Taking The Reinz
rating: +78+x

I first met Goldbaker in, of all places, a strip club.

You wouldn't think the old man has it in him, though Goldbaker prefers to go by they or them. I've seen them in dresses, not Roman togas or Scottish tartans, genuine 1950s dresses. We all did that sort of thing back then — there are pictures of me in drag too, it was all for a laugh or a lark, and I look ridiculous — but I always felt odd when I saw Goldbaker's unique ethereal beauty. They were as natural in those dresses as the usual business suits.

You don't question someone as powerful as that, and really once my grandson became my granddaughter she was so goddamn happy, so I saw no reason to judge them for their proclivities. When I was a young man, I was judgmental, but even then I knew their money was as green as anyone else's.

I'm an old man now. I forget things, fall back on instincts. And Goldbaker is as young and ageless as they ever were.

There he was, sitting on a couch, a girl on each leg.

You have to understand the incongruity of this image. This is Goldbaker. One of the most powerful people in the world, lurking in the shadows, completely unspoken of. They looked completely unassuming. And I didn't know who they were, at first, of course.

There were certain assumptions of anonymity in that place. This was a secret club that I'm not sure exists any longer. Heaven knows my wife would be mad if I went back to check. But the only way to get here was to take an elevator up to a luxury apartment, leave that apartment through a back door, take another elevator, and then you'd be in. There was an exit you weren't supposed to take. And in the pale light of the club, I could have been imagining things, but some of the dancers had skin so olive it was almost green, and ears that seemed to taper to a point.

Goldbaker was deep in conversation with these girls. They were feeling themselves up, presenting themselves to Goldbaker, generally doing all the things that you pay for when you go to a strip joint. And the old man just sits there, every minute or so pulling out another two hundred dollars and giving a hundred to each of them, seemingly interested in nothing more than talk. Genteel. Polite. Genial.

I was enjoying myself, of course, but it seemed that every time I glanced in that direction, over the course of an hour, Goldbaker was still there. And he was still giving the girls the bills.

And I know what you're thinking. A sad, pathetic, lonely old man throwing money for the tiniest scrap of female attention, without demanding anything at all in return. A truly ancient and common story. The oldest profession. But it was different. In a place like that, everyone knows they're just there to make deals. Everyone has what someone else wants, and you're trading just the bare surface level of it. There isn't so much respect as repressed disdain — for most.

They respected Goldbaker.

Eventually, curiosity overwhelmed my other, baser desires. I approached.

Nobody wants to be networked at by other sweaty businessmen in a strip club. But Goldbaker beamed as soon as he saw me.

"Excuse me, ladies," he said. "Eirinn, Mizuki, it was wonderful speaking with you both. Same time next week?"

They both muttered some customary girlish dismissals and went back to doing their real jobs.

"Werner Reinz!" said Goldbaker, his voice lilting and melodic. I was shocked, truly, that he knew my name.

It was hard to get a good look at him in the pink and purple light of the strip club. His skin was tan, or perhaps brown, but I couldn't get a grasp of the distinctions of his features. He had a full head of hair, cut in whatever was most professional for that time. A hallmark of Goldbaker's fashion, mirroring whatever is "professional" for the time and place, and so that's how I remember them. Chameleonically fashionable.

I should also note that Goldbaker didn't express their desire to be referred to as they/them explicitly until relatively late in our partnership. They would gently nudge me to refer to them as a collective, or by the moniker of the firm, but as for the individual? When I saw them in this first encounter, I thought them a man. And they didn't bother correcting me for a long while.

Though I often wondered, even then, if Goldbaker truly was just one individual.

"It is wonderful to have this chance to meet you," Goldbaker said enthusiastically. "Goldbaker, of Goldbaker Ltd. Though I don't expect you to know who I am."

I did not, and I expressed my ignorance in a less-than-polite manner.

Goldbaker looked at me with that smug, knowing expression I would come to hate in the years to come. "I think," they said, "You will. We'll be seeing a bit more of each other, I think."

