns, grabs it, shoves it into a desk drawer, then walks back to the door.
Smooth sleeves. Straighten tie. Open door. Step through with a million dollar smile.
“How do you do? I’m Ron Holt.”
The reception area for the top floor is a modern, elegant space: glass tables and chrome furniture with white leather cushions. Pleasant-if-trivial music plays over quality speakers in the ceiling. His personal assistant’s desk, a modern-looking glass-and-steel wraparound, is clean and well-organized. His personal assistant, a young, pretty college graduate from a prestigious business school Holt never bothered to remember, is also usually clean and well-organized. At the moment, however, she looks flustered. The most likely reason is the two gentlemen who are also in the room.
Holt can’t tell if they look like gangsters or not. They are dressed in pinstripe suits—nothing fancy, but nothing shabby either—and wear bowler hats. The very large man on the left is built like a brick wall. He stands stoically behind his companion, a small, thin man with a cheerful yet unnerving tight-lipped smile. The bowler hats work against them, as far as looking like gangsters goes, but there is a definite quality of menace about them that he can’t dismiss out of hand. Holt immediately thinks of A Clockwork Orange with Malcolm McDowell playing Alex.
The small man tips his hat, his smile widening to show perfectly white, smooth teeth. “Ronald! It’s good of you to see us at such an early hour. And us without an appointment, too. I hope you don’t think too harshly of your lovely assistant here—she didn’t want to call you. I insisted.”
His assistant is smiling a tight, pleasant smile that she is obviously expending a great deal of effort to maintain.
Holt nods, hoping it looks amiable, and takes the time to steady his voice. “Not at all. Please do come in.”
Holt stands aside, holding the door open for the two men. The small man nods once, tips his hat to Holt’s assistant, and steps lightly through the door, almost shouting “An invitation!” in a merry tone as he crosses the threshold of the office. The larger man follows, silent and emotionless.
After they step into the office, Holt turns to his assistant. “Did they say what they wanted?” He keeps his voice low.
His assistant shakes her head. “I asked. He acted like I hadn’t.”
Holt nods. “Hold my calls for as long as they’re here.”
His assistant nods.
Holt turns back to the office, steps inside, and shuts the door behind him.
“I say!” The small man gazes at the office. “This is a fine place to work! Stylish. Tasteful. Big. I had no idea health care was so lucrative!” The large man says nothing. As far as Holt can tell, he isn’t even paying attention.
“It’s a growth industry,” Holt says, laughing nervously. “Would you like a drink?”
“Oh, very kind, very kind,” the small man says.
Holt starts over to the wet bar.
“But I think it’s too early in the morning for libations,” the small man continues. “Though I thank you for your gracious offer.”
Holt stops, then turns. “Well, then, how can I help you gentlemen today?”
“Ah, yes,” the small man says. “The meat of the matter. The meat. Good enough, then, let’s start. Shall we sit?”
The small man gestures to Holt’s desk, and the chairs around it.
“Of course,” Holt says. He moves to his desk, but the small man almost pirouettes around it and plops down in Holt’s chair. He pushes back from the desk and spins, laughing as the chair makes three full revolutions before it slows to a halt. By chance the chair stops facing Holt directly.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” the small man says, eyes twinkling. “This is a magnificent chair for spinning. Have you done much of that? Spinning?”
“No,” Holt lies. He stands in front of the chair, waiting to see if the small man will get up out of it. He doesn’t. Holt fights back another wave of frustration, then walks back around the front of his desk and sits down in one of the other chairs.
The large man doesn’t sit.
“So… I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude,” Holt says, “but I still don’t know why you’re here.”
“Of course you don’t!” The small man almost laughs. His voice is friendly, almost intimately so, as if he were a lifelong friend, or a favorite uncle. “How could you? We haven’t told you yet. And I’m sorry this is so abrupt—the thing is, the city has a problem, and I’m afraid your company is involved.”
“Well it’s not my company,” Holt says, then breaks off. He hadn’t meant to sound so defensive. He tries again. “I am the executive officer for this branch, so of course management of TriHealth in this area is my responsibility. But we are a publicly owned company, so it would be inaccurate, technically speaking, to call it ‘my’ company.”
“Sure, sure.” The small man nods agreeably. “I didn’t mean to imply that level of possession. It’s probably more accurate to say that you belong to it.”
“I… well.” Holt frowns. “You could… I don’t know that I…”
The small man laughs again. “There’s no shame in that! You are a man who serves a purpose. From what I see…” He looks around the office appreciatively. “From what I see, that service has been very good for you. Very good indeed.”
Holt doesn’t know what to say.
