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Friday, Halgary 19th

05. Safe Storage

One of the Coastguard radar plots off the Esham coast was a fishing boat carrying cargo. It was a damp, overcast day on which land, Inland Sea and sky merged at the horizon. A musical chatter from the echo-sounder filled the bridge. The radar set on the vessel had an incurable fault. A hefty thump in the usual place just below the screen had produced an image twice, and black smoke and a smell of burning on the third and last occasion. The skipper was navigating quite satisfactorily by remaining just in sight of land and by following the contours of the sea bed.
   He turned to starboard when he picked up the line of buoys which marked the approaches to the River Barton. A gigantic oil barge heaved into view, moving away from the dock complex on the Esham side of the river, which formed the county boundary with Neal. The barge grew to monstrous proportions before disappearing into the grey mist to the east.
   The skipper of the fishing boat stretched out an arm to pick up the bridge telephone. He pressed the second of the row of buttons beneath the receiver rest. "How about some coffee up here?" He made a suggestion of the order.
   "Just pouring it now," said the deck hand from the galley. "How do you always know when a new brew's ready?"
   "Put plenty of sugar in it. It's the only way anyone can drink that synthetic stuff."
   The skipper replaced the telephone and peered through the droplet-speckled glass of the wheelhouse to check his position. The tide was pushing him over to the southern, Neal county side of the wide river.
   "Coffee-flavoured sugar," announced the deck hand. He was eighteen years old and tall enough to have to remember to duck his head when entering the wheelhouse. His broad grin showing off white teeth broke a deep, summer tan. He slotted the mug into the gimballed holder on the arm of the captain's chair, then stepped back one pace and saluted.
   "If you knew anything about the Navy, sunshine, you'd know only Perrians salute without a hat on." The skipper was a mature twenty-nine. He had gained his military knowledge from watching holovision.
   "What do you do instead?" prodded the deck hand. This was his first smuggling trip. Anxiety had given way to a certain cheeky relief as the end of the trip approached and none of the terrible catastrophes of his imagination had overtaken them.
   The skipper lit a cigarette to give himself time to think. A buzz from the telephone saved him. The engineer wanted to know what had happened to his synth-café.
   Ten minutes later, Shear Island loomed out of a rain squall. Rounding the flat, rocky blob on the southern side, the fishing boat chugged into the sound between Shear and the neighbouring Isle of Elmer. The glint of a stray sunbeam on glass told the skipper that someone at Shear's Coastguard station was checking up on him. His vessel had been making the same run regularly for two months now, with various crews and always with a legitimate cargo. The skipper was confident that there were no outward signs that he was running a special cargo this time.
   He could see a large sign reading Easton Security Products at his destination – a group of buildings, all less than six months old, which had been artificially aged to blend with Elmer's landscape of spiky grass, low shrubs and lichen-scabbed, bare rock. A sign reading: Danger! Electrified Fence! became visible as the fishing boat approached the landing stage.
   The skipper edged alongside stained and chipped concrete. Chasing up and down the deck, the hand hurled bow and stern lines at two of the men who were waiting for them. The chug of the engine gave way to a gentle slosh of water on concrete.
   "How did it go?" called a tall man on the landing stage. He was wearing a business suit under a transparent waterproof.
   "We got buzzed by a Prot chopper a couple of times, but no trouble," called the skipper.
   "Right, you lot, get busy," the spokesman told the group in overalls on the landing stage.
   "You heard Vr. Richmond," growled the head shifter.
   A diesel engine roared into life. The jib of a small crane swung over the hold of the fishing boat, which was apparently loaded with crates of office equipment. Richmond clambered over the rail and let himself into the wheelhouse.
   "You know the courier, Sovershend?" said the skipper. "He said he'd take part of the cargo for himself. Said that's how he usually gets paid."
   "It's all right," said Richmond with a shark-smile. "He reckons uisge is more inflation proof than cash."
   "Just as long as you don't think I've got it stashed away somewhere," added the skipper lightly.
   "This business runs on trust." Richmond's smile remained just as comfortable and as confident. "But we know how to take care of twisters," he added as a routine warning.

06. The Camerlish Refuse Barons & Alex Cardinal

The loose federation of Camerland's nine Refuse Barons usually met on a convenient Friday in each of the thirteen months to discuss matters of common interest. Their host on this occasion was Sir Christopher Lees, founder and majority shareholder of Midlands Disposal & Reclamation. His headquarters was Refuse House, an imposing structure built entirely of recycled materials in the heart of the business district of Camer. The former capital city, usurped by Leviton, had the advantage of a central location.
   The farthest flung of Sir Christopher's colleagues, Sir Miles Dunstan to the north and Sir Simon Lake to the south, were both less than half an hour by air from Camerland's capital in ancient times, Ten people had gathered at the round conference table of recycled plastic textured to counterfeit close-grained eichen. The odd man was obviously out.
