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Insect Swarm

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He’s here again tonight. From your vantage point onstage it can be hard to make out distinct figures in the gloom, but you’d recognise that build anywhere, those broad shoulders that hint at a threat even when at rest. He’s sitting at the bar at the back of the room, low lighting gleaming off his bald head, that $1000 suit swallowing up the light. His face is in shadow, the curl of cigar smoke the only indication of which way his head’s turned — but that slow bloom of heat in your gut is an instinct you’ve cultivated well. You know his eyes are fixed on you.

Well, then. You’d better give him a show.

Your gown clings to your curves, a silver floor-length number with a slit all the way up to your hip, shimmering on your body like a waterfall. At the tables, the punters whoop and jeer, dollar bills spinning through the air to carpet the stage beneath your feet. You smile, hands on the pole, and begin to dance, for all intents and purposes completely engaged with your movements. The band are playing one of their more high tempo tracks, and you ratchet up the energy, feeling his eyes on your body as you flip and undulate around the pole. It’s hard work, but you know it looks effortless. You’re at the top of your game, after all.

It hasn’t escaped your notice that the last three times Fontaine has visited were the times when your name was second on the bill. Jasmine’s was first, of course — Jasmine is always first — but her ubiquitousness gave the second slot a power of its own.

To your knowledge, none of the girls have ever seen Fontaine privately, and despite the large sums of money and larger threats given by clients to maintain their privacy, you feel sure it would be impossible for any girl to keep news of a client like that to herself. After all, look what Ryan has done for Jasmine. Fontaine Futuristics was becoming even more successful than Ryan Industries these days; whoever Frank set his heart on — assuming its existence — would have it made.

The music changes, a new track, something jazzy and smoky slow. You smile to yourself; you know you excel at at this pace. You figure you’ve given the table area enough attention for now, and you switch your focus to the figure at the bar, throwing sultry glances his way like a fisherman casting a net. There’s no change in his demeanor — he simply sits and watches, the only clue to his expression a brief moment of flame when he lights his second cigar. He’s using a lighter rather than Incinerate!, an old-fashioned, silver square. Unusual, nowadays. You wonder what it says that the creator of plasmids doesn’t use them himself. Or maybe he just keeps them for special occasions.

As the track comes to an end, you wipe your brow and give a laugh. It’s a trick you learned from Jasmine — give them a little humanity, a little weakness. Make it real — so that you’re not a starlet on the silver screen but a creature of soft flesh and warm blood. You steal a glance at Fontaine, but he’s turned away now, stubbing out his cigar as he leaves.

It really is too bad.

As you’re making your way to the bar, a fat wad of cash neatly tucked away at your breast, a hand shoots out and grabs your hip. You jump a little, before rolling your eyes when you see who it is.

“Hector,” you say firmly, “No touching, honey, you know the rules.”

“I’m sorry,” Hector says, though it’s more like a drunken whine. “I just wanted to talk to you, baby. How come you never see me no more?”

“You know why, Hector,” you say, removing his hand from your hip with a strength borne of long hours practising on the pole. “Can’t have what you can’t afford. Maybe you should ask your boss for a pay rise, then I could see what I could do.”

He stares miserably into his drink. You both know that’s never going to happen, short of holding Cohen at gunpoint — and maybe not even then.

“Great show tonight, sweetie.” You look up into Jasmine’s wide blue eyes, and smile.

“Thanks. Though I think the crowd missed you.”

She shrugs, her auburn hair rippling over bare shoulders. The effect is stunning. “I’m sure that’s not true. Listen, I need to talk to you. Or… well, there’s someone here who wants to have a word.” She’s suddenly shifty, not meeting your gaze. “Could you go meet him in my dressing room?”

“Now?” Your heart sinks — you’d been hoping to quiz the bartender on Fontaine, searching for tips that might lead you to his pot of gold.

“Now.” She still won’t look at you. “He hates to be kept waiting.”

