"Restricted floor access, forty-fifth floor," announced the familiar pleasant voice as Deathgrind stepped into the second sea of security officers on his way to the party. He had expected this layer to be less accommodating than the first, but again, scanning his credentials was enough. The guard motioned to elevators on the other side of the room.
"Enjoy the party," she finished the sentence uncertain, then asked, "Would ... you like me to check your cape?"
Deathgrind chuckled, then replied in as polite a tone as his voice changer would allow, "No, thank you, ma'am."
The cape was an integral part of his ensemble for the evening; it hung in what he believed to be a timeless fashion over both of his shoulders, to say nothing of its tactical value. The armor he wore was a minimalist version of his usual, designed to be sleek, stylish and comfortable. Although armored plates still covered his most vital areas, few were visible. Those showing were diminutive, with swept shapes and gold etchings. His sturdy metallic gauntlets were replaced by supple black leather gloves; rather than a helmet, a tight cloth mask crowned with a velvet top hat hid his identity. Confident that his guise would outclass everyone in attendance, Deathgrind resumed his swagger across the room.
On his way to the elevator, Deathgrind took note of two imposing men as they were putting their suit jackets over empty shoulder holsters after being frisked. Behind them, a man with convincing hair plugs and a modern tuxedo handed his phone over to the Kaison security team.
"Your bodyguards are welcome to stay on our lounge level," the guard may as well have been reading cue cards, "They will be entertained and meet you here when you are ready to leave. Enjoy the party."
"He's the new face card?" The man referred to Deathgrind as the elevator doors closed on the conversation.
Less than a minute later, the doors gave way to the full assault of a strong, swinging brass band. The irresistible beat pulled Deathgrind forward into the massive ballroom and toward the big band at the opposite end of the room. Flanking the stage were broad, spiraling stairways to the second and third levels, each balcony constricting tighter on the grand chandelier. The few guests enjoying the dance floor took their steps away from Deathgrind, allowing him free reign. With all the flair of classic swing, no doubt enhanced by the cape, he glided across the dance floor. They were already staring at him, so he may as well give them a show.
The impromptu performance also gave Deathgrind the opportunity to take stock of the entire room and those in attendance, without looking paranoid. No man wore less than a tuxedo, save for a pair of high brass in military dress uniforms. Every woman was dressed to impress. Politicians, celebrities and business elites all gathered here to barter one form of power for another. The room offered seating in open tables, isolated booths or at either of the full bars on opposite sides. The wait staff buzzed around, each boasting the Kaison red diamond pinned to their chest. Lacking from the party were security cameras or even enforcers. Everyone was expected to be on their best behavior, with the reward being the privacy to operate at they pleased. Failing to find Dechs on this level of the ballroom, Deathgrind gave an elegant bow as he exited the dance floor.
The first balcony was narrow, which made it easy to scan with a glance. Tables for six were scattered about with ample room around them. A billiards table resided in each corner, the nearest of which was home to an interesting game between three people that Deathgind could not ignore. The clear elder of the table stood back against the wall with a high grip on his cue, boasting the masonic ring on his hand. His eyes, along with nearly every other nearby man's eyes, were locked on the captivating beauty about to make her shot.
While she was no longer a young woman, she was not past her prime. Unique in not wearing a gown to the event, her royal blue pants pulled tight as she leaned over the table, accentuating her full hourglass figure. The neckline on her blouse was a precise low that was at the last edge of appropriate. Bold, curly red to the roots hair tumbled an inch onto the table, framing faint freckles and bright green eyes peering down her cue. She bit down on the corner of her vivid red lip as she pulled the cue back to fire, but could not hide her satisfied smirk. More than aware of the attention she commanded, she reveled in it. Still, had nothing on the cape.
Only one man appeared to be anything less than infatuated. Without taking his weight off the custom charcoal black cue, he offered a polite clap as the shot traveled true. Cuff links stood out as he did, garnet diamond shapes set in white gold. The black pinstripe tuxedo they protruded from was a stunning sort of handsome only the finest materials could achieve. Rather than being fitted to its owner, it had been made for him alone. The matching fedora completed an outfit that Deathgrind did not know could look so debonair. Cape be damned, there was nothing else to be said; Dechs just looked that good.
Not wanting to disrupt what was surely a business meeting, Deathgrind strolled past the billiards to a seat next to a familiar, dark face.
"Ms. Cooper, a pleasure to see you again." Deathgrind tipped his hat before flinging his cape around the chair to take his seat, "You look gorgeous this evening. I could scarcely recognize you under that wig."
"Pleasure's mine, darlin'. You sure clean up nicely for a troll," Cooper fired back, rocking her broad shoulders. With the tilted head of a temptress, she stated, "I saw your little number, and damn, if my date weren't the jealous type, I would demand a dance from you. And it's Miss Cooper."
