Tuesday, 6FEB2018, 1211 Local Time (2111 AZT)
The faculty dining hall is, by design, quiet. About every surface that isn’t dedicated to decoration is dedicated to sound mitigation, even some of the decorative surfaces have roles to play, and as a result even during a peak time, like lunch, every table can have a conversation, at a normal level of voice, without having to try and talk over each other. Even after a few years of eating in here, I still find myself admiring the design, new details and nuances still occasionally coming to my attention. I tried explaining it to Susan once; she asked me how a person could see a dragon skull mounted on a wall and be more interested in how they kept it from acting like a giant speakerbox whenever anyone stands too close to it. Some people just don’t appreciate the little mechanical details of occupied areas. I mention the dragon skull because Minette keeps staring at it.
“Is that thing real?” She asks, as we make our way to a table.
“Yes, it is.” I say. “It’s one of the Arctic varieties. A hunting party from the institute took it down a few decades back. Still holds the record for the largest documented specimen.”
“It must have been a tough fight.” She says, taking a seat at one of the tables.
“Yes, but the real bear was dragging the body all the way back here in one piece for study before the parts decayed past the point of usefulness.” I say, pulling out a chair for Susan. “Actually, it is a really impressive feat. They had to…”
“Professor, we’re on the clock.” Susan says, settling into her seat.
“Right, sorry. Business first.” I say, taking my own place at the table. There’s a conspicuous gap in the seating opposite me, with Minette to the right and Susan on the left; if Minette manages to do anything else to piss off Susan, she’s got a choice of going the long way around, jumping over the table, or trying to get around me. Or just drawing her pistol and firing across the table. Minette has her pistol back, tucked away in the cleverly-designed shoulder holster she used to sneak it into the building, but that doesn’t really concern me. For starters, she has her pistol, but we never bothered returning the cartridge that was in it, and she didn’t bother to do a chamber check. Service arrives promptly, and Susan and I order our usuals. The girl takes a bit more time, but still managed to get through the process with little fuss. Although, she does seem a bit nervous still. “Anything wrong?” I ask.
“It’s strange. By the way everyone in here is acting, you would think nothing had happened.” She says, glancing about at the other occupants of the dining hall. With the exception of the serving staff, each person or group is wrapped up in their own business, whether it be going over some paperwork, a civil conversation, a game of chess or just focusing really intently on their food. By all standards of measurement, a typical day.
“That’s because as far as they know, nothing happened.” Susan says, accepting a glass of wine from the returning server. “The rumor mill takes time to work, and all of these people have their own business to see to. Give it a few hours, and you’ll hear all kinds of outlandish stories, and perhaps one that resembles the truth.”
“But there were so many witnesses.” Minette says, too focused on the conversation to note the arrival of the beverages. I end up thanking the server on her behalf while getting my milk. “Wouldn’t they all corroborate each other’s stories?”
“If they did, then gossip would become very boring.” Susan answers. “Each one saw something similar, but it’s colored by their own biases. Consider our little… confrontation. After the door closed, each person only had what they overheard to work with. Do you think they all came to the same conclusion about what went on between us? Frankly, the only real question is which one goes to the papers first.”
“The… the papers?” She responds, showing a flushing of the face comparable to when Susan had a gun to her head. “Oh my God, everyone’s going to know what happened.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. The paper isn’t going to tell the people what happened.” Susan says, bringing a brief amount of relief to Minette before she finishes her thought. “They’re just going to tell a horribly exaggerated, excessively lurid fairy tale that has a ‘friends with benefits’ relationship with the truth. And your name on it. Won’t that be fun?” She asks sarcastically, an evil grin playing across her face. Damn it, now Minette is hyperventilating.
“It’s ok, Minette, just breathe slowly.” I say. “So many people have tried to kill me in the past few years that you probably won’t even make it above the fold, assuming you get front page at all. Really, anything involving me and violence has lost all novelty.”
“Right, but that was before a loaded heiress with a dead daddy and an axe to grind started waving a gun around. That’s pretty novel, right?” Susan says, after sipping her drink. Minette makes a noise that sounds a bit like a whimper. “I wonder what terrible nickname they’re going to give you? Daddy’s Little Assassin? The Kamikaze Baroness? Ooh, I like that one!”
“Focus up, people.” I say, in a general manner but while looking directly at Susan. “Don’t forget, we’re on a timetable here. Now, Minette, I’m going to ask you some questions about the events leading up to your father’s death. They may be upsetting, but they could give us some insight into what happened. But before that, do you have any protection?” A little ‘giggle-snort’ noise comes from Susan’s direction, but by the time I can look over there she has recomposed herself. “As in security. People you trust who know what they are doing with a weapon. Got any of those?”
“Well, we do employ a number of guards, but I’m sure most of them are just in it for the money.” She says. “I can’t honestly call them trustworthy.”
“In that case, I can recommend some hired guns.” I say. “They work for money too, but I can vouch for them as being solid.”
“You’re talking about Caroline and Beatrix, right?” Susan asks. “Will they be available on such short notice?”
“It can’t hurt to ask. Wilhelmina and Hans might be free as well.” I say. “There are others, but those 4 are top of the list.”
