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Torch of Freedom: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Friday, October 16, 2009 07:22 EDT



    “Arsène, my man!” Santeri Laukkonen half-shouted (necessary, if anyone was actually going to hear him over the bar’s background noise), and reached out to slap the blond, gray-eyed man on the shoulder. “Haven’t seen you for a while! Business been good?”

    Arsène Bottereau, late — very late, in his case — citizen commander in the service of the People’s Republic of Haven’s Office of State Security, tried not to wince. He was not outstandingly successful. First, because Laukkonen was a physically powerful man who hadn’t pulled the blow in the least. Second, because Bottereau had been concentrating on keeping a low profile for a long time, now. And third, because he owed Laukkonen money . . . and wasn’t there to pay it. Which was one reason he’d arranged to meet the fence and weapons dealer in a public bar rather than a quiet, discreet little office somewhere. Now he steered the other man to a corner booth — the sort of corner booth where waiters left one alone because they worked in the sort of bar where business discussions were likely to require an additional degree of . . . privacy.

    Laukkonen’s bodyguards were as accustomed as the bar’s wait staff to keeping their noses out of their employer’s business as much as possible, and they peeled off to flanking positions, close enough to hover protectively, yet far enough away to avoid overhearing anything which was none of their affair.

    “Not so good as all that, Santeri, in answer to your question.” Bottereau told him a small smile, once they were seated. “Now that people are shooting at each other out this way again, pickings are getting slim.”

    “I’m sorry to hear that.” Laukkonen’s tone was still genial, but his brown eyes had hardened noticeably.

    “Yes, well, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you,” Bottereau said.

    “Yes?” Laukkonen encouraged so pleasantly that an undeniable shiver ran down Bottereau’s spine.

    “I know I still owe you for that last load of supplies.” The ex-Peep had decided going in that frankness and honesty were the only way to go. “And I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out that the reason I haven’t come calling on you sooner is that I don’t have the cash to pay for it.”

    “The suspicion had crossed my mind,” Laukkonen allowed. His lips smiled. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be thinking about stiffing an old friend, though.”

    “Of course not,” Bottereau said, with total honesty.

    Attempting to cheat Santeri Laukkonen was not what one might consider a career enhancing move. It was a big galaxy, and it was entirely possible a man could run fast enough and far enough to get away with something like that, but Arsène Bottereau wasn’t about to risk finding out that it wasn’t. Big as the galaxy was, people like Laukkonen tended to have contacts in the least likely of places . . . and people in his line of work tended to do one another favors. Even if they hardly knew one another. Letting someone get away with cheating any of them was bad business, and if word got around that someone had done that to someone else, the offender had a distressing tendency to end up dead. Professional courtesy (after all, one day they might need a favor in Laukkonen’s area), combined with the need to make it clear deadbeats did not prosper in their neck of the woods, saw to that.

    “I’m relieved to hear it,” Laukkonen said, still pleasantly. “On the other hand, I have to wonder exactly why you wanted to see me if it wasn’t to pay me?”

    “Mostly because I want to avoid . . . misunderstandings,” Bottereau replied.

    “What sort of ‘misunderstandings’?”

    “The thing is, I can’t pay you right now, and to be honest, the way both the Manties and Theisman — and Erewhon, for that matter — are escorting their convoys in the area, things are getting too hot for Jacinthe. She’s only a light cruiser, and we’re beginning to see heavy cruiser escorts — even a couple of battlecruisers, out of Theisman.” Bottereau shook his head. “I’m not going to get your money by ramming my head into that kind of opposition, and the stuff sailing independently around here right now is strictly low-end. It’s not going to pay the bills, either.”

    “And this matters to me because . . .?” Laukkonen’s expression was not encouraging.

    “Because I’ve got an . . . opportunity elsewhere. It’s for a big paycheck, Santeri. Enough to let me finally retire, actually, as well as paying you everything I owe you.”

    “Of course it is.”

    Laukkonen smiled thinly, but Bottereau shook his head.

    “I know. Everybody in my line of work is always looking for the big score.”

    It was his turn to smile, and there was absolutely no humor in it. He hadn’t seen a lot of options when the People’s Republic went down with Oscar Saint-Just, yet if he’d realized then what he was getting into . . . .

    “I won’t lie to you,” he went on, looking Laukkonen straight in the eye. “There’s nothing I’d like better than to be able to get the hell out, and this may be my chance to do just that.”

    “Unless, of course, something . . . unfortunate happens before you get to that retirement check,” Laukkonen pointed out.

