the Cover illo of For-Print VersionNOVELS PAGE

still Thursday, Halgary 25th

45. Defrayment and Expectation

Alex Cardinal made the effort to afford real coffee. His supplier was the enormous Martin, trader and car constructor of Strode Street, which lay just over half a mile to the east of Cardinal's office. But the first brew of the day came from a supply provided by Devrel Sovershend as his fee. As he was sipping the dark brown liquid, wondering whether to take another waker tablet, Cardinal's videolink buzzed discreetly and diverted his attention.
   "A call for you on three, Vr. Cardinal. Lillith Mellbury," said his secretary in her velvet voice.
   "Thank you, Va. Bedworthy," replied Cardinal. It was a working name, chosen by his secretary, but he indulged it for its effect on clients. People remembered a security consultant whose secretary had such a provocative name.
   "Good morning, Alex," said Lillith Mellbury when she appeared on the screen. "Is that really her name?"
   "Good morning, Lilly," returned Cardinal, following the client's preference for informality. "So she tells me."
   "And is she?"
   "I'll ask her, if you're really interested." Cardinal assumed a business-like expression. "I've made inquiries about your husband."
   "And how does it hit the floor?"
   "The authorities consider his offence a serious one. They're thinking in terms of a ten-year sentence plus full costs. And the obligatory bankruptcy, of course."
   "And what's the buy-off rate?"
   "I was able to arrive at a firm figure of fifty thousand pounds per year."
   "Fifty thousand!?" Lillith Mellbury drew her black brows together in an ominous scowl. "The madky soboks want what? Half a million? And they call us crooks?"
   "That seems to be the going rate these days. For non-violent offences. And it includes the usual pardon for all past misdeeds of a similar nature, of course. Unless they include the odd murder. And there's a guarantee the Tax Department won't ask where the money came from." Cardinal decided not to inject a note of sympathy into his voice, judging that it was not expected of him.
   "I suppose we could stick the taxpayer with the bill for keeping Ambrose in gaol for about three years, which is all he'd actually do. But I don't suppose we have much choice." Lillith Mellbury resigned herself to the inevitable. "What do I have to do?"
   "When you've raised the money, you can pay it to me as your nominated intermediary. Or I will arrange for it to be paid directly from your account into an official account. As soon as the fine has been paid, the extradition proceedings will be dropped and your husband will be free to return to Camerland any time he likes."
   "If I pay you, the source remains confidential?"
   "All transactions between us are subject to the normal client confidentiality," nodded Cardinal. "How long will it take you to raise the money?" His tone suggested that he expected a time scale of days, if not weeks.
   "It's ready now," said Lillith Mellbury in a tone of faint surprise. Her raised eyebrows asked why there should be any problem in scraping together the odd half-million pounds.
   "Is it?" said Cardinal, mentally confirming Class 5 charges for the client. He had not doubted that the Mellburys had the money – only the fact that it was so readily to hand surprised him. "Are you ready to make the transfer?"
   "Set up your account number, and it's all yours, Alex."
   Electronic impulses travelled along wires. Memory devices became remagnetized with alternative information. Ambrose and Lillith Mellbury became poorer by half a million pounds, which they had never seen and were unlikely to miss. Alex Cardinal acquired enough money to pay his rent for the rest of his life, were he allowed to keep it.
   "And your fee?" asked Lillith Mellbury. "Shall I add the retainer we agreed?"
   "If you would." Cardinal kept his tone at an impersonal level during a discussion about money. "I'll get on to the CustEx and pay your fine now."
   "How long will that take?"
   "It all depends on how much bureaucratic delay I run into. You know, the usual deliberate obstruction."
   "I'll call you back about eleven. Anything happening on the other matter?"
   "I've been up all night on that."
   "I thought I detected a little roughness around the edges. I didn't expect so much hammer."
   "There's rather more to your spot of trouble than any of us could have imagined last night. There's a link to another case I'm working on, which should mean pretty rapid progress. I'll be in touch when I have something concrete to report."
   "Right," nodded Lillith Mellbury. "I'll leave you to it."
   The videolink screen cascaded into a random swirl of pastel colours instead of the usual mirror. Cardinal disliked someone watching him while he was working – even if it was himself. He took a cigar from the storage box on his desk and dipped the end into the flame of his desk lighter. Having tried more expensive cigars, lighting them with wooden matches and smoking them with and without the band, he had come to the conclusion that he was missing very little. Alex Cardinal was quite happy with his cheap ones.
   Coffee, however, was something that he could appreciate. When he reached a few dark grains in the bottom of his cup, he touched the intercom key.
   "I think I'll risk another cup, Doris," he announced.
   "I had a feeling you might," laughed his secretary.
   Doris Bedworthy breezed into the office with the coffee pot. She was quite tall, in her early twenties and she improved average looks with a ready smile. She was wearing a smart, dark green business suit and her hair colour of the week was light blonde. After filling Cardinal's cup she gave him a conspiratorial wink, the product of diligent practice in front of her videolink's mirror.
   "Real krovan, eh, boss?" she remarked.
   Cardinal responded with inscrutability, but he managed only a blank look. He could never decide whether his secretary meant the client's looks or her willingness to pay. Doris Bedworthy gave him another demonstration of her wink, with the right eye this time, and slid back to her own office.
   Cardinal decided that she was referring to the fee, which paid her wages, rather than Ambrose Mellbury's choice of wife. Lilly's dark, Northern looks would never fade completely. Cardinal judged that she was a strong, capable companion, intensely loyal and skilled in the art of getting her own way. Ambrose of Nottridge was a lucky man.