I didn't think about him too much for a while after that. I was too busy running my own burgeoning insurance business. My partner, who went by Jim Kurosaki in English, had access to technology that I didn't care to understand at the time. I didn't think I needed to. If it made us money, anything could be justified.

"With your knack for the markets, Werner-san, and my knack for the cutting edge, we will rule the futures," he would always say, with a twinkle in his eye. He knew full well we were barely exposed to the futures markets, and his accent, if any, was perfectly British. I think he liked to play up the stereotypes to catch our business adversaries off guard. When it came time to name our insurance business, he'd insisted on giving me the credit, calling it the Reinz Group. More than happy to work from the shadows.

For my part, I was more than happy to be the public face of the company. Because when we had the good days, I looked like the golden boy. And we had so many, many good days, and they were mine. I would go out to the Street, reach out to businesses and offer them contracts, and always get the sale. I could upsell anyone on any policy, regardless if they needed them or not.

Then when I got back to the office, Jim and his machines would tell me where I should spend my time next. Sometimes I'd come to them with thoughts on potential customers, and he'd tell me what the computers said — whether they were worth my time, or whether they were riskier than they seemed. At first I'd resisted, but after the first bankruptcy that he'd predicted where I hadn't, I got wise and started listening.

Others? Of course there were others — the secretaries and accountants and lawyers. But we were the ones who mattered, the ones who made the big decisions.

There was one time when there was a potential client that just would not budge, a valuable one — millions on the line. Coleman or Coolson or something like that. Jim had impressed upon me that getting their business was the difference between summering in the Caymans or not. But all my tactics just wouldn't work. Rhetoric and the regular sales pitch. Golf, all expenses paid. Drinks in a strip joint and a private room. None of it got them to budge in the slightest.

I was venting my frustrations to Jim in our office after a painful and frustrating day, a decanter of whiskey sloshing about in my fist. I could already see the beaches of the Caymans fading away, far out of my grasp.

Jim listened patiently, sipping from his own drink, a hundred-year-old wine, flipping through his notebook. His eyes were elsewhere, as they often were, lost in thoughts of his computing machines.

"What is it going to take," I said. "He's so bullheaded. I've done the usual playbook, and he's stonewalling me. Burned almost ten-kay on this guy and nothing to show for it. You said this asshole would be worth it."

"I did," Jim said. He sipped his wine and scribbled a quick sketch in his notebook.

"What are you even drawing anyways," I said, reaching for the book. And, as he had a hundred times before, he flipped it closed and drew it from my reach.

"I've told you, Werner-san. Once I tell you about the inner workings of our art, you step through door that you cannot go back through."

"Don't slap a fucking honorific on my name and put that ridiculous accent on with me, Jim. You said this would be worth it, but it hasn't been. Way things are going, I'd have to ransom his kid to get him to budge."

He looked up from his wine. "Ransom his kid, butcher his family dog, sell his wife to a circus?"

"I can already see a beach in the Caymans. Perfect cerulean waters, just warm enough to jump in. Sand so white and smooth it might as well be cocaine. That's what's waiting for us."

He drained his glass of wine and stalked off. I didn't even think for a second that my joke had been too far, but if I'd lost his attention there was little point in trying to regain it. He was interested in the finer things in life as much as I was, but on his own terms.

He reappeared half an hour later. "Coleman's got a silent partner. Jeremiah Rasputinov ben Diangelo. Fake name, originally born as one of the poorer Carnegies. One of those people who's been bouncing from cult to cult their entire life. Joined the Rosicrucians in their 20s, dabbled with the Davidians a few decades later, looking into something called 'Heaven's Gate' now. Somehow got Coleman's ear, despite all that."

I poured myself a fifth drink. "So what's the angle?"

"You won't have to do any kidnapping."


He handed me a hideous rubber mask, colored grey, with bulbous and angular eyes, an oversized forehead, and a chin that tapered to a sharp point. It was warm to the touch, though rapidly cooling, and it smelled of sulfur, as fresh rubber tends to.

"Ever pretended to be an alien, Reinz?"

