This looked bad. Really bad. If any of the bank’s General-Officers become interested it’ll be the metaphorical guillotine. Maybe it will even be a real guillotine. Such were the thoughts of Acquisitions-Lieutenant Colonel Stonechest as he took the long glass-elevator ride down to sub-basement six. That at least was good news. If the problem was still with Funds-Misappropriation on Sub-Six, then the top-brass hadn’t heard enough to pay close attention yet. Still, that he was in the position where he had to answer more questions meant only one thing: the documents he’d provided were not enough to see him free and clear. This caused him more than the average amount of concern. He was always such a stickler for paperwork. Paperwork protocol had been his best subject at the academy. The elevator doors slid open to a claxon scream and the flash of yellow hazard lights.
Stonechest produced the requested document from inside his coat and handed it to the security guard. He decided to ignore the fact that the guard had not referred to him by his rank, the honorific of ‘sir’, or even attempted being fake polite. Perhaps the guard felt that good manners were for the weak. Still, an insincere ‘please’ would have been nice. However, as the bank only ever recruited the most malicious of people to work as security on Sub-Six, Stonechest felt it prudent to get past them as quickly as possible. Even if it hadn’t been for risk of rough treatment, it still wouldn’t have done him any good to pull rank. They played by their own rules down here; rules that were sanctioned in Macro Finance International’s nebulous bylaws.
The guard handed back the document. “If you’ll just step through the scanner.”
Perhaps, like manners, the guard also felt that adequate descriptions were for the weak too, since the ‘scanner’ was more gate-like than the word would normally conjure to the imagination. Although Stonechest’s mind allowed for the possibility of a scanner being something one could walk through – rather like an arch, or free-standing doorway – it balked slightly at the orifice that faced him now. His imagination expected something in a science fiction stainless steel, perhaps with some winking lights, and the occasional friendly beeping noise. Probably, a person would be able to see around the frame of it to the other side, which would resemble an airport departure lounge. Instead, what faced him was a cruel looking trapezoidal opening, set into the wall as if holding it apart with a superior will. At its apex was a likeness of the current C.O. of the Division of Financial Affairs. The likeness seemed poised to glare the soul out of any individual unlucky enough to catch its gaze. Stonechest steeled himself, hunched over to avoid any soul-glaring gazes, and leaned himself purposefully through the scanner-gate as if that was the most natural way to walk through any weird looking hole in the wall.
On the other side, there were two more guards. One of them was seated at an unfriendly looking console populated with several large monitors, with a second guard standing directly in front of where Stonechest had emerged. This second guard stared at Stonechest with focused menace, scrutinizing him for any traces of un-glared soul. At least, that’s how it seemed, all of the bank’s security were notoriously hard to read. Many of Macro Finance’s more imaginative staff believed that security personnel were genetically engineered vat-babies, hardwired to be inscrutable. Of course, the idea that all of the bank’s security were vat-babies was completely ridiculous. That they all looked pretty much the same must surely be a coincidence.
“He has a weapon in his left inside pocket.” The statement had come from the guard at the console, delivered to his colleague in perfectly executed monotone.
Without really knowing how it happened, Stonechest found himself pinned against a wall with the second guard deftly extracting an object from inside his coat.
“It is an offense to bring weapons into Funds Misappropriation, sir.”
The statement threw Stonechest off balance. The guard was being polite, and not in a way that suggested he had better manners than his counterpart at the scanner entrance. That must certainly bode ill for anyone unlucky enough to be called ‘sir’ all the way down here on Sub-Six. He tried to focus on the object that the guard was holding. It hovered there at precisely the right distance from his nose that he would need his reading glasses to make it out. “I don’t understand? I don’t carry any weapons.” Was the guard smiling at him?
“This,” the guard pulled back just enough that the object in his hand became a small wooden batten, “tells a very different story.”
“But that’s not a weapon,” the Acquisitions-Lieutenant Colonel protested. “It’s a collapsable swagger stick.”
The guard appeared doubtful. “Looks like a weapon to me… sir. What do you use it for?”
“Pointing at maps, mostly. Sometimes I carry it under my arm and just sort of, you know, swagger about.”
The guard now looked incredulous… probably. It could just as easily have been the same look of doubt he had displayed before, or one that said he regretted what he had eaten for lunch. Nobody would ever be able to say for sure, least of all Stonechest. “I could,” Stonechest ventured meekly, “demonstrate how it works. Sort of prove its general ‘collapsable-swagger-stick-ish-ness’?”
“I doubt that will be necessary,” said the guard. It was now clear that anything used for something so ridiculous as a ‘swagger’ was likely harmless enough.
Stonechest couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. He really liked a good swagger session. Especially in situations as tense as this one; it always helped him relax. “Are you sure? I mean, perhaps I could just do a little swagger – small steps, point at very small imaginary maps, that sort of thing?”