   The others were aged fifty to sixty, or seventy plus. Alex Cardinal of Cardinal Security & Investigation Services had just entered his thirties. He looked older, thanks to a touch of self-inflicted grey in his dark hair. He had a metabolism which kept him looking lean and fit despite an aversion to unnecessary exercise. Dramatic training given by a former girlfriend had left him with the ability to set his features in an expression appropriate to his client's tale – intelligence, concentration, compassion, etc. – while his thoughts explored other aspects of the problem.
   His eyes were dark brown and ‘frank', according to a character-analysis scheme in a former secretary's magazine. He also had ‘sexy' eyebrows. His height was average, his birthday March 7th and his summer-weight business suit in a pale shade known as safari blue had been bought off the peg. The garment's main selling point was flared sleeves with room to conceal the needle-gun on his left forearm.
   Sir Nigel Grantby, the Refuse Barons' chairman for the year, exchanged a final word with the comparative youngster of a visitor, then he rapped on the table with a thick-bottomed glass. He was a large, shaggy, self-made man in his middle fifties, sheathed in dark blue over a pure white pullover. His business empire lay to the south of Camer, but there was more than a trace of a northern accent in his forceful delivery.
   "Can we get started, vreitei?" Grantby's gaze travelled round the table to check conversation.
   "About time," muttered Lady Amy Tynsdale, the oldest of the group, whose territory was Esham county.
   "For those who haven't met him yet, this is Alex Cardinal." Grantby turned a large, left hand toward the visitor. "A security consultant and investigator. He's found out some very interesting things over the last few weeks. Things that prove I've not gone soft between the ears," he added with a note of triumph.
   "We didn't actually say that, Nigel," cackled the skeletal owner of Lake Reclamation, which serviced the western toe of Camerland.
   "More that you had a mild obsession," added Lady Mary Thorne, Lake's neighbour to the south east. Her accent was unashamedly Norlish.
   "Cardinal?" Grantby invited to move the meeting on.
   Cardinal pushed out of a chair made of recycled steel and plastic which was virtually indistinguishable from black leather. The yard-square holovision screen on the Dalmain mustard wall behind him swirled from a pastoral scene to a misty grey when he activated the hand controller.
   "Good afternoon, vreitei," said Cardinal with a confident smile. "As you know, attacking a target as socially significant as a Refuse Reclamation Centre is a cheap way of getting your cause mentioned in the less reputable news sheets. You've all had trouble at this level, but I was called in to find out why purely nuisance-level raids have been so effective in a suburb of Leviton. Effective enough to put Vr. Grantby's reclamation centre out of commission for three months at first, and out of action again the day after it came back on line.
   "We all know about the trend to an increasingly physical element in social protest – malcontents working off their resentment against the cost of living, unemployment, the price of fortbeer, or even the level of a Refuse Baron's profits. You've all had protest meetings outside your gates, trying to disrupt your business for reasons which have little to do with you. I've been looking into why a particular RecCen in the Rogate district of Leviton has suffered so much."
   "Just one RecCen?" frowned Sir Christopher Lees, the host. "After all the fuss Nigel was making, I thought half his organization had been wiped out."
   "I think you'll find the situation looks a lot more serious as we get into it," said Cardinal.
   "It better had be," said Sir Arthur Crane, an impatient character, whose territory was Neal county, which faces Atmain across the Straits. He, too, had a northern accent, but he was in the process of having it smoothed over, which made his delivery somewhat erratic. "I've had a lot more trouble than one RecCen out of action."
   "Thanks to Vr. Grantby's powers of persuasion," Cardinal cut across further comment, "I have had access to figures which make up an ugly picture across the national refuse reclamation market. It's rather ironic that I started with Grantby's. As we've just heard, others have suffered much worse disruption, which has put particular reclamation centres in each of your areas out of action for significant periods."
   "So what are you telling us that our own security people haven't already?" demanded Crane.
   Cardinal sipped at a glass of pale blue liquid to refresh himself, using the pause to select his arguments. "The answer to that lies partly in your earlier reluctance to believe anything other than mindless vandalism is behind the attacks. You weren't prepared to accept the possibility of co-ordination. And you are all business rivals – in methods, if not territorial ambitions. You exchange information cautiously to protect technical secrets, and swap some commercial information relevant to your border areas. Your own staff didn't spot my pattern, Vr. Crane, because the quantities I'm dealing with have to be added up across the country before they become significant."
   "How small are these quantities?" persisted Crane.
   Cardinal shrugged imperceptibly, resigning himself to having to tell his tale out of sequence. He used the controller to bring a diagram labelled Market Distribution onto the screen. It consisted of nine horizontal, black bars, each bearing the name of one of the Refuse Barons, and a shorter, green bar labelled Others.
