Friday, p.19
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       Friday, p.19

           Robert A. Heinlein
 

  So I sat in bars in river town, drinking small beer and letting the word filter around that I was prepared to pay a worthwhile price for a ticket up the river.

  I considered advertising. I had been following the Opportunity Ads, which were considerably more outspoken than those I had noticed in California—apparently anything was tolerated as long as it was limited to low town:

  Do You Hate Your Family?

  Are You Frustrated, Tied Down, Bored?

  Is Your Husband/Wife a Waste of Space?

  LET US MAKE A NEW (WO)MAN OF YOU!!!!!

  Plasticizing-Reorientation-Relocating Transsexualizing-Discreet Wet Work

  Consult Doc Frank Frankenstein

  Softly Sam’s Bar Grill

  This was the first time I’d ever seen murder for pay blatantly advertised. Or did I misunderstand it?

  Do You Have a PROBLEM?

  Nothing is illegal—it isn’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it. We have the most skilled shysters in the Lone Star State.

  LOOPHOLES, Inc.

  (Special Rates to Bachelors)

  Punch LEV 10101

  With the above it helped to know that “LEV” call codes were assigned only to locations under the bluff.

  Artists, Ltd.

  Documents of All Sorts, Negotiable Instruments, Money Of All Nations, Diplomas, Birth Certificates, IDs, Passports, Photographs, Business Licenses, Marriage Licenses, Credit Cards, Holograms, Audio/Video Tapes, Commissions, Pardons, Wills, Seals, Fingerprints—All Work Guaranteed with warranty underwritten by

  Lloyd’s Associates—LEV 10111

  Certainly all of the above services were available in any large city but they were rarely openly advertised. As for the warranty, I simply did not believe it.

  I decided not to advertise my need because of doubt that anything so public could help in a matter essentially clandestine—I went on relying on chandlers and barkeeps and madams. But I continued to watch the ads on the chance of spotting something of use to me…and came across one probably not of use but decidedly of interest. I froze it and called it to Georges’ attention:

  W.K.-Make your will. You have

  only ten days to live.

  A.C.B.

  “What about it, Georges?”

  “The first one we saw gave W.K. only a week. More than a week has passed and he now has ten days. If this keeps up, W.K. will die of old age.”

  “You don’t believe that.”

  “No, my love, I do not. It’s a code.”

  “What sort of a code?”

  “The simplest sort and thereby impossible to break. The first ad told the person or persons concerned to carry out number seven or expect number seven or it said something about something designated as seven. This one says the same with respect to code item number ten. But the meaning of the numbers cannot be deduced through statistical analysis because the code can be changed long before a useful statistical universe can be reached. It’s an idiot code, Friday, and an idiot code can never be broken if the user has the good sense not to go too often to the well.”

  “Georges, you sound as if you had done military code and/or cipher work.”

  “I have but that’s not where I learned it. The most difficult code analysis ever attempted—one that still goes on today and will never be complete—is the interpretation of living genes. An idiot code all of it…but repeated so many millions of times that we can eventually assign meaning to nonsense syllables. Forgive me for talking shop at meals.”

  “Piffle, I started it. No way to guess what A.C.B. means?”

  “None.”

  That night the assassins struck the second time, right on schedule. I don’t say that the two were related.

  They struck ten days, almost to the hour, after their first attack. The timing did not tell us anything about which group was responsible—as it matched the predictions of both the so-called Council for Survival and their rivals the Stimulators, whereas the Angels of the Lord had offered no prediction about a second strike.

