Owls & Ashes

Connection

Mila's Web

Adrian Pryor gathers the pages before him, taps them together on the desk. After a fair bit of deliberation, she’d decided that typescript, printed on a fine cream stock and presented in a leather folder was the way to go. Adrian’s era may have been the tacky, computer-obsessed world of the 1980s stockbroker, but the man himself brought a gravitas to the table that made the very notion of a PowerPoint seem mortifying. She had of course included a copy of her presentation on a thumb drive as well, with relevant links, because failing to do so for a presentation of this sort, of this content, would be equally mortifying. And, she has learned, the dead can still be mortified. All too well.

“An impressive presentation Miss Goodlove. Most . . . unexpected. How did this come to you, if one might enquire?”. One might.

One month earlier:

Jesus, she thought. This is getting ridiculous. I have this vague outline of what I want to do, but I’m totally fucking lost. Why can’t he give me more help? If I succeed, he’s only going to look good. (And, she adds to herself, if I fail he’s going to want to be as distant as possible from the train wreck. Which is all the answer I need.) Fuck. Let’s go over this again. Maybe I’ve just been roiling this over inside my head too much. Get it down in writing. See if that helps.

Feeling a little foolish, she opens up a text box on her laptop. Let’s brainstorm this fucker.

Build a network. Build on my intrinsic interest in social networks. I’m good with people, I’m good at networking humans, and good at seeing connections.

How to I turn that to my advantage? How do I bring the best value to Invictus? To myself? To Adrian?

What head do I need to deliver on a platter?

Politicians? I have some of those in my pocket, but that’s a way to gather too much attention. Masquerade breach. Bad. Bankers? Violet can work that angle way better than I, not really my jam. Come on, how do we do this?

A soft chime. That weird text box opened up as it had weeks before when she was feeling equally at sea. What the hell? Oh well, fortune favors the bold. Except when it gets them staked out to enjoy a nice sunrise, of course. She stops, fingers hovering above the keyboard. Huh. How to begin? At the beginning, I guess, she thinks. Why not?

>Hello

>>Hello, Miss Goodlove. Interesting questions.

Great, she thinks. Let’s not go all Twilight Zone Syndrome and start saying things like, “How can you see what’s on my desktop?” Take this for what it is, don’t freak out.

>So, does the NSA have an undead division these days?

>>Very funny, Miss Goodlove.

She can practically hear the lack of amusement.

>Are you here to help me or taunt me?

>>That’s hardly a useful question. You are here to help yourself, and to help . . . your superiors. There are links. There are Links. Follow the lynx. Your answer is neither in front of you nor very far away.

The text box closes. Well, that was weird. Although once you’re a blood-sucking undead monster, do mysterious IMs even register on the weird scale anymore? Links. Links. Hmmm . . .

She opens Google and, on a whim, hits the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button.

A seemingly unrelated page of search results. Fuck. This is useless. About to close the window and go back to pacing and fretting, she stops. Instinct. Patterns. Links. Give it a look. Turn off the critical mind, let the right brain do its thing.

The first story is about Facebook’s board donating millions to local schools and charities. The second, your basic Bill Gates Saves Africa with Help from Bono type thing. The third, a profile of a San Francisco real-estate developer who donates a significant portion of his filthy lucre to affordable housing advocacy.

Links. Well, I guess we have a little research to do. Thanks, mysterious and vaguely ominous online presence!

Three weeks earlier:

She checks her look one last time in the plate-glass windows. Professional, a little sexy, more than a little intimidating. Just the way she likes it. Severely tailored and very expensive black suit, heels almost too high for a business executive . . . but not quite. Calfskin briefcase. It’s late but not that late. Funny how powerful men are willing to meet a little outside standard business hours when asked by a sultry voice that just somehow sounds like money.

She strides purposefully in to the bar. Ah, there’s the mark, at a table to the side of the room. Funny how this feels just like escorting . . . I’ll get all dressed up, meet you in a bar, pretend to like you, and leave with your money. Or, in this case, something a lot more valuable than your money.

“Mr. Castiel? Mila Goodlove.”

“Miss Goodlove! So happy to meet you.” He extends a hand. She exerts just enough will to warm her flesh a tad, no need to frighten or disconcert him with an icy grip. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Oh please,” she says. “Let me get the first one. My associates have been . . . quite generous with expenses.”

He smiles. “Well then, don’t want to disappoint them. I’ll have a Crown on the rocks.”

With a smile, she heads to the bar, aware that’s he’s watching her rear as she walks, accentuating that movement a bit. Get him slightly flustered. Always a good strategy. At the crowded bar, it’s easy enough to shield the drink with her body, place a hand over it as though to keep from spilling, and dig a suddenly slightly sharper than usual nail into her wrist. There, a few precious drops of blood. Nice of him to choose a dark colored liquor.

She slides back to the table, hands him his drink, puts her own Campari and soda down. “The next one’s on me,” he smiles.

The head tilt, the half smile, the eye contact. Fish in a fucking barrel. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t stay long tonight but . . . I do hope that our talk goes well and we’ll have occasion to meet again. To review the papers, that is.”

“Of course, the papers. Do tell me more.” He’s hooked. The potent brew of sex and money has him, even before he ingests the drink. But even now, he’s raising it to his lips, taking a long draw. Yes, One down. Two to go. Come on, snake eyes. Baby needs new cred.

