On a planet far from Earth, late in the Twenty-First Century, two secondary characters faced one another over a battered computer desk-panel.
Each held a thick glass of clear liquid. The man toyed with his; the woman clutched hers so tightly her knuckles showed red against her whitened fingers.
The woman, a native of the planet, might have been a nondescript human: medium-brown hair, medium-brown eyes, medium-brown skin, Terran-average height, weight, build. Only her day-glo orange tent dress, trimmed in black plush, would have set her apart from thousands.
The man, an alien from yet another planet, lounged in an upholstered swivel chair, picking loose threads from its fabric with the air of a man making a social call.
Gord Pron wasn’t making a social call. His lemon-yellow skin, emerald hair, beady black eyes, and lack of lips proclaimed his origin. He was a Stokk, and he meant business.
“I have a speculation to put before you, Bookkeeper Freldt Saymak,” Gord Pron said, his parted mouth-rim showing his teeth in a charmless smile. He spoke in Allesesperanto, a hybrid Intergalactic language, serviceable for trade, diplomacy, and criminal rhetoric. “Suppose you had a friend who wanted to take over this… oh…” The Stokk pretended to search for a random example… “this Inn franchise…. A Traveler’s Rest Inn, like Jok’rel’s, here. And suppose the man who had the franchise wouldn’t transfer it. What would you do?”
“I’d tell my friend to want something else,” the woman said.
The Stokk laughed. “But suppose your friend was set on the idea. I mean, really set on it. Suppose he was so set on it, you thought somebody might get sick over it. Maybe fall down and crack his head or something. You’d want to help your friend, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes,” Freldt said, “I’d want to help my friend.”
“Sure, you would. You’re smart. You have to be smart, to be a bookkeeper. If you made a mistake with the books, you could ruin a place, couldn’t you? An eent here, a biht there; it all adds up, eh? ‘Take care of the luhmps, and the krelps will take care of themselves,’ eh?”
The woman said nothing.
Gord Pron’s beady black eyes glinted like a stuffed rat’s, and his lips would have thinned, if he had had any. “You must not have heard me. I asked you a question. I said, you could ruin a place, couldn’t you?”
Freldt’s jaw slackened, then snapped tight. “So, you’re the one who started the rumor we make our mishmash out of alley jammers,” she said. “And laid false information against us with the Cleanliness Bureau. And called that trashy newstape and had it report how many times the Inspectors had been in, but not how they’d cleared us every time.”
“I don’t like to brag.”
“Why don’t you just keep it up? Business has been falling off; all you have to do is wait.”
“‘Slow but steady wins the tontine,'” the man agreed. “But we’re talking about you, remember? You and good old Knosh Jok’rel, and how you’d like to help him? Like you say, he’s been having a lot of problems lately, and it’s probably getting him down. The Inn is maybe getting to be too much for him, but he just doesn’t want to admit it. You’d be doing him a favor to help him get out, while he still has his health.”
“I see,” said Freldt.
“Sure, you do. Like I said, you’re smart. And you’ve got a good heart. Such kindness should not go unrewarded, if you know what I mean. My friend likes your friend. If you take care of your friend, my friend will take care of you. Otherwise, my friend will take care of both of you. Get it?”
“I get it.”
Gord Pron nodded. “Now, we don’t want to rush you,” he said. “Think it over. I’ll meet you in the bar here… say, at fourteen hundred hours on Sixday, to see what you decide. Till then… Let’s just keep our good deed to ourselves, shall we?”
“Perhaps it would be best.”
* * *
But Freldt didn’t keep it to herself. She watched out the window until the Stokk took off in his luxury hovercar, then put in a visicall to Pel Darzin, the District Criminal Investigator.
The wide-view screen showed Freldt three walls of an office, hung with colorful abstract posters. The bare computer-desk held only a fluted vase containing a single perfect flark. The cost-code still taped around the stem told Freldt the District Criminal Investigator had purchased the blossom for himself. She found that rather touching.
Pel Darzin sat at the desk, directly before the camera. He wasn’t quite pudgy, but he trembled on the verge. He had high, rounded cheekbones, bright with vigor. His fine black hair was slicked back from a central part. His short, thick hands entered data and codes onto his keypad with surprising dexterity. Had Freldt but known it, he looked very much like a young Peter Lorre.
Darzin, on the other hand, saw a grouping of pale brown pixels surrounded on three sides by darker brown. The resolution on his visiscreen needed calibrating again.
“Yes, Bookkeeper Freldt Saymak,” he said. “May I help you?”
Freldt had a sudden attack of Second Thoughts. A well-ordered society stays well-ordered by developing a strong law-giving structure, backed up with a no-nonsense body of implementers. In other words, mouth and muscle. Any brain involved was strictly by the way. Freldt asked herself if she really wanted to throw herself into the arms of the law, where she would be as likely to find a billy-club as a Good Citizenship Medal.
