"I did take you as a man who could see potential," said Casimir. "And you are right on the mark with that: there is no other organization in our line of work growing faster than the Trident.
And who could have predicted it?
A ragtag alliance of estranged yakuza, mafia, and triad families banding together after the Monstering in a most meteoric rise. It is truly admirable how hardship can make the fellow man set aside differences and work together.
If I was an investing man such as yourself, I would place my credits in the Trident.
But of course, I should not lecture an experience investor like you."
"By all means, go ahead. I'm always in a learning mindset," said Aldrich. He kept his smile, but he could not hide the disgust welling up within him as Casimir talked about the Trident like they were some rags to riches story to be admired.
The Trident built their empire off the blood and suffering of countless many. There was nothing to respect about them.
And soon, once Aldrich saw to it, that empire would crumble into dust.
"Something big is happening, Mr. Vane," said Casimir. "I can feel it in the air. In the fabric of this tumultuous society around us.
Can you not? It is in the ever-increasing cases of theft by Nomads in the Wastelands. It is in the spirits of the downtrodden in the ghettos and broken-down streets of walled cities.
Do you know what I call this?"
"Entertain me," said Aldrich.
Casimir raised a finger. "Desperation. The Panopticon and the Alterhuman Agency are meant to protect humanity, but they are failing. Variants attacks are astronomically on the rise, and I hear whispers that the Titans stir in their slumber.
Are you familiar with the Prophet, Mr. Vane?"
"Ah, the Alter with future sight, correct? The one who makes a prophecy about humanity's safety every fifteen years," said Aldrich. "Who wouldn't be? His prophecies are the most watched live broadcasts on telescreen networks."
"Yes, yes, that's the one. The doddering old man with that wispy head of white hair and bleak, blank eyes. Oh, I do feel for him, that man, to constantly have to foresee the fate of an entire civilization - it must take a toll on the mind." Casimir shook his head. "But besides his personal suffering, have you heard of his latest prophecy?"
"Who hasn't," said Aldrich. "Two years ago, yes? 2115. If my memory isn't failing me, he's guaranteed humanity's safety for the next fifteen years yet again."
"There is some tell among my sources that it is all a lie. A sham conjured up by the Alterhuman Agency and the Panopticon," said Casimir. "I hear that the Prophet has, in truth, foretold humanity's doom."
"Is that so?" said Aldrich, raising a brow in interest.
"Is it? Who knows? Even my own sources cannot penetrate deep into the internal politics of the AA and the Panopticon. All I hear are whispers and rumors. Second-hand accounts. Mutterings.
But you know what, Mr. Vane?" Casimir leaned forwards, the emote on his mask smiling at Aldrich intensely. "Even a whisper is bound to be heard when it is telling the truth."
Aldrich remained quiet, letting Casimir talk.
Casimir spoke. "I make no guarantees, but I feel that perhaps something BIG will happen.
With the vast majority of modern-day Supers degenerating into nothing but glorified pop stars, prancing about on their live streams and vying for the most likes on their social media platforms, who is left to defend the common man?
When will the desperation that is ever growing on the streets reach a breaking point?
And when it does, when that breaking point shatters the order of society, who will pick up the pieces?"
"Ah, I see what you're getting at," said Aldrich. "You're saying that the villains want to take control. With enough Variant attacks and enough desperation, some perhaps artificially fueled, there's bound to be chaos.
And who better to navigate chaos than villains?"
"I am not saying anything. I am merely asking questions. Presenting a thought experiment, yes," said Casimir coyly. "But you understand what I mean.
So, it is quite wise of you to divest some of your investments here, especially if you wish to keep yourself and your dear wife safe in times to come.
Now then, for our in-house liquor selections."
Casimir tapped the side of his mask three times, and the emote disappeared into a bright white screen. From there, a holographic series of images projected outwards onto the dining table. These images formed into profiles that listed out several mercenaries and villains for hire.
The profiles listed a threat ranking if the subject had one, or if they were hidden, an estimated threat ranking. It showed an image of them, a list of their successful missions, how many credits and assets they had earned for their clients, their general personality traits, and so on.
Like reviewing resumes.
Aldrich noted that out of the dozen profiles Casimir projected, only one was at B-rank.
"It seems you are a little disappointed with our in-house selection, and that is understandable." Casimir said this when Aldrich spent several seconds looking without saying anything. "Again, we do not have the finest cream of the crop.
For that, you would have to travel to a larger city such as Neo-York.
However, for you, Mr. Vane, I can offer more options.
No doubt, if you have researched enough to connect with us, you know of Blackwater. One of few academies in the underground network that specializes in producing insider informants within the AA.
But among them, many will also be promising mercenaries.
If you so desire, I could arrange a meeting between you and some members of the A-rank class.
Young as they are, they may not be as disciplined, but their potential, I am sure if properly groomed, will exceed our in-house selections."
"An interesting consideration," said Aldrich. "You truly do have a wide selection to offer. But could I be just a little greedier and ask to see if there are even more?"
"Of course, Mr. Vane, and I welcome greed. Greed is good. Greed is what drives us all." Casimir tapped his mask again. This time, Aldrich saw red tinted profiles projected. Many of these had far more impressive accomplishments and higher average threat rankings than before.
One thing tied them all together: they had an affiliation with the Trident.
