A Discreet Private Inquiry
by Henrietta Wotton
“Hey, Garak, look what turned up when we cast our nets through the cesspool. This is the guy you think is such a great writer, huh?”
The voice that has interrupted my concentration on deciphering a very complex coded transmission between someone in the Romulan Tal Shiar and the Nausicaan embassy on Trillius Prime belongs to Groblo, one of the most effective pain technicians in the Obsidian Order but a vulgar boor in all other respects. He has walked into my office without bothering to ring and is holding in his left hand a book bound in the finest crimson gettle hide and decorated with copper gilt designs and lettering. The cover reads Song of Midnight’s Clamor by Preloc.” I recognize it as a special limited first edition of which only one hundred copies were printed. “Let me see that,” I say, probably too eagerly. I want this glorious volume out of Groblo’s grubby hands immediately and, frankly, into my own. “Where did you say you found it?”
Groblo tosses the book onto my desk. I hope my wincing at his rough treatment of the beautiful object is not too obvious. “Security’s doing its quarterly sweep of all the brothels in the Kheramka district. Agent Narjek sent me and some of my mates down with the perv sheets. One of those pretty boys had the book hidden inside his jacket. Insisted that it belongs to him. Gave us the excuse to teach him to mind his manners. I thought you might enjoy tracking down where he stole it from, since you’re such a fan of this Preloc.”
On those occasions when the general security forces raid the districts that sell deviant sex to those with anti-state impulses, the Order sends someone over to see if anyone of importance has been swept up among the customers. Our people also show images of suspected political subversives around, hoping that one or two of the service providers might know them as sexual subversives as well. Plans are then made for the street boys to arrange an assignation while the Order is watching. The prostitutes who cannot help us pass on through the system to be sentenced to the various convict labor cadres that perform all the most dirty and dangerous work that keeps the Cardassian infrastructure intact. When Groblo is the one doing the interviews, the street boys rarely pass on without undergoing a particularly brutal rite of passage. Groblo came up from this same district, and he believes any one not smart enough to escape it as he did deserves to be pounded into sexual submission by one of his fellows who has earned the right to be on top.
Because he knows how distasteful I find such conduct, and because he can think of no activity more wasteful than reading and discussing literature, Groblo holds me in about as much contempt as his street boy victims. Because he believes I am a means by which he can advance in the Order hierarchy, however, he loses no opportunity to curry favor with me. This is why he has delivered the Preloc first edition into my hands.
I dismiss him and greedily begin to examine the book. Wherever the thief picked it up, it hadn’t been sitting in a glass case. The spine flexes from multiple openings and closings and the creamy parchment pages curl slightly at the corners from a number of turnings. For an instant I wonder if I dare let the book remain forever among the officially missing, while I smuggle it home in my secret document pouch. But only for an instant. Have I not seen more than a few Obsidian Order agents undone by so seemingly insignificant nods toward corruption. I carefully open the volume to its inside back cover and run my scanner over the the thin wire embedded there, in order to recover the commodity code. Entering it into the Controlled Commerce Transfer database, I wait to see who its last owner was, and when that person reported it missing.
The answer to the second question is “never,” and to the first, that it is an author’s complimentary copy whose official commodity status proclaims that it is sitting on Preloc’s bookshelf. Suddenly Groblo’s pretty boy thief has become of far greater interest to me than a mere possible informant could ever be.
The trooper manning the receiving desk at Central Detention informs me that the thief is still in the interview room where Groblo and his friends left him. His street name is “Trokh,” an indication to potential customers that he specializes in taking on the role of submissive. As I enter the room, I spot him lying face down, naked, in a heap in the far corner. He has his arms wrapped around his head, right hand gripping left forearm, left hand gripping right. The sound of my footsteps causes some random twitches and jerks of his legs, but he doesn’t look up. I place my instrument case on the table, open it, and remove the tunic and trousers of the standard issue prison uniform and a large bottle of rokassa juice, laced with an analgesic and 20 ccs of hyraptidrine to calm his anxiety and loosen his tongue. The cap of the bottle doubles as a cup, and I fill it with the mixture. Then I lay the Preloc volume beside the uniform.
“Prisoner, on your feet,” I command.He struggles up painfully, his movements stiff and uncertain. “Yes sir, just a minute sir,” he says in hurried apology. “I am at your disposal, sir.” Then he places both hands against the wall and spreads his legs, revealing thighs and buttocks bruised and smeared with blood.
I remember that the sickest part of Groblo’s game is to force his victims to request their debasement. “I never raped a one of them,” I’ve heard him say many times with a wink. “They all beg me to fuck them.” Yet Groblo’s hardly one for euphemism, and I wonder where a street boy has picked up such a curious phrase as “at your disposal.”
“There will be no more of that,” I assure him. “I’m just here to ask you some questions. Put these clothes on and drink this. It will make you feel better.”
I observe him carefully during these preliminaries, taking his measure. He is indeed handsome, with delicate features and graceful ridges. A few of the long line of whores who undoubtedly comprise his family tree must have serviced the gentry from time to time. He has adorned his body according to the current fashion for street display. He’s tattooed the interior of his spoon with a blue and silver design and he has silver studs on his brow, neck, and rib ridges. There are streaks of sparkling silver in his hair, the result of combing lava dust through it. I would judge him to be in his middle twenties, a bit old for a street boy. Most of them have moved onto pimping or larceny by his age. Perhaps the stolen book marks his transition from the sex trade into thievery.
