Chapter 21:

The woodcut hell of an Escher print.

UnCrowned


“I’m here to see the CEO.”Bookmark here

The receptionist replied without looking up. “I don’t think Mr Schafer has any personal appointments on his schedule today.”Bookmark here

“Then I’d like to make one.”Bookmark here

“You can’t just make an appointment all willy-nilly.” She sighed, clacking at her keyboard. “Alright, name?”Bookmark here

“Lev Zaytsev.”Bookmark here

Her head shot up, eyes wide. “Mr Zaytsev! I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise it was you.”Bookmark here

“It’s fine.” He glanced around. It was a typical weekday morning; men and women rushing through the lobby, filled with the clatter of telephone rings and the smell of cashmere suits. It was opulent. Not as much as its parent company, but enough to make it a familiar sight. “Can you get me a meeting?”Bookmark here

More typing. “I’m sorry, Mr Zaytsev. Mr Schafer’s schedule really is full today.”Bookmark here

“I’ll wait.”Bookmark here

“Excuse me?”Bookmark here

“I will wait for him.”Bookmark here

“Sir, you have to understand,” she stuttered. “Even during his lunch break, he’ll be seeing people.”Bookmark here

“Just tell me where he’ll be.”Bookmark here

She was about to protest when she caught the flash of his smile. Smiling was harder than it used to be, like remembering the chorus of a forgotten song. He had gotten used to the luxury of hiding his scowl behind a mask. Bookmark here

“Alright,” she relented. Her cheeks flushed pink. “He’s taking a meeting on floor fifty right now. Down the hallway, you won’t miss it. You’ll be waiting a long while though, and there’s no guarantee you’ll even see him.”Bookmark here

I don’t plan to, Lev wanted to say. Instead, he gave her a wink, then passed through the metal detectors barring the rest of the room. Bookmark here

Twenty-three steps, he memorised, trying to keep his stride consistent. In the busy morning, his footsteps were masked by the crowd, but the hard marble floor would not be so forgiving when the sun set and the air fell silent. Bookmark here

At the elevator, Lev clicked floor one and prepared for the long day ahead. Bookmark here

Floor by floor, room by room, he examined every nook and cranny of Priam Tower. Every step was counted, measured, and shelved into his mind, forming a mental image of the building. Luckily, most of the tower’s fifty-seven floors were repeats of one another, following the same basic design. By the time he was a quarter of the way through, Lev could estimate the layout of each successive floor within one glance, though that never stopped him from being thorough. Bookmark here

Hallway, cubicles, hallway. Lavatory, break room, hallway, cubicles, hallway. Endless rooms upon endless rooms, stairwells leading to places identical to the ones you started in. The world outside was a vibrant, distant memory, and this world within was the woodcut hell of an Escher print. Bookmark here

For most, this would have been disorientating, but for Lev, it was nostalgic. It reminded him of Zaytsev Tower. His father had taken him to work most days after school, and when he was not lecturing him on business and philosophy, his childhood was found in these sorts of buildings. Wistful days spent seeing how far down the stairs he could make in a single leap. Bike rides in the lobby, naps in empty meeting rooms, games of chess played with clerks on their lunch break. Bookmark here

He recalled making paper airplanes using old logistic reports, desperate wishes written in-between graphs and charts. Each time, he would beg security to let him throw them from the roof, and each time they said no. So, he made them promise to throw the planes for him. Thinking back, they probably chucked them in the trash. They had better things to do than idle with the dreams of children. Bookmark here

Those were days before he met Sehyun. The only ones he could bear to recall. Every moment since was so tinged with the memory of him, that he could not remember them without a throbbing, empty pain pooling in his stomach. Bookmark here

Lev stepped out onto floor fifty. The meeting room’s door was made of a hazy glass, transparent enough to show two dark figures inside, but too opaque to make them out. Close by, there was another door– the first significant deviation from the rest of the floors. Unlike the others, this one was carved from steel rather than wood and appeared twice as thick. In addition to a keycard reader, there was a number pad below.Bookmark here

He ran a finger over the unmarked metal. Every other door had a number or a name engraved. This one had nothing. No identifier. Something soft hummed behind it, barely noticeable in the busyness of the workplace. Bookmark here

Lev snapped back his hand. Someone stopped behind him. Bookmark here

“Lev Zaytsev?”Bookmark here

He turned his head to see an overweight man in his fifties. A curled moustache laid beneath his nose. It would have taken Lev another moment to recognise his face, but the bandage on his cheek and the bruises on his neck were unmistakable. Bookmark here

