Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 38 

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Anton Zilwicki’s thoughts were elsewhere. He’d been associated with Victor for so long that he took the man’s somewhat peculiar nature as a matter of course. Watching the recording hadn’t bothered him in the least. He’d seen it before, for one thing. For another, although he hadn’t been there when the killings took place, he’d arrived immediately thereafter — soon enough that when his daughter Helen burst out of the shadows where she’d been hiding and raced toward him, she’d had to practically dance to get through the carpet of bodies littering the cavern floor. She’d stepped directly on two of the bodies and had gotten so much blood on her shoes that they’d thrown them away afterward.

She’d just turned fourteen at the time. And just a short time earlier, had herself…

“Oh, hell and damnation,” Anton said. “I made sure the news reporters couldn’t get to Helen — the Navy was very cooperative about that — and we’ve got Berry trained to a T, of course. But since Lars never met Victor and never saw the mayhem, I didn’t think we needed to do much preparation with him. I completely forgot –“

Underwood had shifted the focus of The Star Empire Today. Again, the Talking Heads were swiveled in the chairs, watching the footage recorded earlier of an interview with Lars Zilwicki. The campus grounds of the New University of Landing formed the backdrop. Lars had just started his third year there.

“– never saw it, not even the… leftovers, I guess you’d say. They made sure to take me and Berry out by a different route. I heard a lot about it later, of course. But I didn’t meet Victor Cachat then, and I’ve never met him since.”

The young man on the screen shrugged. “Being honest, it didn’t have much of an impact on me. I was still way too shaken up by what Helen did the day before to think much about what happened in the cavern next to the ruins of the Artinstute where me and Berry were hiding.”

Lars made a face. “Well, I guess not so much what Helen did as what I did to the bodies afterward. Those bastards had… hurt Berry. Really badly. I sort of lost it.”

The image shifted to the interviewer, who was frowning slightly. “Ah… exactly what are you referring to, Mr. Zilwicki?”

Shut up, Lars, Anton silently willed at the figure on the screen. Shut up, shut up, shut…

“Oh, hell and damnation,” he repeated aloud.

Cathy smiled. “We’re talking about Lars. Being interviewed by a very attractive and sophisticated-looking young woman. You really think he’s not going to keep talking?”

“She’s ten years older than he is,” Anton growled. “At least.”

Across from him, Berry smiled also. “And that has stopped my brother… when, exactly?”

“– thought you already knew about that,” Lars was saying. “After Helen made her escape from the Scrags working for Durkheim — well, indirectly, I guess; you do know about that, right? — she ran across three thugs in the underground passageways. They attacked her, figuring… well, we’ll never know but I’m guessing they were planning to do the same… that, Berry — never mind all that.”

A little apprehensively, Anton glanced at Berry. But his daughter was watching with what seemed to be a very serene expression. Knowing her, it probably was. The incident Lars was fumbling around had been a hideous one for her, but between her innate sanity and the best therapists Cathy could hire — which meant the best therapists anywhere in the galaxy — Berry had put it all behind her quite some time ago.

“– same three who’d imprisoned me and Berry. What the shi — ah, bad men — didn’t know was that even though Helen was only fourteen at the time — she was small for her age then, too, which isn’t true these days, heh — she’d been training for years in martial arts by Robert Tye. Yeah, that Robert Tye, if you’re at all familiar with martial arts.”

“So she was able to successfully defend herself?” said the interviewer.

Lars grinned, a lot more coldly that any young man his age should have been able to. “That’s one way to put it, I guess. She killed all three of the bastards.”

The interview was cut short there. Underwood had other fish to fry. He swiveled in his chair, which took less time than it took his panel guests because he’d been half-facing the wall screen, and gave the audience a meaningful look.

Underwood was a something of a genius at his trade. He was a master of the meaningful look that… actually had no clear meaning at all but imparted the sort of gravitas to him that was invaluable for successful talk show hosts.

He broke off the look when he saw that his Talking Heads had resumed their normal position and turned to face them.

“Interesting, that last item, wouldn’t you say? Charlene?”

Charlene Soulliere, the female guest who represented the Progressive Party — unofficially, not in any formal sense — had a sour expression on her face, as she’d had from the beginning of the show. For reasons that made no sense in ideological terms — in the past, if anything, they’d tended in the direction of being Havenite apologists — the Progressives were now taking a stance of sharp opposition to the rapprochement between Manticore and Haven.

Why? Nobody outside the Progressives’ own leadership really knew, but theories abounded.

One school of thought believed that the PP was on the Mesan Alignment’s payroll. Anton thought that was unlikely, although he didn’t rule it out completely. He leaned more toward the second school of thought, which was that —

The Progressives were a pack of fumble-witted loons whose incompetence at politics seemed to have no bottom.

 

Cathy Montaigne didn’t rule that out entirely — which she did with the Mesan-Alignment-stooges theory, on the grounds that the Mesan Alignment would have to be incompetent themselves to pay good money for Progressive Party stoogery, and there was no evidence that was true — but was more inclined toward the third school of thought, which contended that —

The Progressives were angling to get back into power as part of a coalition government with the Conservative Association. That was a truly ridiculous proposition in any sane and sensible programmatic terms but couldn’t be ruled out since the only difference between the Conservative Association and the PP when it came to political scruples was that the Conservative Association did have one fixed and invariant principle — what’s ours is ours and don’t you even THINK about mucking around with it in any way whatsoever — and the Progressives had none at all beyond the craving for political power.