“Caroline Carver and Beatrix von Sparneck? Um, I think I’ll just take my chances on my own.” Minette says, trying to balance the feeling of disgust clearly readable on her face with the social duty to politely accept her plate of food from the server. “I’ve heard things about those two.”
“Is that a fact?” Susan inquires.
“Yes, it is.” She responds defensively. “They say this Carver person is some kind of alien from another world…” Admittedly, I space out a bit here; she’s just quoting crap she read in the paper, and I have more important things going on, specifically getting my food and eating it. It’s all but verbatim out of the local rag, Caroline Carver, the Girl from Earth, et cetera. My chewing gets held up by a dawning realization. If she got all her information about Caroline and Beatrix out of the papers, then as soon as she runs out of things to say about Caroline, there’s a danger that she may start repeating the atrocious things they’ve said about Beatrix. If she does that, Susan might kill her.
“Alright, great, you don’t want help. Die alone. Fantastic. Now down to brass tacks.” I interject, trying to derail this thread of conversation before it goes too far.
“No, let’s continue. I think she was about to say something entertaining.” Susan says, with her wine swirling in her glass and something between a look of mischief and menace in her eye. Fuck. “Finding out how poorly informed my husband’s would-be assassin is has been great mealtime entertainment.”
I try to wave the girl off as best as I can. A subtle shake of the head, a quick movement of the hand horizontally across the throat in the near-universal ‘shut the fuck up’ gesture. It seems to have bought me at least a few seconds. “Captain, I really would like to keep some kind of focus here.” I say. “Like we were saying earlier, we aren’t here to make Minette a better person, we’re here because of a murder, right?”
“Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.” Susan says, taking another sip from her glass. “But in the interest of domestic tranquility, we can let it slide. For now.”
“Um… ok.” Minette says, confused. I let out a sigh of relief as quietly as I can. Kid has no idea what nearly happened to her. “So, where do we start?
“Just some general information.” She responds. “How well do you know your father’s business dealings?”
“Intimately. I’ve been serving as father’s private secretary for the past two years, and have assisted elsewhere before that.” Minette says. Perfect.
“Really?” Susan asks, eyebrow raised. “Aren’t you a little young for a gig like that?”
“I’m not that young. I am eighteen years old and a woman.” She responds. Presuming the girl isn’t exaggerating, it really is impressive; some of these trade networks do a level of business that would make Standard Oil stand up and say ‘damn’. While it makes sense that the elder Vogelsang would bring his kids up in the business, she is awfully young for the gig. “What?” She asks, looking a bit flustered as Susan tries to hide a chuckle behind her wine glass.
“It’s just adorable, hearing someone around half my age sound off about how old they are.” Susan answers. “Get pregnant or get shot, and then I’ll take you seriously, kid.”
“Those are the only options for you?” Minette asks, irked.
“Yes. That or invent something cool.” Susan responds. “Now, down to business. Since we have eliminated the Professor as a suspect, we need to get an idea about who else would want to take a swipe at your family. Have the Vogelsangs pissed anyone off recently?”
“Can I trust you to keep this information secret?” She asks.
“If you can’t trust a mysterious gunman and his airship-captaining wife, then you can’t trust anyone in this world.” I respond, bringing out a notepad and a pen. Taking a moment to steel herself, she inhales sharply and begins the list.
I give up writing after the third page as Minette reels off a list of major and petty offenses committed across a range of territory that makes Siberia look small and well connected. Three smaller trade firms driven out of business or forcibly absorbed, use of exterior contractors to manage a worker dispute via a combination of direct action and psychological manipulation against subversive internal elements (read: they paid mercenaries to rip a union leader’s teeth out while his family watched), at least 20 documented industrial accidents resulting in death or dismemberment, and a bevy of other actions that would be prosecutable felonies back East but are just another day at the races out here.
“Kid, we’re going to need you to focus up.”Susan says, cutting her off halfway through an account of how they beat out another supplier for a multi-year logistics contract by catching a procurement officer on camera snorting cocaine off of an evening lady’s corset in a suite on the coast. Apparently the trick is to make sure no one finds out that you supplied the suite, the cocaine and the lady. “We don’t need every skeleton in the family closet, we just need the recent stuff.”
“Everything I just said happened in the four months leading up to the assassination.” Minette responds, taking a break from talking to grab a few more bites. Damn, and people think Susan and I are menaces to society. Sure, we’re bad people, but at least we have the good taste… No, let’s not play the “who’s a badder dude than who” game. This isn’t paradise. No one here but us sinners, and comparing scores isn’t very productive.
“Wow, your father was a bastard.” Susan says. We agree on a lot of things, but a ‘live and let live’ attitude isn’t something we have in common. On her best days it’s more along the lines of ‘live and go fuck yourself’.
“How dare you!” Minette yells, standing up quickly and sending her chair to the floor. Susan’s up a split-second late, but unlike Minette she didn’t come up empty handed; she keeps a small revolver in her jumpsuit, and has it out, half-hidden by her leg. “My father. Was not. A bastard!” She doesn’t notice the gun; she’s too busy trying to kill Susan in a staring contest and too lost in her anger to mind her environment.
