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Chapter Eighteen

Vincent Frugoni, late of the Solarian League Marine Corps, frowned down at his minicomp’s display when someone settled into the seat beside him. He’d grabbed the redeye shuttle from the Capistrano spaceport deliberately, because it was usually the next best thing to empty. And as he glanced up from the display, he realized it was still the next best thing to empty. In fact, there were only seventeen other passengers on the entire eighty-seat shuttle. Like Frugoni, at least twelve of them had seized the opportunity to establish themselves in splendid isolation, unhampered by seatmates while they busied themselves catching up on either correspondence and com calls or sleep.

But not the yahoo in the seat next to him. Oh, no!

It wasn’t that Frugoni begrudged the other fellow a seat, but he’d spent three T-decades in a military career that had seen him deployed aboard ship far more often than not. He’d had no choice but to put up with the close-packed proximity a warship’s berthing spaces enforced. Now that he was out of the service, he treasured the breathing room civilians took for granted.

He gave the idiot beside him a moderately scathing look, but the newcomer only smiled, oblivious to the wattage with which First Sergeant Frugoni had incinerated decades of hapless recruits and privates. For just a moment, he found himself longing wistfully for the uniform and chevrons—and the authority that went with them—he’d left behind along with the rest of the Corps. Unfortunately, civilian life imposed somewhat different constraints. He hated giving up his current seat, for several reasons, but there were equally good reasons to change it, and so he sighed resignedly as he closed his minicomp, stood, and reached for his overhead bag.

“Why don’t you sit back down, First Sergeant?” the intrusive civilian asked softly, and Frugoni froze. He darted another look at the other man, and the stranger smiled and patted the seat he’d just climbed out of.

“It’s a fairly comfortable seat in a very good position,” he pointed out. “And it’ll be much easier for us to talk with you sitting in it. Probably less obtrusive than shouting back and forth across the aisle, too, now that I think about it.”

“And why should I want to talk to you?” Frugoni asked just a bit sharply. “For that matter, who the hell are you?”

“Eldbrand, Harvey Eldbrand.” The other man extended his hand; Frugoni looked at it with a marked lack of enthusiasm.

“I don’t know any Eldbrands, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, no. We’ve never met.” The other fellow—Eldbrand—smiled, still holding out his hand until Frugoni finally shook it…briefly.

“However,” Eldbrand went on then, “I do know some of the other people you know…and I also know quite a bit about you.”

“Here on Swallow, people take their privacy seriously.” Frugoni’s voice had taken on a much harder edge.

“I know,” Eldbrand said calmly. “That’s why you should sit back down so we can talk. I promise you’ll find the conversation…interesting. You may even find it useful.”

“Useful how?”

Even as he asked the question, Frugoni knew he shouldn’t have. He should have just shaken the guy’s hand, told him he must have the wrong party, and gotten the hell away from him while the getting was good. But now he was half-trapped. One or two other passengers had glanced his way, seen him standing—and seen him talking to the stranger. That was likely to stick in their minds if anyone asked them any questions. And even if it didn’t, the interior of every air shuttle in the Swallow System was covered by cameras. Given who he was and who his sister had been, the Fivers—the agents of General Tyrone Matsuhito’s Inspectorate Five, the Swallow System’s secret police—would be very interested in any imagery of him. If he made a point of walking away at this point, they’d want to know why. On the other hand, if he just sat back down…

He hesitated a moment longer, then calmly took his bag from the overhead compartment, opened it, pulled out a book reader, then closed the bag and put it back. He settled back into his seat, smiled at his companion (although there was no smile in his blue eyes), and flipped the book viewer open.

“I don’t like people who crowd me on shuttles,” he said conversationally. “Especially people I don’t know who say they know me.”

“That’s not what I said. I said I know a lot about you, which is true. And candor compels me to admit that I caught this flight because you did.”

“Really?” Frugoni leaned back. “I think I’m liking you less and less.”

