The present was all ready to go.
They’d spent hours choosing the right one, making sure it’d fit her, getting everything all nice and neat with a pretty little bow. It was only fitting, given what a momentous birthday it was.
Dac Rogers prided himself on knowing the right gift for everyone. Seven years of professional gift-giving had imbued him with an innate sense of being able to discern what everyone needed when they needed it. It was incredibly rare that he ever gave a gift someone couldn’t get good use out of, that didn’t suit them impeccably.
Fiona Florentine was no exception.
The gift was, admittedly, a group effort this time around. Head Office had given him the idea, and Brendan had made sure it’d be available when the day rolled around. Everyone had agreed it was the best idea. Jacob had even joked about getting one for Ash, when her own birthday rolled around.
Dac now regarded Fiona Florentine with a smile, adjusting the final strap on the collar around her neck. “What d’you think? Did we pick the right size?”
Florentine spat at his feet, tied firmly to the steel chair in the center of her office. Dac had wondered why she didn’t have something a bit less utilitarian in there – a burgundy lounge, perhaps? Something with good arch support.
He stepped back slightly from the spittle, waggling a finger. “Now, now. Don’t be rude. We got that especially for you, sweetheart.”
She started hurling a whirlwind of Russian obscenities at him. He caught one or two of them – relating to unsavoury interactions with a family of goats – then pulled out the detonator. He flicked the primer switch, holding the little remote in his hand like it was the Sword of Damocles made miniature. She immediately fell silent.
“Clever girl.” He grinned. He was having far too much fun. “Now, before we take the last bit of wrapping off, would you like to tell us where Doctor Dream is?”
She laughed bitterly, giving Dac the impression of a dog with bronchitis. “In hell. Where soon you be too.”
He nodded slowly, looking thoughtful. “Well, see, that’s not really helpful. At all. Like, even a little bit.” He sighed, making for the door of the office. “When you see him, then, let him know we’re onto him, ok?” He reached into his coat pocket with his free hand and withdrew a little black notebook. He flipped to the relevant page, and read, “Prepare to have your mind blown, honey.”
He crossed the threshold out into the corridor and clicked the detonator, not bothering to watch as her head suddenly adorned every corner of her office with pink and red gore. A few meters from the office he suddenly turned back and walked to the doorway, flicking to another page in the notebook.
“Sorry, sorry,” he told the headless corpse, “I should’ve gone with ‘I guess you won’t be the Head of your company anymore’. Honest mistake, sorry about that.”
It was her birthday too, coincidentally. Her present was just as nice.
Dac stood with the others as they watched Ash unwrap the small blue box. The squeal of delight when she saw what lay within was all the validation he needed; he’d picked the right present.
She pulled out the scale-size plush heart, giving it a gentle squeeze that set the mechanics inside into motion. The heart began to beat realistically, thumping within her fist.
“EEEEEEEE!” She squeaked, holding the plush simulacra against her own heart. “Thank you! It’s just what I always wanted!”
Dac didn’t question why the young lady had such an obsession with body parts. He only acknowledged that it was so, and used it to get her the right presents every year. Apparently she’d gotten a bit bored with the real organs he’d given her on previous birthdays, and was now moving onto replicas to see how the experts made them work. Fortunately, fake internals were never in short supply at the toy stores Dac visited.
Damian Ashcroft, the company coordinator, was grinning amusedly. “Nice work, Rogers, but remind me never to let you buy me a birthday present. Ever.”
“You got it, boss,” Dac replied cheerfully, following the others to the conference room.
Once inside they all sat around the spacious mahogany table, the lights dimming as the projector flared to life and shone colours onto the nearby wall. Damian stood at the head, all British pomp and regal, as the slideshow began.
“First of all,” he began, his strong British tones instantly soothing Dac like verbal Savlon, “Belinda would like everyone to know that lunch today will consist of chicken mignons and vegetables. Apparently she’s adopting a new ‘healthy eating’ regime that means cutting back on the oils and such.”
Glen Gardner, Research and Development lackey, groaned. “So now how am I going to gain muscle mass? Do you see how board-flat this stomach is? And I eat like a horse, too!”
A laugh came from Jacob Aldente, sitting opposite Glen. “Is that why all the hay in the basement’s gone?”
“What hay?” Glen asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Y’know, the stockpile we had for Coconut.” Jacob pointed to Mary Chestnut, Glen’s superior in RnD. Dac saw she had a look on her face towards Glen that would’ve burnt the eyebrows off a normal man at range.
