“He has something down in the basement of the building.” Sal’s voice sounded tight when Ctirad came to himself. “Here, kid— Ctirad — drink some more water. It’s not a creature, it’s some sort of really Bad Change, from what I can tell.”
“Bad Change?” The water cut the acid taste in his mouth but not the feeling in his stomach.
“It’s, uh. Sometimes the things that happen to us go too far from human, that’s the best way I can explain it. Like, we’re on fire constantly, or we give off poison gas, or our legs fuse together into a column of, like, stone-skin. That looks like one of the really bad cases. What Ermenrich said,” he added to Timaios, “was that it was a side effect of ‘their’ power, and what it looked like was that something in the power made them fuse with – well, whatever was near, is my guess.”
“Ermenrich told me not to get too close,” Ctirad remembered. “He didn’t have to, though. It was – it was hard being in the same room as that thing.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Like it was wrong, somehow. I’m not sure.” He was still feeling twitchy over the whole thing. “I’m not sure if I’m missing something…”
“No, it was wrong.” Sal sounded as sick as Ctirad felt. “It was an abomination. And it probably still is, because I can’t see Ermenrich get rid of something like that. It’s probably useful. I understand why he told you to forget it, though – and I’m not surprised your mind didn’t want to bring it back.”
“Bad Change.” He was listening to Sal, he was, but the words had lodged in his mind. “That’s, like. How do we know which one of them was the one with the Change? Imagine if you were just standing next to someone when they Changed and – urgh.” He shuddered.
“You’ve never heard the term- no, of course you wouldn’t have.” Timaios made a sound like a sigh. “Whatever – no, that’s a conversation for private. Let’s try again. Ermenrich has something in the basement of the McCurdy Building – someone. And he wants to own the building so that he owns that someone, because they are now part of the building. Am I following so far?”
“That sounds right.” Ctirad pieced through the words slowly. “I don’t know what the thing’s power is, but I know that it – they? – it collects things that get too near it. I don’t know how it eats, either,” he added, swallowing bile. “It’s – someone should kill it, put it out of its misery.”
“I’m not generally in the business of mercy killings,” Timaios mused quietly, “but I’m willing to take your word on this one. The question is, where did this demolition come in? Was he unable to buy the property?”
“If he — if he demolishes it, he’s going to.-” Ctirad gulped. “I don’t think that’s good.”
“Sal, get someone on that. Looking into the deal, seeing who owns the building, the demolition company, who we can bribe and who we can buy and who already owes us favors. If the protesters are —”
“Got it, sir, you want the full work-up.” Sal smirked. “All right. You’re gonna give Ctirad a stiff drink or two and some fresh air, yeah?”
“You see how it is?” Timaios’ despair was clearly mock and played for humor and still a little weird for Ctirad. “I’m bullied by my own staff!”
Ctirad took a gamble. “If Sir does not wish to be bullied by Sir’s staff, perhaps Sir ought to invest in a nice sturdy paddle and engage in a bit of creative discipline. Sir.”
“Hey, whose side are you on, anyway?” Sal made a mock-indignant face. “Besides, you don’t know. We might all like it.”
“Even if Sir’s staff enjoyed it,” Ctirad continued, as if he hadn’t heard Sal, “they might find it difficult to bully Sir while being paddled.”
“And should I start by paddling you, mm?” Timaios’ voice was warm.
Ctirad froze. For a split-second, he thought he’d gone further than he could up with.
“Sir is of course welcome to paddle this one, if Sir wishes.” He’d never spoken like this, not even to Ermenrich. It made it easier to keep doing. “But this one would never bully an Owner.”
“Give it time, kid, give it time.” Sal chuckled. “You’ll bully him right along with the rest of us.”
“I…” He coughed uncertainly. “That is, this one thinks that is unlikely, given this one’s habits and predilections.” And then he smiled widely. “Damn, I didn’t even know I knew that word. ‘Predilections.’ Seriously? That’s a bit highbrow for a grunt like me.”
“And yet it rolled beautifully off of your tongue.” Timaios stroked Ctirad’s hair. “So you think I should paddle my employees, mmm?”
“Only if you don’t want them to bully you, sir. But I think you’re in the habit of, ah. Of letting your employees and staff push back, so that you know you’re not bullying them. So I guess you’re going to have to accept a certain amount of being pushed back at, in that case?”
He glanced at Timaios, wondering if he’d gone too far. Sal was laughing, though. And more importantly, Timaios was smiling.
“You’re a very observant man, Ctirad. I like that. And I think I’ve pushed you enough for one night. Sal, thank you. You have your duties – and they can wait until the morning, you should get some sleep, too. Come on, if you’d like, Ctirad. I think we should go to bed.”
“Yes, sir.” Even with if you’d like, he wasn’t going to say no to that. Ctirad waiting for Timaios to stand and then stood himself, stretching surreptitiously.