Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

CONQUISTADOR

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


CHAPTER TWO:

Sacramento, California

June, 2009

FirstSide:

 

"OK, we know that the condor passed through Oakland," Tom said thoughtfully, pointing his ballpoint at the map on his computer screen and leaning back in a way that made the swivel chair creak threateningly.

The headquarters of the Fish and Game department bustled around them, but they'd both had enough years in office cubicles to learn to ignore that. Tom sipped more of the vile office coffee from a big mug with a cougar painted around it. Where he came from, if you weren't doing something that required both hands, you got a cup of coffee, so you brewed it weak. That meant he had to drink decaf here, since Californians couldn't be brought to appreciate the properly diluted brew that the Norski favored. Consuming that much regular brewed at Californian strength would be like doing meths.

"Oakland's a big town, Kemosabe," Tully said meditatively, playing with the black-and-crimson necktie that fell past his belt. "Big bad town. They had a lot of problems there during the war, couple of near-miss bombings. Close to major airports. Lots of tourists, lots of through traffic on the Interstate. And it's a major seaport. Smuggler's paradise and a cop's nightmare."

Tom nodded, and worked the ball of the mouse, his long thick fingers incongruously delicate. "But! Here's what I came up with for Bosco Holdings, and what the SEC people have."

"San Francisco," Tully read. The address was not far from the intersection of California and Montgomery. "Financial district."

"Yah," Tom said. "If you dig a little deeper --"

"Subsidiary of Colletta Enterprises -- which has cross-holdings with... mmm, Rolfe Mining and Minerals?"

"RM&M owns the building. And that address is also listed as corporate HQ for a good thirty-two other corporations," Tom said. "Nothing illegal, of course. Most of them seem to be sequentially numbered single rooms or suites on the upper floors. Plus, RM&M owns a big operation in... guess where... Oakland."

"Nothing illegal. But skanky. Definitely skanky," Tully said. "Shell corporations are just too damned useful for all sorts of not-goodness... Do we want to talk to the SFPD or the Oakland cops?"

"Definitely not the Oakland cops," Tom said. "And not the SF people, not yet. Too much chance of something leaking."

Tully raised one eyebrow, an ability of which he was rather proud. "You think someone on the inside is dirty?"

"Not necessarily, but something blew the bust in LA," Tom said. "And we're not going to inform our good friends in the Bureau just yet either -- same reason, you betcha. Not before we do some legwork. And --"

Tully nodded. "Why share the glory if you don't have to?"

@@@

 

Rolfeston

June, 2009

Commonwealth of New Virginia:

 

Adrienne Rolfe sat across from her father; she'd changed into the black uniform and peaked cap of the Gate Security Force to emphasize that this was official business; no makeup, and her hair scraped back into a bun at the back of her neck, too. Charles Rolfe was glaring at her over the polished ebony of his desk, and she forced herself not to glare back.

No sense in going through that again, she thought. We had far too many entirely unproductive fights back 'when.

"Sir," she said: this wasn't just her father, after all. He was the Chairman of the Commission, and the heir to the Rolfe Family. "We came far too close to seriously endangering the secret of the Gate this time, and the problem isn't over yet. I must respectfully request permission to pursue this matter further on FirstSide."

The Chairman's office faced west; it was in the northern wing of the Commission headquarters building, on the first rise where the flat bayside plain began its rise. French doors lined that side of the office; the room was large, but not grandiose -- smaller, she told herself with an inward wry smile, than the office of the Colletta Prime. A slight murmur of sound came through and caressed the back of her neck on the wings of the same mild Bayside spring breeze that carried the scent of flowers and water; there was a park outside, and then the public plaza of Rolfeston.

Behind the desk was a wall of polished teak paneling. On that hung a great oil painting of the Founders, the first of the Families making their pact at the beginnings of New Virginia, with appropriate accompaniments -- rifles, shovels, miner's basins for panning gold, rearing steeds, and a few women doing what she thought of as the Sturdy Pioneer Helpmeet Thing. The frame was flanked on either hand by the Commonwealth's flag, a black field with diagonally crossed red bars and thirty-two many-pointed golden stars.

