Nil-The-Frogg

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Duke of Wellington said:
If I haven't replied to this AAR in a day or two you better remind me Nil, I'd missed this update til now.
I'll remember.
j_gaba.gif
No, seriously, I was working on somethings else myself (namely some writing projects unrelated to this AAR and my new website, which should be online within a week or two, hopefully). I also have a problem at the moment. I know what must be in the next update, but I can't figure how to tell it in an interesting way...
beret-pensif-284.gif
I have even wondered if I should hire a guest author as Director did, but I don't think my story would allow for enough freedom for such a guest.
prisonnier3.gif


Duke of Wellington said:
Well this assignment might be considered trivial and getting Hitchgins out of the way but I think from his current air he expects to find something quite useful on his way. Him and Matt make a nice pair. I'm very impressed by Hitchgins memory too.
Yeah sure. He knows why he has received this assignment even better than the officer who gave it to him. Regarding his memory, let's say he only has very selective memory leaks... When he's under interrogatory, for instance. :rolleyes:

Duke of Wellington said:
By the way what is that little flag at the top of each chapter supposed to represent?
I wondered if someone would ask. Now, are you in a playful mood? Come on guys (and girls, because I have reasons to believe that a few of you are lurking around, too), what's your guess? It is not as difficult as it seems at first glance...
 

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I have finally writen this damn chapter... There is just the little matter of translation left. In the meantime, you may want to refresh your memory about chapters 7a, 7b and 18 (plus 16b and 16c, but it's only loosely related to what is to come).

As to the flag. The picture file may give away some big hint and Google can do the rest ;)

.
 

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#20

Venice, April 1421


The gondola slowly glided over the black waters. Thick ribbons of mist snaked over the surface and folded themselves around wooden pontoons. The night was clear but visibility was always so bad on the canals that only the local boatmen could venture on them. Ignoring their mocking comments, Maro kept a perfumed flannel handkerchief pressed under his noise to ward off the pestilence. He was already indisposed by the natural stench of occidental towns, but this canal had just been curetted and was redolent of the sewer.

The craft drew alongside a stone wharf onto which Maro jumped without sparing a glance for the gondolier. He left his henchmen to pay the fare. He was not fond of traveling with heavies but Venetian alleys were not very safe these days, and, also, some muscle might well come in useful where he was going. Besides, he had chosen ones that were not so rough that they wouldn’t be presentable enough to take almost anywhere if they were properly dressed. The three of them walked along the side of the massive house Alexios had bought years ago to serve both as a secondary residence and as the office for his Venetian businesses. His son Eustathius had been living there for a while and was supposed to run the trading establishment. Fortunately, in practice, everything was managed by a niggling old accountant.

The second floor was lit and music filtered through an open window. Applause burst forth just as Maro and his minions reached the door. The young Byzantine merchant had tried to meet Eustathius during the day but the latter was out preparing the party so he had decided to attend it himself. He knocked at the door, which was adorned with arabesques of wrought iron. The lackey, whom he knew from his previous visits, opened the door and led him upstairs. The cream of high society was gathered there to hear poetry and music. Fine wine and easy women would doubtless meet with some success later in the night, as well.

As Maro had expected, the room was crowded mainly with distinguished-looking young men. A small string band accompanied a high-pitched male singer, which did not prevent animated conversations continuing among the guests. Maro recognised and greeted a few of them, but most were strangers to him. His preceding visits had put him in touch with mature businessmen rather than with the golden youth of patrician families. His arrival sparked more bustle and comment that he would have expected, which he did not like and caused him to smell a rat. He finally found the master of the house and stepped up to greet him, but he encountered a stony face that was very far from the bonhomie usually displayed by this puffy young man.

“You!” Eustathius spat scornfully. “How dare you show your face in my house?”

Maro was taken aback. He kept an even attitude however, because he did not want any scandal, particularly among Alexios’ son’s wealthy friends. He even tried to jest in order to smooth the situation.

“Now Eustathius, I know I don’t have a formal invitation, but still…”

“You vile vulture! You cheat me out of my inheritance and then expect me to welcome you?”

Maro suddenly understood a few facts, all equally unpleasant. First, Eustathius was obviously aware of his father’s testament, then that he was a little drunk and, finally, that they were becoming the centre of everyone’s attention. Some of the guests cast him hostile glances but most of them simply watched with obvious voyeurism. Stories would soon be circulating; Venetians were inordinately fond of gossip.

