Aldrich could only drive his armored car up within a block of the Red Circle before he hit a security check. Or rather, it was a mandatory valet service, but judging by the two-story tall, armor-plated valet booth that looked suspiciously like a sentry tower, it was pretty obvious that this was a security check.
Aldrich stopped his car in front of the boom barrier set down by the booth. The barrier itself glowed with a streak of white energy, indicating Etherium power - processed Ether - that meant it was custom made by a techno.
It was no ordinary flimsy line of metal meant to stop traffic. Most likely, it had some function to stop cars that tried to ignore it.
That was not Aldrich's intention, though. He was here for a chat, after all.
He watched as two guards standing on either end of the barrier approached. They looked to be mercenaries rather than villains. Where villains liked to have a distinctive costume to make an impact and be recognized, mercenaries focused far more on practicality, donning themselves with cybernetics and military gear meant for efficiency rather than flashiness.
"Are we to fight now, master?" said Valera from the passenger seat. She was dressed in her black dress set while Aldrich had just bought a 3000-credit suit to keep up appearances a wealthy fund inheritor.
"No fighting. Not unless we absolutely must," said Aldrich. "Carry that with you and act as politely as you can. But try to leave all the talking to me."
Aldrich motioned to a rectangular wooden case containing the 2080 Celeste bottle of wine. That had costed 6000 credits, leaving Aldrich with just 1000 left. It was mind boggling how the wealthy spent so many credits on seemingly ordinary things like clothes and drinks.
He had thought 10,000 credits a decent amount to start off with, but he quickly began to realize if he really wanted to keep up his appearances as an ultra-wealthy man, he needed to find a way to get more credits quickly.
Valera nodded and picked up the case of wine.
Mercenaries approached Aldrich's windshield. He rolled the window down and stared at the mercenary's dot-like cybernetic red eyes and mouth mask that made each of his heavy breaths sound deeply raspy.
"Here to see the manager. 11 appointment," said Aldrich.
"Yeah, I know. Valet service. Mandatory. Give me your keys."
Aldrich turned off his car and tossed the keys to the mercenary. He grabbed them and nodded. "Walk past the barrier to the club. You'll face more security checks there. And just so you know, if we find anything here that's even remotely suspicious-,"
"You won't." Aldrich ignored him and waved Valera forward. Together, they walked past the now upraised boom barrier towards the club.
Valera tucked her arm in the crook of Aldrich's, and like this, they walked forward like gentleman and lady at a high-profile dance.
Aldrich appreciated how Valera was right now. She kept a calm, confident poise. Her posture was straight and elegant, each of her steps even matching the Aldrich's pace. Even though she was a knight, she was also a lady hailing from a royal vampiric lineage, and that showed now.
At the front of the club, Aldrich noted in the periphery of his sharp vision multiple cameras as well as several crawler drones in dormant state latched on the walls of the building, ready at a moment's notice to be active and crawl about while unloading machine gun fire.
The club's entrance was surprisingly far more elegant than Aldrich would have thought a seedy club in Southside Haven - the broken down, crime infested part of the city - to be. Large, black tinted glass double doors surrounded by a frame of red and gold shaped into floral patterns awaited Aldrich and Valera.
A well-maintained, spotlessly clean red carpet led out of the doors, and flanking this carpet were several Red Circle staff noticeable from their white and red suits. One of these staff members came up to Aldrich and Valera with a bow.
"Welcome to the Red Circle, Mr. and Mrs. Vane," said the woman. She had no cybernetics to speak of, but her organic eyes flashed with an odd, fluctuating green tint that made it obvious she was a powered Alter. "I will be your server and guide for tonight. You may call me Hirondelle."
"A pleasure to meet you, Hirondelle." Aldrich nodded and smiled uncharacteristically. He had practiced for hours to put up the fake persona of a wealthy socialite so as not to draw attention.
"Follow me." Hirondelle smiled and led Aldrich towards the doors. "We have prepared nothing but the finest for you, Mr. and Mrs. Vane, as we treat each client with the utmost level of respect they deserve. However, there are some minor security hurdles we simply must press upon you. Red Circle policy, I am afraid."
"I perfectly understand," said Aldrich. "Safety is a real issue these days, isn't it?"
"I appreciate the cooperation." Hirondelle nodded to the rest of the staff. Several people came forwards. Some waved Etherium and metal detecting sticks over Aldrich and Valera. Others scanned them from a distance not with visors, but their very own powers, their eyes glowing or their hands projecting analyzing light.
Hirondelle bowed and held out a hand towards Valera. "The bottle, Mrs. Vane, might my team analyze it? I assure you we will take the greatest of cares so that the taste and integrity of the wine is not harmed a single bit."
Valera daintily held out the bottle, and Hirondelle grasped it in one hand before handing it over to a staff member who disappeared into the club.
"Tech sweep complete: nothing," said a staff member.
"AC scan complete: count at 0," said another.
"Wonderful," said Hirondelle. "Once we have returned your bottle, I will lead you to your meeting. I hope you will enjoy your stay, Mr. Vane, and that this meeting ends with an investment that you can look back upon with a smile.
Aldrich smiled, and this time, it was genuine. "I hope so too."
Once Hirondelle returned with Aldrich's bottle and handed it back to Valera, she guided them as promised. Through the sliding double glass doors, Aldrich and Valera continued on through more red carpet.
The first floor was a massive dance floor, though by the walls were highly upraised booths with tables for those that wished to pay for a premium experience. At the end of the dance floor stood a white platform meant for performers with large stage lights and sound systems ahead. Everything was powered off, however.
The Red Circle only functioned as a club during the weekends. All other days was when 'business' happened.