The picture was conventional heroic art, but well done: she could recognize many of the faces, though her mind called them up with the wrinkles, bald patches and white-haired pates of old age. Tough, taciturn old men, most of them honorary grand-uncles, dying one by one as she grew towards adulthood.

It shocked her a little how old her own father looked today, as old as her childhood memories of the Founders; she hadn't seen him in person for several months. His hair was mostly gray now, at sixty-two, though still thick -- the Rolfe men didn't lose theirs.

And when did he get those jowls? she thought. He's putting on weight, too. All those years I changed and he seemed to go on just the same, and now it's the other way 'round...

The Chairman's desk bore little beyond a few pictures and a ceremonial pen-and-inkstand. It did have a number of hidden screens; two of them had risen, one facing her and one her father. The Commission bought only the best, and the image in them was crystal clear, almost three-dimensional -- the face of a man precisely twenty-four years older than her father. John Rolfe VI, Chairman Emeritus and Founding Father; despite the snowy whiteness of his hair and the deep lines on his face, he looked scarcely older than his son. There was less harassed care and more amusement in the steady leaf-green eyes as well, and his belt measurement was the same as it had been when he left VMI. He would be looking at their paired images in a screen in his own sanctum, up north in Rolfe Manor, leaning back in the leather-cushioned chair.

"It is a bit shocking," the older man said, with an elegant gesture of one hand. "Thanks to Agent Rolfe's quick action, largely recouped. But still shocking. I fear we've grown a trifle complacent -- not to mention divorced from the realities of FirstSide."

Another hand entered the pickup screen. It was slim and female; it handed him a cigarette in an ivory holder, and a glass frosty with ice. The old man took a deep draw and a sip of the bourbon-and-water.

"Thank you, my dear," he murmured, turning his head for an instant.

"We've had smuggling before, sir," Charles Rolfe replied.

The title of respect was ungrudging, despite his obvious irritation. While he lived, the Old Man was master of the nation he had founded whatever the formal titles might say. More than law, it was custom, and custom was a word that carried a great deal of weight in the Commonwealth.

"But scarcely on this scale," said the man who had been soldier, adventurer, and king in all but name. "That was mostly a case of the occasional overshipment of precious stones or gold, and before we had Nostradamus to keep an exact running tally all the way through."

Charles Rolfe sighed. "As nearly as Gate Security can tell," he said, "it's barely smuggling, technically. None of the goods were on the prohibited list. They went through as bales of general cargo from various Families, through Affiliated firms rather than directly -- Nostradamus has the shipment records, of course -- but they weren't going to ring any alarms. The Boscos seem to be involved, and they're Colletta collaterals, of course, but... Finding out how it all got bulked into an embarrassing mass rather than being dispersed will be tricky politically. We've always paid more attention to keeping track of incoming freight, anyway."

"And we've always had a shortage of qualified personnel for Gate Security," John Rolfe said.

"Sirs," Adrienne said, dragging the conversation back to her concerns. "We've got to update that prohibited list. Immediately, and that just for starters. Yes, none of the species represented in the Los Angeles warehouse were extinct on FirstSide -- not completely extinct. But those goods in those quantities were absolutely bound to cause dangerous publicity. Someone brought them through, moved them through commercial channels on FirstSide, and then sold them -- or delivered them, anyhow -- in a single mass."

Her father shrugged angrily. "Yes, yes, no doubt it was careless -- and we should discreetly try to find out here in the Commonwealth who was responsible, and see that they get a reprimand if it was one of the Families, or a trip to the mines otherwise. However --"

The man in the screen raised the cigarette. "I think Agent Rolfe had something else to add."

"Yes, sir," Adrienne said gratefully. "Once attention was drawn to the goods, the results could have been catastrophic. DNA scans are now extremely cheap, fast and accurate, and routine. With illegal animal products, they use them even where they've got no particular reason; if it's so easy, why not? When animals are down to a few hundred well-studied individuals, DNA from an unrelated population... we might as well hang out a FROM ANOTHER UNIVERSE! sign. Once or twice we can tolerate. People disregard information that upsets their preconceptions. But if we rub their faces in facts they can't dodge, somebody is going to start connecting the dots."