Unsure of how genuine she was or how he should respond, Deathgrind opted to change the subject, "Apologies, Miss Cooper, I had assumed you were on the clock this evening."
Cooper sighed and waved a hand, "Oh, he may be in dangerous waters here, but it's nothing I can protect him from."
Turning his attention back to the pool table, Deathgrind focused his hearing on the three way conversation. Cooper showed no interest in distracting him.
"Don't be so modest, Dechs, everyone knows it's your bill," the redhead held on to the conversation while she sat on the table and put the cue behind her for another shot, arching her back and thrusting her chest up. Her words carried just a trace of hostility, "Let some mutants loose provided they're screened for type and class. Of course, we'll have to provide funding for all that. Tell me again, what's the only company that can do those screenings?"
The ball missed its hole; the lady hopped off the table and strutted over to Dechs. He stepped around her to take his turn.
"Nothing that I stand to gain invalidates the rights of a people confined for nothing more than their genes," supporting his bad hip with the table, Dechs brought his chest almost to the felt and missed an easy shot at the far end. After taking two steps back, he spoke with certain authority, "This bill will be seen as a victory for human rights."
"Let's not forget that the world thinks your definition of human is far too broad," she scoffed at him and advanced. With a quick turn that made her hair flutter, she laid her back into his shoulder. She delivered flatly, "You need me. You'll have to try harder than that."
The woman rested her head on Dechs' shoulder, taunting, knowing full well what pain she caused. Dechs grinned through it, stoic while the old man took his time at the table. He seemed pleased to put away two balls before missing a shot. Dechs broke the silence as she sprung forward off of him, "I'd like to see you around here more often, Erin. Given time, I'm sure-"
Erin cut him off with a gasp, fanning her face in melodramatic fashion, "How dare you insinuate... We're talking about releasing dangerous mutants into a peaceful workforce. I know it's your style, but you can't just buy my vote."
"Oh, they're not so dangerous. Nearly every one of my staff tonight is some kind of mutant." With a nod toward the stage, Dechs elaborated, "Singer's a mimic type. She can sound just like The Chairman himself without killing anybody. Your waiter, Chris? A class three kinetic that can bring your margarita over without touching it if he wants to deal with a migraine tonight. Terrifying."
Erin was ready to take another shot, but her grip slipped and the cue rolled an inch away. She fought to keep her eyes from darting around the room. Her hand quivered for a moment before she clenched it tight. Dechs was taking the wrong approach here; the acute awareness of mutants near her was making her more uncomfortable. She shook off the fear, taking up the cue and focusing again on the table.
"My bill is specific. It clears class three and four mutants of the least dangerous types. But you're still afraid of my boiler bartender because she runs a temperature all the time and nothing else." Dechs pushed harder. With both hands on the opposite side of the table from her, he locked eyes and dared, "I want you to spend more time with me so that you spend more around them."
Her shot was catastrophic. Erin missed the intended ball and knocked something else into the pocket. She muttered a word that Deathgrind could not hear, then stood up and excused herself from the table, "Well, I guess I'm out. Shame. I was enjoying myself for a while there."
"Call me anytime." Dechs teased.
With a sour smile, Erin quipped, "Don't count on it."
Instead of watching her strut away like the old man did, Dechs returned his cue to the rack, trading it for his matching black cane. With a pat on the back, he congratulated the old man, "Looks like you win again."
"Have I? You've still got a ball on the table," the gentleman argued.
"To your three? I haven't a chance. Besides, I need to have a seat." Dechs moved a hand to his hip and massaged in gentle circles. He added, "Thank you for introducing me to Miss McGavin. Now, if you'll excuse me..."
"Oh, it was no trouble at all." The old man bowed out, then hustled down the stairway after Erin.
Dropping the act as soon as the man's back was turned, Dechs rolled his eyes and heaved. Nothing resembling pain was present in his practiced, supported strides as he approached Deathgrind. Dechs touched the inside of his right ear in what could have been an innocent scratch, except for the timely exit of Cooper. She rose without a word and glided toward the nearest bar, her simple crimson gown flowing behind her. Dechs slumped into the warm chair, tipped his hat and then fished a flask out of his tuxedo.
As he twisted the cap off and raised the flask in a silent toast, Deathgrind noticed a shift in the atmosphere. Everything became still. Music and chatter dimmed to nothing and even the breeze from the air conditioner halted. One glance at the wrinkle on Cooper's forehead explained everything.
"So." Deathgrind began, "She is on the clock. Why did she not shield your political conversations?"
Dechs finished a heavy draw from his flask before he answered, "The bill I'm pushing through is public knowledge. Most anyone could learn is that I'm going after the obvious target to swing my opposition."
