still Wednesday, Halgary 24th
39. Roast 'Lenster Before Breakfast
During what seemed like a three-mile hike through the tunnel system, Sovershend and Tenbright thrashed out a deal for one hundred pounds of tea and coffee from storeroom six. Mild claustrophobia, induced by a feeling of being trapped in a pool of torchlight, made six hundred yards of tunnel seem ten times longer. The pressing arch of yellow brick was an endless trudge past blooming, nitrous walls, echoing drips, things moving in skittering rushes just out of range of the torches and an intermittent evil smell from somewhere behind them.
Tenbright and the visitors returned to the surface on the other side of Capsmouth Road, in a former railway goods yard which had been turned into a car park. A flight of concrete steps led up to a long, thin room. It turned out to be an unusually large cavity between two walls. Tenbright went straight to a wall-mounted snooper and took a good look around.
"Not expecting to see anyone, surely?" remarked Sovershend. "It's only half past five."
"I'm not looking for people," Tenbright told him.
Sovershend caught the inflection but it was lost on Sandy.
"Don't tell me you have dog packs?" he asked nervously. He had once been trapped in a car after a breakdown. The pack of wild dogs had snapped and snarled around his vehicle for over an hour before a passing police patrol had come to his rescue.
Tenbright grinned. "No, something even worse. We're right on the edge of the 'lenster border here. There might be some around in a playful mood. Inspired by the shoot-out."
"See anything?" Sovershend flicked his sleeve gun into his right hand and checked the magazine.
"I'm not sure," Tenbright said slowly. "Take a look. Down at the bottom of the fence."
Fifteen feet of chain link ended in a belt of outward-sloping, alternating saw-wire and knife-thread. By chance, the camera could look down over the boot of a car. A group of boys had taken advantage of a split in the tarmac crust, which extended about one yard beyond the fence to meet the paving flags. They had split the hard topping and dug a short, shallow trench in the earth below.
"What do they want?" asked Sandy in an ‘are we safe here?' tone. The width of the cavity kept the three of them in single file and Sandy had a poor view of the videolink screen from the back.
"The watchman's takings or what they can find in the cars," said Tenbright, tapping a button on the control board. "Old Gordon should spot them any moment."
"I don't know how they dare do that with police just across the car park," remarked Sandy.
"That's 'lensters for you," said Sovershend. "Once they dream up a stunt, they have to go through with it. Otherwise, the rest of the 'len kicks their heads in for cowardice. They're more scared of their maccars than a few Prots and the slap on the wrist the courts would give them."
"I'm sure things were never like this when I was a child," muttered Sandy.
Sovershend decided not to point out that Belldon and Levetia had fought a war over the Levetian Corridor to the sea when someone of Sandy's age had been at primary school.
"What happens now?" added the man who didn't know his own country's history.
"He's spotted them." Tenbright indicated a flashing blue light below the videolink screen. "This place will be crawling with Prots in no time flat. We'll scoot during the confusion." Tenbright moozed the camera to get a wider field of view.
"I don't think I want to watch this," decided Sandy, saving himself the trouble of finding something to stand on.
Chopper-chopper-chopper noises filtered through the walls. An upturned face flashed whitely in the car park. 'Lensters flitted between cars, heading for the trench. Tenbright counted eight figures. Two of them were carrying stubby cylinders. Globes of violet light bounced harmlessly from the bonnet of a car when one of the Traffic patrol opened fire with a Boult riot gun. The next burst was better aimed and felled two 'lensters.
One of the boys dived into the shallow trench. Another pushed at his feet, impatient to get out of the trap, and managed to snag the first boy's pullover comprehensively on the fence. The ones with the cylinders began to screw them together. The finished product looked like a five-foot length of wide-bore drainpipe.
The 'lensters rested the construction against the roof of a car, sighting up at the helicopter with the ball and notch on the side of the launcher. In a splash of flame, a small rocket hurtled up, scraped past the helicopter, then arced over to fall on the car park of Norton Holovision. Black smoke spiralled up to obscure the transmitter mast. The police officers in the helicopter set aside their Boult riot guns. Solid shot slashed at the cars shielding the 'lensters, exposing bright metal.
"They don't care about other people's property, do they?" remarked Sovershend.
