The building looked innocuous enough.
‘Are you sure that’s the place?’ Stef asked.
‘I’ve been here at least a dozen times,’ he said, ‘yeah, we’re at the right place.’
‘Then what are we-’
He put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Wait here for a minute, newbie?’
‘Because it’s a sexporium and I need a way of getting you through it without you going weird?’
She sat on the nearest bench. ‘I’m waiting.’
Curt disappeared into the revolving door, then returned with two bracelets and a blue blindfold. ‘Turn around,’ he said.
She obediently turned, and stood still as he tied it around her head.
‘Here, feel my arm,’ he said as he put it under her hands. ‘Hold on and I’ll escort you in.’
She grabbed onto his arm with both hands as he lead her through the door and into the music-filled space of the sexporium. There were two close beeps as their bracelets were inspected, and then they walked across a tiled floor – it was a lot bigger than she expected – and then carefully up a flight of stairs.
There was the sound of a door opening, and he pulled her across the threshold.
‘Curt,’ she heard someone – presumably Carmichael – say. ‘Someone to take care of O’Connor for you?’
‘Maybe later,’ Curt said as he guided her to a plush leather seat. ‘Business first.’
‘As you wish, but allow me to conclude this first,’ the fairy said.
‘Sure thing,’ Curt said. ‘I’ll go over your menu.’
She stared intently into the blindfold, very, very glad of it, judging by the strange sounds in the room. Sticky sounds. Fleshy sounds. Sounds of things she didn’t want to see. She heard the fairy give a sigh of relief, then sound of feet. Two pairs of feet. There was the sound of clothing moving, and the lighter set of footsteps leaving the room and the sound of a door closing.
After another moment, Curt pulled on the blindfold she was exposed to the room for the first time. It was surprisingly simple – a low, round table, three leather couches, menus and catalogues scattered around, and a phone.
The fairy, Carmichael, stood across from them, blue and gold wings extended. Other than the beautiful wings though, he could have passed for an agent – a simple haircut, a simple suit. He crossed and slapped Curt on the back. ‘It’s been too long.’
‘Lower your prices and you’d see me more often.’
‘Or you could give me reasons to give you free passes,’ the fairy said with a smile. ‘And who’s your friend?’
Shock broke through the fairy’s affable expression. ‘Pardon?’
‘Agent Mimosa,’ Curt said again. ‘Isn’t intelligence supposed to be your game, Carmichael?’
‘I noticed the name a couple of months ago,’ Carmichael said, ‘I didn’t have a face to go with it until now. You’ll have to forgive me, Agent, you’re not what I expected. You’ve been holding out on me, Curt.’ The fairy reached for her hand, and bent to kiss it before she could protest or yank it back. ‘Charmed,’ he said, before returning to his chair. ‘Payment is-‘
She elbowed Curt in the ribs.
‘I told you,’ Curt said, ‘it’s business.’
The fairy sat straighter at this. ‘You’re here under the auspices of the Agency?’ He looked to her. ‘This is an official visit?’
She gave a nod, unable to find her voice.
There was a knock at the door, and a scantily-clad waitress walked in. Carmichael raised a bottle of red alcohol. ‘The same again please, you two?’
‘She’ll have what she is,’ Curt said to the waitress with an all-too-cocky smile. ‘A virgin Mimosa. And I’ll take a bottle of the house special.’ The waitress nodded and left.
She felt her cheeks flush, and there was a soft tinkle of glass as Carmichael dropped his drink. Curt had been right about the effect the word would have on the fairy. By the time she looked over at the fairy, he was composed and pouring himself a new drink in a fresh glass. ‘Nice, Curt,’ he said, ‘you still manage to catch me off guard.’
‘Sometimes truth makes for a convenient joke,’ Curt said.
Carmichael stared into his drink for a moment before looking up. ‘Agent,’ he said, ‘is what your recruit says the truth?’
She swallowed, and nodded.
‘Let’s get all of this out of the way,’ Curt said. ‘So that we can get down to business.’ He looked across to her. ‘Give me your hand.’ She lifted her hand and Curt grasped her wrist, and pulled it across towards Carmichael, and held it still. ‘Taste.’
Fear, hot and sharp, drove spikes into her neck. She tried to pull her hand back, but Curt’s grip was immovable. She trusted him, but he’d said nothing about being offered as a snack. She stared at the fairy, catching snatches of her reflection in his wings, half-expecting him to grow fangs and go down on her wrist.