She decided to test the attitudinal waters. “My employer, Innkeeper Knosh Jok’rel, has been threatened, through me, by a Stokk named Gord Pron.”
“We are familiar with the Stokk Gord Pron,” said Darzin. “He’s an enforcer for a Stokk Innkeeper named Boktu Jippir.”
“But… but Innkeeper Knosh Jok’rel knows Stokk Innkeeper Boktu Jippir. Socially, I mean. They drink in each other’s bars, eat in each other’s restaurants. The Stokk Gord Pron indicated today… He said… well, he hinted… his employer would go to any lengths to drive Innkeeper Knosh Jok’rel out of business.”
“But Stokk Innkeeper Boktu Jippir is already a wealthy man. Why would he need another Inn? Why would he be willing to destroy a friend to get what he doesn’t need?”
Pel Darzin turned a hand palm-up. “Off-worlders,” he said. “Take this fellow, What’s-His-Name, the one who’s been working the bars…. Well, that’s another case. Do you have any proof of the Stokk’s threat, or of his employer’s involvement?”
“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”
“Um… Yes. The Stokk Gord Pron told me he’s been spreading those unappetizing rumors about our restaurant and laid false information against us with the Cleanliness Bureau.”
“I accused him, and he admitted it.”
Pel Darzin began typing. “Exact words?”
“Let me think… ‘I don’t like to brag.’ I accused him and he said, ‘I don’t like to brag.'”
“Not, ‘Yes, I did those things,’ or ‘You’ve got me dead to rights,’ or ‘Let’s see you do something about it, Sister’?”
Darzin pushed a button which looked, from the visiphone camera’s angle, as if it said, “Delete.”
“Bookkeeper Freldt Saymak, would you like to tell me what the Stokk Gord Pron wanted with you?”
Time to fish or cut bait. “He wanted to bribe me to cook our books,” Freldt said.
“And,” Darzin said, in the tone of a wise old uncle to a possibly repentant child, “would you like to tell me whether or not you agreed?”
“I did not agree,” said Freldt. “I equivocated.”
“Well done,” said the Officer. “I hoped you hadn’t called to confess.”
“No, I called to inform. The Stokk Gord Pron wants me to meet him Sixday to give him my answer. In the Traveler’s Rest Inn bar, at fourteen hundred hours.”
Darzin’s thick, agile hands hesitated over his keypad. “Would it do me any good to take a statement?”
Freldt reviewed her conversation with the Stokk enforcer. “…No,” she said.
“If only…” said Darzin. “If you could lead him to repeat his threats, and if I or one of my people could hear… We’d like to make an example of one or two of these Stokk villains. They’re becoming as impertinent as alley jammers.”
“This one certainly is,” said Freldt. “Why is it permitted? What is our Council thinking of, allowing it?”
Darzin leaned closer to the sound sensor and murmured, “Bookkeeper Freldt Saymak, have you reported this to any other authority? Did you call the Grand Council before you called me?”
“Good. Bookkeeper Freldt Saymak, please keep this to yourself, but I believe one of the Council… one of the Grand Council… is working with Stokk Inneeper Boktu Jippir.”
Freldt said nothing.
“Meet Stokk Gord Pron on Sixday, as agreed,” said Pel to identify yourself?”
“I’ll wear a lilac double-breasted jumpsuit with a plaid peplum, and I’ll be playing Solitary Coup d’Etat.”
“You will, eh?” Darzin was impressed. “Till then.”
* * *
District Criminal Investigator Pel Darzin hoped he had left his caller more confident than she had any reasonable right to feel.
He allowed himself to assume Bookkeeper Freldt Saymak could get a Stokk to make a direct threat. He further allowed himself to assume he or someone he could trust would be able to bear witness.
He couldn’t assume it would lead to a conviction, or even that he’d still be on the force when the dust settled. If the rogue Councillor should get wind of the investigation and stop it or turn it against him… What could he do against a member of the Grand Council?
Devious methods seemed called for, and Darzin doubted he’d find his limited circuitousness sufficient to his need.
* * *
Freldt Saymak, with the child-like faith of the born accountant, who maintains, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that figures don’t lie, broke the phone connection.
Not that she didn’t worry. She, like Darzin, saw the difficulty of pinning down a pair of Stokk and a crooked Councillor. She also realized that, while failure might lead to the termination of Darzin’s career, she’d face termination of a different and more drastic sort at the hands of Pron and his employer.
It would be all right, she told herself. Wouldn’t it be all right? Please, let it be all right.
* * *
Unbeknownst to both Freldt and Darzin, the help they craved sped toward them, and from a source hitherto undreamt of.
Following is friendly.