Marcus turned around to see a young woman with straw colored haired wearing thick framed glasses. She sat behind a white desk in front of the lobby’s white wall and had the phone to her ear smiling as she spoke. There were blue carpets covering the floor and NELSON TRADING was fastened high on the wall in large gold letters, Acquisitions Department in a smaller size underneath. Two doorways on either side of the desk opened up to hallways, but Marcus walked up to the busy woman.
She raised her hand without looking up, stopping Marcus as she finished writing a message. When she was done and had said her goodbyes, she looked up, smiling with her green eyes magnified by the too big spectacles.
“Hello and welcome to the Acquisitions Division of Nelson Trading!” the young woman said in a cheery voice. “Did you have an appointment or were you here for an interview?”
Marcus rubbed his head and handed her the card Ser Nathan laughed at earlier. She read the small white square and her eyebrows shot up as she reread the scribbled words again. Her eyes locked onto Marcus’ eyes and she made a mess of her desk in her haste to get up.
“Oh!” She said in that same cheery voice. “Hello sir! We’ve been expecting you!”
“Oh no!” Marcus said, eyes widening as he looked down at his watch. “Am I late?”
The young woman laughed and shook her head. “Oh no, sir, right on time,” she said. “It’s just you know what they say in our business, watch out for the waves when a Spyros enters the pool,” she finished with a giggle and looked at Marcus expectantly.
“I guess if that’s what they say…” he finished with a half chuckle and trailed off.
“Just like that typhoon Ser Dorian, right sir?” she said leaning forward, her smile widening to an astronomical breadth.
“I… I suppose so,” Marcus said shrugging. He desperately wanting to say more but all his knowledge was nowhere to be found in those green eyes of hers.
Women were creatures beyond Marcus’ understanding. Like a child at a museum, he wanted to run up and touch one, but he was kept back by the ropes of his own self-consciousness. He once thought he had a grasp on females, but the events set in motion by that whore Rachel disproved him of that notion...that bitch.
“My name is Katerin,” she said after a short pause. “I’m the receptionist and Mr. Celso’s personal secretary.”
“Byron uses his personal secretary as the receptionist?” Marcus asked.
“One of Ser Nathan’s ways of making Mr.Celso more accessible,” Katerin said. She raised a hand and motioned to one of the doorways. “His office is right this way, sir.”
The white walled hallway had multiple doors down both walls, pictures of previous presidents and various landscapes between each door. The blue carpet was comfortable, but the lights overhead were just as glaring as the fluorescent lights in the elevator bank. Katerin knocked on the final door at the end of the hallway and the both of them heard a grinding order to enter. Katerin opened the door and shoved Marcus into the room ahead of her as though abandoning a sacrificial lamb to one of the fallen Saints.
“He’s here, Mr. Celso,” she said as though trying to force her words into a single syllable. She left so quickly Marcus could feel the breeze of her absence.
And maybe she was abandoning him to a fallen Saint. Marcus had to wipe away the tears from all the smoke drifting through the air like the smoggy clouds in cities of the deep south of the Heartlands. When his eyes were clear and adjusted to the smell, Marcus saw a vague figure behind a large desk. The figure was of a small man, a cigar casting an orange light to illuminate his face. The head was bald with bushy gray eyebrows and a big bumpy nose. To Marcus he looked like a carved pumpkin head floating in smoke.
“So,” Byron said with a voice that sounded like two dry rocks rolling around in his throat. “You’re the pretty faced Spyros pup who’s forcing me into retirement?”
Marcus’ eyes would have widened if his pupils weren’t stinging from all the smoke.
“If you think that then you know I had nothing to do with my employment here,” Marcus said in a moderately normal voice. He somehow managed to not break out into a fit of coughing, but he was fighting a losing battle.
“Doesn’t change much for me now does it?” Byron asked in his grinding voice. “I’m still the one with my bare ass in the wind.”
Marcus couldn’t help but wonder how far along he was, because with that voice and all this smoke, there was no possible way this man didn’t have some form of cancer.