Glen suddenly looked ashamed. “Well…I didn’t know we had a horse until recently. And that hay all went towards scientific research.”
“Research for what?” Mary said venomously, still bitter about her horse being hay-less. “You building a robot scarecrow or something?”
“Well, actually –”
“Enough!” Damian’s taut British tone cut them both off. “We can banter about Glen’s hay habit later. Right now, there are more important things at stake here.”
“Like my birthday dinner?” Ash piped up, still clutching the pumping heart like it was her firstborn.
“No, no, that’s already sorted,” Damian replied. “We’ll meet at Excitray at 8pm, table’s already booked for ten.”
“Who’s the tenth?” came the New Zealand accent from Brendan Brolland, Head of RnD. “As far as I’m concerned there’s only nine of us, unless you count Beryl.”
The entire table groaned tiredly. Beryl was a sore subject, especially where Dac was concerned; the incompetent woman had almost sheared off his dreadlocks during the monthly service she offered. He’d spent years working on those.
“I know,” Damian said wearily, “that Beryl’s not exactly the best hairdresser our company has employed, but she’s the cheapest we can afford right now. Plus, Belinda says she’s a dab hand with a frying pan.”
“Yeah, her murder weapon of choice,” Brendan said drily.
“Can we get back on topic, if you please?” Damian smoothed his business suit, going back to the projector. “Ash’s birthday dinner and Beryl’s continued hairdressing incompetence notwithstanding, there are bigger problems.” He clicked the projector remote, changing the slide into an image of a swarthy, handsome-faced man with a strong jaw and wavy brown hair.
“Doctor Dream is continuing to elude us,” Damian said. “Thanks to the work Mr Rogers pulled off in Red Square, he now has one less lieutenant – Fiona Florentine. While she was not forthcoming with the whereabouts of this dastardly criminal, she did offer up one interesting piece of intelligence from files stolen off her laptop.”
Damian once again clicked the remote, and Doctor Dream’s picturesque frame was replaced by that of a map of what appeared to be Canada. Brandon Spanner, Head of Tech and Vehicle Maintenance, perked up. “That looks familiar.”
“Yes, I thought you might appreciate the severity of this assignment in particular.” Damian’s face was grim. “I’m afraid the threat is right in your backyard, old chap. Doctor Dream’s agents have infiltrated a Fair Trade coffee company in northern Toronto.”
The entire room gasped except for Dac, remaining cool as a proverbial cucumber. He raised an eyebrow at the map. “Sounds alright to me, boys. All we need is another insertion, bit o’ this an’ that, and the company can be ours. The Doc’ll think twice before threatening us with coffee again.”
“It’s not quite that simple, my Australian friend,” Damian told him sombrely. “I’m afraid Doctor Dream has kidnapped Brandon’s –”
“My dad?” Brendan suddenly shouted, leaping from his chair. “Has the Doctor kidnapped my dad?”
Damian shook his head resignedly, having been through this before. “No, Brandon. Someone has kidnapped somebody of Brandon’s. With an ‘A’.”
“I’ve got an A in my name, bro!” Brendan protested. “You’re telling me someone kidnapped my –”
“No, boy, Brandon. Braaaaaandon. Not Breeeeeeendan.”
Brendan looked confused. “Why are yeh sayin’ my name twice?”
Damian huffed out a long, sigh-filled breath, turning to regard the Canadian he was attempting to address. “It’s your lady-friend, old boy. Doctor Dream has kidnapped your lady.”
Brandon looked shocked. Dac knew from personal experience how hard one could be hit when a dame was involved; he himself had nearly gone ape on a man who’d shot his cousin in the leg. Not quite the same thing, but it was the closest point of comparison he had.
“So,” a new voice said from the doorway, “what are we going to do about it?”
Everyone turned to regard Lonie Ramona, head of Legal and Accounting. Dac thought once more how closely she resembled a resurrected Betty Page – a fact Damian was always quick to capitalise on for particular infiltration missions, where the guards could be easily distracted by her lookalike status. The news reports from places the team had hit usually featured survivors claiming they saw Betty Page brought back to life. It was helpful in insanity cases too.
“Well,” Damian replied, “we’re planning on sending a team deep into Toronto –”
“By plane or boat?” Lonie asked, regarding him hawkishly.
Damian seemed momentarily taken aback. “Well, plane, obviously.”
“With a permit?”
“A permit for what, my dear?”