“Mr Carter.” Lev reached for the man’s outstretched hand. “Long time no see.”Bookmark here

“For you, perhaps. Linda and I went to see your performance at city hall last month. A truly splendid show, Lev.”Bookmark here

“Please, sir, you’re too kind. If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your cheek?”Bookmark here

Lev was surprised at the words that left his tongue, at his urge to watch the fat man scramble for excuses. It was a flash of sadism. Something that Quill might have done, not the wunderkind Zaytsev.Bookmark here

“Oh.” Mr Carter’s face flushed bright red. Deep down, Lev enjoyed the sight. “I was, uh, cutting fruit and the fool that I was, I accidentally scarred my face.”Bookmark here

He chuckled. It was an unconvincing sound, even if Lev wasn’t there to watch him run out of the Radiance, pants at his ankles. Bookmark here

“So what brings you here today?” asked Mr Carter, desperate to change the topic. “Did you come to accompany Mikhail?”Bookmark here

“No, I’m just here to ask Mr Schafer something.”Bookmark here

“In that case, I’m sure you could’ve slipped in with your father then.”Bookmark here

Lev felt as if somebody had just punched him in the gut. “Pardon me?”Bookmark here

“Your father. I didn’t realise you two came separately.” Bookmark here

Lev froze. The floor seemed to fall from under his feet. “You mean he’s here?”Bookmark here

Of all the times. Bookmark here

“Yeah, he was in a meeting with Mr Schafer.”Bookmark here

“Where.” Bookmark here

Carter flinched at the sudden change in tone. “Uh…the meeting finished a little while ago, so he’s probably in the lobby– “Bookmark here

Lev was gone before the man could finish. As soon as he turned the corner, he broke into a sprint. A crowd had just left the elevator, and Lev pushed his way through them with no regard. They glanced back at him, annoyed expression on their faces, but he didn’t care. He crashed inside the elevator just as the last man left, and slammed on the buttons.Bookmark here

The descent gave Lev a moment to breathe and collect his thoughts. He already embarassed himself enough, so there was no way he could return to finish assessing the building, especially not before meeting Vulpes. He would have to take the design of the fifty floors he had already examined, and extrapolate them for the last seven. Yes, that’s what he’d do.Bookmark here

“Hello, father,” Lev practised to himself. “Hello, father. What a coincidence this is, is it not? I was just leaving as well! Oh, are you returning home now? Why yes, I’d love a ride back.”Bookmark here

When the doors opened, Lev rushed into the lobby. His eyes drew to his father easily, who was in a conversation with his secretary. It was an easy search. Even in a building full of well-dressed businessmen, he somehow jumped out as the most well-dressed and more businessmen-like of them all. It wasn’t that his suit was the flashiest or his accessories were the most expensive. Like the Crown’s Warlords, something about his very essence changed the mood of any room he enters. A strength of ego, perhaps, for no one can control Minerva’s industry without having the aura of kings.Bookmark here

Lev approached his father, straightening himself. He opened his mouth. Hello, father. It should have been so simple. Two words, yet they lodged in his throat like a fishbone and choked him. Bookmark here

Mikhail Zaytsev’s eyes drifted to Lev. A moment too long later, he noticed him, as if trying to recognise someone in the dark. “Lev?”Bookmark here

Everything he planned to say had left his mind. Bookmark here

“I didn’t realise you had business at Priam Tower,” said his father. Bookmark here

“The Boccherini concert,” he managed to say. “Next week. I have a guest solo. I wanted to invite Mr Schafer.”Bookmark here

“That’s thoughtful of you. Did he say he would come?”Bookmark here

“I…didn’t ask yet.”Bookmark here

“But you came down.” Mikhail’s eyes narrowed. It was a natural motion, yet Lev couldn’t help but feel that his father knew his every thought. “Nevermind. Go ask then.”Bookmark here

Lev blinked. Just like that, his father was walking away. The conversation dropped, like small-talk with an acquaintance. It was routine. He knew that. Though, this time it hurt more. No, it hurt the same, only that he didn’t immediately bury it under a mountain of shame.Bookmark here

He opened his mouth and the words that had rested on his tongue flew out, the spell of discipline instantly undone. “Father!”Bookmark here

Mikhail stopped. He paused a moment before turning. Bookmark here

“The Boccherini concert.” Once Lev started, he couldn’t stop the words. “I’d be honoured if you could make it.”Bookmark here

