She fiddled with the airborne folds of her dress, uncertain what to say. “You certainly have a low opinion of yourself, Kees vaan Loo-Macklin.”
“Have you ever known me to suffer from false modesty?”
“It’s not a question of opinion but of fact. I’m here. Other people who were careless are not.”
“I’d be redundant then,” she continued, lighting up a blue dopestick of legal manufacture but laced with highly illegal hallucinogens, which the Ninth Syndicate imported to Evenwaith, “in saying that Amoleen and Nubra’s passing was accidental.”
He nodded once.
“How come no one in my section reported any of this to me?” She glanced over at Basright. “What about you?”
He shook his head violently. “None of my people knew about it or had anything to do with it. At least, none that I know of, sir.” He frowned at a sudden thought. “They’ve all been busy with their regular work, and Nubra was responsible for any stronger ‘coercive measures’ business required. Who did you get to vape him and Amoleen? If something major like that was afoot I should have heard rumors of it, at least.”
“Five years,” Khryswhy was murmuring. “They worked for you for five years.”
“They got tired of me,” he said bluntly, folding his hands across his enormous chest. His eyes dropped to study his interlocked fingers.
“I knew they were plotting against me as early as two years back, but they were valuable people. Within their own sections they performed with great efficiency.”
“If you knew all this time that they were out to get you,” she asked him curiously, “why didn’t you ever let them know that you knew? Maybe none of this would have happened.”
Loo-Macklin shook his head. “That’s not how people’s minds work, Khrys. I know a little about human nature. I’ve been forced to learn. If I’d confronted them with what I’d learned they would have denied everything. Then they would have bided their time and hatched some new plot, which I might have been lax in uncovering.
“Five years ago I told them, as I told you, that within a year I would triple the syndicate’s earnings. Well, we’re now the largest, most prosperous illegal enterprise on Evenwaith. We’ve absorbed four of the original twelve syndicates. With some more hard work and perseverance, I think that within another year we will control more than two thirds of the underworld commerce on this planet. That will put us in a dominant fiscal position vis-a-vis any possible competitors.” Basright nodded agreement.
“I’ve also initiated expansion operations on Helhedrin and Vlox. Quietly, of course, and in such a way that the small local syndicates there are as yet unaware of our intentions.”
Khryswhy gaped at him, half-rising from her chair. “But otherworld expansion by syndicates is…”
“Illegal?” He laughed, as he rarely did, a high-pitched sound almost like barking.
“Sometimes I wonder at the way our galactic society is structured, let alone how it manages to muddle along so effectively. Crime syndicates are illegal by definition and are supposed to restrict themselves to a single world. To prevent them from attaining a dangerous amount of power, I presume.
“Meanwhile, legal corporations and syndicates, which destroy the surfaces of whole worlds with their operations, are permitted to expand wherever they’re able. I see little enough difference in our activities.” There was unusual passion in his voice, and Basright and Khryswhy watched in fascination as he paced the room.
“We will expand. It’s vital to our continued security. I see no reason why we can’t.”
“You’ll find out why when word of what you’re trying to do reaches the Board of Operators on Terra and Restavon,” Khryswhy told him. “But you didn’t answer my question or Basright’s.” She gestured at the older man, who’d finally regained his composure now that he was reasonably sure Loo-Macklin didn’t intend to have him join Amoleen and Nubra. Actually he was quite pleased at the way things had turned out. He couldn’t have been comfortable in his dotage with Nubra as syndicate chief.
“What did you do,” she asked Loo-Macklin, “borrow killers from another syndicate?”
“No,” he told her softly. “That would have been dangerous. Outsiders can be talkative, especially where things of importance and great worth are involved. I prefer keeping such matters as private as possible.
“So I killed Amoleen and Nubra myself. I think that’s more honest than hiring someone, don’t you? I’ve never forgotten my early training, nor have five years relaxed my basic instincts.”
