Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 30
When Steph Turner and Andrew Artlett were ushered into the conference room, they were surprised to find Queen Berry and Princess Ruth waiting for them. There was another person in the room whom they didn’t recognize. That was hardly surprising, since they’d only been in the Beowulfan capital city of Columbia for a short time. Their ship had arrived the previous evening.
“Where’s Victor?” Steph asked. “And Anton? They were the ones who sent me the message to come here right away.”
Andrew pulled out a chair for her and helped her get seated at the table in the center of the room, facing Berry and Ruth and the unknown man. He wasn’t usually given to such gallantries, but he was trying to evade the gazes coming his way. The ones that indicated and what is he doing here?
Recognizing the gazes, Steph said a bit awkwardly: “Andrew, uh, decided to come with me.”
Having sat down by then, Andrew got a little belligerent. “I know I wasn’t invited but I also know Cachat and Zilwicki. They’re up to something. Involving Steph. Which means ‘up to no good,’ most likely. They got a history. So I came along to make sure Steph doesn’t get hustled.”
Berry and Ruth looked at each other, and then at the man Steph and Andrew didn’t know.
“I guess it’s your call,” Berry said to him.
The man chuckled. “Who knows? This whole project is scrambling everybody’s pre-existing notions of proper jurisdiction. But I’ll kick it off.”
He swiveled in his seat to face Andrew. “I assume you’re Andrew Artlett, right? The now-famous — in some circles, anyway — starship mechanic who jury-rigged the repairs on the Hali Sowle that enabled Cachat and Zilwicki to bring back their galaxy-shaking — that’s almost literally true — intelligence from Mesa.”
“What of it?” Andrew demanded, leaning his weight on forearms planted on the table.
Steph put a hand on his arm. “Hon, I think he’s being complimentary. Ease up on the testosterone, will you?”
“Um.” Andrew settled back. The expression on his face was that of a man who was embarrassed but was valiantly refusing to acknowledge the fact. “Um,” he repeated.
“I’m Henry Kham,” the man said. “I’m with… Well, for the moment let’s just call it the Inter-Agency Development Team.”
“‘Inter’ between what agencies and developing what and who’s on the team?” Andrew demanded.
Steph gave him an exasperated glance. “I think we’ll find out soon enough. Now will you puh-lease let Mr. Kham finish what he’s saying.”
Kham smiled. “The interaction is between a number of organizations representing — so far — four star nations. Beowulf, Manticore and Torch being three of them, which is why we’re here. The Republic of Haven is also involved but they didn’t have a representative available to come to this meeting.”
“Where’s Victor?” asked Steph.
“He’s tied up at the moment.”
A little choking sound came from Berry, followed almost immediately by the same sort of noise from Ruth. Kham gave them an inquisitive glance. “A poor choice of words?” he asked.
“Ah… ” Ruth shook her head. “No, no. That’s fine.”
Berry murmured something that sounded like except he usually does the tying although Steph wasn’t sure. The young queen’s face was a little puffy, as if she was doing her best to stifle laughter.
Ruth flipped her hand in a shooing motion. “Keep going, Henry. Don’t mind us.”
Kham turned back to Steph and Andrew. “As for the project we’re developing, it’s basically simple. As invaluable as the information Cachat and Zilwicki brought back was, we need more. So we’re planning to insert another intelligence team on Mesa.” He now looked directly at Steph. “And we want to ask you to accompany them.”
Andrew looked like he was about to object but Kham held up his hand. “Hear me out, please. We wouldn’t be expecting Ms. Turner to play a direct role in the intelligence-gathering. What we’d want her to do is set up a safe house and provide the actual operatives with guidance and advice.”
“No,” said Artlett. He stood up and extended his hand to his companion. “Let’s go, Steph.”
“Andrew, sit down,” she said.
He stared at her, half-gaping.
“Sit. Down,” she repeated. “First, it’s my decision, not yours. Second, you’re being rude. Keep talking, Mr. Kham. What sort of safe house and with what — and how much — money?”
Kham shrugged. “We hoped you’d tell us what would work best as a safe house. Money’s not an issue. We’ll provide it, and as much as you need.”
Steph pursed her lips and her eyes got a little unfocussed.
Artlett sat back down. “Steph, you can’t be seriously –“
“Be quiet. I’m thinking.”
