“I wanted the prototype completed yesterday.” The voice was the essence of icy calm, but the man facing it cowered, whimpering. The voice continued, still deathly quiet. “Why do I pay you, Fleming?”
The man opened his mouth once, thought better of it, closed it again, and finally stammered, “Please Mr. Kaiba sir, give me one more chance! I promise I will not disappoint you again.”
“No,” Seto Kaiba said. “You won’t.” He raised a hand.
Fleming let out a sound almost like a sob. Kaiba eyed him in disgust for a moment before speaking to the guard who had materialized at Fleming’s shoulder.
“Escort him out of the building.” He turned to Fleming. “And if I ever catch even one of your toes edging over the property line…” He trailed off, letting Fleming’s imagination finish the sentence for him. The man gulped. The guard grabbed Fleming’s elbow and led him out, shutting the door behind him.
With a sigh, Kaiba sat back in his chair and rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. Though he hated to admit it, he had changed. Since the duel with Dartz, Seto had found it harder and harder to maintain the merciless businessman persona. A businessman he certainly was…but merciless? No, Seto Kaiba had a heart; it was just buried under meters of ice.
Moving almost mechanically, he reached for his coffee cup and drained it. The dregs tasted bitter. No, he realized, the problem went back further than that. Since Battle City, things had been different. KaibaCorp was fully recovered from the Dartz incident, just emerging from the incredibly successful KC Grand Championship. He should be proud. But too many questions had arisen since Battle City, and too many of his beliefs had been challenged. He was exhausted, confused, and as a result, extremely bad-tempered.
So far, no one had noticed the difference.
Taking a moment to pull himself back together, he reached for the phone.
“Miss Temple, when is my next meeting?” he barked into the intercom.
The secretary, little more than a frightened newbie, managed to squeak, “Artemis Fowl II at four o’clock.”
Kaiba sat back and steepled his fingers together just under his chin. Artemis Fowl. I don’t know much about him… He reached for his laptop and accessed a government intelligence database. Not legal…but then again, he had money. Five minutes later, Kaiba smirked.
“Looks like Mr. Fowl will be providing me with some competition,” he said. “Good. I could use the exercise.”
“This meeting is not a good idea, Artemis,” Butler warned his ward.
“Relax, Butler,” Artemis said, examining himself in the mirror. “I want to get his measure.” He straightened his tie. “Some say that he’s a genius. I want to see if the stories are true.”
“Can’t stand the competition?” Butler asked grimly. “Think, Artemis. If you meet with him, you are added to his list of suspects when his company is robbed!”
Artemis scowled. “I have thought this through. KaibaCorp’s computers are protected by the most advanced technology I’ve ever seen. I will not be able to establish the link without being physically present in the building.”
“I don’t like this, Artemis,” Butler growled. “This could get very dangerous, very quickly.”
“That’s what I have you for,” Artemis said dismissively, examining the tie again. “You can protect me.”
“I can’t protect you from yourself,” Butler muttered, but if his young ward heard him, he gave no sign.
“Besides,” Artemis said briskly. “Mr. Kaiba will be returning to America in a matter of days. This is my last chance to visit the KaibaCorp building without suspicion and gain access to the main computers.”
“There are so many ways this could backfire, Artemis,” Butler argued, though he knew he was wasting his breath.
For the first time, Artemis smiled. Only years of training kept Butler from taking a step back. “I know. That’s what makes it interesting.”
“Julius, I think we’ve got something here.”
“Don’t call me Julius.” Commander Root leaned over the back of Foaly’s chair, his fingers dimpling the material, his beet-red face inches from the screen. A lit cigar was clamped between his teeth. “What have we got?”
Foaly wrinkled his nose. “Don’t breathe smoke on the screens, Commander. They’re very expensive.”
Root stared at him for a split second, exhaled one last burst of smoke directly into Foaly’s face, and then reluctantly tossed the cigar into the recycling container. A shrill beep made him curse and rush over to put out the still-burning cigar, cursing again as he accidentally scorched his fingers. Foaly watched him with undisguised amusement as the commander threw the cigar, now extinguished, into the container again. With a final curse for good measure, Root stomped back to the computer.
“I repeat, Foaly, what have we got?”
“Are you alright, Commander?” Foaly asked innocently. “Wouldn’t want you to injure yourself. What would we do without you?”
Root’s expression could have easily peeled paint. “For the last time, Foaly,” he ground out through gritted teeth. “What in Frond’s name did you want to show me?”
Foaly turned back to the computer, suddenly serious. “We’ve picked up a magical reading in Dublin. A strong one.”
Root shrugged. “So what? A LEP operative in Dublin isn’t that unusual. Captain Trouble Kelp and Captain Holly Short are topside as we speak.”
“Speaking of that, what are they doing up there?” Foaly turned to look at Commander Root and raised an eyebrow.
“None of your business,” Root said firmly. “You called me over to tell me about magical readings from my own operatives?”
