Thread created on 19:27:53 - 08/07/21 (3 months ago)
Last replied 12:43:35 - 03/08/21 (2 months ago)
Chapter 01. The Augurium
The luxurious downtown hotel was a glittering marvel of marble and gold, its every polished surface designed to highlight the power, confidence and and affluence of the guests within. Some of the people walking in through its doors felt secure in the wealth and might, others in their ability to acquire it through connections, some kept their faces down, there to serve ones they considered to be their betters - while the vast majority who walked through the doors felt uneasy, and tried to fit in as best they could, hiding their insecurity with humor, drink, boredom, or bravado.
Jennifer stood outside the glass doors of the hotel in her black evening dress. She was frowning, the expression out of place on her young, beautiful face. Her gaze followed the people going in and out of the hotel, and all she could think of how false they all looked. Some were staff of course, but the rest... pretty young hunters hiding their despair and predatory needs behind a mask of mascara and cheek rouge, and their prey, repainting insecurity and greed as success with their expensive suits and prominently displayed gold watches. She knew she looked the part too, the dress a necessary compromise along with her Prada handbag and medium-height heels and a light natural makeup with a touch of lipstick, but that was the bare minimum for entry. She had nothing to hide, she promised herself, and winced at the lie. Hiding was exactly what had led her here, to meet with a criminal three times her age. And despair was definitely in the setting, too.
Jennifer braced herself and entered the hotel lobby, seeing people instinctively give her a wide berth, some flinching from her gaze while others tried to brazenly hold it. She did not care either way and walked to the desk where one of the staff looked up and noticed her. "Ms Winters? Ms Jennifer Winters?," the hotel employee asked.
That was surprising. Jennifer had expected she'd need to at least introduce herself. "Yes, that's me."
"Your table at the Augurium awaits," the employee added helpfully. "Just take the elevator on your right. Top floor."
Top floor. That's where a rooftop restaurant would usually be, Jennifer thought wryly, but did not say it out loud. "Is my... dinner date?... already there?"
With a professional smile, the employee ushered Jennifer on. "I will inform Mr. Parker of your arrival. Have a good evening."
The elevator proved to have only a few buttons for floors, skipping the first seventy-two altogether, only giving access to only underground levels and the top three, well above most of the city skyline. That infuriated Jennifer, and the anger let her get control of her nerves for the moment. Chris Parker, whom she had come to meet, was apparently trying to impress her with a dazzle of dollars and power, just like all the people in the lounge. While Jennifer herself was only a college student working on her thesis, having a wealthy banker as father had exposed Jennifer to money and all that came with it, so parlor tricks rarely worked on her. But as the elevator swooshed to the 40th and above, Jennifer started pondering why Mr Parker would bother to do such. He was a business associate of her father's, the one to go to for clandestine matters, or to protect oneself from corporate crime... not someone who would need to use cheap tricks. Let alone, on someone whom he already had a hold on.
A soft chime roused Jennifer from her reverie, and the elevator slowed down to a gentle halt, opening to a dining area shaped like a star. Each of the points of the star had secluded tables that combined privacy with a culinary treats that were worthy of the two Michelin stars the restaurant was proud of, whereas the center area was the kitchen itself, with more tables for those who preferred to be seen while eating. Jennifer looked around, recognizing a businessman here, a model there, and was glad to see that the people in the restaurant did not have the same appearance of despair and hunger as those on the ground floor did. There was no sign of a heavily built crime boss anywhere, so Jennifer was at a loss of what to do. She stood still, looking at the people around her, and waited.
"Good evening," a male voice greeted behind her shoulder.
The voice had a soft purr in it that made Jennifer come to attention. There was something familiar in it that she could not place at once, so she she turned slightly to see the speaker. He was not someone she recognized, but he stood out from everyone else she had seen. Gruffly handsome, wearing an expensive suit over a t-shirt rather than button-up one, his garments at the same time recognized the requirements of the setting and defied them. The man's fit and athletic body with handsome features without a hint of prettiness had the startling effect of making Jennifer think of athletes and models and at the same time implied that the man was neither. The grey eyes radiated power tempered with amusement, making the man's gaze at the same time hard to hold and difficult to look away from.