“Lev– ” Bookmark here

“I know you’re busy. But if there’s any way you could make it, it would mean a lot to me.”Bookmark here

Whatever Mikhail felt, he hid it behind a blank expression. That was somehow worse than if he had just scowled or frowned. “Is there something special about this concert in particular?”Bookmark here

“No.”Bookmark here

Mikhail looked to his secretary beside him. She showed him his schedule on a tablet. Bookmark here

“Olga’s play is on that day,” he said. Bookmark here

Then leave her to fucking flail, Lev almost replied. In his mind, it was Priscilla’s voice. “Olga’s play finishes at seven. My performance doesn’t start until seven-thirty.”Bookmark here

Mikhail checked the tablet again and tapped on it. He whispered to his secretary. Finally, he gave Lev an answer. “Alright. I expect an exceptional show.” Bookmark here

And then he was gone.Bookmark here

Lev blinked. He stood there, watching his father leave the building. He stood there as people came in to work, walking around him, confused but not enough to say anything.Bookmark here

He didn’t do it. The thought hit Lev like a bullet. He couldn’t have killed Sehyun. My father is a good man. A harsh one, but he’s no murderer.Bookmark here

Even as he assured himself, repeating those words until they lost all meaning, he couldn’t help but hear Priscilla’s laugh echo from afar.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

Quill leaned on the blackjack table, a coin rolling in his palm. It was a common sight. That table had seen more of Quill’s elbow than any card, to the point that Lev wondered if anyone actually came to the VIP room to play, or if all the gambling equipment was just expensive furniture. Bookmark here

“Mora got back to me,” said the King. “She’s agreed to the deal, but she wants dirt on Julian Carter. That’s one of her conditions.”Bookmark here

Arc sat at the table. She signed in confusion. Bookmark here

“Julian Carter,” Vein explained next to her. “A board member at Priam Industries. He has a son from his first wife and a daughter from his second. I would suggest targeting the daughter. We could infiltrate her elementary school and poison her lunch with something slow but lethal. Then, we offer Carter the antidote for a very high price.”Bookmark here

Arc nodded. One of the few times the two of them were in agreement.Bookmark here

“Poison is too unreliable,” said MP. “The dosage is hard to control. You could just end up killing her right there. I think we go old-school and just kidnap her.”Bookmark here

“It’s not a bad idea,” Quill mused. “We could even make a bit of money on the ransom.”Bookmark here

“You people are insufferable,” Lev sighed.Bookmark here

Quill laughed. “In all seriousness, I’m with the Black Lion on this. We’re not kidnapping Carter’s daughter.”Bookmark here

“Thank you.”Bookmark here

“Too much effort and not very efficient.”Bookmark here

Lev sunk his face into his hands.Bookmark here

“If we’re going into Priam anyway,” Quill explained, “we can find blackmail there. If there’s an opportunity to get two things done at once, we take it.”Bookmark here

He looked to Lev. “Point is, we have two objectives: getting dirt on Carter and getting dirt on Priam. Carter is easy enough. It shouldn’t be difficult to look through his office and if that’s not enough, we’ll see if there’s anything about him in Priam’s files.”Bookmark here

“Forgive me for interrupting.” Vein made an elaborate gesture scanning the room, eyeing everyone present. “We appear to be missing a very crucial member of the fellowship. I, for one, find it quite curious that our esteemed information broker is missing.”Bookmark here

MP chuckled. He was seated on a larger chair, custom-built to accommodate his size. One could imagine it was one of the few places he could sit back comfortably. “He’ll be here. He gave me his word.”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” Quill agreed. He checked the time on his phone. “In fact, I think he’ll be here in three…two…”Bookmark here

The room held their breath. They exchanged glances, counting the seconds in their heads, then looked to the King. He only smiled and put a finger to his lips. Bookmark here

Finally, after a seemingly random amount of time, he pointed to the door. “One.”Bookmark here

Just as he predicted, the doors swung open and a man stumbled in. At first, Lev thought he was a drunken customer who was looking for the bathroom, with his birdnest hair and creased red shirt. His thin black coat had a stain on the front and smelt of mildew.Bookmark here

Lev leaned over to Quill. “Gut feeling?” he whispered.Bookmark here

“Gut feeling.”Bookmark here

“Ah, Chase,” welcomed Vein. “Good of you to join us.”Bookmark here

The dark circles underneath his eyes were so thick, Lev couldn’t tell where the circles stopped and the eyes began. “Am I late?” he croaked. Bookmark here