“Come now, my dear man, I think you’re letting your emotions run away with you. It’s not …”

Eustathius grabbed Maro’s collar and stood on tiptoe to face him nose to nose.

“My emotions? And I surely have no reason for that… Or have I?”

A guest, wearing an outfit of such quality that any further ornament would have been superfluous, approached them in a princely fashion. “Do you need assistance gentlemen?” Then, staring at Maro, “Do you happen to have a difference of opinion with our respected host?”

Maro returned him his most gracious smile and took Eustathius’ purple brocade sleeve.

“Just a misunderstanding, Signore. Definitely nothing that reasonable men couldn’t settle easily with a little private conversation.”

He made a vague gesture toward the door leading to the bedroom as he spoke. Eustathius looked daggers at him and, for a moment, Maro feared he would turn down the offer and press the dispute in public. But he finally snapped his arm free and preceded his unwelcome guest into the room where they could talk undisturbed. Giving a formal nod in recognition of the assistance, Maro apologised for depriving the guests of their host and assured them that he would be returned in no time. He hated to make a spectacle of himself. It was his own fault, he should never have come to this reception; he would have found some way to meet Eustathios the next day or later. But it was too late to hesitate now. He closed the door with conspicuous calm and moderation.

“Damn you!” Eustathius began. “How did you manage to force my fath...”

“Am I dreaming?” Maro cut him short, “or have you been stupid enough to tell people about this testament?”

“Of course I told them! Did you really expect me to keep quiet while you were scheming your usurpation?”

“Oh come on! Don't you have an ounce of sense? Don’t you realize what you're exposing yourself to when divulging that kind of information?”

“What I'm exposing myself to? God! That’s just the sort of thing a manipulative inheritance thief who turned my father against me would say!”

“That's plain ridiculous. Do you really think I had to deal with some senile old man, unable to manage his own business? Your father knowingly made his own decision.”

Tears were filling Eustathius eyes.

“Why? Why did he do that to me? Old bastard! He'll rot in hell! Doing that to his own...”

He couldn't utter another word because Maro energetically shoved him against a sideboard. The impact was strong enough to make a vase fall and shatter on the floor. Eustathius was about to shout and struggle when the feeling of something sharp and cold right under his glottis instantly quieted him. He did not even dare to swallow.

“Hear me and hear me well.” Maro whispered. “You can insult me to your heart’s content and even ridicule me in public, but I warn you, I will carve you a nice new smile if you insult your father one more time.”

He loosened his grasp in order to allow Eustathius to speak.

“You're crazy! You wouldn’t stand a chance of getting out of this house alive.”

“But you wouldn't be able to worry about such pesky details anyway.”

Eustathius touched his throat as Maro sheathed his dagger. He wasn't bleeding. “I see... Well, don't expect me to give up. I intend to have a little conversation with my father as soon as possible.”

Maro shook his head. “It's a little late, I'm afraid.”

Eustathius was about to reply when he understood what this meant. He gaped for a while and finally sat down heavily on the bed. He remained seated on the quilt, staring vacantly at his visitor. “You mean that he's... Did the Turks get him?”

Maro nodded sadly. “Alas. I was informed a little more than two weeks ago. I thought I should tell you in person. I also thought I would have to tell you about the will.”

Eustathius went pale. “So this means you now own all my fathers possessions?”

“Almost all of them, yes.”

Eustathius stood up, shivering with indignation. “And you want to throw me onto the street, don't you? Do you think I’m going to let you push me around? Do you think the Venetian courts will let you get away with robbing me like that?”

Maro had a hard expression on his face as he snapped back coldly, “Will you sit down and look for just five minutes before you leap?” Alexios' son sat, indeed, and Maro went on in the same frosty tone, “I have no doubt that you could find people in Venice who would be more than happy to help you recover what your father has given to me. What really amazes me, though, is that you could be naive enough to believe they would help you just out of love for truth and justice.”

“What else? I'm about to be thrown out of my own house, after all.”

“Bullshit!” said Maro as he drew a folded sheet of parchment from his pocket and threw it on his interlocutor's knees. “You are the legitimate owner of this house, as clearly attested by this perfectly legal document, signed by Alexios himself.”

There was a pause as Eustathius examined the parchment in his white podgy fingers.

“I’ll be frank with you; here’s what I think of all this.” said Maro, “The truth is that your father has been fantastically cunning. It was the best service he could have possibly done you.”

“Oh, is that so?” Eustathius asked sarcastically, without hiding his bitterness.

“Just imagine for one second that your ‘friends’ help you to recover your father’s assets in Venice. How long do you expect to enjoy them?”

