Chapter II.

29 Mar

Veta felt an icy chill as she stepped into her office cubicle.

Who was it the receptionist informed her was waiting inside? A Captain Kont from the Clandestine Service was there to see her. He represented the most hidden, invisible part of the machinery of government, directly answerable only to the Council of Custodians.

Entering the cubicle, she felt her nerves deaden.

A short, bald man with quick green eyes rose from a chair in one corner.

“Miss Vermilion?” he softly asked. “I am Captain Brok Kont of the C.S. There is a matter of enormous urgency that we must discuss at once. Where can we go and be alone?”

Veta looked at the agent’s bare head, a full five inches lower than her own. His worsted coat appeared a size too large for his frame. “Our records room should be empty and private at this hour,” she murmured in a low, hushed voice.

Kont nodded his approval.

The two walked to the end of a cork-walled corridor. Veta placed a keycard into the locking box. Then she opened the metal door and the pair entered a room full of shelved reading tapes.

When they were seated at a viewer table, the clandestine began to talk.

“We have been informed by Customs that a foreign journalist named Dey Skull arrived by freighter this morning and that he claims to be a  guest of your section.”

“Correct,” she replied. “I left him at the Feldspar Hotel only a short time ago. He is resting there.”

“The man is scheduled to leave with you tomorrow on a tour of the mining installations in the Mineral Mountains, I understand.”

“That is right. His stops have been programmed for maximum monitoring and oversight. He will never be alone or out of sight. I am responsible for all security aspects of his journey. We have seen to it that everything has been planned and prepared with care. Nothing has been left to chance.”

Kont surveyed the empty room a moment, then eyed her with a fixed stare.

“The Clandestine Service, as of this morning, has taken over responsibility for monitoring the trip of Mr. Skull. The Department of Information will no longer exercise control over the case. It has been assigned to me personally.

“Since you have already introduced yourself to the suspect, Miss Vermilion, that will have to continue. But you will from now on report directly to me, and only to me. Is that understood?”

Veta’s heart skipped a beat. Her breathing became faster. “You just called him a suspect?”

“There will be no danger to you,” Kont assured her. “I have already assigned a team of surveillance agents to watch him day and night. All his movements will be monitored. He can commit no act we do not learn about immediately.”

“What am I expected to do?” she said, frowning with sudden fear.

“First of all, give the suspect no hint or sign that you are watching him. Remember all that he says. Become well acquainted with him. Get him to talk about his life, his dreams for the future, and his inner aspirations. Listen carefully to all that he says.

“It is too bad that a professional masquerader could not have been assigned your job in time, Miss Vermilion. But only this morning did the C.S. discover his identity and probable plans. It is now too late to switch guides on him. His journalistic senses would be aroused, no doubt of that.

“So, I will have to continue with you. We shall be meeting together each night. I myself will be following the two of you to the Mineral Mountains.”

“You are sure about your suspicions?” asked Veta nervously.

Kont lowered his voice.

“He has written for Xartic publications in exile under another name. That proves that the man has some Xartic loyalties, perhaps even ancestry.”

The agent grimaced. “That is what you and I must find out,” he whispered.

She had never expected to be involved in any operation like this, with a suspected Xart who was visiting Landia from abroad. How was she to act with him? Veta asked herself.

After an early dinner in the restaurant of the Feldspar, the writer and his tour guide took a motored cabriolet to the Rialto district of popular theaters. A musical revue with comic vaudeville acts, interspersed with singing and dancing, entertained the audience for over two hours.

Dey sensed how valuable such distractions were for Landians with burdensome daytime cares. “A very good show,” he told Veta as they exited and climbed into a horse-drawn brougham.

The young woman escort gave the driver an address. As the horse pulled forward, she turned to her charge and told him where they were headed. “The Mother Load is where miners go for a good time when they come to the capital. It reminds them of the Minerals.”

It proved to be a crowded, noisy, raucous establishment where nearly anything could happen.

Miners wearing their finest outnumbered the handful of females present. Sour smells of malt barley filled the long, low-ceilinged hall. Drinkers sat at small round tables placed close together to maximize the place’s capacity. A waiter in black suit and white apron took the pair to a just vacated booth in the rear of the beer hall.