I have dozens of other stories like that, but no one's all that interested in them. They're pageantry. Bluster. Fun stories for drinking buddies, but not so much when you're "old and respected." As the years went on, the mild fraud of pretending to be an extraterrestrial messenger seemed outright quaint. There was dirty business, dirtier than usual for the Street — but everyone's more interested in those around me.

Because as much as I thought myself the star, I wasn't. Jim's family was mysterious. He rarely spoke of them, and any private investigators I hired would either vanish or cut off the job and return all the money I'd paid them. It's a terrible thing to not be able to trust your business partners, that's something I learned from Goldbaker, but I knew it even then. I wondered often whether Kurosaki might vanish on me, disappear in the blink of an eye, and leave me with nothing but my wits, my connections, and my smile.

So I asked him to show me how his technology worked.

The Daemonic circuit, Kurosaki had said, was an innovation that granted Reinz Group a competitive edge above other financial institutions. Exidy and IBM and a little known group Prometheus were all applying this technology, but they simply weren't exploring its potential in the insurance business. There were connections to the tradition of western occult tradition of Goetia, Kurosaki had said, but he viewed that as silly western superstitions. After all, alchemy was the source of modern chemistry all the same, and no one was achieving immortality through that.

Daemonic circuits could crunch numbers, analyze data in a way that regular integrated circuits couldn't. They were smarter, more capable, nonlinear. The Astaroth configuration was capable of machine learning and advanced pattern recognition, concepts that wouldn't become common on the Street for decades to come.

He was still holding things back, but that was fine with me. It worked for the both of us. We were exactly as visible as we needed to be.

On weeks that went well, Jim and I would go back to that club. I got a closer look at some of the dancers, of course, and often I'd wonder just how much effort it took to make their ears look so seamlessly pointed, and just how they kept those gossamer wings so warm.

And every damn time, Goldbaker would be there. Just having conversations. Often with different girls, for weeks at a time. And then one day they'd be gone, and he'd just replace them. With some other dancer. Not just any girl, though — he was selective, though I couldn't tell you how.

It was ridiculous. Who throws away a thousand dollars a night for idle conversation?

After ten or so visits, I broached the topic with Jim.

"So. This 'Goldbaker'," I said. "I see him at the club every time we go."

Jim had frozen when the name was uttered. He asked why I gave a damn.

"Because he's fucking weird," I said in response. "Who the fuck goes to a goddamn strip joint for conversation? Why do they quit?"

"He's recruiting them," Jim said quietly.

"He a pimp?"

Jim barked a sardonic laugh. Nothing could be further from that case, as it turned out.

Goldbaker Limited, it seemed, was among Reinz Group's competitors — a private general insurance firm. No specialization, no geographical restrictions, no restrictions on clientele. An opponent with endless reach and deep pockets. I'd raised my eyebrow at that. Why on earth would the Reinz Group be going up against someone like that? We had our core business competencies, and they were narrow yet profitable.

And why was their head honcho recruiting exotic dancers personally?

Jim Kurosaki, as it turned out, had a hidden agenda, which I'd fully expected from the beginning. There was some ancient family feud between his family and Goldbaker — not the Goldbaker family, but Goldbaker the individual specifically. Goldbaker's businesses was best in class, ultimately unassailable, yet somehow I'd never heard of them. I'd heard of Lloyd's of London, Allianz, Prudential. Axa Group, China Life, Zurich, MetLife. All of the giants in the insurance space. But Goldbaker Ltd.?

Jim was never the type to lie, only to omit.

There was a world of hidden giants and titans, and Goldbaker played in that world. A world with power beyond the wildest imagining of most, even CEOs and senators. A world that our use of Daemonics implicitly put us in. Go much further, and we'd be forced to play in that world and that world alone, our core customer base in the mundane world denied to us. A world of shadow governments and a secretive organization called the Foundation. They had a vested interest in keeping the world "normal," and if that meant suppressing technology and keeping the common man down — well, they'd done it before and they'd do it again, and our windfall would dry up.

For a rare time in my life, I wondered if I was in over my head.

I took a deep breath.

Then I asked him how much money was in it, the secrets of the strippers forgotten.

