Lady Blackwood stood in the deep, dark void in the middle of the circle of fire, surrounded by the flames that went on forever and waited…and waited…and waited.
Such was the chairman’s style. He was much too important to see anyone on time.
The fire dissipated and the lady found herself in a finely decorated reception area. Polished wooden floors, magnificent artwork on the walls, the only thing that threw off the room’s atmosphere was the drooling bug-eyed goblin perched on top of the desk.
Fabrizio had no use for chairs, preferring to squat on his haunches like a frog and allow his arms to dangle in front of him. He may have been a scrawny, pointy-eared, snaggletoothed little freak, but as the chairman’s personal secretary, he guarded his boss’ interests zealously.
“Does ye have an appointment?” Fabrizio squeaked.
“I don’t need one, fool,” the Lady replied haughtily. “I’m the vice-chairwoman.”
Fabrizio closed his left eye and leaned in to study the lady’s face with his right. “Be ye really the vice-chairwoman or be ye an assassin in her guise?”
“I’m a mental construct, worm,” the lady said. “My body isn’t even here.”
“Yes, yes, but one can never be too careful with the chairman’s well-being,” the goblin said. “Disrobe for a cavity search, please.”
Unamused, Lady Blackwood backhanded the twerp’s face, launching him across the room until he smacked into a wall. She opened up a door behind Fabrizio’s desk and proceeded to strut down a lengthy hallway. Suits of armor from various cultures and time periods were lined up against the walls.
“Wait!” the goblin cried as he scurried after her. He wrapped his arms and legs around the lady’s left leg but his insignificant frame wasn’t enough to slow her down. She kept walking with the puny mongrel still attached.
“Before the chairman you can see you must answer my riddles three!”
“Unhand me, lecher!”
The lady kicked her leg until the goblin fell off and skittered across the marble floor.
The goblin threw himself before the lady’s feat and groveled in a most unpleasant and pathetic manner.
“Please! You must let me announce ye or the chairman will have my hide!”
The lady rolled her eyes. “Very well.”
The goblin and the vampire reached the large iron doors leading into the Chairman’s chamber. Fabrizio leaped into the air, grabbed the door handle with his claws, planted his feet against the door and struggled wildly until it budged.
The little beast entered. Lady Blackwood listened to the goblin’s muffled announcement.
“The vice-chairman here to see you, oh illustrious one!”
The chairman’s reply was a booming, guttural bellow, so loud that the wind produced knocked both doors open and caused the lady’s hair to flap in the breeze.
The goblin walked out tipsily, looking like he’d just lost a three round prizefight.
“Is he in a good mood?” the Lady asked.
“Better than usual,” the goblin replied.
Lady Blackwood entered the chamber. The doors slammed shut behind her.
Surrounded by bookshelves filled with copious volumes of forgotten lore, the chairman sat behind a glorious oak desk in a leather bound chair. From the lady’s point of view, all that was visible were the large, curled ram’s horns poking out from above the top of the chair, and a red right hand clutching a cigar.
The chairman’s voice was a low baritone. “Our name is legion…”
The lady curtseyed and gave the expected response, “For we are many.”
“Why do you disturb me?” the Chairman inquired.
On Earth, Lady Blackwood feared no one but here in the underworld, it was hard even for a wealthy aristocratic bloodsucker to not be nervous in the chairman’s presence.
She chose her words carefully. “Henry is poised to conquer America in your name but the board’s incompetence stands in the way.”
The cigar disappeared. Smoke rings raised high above the leather chair. The red hand dropped down again.
“Did I appoint intelligent agents capable of acting in my stead, or squabbling children unable to resolve their disputes without crying to daddy?”
“I do not cry,” the lady said. “I merely beseech your intervention.”
“What would you have me do?” the Chairman asked.
“Nullify the board’s demands that Henry toy with Slade,” the lady said. “Allow Henry to remove Slade from the equation without delay.”
The chairman shifted his cigar to his left hand and drummed his long fingernails on the desk with his right.
“I have been imprisoned in the realm of the damned since time immemorial,” the chairman said. “Waiting for a being such as Henry with the ambition to plot an invasion of this magnitude and the cunning to see it through to execution.”
Lady Blackwood was pleased to hear those words. “Then I implore you to…”
The red hand raised in a sign for the lady to be silent. She obliged.
“I have also waited since time immemorial for someone with Henry’s ingenuity with cruelty. Our esteemed counselor is an artist who paints with human suffering the way others do with watercolors.”
“I’m sure he would be pleased to hear you speak so highly of him,” the lady said.
“I have waited here for millennia and can do so for countless more if need be,” the Chairman said. “If the invasion fails, I can wait for another. But I do not know when another being with Henry’s acumen for turning honest men into heartless slaves will come again. If there is even a slight chance that Slade could be the one that allows me to feel sunlight on my skin and dirt under my feet, then I will take it.”
“I will take it,” the Chairman repeated. Lady Blackwood knew it wasn’t a good idea to argue the point further.
“Very well,” she said.
“While we are on the subject of the board’s incompetence,” the Chairman said. “Let us discuss yours.”
“Mine?” the Lady asked, incredulously.
“Even with the greatest gunslinger who ever lived as your personal puppet, you still have not been able to best a drunk bitch and her dandified partner,” the Chairman said.
“Miss Canary has proven to be an unfortunate challenge,” the Lady said.
“Her contemporaries have been writing off her warnings about our operation as little more than the ravings of a mad alcoholic,” the Chairman said. “But win or lose, the result of Henry’s invasion will be that people will listen to her. She knows your name. She knows the board of directors’ names. She will share them…with men who will hunt all of you down and leave you no peace.”
“She will be stopped,” the Lady said.
“Will she?” the chairman asked. “An observation, Vice-Chairwoman. Your ineptitude put the safety of the entire board in jeopardy…”
“A traitor put them in jeopardy.”
“A traitor in your employ,” the Chairman noted. “And yet at no time did any of the board members come to see me with complaints about you.”
The lady hanged her head low, something she never did to any man or beast on Earth.
“Loyalty, Vice-Chair,” the Chairman said. “It has a place, even amongst us. That will be all.”
Lady Blackwood knew enough about the Chairman to realize that would, indeed be all and it would be hazardous to her health to discuss the issue further.
“Good day, chairman,” the lady said.
“Vice-chairwoman,” the Chairman replied.
The room disappeared. The lady was in the black void again. She closed her eyes and awoke frozen stiff with blood red eyes, stark naked in the middle of a brothel.
She regained movement and her eyes returned to normal. Two naked prostitutes who rivaled her beauty laid in bed, waiting for her return. They both took turns smoking opium from a hookah, and had been doing so for so long they hadn’t even noticed their client’s previously immobile state.
“Come back to bed,” one of the girls said as she patted the mattress.
The lady pulled her robe from a hook and put it on.
“No,” she said. “I have work to do.”