Veta ordered two mugs of black lager for herself and Dey. “You will like our beer,” she grinned. “It is made from Landian rye along with hops and barley. The taste is distinctive and pleasurable.”

For a while, neither of them spoke, until Veta asked a question. “Are you enjoying your first evening in our country?”

“Greatly,” answered Dey with enthusiasm. “I’ve never seen such an amusing revue as I did tonight. And this hall certainly has a unique atmosphere and style of its own. I find it all highly interesting.”

“You must have visited many locations in your work,” she said probingly. “How many different lands have you lived in or visited?”

He smiled as pleasantly as he could. “My parents moved three times as I grew up. My education occurred in several different parts of the Continent. I was a rover long before entering the profession of journalism. The new and different has always fascinated me.”

“You have mastered numerous languages, then?”

“That was a necessity,” he replied, remembering the countless hours of study involved. But now he was back where his family line originated, Dey said to himself.

Due to his sudden silence, Veta felt compelled to say something about herself.

“I have always wanted to travel abroad,” she mused. “But no such assignment has come to me.”

“So, you lead foreign reporters about Landia,” he chuckled.

“I have had to learn all that I can about my country’s geography and history, and how we came to our present way of life.”

“You must know much about the mining industry,” he said with a hidden purpose.”There was a lot of trouble in the Mineral Mountains in the years of the Cataclysm.”

Veta appeared disturbed by this reference, her olive skin taking a light blush.

“Here comes our waiter,” she noted, relieved by the interruption.

In seconds, the two were tasting the rich black lager.

Both of them were startled when a loud ruckus began a few tables away. They turned and craned their necks to make out what was happening there.

A fight between two drunken miners quickly grew into a general brawl before their eyes. Fists, elbows, hands, feet, legs, and backsides struck and collided. Flesh hit flesh as torrents of blows were exchanged between the brawny miners. A riotous free-for-all occurred and spread about. General fury rose by the second.

An audience congregated around the battlers, blocking the view from the table where Dey and Veta sat. The sound of breaking furniture reached their ears. Conflict rose in pitch. A genuine riot was happening.

“Does it explode like this often?” asked the journalist.

“Regularly,” answered Veta. “This must be a group just arrived from the Minerals. Often they forget they are in Calcedony. Public monitors will be summoned to restore order after a time, that is certain.”

“There is a lot of roughhouse fighting around the mines, then.”

“Indeed,” she said with a sigh.

Loud crashes punctuated the tumult engulfing the Mother Lode.

Dey and Veta finished their beer quickly. “Perhaps we had better leave,” whispered the guide. “It looks like an especially rowdy night.”

The pair rose from the table and started through the crowd. Mugs were now being hurled about. Crashing sounds grew louder.

All at once, a shrill whistling noise split the air. Then, a second and a third was heard.

“The monitors have finally arrived,” announced Veta. The presence of the bright orange uniforms was already having a quieting effect.

Once the two were outside, Dey hailed a passing berlin. The driver halted his nag and the pair boarded the four-wheeled two-seater.

“Feldspar Hotel,” ordered the foreigner. He turned to his companion. “We can have a nightcap in the tea room there,” he proposed with a broad grin.

The Clandestine Service contained many members of the family of Captain Brek Kont. His uncle, Jant Kont, was chief of the division to which Brek belonged. His own oldest brother had risen to become Director of the entire investigation and oversight institution.

Brek reported to his uncle on his taking over watching the visiting writer named Dey Skull.

“I and my unit will keep our eyes on this fellow and the woman acting as his guide,” Brek informed his relative. “Whatever he may be up to, we will find out and report it to headquarters, Uncle.”

The latter, deep in inner thoughts, frowned. “No one can foretell when a strike of the miners turns into a nationwide emergency, or how far events might go. We are in a kind of climax, Brek. The Clandestine Service must be ready to face and handle anything, I could say everything.

“Your brother, the Director, has told me almost in secret that great, momentous changes could be imminent. That is why we have to be as ready and prepared as conceivable. Even a limited assignment, such as yours, can come to have enormous future significance for the C.S. and our country.

“All of Landia depends on how we perform our mission as police, Brek.”

After several moments of silence, the nephew rose to his feet. “I shall do the best that I can, sir,” he swore to the older man.

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