“Well, shit on Ser Nathan’s hands,” Marcus said breathing as lightly as he could. “He’s the one who pulled your pants down.”
Byron stared at Marcus for a long while. Marcus thought he had offended him, but the soon-to-be cancer ridden man erupted in laughter, slamming his palm on the table and even drubbing his heels. Just like that the tension was gone but so was Marcus’s resistance. He began coughing, laughing, and gasping for air at the same time. This only made the old man laugh even harder and Marcus plopped down into one of the seats in front of his new boss’s desk. When they both recovered, Byron managed to reach across the desk and seize Marcus’ hand in a bony grip.
“You seem to have gotten the gusto you purple-blooded lions were famous for,” Byron said as he let go of Marcus’ hand. “You’re a funny one, Your Majesty.”
“Please don’t call me that,” Marcus asked, fighting off flashbacks of the nicknames his late brother Noch gave him. Nicknames that only came out when Noch was bullying Marcus.
“See that’s exactly what you don’t do when you want someone to stop anything,” Byron said with an exasperated sigh. “Now I’m obligated to call you ‘Your Majesty’ and the like. I didn’t even like that name all that much but you’ve stuck me with it. Thanks, Your Majesty.”
“As you said, you didn’t like it all that much,” Marcus said trying to sound nonchalant. “Just let it die here and now.”
“That’s the thing about a nickname,” Byron said shaking his head as he shrugged. “Until you become the one with the big brass balls running things, there isn’t a thing you can do about it, son.”
“Does Ser Nathan have a nickname?” Marcus asked in an attempt to redirect the conversation.
“The Lord of Imaginary Money,” Byron said, his lips curling around the cigar. “I made up that one when that slimy bastard headed the Financial Advisement Department. Those were good times. It’s a shame to see the kind of man he’s become.”
“Do you really believe that I was somehow involved in replacing you?”
Byron snorted and took the cigar out of his mouth. “Who’s easier to blame?” he asked.
“Are you really so convinced that Ser Nathan wants you gone?” Marcus asked.
“We have work to do,” Byron grumbled, sticking his cigar back in his mouth.
“How long will that be a fact for you?” Marcus asked. “There’s no need to close me off. I’m not your enemy.”
Byron took another puff of his cigar. “You seem like a good kid, so I’ll say this once,” he said as smoke flowed out of his mouth. Then his grinding voice turned his next words into steel. “Leave it alone. Nothing good will come of you playing detective or therapist or whatever it is you’re getting at.”
“I’m just trying to get a feel for my surroundings.”
“But this isn’t something that has to do with that,” Byron said tapping the desk with a finger. “Leave it alone, son. Just leave it alone.”
“LEAVE IT ALONE!” Byron shouted.
Marcus recoiled and remained silent for a long while. It was his first day, but he was a Spyros. He would never allow himself to be dissuaded like that.
“Ser Nathan may have been your friend but he’s not your friend now,” Marcus said into the silence. “Friends deserve loyalty but friends don’t force each other out of their jobs.”
Byron let out a long tired sigh, smoke pouring from his mouth as his lungs emptied. “Why’re you so damned curious?” he asked. “This is something you can find out by speaking to anyone on this floor.”
“But no one on this floor can tell me the full truth,” Marcus said leaning in, staring at Byron intently. “No one on this floor knows every nuance of what happened and if I’m going to avoid losing my head, I need to know what happened.”
Byron stared at Marcus for a long time. Crystal blue eyes made large by huge glasses met golden eyes and Marcus didn’t flinch like he did with Uncle Cato. Byron grunted and took his cigar out of his mouth, grinding the tobbacco into the tray as he collected his thoughts.
“I’m not sure what happened but-“
The door swung open and Katerin poked her head inside the room.
“Byron, everyone is waiting for you two!” She said before disappearing as quickly as she appeared.