   "Your group has traditionally divided nine-tenths of the market between you." Cardinal waved a hand in front of the black bars. "The rest is handled by smaller, independent concerns." He touched the controller again. Very little happened to the black bars but the green bar shot forward, overtaking the longest black bar. "As far as I can tell, your total market share has slipped to eighty-eight per cent over the year, down four per cent, and it's still falling."
   An outbreak of surprised and angry mutters interrupted him. Grantby hammered on the table with his glass, having taken the precaution of emptying it first.
   "Where's the four per cent gone?" said Sir George Braben, the youngest of the Refuse Barons.
   Cardinal addressed a drooping, fiery-red, brush-cut. "There's an independent reclamation centre just outside Rogate in Leviton. The difficulties at Grantby's mean that it now holds most of the contracts for that area."
   "No surprise there," said Crane. "You can't let materials pile up in the streets."
   "What I found interesting is the centre changed hands about a month before the first serious attack on Grantby's," Cardinal added. "The new owners of what was a family firm have expanded it considerably without drawing attention to themselves. And the firm now belongs, via a series of holding companies, to a company registered on Lesten Island. Which rules out identifying the directors."
   The string of islands off the western coasts of Camerland and Norland maintained a high standard of living for their sparse populations by remaining secretive tax havens.
   "I get a similar picture from each of the nine counties," continued Cardinal. "More so in the North and East, where the independent RecCens are changing hands and being modernized and expanded without immediate justification. The drop in your market share is camouflaged to some extent by the fact that you're in an expanding market. Your businesses aren't declining, they're just expanding less rapidly than might be expected.
   "Projecting from available figures, you stand to lose up to eight per cent of the total market by the end of the year. And if we assume the independents are being taken over by a single organization, its representative will be entitled to a seat at this table in the new year. Because it'll be bigger than any individual here today."
   The diagram on the screen changed again. The green bar contracted, splitting off a red bar, which began as solid, angry probability, then softened into misty pink possibility.
   "So who's kicking us below the belt?" said Sir John Nash, who was wearing a green-biased flamesuit to brighten the occasion. "And how do we stop them?"
   "There are two answers to the first question," said Cardinal. "I've made some progress in one direction, but the other will require further digging. Collecting the data for these diagrams has taken up a lot of time," he added before Sir Arthur Crane could ask what in bock he had been doing for the past few weeks.
   "Why two answers?" said Sir George Braben of Lesham county. His tone was apologetic but his gaze at Cardinal was direct enough.
   "You're being kicked below the belt by those organizing the disruption, and those organizing the organizers," said Cardinal. "The first is a grey area. As you can see from the next diagram, vandalism by 'lensters and sabotage by your own employees are well within the limits predicted by your own security people. The National Temperance Front is making more noise than usual about recycling aluminium for beer cans, but the main growth area, if I dare call it that, appears to be politically inspired sabotage."
   "Which is still criminal damage, whichever way you look at it," growled Crane. "A crime's a crime, whether whoever did it wants to be prime minister or just rich."
   "This area is hole-black and about as giving," said Cardinal. "I have a fair correlation, on shaky data, between the activities of the Popular Socialist Front, admitted and assumed, and your worst troubles." He tapped a black line on another chart. "You see the number of incidents and their gravity jumps in the early part of this year. This suggests you, collectively, upset the PSF in either January or early February. Their response time to injury, real or imagined, is on the low side."
   "That's ridiculous," protested Sir Simon Lake, polishing with his glasses with his tie. "We didn't have a meeting in January or February. The weather was dreadful and most of us were on holiday, anyway."
   "Which suggests someone is manipulating the PSF," said Cardinal. "Supplying them with intelligence and materials, and taking considerable commercial advantage from your losses."
   "Who, though?" growled Sir Arthur Crane, directing a menacing glare in Cardinal's direction.
   "At the moment," he admitted, "I'm up against a stone wall on Lesten Island over the question of ownership of the newly taken-over independents. Breaking through will be expensive and time-consuming. But there is another line of attack," he added before Crane could release the outburst for which he had drawn an audible breath.
   "Which is?" invited Lady Mary Thorne.
   "Some of the equipment captured after raids is more advanced than you'd expect of your average urban guerilla. The same applies to the explosive devices, or the dummies planted to bring somewhere to a stand-still until the bomb squad turns up. Both the police and myself are trying to trace the history of the more exotic items. But the trail is a tangled mess, as one would expect."
   "I can't imagine someone being able to set the PSF on us," said Sir Miles Dunstan, whose ancestors had given their name to the county in the north-east. He was a spritely seventy-year-old and he wore a blue and white-striped wig instead of a hat. "If you tell that lot to do something, they do the exact opposite to prove how independent they are."
   "I don't know, Miles," countered Lady Tynsdale. She was less than a decade his senior but she looked old enough to be Dunstan's mother. "Political groups can be manipulated with ridiculous ease if one knows how to go about it."
