I / PROGRESSION
Monday, Halgary 15th
01. An Expressway In Flames
A WATERFALL OF RAIN filled the second hour of a black night. The summer storm on Mid-Year Day was both unseasonable and unwelcome. Charging at streaks of light created by its own double headlights, the thirty-ton transiter was the only vehicle on the inward curve of the expressway. Spray from the eight wheels of the streamlined tractor unit and its single trailer lofted across the hard shoulder in the grip of a westerly wind. It speckled the white rail-fence with oily, iridescent drops. The first prolonged fall of rain for over a month had blended with oil and rubber dust to render the road surface treacherous in places.
The transiter driver maintained with confidence his steady sixty-five miles per hour. Corin Tait had been driving heavy goods vehicles between the western lowlands of Norland and southern Camerland for over twenty years. The home stretch of a journey of over three hundred miles was as familiar as the interior of his cab.
The load in his trailer did not bear close inspection. An unholy combination of Camerlish excise duty, a vastly unpopular counter-alcoholism tax and sales tax had added over 1,000% to the basic manufacturing and marketing costs of spirits, turning Revenue evasion into a growth industry of the day. Even those charged with collecting the King's bounty were involved. Several cases of a cargo of uisge imported by stealth from more liberal Norland were destined for the private homes of public servants.
The door of the sleeping pod behind the transiter's cab, above the engine compartment, slid open with a liquid hiss. Lesley Talbot, leader of the uisge-importing band, yawned mightily, then swung athletically down the short ladder to the passenger chair.
"About half an hour to Briford," remarked the driver, taking his eyes from the turbulent swirl in his headlights for a moment. Red and green glows from the instrument panel gave his lined, middle-aged face a Satanic cast. "Just coming up on the county boundary now."
Talbot yawned again as the vehicle sprayed past the lights of a sign reading Welcome To Stanton. She took a uisge-flavoured cigarette from the dispenser on the dashboard. Her eyes fell on the proximity scope. "What's that?" She tapped a yellow dot on the angled screen with a long, slender finger.
Tait dropped his eyes to the projection from the repeater in the lower-right corner of the panoramic windscreen. A solid, yellow blob in the delicate, green, rain-mush confirmed that the transiter was not quite alone on the expressway as it approached a cutting.
"Fervoek!" muttered Tait in disgust. "Right, I'll pay you when we get there. Never expected nothing but Prot patrols out in this lot. Not with today being a holiday." His accent was an irregular mixture of north and south.
"Never bet on certainties,'‘ laughed Talbot. Pencil lines of shadow chased around her face, showing that her age was nearer thirty than twenty.
Headlight beams sliced past the transiter as the dual-lane expressway began a long, descending turn on the approach to the lights of a minor interchange complex. The figure 93 in yellow appeared beside the dot on the proximity scope as the Doppler circuit calculated the other vehicle's speed.
"Someone's shifting it," remarked Tait, watching a pair of flaring, red bars sweeping left into a transfer lane.
The driver of a high-performance Sprinter JVX circled the roundabout at high speed and aimed his vehicle at a cross-over bridge. He took his eyes from the road long enough to grin at his companion and make sure that she was ready for action. "Now!" said Charles Demirell.
With a matching fiendish grin, Antoinette Farges lifted a security cage on the dashboard. She dabbed at a red-glowing button with her left thumb.
Two hundred yards beyond the crossover bridge, Lesley Talbot passed the cigarette to her driver and produced a brush to remove tangles from her dark curls. Corin Tait no longer needed to spend money on hairbrushes. Grinding, splintering noises followed a muffled bang in the engine compartment behind them. Talbot paused in mid-brush.
The speedometer began to unwind. Tait tugged at the steering wheel as the road straightened. The power servos were frozen, leaving the transiter curving in a gentle arc to the left. Emergency brakes took hold as the downward slope of the carriageway began to restore the vehicle's speed. Talbot and Tait were thrown against their seat-belts when the transiter jolted into the soft, steep bank beyond the hard shoulder. The heavy vehicle ran on for a few yards, then slid back to a halt.
"Are you all right, Les?" said her driver.
Talbot rubbed her head to ease the effects of a minor impact on a side window. "Just about," she gasped. "What the fervoek happened?"
"Sounds like the turbine tried to mince itself." Tait fumbled with the controls unsteadily, trying to operate auxiliary power switches. All four headlights had failed. The instrument panel was dead.
"Company," warned Talbot.
A pair of lights slowed, then turned off the opposite carriageway of the expressway to approach them along the Police Only strip on the central reservation. Although softened by the downpour, the squat outline of the patrol car was unmistakable. A broad, yellow stripe with black edges circling the pale vehicle identified it as belonging to the Traffic Division of the Civilian Security Police. It was clearly on the way to render assistance to the stricken vehicle.
"Just what we need," groaned Tait. "The ganar Prots. Think they'll leave us alone if you give them a nice smile?"
"It's going to take more than a smile to stop them if they want a look in the trailer," said Talbot gloomily.
Without warning, milky, crazed splashes stitched across the patrol car's bullet-proof windscreen. The vehicle dug its nose toward the ground as the driver stood on his brakes, then it squealed into reverse.
"What's up with them?" frowned Talbot in the transiter, noting the retreat but not the reason for it.
