Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 28


Chapter 17

The first thing Thandi Palane noticed when she came into the suite was that the central salon’s furniture had been rearranged so that all the couches and chairs had a good view of the HD wallscreen. The paintings which normally filled the screen had been replaced by a talk program.

“– know anything about this man,” said one of the people sitting around the table that was pictured in the center of the screen. She was a red-haired woman with sharp features that matched her sharp tone of voice.

“I wouldn’t go so far as that,” said the man sitting at one end of the table. The table had an odd sort of L-shape, which led Thandi to think the man in question was the talk show’s host or moderator.

The man glanced at a small screen recessed into the table. “We know, for instance, that he was the governor of La Martine province for a short time.”

“Short time!” That came from the same red-haired woman. The barked laugh that followed had the same edge to it that Thandi was already coming to associate with the woman — for whom she was also already developing a dislike.

“That’s what I believe is called a ‘euphemism,'” the woman continued. “He was relieved from his post almost as soon as he got it — and I can’t help but notice that that came after he spent time under arrest. You can’t help but wonder –“

“Cut it out, Charlene,” said a woman sitting at the other end of the table from the man Thandi presumed to be the moderator. “None of this even qualifies as ‘established fact’ in the first place, much less any interpretation of it. The events both you and Yael are referring to took place during the revolution that overthrew St. Just — and in a Havenite province that’s far distant from our own borders and about which we know precious little to begin with. Everything about that revolution is still murky, especially at the edges. So I think it behooves us –“

Thandi turned to Ruth Winton, who was sitting on one of the couches next to Victor. “What’s this?”

“It’s a show called The Star Empire Today,” said Ruth. “The moderator is Yael Underwood.”

“He’s the slimeball with the long blond hair and weaselly expression sitting on the far right,” said Anton Zilwicki, who was seated on another couch in between Jacques Benton-Ramirez y Chou and Catherine Montaigne.

Cathy laughed. “God, I swear! Nobody can hold a grudge like a Gryphon highlander.”

“What grudge?” asked Thandi.

Berry had come in right behind her and provided the answer — after laughing herself. “Underwood’s the one who outed Daddy. That happened before we met you at the funeral ceremony for Hieronymus Stein on Erewhon.”

“– do you refuse to admit that everything about him — “

— why am I the only one here who seems to remember, Florence, that this man was our sworn enemy until yesterday –“

“– go so far as Charlene, but what does seem fairly well established is that his role in the Manpower Incident was hardly —

Thandi tuned out the yabber-jabber. “What do you mean by ‘outed’?”

“Underwood did a whole show devoted to Anton,” explained Cathy. “He let the Talking Heads blather for a while before he trotted out somebody who actually knew something and that guy — Mr. Wright they called him, didn’t they, Anton? — really spilled the beans.”

“I found out later his real name’s Guillermo Thatcher,” said Anton. “He’d recently retired from SIS — that stands for Special Intelligence Service, if you didn’t know already, which is the Manticoran civilian spook agency — and someday I hope to catch him in a dark alley with no witnesses around.”

Thandi smiled. The smile widened when she saw the gloomy expression on Victor’s face.

— Special Officer Cachat,” the Charlene women was saying, “and you really have to wonder exactly what the ‘Special’ part of that entails, don’t you? If you ask me — “

“And now they’re outing Victor, I take it?”

“Trying to,” said Anton. “It’s pretty flimsy stuff so far, and” — he jabbed a thick finger at the HD screen — “I don’t think there’s any Mr. Damn-the-bastard Wright equivalent on this panel. It’s mostly been a pillow fight between Shrill Charlene and the other woman. Her name’s Florence Hu and she’s more-or-less the Liberal Party voice on the panel.”

Cathy sniffed. “Emphasis on the ‘less,’ if you please.”

“They’re swinging at each other plenty fiercely,” Anton continued, “but how much damage can you do with a pillow? The simple truth is that none of them know very much about Victor to begin with. That includes Yael Underwood whom I also have daydreams about meeting in a dark alley someday.”