    “Which is one reason I’m having this conversation with you,” Bottereau said. “I know these people are good for the money. I’ve worked with them before, although I have to admit this time they’re talking about a lot bigger paycheck than before.” He grimaced. “On the other hand, what they’re talking about sounds like a straightforward merc operation, not commerce raiding.” It was interesting, a corner of his own mind noted, that even now he couldn’t bring himself to use the word “piracy” in conjunction with his own actions. On the other and, it never even occurred to him to mention anything about the People’s Navy in Exile to Laukkonen. Mostly because he was certain it would absolutely convince the arms dealer he was shooting him a line of pure shit. “It’s a single in-and-out op, and the amount they’re talking about, completely in addition to anything we might . . . pick up along the way, would clear everything I owe you — and everyone else — and still leave me enough to set up somewhere else in something legitimate.”


    “And I want you to understand that in order for me to get from where I am now to that paycheck — the one I’m planning to pay you out of — I’m going to need some time.”

    “How much time?” Laukkonen asked frostily.

    “I’m not absolutely positive,” Bottereau conceded. “Probably at least three or four months . . . maybe even a little longer.”

    “And just exactly what are you planning to operate on in the meantime?” Laukkonen’s skepticism was plain.

    “We’re not going to be operating ‘in the meantime,’” Bottereau replied. “This is something big, Santeri. To be honest, I’m not sure how big, but big. I do know they’re going to be pulling in a lot more than just Jacinthe for this one, though, and it’s going to take a while to get everything assembled. That’s why I can’t tell you exactly how long it’s going to be. But they’ll be picking up our regular maintenance and operating costs while we wait for the entire strike force to assemble.”

    Laukkonen leaned back on the other side of the table, regarding him thoughtfully, and Bottereau looked back as levelly as he could. For a change, just about everything he’d just told the other man was true. Obviously he hadn’t explained every single thing that was involved, but everything he had said was the stark, absolute truth. He hoped that unusual state of affairs was apparent to Laukkonen.

    “You’re not just trying to get a head start, are you, Arsène?” the fence/arms-dealer inquired finally.

    “The thought had occurred to me, before this came along,” Bottereau admitted. “On the other hand, I know all about your contacts. I figure there’s no more than an even chance — if that — that I could stiff you and then disappear so completely nobody ever caught up with me. Frankly, I don’t much like those odds, and even if I could pull it off, I imagine spending the next several decades wondering if I really had wouldn’t he especially pleasant, either.” He shrugged. “So, instead, I’m telling you ahead of time why you aren’t going to see me for a while. I don’t want you putting out the word so I get myself killed when I’m actually on my way back to Ajax to settle up with you.”



    Laukkonen still looked skeptical, but he folded his arms across his chest, frowning ever so slightly as he considered what Bottereau had said. Then he shrugged.

    “All right,” he said. “All right, I’ll give you your three or four months — hell, I’ll give you six! But the interest rate’s going up. You do understand that, don’t you?”

    “Yes,” Bottereau sighed. “How much did you have in mind?”

    “Double,” Laukkonen said flatly, and Bottereau winced. Still, it wasn’t as bad as he’d been afraid it might be, and what Manpower was promising him would still be enough.

    “Agreed,” he said.

    “Good.” Laukkonen stood. “And remember, Arsène — six months. Not seven, and sure as hell not eight. You need longer than that, you damned well better get me a message — and a down payment — in the meantime. Are we clear on that?”

    “Clear,” Bottereau replied.

    Laukkonen didn’t say anything more. He simply nodded curtly, once, and walked out of the bar, picking up his bodyguards on the way.



    “Have a seat, Herlander,” McBryde invited as the sandy-haired man with the haunted hazel eyes stepped into his office.

    Herlander Simões sat in the indicated chair silently. His face was like a shuttered window, except for the pain in those eyes, and his body language was stiff, wary. Not surprisingly, McBryde supposed. An “invitation” to an interview with the man in charge of the Gamma Center’s entire security force wasn’t exactly calculated to put someone at ease even at the best of times. Which these most definitely were not for Simões.

    “I don’t imagine it made you feel especially happy to hear I wanted to see you,” he said out loud, meeting the situation head on, and snorted gently. “I know it wouldn’t have made me happy, in your place.”

    Still, Simões said nothing, and McBryde leaned forward behind his desk.

