Continued from 21. The Rolling Road.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
Kolteo felt relieved to see Marrem’s face. He had come to rely on this man for much. “Marrem! It’s good to see you. This isn’t a secure line, so I’ll let you do most of the talking.”
“You know how I love to talk,” said Marrem.
Kolteo relaxed some. That meant Marrem was not under duress.
“Marrem, has Iani made contact with you?”
Marrem nodded. “Yes, he’s been here a couple of times. Something’s got him upset.”
“Has he said anything to you?”
Marrem chuckled. “He’s upset to have lost two fellow directors in a single day. Not too upset, mind you, but he may be afraid. Hard to tell with him.”
Kolteo nodded. “What can you tell me about what we’re up against.”
Marrem shrugged. “Not much, I’m afraid. I’m still working to identify the rogues who went after you. They used one of our cars.”
“Yes, they weren’t very professional about it. We shouldn’t have gotten away so easily.”
Marrem smirked. “I wouldn’t relax too much. Until you know who’s behind it, you don’t know the game they’re playing. But I can tell you, I don’t think it’s Iani.”
Kolteo breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. We’re going to the bank, and I was worried if I would find anything there.”
Marrem frowned. “Careful sir. Insecure line.”
Kolteo winced. “I must be tired.”
“Think nothing of it.”
“Alright, I have to go. Keep an eye on Iani. I’ll be in touch again.”
“May the Emperor speed you.”
Kolteo cut the transmission.
Kolteo turned to find Julin and Romik right behind him.
“Time to go,” said Julin.
Walking back down through the slower bands of the slideway was trickier. Each time Kolteo stepped off onto a slower band, he felt as if he would pitch forward and land between bands. But he didn’t. At the next station they stepped off the slowest band. Solid ground again felt strange under Kolteo’s feet.
They passed another pair of Enforcers and climbed the stairs, emerging onto ground level and open air again. This was a busier section of town, with pedestrian commuters flocking the streets.
Julin pointed at a short building of only twenty stories, with robust architecture and ornate decoration. “Looks like the bank,” he said.
Kolteo looked at him. “You want to go call your friend?”
Julin grinned his lazy grin. “No help from your end, eh?”
“He’s gathering information.”
“Sure he is. You don’t want me with you in the bank.”
“Two will draw less attention than three. We’ll meet you at the clothiers after.”
Julin shrugged. “Just don’t go robbing any banks without me.”
Kolteo sighed, turned away without another word, and started walking toward the bank. He’d liked Julin better when he was a distant memory, just a character in Sari’s stories of her youth, capable and daring, selfless and carefree. The man himself had become nettlesome and tiring.
He glanced at Romik, walking faithfully at his side. “Let’s go around the block.”
They counted four entrances, one on each side, and one mobile Enforcer patrol. “I like the setup,” Kolteo decided.
“I agree,” said Romik. “Hard to get pinned down in there.”
In theory, a bank was one of those unique places in Imperial society where rich and poor alike mingled, hence the symbolic street-only access. In practice, the rich usually managed their money through proxies and go-betweens. Thus, Kolteo had not been inside a bank in many, many years, and never on Siben. He entered this one as innocently as any rube from the Periphery.
They entered through the glass double doors into the high-ceilinged foyer. The foyer passed right through the building in both directions. No elevators were in evidence, probably hidden away beyond security doors.
At the center where the foyers crossed, a great rotunda rose up, guiding overawed eyes upward to rest on great frescoes depicting scenes from the history of the Empiriit, from Basis to Holy Fundament. Even jaded, practical men like Kolteo and Romik could not help but be moved by the grandeur of it all.
Beneath the rotunda, in the four corners between foyers, the Great Trade went on, a living morality play of profit and loss, with actors endlessly exchanging goods between the Four Great Pillars.
The tellers’ counter, itself an unbroken circle representing the faith and trust held by the bank, occupied the center of the rotunda.
Kolteo glanced at Romik. “There’s a bench over there. You take overwatch.”
Romik took a seat to watch the hall vigilantly while Kolteo circled and approached the tellers’ counter on the side opposite Romik. A young woman greeted him, “Good afternoon, sir. How can I help you today?”
Kolteo produced a crypto wallet chit. “I need to withdraw a large amount of cash. Twenty thousand tokens should be sufficient.”
The woman raised her eyebrows, looking him up and down. “Certainly, sir. I’ll need to get my manager, you understand.”
Kolteo smiled his most genteel smile. “Of course. I’m in no hurry.”
“May I see your identification?”
“Certainly.” Kolteo produced a holocard. He was now Oscober Ricochait, businessman, and by the way he was dressed, eccentric. Couldn’t be helped.
The woman took the wallet chit and holocard and went to consult with an older woman with graying hair. Kolteo watched them, then glanced past them to Romik. The armsman sat in a relaxed pose, but his head was on a swivel.
After consulting a screen, the teller and her manager came back over to Kolteo.
“Good afternoon, Mister Ricochait,” said the manager.
Kolteo smiled. “Good afternoon.”
“You’re withdrawing twenty thousand tokens? In cash?”
He nodded. “Yes. I’m preparing for a business trip out to the Rim.” A half-truth.
The manager nodded. “That’s all fine, except that your account is empty.”
Kolteo frowned. Iani. “Empty?”
“Yes, sir. In fact, according to the transaction log, the balance was withdrawn earlier today.”