“The objectives meeting!” Byron exclaimed as he jumped to his feet. “Piss in the left boot of the Divine! We have to go! We have to go now!”
The cigar-toting man grabbed a handful of Marcus’ sleeve and pulled him down the hallway at a run. Marcus wasn’t surprised to see Byron’s diminutive size, but he was shocked at how fast the man was moving. His short legs pumped furiously and though his legs were longer, Marcus found himself trotting to keep up.
When the two of them reached the lobby, Katerin was waiting beside the open doors of the golden elevator. Byron said a hasty thank you as he dragged Marcus onto the elevator and repeatedly pressed the single gold coin button on top of the rows. The doors closed and began the high speed ascent that put Marcus’ stomach near his shoes, but he managed to stay on his feet this time. Even still, Byron extended a hand as though to catch Marcus when the elevator picked up speed.
“You never finished what you were going to say,” Marcus said, fighting the urge to let his legs collapse.
“I never really started,” Byron said between breaths. “You should just ask around. You’re smart enough to sift the truth from the rumors.”
“Why sift when I can get it all from you,” Marcus said. “By now you have to know that I’m not going to stop asking. Even more so since you started already.”
Byron sighed. “I guess there’s no use trying to keep quiet now,” he said. “For the past six years, I’ve been opposing Ser Nathan’s acquisitions.”
“None of his acquisition targets made any sense!” Byron said squinting his eyes and shaking his head. “I don’t know what, but something happened six years ago. Something changed Ser Nathan and not for the better.”
“How can someone just change overnight?” Marcus asked. “What changed?”
Byron scoffed and waved his hand like he was fighting off a sudden swarm of flies. “That’s exactly it,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Marcus frowned. “What do you mean you don’t know?” he asked, afraid he stumbled into some jealousy struggle.
“I don’t know!” Byron said just short of a shout. He sighed and shook his head. “Look, there’s nothing I can say to quantify it but there’s been something off about him. He acts the same for the most part. He’s always been a bit of an ass, but his dedication to this company was unquestionable. It was one of the reasons we became such good friends. We were entirely dedicated to this company but now…”
“None of it makes any sense!” Byron said clenching his fists.
“What is this ‘it’ that you’re speaking of?”
“His entire growth strategy!” Byron said clenching his fists. “It’s a complete mystery to everyone but those sycophants he keeps near him at all times! mean, I am supposed to be the man taking charge of our acquisitions! I am supposed to be the final say in our targets and purchases! I am supposed to determine the best targets for take over to help the overall strategy! How am I supposed to do that if the man who sets the strategy is keeping me at arm’s length?”
“But wait. You’re the Head of Acquisitions. How can he possibly keep you in the cold? By law you have to finalize all major purchases.”
“Ser Nathan has been using his Chief Executive privilege to push through these acquisitions that do nothing for the company. Absolutely nothing.”
“Everlasting above… his Chief Executive privileges are that strong? Well his acquisitions can’t possibly be that bad.”
“Just last month, Ser Nathan purchased a small lumber company in the Armlands region to the west.”
“This is a conglomerate.” Marcus said. “Isn’t Ser Nathan allowed to buy companies that might be considered outside his normal purview?”
“That’s the fifteenth lumber company he bought…”
Marcus scoffed. “That doesn’t sound awful.”
“In that specific region…”
Marcus winced. “Okay, that is a bit-“
Marcus inhaled sharply and recoiled. Byron leaned into the newly created space between them.
“And that’s not to mention the construction companies he has been snapping up all throughout the Armsland region,” the old man said in a whisper. “None of it makes any sense at all.”
“Why has no one else opposed him?” Marcus asked.
“The man has made a sterling example out of me,” Byron said. “But that is not even the worst part. He-”
Sunlight transformed into fiery rays as the beams bounced off the gold interior of the elevator. The ding froze Marcus and Byron and the two turned to see the entire executive board staring at them as the doors opened. The only face Marcus saw was at the head of the table smiling, his golden tooth glinting in the sunlight.