“That’s a pity,” Eldbrand said cheerfully, “because once you get to know me, you’ll find I’m a very useful sort of fellow.”

“There’s that word again—‘useful.’” Frugoni shrugged. “You want to book a tour of the Cripples? That’s the only interest I could see us sharing. I mean, no offense”—a bared-teeth smile gave the lie to the last two words—“but you don’t exactly look like somebody who’d be ‘useful’ to me in a professional sort of way.”

The stranger actually chuckled.

“Oh, not in the way you’re thinking, anyway!” he said feelingly. “I doubt I’d last fifteen minutes in the Cripples, and I don’t have any local business accounts or contacts that could help your charter service’s bottom line. But that wasn’t what I was talking about.”

“Well, these days, that’s all I’m interested in talking about,” Frugoni told him. “I’m not in the Corps anymore, despite that ‘First Sergeant’ business. I run a charter service—a damned good one, if I do say so myself—but it’s still in the startup phase. I’m not interested in focusing on anything else right now.”

“Not officially, anyway,” Eldbrand said, and Frugoni tensed.

“You really are looking for trouble, aren’t you?” His expression was as calm as ever, but his eyes were hard. “This isn’t a good planet for people who go around playing—what’s the term? Agent provocateur, I think. All I am these days is a businessman. Okay, I’m pissed off as hell at Tallulah, and Tallulah’s pissed off at me for competing with them for scraps of the tourist trade. But I’m making it work—mostly because I’ve got so much better contacts up in the Cripples, which is their own damned fault—and that’s what I’m interested in. I don’t like Tallulah, but I’ve decided the only place I can really hurt them is in their cash flow, and that’s exactly what I’m doing, in my own modest way. All I’m doing. If you’re trying to imply anything else—or if somebody, and I’m naming no names, wants you to get me to implicate myself—you’re wasting your time. I’ll put on my dancing shoes and pop the champagne if something really, really nasty happens to Tallulah, but I’m not stupid enough to try to make it happen. So why don’t you take your obscure comments and peddle them somewhere else?”

“First Sergeant—I’m sorry, Mister Frugoni—if I were a Fiver, or even working for the SFC, I wouldn’t need you to implicate yourself.”

Frugoni’s eyes flared. He started to reply, then stopped, unwilling to give the other any additional openings. He hadn’t expected a provocateur to accept his challenge that openly. Now that the extraordinarily ordinary-looking man had done just that, he had no idea what to say next. And in a case like that, the best thing to say was absolutely nothing.

“Relax,” Eldbrand said, then snorted softly. “Sorry. That’s the last thing you’re going to do. Clichés seem to rise to the surface at a moment like this, though. What I meant was that I’m here as a friend, or at least a…benevolent neutral as far as the Cripple Mountain Movement is concerned.”

Frugoni reached casually into his jacket pocket and the worn hilt of a Mark 63 combat vibro blade settled into his palm. He wouldn’t be walking away if this went as badly as it was beginning to seem it might, he thought almost calmly. But if he wasn’t, then neither was the other man.

“Three months ago,” Eldbrand said calmly, “on one of your trips to Wonder, you left your hotel, went to a bar named O’Casey’s—a fairly disreputable bar, actually—and had half a dozen beers with a lady of…dubious reputation named Gladys.” He grimaced. “As assumed names go I suppose ‘Gladys’ is no worse than Harvey, but I believe that many years ago you knew her as Chief Petty Officer Gloria Stephanopoulos. That was during your deployment to support an OFS op—in the Dillard System, I think. Do I have that right?”

An icy chill settled in Frugoni’s belly. He never moved a muscle, but those blue eyes had taken on an even colder tinge. One that anyone who’d ever seen combat with First Sergeant Frugoni would have recognized instantly. Eldbrand, however, appeared oblivious to it.

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume I do have it right,” he continued. “And let’s also—just for the sake of argument—assume I know about your friend’s various business enterprises, including the gunrunning. And let’s further assume I know the reason you were drinking all that cheap beer in that really kind of horrible bar was that you hoped Gladys could connect you with one of her suppliers. Somebody who might be able to come up with a few hundred military-grade pulse rifles, and maybe a few SAMs and anti-vehicle weapons.”