"I'm not sure I would, in the circumstances," laughed Tenbright.
"Fancy blasting away like that," Sovershend added. "They could quite easily..,"
A car exploded in a rush of flame, scattering burning petrol and wreckage in all directions.
"...start a fire," Sovershend finished.
Reloaded, the drainpipe poked into the air again. Its target was almost overhead, hovering at fifty yards. A second rocket burst upwards on a solid smoke trail and lanced through the helicopter's tail without exploding. Pieces of rotor blade whisked outwards. Engine screaming, the helicopter just managed to clear the fence before bouncing and smashing its undercarriage on Grape Street.
Blazing fuel from ruptured petrol tanks poured into the trench. Two of the 'lensters kicked and fought a passage under the fence. In flames, they raced down to Water Street, causing a pair of drivers to slide into a slow collision while taking instinctive evasive action. One of the 'lensters disappeared over the brick wall, heading for the River Dunan. A climb of ten feet proved too much for the other one.
Muttering curses, the two drivers divided their attention between the damage to their vehicles and watching the blackened shape until it stopped writhing and screaming at the foot of the wall. Police patrols arrived to coax later arrivals into motion and to tidy up the body.
Survivors of the crowd that had gathered to watch the aftermath of the police action against the PSF hurried over to the new attraction. The crew of the crashed helicopter appeared to be shaken but not injured. Colleagues crowded round them to comment on their lucky escape – and to prevent souvenir hunters from looting the wreck.
"I think this is as good a time as any to evaporate," said Tenbright, switching off the snooper as the police were handcuffing two unconscious and one dazed 'lenster. Only two had managed to escape. Tenbright touched a control. A section of wall slid inwards, then sideways.
"After you," Tenbright called to Sandy.
It was the politeness of necessity. The only way that Tenbright could get out first was to climb over both Sovershend and Sandy. The trio emerged into a decaying cavern formed by rotting bricks, black and shattered windows and a slate and fresh air roof. Anonymous junk was piled against the wall on their left. More junk had been scattered liberally on the broken floor.
"Watch where you're treading," warned Tenbright. "Some of this stuff's pretty sharp. And you get disgusting characters doing anti-social things on the floor."
"You don't have to tell us that," mumbled Sandy, using his handkerchief as a gas mask.
Outside the former train shed of a long-closed goods depot, another car exploded noisily.
"I'm parked over here," said Tenbright. He led the way to a yellow hybrid parked next to the watchman's blockhouse. "Having trouble, Gordon??" be called to the large figure standing in front of the blockhouse.
"'Lenstranth!" snarled Gordon, summing up all his troubles in one inclusive plural. He was a tall, bloated man on indeterminate age. "I hope the whole bockan lot of them fry." He crushed a beer can with one hand and flung it over the fence and into Grape Street. "I spotted them before your alert signal, you know."
"Yeah?" said Tenbright with a sceptical smile.
Another car blew up. The explosions seemed to be getting closer. The distinctive siren of a fire engine became suddenly deafening as it turned a nearby corner and arrived at the car park. A delicate smell of roasting meat flavoured the general smells of burning.
"I don't think it's very safe here," remarked Sovershend as he scrambled into Tenbright's car. "I wouldn't pay him for using a car park as dangerous as this one."
Gordon blew an enthusiastic raspberry at Sovershend as the fire engine snatched to a halt at his blockhouse. Tenbright zoomed out of the car park before he could be asked for a statement. He set a course for Mitton Gardens, keeping to the back streets to avoid further fire engines, which were not noted for staying on their own side of the road when they were in a hurry.
"I shall wake up shortly and find all this has been a terrible dream," said Sandy. "I never imagined it was possible to see a hundred people killed before breakfast in the middle of a major city."
"It's only twenty to six," Sovershend told him. "Plenty of time for a few more to dance the bucket waltz. Anyway, you must be toughening up if you can think about having some breakfast."
Sandy swallowed another trank. His face could not turn paler.
"Cheerful sort, aren't you?" remarked Tenbright.
"If this is a dream," said Sovershend, flying off at a tangent, "then the shipment doesn't exist."
"In that case, it must all be real," Sandy admitted, finding some consolation in his nett percentage of a profit of more than thirty thousand pounds.
