First Contact

Dúl recognized his error the second he entered The Cache. When he learned that Merc was heading to the club, he pictured something Manhattanesque. Something Manhattanesque based on the last time he’d had to foray into that kind of human establishment.

When had that been? The 90s? 80s?

Whatever. Things were very different here and now, and he was definitely overdressed. Or underdressed, depending on who one asked. The mesh shirt, choker, and eyeliner made him stand out much more than intended.

He camped at the end of the bar farthest from the entrance where he could see when Merc arrived. A few times, bar patrons would get close, sidling up to make flirty small talk, but most kept their distance. The music blared, and the bartender watered down the drinks. Dúl switched from Amaretto to water after the second round.

This was an interesting experience of several human traits and behaviors all in one place. Illuminating yet curious. For example, it escaped him why they doused themselves in such strong and offensive scents. One woman came to the bar at least ten feet from him, but her perfume literally had him sputtering like an old cartoon car. The chemical bitterness stuck in his throat with each breath until she got her drink and sauntered away. Even the bartender was gasping for air until she was gone.

Finally, Merc strode through the door and scanned the room. He’d familiarized himself with the various guises the shapeshifter liked to employ. Dúl pulled the shadows around his body to conceal himself and observed.

Merc seemed tiny compared to the brute they approached, yet they exhibited no fear or hesitation. Such confidence would be an asset to the Court if the shifter could be persuaded into an agreement.

Dúl needed to get closer.

At the same moment he had that thought, Merc backhanded the thug. There wasn’t much of a fight after that. Merc went down almost immediately. Except…

It was too easy. Not at all in line with all Dúl knew of the mercenary. He had the sense they weren’t actually knocked out.

He resolved to investigate further.

The thug tossed Merc over one shoulder, which sent a jolt of irritation through Dúl. Cloaking himself in shadows, he trailed them until they disappeared into a three-story building.

On silent feet, he hugged the wall, sneaking to the second floor. An office suite occupied each side of the small hall. He peeked into one entrance following bored murmurs from within and loud snoring. Several video displays showed different parts of the building, inside and outside. Most of the screens were dark and still.

One feed focused on a bright room with cages. A young fey boy huddled in the first cage, and in the other, Merc sat on the bunk bed. The guard’s head was nodding as he “watched” the pair.

The two changelings in this office discussed their boss in hushed tones, and the third’s head nestled into his crossed arms. Dúl spared a moment to empathize with Donny, knowing well what it was like to have to manage undisciplined staff. Still, he didn’t feel bad for the mafioso and was grateful for the lax attitudes of these underlings. They were going to make his life much easier.

He dropped the shadows cloaking him and appeared behind the guards. They shouted in surprise and scrambled at their hips for weapons.

Before they could recover their wits, Dúl put his hands up in surrender. “Peace, friends. Your boss said it was all right to have a look at his operation firsthand before entering into a contract we’re negotiating. I apologize for startling you.”

They exchanged glances, mouths hanging open. Eventually, one said, “Uhh…boss didn’t say nothin’. We’ll have to call and check it out.”

“Hmm… I was standing right there when he spoke to someone on the phone. Did someone perhaps forget to relay a message? I don’t expect he’ll be happy to know that, nor am I for that matter. Very unprofessional. Thanks for your time.” He turned to exit.

“Wait,” the shorter said in a rush. “I-I remember now. H-he must have spoken to Croane, right Battel?” He shot his comrade a look that suggested he should play along before they were both stuck in deep shit. “He mumbled something after he took the shifter down to the cages and then ran upstairs to use the can.”

“Yeah,” Battel drawled. “Right, Von. He said the boss was expectin’ somebody.”

Von nodded enthusiastically before getting up and bowing to Dúl. It was all the fey could do to suppress a chuckle. What buffoons. “If you would just show me down to the cages, I’d like to inspect them for a while from the inside.”

The changeling stared. “From the inside?”

“Yes, to make sure they’re secure.”

Von shrugged. “Yeah, sure. Follow me.”

“Oh, and there’s one other thing,” Dúl said. “Can you tell the guard down there to act as if I’m a prisoner? You know, for the full experience.” He grinned. The guard called down to the one snoozing downstairs before showing Dúl the way to the cells. He couldn’t believe how easy that had been. His mood greatly improved, and he couldn’t wait to meet the one-of-a-kind shapeshifter in the flesh. This night was about to get very interesting indeed.

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