What that all boiled down to was an aura of confidence, the essence of what those in the lobby aspired for and could not quite attain. Seeing it up close was striking but Jennifer knew she could not let herself be distracted by the stranger. What was he... late 20s? Early 30s? Far too young to be the man she had come to meet, though a few years older than she was. She blinked twice, three times, to break the spell his gaze and words had started to weave and replied. "...good evening. I'm sorry, I'm..."
The stranger smiled. "That is quite all right. Would you do me the honor of dining with me?"
A wolf, Jennifer thought, a wolf in human skin. Does he see me as a hare? But the temptation was there, and the stranger's confidence did not quite reach arrogance, nor did his power appear cruel. "I... I'm sorry, I can't. I'm expecting someone."
"Two apologies in such a short time?", the man continued in a warm tone, his eyebrow rising quizzically.
"Sorry," Jennifer replied reflexively, and winced, expecting the man to laugh.
"The apology is mine," he said instead, his voice serious. "I'm Dominic Parker. And you, clearly, are Jennifer Winters."
"You're Mr Parker?", Jennifer said with surprise. "I expected... someone else."
"I'm Dominic. Mr Parker is my father, Ms Winters."
"Jennifer," Jennifer replied with relief. 'Ms Winters' sounded like the name of an algebra teacher.
"Now that we're introduced... will you do me the honor of dining with me?" Dominic asked.
"Gladly," Jennifer replied and smiled for the first time. "I'm suddenly famished."
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The Augurium did not offer menus, only asked in general terms on what kind of allergies guests might have, of which neither Dominic nor Jennifer had any, and what kind of wine they'd like. A request for sparkling water instead of wine sufficed to set the theme of the menu. The waitress had no further questions and left.
Jennifer had several though. "You are nothing like your father," she started.
"Are you sure?" Dominic asked with a hint of his wolfish grin. "You presume to know me already, and to know him?"
"He scares me," Jennifer continued and waited for Dominic to continue. Instead, he looked at her, one eyebrow raised in question. "...he is, after all... a leader in an organized crime faction..?" Jennifer continued sheepishly.
"So the media tells me," Dominic replied, and and paused as the arrival of the first course, an amuse bouche or kitchen's greeting,
"But you know better..." Jennifer tried, then went suddenly silent and flinched as a slight tenseness and a look made it clear Dominic felt she had crossed a line.
The uneasy silence followed for a few seconds. "You are a Sagittarius," Dominic then said matter-of-factly.
"What? No, I'm Aries," was Jennifer's startled reply. "Isn't 'what is your sign' a bit passé?"
"It is. And I don't like putting labels on people anyhow. Just like I could not summarize you with a word like 'Sagittarius' or 'Aries', you can hardly say that 'alleged mob boss' would tell all that there is to know about my father. Regardless of whether he is one or not, that is not all that he is. As you should know - after all, you turned to him for help."
"Yes," Jennifer admitted, concern in her voice.
"If you do like labels, you could perhaps consider my father a knight of the old fables. Hm.. Sir Parker? Knight in the sense that just like the ones that gathered around the Round Table he would do what he deems necessary. And he, like those in Camelot, has a knightly code of sorts. He would never renege on his word, or lie, or fail to live up to his end of a bargain. And obviously he expects the same of those he interacts with. That is only fair, isn't it?"
"I... suppose. I didn't think of it in that light. Or him."
"You turned to him when you were blackmailed by some students from your college, so a contract exists to be fulfilled. Was the matter concluded to your satisfaction? Have there been any further videos, hints towards wrongdoing on your part, additional demands from you?"
"No, there have been nothing of the sort. It all happened over a weekend when I was home, away from campus. As I left, Mary and Liza demanded I bring them souvenirs... 'so they don't need to send my father a gift.' A threat if I ever heard one..."
Dominic nodded quietly, his full attention on Jennifer.
"...and when I returned, everything had changed. The two were terrified of me all of a sudden. They only spoke to me once, trying their best to prove that they no longer had anything over me. It was very awkward, even embarrassing to see them like that. Their friends had some more thoughts on the matter and no reservations at all. They spoke of involving the police, and said that Liza had gone see one and had even had a **** kit used on her. And that Mary couldn't sleep, waking up crying and screaming every night. Whatever was done to them, must have been quite traumatic."
