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still Thursday, July 03rd

56. Bleiler And Pnight Return To Atmain

The Castle

Terry Bleiler roared into the senior staff bar at the Duke of Atmain's castle and gave Louise Liston a friendly slap on her well-padded bottom. "Hello, Lulu! How's my favourite spy? Hello, you two," he added to Gary Mortlake and Neil Pinder.
   "Terry!" squealed Liston, beaming joyfully. "And Brian too. You're still in one piece?"
   "And obeying orders from our illustrious leader with a smile," grinned Pnight, very cheerful now that he had castle walls around him again. "You can't beat the ones that say: ‘Drop everything and run for home.'"
   "Where's that flash kid you had with you?" asked Mortlake. "What was his name? Richmore?"
   "Ritchie?" said Bleiler. "Oh, he was recalled ages ago. They gave us a very pneumatic brunette instead."
   "All right, there's she, then? Can't stand your company?"
   "A hit-and-run driver got her," said Pnight angrily. "He tried to get all three of us. Came right up on the bockan pavement, he did."
   "Anything in it, Terry?" Liston asked Bleiler.
   "Probably not." Bleiler shrugged vaguely. "Wiping each other out seems to be their favourite pastime across the ditch. Anyhow, the panic burst upon us before we had a chance to find out. Sounds like disaster has struck from on high. In fact, I'm surprised to see the castle still standing." He slurred the final words, showing that he had been celebrating his return thoroughly.
   "You mean you haven't heard?" Mortlake asked in open disbelief. "I thought the news was all over the world."
   "Not our bit of it," laughed Pnight. "A certain person was dragging me in the direction of the bar almost before my baggage had hit the floor, And the driver didn't say anything. But those ganar kerlen never tell you bock all."
   "Go on, then," invited Bleiler, concluding his negotiations with the steward for more drinks. "Tell us the sky's fallen in. The Duke's dropped dead of a heart attack. Demirell's beaten his brains out with an egg whisk. The Ice Queen's broken a fingernail. Then get this round in. I've only got Camerlish money."
   "It's about Dortmann," said Mortlake.
   "Don't tell me," interrupted Bleiler. "Let me guess which finger it was."
   "She's gone," said Liston.
   "Gone?" Bleiler blinked then staring down at Liston with total incomprehension plastered across his flushed face.
   "Resigned," added Liston. "hence your recall – and everyone else she knows. She got fed up of wrestling for control with Demirell. She's in Camerland now. And contracted to Grantby's."
   "Marvellous!" breathed Bleiler. "Who says irony's dead?"
   "I don't see what you're so happy about, Tex," remarked Pnight. "She's gone over to the other side."
   "My dear Brian," said Bleiler expansively, "one can always admire excellence wherever one finds it. But you wouldn't understand that. Just as Louise and I are fit only to polish Ilse Dortmann's boots, you three are fit only to polish ours."
   "How many has he had?" laughed Liston.
   "Bock knows," grinned Pnight. "I lost count on the train. You know what he's like when he's celebrating coming home."
   "You know," said Bleiler, "I've got a good mind to take an anti-alc, become as sober as a duke, then start all over again. But first, let's all drink a toast to the best SecEx this place will ever have. To Ilse the Ice Queen."
   "You'd better have that anti-alc," said Liston after the toast. "If you keep raving like this, Demirell's going to revoke your ticket for treason."
   "Why don't we retire to a friendly battlement to watch the sunset?" suggested Mortlake. "We might even let you try the javon some nice Lawsonites gave us."
   "I bet they're not too friendly now," said Pnight. "It's quite a relief coming back here where the natives are a bit less homicidal."
   "I know what you mean," agreed Pinder. "And life's much more civilized in a castle."
   "Civilization as we know it is doomed," Bleiler pronounced darkly. "Christophe!" he called to the steward. "A large anti-alc. Gary's javon require a clean slate."

Paul Auberne, one of the duty surveillance crew, remarked, "Tex Bleiler's out of his skull again," as his videolink screen provided a ten-second, soundless sample of events in the senior staff bar.
   "Surprise!" returned Lisa Spirelli, frowning at her own screen, which showed a view of part of the castle grounds. "What in bock is that? Look, there's two of them."
   Auberne leaned over to examine the section of screen just above Spirelli's finger. "Don't you know?" he grinned. "It's Westwood, our noble Captain of the guard. And Alison March from Blue Watch."
   "But what are they doing?"
   "Playing at rocks," chuckled Auberne.
   "Oh, get back to your own screen," said Spirelli in disgust, giving him a push.
   "Pr'yam gestr," Auberne assured her. "They're lurking in those hides with crossbows. Any fish that come near the surface get zapped. If they're big enough."
   "And do they ever catch anything?"
   "March caught a cold once."
   "Idiot!" said Spirelli, refusing to laugh. "Well, do they?"
   "When there's fresh river-fish on the menu, there do you think it comes from?" returned Auberne.
   "I never realized we were that self-sustaining," said Spirelli.