   After savouring the first half of his second cup of coffee, Cardinal called the Department of Revenue office in the city centre. It took a mere five minutes to make contact with a Senior Inspector in Revenue Offences, Fines Division, Major Settlements Section. The country's civil servants were reluctant to accept videolink calls during their ten o'clock coffee break.
   The inspector was young, which meant less than twenty-five to thirty-one-year-old Cardinal and not terribly attractive. She had bright red hair with off-white stripes and eye shadow to match, and she seemed to be carrying the cares of the whole world on her narrow shoulders. The glowing green letters at the foot of the screen read: ‘Senior Inspector Jane M. Offord'.
   "Good morning," said Cardinal – then he realized that he had made a serious mistake.
   "Name of offender?" said Offord, ignoring his ridiculous statement. The lines of strain around her dark eyes showed quite clearly that the morning was anything but good and that the afternoon was likely to be worse.
   "Ambrose Mellbury," said Cardinal, coming down to bare basics along with the inspector.
   A change of focus of her eyes told Cardinal that Offord was reading data superimposed on his face. "Ambrose Bertram Mellbury," she read aloud. "Citizen ID card number 7M-L4-61239." Her voice rose in a questioning inflection at the end of the number.
   "That's my client," nodded Cardinal. He attempted a pleasant smile but the dead eyes on his screen killed it.
   "Provisional sentence ten years at fifty kay. Nett fine five hundred kay. Ready for transfer."
   Cardinal pecked at his keyboard, then touched the REL key. A sheet of paper emerged from the copyslot.
   "Ambrose Bertram Mellbury, CIC number 7M-L4-61239, is hereby discharged of liability in respect of Revenue evasion prior to this date," gabbled Offord. She paused for breath. "With the exception of offences which fall outside Section 2 of the Revenue Evasion Act, Optional Fines Amendment Current." Another pause to take in air. "You should now have in your possession a receipt for the fine, which is also an immunity from prosecution, as indicated."
   "Yes, I have it." Cardinal checked through the document. "All in order."
   "Have you any further business?" asked the inspector.
   "No, that's it," replied Cardinal.
   His screen became a random colour swirl again after a curt farewell.
   Whatever happened to civility? Cardinal asked himself. But at least the exchange had been rapid. He had been expecting a good half an hour of extension-shunting and office-hopping. The intercom chirped as he was finishing his coffee.
   "Sir Nigel Grantby for you on four," said his secretary. She used the four channels of the office videolink in rotation, as if to avoid wearing out any one of them.
   "Just a minute." Cardinal pushed his empty cup aside and switched his screen to a mirror for a few seconds to check his appearance. "Right, Doris, put him through."
   "Scrambled contact," a large face ordered before blurring into mush.
   "Good morning, Vr. Grantby," Cardinal said to the reformed image. It was unusually large because the owner had an aggressive habit of leaning in to the camera. Cardinal imagined that he could count the light hairs projecting from the nose and the wrinkles around the eyes.
   "Morning, Cardinal," returned Grantby. "You look rough. Been up all night?"
   "As a matter of fact, I have," nodded Cardinal.
   "Oh! Do you have anything new for me?" Grantby used the curt manner of a client who had seen very little progress. The chairman of the Refuse Barons believed that the approach spurred contract employees to greater efforts.
   "Yes, I think I do." Cardinal noted with pleasure, a slight mellowing of the tough expression. "Others have been having troubles similar to yours."
   "Tell me more." Grantby's expression of interest and anticipation, plus the difficulty of the task ahead, raised him to the next level on Cardinal's scale of charges.
   "I've just found out that importing revenue-free liquor into this country has become even more hazardous of late. At least eight importers have gone out of business since the beginning of the year – due to either accidents or informers. In fact, the number almost became ten last night. I'm sure you can see all the parallels with your own position."
   "You have contacts among these smugglers?" frowned Grantby.
   "In the line of business, yes," nodded Cardinal.
   "Business?" frowned Grantby. "I thought we had your exclusive services?"
   "The cases are linked," said Cardinal hurriedly. "The name Demirell came up in connection with the importers' case. And when I checked immigration records, I found that Charles Demirell of the Williamson Organization has been a frequent visitor to this country for the best part of a year. And so have quite a number of members of the Williamson security staff."
   "You mean Demirell's going into the smuggling business?" said Grantby, amazed.
   "Has gone into it," corrected Cardinal. "One of the people who almost went out of business last night was working with a team of Williamson security staff. And you remember I mentioned two men with a van supplying the PSF? The descriptions we have match other members of the Williamson security staff."
   Grantby stared at Cardinal, lost for words.
   "The Major and I are both working on this new line," added Cardinal, projecting optimism. "We should have quiet a lot to tell you after the weekend."
   "But how can this Demirell be getting away with this?" protested Grantby. "Piracy and smuggling right under Norm's nose? And what good's it doing him to set the PSF against us?"
   "That hasn't become clear yet," Cardinal admitted.
   "Oh, well. Carry on with it. I'll vid you again on Monday. Same time." Grantby seemed to be struggling with a decision.
   "Is there something else?" invited Cardinal.
   "You couldn't get hold of a couple of cases of Uisge Hyrane Grand Malt by any chance?" Grantby asked with a certain embarrassment. "A Tombrian colleague gave me a bottle recently, but it doesn't seem to be on sale in this country. Export only, I believe."
   "I'll see what I can do," promised Cardinal.
   "Good. Put it on the bill."
   The videolink screen dissolved into pastel colours. Cardinal touched the key of the intercom.
   "Vr. Grantby is now on Class Seven charges instead of six, Doris."
   "Right, boss." His secretary sensed that there was a real possibility of a bonus in time for her summer holiday. "Chris Fox just called. To say thanks for that job you steered his way."
   "One of the advantages of working full-time for a big employer – you can plant favours on friendly colleagues. Let's hope they return a few when we're struggling."
   "Want to finish the coffee, boss? To keep you awake?"
   "Good idea," approved Cardinal. "I think I need it."