He keeps his head down and avoids eye contact with me, although I see him casting sidelong glances each time he takes a swallow of the rokassa juice. When he has drained the cup, he sets it on the table and clasps his hands behind his back.
“Sit down, Trokh,” I say, and he does so, keeping his head bowed and now folding his hands in his lap. I remain standing. “Please look at me when I’m talking to you.”
He dutifully raises his head and stares at me out of large eyes of the deepest blue. There’s no fear in his face, even though there hasn’t been time for the drug to have its full effect. Groblo’s brutalization has pushed him beyond fear to complete resignation. Or perhaps he’s always been resigned. Hasn’t he known since his childhood that if he didn’t die on the streets, he’d eventually end up here?
I pick up the book and hold it out to him. “Where did you steal this book?”
“I didn’t steal it, sir.”
“You don’t expect me to believe you bought it, do you?”
“No, sir. My gentleman gave it to me.”
“One of your clients gave you this rare and valuable book?” I say, letting him know that I’m not to be trifled with. He nods. “And why would one of your ‘gentlemen’ give you a book.” I raise the sarcasm component another notch.
“So I could read it,” he replies, avoiding any indication he thinks that I should have been able to figure this out for myself. Nevertheless, he must consider me a fool if he imagines I’ll fall for this story. Most of these street boys are illiterate. At best they can sound out the signs on storefronts or read simple instructions at food kiosks. But the intricate and difficult prose of Preloc? Never.
I pull from my jacket pocket my news-player and call up the page on the latest dispatches from the war with the Federation. I hand it to Trokh. “Read this to me,” I say.
He doesn’t hesitate. “‘A significant battle occurred yesterday at Setlek Three. Treacherous so-called civilian resistance fighters were pacified and executed. An intervention by troops from the Starfleet produced a higher than optimal casualty rate among Third Order soldiers. We congratulate the families of the slain for their dedication to the state . . .” He reads smoothly and confidently in a standard Kardasi accent, none of the sharp consonants and nasal diphthongs typical of those born in the Kheramka district. He doesn’t mispronounce any of the words.
“That’s enough,” I say and take back the player. Disproving his story isn’t going to be as simple as I had presumed. I pull out the chair on my side of the table and sit down. “Let’s start again, from the beginning,” I say. “You like to read and one of your gentlemen gave you this book because he knew you did. Is that what happened?”
His mouth twists into an expression of puzzlement. “Maybe that was why he gave it to me.”
I am beginning to get exasperated. “Don’t play games with me. You just told me that he gave it to you so you could read it.”
“So I could read it to him,” Trokh explains. “That’s what he likes for me to do, read books to him. He’s given me lots to read to him, and then he lets me keep them. But mostly they’re on players, not pretty like that one. So I think it might have been a present for me.”
“Are you telling me that your gentleman hires you to service him by reading to him?” I don’t know why I’m skeptical. When you work for an organization that catalogues the most private desires and behaviors of every citizen of Cardassia, you’ve run into about every perversion imaginable.
He leans forward, apparently relieved that he’s finally made himself clear to me. “Yes, sir. That’s how he first became my gentleman. Word went round to all the runners in the district that there was a client offering a lot of money for a boy who could do special things for him. Lots of the clients who need specials want trokhalin like me, so my runner sent me to see him. It turned out that what he wanted special was a boy who could read books out loud. The first thing he did was hand me a book and ask me to read some pages to him. I didn’t read very well back then, but he told me later he’d tried twenty-seven boys, and I was the only one who could read at all.”
“I’m not surprised,” I say. Curiosity gets the best of me, and I venture a question not at all necessary to my investigation. “How did you learn to read?”
He shrugs his shoulders. I think he’s slightly embarrassed by his relatively high level of erudition among his fellows. “My mother cleaned at the State Grammar School in the Enkalet district. She was supposed to put all the trash into the recycler, but she copped anything that looked to be valuable and brought it home to us. There were these players that talked. I think the children had to write down what they heard on the player screen. When they’d written everything down, they weren’t any good anymore, so they threw them away.”
Ah yes, the dreadful copybook exercises of my fourth and fifth years. Over and over you had to copy down correctly in ten seconds what the voice said. If you got as much as one letter wrong, you had to go back and redo the entire exercise. The completed exercise books were usually sent home to parents, but I don’t doubt that many children tossed the hated players into the trash on their way out of the school.
“Nobody wanted to buy the players from the street stalls,” Trokh continues, warming to his tale, “so my brothers and sisters and I got them for toys. After I looked at the writing and played the voices lots of times, I was able to match the words to the writings, and it taught me to read. Later mother found some discarded book players in the reading room, ones that had broken. One of them was stuck on page 3, one started in the middle, and one wouldn’t advance beyond page 24. I’d practice reading those over and over. I hoped that just one time the last one would get past page 24, and I’d find out whether Revek the wompet escaped from the trappers before he got skinned.”
Better you didn’t find out, I reflect. No matter how often Tain and Mila had assured me that by giving his pelt so that Cardassian troops could be warm in the battle of Zelheny Mountain, Revek had become a glorious hero, I had cried myself to sleep for a week after reading that book.
Enough of this nostalgia. I put the interrogation back on track. “I want you to tell me precisely what happened when you serviced this gentleman.”