  There were differences between the first wave of terror and the second, differences that seemed to tell me something—or us something, as Georges and I discussed it as the reports came in:

  a) No news at all from the Chicago Imperium. No change here, as no news had come out of the Imperium since the initial reports of the slaughter of Democrats…then nary a peep for over a week, which made me increasingly anxious.

  b) No news from the California Confederacy concerning a second strike—routine news only. NB.: a few hours after the initial news reports of a second wave of assassinations elsewhere a “routine” news item came out of the California Confederacy. Chief “Warwhoop” Tumbril, on the advice of his physicians, had named a three-person executive regency with plenipotentiary powers to govern the nation while he underwent long-postponed medical treatment. He had gone to his retreat, the Eagle’s Nest, near Tahoe, for this purpose. Bulletins would be issued horn San Jose, not from Tahoe.

  c) Georges and I agreed on the most probable—almost certain—meaning of this. The medical treatment that pitiful poseur now needed was embalming and his “regency” would now give news handouts while they settled their power struggle.

  d) This second time there were no reports from off-Earth.

  e) Canton and Manchuria did not report attacks. Correction: No such reports reached Vicksburg, Texas.

  f) So far as I could tell in ticking them off against a list, the terrorists did strike at all other nations. But my tally had holes in it. Of the four hundred-odd “nations” in the U.N. some produce news only during total solar eclipses. I don’t know what happened in Wales or the Channel Isles or Swaziland or Nepal or Prince Edward Island and I can’t see why anyone (who does not live in one of those nowhere places) should care. At least three hundred of those so-called sovereign nations that vote in the U.N. are ciphers, aboard only for quarters and rations—important to themselves, no doubt, but totally meaningless in Geopolitick. But in all major countries, except as noted above, the terrorists did strike and those strikes were reported except where baldly censored.

  g) Most strikes failed. This was the glaring difference between the first wave and the second. Ten days earlier most assassins had killed their targets and most assassins had escaped. Now this was reversed: Most targets survived, most assassins died. A few had been captured, a very few had escaped.

  This last aspect of the second-wave assassinations put to rest a nagging fret in my mind, i.e., Boss was not the mover behind these assassinations.

  Why say I so? Because the second wave was a disaster for whoever was in charge.

  Field operatives, even common soldiers, are expensive; management does not expend them casually. A trained assassin costs at least ten times as much as a common soldier: She is not expected to get herself killed—goodness me, no! She is expected to make the kill and get out, scot-free.

  But whoever was running this show had gone bankrupt in one night.

  Unprofessional.

  Therefore it was not Boss.

  But I still could not figure out who was behind the whole silly gymkhana because I could not see who benefitted. My earlier notion, that one of the corporate nations was paying for it, no longer looked as attractive because I could not conceive of one of the big ones (Interworld, for example) hiring any but the best professionals.

  But it was even harder to picture one of the territorial nations planning such a grotesque attempt at world conquest.

  As for a fanatic group, such as the Angels of the Lord or the Stimulators, the job was just too big. Nevertheless the whole thing seemed to have a fanatic flavor—not rational, not pragmatic.

  It is not written in the stars that I will always understand what is going on—a truism that I often find damnably annoying.

  The morning after that second strike Vicksburg low town buzzed with excitement. I had just stepped into a saloon to check with the head barkeep when a runner sidled up to me. “Good news,” this youngster said in
a prison whisper. “Rachel’s Raiders is signing ’em on—Rachel said to tell you especially.”

  “Pig swill,” I answered politely. “Rachel doesn’t know me and I don’t know Rachel.”

  “Scout’s honor!”

  “You were never a Scout and you can’t spell honor.”

  “Look, Chief,” he persisted, “I haven’t had anything to eat today. Just walk in with me; you don’t have to sign. It’s only across the street.”

  He did look skinny but that probably reflected his having just reached the gangly stage, that sudden spurt in adolescence; low town is not a place where people go hungry. But the bartender chose that moment to snap, “Beat it, Shorty! Quit bothering the customers. You want to buy a broken thumb?”

  “It’s okay, Fred,” I put in. “I’ll check with you later.” I dropped a bill on the bar, did not ask for change. “Come, Shorty.”

  Rachel’s recruiting office turned out to be quite a lot of mud farther than across the street, and two more recruiter’s runners tried to pluck me away from Shorty before we got there. They did not stand a chance as my only purpose was to see that this sorry youngster collected his cumshaw.

