Just a little story I did a while back, taking place within the HITMAN universe if you like it, I shall do another. (don’t worry, it’s short )
The music was awful. Some obnoxious techno-euro garbage throbbing out of the speakers as society’s most fashionable socialites stood around the blue-lit bar, sipping wine and talking about this season’s collection.
The event was one of several hosted during Paris Fashion Week, with tonight’s host being a Russian tax exile called Novikov. And judging by the 20-something yes men, the trendy neon bar, and the grotesquely modern use of what was an otherwise majestic palace - this guy was more new money than Tim Quinn. Though as this was Paris’s Palais de Walewska, so perhaps the term ‘nouveau riche’ would’ve been more appropriate, Grigore thought to himself as he adjusted the bow of his tuxedo. Floating through the crowd towards him in a purple flowing dress, was a woman carrying a pair of champagne glasses. Pristinely kept and gracefully approaching middle age, this was Maria - his adoring wife.
“Drink this and be quiet,” she commanded, passing him one of the glasses.
“Champagne? Well that settles it then,” Grigore commented before throwing the drink back and grimacing as he gulped it down. “I doubt anyone in this room could even spell ‘class’.”
“Clearly you’re an expert…”
Grigore glanced at the empty glass in his hand, shifting his eyes to his wife as he settled it on the tray of a passing waiter.
“How long until the arsenic kicks in?” he asked her in Romanian.
“You flatter yourself if you think I’d make it that quick,” his wife responded in the same language, before they both switched back into English.
“I hear our host used to be in the Russian mafia.”
“Well we’re not here for him.”
In truth, they were there for Novikov’s girlfriend: the Israeli ex-model who had persuaded him to buy out the Sanguine fashion house after the recession put it in the red. Her name was Dalia Margolis - a woman who used half her life making money from her looks, and the other half from her brains.
Rumor had it that while she was a supermodel of global renown, she was also a spy for Mossad.
“We’d better go, or we’ll miss the auction,” Maria pointed out, consulting a small watch clinging to her wrist.
Conceding that she was right, Grigore joined her in walking through the high ceiling chambers of the palace, doing his best to ignore the catwalk and crowd that had sprouted in the courtyard.
Aside from her modeling agency and jewellery line, Margolis hosted quarterly auctions to which only the world’s most prominent figures were invited.
As revered as they were within the scientific circles of their native Romania, Grigore and Maria would not have had an invitation mailed to them if it hadn’t been for their employer.
Grigore was a medical research director for the Ether Biotech Corporation, a South African pharmaceutical company that was consistently the leader of its industry; with patents and products ranging from everything from migraine pills to gene therapy. In short, it was less a company and more an empire.
Now pushing 45, Grigore had made two cardinal mistakes: 1) He believed competence would earn him promotions above a simple national directorship, and 2) He married one of his research assistants.
“You remember the name of the article?” said research assistant quizzed him as they went.
“How could I forget it?” Grigore sighed. “You’ve been drilling it into me ever since de Waal secured us the invite.”
“You might be content being the dutiful servant, but I’m not going to sit and watch as they relegate you to complete the Legacy Project,” she retorted while they crossed a rear hall, with a pair of guards at the far end, at the foot of a grand staircase. “We need this.”
“We?” Grigore halted them, turning to his wife as his voice lowered. “You don’t really care about me, you just want a husband who sits on the board of Ether.”
“On the board of the world’s largest biotech company?” she gave a rhetorical reply. “Of course that’s what I want.”
“You can’t use me. You - "
" - Then leave me,” Maria defied him, striking him mute.
Then she smirked at his hesitation, before reaching up a hand and gently stroking his cheek.
Grigore’s face dropped, his expression softened. “I know you still love me, Grigore. I also know that in the history of Ether, they’ve never elected a bachelor as their Director of European Operations. I’ll be with you when you sit at that desk. Just not for the reasons you want. Now be a good boy and play your part.”
Reaching the guards at the foot of the stairs, Grigore mustered a smile as he passed one of them his invitation, who scanned a QR code on the back.
“I have to search the both of you,” the man declared, returning his invitation to him. “Please raise your arms, this’ll only take a moment.”
After being forcibly frisked by guards that looked like they’d been dressed by Sanguine, they were allowed up the stairs and proceeded through the palace’s bare chambers.
After another frisk search and climbing more steps, they made it to a reception area on the top floor. And there waiting for them was Dalia Margolis.
Short haired and with an Israeli complexion, she had the modest style of dress and confident demeanor of a woman who knew that maturity and dignity could be as alluring as diamonds.
“Doctor and Missus Covaci, it’s such a pleasure to finally meet you!” she greeted them with an elocuted voice conveyed through a broad, albeit false smile that Maria mirrored.
“Hello,” she was beaming back at her.