Friday, July 04th

57. Dortmann Meets The Refuse Barons

Sir Nigel Grantby, chairman of the Camerlish Refuse Barons, tapped on the table with a knuckle and called, "If we can get on, vreitei."
   His colleagues, basking in the mellow glow of a decent lunch, stopped chatting among themselves and gave their attention to the chair.
   "I'd like you to meet Ilse Dortmann," resumed Grantby. "My new Security Executive. She's also the former Chatelle Group Security Executive."
   A brief flurry of hostile mutterings ran round the meeting as eyes turned to the new arrival to the third-floor conference room at their Camer headquarters. The buzz subsided then Grantby rapped on the table again with the full set of large knuckles. Dortmann was wearing a safari-blue business suit which had absolutely no military pretensions. She looked relatively harmless – but so does a sleeping tiger.
   "Good afternoon," said Dortmann, meeting each set of eyes in turn. "In case any of you are still in doubt, I am not responsible for inciting attacks on your Refuse Reclamation Centres. They were, however, organized by people trained by myself, as far as I can determine from the reports of your investigators."
   "And a bockan good job you did on them," growled Sir Miles Dunstan, remembering the fate of his Mirbank Centre.
   Dortmann aimed herself at the seventy-year-old Refuse Baron, apparently unmoved by his utterly preposterous blond wig. "It's a rather unfortunate recommendation, Sir Miles. But I hope to bring your staff up to the same level."
   "That's telling him," cackled the skeletal Sir Simon Lake. "I, for one, think Va. Dortmann would make an ideal Security Co-ordinator for our group."
   "Could we have a final decision on that?" suggested Grantby. Having written the consultancies into Dortmann's contract, he was liable for payment for any that were not taken up. "We've discussed the profile submitted by Cardinal. Does anyone have any more comments, questions for Va. Dortmann, anything?"
   "I think we've been discussing this long enough," hinted Sir Arthur Crane. "I know I've made my mind up."
   "If there are no further questions," said Grantby, "would all those who want to take advantage of the consultancies please indicate."
   Eight right hands lifted from the table.
   "Saves evicting the doubters," remarked Sir George Braben, the red-headed youngest Baron.
   "Thank you, Vreitei," said Dortmann when Grantby indicated that she had the floor. "Hiring me on my reputation is a compliment that I appreciate. I hope I'm not too much of a disappointment in the flesh. I shall be visiting each of your areas over the next few weeks. We should be in for a quiet spell now that the threat from the Popular Socialist Front has been neutralized. But I'm sure you'll all agree they've shown the way to others.
   "The cult of the NeoKirlan seems to be growing, and this country has its fair share of social and political malcontents. A hardening of your security is the only safe response until we can demonstrate to every terrorist groups that wants to inconvenience the public to put their message across that attacking a RecCen is not the right way. Or even a safe and simple option."
   "Not a very cheerful picture in the short term," remarked the flame-suited Baron.
   "But factual, Sir John," returned Dortmann.
   "Been telling them that for years," remarked Arthur Crane, pleased that the new consultant's views agreed with his own and those of his company's security executive. "And it can be set off against tax. Perhaps we can think again about a common research fund for the development of new security systems?"
   "I'm sure that's something we can discuss at a later date," said Grantby, speeding the meeting on. "Thank you, Va. Dortmann, I know you have a lot to get on with."
   "Good afternoon, Vreitei." Dortmann gave a collective nod to the meeting and took the hint to make herself scarce.
   "Not very big, is she?" commented the skeletal Simon Lake, resting his elbows on the imitation eichan conference table. "Not bad looking, though."
   "I suppose being seven feet tall would help her do her job that much better?" sighed Lady Mary Thorne.
   "No," remarked Christopher Lees, the host Baron, through a cloud of cactus-scented javo smoke. "It's just that Simon likes to be able to see people without his glasses."
   "Bit on the young side?" said George Braben, the youngest Baron.
   "I think you'll find that women tend to make a little more effort to prove themselves able to keep up with you men, George," returned Lady Mary Thorne.
   "I hear she's shacked up with our private investigator," Lady Amy Tynsdale remarked to her flame-suited neighbour.
   John Nash's generous mouth slipped into a wide smile but before he could say anything, Grantby rapped on the table with his heavy-bottomed glass.
   "If we can get on," he hinted. "Arthur, you had something to say on the subject of the pay talks."
   "Yes, I do," nodded Crane. He was beginning to develop feelings of superiority over Grantby. The process of polishing his speech was over. A slightly rough Norton accent had acquired the silky slickness of a senior Civil Servant. "I've had Syd Greenwood of the Union making noises to me about his members not standing for such a large productivity-based component in the new pay deal. What do you make of that?"
   "Isn't Sobok Syd up for re-election?" said George Braben.
   "In October," nodded Norlish Lady Mary Thorne.
   "Most of my people seem quite happy with the new deal," remarked John Nash, his flame suit spilling blue and green in response to a sudden lance of sunlight.
   "Sobok Syd's got a bit of genuine opposition this time too," added Simon Lake, adjusting his glasses for comfort.
   "I don't think Greenwood's going to be much of a problem to us," decided Grantby.
   "Don't count on that," said Crane. "A trouble-maker, if ever there was one, is bockan Greenwood."
   "No," returned Grantby very positively, "he'll behave. And oddly enough, it's our present troubles that are at the back of it. Apparently, the Union has been having to make quite heavy payments from its ‘Lay-Off and Unemployment Fund' recently. And it seems to be running into trouble. Some of their funds have been diverted into non-interest loans to certain union officials. Learning from their Ferran counterparts, no doubt. I shouldn't think any of these people stand a hope in Heitain of getting re-elected if that becomes public. They'd end up exchanging the gravy train for a prison cell, most likely."
   "Bockan marvellous!" cackled Crane. "The look on Sobok Syd's face if I mention loans and interest rates. He'll have a heart attack."
   "Let's not shout too loudly," Grantby warned. "We can't lean on Greenwood and his colleagues if they lose their jobs. We'll have to appear to give some ground to help them get re-elected, but it'll be worth the sacrifice in the long run."
   "I hear the Union's stopped contributing to PSF funds." remarked the youngest Baron. "What's the state of the other enemy? Have they really been neutralized?"
   "The visible enemy is in total disarray," said Grantby. "The PSF have become a target for the self-appointed ‘Law And Order' vigilante groups as well as ourselves and the police. They've gone deep underground for the moment."
   "Good riddance," muttered Arthur Crane. "What about the invisible enemy?"
   "That's not quite so clear," said Grantby. "Demirell and his colleagues seem to have returned to Atmain. Cardinal and the Major debriefed Dortmann...,"
   "Sounds like fun," chuckled Miles Dunstan.
   "Apparently, Demirell and Norm Chatelle are as thick as thieves," continued Grantby, "but Dortmann wasn't able to say for sure that Norm knows the full extent of what Demirell's been up to over here."
   "Why don't we tell him, then he'd know," suggested Simon! Lake. "Which he probably does anyway."
   "The Major advises against that," replied Grantby.
   "We're not going to just sit still and do nothing?" demanded Crane. "He's cost us a hell of a lot of money, time and equipment."
   "The Major advises patience," said Grantby. "His opinion is that Norm knows at least the outline of what Demirell has been up to. And now that he's lost Dortmann, he'll approach us for talks to discuss his position over here. I suggest we all count up our losses and prepare a bill for him."
   "Not enough," decided Lady Tynsdale. "We ought to ram the point home. How about dropping a few bombs on his precious castle?"
   "I agree," rumbled Arthur Crane.
   "Nice to think about but impossible to put into practice," said Grantby. "We can't afford to become involved in something like that. And I can't see bombing raids across the Straits going down too well with the Beldan Government. Or ours."
   "Rubbish!" snapped Lady Tynsdale. Then a subtle emphasis caught up with her. "What do you mean by we, Nigel?"
   "Norm's people have made other enemies," Grantby told her with a suspicion of a smile on his large face. "And the Major did hint that some of them were thinking of settling a few scores. He wasn't very forthcoming after that."
   "Did he, indeed!" beamed Lady Tynsdale, cracking her face into an evocation of a weathered chalk cliff.
   Sir Nigel Grantby poured more coffee from an earthenware thermojug as the meeting dissolved into a chaos of speculation. He had told his colleagues enough to ensure their co-operation, but very little in fact. His hints had generated a satisfying identification with a conspiracy, but their lack of knowledge would hold the group clear of involvement when plans blossomed into action.