“Really?” Susan responds, no anger in her voice, just fading surprise and a hint of annoyance. “You saw all the things he did. You were right there watching.”
“It was all business! That’s all it ever was!” Minette yells. Heads are starting to turn in the room, looking up from books and game boards to watch the show, and someone seems to have taken the precaution of calling up security. Not the ones from the hallway, but the real hitters; one of them is leaning half into the doorway, eyes hidden behind purple lenses with thin blue lines illuminating the frames. The rest are all queued up behind him, waiting for a reason, or possibly just an excuse. Probably started lacing up their boots as soon as Frankie sent out the first alarm, in case things escalated. “Do you think the competition is any better? Most of them aren’t even businessmen, they’re just thugs with trade warrants. Those three rival trade companies? Two of them were involved in human trafficking, shipping peasant girls from one end of the continent to the other so they can get used up and thrown away in a country they couldn’t find on a map, let alone escape, and the third was paying 50 gold to anyone who would bring in the certification papers and the severed head of one of our caravan masters. The brave upstanding unionizer? Preparing to firebomb one of our workhouses during mid-day, with the doors chained shut from the outside to maximize worker casualties. You need a good tragedy to get people in a good, frothing, mindless rage so you can point them at whoever you want to hurt, right?”
“And the hooker with the cocaine?” Susan asks, unimpressed.
“Oh, right. Major Van Driessen.” Minette says, losing a bit of her focus. “Ok, so that one wasn’t the most ethical thing in the world. But that changes nothing. The world is the way it is, and if we didn’t engage in tactics like that, we’d get steamrolled.”
“And as a side effect of those tactics, there’s about a thousand people who would happily plant a bullet in his aorta.” I say, leaning back in my chair and rubbing my temples. “Our only witness is as reliable as an Italian automobile, and the crime scene may as well be on Mars for all it matters. In other words, this investigation has officially hit a dead end.”
“What?!” Minette says, turning her attention to me. “We can’t just walk away! My father isn’t some bastard to be abandoned.”
“I’m sorry, Minette. I really am.” I say, looking her in the eye. “But we’re coming up on the limits of what we can do here.”
“No…” She says, trailing off and slumping back into her seat, head in her hands. “There has to be something… anything…”
“Short of murdering every single person your father has outfoxed, shunned, snubbed or hurt, I think this one is going to go cold.” I say, scooting my chair back up to the table. Susan follows my lead, putting the revolver away and taking her seat. The security team is still over there, hiding behind the wall, just in case. “The only piece of physical evidence we have is the pistol, and the odds of that coming up with a positive result are pretty slim.”
“My father…” She starts to say, choking on tears before she can finish the sentence. I head to her side to try and comfort her. Susan doesn’t bother. “I’ve failed him.”
“Not yet.” Susan says, as I put a hand on the girl’s shoulder and offer her one of the spare napkins. “The business he helped build is still there, and you’re the only one qualified to run it. Your father’s ship needs a captain, and that’s you.”
“My uncle could.” Minette says, dabbing her eyes. “He’s been very helpful during the transition.”
“He has his own household.” Susan says. “Sooner or later, you’re going to need to step up and take charge, and sooner would be better than later. People need to see that the Vogelsang Network is still running.”
“How?” Minette says. “Whoever killed my father is still out there.”
“There’s always going to be threats, Minette. You prepare for the one’s you can prepare for, and accept the rest as the cost of doing business.” I say. “I stand by my recommendation of Beatrix and Caroline. They’ll keep you safe while you get your house sorted. Hire them on for a month, they’ll stay close and keep you safe while you figure out who you can trust. Train your staff, hire longer-term mercenaries, hell, rent a gunship if you need to, but get yourself in a position where you can feel secure.”
“But Beatrix…” She starts to say.
“Will gleefully tear apart anyone who tries to hurt you.” Susan says, cutting Minette off before she can say anything we’ll all regret. “Trust me, she’s an angel when you get to know her. Caroline’s OK, too.”
“Caroline’s ‘OK’?” I ask. “Wow, honey, why don’t you say she has a great personality while you’re at it.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous, I’d never say Caroline had a good personality.” Susan says, pronouncing the last word as though there should be more after it. There isn’t.
“Hey, quit cramping my sales pitch.” I say. Minette laughs at our exchange. Quietly, demurely, but it comes with the first real smile I’ve seen on her face since we met. “I know you’ve picked a favorite, but don’t forget that they’re a team.”
“Yes, they are. Don’t forget what good-natured ribbing sounds like.” She says. “You have to forgive my husband, he had his sense of humor shot off in the war.”
“I thought you said he wasn’t your husband?” Minette asks, looking up at Susan through her hands.
“Prove it.” Susan replies with a smirk, meriting a widening of Minette’s smile.
“I’d cite your husband as a witness, but he may or may not be barred from testifying against you.” She says. Her eyes are still red, but the tears have stopped. For now. In a few hours, perhaps a day or two there will be something else. She’ll reach into her pocket and touch something her father gave her, smell something that she associates with a good memory, or get halfway through one of her morning routines before remembering that the reason she used to do it is gone. Bit like having a broken arm, everything’s fine until you sleep on it wrong or swing it into a doorframe. Only when you have your arm in a cast, no one questions keeping your arm protected. Bury a parent or spouse, and the world expects you to have your shit together within a month.