“If there happened to be a single word of truth in these ‘assumptions’ of yours—which there isn’t, of course—you’d probably be a dead man sometime in the next, oh, thirty seconds,” Frugoni said softly.

“Now that would be a great waste, First Sergeant. Oh, I know you’re not a Marine anymore, but I’m pretty sure I’m talking to the First Sergeant right now, not the ‘legitimate businessman’ you really, really want Five to think you are. Think about this for a moment. If anyone with the Inspectorate—hell, anyone on Tallulah’s payroll, for that matter!—knew what I’ve just demonstrated I know, why in the world would they try to entrap you? Trust me, if the local authorities had the information I have, you’d have been ‘disappeared’ the instant you set foot back in Capistrano. I don’t know if they’d have gotten you alive—even if they had, I expect the Marines’ anti-interrogation protocols would be causing their interrogators all kinds of grief right now—but they sure as hell wouldn’t pussyfoot around ‘entrapping’ you!” He shook his head. “You know even better than I do that that’s not the way Matsuhito or Karaxis operates.”

Frugoni sat back in his seat, the not-yet-activated vibro blade still in his hand, while his brain raced. Every instinct still warned him this was some sort of setup, but Eldbrand had a point. Swallow wasn’t a place where the authorities worried a lot about niggling little things like evidence or proof. Not anywhere outside the Highlands, anyway. If anyone in Rosa Shuman’s government had suspected any of what this stranger had just laid out in such a devastating detail, they would have grabbed him first and worried about substantiating it later…right after they finished filling in the grave.

They damned straight wouldn’t waste time stringing me along in hopes of getting to Floyd, either, he thought. If there was any way they could get their hands on him or Jason or any of the others, they’d’ve done it years ago. Tyrone and Karaxis don’t need any more “evidence” to go after the boys than they would to grab me, but they also know there’s no way any of them’re poking their noses out of the Cripples anytime soon. And they know damned well I wouldn’t invite Floyd to do anything of the sort…and that he’d know it was bogus if I did! So what the hell does this guy want?

“This isn’t the kind of conversation I should have with anyone, especially a total stranger, on a public shuttle,” he said. “Assuming, of course, that the conversation was going to go anywhere, anyway.”

“Actually, public air shuttles are very good places for this kind of conversation,” Eldbrand demurred. “They’ve got video, sure, but I noticed your eyes before you chose the seat. That’s why I said it was in a good position, and it is, isn’t it? You know the pickups can’t get a good look at your lips—that bulkhead by the drink dispenser cuts off the one on the left side of the cabin at row twelve, and the one furthest forward on the right side is behind us. Now, if we were to get up and turn around and face to our left about, oh, thirty degrees, the one hidden in the row twenty-three light fixture could probably get a pretty good angle.”

Frugoni’s nostrils flared. Swallow’s security forces didn’t waste a lot of time camouflaging their snooping systems. After all, all of them were completely legal under the current inventive interpretation of the Constitution. But Eldbrand had unerringly catalogued all the video pickups which might have provided grist for a lip reader, including the one that had been hidden in the light fixture he’d mentioned. Frugoni had done the same thing before he selected his seat, with an unobtrusive little device he’d acquired from Chief Stephanopoulos, and he wondered if Eldbrand had a matching unit in his pocket.

“As far as audio systems,” Eldbrand continued, “I’m afraid the ones covering our current zone are suffering from unfortunate interference right this minute.” Frugoni tensed, and Eldbrand shook his head. “Don’t worry. I’m sure someone at Five will wonder if you had anything to do with it, but when they investigate, they’ll find that the gentleman in 21-B is responsible. And if they examine his luggage, they’ll find a small but expensive stash of controlled technology in it. It’s mostly bootleg molycircs and some spyware nanotech, but there are a couple of jammers in there, as well, and one of them, unfortunately, is turned on at the moment. Faulty switch. I’m afraid he probably never even noticed.