“My . . . associates are very interested in finding the right charities to endow. As I’m sure you know far better than I, there are so many questionable organizations out there. We want to be sure we’re putting our money somewhere it can do the most good.”

“That’s what I’m here to help folks do.”

“Exactly. And you have a wonderful reputation. Well worth your rather . . . impressive fees from what I hear.”

“I like to think so. Might I inquire who precisely these associates are?”

“For right now, they’d prefer to remain anonymous. You know how it is—venture capital, tech start-up, possible Google buy-out, NDAs everywhere. Such a bore. I’m empowered to speak for them, and I think you’ll be very satisfied with our terms and our organization.”

“Well, as you know, my expertise is in matching donors with the recipients that will best benefit from their largesse. I balance the company’s interests, the potential tax and goodwill benefits, and the good that can be done with the funds. I hate to use the cliché ‘everybody wins,’ but in this case, it really does apply.”

“Including you, Mr. Castiel.”

“But of course. After all, I get to have drinks with lovely ladies.”

She smiles. It’s what you do. Like clockwork. “So, did you have the paperwork we talked about?”

“Of course.” He hands her a thick pasteboard folder, lets his hand linger a bit as he passes it off. Men. So predictable. Her flesh is easily warm to his touch. Saw it coming a mile away.

“I’m so sorry to have to make this such a short meeting, but after I’ve had a chance to review this, I do hope we can meet again?” Cock the head, half smile, lower the voice a note or two. “After all, you do owe me a drink.”

He watches her walk away. Watches hungrily. He wants . . . yeah. He just wants.

Present day:

Adrian nods, taps the folder against his desk. “I see. Charitable organizations. But what of the poor schoolchildren whose futures might be affected?”

“Fortune favors the bold, Master Pryor.”

“Fortune favors the monstrous, Miss Goodlove. Believe me, I know. Do go on.”

One week earlier:

The final time, she doesn’t even need to make up an excuse to meet. Their second assignation had been again over drinks, to discuss the terms of his contract, and the sort of charities her mysterious associates might wish to endow. She’d chosen a darker bar, risked opening her vein a bit more, dosed his drink well. The look on his face as she left after their somewhat perfunctory meeting was . . . oddly invigorating. Like she was the last drink of water in the world, and he’d been crawling across the desert for weeks.

This time, a few days after that, he called her, with the flimsiest of excuses. Some interesting opportunities to examine, a few loose ends to tie up before signing a contract. Clearly saying whatever he thought it would take to get her to meet him, words almost meaningless, but underneath them the real meaning thrummed clearly enough: “I need it. Please. Please. You have to help me, give me more.”

She didn’t even bother with the nicety of dosing a drink this time. In the dark corner of a Valencia Street hipster bar, she just sliced her palm with a casual flick, trailed a languid finger through the blood, held it out to him. He opened his mouth hungrily, and she could almost hear something click, some safety being eased off, his will and self-control slipping away.

“What do you want?” he almost whispered, reeling from the transformation coursing through his blood.

“Funny you should ask. Let’s talk about these billionaire clients of yours. I find them . . . fascinating.”

Present day:

“So, you have your very own pet financial advisor. How cute. What do you plan to do with him?”

“Well, as I’m sure you’ve seen from the file, his advice and guidance are crucial to the charitable programs for dozens of top tech companies. With a very few exceptions, these multimillionaires don’t care about charity. What they care about is getting a tax break and looking good in the news. If he advises them to fund a worthy-seeming charity, they won’t dig deeply. Part of his job is to vet the recipients, and he has decades of reputation banked for doing just that.”

“And I suppose you have ideas as to what those charities should be?”

“We don’t want to get greedy. As I believe you told me, immortality is the ultimate long con. We’ll let him keep endowing all the usual suspects with . . . just a few tweaks. My associate Miss Madrone has developed some holdings in affordable housing. Always a good cause. The arts are a fine beneficiary, and I imagine Madame Kerensky might have some suggestions. And, of course, it might be beneficial for the Invictus to establish some charitable operations as . . . ah . . .”

“A front?”

“That’s . . . a way of putting it.” She smiles. He gives her that quirk of the lips that she’s coming to take as a sign of approval. You damn sexy undead bastard, she thinks.

“Thank you.” She looks at him. Was that in response to . . .? Oh hell, who knows. He smiles like an apex predator, continues. “This is interesting work. You would be well encouraged to continue to develop this asset.”

“I won’t disappoint you, Mr. Pryor.”

“That would be in your best interest, Miss Goodlove.”

Later that night:

Okay, that was pretty much tacit approval to start sourcing and placing donations. Maybe investigate starting some sort of false-flag do-gooder organization to funnel tech funds to the Invictus. Just one little thread left dangling. She tries to figure out how to pop open that mysterious chat box, but to no avail. Nothing in her browser history or hard drive recent items. Hmmm. How do I summon you, little demon box?

She starts typing terms into Google. Links. Network. Pattern. Lynx. The results box fills with random things . . . golf links, networking organizations, a fund to save endangered wildcats. Then, there, bait taken. The chat box flicks open.

>>Looking for something, Miss Goodlove?

>I don’t know, am I?

>>There’s no need to be too clever. Do you want to continue?

>I’ve heard that fortune favors the bold.

>>Are you feeling bold? More importantly, are you feeling fortunate?

The search screen blanks. All that’s left is the Google logo and the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button.

She smiles. You know, I think I am.

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