"Good shooting, Charles!" cheered Antoinette Farges, clutching the guard rail of the crossover bridge as she bounced up and down in delight, the heavy rain forgotten.
Demirell took aim at the patrol car again, and triggered off another burst from his assault rifle.
Responding to the only visible target, the small turret behind the patrol car's driver swung toward the transiter. Smoke, flames, cannon shells raked the vehicle's cab and the trailer. Talbot and Tait flung themselves to the floor as a laminated window surrendered to an impossible overload. Talbot forced her door open and slid to the ground in the shelter of the transiter, followed closely by her driver.
A spark ignited alcohol vapour. With a soft plop, the expressway caught fire as illegally imported, Norland uisge flooded by the gallon from shattered bottles in the trailer. Lesley Talbot and her driver could only run or burn. They tried to reach the top of the bank on their left, slipping and sliding on wet grass, zigging and zagging desperately to evade spotlights and clawing fire from a light machine gun.
Talbot zigged left – into a storm of flying earth and grass. Her shattered body tumbled back down the slope and into the lake of burning uisge. Tait zagged right, and managed to reach the top of the bank and safety in a flying dive.
One hundred and fifty yards away, watching the drama by white street lights and the ghostly, blue flicker of burning spirits, Charles Demirell thumbed back the safety catch and retracted the open stock of his Bakersfield assault rifle.
"Not a bad effort," he remarked. The words were Ferran, the common language of Camerland and Norland, but the accent Atmain-Belldan from the continental mainland.
"An excellent job, Charles," said Farges, a severe, gnome-like figure in a dripping coveret. She was living up to an old nickname again – Tiger pronounced as a Belldan word.
"Right, let's be on our way." Becoming aware again of the cold, driving rain, Demirell hurried back to the shelter of their vehicle. "You can drive."
Farges shed her waterproof coveret in a smooth movement and slipped behind the steering wheel. As she accelerated away, looking for signs to guide her to the eastbound carriageway of a connecting expressway, Demirell started to dry his rifle prior to disassembling and packing into a battered, brown leather business case.
"One less competitor," he remarked. "And some very dry customers wanting an alternative source of illegal booze."
"The Duke will be pleased," smiled Farges, still bubbling with the excitement of an operation in the field. She was a young fifty – over twenty years older than Demirell, her boss. She had spent a great many years behind a desk before he had brought new possibilities into her dull life.
Left behind on the other expressway, the traffic police scout car moved to the shelter of the next crossover bridge, safely uphill of the burning river. The transiter's fuel tank exploded, swamping blue flames with a flare of red and yellow, casting bright tongues and black smoke to the black sky. All three occupants of the police car cringed instinctively as the shock wave of the explosion rocked their vehicle.
More uisge flooded from the trailer, prolonging the battle between elfin combustion and rainy dilution. The torrent from the skies had to win in the end, but it could not hope for success for some considerable time to come.
02. The Duke of Atmain
The self-made Duke of Atmain had grown up with the name of one of the Republic of Belldon's most noble families, even though he and his parents were Camerlish born and bred. Discreet genealogists had discovered that his great-great-grandfather had taken the name Chatelle in preference to Tylehand, which had once described a very humble category of peasant. Any links to the Belldan Chatelles were remote and debatable.
Plain Norman Chatelle had taken over the family waste disposal business in eastern Camerland at an early age due to a combination of his father's illness and a lack of enthusiasm on the part of his two brothers, He had been one of the first private contractors to exploit recycling of refuse on a major scale, developing a processing complex known as a Refuse Reclamation Centre, a title which had proved popular with his imitators.
At such a centre, an advanced sorting system extracts reusable materials – paper, glass, plastics, metals, etc. – and reusable fabricated items from household and commercial waste. The remaining combustible material is then either compressed into standard pellets for use in solid-fuel heating plants, or incinerated immediately in the reclamation centre's power generation plant, which also provides heating for nearby shops, offices and homes. Ash and other non-combustible residues are assessed for toxicity and may be used to fill unwanted holes in the ground if they cannot be used as fillers to extend plastics and other products.
Although his empire had once covered a large part of the east and south of his native Camerland, Norman Chatelle had chosen to cross the Straits of Atmain to take up residence in the department of that name. It had been a case of great wealth and influence chasing the promise of even more of both.
The Belldan government had allowed him to buy a vacant title by paying off back-taxes on a castle with a history that stretched back eight centuries and a view from its hill top of the southern suburbs of Cavenne, the departmental capital. Liberal grants and tax concessions had allowed him to make Atmain the focus of refuse reclamation technology in Belldon. Bringing work and prosperity to the area had generated enormous quantities of goodwill, that necessary intangible of business.
Five years on from establishing a growing chain of refuse reclamation centres, and restoring and remodelling the castle into a modern business headquarters, Norman Chatelle's honeymoon period was coming to an end. He was having to employ an expanding security force to protect his business premises and his castle from vandals and terrorists. As time eroded memories, he was slipping from the position of benefactor to just one more foreign exploiter.
Even his former tax advantages were disappearing. The Belldan government was eager to recover its investment. A group of his sometime competitors in his native land had succeeded in convincing the Camerlish government to accept less grasping tax rates as the price of their co-operation in an internationally funded scheme to export their technology to countries with lots of refuse and no efficient means of recycling it. As before, Norman Chatelle, Duke of Atmain, could see a rosy horizon across the sea.