58. Major Tarpigan Contacts CHASM

Darkness had brought a blaze of lights to the expressway service stations. Traffic was still fairly heavy, and it would get worse when the pubs started to close. A pale Corona, yellow in the sodium lights, turned off the slip-road and into a car park. Surveillance cameras covered the whole service station site to watch for damage to company property and customers. One of them had a blind spot, thanks to a little electronic interference with its scan controls. The car stopped in this dead area.
   "Nice night for it," the driver remarked to a man leaning on the white rail fence. "Are you Vreitar X?"
   "That's right," the shadowy figure said with a nod. "What are you calling yourself?"
   "Vreitar Y will do." The other man smiled. "Would you prefer Major X?"
   "Suit yourself." Major Rufus Tarpigan shrugged. "I thought your lot had numbers?"
   "A letter will do equally well. Oh, thank you." Supreme Two of the national ruling body of the Church of His Aweful Satanic Majesty accepted a plastic cup of synth-café in a thermowrap. "I believe you can help us?"
   "A case of co-operation for mutual benefit."
   "As long as it falls within our guiding principle."
   "A jump a day keeps the mind-mangler at bay?" grinned Tarpigan.
   "It has been expressed in those terms," admitted Two, a small, slightly shrivelled man, those nose reached Tarpigan's shoulder. He had a set of darts in the breast pocket of his jacket.
   "To business," said the Major, becoming briskly efficient. "I understand your organization is interested in getting even with whoever got some of your members mixed up in a scrap with the NTF and various others last week?"
   "We don't like being used," growled Two, his face twisting into a mask of total malevolence.
   "Good! The thing is, there could well be a punitive raid on the people responsible. Using NeoKirlans as troops. And as it might be a rather big operation, word of it is bound to leak out. Which means we'll have to screen our recruits to find out which are genuine and which are police plants after information. There's going to be a lot of doubtfuls. And this is where your organization comes in."
   "To do what?" frowned Supreme Two.
   "You could act as controllers for the doubtfuls until it's time for them to attack. I gather you've had some experience in that field?"
   "A lot more than some," admitted Two. "You can count on our assistance and co-operation on those terms, Major X."
   "Good!" said Tarpigan. "We're still considering alternatives at the moment, but your organization's involvement will help to crystallize things. We'll be in touch again after the weekend. To arrange another meeting."
   "I'll look forward to it eagerly, Major X," Supreme Two assured him.
   They shook hands and returned to their vehicles. Supreme Two sped off into the distance. Rufus Tarpigan dragged round the bridge to the opposite carriageway. The surveillance camera at the south-west corner of the car park began to respond fully to commands from the control room. A puzzled repair crew ran several checks, milked a cup each of synth-café from the machine in the control room, then retired to their ready room to play cards until the next call.

