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Business Matters
frustrated mother of teenager
So, here's my fourth story of the Apocalypse Bingo, written to the prompt "Ray Guns." It came in at 3,113 words.

Chid knew not to be overeager, so he approached Mr Thaswick's table at his usual pace. Mr Thaswick, a grizzled old man who had once been a formidable salvager, was prepared to deal with small time scavengers like Chid and he paid fair prices. It gave him a regular team of scavengers bringing what they could find to him first, and he made his money by consolidating his takings and selling them on to the processes. Those fair prices, and his position close to the gates, meant that when one of his regulars had a bigger find they still came to him, instead of going further into the Market and finding someone like the Vambrance Brothers or Miscericord. Tandous Market could be a harsh place if the wrong people thought you had something you wanted, and Mr Thaswick offered Chid and his ilk a measure of safety.

Today Chid had made a find. It may not have been much to the salvagers who worked the Leviathan Deadland or the unregulated search zones, but to someone who could just afford a licence for the Blackearth Levee search zone, it was a good find. He was having to drag his grab-bag along the ground behind him, but that was what it was for, and one of the first lessons he had learned as a scavenger was to always fill it, even with junk, so no-one was ever surprised that it was full. He dragged the bag past the guards on the gate, who glanced at his pass before letting him through, and then through the gauntlet of spotters who worked for gangs or salvagers. No-one challenged him, so he joined the queue behind Mother Epsilon and waited his turn.

Four transactions later, it was Chid's turn to talk to the brown and grey bearded man behind the table, his cash box beside him, and four guards that Chid knew about scattered around the Gate Square. Mr Thaswick sounded warm and benevolent as he asked, "And what have you got today for me, Chid?"

Chid pulled the bag up beside him, almost as if he was going to empty it on the table, but kept it upright, angled the opening toward Mr Thaswick, and quickly pulled out one item that he put on the table without brandishing it around.

Mr Thaswick looked at the item for a moment, the looked up at Chid, his face inscrutable. He asked, "Power packs?"

"Empty or missing, like always," replied Chid.

"There's a pity," answered Mr Thaswick. "You've more than one then?"

"Oh, yes," replied Chid. "What can you offer me for them, sir?"

"In this condition, without a power pack, five tokens," replied Mr Thaswick. "Seven with an uncharged power pack."

"Done," replied Chid. "Where do you want me to put them?"

"Sit here with me till I close, then I'll give you an extra token to drag that bag of yours back to my warehouse, so we can sort them out in private." Mr Thaswick smiled. "I like to get people to do that sometimes just to make anyone who makes it their business to watch me get the idea that such a thing isn't unusual."

So Chid sat beside Mr Thaswick with his grab-bag, drank clean water, and nibbled politely on fruit slices while Mr Thaswick conducted his business. At ten minutes before sunset the gates closed, and at sunset, Mr Thaswick closed his desk for the day. The guards converged, and everything was moved down the alley between the guard barracks and the public hotel to the warehouse in the street behind them. Chid hadn't been to the warehouse before, and there were more people there than he expected, both guards and clerks. He looked around surprised.

"Oh yes," commented Mr Thaswick. "This is all more than me and a desk in the square. I have things carted down here several times during the day to keep the square clear. Back when I first started in the business there was some fool who thought that robbing me, then selling the proceeds to the Vambrace brothers would be a good idea; he really should have had a better look at the place first."

Chid looked. There were the repurposed ceiling fittings out of a leviathan up there, and Chid had heard that those were security items, not that he'd gotten closer to a leviathan than the view of the Deadland from the top of the Levee. Even with the piles and bins of things everywhere, they could still see all the floor area from up there. All he said was, "I see, sir."

"Come to my office and we'll talk details," said Mr Thaswick.

Chid walked out of the warehouse an hour later with his grab-bag over his shoulder and a considerable value in small denomination tokens stowed about his person. He took sensible precautions, and went home past his landlord's office where he quietly paid what was due and a month's rent in advance. He made sure that none of his evening was out of the ordinary, and he slept unmolested that night.

Thaswick waited several days before he took Chid's find to his buyer. Quant had been a civil servant once, and remained loyal to a polity that no longer existed. Their meeting was in Quant's locked office, so Quant saw no need to be extraordinarily circumspect. "Mark Three hand lasers," he said ruminatingly. "Your source has done well for themselves. Do they know what finding a group of weapons like these together probably means?"

"I had a general little chat with them, " said Thaswick. "They know what to look for. I've encouraged them to keep quiet about it."

"That's probably wise," agreed Quant. "So, are we agreed on ten tokens a piece for the guns?"

"I'm sure we agreed on ten and a half," answered Thaswick with a smile.

"You could let me win sometimes, you know," Quant scolded him.

"You'd just get sloppy," Thaswick was still smiling.