Disillusioned by Belldan ingratitude, Chatelle had been attempting for eight months to re-establish a toe-hold in Camerland. Ninety per cent of the reclamation business there was controlled by the Refuse Barons – all entitled, by birth or political patronage, to the title baronet or baroness, each based in one of the nine counties. The rest of the market was shared by a host of small operators. It was in this latter area that Chatelle had been making his penetration.
The nine Refuse Barons refused to become ten. Chatelle had been forced to take over by proxy small, often family businesses, which his staff then expanded under the original name. His piece-meal acquisitions were much less cost-effective than any of the giants, but a process of consolidation was in hand.
In order to create business to fill newly expanded capacity, members of Chatelle's security staff, led by second-in-command Charles Demirell, had been waging a campaign of sabotage against the Camerlish Refuse Barons' premises since the beginning of the year. Demirell had broken the trail back to his employer by infiltrating a political group called the Popular Socialist Front.
Its members believed that the PSF was fighting social injustice by challenging the Refuse Barons' tough attitude to trade federations and worker participation in the business decisions. The PSF's leadership was prepared to ignore the law of the land if it stood in their way. Demirell was supplying a deniable action wing of the ostensibly political movement with arms and information, and suggesting targets without seeming to do so.
Such direct action by extremists was becoming more common as the political climate changed in Camerland. The country was a constitutional monarchy with a figurehead royal family, like neighbouring Norland. A fickle, if not cynical, electorate kept Camerland rocking constantly between small-time capitalism and intrusive socialism.
Years of indifferent government, poor service at inflated rates, worst quality goods at premium prices, disruption of all aspects of life by industrial strife – all this had contributed to reduced public morale and stiffening resistance to authority. Thus fringe groups, like the PSF, were forced into increasingly violent excesses to gain attention.
Reasoning that the PSF would have chosen the wealthy and influential Refuse Barons as a natural target, Norman Chatelle viewed Demirell's activities as no more than aggravation of the inevitable. Yet he had taken pains to conceal the true scope of Demirell's mission from the rest of his senior security and business staff. They knew only that Demirell was sneaking into the Camerlish refuse reclamation market by the back door, and beefing up security at the new reclamation centres in a violent, neighbouring country. A respectable businessman and a duke could not admit to being involved in illegal activities, but he could enjoy his involvement in private.
It was toward such enjoyment that the Duke of Atmain headed on Mid-Year Day morning. His destination was his map room to receive a report from Charles Demirell. The map room lay on the ground floor of the castle's round keep. As usual, the Duke took a short cut along one of the numerous concealed passages which burrowed through the granite-textured concrete of reconstructed walls.
He stepped into a public corridor, emerging from behind a modern tapestry which depicted the warlike achievements of one of his adopted ancestors. A movement at the ceiling of the passage caught his eye. One of the many surveillance cameras, which covered all corridors and public rooms, focussed on him briefly. Even the Duke's office was included in the surveillance network, the camera feeding a recorder, which could be accessed only on the Duke's authority or in an emergency.
An iron-shod, blackened-eichen door opened automatically as he reached the map room. The Duke crossed the rush-pattern carpet to the swivelling armchair at the head of the dormant map table, tugging open the throat-to-waist seal on his sober, summer jacket. Hush screens on the open windows facing him filtered out the sounds of a squad of castle guards being drilled in the courtyard but allowed the fragrance of the rose garden to fill the room. At precisely ten hours, the videolink began to chime a call signal.
The Duke stopped toying with the enormous seal ring on the fourth finger of his left hand. He touched the accept key, completing a satellite link with a minor Refuse Reclamation Centre on the outskirts of Duddling, which lies just across the Straits of Atmain in Neal county of Camerland, the reclamation territory of The Crane Group.
The videolink's screen swirled from a mirror to a holographic projection, peeling twenty-four years and a moustache from the reflection, and replacing a pale complexion with a lightly tanned face. Charles Demirell was twenty-eight. His right eyebrow was slightly higher than the left and his mouth sloped in the same direction. Pale blue eyes, said by some to be the mark of a killer, gazed calmly from beneath heavy brows. Concave cheeks traced a catenary between prominent cheek bones and jaw. His razor-cut, dark hair had been arranged in a style which disguised its retreat.
The Duke of Atmain had close-cropped, salt and pepper hair, brown eyes, a plump face and a mouth which could set into a hard, obstinate line. Given the choice, he would have become a double of his ruthless, buccaneering, deputy security executive. Twenty-eight-year old Charles Demirell had the looks, the air of youthful authority and the confidence necessary for success in boardroom or bedroom. He would look at home in the ranks of the aristocracy.
Demirell was careful about his appearance. His staff accused him of vanity, but only behind his back. He could pass from tranquillity to fury in a microsecond. Like his employer, he maintained a comprehensive mental register of slights, real and imagined. Like his employer, he could be very generous to those in his favour.
Demirell was sitting in a small, dingy office, which looked as if it belonged to a small firm with no budget for improving its image and no inclination to do so anyway. The square clock on the wall behind him, just visible over his right shoulder, was showing 10:01.