   "I'd like to manipulate the soboks," drifted across the table. "With a pair of red-hot pincers."
   "Before we get too carried away." A Norlish accent cut through the laughter of agreement. Cardinal turned his attention back to Lady Mary Thorne, reflecting that he would like any wife of his to be as youthful and attractive at fifty. "I think Vr. Cardinal would admit," added Lady Thorne, "he's been giving us speculation, not facts. I, for one, would like a much closer look at his evidence."
   "Vr. Grantby has agreed to let you have copies of my report." Cardinal distributed one-inch cubes of off-white plastic, which enclosed easily lost memory wafers. "Which you can discuss with your own security people."
   "Cardinal will continue working for me," added Grantby. "While everyone else goes through his report."
   "What about future reports?" prodded Sir Christopher Lees, blowing cactus-scented javo smoke at the striped wig opposite.
   "Copies of future reports will be available." Grantby's tone implied that he expected contributions to share the cost of the investigation.
   "But don't expect too much too fast," Cardinal warned. "Investigating fringe political groups is delicate work. They can have friends in the most unlikely places. And you usually meet them at very awkward moments."
   "Yes, I think we all have personal experience of that," said Grantby. "Right! Can you wait in the club room, Cardinal? I've still got things to discuss with you."
   "Yes, of course." Cardinal fished a memory wafer from the holovision set and restored it to its storage cube. "Thank you for your attention, vreitei," he added formally before exiting discreetly through the door on his right.
   Steady employment by an organization large enough to be able to afford a decent scale of charges merited every small courtesy. Cardinal found it quite refreshing to work on a single job instead of having to run for his life around a cluster of small contracts. And he had been able to plant a fair number of favours on fellow investigators and security consultants in Leviton by farming out recent bread-and-butter business.
   "Comments?" said Grantby when the investigator had left the room.
   "Going along with Mary's reservations about a report we haven't studied," said the youngest baron, "I think getting rid of actively disloyal employees should be a priority. We must be able to find a common way through the legal tangles."
   "Sacking people will put you in trouble with the Federation, George." Lees crushed his yellow-wrapped javo into a handy ashtray. "Every one of their bockan members is a blue-eyed boy or girl with a sunburst backside."
   "Not necessarily," said Grantby. "Howard Johnson has been making noises about how much work there is to do on that manor house he bought recently. If we can find out what the rest of the Federation's executive want, we may have a basis for bargaining. Saboteurs are just as much an embarrassment to them as us – the ones who won't do a proper day's work as well as the ones who plant bombs. Johnson and company could be prepared to say as much in public with a little coaxing. And if we let them seem to screw a bonus out of us, in return for more productivity, of course, it won't do their image as Federation hard men any harm."
   "But what about wrapping up the PSF?" insisted Crane.
   "Cardinal is working very closely with the police," said Grantby. "But these people tend to be elusive. And getting hold of hard evidence is a severe problem."
   "I think what Arthur really means," said Lady Amy Tynsdale, "is that we should be doing something ourselves. Such as preventive strikes into the enemy's camp. Can't that mercenary fellow of yours do something, Nigel?"
   "Major Tarpigan's job is to check the history of captured weapons and equipment through channels unavailable to anyone outside his profession," recited Grantby.
   "Just the same," said Nash, whose flamesuit appeared to have developed hiccups, "both Cardinal and Major Tarpigan are on your books as security consultants. If the Major chooses to wipe out any PSF members Cardinal identifies, we could claim he exceeded his orders."
   "And fire him in a cloud of indignation if he gets caught?" cackled the skeletal Lake.
   "It would never work," said Lady Thorne with conviction. "The mire would splash us too."
   "I agree with Mary," said Grantby. "Even though the PSF are ignoring the law, I think it's important that we keep our own hands clean. Secrets have a habit of leaking out, no matter what precautions we take to guard them."
   "A very good point," said Lady Tynsdale.
   "Hmmm!" dragged reluctantly from Crane.
   "Can we move on to the next item on the agenda now?" Grantby exerted his influence as chairman.
   He could tell that Sir Arthur Crane was still thinking of reprisals. Crane believed that there was no point in achieving a position of power if that power could not be exercised. And he had an impulsive streak. Grantby included in the duties of the Refuse Barons' chairman, guardianship of the group's image, acting as a brake on the enthusiasm of lees inhibited members – and also the role of undercover avenging angel.

07. Major Rufus Tarpigan

After the monthly meeting, Sir Nigel Grantby retired to an office on the fifth floor of Refuse House. His watch and the wall clock agreed on 15:19. A neat videolink in a polished cabinet chimed for attention as the clock's second hand reached a vertical position. Grantby leaned across a gleaming, modern desk to touch the accept and scramble panels simultaneously. An image charged through a series of dizzy and colourful convolutions as a hush screen enclosed him in its blanking embrace. The hologram settled into a determined face framed against the study in Grantby's Leviton home, fifty-five miles away.
