So the Interbionics building’s groundbreaking ceremony gala is tonight, and I’m going with Margo to represent The Company. Our CEO Paul Dean is going as well; we’re just part of the contingent.
I pick up Margo at 7 in the Saab, which is fucking immaculate. I detail that car on the molecular level. You may not have thought about it, but the same super strength and speed that helps me fight crime also helps me clean my car with inhuman speed and efficiency. I have skills.
Anyway, the car was clean, I'm wearing a tux, and Margo looks beautiful. I meet her in the lobby of her high-rise condo in Midtown. She glides in, grinning, looking like a movie star.
Margo is wearing a strapless black gown with a double string of pearls and a pearl bracelet. Her chestnut brown hair is swept back, held in place by shining diamond and pearl hair clips. Margo smiles, and her teeth are radiant against her glistening red lips.
“Mackenzie,” she sings. “You look like a million bucks, baby.”
She gives me a chin kiss to avoid messing up her lipstick.
“Back atcha,” I say. “You’re beautiful, Margo.”
She looks at me, amused. “Am I?”
Whoops. “I mean you look beautiful.”
She smiles at me. My heart is spasming and my cheeks burn. I feel like an idiot.
“Are you blushing?” Margo asks.
“Whatever,” I say. “It was a compliment, you said I look like a million bucks, I said you looked nice. Big deal.”
“You’re blushing, Mackenzie!”
“Let’s move on,” I say.
“This is going to be fun!” She laughs wickedly.
“Can we go?”
I help her into the fucking immaculate Saab and we make the short drive into Old Town, to the new Interbionics West Center. Originally it was a brick cannery or cold storage place, but now it’s a fusion of brick framework with futuristic steel designs. There’s an underground parking lot, and the building is surrounded by plazas and gardens full of ornamental grasses and shrubs. Big searchlights wave back and forth in front of the building, which is a chaos of limousines, town cars, and TV vans.
Oh, a side note: I think that Interbionics is run by supervillains, too.
A valet takes the Saab (I’ll search it for bugs later) and Margo and I stroll inside the main foyer, which has graceful brick arches and steel framed skylights. Interbionics has gone with a generic holiday theme for this one – the foyer is festooned with wreaths and white lights. An absolutely massive yellow Chihuly glass sculpture hangs over the dance floor area. A red-vested swing band quietly plays to one side, and a crew of caterers in elf suits are already hard at work behind a frosty wonderland bar, serving drinks. No sign of the evil mastermind Jason Delacroix.
It’s kind of a typical event. The elves circulate with trays of appetizers. A few brave souls timidly dance at the edge of the dance floor. People get their drink on. The Interbionics West Coast HR manager says a few words to polite applause. Then Jason Delacroix takes the stage and people go nuts.
A big screen behind him magnifies his satanically handsome face as he shakes hands around the edge of the little stage he’s on, gives the thumbs-up, etc. Watching this guy give a thumbs up to his crew in the Operations Division makes me ill. He looks like he should be waving a pitchfork and cackling evilly. Still, I must admit he is a handsome devil, which makes me hate him even more.
The crowd loves him. “You know, when I first took over as North American VP of this company five years ago the critics said we were an ‘East Coast’ company. Nobody is more proud of our Maryland roots than I am, but when I took over…”
He goes on about his vision for a west coast expansion, how people said he was crazy, but how together we proved them wrong and here we are and woo! My attention starts to wander. I make up corporate pixie dust bullshit for a living, I don't need to eat it. I see Margo, listening to Delacroix’s speech near Paul Dean. Then I see the Ice Queen.
She’s walking straight towards me through the crowd, looking at me like a hungry cat. I cannot for the life of me remember her name, but she’s one of Delacroix’s Aryan inner circle, a handsome blonde specimen I call the Ice Queen. She’s wearing a tight white strapless dress that glitters and shimmers when she moves. Her blond hair is slicked back and her cold, beautiful face is framed by sparkling diamond earrings. Damn, that's one well-built woman.