"I think we can go straight to the report." The Duke cut short preliminary greetings that Demirell offered in Belldan, the business language of the castle.
"Yes, sir." Demirell released data via the keyboard of his videolink. The Duke's map table glowed into life. Black decay spots peppered a pale green map of Camerland, overflowing the border with Norland.
The Duke leaned forward to inspect the one by two yard display, presenting his left ear to the videolink camera.
"Current market share?" he prompted.
"Five per cent, sir," said Demirell. "We expect to double this by the end of the year. Our competitors are finding it increasingly difficult to fulfill their disposal and materials contracts." The satellite link was both sealed and scrambled to permit such confidences.
"And consequent power generation and heating contracts." The Duke nodded and expressed his satisfaction by smoothing his neat moustache with finger and thumb.
Demirell read the message behind the comment. "The PSF are reluctant to execute more than token attacks on RecCens, sir. Their aims are to broaden negotiating rights and to redistribute the Refuse Barons' wealth by forcing them to spend more on defence, thus redirecting that wealth into their members' pockets. Consequently, their aim is disruption rather than destruction of RecCens."
"If they blow up the odd incinerator plant, that would redistribute wealth towards the building industry, Charles."
"I'll suggest that to them, sir. If it doesn't work, there's always deception."
"Rapid action, Charles," ordered the Duke in his most commanding tone. "Our new RecCen in the north-east has been lying virtually idle for over a month. The Mirbank merger should be recouping its cost by now."
"Yes, sir." Demirell projected total competence. "We're five per cent over budget on expenditure at the moment," he added apologetically. "Equipment losses have been rather high. The PSF have been using NeoKirlans for some of their more spectacular operations. And as their aim is only to get themselves killed with as much noise and blood as possible, just like good throw-backs to more barbaric times, we have to write off everything issued to them."
"How much more do you need?" said the Duke. His trust in his lieutenant was complete. Demirell had a bright future in his service – bright enough to keep his hand out of the till.
"A further six per cent for the next two months should see us through a bad patch, sir. We should be well established in the network of smugglers by then."
"Progress there?" invited the Duke, stuffing his pipe.
"Excellent," beamed Demirell. "Farges and I reduced the competition by one last night. She's a natural for that business. She produces some very productive ideas."
"Good!" The Duke spilled clouds of bluish smoke to hide an expression of surprise. He found it strange that Antoinette Farges, a fifty-year-old widow with a grown-up family, should suddenly discover a talent for smuggling, and that a woman two years younger than himself would have the courage to take the risks involved. "Have you had any dealings with a man called Ambrose Mellbury?" The Duke returned to the topic under discussion. "A prominent Camerlish smuggler."
"Calls himself Ambrose of Nottridge, sir." Demirell nodded with an expression of contempt. "Too big to eliminate just yet. His organization would just fragment, leaving us with a host of new competitors. Is he causing trouble?"
"He imports heavily from our side of the South Channel. But he refused to accept Ashley's protection in return for a share of his profits. He needs a lesson."
"Sandford and Farges have an operation coming up, sir. They plan to use one of the free-lances to link into the northern liquor distribution network. A man called Devrel Sovershend. We could co-ordinate with Ashley to hurt this Mellbury character while we're putting friend Sovershend out of business."
"Yes." The Duke nodded thoughtfully. "I'll tell Ashley to contact you. How far are you from break-even point on the reclamation side?"
"About two months, sir. Our computer projections say we should have filled enough spare capacity by then. And the profits from our smuggling activities should more than pay for the PSF's efforts on our behalf." Demirell dropped a promise and a hint about his budget deficit.
"I'll speak to Lester," said the Duke. "Do something about the Mirbank situation." He nodded a dismissal and broke the connection. Then he keyed an internal videolink number.
George Lester, the Duke's chief financial executive, arrived within minutes of the summons. He was the same age as his employer but he had half as much hair. As if to compensate, his thinning locks contained more black. With almost furtive speed, he slid into the chair beside the map table in order not to tower over the Duke. Lester was a good four inches taller than his very average master, his height emphasized by an intellectual scrawniness. He listened to Demirell's latest demand by proxy for money with his customary air of restrained resignation.
"We shall have considerable difficulty in meeting this request," said Lester when invited to comment. His refined accent was completely natural and contrasted vividly with his employer's slightly common, south-eastern drawl. They both spoke in Ferran, the common language of Camerland and Norland, because Lester had joined Norman Chatelle's organization long before his move across the sea to become a duke in Belldon.
"Considerable?" frowned the Duke. "It seems quite straightforward to me."
"Moving funds across international borders is always a wasteful task. And Demirell really ought to have achieved self-sufficiency by now. I'm finding his returns from our reclamation centres in Camerland rather difficult to unravel. Even though he uses our system and some of my staff." Noting a look of impatience, Lester decided against suggesting a personal visit to Camerland to audit Demirell's accounts. Neither did he think it politic to suggest that Demirell was syphoning off funds for his personal use. But cash was, without doubt, leaking away somewhere along the line.
"Charles is doing very well under difficult circumstances." The Duke gave a standard reply.
Lester accepted the inevitable with an internal shrug. "Our own investment programme in the south of Atmain has already suffered. Giving more to Demirell would mean delaying our planned expansion of our centre at Dalmain."