“Now you’re getting it. So, does it sound like a plan?” Susan says.
“Ok. We should at least talk to your people.” Minette says, dabbing off her nose before setting the napkin back on the table.
“Do you hear that, Professor? We have people.” Susan says.
“You’re an airship captain. You have a small town worth of people.” I say, retaking my seat.
“See what I mean? No sense of humor.” Susan says. “So, let’s finish eating.”
“Of course, but would someone mind escorting me to the ladies’ room?” Minette responds. “My nose has gotten a bit stuffy.”
“There’s napkins at the… Sure. I’ll walk you to the head.” Susan says, abandoning a rational point in the name of progress. In Minette’s defense, several cultures on the planet hold that blowing your nose in public is a social faux pas on par with farting, and she probably doesn’t know where the bathroom is anyway. Heading around the table, she pulls back Minette’s chair and offers her hand, which the girl accepts. The security detail appears to be loitering around the corner still; Minette doesn’t notice them as they head out the door, but Susan does, and gives the pointman a polite wave as they round the corner and go out of sight.
Except for the fact that lunch has been eaten and the scenery has changed, we’re right back where we started. Minette isn’t getting her revenge and I’m not getting any answers. Actually, doing the math, this whole thing is a net loss; not only did I not get all my paperwork done, but I’m going to have to answer for not one but two security deployments with nothing to show for it. Know what? Fuck it. I’m just going to eat my ham and not worry about it. So what if there is someone making orphans out of kids and getting me in trouble for it? Damn, that sounds terrible when I actually think it.
And here comes Frankie around the corner, eyeballing the security team as she goes, with a large manilla envelope in hand. It can’t be from the airbase; serial number checks simply don’t happen that fast, especially not around lunchtime. But sure enough, it’s the kind of envelope they would use, and she’s walking right towards me with it.
“Professor, we have a return message from the airbase.” She says, setting the envelope on the table next to my plate. Sure enough, it’s Reggie’s handwriting on the front, addressed to my office. “I thought you would want to see it right away.”
“You thought correctly. Thank you.” I say, taking the envelope off the table and cutting it open on one end. “By the way, good work this morning.”
“Just following the procedure, sir.” She says, with a tiny bow of the head.
“Anyone can follow procedure when nothing is at stake. Sticking to the plan while under pressure is completely different.” I say. “I feel a great deal of pity for whoever gets stuck as my T.A. next. You’re going to be a tough act to follow.”
“Don’t worry about it today, Professor. That’s still a ways off.” She responds, with a small, proud smile. “So, where did your guest wander off to?”
“The Captain is taking care of her.” I say. One of her eyebrows goes up as the smile leaves her face. “And by that I mean the Baroness had to use the bathroom and wanted an escort.”
“Oh, thank heavens.” She says, visibly relaxing. “After that whole business up top I was worried. So, does this mean they’re getting along now?” Frankie asks.
“Some kind of peace has taken hold. Don’t know that I’d call them friends.” I say, before unfolding the paper. The speed of the response becomes clear immediately; they didn’t need to phone it in to another facility, the pistol was sold right here in town. In hindsight, if someone is trying to stick this on me, it makes sense that they’d buy a gun on my home turf. Cardenas moves a large number of pistols in any given month, mostly by selling them in bulk to organizations like the Vogelsang network, who then resell them at a markup. But that’s the entry level stuff, your working man’s sidearm; you want the top rate stuff, like the murder weapon or my target pistol, that means signing your name, paying a deposit, and waiting for the thing to show up. And the name that got signed on the line for this pistol is Renard. Renard, Duke von Vogelsang. Minette’s uncle. “Fuck.”
“A complication?” She asks.
“Quite the opposite.” I say, drawing a big circle around the name and setting the paper over by Susan’s plate. “Everything may just have gotten horribly simple, but there are still some questions that need asked before we go off and shoot anyone.”
Leaning over the table, she catches a glimpse of the circled information. “Oh… Oh, that poor girl.”
“Don’t worry, Frankie. She’s here now, and we’ll get some answers.” I say, leaning back in my chair and massaging my temples while I rest my eyes. The evidence is right on the verge of damning. A signed invoice for the murder weapon, and by extension at least a few eye-witnesses to him ordering and claiming the weapon. Isolated crime scene where he was alone with the victim with his word against a corpse and a fictional assassin. Physical evidence on the weapon consistent with a gunshot delivered at point-blank range with no struggle. But if I hauled off and started slinging blame without figuring out the motive, I’d be making the same mistake Minette did when she walked into my office this morning.
“If you don’t mind me saying, sir, I think you’re being very kind-hearted towards the young lady.” She says, taking up Minette’s empty seat.
“You slander me. Everything I do is in my own self interest.” I say. “Her and I have a mutual enemy, and rooting them out benefits me. Any kindness or benefit the girl gets is just a side-effect.”
“And that time you talked the board into giving me a raise?” She asks with a smirk.