“Mr. Mackenzie,” she says. I take her outstretched hand, noticing the supple muscles of her arm. “How nice to see you again. Ingrid Vanderwaal.”
"Of course," I say. "How could I forget? Nice to see you, Ms. Vanderwaal."
"I'd like you to call me Ingrid," she says. Her eyes are mean and hungry. She's like a shark; a hot blonde shark with a nice rack.
"Ingrid it is then. Nice place you guys have here. Are you spending any time in the E.C.? Will I be seeing more of you in the future?"
She snags a drink off a passing tray and takes a sip, all without moving her eyes from me. "I certainly hope so."
I shift a little. My trousers suddenly don't fit well.
"I've been wondering something," she says.
"What's that?" I flag down an elf and grab a glass of red.
"What's it going to take to get you to come over to our side?" She arches an eyebrow, lets her eyes drift up and down.
"I didn't know we were on opposite sides," I say.
"We are," she smiles. "You just don't realize it yet."
Our verbal foreplay is interrupted by Jason Delacroix, the irritatingly handsome Interbionics executive. Margo is with him with a fake smile on her lips; she's looking at Ingrid appraisingly. He extends a hand.
"Mr. Delacroix. I'm flattered that you remembered, sir." I am a total liar. Again there is the iron handshake.
"I was hoping that you could join us on stage in about an hour for our groundbreaking toast," he says.
"I'd be honored." Again with the lying.
"Super. Can I borrow Ingrid from you for a moment?" Delacroix hooks out an elbow and Ingrid slides over to him, shooting me a look. "If you'll excuse us."
Margo and I watch them go.
"Uggh!" I say. "That guy makes me feel oily every time I talk to him."
"What about her?" Margo says. "What did she want with you, besides your blood?"
"I think she's headhunting me for a job."
Margo makes a disgusted noise. "Headhunting is the right word for it," she says. Then, quietly, "Tramp."
We chat and drink some more. I keep flagging down a big strapping elf waiter for more gin and tonics. Margo eyes the guy, whose muscles are straining against his cute elf get up. "What do they feed them up at the North Pole these days?"
We're both a little tipsy and despite my protests, she drags me out on to the dance floor for a slow song. The big Chihuly floats over our heads. It looks like a thousand glowing yellow glass sperm trying to get into a big orange egg.
"So how do you like the Ninth Floor?" Margo says.
"Eh, it's okay. You?"
We dance in silence for a minute. I should say something.
"Hey, you still going out with that guy?" I say.
Her face darkens a little. "Yeah..." she sighs.
"Uh-oh. Things not working out?" I ask, hopefully not too eagerly.
"No, it's fine. It's just -- we're both so busy, you know. And I can't really talk about the project to anybody, so there's like this whole area of my life that I have to keep secret. It's kind of lonely, you know?"
"Yeah," I say. "I know." More than you can imagine.
"Plus, I don't think he..." Her voice catches a little. "I um, I don't think he loves me."
I notice that she's dancing a little closer now. I've never seen her like this, so... soft. I don't mean soft in a bad way.
"Hey, you know what?" I say. She looks up at me. "I --"
"Excuse me?" The PA system squeaks to life and the music dies. Fuck, and I was having a moment there with Margo! A woman's voice comes over the speakers. "Excuse me everyone. Interbionics Vice President Jason Delacroix would like you all to join him in a toast in five minutes time. Our elves will be passing out champagne, so please grab a glass."
Our CEO Paul Dean waves us over to the side of the stage, behind a roped off area full of VIPs. Mayor Chip McChesney is there along with some local business leaders, a few city council members, and a few basketball stars. I guess this is the group that will be joining His Satanic Majesty on stage for the toast.
Elf waiters start circulating among the crowd with trays of champagne. A stern looking elf with a goatee passes out flutes of champagne to the VIPs. I take one.
Somebody bumps into me from behind; that big strapping elf from earlier.