“We would go to his room,” Trokh replies.. “We’d have something to drink, sometimes wine, sometimes tea. Then he’d hand me the book he wanted me to read. I would stand up and do the reading, and he would lie on a couch. At some point he would get excited, and then he’d work on himself until he came. When that happened, he’d tell me to stop reading.” He reaches for the bottle and pours himself some more rokassa juice.
“What would happen next?”
“Nothing.” He pauses to drink. “Some gentlemen are just watchers. After we’d been doing business for a while, he asked if there were any of my mates I really fancied, because he’d pay for us to do it together in his room while he watched. I did that maybe five times, not often.”
“How many times have you been with this gentleman?” I ask.
Trokh screws up his face in concentration. “I’ve sort of lost count. It’s been a while. He doesn’t employ me on a regular schedule. Sometimes I don’t see him for months, sometimes it’s days at a time only a week apart. We first started, I think, when the big screens were talking about the raid on Chin’toka by the Nausicaans.”
“You’ve known this gentleman for six years?” I ask, astonished. “And you tell me he’s never had sex with you in all that time?”
“No, sir. Once he brought me a warm jacket, when the days were getting colder. I kissed him hard on the lips to thank him. I could tell he enjoyed it, but he got very cross and told me I was never to do it again. He’ll hug me and ruffle my hair sometimes, but it isn’t like the other gentlemen are when they touch me. It’s more like what I’ve seen a man in the park do for a child.”
Living in a subculture in which no one has a father, Trokh seems to have no word for the relationship between the man and the child.. But the remark makes me wary. I press him further about the habits of this gentleman. “You say your gentleman takes you to his room, not yours? And that you have often spent days with him? What do you do if he doesn’t ask you for sex?”
This flurry of questions appears to make the young man uneasy. He squirms in his seat, and I sense the first hints of resistance. He leans back and locks his arms around his head again. “There are lots of places on the edge of the district that rent rooms to our gentlemen,” he finally tells me. “His seems to be rented all year. When he has me stay with him, we talk about the books and what they mean. He helps me say the words more properly. He has a machine that plays music, and we listen. Once in a while we go through the arcade and he buys me presents. He is a very kind gentleman.”
What rubbish! These submissives are so compliant that they can disarm you. At the start I had half believed him, but this story has to be a complete fantasy. I don’t doubt that Trokh is a poor boy starved for books, and that perhaps one of his clients once gave him a cast-off volume or two. But from that he’s concocted this dream of a gentleman who stands in for the father he never had, showering him with food and presents and making no sexual demands, a gentleman who conveniently supplies him with a limited first edition Preloc, which I’m now convinced he has stolen. I just don’t know how or from where.
It will do me no good to challenge the veracity of his story directly, I decide. He’s so in love with this fantasy that it’s real to him. No, the way you break prisoners like this is to keep asking them for more and more details, until the whole fabrication collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. I pick up the copy of Song of Midnight’s Clamor and hold it in front of the prisoner’s face. “I want you to tell me everything about how this book came into your hands, starting with when.”
He fidgets some more. “It was in the winter. Not last winter. Maybe the winter before. The gentleman came into the room and showed it to me, said I’d probably never seen a book like that, made of papers and skins. It was special, he said. It was new, and he had never read it before. So we were going to read it together. Usually he brought books that he had particularly liked when he read them by himself.”
“And you did read it straight through?”
“In bits. This was a time he stayed for a few days, so we didn’t have to hurry.”
“Did the gentleman tell you what was special about this book? Was it something about the story, or who wrote it?” It is time I started working toward having my suspicions refuted or confirmed.
“He never said. We’d had other Prelocs, and other war stories. I don’t know what was different.”
I hand him the book. “Read this to me in just the way you would with your gentleman.”
The request takes him by surprise, but he complies. He gets up and moves to the center of the room and pulls off his tunic.
“Why are you undressing?” I ask.
“He always had me read to him naked.”
Of course. This is a sexual fetish after all. “Well, for me you can leave your pants on.”
He nods. “Should I start at the beginning, sir?”
I decide to indulge myself. “No, start with Haldan’s eulogy for Torad, at the beginning of chapter ten.”
As Trokh begins to speak Haldan’s words, he is transformed. One could hardly imagine the bland, defeated young man I’ve been questioning capable of instilling such passion into every syllable and gesture. The boy is a natural actor. Or is the patron not an entire figment, and has he coached his charge on the finer points of oral presentation? I lean back in my chair to enjoy the performance, my mind racing ahead to the brilliant climax when Haldan contrasts his friend’s ferocity in war with his gentleness off the battlefield: “To the foe he was the searing, engulfing lava, the stab of the kaltek’s fang, but to us, his friends, he was the sun that warms scales and the water that quenches thirst, the man who in his last moments wrapped his arms about his head as if to embrace himself with the love of all those who could not arrive in time to prevent his dying alone.”
I sit bolt upright. How blind can you be, Elim? I should have made the connection when I first saw him lying on the floor. I stare at Trokh, imagining him without the tattoo and the studs, without the silver glittering in his hair, dressed in silver armor instead. He is Torad. And now I know why this book was so special, and who put it into Trokh’s hands. But can I prove it?
“Stop!” I shout just as the young man has finished the passage that led to my realization. “Sit down.”