The development at Dalmain was Lester's pet project but he recognized that he could do no more than put up a token resistance. His Camerlish obsession had clouded the Duke's business sense and Demirell, whom Lester thought no more than an arrogant and extravagant thug, could do no wrong.
"Delays only?" the Duke said, noticing that his chief financial executive had dried up. "Nothing damaging in the long term?" His tone begged agreement.
"Well, yes," Lester surrendered. "The cost of the building work will increase. Some business will be lost. But I doubt whether it will cripple us." The Duke had never believed in too much democracy. George Lester was well paid. He had long since mastered the art of subjugating his better judgement to the whim of his master.
"Good!" The Duke smiled satisfaction and dismissal.
As Lester crossed the thick carpet to the door, he was already juggling figures in his mind. He almost collided with another visitor as he left. She stepped back from the call button beside the door and allowed the heavy door to close. Lester nodded a greeting, feeling uncomfortable in her presence.
Ilse Dortmann, the security executive and Demirell's nominal superior, was a compact woman with dark blonde hair and penetrating, morning-blue eyes. Her unpainted face was set in its habitual, somehow forceful neutrality – ready to move to laughter, which seemed unlikely under the circumstances, or iron disapproval. Although three inches short of the average female height, Dortmann projected a brisk competence, which more than compensated for her lack of size. Her dark green uniform combined elegance with a practical, perfectly tailored fit. Her hair completed the paramilitary presentation, the style being reminiscent of a police riot helmet.
"What sort of mood is he in?" said Dortmann, tilting her head back and to the right in a manner which Lester found oddly attractive. The top of her pseudo-riot helmet barely reached his chin.
"Charles is asking for more money again." Lester spoke carefully, aware of the continuous surveillance of the castle's corridors. "But I think there was some good news, too."
"That doesn't sound very promising," sighed Dortmann. "I'm probably wasting my time, speaking to him now."
Lester shrugged. "We can only offer our advice where Charles is concerned. And Norman doesn't have to take it." He flashed a brief smile of sympathy then hurried down the corridor toward the lifts.
Face to face meetings between them were rare. Dortmann knew that Lester's instincts demanded patronizing protection in the presence of a woman a good ten inches shorter and twenty-one years younger than himself. When the woman was more than his equal in a brawl, Lester's reaction was nervous unease. Dortmann knew from her training in the assessment of human strengths and weaknesses that they communicated most effectively by internal memo or through a third party. Bracing herself for another uncomfortable encounter, she touched the call button. After a moment, it blinked a green invitation to enter.
"Ah, Herta," smiled the Duke, presuming on five years' acquaintance to use her agnomen. He was sitting at the control panel of his map table but the display was dark.
"Good morning, sir," said Dortmann formally.
"You're looking rather grim." Her employer offered a box of honey-flavoured cigarettes.
Dortmann accepted a light then came straight to the point. "I'm having personnel problems, sir. No sooner do I train somebody to a moderately satisfactory level of command performance than they disappear over to Camerland."
"Demirell is very short of trained leaders, Herta," snapped the Duke in warning,
"Yes, sir," said Dortmann patiently. "But I require notice of these transfers. I detailed Mortlake to carry out a review of security at our reclamation centres at Rivaud and Magarre last week. When I tried to contact him this morning, I learned he'd been in Camerland since last Friday. And that his report and a note of explanation had been mysteriously delayed in the castle's internal mail system." Presumably, by someone loyal to Demirell, Dortmann added to herself.
"Unfortunate," said the Duke in a so what? tone.
"Exactly the same happened when Demirell transferred Liston, Farges and Bleiler," Dortmann continued, putting as much urgency as she dared into her voice. "I cannot do my job effectively if I have to waste time keeping track of my senior personnel and reassigning half-completed tasks."
Standard, programmed Belldan acquired a trace of an accent from her native Heitain, Belldon's eastern neighbour. A faint clunk when she rested her right forearm on the plastic map table was a reminder that she was wearing a sleeve-gun.
"I'll speak to Demirell," said the Duke round a mouthful of pipe.
"I think a direct order would be more appropriate," said Dortmann as firmly as she dared. "The same thing is happening to Westwood. He has just lost Ashley from the castle guard. With the same story – your special orders."
"These are difficult times." The Duke refused to admit that he, not Demirell, had given Gail Ashley her special assignment. "We must all cope as best we can."
"Yes, sir," said Dortmann in meaningless agreement.
Her fruitless protest made, she snapped off a salute and left the Duke alone to resume his study of Demirell's reports. Dortmann retired to her office on the top floor of the southeastern tower of the keep. She dropped wearily onto the chair behind her desk.
The Mortlake incident was just one more in a long series of pecks at her authority. Charles Demirell had grown from willing pupil to virtual equal, thanks to the expansion into Camerland. Despite her training and experience, the internal political situation in the Duke's Belldan empire was beginning to wear Dortmann down. In addition to the disruption caused by Demirell's press-ganging of her senior security staff, she had also to cope with his alarming inroads into the castle's armoury.
Demirell had requisitioned offensive as well as defensive weapons. Dortmann suspected that he was involved in more than just taking control of a chain of minor Refuse Reclamation Centres under the collective noses of the Camerlish Refuse Barons. That he had chosen only those members of the security staff those personality profile indicated a willingness to take risks and cut corners suggested that Demirell's other project involved illegal activities.