"Sorry, bro," I say.
The big elf smiles. "Sorry," he says. "Have a shrimp roll." He presses a shrimp roll and napkin in my hand.
"No, I'm good, really..." But then he's turned his back and is gone.
Where do they train these guys? I look in vain for some place to ditch my shrimp roll. I spot a big planter. As I'm about to surreptitiously dispose of the unwanted canape, I notice writing in black permanent ink on the napkin:
DON'T DRINK THE CHAMPAGNE
What the fuck? I look around for the big elf, but he's gone now. The flute of champagne in my hand looks normal enough. Smells normal enough. Actually, wait a second. It smells sort of like... metal. Or ozone.
Out goes my drink, into the potted plant.
I push past the other VIPs and past Margo. Where's the elf waiter, the stern looking cat with the goatee that was handing out these drinks? I find him at the edge of the roped off area, scanning the crowd. He looks more like a trained security agent than a waiter, though the red and green elf tights really drops him a couple notches on the tough-guy scale.
"Hey buddy," I say cheerfully. "I spilled my drink. You got any more of that champagne?"
The guy looks thrown for a second, like he hadn't planned on this. "Uh, yes sir. Let me go get you a glass."
"Oh, it's okay, I'll just get one of these," I say, and motion an elf waiter from the non-VIP zone to bring me a glass.
"No!" the guy says too quickly. "No, no, I'll get you a glass, sir. The VIPs have special champagne tonight, sir."
I shrug. "Whatever."
The stern elf with the goatee turns and marches off. I assumed he would head for the caterer's staging area, where all the other little elves go, but he heads for a curtain near the stage's edge. With a glance back over his shoulder, he disappears between the folds of curtain. I'm no genius, but that looks suspicious to me. I duck under the rope and set off after him.
"Mackenzie, where you going?" Margo calls.
I wince and make a little gotta-pee dance. "Emergency!"
"Well, hurry up!" she says.
I duck out of the crowd and through the curtain.
The backstage area is just a partitioned-off area of the foyer, hidden by thick crimson curtains. Nobody's back in this area, which is dimly lit and covered with thick power cords for the lights and sound system. Nearby are a bank of elevators and a long spiral staircase that heads up to a balcony that looks down on the main lobby.
And there's my waiter guy, over at a table. He's refilling my drink... from a stainless steel thermos of some kind. In front of him is an open briefcase with several other thermoses inside.
"That's what champagne comes in these days?" I say, and the guy jumps, startled.
"Sir! I'm going to have to ask you --"
"Whatcha got there?" I ask, stepping closer. "That's weird."
"If you could wait out front, sir."
I point a finger at the stainless steel containers. "Let me take a look at --"
The stern elf grabs my finger and twists my wrist. He grabs at my lapel - this fucker's trying a judo move on me!
I easily pop out of the hold and we stare at each other for a second.
"That was rude," I say, and he punches me.
The stern elf is fast. He clocks me in the jaw with a roundhouse punch that sends me staggering. I trip over some cables and flop awkawardly to the ground, holding my sore jaw. That hurt! Holy shit, this fucking elf dude has super strength!
I pop to my feet. "Okay, elf. That was your free shot. You don't get another one." I brush dust from my shoulder and stride towards the guy, who is still holding the thermos.
Just then the intro music starts and applause swells on the other side of the curtain. The toast ceremony is beginning.
I reach for the thermos in his hand. The elf spins away from me and comes back with a sweeping heel kick aimed right at my temple. I block it with my forearm then twist and grab his ankle. His eyes widen with a brief "oh shit!" look and then I toss him bodily forty feet through the air and into the elevator doors. Clang! He drops the thermos.
Serves him right, fucking with me like that. I grab one of the stainless steel containers from the briefcase. It's cool to the touch. It looks like something you'd keep fissile material in.
"What's in here, shorty?" I say, turning...
... the elf guy is running up the circular stairs towards the balcony.
"Hey!" I set off after him.