*

Jasmine is the only girl at Eve’s Garden with her own dressing room. Red and gold drapes cover the walls, turning the small room into an exotic and sumptuous wonderland. Jasmine’s dressing table takes up most of the wall space, her pots of make-up and hair curlers artfully scattered across it as if she’d deliberately taken the time to create a tableaux. On the opposite wall is her wardrobe, modestly filled with gowns, and at the far end is a comfortable sofa — and on the sofa, one leg crossed over the other, one arm resting along the back in a deceptively relaxed position, is Andrew Ryan.

You struggle to hide your shock, though your heart’s leapt to your throat. Of course, you’ve seen him around — Jasmine sees him here at least once a fortnight — and he’s even watched a few of your shows, although you doubt he would remember you. Some men only care about the first name on the bill.

“Mister Ryan,” you say, voice gratifyingly steady. “What an unexpected pleasure.”

“I’ll get straight to business,” he says, not offering you a seat. “Needless to say, this stays within this room. I’m sure I don’t need to explain the consequences should anything escape these four walls.”

You shake your head, wondering if “anything” includes you. For the first time, you begin to appreciate Cohen’s genius — the bristling attitude of Ryan’s posters captures his manner to a tee.

“Fontaine Futuristics is expanding. Fontaine’s cooking up something new in his labs, and I will find out what it is before he can bring it to market. I want you to… infiltrate… his company.” Ryan adjusts his collar, self-conscious. It’s fascinating. “You’ll find out what he’s up to and report back to me. You will, of course, be generously compensated.”

You can’t help but stare at him as his words sink in. “You’re talking about a honey trap.”

“Indeed.”

You curse Jasmine for putting you in this position. You might want Fontaine’s cash and influence, but crossing him was something you thought you’d never be stupid enough to try. You think of the figure at the bar, silence and shadows, and contrast that with what you’ve seen in the papers, what you’ve heard out on the street. The man didn’t even use his own plasmids — he crushed his enemies easily enough without them.

Ryan watches you think, impatience scored into his brow. Asshole. His offer is Rapture all over. Allowing you the illusion of choosing, when you know you don’t have a choice.

“I’ll take your silence for agreement,” Ryan says finally, opening his briefcase. An edge of excitement creeps into his brisk tone. “Let’s sign some NDAs.”

*

You'll give Ryan one thing — he knows how to throw a party. The Kashmir is decked out to the nines, the walls drenched in thin gold streamers that hang from the ceiling, drowning the gathering in wealth. You summon the bravado that gets you on stage every night and smile at every stranger that passes, recognising more than a couple of them from nights at Eve's Garden. Rapture’s finest in their element. You shake off the feeling that you’re out of your depth.

“Keep it together.” Jasmine at your elbow, hissing into your ear. You understand that everything you do here reflects on her — and that the details of your agreement with Ryan are unknown to her. As far as she knows, you’re here as another of his favorites. She’s definitely been colder to you since the night you’d met him in her dressing room, fear disguised as resentment, and that, if nothing else, makes you long to break Ryan’s stupid NDA.

But that really would be foolish down here, where the sharks are more than just a figure of speech.

On a platform up ahead, Ryan greets his guests, his girlfriend hanging off his arm. She looks tired. For a moment you feel a pang of sympathy for her predicament. You can’t blame her for attaching herself to the man — she does the same thing you do every night and is paid for it, too, albeit through a more respectable route.

“Here.” Jasmine pushes a champagne flute into your hand. “Don’cha want to have a good time?” Her smile is like ice; just as dazzling, just as fragile. “There’s some people over there I’d like to get to know. Will you be alright?”

“Of course.” You smile back. “I’ll be just fine.”

The crowd swallows her up.

You take a sip of the champagne. It’s the good stuff — you’ve had enough drinks with the elite to be able to tell the difference, although until now it’s just been one-on-one. Still, you can’t drink too much and risk losing sight of your mission — or worse still, risk ballsing it up.

Where is your mark, anyway?

