The Inspector had taken her to the harbor without a word of explanation, as was his wont. Following him one pace behind and to the right, she saw ahead a large trading vessel with Chinese characters on the side. He stopped by the gangway, motioning her impatiently forward. Grasping her arm with one bony claw, she turned her to face him directly.
“What does that say?” he queried, pointing up at the Chinese figures while looking at her. There was a glint of mischief in his eye. This was yet another test, one of many she had been given over the last few weeks. If she admitted she knew, she was in violation of the law. If she didn’t answer, she was in violation of the law. If she lied to him she was in violation of the law. No way out then, besides he wouldn’t have asked if he didn’t already know.
“In English it would be Shanghai Lady” she said quietly, lowering her eyes and trying to look embarrassed.
“Just so.” Taking her chin in his hand, he forced her to meet his eyes. “You speak as well as read?”
This time there was no feigning embarrassment. She simply nodded.
“Good. Follow me. Translate when I ask you too, otherwise keep your mouth shut and I want you to observe everything you see. Everything, mind.” She nodded again but he was already striding across the gangway into the hold and she had to scramble to keep up.
There was little time to recover from her surprise about the Inspector already knowing or at least guessing her proficiency in Chinese, a skill that had been banned since the founding of the Conglomeration. Chasing after him into the dark, dank hold she paused to adjust her eyes.
A Chinese man, an officer, approached the Inspector, bowed solemnly, and upon lifting his face smiled a toothy grin that did not reach his eyes. The Inspector spoke first.
“Ni hao, Captain Ping” Alethea kept her surprise at hearing the Inspector speak Chinese openly without any hesitation. “How was your journey? I hope not too arduous?”
The Captain nodded in a mini-bow, “Good, very good sailing. Come, have tea and we will do business.” The Inspector agreed readily and she was following them to the side, down a narrow hall and up three flights of narrow stairs until they were in a kind of sitting room full of color and fabrics that she had only heard about in whispered tones. Every woman in the Conglomeration would kill to feel real silk against her skin, primarily because it was forbidden. Oh the power of a woman wrapped in silk.
The Inspector sat down without permission in a wingbacked chair of red with green, blue, and yellow dragons expecting the captain to bring him tea. She sat on a type of stool to the side of him that was covered in white silk with beautiful cherry trees dotted with thousands of pink blossoms. She had seen photos of cherry trees blossoming in a large city surrounded by white stone rubble that must have been grand buildings at one time. Those photos were safely digitized in the Temple Library now, preserved for who she wasn’t sure. When she had dug them up, the last date of access had been some 25 years before. Alethea hid her hands, one to each side, underneath the flare of her robe so she could feel the fabric, caress the nubby stitching. Her eyes drank in the many colors of the room while the Inspector spoke a mishmash of English and Chinese pleasantries and the Captain stuck to a pidgin English of sorts. Finally both men were settled with a tea cup in hand, the Captain now seated on a couch of black laquer with red and gold cushions. The Inspector slightly turned his head toward her and gave a curt nod. She rose with an inward sigh, regretting her oh so brief contact with the banned fabric.
Clearing his throat, the Inspector began. “Captain please forgive this sudden intrusion but I have urgent need to speak with you and did not find out until this afternoon that you were in port. I humbly apologize if we interrupted your trading.”
She translated, turning toward the Captain and looked directly at his face. She wasn’t sure if this was okay in Chinese culture or not, but since she was speaking for the Inspector, she would look at the Captain. One of the Captain’s eyebrows rose slightly upon hearing her speak a stilted and strangely accented Mandarin. Other than that he did not acknowledge her presence whatsoever for which Alethea was grateful. It made it easier to relax and focus on the encounter as she had been instructed to do.
Apparently the Captain could understand her. “Think nothing of it, Inspector. I am always glad to meet someone so close to the Conglomerate’s Senate Committee of Justice and Commerce. One never knows when one type of business could be replaced with even more lucrative business.”
“Thank you for your graciousness” replied the Inspector. Of course nothing about the Inspector indicated gratitude, he was sucking down tea like it was artesian well water. Alethea briefly wondered if he would purify himself later. Staring into the depths of his now empty cup, the Inspector sighed. “Unfortunately, I am here on a solemn mission. I came to discuss a death investigation. There is so much that we do not know in the Conglomeration about the victim. I had a feeling you have the answers to some of my more technical questions.”