“The pleasure is ours, Miss Margolis,” Grigore spoke politely, shaking hands with her.
“Call me Dalia, please. The auction is going to begin in ten minutes. Until then, we’ve arranged for champagne and hors d’oeuvres on the balcony,” she offered, gesturing through a doorway to the side. “Please, enjoy yourselves and if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you, we appreciate that,” Maria spoke on their behalf.
No sooner had they walked away to an open hallway, Margolis’s smile vanished. “She seemed nice,” Maria whispered to him in Romanian.
Grigore couldn’t be certain if she was being sarcastic or passive aggressive.
Out on the balcony was a small congregation of attendees. None of them were familiar, but judging by the conversations all around them, they were senior figures within corporations, governments, and even criminal outfits. As much as Maria loved to pretend otherwise, Grigore wasn’t accustomed to networking with such influential players.
A few awkward encounters later and he was leaning against the balcony’s stone railings, looking out across the palace’s rear gardens, and the River Seine beyond, as the stars reflected off its calm surface like a mirror.
It was then, as he blocked out his wife schmoozing with an arms company CEO, that he recognized a familiar face.
Across from his vantage point, standing on a balcony around the corner from this one, was a young woman dressed in red silk.
Suppressing a smirk, Grigore glanced over to Maria. She was too distracted to notice him, telling her gathering audience about a fictitious occasion wherein she was invited to join the Ether CEO and his family on their private island in Bermuda.
Slipping away unseen, Grigore made his way into the auction room: a huge foyer of red carpet and a circle of antique armchairs facing an auctioneer’s podium beneath a grand chandelier. And behind that, a feast of every food imaginable had been laid out across a long table like a luxurious Last Supper.
Returning a smile from the auctioneer testing the podium’s electronics, Grigore made a beeline for the French doors to the right, pulling them open and feeling the night’s cool breeze as he stepped out into the balcony.
Unaware of his presence, the young woman had her back to him, looking out to the sea of rooftops along the horizon.
“The auction will be starting soon,” Grigore uttered to her bare shoulder blades.
"Oh I’m not - " she began, but as she turned to him, she stopped herself.
They exchanged a knowing smile.
Emerald green eyes and a fair complexion, her beautiful face was framed by her long auburn locks.
“Eva, you made it,” he could hardly contain his excitement as he stepped towards her. “But it’s the height of the season, how did you persuade Novikov to let you have the night off?”
“Novikov was easy,” she dismissed it, locking eyes with him as she drew close. “It was Dalia that was difficult to fool. She thinks I’m here to network with VIPs.”
“Sounds like my wife.”
Eva backed off, her face dropping a little.
“Is she here?”
“She insisted, I’m sorry.”
“You’ll be rid of her soon enough,” her sweet face formed a hopeful smile, which he couldn’t help but return. “Where’re are you staying?”
“Le Royal Monceau, just off Champs-Élysées. It’s a king-size bed,” he added slyly.
“I’m sure it is,” she gave an alluring smile. “Is there some way you could arrange for your wife to - "
" - I’ve already scheduled her to meet with a conference organizer in the 1st arrondissement,” Grigori jumped in.
“I nearly forgot how resourceful you are. Will you text me when you’re done here? I could keep you company.”
“Count on it.”
Eva ran her hand down his arm, giving him one final stroke as she walked away back into the auction room.
Grigore smiled to himself as he watched her step through the glass doors and close them behind her with effortless grace. But when he turned back towards the view over the balcony, his eyes settled on an unwelcome sight.
An elderly man stood in the corner of the balcony by a space heater, his white beard carefully kept and his three-piece suit made of the finest fabric. Giving a sigh, Grigore reluctantly walked over to the man, the evening’s dying light reflecting off a lapel pin that looked like a metallic dove.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” the stranger uttered calmly, his voice carrying a smooth French accent as he looked out onto the river. “The way she moves, the way she glistens. She beguiles us with her charm, like a siren to a sailor. But if you’re not cautious, if you lose yourself in her mystique…” he trailed off and he turned to look at him. “she will drown you.”
“Sauvageau,” Grigore begrudgingly greeted him. “Trust Providence to send a herald to make sure I don’t fail.”
“If that was true, would you truly be surprised?” Sauvageau mysterically mused, looking back out across the view. “Ether represents a considerable investment of our money and, more importantly, our time.”
“And what about my time? You have me babysitting the remnants of a fringe science project that was disbanded nearly twenty years ago.”
“Ort-meyer was a man ahead of his time, only a fool would deny it. But while his ill-fated chromosome research might have excited us in the past, it served only to stagnate progress on more useful initiatives.”
“But why relegate me to developing this antidote if the techniques aren’t even complete?” Grigore argued, frustration leaking into his tone. “Tell your superiors to give me a project with more significance.”