Saturday, Halgary 27th

46. Rossiter Strikes

After their eventful night at the Mitton Gardens Hotel, Sovershend and Katuishann moved on to Sovershend's second home in the district of Greater Dungard charmingly known as Great Hovarks. Although Katuishann had asked him frequently what was so great about the area, Sovershend had been unable to come up with a satisfactory answer.
   Katuishann was preparing a special lunch and, in order to obtain the peace necessary for complete concentration, she had sent Sovershend to the city centre on a shopping expedition. He had been instructed to acquire anything that looked as if it needed buying, and not to report back before thirteen. He had an hour and a half still to fill.
   After some aimless wandering, Sovershend reached the steps to what the citizens of Dungard called The Raft. The walkway in the sky at first-floor level was designed to separate pedestrians and traffic. But, as if to spite the planners, the obstinate public insisted on using street-level pavements as well.
   Sovershend bounded up the steps to a landing, where he paused. His eyes, nose and throat felt desiccated and raw. No matter what scientists in the pay of government departments and motor manufacturers said, a majority of the population remained convinced that the new, high-efficiency Brandisford engine ‘put something' into the air. The rest blamed the Clinton ‘Jungle Juice' petrol, which looked set to dominate the market. Not that anyone in authority was prepared to do anything about the situation. The twin gods of fuel economy and availability had the transport industry by the throat.
   A couple of quick squirts with his pocket humidifier bathed his face in an invisible water-mist and made Sovershend feel much more comfortable. The landing seemed to be a popular place for that activity. Ready to brave the shops, and with something to buy in mind, Sovershend continued up the left-hand flight of steps. Six from the top:
   "Cop for this, you sobok!"
   Sovershend looked up to see an arm between the guard rails of the walkway and a face distorted by a fiendish grimace behind a huge, bushy beard. He was already in motion when the arm swung towards him. He reached the guard rail on the street side of the steps as the hand opened. The expanding, almost invisible spider web was floating towards him as he grasped the rail and vaulted over.
   Confused shouts and staring eyes followed him down four yards to pavement level. He landed on his feet, right in front of a family group. One of the children began to yell. The parents had just begun to protest by the time Sovershend reached the steps again.
   He raced upwards, selecting the right-hand flight at the landing. The liquid scrunchings from the misshapen bundle on the left-hand flight had stopped. A trickle of something red and thick dripped onto scuffed concrete. The woman whose shopping trolley had become the victim of the tangleweb intended for Sovershend was staring at the contracted wreckage with an expression of mingled shock and outrage.
   Rossiter dragged his eyes away from his mistake in time to see Sovershend approaching the top of the steps. He began to run. Satisfied that the threat had passed, Sovershend let him go. The knowledge that Rossiter had failed yet again in their lethal game was satisfaction enough.
   Suddenly, Rossiter found himself face to muzzle with a Boult riot gun.
   Swearing violently, a woman of about thirty trotted up to him, trailing another uniformed policeman. "You bockan 'lenster!" she hurled at Rossiter in a penetrating shriek, taking a swing at her with her umbrella.
   "Calmly now, vreitan," soothed one of the policemen, catching the umbrella on its back-swing.
   "Smashed up all my shopping, he did."
   "Calm down, vreitan," repeated the policeman. "We'll call a car and we can all go over to the station to sort this out."
   "I don't want to go to no Prot shop," protested the woman. "I haven't got time for that. I've got to do all my shopping again. And I've got a husband and three kids at home. What about their bockan lunch?"
   "It was an accident," said Rossiter, testing the temperature of the water. "I'll pay for the damage."
   "I should bockan well think so," the woman told him, tugging angrily at a strand of limp, mousey hair.
   "If that's all right with you, vreitan?" The policeman guarding Rossiter shifted his Boult riot gun to a high port. He was willing to forego the paperwork.
   "That shopping trolley cost me thirty pounds," the woman insisted. "And I had a whole week's shopping in it."
   Rossiter thrust violet notes at her.
   The woman counted up to four, then stared at him coldly. "When did you last shop for a family?"
   Rossiter parted with another £20 note.
   "We'll be getting on, then," said one of the policemen. "Just watch your step in future," he added to Rossiter.
   Grateful that the policemen had not realized that he had been using tangleweb, Rossiter accepted the caution without comment and hurried away. What had seemed like a perfect way of winning his bet and doing away with Sovershend had ended in disaster. But there was always the next time.
   "Thanks, lads," the woman said to the policemen in genuine gratitude, on their side for a while.
   "Good morning, vreitan." The policemen saluted gravely and resumed their patrols.
   Stuffing money into her wallet, the woman turned back to the steps. Her crushed trolley had disappeared already. Some scavenger had found a use for it.
   Sovershend lit a strawberry-flavoured cigarette as the crowd blended from clumps to a smooth flow. He looked down at his grey suedes with a worried frown. When he became aware of people staring at him, he smoothed away the frown and walked slowly along the line of shops, awaiting the arrival of inspiration. In all the excitement, he had forgotten what he had decided to buy.