“Quality costs money, and that covers both goods and people. You got that raise because you earned it. Any advocacy on my part was just greasing the wheels.” I answer. “Besides, I need to maintain a rep for being a good boss if I want a decent replacement when you move up.”
“And the young Miss Carver?” She asks, smile growing.
“Above your pay grade. Mulligan. Try something else.” I say, giving her a sidelong glance.
“That’s ok, Professor. But one of these days you need to admit to yourself that you are a good person.” She says.
“Good is for suckers and churchies. I’m practical. Practical gets things done.” I say, getting an eye roll from Frankie. “Speaking of things, my meeting is in danger of running long. If I run late, are you prepared to start up the lecture yourself?”
“Yes! I mean…” She says. Her eyes light up for a bit as she forgets her stern, professional demeanor.
“It’s alright, Frankie.” I say, taking another drink. “You don’t need to justify your enthusiasm to me. Just remember what we discussed.”
“Yes, Professor.” She says, standing up and straightening out her dress. “Make eye contact, project my voice and don’t be afraid to digress for a few minutes here and there.”
“That’s right. It’s a lesson plan, not a railroad.” I say. “And if they start getting out of line?”
“Firmly but calmly steer them back on track.” She says. I start to add something, but she gets there before I do. “And never let them get the idea that I’m not the one in charge.”
“Correct. It’s your classroom, they’re just sitting in it.” I say. “They have more to fear from you than you from them.”
“I had best get myself ready.” She says with a smile. “Anything else before I leave?”
“Yes. Could you shoot off a message to Beatrix and Caroline?” I ask. “If there’s a gap in their schedule, there may be some work available for them.”
“I’ll be dropping by my apartment before class, so I can just pop upstairs and ask them.” She says.
“Thank you, Frankie.” I say. Minette and the Captain aren’t back yet, so we have a few minutes to plan strategy. Accusing a blood relative of murder is the kind of thing that makes people stop acting rationally and start getting defensive. It isn’t just a question of the individual’s honor, but of the whole family. On top of that, it sounds like the little bastard has positioned himself as an emotional crutch. We play this wrong, the kid’s going to shut down, then we’re stuck either just abandoning the whole cause or getting the facts of the case out of her by force. Minette was very close to her father, and the family business. She may know what the motive is and not realize it.
By the time Minette comes back into sight, she’s done a good job of composing herself, and I’ve put a plan together. Susan’s right along with her, and if I’m reading her glances right then the security team quietly slipped away sometime before their return. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell me if they’ve left, or just repositioned themselves; any more loud outbursts and we might find out the hard way.
“Was that Cesca who came in while we were out?” Susan asks.
“Yes. Got some correspondence, made some arrangements for the afternoon.” I say, pointing out the paper near her plate while I get Minette’s chair.
“Thank you, Professor.” She says, looking up at me and completely missing Susan’s reaction as she reads the relevant text. Susan starts to say something, but a quick shake of the head is enough to deter her.
“You’re welcome, Minette.” I say, pushing in the chair. “Now, I’ve started the ball rolling on getting you some security. We’ll have a meeting tonight, and in the meantime you can remain here as my guest.”
“Thank you.” She says. “Will there be arrangements made for my entourage as well?”
“You brought people with you?” I ask.
“Of course. A lady should never travel alone.” She says, as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“You brought your hangers-on along for an assassination mission.” Susan says. “That’s… I’m sorry, I’m trying to be polite here, but that’s pretty fucking stupid.”
“I’m not stupid!” Minette blurts out, before recomposing herself. “I always travel with an entourage, so if I suddenly stopped wouldn’t that look strange?”
“Everyone relax. We’re not here to critique the attempted felony.” I say. “Do they know why you are here?”
“No. As far as they know I’m here to negotiate a business deal.” She says.
“Do they have any instructions for what to do if you don’t return?” I ask.
“The instructions I gave them were to wait in the transit lounge until my return, regardless of how long it took.” She answers.
“If they’re in the transit lounge we don’t need to worry about them. They’ll be fine for now.” I say. “Now, down to business. When you get back home, you’re going to need to establish firm control over the Network, and that’s going to mean phasing your Uncle out and resuming whatever responsibilities he’s taken on since your father’s demise. How much has he taken over?”
“Not too much. Everything goes through me.” She says. “He’s mostly been interacting with our outside contacts, as well as sorting out some personnel issues.”
“Just so we’re clear, when you say ‘personnel issues’, you mean…” I say, leading her forward.
“Well, after my father’s murder, there were concerns about my security.” She continues. “So he went through the company rolls and cleared out those who seemed untrustworthy.”
“And can I presume that he replaced those people with ones he had personally vetted for reliability?” I ask.
“Yes.” She answers.
“And the outside contacts he’s been dealing with?” I ask.
“Mostly our suppliers. And some of our larger purchasers. And a number of the trade unions…” She starts. And continues. And continues. “… and the house staff, but that’s it. I’m still the one signing off on everything.”
“Of course.” I say, trying to keep from rolling my eyes. “And while he was doing all of that, he was still trying to run down leads on your Father’s murderer?”