Dortmann recognized that her increased smoking and recent difficulty in sleeping were symptoms of growing frustration. She could still command the loyalty and respect of most of her staff, but the partiality of her employer prevented her from countering Demirell's divisive influence. Professional pride made her reluctant to give up the power struggle, yet the bond of conspiracy between the Duke and Demirell could only undermine her position further.
The time had come for a change, but she had to proceed with caution. Demirell was aware of her suspicions – that much was clear from his evasive responses to her demands for more accurate reports on his activities. If he were to learn that she intend to leaving the Duke's service, he would feel bound to take steps to neutralize a potential threat. Demirell would have no respect for her personal integrity. He would not expect her to be bound by the confidentiality clauses in her contract, and Dortmann knew that Charles Demirell's personality profile suggested that he might not stop short of murder.
Thus Ilse Dortmann continued to serve the self-made Duke of Atmain to the best of her considerably abilities, while waiting for the right time to escape.
03. Devrel Sovershend In Norland
The young boy on an electric-blue trail-bike waved a news sheet and called a cheerful greeting to the couple relaxing on a grassy bank. Devrel Sovershend, holovision service engineer and free-lance smuggler, shielded his eyes against the descending sun of a Norlish evening as he tried to squint at the headlines. The boy braked abruptly and dropped the news sheet back into the basket clipped to his handlebars.
"Oh, no!" he called in a ten-year-old demi-yell.
Sovershend called him a Norlish miser as he fumbled in a pocket of his jacket. He located a ten-shilling piece by touch and flipped the oval coin to the youngster, who caught it cleanly.
The neighbouring kingdoms had equivalent and interchangeable currencies. The boy pretended to spit in disgust on a Camerlish coin before wheeling his trail-bike up the gentle slope. Camerland and Norland also shared a common language, which had been brought across the Inland Sea by Ferran conquerors in the mists of history.
"Will I keep the change?" The boy grinned cheekily as he rattled his pouch of small change threateningly.
"Go on, then," said Sovershend resignedly. "I'm not walking home with a limp for you, you little grabber."
"Thanks very much, Vr. Sovershend. You're not bad for a Camer," grinned the red-haired grabber.
"And you, James Allender, are no worse than the rest of your kind and no better than you have to be."
The boy seemed to take the opinion as a compliment. He handed over the news sheet, then pointed to Katuishann's recumbent form. "Another for the lady?" he asked hopefully.
"What lady?" said Sovershend. Katuishann prodded him in the ribs with an elbow. "I didn't know you were awake, korolan."
"Well, I am, so watch it," said Katuishann in her lazy, too precise Ferran.
"She can read this one," Sovershend told the boy, who hopped back onto his trail-bike and rolled away with a wave.
"What's in the news?" said Katuishann sleepily. "I'm surprised they deliver out here in the country."
Sovershend unfolded the tabloid of recycled paper, which was denoted by the circle of four mutually assaulting arrows around the price. "He always takes a few extra for passing trade when he delivers to the farms up the road. The news: it's mostly tomorrow's coronation. I suppose all you women will be glued to your vids, soaking up every second of it."
"I think that's meant to be an insult." Katuishann attacked him with her elbow again.
"Remind me to wear my bullet-proof jacket next time I take you anywhere." Sovershend rolled away from her, laughing.
Katuishann pursued him on her knees, brushing wisps of darker yellow, dried grass from her lemon one-piece. She was tall, with a naturally athletic figure, a shoulder-length cascade of dark chestnut hair and arresting, brown eyes.
"You're all grassy, Dev," she laughed.
Sovershend submitted to a very pleasant, de-grassing operation in an undeclared truce.
"Will this affect your business?" Katuishann added. "The dangerous one?"
"Significantly," said Sovershend. "When the Nors celebrate getting a new king by abolishing more of the duty on spirits made locally, they'll bring the cost down to half the shop price back home. There's bound to be a rush of amateurs border-running. Which means the Camerlish CustEx will be making an extra effort to stop it – to collect our horrendous duty and the dreaded Counter Alcoholism Tax."
"And where does that leave you, Dev?"
"As long as people continue to exploit my weakness, I'm afraid it's business as usual."
"Weakness?" Katuishann frowned at him. "I didn't know you had any. What is it? I want to use it to make you stop taking these risks."
"I wish you'd believe the risks are extremely minimal."
"Come on," insisted Katuishann. "What's your weakness?"
"I can't refuse an overpaid job," laughed Sovershend.
"You mercantile swine!" laughed Katuishann. "Or should that be mercenary?"
"I think they both fit. Which isn't bad for someone who's only been speaking our language for four months. I never really believed electronic language programming could work. Squirting grammar and vocabulary directly into the brain always seemed so unlikely."
"Don't change the subject," ordered Katuishann, who came from Kraagen, Norland's nearest neighbour across the Inland Sea. "Wouldn't it be better for you to lay low for a while?"
"I'm going to for the next couple of days. Until you desert me on Thursday."
"Unless you get a better offer?" Katuishann's smile robbed the remark of all sting.
"Scepticism doesn't become you, korolan." Sovershend threw a handful of dried grass at her.