“Well… I’m not stupid to the point of squandering it all!”

Maro bent forward to look Eustathius in the eye. “This legacy does not consist of land or cellars overflowing with gold coins that you can quietly live on. We are speaking here about a financial and commercial empire. It’s very lucrative if you know how to run it, but if you don’t then it simply crumbles away. Why do you think your father spent years trying in vain to teach you that sort of thing? He was himself beginning to lose his grip; he was not as responsive as he used to be. Just a few more years and his assets would have slowly ended up in my pocket, legacy or no legacy. And believe me; the Venetians are no less greedy than me. He was lucid enough to understand this and to bind me through a promise rather than cling to his pride and fight me. How many men display such courage and pragmatism? Tell me that.”

“I… I don’t really know. What’s this promise you’re speaking about?”

“A promise I intend to honor because I cherish our friendship.”

Eustathius offered a poor smile. “I had never really realized we were friends.”

Maro did not deem it necessary to clarify the misunderstanding. “Let’s be crystal-clear, Eustathius. There’s no way I would keep supporting your life in luxury for nothing. I propose that we make everyone believe you remain the owner - at least in part - of your father’s Venetian businesses. It will be up to you to keep up the act as best you can. Such a deal would allow me to keep on using the same premises and structures and it would also provide me with a cover to dodge all those bothersome political hassles that are inevitable when you control trading operations from abroad. For you, this would be an opportunity to save face with your upper-crust friends. Not to mention that maintaining the illusion would force me to give you enough of the profits to enable you to live comfortably. Regarding extravagant expenditures, though, you should not count upon me to pay everything blindly as your father did. If you want extra money, you will have to convince me it’s worth it.”

“What? How am I supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know. But I pride myself in being open-minded, so use your imagination. I can, for instance, appreciate your patronizing the arts. But you had better choose the artists you want to support very carefully, because I will not buy every daub painted in the Serenissima.”

Eustathius looked down at his toes. “Well, I see…”

“There is something else. I want to repay the Turks in kind.”

“Yeah, that’s probably the reason why you’re trading with them!” Eustathius sniggered.

“I see no objection to making them pay for their own demise. I find it amusing, actually. However, preparing such a counter-offensive will require working on the republic. Incidentally, not only is the doge himself getting old but I am also under the impression that the younger generation is gaining ground in the great families as well. The Dandolos, the Contarinis… They all seem to be shaken by the bustling rise of their youngsters. I think that establishing close relations with them before they actually come into power could bring me substantial benefits. I may even help them to seize control sooner. Now, you rub shoulders with the city’s upper-class... do you know how I could get acquainted with them?”

Eustathius shrugged naively and nodded toward the door. “Well, most of them are in the next room.”
 

Amric

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I dunno about the morally dubious part....I can think that it sounds oh so familiar even in modern day commerce. Maro is just doing what he does best, and the devil take the hindmost....in a way he is probably hoping that the lad does take an interest...for as he mentioned the father was losing his grip, and someday that is going to happen to Maro....and he knows it. Grooming one's successor is a time honored tradition. One that I am sure he is fully conscious of and plans to make sure HE at least, has a suitable successor to his enterprises....

Excellent work again, Nil...Having caught up again I am truly impressed at all the hard work you've put into this and how well it all hangs together. Well done!
 

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Duke of Wellington said:
something of a rarity in this story
Ooh! Don't you think you're being a little harsh on my poor characters? :D Is there a single one who's not genuine in his own way?

Amric: Thanks for the compliments. I'm not writing fast enough to have the impression of making this hang together. I'm glad to know you manage to make sense out of this story. As to Maro, he would probably act as you describe toward Eustathius but he's around thirty and Eustathius is around twenty. The difference is not big enough to justify the attempt. He should find someone younger (a young teenager).


Here comes an update, at last. I must again thank Suehil for her kind proofreading. I'm sometimes tempted to keep some weird things even after her correction, for the sake of pinkpanterism, but I never know what you'll be able to understand at all... :wacko:
 

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#21

municipalflagofnotchicagosmall.jpg

Southern docks, Wednesday in the morning



All in all, Matt and Hitchgins had not had many encounters in the Wild Crescent on the previous day and had been very glad of it. Most of the locals did not seem to pay much attention to them and, apparently, life was going on in the same way as anywhere else in the city. There was nothing like the urban wasteland that Matt was more or less expecting, nor any noticeable lawlessness. Though the police were not able to maintain order in the area, someone else was obviously taking care of it. The two officers had come across a couple of small, conspicuously armed bands who had thrown hostile glances at their uniforms and Matt’s heart had sunk into his shoes, but the thugs had gone on their way without causing any trouble. Apparently, even the hoodlums were more eager to escape the torrents of rain in the streets than to pick a quarrel with a couple of soaked, lost cops.