Tuesday, July 08th

59. Dinsdale And Devil Dust

Doris Bedworthy interrupted a discussion on which old films would be revived for the coming autumn season on holovision when she activated the intercom and said, "Sir Nigel Grantby is here, Vr. Cardinal."
   "Show him in, please," replied Alex Cardinal. Class 8 clients were not to be kept hanging around in his secretary's office.
   "Good to get indoors," sighed Grantby, planting himself in the well-padded comfort of the visitor's chair in front of Cardinal's desk. He mopped his wide brow with a huge, gleaming white handkerchief. "It's hot as Hallidan out there."
   "Probably because the forecast was showers," said Cardinal. "Could we have some coffee, please, Va. Bedworthy?"
   "Of course." Doris Bedworthy slithered back to her own office.
   "How's your new security chief working out?" Cardinal added to his client.
   "Very well," Grantby admitted. "Certainly better than I expected. But talking to her's a bit like talking to a machine. Cold as chastity, she is, when's she's on duty. And not much warmer off."
   "A security executive is never off duty when the boss is around, Vr. Grantby," Cardinal pointed out.
   "But she could relax a little. I get the feeling she's made of glass. One smile, and she'd crack into a million pieces."
   "She will in time. Relax. Once she's established. Her last employer insisted on being on first name terms with her, and then shot her authority to pieces. That sort of thing breeds caution. But she's a definite asset?"
   "Very much. Morale's up twelve points in Security. You don't have to tell me it's worth getting the best."
   "S'vo, shev," remarked the other visitor, catching Grantby's eye for the first time.
   "Hello," said Grantby uncertainly. The round young man's casual sprawl in his chair and the cheerful wave that accompanied the lazy greeting did not endear him to the Refuse Baron.
   "Just ignore him for the moment," advised Cardinal.
   Doris Bedworthy appeared with two mugs and a cup and saucer. Grantby received her best smile and the good china. Cardinal's mug celebrated the recent Norlish coronation. Bedworthy placed a similar mug beside the mysterious stranger, dexterously evaded a chubby, questing hand, and retired to the other end of the intercom.
   "Zacraste' 've javo, shev," ordered the plump sprawler.
   "Nei 'khven hachoi'," replied Cardinal, throwing him a cigar. "Here, chew on that instead."
   "Ven javon!?" marvelled the sprawler as if he had just been assured that up is down.
   "Not a one," confirmed Cardinal, who did not believe in smoking Class M drugs during working hours, and especially not in front of a Class 8 client.
   "Does he only speak Heitainan?" said Grantby.
   "Oh, no. He can speak Ferran when it suits him," said Cardinal. "He's called Dinsdale, by the way. The Major will be telling you about him."
   "Priyam," agreed Dinsdale round a mouthful of cigar.
   "A military gentleman on his way down the fire escape, Vr. Cardinal," his secretary warned over the intercom.
   "Thank you, Va. Bedworthy," replied Cardinal. "I'd better open the bar."
   Dinsdale sat up in his chair and tugged at the neat tuft of hole-black beard on his chin, He watched with interest as Cardinal produced a half-empty bottle of revenue-free uisge and three glasses from his safe. Dinsdale's dark eyebrows shot into his fringe when Major Tarpigan climbed into the office through the window. Dinsdale showed his approval of Tarpigan's unconventional arrival by rediscovering Ferran.
   "I'll leave you to it, vreitei," said Cardinal. He turned his chair over to the tanned mercenary and joined his secretary in her office.
   Tarpigan set a yellow and black striped box on the desk. When he touched a white panel on the side of the pocket dictionary-sized device, the air in the office seemed to become flat and heavy, and the room acquired an eerie, anechoic, smothered feel. The mercenary lit a long, thin cigar and blew a reflective thread of smoke at the hush-screen controller.
   "We've got something rather interesting on the way, Sir Nigel," he began. "Drink?"
   "Thank you," nodded Grantby. "Interesting in what way?"
   Tarpigan splashed amber liquid into two of the glasses. Dinsdale held out his coffee mug for his ration.
   "Dinsdale here is an analytical chemist. He did an analysis job for Alex the other week. Briefly, his job was to identify the war gas used in a case of attempted murder. One of the principals was supposed to inhale it and murder the other, not knowing what he was doing. Which set me thinking. Dinsdale?"
   "Yeah, have you ever heard of Devil Dust at all?" asked the plump, dark, chemist.
   Grantby responded with a blank stare and a frown.
   "Thought not," grinned Dinsdale. "It's pretty evil stuff, but not too much talked about. You must have heard of Magic Dust. There was all that trouble about it in Ferron, oh, must be ten or more years ago, when it was fashionable."
   Grantby tried to cast his mind back ten years – and failed. Dinsdale, he judged, had been at school still at the time in question.
   "It's a pretty simple one-cyclohexylpiperidine derivative," explained the chemist. "A schoolkid could make it. Devil Dust is about ten thousand times more powerful, and a bit more complicated to synthesize. It's basically a chlorophenylcyclohexanone derivative, but..."
   "Let's not waste each other's time, lad," interrupted Grantby. "What does it do?"
   "It's a hallucinogen. Those exposed to it can be induced to react violently and irrationally, and have bizarre hallucinations stimulated by normal, harmless things going on around them. Beyond a certain threshold of exposure, they go to sleep. But there's another hallucinatory period after they wake up again."
   "And the point is," added Tarpigan, "if one is going to move against a heavily-fortified building, such as a castle, dusting something like that from the air just beforehand could keep the security staff busy for a vital few minutes. Especially if the weather's nice and they've got the windows open."