Carmichael reached into a leather satchel beside his chair and pulled out a small, slim black device. He waved it over her hand, and a blue light sit up on the polished surface. She felt a pinch against her skin for a second, before blue began to spiral up, forming into a perfect, slow-moving tornado held aloft above the black device by science or magic or both.
He pulled it away from her hand, held it to his mouth and lapped at the blue until none remained. Curt let her hand go, and she pulled it back, sitting on it to keep it safe from another harvesting.
Carmichael’s mouth moved as though he was tasting some fine wine, or some expensive cheese, and she felt her stomach turn. He was tasting her. Comparing her against the other agents he’d had, and enjoying himself. It was one thing to nom on blue if you were an agent, it was another thing to treat it like it some sort of exquisite treat.
‘Three-point-five,’ the fairy said, ‘upgraded to four-point-two. But it’s…different. Less of a punch than usual. Now I’m even more curious.’
She stared at the fairy, dumfounded that he could taste the version number of her software.
‘Mind if I…?’ Curt said. She gave him a nod. ‘Human into agent experiment. One of Jones’. Does that explain the taste?’
‘That isn’t what an augment tastes like.’
Ask the Boy Wonder later.
‘Full conversion,’ Curt said. ‘Blue through and through.’
Carmichael smiled. ‘That would be something to brag about.’
She looked away. ‘But I’m not a real agent.’
‘So you can speak,’ the fairy said. ‘If you were human, what’s your name?’
‘Stef. Short, simple, perfect for an agent. I’m not sure if Curt explained this to you-‘
‘We’re here for business,’ Curt said. ‘And you’re wasting your time.’
‘I like Agents,’ Carmichael said, undeterred. ‘We are all allowed our fancies, and your kind happens to be what works for me. I also wish to experience as many of your kind as I can, it would be far simpler to settle down with one, a few, or a dozen, and I have had more than enough offers, believe me, but that does not appeal. Therefore, I allow myself generosity in attaining each new experience. I cannot give you the world, but anything less than that should be negotiable.’ He smiled. ‘Sometimes it’s quite simple. The first one your recruit brought to me wanted a pet dragon, and agents are unable to apply for exotic pet licences. I got him the beast, a licence by proxy, and we both had a very enjoyable evening. What is it you want?’
She kept a level gaze on the fairy, not trusting herself to look at Curt. He’d said he knew the fairy, knew his habits, he’d never said he’d procured agents for him. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t mean that he was looking at her like a payday.
Her mouth felt dry.
She trusted him.
He should have told her. He should have told her. He should have told her.
She blinked and shrugged. ‘Nothing. I won’t want anything.’
‘Come now, Agent. For a rare experience such as yourself-‘
‘Carmichael-’ Curt said.
‘Ten times your finder’s fee,’ Carmichael said to Curt without looking away.
Ten times. An offer of ten times any usual rate without blinking was serious. The fairy was brandishing serious money, whatever the finder’s fee was, it wasn’t just a burger and drink at Famous Fry’s.
‘She’s not interested.’
This time, Carmichael turned to look at Curt. ‘A hundred times, if you convince her.’
Blood pounded in her ears, and the room started to spin. The fact that he had a thing for agents was fine. There was nothing wrong with that. The fact that he wanted her was less fine. It was weird and it was stupid, but he seemed dead serious. There was nothing about her to want, but he was pressing on anyway. Pressing on, and offering a crazy finder’s fee, a fee that had pale in comparison to what he’d actually give her.
She wondered if Curt felt like a pimp.
She wondered how far friendship went when money was on the table.
Curt shuffled on the seat beside her, pulled a menu from behind his back and leaned forward to drop it onto the table. As he sat back on the couch, his arm moved to rest against hers. Touch. Warmth. Closeness. Comfort. Safety.
The fear subsided.
‘I don’t want anything,’ she said.
‘An agent is special enough. Virgin agents are common enough, but they’re never more than a year from newborn. You’re an experiment outside of a basement, that makes you one in a million. All of that combined…there isn’t much I wouldn’t give for a week with you. I may even be able to bring myself to part with a piece of mirror, I have several, you know.’
Mirror. Something familiar at last.
She gave herself for keeping a straight face without /serious. ‘I have no use for mirror.’
‘They can give you whatever your heart desires,’ the fairy said.
She didn’t desire anything she couldn’t require.
Want to clue me in?
Come on, Spyder, you know what you want.
Her heart sat cold, hard and still in her chest. An immovable lump of dead planet.
I want a heartbeat.
I can’t tell him that.
No, but you needed to realise it.
‘Think it over, but for now,’ Carmichael said. ‘I’ll accept your answer of “no” so we can move along to whatever business the Agency has with me.’
