WHEN THE TIDE RISES – snippet 17:



            "I'm sorry, Officer Mundy," said a secretary who sounded more hostile than regretful. Thick white-washed walls made the room much more comfortable than the sun-blasted street; the only illumination bounced in from high windows onto a light shaft, though the small lamp on the desk could be lit if needed. "Master Torregrossa is out today and I don't expect him back. You might try his estate on Exos."

            A two-stroke engine fired up, then drove down the dirt street more slowly than the high-pitched jingle from its cooling fins suggested that it should. Rather than a scooter, it must power a jitney like the one that'd brought Adele here with Tovera and Cazelet.

            Cazelet stepped past Adele and took the stylus which the secretary was holding upright on the desk. "What do you think you're–" the fellow protested, but he subsided to watch Cazelet bend over the notepad and began writing. He cupped his free hand to conceal the note from his companions.

            Adele didn't comment, but when she realized that she'd started to dip into the pocket of her tunic she smiled coldly. Whatever was going on here, it wasn't grounds for shooting Cazelet instantly.

            Cazelet held the pad up to the secretary's eyes, then ripped the note off and crumpled it into his pocket. The stylus and the pad, face down, flopped onto the desktop.

            "We'll see Torregrossa now, Ameneni," he said. He didn't raise his voice, but the syllables snapped like sparks. "If he's not in the building, you'll have him here in an hour or it'll be the worse for you."

            Tovera grinned like a snake.

            "I'm very sorry, patron," the secretary said. "He's here, yes, in his office on the third floor."

            He pointed to an unmarked door in the sidewall.

            "I'll ring ahead, or would you rather…?"

            Cazelet glanced at Adele and raised an eyebrow. "Yes, announce us," she said. "This is a friendly call."

            That'd been her intention, anyway. It still was, but friendliness wasn't quite so high a priority as it'd been before the shipping agent directed his secretary to lie to them.

            "The boy next," Tovera said. She opened the door and started up the staircase. Her attaché case was open, and her hand was inside it.

            "Yes, all right," Adele said. She didn't approve of Tovera's paranoia, but there was no reason that Cazelet shouldn't be in the middle. She smiled wryly. Among other things, that put Adele in a better position to deal with anyone coming up the stairs behind them.

            "There're Diamondian factors all over the Galactic West," Cazelet said, turning his head back toward her slightly. "Two of Torregrossa's cousins have done business of various sorts with Phoenix Starfreight."

            "And you remembered that?" Adele said as her soft-soled boots scraped and whisked on the stair treads.

            "No, mistress," said Cazelet. "But I brought the Phoenix database with me from Blythe and checked it against shippers on Diamondia when you told me what you were going to do."

            Joseph Torregrossa, a dark-skinned little man in a cream business suit, leaned over the railing at the top of the stairs. The upturned points of his mustache were as sharp as styluses.

            "Master Cazelet!" he said. "This is so unexpected–as you must see. I regret if my secretary Bhanu misunderstood your colleague's question!"

            "That's all right, Torregrossa," said Cazelet as he reached the top of the stairs. His voice was as harsh as if he rather than Tovera were pointing a sub-machine gun. "So long as you don't misunderstand me. Let's go into your office."

            "Yes, of course, of course," said the little man. He swept a bead curtain clatteringly back with his left arm. When Cazelet curtly gestured, however, Torregrossa obediently stepped inside ahead of his guests.

            Adele paused a moment before following the others, then entered with a faint smile. Though the curtain seemed only a visual barrier, it marked the edge of an active sound cancellation system. No one outside could hear what was said in the office.

            Torregrossa seated himself on the low dais against the wall to the left of the door; a fountain played in a waist-high alcove directly opposite. The remaining vertical surfaces were covered in traceries in high relief, molded rather than carved but astonishingly intricate nonetheless.

            Cushions lay on the dais and around the walls, but there was no furniture; a virtual keyboard shimmered in the air before Torregrossa, however. The office was atmospheric but by no means low tech.

            "I was pained to hear the news of your father, patron," Torregrossa said with unctuous care. "Please allow me to offer my condolences."

            Cazelet grunted as he settled cross-legged onto a cushion covered with gleaming brocade. "Don't believe everything you hear, Torregrossa," he said. "Give me a quick rundown on this Independent Republic of Bagaria or whatever they're calling it."