“Yes.” She says. “It took a few weeks, but he said he wanted to be certain of his accusations, due to the potential implications of who he thought the murderer was.”
“And the evidence he uncovered pointed to me?” I ask.
“Yes. He said he was 100 percent certain that you were the man in the alleyway.” She answers.
“Did he share any of his evidence with you?” I ask. “Proof that I was the owner of the weapon, or anything to confirm that I was in the area at the time?”
“No. He said he had to engage in some shady dealing to get the information, and he didn’t want me to get in trouble if the law came after him.” She responds.
“How noble of him. A true paragon of Western virtue.” Susan says, doing a respectable job of hiding her contempt.
“Indeed. He’s been very supportive during my mourning process.” She answers, missing the traces of venom around Susan’s words.
“And that support included giving you a gun and sending you into my office?” I ask.
“He didn’t send me.” She responds, growing a bit cross. “I am not some errand girl. It was my decision. He merely supplied the weapon, planned out the entry, bought the transport tickets, arranged for the entourage and told me when to go.”
Susan and I take a moment to share a glance. So far, everything fits for a straight-up greed driven multiple murder. Renard caps Henri, Minette takes over the firm. Renard pumps Minette’s head full of paranoia, isolates her from the rest of the world. Minette hides, while Renard presents himself as the public face of the company and uses the pretense of a security purge to replace anyone loyal to the girl with his own cronies. Then, when he’s firmly entrenched, he points the girl towards me, presuming that I would terminate her with extreme prejudice the second she went for the gun. Professor caps Minette, Renard goes from being the de facto head of the firm to the actual head. I’ve seen worse crimes committed for far less money than is at stake here.
But we’re still not there yet. It’s not enough to justify shooting someone, and it certainly won’t convince Minette. We have the shovel in hand, so we may as well keep digging.
“Yeah.” Susan says. “Piece of advice, kiddo? Anyone outside this table asks, you should probably be less enthusiastic about taking ownership of this incident.”
“But I thought we were all OK.” She says, confused.
“We, as in you and I sitting at this table, are OK.” I say. “There’s actually at least 4 different groups who have the authority to prosecute you, and who all have their own agendas. You, a citizen and member of the peerage of the Empire, crossed at least one national border to enter the Kingdom of Freistadt, and tried to put a bullet to a Cardenas operative on long-term loan to the Guild of Mages.” Minette audibly gulps as I run down the list. “Fortunately, there’s so many players at the table who don’t want to piss each other off that they may all just let it slide.”
“They would do that?” She asks.
“Welcome to politics, kid.” Susan says. “Honor and glory are nice, but it’s all about playing the game. In this case, playing the game means not starting a war over a snot-nosed kid and a schoolteacher no one likes.”
“Well fuck you too, honey.” I say, before trying to steer this boat back on course. “We’ll get you moving out of town as soon as you have a security detail together. You don’t have to go home, I just don’t recommend staying here. Take a few days, get some rest, and then go clean house. On that note, did your uncle have much involvement with the business before the recent disruption?”
“Oh, not at all.” She says. “He never even expressed an interest until about a year ago, when… um…”
“You’ve already copped to conspiracy and murder. Don’t get shy now.” Susan says.
“It’s nothing illegal, it’s just a private matter.” Minette responds.
“Yes. A private matter between the three of us.” I say. “What happened last year?”
“Well… Uncle’s estate had been receiving support from Father for some time now. I wasn’t informed of all the details, but last spring Father started reducing the amount of gold he was paying out to cover the upkeep.” She says.
“How much money are we talking here?” I ask.
“Well, a lot of it was in goods and employee time, but it came out to roughly three million gold a year.” She says.
“Holy shit.” Susan says. “I knew the Duke liked to spend, but that’s a fuckton of money.”
“So, he was getting 3 million a year. What did the sum get reduced to?” I ask.
“Three million is what we reduced it to.” She says. “It used to be closer to ten million.”
“Clearly I said ‘holy shit’ way too soon.” Susan says, a sentiment I share wholeheartedly. “What the hell did he need all that money for?”
“When Grandfather died, Uncle inherited the title of Duke, and the lion’s share of the land, but he also inherited all of Grandfather’s obligations. Between taxes, troop levies for the Kingdom, court attendance, and all the other burdens of rank, the upkeep of the title badly outstripped the income.” Minette says.
“Horseshit.” Susan says bluntly.
“Excuse me? Are you calling me a liar?” Minette responds.
“Your uncle owns 3 cities, 7 towns, some of the most productive cropland in the Kingdom, and at least one gold mine. He literally owns a fucking gold mine.” Susan shoots back. Minette tries to answer, but Susan talks right over. “And you can take that ‘Daddy has the network’ bit and jam it up your ass. The family was never dependent on the Network’s income until after your dear Uncle started fucking up at land management.”
“Then where did all that money go?” Minette asks.
“Just speculating here, but Major van Driessen isn’t the only person in the world who likes hookers and blow.” I say.
“Rumors are pretty rampant about what the Duke has been up to.” Susan says. “Believe me, I could tell you some stories that would curl your toes. We had always just assumed that he was able to afford all that debauchery, but if your old man’s been propping him up the whole time…”
“But even if that were true, wouldn’t he cut back on his… activities… when the money ran low?” Minette asks.