His associates were speechless. Their reaction was a mystery to him.
“What’s the matter with you two?” He made a face. “Have you both forgotten what I was trained to do? I’m quite capable of calling in my own debts.”
“But what about your position,” Khryswhy pointed out. “If this becomes widely known, it will lower your status.”
“Ah, status,” he murmured. “If I recall last year’s determinations, I’ve been accorded twenty-fourth class. Perhaps now I’ll fall above thirty. So what? Status means nothing to me.”
Khryswhy stared straight at him and said something, which made Basright shudder for her.
Loo-Macklin resumed his seat and, since this was to be a day full of unexpected revelations, it seemed, smiled at her. It was a genuine smile, an expression as rare as the honest laughter they’d heard from him minutes earlier.
“Sometimes you have rare insights, Khryswhy. Occasionally, real perception. It’s one of the reasons I value you and your opinions so highly.
“Yes, perhaps I am lying. Perhaps.” He touched a control on the armchair computer console. Matching units came to life on other chairs, though two of them were not occupied.
“Now then, we’ve a great deal of work to do today.” Basright bent gratefully over the glowing screen, Khryswhy more slowly. “There’s a new drug being manufactured on Restavon, which hasn’t been seen here on Evenwaith yet. It’s called Endorphin twenty-nine red. I’m told it possesses some interesting side effects and ought to sell fast and at a hell of a profit.
“The Osos and Ti-chin syndicates also know about the stuff and are trying to line up the usual exclusive import rights from the Restavon lab. Whoever gets there first with the best offer stands to make a great deal, not only here but on other worlds as well. You both know the novelty value of a new drug.”
“‘Other worlds,'” murmured Khryswhy. “Like Helhedrin and Vlox?”
“Among others,” agreed Loo-Macklin.
Basright scratched behind an ear, grinned at his console. “I wondered what we were funneling all the credit to those two dumps for.”
“Those ‘dumps’ are rapidly growing, well-managed colony worlds,” Loo-Macklin informed him. “As to the credit, now you know. You have objections, perhaps?”
That was always a rhetorical question with Loo-Macklin.
“Good. This is how I recommend we proceed. I’ve had some checking done into the personal background of the chief chemist at the Restavon lab. He’s a legal, twenty-fifth status, clean. More important, he has a married daughter who’s wed to a twenty-first class operator who works for the planetary government. Economics programming, but that’s not what matters.
“What matters is that the husband’s been involved in some shady dealings on the side. Nothing extreme, but enough to disgrace him if ever revealed. They have two children of their own.
“We can make a straight offer, of course, as Osos and the Ti-chins will, but I’d also like to begin action against the son-in-law. If not him, the father will want to protect his grandchildren from the damage a scandal could cause. Beyond that we also have the possibility of…”
Khryswhy listened to him drone on, one part of her methodically soaking up every pertinent fact while the other tried to fathom the man she worked for.
She was eight centimeters taller than he was but never felt taller in his presence. It was an effect he had on many people. He was relentlessly, eternally demanding, driving himself toward some unknown, unimaginable personal goal.
He drove his employees equally hard, from Basright and herself down to the lowliest courier.
Because of that drive she’d become wealthy and powerful beyond her wildest dreams. True, she was older, but not that much older. And he was not yet thirty. At times she felt protective toward him, at other times openly affectionate. He never reciprocated, was never more than formally cordial toward her.
Sometimes she had the feeling that … she forced the thought aside and fought to pay more attention to what he was saying. It would be dangerous to think she had any kind of claim on him, as dangerous as believing she understood what kind of man he was. She didn’t. No one did.
The real Kees vaan Loo-Macklin was buried somewhere beneath a hundred carefully constructed layers of deception and camouflage. There were times when she thought she’d caught a glimpse of the real man, only to discover later on that they were false impressions, deliberately manufactured by him. On other occasions she allowed herself to respond to his leads on a personal level, to find out that he was just toying with her.