Side-stepping a group of finely dressed ladies, you scan the crowd, looking out for a shift in the pattern of moving bodies. Fontaine and Ryan both move like they possess extra gravity, creating wells in any crowd as they inevitably drew people towards them. You’re used to reading a room, used to second-guessing the mood of a crowd. It strikes you that perhaps you are well-suited to subterfuge after all.

Perhaps he’s stepped out for a piss? You step into the shadow of the staircase to watch the doors, sipping your drink to avoid having to speak to anyone. At least this gives you time to plan your approach. You’re not sure whether to play it confident — “Delighted to finally meet you!” — or coy, catching his eye and letting him approach. From what you’ve heard of him, you think he’d prefer to do the chasing — but then, he’s seen you dance. He already knows you’re no wallflower.

“What’s a fine thing like you doin’ here all alone?” His voice, straight into your ear, so close you can feel the heat of his breath. You jump, turning, and the champagne jumps with you, straight out of your glass and onto his tailored pants.

Fuck.

He steps back, looking down at the damage in silence, and you flounder. Ryan’s going to murder you. Your life is over. Fontaine’s pants really are incredibly well-tailored, a fact which is only making the situation worse.

“Well,” Fontaine says at last, “I guess if you’re rich enough to get an invite to this place, you can afford my to pay my dry cleaning bill.” He smiles, and if Jasmine’s mouth is like ice, his is pure cold steel.

You don’t relish the thought of asking Andrew Ryan to clean Fontaine’s pants for him, but you’re still alive, so you’re taking this as a win.

“Perhaps that’ll teach you not to sneak up on people like that,” you say, softening it with a twitch of your mouth. Let me clean that up for you , your brain supplies, followed by how about I pay in some other way, but you’re not in the back rooms of Eve's now — more’s the pity.

“Or maybe you should expect it.” He matches your step forward, until you’re just slightly closer than the lords and ladies around you, and oh, this is going to be easy . “Single young woman, all alone, in a place like this.” He takes a sip of his drink — single malt on the rocks — slow and calculated, his gaze never leaving your face.

You take another half-step forward, banking on his pride to keep him from stepping back. “I didn’t realise Mister Ryan threw such dangerous parties. In fact I’m a little surprised he invited you.”

It’s a joke, but Fontaine doesn’t laugh. “Ryan knows to keep his friends close and his enemies closer.”

You’re almost chest to chest now, hidden from the revels by the shadow of the staircase. You keep your voice lowered — just above a whisper. “And which am I?”

He does laugh then, his mouth twisting up. “You’re good, kid. Bet that gets them linin’ up for you down at Eve’s Garden.”

Your heart sinks, but his hand has moved to your waist, the heavy heat of his palm sinking through the silk of your dress as he draws hard circles over your hip. This close, you’re enveloped in the scent of aftershave and lingering smoke, finished with the burn of the spirit in his glass. It’s a surprisingly heady mix. If you didn’t have Andrew Ryan breathing down your neck, you might actually be kind of into this.

“You got me,” you reply, and you let your eyes drift to his mouth and then back up again. Just because he knows the tricks, doesn’t mean they don’t work. “You’ve been down my way a lot recently. Seen something you like?”

His hand suddenly grips you, hard; you’re jerked forwards and you fall against him, some fear instinct making you turn your head to avoid getting powder on his jacket. His mouth presses at your ear, hot and wet.

“Don’t play me for some regular John,” he rasps, the whiskey on his breath sending shivers down your spine. “You think you can flutter your little eyelashes at me and suddenly I’ll make it rain? Take you to the stars? Frank Fontaine’s favorite gal?” You squirm, his fingers digging painfully into your hip. “That might work on ol’ Ryan over there,” he continues, “won’t work on me. I want something, I take it, and when you dance, you dance for me.”

He releases you and you stumble back, gasping, rubbing at your hip. You can feel bruises blooming in the spaces his fingers have left.

“Say hi to Jasmine for me,” he smirks, one last shot of cruelty, and then he’s gone, sauntering back into the crowd and vanishing like a ghost.