“If it were that simple, loan sharks would go out of business.” Susan says.
“I… I think I see what you are working towards.” Minette says. “You’ve been steering this conversation for the past several minutes, and now I understand what you have been getting at.” Well, clearly I didn’t give the kid enough credit. Didn’t even need to show her the paper to get her on board.
“Minette, I know this is a lot of information to take in, but it’s important to face the truth.” I say. “The question is, are you ready to take action?”
“Yes.” She says, full of new-found confidence, standing up from her chair. “We will meet your mercenaries, return home, and do my father proud.”
“And you understand what you have to do?” Susan asks.
“Of course.” Minette says. “I need to clean house. Uncle is out. Termination, with prejudice.”
“Excellent.” I say, standing up and pulling back Susan’s chair. “Now, when you get in there, don’t tip your hand too soon. Get some manner of confirmation out of him without letting on, and then as soon as he gives you what you need, punch his ticket. Nothing fancy, no big declarations, just sort out the mess, understand?”
“Oh, I do.” She says, falling in with the group as I retrieve the paper and lay some gold on the table. Normally I tip 20% here, but having to deal with the mess here merits extra. “No mercy, no remorse. Uncle is history.”
“Good.” I say, taking the lead and heading up towards the offices. Looks like I’m getting things back on track, which unfortunately means that Frankie is going to be disappointed. “Now, I know this might sound distasteful, but I suggest shooting him in the back of the head. Shooting him in the face is an option, but there is too high of a risk of the bullet deflecting off of teeth or not punching through the skull properly. And don’t be afraid to put a second or third bullet into him after he hits the ground; people can and have survived gunshots to the head, and…” This is when I notice that Minette has fallen behind, and has a horrified look on her face.
“Why would you say these things?” She squeaks out.
“Why wouldn’t I?” I ask. “You have some house cleaning to do, and it’s important to do it right. Now, would you like to hear more about the termination, or shall we move on to dismemberment and disposal?”
“You really are a monster.” She says. “You want me to murder my own flesh and blood over a matter of embezzlement?”
“What?” Susan and I ask simultaneously.
“Embezzlement.” She repeats. “He gets cut off, wants more money, starts working for Father to get closer to the business, and when Father dies he puts himself in a position where he has access to nearly everything. Spending all my time in seclusion, he could do whatever he wanted. It’s terrible, and the sum is monstrous, but it’s nothing worth shooting someone over.”
“Your uncle thought otherwise.” I say, handing over the paper. “He didn’t just capitalize on your father’s death. He caused it. Your uncle murdered your father, and then sent you off to die at my hands.”
“But… how can you be certain?” She says, looking up from the paper. “Couldn’t this have been faked?”
“Do you want the long answer or the short one?” I say, crossing my arms.
“If the short answer is ‘because I said so’ I might scream.” She says.
“Good news, the short answer isn’t ‘because I said so’. Bad news, the short answer requires a background in forensic science that you probably don’t have.” I say. “So unless you can accept ‘because Science’ as an explanation, we should go with the long answer.” She nods her head in assent.
“OK, then.” I continue, and go right into the gory details, complete with the murder weapon as a visual aid. What follows is a young woman’s heart breaking a bit at a time as I lay on her step by step how it happened. She does an admirable job of concealing it, and a passerby in the hallway might think we were just having a civil conversation, but up close, looking straight into her eyes and trying to explain as politely as I can exactly what happened when a bullet tore up her father’s heart, there’s no hiding from the truth. Part of this kid is dying right now; call it innocence, or her childhood, but either way I’m killing it. Fantastic fucking day this turned out to be.
“My brother…” She starts to say, holding back tears. “My brother, Jules, is with my Uncle now. He’s only seven. If what you say is true… after he got rid of me, what would become of Jules?”
I don’t have the heart to answer her, even though I know the answer. Susan is less hesitant. “If I’m remembering the rules correctly, your brother would enter your Uncle’s legal custody. He would be stuck in Renard’s house for about nine years. A lot of things can happen in nine years. Stairs, bathtubs, an undercooked meal, a startled horse…”
“Not if I kill him first!” She says, cutting Susan off, having entirely shifted gears from sorrow to rage. “He may have stolen my father’s life, but he’s not laying a single finger on Jules! He’s all I have left of Mother and Father and I’m not losing him, damn it!”
“That’s the fucking spirit!” Susan says, smiling and clapping a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “So, we can have Beatrix hold him down while you blow his brains out with his own pistol. Won’t that be delightfully poetic, hoist him by his own petard?”
“Is a gunshot to the head more painful than how my father died?” She asks.
“Not if you place the bullet correctly.” I say. “A good clean hit on the brain stem will kill someone before they even feel the impact. It’s about as humane a violent death as you can get. “
“Then we’re not doing that.” She growls. “He has to suffer.”
“No.” I say. “He has to die. Suffering is a luxury that a young woman on a mission can’t afford. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can kill him, you have to get to him. What was your escape plan?”
