Part 1 – The Man in the Bowler Hat

“It smells, you know that.”

The man, not known for his oratorical skills, took a deep breath through his nose and grunted in the affirmative. He couldn’t shake his head because it was held fast in a magnetic skull clamp.

“Seriously, Francis.”

Evelyn was only one of a handful of people who actually knew his name, and he cringed every time she said it. Most people called him “Three Piece” or “The man in the bowler hat” if they called him anything at all, but Evelyn was there when he became the first acquisition specialist. She installed the very first wet mount used to process and scan the memories of victims. After that, he never introduced himself to anyone again.

He had been attracted to her since they met, but everyone who met Evelyn was attracted to her. A dark-skinned woman with black curls framing her heart-shaped, but slender face. Tonight, she had excused herself from an in progress date, her first date in years to hear her tell it, and she was in a fitted black dress that fell to her knees. She smelled like citrus and a spring rain shower. She also smelled slightly of the Scotch she loved to nurse while out. Her eyes were the only thing darker than her dress.

It wasn’t that she was the most stunning woman he’d ever seen, but her combination of intelligence, style, and effortless ability to relate to others kept him coming back after a decade of acquisitions. She was the only woman that made the man blush just by saying hello. She knew it and reveled in the feeling of power over a man who could effortlessly take her life if he decided it was best for him. She knew he wouldn’t. He knew he wouldn’t.

“It’s getting infected again. Have you been cleaning it?”

He grunted again.

“This is going to hurt, Francis.” She pressed hard on his scalp just above the wet mount with an ice-cold swell reducing iron, the kind used by a cutman in the corner of a boxing ring. The skin on his head was tender after many weeks of inflammation, so he could feel every hair follicle as she pressed downward and every single hair hurt. The cold metal forced the swollen blood and puss out through the hole that had formed at the top of the wet mount’s access port. The pressure gave way after a few moments and she wiped his head down with disinfectant. Near the top edge of the wet mount, a small hole had also begun to form in the titanium frame embedded in his skull. She clicked her tongue against her palette, a sound the man registered as disappointment. The feeling stung. It was atypical for the man to feel much of anything, so feelings in general were disappointing, more so when they were triggered by her. She squirted saline into the hole and wiped up the murky solution as it dripped down the back of his throbbing head.

“Okay. You’re due for an upgrade. How are you even still functional?” She asked as she stuck his scalp with a syringe filled with antibiotics.

She finished injecting his scalp and faced him. “Are you still functional?”

“I am. Just hurts a little.” As Evelyn undid the skull clamp and he craned his neck as if to demonstrate that he was fine.

Evelyn wasn’t fooled. He had the look of someone favoring an old college injury. She had seen this in other long-term specialists. They hold onto injuries because memories from their acquisitions bleed into their own consciousness, and the pain helps keep them connected.

“Look. Your wet mount is literally falling apart. It’s got a hole next to the other fucking hole in your scalp. Usually when it gets this bad, people are definitely getting the bleeds. Is that what’s happening? Are you getting the bleeds?”

“No. I’m clear headed.”

“I have a responsibility to our client to keep you fully functional, Francis. You know they come for me if you can’t acquire the target due to equipment problems. I think we should postpone and get you fitted for a new mount.”

The man mulled this over for a few seconds before standing to leave. He didn’t want to fail her, but this wasn’t the type of contract you walked away from.

“Thanks, Evelyn.”

“I’m serious, Francis. If you’re lying to me, I’ll kill you myself.”

He knew she had taken action against a reckless acquisition specialist in the past, and that the specialist was now dead. He was certain their history would keep her and her associates at bay. At least he hoped it would. He gave her a sideways glance.

Probably poison me. He chuckled to himself.

“Evelyn. The job will get done. We’ll both get paid. Then I’ll come back in to get upgraded. Okay?”

“Okay.” She said after a pause.

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