“I suspect he’ll have a hard time explaining that, especially when his employers find the fund transfer from Rappaport Industries. It’s my understanding Rappaport and Tallulah are involved in a bidding war with OFS over Tallulah’s continued control here in Swallow, and I’ll bet the authorities are going to assume he’s involved in gathering information that might be useful to Rappaport. It probably won’t end well for him.” Eldbrand’s smile was cold. “But I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it, if I were you. He’s a TSE investigator and he’s been smuggling other tech—and mindbender—for years.”

The growing unhappiness Frugoni had felt as Eldbrand talked disappeared abruptly. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have liked to think about what might happen to someone set up in the fashion the other man had described. But while Frugoni had nothing against anyone willing to smuggle outlawed technology past Tallulah and its Swallowan stooges, mindbender was something else entirely. There were, unfortunately, always people stupid enough to try “just a taste” of anything, even mindbender, but as far as Vincent Frugoni was concerned, people that stupid should be drowned at birth. Mindbender was one of the very few drugs which was outlawed on virtually every planet because of its hundred percent addiction rate and inevitable ultimately fatal side effects. The fact that it had a nasty habit of inducing hyper-violent psychoses in the ending phase of its users’ addiction made the authorities no fonder of it.

If Eldbrand was telling the truth, then the sooner someone—anyone, even Matsuhito—took the supplier off the street as permanently as possible, the better.

And if he is a bender-pusher, nobody’s going to believe a single damned thing he says about how that jammer in his bag wasn’t really his, either.

It was always possible, he reminded himself, that Eldbrand really was a Fiver and that everything he’d just said was a fairytale. It was becoming more difficult to cling to that belief, however. And if the other man really knew as much about his own activities in Wonder as he claimed and he’d been able to identify and make use of the pusher, he was obviously a force to be reckoned with.

“How’d you know he’d be on this shuttle?” he asked after a moment.

“Because he’s been on this shuttle every time he came back on-planet for the last sixteen or seventeen T-months,” Eldbrand said. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice him, First Sergeant. The first four times he used it, he was here because it’s the one you always catch. He’s not here to keep an eye on you any longer, of course. That’s why the woman with the purple hair in 6-C is on board. But he knows security’s lax on this flight—after all, he’s seen it from the other side often enough—so he’s been taking advantage of it for his own purposes.”

Frugoni’s eyes flicked to the purple-haired woman, then back to Eldbrand.

“Oh, yeah. They’re still keeping at least one eye peeled where you’re concerned.” Eldbrand shrugged. “I expect they’d’ve invited you in for a little talk quite some time ago if not for your military record…and the Nixon Foundation. I don’t know how long Luther and his people will go on poking around here in Swallow, but I doubt they’ll leave before the contest between Tallulah and Rappaport gets resolved one way or the other. His entire team’s basically paid for by a Nixon grant from Rappaport.”

Frugoni looked at him thoughtfully, then nodded. That made sense, and it explained a few things. The Nixon Foundation was one of those Solarian organizations that did well by doing good. Something like ninety percent of its donations and other funding went into overhead, travel expenses, and bloated salaries, although it did seem a bit more serious than most of its ilk where investigating human rights offenses was concerned. Jerome Luther, the leader of its “fact-finding team” here in Swallow, had actually uncovered a genetic slave ring in the Cooper System, less than a hundred light-years from Sol. Unlike quite a few of the independent newsies Nixon deployed on its fact-finding missions, he had a League-wide reputation for serious digging, and Frugoni and the boys had wondered what brought someone with his media footprint to a backwater like Swallow.

“You know, Mr. Eldbrand, you seem to know an awful lot about what’s going on here in Swallow for somebody whose accent makes it pretty damned clear that, as we say here, ‘you’re not from around here, are you?’”

“That’s because my superiors have made a point of learning an awful lot about what’s going on here in Swallow,” Eldbrand replied calmly.