"Individuals have stumbled on evidence of the Gate before," the Chairman snapped.

"Yes, sir. But it's also getting more suspicious when people disappear over on FirstSide, too. The crime rate's down there, and they tightened up on security a lot during the war, with identity cards and biometric scanners all over the place."

"Sirs," she went on earnestly, glancing from her father to her grandfather and back, "We have to tighten up too. We've got to put anything illegal -- or just rare and unusual -- on FirstSide on the Prohibited list, and we've got to be more careful about bringing the American authorities down on us."

"We're not in the business of enforcing United States laws," her father said.

John Rolfe's upraised hand cut short her reply. He spoke instead: "We are when it's to our advantage, Charles," he said mildly. "The Agent has a point. You and I can discuss it later. Now, back to the matter at hand: investigating the investigation on FirstSide. I agree that it has potential, albeit also risks."

"I don't like it," Charles said slowly.

"Neither do I, very much," his father said. "Is there anyone other than Agent Rolfe in a position to do the legwork? Or can you get the Commission to act quickly and decisively here in the Commonwealth, so that we need not move on FirstSide?"

"Not easily," Charles said, rubbing the fingertips of his right hand over his forehead. "Not without definite proof the Collettas are up to something. Not only would creating a stink be a godsend to the Imperialist faction, but I'd have to step on the corns of a lot of influential Settler business interests, restrict their trans-Gate exports and capacity to earn FirstSide dollars -- and the Commission's monopolies are unpopular enough as it is. That would bring in the Families they're Affiliated with -- you know they can't afford to ignore their clients' complaints. Not if they don't want them looking for new patrons."

There was a hint of frustrated anger in his voice. His father grinned, not unsympathetically:

"Well, I did set this place up with a more decentralized power structure than I might have if I'd had perfect precognition," he said. "Though efficiency isn't everything... but I think that does reinforce Adrienne's point."

Adrienne kept her face expressionless. She wouldn't have let the Commonwealth's government drift into the sort of sloppy, amorphous neo-feudalism that had evolved here over the past couple of generations, but it suited the Old Man fine most of the time.

Keeps life interesting and colorful, was the way he put it: or mildly chaotic and dangerous, from another point of view. The Old Man was an inveterate romantic, when he thought he could afford it.

"Very well," Charles Rolfe said. "Sir, we'll discuss the whole matter when I return to Rolfe Manor this weekend, if that's agreeable. His eyes went back to his youngest daughter. "And I'm giving you an unrestricted authorization for FirstSide," he said. "Get results, Agent; get them quickly. I don't care how, within the Regulations."

"Yes sir," she said, coming to her feet and saluting.

Handsomely done, Dad, she added to herself, as her father rose to see her out. The Regulations for FirstSide operations boiled down to 'don't get caught'. He may be a lot more ponderous than the Old Man, but he does have a certain style when he decides to do something.

She took the hand he extended. "Bacciamo le mani," she said, bowing and kissing it.

"Be careful," he said gruffly, and rested the palm on her shoulder for an instant.

"I will," she said, and added with an urchin grin: "And I intend to have a good time doing it, too, Dad."

@@@

 

San Francisco, California

June, 2009

FirstSide:

 

"Well, it's not much," Tully said, handing over a medium-thick folder of printout. "Just the public stuff."

"More than I've got so far," Tom said. "Bosco Holdings is a ghost, as far as the US is concerned. They've got a bank account, and another in the Caymans; I couldn't get anything out of them, they'd never heard of California Fish & Game. That would take Perkins; she'd get results fast enough, but..."

"But they'd be her results."

Offshore banks were a lot less secretive these days, at least as far as US government 'requests' were concerned; there had been a couple of spectacular cases of strong-arming during the later mopping-up years of the war, and none of the little countries that specialized in no-questions-asked wanted a repeat while memories of Uncle Sam's heavy hand remained fresh.

"Let me take a look," the big man went on.

