What Distant Deeps — Snippet 37

They reached the BDC well before Hilmer could chivy his charge up the stern companionway, so Daniel waited at the open hatch. Hogg glanced into the armored chamber and scratched himself.

“You’d best be elsewhere,” Daniel said. “Since the Commissioner wants privacy.”

“I figured,” Hogg agreed. “Well, I guess you’ll be safe alone with him, young master.”

He snorted and said, “You know, it looks like a bank vault, but Cory can watch and listen to any bloody thing that happens in there.”

“Yes,” said Daniel, “but I don’t think he will. And anyway, I’m just making Commissioner Brown comfortable. If I were worried about whether one of my officers could be trusted to keep information secure, he wouldn’t be my officer for very long.”

Hilmer, a rigger who’d lost two fingers from his left hand, came up from the companionway and waited. Long moments later, Brown stumbled out, winded by the fast climb. He was carrying a small case; now that he no longer needed a hand for the railing, he switched it from his left to his right.

“Let me help you with that, Commissioner,” Daniel said, lifting off the commo helmet which he returned to Hilmer. “The BDC will give us both privacy and good displays.”

“I’m embarrassed to be doing this, Leary,” the Commissioner said. “After all, you have your own duties. But –”

He waited till the hatch had closed — it was hydraulic, since the armored valve was impractical for even someone of Woetjans’ unaided strength — and the dogs had clanged into their mortises, then continued, “– I don’t know who else to turn to. Since it involves naval stores, I thought of you.”

“Sit down at here, Commissioner,” Daniel said. Five consoles identical to those on the bridge formed a star in the center of the BDC. Daniel rotated the seat of the nearest one sideways, then sat on an adjacent one which he turned so that he and Brown were facing one another.

He cleared his throat and went on, “Your predecessor was stealing RCN stores?”

How in heaven’s name would Brassey have managed that on Zenobia, where there wasn’t and couldn’t be an RCN presence? But it would explain the Commissioner Brown’s discomfort.

“Oh, good gracious, no!” Brown said in surprise. “I’ve gone over Commissioner Brassey’s accounts, and so far as I can see they’re quite in order. Making allowances for sloppiness, that is, but I assure you that I’ve seen worse. He certainly wasn’t fiddling the secret accounts, which is where in the past I’ve most often found problems.”

Daniel blinked. He’d been leaning slightly forward; he felt himself straighten. “Ah,” he said. “Could you be mistaken, Commissioner?”

Brown’s smile was wry and surprisingly engaging. “About many things, Captain,” he said, “yes, I certainly could be. But not about accounts of this sort, filed by a man whom I may charitably say was not one of the great intellects of his age. You have every right to dismiss my opinions on most subjects, but I’ve spent nearly twenty years becoming an expert on matters of this sort.”

Daniel grinned. “Your pardon, Commissioner,” he said. “I spoke without thinking. But if there’s no problem with the accounts, then why are you here?”

“If I may give you some background . . . ,” Brown said. “When we took possession of Cinnabar House, we found the Commissioner’s private apartments were nearly full of empty wine bottles. My wife informs me that they had contained decent local vintages.”

He shrugged. “I had access to Commissioner Brassey’s private accounts as well as his official ones,” he said, “so I went over those also. You may object that this was improper if you wish to.”

“It doesn’t appear improper to me,” Daniel said with what he hoped sounded like sincerity. Actually, it probably was improper, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Nothing about accounting seemed to him worth caring about.

“Well, anyway, I did,” said Brown. He’d opened his case; it contained a personal data unit and pockets to hold over a hundred data chips. “Brassey had a private remittance from relatives at home as well as his official salary. His outlays for wine almost perfectly balanced those sources of income, leaving very little overage for food and what I might call general maintenance. From the state of his quarters, the figures were accurate.”

“Go on,” said Daniel, nodding. He’d learned not to anticipate the Commissioner, who appeared to be telling his story in an orderly fashion. If his hearer was still completely at sea as to where that story was going — well, the answer to that was to shut up and listen.

“There’s simply no evidence that Brassey had any private venture on Zenobia,” Brown said firmly. “Or that he would have been able to manage it if he had. Gibbs did all such business as the Commission required.”