The day after his meeting with Quant, a group of salvagers strolled into Thaswick's warehouse just after he'd opened the doors for the morning. They were an experienced team led by Berken, and they wanted to know who had found the guns Thaswick had sold to Quant, and where.

"Now, why would I burn my source by telling you where they got their merchandise, if I knew?" Thaswick had drawn himself up to his full height, and somehow didn't look quite so old as he had.

"Because we can make your life very difficult, old man," replied Sark, Berken's main offsider. "Get to your age, and bones are fragile. Warehouses burn. That sort of thing."

Thaswick looked at him with disfavour. "You are reminding very much of why your uncles didn't make old bones, Sark Devict. You might want to consider what else a man with my years and a warehouse might have accumulated.:" He smiled. "As I recall, there was a story that your uncles got their entire company killed with a few rash words. Don't go threatening people whose reactions you don't know well enough to predict."

Sark went to say something else, but Berken stopped him. "Consider this then, Mr Thaswick, your source may have found themselves something they can't handle. Doing a deal with us might be their best chance of survival."

"Or a guaranteed death from a knife in the gut," Thaswick told the woman. "Do you imagine that Sark there, or Mencht, have any intention of leaving my source alive? I've known too many of their kinsmen to think they have much in the way of benevolence. Besides, none of us got to where we are now by not testing our abilities against new challenges, did we? My source may do better than you think."

"For your source's sake, I hope so." It was clear that Berken wasn't happy, but she didn't, quite, snarl.

"Indeed," agreed Thaswick affably, "and for your sake, this is your one and only warning. Do. Not. Try. To. Threaten. Me. Again. Ever." His face was hard, and he made a hand gesture that brought one of his clerks running. "Waltho, please see these people out, immediately. None of them are to be admitted, ever again. Have their patterns loaded into the security system." He pointed up at the ceiling with his hand, barely moving his arm at all, but Berken and Sark's eyes followed the motion, and then both realised what they were looking at.

Waltho, a slightly flustered-seeming man with greying, fuzzy curls of hair on his head said, "Yes, Mr Thaswick. Of course. Please everyone, this way to the nearest exit. Don't make me insist, thank you." He ushered them out, fussing slightly as he went. Some of Berken's team looked slightly bemused, but Sark was hissing at them to keep quiet and keep moving.

Thaswick watched them go, then, when Waltho came back to him he told the other man, "Waltho, arrange a meeting for me with Quant, for this morning if he's available. The desk can do without me for an hour or so."

"Yes, Mr Thaswick, I'll get on it right away." Waltho turned to go, then turned back, "Sir, if those young people come back, do you want them dead, or just kept outside?"

"For now, Waltho, kept outside," replied Thaswick gravely. "You know these matters can be...fluid. Let's not decide to burn any bridges until it's clear that they need to be burnt."

Waltho nodded. "As you say, sir. We wouldn't like to be overeager at all. Now, I'll go arrange that appointment for you before something else happens."

Thaswick saw Quant in his office again before it was halfway to noon from dawn, and he went straight to the point. "You've got a leak, Quant. Or whoever bought what I sold you yesterday does. I had salvagers at my place this morning trying to find out who my source is and where they found the stuff."

Quant stopped in place for a moment. "I know who the political agents in my warehouse are, but they're just the price of doing business. I didn't know I had someone here who'd sell the data to private parties." He sighed. "This sort of house cleaning is so disruptive, and I'm afraid that if salvagers are in the loop then the Prince won't be far behind."

"I'll note your warning," said Thaswick, "and take precautions if I must. Take care yourself, in case the house cleaning gets vigorous."

"I will," replied Quant. "Don't worry."

Thaswick noticed several other groups of salvagers nibbing around the edges of his operation as they tried to get details that would lead them to location where the cache of End War weapons had been found. He chose to be vaguely amused. None of the groups in question had licences for the Blackearth Levee, and they would have had to relinquish their Leviathan Deadland permits to get one, so he suspected they thought his source had sneaked into the Deadland or risked the unregulated zones to make his find. Chid, in Thaswick's opinion, wasn't big enough or bad enough to survive either course of action. The Levee had been picked over for all the accessible and visible debris of the war that had ended the world as it had been, but that didn't mean everything in it had been found - that Thaswick was making a living buying and selling items found on the Levee proved it. The big stuff was supposedly all found, and that was what was getting the big reputation salvagers all worked up, in Thaswick's opinion; they didn't like feeling that they'd missed something that should have been obvious, and they resented that someone down near the bottom of the salvager/scavenger hierarchy had apparently found it. Chid hadn't been by for a few days, but that was probably a good thing, given who was sniffing around.

Quant very publicly fired a clerk for "breaching business confidentiality". Thaswick wouldn't have branded the man's hand, marking him as a spy, but Quant was still a Realmsman at heart, even if the Realm no longer existed, and would be to the end of his days. It was also a warning, of course, because somewhere in Quant's operation there was still an agent of the Prince and that person needed to know that there would be consequences if they damaged Quant's business while acting for the Prince.