On this Wednesday morning, however, a wind strong enough to blow Hitchgins’ socks off had driven the clouds away so there was no chance that a single drop of rain would fall. Even then, the sky kept a uniform light gray shade. In such conditions, Hitchgins had deemed it more expedient to go wandering through the southern docks district, which was supposedly a less dangerous place. Matt did not protest in the least. He had noticed that the sergeant was still limping, but far less than the day before. He couldn’t have hurt himself too badly.

There was no-one about but dockers in the chaotic jungle of doleful storehouses. They were all carrying identical, unmarked barrels and they behaved as if they did not care about the cops. The streets were all empty except for the men busily loading or unloading trucks, whose worn, stained tarpaulins flapped furiously in the wind.

At about eleven, Matt and Hitchgins took refuge in a narrow alley behind a pile of barrels between two warehouses. They must have been stacked there some time ago because successive puddles had painted rusty rings on the ground around them and they stood in an ochre puddle like towers erected in the middle of muddy ditches. Broken glass was scattered over the ground and the stench of a dead rat was fortunately cleared away by the wind. The shelter was precarious, but any break was a blessing for Matt, whose temples were beginning to ache. Hitchgins struck a match against his trench coat and relit his cigarette butt. He spent more time chewing his cigarettes than actually smoking them. In fact the one he started with in the morning was often still in his mouth at the end of the day – a short, shapeless thing, badly torn and leaking wet tobacco.

“All right, everythin' looks like it's in order rounda here, doesn't it? Dat's almost as tidy as our stuck-up, lavender-scented clothes-horse's office. Diz patrol is just as boring as honest people and just as long as Big Pill's speeches...”

Matt, who did not share Hitchgins’ aversion to the commander and had no idea whatsoever what docks worthy of this name should look like, did not venture any comment. Hitchgins dragged on his cigarette and kept the smoke in his distended cheeks before letting it out through his wide hairy nostrils in volumes worthy of a terrifying mythical monster. He grimaced, licked his forefinger and thumb and pinched the lit end of his cigarette to put it out. Matt hated it when he did that; he had not tried it himself but was pretty sure such stupid behavior could earn you serious burns.

“I dunno what ya think'bout it, lad, but methink we'll get nowhere walkin' da streets like that. Dat is unless we wanna our heads sound like concourses at rush hours by the end of da day. To tell da truth, I thought 'bout visitin' an old acquaintance who may very well gimme a bunch o' sensible clues about what's to be found of interest in da neighborhood. I mean... I ain't all that sure what we're lookin' for but it'd be best askin' someone who knows pretty much everythin' there is to know, right? Be warned though, he's quite a weird fellow, and not all that respectable either. I'd be grateful if ya could keep quiet and lemme speak when we meet him, if we do. Right?”

“Hum... Is it legal?”

Hitchgins offered him a dubious look. “Haroumpf! Who cares? What's important is da result anyway. And besides, why should it be illegal to pay people a visit, heh?”

“Ah yes... If you put it like that ....”

“Okay, it's just next door. Do vat I say and we should be alright.”

It was not far, indeed. They took barely five minutes to reach the storehouse supposedly belonging to Hitchgins' informer. It was a red bricks shoebox of about five meters in height, with two metallic doors: one for lorries and one for pedestrians. Both were closed. There were windows high up in the outer walls, but they were so dirty that you would have had no chance to see anything through them.

“It's not very big.” Matt had to shout to cover the noise of the wind.

“Don't judge the book by its cover. There's a basement... Quite an anthill to tell the truth!”

Hitchgins looked nervous. He watched back and forth, clearly looking for something.

“Is there a problem?” Matt inquired.

“Sort of, yeah. Can't see da hint of a guard's ass 'round da place. Doesn't smell good if ya'sk me.” He finally shrugged. “Haroumpf! Me guess da best way to know's to have a look.”

They walked up cautiously and climbed the three steps leading to the smaller of the doors. There must have once been a metallic handrail, but it had been torn down. The sergeant tried to open the door but it did not move. He knocked twice in rapid succession and then a third time about two seconds later. Five minutes passed and there was no reaction from inside. Looking more and more annoyed, Hitchgins rummaged for quite a while through his capacious pockets. He was finally satisfied when a pin pricked his finger; it was exactly the tool he was looking for. He drew it out of his pocket along with a pair of pliers and a small piece of thick wire.

