WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 55:
"You see, Mistress Hu…," Adele said to the angry fat woman across the desk from her. "Admiral Leary needs a loan to meet the wage bills of the spacers in his squadron. I hope–"
"You can go away now," Esther Hu said. She'd taken public control of Binturan Brothers Trading on the death of her husband, but according to the records he'd been only the public face of the business run before her by her father and uncle–Kostroman citizens. "I've paid my taxes to the government–and if you think you can pressure me, I've got the protection of Chancellor Hewett!"
"We know you've paid your taxes, Mistress Hu," said Rene Cazelet. Like Adele, he had his personal data unit live on his lap. "And I assure you, Admiral Leary isn't the sort of man who'd use your Kostroman citizenry to rouse the population against you if things begin to go badly on the naval front–as they certainly will if the crews aren't paid."
They were in a real working office at the back of one of Binturan Brothers' three warehouses. In the vast room outside, fork lifts snorted as they shifted pallets and bales; diesel fumes drifted under the office door. There were two calendars on the wall to the right, a local one with religious art and another with images of Pleasaunce City and Alliance holidays marked.
"This is a real loan," said Adele. It was useful to have Rene present to counterpoint the sales talk–or the extortion threats, if one preferred. Sometimes Tovera provided a useful foil, but she'd have been wrong for this negotiation. She stood now, watching sardonically with her back to a steel filing cabinet. "You'll get the money back with interest as soon as the Admiral is in a position to redeem it."
"I'm not interested in getting the money back!" Hu said. "I'm not giving you an ostrad! Are you deaf?"
"We'd considered asking you for three hundred and twelve thousand Alliance marks," Adele said calmly, her eyes on Mistress Hu's.
"I can't–" Hu said in a changed tone. She flushed, then went white and slumped back in a swivel chair whose leather upholstery leaked stuffing.
"You sons of bitches," she muttered. "This is a shakedown."
The amount Adele'd named was Binturan Brothers' exact profit on thirty tonnes of wheat shipped from Islandia in the Bagarian Cluster to the Alliance Fleet on Formentera, as listed in the set of books which Hu kept personally. No one else–except Adele, as of the previous week–had access to the figure.
"No, mistress," Adele said with a dry forcefulness. "It is not. It is a request that you go the extra mile in support of the naval forces of the state in which you are resident."
"We realize that you have many expenses beyond those appearing on any single transaction," said Rene with a sympathetic smile. "My family's in the shipping business also–on Pleasaunce. In fact, last month we were involved in transshipping wheat from Formentera to Pleasaunce."
"You're from the Alliance?" said Hu, looking from Rene to Adele in blank surprise. I thought–"
"Both my colleague and I are acting in behalf of the naval forces of the Bagarian Republic," Adele said. "As I'm sure you would do in similar need. At you will do, I'm confident."
"As I said, that full amount would be unreasonable," Rene put in, jerking the shipper's head back around. Adele had located the transaction when searching the files of Binturan Brothers, but only the connection with Phoenix Starfreight made it significant. "But a hundred thousand marks, paid over a period of four days beginning the day after tomorrow–that's quite possible. And necessary."
"As a loan," Adele repeated. Hu wouldn't believe her, but it was true: when the money became available to repay Binturan Brothers, Daniel would pay it over instantly. "Because you realize the importance of keeping the Cluster's warships crewed and effective."
Mind, Daniel wouldn't have authorized even this approach. It did have the hallmarks of extortion rather than business–but the Mundy family had tended to lump business and extortion together as activities unbefitting to a noble house. Adele could console herself that her parents, at least, would be no more upset by the present negotiations than they would be–for example–at the fact their daughter was a warrant officer in the RCN.
"Look, you've got me over a barrel, I see that," Mistress Hu said. She tried to glare, but anger quickly melted to miserable resignation. "But I can't come up with that much, not half that much, after fitting out all six of my ships for the Skye expedition. Sure, I've got Chancellery pay warrants, but what're they good for? And I don't know when I'll see my ships again. Can't you understand that? When or if I'll see them again."
Adele's face didn't show anything, but she immediately changed the search she was performing as she sat in the dusty office. "Admiral Leary has no wish to cripple Binturan Brothers. He understood–"
This was a complete lie. Adele noted that it didn't bother her to lie when it was necessary as part of her duties to Mistress Sand or to the RCN. Odd; she hadn't been aware of her skill at deceit until her job changed a few years before in a burst of gunfire.
"–that the demands of the expedition were being spread more widely among the shipping companies in Morning City."
"Did he?" Hu said bitterly. "Well, you can tell him that he's not the only one who noticed that my family's not from Pelosi and that I don't have citizenship. It didn't matter while the Alliance was in charge–oh, the governors were all crooks, but they robbed everybody! It's our new Bagarian ministers, Hewett and Dean, who put it to me that the only way I could prove I was loyal was to offer my whole fleet!"