He skimmed the results of his partner's research; they were sitting on a bench outside the Civic Center, which was still the best area in San Francisco to do digging of this type -- the big central library was nearby, and the morgue files of the newspapers. For a wonder it was neither foggy nor uncomfortably cool or too windy, and the Civic Plaza area was a pleasant place to sit, especially since the area wasn't swarming with bums any more, what they'd called 'homeless' back in the 20th century. The great Beaux-Arts pile of the city hall reared at their backs, a dome higher than the Capitol in Washington as solitary reminder of the plans made and discarded after the quake of 1906; before them were espaliered trees flanking a strip of grass, green with an intensity that only San Francisco and Ireland seemed able to produce.

'Rolfe' had produced a couple of historical articles dealing with early Virginia -- he turned out to be the guy who'd married Pocahontas. Funny, I always thought it was John Smith. They'd had two sons before being killed in the Indian massacre of 1622; the children married into the ramifying families of the Virginian aristocracy and apparently did nothing much of note besides grow tobacco and breed like bunnies, thus making George Washington and Jimmy Carter descendants of the Pohwatan chieftains; a politician or general here and there, declining into middle-class mediocrity after the Civil War.

The next reference was to a business-history site. Tully had printed that article out in full.

"This is strange," Tom said. "The mining business is too legit. There's nothing in these shell companies but mailboxes and bank accounts - not in most of them -- but RM&M looks like a genuine business. Solid. Lots of assets, lots of employees. Lots of profits, too -- according to this, their costs per ounce are half the industry average."

"No reason they couldn't be bent and have a legit side," Tully said dubiously.

Tom grunted and read, skimming with the ease of someone who'd been flipping through reports most of his adult life. Rolfe Mining and Minerals Inc. Founded by John Rolfe in 1946, and he'd been born in Virginia in 1922; apparently a real connection to the Pocahontas people. He scanned quickly down the article, but found no picture of the man.

"No visuals?" he said, looking up at Tully.

"Nothing," his partner replied. "Not in the back files of the newspapers, not in the society magazines, and not anywhere on the Web. Interesting, isn't it, for someone with that much money? I've got a request pending with the Pentagon -- there might be something from WWII."

"It is interesting," Tom said cautiously: Tully had a tendency to leap to convictions. "But it's not illegal. By lots of money, you mean lots of money, I presume?"

"Read on, Kemosabe. Tonto think it maybe too quiet there."

Rolfe had a fairly impressive service record; commissioned out of VMI at nineteen in '42, service with the 96th Infantry in the Pacific, Purple Heart and field promotion on Letye, another Purple, a Silver Star and a serious wound on Okinawa, which was why he hadn't ended the war as a major at least.

Then the move to San Francisco, like so many veterans who'd shipped out through the Bay area during the Great Unpleasantness. His company had gotten big fast in the postwar boom, diversifying in the 60's into real estate, banking and insurance, but staying a closely-held private corporation; no more than the minimum SEC information. That meant no real idea of what they were worth, but it had to be immense, just from the publicly acknowledged holdings -- a corporate headquarters in the San Francisco financial district, and a huge warehouse complex in Oakland. There were also offshore operations, theoretically independent: the Caymans, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bermuda, which hinted at massive assets moved out of country for tax purposes, plus mining properties in Africa and Asia and odd corners of South America. And those odd subsidiaries, which didn't fit at all.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Tom said, crossing an ankle over his knee and considering the documents in his lap. "A bad feeling that our promising lead is evaporating."

"Yeah, it smells funny," Tully said, fishing for cigarettes inside his jacket and then popping a stick of gum into his mouth instead. "There was what, maybe ten, fifteen million worth of stuff in that warehouse?"

"'bout that," Tom nodded.

"Which is petite larceny to this crowd," Tully replied. "Cappuccino money."

"Yeah. People that rich don't do crime -- not below the bribe-the-Dictator-of-Corruptistan level when they need a pipeline concession. Hell, even the Italians went respectable when they made their pile. That's the way it works; you get into organized crime, make a bundle, and your kids or grandkids invest it and get out. Hell on a stick, RM&M is old money now by Californian standards. I'd expect them to be living off capital gains and making donations to Worthy Causes, maybe the third generation becoming art collectors or painters or living in cabins in the north woods."