   "Good afternoon, Sir Nigel," said the leader of his small, very select, mercenary band.
   "Afternoon, Tarpigan." Grantby leaned toward the videolink automatically, as if about to share a confidence. "I see you got in all right."
   Major Rufus Tarpigan grinned in a wolfish-friendly fashion, displaying large, even, white teeth. His age lay somewhere between Cardinal's thirty-one and about forty. A complexion darkened by recent exposure to the tropical sun gave his face a masking lack of folds and planes – a measure of the anonymity ascribed to dark-skinned races by the Northern eye, which is more used to reading shadows on a light rather than a dark background.
   "Your home security system leaves a lot to be desired, Sir Nigel. No one knows I'm here yet. I should have a word with Alex Cardinal about it." Tarpigan lifted a hand holding one of Grantby's cigars and extended a finger to scratch an itch in his dark hair, which was beginning to sprout healthily after close cropping. He was dressed conservatively in a sombre business jacket.
   "I'm sure your entry has been recorded," said Grantby.
   "Which would do you a fat lot of good if I'd come here to kill you, Sir Nigel," Tarpigan pointed out, projecting all the confidence of a skilled salesman with a sinister dependability. "How's Alex doing?"
   "He seems to be living up to your recommendation, judging from his work so far."
   "He's got some very useful contacts. And he runs a fairly small-time operation. That means he can sneak about without being recognized."
   "And what progress have you made?"
   "Nothing useful from tracing back equipment. But we're building up a fair picture of the PSF's command structure. They're suckers for a good write-up in the alternative press. Alex and I have some useful contacts there. Most of them are as honest as short is long. And pricey, too."
   "Action?" Grantby took note of the warning that the next round of expenses would be high.
   "I've sorted out some likely candidates for accidents," grinned Tarpigan. "Mostly ones who could arrange for Lady Justice to look the other way if they end up in court. The police can mop up the small fry. With any luck, they'll resist arrest and get shot to pieces."
   "What about whoever's behind the PSF?" Grantby was rather surprised to find that he could discuss the destruction of his enemies in a detached, passionless manner – an echo of Tarpigan's professional approach.
   "All we've heard so far is something about two men in a van supplying them with equipment. I suppose Alex told you the same? Small fry, and not the same two men each time."
   "I trust you'll be discreet about the accidents?"
   "People in my line are used to being expendable." Tarpigan answered the real question. "We may be expensive, but we stay bought if there's the sort of trouble we can't fight, or buy, our way out of."
   "Your next report should be very interesting, Major." Grantby found the confrontation with the truth a shade uncomfortable. "Good hunting."
   "Good afternoon, Sir Nigel." Tarpigan's three-dimensional projection faded as he began to sketch a salute.
   Grantby switched the videolink off, wondering whether there was any truth in the story that Tarpigan had never risen above lance-sergeant during his career in the Camerlish Royal Marines. The need to discuss home security with Alex Cardinal wiped sway such unworthy speculation.

Alex Cardinal was enjoying the tan and panelled luxury of the Refuse Barons' club room. An account of one of Lady Tynsdale's adventures was holding most of his attention. At the back of his mind, he was wondering why an organization the size of Grantby Disposal & Reclamation Industries, which serviced eight million refuse producers, would choose to employ a firm which consisted of himself, his secretary and an office suite in an unfashionable area of Leviton.
   The presence of Rufus Tarpigan on Grantby's payroll was both a clue and a warning that a serious element of risk was involved in the job. Cardinal was not afraid to withdraw from a case when the degree of danger reached an unacceptable level. Neither would he terminate a well-paid job just because there was a possibility that it might turn sour on him.
   Sir Nigel Grantby was being charged at Class Four on a scale of charges that ran up to a wildly optimistic Class Ten. Most of Cardinal's jobs were charged at Class Two or Three. It was his policy not to worry about personal safety until the client had reached the upper half of his scale of charges.

08. Sovershend Returns to Leviton

A change of engine and wind noises shook Devrel Sovershend from his light doze. He rubbed sleep from his eyes as the turbine unwound and the transiter drifted gracefully across the expressway to an exit. The driver glanced at him with a touch of envy, remembering his own younger days. They were both above average height, both blond with restless blue eyes and both dressed in a jungle-green one-piece. The resemblance ended there.
   Sovershend's hair dropped to a self-cut halt above his collar. The driver's coarsening curls were professionally arrayed to cover the maximum area. Fifteen more years lined his face. Three extra stones bulged his one-piece at belly, arm and thigh. Sovershend's garment was a cleaner, much looser and more comfortable fit, tapering into calf length travelling boots in soft, black leather, and belling slightly at the wrists to accommodate a sleeve needle gun.