“You’re right on time actually,” said Quill. Bookmark here

“Great. Can somebody please get me a god damn coffee?”Bookmark here

“You’re welcome to share some of my tea.” Vein took a sip from his cup. “Soothes the soul.”Bookmark here

Chase made a belching noise. “I’d rather lick the floor of a high school bathroom than take a single drop of your leaf juice.”Bookmark here

All of Vein’s muscles tensed, save for the hand that held his tea. “Brave words from a man with a chronic caffeine addiction.”Bookmark here

“Oh, how could I forget: coffee is for grown-ups. Maybe you shouldn’t drink it after all.”Bookmark here

“Adults drink tea too. It’s the most popular drink in the world.”Bookmark here

Chase shushed him. “You should respect your elders.”Bookmark here

“Age does not beget wisdom.”Bookmark here

“But youth beget you to shut the hell up.”Bookmark here

“Boys.” MP rubbed his brows. “Not while we have a guest. Chase, there’s some fresh joe in the kitchenette.”Bookmark here

“Score.” Chase threw his bag at the half-giant, who made it look small in his arms. “Open the side and take out the prints.”Bookmark here

MP did so and laid the sheet over the lounge table. Thin white lines stretched intricately over blue paper, connecting to form a series of rectangles and their measurements. There were notes scribbled along the edges, barely legible and often bordered by brown patches.Bookmark here

Quill whistled. “Not bad.”Bookmark here

“Meticulous,” Vein yielded.Bookmark here

“Fifty-seven floors,” said Chase, walking back in with a full mug. “Most of them are completely irrelevant, so I’ll just give you the good shit.”Bookmark here

He dragged a finger down the blueprints until he landed on one particular floor plan. “First up, Floor fifty. Nothing special about the floor itself, but officially it’s got the company server room here.”Bookmark here

“Only one problem,” said Quill. “No corp worth its salt keeps their skeletons in a labelled closet.”Bookmark here

“Even still,” MP retorted. “It’s worth checking out. If only just to tie up any loose ends.”Bookmark here

“What kind of security are we looking at then, Chase?”Bookmark here

“Just a keycard. Far as I know, only the head of security and the CIO have one on hand.”Bookmark here

“Passcode,” Lev added.Bookmark here

“What?” Bookmark here

“There’s a passcode lock too.”Bookmark here

“Didn’t say anything on the blueprints or security detail.”Bookmark here

“It’s there,” he insisted. “Saw it myself.”Bookmark here

Chase side-eyed Quill, who only nodded back. “Alright. And we have a passcode lock too.”Bookmark here

“We have a problem then.” Quill picked up a deck of cards off the desk. He slid off a single card and held it up. “A keycard’s simple. It’s physical. Anyone with quick fingers can take a keycard off a body.”Bookmark here

He made a snapping motion and the card vanished from his hand. He fiddled his fingers to prove there was nothing hidden between them. “But a string of numbers in a man’s mind? Now that’s something you can’t finesse.”Bookmark here

Arc snickered and signed something. Bookmark here

“Put a gun to the guy’s head,” Vein interpreted. “And shoot a hostage if he still resists. That’s how you finesse a man’s mind.”Bookmark here

“No.” Every eye in the room latched to Lev. “We’ll threaten him if you want, but no one dies.”Bookmark here

“I ain’t a fan either,” said MP. “But worse comes to worst, we might have to.”Bookmark here

“No one dies,” he repeated. Bookmark here

Chase’s laughter was hoarse. “Hey Quill, looks like Astri’s replacement is a softie.”Bookmark here

“The people in that tower, they’re not from our world and they’re not playing our game. No one dies.”Bookmark here

“Not playing our game? Them corpo fuckers play. Maybe not our game, but a similar one all the same.”Bookmark here

“And we’ll be stealing their data and files. Their shareholders will flip, their stock prices will plummet. For the men at the top, this will be more than enough hurt and for the employees, they’re innocent of any sin.” Bookmark here

“You don’t think like one of us, you know that?” said Chase. “You think like a fucking corpo. Smell like one too.”Bookmark here

“Use as many Ad Hominems as you like.” Lev put a hand over his knife holster, slowly so it was obvious. “If anyone dies inside that building, I will kill you.”Bookmark here

