Several hours later, as he was preparing to eat an extremely early lunch, Evan Crane tapped his newly acquired cigar against the side of his desk.
But he only tapped it once. After that first tap, the man paused as he tried to slowly unpack the statement that his subordinate had just reported to him. For several seconds, it was difficult to believe his ears were working properly. Evan set down his cigar. Slowly, he pivoted away from his salmon topped salad to stare at the man. “What did you say?”
“Erickson Steel has packed up its branches and brought all personnel back to its headquarters,” The man repeated. “This didn’t just happen in Zone 1; apparently it happened across every Zone. The Erickson Steel representatives told customers that all previously made contracts can still be redeemed… but only by proceeding directly to Erickson Steel Headquarters to obtain the metals.”
“They…” Evan sat upward, frowning down at his chilled salmon like it could provide him answers. Yet it only sat there. Perhaps it slowly decomposed as the warm room buzzed against its chilled body. “Do they really think people will take the time to traipse over to their headquarters to obtain their metal…?”
“Most people already are,” The subordinate dutifully reported. “Although most people are complaining, there is already a train line in place that-”
“They have a train line!” Evan hissed. He was aware that they had some handcarts operating out of convenience, but if they actually established a train line…”
But wait… the corner’s of Evan’s mouth curled slowly upward into a sinister smile. If you have a train line… doesn’t that mean it falls under the sway of the Zone Transportation Board? Heh, you’ve dug your own grave with this.
Feeling very satisfied, Evan picked up the tobacco and took another long drag from his cigar. The subordinate’s expression turned aggrieved as seconds continued to tick past while Evan inhaled. Then, after almost fifteen seconds, Evan opened his mouth and released a stream of industrial waste directly toward the face of the subordinate.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Alright, here’s what we do,” Evan said. “Even if customers still want their metal, get the bank to send a representative to Erickson Steel. Use the pulling of the branches as an excuse; no matter what, I want to know if there’s something special going on in there. Hehe, I refuse to believe they won’t lose a bunch of business from this idiotic move.
“Then get the ZTB involved. See if they can cause trouble, even if it’s just raising the fare on the branch track. Finally… send over a message from us to Erickson Steel, requesting assistance on a joint venture project.”
“What’s the project?” The subordinate asked.
Evan Crane chuckled. “Let them know that we’ve discovered a method to use Engravings to imbue a Skill into equipment. That should certainly catch their attention.”
After bowing hurriedly, the subordinate left, leaving Evan alone in his office. Enjoying the silence, Evan took a long inhale and then released a thick cloud of smoke.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Well, Erickson Steel, let’s see how foolish you really are…” Then, with relish, Evan Crane began to eat his salmon topped salad.
After an extremely long night of raising objections and Randidly simply laughing them off, Tatiana felt rather exhausted. And, if she was being honest, slightly unappreciated. But in the face of his confidence, what could she say? As promised, they took a brief break to eat a meal and Randidly managed to cobble together a working train car. In the face of results, Tatiana kept her mouth shut.
Finally, Tatiana looked at Randidly and asked. “Alright, so what will you be doing now?”
Randidly rubbed his hands together. “First I want to see what Erickson Steel has managed to come up with since I left. Then I’ll probably spend a fair chunk of time smelting. I’ve certainly missed it.”
Nodding, Tatiana pressed a button on the desk. Only a short twenty seconds later, a young man pushed open the door to her office and bowed to the three of them. Tatiana turned to Randidly. “This is Mark. Since my assistant is busy, he will be the one to show you around the different facilities. If you have any questions or needs, ask him directly. He can get you anything we have here.”
For the first time since Randidly arrived, he appeared genuinely excited as he walked over to Mark. Then, at the last second, he paused and turned around to look at Tatiana. “Oh, one more thing. What’s the name of your receptionist?”
Tatiana blinked. Her head was already pounding from all of the arrangements Randidly had insisted upon these last few hours. And from all of the threats that they had left unaddressed during their planning session. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with his rapidly shifting thoughts. “Ah, the receptionist…? I think her name is Clarry. Why?”