“That's somethin' ya should learn Matt, always carry basic tools.” He first used the pin to probe the lock and then reproduced the shape with the wire.

“Er... You're going to open the door with that, Sergeant?”

“Yeah, I think so. Doesn't look too complicated. I'd need more stuff otherwise, dat's for sure.”

“No, I mean: shouldn't we have a search warrant?”

“Haroumpf! I'd like to see ya go back downtown and ask for a warrant allowin' ya to visit some mobster's abandoned warehouse... Could be fun.”

Matt frowned but said nothing. The lock soon squeaked and emitted a muffled snap. The door opened slightly with a grind.

“Hehe... piece of cake.” Hitchgins gloated.
 

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Duke of Wellington said:
Matt is up against a steep learning curve with Hitchgins isn't he? Oh well there's sure to be much knowledge gained soon. However if they're caught then his limp is sure to be made worse. I'm curious about what they shall find inside.
No problem... ;)
 

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#21b

municipalflagofnotchicagosmall.jpg


Southern docks, Wednesday morning (continued)


They entered the unlit hangar cautiously. Matt glanced at the windows, which, as far as he could see, were walled up.

“Well, it's certainly dark at your friend's place.”

“He's not me friend. Not really, dat is. And yeah, he hates sunlight.”

“He's some kind of vampire?” Matt asked. His tone made it impossible to know if he was joking.

“Nah.” Hitchgins answered casually, “He's a lot worse than dat.”

In fact, the only light source allowing them to distinguish the rows of tall racks disposed through the room came from the open door behind them. Hitchgins went up to one of the shelves, checking the various boxes, packages and drums it contained.

“Shall we use the torch?” Matt asked, dithering, before deciding to follow his superior.

Hitchgins observed that objects had fallen from the shelves in several places, as if they had been shoved violently, and a drum had crashed onto the ground. Hitchgins knew perfectly well what was in those casks, but the condition of the floor where the liquid had sloshed before evaporating completely would have eliminated any doubt he might have had. The concrete had been stripped of the mixture of oil and dust that covered it everywhere else and was now smooth and shiny. To tell the truth, he seriously considered the possibility of taking one of those drums for his own consumption, but Matt's presence would make that a tad complicated. He decided that it would be better not to linger in this room.

“No one's here. Let's have a peek at the offices.” He said, pointing to a steel door in a dividing wall.

On the other side was a peeling, green-painted corridor that turned to the right about five or six metres further on. Laminated wood doors opened off it on both sides. Hitchgins listened carefully to make sure the place was empty. Nothing was to be heard, but something was wrong. He couldn't tell what, but his instinct was relentlessly whispering that he should watch out. He stepped warily into the first office where everything seemed normal, albeit a little messy, and the mess that could impress Hitchgins had yet to be made.

“You're sure you don't want me to use the torch?” asked Matt from the corridor.

“Mmm? Oh, yeah. It's dark as da inside of a nigger's underpants in here. Just wait a second.”

The sergeant located a switch and reached for it. A crude ceiling light immediately illuminated the room.

“I'll have to check through diz damn heap of paper, but I'm going to have a quick look 'round da place first, just to be sure there's nothin' more excitin'.”

“What if we meet someone?”

“Why, we talk to them of course. What would ya wanna us do? It's not as if I didn't know da owner, eh?”

Still, there was this stubborn humming of concern deep in his mind. He noticed that Matt was on edge as well. It would probably have been better to leave, but he had to find enough evidence to flesh out his report so he decided to do a quick survey of the place before getting out. There was a small collection of keys hooked on a small, painted board decorated with flashy flowered patterns in the most exquisitely bad taste. Hitchgins grabbed them all. He thought that anything interesting would most probably be found on the first level of the basement and only glanced quickly at the other rooms in this section of the corridor, just in case there was a corpse or something equally delightful. In one of the offices a chair had been knocked over and the desk shoved in a precarious position against a wall, spilling its contents onto the floor. This was the first place they would have to investigate on this floor. Matt felt his stomach churning more and more and he would have run away as fast as his legs could carry him if he had been alone. This place gave him goose-flesh even though, on the surface, there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary.