Compliant as always, he sits. “You haven’t told me your gentleman’s name. What is it?” I ask.
“Our gentlemen don’t give us their names. They have to protect their privacy.”
“Then tell me what he looks like.”
The fidgeting starts again. “He looks . . . like a gentleman.”
“Tall? Short? Thin? Fat?” I fire back at him.
I lean forward and press my hand on his forearm. “How old is he?”
“Older than me,” he says.
“Older than me?” I return.
“Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know how old you are.”
He’s playing a dangerous game, but I understand. He is grateful; he wants to protect his benefactor’s identity. No doubt he’s been well schooled in the necessity to do so. We’ll just have to see how far his gratitude extends.
I open my case again and take out two of my more horrific-looking instruments. “Do you know what these are?” I ask.
“Yes, sir,” he says, his eyes wide. “You’ll use them to hurt me.” Finally I see in his face the beginnings of the return of fear. Yet the resignation is still there. He’s expected that we’d reach this point eventually.
“Trokh, I’d rather not use these on you, but I need to know the truth. I need you to give me a specific description of this gentleman. He’s just as much a criminal against the state as you are.”
“He’s just an average gentleman,” he repeats, hands gripping the table and eyes fixed on the instruments.
I pick one of them up and switch on the power. He instinctively pulls away. Then I turn it off. The first thing he’ll do when he can’t take the pain any more is give me a richly detailed but totally fabricated description. I’ll try another tack.
“Trokh, I think I know why you can’t describe your gentleman to me. It’s because there isn’t any gentleman. You stole this book, and probably others, and rather than admit your crime like a true Cardassian, you’ve made up this kind fellow to blame it on.”
“I haven’t made him up! He did give me the book,” the young man insists, with the first sign of genuine emotion I’ve yet gotten out of him. “I can prove it!”
“Oh, and how would you do that?” I try to sound very casual. I want him to give me the information before he realizes the consequences of its disclosure.
“I’ll take you to his room. I have an entry key, coded to my DNA. It’s in the pocket of the tunic they took from me when I was processed. The gentleman said that I could always come there if I was hungry or sick or out of money. He didn’t want me to have to service anyone I didn’t fancy, just so I could eat. You’ll see all the books.”
A room full of physical evidence! I can’t believe my good fortune, or his patron’s colossal carelessness. I put the instruments back in the case. Trokh and I are about to take an excursion. Afterwards, I may be paying a visit to the great Preloc himself.
The Midnokaty hills rise above the northern edge of Cardassia City like a line of fortresses, and that’s why the chiefs of the Kardasi-s’regh tribe who settled the area built their houses on them. For more than five hundred years, only families with unbroken aristocratic lineage have been allowed to settle there. Vaslan Preloc would have faced no opposition when he built his replica of a second republic villa at the top of Midnokaty-gh’rada. Preloc’s paternal grandfather was descended from a long line of soldiers, generals who distinguished themselves in Cardassia’s wars of conquest. His paternal grandmother belonged to a family that traded in land. Property brokers, architects, innkeepers, builders branched off from various lines of the family tree. Preloc’s father ran one of the largest commercial construction firms on Prime. His mother came from very old wealth, descended from bankers and financiers, but she was herself a sculptor of some reputation. Preloc’s four brothers held high positions, respectively, in the family building business, in the largest hotel and resort chain in the system, in the Central Command, and in the State Bank of Cardassia. These traditional family occupations all being covered, Vaslan was free to follow the artistic leanings of his mother. He was considered the finest writer of his generation, perhaps one of the greatest in all Cardassian literature. He had married a gifted okh’rana player in the System Symphony, and they had three daughters and two sons just poised to go forth and dominate every important activity on Cardassia, as had the generations before them. I would have hated him, if the words he wrote weren’t engraved upon my soul.
I walk the winding path up Midnokaty-gh’rada and slip easily through the security system at the gate of the Preloc estate. A path of inlaid kopla tile glitters in the moonlight, as does the shining lava-stone facing of the imposing three-story villa. All around the house is the celebrated garden, which includes plants from every planet and colony under Cardassian sway. Fortunes are reputedly spent seeing that they flourish in our inhospitable Cardassian soil. I stop beside a spray of Bajoran lilacs to consider for one last time whether I shouldn’t just turn around and forget about this.
I am not conducting an official Obsidian Order investigation. I would never have received authorization. To move against such a powerfully entrenched family as the Prelocs is not done lightly, even by the protege of Enabran Tain. To accuse Vaslan Preloc of anti-state deviancy is more risky still. Throughout his novels homosexuality serves as the central metaphor for self-absorption, viciousness and treachery. He lends his name, his influence, and his fortune to the many civilian groups who work to eradicate this vice from Cardassian society. But I have long thought that his vivid descriptions of perverse practices are too detailed not to derive from first-hand knowledge. In a phrase I have learned from a Terran author whose works have recently become available in Kardasi, Preloc “doth protest too much.”
If things don’t go well, I conclude, I can always stop at returning his stolen property. I walk to the door and ring the chime. A liveried servant opens it, looking me up and down with suspicious disdain. Natural, since I’ve come unannounced, but I can’t help feeling that he knows I don’t belong there. Is my neck a bit too short, my brow ridges too thick, for me to be allowed access to the patrician environs of Midnokaty-gh’rada? “I’ve come to have a word with Mr. Preloc,” I tell him.