“You are, by all appearances, a successful and well-respected man,” the small man continues. “Your success comes from your service to your purpose. Just as mine does from mine, I suppose.”
Holt nods, trying to look thoughtful. “I suppose it does.”
“Of course, the success of your purpose—of this place—is the result of many factors,” the small man says. “Your hard work. The hard work of those who work for you, and with you. Employees. Peers. Partners.”
The smile on the small man’s face fades, ever so slightly. It’s not quite as bright, not quite as friendly, and his voice, while still genial, has the faintest hint of an edge to it. “It’s easy to forget your partners. The ones who work with you to make you the success you are. And from time to time it may be tempting to ignore the agreements you made with them. From time to time.”
Holt doesn’t reply.
“We expect a certain amount of this, of course.” The small man starts spinning in Holt’s chair again, around and around and around and around, pushing off the floor with one leg in a lazy, carefree manner. “The services we make available through this city are tailored to a certain element with a predisposition toward unreliability. Even the respectable organizations—or, perhaps, especially them—are given to ignoring the rules, whatever they may be, if they think they can profit and get away with it.”
“I still don’t—” Holt’s voice shakes for a moment, and he coughs, covering it up. “Excuse me. If you could just give me a little—”
“Well it’s that business yesterday,” the small man says. “Which, of course, was tied to that business the night before. Of course, from your perspective I expect the young man started it. That is a mitigating factor, I admit—or it would be, if it were ipso facto, but it isn’t. It isn’t, you see.”
“I don’t see,” Holt protests. “What business yesterday?”
The small man cocks his head to one side, examining Holt closely. Then he turns to the large man, still standing motionless in his spot.
“He doesn’t know,” the small man says, then he tips his hat. “You were right all along.”
“What don’t I know?” Holt presses.
“He’s a marvel,” the small man says, gesturing to the large man. “You’ll notice he’s not one for talking—not to strangers, at any rate—but while I fancy myself a keen judge of character I have to admit that his judgment surpasses mine with uncanny regularity. He always surprises me. He’s a pleasure to work with. Truly a pleasure.”
The large man doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even acknowledge the small man’s presence, as far as Holt can tell.
“Look,” Holt says, “I still don’t understand—”
“Rules!” The chair stops spinning abruptly. The small man’s voice is loud and sharp. The smile is gone from his face, replaced with a stern, admonishing expression—a father chastising a son. “This city has rules, Ronald. Its success requires that our guests obey those rules. And you—rather, the purpose you serve—has not.”
“That’s not true!” Holt rises out of his chair in protest. Almost immediately the large man is by his side. A large, meaty hand presses down on his shoulder, and Holt immediately collapses back into his chair. He stares up at the large man, eyes wide. The man isn’t looking at him, he’s staring out the expansive office windows.
“I am willing to believe that you don’t know about it.” The smile returns, and the small man’s voice slips back into its friendly, conversational tone. “You are not, I think, someone who sees the whole picture. Significant pieces of it, perhaps. More significant than you realize, perhaps. But not the entire thing, no. But your masters, well, they know our rules.”
Holt sputters in astonishment. “My masters?”
The small man shrugs. “No point in calling a ladle a spoon. Whether you see it or not, you are theirs as sure as if they’d bought you. Which, in many ways, they have…” He spins around in Holt’s chair again, just once, his arms spread wide to indicate the office. “And they know our rules. They know what we permit, and what we do not. They know that magic is absolutely not permitted here.”
Holt tries to rise again, but the large man’s hand continues to grip his shoulder, making movement impossible. “Magic? You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, but I am!” The small man nods rapidly. “Very serious. We’re very generous in many ways, my dear Ronald. We can share wealth. We can share freedom. We can share—we love to share—the simple joys of excess. But we are, I’m afraid, very possessive when it comes to that.”
All at once Holt decides these two men are lunatics. There is absolutely no way they represent Farraday City. The interests who control Farraday City are mobsters, gangsters—cutthroat, murderous criminals, yes, but they approach their work with a certain level of rationality that these men obviously don’t have. He’s alone in his office with two men who are lying about who they are, and he has to get out.
He opens his mouth to call for help, and the large man squeezes his shoulder. White-hot pain lances down his shoulder and into his side. His cry transforms into a nearly silent squawk of agony. He gasps, taking sharp breaths, as the small man looks on.
“You don’t want to do this,” Holt says.
“Perhaps,” the small man says, “but what of it? We do what we must in the service of our purpose.”
Holt shakes his head. “You don’t understand. As soon as the people in this building realize I’m in trouble, you’ll never make it out.”
The small man smiles at him fondly. “Ah, Ronald. You don’t understand. It doesn’t matter. They won’t know. They’ll never know. They never do.”