They passed the angle of the corridor and headed towards another steel door. This one opened onto a passage leading downstairs, the steps plunging into darkness. Hitchgins was about to venture down when he suddenly froze. He peered into the blackness below, his nostrils dilated and contracted like jellyfish as he sniffed the cool air that wafted up. Matt could have sworn he even saw his ears prick. The sergeant suddenly stepped back, shut the heavy door, quickly looked through his keys until he found the right one and feverishly turned it in the lock. That done, he grabbed Matt's arm and dragged him along towards the exit.

“We mustn’t stay here, lad. Let's scarper, and quickly!”

As they were about to reach the storeroom, which was lit only by the dim daylight from the door, they heard an ominous, metallic, thumping noise. To Matt, the sound evoked an image of a strongbox shutting or, perhaps, the sealing of a tomb. The wide room before them was plunged into complete darkness. It did not occur to either of them that the wind might have blown the main door shut.

Hitchgins let go of Matt's arm and hurried to the storeroom door and slammed it shut. He firmly secured it with his foot until he managed to find the appropriate key to lock it. His usual composure had vanished and he was quite rough as he pushed his subordinate into the nearest office. It happened to be the one where the furniture had been shoved around. They went round the desk and Hitchgins indicated the empty space under it as he placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder and forced him to kneel.

“Hide there.” he said, “Don't say anything. Don't move. Don't make a sound, and I’d feel even better if you could stop breathing as well.”

Matt noticed that Hitchgins forgotten to use his usual unfathomable language, probably because of the stress, but he was much too scared himself to point it out. He hunched as well as he could into his tiny hideout while the sergeant took his own shoes off. Hitchgins frowned at him, put a finger to his lips and went away silently.

The old cop had spotted a telephone of black bakelite in one of the offices and quickly headed that way. Once there, he took the time to drag a small bottle from an inside pocket and was unscrewing the cap when the light went out. He swore under his breath. The obscurity was complete and his eyes needed a few seconds to adjust. He finished uncapping the bottle and took a slug of the corrosive liquor; he was certainly going to need the beef-up in the coming minutes. He recapped the bottle and put it back in his pocket before grabbing for the phone, desperately hoping that the line was still working.

.
 

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Duke of Wellington said:
Hmmm, this only deepens the mystery, you didn't do much to satisfy me :mad:.
Looks like I'm bugging my last regular reader... :eek:o What can I say? Oh yes, I do have a chapter that I hope you will really like. The only tiny drawback is that it's not written as of now. Will be numbered 23.

Here we go...
 

Nil-The-Frogg

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#21c

municipalflagofnotchicagosmall.jpg


Central Judiciary Administration Tower (Wednesday morning)


The scene was much like a painting. In fact, the only moving elements were the tiny grains of dust that shone as they coolly crossed the swathes of soft light flowing from the coloured stained glass windows. Everything else gave a feeling of immutability, from the sheen of the furniture to the sheets of paper meticulously piled on the massive desk. The air itself was still. A sepulchral silence weighed on the place. Judge Peter, who sat on his simple wooden chair, did not mar the ambiance. He had the phone pressed to his ear, but he could easily have been mistaken for an alabaster statue that had been disguised with black hat, trenchcoat and gloves. His eyelids seemed unwilling to blink over the hard, staring eyes lurking behind the steel circles of his glasses.

Communication was finally established. Anger tainted Dick Marzeotti's twangy voice as he answered. “Damn it, Miss Appleton, I said I did not want to be disturbed!”

“It's not Miss Appleton.” said Peter, with a complete lack of modulation.

There was a short silence. Marzeotti sounded less angry but much more nervous when he went on. “Oh, it's you. You have used the direct line, haven't you? I'll never get used to this gadget. I guess it's important... I’m very busy at the moment.”

“Precisely. I want to speak about tomorrow's board meeting.”

“Oh?”

“I have a topic to add to the agenda.”

“Well, this might not be a good time. The session is bound to be busy already. I expect some stormy arguments...”

“City Bank has much to gain, though, and the stockholders will acknowledge this easily if you explain the deal to them properly. Incidentally, I haven’t forgotten that you personally have a substantial share of the votes.”

What he was not forgetting, above all, was that Marzeotti owed him most of his current influence at the head of City Bank. It was Peter who had eliminated his competitors through incarceration under the charges of abuse of company assets and tax evasion. Not that they were innocent, of course – who was? – but they would probably have been able to get away with it if the Judge had not prosecuted them with unrelenting determination. Unlike them, Marzeotti had understood an essential fact: there was no trying to bribe Judge Peter. He had understood that Peter couldn't care less about money and that his monastic mores were not a mere facade. No, what Peter truly wanted was power and influence; hence the direct line, among other things.