“Mr. Preloc does not admit strangers to his home,” the servant sniffs. “If you have business with him, you should call his assistant in the morning and make an appointment to see him at his office in the central city.”
I have ready in my hand a small rectangle of black laminate, imprinted with white lettering. “Elim Garak, Supervising Agent, Ministry of Information” it reads. In the bottom right corner is embossed the Ministry seal, which, everyone knows, doubles as the insignia of the Obsidian Order. “If you would be so kind as to give this to Mr. Preloc, he may make an exception in my case,” I say pleasantly. It gratifies me to see the servant turn about as white as the lettering on the card.
Like this inquiry, the card is my own idea. Tain would find it absurd for the Order to be handing out calling cards, but I have found this an effective way to get the attention of the upper classes. It has gotten Preloc’s, for the great man himself has now appeared in the doorway. “You wished to speak to me?” he says non-commitally, but his tongue keeps moistening his dry lips, and he’s clenching and unclenching his fists without realizing he’s doing so.
Trokh didn’t really lie to me after all. Preloc certainly looks like a gentleman. He has a fine bone structure and regal bearing, even in his current agitated state. He’s dressed impeccably and expensively, a tunic and trousers of charcoal gray Tholian silk under a black jacket of the finest Andorrian yemla wool. And he is in fact of average height and build. His eyes, however, are of a very dark gray, a rarity among Cardassians that the prisoner neglected to mention.
“Is there some place we could speak privately?” I reply. With great reluctance he motions me to come in and points me to a room directly to the right of the entry foyer. It is small and almost as sparsely furnished as the interview rooms at Central Detention, although in much better taste. I gather that it exists for the sole purpose of accommodating visitors whom the Prelocs do not wish to trespass upon the inner recesses of their residence. When the master of the house has closed the door and invited me to sit down, I produce Trokh’s edition of Song of Midnight’s Clamor. The sight of it does not seem to make him any more uncomfortable than he already is. “I believe this belongs to you,” I say. “It was found in the possession of a suspected thief.”
“I wasn’t aware that the . . . Ministry of Information involved itself in investigations of property crimes,” Preloc says, deflecting my question.
“We don’t, usually. But we do investigate failures in the overall security procedures on Prime. You see, this book was never reported stolen. All the records indicate that it should be here, in this house. The publisher provided it to you as an author’s copy.”
“May I examine the volume,” he asks, still stalling. I hand it to him with a gracious “Of course.”
He opens the book and examines the flyleaf and then looks up at me with less nervousness in his bearing. He is after all a fiction writer, and I gather he’s now happy with the story he’s about to tell me. “I see the source of the confusion,” he says in a patronizing tone. “This volume is numbered 88 of 100. The author’s copies that my publisher initially gave to me were not numbered. I have one here in my library, and I presented the others as gifts to friends and fellow writers. The numbered volumes were intended for sale to collectors. Unfortunately the book was not as sought after as some of my others–“
“Yes, the general opinion was that the emphasis on personal friendship at the expense of the epic scope typical of your work marked an unproductive direction in your art,” I interrupt him. “I, however, consider the mastery of language to be unsurpassed anywhere else among your novels.”
“Ah, you have an interest in my books beyond the professional?” Despite his wariness, he can’t help having an artist’s insatiable need for praise. I merely bow my head in response. “Then perhaps you would not be averse to keeping this copy, as a gift from me.” He extends the volume toward me.
So practiced, these aristocrats, in the use of largesse in the service of self-preservation. We both know this is a bribe, and we both know I could never prove it. “I’m afraid that it is still material evidence in a criminal case,” I demur. “You were telling me how it first came into your possession, I believe.”
“Uh, yes,” he replies, flustered. “As I was saying, the novel was not highly sought after, and nineteen copies of the collector’s edition were never sold. The publisher returned them to me, and I in turn donated them to a charity auction on behalf of The Society for the Preservation of the Family. No doubt this copy went astray between the time I sent it to the Society and the time of the auction.”
“I’m not sure that is possible, Mr. Preloc. I have checked the commodity database for every one of those 100 numbered copies. Numbers 82 through 87 and 89 through 100 were indeed logged in as a gift transfer to the Society. There is no record that this book, number 88, was received.”
“An error made by one of their staff, no doubt.” he says. “Such things happen, even on Cardassia.”
“I spoke to the clerk who opened the carton and did the paperwork,” I tell him. “He specifically remembers that one in the sequence was missing, and that the shipping manifest reflected this fact. He also informed me that all the donated books were signed on the title page. I presume you have noticed that this book is not signed.”“
No, I hadn’t, as a matter of fact,” he stammers out. “That would, of course change the situation. My secretary gave me the books to sign and then boxed them and sent them out. I can only assume that he forgot to include one, or that the publisher failed to ship me all nineteen volumes. There are so many opportunities for this volume to have slipped through the cracks and fallen into the wrong hands. Whatever the cause, it hardly seems a matter of grave concern.”
“Even the tiniest breach of security is of grave concern to my superiors,” I reply sternly.
He breaks eye contact. “Of course, I didn’t mean– Their attention to detail is legendary.”