“No,” Foaly said . “See, here are the readings from Kelp and Holly.” He pointed to a pair of tiny red lights projected onto a virtual image of Dublin. “And here,” he pointed to another section of the map, “is our mystery reading.” The light there was much brighter. In fact, in comparison to those of Holly and Kelp, the new light was blinding.
Root leaned closer. “What in Haven’s name is that?” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” Foaly said snidely. “That’s why it’s called a mystery reading.”
Root glared at him in a way that told Foaly that if did not shut his mouth very, very soon, he would end up pulling sewer duty in Atlantis, armed with nothing more than a pair of tweezers and a empty garbage bag. And his fellow workers would all be trolls. Hungry, particularly foul-tempered bull trolls who had just come off an especially bad mating season.
He shut up.
“Can we get a channel through to Trouble and Holly?” Root asked.
“Sure, but I wouldn’t want to interrupt a special black-ops mission.” Foaly faked a look of stunned horror. “Think of the paperwork!”
Root ignored him and hit the button. The wrong button. Foaly yelped as a particularly explicit list of centaur-mating tips began to scroll across the screen. He lunged for the controls and minimized the site. Root looked at him, his lips twitching as though attempting to control a smile.
“It’s that button,” Foaly stammered, flustered, jabbing at a button on the other side of the console. Languidly, Root reached for the button and expertly activated the microphone that would allow him access directly to Holly and Trouble’s helmets.
Did he know what the first button would do? Foaly wondered, appalled. His face flushed with embarrassment. Clandestinely, he clicked the button and exited out of the dating site entirely. Save it for later, he told himself sternly.
Root’s lips twitched again, but he managed to restrain his good humor long enough to bark into the microphone, “Party’s over, boys and girls. Back to work.”
A moment later, Holly’s face appeared on the screen, accompanied by her voice. “What is it, Commander?” Was it Foaly’s imagination, or did Holly sound…relaxed?
“We need the pair of you to check out a magical reading in Dublin. We’re sending you the coordinates now.” Root nodded at Foaly, who clicked a couple of keys.
Holly’s tone was brisk now. “Coordinates received. Will do.” She hesitated. “Thank you, Julius.”
“You’re welcome,” Root said. “And don’t call me Julius.”
Holly’s face disappeared, and Foaly was left staring at a blank screen.
What was that all about?
At the moment Root’s message was received, Holly was enjoying some quality time above ground. She and her friend Trouble Kelp were on a secluded hill overlooking the ocean, no humans for miles. Only the sun, grass, and most importantly…fresh air.
“How much longer do we have?” Holly asked. She felt lazy and relaxed, a feeling she hadn’t had in months.
Trouble propped himself up on his elbow to look at his chronometer. He had been lying on his back, soaking up sun. “Another couple of hours, I guess. The Commander was pretty generous. I still don’t have any idea how he explained this jaunt to the LEP.”
Holly snorted. “Are you kidding? He probably told them we’re on a top-secret mission that requires absolute radio silence.”
Trouble laughed. “It’s probably a good thing that he did. Can you imagine trying to get clearance to come topside for a vacation otherwise?”
Holly nodded. “That gnome in Customs would probably have detained us for an extra couple of hours, just to make up for the time I accidentally stunned him with a buzz baton.”
Trouble raised an eyebrow. “That’s a story I haven’t heard.”
“Pity, ‘cause I’m not telling it.” Holly stretched her arms above her head and looked up at the sky. “Even a couple of hours in the open air feels good. It makes me wonder why the People abandoned it so easily to the Mud Men.”
At that very moment, Holly’s helmet began to beep. Throwing a slightly disgruntled look at Trouble, she rolled to her feet and went to retrieve it. Slipping it over her head, she heard the voice of Commander Root in her ear.
“Party’s over, boys and girls. Back to work.”
“What is it, Commander?” Holly asked, slightly concerned in spite of herself. She should have had a few more hours of down time…
“We need the pair of you to check out a magical reading in Dublin. We’re sending you the coordinates now.”
Holly nodded as coordinates began to scroll across her peripheral vision. By this time, Trouble had collected his own helmet and was in the process of fastening on a set of wings.
“Coordinates received,” Holly said. “Will do.” She hesitated, then looked out once more over the water and the deep green of the grass. She could feel the peaceful aura of the place settling into her bones. “Thank you, Julius.”
“You’re welcome.” Then his tone sharpened. “And don’t call me Julius.”
Smiling, Holly cut the connection. She glanced over at Trouble, now fully geared for flight. He grinned at her through the visor of his helmet.
“Ready to do some flying, Captain?”
She couldn’t help but smile back. “Let’s break a few speed records on the way to Dublin, shall we?”
“The records set by a certain Julius Root?” Trouble asked, watching her slip into her wings.
Holly’s smile turned a little predatory. “Exactly.”
Without another word, they activated their wings and raced through the sky towards Dublin.