He rolled his eyes. But he kept quiet.
After half a minute or so, Steph’s gaze came back in focus. “A restaurant’s probably out, even though it’d be the easiest for me and ideal for a safe house.”
“Agreed,” said Kham. “We already thought of that, but…” He shook his head. “The problem is that we just don’t know how much data the Mesans still have on everything connected with Cachat and Zilwicki’s expedition. But you might still be in their records. We can disguise you, but part of those records are that you owned and operated a restaurant. That might be enough to get flagged if a new one opened up in the seccie quarters.”
Ruth spoke up. “I suggested a flophouse. From what I’ve read, there are a lot of cheap boarding houses in the area.”
Steph nodded. “Yeah, there are. A lot of seccies — men, mostly — are itinerant laborers. And the houses go in and out of business regularly, since they’re usually just someone’s home being turned to commercial use when need be. There aren’t any regulations governing boardinghouses except the same fire and sanitation regs that apply to everybody. But those don’t even get inspected for that often.”
“That’s what I figured. And it’d be pretty close to what you used to do, since — correct me if I’m wrong — part of what a boardinghouse provides are regular meals for the renters. Kind of like a small private restaurant.”
“No, you’re right.” Steph’s eyes got out of focus for a moment. Kham took the moment to interject himself.
“That was the objection, though, raised by — ah, one of the development team members,” he said. “That a boardinghouse is close enough to what you used to do that it might get flagged for attention also.”
“Could be,” Steph said. “But that’s not what makes me twitchy about the idea.” She gave Ruth a sharp glance. “Did your reading indicate the other services usually provided by flophouses?”
Ruth frowned. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Laundry’s one of them. But like I said, the clientele is mostly male. So most flophouses provide prostitutes also. Sometimes that service is done directly by the woman — they’re almost always women — who own the house. But it’s usually contracted out.”
Berry made a face. “Steph, nobody would expect you –“
Steph laughed, quite cheerfully. “You’d better not! But that’s not the problem.” She gave Kham a look that was not quite condemnatory but came awfully close. “Am I right in thinking that your so-called ‘development team’ could come up with a whore or two, if need be?”
“Well… they wouldn’t be whores, no. They’d actually be trained intelligence operatives. But with that caveat, yes. We could.” He shrugged. “Spying and sexual favors go back together a very long ways.”
“Could you provide the pimp, too?” She waved her hand. “Never mind. Hypothetical question. I’m sure you could. Just like I’m sure that the reason Victor isn’t here is because you’re putting him through some kind of body modification process because there’s no way he wouldn’t insist on being part of this. Make him the official pimp and no other pimp would dare come near the place. Not, at least, after the first couple of ’em got filleted.”
Steph shook her head. “But that’s still not the problem. Where were you planning to set up this safe house? Neue Rostock? That’d be the best district from the standpoint of avoiding the police. Either that or Lower Radomsko. But if you set it up in Neue Rostock you’d have to deal with Dusek’s organization, since they don’t let…” Her eyes got unfocused again. “Huh. Actually, that’s a possibility worth thinking about. Lower Radomsko would be a mess. Victor could handle any one of those crazy little gangs — wouldn’t even work up a sweat, knowing him — but there are just so many of them and they really can get pretty crazy. Let me think.”
Again, the unfocused look. After about a minute, she said: “The flophouse is a possibility. The other one is a boutique of some kind. There are a jillion of them in the seccie quarters. They open and close like flowers and most of them have the lifespan of mayflies. Nobody in authority pays any attention to them at all, except for those few in the better-off seccie districts that can get a credit line. They’ll get occasional inspections from credit rating services, which are private but have connections with police and regulatory agencies. But as long as you don’t try to buy on credit, you’re all but invisible to anyone except your clientele.”
“And those are… who?” Kham asked.
“Women, mostly. Looking for deals and…” She sighed. “Men make fun of us about it, but the truth is that a little fashion — even the cheap stuff within the reach of poor seccies — makes life a little brighter.”
“Amen,” said Ruth. When everyone looked at her she flushed a little. “Hey, it’s true even for royalty. Main difference is just that they — well, okay, we — can afford the expensive stuff. About the only woman of any class I know who’s completely indifferent to fashion” — her thumb went sideways — “is Her Mousety here and she’s just plain unnatural.”