“And that’s why I’ve come to see you, Mr. Preloc,” I say in soothing tones. “I can’t close this case until I can reconstruct every step in the illicit transfer of this commodity. Since you are unsure of where the initial breach might have occurred, let’s see if you can help us trace the book back from the hands of the suspected thief. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to accompany me while I conduct another interview. He claims that the book was given to him. That is no doubt a flimsy prevarication, but I want you to hear him describe the supposed donor. Perhaps it will be someone whom you can confirm might have had access to the volume.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Cardassian go this pale this quickly, and in my line of work one sees plenty of terrified Cardassians. “Come with you now?” he croaks in a cracked whisper.
“If you don’t mind. At this late hour, you are less likely to be observed. It is not my intention that any ugly rumors should originate from your willing act of cooperation. Indeed, that’s why I walked here. It will be less conspicuous if we drive to the interview in your own vehicle.”
We settle into Preloc’s ground car. He asks whether we are going to Central Detention or to the Ministry of Information. I inform him that, for the sake of his reputation, the interview with the suspected thief will take place in a more private location. I give him the address.
He immediately begins to tremble, to the extent that I wonder if it’s safe to let him drive. This promises to be the easiest interrogation I’ve ever conducted. Extracting a monogrammed handkerchief from his pocket, he mops his brow and wipes the perspiration from his hands.
“Are you ill, Mr. Preloc?” I ask, all sincere concern.
I patiently watch him willing his composure to return. “No cause for alarm,” he says casually. “I occasionally have an allergic reaction to some of my exotic plants when they’re pollinating. I’m all right now that we’re in the car.” He sucks in his breath with a slight wheeze. “That’s the corner of Kheramka Road and Cardassia Boulevard, you said?”
“Yes, the Larish Grove apartments.”
He holds himself together admirably as we drive in silence to the apartment building. Once inside, I summon the lift and motion him inside. He only just catches himself as he is about to select the seventh floor on the keypad. Pulling his hand back, he asks, “Which apartment is our destination?”
719, as you’re well aware. Of course, I say the last part only to myself.
As we are walking down the hall to number 719, the trembling starts again. I pretend not to notice as I release the Order security lock I’ve placed on the door. It slides open to reveal the indifferently furnished sitting room overflowing with books and book players that Trokh led me to this afternoon. He’s been locked inside since then, but appears to have made himself quite comfortable, reclining on the couch with a cup of red leaf tea in one hand and a collection of enigma tales in the other. When he sees Preloc in the doorway, he drops them both.
Remind me never to send either of them undercover, I say to myself, falling into my old habit of evaluating people according to their suitability for various Obsidian Order pursuits.
Hoping to take advantage of the consternation in which both men find themselves, I get directly to the point. “Is this the gentleman who gave you the book?” I ask Trokh.
I can practically see every muscle in Preloc’s body tighten, but he summons up some convincing righteous indignation. “I should have known that you brought me here to ambush me,” he protests.
I ignore him and repeat my question. “Is this the gentleman who gave you the book?”
“No,” the street boy mutters.
Suddenly this is not going at all as I have planned. “Then you are admitting after all that you stole the book,” I press him. “Because this is the gentleman who owns the book.”
“My gentleman gave me the book. This isn’t my gentleman,” he says, studiously avoiding eye contact with either of us. Everything tells me he is lying, but why? Can he fear retribution from Preloc more than punishment by the security forces? Is this misguided loyalty to the “kind” gentleman?
Preloc’s formidable self-assurance returns to him. I would swear that a radiation scanner could pick up its emanations. “I’ve never seen this riff-raff before. Whether he stole the book or received it from one of his degenerate patrons, my business here is done.”
I could strip away that self-assurance easily by bringing in a forensics team that would find his hair, skin, and secretions in every inch of this apartment. To do so would, however, make him the subject of an official Order investigation, and that is not the purpose for which I have set these events in motion. Without the boy’s willingness to identify his patron, I have no leverage over Preloc. Still, I hate to see Trokh thrown into the fire. He’ll be lucky to last a month on a labor detail.
“One more thing, Mr. Preloc. It’s usual to condemn these offenders to slave labor on behalf of the state, but with so many prisoners coming in from the occupied worlds to perform such duties, we have the option instead to indenture non-violent Cardassian offenders to those they have wronged. I believe your family operates a number of resorts on the outer planets. Perhaps a place could be found for him on staff?”
“You can hardly imagine that we would employ a piece of street trash at any Hotel Preloc!” A sneer of epic proportions animates his aristocratic countenance.
I maintain an even tone with difficulty. “He is well-spoken and someone has taught him quite impeccable manners.” I cast a pointed look in his direction.
“Impossible!” Preloc insists. “May I go now?”
His silence has saved your reputation, and all you want is to get away from him. My anger is fast reaching a noticeable level, fueled as it is by disappointment that this patrician snob is the man who stands behind the words that have stirred my imagination for so long. “Perhaps you want him to beg you for mercy–is that it?” I say. “All right, street trash, ask him for your life.” Trokh merely shakes his head.
Doesn’t he see that we mean nothing to these so-called gentlemen? Why should he shield someone who so obviously cares nothing for him except as an object of his own peculiar gratifications. I pull the boy’s arm behind his back and force him to his knees, then I pull his head up by the hair, so that he faces Preloc. “I said, ask him for your life.”
Preloc is frozen into silence by my outburst. The boy has started sobbing. “Please,” I hear him whisper. But he’s not addressing his gentleman. He’s looking straight at me. “Please.”