Shrugging, Randidly simply said. “I scanned her a little, and she seems skilled. I just wanted to suggest moving her to a position that takes advantage of her… abilities.”
Tykes’ eyes gleamed as he looked at Randidly. “Mr. Ghosthound, even if you own the company, you can’t talk about entry-level employees that way anymore. It ain’t the 1950s.”
“Don’t even joke about something like that,” Tatiana said, poking Tykes as hard as she could in the side. “Even as a joke, not good to normalize that sort of scenario.”
Tatiana was rather disgruntled that her full strength poke barely managed to make Tykes twitch, let alone driving the smug smile from his face. Then she turned to Randidly, trying to understand what he had meant by that comment. She did her best to give Randidly the benefit of the doubt, regardless of the conclusion Tykes had jumped to.
To Tatiana’ surprise, Randidly blushed slightly. “I looked at her Skills and Level. I just wanted to draw your attention to it, in case you didn’t know. She’s talented”
Then Randidly shrugged and hurried away with Mark.
It seems even our fearless leader can be embarrassed and flustered about things… so long as they aren’t the presiding government of our area, Tatiana thought wryly. Then she cast her mind around to try and recall what she knew about Clarry.
The woman wasn’t someone that Tatiana brought over from the agency, she was just a hire they made as Erickson Steel was expanding a few months ago. So far, she seemed to be performing satisfactorily. But also, even after exchanging a few words with the woman every morning for three months, Tatiana didn’t have a single strong impression of her.
To put it bluntly… Clarry was pretty but bland.
Tatiana looked toward the door. Well, for his sake, I’ll look into it a bit…
Then she turned to Tykes, who was still lounging around her office. “Don’t you have some work to do?”
Tykes shrugged. “Maybe, but I feel like I should get some rest. After this, the fun will start and not give us much chance to catch our breath. But, we probably have a few days. Even if those idiotic senators notice the change in behavior, they will be suspicious. Only after they realize we plan on resisting them directly will they start to expose themselves.”
“Can we do it?” Tatiana asked softly. A long time ago, sitting on a bench in the park area still intact near the Erickson Steel headquarters, she had resigned herself to be bound to Randidly Ghosthound as a subordinate. When he revealed his prior lie about his name, they had lost something a budding intimacy. Stillborn, their friendship collapsed at that time. But they also created a base to build their current relationship.
Although she was distantly aware of Randidly’s personal power and had heard rumors about what he had done against Donnyton’s best Squads, it seemed another leap to resist the combined power of Zone 1. Once they took this course of action, they wouldn’t be able to recover easily. To treat Zone 1 lightly now cut off their ability to back down.
“Yes,” Tykes smiled evilly. “Couldn’t you feel it? The air around him… something changed. This version of Randidly gives me goosebumps.”
Tatiana hadn’t felt anything, but then her focus had never been on the same areas as Tykes. If Tykes claimed Randidly was stronger, Tatiana believed him. This was her role: to surround herself with experts and allow them to give her opinions. With that information, she, someone who was not as smart or capable as her specialized subordinates, would use her general experience and guide the company forward.
So now, she trusted that Randidly knew what he was doing and let go of her misgivings.
Instead of dwelling on it and the direction that Erickson Steel was currently heading, Tatiana waved Tykes out of her office and knocked on a secret compartment behind her desk. Instantly, a small fold out bed stretched out from the small alcove into the middle of the room. Tatiana rubbed her hands along the silk sheets and shivered.
Because of how constant the threats on Erickson Steel had been the last several months, Tatiana had no choice but to shift most of her life here. But even if this was only a work bed, there was no way that she would subject herself to a low thread count. Randidly did get one thing right; despite the tariffs, Erickson Steel was still the most profitable business in the whole Zone.
With a helpless groan, Tatiana collapsed onto the bed and allowed sleep to take her into its warm embrace. Although her current body didn’t need much sleep, Tatiana still felt psychologically off-kilter when she didn’t get at least one good night of rest a week. Which meant that she got one night of sleep a month. If she was lucky.