   Sovershend stretched vigorously, then milked a parting cup of synth-café from the apparently inexhaustible dispenser on the dashboard. Phoney frosts in the producing countries and bare-faced profiteering had converted real coffee into a luxury. He passed a cigarette, tax-paid at Norlish rates, to the driver then lit one for himself, half listening to the story of how the transiter had touched 125 mph on a couple of straight stretches of expressway,
   Even a graphic account of a multi-vehicle crash failed to arouse more than a passing interest. It was a proven fact that sensible people lose their sense of responsibility on an expressway.
   The long journey from Norland with a shipment of uisge had drained Sovershend's energy reserves. He had seen enough crashes to last a couple of lifetimes. Too many friends and acquaintances had died on the roads to leave any over sympathy for strangers.
   "You take your life into your hands every time you roll onto an expressway," added the driver. "You've got idiots on the road. And off it, with the snipers and bockan fishers."
   "Fishers?" said Sovershend with a frown.
   "Aye," nodded the driver with a strong Dunston accent. "They do it from bridges. But with high-speed contact glue, not a hook." He made a casting movement with his right hand. "They reckon it's just like playing a big game fish if they get one of the little electric cars."
   Sovershend's laugh became a crashing yawn, confirming the driver's suspicion that he had been up all night. Cherished images of the driver's own youth flowed from his memory – birds and booze; pre-legal javon, which now contained a more socially acceptable psychotropic drug; parties from dusk to dawn and beyond; bodies sprawled all over the place, sleeping where they had lain down; a spectrum of reactions to the prospect and reality of breakfast; hangovers, never again and the smug superiority of those feeling no pain.
   The driver never dreamt that Sovershend had spent the night burning up massive amounts of nervous energy while playing tag with the robber-baron agents of His Majesty's Customs and Excise. Sovershend looked much more like a party animal than a hardened criminal.
   Sovershend's share of the load lay in safe storage in Hosp, a resort town on the Esham coast. The rest had been transferred by fishing boat to the Easton Security Products' depot on Shear Island. The firm's activities attracted very little unwelcome official attention in increasingly violent times. With branches all over Camerland and Norland, the firm was an ideal cover for a liquor distribution network.
   "This do you?" said the driver as the transiter sighed to a half fifty yards up the road from the exit ramp.
   "Fine, thanks." Sovershend slipped on a pair of sunglasses before climbing down into the glare of summer sunshine in the late afternoon.
   The driver gave him a conspiratorial wink and patted the storage bin on his door. "See yer, maccar." His fee for the trip had been a bottle of uisge.
   Engine whining busily up to operating speed, the transiter sighed away from the kerb to continue its journey. Sovershend swung his dark green canvas travelling bag onto his shoulder. Plastic travel packs on bottles clunked together. He crossed the road to the station and bought a ticket from a dejected blonde in an armour-glass cage. Three others were strung out along the suburban station's platform – two teenagers in brief, summer skirts and a porter with a knowing look.
   After five minutes' hot, dusty lingering on a hard bench, Sovershend was glad to see the electric duorail train spring out of the forest. He settled himself on a vandal-proof seat and inspected the graffiti. Those within reading range were either unoriginal or obscure.
   Three miles from the centre of Leviton, the train dived underground to complete its journey. Sovershend switched to the City Line to travel out from the centre as far as Walton Park. A jagged, black-edged hole in the wall opposite the up platform showed where one of the surveillance cameras had been mounted. Some people took exception to being spied on – even in the name of public safety and crowd control.
   Park Avenue was solid lines of parked vehicles and slowly moving traffic. Walton Parade had been closed at the northern end. Fire-blackened shells of cars crouched at intervals like giant turtles sunning themselves. There were craters in the road surface, some two or more feet deep. Sovershend crossed to the shadowed, western side of the street, which was still open to pedestrians. His survival instinct warned him that one of the strollers past closed shops and offices had taken an interest in him.
   A conveniently angled window gave him a glimpse of a large figure. The man was gaining on him at a menacing slink, his right hand clutching something which reflected the faded camouflage pattern on his baggy jacket.
   A Robin with a knife, thought Sovershend.
   He was being stalked by one of a growing band of daytime prowlers, who preyed on visitors to the capital. Sovershend's travelling bag was the Robin's target. In theory, a lightning double-swoop of the laser-sharp knife would sever the carrying strap and, perhaps, miss human flesh. Then the Robin would disappear down one of the side streets with all the speed of an athlete, possibly leaving the victim bleeding to death and too distressed to react.
   Sovershend resisted the temptation to shake his right sleeve. The gesture would warn the pursuer that he was making sure that the sleeve would not interfere with his draw. A gusting breeze wafted toward him a carrier bag decorated with the Norlish national flag. Someone had acquired and discarded a coronation souvenir. Sovershend took out his packet of Norlish cigarettes. He stepped casually into a doorway, out of the breeze, to light one.