‘The end of the world,’ she said, her voice coming back.
The waitress came back into the room, put down the drinks and left.
‘What?’ Carmichael said again.
‘The Solstice have two phoenixes,’ she said, ‘babies, and Blue Earth probably knows as well.’
‘Of course they would,’ Carmichael said, ‘their organisation is named for the blue phoenix, do you know which colours?’
‘One red and one blue,’ she said.
‘I would have preferred two blue,’ he said, ‘red isn’t good for anyone.’
‘Can we count on you?’ Curt said.
‘I can never say no to the Agency,’ he said. ‘But I am starting from scratch, I haven’t heard anything about this.’
‘They’re in Brisbane,’ she said, ‘start there. That’s all we know as well, and the only advantage we have is that we’ll be informed if they leave the city limits.’
‘It’s such an innocuous place for the apocalypse to start. Red we have no chance, but blue…Contingency 32? To do the whole world would be impossible,’ Carmichael said, ‘without letting everyone know of magic, and that may destroy things faster than a red phoenix ever could.’
‘Do you think they know what to do with them?’ she asked.
‘I think that when they manage to hurt one and a blackout the size of Barai-‘ he saw the blank look on her face. ‘Sorry Agent. The size of…Romania, I guess is a fair comparison, opens up. And that’s if it’s only a blackout, it could be a blast wave that takes out everything. You’ll have to have your PR guy fake a nuclear explosion, which will lead to so many problems. A blackout – possibly a permanent blackout right across your city – is the best thing you can hope for.’
‘I’ll have Jones patch you in once the emergency stuff is set up,’ Curt said.
‘We didn’t’ talk money yet.’
‘This is for your benefit as much as anyone else,’ she said. ‘Red phoenix, everyone loses, blue phoenix and all of our lives get a lot more complicated. You might get more customers, you ‘ll have more information to play with, but you also may find this city being very glad of its exclusion zone. Human nature is what it is, and if the masquerade drops, you can’t expect humans not to come knocking.’
‘War may be good for your intelligence business,’ she pushed, ‘and even the traffic here may increase, but the everyday will get harder. Hoarding, stock fluctuations, banks being more cagey with their business, upping the repayments on loans, calling in their larger loans. Every bit of systematic normalcy that you count on everyday can go out the window if there’s one bullet fired.’
‘You make a good point, Agent.’
‘As of right now, you need to dedicate all of your resources to this. We will pay those at normal rates, including overtime, meal allowance and travel, but still, non-emergency rates. Your fee, however, will include a twenty-five per cent per diem bonus, on top of your personal emergency rates.’
‘I-’ Carmichael started.
‘Of course you get an expense account, Keep your receipts,’ she said with a smile. ‘As to resources that can be required, we’ll have some people on that, and you can keep anything that’s required, so long as its within reason, and it’s not restricted.’
‘I didn’t think it was possible,’ Carmichael said, ‘but I think I want to fuck you more than I did five minutes ago.’
She felt her face flush, but tried to keep her expression stable. She bit the inside of her cheek and leaned forward. ‘So we have a deal then?’
She pulled back, reached into Curt’s bag, and threw her bag of blue into the fairy’s lap. ‘And that, sir, is your signing bonus.’
‘You have a deal, Agent.’
She stood and held down her hand to shake. He took her hand and kissed it again. She gave him a half-second smile, then pulled her hand back.
‘We’re going to head back,’ Curt said as he stood.
‘You don’t want to use your day pass, Curt?’
Curt looked tempted for a moment, then shook his head. ‘You could comp it to my account.’
‘I could,’ Carmichael said, ‘but I won’t. If all turns out, then I’ll comp you a free day, but it wouldn’t hurt you to spend some money here once in a while.’
Curt shrugged. ‘Maybe.’ He shook the fairy’s hand and they turned to leave.
‘Blindfold, newbie!’ he yelped as she pushed the door open.
There were boobies everywhere.
‘IRL…jiggle physics engine…’ she managed before Curt grabbed her head and wrapped the blindfold around, sinking her back into safe, boob-less darkness.
She heard Curt sigh as they walked down the stairs, and the faint sounds of Carmichael laughing.
‘Oh, newbie, what am I going to do with you?’
‘Boobies,’ she said. ‘Boobies. Lots of boobies.’
‘You do have a couple yourself you know.’
‘I do not and you’re a horrible liar for saying so!’ she pulled away from him. A pair of breasts brushed past her, and she whimpered.
‘Ye gods and little hackers,’ Curt muttered as he grabbed her by the shoulder and steered her to freedom.