   "It would be a miliary variant, of course," added Dinsdale. "In a microfine powder form. And a derivative that reacts with water vapour and various pollutants in the atmosphere to turn it from a harmless form to something with an active lifetime of about ten minutes – so the attackers don't run into it."
   "You have an almost frighteningly diabolic imagination, Major." Grantby's rather forbidding frown of concentration relaxed into a craggy smile. "You haven't discussed this with Cardinal? Or Dortmann?"
   "No." Tarpigan shook his head. "Alex wouldn't want to know. And Ilse would drop a warning to some of her former colleagues, no matter what the risk to her current contract."
   "Hmm, yes," agreed Grantby. He glanced at the chronowafer on the back of his left wrist.
   "Everything else is proceeding according to plan," added Tarpigan, bringing the report to a close. "I think you'll be well satisfied with the end product."
   "Good, good," beamed Grantby. "I'll be getting on, then."
   Sir Nigel Grantby shook Major Tarpigan's hand and nodded to Dinsdale, who replied with a mock salute. Tarpigan switched off the hush screen as the Refuse Baron reached the door of the office, producing a reflex shiver of his broad shoulders. The room seemed slightly larger when Grantby had gone.
   "What a flat!" muttered Dinsdale.
   "He may look like a squashed fish to you," Tarpigan warned, "but he's the one paying for your services."
   "He wasn't here very long. Hardly worth coming across town."
   "Long enough for a cup of Alex's excellent coffee and a quick belt of smuggled uisge. And he likes to keep his finger on the pulse of events. I suppose he gets a vicarious thrill from associating with the likes of us. He can be in on something deep, dark and devious while maintaining a lily-white image. Involved, yet isolated at the same time."
   "Very profound," scoffed Dinsdale. "I'd better be off too. I've got some bits and pieces to buy."
   Tarpigan passed him two red £100 notes. Dinsdale met Cardinal at the door and flashed a quick smile of farewell. "'Bye, korolan," he leered at Doris Bedworthy, who retreated behind her desk, out of reach.
   "I don't mind men slapping my bottom," she told him as the communicating door was closing. "As long as you don't mind me slapping your face."
   "Quite a girl you've got there, Alex," laughed Tarpigan. "Whatever happened to Samantha?"
   "She disappeared off to some fancy job in Ferron about six months ago," said Cardinal. "I got a guilty postcard from Astarn a couple of days later. Telling me where to send the fortnight's wages she had coming. That went straight into the rubbish bin without touching the sides."
   "She always was a bit of a cheeky dobok."
   "She left me in a proper mess, I can tell you. And you should have seen some of the idiots the agency sent round. Doris turned up at half-sixteen on the Friday at the end of an addle of a week. She'd heard about the job from one of the rejects, and she turned up on the off-chance. I don't think she expected to get the job. But I was on her way home. She ended up making me some coffee, then she stopped till midnight to help me get things straight."
   "Quite a krovan," grinned Tarpigan. "Bet she makes you wish you were twenty-five again."
   "She's a very nice girl," agreed Cardinal. "But I told her at the start I never get involved with my secretary."
   "Was she relieved?" laughed Tarpigan.
   "A little surprised. I didn't put it as bluntly as that, of course. But I think it's best to get everything on a proper professional basis right from the start. She has a positively amazing talent for finding perfectly reasonable ways of misinterpreting thing on forms not written in plain Ferran. Drives the tax mob right up the wall."
   "Still, I bet you're not chasing her round the office with Ilse around. I take it she's not found somewhere suitable of her own yet?"
   "Not yet," grinned Cardinal. "But who's counting days?"
   "Oh, well," grinned Tarpigan. "I hope she can stand you. Someone with your amount of grey in his hair should be thinking of settling down. Time I was going too. Cheers, Alex."
   "See you, Rufus."
   Doris Bedworthy entered the inner office as Major Tarpigan was making his way up the fire escape to the helipad on the roof.
   "I hope you disposed of the body discreetly?" remarked Cardinal.
   "What?" Bedworthy paused in the act of collecting glasses and crockery.
   "Dinsdale. Or didn't you break his neck?"
   "What a sobok, boss. Thinks he's irresistible. He told me I owe it to myself to go out with him tonight."
   "And what did you say to that?"
   "Nothing," grinned his secretary. "I just threw him out. I don't think I broke anything, though. He's so horribly podgy, he must have bounced all the way down the corridor to the lift."
   "As long as you don't give clients the same treatment."
   "If they're clients, that's your job, boss. If you're not too busy chasing me round the office."
   "Have you been listening in on private conversations again?"
   "Like you told me when you were putting things on a proper professional basis, private means hush screen. Otherwise, I can keep half an ear open for a scream for help. Besides, it's very interesting to hear what people really think about you."
   "As long as it's complimentary?"
   "No, it's good to know your enemies as well, boss."
   "That's very true," agreed Cardinal.
   "Think I could charge my self-defence classes off to tax as a necessary business expense, now I've had to use them in the line of duty, boss?" asked Bedworthy, treating Cardinal to another demonstration of her wink.
   "It's worth a try," laughed Cardinal. "You'll have to remember to mention it to our tame accountant next time he cooks the books."
   "Who knows? He might be able to come up with something else I missed."
   "The only thing you're missing is a conscience."
   "Must be catching, boss." Doris Bedworthy winked again, then she retired to her own office with a collection of glass and china.