"They could learn that your first pass was shot down." Deathgrind amended, "Perhaps this is an endeavor in which I should be involved?"
"I don't want to get violent," Dechs shook his head, "Not yet, at least. Everyone gets one polite offer. She's got something personal on this issue. Mentioning boilers unhinged her pretty hard, so I'm going to pull that thread. Find some blackmail leverage. Standard fare, really."
"On to our business, then." Deathgrind unfolded a few sheets of paper from within his suit and handed them across the table, "First is everything I know about our psychic. His criminal record was expunged, most likely by the organization that picked him up. He was not operating by choice, as a recruiter of sorts. He meant to find leverage on me like they have on him."
"Yeah, not much to go on there." Dechs looked over the notes provided, "I'm more concerned with how quickly they moved. They must have intercepted your call, then scouted my security policies and found my doctor in how many days? Too damn few. No more standard communication. I'm putting you on my network."
Dechs flicked a little black case with a clear lid onto the table. The plastic case had a USB port and an earpiece inside. Dechs answered all the questions he anticipated. "Automatically hunts for one of the networks I have my hands in and uses encrypted signals. Safe and reliable. Yes, I can track its location. I'll give you the source code so you can add in your own privacy options."
It was hard to see how any malice could fit in the equipment, but that did not stop Deathgrind from thinking about it. Unable to respond for the shock of what he had just been given, Dechs rambled on, "I did have the pleasure of meeting a representative from this group. Didn't even ask for his operative back. Near as I can tell, they're still interested in you, but he gave me no indication of why."
"Dumb muscle, to quote the dead." Disgust turned to delight as the sentence finished.
Dechs howled, "Don't worry. They know you're worth more than that. Offered quite a bit just for me to walk away from the table. There was some intimidation, too, but he's bluffing. He doesn't know as much as he wants me to think or he'd have pushed harder with it."
"Interesting," paranoid gears churned, "Is the hope that I complete your research so worthwhile?"
"Has nothing to do with your value or their offer. It's all about the timing. You're one of mine, now." Dechs continued in a grave tone, "I never let go of what's mine."
The statement was a war between assuring and menacing. Deathgrind considered how the ultimate meaning hinged on whether Dechs had been truthful about his motives. Pushing those thoughts aside for the moment, Deathgrind pursued the immediate threat,"What is the plan of attack?"
"Don’t have one," Dechs dismissed the idea, "We don't know what to go after, yet. Stay vigilant. They'll make a play sooner or later, but they can't catch us off guard now. Anything big enough to make us worry will be telegraphed; anything small enough to fly under the radar is no threat."
Satisfied, Deathgrind moved on with a nod, "I have moved into an apartment nearby. I will need your people to pick up two crates of equipment for me and one large crate for disposal. They can show up any time after nine but must be gone by noon to avoid seeing my mender."
"Wait." Dechs snapped forward, inquiring, "Let me take her in. She needs to see George anyway; she might as well live here."
"I would prefer to wait until this heat blows over. As it stands, I feel she is safer in obscurity." Deathgrind chose careful words to avoid offense, "I appreciate your concern, but for now, the fewer people who know she exists, the better."
Dechs was about to protest, but Deathgrind put a finger on the papers and kept talking. "On the second sheet is something of a grocery list. Some of it is for your projects. Some of it is for mine and there are a few red herrings for good measure."
"Completely expected. I'll take care of your supplies." Dechs raised his hands and fell back into his chair. After another draw from his flask, he shifted focus back, asking, "Did you at least bring me a sample to get working on her DNA?"
Deathgrind pulled out a pair of glass vials filled with thick red fluid. He slid them across the table and did not release them until Dechs had taken hold. Realizing the significance of this, Dechs leaked a hint of excitement in his smirk, "Which one's yours?"
"The one with a Y chromosome." They both shared a brief chuckle before Deathgrind added, "They are marked with initials. Of course, I would prefer my sample be restricted to you and George."
"George won't even know." Dechs stood up, slipping the vials into an inside pocket of his tuxedo. Tapping at the pocket from the outside, he smiled, "I want to get started on this right away. I'm glad you came. Enjoy the rest of the party."
As Dechs turned away from the table, sound from all around returned in a sudden oppressive wave. Before departing, he lifted his flask upside down and drained the last of it. While everyone else would think Dechs was turning in for the night, Deathgrind alone knew he was just diving into something new.
Turning his attention to the nearby bar, Deathgrind found Cooper in a fit of laughter, sitting next to a familiar old surgeon who looked quite uncomfortable in a tuxedo. He was loath to interrupt their moment, but the lady had demanded a dance. As a gentleman, there was no choice but to oblige.