Magic Vs. Money: Part Three
Part 3: NeoCorp Headquarters
Sophie had decided that the direct approach was probably be the best one. Mr. Mogul needed to understand who he was dealing with; if he thought his goons could just stomp into her home and make demands, they had another thing coming. It never hurt to put people in awe of you. As the witch made her way through the streets Neovia to the thirteen-story building standing very out of place next to the antique homes and shops surrounding it on the southeast edge of town, the townsfolk were very much in awe. At one point, her parents came out to meet her and find out what was wrong, but she quickly sent them home without answering any questions. She didn’t want them involved in this in any way.
The front door of NeoCorp headquarters slid open with an oddly malevolent whoosh as she came up to it, then shut behind her with the same vaguely threatening sound. She stepped up to the information desk, where a green Kougra in a security uniform was working very hard at not working very hard – he had his face buried in a sports magazine.
“I’m here to see Mr. Mogul,” Sophie said firmly.
The security guard didn’t look up. Sophie cleared her throat, but the guard pretended not to notice.
“I said . . .” Sophie began.
“Do you have an appointment?” the guard asked sharply, turning the page. “No, I didn’t think so. Good day.”
Sophie’s knuckles whitened from the tight grip on her wand, but through an enormous effort of self-control, she resisted the impulse to blast the guard across the hall.
“I don’t have an appointment,” Sophie said, her anger carefully hidden under her icy calmness, “but he’ll want to see me.”
“Oh?” said the guard, still not looking up. “Why is that?”
Sophie’s eye twitched, but she kept her tone at arctic temperatures as she answered. “Because if he doesn’t, then he’s going to need to hire a new guard for the lobby.”
“Listen, lady,” the guard started.
He looked up for the first time and what he saw gave him pause. He obviously wasn’t a Neovian native, so he didn’t know Sophie’s looks, but hers were such that they conveyed her profession and general attitude quite well. Rumors being the fast travelers that they are, the guard had heard something about a security team having a run-in with a nasty witch and that one of the team hadn’t ever come back. Seeing her standing there, his sense of self-preservation brought a very sudden change of heart.
“Oh, pardon me, ma’am,” he said, forcing a smile. “Um, let me just put a call in to his secretary for you.”
“Do so,” Sophie said with an equally fake and much more vicious grin. “Tell him that the swamp witch is here to have a word with him about his intrusion into my home and that he will sincerely regret not meeting with me.”
The guard nodded, laughing nervously and quickly grabbed the voice tube, and asking to be connected to Mr. Mogul’s office. Sophie listened to the Kougra’s frantic end of the conversation.
“The swamp witch just walked into the office and . . . no, I’m not kidding. She say’s she’s here to see Mr. Mogul . . . yes, probably that. No. No.” He glanced up at Sophie, noting how impatiently she was drumming her fingers on her wand. “No, I don’t think she wants to schedule an appointment for another . . . No! Don’t do that! Look, if Mr. Mogul isn’t in any meetings, I think he ought to . . . Yes. Thank you.”
The guard put down the earpiece and turned back to Sophie. His frightened grin was like a dead man’s rictus.
“Mr. Mogul is sending an escort to bring you to him. If you wait by the lift, they’ll be down in just a moment.”
“Very good,” she replied. “You’ve been very helpful. Just for that, I won’t blast you all the way to Maraqua.”
The guard’s smile slipped a bit. “That’s very much appreciated,” he said through his teeth.
Ten minutes later, a very irritated and very impatient witch turned at the sound of the lift door opening. Rydil and Ansa were waiting inside, both looking very pale and perhaps ready to run a five-mile marathon in any direction that was away from Sophie. Rydil opened his mouth to speak, but found his mouth just a little too dry for words and beckoned for her to enter the elevator. She did, stepping in between the two of them. They gave her as much space as they could and Ansa pulled the switch, sending the lift upward. After a long, uncomfortable silence, they reached the top. As the two guards led Sophie down the hall to Mr. Mogul’s office, Rydil made a sound of clearing his throat.
“Um, about Don?” he said.
“Knowing won’t make it any easier for you to sleep at night,” Sophie answered curtly.
“Right. Well then.”
They arrived at the office without another word and entered, where a golden Usul was seated at the desk, reading a book. She glanced up and saw Sophie. Swallowing a hard lump that suddenly formed in her throat, she gestured toward the door.
“Mr. Mogul will see you now.”
Leaving the guards behind, Sophie stepped through the door.
The office of Alexander Mogul was nothing if not spacious and despite the huge windows that dominated the back wall, it still somehow managed to be dark. It was probably a combination the deep red curtains draped over them and the obsidian black walls and carpeting. The fishpond – complete with fish, lily pads and a small waterfall – and the numerous giant potted ferns placed about the office were probably meant to put people at ease as much as decorate, but Sophie found the room all the more unsettling for its opulence. His meticulously tidy desk had only the gold nameplate reading “A. Mogul,” and a jar of chocolate-coated candy sticks. As she walked around the long, twelve seat table toward the desk, the massive leather swivel chair behind it turned slowly around with a dry creak.
