Lucy Kim glared at her salmon risotto. She respected chefs who experimented with their dishes, but there was such a thing as too much curry. Lifting her eyes to call the waiter, she found her vision occupied by a subdued-yet-expensive business suit, tailored to fit something in the shape of a mummified corpse. “What,” she whispered.
The hairless head attached to the shriveled body resembled one of a living human being, but only barely. Somewhere in hollow sockets, a pair of dark pupils focused on her, and dry lips separated from teeth so perfect they had to be dentures. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Actually I do.”
The man pulled out a chair and made himself as comfortable as a skeleton possibly could be. “Thank you.”
“I said I–“
“I heard what you said,” the man replied, “and I chose to ignore it.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“You’re Lucy Kim, founder, president, and CEO of Encre Noire Capital and director of the Ingkeu lobbying firm.”
“Then you know I own 40 percent of this restaurant.”
“I’ll have the maitre d’ escort you out.” She signaled the closest waiter, but he didn’t seem to notice her. In fact, he looked directly at her before rushing by. With an impatient sneer, she grabbed his arm, causing him to spill his drinks.
“Crap!” he hissed. “Crap! Crap! Crap!” Ignoring her, he crouched to retrieve the shattered remains of her sabotage.
“Are you even paying attention to me?” she shrieked.
The thin man cleared his throat. “You can’t make a scene, Ms. Kim.”
“Between you and this idiot right here, I think I’m damn well entitled!”
The man’s mouth creased. This may or may not have been a smile. “I didn’t tell you that you shouldn’t make a scene; I said you can’t–as in, ‘You are incapable of making a scene, Ms. Kim.'”
“Then what do you call this?” She shoved the waiter, who flopped onto the floor.
“What the hell is wrong with me today?” he muttered before righting himself and resuming his cleanup.
“Needlessly cruel,” the man said to her.
“What is wrong with him today?”
“He caught his elbow on a chair? He developed a sudden cramp? His blood sugar is low? He’ll come up with something. Exploiting man’s instinct for making excuses is the reason we magic users are able to function freely.”
“That doesn’t explain–“
“A handful of spells have been cast over this room,” the man told her. “Everyone but the two of us are incapable of acknowledging your existence. It’s complicated and exhausting, but you are more than worth the effort.”
“Magic spells?” she laughed. “You bribed him, didn’t you.” To the waiter, she shouted, “You’re fired, idiot!”
“Please, Ms. Kim, stop wasting my time.”
In resignation, she sighed. “You have me at your mercy, Mr….?”
“Sager.” He stretched out his hand cordially, and she shook it, also cordially. “Mr. Alvin Sager. I’m a high-ranking official in a business run by Nasir Hamad. Are you familiar with Mr. Hamad?”
“I can’t say that I am.”
“Excellent,” Mr. Sager said. “He has several people working around the clock to ensure his anonymity–anti-public relations, if you will. I’m pleased hear they’re meeting their goals.”
“What is this about, Mr. Sager?”
“It’s about ambition, Ms. Kim,” he replied.
“Naturally.” If he was annoyed by the obviousness of the question, he didn’t show it. “You’re a clever woman, so I assume you’ve surmised the questionable legality of Mr. Hamad’s enterprise.”
“Given the supernatural nature of his business, Mr. Hamad is able to avoid the secular laws of the United States. However, there is one authority he cannot avoid.”
“The corporation,” she breathed.
Mr. Sager tilted his head. “So you’re aware of them.”
His face creased again. “That makes your work much more, to quote the vernacular, ballsy.”
“Thank you,” she replied. “But what does the corporation have to do with me?”
“To understand this,” he began, “you’re going to need to know a little bit of their history.”
She poured herself a glass of wine and leaned back in her chair. “You have my full attention.”
He folded his hands and sat as still as the cadaver he resembled. “In the late eighteenth century, the corporation was a loose confederation of five merchant families from Europe. Because profit was their raison d’etre, they didn’t pay much attention to the magical goings on of non-landowners, which allowed a pair of warlocks in New Jersey to consolidate inconceivable of mystical strength. The confederation recognized their level of threat and gathered a militia of witches to sort out this matter. The ensuing battle eliminated hundreds of people, acres of Northeastern forest, two indigenous tribes, the capital city of Richardsburg, Pennslyvania, and April 31–as well as tearing a hole in reality that can never be properly sealed.”
“April thirty-first? Now you’re just messing with me.”
He glared at her. “Every single event that took place on that day–every birth, every death–was wiped from existence. History prior to 1789 was very, very different. Even the most educated of us can’t grasp the enormity of damage caused.”
“Mr. Sager,” she asked, “why are you telling me all this?”
“Ms. Kim,” he replied, “I think you know why.”
She bolted to her feet, waved her arms, positioned her fingers, and shouted, “Ttang-ui yulyeong i saengmul e bul-eul kaeseuting!.”
Mr. Sager removed from his jacket a large iron coin, onto which was scratched a complicated sigil. “Sit down, Ms. Kim,” he said as he returned it to his pocket. “Clearly you don’t know why I’m telling you all of this.”
She obeyed him and asked, “Are you saying I’m capable of removing another day from the calendar?”
“It’s a possibility.”
She gulped down the remainder of the wine in her glass and poured herself another.
“Lucy Kim,” he told her, “you grew up unremarkable, until you found a magic spell that altered probability enough to win a modest jackpot in a convenience-store lottery. You invested the money and used magic of escalating force to manipulate the stock market to your favor, buy and sell several small companies, and eventually wield enough financial strength to purchase state and federal legislators from both political parties. What makes you even more remarkable is that you managed to do all of this without drawing attention to your incredible rags-to-riches narrative.
“The corporation almost didn’t notice you. But what you’re doing is bending reality, almost to the breaking point.”
“What does all this mean?”
“The corporation has an agreement with Mr. Hamad,” he replied. “As long as we don’t get too ambitious, they allow us to carry on with our activities. However, when someone frightens them–someone like you, Ms. Kim–we’re expected to intercede. I haven’t had to do this since 1939, so clearly you’re exceptional.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“It was how things were done then,” he said, “but this is the twenty-first century. We prefer to think of ourselves as more pragmatic. However, your lucky streak ends today.”
“And if I say no?”
“Then pragmatism would dictate murder.”
“You’d really do that?” she asked.
She massaged her temples. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Resign from Encre Noire Capital,” he told her. “Dismantle the lobbying firm. Tithe both the corporation and Mr. Hamad’s business. Retire to a tropical island–I don’t care which one. Relax and fuck a cabana boy if that’s something you’d enjoy doing. And never, ever practice magic again.”
It took less than five seconds for Lucy Kim to agree to Alvin Sager’s terms.