“Who’s using Ad Hominems now?” Chase kept his arms crossed. “I spoke too soon. Maybe you do think like one of us.”Bookmark here

“Quill,” said MP. “Say something. We’re not having this every time we hold a meeting.”Bookmark here

“Alright, how about this. We flip a coin– “Bookmark here

“Quill!”Bookmark here

“I’m joking. Chase, if we killed a corpo, the whole underside will be drowning in pigs. If it comes to that, forget the Black Lion, every Crown will be trying to kill us. No spilling blood, understand?”Bookmark here

“I got you, Fox,” said Chase. “But I’m saying I don’t think the Lion’s mind is in the game.”Bookmark here

“What did you say?” said Lev.Bookmark here

“As I said before, you’re soft. You got the privilege to keep your hands clean now, but what if shit gets bad?” Their sights locked, his dark circles only highlighting the winter-blue eyes they surrounded. “The longer you keep them clean, the harder it’ll be when you have to dirty them. When that moment comes, that doubt? That reluctance? It’ll mean the difference between life and death. Or, well…”Bookmark here

Finding him or not, Lev unconsciously finished. There was a gnawing in his heart, like a nest of bugs burrowing through. The memory of solitude – of unthrown paper planes, left flightless in the bin – thundered at him. Bookmark here

“Nobody’s hands can stay clean forever,” said Lev. He was trying to convince himself as much as he was Chase. “But it matters how they are dirtied.” Bookmark here

“You really believe that? Or is it just an excuse?”Bookmark here

“For fuck’s sake.” MP stomped on the ground, and the entire floor shook. “Shut the ‘ell up, Chase. Stop provoking ‘em.”Bookmark here

“We’re all partners here,” added Quill. “Play nice.”Bookmark here

Chase raised his hands. “Sorry, I was just playin’.”Bookmark here

“Let’s get back to the plan. Any other floors we should be looking at?”Bookmark here

Lev took a deep breath, trying to calm himself as Chase moved around the table. “Floor fifty-seven,” he said. “The CEO’s office.”Bookmark here

Everyone leaned in to get a better look. Bookmark here

“I ain’t seeing shit,” MP noted. “It looks like a normal fancy-ass office.”Bookmark here

“No shit, that’s the point. As Quill said, nobody hides their skeletons in a labelled closet. Look here.” Chase dipped a finger into his mug and used it to mark the blueprint. “See how this wall is further back compared to the other rooms?”Bookmark here

“Please, Chase, we have pens.”Bookmark here

“Because the wall is further back, there’s more distance between it and the glass wall. So, theoretically…” He made an air-quotes motion. “If there was a secret door in that wall, it would open with just enough space to not be blocked by the glass.”Bookmark here

“Are there any other rooms with that design quirk?” asked Quill.Bookmark here

“Nope.”Bookmark here

“Are you certain?” asked Vein.Bookmark here

“This is my fuckin’ job, buck. You don’t see me serving hot dogs on the street corners, do you?” Chase tipped his head back and downed the rest of his coffee. “Ahh. I’m gonna grab a second cup.”Bookmark here

Quill snapped his fingers again as Chase walked out of the room. This time, the vanished card reappeared. The king of spades. “Floor fifty and fifty-seven.”Bookmark here

“Two targets,” said MP. “Two teams.”Bookmark here

“Three!” Chase called back. “The elevator doesn’t let you onto the top floor unless you have admin permissions!” Bookmark here

“Three teams,” Quill corrected. “And I’m guessing our resident info broker can handle himself with a corporate security system?”Bookmark here

“Give me a caffeine pill and a paperclip, I’ll be dandy.”Bookmark here

“Good. Alright, people.” He laid the card over the image of floor fifty-seven. “First team will be just me. I’ll charm my way into the office and search there.”Bookmark here

He drew two more cards, a ten and a jack. “Chase takes the security room. Get access to as much of the system as possible. MP will defend him and take down any guards there.”Bookmark here

Another pair of cards. Seven, nine, and a face-down card, placed over floor fifty. “Vein will provide support to all three groups. Arc, you’re taking the server room, along with…”Bookmark here

He flipped over the last card. An ace. “The Black Lion himself.”Bookmark here

Lev and Arc exchanged glares. She flashed her teeth, clenched and fang-like. It mirrored the design of his mask.Bookmark here

“Hope nobody’s too unhappy with this arrangement.” A familiar grin spread across Quill’s face. “Cause let’s get down to details.”Bookmark here

Bookmarked
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