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Authors: Alan Dean Foster

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BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
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"Hyperbole," murmured the counselor, turning artificial eyes with lenses of glass on his companion. "You're covered, Prax."

"I'm not worried about my mobility," the man snapped. "I'm worried about my money. The money I contributed to buying out that phlembo."

Momblent tried to calm him. "I'm out a considerable sum myself, remember. Don't dwell on it. It's done, and you'll survive the loss without breathing hard."

"It's not the money, it's the principle of the thing," growled the syndicate chief, his hands clenching and unclenching as he stared at the screen.

"Nonsense, Prax. I know you better than that. We both know that principle has no place in this. It's the money. We have contracted a common cold, not pneumonia. There is no need for surgery of any kind."

"Who knew?" said Prax, whirling and beginning to pace energetically between couch and screen. "Who knew the guy was a police agent? Before I went into this business, I had him traced back as far as his personal records ran. He's been functioning in the underworld for fifteen years. Since he was a kid. Nobody can operate as an agent for that long without making a mistake or being traced. Nobody. We would have found out if he'd been recruited. My tracers always find that sort of thing, always!"

"I've been supporting a little research of my own," Momblent informed him. "He's not a police agent."

Rage and fury suddenly forgotten, Prax gaped at the counselor. "What do you mean, he's not an agent?" He nodded toward the screen. "That Commissioner . . ."

Momblent smiled. "I know a few people on Evenwaith. Legals, of course. They did some work for me. Favors.

"They tell me that not only are there no records in the police storage bank referring to this Loo-Macklin as an undercover agent, there are no legal references on him at all. According to my information, he is only what he appeared to be to us from the first, namely, the director of a modest syndicate.

"Furthermore, my sources say that up until a few weeks ago, this Commissioner al-Razim only knew of him as we did."

"But he just said . . ." The flabbergasted Prax could only gesture toward the screen, where the announcer was continuing to mouth platitudes.

"That performance reflected part of the deal Loo-Macklin made with the Evenwaith Police Computer. Apparently he found a way to converse directly with it, bypassing its board of operators. The computer then contacted al-Razim who, even if he'd been of a different frame of mind, had no choice but to accept a fait accompli when it was shoved under his fat ass.

"This ludicrous story of Loo-Macklin being a long-time police agent was fabricated to save al-Razim's skin, not Loo-Macklin's. In return for turning over all his records and computer files on his syndicate's Evenwaith operations, our enterprising young friend has acquired for himself not only immunity but a sizable cash reward.

"The Commissioner will probably get an undeserved promotion out of it, from city to world police council, plus the admiration of his colleagues, who have never believed him capable of such deviousness. Of which he is not, of course.

"All of the indicted people, naturally, were until a few days ago Loo-Macklin's own close associates and employees. Many of them have worked for him for years. They're half convinced he was a police agent, too."

"Casting of the offal," muttered Prax.

"Quite so," agreed the counselor. "Apparently Loo-Macklin had the entire betrayal set up to go for some time, even before we 'offered' to buy him out. His insurance policy, in case people like ourselves eventually did make trouble for him. All he had to do was key the necessary computer interfaces.

"As to our money, which despite my seeming calm I have been very much concerned about, it has vanished into a thousand different accounts and shielding businesses. He has so thoroughly dispersed it, we could attempt recovery and end up stealing from ourselves. The man must have interfaces in his own skull. He is more than merely clever, this Loo-Macklin."

"He won't think he's so clever," said Prax dangerously, "when he can't spend his money. Maybe we can't get that back, but we can sure as hell get satisfaction. I'll send some people after him who'll cut him up so bad there'll be a piece for each of the UTW worlds and enough left over for the Nuel."

"Sure you want to do that?"

Prax frowned. He could tell when the counselor was toying with him, and he didn't like it. "What do you mean?"

"Look at him. Watch the broadcast for a few minutes." Momblent gestured at the screen, where local Clurian officials were being shown congratulating the prodigal son. All wore expansive smiles, despite the fact that several probably had underworld dealings of their own. Expediency is the hallmark of the political survivor.