Mr. Mogul was a brown Wocky with dark grey highlights, but Sophie couldn’t ever recall one of his species being quite so large. For a Wocky, he was both unusually tall and unusually wide; the word ‘corpulent’ came to her mind. He wore a pinstripe suit coat with purple pants, a white shirt and a green tie. Seated on his enormous lap, a white gathow cat glared at her, alert and unblinking, purring as its owner stroked its head.
“Good morning, Ms. Sophie,” said Mr. Mogul with mild enthusiasm, his voice a deep, throaty purr to match the petpet on his lap. “And welcome to NeoCorp Headquarters.”
“Mr. Mogul,” Sophie began.
“Candystix?” the businessman offered, indicating the jar on his desk. “They are of the finest quality, I assure you.”
“As you wish.”
The fat Wocky plucked a cherry flavored one out of the jar and suckled it in a profoundly contemplative manner. It was impossible to tell if he was savoring the taste, or pondering the mysteries of the universe. A gold ring with a small, star-shaped ruby glittered on his index finger. The gleam of it made her feel oddly uncomfortable, although she couldn’t say why.
“Mr. Mogul,” she said again after a pause. “Your men . . .”
“Yes, I am aware,” he replied. “Most unfortunate, indeed. I assure you that I have no desire to antagonize you. This incident was a misunderstanding that I am well prepared to make reparations for, if you will accept my sincerest apologies.”
It had been a long time since Sophie had found herself taken aback by anything. She wasn’t quite sure what she had been expecting of Mr. Mogul, but this certainly wasn’t it. There was something oddly genuine about his pleasantness. He was a little smug perhaps, but he seemed earnestly concerned about what he thought was her situation and his offer to make it up to her seemed equally heartfelt. Sophie had dealt with many evil people in the course of her training and studies, but he was like none of them.
“It was honestly my fault,” he continued. “I knew of the Moehogs’ rebellious nature and Don’s . . . ‘personality problems,’ shall we say? But I’m always willing to give people a chance to prove themselves. A shame they failed to do so, and that they’ve gone and upset you in the process.”
Sophie closed her eyes and took a deep breath to focus her thoughts. When she opened them again, she felt herself more in control again.
“I’m not here to talk about that,” she said.
Mr. Mogul sucked thoughtfully on the end of his candy, smiling a little. The gathow purred softly, its amber eyes fixed on her like she was a cornered tigermouse ready to be devoured.
“Interesting,” he said. “Explain.”
“After my run-in with your goon squad, I found the girl they were after hiding in my home.”
The candystix suddenly snapped between Mr. Mogul’s teeth.
“Her arm had been broken and she was scared half out of her mind that your men were going to get her. She says they took her mother, and your man, Don, admitted that his orders were to take her family into ‘custody,’ although he didn’t know why.”
Mr. Mogul’s expression had grown grave and he laid his candy on the desk. “Oh dear, oh dear. Her arm was broken?” He sounded shocked. Sophie felt strangely certain that he honestly was. “They neglected to mention that particular fact. Most distressing.”
“Yes,” Sophie agreed. Suddenly, she found herself very frustrated at how amiable Mr. Mogul was being about it all. She grunted angrily to spark the flames again. “Listen, you! You ordered your men to abduct Talya’s family – one of them even injured her – and you’re just sitting there like it’s nothing.”
“Oh, I assure you, this is most certainly not nothing to me,” Mr. Mogul said evenly. “This is, in fact, very serious. It was not my intent to harm them, only to detain them.”
“Why detain them in the first place?” she demanded.
Mr. Mogul leaned back in his chair, swiveling it just a little bit, eyeing her obliquely. For a long moment, the only sound to be heard was the soft dribbling of the waterfall and the gathow’s menacing purr.
“Understand,” the businessman said slowly, “that under normal circumstances I would say that it was none of your concern. Under these circumstances, however, I will explain.”
“Please do,” said Sophie, wanting to be pleased that she was getting answers, but instead nervous that she was getting them so easily.
“Mr. Winters is one of my top research scientists,” Mr. Mogul said. “He has a brilliant mind for it and it’s earned him top pay and benefits and a good deal more freedom to work as he sees fit than most of my research team, but it seems he was not satisfied with that.”
There was a pause as Mr. Mogul picked up his candy and set it back in the corner of his mouth. When he spoke again, its presence didn’t hinder his speech in any noticeable way.
“About two months ago, we began to suspect that Mr. Winters was stealing company secrets and selling them to our rivals. We’ve been monitoring his activities since then and yesterday, my security team reported that they had enough evidence to warrant action. I authorized it in the manner I felt most appropriate.”
“Where are they?” Sophie asked.
“In a secured location,” he answered. “This building in fact. They are not being harmed and, in fact, I’m going well out of my way to see that they are comfortable in their incarceration.”
“Why hold them in the first place? Shouldn’t you have called the authorities?”
Mr. Mogul chuckled in his throat. “My dear, your naivete is quite charming.”
Sophie felt the hair rising on the back of her neck and the grip on her wand tightened until her fingers grew sore. “What?”