"The Bad Things could be happening at a lower level," Tully said. "Someone in this rat-fuck of corporations, rather than the top management themselves. But the condor did pass through Oakland, RM&M does have that big facility there, and we did find the Bosco Holdings stationary in the cage."

Tom flipped back to the beginning and looked at who RM&M had done business with in its early days.

He transferred some data into his PDA. "All right, we'll split up and tackle it from both ends. I'll take this angle; we could use some first-hand background on RM&M in its early days. You go sniff around that complex of theirs in Oakland. It's a little odd, a company this big still doing the physical with warehouses and such rather than outsourcing."

"Will do, Kemosabe," Tully said. "Be careful."

"Aren't I always?"

"No," Tully answered bluntly. "You forget that stepping on toes can get you kicked in the balls. We're talking a really big, well-established California firm here. They'd bound to have pull. Enough to get an investigation quashed, unless it's damn well grounded. I'd want to have something pretty solid before we go see our esteemed boss, and rock-solid before he goes public. Otherwise we're likely to end up in California's Siberia."

Tom watched him head for the BART station, then thought silently for a half-hour or so; intently motionless, so much so that a couple of pigeons walked over his shoes, and a beat cop almost rousted him for sleeping on the benches -- the SFPD were fanatics about that, since the big cleanups.

"Time to spend some shoe leather," he said to himself. "See how the facts jibe with the speculation."

@@@

"Ms. Sorenson?" Tom said.

The house was in the lower part of Nob Hill, part of a row of beautifully restored Edwardian residences with Tiffany stained-glass fanlights over the doors -- not quite the sort of home the silver kings and railroad barons had built from the plunder of the Comstock Lode and the Union Pacific, but certainly the upper management of a century or so ago. Then he realized this particular one wasn't restored: it had just been well kept all that time.

"I am Susan Sorenson," the owner said. "Mr. Christiansen?"

She was in her late seventies, but slender and what they used to call well-preserved, with a burnished overall sheen, quietly expensive clothes, and a rope of thick silver hair falling down her back. Her eyes were pale blue and very clear; the Persian cat sitting at her feet was almost eerily similar... When she invited him in, the house was similar too -- perfectly polished antiques, some contemporary pieces, Isfahan carpets and a faint smell of lavender sachet. He perched uneasily on a settee, and accepted a Sevres china cup of extremely good coffee from a Filipino maid. There were a couple of family portraits on the sideboard; his hostess at various ages -- she'd been quite a red-haired fox -- and herself with friends, and a man who was probably her father. No husband or children, he noted.

Her smile was charming. "Now, Mr. Christiansen, you said you were interested in the history of my father's company, Sierra Consultants?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "There's surprisingly little in the public record. In fact, most of what I could find was in the course of looking into another firm -- Rolfe Mining and Minerals."

The older woman's lips tightened slightly; in anger, he was pretty sure, although she was so achingly well-bred that reading her expression was difficult. Roughly equivalent to throwing things and using the 'f' word, in an ordinary person, I think.

"Them," she said. "Perhaps it's unjust, but I blame them for the way Sierra went downhill."

"I understand your father did a number of contracts for Rolfe in the 1950's," he said.

"After a while, we did scarcely anything else!" she said. "I was working as my father's executive assistant about then, you understand. Beginning in about 1950."

"Ah," Tom said, thinking furiously. "They gave your father's firm a great deal of business, then?"

"Yes. By the mid-1950's it was most of the cash flow, and almost all of it before the end in 1962."

"And this damaged the company?"

The woman sighed. "I know that it sounds strange... but the work Rolfe had my father do wasn't... wasn't real somehow."

She stood and walked to an ebony sideboard, handing Tom a picture. "This was my father."

The man in the faded photograph was in his mid-thirties, ruggedly handsome, dressed in riding boots and jodhpurs and an open-necked shirt, a broad-brimmed hat in one hand and a .45 holstered at his waist. The background showed sun-faded rocky slopes and brush; it might have been anywhere in the tropics, or even one of the 'Stans.