That's what gets us all, isn't it?

Sometimes I wonder if I got more reckless after that, selling as much as I could, making grander and grander promises, doing dirtier and dirtier things. Jim had told me that magic was real, and as ridiculous as it was, he'd shown me some parlor trick that I'd found incredibly convincing. I suppose I'd fooled myself into thinking that if you could make a pile of coins disappear you could do the same to a pile of debts.

I hated the feeling of being ignorant of the core workings of a business that bore my name. Ironic, now. So I wasn't satisfied just being a bystander as Jim did all the real work, tinkering with the Daemonic circuits and tuning them to the Astaroth and Beleth and GAAP configurations. I wanted to get my hands dirty myself.

Jim told me it was dangerous. That this was different from cracking open a ledger and scribbling some equations on a chalkboard. He told me in no uncertain terms that without years of practice in "thaumaturgic arts" that I'd be constantly dancing above the precipice of self annihilation, never sure whether my circuits were safe enough.

I didn't care. I was self taught in almost everything else that mattered. I had an MBA and the hubris that comes with one, and everything after that had shown me that experience mattered a thousand times more. Now, Jim was a stubborn man, but I was every bit as stubborn. So every day, after I'd finished a full day's worth of calling up prop trading funds and other small shops on the Street, I'd come back to our office to watch Jim tweak and finagle the Daemonic circuits. I can't understate how much I appreciated what he did for me.

In the past few years, I've seen the proliferation of talk about cyberspace, metaverse, AI. You see all the flashy marketing materials from financial advisors trying to take retirees' money, of a cybernetic world made of gaudy special effects and bright lights everywhere. Grid lines of code, spinning blue diagrams, all sorts of stupid things. But real computer engineering is frankly much more mundane than that. Drawing diagrams on pieces of paper, soldering together bits of metal — it's boring by design. If something's flashing, something's wrong. Something's burning.

Similarly, I've sat in on Satanists and Freemason ceremonies, at least the ones they deign to reveal to the public. It's just a bunch of oddballs in robes chanting while high on drugs and breathing in smoke. There are no magical effects, just hallucinations.

But when I was working on those Daemonic circuits with Kurosaki in our office…

I saw faces appear above the patterns in the circuitboards, horned visages shifting between familiar human features and animalian ones. The background hum of the electronic bastions would sound at times like the blaring of great and terrible trumpets, dissonant and chaotic.

Forgive the ramblings of an old man. It was so many years ago, and I was always tired and more than not a tad drunk. I told myself, at that time, I was imagining such things.

That's a lie. I thought they were incredible. I understood why Kurosaki was so happy letting me get all the credit, so willing to let me be the public face of his grand design. There was a true and sublime power in tinkering with the universe. I thought I was the one with the power, out there in the streets, brokering deals with the "power players" of Wall Street — but here, in our office, we were making contracts with the universe itself.

That's what I believed Daemons were at the time. A background process of the universe, that you could call up and program. Give it instructions and have it spit back out the info you asked for. Computer science was in its infancy, but even then the term was already around. A computer Daemon is some sort of program, right, that thanklessly does tasks in the background of the computer and then goes away when you don't want anything from it.

Fucking idiots we were.

We were in the insurance business. We were in the business of contracts, not the business of instructions. We were, I've come to believe, bartering with the forces of Hell in a language we only half understood. We were easily impressed. Flashing lights, ten successful deals in a row, and we stopped troubleshooting. We stopped looking as closely as we should have for bugs or glitches.

Because on the outside, it didn't seem like anything at all was wrong. I got my instructions, I pitched ideas to Jim, we played around with Daemonic circuits until they activated and we got a printout of stuff we should do tomorrow for our own prosperity. Sometimes, the explanations were obvious — dress up like a movie alien to trick a gullible fool into parting with his money. But there were always provisions of the instructions I received that I didn't understand, stuff that if I left out I'd end up taking material losses. In the beginning, I analyzed the instructions just enough that if I squinted, my market intuition would give me some idea of how this would work towards our success. But as one year became two, I stopped questioning them because they'd never led me wrong before.