Kolteo nodded. His chest tightened, and he suddenly had a sour taste in his mouth. “I was afraid of that.” He dug in his pocket and produced another chit. “Would you please check this one?”
The manager accepted the chit, set it on the counter, and checked the screen. She looked up with a sad smile. “I’m afraid that one is empty as well, sir. As of this morning.”
Kolteo nodded and sucked his teeth. “Well, I suppose I won’t be withdrawing anything, then.”
The teller looked uneasy. The manager dismissed her quietly, then shook her head at Kolteo. “No, I’m afraid not. If you believe you’ve been the victim of a crime, I can assist you in making a report to the Ministry of Finance.”
Kolteo made a grim attempt at a smile. “No, that’s quite alright. I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. I know who to talk to.”
Motion in the distance drew his eye. Romik was standing, his eyes fixed on the entrance to Kolteo’s left. A flick of the eye confirmed that two Enforcers had entered the rotunda.
The manager noticed his eye movement, and she too glanced at the Enforcers. Her eyes narrowed.
Kolteo tried to smile reassuringly. “If I may have my card and chits back, I’ll be on my way.”
The manager hesitated, frowning. “Sir, if you don’t mind me saying, that’s a lot of money to find missing. Perhaps we should file that report.”
Kolteo’s smile grew brittle. “I do mind you saying. I told you, it’s a misunderstanding. My business partner must have already taken the money out.”
The manager put her hands flat on the counter, as if for support. “Perhaps you should call him, then. I’d like to see this sorted out. The bank has a responsibility, you see.”
The Enforcers had swung out of Kolteo’s peripheral vision. Kolteo had to concentrate to keep his breathing steady, his eyes to the front, focused on the manager. He hesitated, then decided, “Well, I suppose I could. May I borrow a screen? I’m afraid I left mine at home on accident.”
The manager smiled and handed the screen across. Kolteo accepted it gratefully and punched in Marrem’s number.
This time, Marrem’s face appeared right away. He looked surprised. “Director!”
Kolteo smiled. “Marrem, I can’t talk long right now.” That was the duress code. “I need you to tell me: did you withdraw from our mutual accounts earlier today?” Kolteo nodded his head up and down, just enough for Marrem to see.
Marrem hesitated, then nodded. “Yes, yes I did. I’m sorry, are you at the bank now?”
Kolteo sighed in relief, and chuckled. “Yes, we must have gotten mixed up. I thought you wanted me to do it.”
Marrem raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Ah, yes, I see. I’m sorry about that. My mistake.”
“Alright, well, I’d better go. Thanks for helping me straighten that out.”
“My pleasure, Director.”
The screen went black. Kolteo handed it back to the bank manager. “There, you see? Do you need to report a misunderstanding like that?”
The manager had been looking over his shoulder. She frowned. “No, I suppose not. Will there be anything else I can do for you?”
Kolteo smiled, resisting the urge to turn and see what she had seen. “No, you’ve been very helpful already. Thank you for your time.”
He turned to go. The two Enforcers were standing near one of the Pillars and watching him. He glanced at them, then made his way around the central counter to where Romik was waiting.
“Are they walking this way?” he asked without turning his head.
Romik nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Walk with me.”
Romik turned, and they walked without hurry out the doors. In the reflection of the glass Kolteo caught a glimpse of black armor following them. Out in the street, he and Romik turned right and set off.
“You know where we’re going?” Kolteo asked.
“Yes, sir. Three blocks on, then right four blocks more.”
They walked on. The clouds had gone away, and the sun had come out, but the street was still in deep shadow. The wind blew steadily down the deep canyon of buildings.
Kolteo checked their tails at frequent intervals. The two Enforcers followed doggedly at about half a block’s distance, making no effort to hide their presence.
As they approached their turn, Kolteo asked conversationally, “What do you think, Romik? Do we need to shake them?”
“Be mighty hard, sir, even if we split.”
“Think they have eyes in the sky by now?”
They turned the corner. Kolteo spotted a grocery market. “Let’s duck in here, see what happens.”
They entered the grocery and went quickly to the back, where they were sheltered from immediate view by shelving. They turned and watched the entrance, each peering around the corner of a shelf.
A pair of black shadows loomed in the frosted glass of the entrance doors, then disappeared from view.
“Looks like they’re waiting for us out there,” said Kolteo.
Romik glanced behind him. “I wonder if there’s a back entrance?”
Kolteo chuckled wryly. “I suppose that would have been good to figure out ahead of time.”
Romik smiled. “Usually we have advance intelligence and someone on overwatch to guide us.”
“The game’s changing. We’re going to have to adapt.”
Romik nodded. “Aye, sir. I’ll check.”
Romik disappeared into the back. He returned moments later. “Nothing, just a break room and storage.”
Kolteo looked at the front entrance, then back at Romik. “You have any spare tokens on you?”
Romik checked his pockets. “A couple. You have an idea?”
“A stupid one, as ideas go, but it just might work. Hand them over.”
Romik produced two singular tokens. “It’s not much. Were you…” he hesitated. “You weren’t able to withdraw anything?”
“No.” Kolteo lowered his eyes.
Romik nodded. “We could use debit if we need more. I just got paid.”
Kolteo frowned, suddenly feeling lost and very out of place. He had no idea how much anything even cost. “We’ll see.”
Continued in: 23. Enforcers…
Julin and Kolteo have a rendezvous to make… but it becomes complicated by a pair of Enforcers.
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