Curiosity warred with wariness on the Captan’s face, “I will be happy to help you in any way that I am able.”
“Thank you” the Inspector said still staring into his cup, now tilting it this way and that as if playing with the dregs. “I was wondering if you had any cargo from a certain factory located outside of Shanghai that caters to, how shall I say, a certain segment of Conglomeration society?” As she finished translating the last part of the sentence, the Inspector looked up at the Captain.
The Captain startled just a tiny bit and then froze. His eyes moved left and then right. The pink tip of his tongue darted in and out like a nervous minnow. He came to a decision and then he seemed to deflate.
He said “No” a bit too firmly, while nodding his head yes. So the room was not secure. “No, Inspector. I do not trade in such things. I am a good upstanding Christian and would never handle such things. I am sorry but I cannot help your inquiry.”
“You did just come from the Western Atlantic Launching Rig, did you not?” the Inspector asked if he was confused. Alethea suspected that the Inspector was never, ever confused about anything.
Now the Captain began speaking very fast and she had trouble keeping up. “Yes, yes, but not everything from that rig is illegal. There are many things that proper society wants like experimental medications, off world art and toys, off world metals……” The Captain’s speech petered out and he sat stock still, sweat droplets popping out on his forehead.
The Inspector sighed theatrically, “Of course, Captain Ping. I would not dream of questioning your devotion to the Faith nor expose you to mortification. It’s just that I am getting irritated by the lack of leads in this case.” The Inspector stood up and pulled a small glass vial attached to a string out of his pocket. The Captain popped to his feet and leaned forward, squinting at the tiny green circuit board inside. Once again the Captain seemed to deflate. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a simple handkerchief.
Mopping his brow, he shrugged his now drooping shoulders. “Please, you did not offend. I understand that your office requires a resolution from you in all matters. But as I said I cannot help you in this case. However, I do feel bad that I could not be of some kind of assistance. Let me make it up to you by giving you a tour of what I have brought to trade. Perhaps there is something you might like. I promise to give you the best quality and value in the Western Hemisphere.”
“Thank you, Captain. It has been some time since I’ve seen any off world art. I would love to take a look at what you’ve brought.”
Switching back to pidgen, the Captain urged them to follow him through another door. They followed him in silence for a few minutes winding through the boat’s innards. Normally Alethea had an excellent sense of direction but in this enclosed metal husk she felt lost and a little afraid. If the Captain wanted us dead there would be no running and know one would ever find their bodies. She prayed that the Inspector knew what he was doing.
Finally they stopped at a white door whose round window was completely covered. The Captain punched a series of numbers into a security keypad. Turning a wheel on the door, there was a brief “woosh” as if an air seal had been breached. They followed him into a chamber with see through walls…plexiglass or real glass, she couldn’t be sure. All three sides of the little antechamber revealed what could only be some kind of clean room. There were the occasional tables with beakers and glowing projected keyboards on the flat white surfaces with sunken screens every 5 feet or so. A metal surgical table with a large, adjustible, overhead lamp. The walls were lined with cabinets containing thousands of bottles, test tubes, burners, bowls….
The Inspector chuckled and said under his breath, “Off world art, my ass”. Alethea flinched and the Inspector noticed, snorting at her prudery. The Captain took a clean suit off the wall and said “You wait here, I be back”. He quickly climbed into the white paper suit and opened a door into the lab. As soon as the door closed and she was alone with the Inspector, she dared to speak first.
“Sir, you don’t think…..”
He looked at her surprised and said, “You’re afraid he is going to make us disappear?”
She looked down, too embarrassed to answer.
He said, mildy “You’d be an idiot not to be afraid.” Strolling over to a small camera mounted in the farthest corner of the room he casually clasped his hands behind his back, and turning to her said, “The Senate knows we are on this boat. They know I intended to come here and the agents that followed us watched us walk in. Those same agents will be there when we walk out. We are safe.”
Alethea had been with him all day and there had been no opportunity for the Inspector to have ordered a security detail. That meant the detail was there without his permission or they weren’t there at all. He had said the “council knows”. If it was true, they were safe. And if not, it was as good a bluff as they could make at present. Relaxing a little they waited in silence until the Captain returned, motioned for them to put on the remaining clean suits. The did as instructed and followed him into the lab. Alethea was burning to know what lay in the rooms beyond and what it had to do with Sabrina’s death.