"Hey!" Katuishann combed her dark hair with red-nailed fingers. "Are we going back now? It's ages since lunch."
Sovershend glanced at his watch. "Fourteen past eighteen. Is that a plane going over or your stomach rumbling?"
"Do you want a fight?" said Katuishann fiercely.
"I'll settle for a hand up." Sovershend extended his left arm. Katuishann gripped it and heaved with surprising strength. She was a very deceptive lady in many ways. Then she let go. Sovershend flopped back, performed a backward roll and leapt athletically to his feet. "That's not going to work a second time, sneaky Tish," he laughed.
They rejoined the track to continue their return journey through undulating farmland to the small, rural guesthouse. Norland was enjoying a sunny Mid-Year Day. Their summer usually began with cool, showery weather. The holidaymakers were hoping for two more days of fair weather until Katuishann flew back across the Inland Sea to her native Kraagen and Devrel Sovershend returned to illegal imports.
Sovershend was following a tradition which stretched back hundreds of years. Norland's wilder country and its generally more scattered population were said to be responsible for a more liberal attitude to government and greater individual freedom than was permitted in the neighbouring kingdom of Camerland. As oil had started to flow ashore from the new fields in the northern half of the Inland Sea, so Norland's indirect taxes had been reduced. Inhabitants of the nominally divided island had a choice between the harder, cheaper life in Norland and the softer, more expensive existence in the south. It was the ambition of most of them to spend a Camerlish salary at Norlish prices. Sovershend and his colleagues helped to make a part of this dream come true.
The photographs on Devrel Sovershend's various identity documents showed a pleasant, quite handsome and possibly intelligent face, which was relaxed in untroubled neutrality. His passport gave his height as an inch and a half short of six feet. His identity card made him an inch taller. The contradiction was typical of the deliberate misinformation spread by someone who flirted with the law of the land.
In the flesh, he was lean without reaching skinny and he carried himself with the confidence of a confirmed lone wolf. His elastic conscience gave him a self-image of a provider of small luxuries for those who would not be able to afford them otherwise. He saw nothing wrong with breaking a bad law, but he was no champion of the oppressed. Smuggling was very rewarding, if risky, occupation and it was becoming more and more attractive as a way of earning a living as Norland and Camerland grew apart.
An increasingly pragmatic approach to law enforcement in Camerland meant that the penalty for revenue evasion tended to be a massive fine. Current official opinion deemed it more sensible to demand that certain classes of criminal should contribute to the exchequer rather than draining it in an expensive prison cell for a number of wasted years.
If not overtaken by disaster in the meantime, Sovershend planned to become respectable at about thirty-five, in three years' time. His ‘career' as a holovision service engineer with the small Levington firm Semigrant & Harker, which paid his national and local taxes and explained away a better than average income, would come to an end at that point.
Sovershend intended to devote his declining years to a study of the finer things in life. He believed that his allotted span should have more to offer than sixteen years' education, followed by forty years of working four days a week for all but six weeks of the year, and then a graceless slide into the wasteland of retirement. In his opinion, the grey alternative justified taking a few risks and breaking unpopular laws.
Thursday, Halgary 18th
04. Mortlake & Pinder with the PSF
A heavy, afternoon mist from the reservoirs cloaked the Kelsreach Hills, creating pockets of diffuse openness at dips in the soaring and descending road. Neil Pinder was hopelessly lost in the wild borderland between the counties Norton and Dunstan. He knew only that their van was about forty miles south of the border with Norland.
Gary Mortlake seemed to know his exact position. He had not glanced at the map since entering the mist belt. He seemed to be ignoring the proximity scope display repeated on the bottom-right corner of the windscreen. Pinder could not be sure where his teamleader was looking. Mortlake's eyes were directed straight ahead, where the road was usually to be found, but they had a glazed, unfocussed quality in his reflection. Pinder oscillated between gratitude for the mist-blanket that hid the frequent, steep plunges at the side of the road, and alarm because Mortlake seemed to be turning the steering wheel purely from memory. Uncertainty made Pinder nervous.
After checking once more that his seat web was properly secured, Pinder popped a mint into his mouth and attempted to ignore his teamleader. Mortlake had an annoying habit of whistling snatches of contemporary tunes, then breaking off just when Pinder was on the point of identifying the song. Frequent protests during their six months as a team in the Duke of Atmain's security department had made absolutely no impression on his colleague. As they were both in their late twenties, Mortlake's authority tended to be purely nominal and very lightly carried.
Two plunges from the mist later, Mortlake stopped the van in a clear pocket in the mist blanket. "We're here," he announced in a self-satisfied tone as he switched off the engine. "Vr. ganar Demirell's rendezvous point."
"How can you tell?" said Pinder sceptically. "It all looks the same to me. Bockan countryside." He was Camerlish, but from an urban background.
Mortlake tapped his large nose. "It's all a matter of following this," he replied cheerfully.
"Fair enough." Pinder broke into a grin for the first time that afternoon. "But there's so much of it, how do you know which way it's pointing?"
"S'vogan!" invited Mortlake, pretending to be deeply offended. He had lived with the nose for twenty-seven years. He doubted whether there was an original way left to insult it. He had grown up on a hill farm in Stanton county, in south-west Camerland. He felt at home in wild country.