"You, obviously, denied all knowledge of such." Dominic said matter-of-factly. "Was this the outcome you asked for?"
"Y... yes, I suppose technically it is. They no longer bother me at all, and they stopped blackmailing, so... yes."
"And the part that bothers you is not their suffering but that you are now indebted to Godfather Don Parker?"
"Well, it is a bit of both. I never wanted them hurt... and yes, I don't like owing people."
"That's how the society works," Dominic replied philosophically. "Through favors given and owed... even money is that, a form of favor though more abstract. Perhaps I can alleviate some of your fears, though."
Jennifer waited and nodded politely as the waitress came by, picked empty plates of one of the many courses of the meal, and brought another, this one a dessert. "Alleviate how?"
"For starters, I don't think anything was done to either of the blackmailers, as you did not wish them punished for their actions.. which is kind-hearted and noble of you. Most likely they were abducted one by one with several hours between the times they were taken from campus, and between the times they were returned. There are drugs that not only make them malleable and quiet during an abduction, but also make their memories hazy over the time. Actual physical or sexual violence would not only be despicable, but also unnecessary and risky in leaving behind trace evidence and grounds for an investigation. You pointed out Liza sought help from the police, and was no doubt turned down as there was no evidence whatsoever to her claims or fears. All the abductions did was remove from them their illusions of being in a position of power or safety. Instead they were left worried over the well-being of each other, and fearful for their own security. That accomplishes what you wished for. They know they could not go forth with their blackmailing material, that they can't touch you, and if they would make a nuisance of themselves again, they believe they might end up disappearing once more, and this time permanently. That should conclude the matter."
"It does, I think. Except for my debt to Mr Parker of course."
"And as for that part, given your age, that your father is a business associate to mine, and that the matter is something that you wished kept discreet, I think it is best that we handle this between us and leave the older generation out of it. Subject to your approval, of course."
"That sounds very good to me," Jennifer agreed with a relieved smile.
"It's a deal, then." Dominic raised his glass and clinked it with Jennifer's. "We leave them out of this. We can agree on the details later."
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The banter over the rest of the meal was pleasant and the food itself excellent, setting a warm and relaxed mood for the rest of the evening. It was good enough that Jennifer dared continue the evening at Dominic's suite confident that her dinner companion would not assault her as soon as they were out of the sight of witnesses. Given what he had said of the date of Liza and Mary, Jennifer decided that witnesses and venue would not make much of a difference, and besides, Dominic had been a gentleman throughout the meal.
The suite was just two floors below the restaurant, with an unimpeded view over the city. Jennifer headed the window to admire it, and noted how Dominic dimmed the lights behind her. She tensed, but relaxed as he turned on the lights at another room before joining her near the window. She turned slightly, and accepted a glass from his hand, then clinked the glass with his.
"It is beautiful out there... with all the crowds and noise far below where ordinary people live."
"Don't sell ordinary people short, Jennifer. They are what makes the world interesting and real."
"I suppose," Jennifer relented with a half-smile.
"I see that the matter of the debt has you troubled," Dominic said quietly. "Perhaps we should settle that now so we can relax for the rest of the evening?"
"I'd like that," Jennifer replied, and her pose relaxed. "I suppose you can't just... forget about the debt."
"I'm afraid not. Father does insist that his code be adhered to. If you had approached me, I could... but, you didn't."
"What if I just pay cash?"
"Assuming we agree on a suitable sum..? A two-person team with driving, psychology, medical and tactical expertise, with two four-part tasks of recon, abduction, care, and return, the tasks made increasingly harder with each moment spent on the campus... with a fall-back plan of taking the fall so that the client, you, stays safe from consequences... twenty thousand would be a fair compensation for work and risk. But actually paying that would create a financial link that could be traced, putting people at risk. So, I think not."
"A favor in return. With your skills and placement, with a modicum or risk, is what my father proposed. Intercepting a letter intended for your father someday, perhaps. Monitoring guests at your house and reporting about them. Taking an item from the safe... I imagine you don't like that idea."