Monday, Halgary 29th

47. New Allies For The Refuse Barons

Ambrose Mellbury of Nottridge had returned to his native land. The ordeal of his temporary exile and incarceration in a VIP cell on Lesten Island had made a lasting impression on him. Even four days after the event, his wife still had to threaten him with violence to dam a torrent of threats against whoever had informed on him. Such threats had been among his first words to the proprietor of Cardinal Security and Investigation Services. They had been interrupted only by the joint efforts of Lillith Mellbury and the arrival of coffee brought by Alex Cardinal's secretary, who had decided to start the month as a brunette to match her hazel eyes.
   "Thank you, Va. Bedworthy," said Cardinal, producing the expected reaction from Ambrose.
   Lillith Mellbury dug Ambrose in the ribs when he started to ask the obvious question. Doris Bedworthy gave the clients a maternal smile apiece then retired to the comfort of her own smaller office to listen in on the intercom.
   "As I was saying," Cardinal resumed, skating over Ambrose Mellbury's concentrated rant, "this character Demirell seems to be the root of your troubles. But he's also been treading on some very powerful toes and he's going to come unstuck in the very near future. One way you can hasten that day is to hit him in the pocket.
   "As Lilly will have told you, Ambrose, others in your profession have been put out of business by accidents or informers in recent months. Vr. Sovershend was an atypical near miss. Of course, we can't be sure that everyone who takes advantage of a convenient vacuum is working for friend Demirell, but I'd recommend you persuade your suppliers and distributors not to do business with these people."
   Cardinal passed a list across the desk. "Of course, what happens to the people named is none of my business. And I'll deny having heard of any of these people you manage to catch up with," he added, maintaining a discreet distance between himself and the deeds of others.
   "Rivaud!" exploded Ambrose. "Armand Rivaud!"
   "I thought that name would come as a surprise to you," nodded Cardinal.
   "I'll kill bockan him!" yelled Ambrose.
   Doris Bedworthy turned down the volume at her end of the intercom.
   "Yes, dear." Lillith Mellbury patted her husband's arm. "Now shut up and listen to what Alex has to tell us."
   Ambrose subsided to a mutter.
   "Rivaud was quite clever about it, but he was followed to the pay-off on Thursday afternoon," said Cardinal, withholding the information that a member of the Duke of Atmain's security staff, a young woman with a very deep tan, had made the payment. "He dodged about a lot, looking for familiar faces, but we had a good team on the job."
   "Just how big is your organization?" asked Ambrose in surprise. He had marked Cardinal down as someone with just a secretary and a fancy company name.
   "As I told your wife," said Cardinal with an enigmatic smile, "your case is tied up with another. My other client can afford a lot of hired help. I'm not at liberty to tell you anything about the other client other than, as I mentioned, he has first claim on Demirell."
   "That's understood," nodded Lillith Mellbury. "We can take a hint. He can have Demirell – as long as someone does."
   "What made him do it?" Ambrose frowned down at the list. "Armand? Just what did he get out of it? He didn't need the money, surely."
   "Young Rivaud comes from Western Heitain," said Cardinal. "And he probably resents the way some of your Belldan colleagues laugh at his accent. The way they whistle at him. I'd suggest a case of injured pride mixed with a desire to show them who's best combined with a seasoning of greed."
   "And very little loyalty," added Ambrose bitterly.
   "Well, there's not much more to tell you today," Cardinal added, bringing the session to a close. He was expecting a videolink call shortly. "I'd recommend fast but cautious action against the infiltrators. They have friends who don't work for Demirell, and they may get warnings for friendship's sake."
   "They'll never know what hit them," Ambrose promised grimly. He read the list into his pocket memory, then handed the sheet of paper back to Cardinal. Doris Bedworthy charmed into the office to show the Mellburys out. Ambrose had an abstracted air. He allowed his wife to steer his body while his mind worked on plans of revenge.
   Alex Cardinal switched the random pattern of coloured shapes on his videolink screen to a mirror. Having made sure that he was looking fairly respectable, he sat back to wait for his Refuse Baron employer to call.
   The call came through at 11:05 hours.
   "Sir Nigel Grantby for you on two, Vr. Cardinal," said Doris Bedworthy in her best formal voice.
   Cardinal touched the scramble panel and the glowing 2 panel simultaneously. An enlarged large face appeared in the screen, contorted into an inquisitive scowl.