Sauvageau turned to him once more, leaning against the barrier as an eyebrow rose into life.
“You speak as though you have power over us,” he began sternly. “Are you not grateful to have been chosen? We respected your competencies, Doctor Covaci. Gave you Ort-meyer’s estate and financed your research.”
“But I want more than Providence’s leftovers,” Grigore implored. “I want a seat at the big table.”
“Your ambition reaks of an ungrateful stench, Doctor Covaci,” the Frenchman sneered. “If you want to be noticed, then acquire the technology to complete your research.”
“Is it really here?”
“An insider from the Saudi Arabian APRIX is offering it for auction. Don’t overspend on the company account when you outbid everyone in the room. Another financial investigation into Ether would cost you your job.”
“So would failing to acquire the technology to complete the antidote.”
“No, Doctor Covaci,” Sauvageau bluntly corrected him. “That would kill you.”
With this, the elderly man walked to the doors and opened them. He paused and turned to Grigore. “Drop the siren. Or she’ll drown you.”
He stepped through the doors, closing them behind him and leaving Grigore alone on the balcony.
After cursing under his breath and composing himself, he walked back into the auction room.
The seats were filled with the people from the champagne reception as Maria walked towards him, carrying a tablet device.
“It needs to scan your invitation,” was all she said to him as they tucked away into a corner and he ran his invitation through the tablet’s scanner.
The screen displayed a menu of intelligence items, each one more engrossing than the last. But before they could read their promotional information in any great detail, they looked up to see Dalia Margolis stood in the center of the armchairs.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she announced to attract their attention. “Knowledge without power is just ivory-towered academics. Power without knowledge is simply brute force. But combined, power and knowledge shape the face of the planet,” she concluded confidently, before adding a whimsical. “Happy bidding.”
With this, she turned and left through a side door as the lights dimmed and everyone’s tablets came to life.
The auctioneer, a balding man in a silk vest, addressed the room softly from his podium.
“Our first item is a developing political crisis in the Kingdom of…Morocco. I will now start the bidding.”
Grigore spied Sauvageau across the room, wearily tapping the tablet as he rapidly bid with one finger, his eyes scanning the room for signs of weakness. He wasn’t even looking at the bids, he already knew he could afford to beat them.
Seeing this made Grigore realize that Sauvageau hadn’t been sent there to monitor him, he’d been sent to secure any leaked intel that related to Sauvageau’s employers, or their plans.
The auction dragged on, and state secrets were sold with startling ease, one after another. Policy proposals, access codes, power grid vulnerabilities - even the secrets of individuals were being exchanged with the tap of a screen.
Eventually, it was Grigore’s turn.
“Our next item is a biotechnology patent in the field of…neurology,” the auctioneer announced.
Both looking at the tablet, Grigore and Maria saw the words ‘hippocampal re-activation’ and hastily pressed it at the same time.
Their opening bid was €10,000.
Then a notification popped up: €15,000.
“Quick, outbid them!” Maria hissed as Grigore fumbled to tap the screen.
“Shit…” Grigore muttered in Romanian.
“How high did de Waal say you could go?”
“Who is it…?” Maria wondered quietly, looking around the room for tapping fingers as Grigore entered another bid.
The next bid came back nearly instantly.
“No, they outbid us!” Grigore whispered urgently, attracting the attention of the people around them.
“I can’t, it’s above the limit!”
“Screw the limit, we need it!” Maria argued, trying to grab the tablet from him.
They wrestled with it, causing the guards to look at each other suspiciously, and the woman next to Grigore backed away towards the French doors.
The tablet vibrated in their hands, freezing them in place as they stared at the screen.
Sold for €150,000
“What do we do now?” Grigore appealed to her quietly, but Maria had already released the tablet.
She took two steps back, stunned and dumbstruck. Then, with a resigned shake of her head, she walked away. “Maria?” he called after her.
“Sir, you’re gunna’ have to keep it down,” a nearby guard warned him.
Maria stepped through a door to the right, and a guard closed it behind her.
Coming back to his senses, Grigore realized he had a guard in front of him, studying his face cautiously. He looked around the room, seeing the judgemental eyes of elitists watching his drama.
Then he saw Sauvageau. His face was a picture of discontent, his brows knitted together in a frown as his eyes burrowed his disappointment into Grigore’s skull.
“I’m sorry,” he practically whispered to the guard, excusing himself through the French doors.
Out on the balcony, he rushed to the rails and bent over them, vomit bubbling up his throat.
It subsided, burning him on its way back down.
It was over. He had lost.
Maria. Eva. Sauvageau. None of that mattered now.
They were going to kill him. There was nowhere he could hide.
“Grigore,” a woman’s voice uttered behind him.
Composing himself as best he could, he turned towards the sound.
It was Maria.