"No... I really don't. But if there is no choice..."
"There is always a choice. You can simply say no, that you are too young for this, and won't return the favor. Then the matter would go back to our parents, but my father can be discreet. Your involvement would remain hidden. I don't think that is ideal either..."
"No," Jennifer agreed in a sad voice.
"So... I think the best bet would be gamble the debt away."
"Isn't that how people get into even bigger debt?"
"Sometimes." Dominic chuckled. "But I think, in this case the odds are nice. I propose three games - you get to choose which to play. You get to draw the card. And most likely we both win. I can tell father we gambled for it, and you won fair and square. The debt is settled, and I have the excuse to not insist on repayment anymore. He won't like it, but he will accept it."
"Which three games?" Jennifer asked.
"Come here," Dominic invited, and took a deck of playing cards. He opened it, removed the three Jokers and showed that the card was to all appearances a normal 52-card deck. He then shuffled it and played the 52 cards, face down, as a fan.
"You could play for a suit. Name an unlucky suit, and draw a card. If you don't match the suit, you win. If you do... well, it would need to be more than is originally at stake. Say, a couple of those small favors along the lines that father would like. And you still get to say no if the demands would be too stringent and you too innocent and young. For example... you could name the suit of diamonds..."
Dominic drew a card from the fan, and left it face up on the table; the three of diamonds. "Um... that would've been unlucky. I hoped it would have been a non-diamond so as to show that this game is very winnable."
Jennifer couldn't help but smile. "At least we weren't playing yet. One can't win every time. But I still don't like the idea of spying on my family."
"I fully understand that. So, second game. You could play for a number. Say, for spending the night with me. For example... Ace."
Dominic drew another card; the Queen of Clubs. Jennifer pouted. "I would have won. So that would mean that I would not get to spend the night with you?"
A slight shake of the head accompanied Dominic's light smile and answer. "Not exactly. It would mean that you would not be obliged to spend the night with me, and matter of debt is settled. There is no need that we would need to have the evening end. Sadly, morning would still probably mean goodbye anyway as our family business requires discretion.. and that makes it difficult for me to form lasting romantic relationships. But if we would this game to settle a debt, then we would need to go well beyond flowers and candles and kisses. Involving a game's worth of obedience from you to what I would tell you to do."
"Would I still get my no if such is too much...?", Jennifer asked worriedly.
"Of course. And the most extreme game, well, name one unlucky card in the deck, and pull any card but that one. As the odds for drawing that would be only one in fifty-two, to cancel a twenty thousand dollar debt, it would be mean the equivalent of a million dollars. It is so much that then we would no longer be talking about reneging on your commitment on basis of age or innocence. You would be mine in a very literal sense. So, despite the odds, that would not be the wisest choice. Even though the chance is less than two percent, it's best not to risk it."
"Actually.. isn't the chance exactly two percent? You left two cards out of the deck, so there are fifty left."
Dominic nodded. "True. Shall I put them back?"
"No need," Jennifer replied triumphantly. "I choose the second game. I play for number, pick this card here - and my choice is Queen."
Dominic stood still for a while, and watched Jennifer who grinned happily, her forefinger solidly pinning one of the cards to the table. There was a long silence, after which Dominic nodded respectfully and chuckled. "Well played. With the Queen of Clubs already exposed there, your chance of losing the bet drops from four in fifty-two.. or one in thirteen... to only three in fifty."
"Yes, I know," Jennifer beamed.
"Too bad, really. You might've enjoyed the new experience, and I already had some ideas for it." Dominic tried to sound lamenting but could not quite hide his smile. The game had been fun for him too. "But.. no helping it. Open the card, then, set yourself free from the obligation, and we can continue the evening."
Jennifer flipped the card over and paled in shock when she saw it was the Queen of Hearts. "But..."
Dominic stared at the card as well, as the unlikely result that had come up. He then looked at Jennifer and gave her the first orders of the evening.
"Put the cards back in their box and the box on the shelf. Then fold your dress onto the back of that chair, and wait for me, standing exactly where you are now."
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