"I know you were interested about the trident. Here is a list of most of the villains they have working for them that they can outsource as independent contractors.
Unfortunately, none of them are in such a small city as Haven, but I could certainly arrange a meeting for you with any one of them," said Casimir.
Aldrich looked over the profiles before he settled on one.
One that he remembered in crystal clear, perfect detail.
A villain with a burly, bristle furred body with a butcher's apron as a costume.
This was the same man that had chopped Aldrich's parents into little pieces.
Aldrich's undead mind allowed him to process a massive surge of emotions, of hate and vengeance and bloodlust, away so as not to draw attention. But even then, his finger trembled ever so slightly as he pointed at the man's photo.
"This one. I want this one," said Aldrich.
"Oh? The Butcher?" Casimir cocked his head in surprise. "He is not quite suited for guarding jobs. His personality is rather erratic, and his patience is rather limited. A condition of his power, it is said.
He is far more suited for torture, ah, wait."
Casimir smiled at Aldrich. "Don't tell me, Mr. Vane, you weren't here to hire a guard at all, were you?"
"Hm?" said Aldrich, wondering if Casimir had suspected him.
"You want someone gone. Someone who has wronged you. And you want them to suffer. Am I correct?" said Casimir.
Aldrich smiled. In a way, Casimir was right. Very, very right. "How could you tell?"
"I have a knack for sensing out my clients," said Casimir. "Mr. Vane, you really did not have to skirt around what you wanted. You could have told me from the beginning instead of dancing about and pretending to hire a guard.
I understand you are unfamiliar with how the underworld works, but you may be straightforward here.
Within the underworld, all desires hidden and locked away may be laid bare. That includes a need to make someone disappear. Forever."
"You're right. I am unused to working with all of this. Thank you for the tip, I'll keep it in mind," said Aldrich.
"I am always willing to help," said Casimir. "Will this be your final selection, Mr. Vane? Do understand that once you have reached out to arrange a meeting, it cannot easily be cancelled."
"I'm sure of it," said Aldrich.
"Excellent!" Casimir clapped his hands triumphantly, and his mask stopped projecting images and returned to its emote face. "I will have my secretary arrange the meeting within the Red Circle by this very week! Details regarding payment and contract details, numbers and words that spoil the mood - I leave to our respective staffs."
Right then, the doors opened, and three more waiters entered carrying a rolling tray with three large plates covered by cloches, a breadbasket, and an assortment of small plates ranging from seafood bites to salads.
"For now, how about we enjoy the beginning of this fruitful relationship with a meal?" said Casimir.
The waiters came by and arranged the plates neatly before Aldrich, Valera and Casimir. They then raised the cloches, revealing neatly seared chunks of steak glowing in a bath of still sizzling butter. Butter baked baby carrots and rich, creamy scoops of mashed potatoes accompanied the meat.
"70-day dry aged Quake-Hoof Bison steaks," said Casimir. "Seared and basted in goldcream butter. I sincerely hope you can stay and enjoy this meal."
"It smells incredible," said Aldrich, and he did not lie. This was food that he could never have afforded to even look at throughout his entire life. The kind of food that costed hundreds of credits a meal that only the richest of the rich could afford.
"I must agree with my husband," said Valera as she put a hand on Aldrich's. "This is quite the treat you have prepared for us."
"Oh, it's nothing. A simple token of appreciation," said Casimir.
Aldrich stayed focused and hinted to Casimir. "But I do feel like it's missing something."
"A certain Celeste vintage, no? Don't think I forgot, Mr. Vane," said Casimir. "Come, Walters, uncork that wine and give us a pour."
The hulking, muscled brute of a waiter came forwards with surprising elegance, bowing as he poured at the red wine in everyone's glasses.
Aldrich saw as hundreds of credits in the form of fermented liquid grapes just poured out casually like that, but he did not let his upbringing as someone who had never experienced luxury show.
Valera, however, seemed utterly at home here. She smiled with the grace of a court lady and slid her wine glass towards Walters with an eased confidence.
Walters poured, and Valera nodded ever so slightly before taking the glass and swishing it, swirling the dark red liquid about.
Aldrich mimicked her, and Casimir stood up and raised his glass.
"Now, a proper toast! To a new partnership!" said Casimir.
"A new partnership," said Aldrich as he and Valera clinked their glasses against Casimir's.
At the same time, all three took a deep sip of the wine.
Aldrich felt the deeply dry and bitter taste and held back a grimace. He did not really like alcohol as it affected his diet and training, but he did not let his displeasure show. He instead pretended to savor the taste like Casimir and Valera were doing.
When after what seemed like a eternity, Casimir finally stopped letting the wine linger in his mouth and swallowed it.
"Ah, how wonderful," said Casimir. "This kind of subtle dryness - Celeste is known for this. And what better to cut through dry with rich?"
Casimir picked up his fork and knife and reached down to cut his steak and then froze all of a sudden, as if someone had just hit the pause button on his body.
Almost immediately, the atmosphere in the room shifted.
Walters, the giant waiter, came on alert, as did the two mercenaries in the room.
Then, after a tense half second, Casimir moved again.
"Are you okay, sir?" said Walters.
"Hm? Why would I not be, Walters, in light of this breakthrough?" said Casimir as he cut his steak. "I have never felt better!"
"Same with me." Aldrich smiled as he heard Fler'Gan's voice ring in his head.