He frowned. “Which I must say isn’t very much. Now, I admit that Gibbs says that the late Commissioner wasn’t as incapable as I believe and that he had secret meetings outside Cinnabar house, though Gibbs knows nothing of the purpose or the other parties involved. But –”

Brown’s voice was animated. He had lost the diffidence and confusion with which he had begun the discussion. The accountant was very different from the embryonic Commissioner, let alone the husband.

“– we have learned, that is, I learned, in the Audit Division to ignore verbal testimony when it conflicts with written documentation. I am almost certain that Resident Tilton’s suggestion about ‘Cinnabar private ventures’ was false. As false as one would expect any statement by a man of that sort to be.”

He paused with what approached being a smug smile. Daniel had picked up on the key word. Suppressing a smile of his own — he found himself liking the suddenly competent Brown — he said, “‘Almost,’ Commissioner?”

“Exactly!” said Brown. “Look at this item, if you will.”

He typed quickly on the virtual keyboard of his data unit, but the display winked to life on the console at which he sat. With a quick adjustment, Brown moved an omnidirectional hologram to hang between himself and Daniel. It was a series of figures and legends.

This was the sort of thing Adele did all the time. It was surprising to see a stranger — and one who until moments previously had been something of a joke — accomplishing the task with the same reflexive skill.

“I normally work on my own unit,” said Brown, who had apparently understood Daniel’s expression. “I frankly don’t trust linked computers when I’m dealing with financial records. And, ah — I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve disconnected the reporting and export functions of the consoles in this room for the duration of our conference.”

“Quite all right, Commissioner,” Daniel said. Smiling faintly — had Adele spent time with this fellow during the voyage? He didn’t think she had — he added, “There’s a separate recording function built into the lighting circuit. It’s part of the log. If you like, I can have my signals officer wipe it when she returns to the ship.”

“Ah!” said Brown in surprise. “Ah. No, I don’t think that will be necessary, Captain. But I appreciate your candor.”

He cleared his throat, then touched a point in the air. On the display Daniel was viewing, line items expanded while the background faded. The excerpt read:
ITEM PN425-9901SJ:
Requisitioned Regional Naval Stores 9-13-45. No Charge.
Delivered Calvary Harbor 12-07-45.
Installed 12-09/10-45 at 4PP10418653. Barge rental 100 florins. Casual labor (off-planet spacers) 100 florins plus 30 florins alcohol bonus.

“The fund charged is the secret account,” Brown explained. “This is the only charge on the secret account during Brassey’s tenure as Commissioner. Do you have any idea what it could mean?”

“Well . . . ,” Daniel said, turning to his own console and bringing it live. “I can find out what the item is easily enough.”

Perhaps not as easily as Adele could. Regardless, it didn’t take long to find an RCN equipment catalogue. Indexing was almost instantaneous once he’d entered the item number.

Brown stared at the image and description blankly. “It’s a portable landing beacon,” Daniel explained. “Not something that you ordinarily need, but I suppose it might be more useful in the Qaboosh than in most regions, so it’s reasonable they’d have a few in stock on Stahl’s World.”

Brown still looked blank. Daniel grinned. Now you know how I’ve been feeling, he thought. Aloud he said, “It’s for bringing ships in on ground control at a place where there isn’t a proper port installation. Colonies usually do it that way: send down a lifeboat with a portable rig, then bring the main ship or ships down on ground control.”

“Ah,” said Brown. “Now I see. But why a colony?”

“I don’t know that it is,” Daniel said. “That’s what came first to mind. As for where the beacon was placed –”

He switched to a global display, assuming that the grid reference was to Zenobia. If it wasn’t, then all bets were off.

“Here,” Daniel said, viewing the cursor which seemed to be pulsing in the middle of the Green Ocean, some six hundred miles east of Calvary. He expanded the display, hoping that something that made sense would appear. The detail wasn’t very good, but at high magnification the point appeared to be a marshy islet in a scattered archipelago.

“What does it mean?” Brown said, frowning in puzzlement.

“It means . . . ,” said Daniel, grinning as he keyed an alert signal to Adele’s personal data unit. “That I will make inquiries.”

Just as soon as Adele returned.