“I'm listening.”

“Mr. Papastodakis will send you a formal request for integration of his fund into your assets. He will keep managing its investments for some time, but City Bank should not have any difficulty in digesting that.”

“But isn't Mr. Papastodakis...”

“Kallistos' financial advisor, absolutely. As I’m sure you know, the latter has fallen victim to a settling of old scores with the Kamilet gang.”

“So, he's dead?” asked Marzeotti who sounded more curious than really affected.

“There is every reason to believe he is not. But he has vanished and most of his lieutenants have been shot. The Kamilet has seized everything within reach. There’s only Papastodakis left with what he has been able to salvage from the disaster. He’s desperate, though, and really needs your assistance.”

Marzeotti thought hard for a few seconds before answering. “That would be money laundering.”

“Let’s call it decontamination.”

“You do realize, don’t you, that I would be putting my reputation on the line … not to mention the City Bank’s?”

“It would be a good deed, however. It would be unfortunate to see his assets ending up in a thriving criminal organization’s pockets.”

“You’ll explain that to the judge for me!” Marzeotti said with a somewhat forced laugh.

The City Bank’s CEO was beginning to be scared. Scared of scandal, of course, but mostly afraid of what could happen to him if he started to go beyond his usual skulduggeries to get caught up in serious organized crime. He was also fully aware that Papastodakis’ arrival in the board of directors would weaken him, both in number of votes and through the crystallisation of resentment the event could trigger. Not to mention that he would leave himself wide open to even easier low-blows than the ones that had taken his competitors down.

“I don’t know, really. I don’t think I should do that… I’ll think about it.”

“Oh, of course. I’ll leave it to you then. You’ll have to prepare everything the best you can. I’m confident that reason will prevail, one way or the other.”

“Yes, certainly. Goodbye, your honour.”

“Have fun, Mr. President.”

Peter hung up. His hand was still on the ‘phone when it rang. A perfectly inverse motion brought the receiver back to his ear with clockwork precision. Betty spoke:

“You received a private call while you were on the ‘phone, sir. I think it was rather urgent.”

“A message?”

“Indeed: Warehouse 66, area 51, Southern Docks, West Side.”

.
 

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#22


Constantinople, May, 1422


Sometimes Alexios relived the siege in his head. Occasionally he still fantasized about his recent past, but it didn’t happen often. Time was just carrying him along. Time always carries the day in the end. In the depths of his fevered mind he kept brooding on the memory of the new lease of life that Verina Ospinas had given him. With her endless energy and by needling him relentlessly, the disrespectful young woman had managed to stir him in a way he would not have believed possible, spiritually as well as physically. It was she who had helped him to find the strength and courage to take an active part in the defence of his beloved city, even after his years of luxurious living. He had abandoned his fine clothes and helped with the excavation of the supplies buried under his destroyed storehouse. Verina had taken charge of the work, having to rely on four terrible matrons to supervise the noblewomen whom she had pressed into service as navvies. The crude working clothes she wore did not prevent her from arousing the few men present and exacerbating the ferocious hatred of the relegated patrician women.

After that, he had joined the defenders of the walls. For some reason, he experienced this new involvement as a kind of redemption. He had no illusions and knew perfectly well that the soldiers had been easy on him, not only because of his age but also because the word had quickly spread that he was the one who had kept their mess kits full. Despite their consideration he had been weakened by hard work and privation, but there was an oddly blissful expression on his emaciated face.

He and Verina had dedicated themselves to stewardship and had spent most of the days and a good part of the nights preparing and distributing supplies. They had been dirty, exhausted and stinking. Most of the time, Alexios had slept on the spot while Verina went back to her father's home. But on a few occasions they had taken the time for a perfumed bath at Alexios' place. It hadn't been pure luxury, however; he had sent all his servants to the front and no-one was left to warm up the water and pour it into the bathtubs. One evening, when she was just as exhausted as he was, she had simply got into the bath with him. At that moment he had not felt in the least chaste. That night had been one of the happiest in his whole life, as if all the weariness and weight of years had melted away in the tepid water.

And then that dreadful sixteenth day of January 1421 had come and the Turks had finally launched their assault. It had been bound to happen one day. Verina and he had fled from the multi-coloured wave of enemy troops that flowed over the walls of the city along both the western rampart and the Golden Horn. Even cannon fire could not drown the booming clamour of the men; victorious assailants and defeated defenders alike. The two of them had run, hand in hand, along the once-familiar streets, now rendered intimidating by the yelling horde of invaders that had to be crossed. They ended up by being cornered in the vicinity of the great cistern where, of course, there was no longer a guard. Verina had suggested that they hide down there. Alexios had pointed out that it was a dead end and she had burst into tears, shrieking like a lunatic.