Aldrich knew the ins and outs of the Red Circle. His Grave Ward had scouted out almost everything it could. That included the room on the third floor they were head to where a masked man that was most likely Casimir sat waiting with a guard.
There were a few mystery rooms blocked with forcefields, but Aldrich would know what was behind those soon enough.
Hirondelle led Aldrich and Valera to the end of the dance floor to a platform elevator hidden behind the performance stage. The elevator ferried them all to the third floor, and here, everything was deathly silent. The walls were heavily sound proofed, isolating it from the tumult of the dance floor below.
The third floor comprised of brightly lit hallways lined with red carpet and decorated with expensive paintings and sculptures, some of which dated Pre-Monstering, easily fetching over a hundred thousand credits.
"Right this way." Hirondelle led Aldrich and Valera down these hallways to a room. She opened a varnished, carved oak door, and bowed.
Inside, the room felt like it belonged to an upscale fine dining restaurant. It was lit by elaborate chandelier, and beneath it stood a round dining table covered with white cloth. Casimir sat here with a plate, utensils, and three types of wine glasses in front of him. The same arrangement was repeated twice for Aldrich and Valera.
Immediately, Casimir stood up.
"Mr. Vane! You've come right on time!" Casimir said warmly, the emote on his mask smiling.
"Casimir, I presume?" Aldrich held out a hand, and Casimir shook it thoroughly.
"My, that is a powerful handshake right there," said Casimir. He playfully tapped Aldrich's shoulder. "You must train that body of yours quite dutifully, hm? But the sad state of the world now is that one must always be ready for danger."
Casimir then bowed lightly to Valera. "Mrs. Vane, is it? A pleasure to make your acquaintance. Your husband has been nothing but warm and charming to me in our prior communications. Ah, and that bottle, I should not let a lady such as yourself carry it."
Casimir snapped his fingers. "Walters, be good to me and take this off the lady."
One of the two guards, a Red Circle waiter, it seemed, judging from his white and red suit, came forwards and took the bottle from Valera with a gracious nod. He had sharp, angular features with slit pupils and slicked a short buzzcut.
Contrary to his brutish appearance, Walters carefully began to open the case and retrieve a tray of wine opening tools like he was a world class surgeon performing the world's most sensitive operation.
Aldrich and Valera could both tell from a single glance that Walter was not some ordinary waiter. He was strong. They could not sense Ether energy, but they could tell how physically capable someone was, and Walters was six foot six (2 meters) with enough muscle that he seemed like he could burst out of his suit at any given moment.
"Now sit, sit! You must rest yourselves. The drive here was so very dangerous, no?" Casimir personally drew back Aldrich and Valeras' seats, beckoning them to sit.
As everyone settled into the dining table, Casimir continued. "I am deeply sorry that my establishment lies in this rather rough neighborhood. I do not mean to pry, but I noticed your AC counts were zero. It is no wonder that you had to drive here in an armored car, particularly when I had to request that you arrive with no security force."
"Oh, trust me, it wasn't much of an issue," said Aldrich. "You have been more than welcoming enough so far."
"I appreciate your politeness, Mr. Vane. I tell you, some of the clients I receive, they know nothing. They cannot tell a street market leather from Gucien finery. Nor, as you no doubt know, some mass-produced red wine swill with a proper Celeste vintage."
Aldrich noted that Casimir's compliments were quite targeted. Aldrich's current suit was from Gucien and of course, that damned overpriced wine was a Celeste or some bullsh*t fancy sounding name.
"And that ring! That twin coiling snake design with the silver and gold, my, that is expert work right there," said Casimir as he gestured to the [Ring of Avarice] on Aldrich's finger. "Might I ask who made it?"
"Unfortunately, this is strictly artisanal. A custom order," said Aldrich.
"Custom, is it? After our talk, you must acquaintance me with your jeweler. I would almost kill to have a piece such as that for myself," said Casimir as he stretched out his hands, showcasing a sparkling watch and several polished rings studded with rare gems of all kinds. "But you strike me as a more serious man, Mr. Vane, so let's get to talking business, shall we?"
"You read me perfectly," said Aldrich.
"Walters, pour us some prosecco to begin," said Casimir. "Your wine, that Celeste, we must save for later. My chef will prepare a course that suits its dry yet subtle flavors beautifully."
Walters nodded and took a bottle from a chilled cabinet. He popped the carbonated bottle open and held it by the base with his palm as he went around the table, filling up smaller, thinner glasses.
Casimir held up the gleaming, golden colored sparkling alcohol to the light of the chandelier. "A preliminary toast, perhaps?"
"Of course." Aldrich raised his glass, and so did Valera.
Casimir drew the glass close to his mask, and the lower half retracted, revealing a severely burnt, disfigured face. He sipped the prosecco before continuing business talk. "I understand that you wish to speak with me about sampling our liquor selection."
"Just as we discussed before, yes," said Aldrich. He had sent this message to get a good look into the Red Circle's list of mercenaries and villains to prepare for them. Plus, it was good cover and fit with the story of a wealthy Dud that wanted security.
"Our liquor selection is acceptable, but not the finest. I am afraid that our in house store does not exceed the B rank. For any higher, you must reach larger establishments. But that is what the Red Circle specializes in. Connections.
We are one of the largest hubs for Connectors from the largest organizations. The Four Dragons, the Rakshashas, the Moon, the Trident - any big names you can think of, we have ties to."
Aldrich heard the word Trident and involuntarily narrowed an eye.
"Ah, are you interested in the Trident?" said Casimir, catching even that tiny eye motion expertly.
"Of course. Who wouldn't be?" said Aldrich as he maintained his smile.