The rest of the time she just laughed quietly to herself and made ghoulish faces at her reflection in the mirror.
As with most of those mornings that seemed to dawn peacefully, the sound of her intercom woke Tatiana up. Her first response was to gurgle in annoyance. Then, when the infuriating piece of machinery refused to take the hint, Tatiana had no choice but to roll off the bed and onto the floor.
She took the sheets with her, and then sat up as she rubbed her eyes. The wood panels of the floor were both cold and uncomfortable. Then she stood, stretched, and finally answered the intercom.
“What is it?”
The voice that replied was the junior of her two assistants, Jacob. “Two things. First, Lenna is finally giving birth so Crosby won’t be in to manage the foundry today. Second, you should turn on monitor number four. Immediately.”
While Tatiana’s mind grappled with the fact she would need to produce a replacement for Crosby from thin air, her body mechanically went over to the display on the wall and clicked the switch for number four. Immediately, the terminal displayed for Tatiana a view of the main gate into Erickson Steel, where two figures were standing face to face. The first was a yellow-eyed young woman with her sleek brown hair done up a ponytail and the other individual was a bespectacled man.
“I’m sorry?” The bespectacled man, who Tatiana abruptly recognized as the bank representative, said.
“I’m not.” the young woman, who was Tatiana’s second assistant Vye, said with her arms folded. “Unfortunately, we cannot allow you onto the premises.”
“But…” The bank representative seemed at a genuine loss for several seconds. Then his gaze hardened. “I’m afraid I must insist. Per our contract, the bank possesses the ability to inspect the premises at reasonable intervals. If the business model of Erickson Steel has meaningfully changed, we must know of it. I hope I don’t need to remind you that the land and equipment itself is owned by us-”
“Even so. Go through official channels and bring a stamped and signed complaint if you want.” Vye said lazily. She waved her hand, as though she was warding off a persistent mosquito.
The bank rep glared at Vye. “That… stamped and signed complaint would be a foreclosure. Don’t joke about subject matter above your paygrade. Everything you own would be ours. Do you truly wish to force this issue? I would like to speak with your supervisor.”
In the face of the bank rep’s ire, Vye continued to just smile guilelessly. Her gaze never wavered. Eventually, the man looked away first with a snort.
“Heh, then I suppose I’ll return tomorrow with the police. I hope your superiors understand just how royally you fucked up. We will take away everything from you.”
“You and what army?” But despite the question, Vye simply raised her hand and waved cheerily at the bank rep, as if this was the most normal conversation in the world. Flushing with some dark emotion, the man turned away and stormed off.
Immediately, Tatiana called Vye. She watched the terminal and saw her subordinate pick up after the first ring. “You seemed to enjoy that entirely too much.”
Computer-screen Vye shrugged. “That asshole has always been arrogant. Did you know he asked me for a chocolate the last time he visited? Then he had the nerve to act insulted when I denied having any. Hmph! I’m not the Easter Bunny. Besides, the Lindt truffles I squirreled away are my personal treasure. I will part with my life before surrendering them!”
Chuckling, Tatiana shook her head. “Well, I’m glad that you are in such a dramatic mood. Because I have a favor.”
The change in Vye’s expression was immediate. “I’m afraid I’m very busy-”
“-you’re not,” Tatiana clucked her tongue. “And we need this today. While Randidly Ghosthound is around the facility, we can’t look half-assed. And Lenna is giving birth, so Crosby-”
“-I hate the foundry,” Vye muttered.
“-thanks! It’s just for a few hours. Probably.” Tatiana immediately hung off. On-screen, Vye kicked the tall concrete wall around the Erickson Steel complex. Then, after she vented her anger, she carefully looked around. From an interior pocket of her jacket, she produced a small chocolate which she gobbled up almost immediately.
With a much cheerier expression on her face, computer-screen Vye walked out of Tatiana’s field of view. Rubbing her temples, Tatiana turned to the pile of paperwork sitting on her desk.
No rest for the wicked...