“And just why might that be? I doubt you’re working for Rappaport, somehow. Don’t tell me there’s a third transstellar in the wood pile!”

“No, nothing that straightforward,” Eldbrand said. “Let’s just say—for the purposes of this initial conversation—that I represent a sovereign star nation which, for reasons of its own, is interested in supporting worthwhile causes like the Cripple Mountain Movement.”

“Out of the bigness of its heart, I’m sure.” Frugoni snorted. “Excuse me, Mr. Eldbrand, but I stopped believing in the Easter Bunny about the time I learned to head a football.”

“I never said the star nation in question didn’t have ulterior motives.” Eldbrand’s tone was mild. “In fact, its motives are about as ulterior as they get. When you’re likely to find yourself in a shooting war with the Solarian Navy, it’s probably a good idea to find anything you can to…distract the Sollies’ attention from you and focus it somewhere else. So my superiors started looking for distractions, and what happened to your sister—and how your brother-in-law and his family reacted to it—was pretty damned visible a few years ago. It even made the mainstream Solly news services; that’s why Nixon sent Luther out here in the first place—ostensibly, at least. The first data search we did on this neck of the woods turned up the coverage, and after that it wasn’t hard to figure out roughly what was going on. Not when you’re prepared to spend enough money and you have the kind of sources somebody like…my superiors have, anyway. And, frankly, money’s not a big issue for us. Not when we’re looking at the alternative to spending it, anyway.”

“I’ve seen this game played a time or two before,” Frugoni replied, turning to look out the window beside him. “Usually by some fat-cat corporation trying to muscle in on somebody else’s territory.”

“Or by OFS,” Eldbrand said quietly. Frugoni’s eyes snapped back to his face, and he nodded. “Our people figured that was why you were already planning to leave the Marines even before your sister was killed, First Sergeant. You didn’t like what happened in Al-Bakiya one bit, did you?”

“No,” Frugoni said harshly. “And I especially didn’t like the fact that OFS convinced Brisbane and her people that they’d support her and then threw all of them to the fucking wolves as soon as she’d given them the excuse to move us ‘peacekeepers’ into the system.”

“And you’re wondering if my superiors would do the same thing with you.” Eldbrand nodded again. “Frankly, I thought that might be a problem for you. So one of the reasons I’m here is to do my best to convince you that won’t happen here. I expect you to be a hard sell. I hope so, actually; I prefer working with people who have functional brains. But the truth is, we have every reason to want you to succeed…and every reason not to get known as the sort of people who do the kind of thing OFS did to Andrianna Brisbane and the Al-Bakiyans. I’m afraid we won’t get to that bit until we reach the ‘I’ll-show-you-my-cards-if-you’ll-show-me-yours’ stage, but I think once we do, you’ll understand why I genuinely believe you’ll decide we can be trusted.”

“And if I don’t decide anything of the sort?”

“Then I get back on my ship and head home, no harm, no foul.” Eldbrand shrugged. “You’re only one of several star systems we’re looking at, to be honest. Given Tallulah’s record, we’d be particularly happy to see it taken down, but we’re in no position to be pursuing purely altruistic options. So if you and the Allenbys aren’t interested, we’ll wish you well and go looking for someone else to help.”

“I see.”

Frugoni leaned back in his seat, the book reader open in his lap, and contemplated his seatmate thoughtfully for the better part of two minutes.

“You’ve got my attention, anyway,” he said finally. “I’d dearly love to know how you came by all your in-system information. Maybe I’ll even find out. But you’ve impressed me, which I’m sure is what you had in mind, and your offer certainly sounds worth at least investigating. But I’m sure you understand I can’t—and won’t—try to speak for anyone else without checking with them first. So who—besides ‘Harvey Eldbrand’—do I tell them we’re talking to?”

“That’s one of the things we find out when we get to the I’ll-show-you-my-cards stage,” the other man said. “For now, if you don’t want to call me Eldbrand, how does…Firebrand strike you?”

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