“Why don’t you just get in touch with him,” suggested Prax. “Or, if you like, I’ll take care of it. We’ll convince him that it would be healthier to pull out of the transportation business on Matrix.”
The older man shook his head. “It’s not just his activities on Matrix. He’s probing other worlds as well. No conflict there with my interests, but I’ve heard complaints from friends with similar problems. The man’s becoming an irritation. My own objections aren’t enough to warrant strong action, but taken in concert with everything else I’ve been told, the situation changes.”
Prax sipped on his drink. “I could have someone pay him a visit,” he said thoughtfully, as though they were discussing something no more important than the sports scores. Among men of great power, casual euphemisms for murder are de rigueur.
Again Momblent demurred. “No. The man is well insulated. His personal network is admirable, from the standpoint of a provincial. I don’t think he’d frighten easily, and if a direct physical attempt were made on him, things could get nasty. Not that it would trouble me, of course, but there are others whose constitutions are queasier. Understand?”
Prax nodded. “All right. What do you want me to do?”
“The fellow is sharp. Almost as clever as he is ambitious, if I read him right. So we will offer to take over his illegal operations. They are all profitable; I’ve checked. They should fit neatly into your organization.”
“That’s very nice of you, Counselor.”
Momblent shrugged. “One of these days you’ll pay me back for the information. Since I’m entirely legal, I have no interest in such vile commerce myself. However, if you require a loan to cover the amount of purchase…”
Prax smiled easily. “I think I can cover the acquisition, unless you think this Loo-Macklin will be difficult.”
“I doubt it. He’s a sensible-seeming young fellow.”
“What do you estimate his holdings to be worth?”
The counselor leaned over and sorted through a pile of clothing. He extricated a small cube and punched codes into it. Information appeared instantly on the tiny screen.
“Given his annualized income over the past five years, compared with what is known of his illegal commercial base, I’d say perhaps eight million credits; though if you had to offer as high as ten, it wouldn’t be out of line. I would not go higher than that.”
Prax nodded, considered a moment, then said, “I can manage that without any trouble. You really think he’ll sell out, then?”
“As I said, he strikes me from the reports I’ve commissioned as a very intelligent young man.” Momblent fiddled absently with the cube. “Also, I have considerable confidence in your persuasive capabilities. He could resist, try to hang onto what he’s built up for the rest of his life, but any future attempts at interworld expansion would be met with force at every turn. We could shut him down quickly on smaller worlds like Matrix and Vlox, drive him back to his base on Evenwaith. He’s relatively impregnable there, but even so we could make things uncomfortable for him.
“No, I think he’ll sell out. I don’t know what his inner desires are, but I think he’d be happy to turn legal and set out to pasture. For one thing, from the reports I’ve read, he’s spent so much time building up his organization that he’s had no time to himself.”
“Women?” asked Prax, encompassing much in one word.
“There’s a slightly older woman who’s around him constantly,” replied the counselor, “but from what I’m told there’s nothing between them but business. There have been other liaisons, always brief, never intense.”
Prax had no further questions. He rose, drink in hand. Momblent slid off the bench and they shook hands, each studying the other respectfully, warily: eyes trying to see beyond cameras.
“Thank you for bringing this business opportunity to my notice, Counselor.”
“Tut. What are friends for, Prax?”
“Indeed.” The illegal stepped back. “You can report to your concerned friends that their interests will not suffer from the attentions of this Loo-Macklin or any of his underlings. His avariciousness will be checked.”
“I’m sure it will,” said Momblent confidently. “He is a curious personality. I wish I could unearth more of his early background.” He shrugged. “No matter. It will be interesting to see what he does with all that money. Quite a sum for a man his age to come into, when combined with his present personal fortune.”
“A nice little savings,” agreed Prax, to whom eight millions were a matter of everyday exchange. “If I were in his position, I’d take it and retire, ease back, and enjoy the rest of my life.”
“Yes, but, of course, you’re not him. Your ambitions and your goals rest on a higher plane altogether.”
“That’s true, Counselor,” agreed Prax, smiling broadly. “For example, I’m still not first status. That’s important to me, but not to most people. Most people never dream of reaching for the upper rung.”
“No, they don’t,” Momblent agreed.
Khryswhy burst into the room. Her hair was in disarray, she was panting hard, and the clinging blue nebula she wore pulsed with her breathing.
Loo-Macklin glanced up from the compact work station, his attention shifting from the computer readout he’d been monitoring. “Something wrong, Khryswhy?”
She stalked over to the desk, put both hands on it as she leaned down to glare at him. Her voice was low, intense. “I hear that you’ve been visited by representatives of the First Syndicate from Restavon.”
He nodded slowly, once. “That’s right.”
“I hear that they’re more than a little interested in buying control of our syndicate.”
“Also correct,” he told her.
“You’re not going to sell, are you?”
He looked away from her, back toward the monitor screen. It was full of crawling figures, little white worms signifying fortunes.
“I’ve already sold. Completely. Everything. All the assets of the syndicate, not only here but including all holdings on Matrix, Helhedrin, Vlox and everywhere else.”
She stood back, stunned, and gaped at him. “But _why?_ We were doing so well. We don’t need Restavon’s interference any more than we do their cash flow.”
“Apparently we were doing too well.” He looked back up at her. “Interests not only on Restavon but on Terra as well decided we were getting a little too big for our pants.”
“And so they frightened you into selling out,” she said bitterly, shaking her head in disbelief. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible.”
“It’s not,” he told her. “I wasn’t frightened into selling. I was persuaded, convinced. These are intelligent, knowledgeable people, these emissaries from Restavon. They made it plain they knew they couldn’t scare me. They simply laid out all the fiscal and commercial ramifications. Given the figures, selling was clearly the more sensible course than not selling.
“Besides, their offer was more than adequate. The profit is substantial.”
“Profit to you, maybe,” she said tartly. “What about me? I’m no more than an employee.” When he didn’t contradict her, she continued. “What happens to Basright and me and all the others who’ve followed your orders so carefully?”
“Not always carefully,” he corrected her. “You are all welcome to stay in my service. I have established some headway in the legal world.”
She let out a derisive laugh. “What headway? That tiny food-service-supply business on Matrix? The environmental design consultancy on Helhedrin? All your legal interests together don’t contribute a twentieth of your income.”
“I know that, but one must grab a foothold wherever one can. I never had the capital to expand my legal interests properly. I will now.” He smiled. “I expect to obtain an additional million very shortly.”
“You can never make as much, do as well, in the legal world as you have in the illegal. You ought to know that.”
“I disagree with you, Khryswhy. Regardless, there are things just as important as making money.”
There was something in his voice, something that momentarily made her forget her anger and frustration to look at him curiously.
“Is there really? What else could you be interested in, Loo-Macklin? Don’t try to tell me you’re hiding some secret obsession, because an obsession is a weakness and you’re never weak.”
“That’s not necessarily true,” he replied, neither confirming nor contradicting her. “An obsession can be a powerful motivating force. Which is not to say that I have one. I wish you would remain with me. Basright has already agreed to do so, by the way.”
“That’s typical.” She gave him a thin smile. “That old relic positively slobbers in your presence. He’d be happy to be your pet, if nothing more.”
“He’s efficient, very good at what he does. I admire that. No one’s forcing you to do anything you don’t want to do, Khryswhy. If you choose to remain with the syndicate, you’ll find yourself operating under the aegis of some very powerful illegals. That can cut both ways, if you’re not careful. I’d rather you stay with me.”