“Entering foreign airspace on a private aircraft.” She opened up one of the heavy law tomes she carried with her. “Crossing international borders without a permit is a violation of –”
“For God’s sake, bro!” Brendan cried, still leapt from his seat. “Please don’t quote another regulation against us!”
Lonie glared at him. “I’m not your bro, kiwi. No matter how much –”
It all happened so fast. One second Mary was sitting next to Jacob, looking calm. The next she’d lunged from her seat across the table to tackle Brendan backwards and into the conference room wall. The concrete didn’t give, and Dac heard a loud crack as Brendan’s head became good friends with the architecture.
The others all scattered from the table except for Damian, who stood and watched in silence as Mary pulled out a long, cruel-bladed knife. Without pausing she rammed it home into Brendan’s neck, at just the right angle to cause copious bleeding and sever his spinal column. She stood back quickly, looking victorious.
Dac, standing back at the opposite wall, suddenly relaxed, having realised what she was doing. He sat back down again, casually looking over at Brendan’s corpse. This was always the fun part.
“Uhm, guysh?” Brendan gurgled through the knife in his throat. “You moind taking thish out, brosh? I can’t moive.”
Brandon seemed to hesitate for a moment, then sighed as he reached down past Mary and wrenched the knife out of the New Zealander’s neck. Brendan let out a long breath as if he’d just been underwater, then started to get to his feet as his spinal column realigned. The wound in his neck autonomously closed up, leaving the blood behind it. Within moments he was healed, if a little bloody.
“Sorry, bro,” he said, turning to face Mary. “Not this time.”
“Dammit!” Mary fumed. “So not even a dagger blessed by Cthulu can kill you?”
“Nope.” He started to wipe the blood off with his sleeve. Thankfully his shirt was black. “Not even.”
Brandon reached across and handed the knife back to Mary, who took it wordlessly. Damian still watched them, silent and unmoving. Dac counted internally – was that murder attempt number sixty or sixty-one? Either way, she should know by now she couldn’t kill him. Brendan’s Sloss-divined immortality wasn’t going away in a hurry; it was the reason he could be Head of RnD, and have almost anything tested on him without fear of major adverse effects.
Mary had been trying to kill him for at least the last year, and had failed every time. Apparently a God’s gift wasn’t something she could comprehend properly.
“So,” Damian finally said, snapping everyone back to reality, “are we ready to continue?”
The mission was outlined. It seemed like ordinary fare, which was exactly the right kind of mission to completely screw up – and screwing up missions was what the Intern did best.
Doctor Dream had been waiting on Skype for what seemed like an eternity before the Intern finally called. Dream accepted it readily, suddenly feeling excited. “You have news?”
“I do,” the Intern replied, their voice scrambled by a program to make them anonymous even to Dream. “They’re planning an operation in Toronto. Apparently the Fair Trade company you took is their target.”
Dream fumed, looking at the screen opposite the Skype call. The timetable was moving forward, and an assault on the coffee company would cause unwanted delays. “Is it an infiltration or a straight cut and paste?”
“Probably a cut and paste,” the Intern said, “but it could go either way. Ashcroft seemed adamant that it be taken.”
“So he let you into the meeting?” Dream asked, feeling strangely optimistic.
The Intern made a noise of assent. “I’m one of the top agents they’ve got in that place. Without me this whole operation would fall apart. I’m the best mole that ever moled. Melanoma could take some pointers from me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” Dream replied, feeling the Intern was getting ahead of themself a bit. “You’re good, but –”
“I should be on the cover of Mole Monthly,” the Intern continued, oblivious to Dream. “It’ll read ‘Counter-Insurgency Company Can’t Counter This Cancerous Customer’. Of course I’ll have to use a nomenclature, but the –”
“Will you shut the hell up?” Dream yelled, driving his microphone volume up to full.
The Intern was quite for a moment, then said, “Yes, Doctor.”
“Good,” Dream said, breathing out. “Now, give me the mission specifics.”
There was no reply for a full ten seconds. Dream could guess at what the Intern was doing. “Are you angry I don’t share your indulgence for your moleitude?”
The answer sounded hurt. “…I’m a great mole.”
Dream nodded, speaking soothingly like a parent to a child they planned to murder later. “Yes, you are. You’re the best mole. You make basal cell carcinoma look like a freckle on a frog’s ass.”
The Intern seemed to perk up at this. “Thank you, Doctor. Nice to know I’m appreciated.”