They drove on in silence. Tenbright tried with fair success to ignore Sovershend's frequent and infectious yawns. "Are you coming for a drink with us tonight, Dev?" he asked as he turned into York Street. "How about you, Sandy?"
"I'm afraid I can't," said Sandy. "I have some people to see. I'll be leaving later in the morning. Perhaps next time."
"Next time," invited Tenbright.
"Are you still going to that place just down the road from the Baron's Drive South O/U station?" asked Sovershend.
"That's the place," nodded Tenbright.
"What time do I appear?"
"Nine or so." Tenbright stopped his car opposite the passage that led to the hotel's entrance filters. "Here we are."
The passengers climbed out, watched by the two men waiting beside a videolink service van. Sovershend waved a farewell to Tenbright, then piloted Sandy along the shop-lined tunnel to a short flight of steps.
Sovershend unclipped his sleevegun as he negotiated the revolving door at the top of the steps. At the desk, he surrendered his offensive weapon and attempted to infect the receptionist with his yawns. He had already succeeded with Sandy.
"How about a night cap? Or perhaps a morning cap?" Sandy suggested as their lift limped up to the fourth floor.
"Good idea," said Sovershend. "If I can stop yawning long enough to swallow."
"I know exactly what you mean," yawned Sandy.
They stepped out of the lift. A videolink camera tracked them to the door of Sandy's suite, just to prove that the hotel's security personnel were on the alert. Sandy pulled his case from the lockable storage compartment under the bed and hunted for the bottle in it. Sovershend watched him with interest, wondering what he had brought that was so much better than the Mitton Gardens Hotel's exotic range.
"I supposed to be leaving at eleven-thirty," said Sandy, finding a square, dark green bottle which lacked a label.
"Think you'll be awake by then?" laughed Sovershend.
"I'll just have to be. Here you are."
"Zdrav' mnozhen!" Sovershend toasted his companion, then he tasted the amber fluid in the glass. "Good stuff! Not something you find too often on this side of the Channel."
With a superior but tired smile, Sandy shed his jacket and threw it at a chair. He dropped gracefully onto the sufan. "I suppose we'd better say goodbye now," he decided.
"Goodbye, Sandy." Sovershend raised his empty glass again in salute. "It's been an experience doing business with you."
"Goodbye, Sovershend," returned Sandy. "A drop more?"
"Can't hurt. Have we settled up here, by the way?" Sovershend didn't want Sandy to swan off while he was still in bed, leaving the bill unpaid.
"I don't think so," replied Sandy in the vague tone that he reserved for such trivialities. "You can take care of it while I see to the drinks. And there's the rest of your fee."
Sovershend handed over his empty glass and fished Sandy's UniCredit card out of the breast pocket of the discarded jacket. As well as settling their account, he also booked and paid for a double room for the night. The hotel's accounts computer chewed at the card's credit rating, then it thanked Sovershend for his custom in a grave, too perfect voice that had to come out of a machine. It was a little too early for real people to be doing such routine jobs.
"There, that's done." Sovershend exchanged the card for his glass and an envelope. Sandy slid the credit card into a trouser pocket carelessly. Sovershend decided not to check the contents of his envelope. It felt heavy enough to contain four one-ounce gold currency wafers and thick enough to contain £292 in notes. The videolink began to chime softly.
"Want me to disappear?" asked Sovershend.
"No, you answer it," said Sandy casually. He had made himself too comfortable to move. "You're the nearest."
The face of an hotel minion appeared in the screen. "Please excuse my calling you so early, sir," he said. "But a message has come in for Vr. Sandford, and I noticed his vid was in use when I went to put it in the store."
"What's the message?" called Sandy.
The minion's eyes tracked to Sovershend's right, toward the source of the phantom question. "It's from Vr. Blake, sir. It reads: ‘Appointment confirmed.' That's all there is."
"That's fine," called Sandy, happy to converse at long range.
"Good morning, sir," said the minion uncertainly, as if suspecting that Sovershend might be a ventriloquist.
"Morning," said Sovershend. The videolink screen became a mirror again. "Blake? Isn't he the one they named the airport after? There's a green plaque to show where he was born half-way down the extension to Runway Two."
"I think they meant Chapman Blake, the explorer," said Sandy. "It means the Mobys reached Lesten Island safely."