Really, Thaswick wasn't surprised when he was summoned to the administrative building in the middle of Tandous Market. He was shown into a very familiar chamber, and bowed to the younger man waiting for him. "Prince Rodgan, you wanted to see me?"

"Thaswick, isn't it?" Rodgan was the shorter of them, and the stockier, being thick-necked and heavily muscled. "My parents sometimes spoke of you."

"I was occasionally useful to them, Your Highness," Thaswick agreed, "and occasionally annoying."

Rodgan laughed. "That's what I remember. I think you annoyed my father more than Mother."

"Your lady mother was generally the more charming of the two of them, " conceded Thaswick.

"In so many ways," agreed Rodgan. "To turn to business, I recently acquired a batch of Mark Three hand lasers for my armoury. My sources tell me that you are the original dealer for these items. I need to know who supplied them and where they found them. In return, I'm offering you a token's bounty for each item my people recover from the cache."

"So, if there is no cache or my source chooses not to speak to you, I get nothing and lose my reputation," answered Thaswick. "Why does no-one trust my source to handle their own affairs?"

"Because I don't trust that I will get to buy everything your source finds," replied Rodgan. "It doesn't suit me to have that sort of fire power, or better, in other people's hands."

"I'm sure it doesn't, Your Highness," said Thaswick, "but I decline to reveal my source of stock."

"I could roll into this town tonight, take control, and then you'd have to tell me," pointed out Rodgan. "I could hand you over to people who would make you talk."

"Your Highness, I played this game with your parents many times, back when it was me they were trying to deprive of a living. No. I will not give up my source." Thaswick smiled at the Prince, "Besides, you won't take over Tandous Market; if you do, then you'll be responsible for maintaining good order and our civic infrastructure, plus you'll lose the escape valve we offer for your malcontents. Is that the price you'll be prepared to pay to maybe get the information you want?"

"Can I get a promise of first refusal from you then if anything else of this nature and quality comes into your hands?" Rodgan took a deep breath and went on, "I know you normally sell to Quant, so I'll pay you what I normally pay him, and I'll pay him the token an item bounty."

Thaswick considered a moment. "That seems like a reasonable offer, Your Highness. I accept, on the understanding that there may not be anything else to find."

The Prince smiled. "That's the thing, isn't it? There may not be anything else there for us to fuss over."

Chid came back to Thaswick's table in the square two days later, just before the gates closed. "Mr Thaswick?" He was dragging the grab-bag along the ground again, and he looked both tired and wild eyed. "Can we talk privately when you're finished here? Please?"

"Of course, Chid." Thaswick gestured at the stool to his side. "Have some water while I finish up here." When Chid was seated and had drunk half a cup of water, Thaswick said quietly, "There have been people asking me to identify the source of certain merchandise I on sold recently. Please be assured that I haven't given up that source, but I expect that I'm still being watched."

"I'm sure that person appreciates your actions, sir." Chid swallowed some more water and asked, "What sorts of people have been asking?"

"Salvagers like Berken and her team, Prince Rodgan. My on seller discharged one of his clerks and branded the chap as a spy over the matter." Thaswick took a sideways look at the younger man.

"There's some big fish interested in that stuff then, isn't there?" Chid just drank some more water.

"Indeed, but we've your own matters to discuss later, haven't we?" Thaswick smiled, then turned to attend to a child who'd come to trade in a small collection of ceramic discs.

Later, back in the locked office of the warehouse, Thaswick began by saying, "Chid, you should know that, without identifying you, I've agreed to give Prince Rodgan first refusal on whatever you sell me from your cache. If there is a cache. If you don't want to hand something over to the Prince, then don't sell to me."

Chid stood up and said, "I don't think that selling is quite the thing I need to do." He opened his coat to reveal the End War badges he had threaded on his belt, at least two of the shiny metal, enamel and glass things sat on either side of his belt buckle. "I got into a gun battery, Mr Thaswick, that's what the people who used those weapons had been defending. Then it took me three days to get out again, but I think I've got the badges to control it."

"So," Thaswick's tone was very considered, "What do you want to do?"

"Well, it occurred to me, sir," said Chid confidingly, "that there's lots of things in it that could be sold off. It also occurred to me that it might be worth more to someone, like the Prince, in one piece, because it still is all in one piece. Looked like someone pumped poison gas in through the air vents, and everyone in there just died. You've alreadly got this deal with the Prince going on, you could talk to him about it."

Thaswick looked at him then asked, "You're sure are you, that it was gas and that you want to deal with the Prince?"

"They died in their chairs," said Chid. "If it was a disease, I'd already be dead. If not the Prince, who? One of the gang bosses around the place who fancy themselves as warlords? Some high-powered salvager group that thinks they can take over this town and start a new kingdom of their own? There are worse people than the Prince for this."

"There are," agreed Thaswick. "I'll see what I can do."

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