My resolve falters. Whenever one of these children without a place has looked at me with suffering in his eyes, I feel that he is staking a claim. As the water trickles out of those deep blue pools, I recognize my rightful brother. There but for the whims of Tain go I. My grip loosens and I look away.
. . . which is not at all wise, because, before I can react, the elegantly manicured hands of Vaslan Preloc have gripped each of my lapels and thrown me up against the wall. “Leave him alone, you heartless bastard,” he hisses, his face close to mine. I could have him on the floor with a slight movement of my leg, but I instead stand very still and regard him with my best interrogator’s stare. “My profession is one in which that is a valuable job qualification,” I reply calmly. “His is another.”
Preloc may have the blindnesses that come with a life of privilege, but he is not stupid. My words immediately impress upon him the gravity of his action. He has laid violent hands on an agent of the Obsidian Order. I need nothing more to strip him of his rights and reputation and consign him to the same fate as the lover he has repudiated. He releases me and staggers back. The reading on my fanciful self-assurance meter has dropped to zero.
And then he surprises me. He sinks to his knees and enfolds the sobbing Trokh in an embrace. “It’s all right. I won’t let him hurt you any more,” he croons. All three of us know this is a promise he lacks any power to keep. The young man snuggles his face into the gentleman’s shoulder, and Preloc caresses his hair lightly. Yes, just like a man in the park with a child.
I force down the lump that is forming in my throat. I have long since become invulnerable to the emotions generated by scenes of doomed lovers who cling to each other before being hauled away to their separate fates. Why am I now on the verge of tears? Perhaps I am overcome with joy that the writer whose books carried me through some of my own darkest boyhood moments has turned out not to be a total shit after all.
Preloc soon rises, gently helping Trokh to his feet. The writer carries his defeat well, like one of the beaten but unbowed warriors who populate his novels. Looking me squarely in the eye, he says, “I gave Trokh that book, Agent Garak. He’s not a thief. You have no further reason to hold him.” It is the closest someone like him will ever come to begging a favor from someone like me.
“I’m afraid matters are not so simple,” I reply. “The charge of theft was an addition to the original complaint. The young man was arrested for engaging in degnerate acts for profit. I don’t think there’s any question as to the validity of that charge.”
He stiffens and tightly grips Trokh’s shoulder. “Very well then,” he says stoically. I’m sure he wishes there were a firing squad on the other side of the door, so that the two of them could march bravely together to their deaths.
“There is still the matter of the private indenture. I can arrange it if you will agree.”
Preloc shakes his head. “I doubt I’ll have any influence with the inn-keeping branch of the family once this all comes out. Certainly not to the extent of their agreeing to provide a refuge for my... companion. It wouldn’t surprise me if they change the name of every Hotel Preloc in order to distance themselves from my disgrace.”
I wait a while to answer him, savoring the moment that is to come. “I can’t imagine what disgrace you are referring to, Mr. Preloc. You’ve helped me resolve the mystery of the street boy in possession of the rare and beautiful book. You are free to go. Should you wish to pursue the matter of the indenture, I will take the liberty to accompany you to your home in order to work out the details.”
He is not a man easily surprised, but I’ve surprised him. He looks at me as if for the first time, realizing only now that I am more than the menacing stock character that he has cast me as.
“Anything that can make it easier for him,” he says softly.
“After you,” I gesture toward the door. Turning to the young man, who seems totally dazed by the events of the past few minutes, I tell him, “Stay here until I return for you. Read a good book.”
This time Preloc escorts me into his study, asking the servant to bring in a bottle of spring wine. When it arrives, he does not offer me a glass. Instead he motions for me to sit down on a plush gettle-hide sofa as he settles in at his desk. “This may take a little time,” he informs me curtly.
He keys a link into his comm channel and soon I hear a sleep-slurred voice. “Vaslan? Do you have any idea what time it is on the northeastern island on Tertia.”
“Pomar, it’s none too early in my house on Midnokaty,” Preloc returns with a hint of exasperation, “but this is an emergency, a confidential emergency. I’m going to switch us to text- only mode now.”
So he types and reads and types and reads, leaving me nothing to do but survey my surroundings. The room is clearly his most personal environment. It has three walls of recessed book cabinets, holding rare and ancient paper books and stacks of book-players. One of them contains all the various editions of his own works. The wall behind his desk displays a pictorial history of the five young Prelocs as they emerge from infancy through school days to the cusp of young adulthood. At the center of this wall is a formal portrait in oils by Ghosset, depicting Preloc and his wife, their parents, and the Preloc offspring at various stages of adolescence. The few spots on the four walls not occupied by books or pictures hold framed medals, ribbons, and certificates attesting to the artistic excellence of the writer and his musician wife. Under clear laminate on the occasional table before me, programs from Ranya Preloc’s solo tours of the outer planets and the Arowath colonies are artfully displayed.
At last Preloc closes the comm link. “All the arrangements for Trokh have been made with my brother, who manages the Preloc resort and spa on Tertia,” he says. “He requires only that you deliver the lad personally.”
Brother Pomar is in no position to be making such demands, but I’ll humor them. I could use a brief trip to an island vacation spot. “We’ll be there tomorrow,” I reply as I rise to leave.
Before letting me go, he has to ask the question. “Agent Garak, why did you hunt me down like this if you did not intend to ruin me and my family with the evidence of my perversion?”