"Oh, a code. Very Secret Service. So everyone's happy?"
"I would imagine so. Where do I contact you if I have another job for you?"
"Leave a message with Martin and it'll reach me. Zdrav'."
"Zdrav'." Sandy drained his glass too.
"Me for bed," yawned Sovershend.. "See you next time I see you, Sandy."
"Until the next time," agreed Sandy.
Sovershend persuaded the connecting door to his suite to open. A green light glowing on the keyboard of his videolink told him that there was a message waiting for him. He closed the door. The automatic lock snapped into action viciously. Sovershend shed his jacket, then touched the ACC key. The screen pearled. A restful green message slithered into life.
‘Arriving about 22 today (24th). Where & when? K.'
Annoyingly, the name of the pub where he would be meeting Tenbright and company eluded Sovershend. Frowning, he keyed:
‘Pub near Baron's Drive S. O/U station from 21 then Mitton Gardens Hotel. D.'
He addressed his message to the location number given at the end of Katuishann's, then he crawled off to bed.
40. Reports To The Duke Of Atmain
Pacing corridors had become a way of life for Ilse Dortmann. At eight-thirty on that Wednesday morning, she was waiting to enter the Duke's ground floor map room, wishing it were possible to eavesdrop on the Duke's scrambled satellite exchanged with her alleged second-in-command.
Beyond the iron-shod door, surrounded by a generous breakfast, englobed in a hush screen, the Duke of Atmain was beaming at his videolink. "In other words, complete success, Charles?" he chuckled at the end of a report.
"Our own importing operation went very smoothly. Sandford and Farges did an excellent job," said Demirell smugly, including himself in the excellence. "We now have very valuable access to a main distribution focus. And both the unco-operative Mellbury and his man Bekker ran into considerable difficulty."
The Duke tugged at his moustache, which was a sure sign that he was pleased. "Good work, Charles."
"And when Mellbury's wife eliminates Sovershend, Sandford's contact, believing he betrayed her husband, that should create another useful void in the market."
"Excellent!" beamed the Duke. "What are your plans now?"
"There's very little I can do here for the moment, sir. I think it might be useful for me to return to Atmain. Dortmann is being rather difficult about some of the equipment I need for future operations."
"She rather resents your lack of tact, Charles," the Duke said in a hearty fashion, pouring more coffee. "I suppose Liston can keep thinks ticking over."
"I'm thinking of sending her back," said Demirell regretfully. "She's not very reliable. I'll leave Bleiler in charge."
Louise Liston had a mind of her own and she was not afraid of voicing an unpopular opinion. Bleiler, too, could think for himself but he lacked Liston's persistence. He was convinced that Demirell's mind could never be changed by force of argument. Thus he tended to accept orders without question and to carry out his assignments the way he thought they were best done.
The Duke shrugged. "I'll leave everything up to you, Charles." He nodded a dismissal and broke the connection.
Returning to the heated plate beside the videolink, he finished his sausage and tomato pie. Then he remembered that his head of security was wearing a trench in the rush-weave carpet in the corridor outside.
The door swung away from her in invitation. Dortmann entered the map room. Her uniform was immaculate but she had the air of wretched weariness of someone who had been up all night. "Morning, Herta," said the Duke. "Brilliant fellow, that Demirell."
"Yes, sir," Dortmann murmured without enthusiasm.
The Duke made an all-inclusive gesture, which she interpreted as a command to stop hovering, followed by an invitation to help herself to coffee and cigarettes. Dortmann sat gratefully, lubricated her throat with coffee, then lit a honey flavoured cigarette.
"I believe we had a spot of excitement a few hours ago," prompted the Duke.
"That's about all it was, sir," Dortmann replied wearily. "Just the normal rivalry, tensions, or what have you between the young bloods of Atmain and Brivauche. The police at Mont-Michel said it was just a general brawl fuelled by drink. The staff at our Reclamation Centre over-reacted. Fortunately, they only used riotguns, so there were no fatalities. The situation blew up because of a lack of leaders with judgement. Most of ours are in Camerland with Demirell."
"That problem should ease slightly in the near future," said the Duke. "Demirell is thinking of sending Liston home. He feels she's unreliable."