On stage, Mayor McChesney is talking some shit about the private sector and the public sector working hand in hand to strengthen and diversify this great city on the sea.
I run up the stairs, four at a time. I need some answers. Who gave me that note? What's in this champagne? Why do just the VIPs get it? I have a feeling stern elf won't be very forthcoming with answers, but it will give me an excuse to pound on somebody for a while.
There's more applause from below as I reach the balcony. It wraps 3/4 of the way around the foyer and offers a nice view of the lit up gardens outside and the huge glowing Chihuly sculpture suspended over the lobby. And there's my guy, the stern elf, running for an elevator. It briefly dawns on me that he is probably intentionally leading me off someplace quiet where I can get ambushed and killed without disturbing the party.
Ding! I leap at him as the elevator doors open.
We both crash into the elevator, cracking the wood paneling on the inside. The elf elbows me in the jaw and for a brief second half of my face goes numb. Then the guy's clawing at me - Jesus, he's strong - and his hands close around my neck.
He's choking me. Instead of fighting his crushing grip I swing the steel thermos around and brain him. With a groan he slumps off me, stunned.
"Okay, my little Keebler elf," I say. "Time for some questions and answers."
He spits blood, dazed. "Fuck you."
"Question #1: Do you feel pretty in that outfit?"
He snarls and head butts me. Wow, I didn't see that coming. Stars fill my vision and I'm vaguely conscious of stern elf grabbing the thermos cannister. I punch him in the face. Once, twice. He kicks me out of the elevator and across the balcony. A few more feet and I would have gone over into the crowd. Fortunately they can't see me down below.
The guy yells and charges me, face bloody. Flying kick.
Down in the foyer, Jason Delacroix is speaking. The toast must be coming up soon. Then the Mayor, half the city council and all the other big shots will drink the weird champagne. Then Margo will drink the weird champagne.
I block a knife hand strike from the stern elf and counter with a leg sweep that he easily avoids. This guy's pretty good. We grapple for a second, grabbing each other's wrists and hands. He's pretty strong, too. The stern elf looks at me with cold rage in his eyes. Blood and snot bubble from his mouth and nose.
"Question #2: What's in the champagne?"
He gnashes his teeth in a bloody grin and spits the word, "Perfection!"
Down below, I hear Jason Delacroix say the words: "I'd like you all to join me in a toast."
I squeeze hard and hear the elf's wrist break.
"...to the future of this great city and to the future of a new partnership..."
I pivot to one side, twisting and shifting my weight. I execute ippon seoinage, the one armed shoulder throw, and flip the bloody elf over my shoulder...
...off the balcony...
...flying through the air...
...and crashing into the huge Chihuly hanging over the empty dance floor. There's a horrible chain reaction of breaking glass sounds mingled with screams from the audience - then the whole thing shatters and drops elf and all twenty feet down where it just fucking goes Death Star and explodes into a million pieces.
Well, that interrupted the toast.
I pick up the cannister and run back downstairs and join the chaotic exodus of revelers trying to escape outside. A woman's voice on the P.A. reminds us to stay calm, everything's okay.
After a few minutes of looking I spot Margo.
"Mackenzie, where the hell were you? Did you see it? This guy just jumped off the balcony on to the glass scuplture --"
"Yeah, I saw that," I say. "That was crazy."
She doesn't have her coat. I take off my tux jacket and give it to her and we wait our turn for the valets. Margo leans against me to keep warm and for a moment, I forget all about evil corporations and super-strong elf waiters and that incredibly hot Ingrid and I just enjoy the smell of her hair and the warmth of her body. And for a moment, I don't care about any of that other shit. My paranoia will kick in full gear on the drive home. Maybe My Guy can run a test on the fluid in the thermos, tell me what it is. No, for right now, I don't think about that. I just enjoy standing here in the cold, being with her.
She looks up at me and smiles. "Thanks, Mackenzie."
"I had fun."
I smile. "Me too."