   When he cupped his hand, his needle gun flicked out of his sleeve to slap reassuringly into his right palm.
   snap! Sovershend heard a flat sound.
   Then the Robin fell past his doorway and hit the pavement with a wet slap.
   Sovershend looked out into the street with an expression of appropriate surprise on a face with a weekend tan. He found himself looking at the crest on the riot helmet of a Civilian Security Police Auxiliary – a para-policeman from one of the private agencies, which were licensed to support the CSP in guarding enclosed premises and residential areas. The auxiliary asked for his identity card in a smooth voice.
   Calming the shocked citizen, Sovershend thought.
   He fished the official wafer of plastic from a pocket, taking care not to make anything resembling a threatening movement. Some auxiliaries erred on the side of trigger-happiness despite stringent regulations governing their conduct. As they were armed with Boult riot guns, which can stun but not kill, they had some excuse for being safe rather than sorry. But they lived with the risk of the victim filing assault charges when he or she woke up. Such complications were a part of the price of a stand against armed criminals.
   The auxiliary dropped Sovershend's identity card into the slot at the top of the relayer on his black belt. Sovershend touched his right thumb to a white panel, which turned green to indicate a match with the information encoded on the card's data stripe.
   A small crowd had gathered to mutter indignantly about the fate of the poor, thwarted thief and police brutality. The auxiliary shifted his stubby riot gun to a ready position, his young face hardening to a blank mask behind his visor. His flame-proof, dark green uniform added bulk to a figure below police standards.
   Chop The Aux-Prots was a widespread slogan of the day, put about not only by criminals and their sympathizers but by self-appointed champions of freedom. Sovershend grinned mockingly at the most indignant member of the crowd, glad that the auxiliary's attention had been deflected. Smugglers was not one of the categories of persons permitted to carry weapons for defensive purposes.
   Sovershend had obtained his permit by bribery. Although he was confident that official inertia would make a challenge to an entry on the nation's computer record unlikely, he saw no point in pushing his luck with an unnecessary weapon authorization check.
   "Need me any more?" he said
   "The police will want a statement from you sometime." The auxiliary returned Sovershend's identity wafer. "This sobok will plead guilty, if he's got any sense, so you won't have to go to court."
   "Saves messing about. You're new here, aren't you?"
   The crowd moved away as a police siren approached. Sovershend slipped his saviour a couple of packets of imported cigarettes as a small bonus to top up the official bounty.
   "Transferred to this beat at the beginning of the week," said the auxiliary, storing his tip in an unofficial pocket.
   "What happened to the other bloke?"
   "Broken leg," smirked the auxiliary. "Got in the way of a joy-rider."
   The other bloke was not popular with his maccars.
   The siren noise grew louder, approaching from the new police station at the end of Rodwell Road. Sovershend continued on to Strode Street, the evening hang-out of his client, who used the single name Martin. Sovershend turned the corner and walked on twenty yards to what had been a jeweller's shop. He touched a greasy spot on the lifting, dirty, dark green paint on a door frame. Then he stepped back half a pace to allow the snooper to take a good look at him.
   An armoured flexi-door took the place of the display window. A loud crash behind the door told Sovershend that Martin was piloting his seventeen stones across his garage and workshop, The door slid up to reveal a figure who looked as if he had been bathing in oil, grease and three shades of blue paint. He had a smooth, padded face with a bulbous nose in the exact centre and large ears with pendulous lobes. The rest of his massive frame inflated a painter's overall.
   Bits of motor car littered most of the floor area – far too many for all of them to belong to the skeleton of the hybrid car, which Martin was building in his spare time – unless he planned to give it three or four engines and about nine wheels. Sovershend perched on a clear area of the workbench after dusting it thoroughly. He looked in question at Martin, who just looked back.
   "Aren't you going to say hello?" Sovershend remarked eventually. "You miserable sobok."
   "Hello, you miserable sobok," obliged Martin. "Well?"
   "Fine, thank you." Sovershend took a sample bottle from his travelling bag, peeled off a protective plastic shell and stripped away lead foil. His client produced a pair of delicate liqueur glasses. Sovershend extracted a cork and filled the glasses. Martin sniffed suspiciously at the pale liquid before taking a healthy swallow.
   "A full, slightly smoky, single malt," he decided. "I rather like this. Better than the last lot. Which way did you come?"
   "More or less straight down the east coast."
   "After all the trouble last month?"
   "I got a whisper on that. The CustEx have been messing around in the east as a diversion. They're really waiting in the west for the dreaded Ambrose of Nottridge's next job."
   "Well, I suppose you got through. Hear about Les Talbot?"
   "No, I've been in Norland all week."
   "She had a breakdown on the expressway, Started shooting at a Prot patrol when it stopped to look her over."
   "Shooting?" gaped Sovershend. "Les?"