"Unreliable!" spluttered Dortmann, anger overcoming her low state. "Louise Liston is one of my most competent leaders." Then she returned to her coffee, realizing that she might talk the Duke into giving Liston a second chance in Camerland.
Her employer just shrugged. "So last night wasn't really an attack on our RecCen?" There was something akin to relief in his voice, as if he had been expecting such an attack.
"No, sir." Dortmann was not too tired to catch the overtone.
"In that case, I'll not detain you further." The Duke smiled and turned his attention to the task of spreading butter on a slice of toast.
Dortmann stubbed out her cigarette and glanced at her watch. She was rationing herself to two cigarettes per hour. She popped a pink waker into her mouth when she reached the corridor, then she took the lift up to her office. She had a lot of work to get through before she could snatch a few hours' sleep.
41. A Bad Night for Ambrose of Nottridge.
Devrel Sovershend was decently late when he strolled into the pub on Baron's Drive. It was only when he arrived that the reason became apparent for his memory lapse when composing his message to Katuishann in the early hours of the morning. The business had changed hands recently and acquired a new name in doing so. The pub was now the Sir Jerome Favour – a fine, patriotic name for any Camerlish pub.
The main bar was prosperously full without being loud and crowded. Sovershend pushed through the mob of people standing just inside the door, trying to create the impression that the place was packed out. Some of the hard, redecorated edges of the face-lift had started to soften but the paint still looked as if it might be wet.
In giving the glossy surface of the open door a wide berth, Sovershend brushed against one of the lurkers – who came close to the verge of objecting when his drink sloshed dangerously close to the rim of his glass. Sovershend paused fractionally to give him a chance to discuss the matter. The challenge in the other's gaze wilted and he turned away, his protest forgotten.
As he neared the bar, Sovershend spotted his hosts. They had split into two camps. Jones, Rossiter and two of the shifters had occupied one of the booths that lined two of the pub's walls. The rest of the organization was infesting an adjoining booth. The leaders were deep in an independent discussion when Sovershend approached them.
"Evening, vreitei," he said, moving to a chair which offered a view of the back of Rossiter's head.
"Ah, you got here," said Dorry. "What are you on?"
"Some fort-light would go down very well."
Tenbright hailed a passing waiter. "Five pints of fort-light, please," he ordered. "See the news today?" he added to Sovershend.
"Why, were you in it?" Sovershend asked with laugh.
"Just about every sobok else was," Blackjack remarked cryptically.
"I take it I've missed something?" Sovershend invited.
"Have you ever!" laughed Tenbright. "If I were you, I'd have a look at a summary when you get home."
"Just to fill in the bits you forget when you tell me all about it?" said Sovershend.
"Well, I could sprint through it, if you insist."
"All right," surrendered Sovershend. "I insist."
"Well, it's hard to know where to start." Tenbright put on a frown.
"First, the big build-up, then the big let-down," Sovershend told him. "Start with the bit that comes closest to home."
"Right," nodded Tenbright. "Well, a while after I got back from driving you and Sandy around. When all the action outside was over, the vid-ghouls had packed up and we'd more or less got things straight down below..."
"And we could hear ourselves think again," said Blackjack.
"Then a helicopter landed in our back yard. And the Prots that got out had no unit flashes on them." Tenbright paused significantly.
"Intelligence," nodded Sovershend. "Say no more."
"Do you mean that?" Dorry asked with a look of mock relief.
"I think we know just how impossible it is to gag Stan in full flood." laughed Sovershend.
The arrival of the waiter interrupted the narrative still further.
"What kept you?" asked Tenbright.
"We are rather full, sir," the waiter pointed out.
"Really?" Tenbright cast a surveying glance at the least populated area of the room.
It was clear that the waiter disliked being called a liar but he restrained himself for the sake of the tip. Tenbright showered a generous clatter of coins onto his tray, then dismissed him with a lordly nod. The waiter retired to the bar to count his spoils. At first, he thought that he had been shorted. His recount told him that Tenbright had indeed allowed for a gratuity – the price of a half-pint of dark.
"Where was I?" said Tenbright, distributing glasses.
"You'd got the PI on your doorstep," prompted Sovershend.