            "Ah!" said Torregrossa, spreading his hands wide. "Then you mean…?"

            "I mean that I want your analysis of the Bagarian situation," Cazelet said roughly. "And I need you to turn over your full electronic files to my colleague Mundy, here."

            He nodded toward her. Adele sat primly erect, her data unit in her lap. Her wands twitched as she began by emulating the device waiting for Torregrossa's input.

            "But that can wait. For now, what's your view of the Bagarian Republic?"

            Adele was comfortable enough. She'd have preferred to sit directly on the floor instead of on this slick-finished cushion, but it would do. This had become Cazelet's show and she didn't intend to draw attention to herself.

            Torregrossa laughed and interleaved his fingers repeatedly in the visual equivalent of tutting. "Well, there's a great deal of money to be made in the short term," he said. "I scarcely need to tell a Cazelet that, do I? They're a gang of criminals, worse than Platt, the Cluster Governor. There was only one of him, you see. The ministers of this new republic think they should be as rich as the governor was… and very shortly, they all are."

            "What's the state of the Bagarian navy?" Adele asked, as much to see how Torregrossa responded as for the answer itself.

            Torregrossa looked at her, then toward Cazelet with a raised eyebrow.

            Cazelet made a quick wiping motion with his left hand. "Treat any question my colleague asks as a question from me," he said irritably. "Treat it as a question from my father!"

            "As you wish, patron," the factor said, dipping his head in a hint of a bow. "Whatever you and your noble father wish."

            He turned slightly. "Mistress Mundy," he said, "there are ships and they are armed. Whether they have crews, that I do not know. The new ministry isn't good about letting pay trickle down to those on the bottom where the common spacers lie. There is desertion, there will be more desertions. But–"

            He raised an index finger for attention. His nails were almond-shaped and had been tinted the soft pink of early dawn.

            "–so long as all they have against them's a Cluster Command, they're enough. The Alliance's got some ships on Churchyard. The governor hides on Conyers with antiship missiles around him. Generalissima DeMarce and her little rebel friends'll play in the rest of the cluster. When the Alliance takes care of its business with Cinnabar or the other way around, it matters little…."

            Torregrossa spread his hands and contemplated the perfect nails. "It'll go hard, then, on the Generalissima and her ministers, whichever ones have survived their fellows' greed, that is. But there's money to be made by a firm big enough to take advantage of the situation. Not Torregrossa Brothers alone, no. But perhaps…."

            He raised an eyebrow toward Cazelet.

            "Perhaps…," he continued, "Phoenix Starfreight in cooperation with Torregrossa Brothers? We have good contacts in the cluster, you know that, patron."

            "I told you already that you'll need to provide all the information you've got to my colleague," Cazelet said. "Indeed, perhaps you could provide her with access right now while we're all here."

            "That won't be necessary," said Adele as she slipped the wands into the case of her data unit. She stood. "I have the data. Master Cazelet, I believe the best use of our time now will be to begin analyzing it back aboard the Princess Cecile."

            Cazelet rose by straightening his legs without touching a hand to the floor. Tovera had remained standing at the side of the doorway, her off-white suit blending with the delicate moldings.

            "I assure you that your colleague does not have the information, patron," Torregrossa said sharply. "While I have the greatest respect for you and your father, Torregrossa Brothers must respectfully refuse to unlock our files until there's been an agreement on, let us say, the division of the spoils between our companies."

            "Thank you for your time, Torregrossa," Cazelet said, turning to follow Adele through the door.

            "My files are protected!" Torregrossa said. "You cannot enter them!"

            "If Lady Mundy says she's copied your files, worm," Tovera said, "then it's as true as if I tell you I'll shoot your eyes out if you raise your voice to her again."

            She lifted the sub-machine gun from her case, then giggled.

            "I will shoot your eyes out if you raise your voice to her again," Tovera said. "In fact, maybe I'll shoot them out anyway."

            "Put that away, Tovera," Adele snapped as she started back down the stairs. "We have work to do."

            "Yes, mistress," Tovera said in a chastened tone. She concealed the gun again but didn't latch the case closed. Over her shoulder she called cheerfully, "But perhaps I'll be seeing you again soon, worm. I'll look forward to that!"