   "Right, what do you have, Cardinal?" demanded Grantby.
   Whatever happened to preliminary pleasantries? Cardinal asked himself. "Well," he began aloud, dragging his thoughts together, "last time we spoke, it was about the part of the Chatelle Organization's security staff under Charles Demirell's control. As Major Tarpigan has probably told you, we suspect he's been using some of his profits from smuggling to finance PSF attacks on your reclamation centres."
   "Yes, yes, and?" prodded Grantby.
   "I've set in motion a scheme to deprive him of that income," said Cardinal with quiet pride.
   "Have you, indeed?" Grantby drew back from the screen slightly and smoothed out some of his frown. "I suppose it'll be expensive?" he added drily.
   "I think you'll be surprised how reasonable this particular account will be."
   A familiar laugh reached the videolink from off-camera.
   "Give my regards to Major Tarpigan," Cardinal added.
   Grantby's face receded even further, allowing Tarpigan to enter a corner of the pick-up field.
   "Hello, yourself," the mercenary said through a broad grin.
   "But what's the point of getting the PSF to attack us?" resumed Grantby, sensing that the well had not run dry.
   "I put a series of colleagues onto Demirell-watching after we caught up with him," replied Cardinal. "He's been spending a lot of time in the South-East – at an independent reclamation centre a few miles from Duddling. It could be your former colleague is expanding across the Straits of Atmain."
   "It must be a rather small operation by Norm's standards," said Grantby dismissively.
   "I've been talking small quantities all along," countered Cardinal. "What if he's acquired all the independents that have changed hands recently? Or most of them?"
   "Can you prove that?" Grantby demanded eagerly.
   "Not yet," Cardinal admitted. "The layers of concealment covering the transactions are many and tough to penetrate. But the reclamation centre I mentioned was taken over a few months ago. As was an independent in Leviton, where you've been having so much trouble."
   "The one that grabbed some of my contracts," growled Grantby. "How much is Norm likely to know about that this Demirell is up to?"
   "That's difficult to say," said Cardinal. "It could be he knows nothing. After all, they've got ten miles of water and an international border between them. It could be Demirell's doing his best to make a success of the reclamation centres to justify having a large security staff – who also help out with smuggling and protection on the side."
   "That's possible," nodded Grantby. "In any case, what are we going to do about the situation?"
   "Are you still thinking about a group security executive to co-ordinate the activities of your own organization with the other Refuse Barons?" Cardinal asked, apparently veering away from Grantby's question.
   "You have somebody in mind?" rumbled Grantby.
   "I've heard one of the best of the top ten is not too happy at the moment," said Cardinal. "And a security audit by someone of her standing would be of great value to your group."
   "That Dortmann woman you mentioned the other day." Grantby's lack of enthusiasm was plain. "She might be up to her neck in Demirell's tricks."
   "Not a chance," Cardinal said firmly.
   "I agree," added Major Tarpigan over the Refuse Baron's shoulder. "She'd never get involved in something like this. She suffers from basic honesty. But if she were to leave the Chatelle Group," he mused, a thoughtful gleam in his hooded, brown eyes. "That could be very useful to us, Sir Nigel."
   "How useful?" prompted Grantby, feeling left out of an unspoken exchange of agreement between mercenary and security consultant.
   "With Dortmann gone, and working for you," Cardinal told him, "Demirell and the rest of the Chatelle security staff won't dare show their faces over here because we'd be able to roll them up with her inside knowledge. That would sabotage Demirell's plans pretty thoroughly. And where Dortmann can make decisions rapidly and have the confidence to act on them, Demirell prefers a more empirical approach."
   "Meaning?" said Grantby.
   "He's a dabbler," said Tarpigan. "If he takes over as the Chatelle Organization's security executive, he's likely to play around to get the feel of his command. That breathing spell could be very useful to us."
   Cardinal detected an undercurrent but he failed to pin down anything significant. Grantby, too, could tell that the mercenary had something in mind – but not what it was.
   "A human computer, eh?" remarked Grantby, changing the subject with suspicious speed.
   "Sometimes, it's the only approach available to a woman with a certain type of employer," Cardinal observed.
   "Well, if both of you think it's a good idea, we must have her," Grantby decided, going against his personal inclination. "Can you contact her discreetly, Cardinal?"