"They're late." Pinder reached into a tangle of limp, mousey hair to scratch his left ear. "They should have been here at fifteen-fifteen."
"So are we," Mortlake pointed out. "It's twenty-five past now. Ah, here they are."
A similar light-coloured van sped down the road toward them, bursting out of the mist at reckless speed. It appeared to be as nondescript and neglected as their own at first glance. Even the characterless shade of mid-blue resembled the ‘crystallized sapphire' of their compact, Rutland Explorer van. Then Mortlake noticed the date letter in the registration. The newly arrived vehicle was less than two years old. It scraped along a roadside boulder and squealed to a halt behind the Duke's men.
"Took your time, didn't you?" called Mortlake as if he had been waiting for several hours.
"The fog slowed us down," said Brooks, the driver of the other van.
Brooks was a very close match to Mortlake's image of an urban revolutionary. He certainly had the moustache for it, and his black hair was cropped in a fairly military style. Shaw, his much older companion, looked too well fed and too close to pension age to be of much use on the barricades. Mortlake dismissed him as someone who took a collection box round at Popular Socialist Front rallies.
"Here we are, then." Mortlake unlocked the doors at the back of his van. "The oblong cases are weapons, the square ones are ammo."
Brooks and Shaw heaved four dark green boxes to their van.
"Be careful with this." Mortlake slid a brown plastic beer-crate to the rear of his van. "It's got the demolition charges in it. They're in red wrappers. And these are the smoke bombs." He peeled an improvised cover from another beer-crate.
"Something new, are they?" said Brooks.
"Right," said Mortlake. "They look a bit like the demolition charges, so we've given them green wrappers. To let them off, you just pull the tab and the wrapper drops apart. Then you get hold of the ring round the bottom half and turn it as if you're screwing it together. Clockwise, right? As far as it'll go. About a quarter turn."
"No safety pins to pull out," Shaw remarked.
"I hope your lads won't be too disappointed." said Mortlake.
"I don't think they'll be too bothered as long as there's plenty of smoke in them," said Brooks.
"No worry about that. Here, I'll give you a demo." Mortlake reached into the crate apparently casually, but he selected a smoke bomb that activated the sensor in his signet ring, which vibrated invisibly on his finger.
"Can I have a look at it?" said Shaw.
"Why not?" Mortlake tossed the green-wrapped canister to him, then dipped into the crate again. It contained three genuine, finger-tingling, smoke bombs. "Right! Wrapper off. Hold this ring and turn. See how this bit snaps inwards after a quarter-turn? That sets the fuse going." He bounced the smoke bomb in his hand. "Then you've got thirty seconds to get rid of the sobok."
Mortlake turned and threw it into a grassy hollow strewn with damp, greyish boulders. Dense green fog jetted violently from the device, filling the depression in seconds. The surrounding mist began to take on a green tinge, lurching gently in great, uneasy billows as it acquired contrast.
"Once you've blown a hole in the roof of the incinerator plant with the demolition charges, half a dozen of these should fill it up with smoke nicely," Mortlake said cheerfully. "And give them soboks at Mirbank something to think about."
"Just what we need." Shaw slipped the other smoke bomb casually into a side pocket of his waterproof coveret. "They should show the so-called Refuse Barons just how useless their security is but cause a minimum of damage."
"Yeah, you'll certainly show the soboks a thing or two," grinned Mortlake. "Well, we'd better get moving again."
"Us too," said Brooks. "See you again next time."
"See you," said Pinder, speaking for the first time and proving that he had a tongue in his head.
The vans moved off in opposite directions as the green-tinted fog began to spill out of the hollow and onto the road
"Pair of yadren! I bet they won't be around when the fun starts," Mortlake said before returning to his aimless staring through the windscreen.
"Priyam!" agreed Pinder. He reached forward to switch on the radio as a defence against his colleague's intermittent whistling.
The programme on Radio Bylstock, from the county's largest town, was pretty dreadful but it was marginally more entertaining than the noise of the van's engine. The presenter's inane chatter reminded Neil Pinder of the nauseating character who chaired the cheap and cheerful mid-afternoon programme on Radio Atmain.
A two-hour drive lay ahead of the Duke of Atmain's agents. When they reached their destination, they would be in nice time for the worst of the evening rush hour.
"I wonder what Louise is planning for dinner?" said Mortlake during a pause between tunes.
"Something Belldan, I think," said Pinder.
"A welcome change from our poor efforts."
"Bockan priyam," grunted Pinder. "You won't starve on our cooking, but it does get a lot boring."
Life in Camerland did not agree with Neil Pinder. He was a natural castle-dweller, who preferred proper meals every day of the week. His companions were much more adaptable. They could even laugh at the result when Gary Mortlake decided to cook instead of just bashing open tins or packs of convenience food.
A natural pessimist, Pinder would expect to become fish-food if dropped by parachute into the ocean. Louise Liston and Gary Mortlake would expect to land on the sun deck of a cruise liner and receive a first-class passage courtesy of a passing millionaire. Were it not for the excellent pay, Pinder would have resigned from the Duke of Atmain's service and moved to neighbouring Heitain. That country's main artery, the River Zinder, was dotted with castles, according to the holovision holiday features.