"Priyam! Well, a small 'len of Prots climbed out of this flitter and strolled over to the gate. There was a Chief Inspector, a Senior Inspector, and an ordinary Inspector. I think they'd brought her along to carry the recorder."
"And a Sergeant and a Patrol Officer," added Blackjack. "Armed to the teeth to make sure none of the peasants gave up any cheek."
"They wanted to question the watchman," continued Tenbright. "So this bunch of soboks practically threw me out of the ganar building to talk to them."
"He thinks he deserves a medal," laughed Dorry.
"And what did they want?" invited Sovershend.
"A statement about everything I'd seen in the night. So I told them I had not seen anything until sun-up, when their lot started sneaking about, shooting at everything in sight."
"But not in so many words?" grinned Sovershend.
"Naturally not. I don't have a suicidal bone in my body."
"I don't know," remarked Dorry. "I was sure they were going to take him away and work him over when he told them he didn't know anything about the powerboats."
"I don't remember any powerboats," frowned Sovershend.
"Oh, yes!" Tenbright assumed a very serious expression and a clipped delivery. "We have had reports that several fleets of power-boats were operating during the night, ferrying terrorists to their meeting place."
"Oh, I like that!" laughed Sovershend. "Very good!"
"Then they wanted to know why I hadn't seen or heard them," Tenbright continued in his normal voice. "I was stuck for a minute. Then my agile brain leapt to the rescue. It was a noisy, rainy night, And besides, the banks of the cutting are high enough to cut off any sound and too high for me to see the water. I even had to let them take a look out of a ground-floor front window to prove I couldn't have seen anything. In the end, they went away thinking I'm a sloppy sobok who switched the alarms on and went to sleep."
"I'm surprised they didn't drag you off to Brootle Street on principle," remarked Sovershend.
"So were we," said Dorry. "I think it was only the casualty ratio being so good that took their minds off it."
"Yeah, eight point zero six two five," Blackjack quoted with relish. "The puts us a clear nought point two four nine ahead of Camer in the Major Engagements League."
"Guess who backed Greater Dungard to win the Nationals?" said Tenbright.
"At nineteen to one," Blackjack added smugly.
"Anyway!" Tenbright resumed his tale. "Some newshounds crawled over next to find out what was on. We made them trade what they knew for a comment from us. It seems the PI have been up half the night, chasing shadows. Once the story of PSF powerboats got round, every sobok and his dog joined the party. Someone rang the Prots at about three last night to complain about a bunch of kids joy-riding up and down the ship canal at the bottom of his garden. Someone else was listening in on the Prot radio chatter. And somehow the PSF and the powerboats got linked together. And that's what started the balling rolling."
"They've had reports of gangs of PSF roaming around on every stretch of water for fifty miles around," added Blackjack.
"They even had a mind-mangler on the vid, trying to explain the mentality of Prot-stirrers," said Tenbright. "Trying to explain what sort of kick they get out of listening in on their radio channels and vidding them helpful messages."
"I hope your realize you and your Mobys have made everyone with a boat a suspected member of the PSF?" said Dorry.
"Me?" protested Sovershend. "Those Mobies weren't mine. Why, have you got a boat?"
Dorry shook his head.
"Only the ones he plays with in his bath," contributed Tenbright.
"Why worry, then?" said Sovershend. "And how do you know he plays with boats in his bath?"
"I have my sources of information," grinned Tenbright. "He says they belong to his kids."
"I deny everything," growled Dorry. His uncomfortable expression suggested that there might be some substance in the tale.
"Well!" Sovershend drained his glass. "If that's all there is to it, I don't really see any point in recalling the news. You can't have left much out." He signalled to a waiter – a different one.
"Sir?" This waiter was short and bald. His lack of height enabled him to load empty glasses onto his tray without stooping.
"Light all round, please," said Sovershend.
The waiter completed his loading operation and headed for the bar at a high rate of knots.
"Don't tell him any more till I get back," said Dorry. He climbed over Tenbright and headed for the Gents.
"That goes for me too," added Blackjack. "I want to see the look on his face when you tell him the rest." He edged out from behind the table and followed Dorry.
"There's more, is there?" said Sovershend.
"I say, the lad catches on rapidly, doesn't he," drawled Tenbright in marble-mouthed tones.