   "I know how to get a message to her through a rather special channel," nodded the investigator. "She should get it early this afternoon. I'll suggest a meeting. What's today? Monday. I'll say Wednesday. But I think I'd better warn you. She won't be interested unless she's given complete control over all aspects of security. If you won't let her do a proper job, she'll give you the sack."
   "Just get her," ordered Grantby. "We should be able to keep her long enough to do something about the Demirell situation."
   "Anyone who gives Ilse Dortmann the push is about as flat as a squashed fish," remarked Major Tarpigan.
   Grantby darted a frown at him, not familiar with the expression but recognizing a proto-insult.
   "How about I take a contract when I see her?" suggested Cardinal, surprised at how cheerful the prospect of meeting Herta Dortmann again made him feel. "That might speed things up."
   "Good thinking." Grantby bobbed his large head in approval. "See my personnel manager about that. He's called Persimmon. I'll expect to hear from you on Wednesday, if not before."
   "Luck, Alex," and a wink from Tarpigan escaped from the videolink just before the screen swirled into a random colour shift.
   Those two are up to something, thought Cardinal. Something it's probably better I don't know about. He touched the intercom key.
   "Vr. Grantby is on Class Eight charges, Doris," he told his secretary. "Now that foreign travel is involved."
   "Check, boss. Soon get the old sobok up to Class Ten, won't we?" was Doris Bedworthy's irreverent reply. She had managed to take over a deeply discounted late cancellation of a rather expensive holiday in Heitain on the strength of the Refuse Baron's business.
   "And don't call our clients ‘old soboks', Vreitan Bedworthy," Cardinal returned, stiffly but through an unseen grin.
   "Of course not, boss," agreed his secretary. "It's usually much worse. Especially if they won't pay their bill."
   "And deprive you of a week in a romantic hotel on the banks of the Zinder Valley?"
   "I don't even want to think about something like that," shuddered Bedworthy. "Do you mind if I go for an early lunch when I've fixed you up with an appointment with Vr. Persimmon of Grantby's?"
   "Lunch? It's not quarter past eleven yet, Doris."
   "Well, we don't exactly have much to do till the afternoon," replied Bedworthy, putting a very reasonable argument. "And I could do with getting a bit of shopping done."
   "All right," surrendered Cardinal. "As long as it doesn't become a habit. I suppose we can allow a little flexibility."
   "Pity you're not a dirty old man," chuckled his secretary. "I could have put in some overtime to make up."
   Cardinal broke the connection with a sigh. He clung with difficulty to a strict rule never to become involved with his secretary. In Doris Bedworthy's case, however, he had to resist a whole army of women. Her regular changes of hair colour, make-up and style of dress left him wondering just who would be sitting at the desk in the other office when he descended from his flat on the floor above.
   A glowing panel on the control complex built in to his prosperous desk told Cardinal that his secretary had gone and that he had control of the outer door. He lit a cigar, then he examined the small amount of genuine paperwork in his in-tray and the electronic message unit of his videolink. Most of the visible paper was just ballast to create a busy impression. None of the genuine material was of any great interest. The world was full of people trying to sell expensive gadgets to people who couldn't afford them.
   After talking contracts with the personnel manager of Grantby Disposal and Reclamation Industries, Cardinal made a brief videolink call to a café in Ouistrelle, a yachting centre on the Belldan coast near the border between the Departments of Atmain and Brivauche. Then he decided to follow his secretary's example.
   Cardinal slipped a remote controller into his jacket pocket and climbed out onto the fire escape. An hour or so on his lounger in the roof garden in the late morning sun would do wonders for his thought processes.
   A monitor camera tracked him up the fire escape. When his intentions became clear to the building's security staff, a muffled, "Lazy sobok!" seeped from the pocket containing his controller. Cardinal made a rude gesture in the general direction of the nearest camera and closed his eyes.
   Ilse Dortmann, known to close friends as Herta, filled his thoughts. The pet name had been given to her by her grandfather, a tough old bird who had been a polar explorer in his younger days. Cardinal remembered his student days and a small, blonde girl with very pale blue eyes, who had always been in the top three at exam time. She had combined the traditional Heitainan capacity for hard work with a well-developed sense of fun in leisure moments. It would be nice to see her again.