“Quite sure,” the guard returned flatly. “However, we will have to hold onto this for the duration of your stay with us. Just to make sure.” This was only partly true. While it was true that security was required to temporarily confiscate objects of even the most vague weapon-like dimensions, it was not required to ‘make sure’ that they were safe once taken. No, what would have made the guard’s statement all true is if he had admitted that he had become curious about this thing called a swagger. It clearly needed tools, the guard liked tools. Perhaps, on his coffee break, he might be able to reconstruct a ‘swagger’ based on the Acquisitions-Lieutenant Colonel’s description. Maps were no problem, the break room was full of them. “Your stick will be returned to you after we have completed a thorough threat assessment. Proceed down the corridor and report to the Funds-Misappropriation Clerk-Corporal at reception.”
While it could not be said that the Clerk-Corporal was friendlier than Sub-Six’s security, she was at least better at pretending to be. For a while, this made Stonechest even more anxious than he had been before. His anxiety subsided somewhat when, upon arrival at the room the Clerk-Corporal had politely directed him too, he found himself in front of an office door. He had feared he’d find himself faced by another scanner, meaner looking security, and the cold hard steel of an entrance to an interrogation room. No, this was just a harmless looking office. So, no torture just yet, then. He knocked.
“Come in.” The voice was cheery, disarming, a little comical. The kind of voice that would do very well on a radio show, so long as that show was about funny voices. “Ah,” said the voice once Stonechest had made it through the door, “Acquisitions-Lieutenant Colonel, how nice of you to come down. And so promptly, too. Has anyone offered you tea?”
Stonechest was stunned. An offer of tea? That can’t be right. He examined the short, slightly paunchy, excessively balding man in front of him. He seemed earnest enough. His look suggested he was sincerely offering tea, yet this did not ring true at all. Perhaps this was a different kind of bank-grown vat-baby? Some sort of minion designed to look friendly, but that would quietly poison your hot drink when you weren’t looking. Yet tea did sound awfully good. Stonechest decided to risk it. “No,” he said, “but a cup of tea would be lovely, thank you…. I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name.”
“Oh, but how rude of me. I’m Warrant Officer Cleaves. Just let me see to the tea, and we’ll get on with the business of bringing you up to speed on why I’ve called you down here.” Cleaves gave a very charming smile as he said this and reached for the phone on his desk. “Yes, Mavis? How’s your day going? … Oh, really? That does sound quite bothersome, but I’m sure it will all work out. Listen, I was wondering if you couldn’t bring the good Acquisitions-Lieutenant Colonel and myself a nice pot of tea? … No, you’re thinking of the Transactions-Major, this is the man with the really sterling paperwork. … Yes, that was very unfortunate, but our hands were tied. … I know, he did seem like a nice sort of fellow. … Yes, a great blow to his family, I’m sure. Look, as we’re a bit pressed for time, would you be able to bring the tea right away? Great, see you soon.” Cleaves hung up, and gave Stonechest another warm smile. “Wonderful woman Mavis, quite the talker, though. So where were we?”
“You were going to bring me up to speed, Funds Misappropriation-Warrant Officer.”
Cleaves looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh, I see. Of course you’d think I’m with F-M, because I’m down here on Sub-Six at the moment. No, I’m simply Warrant Officer Cleaves, my position with Macro Finance is… how should I put this? Well, let’s just say that it’s non-divisional. I’m something of a troubleshooter, they send me wherever they feel my talents might be most useful. At the moment, it’s here. At least, for the amount of time it will take me to give you a quick brief, and drink a cup of tea. Which reminds me, you don’t happen to have a ‘go bag’ do you?”
“A what?” This was starting to look bad again. “I’m sorry, but I don’t really understand what’s happening. I thought you called me down here to discuss my paperwork in connection with the Mustnot and Downward matter?”
“Your paperwork? No, you did a first class job on that, really top draw. I’ve never seen such amazing paperwork, and I have seen a lot of paperwork in my day, so I should know. I’ve called you down here because you’re going to accompany me to this river system Mustnot and Downward have absconded to. You’ll aid me in their… extraction. I felt that your assistance would give me the best chance of bringing them in alive. We leave after the tea… I hope. Mavis is really dragging the chain. She’s probably stopped by the Clerk-Corporal’s desk for a gossip; she’s quite the scamp that way.” Cleaves gave a roguish wink.
“But,” Stonechest objected, “they’re on the other side of the planet! It’s hot there, there’s mosquitos. Mosquitos with diseases. Besides, I’m not trained as a field officer, I wouldn–.”
“But you are an officer of this bank, are you not? Moreover, you were their Commanding Officer, and their misdeed happened under your watch. I should think that – at the very least – you would show an officer’s concern about that. You should want to help me shoot this trouble. I mean, solve this problem. At any rate, I’ve already had you seconded to me, so it’s official. Ah, that sounds like the tea. Try to drink it quickly. We have the corporate jet waiting, and the pilot is a very grumpy woman indeed.”
Stonechest looked back at Cleaves silently. He wanted to object again. He wanted desperately to go back to his office upstairs and have a really relaxing swagger. Yet Cleaves’ face, while still friendly on the surface, betrayed existence of something altogether less friendly, and more dangerous, lurking beneath it. Vat-baby dangerous. Stonechest kept quiet and drank his tea. The tea was very bitter.