"Sir?" The waiter materialized at Sovershend's elbow.
"Svey joget! That was fast," approved Sovershend.
"Four pound eleven and eight, sir," said the waiter in a neutral tone.
Sovershend showered six pounds in coins onto the tray. Then he helped himself to one of Bas Routland's honey-flavoured cigarettes. "Have those two gone back to your storehouse to splash their boots?" he remarked.
"They only go half as often as the rest of us," offered Routland.
"But they take twice as long," finished Tenbright.
"That sounded well rehearsed," laughed Sovershend.
The absentees returned eventually and Tenbright resumed his tale. "Part two is about your maccar Ambrose."
"He of Nottridge?" scoffed Sovershend.
"The very same. Depending on who's telling the story, he's dead or severely wounded or completely unharmed or he was never there at the time."
"Don't tell me," laughed Sovershend. "He's come unstuck. The way he was going on about his Big Job, it was a direct challenge to the CustEx to scramble him. But do carry on," he invited, noticing the look of exaggerated patience on Tenbright's face.
"I don't suppose you know how he came unstuck?" inquired Tenbright. "No? Well, his Big Job was a two-pronged attack. Arlon Bekker, his number two, came over from Heitain and Ambrose came in from Sanvo Island behind a couple of decoy boats. If the worst came to the worst, he reckoned the CustEx would stomp all over his decoys and miss him. But they did exactly the opposite."
"Good intelligence?" said Sovershend.
"And a lot of help," added Dorry.
"Ambrose was making for Astrik Bay," resumed Tenbright. "He got a signal to say the decoys had landed safely and he was probably kicking himself for not sending more stuff with then. Then he spotted them. Eight Coastguard fast patrol boats strung out in front of him. The forty-five knot jobs."
"I always wanted one of them," remarked Blackjack. "We had them in the Navy – when we still had a proper Navy." He assumed an expression of doleful recollection.
"We know, airships were the death of coastal patrols," sighed Tenbright. "Anyway, Ambrose just kept going. It was a very dark night, he had his radar jamblers going and he'd cut his speed down to a crawl. So he didn't think they'd be able to hear him in the dirty weather."
"Anyone with a scrap of sense would have turned round and evaporated, double quick," scoffed Sovershend. "But that's always been his major failing. Once he makes a plan, he sticks to it because he reckons it must be infallible."
"Well, he did have five JL-90 jetfoils," said Tenbright. "If he could have sneaked past them, they'd never have got near him. But when he got to within five hundred yards of the opposition, a huge shower of water went shooting up into the air in front of him and a Vox started rattling his windows. ‘Give up or else', they told him. So Ambrose ordered full speed and put his missile jamblers on. They were up on the hydroplanes and going like a runaway transiter when they shot past the CustEx.
"Just when they thought they were away, they saw another patrol coming in to port and ahead of them. Not trying to hide or anything – nice, fat blips on the radar. So Ambrose turned inshore to run in and out of the Archers and escape that way. Then one of his fleet hit something. There was a hell of a bang and it sort of skidded to a stop. Ambrose realized he was heading into a trap and ran straight for the second patrol. They shot him up a bit, but he got away. None of the others did."
"Sounds like the CustEx were using something new and very nasty," remarked Sovershend.
"They were," nodded Tenbright. "Tie-mines."
"They work in pairs," said Blackjack, drawing on his naval experience. "They float on or just under the water, separated by a thin wire. If anything of a certain size goes between them, the mines zoom towards it. They have contact fuses, so if they can't catch up, they bash into each other and you get a proximity effect. From what we heard, they stripped the hydroplanes off Ambrose's boat and peppered the hull with big holes – luckily, above the waterline."
"And only Ambrose got away?" asked Sovershend.
"That's right," nodded Tenbright. "He managed to get to Lesten Island with just a smell in his fuel tank. He's stuck there, of course. The authorities took him into preventive custody the moment he landed. I suppose the CustEx have started extradition proceedings by now."
"What a night," laughed Sovershend. "Cost him a fortune and he gets slung in gaol on top of it all."
"That's only the half of it," Dorry said significantly as Tenbright decided to give his voice a rest. "Arlon Bekker didn't have an easy time either."
"The CustEx can't have caught up with him as well," protested Sovershend. "That's too good to be true."