I still don't know exactly whose agenda I ended up enacting, or how exactly I did what I did, or what exactly I'd done. Sometimes I wonder if all the bad things that happened in the city in the following decades were butterflies, rippling out from my actions. The various crashes, the rising crime rates… if I think back on the deals I made, the promises I gave, who I drank with and who I shoved out of moving boats, it's easy to imagine that in retrospect, the sum of all those tiny choices ended up serving some dark grand design.

I could see Jim getting more and more erratic, too. He'd questioned the commands I was given more than I had at the start. We'd reversed places — he'd lost his faith, while I'd gained it. I was willing to…

I was…

I enjoyed my work. He didn't understand his, not anymore.

He begged me to stop. I was too high on my own supply.

There's a lot I could have said to him.

One day, I went in at 7 A.M., like I always did, and he just looked at me.

"It's not that bad," I said.

He said his family was starting to take notice. I knew his family was some kind of merchant clan. This was great news! After all, it meant our endeavor was a success, didn't it? It meant his family could finally stick it to Goldbaker!

He shook his head. His eyes were sunken, not just from sleep deprivation.

We'd tumbled further and further into something we didn't understand, and we'd passed a point of no return. We'd punctured an ancient web of alliances and corporate contracts and Daemonic microdeals, and we'd apparently ruined something incredibly delicate, tipped the balance of power, shaken heaven. The situation called for a blood sacrifice.

He said words that I wouldn't understand the significance of for years to come.

"They want me to see my grandfather."

I was a fool, you know. I thought it was metaphorical. I thought we could talk it through, smooth things over, appease his grandpa, and get back to business a few million dollars in the red. We would make it through it, in the end.

I got my predictions from the Daemons, gave Jim a firm pat on the back, and went out for a day of selling.

When I got back at 5, my office was on fire.

The Daemonic computers were alight, smashed to bits by whatever Jim had on hand. I could smell incense and myrrh and sulfur, and hear donkeys braying, and crows shrieking, and cows mooing. They were in shambles, utterly irrecoverable — what little I knew of Daemonics wasn't enough to build whole operating systems and hardware from scratch. And even if I did — Jim had said the metal was exotic material, prometheum or orikalkos or what-have-you — stuff that I couldn't find in the encyclopedias of the day at all.

There was no sign of Jim.

I never saw him again.

I had nothing at that point. Everything I owned of value, every contract, everything that dictated our wealth and safety was in that office. Who insures the insurers? Usually bigger insurers, that's one of the core businesses of Goldbaker-Reinz, in fact, but obviously this wasn't an option back then and we'd been in too direct competition to make deals with anyone else. Too much ill will.

I would have gone to a bar, drank away my sorrows, but I saw men waiting at the street corner, in dark suits and sunglasses, even though it was evening.

I was spooked. What can I say. It had been a stressful day. There was incense in my nostrils and my ears were ringing with the echos of unearthly gongs.

So I ran.

I ran, I ran, and I ran. Ran, seeing enemies lurking in every shadow. Ran, until I ended up in a luxury apartment. Ran out the back door. Ran, until I was in that strip joint again. Slick with my own sweat, red in the face, heart practically palpitating.

And there he fucking was. They. They fucking were. Goldbaker. Once again with a girl on each knee doing that fucking weird gentle patronage thing.

They saw me.

"Ladies," they said. "Tatiana, Jane. Please, excuse me."

Goldbaker practically slid over to me.

"Werner Reinz," they said. "I told you I'd be seeing you again."

"I don't have time for your bullshit right now, man!" I said. Truth to be told, I had nothing and nowhere to turn.

Goldbaker eyed me, neither warmly nor calculating. "Walk with me," they said. I followed like a beaten dog.

They walked deftly past the bar, towards the far door.

"Wait, we're not—" I said reflexively. That second door had been forbidden to me.

"You are with me," Goldbaker said. "That makes all the difference. And it would be good, I think, to have this conversation in the open air."

I followed them out the door, expecting to come out on some balcony or ledge.