48. An Invitation From Alex

Atmain was enjoying a pleasant, sunny afternoon in the middle of summer. The tops of the highest trees were shivering energetically but the breeze helped to keep the temperature down to a comfortable level. An enormous pollen count was causing suffering to those who went in fear of needles and hyposprays, but Ilse Dortmann was not among their ranks. The grounds of the Duke of Atmain's castle offered enjoyable surroundings for a stroll after a late lunch.
   Although not expecting trouble, she was prepared for it. She wore a twin needler clipped to the close-fitting right sleeve of her dark green uniform. Additional ammunition tracks ran up her sleeve from mid-forearm to shoulder.
   The woods to the south of the castle filtered out granite-textured concrete walls as Dortmann followed a path metalled in dark sinter-stone. Her destination was the stream that the Duke's landscapers had created in a matter of weeks. It managed to look as though it had been winding through the trees for several centuries.
   There were said to be some large fish in the stream, trapped between the waterfall of its origin and the pumping station which carried the waters in a pipe under the main approach road after their circuit of the grounds. Clive Westwood, the Captain of the castle guard, had told her once that he had caught a fish as long as his arm. Dortmann had never seen anything bigger than a tiddler and she was far too busy to take the time to look.
   A movement in the bushes across the stream alerted her but Dortmann continued along the path without checking her stride. The faint rustling passed her, heading for the stone bridge about one hundred yards away. A dark shape began to creep towards the bridge, following the shadow of a fallen and decaying tree.
   Dortmann waited until it was clear of the brush, then she burst the wild dog's heart with a well-aimed group of solid shot. The beast took one more uncertain step, then it collapsed. The condition of its coat told Dortmann that the animal had been running wild for some time, and it had probably acquired the desperate madness which prompted wild dogs to attack humans.
   The communicator slung from her belt chimed twice, then a voice said, "Attention! Personnel in Sector D5. Shots fired in the area of the stone bridge. Investigate with caution."
   "This is Dortmann," responded the security executive. "I've just had to kill a wild dog. Call off the alert."
   "Yes, sir, Identity confirmation, please?"
   Dortmann keyed a series of digits and letters into the communicator.
   "Thank you, sir. Sector D5, alert cancelled."
   We are on our toes! thought Dortmann. Still recovering from the shocks handed out last month after the emergency drills. Memo to self: re-check the perimeter animal defences.
   She continued on to the bridge and perched on the bluish-grey stone parapet. Her watch told her that she was half-way through the third hour of the afternoon, and entitled to a cigarette under her rationing system. When she took it from its pocket, her lighter threw a soft, green glow onto her fingers from one of the crystal chips which made up the design on the body. The red chip at the centre was lifeless. She learned that her private mail box contained messages and that she was not under electronic surveillance.
   She hurried past the dead dog to a massive eichen tree. She poked a magnetic keycard into a split in the bark to unlock a camouflaged door and plugged the base of her communicator into a socket at waist height. High-speed impulses carried coded messages into the memory unit in just a fraction of a second.
   Dortmann returned to the bridge and touched the Read key on the communicator. Green letters flowed across a small screen. Two of the messages were routine job offers from expected sources. The third was completely different. It read:
   ‘Best offer topped. Meet me at the ‘Madrigal', Trentec, Brivauche on 2nd (Wed). I'll be there all afternoon from 13. Dying to see you again. Lots of love, Alex.'
   Alex who? thought Dortmann. She didn't know anyone called Alex.
   She decided to accept the invitation – if only to find out who thought he was on such good terms with her. She committed the other messages to her own memory, just in case, then she touched the erase key three times.
   The sound of an engine reached her as she flicked her cigarette end into the water. A dark green Range Rider with a trailer bounced along the track and stopped beside the body of the dog. Two security guards threw rapid salutes at Dortmann, then pulled on rubber gloves before bundling the dog into a plastic sack.
   "Give you a lift, sir?" offered the driver when they had loaded the sack into the trailer.
   Dortmann checked her watch. "Yes, I think it's time I was getting back."
   The other guard climbed into the back of the Range Rider, leaving the front passenger seat free for the security executive. They drove along the track in silence. Dortmann's thoughts were on the future. Her subordinates were thinking that they wouldn't mind trying to thaw out a lady as attractive as the Ice Queen. Opinions were evenly divided on whether Ilse Dortmann ever unfroze.