"I see," said Adele calmly. She shut down her data unit; she'd gathered more information than she could process quickly, and this wasn't the time to spend in processing anyway. Without quick action, there'd be no need for analysis.
She rose nodding to Hu. "Mistress," she said, "I'll inform the Admiral of the present situation. If he finds you've been telling the truth–"
"By the Gods, I wish it wasn't the bloody truth!" the shipper snarled with the first animation she'd shown since Adele unmasked the fact of her transaction with the Fleet.
"If that's the case," Adele continued stolidly, "I'm confident he'll direct us to find some other arrangement for protecting the independence of the cluster. Good day to you."
She twitched her right index finger to the door. Tovera opened it, looked hard at Mistress Hu, and preceded Rene into the warehouse proper. Adele brought up the rear and closed the door behind them.
"Adele?" Rene said.
She nodded curtly and said, "Outside, if you will."
Binturan Brothers wasn't the sort of business which put eavesdropping apparatus in the light fixtures–indeed, the cavernous warehouse was noticeably short of light fixtures–but it might have been. Adele did things properly not so much for practical reasons but rather because she preferred to be proper. She felt more comfortable.
One of the three sliding doors in the front of the warehouse was open; a turbine was rocking slowly along an overhead trackway toward the ten-wheeled truck waiting to take it. Workers in dungarees made from coarse local fibers turned to watch Adele and her companions stride past and out the door.
Tovera rotated her head toward the workmen and outside, back and forth. Adele's lips tightened momentarily, but there was nothing to say that'd change the situation. Expecting attack from every quarter wasn't paranoia in Tovera; it was a part of life, like breathing.
And every once in a while, Tovera was right.
The warehouse faced Morning Harbor across the broad but unpaved seafront boulevard. Similar warehouses were scattered among spacers' hotels, taverns, and shops specializing in cheap clothing. Motorized buses–three or more open cars pulled by a tractor with a diesel or electric motor–ran a schedule of sorts throughout Morning City, but the four-wheeled taxi Adele had hired to bring them to Binturan Brothers was waiting down the street as directed.
The problem was that it couldn't go in two opposite directions at once.
"Rene," Adele said. She'd made the decision simply by laying out the choices in neat mental columns. There wasn't a perfect solution; there wasn't even a good solution. Therefore she picked the least bad option. "You'll take the taxi–"
"–to the Ladouceur immediately and warn Admiral Leary that the ministry is about to move on Skye. This is too major a policy decision not to affect us, though at present I don't know in what way."
She'd been too busy with financial questions since their return from Conyers to keep abreast of the government's activities. That was a mistake: during the time she and Daniel were off Pelosi, the government had turned on an internal rival with a speed and ruthlessness it was incapable of displaying toward the common enemy.
Adele had made a mistake; but it would've been a mistake to put off raising funds to pay the Ladouceur's crew. Time would probably show that she'd failed to deal with other absolutely critical matters as well, every one of which had been necessary for the successful completion of the mission. They would fail because Adele Mundy hadn't done her job adequately.
She'd go on, of course. She known from as far back as she could remember that she'd never be good enough to meet her own standards. But she'd go on.
"Tovera and I will find another taxi–"
"Mistress, that may be difficult around here," Tovera protested.
"Then we'll walk until we find one!" Adele said, letting her self-loathing flare out at her servant. "We'll find one and take it to the Skye Benevolent Society offices."
"Adele, we could call," Rene said, hefting his personal data unit. "I've linked into several commercial repeater grids."
"Do you trust the person who'll take the call either on the Ladouceur or in the Skye offices not to be an agent of the ministers?" Adele sneered. "I don't. And if you do, you're a fool."
"Mistress, sorry," Rene muttered.
"But the boy could deal with the other business while we return to the ship," Tovera said quietly.
"They wouldn't believe him," Adele said. "The permanent secretary knows me. He'll get word to Radetsky, I think in time."
She took a deep breath; her mouth worked, trying to squeeze out a sour taste. "We owe Radetsky something. We can't save him–Dean and Hewett are in league with the Alliance forces on West Continent. Between them they'll crush the present Skye government. But Radetsky can get himself and his family off-planet to Conyers. They'll be safe there with Chatterjee."
A red haze covered Adele's eyes momentarily. It cleared; Rene was still looking at her with concern.
"Get on with it, boy!" she said. "How much time do you think there is?"
Rene nodded and got into the taxi. It pulled off almost immediately.
"Let's go, Tovera," Adele said. All the emotion was burned out of her. "The sooner we take care of this, the sooner we return to the ship ourselves."
How much time is there? had been a good question. Probably not enough, the way things seemed to be going. She'd made mistakes….
But she'd go on. Until she died.