“Maria, you - "
" - Come with me,” she ordered him sternly.
“What? Where are we going?”
“I asked Dalia for a meeting. The only way we get out of this with our jobs is if you find your balls and make a deal with her. Come on.”
Rescued by his wife, Grigore returned to the auction room.
By now, they were bidding on Kronstadt missile technology and everyone was too busy tapping their tablets to notice the twosome cross the room, sweeping around the buffet offering.
“Um, Dal- Miss Margolis is expecting us,” Grigore mustered the words to a guard next to a door.
After frisking them, he allowed them inside.
The room was called the Voltaire Suite: a lavish lounge with antique loveseats and courtyard windows that looked down into the fashion show below.
Margolis stood by a dresser, smiling at them supremely as they entered and the doors were closed behind them.
“Doctor and Missus Covaci, how nice to see you again,” she greeted them with another broad smile. “Please, do sit.”
As they awkwardly sat on one of the couches, she closed the two sets of windows, reverting the throbbing music to a dull set of bumps. “I apologize for the noise, Viktor does like to be ostentatious.”
“Oh that’s okay,” Grigore politely replied, but a look from his wife told him it wasn’t a statement that needed one.
“Maria didn’t tell me what this meeting was about,” Margolis began, sitting on the loveseat opposite them and crossing her legs. “But I think I can hazard a guess,” she added with a sly smile. “Since the Al-Ghazalis bought APRIX from the Al-Khalifas, they’ve focused on Alzheimer’s research. And judging by what my assistant saw out there, someone outbid you.”
“That’s…surprisingly accurate,” Grigore bounced his eyebrows. “Our Romanian division is currently doing research into dementia and this technology is crucial to its success. But our CEO limited our bids to €100,000.”
“Yes, Neleis always did lack a sense of adventure,” Margolis smirked, causing Grigore and Maria to both give a laugh of relief at her casual demeanor. “IAGO doesn’t ordinarily double-sell information, but I’ll make an exception as this is a special case.”
“Thank you for your understanding, Dalia,” Grigore began delicately, desperate for her not to change her mind. “But we can’t exceed Mister de Waal’s limit.”
“Then we’ll work out a trade. How much do you know about Nila Torvik?”
“I know more about her company, Torvik Research. They sell low-cost drugs to the third world.”
“She’s your friend, isn’t she?” Maria piped up.
Dalia looked impressed by Maria’s comment.
“Right you are, Maria,” she smiled at her, with Maria returning it. “I’ll let you both in on a little trade secret. Nila’s work in the world’s developing nations isn’t done out of the goodness of her heart. It’s a cover for ethically dubious testing of her drugs, in countries where a few hundred people can disappear and nobody would notice.”
“How awful,” Maria reacted, but Grigore was a little more pragmatic.
“I suppose it saves on research costs,” he thought aloud, provoking one corner of Dalia’s lips to curl up slightly.
“I know that Ether is competing with Torvik Research in the generic pharmaceuticals market. If you can convince Neleis to undercut Torvik’s products in Africa, they’ll be forced to cut their costs even further to stay afloat. Nila is a logical woman, but those cuts will turn up the pressure, make her reckless. When she makes a mistake, I’ll be ready.”
“But she’s your friend?” the confused question escaped Grigore’s mouth. “Why would you want blackmail your friend?”
“Keep your enemies close and your friends under surveillance,” Dalia casually dismissed his question. “The Russians call it ‘kompromat’, I call it insurance. Experience has taught me to keep dirt on everyone close to me. If you can get me that dirt, you’ll have your technology.”
“Thank you for that offer,” Grigore spoke slowly and diplomatically, his mind whirling to calculate the situation.
“But I also know that Ether wants to acquire Torvik. So if you’re going to do this, you better make sure it works. Because if Ether undercuts them and it doesn’t weaken them enough to assist in the takeover, they’ll realize you were doing it to benefit your own research. They’ll fire you and sue you into the ground if this doesn’t work.”
Grigore exchanged a worried look with Maria, whose eyes implored into his. He took a deep breath to steady himself, before looking to Dalia.
“We’ll get you your dirt.”
“Wow, this dementia research must be valuable,” she mused with a smile. “We have ourselves a deal. My assistant, Sophus, will be in touch.”
After exchanging handshakes with her, Grigore and Maria quietly excused themselves and left Dalia alone in the suite.
But she wasn’t alone for long, as a side room opened and she heard someone walk in.
“I told you it would work,” she smirked to herself as the person rounded the couch to face her. “Are you ready to play your part?”
Looking down at her was Eva.
“I’m ready, Dalia,” she replied coolly. “Soon you’ll have an Ether board member in your pocket.”
Dalia sat back in the loveseat, slouching back into the upholstery as she smiled to herself like a tickled cat.