Thursday, July 10th

60. The Big One

Detective Inspector Mike Forrest assumed an expression of deep disgust and demanded, "What's all this madek?" Roaring traffic sounds from Park Road and Rossmore Road flooded into his sphere of awareness when something broke his concentration. Camer, like all capital cities, was never quiet by day.
   "Don't ask me, Chief, I'm just the messenger boy," said Fred Drew, one of his sergeants. "It's come down from the higher zones to Vr. Ryland, and from the boss to you via me." He dumped the green folder on Forrest's waste-paper-yard of a desk.
   "Well, that's it all about? Don't they know I've got enough to keep me going for a couple of months in the bockan in-tray? And bock knows how long in the overflow?" Forrest waved an ink-shadowed hand at the mountain. "So what's this latest panic?"
   "It's addressed to you, Chief," Drew pointed out.
   "Don't give me that, Fred," sighed Forrest. "But you can give me a smoke. I've run out." He crumpled an empty packet and dropped it onto the floor beside his desk. His waste paper bin was full to overflowing.
   Drew pulled up a chair and took a drink from his plastic cup of synth-café. Forrest snapped his fingers impatiently, and received a battered cigarette from an equally battered packet.
   "Cheers, Fred." Forrest looked enviously at the cup of synth-café. "Well?"
   The young sergeant lit a cigarette. Then: "It's about these NeoKirlans, Chief."
   "Yogar, Fred!" groaned Forrest. "Not those soboks."
   Fred Drew suddenly realized that the thirty-four-year-old inspector did indeed look forty-four when he was wearing his pained expression.
   "Listen to me, young Fred," Forrest continued. "Never have anything to do with nut cases. They addle everything. Especially your chances of promotion. And they make your hair fall out."
   "Oh, I don't know," grinned Drew. "There's still a bit left. No, listen, Chief. There's a whisper going round they're planning something they're calling The Big One. Something to shade out everything they've ever done before."
   "You ought to try listening to yourself occasionally, Fred," Forrest said, disgust turning to disbelief. "NeoKirlans don't plan things, son, They don't have the brains. That's why they're NeoKirlans. All they're good for is getting themselves killed and giving the CSP terminal headaches."
   "That's not what they think in the Higher Zones."
   "Tell you what," decided Forrest, "you take this folder, go up two floors in the lift, slip it under the second door on the right, then scoot off out of it double quick. It's Intelligence work, Fred, not Investigation. The PSF is their problem. What does Ryland think we are?"
   "It's not the PSF organizing it, Chief. It's another lot. That's what they reckon in the Higher Zones."
   "Since when did they know bock about anything? All right." Forrest resigned himself to having to do something. "Have a stroll round the usual places, see what's being said. No! Yoge' vars! I'll come with you. The more of this ganar paperwork you do, the more they send you. I think it only encourages them." He pushed the top onto his ball point and clipped it into an inside pocket. "I'll even let you buy me a pint. It's almost lunchtime."
   "You're so good to me, Chief," simpered Fred Drew in mock admiration.
   "Cheeky sobok," grinned Forrest. "You ready for out?" he added, taking a Noiseless from the middle drawer of his desk.
   Drew lifted the left side of his jacket to show a stunner in a waist holster. He was tall and dark, with deep-set eyes and a black-shaded chin which prevented him from looking clean-shaven for more than a few hours. His success as a detective was due, in part, to the fact that he looked more like a villain than a policeman. Guardians of the Law were not treated with due respect in many of the circles in which he moved.