Thandi slid onto the couch next to Victor and patted his hand. “Don’t let it bother you so much, dear. It’ll be over soon enough.”

Victor’s expression, amazingly, got more gloomy still. “I’m afraid not,” he said.

“Oh, come on. These so-called ‘news talk shows’ have the attention span of a gerbil. By next week –“

“Victor is all they’ll be talking about,” said Anton. “Well… might take a bit more time than that, depending on this and that and the other. There are some ways, Thandi, in which you don’t know Victor that well. The reason for that sourpuss expression on his face isn’t because of what’s on the HD screen now. It’s because he knows what he ought to do next and he really, really, really doesn’t want to do it.”

Victor grunted. “The reason for the sourpuss expression, as Anton puts it, is because I find his ability to figure out what I’m thinking distressful as well as disturbing. He’s getting better at it, too, to make it still worse.”

Thandi frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Berry, now standing next to her, looked back and forth between the two men. “Look at ’em. It’s like they belong to some sort of weird club. You know, the sort of goofy super-exclusive fellowship that’s got stupid secret handshakes.”

Ruth suddenly sat up straight and clapped her hands. “Oh, my God! That’s brilliant, Anton and Victor! It’s absolutely brilliant!”

She jumped to her feet and began pacing back and forth, gesticulating in a manner so vigorous it was almost wild. She came within a centimeter of knocking over a very expensive-looking vase perched on a side table. “You’ll have to get approval, of course. Might even have to go all the way to President Pritchard. But she’s an ex-spook herself so she’s bound to understand why it’s such a great idea.”

Striding back, she passed by Benton-Ramirez and Chou and waved her hand at him. “He’ll have to sign on, too, obviously. But I can’t imagine that’ll be a big problem.”

Jacques looked up at Thandi and Berry. “What are they all talking about?”

Thandi shrugged. “Got no idea. Spook-think doesn’t come naturally to me. Victor, would you care to enlighten us?”

She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should rephrase that. If you don’t explain yourself I’m going to take up a new aerobic exercise. It’s called the Cachat Curl.”

“Can I watch?” asked Berry.

Victor raised his hands in a gesture that combined exasperation and surrender. “Given that there’s clearly no way to avoid publicity about…” (A deep breath, here.) “…me, we should run with it. Turn it to our advantage.”

“Pile it on with a shovel,” chimed in Anton. “As thick and treacly as we can. Make sure the news outlets are obsessed with the story and for as long as possible.”

He looked at Jacques. “You’ll have to help. To make the scheme work right, we’ll need to create a double for Victor. Um. Me too, I guess.”

“No ‘guess’ about it,” said Victor. “Yes, you too.”

Anton chuckled but didn’t look away from Jacques. “They’ll have to be sheathed with our DNA, I’m thinking, not just nanotech body-transformed. Just in case someone manages to pick up trace residues. We won’t expose them to the media directly, of course, since that would require them to be able to act like we do as well as looking like we do.”

“God help the universe,” muttered Thandi.

“That would get… tricky,” Anton went on. “But it doesn’t matter. Once we leak Victor’s entire history to the press — and we do know where all the bones are buried –“

“Oh, so many many bones,” chortled Ruth, still striding. “God, the media will go wild!”

“Especially when we leak the Ballroom footage of the Old Town gunfight,” said Anton.

Victor made a noise that sounded like a vehement protest strangled before it took actual form in words. Anton gave him a sideways look. “Of course we have to release that, too. It’ll be the icing on the cake, Victor. You know it as well as I do.”

The Havenite agent’s expression had passed beyond gloomy by now and had entered the territory shared by sullen rancor and spread the misery. “I’ve never seen that footage, but it’s got to include Jeremy as well as me.” He gave Cathy a sharp look. “Yes?”

“Well… yes, it does. Right at the end.”