“After shooting you, I was supposed to drop the pistol, walk out the door, and meet up with my entourage at the coffee bar.” She says. “If security shut down the transit station, I was going to start a fire so they would have to evacuate, otherwise we would just take the first departure out of Freistadt.”
“Minette, how long have you known the people you brought with you?” I ask.
“I only just met them.” She says. “They were provided… they were provided by my uncle. They’re in on it, aren’t they?”
“Possibly, but we’ve already seen what happens when we jump to conclusions, haven’t we?” Susan asks rhetorically, calming Minette’s growing bloodlust. “They may just be expendable patsies.”
“Your uncle may have even sent a batch of people he doesn’t like, hoping they got caught up in the mess.” I add. “It matches his M.O. from what I’ve heard so far.”
“M.O.?” She asks, confused.
“Modus operandi.” I answer. “Basically, his means and methods of committing crimes. He runs off to Eichstadt so international political tensions will keep Cardenas from performing a proper investigation, sends you at me with a pistol so I’ll do his dirty work for him, and possibly sends a pack of rubes along with you so the Constabulary will put them in jail and out of his hair.”
“How do we know the difference?” She asks.
“Well, in situations like this, bullshit has always served me well.” I say. “Short version, I’m going to walk up and say hi.”
“And what exactly is that going to accomplish?” Minette asks.
“If they really don’t know why Minette is here, my presence will be confusing.” I explain. “If they were told the score, but aren’t professionals, they’ll likely panic, either try to escape or make a deal. But if they stand their ground and don’t flinch, then we’re dealing with professionals.”
“Mercenaries?” Minette asks.
“Quite likely.” I say. “If God just happened to smile on youth and ignorance, they’re plan b. Walk you off somewhere quiet and then dispose of you.”
“And whatever happens, it’s their word against mine, and I’d be dead.” She says.
“Precisely.” I say. “But we’re going in forewarned, and by extension forearmed. We could get worthwhile information out of them, or even turn them against your uncle.”
“Turn them?” She asks. “Like hire them away?”
“You got it.” Susan says. “Speaking of hiring, I can’t help but notice that my husband hasn’t received a dime of compensation for his services. Hint, hint.”
“Heavens, you’re right. Where have my manners gone?” She says, taking a deep breath before continuing. “Professor, I would like to acquire your services, retroactive to the hour when I entered your office, to include consulting, investigation, and protection, at a rate of 200 gold per hour, through to the end of the day, with recompense for expenses and any injuries suffered, to be paid in full upon the successful elimination of the four member entourage party as a threat, to include but not be restricted to termination or detainment of said entourage party. Do we have an accord?” She says, getting everything out in one sentence, and extending her hand for a shake.
“Damn, kid. You been practicing that?” Susan asks. I take a minute to think of my response before answering; this kid is young, but she was raised by a known professional wheeler and dealer to take up his wheeling and dealing job. And she’s smiling. After everything she’s been through, all the shocks and surprises of the day, she’s back in her element. 200 an hour is beyond overkill; she’s trying to dazzle me with a big number so I won’t notice the details. OK, kiddo, you want to play, we’ll play.
“Agreed…” I start to say, bringing my hand a few inches shy of hers, then lifting it away when she goes for the shake. Taking a deep breath of my own, I continue. “…on the following caveats. Caveat one, successfully vetting the entourage party as a non-threat will be interpreted as an elimination of said threat for purposes of our accord. Caveat two, I shall retain full autonomy in action and full control of the situation in question, including but not limited to issuing direct orders to the employer, with failure to follow those orders in a timely and precise manner being considered a breach of our accord, with a penalty of either all hourly pay accrued or 5 hours worth of pay, whichever is more, as well as payment of all accrued expenses. Caveat three, the employer will endeavor in good faith to tenure agreed payment and expenses as soon as possible, with a grace period of 2 weeks from time of agreement and a penalty of three hours pay for every delinquent day. Caveat four, the ‘investigation’ element of this accord takes priority over the protective or consultative elements of said accord, and said prioritization shall not be interpreted as a breech of the accord. Caveat five, the altercation between you and my wife shall not be interpreted as a violation of the ‘protection’ aspect of this accord, nor shall any time that we were separated during the proceeding hours or during the following hours. Caveat six, in the event of dispute resolution will take place in a Cardenas military field court to be staffed by personnel from the Judge Advocate General’s detachment at the Freistadt Airbase. Caveat seven, they call me the Prince of Nightmares for a reason, and if you fuck with me I will kick your teeth out. Sound good?”
“I… Wow…” She stammers.
“Oh, is he done?” Susan teases, staring off down the hallway. “I normally space out when he says things like ‘caveat’ or ‘ergo’.”
“I spent my late teens in the military, my 20’s working law enforcement, and now I’m in academia.” I say, lowering my hand back into shaking position. “I once lawyer-talked a Bureaucrat so hard he volunteered for accounting duty at the Southern Outpost.”
“I believe that.” She says, taking my hand. “And I’m glad you’re on my team and not my uncle’s.”
“Me too. Your uncle is a dick.” I say, giving her a firm but gentle shake.
“Not for much longer.” She says, reciprocating the shake with a smile.