Then I stopped, blinking. I swayed on my feet.

We were, against all logic, on an entire city street, despite having taken two elevators to come up here. There were no side streets and no alleyways, but the street itself was dotted with newsstands or other such posts. The buildings on the sides of the street were no taller than five or so storeys, but there were so many of them, and of so many styles. As if a building from every neighborhood in Manhattan had been torn apart and stitched together in a patchwork.

The street itself was clear, but not like glass — more like rippling water or a distant heat haze. And far, far below us, I could see the island of Manhattan, bright with lights. I could see where Battery Park and the Financial District met the water, the lights giving way to darkness.

"Where are we," I said, my voice soft.

"Atop the Wall," Goldbaker said. "That's what they call it these days. A hidden financial district. Useful for those who trade in commodities that can't be listed in front of the Veil, those who aren't quite human, or those who just don't want to pay full rent."

They chuckled.

I didn't understand until much later. An ancient city, like Rome or Beijing or Jerusalem or London, has had time to crystallize, to become set and woven. Each of these cities has had booms and busts of Occult activity, each hollowing out bubbles of mystic or paranormal liminal space, every secret society stealing for themselves a Sanctum. Yet in the long course of millennia these spaces have faded, the secret societies that formed them long having ceased; or these once-secluded hermitages have merged and become one, the walls of fraternal factionalism giving way to communal wellsprings for parochial or national or imperial myth.

New York is different. New York is young. A patchwork city, like many in the Americas, yet also the first port of call for every ambitious people. When de Waalstraat fell, its ghost remained, a border between the civilized Dutch and the barbarous privateers of the British. That impression, too, is long faded. In the modern world Wall Street is no barrier but instead a pulsing artery.

The Wall towers over the little people of the City. Here is a center for parafinance, trades in shares of companies that only operate behind the Veil, commodities markets for proliferated anomalous materials, the second largest demonic derivatives market in the United States behind Undervegas.

There are other places in New York hidden to the world. Backdoor Soho is a famous one that I've had the pleasure to visit. And everyone who knows anything would laugh in your face if you suggested that Backdoor Soho and Atop The Wall could be treated as part of one single magical place.

Backdoor Soho is an artists' commune. But when you stand Atop The Wall, you stand atop a boardwalk of glass, a transparent floor that reveals the bustling city down below. Every institution and trade shop has a building along this boardwalk on the sides, so that you cannot possibly reach the edge by foot, and each building looks slightly different. There are buildings that reach as far back as the first Dutch colonization in the Americas, buildings that imitate Greco-Roman architectural styles through American eyes, and buildings that appear as mirrored silver. Yet each of them shares the purpose of chasing greed in occlusion.

"Jim Kurosaki was a scion of the Darke family," Goldbaker said. "Rather on the nose, that surname. An ancient clan of merchants, traders, thieves."


"Icarian, ultimately. Flying too close to the sun and getting burned by the flame," Goldbaker said.

"He's my friend," I said. "What the fuck do you want? This is the worst day of my life, and I didn't come here to get lectured by some old pervert."

"You and I," Goldbaker said, "are in insurance. The business of buying risk. Marshall, Carter, and Dark are an auction house. They could be said to be in the business of selling it. Caveat emptor. Buy a product from Kurosaki's family business, and your customer service will consist solely of cleanup, should you die."

Goldbaker knew. Goldbaker knew about the Daemons, had prepared for this contingency. Had perhaps seen everything up to this point.

"You're smart, Werner," Goldbaker said. "Shrewd. A good salesman. You simply suffered from the most tragic of human flaws — knowledge without wisdom."

They had some nerve.

I looked down through the transparent floor of Atop the Wall. From up here, the lights blurred against wispy clouds far below. I imagined I could see my office burning.

"What do you want with me?"

"It is not a matter of what I want," Goldbaker said, "but how we can help each other."

I snorted. It was difficult to believe. I had nothing to offer. I'd thought I was delving into forbidden lore, all those nights tinkering with Daemonics, when clearly I'd been a fucking idiot.