“The world is a dead end, Alexios!”

She had run down the stairs. He had followed her, of course. They had waded together in the dark, thigh-deep in water, and had not stopped until they reached the end wall of the cistern. She had pounded the stone until her fists bled but the wall remained unmoved. She had pressed her palms against the cold stone, sobbing.

“If there is a way to open the door to Heaven, or even to Hell, I should be able to do it, shouldn't I? I'm the Patriarch's daughter, after all. If the dead must come from their pit, riding their smoke-breathing iron chariot, let it be now!”

Alexios, who was beginning to believe she was going mad, had been surprised to see fiery veins appearing in the wall. It had only been a glimpse, however, and he would never know if his eyes had played tricks on him. Turkish soldiers did not take very long to find them. Alexios may have been lucky, since they captured him rather than killing him on the spot. He had heard Verina's screams echoing endlessly in the huge cistern as he was taken up to the surface. He still heard them at night, in the depths of his nightmares.

He had now been locked in this cell for more than a year. A tiny basement window let enough daylight in to allow him to keep some track of time. He had enough room to recline on a damp and mouldy straw mattress that was refreshed at irregular intervals. At first, he had tried to retain some dignity, keeping himself as clean as possible and sleeping seated against the damp wall rather than on his vermin-infested couch. But dignity doesn't last very long when you can't change your clothes, wash or shave and when you have to relieve yourself straight into a foul gutter. Besides, parasites are no respecters of delicacy and he had quickly found himself covered in bites. He was gaunt and weakened by colic and bouts of coughing.

During the first months, new prisoners had kept him informed of what was going on outside, so he had heard about the Sultan’s installing his court in Constantinople and about the death of the Patriarch, whom Mehmet the First had replaced by a meek old abbot. Mehmet himself had died soon after the conquest and had been succeeded by his son Murad II. The latter was known to be cruel, authoritarian and ambitious beyond measure. Yet, against all expectations, he had progressively freed most of the prisoners in the avowed hope of reviving trade. In such conditions, Alexios had believed he would quickly be allowed to go, but he hadn't. For a few more weeks, perhaps even months, he had kept dreaming, drawing up plans, remembering and hoping. But, bit by bit, everything oozed away from him under the pressure of the walls that confined his mind just as much as his body, and under the weight of sorrow and ill health. He would soon be reduced to an empty shell, forgotten by an outside world that he could only remember with a struggle. At least he was fed once a day. Or perhaps not; he didn't notice any more.

He no longer even took the trouble to rouse from his torpor when the Turkish turnkey brought him his meagre meal. This morning, as usual, he paid no attention when the recalcitrant lock was opened. He was absorbed in the contemplation of a spider devouring some unfortunate fly. But it was not the guard who stepped in. The sight of three pairs of booted feet out of the corner of his eye finally caused him to look up to discover three men in black standing in his cell. They wore turbans and scarves hid their faces up to the bridge of their noses. Long curved knives shone at their belts.
 

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Now, this post might be childish, but...

I know I actually have a bunch of readers. Sometimes however, I feel like a comment -even a simple "hi there" or a "stop this worthless babble"- would help me to know if it's still worth spending ten hours a week on this AAR instead of doing something else.

Not that the dialog with Duke is unpleasant, but I suppose that any writAAR could understand what I mean...
arrggh_naaaaaan.png


{back to writing the next update}
 
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Duke of Wellington

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I understand what you mean about the lack of readers, not at all childish. Once again apologies for the long delay in commenting on this update, life can be rather busy at times.

Well I nice update there. I'm not too sure what else to comment on other than I feel no urge to take places with Alexios, he is doing well to have (apparently) not gone mad after such a year.
 

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Duke of Wellington said:
I understand what you mean about the lack of readers, not at all childish. Once again apologies for the long delay in commenting on this update, life can be rather busy at times.

Well I nice update there. I'm not too sure what else to comment on other than I feel no urge to take places with Alexios, he is doing well to have (apparently) not gone mad after such a year.
Oh well, I must make it clear that I'm absolutely not pissed off with anyone. It's just that I wonder if this thing is worth the effort.

And this time, you will have more news about Alexios, even though his mental health may still possibly be discussed.