   "It was on the news. A Traffic scout car with bullet splashes on its windscreen. Les dead when they shot back. And her transiter went up when they hit the load. Her driver got away – till some sobok mashed him while he was trying to get a lift. Your end of the business is getting dangerous."
   "But shooting at the Prots? That doesn't sound like Les. She'd just pay her fine and carry on."
   "They reckon her driver panicked. Even if they never found his rifle. Some sobok must have lifted it."
   "Remind me to put my prices up," said Sovershend. "And talking of that, friend Perce in Hosp was making noises about putting his storage charges up."
   "Oh?" said Martin, his sausage fingers poised over the videolink's keyboard. "How much does he want now?"
   "I changed his mind for him," said Sovershend smugly.
   "With something dead subtle, I suppose?"
   "Nope. I made it something he'd understand. I used that line one of your lads came out with. That he got from the vid. About how Perce would have a job eating his dinner till they kitted him out with a new set of teeth."
   "And he believed that, coming from you?" Martin frowned sceptically at Sovershend's reflection in the mirror of the videolink screen.
   "No, coming from you, me old Martin."
   With a sinister laugh of appreciation, Martin keyed a number but inhibited the visual circuit. The screen swirled from a mirror to green fog. Martin muttered a few words to his anonymous contact, then he turned back to Sovershend. "I suppose you want paying? Fifty cases, wasn't it?"
   "A hundred, and you know it."
   Sovershend ground out his cigarette in the encrusted, paint tin lid which served as an ashtray and refilled the glasses. Martin dragged a toolkit box from a shelf under the workbench and dumped it beside Sovershend with a grunt of effort. He surrendered two dozen clear plastic envelopes, each containing a one-ounce gold wafer the shape of a business card. He added four red £100 notes, ten blue fives, and £6 in coins.
   Sovershend loaded his payment into the travelling bag, his wallet and his money pocket. "Right," he remarked, "I'll get home now. If it's safe."
   "You've seen Walton Parade?" said Martin. "The burnt-out cars? That was 'lensters scrapping with each other. Then the Prots, of course."
   Teenage gangs of eulengangers, or 'lensters, took to the night-time streets in most cities and large towns to look for trouble. Although they generally held their territorial battles in clearance areas, they occasionally waged war in populated districts as a direct challenge to the police.
   "Should be quiet for a few nights, then," said Sovershend.
   "You can leave the bottle," hinted Martin.
   "Swap you for a couple of bags of coffee?"
   "Nothing for nothing, that's my boy." Martin retired to the store room behind his garage to fetch the two-pound bags of real coffee.
   Walton Parade was peaceful again. When Sovershend reached the scene of the attempted robbery, both auxiliary and Robin had disappeared. All that remained was a small pool of blood – the result of a collision between an eyebrow and the unyielding pavement and an irresistible attraction for the eyes of passers by. Sovershend crossed over just past the skeleton of a car. He turned right at the bricked-up building on the corner then left into Carlock Alley.
   The first four houses of a short terrace had been converted into three flats. Sovershend lived in flat two, which was mainly above ground. A rather fanciful mural of a polar landscape adorned the building's windowless façade, which was broken only by a satin-sheen steel door at the mid-point of the ground floor.
   Sovershend touched a strip of wood-textured plastic below the bell push. A slight depression caused by a heavy hammer blow had made the sensor's response erratic. The same or a different hammerer had also attacked the armoured screen in front of the videolink camera. Sovershend moved his thumb and tried again. The steel door retreated, then slid to the left. A thin, grating screech indicated that someone had been trying to break it down again.
   Sovershend made a mental note to sound out the other occupants' views on a suitable active defence system. Several thousand Gals of electricity backed up by a hefty current, or half an ounce of lead in the right place, are excellent methods of teaching visitors not to knock with a battering ram.
   The outer door of the entry porch closed behind him, leaving Sovershend in a seven-foot cube lined with a layer of silvery cushion plastic. He thumbed another touch-strip on the wall facing him, which lofted silently into the ceiling, revealing a cargo lift and an encircling staircase. Turning through two right-angles, the stairs took him up to the open-plan area which formed two-thirds of his flat.
   The walls, ceilings and carpets in this upper area made up a continuous design of impossible-object projections. Vibrant greens and yellows, shaded with deepest black, slid into dynamic reds and violets as floor became walls. Shades of blue covered the ceiling.
   The design was broken only by four large holowindows. Even the doors to the bedroom, bathroom, spare room, and kitchen had been painted to blend in. The profusion of planes and curves meeting where they had no business to touch made some visitors feel seasick. Sovershend felt that his private world was no crazier than the one outside.
   He crossed to the bathroom, treading confidently on a carpet which seemed to heave and sink simultaneously. His clothes flew into a heap beside the home valet. After a shower, his priorities were fresh clothes, a videolink call to Katuishann to prove that he was still at liberty, food, and then some much-needed sleep.

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