  The recruiting sergeant reminded me of the old cow who had the concessions in the rest room of the Palace at San Jose. She looked at me and said, “No camp doxies, sugar tit. But stick around and I might buy you a drink.”

  “Pay your runner,” I said.

  “Pay him for what?” she answered. “Leonard, I told you. No idlers, I said. Now get back out there and hustle.”

  I reached across and grasped her left wrist. Quite smoothly her knife appeared in her right hand. So I rearranged things, taking the knife and sticking it into the desk in front of her, while changing my hold on her left paw to one much more annoying. “Can you pay him one-handed?” I asked. “Or do I break this finger?”

  “Easy there,” she answered, not fighting it. “Here, Leonard.” She reached into a drawer, handed him a Texas two-spot. He grabbed it and vanished.

  I eased the pressure on her finger. “Is that all you’re paying? With every recruiter on the street fishing today?”

  “He gets his real commission when you sign up,” she answered. “Because I don’t get paid until I deliver a warm body. And I get docked if it ain’t to spec. Now would you mind letting go of my finger? I’ll need it to make out your papers.”

  I surrendered her finger; quite suddenly the knife was again in her hand and moving toward me. This time I broke the blade before handing it back to her. “Please don’t do that again,” I said. “Please. And you should use a better steel. That’s not a Solingen.”

  “I’m deducting the price of that blade from your bounty, dear,” she answered, unperturbed. “There’s been a beam on you since you walked in that door. Shall I trigger it? On do we quit playing games?”

  I did not believe her but her purpose suited me. “No more games, Sarge. What’s the proposition? Your runner told me swabo.”

  “Coffee and cakes and guild scale. Guild bounty. Ninety days with company option to extend ninety days. Wooden overcoat pay-me fifty-fifty, you and the company.”

  “Recruiters around town are offering guild plus fifty.” (This was a stab in the dark; the atmosphere felt that tense.)

  She shrugged. “If they are, we’ll match it. What weapons do you know? We aren’t signing any raw recruits. Not this time.”

  “I can teach you any weapon you think you know. Where’s the action? Who’s on first?”

  “Mmm, real salty. Are you trying to sign as a DI? I don’t buy it.”

  I asked, “Where’s the action? Are we going upriver?”

  “You ain’t even signed up and you’re asking for classified information.”

  “For which I am prepared to pay.” I took out fifty Lone-Star, in tens, laid them in front of her. “Where’s the action, Sarge? I’ll buy you a good knife to replace that carbon steel I had to expend.”

  “You’re an AP.”

  “Let’s not play the dozens. I simply want to know whether or not we’ll be going upriver. Say about as far as Saint Louis.”

  “Are you expecting to sign on as sergeant instructor?”

  “What? Heavens, no! As a staff officer.” I should not have said that—or at least not so soon. While ranks tend to be vague in Boss’s outfit, I was certainly a senior officer in that I reported to and took orders from Boss and Boss alone—and this was confirmed by the fact that I was Miss Friday to everyone but Boss—until and unless I asked for informal address. Even Dr. Krasny had not spoken to me en tutoyant until I asked him to. But I had never given much thought to my actual rank because, while I had no senior but Boss, I had no one working under me, either. On a formal T.O. (I had never seen one for Boss’s company) I would have to be one of those little boxes leading out horizontally from the stem to the C.O.-i.e., a senior staff specialist, if you like bureaucratese.

  “Well, fiddledeedee! If you can back that up, you’ll do it to Colonel Rachel, not to me. I expect her in around thirteen.” Almost absentmindedly she reached out to pick up the cash.

  I picked up the bills, tapped them even, put them down again in front of her but closer to me. “So let’s chat a bit before she gets here. Every live outfit in town is signing them up today; there ought to be some good reason to sign with one rather than another. Is the expected action upstream, or not? And how far? Will we be against real pros? Or local yokels? Or possibly town clowns? Pitched battle? On strike and run? Or both? Let’s chat, Sarge.”