"You have contacts and contracts, Werner," Goldbaker said. "I've watched the growth of your business. The Daemons might have told you where to go, but you were the one with the magic touch to sell it all. They needed you every bit as much as you needed their guidance. The unwitting hand of hell."

"So I'm a fucking rube, is that it?"

"I foresaw our meeting up here. I foresaw Jim Kurosaki would burn his computing machines. I foresaw that you would listen to the instructions of Daemons. But here, I can only guess what you do next."

A brief intrusive thought. I could attack him, bash his head against the glass floor, see if I could shatter it and send us both tumbling to our dooms.

"There is a world where all the contracts you have made go into default, with the catastrophic collapse of Reinz Group. Your clients realize that they took on risks based on protection they no longer have, which they now must unwind. They do so, and the markets shake. The world grows more dangerous, less safe, poorer. Not all at once, and not too far, but worse nonetheless."

It sounded kind of crummy. I didn't realize it then, of course, but it would have played into the Daemons' plan, if they had one. Frankly, I think back then I still considered myself a good person, despite the blood on my hands. I thought I cared about humanity enough that I wouldn't want to cost it a decade or so of economic development.

You get a distance from the impact of your choices when you work in our business. It's just moving numbers around on a ledger or wires around a circuit board, after all. It's abstract and meaningless.

Until it's not.

"There is another world in which my organization, Goldbaker, assumes your obligations, and all of that is avoided," Goldbaker said.

"What's your price?"

"I thought it would be obvious. You come work with me."

"So that's why you're here," I said, gesturing at the strip club, which was really quite subdued from this side, with a pseudo-Assyrian design. "Recruiting."

They almost looked hurt at my sarcasm. "Do you know what a leading indicator is?"

"Of course I do."

"They're enterprising young women who have fully come to terms with how dirty the transfer of money can be," they said. "And some are rather brilliant as well. I would be a fool to ignore such a deep well of talent. And, crucially, they are at the forefront of one of the first luxuries wealthy businessmen abandon. In those downturns, I am more than happy to provide employment."

I sat down, crossed my legs, kept my eyes on the glass. The first rays of sunrise were touching the city below, coloring it pale rose.

"They'll keep coming for me," I said. "Kurosaki's family. The Darks. I messed things up for them, somehow."

"You did a very fine job of that," Goldbaker said. "I find it difficult to act against Percival Darke directly, as he does against me."

"They won't stop until I'm dead."

"They'll try," Goldbaker said. "And they'll fail. This, I can guarantee."

And I believed it, I really did. That was why the Darks had sent Kurosaki out on his own in the first place, to try and break into the insurance industry, to weaken Goldbaker instead of pulling a direct assault. It had been my hubris, my folly, that had ended up hurting them instead. I understood why they wanted me dead.

"I don't have a choice at all, do I?"

"You do," Goldbaker said. "But I believe you, Werner Reinz, are two things. A good man, or at least you once were — and only human."

Of course I said yes. Because they were right. I wanted to live.

My life changed. From that day forth, I had to live with an integrity I hadn't before. Goldbaker hated deception, while I had been a creature of it.

One of the first things I did once I'd gotten integrated into Goldbaker's machine was analyze a set of our policies, looked at the probabilities of gain and loss myself from all historical data. Do you know what I found?

It was fair, in the financial sense. The expected value of our position was 0. In an ideal world, in the long run we would neither gain nor lose money on the sum total of those policies.

I brought this to them, told them this was no way to run a business, that we'd be run out of town by the end of the decade. But they put their foot down. They absolutely refused to let me gouge the prices, said this was essential, that we had more than enough to keep the lights on and the customers would get what they paid for — and nothing more.

And for the decade after that, I waited for our inevitable collapse. Wondered if one day Goldbaker's protection would fail, and I would be chased through the streets of New York by shadowy figures without faces. But that day never came, still hasn't come. I don't understand why it hasn't, but I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Not now.

My life has been long and comfortable and everything I always wished for, in a way. I peered behind the curtain and rubbed shoulders with the true fulcrums of power and did some good in this world. But after a certain point, it was no longer exciting.

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