The Auction

04 – Invitations

Most of the time, Carmichel came in a town car, driven by one of the combination valet/security guards he employed.

This time, he arrived on foot.

Curt returned Carmichel’s wave as he approached. No security, not even trailing at a respectful distance, not entirely unheard of, but it changed things a little bit.

It probably meant that whatever info Carmichel wanted to pass along didn’t involve something high-risk or that would put immediate targets on their backs.

‘I don’t think I’ve taken you to this place before,’ Carmichel said. ‘It’s down the end here.’

Curt followed him down a smaller side street, mostly the backs of shops, older-looking buildings, and the entrances to a couple of apartment buildings.

Around a curve at the end of the street was a decorative stone-and-metal fence surrounding a property that- He stopped walking, his brain trying to take in what he was seeing, and he heard Carmichel chuckle beside him.

It was a perfect tree. It was the tree you thought of when you closed your eyes and tried to imagine the platonic ideal of a tree. It was how a child drew a tree – a thick brown trunk and a round, green top. Too perfect to be real.

And a hundred times larger than it should have been.

His brain called it an oak, but its classification came way the fuck down the list from the gilded pods it bore aloft, each glittering like a golden birdcage. The branches moved, slowly revolving the cages around like a green-thumbed Willy Wonka interpretation of a rotating restaurant.

The smallest pods were about the size of a toilet stall and only contained one chair and a small table; the largest ones, the ones he had to crane his neck to glimpse, seemed to be almost a suite.

‘Holy shit.’

‘This restaurant has been a fixture of Escarfi for over a hundred years, with different owners, different menus, same draw, same attraction. I take it you’ve not been here?’

‘I…mostly order takeout,’ he managed as he watched a maître’d in a smart yellow dress escort a couple to a cage that was being slowly lowered towards a boarding platform.

‘Then today is doubly not a waste.’ Carmichel clapped him on the back. ‘Come on, kallabrae.’

Kallabrae. Roughly, it meant “the sibling I dislike the least”. Even as a verbal noogie, it helped him feel connected to something. To someone.

In one of their long talks, probably on the penthouse patio, Carmichel had explained a little bit of Agency…culture, if that was the right word. That the word bastard didn’t mean “someone born out of wedlock”, for people born in vats of goo, insults about the circumstances of one’s birth probably held little weight.

Instead, agents used the word “bastard” to mean something like “unworthy of being claimed”. That you didn’t belong to any tight social circles and held no place in the surrogate families that agents tended to make.

And ever since he’d run from the Solstice, he’d been a bastard.

So he’d happily take every “kallabrae” Carmichel wanted to throw at him.

The maître’d checked them in, escorted them to the boarding platform, and asked them to wait for a few minutes whilst the carriage descended.

He reached into his shoulder bag, fingers skirting past the cookies to grab his Agency phone. With a camera that was good enough to compensate for his shit photography skills, he quickly snapped a couple of shots and queued them to send them to Raz.

Another small connection. Another attempt to push away from being a bastard.

The maître’d opened the carriage door, which reminded him of an old-timey elevator gate, and gave a few simple pointers. With a smile, they handed over a page and explained that customer service was available at the push of a button. Carmichel slipped the maître’d a tip –  far from standard, but something Carmichel tended to do – and they boarded the carriage.

‘They rise quite slowly but hold onto something. It can take a minute for you to get your sea legs.’

He took the advice and held onto one of the golden bars near the accordion door as the carriage ascended.

Behind him, he heard one of the bench seats slide back from the table and pour something into a glass. ‘I would apologise for taking up part of your day off, but I know you didn’t have anything planned. I understand, but I do still feel like giving you a lecture on getting a social life.’

‘I’m trying to work my way up to invisible,’ he said as he sat on the other bench seat.

The table between them got immediately labelled as a posh picnic. Lots of small plates, a cheese board, fruits and jams and chutneys he couldn’t begin to identify, and a half dozen small bottles of wine and sparkling drinks.

‘I could offer to buy out your contract.’

He shook his head, knowing it would be enough to get Carmichel to drop the subject, at least for today. It was an often-presented offer, but one…One he didn’t feel safe bringing to Ryan, Clarke, or whoever would handle that kind of meeting.

Maybe in the future, but not right now.

‘Then I hope that what I’m bringing today will at least make your superiors look more favourably on you.’ Carmichel poured him a drink, something purple and sparkly that smelt like blood orange. ‘After the last time I dealt with your Agency, they are at least aware that we know each other. What I want to say to them is that you’ve impressed me and – with your blessing – would be one of the people I choose to action this bit of intelligence, as I feel comfortable working with you.’

‘It’s not like you to try and get me killed.’

Carmichel laughed and threw a cube of cheese in his direction. ‘Of boredom, perhaps, but otherwise, the danger should be negligible.’

‘Okay, I’m listening.’

‘I get invites to a lot of…less savoury events. It’s the circles I travel in. I know a lot of…frankly evil people. I have my vices, I am aware, but I’m toe-deep in an ocean that contains horrors. I will trade an exotic pet licence or a bottle of unicorn wine for a few hours of company. I don’t buy wings, ripped from the backs of prisoners, and I don’t keep…pets.’

The disgusted emphasis on the word left no wiggle room as to what he meant by “pet”.

‘A powerful man has died, and his treasures are going to be auctioned. The full catalogue hasn’t been made available yet, but I know there will be an agent for sale. I have an invite for myself and two others, and I would like to assist the Agency in getting this person home.’

‘Are they going to let- Why would a recruit be allowed in? They’re going to want to send a negotiator or something.’

Carmichel spread some orange jam onto red crackers. ‘Without an invite, a negotiator won’t get in. As to Agency personnel, so long as they’re polite, abide by the rules of the property, and don’t make a fuss, they’ll be let in. Going in flying your colours wouldn’t be the smartest idea. Blending in would make things easier.’

‘I still don’t-’ He stopped and thought about the situation for a moment, pushing aside his first thoughts and instincts. An agent could go, sure. Two agents could go, even three, if Carmichel was willing to sell his ticket.

But it would be somewhere in Faerie, and in Faerie, they could die.

So sending recruits, sending someone expendable, made sick and twisted sense.

It was one of the things that he still couldn’t work out about the Agency. The Agency existed to separate humans and magic and prevent John Civilian from discovering that fairies were real. It should have logically followed that agents should have been the ones throwing themselves at danger, protecting recruits with their lives.

Instead, recruits were cannon fodder.

‘So we’ve got to play by the rules. There’s no strategy. Just pay the most, and an agent comes home?’

‘Oh, kallabrae,’ Carmichel said in a mock-sad tone, the same voice you’d use to call someone a sweet summer child. ‘There is a lot of strategy, but it’s all interpersonal and social. Avoiding faux pas, rather than avoiding bullets. You’re good at shutting up and looking good in a suit, that will get far enough. Really, it will all come down to how much they’re willing to pay.’

‘And the third person?’

Carmichel offered him a cracker. ‘Their choice, really. Someone who gets along well with you, hopefully.’

He started to examine the cheese board. ‘That might be wishful thinking.’

‘Then find me a mirror,’ Carmichel said. ‘All we can do is try. You want to aim for invisible. I want to see the day when you’re aiming for valued.’

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