    “I also know you’ve been through a lot, these past few months.” He was careful to keep his tone gentle and yet professionally detached. “I’ve read your file, and your wife’s. And I’ve seen the reports from the Long-Range Planning Board.” He shrugged ever so slightly. “I don’t have any kids of my own, so in that sense, I know I can’t really understand how incredibly painful all of this has been for you. And I’m not going to pretend we’d be having this conversation if I didn’t have a professional reason for speaking to you. I hope you understand that.”

    Simões looked at him for a few seconds, then nodded once, jerkily.

    McBryde nodded back, maintaining his professional expression, but it was hard. Over the decades, he’d seen more than his share of people who were in pain, or frightened — even terrified. Some of them had had damned good reason to be terrified, too. Security specialists, like cops the galaxy over, had a tendency not to meet people under the most favorable or least stressful of conditions. But he couldn’t remember ever having seen a human being as filled with pain as this man. It was even worse than he’d thought when he’d spoken to Bardasano about him.

    “May I call you Herlander, Dr. Simões?” he asked after a moment, and the other man surprised him with a brief, tight smile.

    “You’re the Center’s security chief,” he pointed out in a voice which sounded less harrowed than it ought to have, coming from a man with his eyes. “I imagine you can call any of us anything you want!”

    “True.” McBryde smiled back, easing carefully into the possible, tiny opening. “On the other hand, my mother always taught me it was only polite to ask permission, first.”

    A brief spasm of pain seemed to peak in a Simões’ eyes at the reference to McBryde’s mother. It obviously reminded him of the family he’d lost. But McBryde had anticipated that, and he went on calmly.

    “Well, Herlander, the reason I wanted to see you, obviously, is that there’s some concern about how what you’ve been through — what you’re still going through — is likely to affect your work. You’ve got to know the projects you’re involved in are critical. Actually, they’re probably even more critical than you realize already, and that’s only going to get more pronounced. So the truth is that I’ve got to know — and my superiors have to know — how well you’re going to be able to continue to function.”

    Simões’ face tightened, and McBryde raised one hand and waved it gently in a half-soothing, half-apologetic gesture.

    “I’m sorry if that sounds callous,” he said levelly. “It’s not meant to. On the other hand, I’m trying to be honest with you.”

    Simões gazed at him, then shrugged.

    “Actually, I appreciate that,” he said, and grimaced. “I’ve had enough semi-polite lies and pretenses out of all those people so eager to ’save’ Frankie from how terrible her life had become.”

    The quiet, ineffable bitterness in his voice was more terrible than any shout.

    “I’m sorry about that, too,” McBryde told him with equally quiet sincerity. “I can’t undo any of it, though. You know that as well as I do. All I can do, Herlander, is to see where you and I — and the Gamma Center — are right now. I can’t make your pain go away, and I’m not going to pretend that I think I can. But, to be brutally frank, the reason I’m talking to you is that it’s my job to help hold the entire Center together. And that means holding you together . . . and recognizing if the time ever comes when we can’t do that anymore.”

    “If the time ever comes?” Simões repeated with a heartbreaking smile, and despite his own training and experience, McBryde winced.

    “I’m not prepared to accept just yet that it’s inevitable,” he said, wondering even as he did if he truly believed that himself . . . and doubting that he did. “On the other hand, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I’m not going to be making contingency plans in case it does come. That’s my job.”

    “I understand that.” For the first time, there was a flicker of something more than pain in those hazel eyes. “In fact, it’s a relief. Knowing where you’re coming from, and why, I mean.”

    “I’ll be honest with you,” McBryde said. “The last thing I really want to do is to get close, on a personal level, to someone who’s in as much pain as I think you are. And it’s not as if I’m any kind of trained counselor or therapist. Oh, I’ve had a few basic psych classes as part of my security training, of course, but I’d be totally unqualified to try and cope with your grief on any sort of therapeutic basis. But the truth is, Herlander, that if I’m going to feel confident I understand you, and the security implications you present, you’re going to have to talk to me. And that means I’m going to have to talk to you.”

    He paused and Simões nodded.

    “I don’t expect you to be able to forget I’m in charge of the Center’s security,” McBryde continued. “And I’m not going to be able to promise you the kind of confidentiality a therapist is supposed to respect. I want you to understand that going in. But I also want you to understand that my ultimate objective, however we got where we are, is to try to help you stay together. You can’t complete the work we need completed if you fall apart, and it’s my job to get that work completed. It’s that simple. On the other hand, that also means you’ve got at least one person in the universe — me — you can talk to and who will do anything he can to help you deal with all the shit coming down on you.”

    He paused again, looking into Simões’ eyes, then cleared his throat.

    “On that basis, Herlander, let’s talk.”

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