"The man's now not only a local but an interstellar hero," Momblent explained. "The Evenwaith government has already voted him all kinds of honors, and others are coming in to him from several off-world service organizations, morality syndicates, and so on. You can't just send over a couple of bullywots to vape him. Can you imagine what the repercussions would be? I've already had calls from worried associates more interested in swallowing their losses than heightening their profiles."

"But he's not a hero!" Prax blurted in frustration.

"Indeed. He's a smart young punk who got lucky. He not only sold us out, he sold out his own people. All except a few who've been transferred to legal activities and have applied for status change. Some hero.

"But to the public he's Kees vaan Loo-Macklin, long-suffering and ever-vigilant police agent, who sacrificed his youth to preserve their interests from the insidious and malignant encroachment of a powerful illegal organization. You can't just vape somebody like that. It's how he's perceived that's critical, not how he is, Prax.

"Wait. Be patient. After a few years the notoriety he's wrapped protectively around him will have faded. Although by that time," and he glanced back at the screen almost admiringly, "he may have himself so firmly entrenched in legal society and commerce it will be impossible to touch him."

"What are you talking about?" Prax's tone turned wary. "Don't you want your revenge?"

"Revenge does not translate well into profit, my friend. I don't like being hurt financially, and I don't like being made a fool of. It happens but rarely. But a good fighter absorbs a blow and waits for clarity. He doesn't walk angrily back into another punch. If he's too badly hurt, he surrenders and recovers to fight again."

"You're the one who told me to buy him out," said Prax accusingly.

The counselor's lips tightened. "You're a big boy, Prax. You made your own decision. Need I remind you again that I've lost credit in this business, too?"

"Nothing compared to me." Then the syndicate chief seemed to shift mental gears. "I'm damned if I'm going to slink quietly out of sight and let him get away with this. Not only does he sell us out, sell his own people out, but he ends up a public hero because of it."

"Admirable, wouldn't you say?"

Prax looked at the counselor as though he'd suddenly gone mad. He'd always respected the older man, always relied on him for legal world advice. Not any longer . . . not after this.

"I'll be damned. You do admire him!"

"He has accomplished a great deal that is to be envied," said Momblent quietly. "He's outwitted some very smart people, you and me among them. It may be his pinnacle of achievement. He is now a rich young man with seventy-third legal status. We may hear no more of him. He may be satisfied with the comfortable security he has achieved.

"On the other hand, he may elect to try working his way upward through the legal world. That will be interesting to watch. He won't find it as easy as he did the underworld. Legal enterprises are differently constructed, much harder to betray, the managerial class far more duplicitous."

"That sounds funny, coming from a counselor to the Board of Operators to the Central Computer."

Momblent shrugged. "A pity we have not the ethics of our machines."

On the screen, a handsome woman in her early forties was being led off under restraint by several Clurian police. She was ranting and screaming obscenities. The announcer offered a disapproving comment.

"If nothing else," Momblent continued, "he has investment capital. Ten million from us, another million in rewards from the government of Evenwaith."

"He'll have to go legal now," said Prax. "Even if he wanted to he'd never be allowed back in the underworld. Never."

"I'm sure he's aware of that," Momblent agreed. He smiled slightly. "We've none to blame for what has happened, save ourselves, you know. It was we who forced him to do what he's done. I'm not sure it wasn't worth the price to you. He could have caused you and your colleagues trouble."

"What, that punk?" Prax snorted. "I know he beat us out of some money, but . . ."

"I've always said it was only money, not principle," Momblent said, interrupting him. "I'm pleased you finally admit to that truth. So you don't send your people after him. You accept your loss gracefully, though I realize it will be difficult for you, as is anything smacking of gracefulness. Be glad you have a potentially dangerous rival out of the way. I suggest we simply leave this peculiar young man alone and let him go about his life as he wishes. We will watch him, and that is sufficient.

"He was an abandoned child. It's quite possible that having come into such a sum of money and having been exposed in his short lifetime to so many pleasures both common and radical, he will elect to erect himself a small palace somewhere and retire quietly to a life of ease."

