Fog coiled and pooled in the streets of Thorncrag like so many serpents. It wasn’t the hellgas--it was the wrong color, for one, and Downs was still alive, for another. Still, the fog clung to the ground like a greedy lover, wisps reaching after anything that disturbed it from its turgid slumber.
Downs hated it. Hated it with the low, slow, impassive hatred of those long accustomed to dealing with the object of their antipathy.
At least it added to the ambiance.
Downs made his way through the dark streets and alleys, heading to a wealthy destination but not there yet. He avoided looking at the eyes glinting at him from the shadows. His suit and overcoat coat marked him out as wealthy, or at least not as poor as the people around him, and the conditions were right for a mugging or worse. Even so, would-be predators consistently thought twice before springing from ambush.
Maybe it was the whispers in the fog.
Maybe it was the shadows that followed Downs even when there was no light to cast them.
Maybe it was the way the hair stood up on the back of their necks when they got too close.
Whatever it was, Downs arrived at the Wentworth building unmolested.
The front door of the Wentworth was a grand affair, stark geometrics carved into the stone, metal and glass shining from countless hours of polish. A pair of automatic doormen, new models built like jaegerpanzers, touched their caps at his approach. A circular light above the door pivoted to face Downs, and a deep, mellifluous voice poured out of a grating built into the wall. The barest whisper of static as the sentient building’s electronic voicebox powered up, then--
“Good evening, sir. How may I help you?”
“Suite Forty-Eight, Floor Ninety-Seven, Block Two,” Downs rattled the address off without looking up.
“Very good. Do you have an appointment?” asked the Wentworth.
“I’m afraid that all visitors must have an appointment.”
The automatic doormen swiveled slightly, indicating a pleasantly polite, though impersonal, interest in the potential need for violence.
“Tell them Lassiter Downs is here,” the man said, blowing into his hands to warm them.
“One moment please. While I make the call, would you care to listen to one of our musical selections?”
“No, thank you.”
A full minute of silence passed. Downs rubbed his hands together, and the fog from the street slowly rose up the steps to lap at his ankles like an incoming tide.
“Please come in,” the Wentworth said. Its door opened without a sound.
The fog followed Downs nearly six feet into the lobby before the door closed and strangled the flow.
Two elevators and a tram later, Downs found himself knocking on a sleek wooden door carved to match the Wentworth’s main gate in miniature.
A portly man in a tuxedo answered the door, sweat lending an unhealthy sheen to his brow. No light came from the open doorway behind him.
“Mr. Downs?” he asked.
“Please, come in.”
Downs looked around at the gorgeous architecture, the beautiful furnishings, relegated to almost total darkness. None of the crystal chandeliers were lit. None of the voltaic lights shone--only the barest hint of distant candlelight alleviated the stygian gloom.
“This way, please,” the man called plaintively, leading Downs towards the light, into an adjoining room.
A number of people, each exquisitely dressed and obviously wealthy, and each just as obviously haggard and exhausted, sat around a large circular table.
“Friends, this is Mr. Lassiter Downs. He is an… expert in the field, as it were, and comes highly recommended. Mr. Downs, please forgive me if I do not introduce my friends by name, we are of a class where discretion about such matters is...non-optional.”
Downs barely reacted.
“I am aware of how all of this works. You’ve made arrangements for the payment?” he asked.
One of the people at the table made a moue of distaste.
“He discusses money at a time like this…”
“Shush,” the portly fellow said to his friend. “Of course, Mr. Downs. Please forgive my friend, sometimes in his quest for good taste he forgets his manners. Would you care to begin?”
Downs shrugged off his coat and hung it from the back of an empty chair. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and sat down, staring into the middle distance.
“Once I open this door, it will not close until certain things are done. Until a price is paid. We are not peering through the veil, tonight--this isn’t some thrill-a-minute peep show.”
“Oh, really” called a matronly woman in a beaded dress, wagging a feathered fan at herself.
“Yes, really,” Downs replied, his voice low and rocky. “You’re asking me to rend the veil good and proper, to invite something from over there to over here. I can do it. And it can solve your problems. But make no mistake--it won’t leave until it wants to, and it won’t want to until its price has been paid.”
“What are its terms?” This from a young woman with cool, intelligent eyes. Of everyone in the room, she seemed the most collected aside from Downs. Not fearless, no, but determined.
Downs met her gaze levelly.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I never know. Now let’s get started.”