“Yes, I could have handed him over to the authorities, but that would not have solved the problem. You see, even in prison, there would be ways for him to get the information he has stolen to my competitors and I cannot allow that. No, it is more satisfactory to hold him in isolation until we have finished the projects he was working on and any others he had access to.”
“How long will that take?”
“I can’t really say. He was involved in so many projects that it’s hard to guess. In the meantime, we would appreciate it if you would turn young Talya over to us. No doubt she is missing her parents greatly.”
Sophie was flabbergasted. “You really think I’m going to just give her to you?”
Mr. Mogul leaned forward in his chair, his gaze intense. “You think so?” he purred. “Because I think I’m being perfectly reasonable. Surely you don’t want to be saddled with a little girl and it’s better that she be with her parents anyway. Again, I assure you that they are not being harmed. They are being given every comfort available.”
“Except for the comfort of freedom,” Sophie returned.
Mr. Mogul’s face turned stony. “That was a comfort they revoked when they decided to steal from my company. I’m being far more generous in my treatment of them than, say, the prison system and this way, I ensure that my company projects do not end up in the hands of my competitors. This is a most reasonable solution to the problem.”
“Maybe,” admitted Sophie, “but it’s still illegal and you have no right to do this.”
Mr. Mogul threw back his head and laughed, his belly trembling so that his gathow had to struggle to stay on his lap. It made its displeasure known with a throaty yowl and Mr. Mogul stopped laughing, scratching it behind the ears.
“I’m sorry, my precious, I wasn’t thinking,” he said reassuringly, then turned back to Sophie. “Rights? What a quaint notion. Governments and philosophers can talk about the rights of the people all they want, but when it comes right down to it, the only right that truly exists is the right of your own power. Surely you understand that as well as I.”
Sophie clenched her teeth, her eyes sparkling maliciously. She raised her wand.
“If that’s how you feel,” she said, “then I have every right to do this!”
She brought her wand down to point at the businessman. The blinding flash of light and puff of smoke slowly blowing away to reveal the world’s newest moquot didn’t happen as it had been expected. In fact, not only was Mr. Mogul still sitting unchanged in his chair, he hadn’t even stopped smiling. His gathow laid back its ears and hissed angrily. Mouth hanging agape, Sophie lowered her wand.
“I am keenly aware of the power of magic,” Mr. Mogul purred. “But you don’t seem to have any knowledge or respect for the power of money. You see, with my resources, it was a simple matter to hire a few good wizards to place protective wards in this office to negate any harmful magic that might be brought against me.”
Sophie set her jaw firmly and glared at the businessman, but she knew she had little chance of intimidating him without her magic. Mr. Mogul knew it, too.
“I’m no fool,” he said. “I wouldn’t dream of confronting you on your own home-ground. No amount of money could get me the protections I would need to win a conflict there, but here, in this office, I have every advantage. And, in case you’re getting any ideas, be assured that a team of expert bodyguards and this ring,” he showed it to her again, “will keep me safe long enough to get away if you tried to attack me in the streets. No, my dear, I’m afraid you’re going to have to admit defeat in this confrontation. A terrible shame that there had to be one in the first place, as I do believe I have been quite reasonable with you, but, well, there you have it.”
Sophie seethed inside. She wanted nothing more that to blast the insufferable businessman with a torrent of nasty spells and the fact that she couldn’t only made her more angry, but for all her rage, she was totally impotent. With no magic, she had only her own strength and even if she didn’t have the lingering worry that Mr. Mogul was much stronger than he appeared, she couldn’t hope to hold her own against a team of his security guards. She was beaten. If she had only been annoyed with him before, she passionately hated him now.
“My offer to take the girl off your hands still stands,” he said, so smug it made her want to bite his nose off. “Or you can keep her, if you like. Far less expensive for us and she knows nothing of value that would make holding her necessary. If you come by to drop her off, we’ll take her, but if you honestly feel it’s best that she stay in your care, I perfectly understand.”
“You’ll regret this,” she said.
“I’m certain that I will,” he earnestly replied. “It would have been infinitely more profitable if our first impressions of each other had been better than this.” He turned his chair around to look out the window. “But that’s life, I’m afraid.”
Mr. Mogul reached out an pulled a rope hanging near his desk and a loud gong shattered the silence. A moment later, the door opened and Rydil and Ansa came in.
“Gentlemen,” said Mr. Mogul. “Please escort my guest off the premises, then you may go.”
“Sir?” asked Rydil.
“You’re fired,” Mr. Mogul replied. “Both of you.”
There was nothing further to be said. Sophie allowed herself to be silently led out of the building. She paused just outside to consider the situation. She couldn’t get at Mr. Mogul directly and he obviously wasn’t going to let Talya’s parents go on his own. She needed to find another way. She couldn’t do it on her own, that much was certain. She’d have to get outside help, but from whom?
Ansa coughed. “Um, listen . . . about what happened yesterday? Well, I’m sorry . . .”
“If I can still see you ten seconds from now,” Sophie said, her anger boiling over, “then you’ll both find yourselves very miserable for all the seconds of your life that follow.”
The ex-security guards needed no further encouragement to leave than that.
To be continued...