  She did not answer, she did not move. She did not take her eyes off the cash.

  Shortly I took out another ten Lone-Star, placed it neatly on the fifty—waited.

  Her nostrils dilated but she did not reach for the money. After several moments I added still another Texas ten-spot.

  She said hoarsely, “Put that stuff out of sight or hand it to me; somebody might walk in.”

  I picked it up and handed it to her. She said, “Thanks, miss,” and made it vanish. “I reckon we’ll go upstream at least as far as Saint Louis.”

  “Whom do we fight?”

  “Well…you repeat this and I’ll not only deny it; I’ll cut your heart out and feed it to the catfish. We may not fight. More likely we will but not in a set battle. We, all of us, are going to be bodyguard to the new Chairman. The newest Chairman, I should say; he’s still-wet new.”

  (Jackpot!) “Interesting. Why are other outfits in town jockeying for recruits? Is the new Chairman hiring everybody? Just for his palace guard?”

  “Miss, I wish I knew. I purely wish I knew.”

  “Maybe I had better try to find out. How much time do I have? When are we sailing?” I quickly amended this to: “Or are we sailing? Maybe Colonel Rachel has a handle on some APVs.”

  “Uh…damn it, how much classified do you expect for a lousy seventy stars?”

  I thought about it. I didn’t mind spending money but I needed to be certain of the merchandise. With troops moving upriver smugglers would not be moving, at least not this week. So I needed to move with the traffic available.

  But not as an officer! I had talked too much. I took out two more ten-spots, fiddled with them. “Sarge, are you going upriver yourself?”

  She eyed the bank notes; I dropped one of them in front of her. It disappeared. “I wouldn’t miss it, dearie. Once I close down this office, I’m a platoon sergeant.”

  I dropped the other note; it joined its twin. I said, “Sarge, if I wait and talk to your colonel, if she signs me on, it will be as personnel adjutant, or logistics and supply, or something dreary like that. I don’t need the money and don’t want the worry; I want a holiday. Could you use a trained private? One you could brevet to corporal on even buck sergeant once you get to shaking down your recruits and see what vacancies you need to fill?”

  She looked sour. “That’s all I need, a millionaire in my platoon!”

  I felt sympathy for her; no sergeant wants a cashiered officer in his/her ranks. “I’m not
going to play the millionaire; I just want to be one of the troops. If you don’t trust me, stick me in some other platoon.”

  She sighed. “I ought to have my head examined. No, I’ll put you where I can keep an eye on you.” She reached into a drawer, pulled out a form headed “Limited Indenture.” “Read this. Sign it. Then I swear you. Any questions?”

  I looked it over. Most of it was routine trivia about slop chest and toke money and medical benefits and guild pay rate and bounty—but interlined was a provision postponing payment of bounty to the tenth day after enlistment. Understandable. To me it was a guarantee that they really were going in harm’s way and at once—i.e., upriver. The nightmare ruining every mercenary paymaster’s sleep is the thought of bounty jumpers. Today, with all recruiters active, it would be possible for a veteran soldier to sign up five or six ways, collect a bounty from each, then head for the banana states—unless the indentures were worded to stop it,

  The commitment was to Colonel Rachel Danvers personally or to her lawful successor in case of her death or disability, and it required the signer to carry out her orders and those of officers and noncommissioned officers she placed over me. I agreed to fight faithfully and not to cry for quarter, according to international law and the usages of war.

  It was so vaguely worded that it would require a squad of Philadelphia lawyers to define the gray areas…which did not matter at all because a difference in opinion when it counted would get the signer shot in the back.

  The period was, as the sergeant had represented, ninety days with the Colonel’s option to extend it ninety days on payment of another bounty. There was no provision for additional extension, which gave me pause. Just what sort of a political bodyguard contract could it be that would run for six months and then stop cold?

 
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