Sort of like Indiana Jones, he thought, as she resumed her place in the chair across the table. Roy Tully had a taste for old movies and TV series; Tom occasionally sampled his vast collection.

No, he realized suddenly, It's the kind of guy Indiana Jones was modeled on. Civil engineer, archaeologist, someone who went out to the hot-and-dangerous places.

"My father was... he traveled everywhere as a young man. The Caribbean, China, South America -- that picture was taken in Bolivia in the 1930's, only a year after I was born, Mr. Christiansen. He built things. Bridges, dams, irrigation projects, support structures for mining operations. Sometimes he had to fight off bandits -- Jivaro headhunters, once, in Peru. He was in the Army Engineers in Europe in 1918, and during the War -- World War Two, that is -- he was all over the Pacific."

"What did he do for RM&M?" Tom asked softly.

Living history, he thought: he was talking to someone whose father had fought in both the World Wars, something he'd grown up thinking of as dusty antiquity.

"Nothing serious," she said. "Nothing real."

Tom leaned forward in the chair, his elbows on his knees and his eyebrows arched. There was an art to questioning, and a large part of it was encouraging without interrupting. Most people vastly preferred talking to listening, and a sympathetic and interested ear made them pour out surprising revelations.

"Consulting -- after the War, he did feasibility studies for a great many projects here in California, and abroad. Then Rolfe came -- oh, he was a charmer when he wanted to be, and he thought women should fall all over him. Which," she added with a sniff, "many did. And he... he wanted feasibility studies too. He was willing to pay for them, pay extravagantly and in cash. But none of them were ever actually built. None of them were for his overseas operations, the gold mines and alluvial diamond projects we heard about. They were fantasies."

"Fantasies?" Tom prompted gently.

"Fantasies about projects here in California! About waterworks that had already been built, or... or geothermal generators in hot springs north of the Napa valley, or mines in places where all the ore had been taken out a century ago! Replicas of the Palace of Fine Arts, of all foolish things. Or flood-control in areas like Sacramento, where all the work was already done when my grandfather arrived in California from Sweden! My father was used to doing real work, and seeing what came of it. I'm convinced that the... the futility of it all drove him to retirement, and to dying before his time."

The elderly woman was a little flushed, and sat down. Tom made soothing noises and poured her another cup of the coffee, admiring the graceful way she picked up her cup and saucer; he was an ignore-the-handle-and-grab-the-mug type himself.

"Could you give me any details?" he said. Something extremely odd is going on here.

Sighing, she shook her head. "That was another thing. Rolfe always required -- ordered -- that every scrap of paper be handed over when a study was completed, with nothing for our records but the bare minimum of financial data for the tax people. But I remember --

@@@

 

INTERLUDE

June 7th, 1950

San Francisco

FirstSide:

 

The chief engineer of Sierra Consultants was a little surprised when the chairman of Rolfe Mining and Minerals was shown into his office. Pearlmutter, RM&M's company lawyer, had been pure New York; bright, pushy, abrasive without even realizing it, and painfully young. Rolfe himself was...

Also too young, for starters, he thought. Then on a second look: Or perhaps not, in experience if not years.

He was sixty himself, but he remembered the godlike sense of immortality and infallibility he'd had four decades ago, before the Great War. He'd left it behind amid the stink of death in the shattered forests of the Argonne. Rolfe had a very slight limp in the left leg. Probably from a war wound; his eyes had the set of someone who'd seen the elephant, and encountered mortality first-hand. Rumor had it that RM&M had been started by a bunch of veterans clubbing together with their buddies...

Still... is the whole company composed of boys barely old enough to shave?

Rolfe stood about five-ten, lean and athletic, with short-cut bronze-colored hair and level leaf-green eyes; a straight-nosed, fine-boned face with that planes-and-angles look they called "chiseled", and probably quite a success with the ladies. No more than thirty at the outside, maybe a bit younger; hard to tell with that weathered outdoorsman's tan.

Smooth, too.