Friday, July 11th

61. The Duke Decides To Negotiate

Since the abrupt resignation of his security executive, the Duke of Atmain had been experiencing a period of frustration. His expansion program in Camerland had come to a dead stop. The castle guard at his home seemed to have lost an indefinable something and the 'lensters of the Cavenne area had stepped up their probing raids on the castle grounds, playing dangerous games for the excitement of the challenge.
   The doors and windows on the ground floor of the castle's keep were closed on a windy Friday morning, which meant that the dominant smell in the Duke's map room was his pipe rather than the rose garden. Charles Demirell, now confirmed as the new security executive, and Clive Westwood were present at an end-of-the-week discussion on security.
   "I'm particularly concerned about these attacks on the grounds." The Duke frowned and tugged at his moustache. "They're a nuisance and they're causing a fair amount of damage."
   "We've had one or two problems," Westwood admitted, "but we're doing our best to sort them out." He glanced across the map table at Demirell, who had been busy with more experimental patrol patterns. "We gave the last lot a very nasty fright, which should discourage them to a certain extent."
   "Perhaps we ought to be doing more than frightening them," sniffed the Duke.
   "The situation is pretty well under control," offered Westwood. "And the civil authorities would jump on us if we did more than frighten." As mere Captain of the guard, it was not for him to say that the head of security had been playing soldiers, using the 'lensters as opponents in war games.
   "They came quite close last time," the Duke persisted.
   "Not in terms of our defence system," Demirell assured him. "They penetrated the grounds to a depth of less than three hundred yards."
   "Well, I want it stopped. The wife's getting worried."
   "There's no cause for alarm, sir," Demirell said in a level voice, knowing that the Duke had full confidence in him. He just needed to be reassured from time to time. "They've got to get right through the grounds, cross a stretch of open ground at least two hundred yards wide and then get across the moat before they even come to the walls. And there's two of them. We have eight defence towers and two fortified gate houses in the outer bailey. And six larger towers and two more fortified gate houses in the inner bailey. The combined fire-power could stand off every 'lenster in Atmain."
   "I know, I know," said the Duke impatiently. "It's the wife who's worried, silly woman. If she could see a bit more training going on, that would set her mind at rest."
   "Yes, sir," said Westwood, knowing that the problem was not lack of training but Demirell's refusal to retain Ilse Dortmann's chain of command. The guard had been turned almost upside down by Demirell's playing favourites.
   "I'll discuss the new training schedule with you after lunch, Westwood," the Duke decided.
   "Yes, sir." Westwood recognized a dismissal. He saluted and glided across the rush-weave carpet to the door.
   "What about our campaign across the Straits?" resumed the Duke when Westwood was out of the room. "What can That Woman tell Nige Grantby and his colleagues?" Ilse Dortmann's name did not come easily to the Duke's lips.
   "She can tell them we're expanding across the Straits, of course," replied Demirell. "That follows from the way I've been using our personnel and equipment. And in view of all the trouble the Camerlish Refuse Barons have been having, it makes sense for us to have a strong security force at our Camerlish RecCens. Now that we've withdrawn everyone she knows, they won't be able to set a watch on our people to learn the full extent of the operation. Security is now entirely in the hands of staff recruited locally, and there's a reasonable correlation between the size of our operation and the quantities of equipment we took across the Straits."
   "What about the importing operations?" prompted the Duke.
   "Dortmann doesn't know about them." Demirell glossed over Dortmann's suspicions. "And the profits from those operations paid for the equipment we supplied to the PSF."
   "I understand we're having trouble in the importing area as well?" frowned the Duke.
   Demirell shrugged. "A temporary problem. And the need for the revenue is no longer there. We can move back whenever we want. Like refuse reclamation, the market for revenue-free liquor is an expanding one. Reports from Camerland indicate that the Refuse Barons are concentrating on rebuilding and repairing damage to their RecCens." Demirell shifted the conversation to a more cheerful area.
   "Putting their businesses back in order," nodded the Duke.
   "I understand they're having a few liquidity problems," Demirell added. "And their building contractors are having one or two problems with their labour forces."
   "Things not going as smoothly as they might?" asked the Duke with evident satisfaction.
   "The usual strikes over nothing much," said Demirell with mock sympathy. "Delays, inter-union disputes. Every time they get rid of one trouble-maker, two more crawl out from under a stone. And with surprising little prompting from ourselves. The Camerlish seem to have an infinite capacity for self-destruction. One good saboteur equals hundreds laid off."
   "I hear there are still attacks on RecCens, though."
   "Purely imitative. They'll go out of fashion in a few months. But I think it would be good general policy to harden the defences at our Centres over here. They tend to be slightly softer because of our higher good-will rating with the locals. But that could change."
   "As we know from experience," nodded the Duke. "Well, now that Nige Grantby and his lot know I'm back in Camerland, I suppose I'd better talk to them. Negotiate a few franchises while we retain the initiative. That's something to think about over the weekend. Carry on with the good work, Charles."
   "Yes, sir." The security executive took note of a dismissal. He snapped off a smart salute then retired to his office at the top of the south-eastern tower of the keep.