"Not immediately," chuckled Dorry. "The NTF jumped all over him, fighting that deadly poison alcohol. There was about fifty or sixty of them, according to official reports. And then, just when it looked like the cargo would be smashed to pieces, CHASM jumped in."
"The Church of His Aweful Satanic Majesty," said Tenbright, savouring the doom-laden words. "Come to protect the importers of liquid delight from a bunch of fanatics. They shoved a gang of NeoKirlans into the scrap, then sneaked off with a couple of lorry-loads of assorted booze."
"That's CHASM. Lots of style and even more cheek. They must have heard that scrap miles away," Sovershend added.
"It attracted two Special Service Troops, plus a contingent from a nearby Army camp," said Dorry. "And an airship and a squadron of fast patrol boats off-shore. And a mob of newshounds getting under everyone's feet. Most of the county was in an uproar."
"Svey yoget!" laughed Sovershend. "It's not the sort of thing you'd wish on anyone. But you can't help feeling glad it happened to Ambrose."
"Of course," added Dorry, "that much trouble means someone talked out of turn. There's not a chance the CustEx worked it all out for themselves."
"And we should find out who it was pretty soon," nodded Sovershend. "No doubt Ambrose's wife is plotting a horrible revenge while she's scraping his fine together."
"Oiling the thumbscrews," remarked Tenbright.
"Oh, you've met Lilly?" said Sovershend.
"Just the once," nodded Tenbright. "She's a real krovan – with a gas grenade down her cleavage, sleeve guns on both arms and a throwing knife down the back of her neck. I never feel safe near that sort of woman. If you put a foot wrong and the woman slaps your face, you can hit back. But blowing your head off's going a bit far."
"It's not my feet that go wrong," grinned Blackjack.
"You've got a good memory," Tenbright scoffed from almost a generation away.
"Any more of your cheek and you won't be around long enough to find out if it is just memories," threatened Blackjack.
"Fat chance of that." Tenbright cast around for a friendly waiter's eye. "Another pint will put you under the table."
Katuishann reached the pub at ten-thirty. She was slightly late, her flight having encountered a spot of bad weather which had refused to obey the edicts of the forecasters. The crowd in the Sir Jerome Favour had thinned considerably. The next day was Thursday, which was a fairly popular working day. Drifting around the main room in search of Sovershend, Katuishann spotted a familiar emaciated face.
"Hello, I didn't recognize you in that wig," said Chas Jones, waving her to a vacant chair. "I don't suppose you're on your own, are you?" he added hopefully.
Katuishann gave him a patient smile. "Hello, Chas. Have you seen Dev? He's supposed to be meeting me here."
"He was here a minute ago. He can't have gone far."
"S'vo, korolan," said a well-oiled voice. Rossiter dumped glasses on the table. He was too mean to use a waiter. "Looking for me?" he asked with a friendly leer.
"I might be," said Katuishann, giving him a winning smile and a ‘get lost' inflection.
"Hello, I'm in here," boasted Rossiter. "How do you fancy a couple of drinks and a night of passion?"
"Sounds marvellous," Katuishann admitted, looking past him at Sovershend.
"Great!" beamed Rossiter, starting to rise in order to move closer to Katuishann.
A sudden pressure on the top of his head forced him back into his seat. By the time it had occurred to him that the force might be due to something other than the supernatural, Katuishann was sitting beside Sovershend in the next booth. Rossiter snarled at Jones, who was wearing a broad smile, and swore vengeance on Sovershend. Only the presence of Dorry and Tenbright, he insisted, stopped him from wading into Sovershend and smashing him to a pulp.
"Where are we having this night of passion?" Katuishann asked when Sovershend had introduced her to his companions.
"Would you believe the Mitten Gardens Hotel?" he asked.
"Not really." Katuishann shook unfamiliar blonde curls.
Sovershend shrugged. "Suit yourself. Are you having a drink here, or can you wait for me to open a bottle of Rienne at the hotel?"
"I'll wait for the Rienne," Katuishann decided, helping Sovershend to finish his beer.
She followed him to the door, giving Rossiter a sweet smile in passing. Rossiter's face assumed an even more fearsome scowl. Chas Jones stood by with a glass of fortbeer in case he burst into flames.