Very expensive but conservative suit; Saville Row, the sort few Englishmen could afford in these days of shabby austerity in London. It contrasted with the hand that shook his, long pianist's fingers that were also callused and very strong, with a Virginia Military Institute class-ring. Southern accent but not hush-mah-mouf; he'd have placed it somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line but within fifty miles of the Chesapeake. Overall, this John Rolfe VI had a sheen like antique beechwood furniture.

Old money, or at least a family that had had money once. Not at all the type you expected to see at the head of a hungry young firm still clawing its way up the greasy pole in a notoriously rough-and-ready business like mining.

But RM&M was a new outfit, based out of the East Bay, specializing in buying up and refurbishing minerals properties in the Far East wrecked during the war, with sidelines in Persia, Angola and the Belgian Congo. That was risky with the political turmoil in Asia, but they'd been doing extremely well. He'd heard about some substantial purchases of dredging equipment for riverbed mining, some hard-rock gear, and great job-lots of the sort of stuff you'd need for operating in the wilder and hairier parts of the world; bulldozers, heavy trucks, riverboat engines, drilling rigs, generators, fuel storage, construction machinery and prefab housing.

They'd been holding their cards extremely close to their chests, too, which was only to be expected; the engineer had started out as a roving mining consultant in some of the odder corners of the earth, and he knew how the game was played. Apparently they didn't need to go to market for expansion capital, either, which argued that their returns were quick and rich.

But this...

He tapped the thick folder in front of him. "Mr. Rolfe, this proposal of yours is simply... bizarre."

Rolfe nodded politely, reaching into his jacket and producing a silver cigarette case. He turned to Susan and raised a raised a brow with old-fashioned good manners... and also revealed that he probably knew that she was his daughter, as well as his confidential secretary. A bit of an eccentric arrangement, but she'd worn him down, and he had to admit she was extremely competent.

Susan nodded frostily. "By all means, Mr. Rolfe," she said. "Mr. Sorenson smokes. I do not."

Rolfe gave a charming smile and flicked the case open with an elegant snap of his wrist; not cigarettes, but cigarillos.

"I assure you that our check for your firm's work will be entirely regular, though, Mr. Sorenson," he said, offering the case.

The engineer accepted one with a nod of thanks; they were Punch Claritos, about the best there were, and he'd acquired a taste for them a long time ago in Cuba, working on a project in Oriente province. He didn't let that distract him as he clipped the end, lit, and blew a cloud of fragrant smoke. The young man's tone had been perfectly polite... but there was an underlying amusement to it, as of a secret joke Rolfe didn't intend to share.

"Surveying and plans for a reservoir and hydroelectric project in, of all places, the Berkeley hills? Mr. Rolfe, you don't own that land, most of it is government property and not for sale, such a project there would make no economic sense whatsoever and would stand no chance of approval by Sacramento... which I'm sure you know. Hell, a lot of that area's already occupied by the San Pablo and Briones reservoirs!"

"I'm fully aware of it," Rolfe said cheerfully; his smile didn't reach the cool green eyes. "Consider it... at trial run for a project in a very similar project in an area not under the jurisdiction of the US, or the State of California."

"That doesn't make any sense either," the engineer said, baffled. "You must know that plans like that are extremely site-specific."

Rolfe's voice stayed level, but took on an edge of steel. "Then consider it a rich young fool's whim, sir," he said. "Consider it anything you wish. The question is, will you do this survey for us, or shall I walk over to one of your competitors?"

He waved a hand towards the window, and the harsh bustle of California Street below. The engineer ground his teeth. On the one hand --.

The money was good -- even in boom times, a project so close to home would be low-cost. He could get most of the data he needed out of the library, and most of the rest by taking the ferry and driving about; the ground-check would be a matter of a couple of afternoons' hike for his subordinates. The fee, on the other hand, would be nearly as big as something requiring real work -- core drillings and seismic soundings, for instance. It was simply too juicy a peach to pass by, even if it did taste a little off.

So there is no on the other hand. It's not illegal to run a survey and estimates for an impossible project, and if Rolfe wants to waste his money, that's his look-out.

"We'll take it," he said aloud.

Rolfe smiled and drew on his Punch Clarito. "I'm sure you won't regret it," he said.

@@@

Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

Copyright © 2002-2003 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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