Tuesday, July 15th

62. Shedding The Load

Detective Sergeant Fred Drew flopped onto a chair beside Detective Inspector Mike Forrest's desk in the new police station on Rossmore Road in Camer. He helped himself to a cigarette from the open packet and remarked, "Here, Chief."
   "Just crawled out of bed, have you?" asked his superior without looking up.
   The digital clock on the wall to his left showed 09:41.
   "I've been having a word with Sniffin' Billy," explained Drew. "You know this NeoKirlan thing?"
   "Forget it, Fred," advised Forrest. "Ryland was down here last night, after you'd gone. It's gone to Intelligence, where it should have gone in the first place."
   "Oh! Well, anyway, Billy reckons he knows something. But he wants two reds for it."
   "Two hundred pounds!" laughed Forrest, looking up from his mass of paper. "He's got a bockan nerve! Since when was he in that league? Five for twenty cigs and a couple of pints, that's more his style."
   "That's what he wants, Chief." The sergeant shrugged. He was just passing on a message.
   "Well, it's Charlie Fisher's worry now."
   "You reckon I should tell him?"
   "Why not? He probably needs a good laugh. What's happening about that farce yesterday afternoon?"
   "We're still waiting for a report from the lab, Chief."
   "Well go and chase Sheila up. Make a bockan nuisance of yourself if you have to. Ryland is getting asked a lot of awkward questions and he wants it sorted, and fast."
   "Anyone'd think they'd put the bomb in his car." Drew heaved himself to his feet, throwing a large shadow across the desk.
   "And Fred," added Forrest.
   "Yes , Chief?"
   "Never have anything to do with NeoKirlans, son. They'll drive you round the bockan twist trying to figure out what they're doing. Or why."
   Drew shrugged again. "Right, Chief."

Intelligence Inspector Charles Fisher, glancing up at his clock as his videolink chimed for attention. "Yes?" he said in a discouraging tone as he took in the information that the time was 12:59 hours. He was about to escape for lunch. "Hello, Fred," he added, recognizing the face on the screen.
   "It's all right, I know you're just about to dash off for a liquid lunch," Drew told him with a grin, acknowledging the note of impatience in the greeting. "I just wanted to tell you Sniffin' Billy reckons he knows something about this NeoKirlan thing. The Chief says it's yours now."
   "That's right. Sniffin' Billy, eh?"
   "Right. And he wants two reds for the information."
   "Two hundred?" laughed Fisher.
   "Mike said you'd laugh. Anyway, he does know something. You can tell by that shifty look he gets. And now I've told you. A present from our floor to yours."
   "Right, thanks, Fred. I'll buy you a pint if there's anything in it. If not, you can buy me one." Fisher broke the connection just as the clock changed to 13:00. He fought a brief battle with his conscience, then he called his superior.
   "You still here, Charlie?" remarked Intelligence Chief Inspector Raymond Aldred, who was dark, blue-eyed, running slightly to seed, married with two daughters, and thirty-six years old. This description also fitted Fisher, apart from the colour of his eyes. "Is my watch fast?" Aldred added.
   "Very funny." Fisher scowled at his camera. "Listen, I've just been told a miserable worm called Sniffin' Billy has something on the NeoKirlans."
   "Let's hope he knows more than the other so-called insiders we've been wasting our time on. Where does he do his lurking?"
   "This time of day, it'll be the Perran Cheese."
   "That sports ground? It would be. Well, at least we can put a working lunch on expenses."
   "You going to?" said Fisher.
   "One must never allow oneself to become too remote from the enemy, Charlie," replied his superior.
   "I wouldn't mind staying remote from places like the Perran Cheese," muttered Fisher.
   "We'll go in your car," Aldred decided, bringing the discussion to a close.

Wednesday, July 16th

63. Intimations Of A Reckoning

It was raining in the South. The county of Neal had been unlucky enough to catch a fringe of ill-natured weather from the mainland. Even though a liquid torrent was lashing the self-cleaning synthetic marble finish of the headquarters of the Crane Group, the holowindow in the managing director's office showed clear skies and sun-bathed countryside.
   Sir Arthur Crane had more than the weather on his mind. Over coffee, he was reviewing an estimate of the losses of his group during The Troubles and comparing the totals with a valuation of the assets of the independent Refuse Reclamation Centres in his area.
   His intercom buzzed for attention. Crane touched the ACC key absently. "Yes, Margaret?"
   "Sir Nigel Grantby on the vid for you, Sir Arthur," replied his secretary.
   "I wonder what he wants? Put him through, please."
   The columns of figures on Crane's videolink dissolved into Grantby's over-large holographic projection. There was a hint of a devilish grin creasing the face.
   "Good news, Nigel?" Crane remarked by way of greeting.
   "And amusing," nodded Grantby. "As the Major predicted, Norm Chatelle wants to talk to us."
   "I'd like to talk to him," growled Crane. "With a loaded shotgun."
   "Norm thinks it would be useful if the ten of us got together. I suggest Camer, a week today."
   "I'm not sure I want to talk to him. Unless he's brought an open bank draft," snarled Crane.
   "Calm down, Arthur," laughed Grantby, who had just won a bet with himself as to Crane's reaction. "The Major assures me this fits in with certain plans. I promise you, Norm won't go home with a smile on his face."
   "That's different." Crane switched from hostility to glee. "I didn't realize we were so close."
   "He wants to discuss franchises," continued Grantby. "Not a word about reparations. So we'll talk to him about franchises. But a word of warning, Arthur. Don't be too nice to him. He might suspect something."
   "There's no danger of that!" scoffed Crane.
   "If everyone else is agreeable, I thought we'd give him lunch, then spend the afternoon arguing around in circles. He has a daughter living in the Starbank area, a few miles away. He'll probably carry on there in the evening to see his grandchildren. He'll still be over here when the fun starts. We can discuss reparations when the shock's had a chance to wear off."
   "I can hardly wait to see him again," growled Sir Arthur Crane through a predatory beam.

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