Wednesday, July 02nd

49. Tidying Up And Packing Up

The holovision newsreader put on a more serious expression for the next item in the nine o'clock morning news round-up. "Police recovered the naked body of a man from the River Barton this morning," he announced in a detached tone. "The victim, who had been stabbed to death, possibly with a duelling sword, was found on the outskirts of Nottridge."
   At his home in the expensive part of the city, waiting for a late breakfast to be served, Ambrose Mellbury remarked, "They've found Rivaud."
   "What's that, dear?" called Lillith Mellbury from the kitchen.
   "I said they've found our contribution to Nottridge's floating population," Ambrose repeated.
   "Took them long enough," his wife called. "One egg or two?" "Yes, please," said Ambrose.
   Lillith Mellbury cracked three eggs into the frying pan.

The Camerlish holovision newsreader was trying, without much success, to suppress an envious expression as he added, "A number of district councils in Norland have voted a reduction in local taxes. The move has been dismissed as a purely seasonal effect following the recent coronation."
   "Sounds a good place to be, Norland," remarked Gary Mortlake.
   "Anywhere's better than here," said Neil Pinder. "What do you think, Louise?"
   "I'm glad we're going home today," said Liston, struggling to move one of Mortlake's cases out of the doorway of their tiny kitchen. "How about doing something with this, Gary?"
   "It's too bockan big to stick it where you'd like him to," cackled Pinder.
   "Pr'yam!" said Mortlake, agreeing with Liston's first statement and ignoring Pinder. He heaved the case onto a chair, then tugged at an itch at the considerable end of his nose. "We're not safe here with the ganar PSF and the sobokandar Lawsonites after us. And those CHASM freaks. You notice bockan Demirell shot back to Atmain last week and hasn't been seen since."
   "He's too important to leave at risk," sneered Liston. She was still annoyed by Terry Bleiler's promotion over her head to commander of the Duke of Atmain's Camerlish army. Bleiler had also been shocked. His first official act had been to contact Liston to tell her that he had not sought the appointment.
   "Talking about our maccars the Lawsonites," said Mortlake, veering away from an uncomfortable topic, "how are we fixed for javon?"
   "Plenty left." Pinder pushed away from the breakfast table to dig the coffee tin out of a drawer beside the food cupboard. "About enough for another week or so," he estimated, counting yellow-wrapped cylinders. "Are we having one before we go?"
   "Save them," said Liston. "You're driving and you know what the Camerlish police are like about drugged drivers."
   "I suppose you're right," decided Pinder. "Hey, did you hear that?" He pointed at the holovision set. "About the Minister visiting the Ferrogyn Fusion Project. Sounded like he said the Energy Humorist."
   "All politicians are bockan comedians," offered Mortlake.
   "Are you two politicians all packed and ready to go now?" Liston interrupted.
   "Have been for ages," Pinder assured her. "Just think – we'll be able to get a decent lunch at the castle."
   "Better than the rubbish you'd have dished up," laughed Mortlake. "Which is another good reason for shaking the dust of this dump off our boots."

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