"Maybe so," admitted Prax grudgingly. "Maybe you're right. You talked about fighting. Your reaction is to dance and wave. Mine's to hit back as hard as I can." He seemed, finally, to accept what had happened. Momblent breathed a silent sigh of relief.

"Can't do much about it now in any event, if what you say is right."

"That's correct, we can't," said the counselor approvingly.

Prax started for the door, thinking hard.

"There is one other thing, though, Counselor. I think this Loo-Macklin's just a punk. Clever, sure, but still just a punk. But if I'm wrong about him and you're right, and I have had a potentially dangerous adversary and competitor eliminated, and if he doesn't choose to retire quietly, well . . . he'll be operating in the world of legals now. In your world, not mine." For the first time since he'd come storming into the office the syndicate chieftain smiled.

"He's gonna be your problem now."

"I'm not terribly concerned," replied Momblent. His artificial gaze turned back to the screen, where the story was playing itself out against a background of distant hosannas. Evenwaith was very far away.

"In fact, I'm rather looking forward to seeing which choice the young man makes."

"He'd better cover himself well," Prax muttered darkly. He was at the doorway now. "Because I still have in mind what you said a few minutes ago about the notoriety surrounding him dying down. When it does, if he gets lazy, I'm gonna see to it that he gets a nice anniversary visit from some of my people."

He departed, the door closing softly behind him. Momblent sighed, relieved the interview was finally over. He despised dealing with things like Prax. Sometimes it was necessary, however. Sometimes it was profitable.

He turned his gaze back to the screen. The names of the arrested on Evenwaith were being paraded across the plastic.

Clever, clever are you, young Loo-Macklin. He studied the names carefully. Might be a familiar one or two on the list of the accused. In that case there'd be quiet work to do, depending on whom he owed favors to and whom he might want favors from.

Yes, it would pay to keep a watch on this strange fellow. From a distance. Nothing heavy. Just a pin-watch. He was mindful of Prax's words, for despite his low opinion of the syndicate chieftain's personality, he respected the man's primitive instincts.

"He's gonna be your problem now," Prax had said.

Chapter 6

"Sir, I don't know if I can cope with being legal."

"Oh, come on, Basright," Loo-Macklin chided him.

"Really, sir. Remember that I've been illegal my whole life."

"So have I." Loo-Macklin thoughtfully regarded the ceiling of his office. Images of fish and crustaceans drifted there, three-dimensional images born of clever electronics: an upside-down ocean. He'd always had a fondness for the sea, having never seen it.

"It's not all that difficult, Basright. It's not all that different. You just don't shoot people . . . as often. You murder them with lawyers and accountants."

The slim old man leaned back in the chair fronting the wide computer screen, puffed on his dopestick and looked uncertain.

"If you'll excuse my saying so, sir, I'd rather shoot than argue. It's cleaner. I've never had much use for lawyers, nor accountants."

"That's because you've always handled the illegal analogs yourself. I'm not slighting you, Basright. I'm saying you're going to need their help. We have to go legal now. We have to deal with a new set of rules. It'll be hard at first, sure, but not impossible. I have confidence in you. The underworld wouldn't let us back in now even if we wanted in."

"I can't imagine why not, sir," said Basright dryly.

"Besides which it simply wouldn't do for my new public image."

"Hardly, sir. You're quite the hero of the day." He frowned a moment, the wrinkles crinkling in his deceptively kind face. "It's a shame about Khryswhy, though. We go back a long ways."

"Almost as far as I do." Loo-Macklin gave no evidence of sympathy for the indicted lady. "She had her chance to make a choice, just like you and a hundred other key people. She made it."

"I know that, sir, but don't you think she might have chosen differently if you'd explained your plans to her? She was choosing sort of blind."

"No." Loo-Macklin could take that simple, two-letter declaration of negativity and make it sound as final as the Last Judgment. "I couldn't take that risk. Not with her, not with anyone. You know that. She had the same chance everyone else did, yourself included."

BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
12.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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