I always particularly treasure those moments when I can make an embarrassing admission with the guarantee that it will be received as an evasion. “Mr. Preloc, I have long been an admirer of your books, and the occasion provided me with a pretext upon which to make your acquaintance,” I tell him.
He barks out a bitter half-laugh. “Yes, I suppose it is terribly naive to expect you to reveal your ultimate plans for me. No doubt there is some much bigger game, with higher political stakes, that you and your Order cronies are playing. With the hold you have on me now, you can keep me tucked away among your playing pieces until the time is right for you to put me out on the kotra board.”
I merely bow slightly to him, with my most enigmatic smile.
“Well, if you do not require anything further from me right now, I would greatly appreciate it if you would get out of my house,” he says.
I can’t deny that his words sting. What did you expect, Elim, that he was going to invite you to stay for a drink so you could discuss the intricacies of the imagistic patterns in that book he was so reckless with? No, it’s not what I expected, but I hoped for it nonetheless.
“I do not require anything more of you tonight, sir, but I do have a little advice for you. I would think it wise that you scale back your persecutions of those practitioners of a vice you happen to share. And you should endeavor in all future writings to curtail your tendency to create characters who embody your deviant sexual fantasies. I wouldn’t like for you to fall afoul of some of my other colleagues, and I really cannot imagine that I am the only person in all of Cardassian security who knows how to read for subtext.”
He glares at me with utter hatred. “Is that all?” he hisses between clenched teeth.
“One more thing. Whenever your next book is published in a limited edition, I would appreciate it if the first of the numbered copies was inscribed to me and delivered to my office by courier. You have my card.”
He absolutely wants to punch me at this moment. I can see it in those twilight-shaded eyes. Instead he turns abruptly to the shelves that house the books he has authored and pulls down the cheapest popular book-player edition of Song of Midnight’s Clamor. He takes a stylus from his jacket pocket and scrawls something across the gaudy advertising label on the casing. “In the event you can’t wait for the limited edition, perhaps this will tide you over,” he says, slamming the book against my chest as he strides out of the room on his way to the front door.
I take my time catching up with him as I peruse the autograph: “To Elim Garek, I am now and always in your debt. Preloc.” How clever he is with the duplicity of his words–it’s what I’ve always admired about his prose style. There is no way I could prove that the inscription is anything other than the expression of the gratitude he owes me for saving his skin. But I know from the contempt with which he bestowed it that this is instead his grudging acknowledgment of my power over him, and how much he loathes me for it.
When I reach the entry foyer, he is already holding the door open for me. I take one step beyond the threshold and turn back. “Mr. Preloc, when you sign the limited edition, do be sure to spell my name correctly. It’s G-a-r-a-k, not G-a-r-e-k.”
“I’ll be sure to remember,” he snarls.
“See that you do,” I respond, all ice, as I slam the door in his face.
Having concluded my private inquiry, I proceed to close the official case on Trokh in a way that circumvents his connection to Preloc. I return to the Larish Grove complex and spirit him away down the back stairs, after pocketing my lock override and running a DNA scrambler beam over everything in the writer’s little hideaway. Once we’re back at Central Detention, I instruct the warder to amend the posted sentence of life on the labor cadre to one of determinate private indenture. I certify that the prisoner has provided information about a registered legitimate business that covertly sponsors anti-state deviance. Soon a squad of security agents will descend on the apartment building, rousting pairs of degenerates from their beds. The management staff will be arrested and a substantial fine levied against the owners. After several more days of legal process, the Larish Grove apartments will be nothing but a pile of rubble. Somewhere along the collateral line of Preloc cousins, much money will be lost. They should count themselves lucky it’s all they lose.
After completing the paperwork dealing with Trokh’s indenture, I have him transferred into my custody. We beam up to the docking platform operated by the Criminal Transport division. Procedures require that Trokh be shackled, and the weight of these restraints seems more than he can support as he sags into a chair at the shuttle bay.
“You don’t usually see those street vermin getting off with indenture,” the trooper on duty observes as he fills out the prisoner transfer and shuttle requisition orders.
“His information helped us expose a den of degeneracy and a larceny ring that was stealing rare books. One of the gentlemen who recovered several prized volumes offered to express his gratitude through arranging this indenture,” I reply.
“You’re going with him?” This is an irregularity the trooper would not have me think he has not noticed.
“Yes, some of the arrangements are rather complicated. I thought it wise to deliver him to the place of indenture personally.”
The trooper calls up information on his computer console. “I can get you a pilot in about an hour.”
“There’s no need to infringe on the time of one of your men, trooper,” I say. “I’m quite a capable shuttle pilot, and the prisoner is hardly dangerous.” Unless he lets something slip, which is why I do not desire company on this voyage.
“Whatever you say, Agent Garak,” he replies with a meaningful look. A man with good sense. I note his name for future reference.
Trokh shambles through the airlock and into the prisoner cabin as I direct him. Lowering himself onto the bench that is the only furnishing, he sits there motionless, head bowed, as I remove the restraints. I place my hand on his shoulder briefly and leave him to his thoughts, activating the force field as I go.
I plot in the course for Cardassia Tertia and set the autopilot. Then I check on my prisoner in the forward monitor. He’s stretched out on the bench, face down, one leg dangling off the side, his arms folded over his head in the characteristic Toradean gesture. I go back to the cell and speak his name loudly enough to be heard if he is awake, not loudly enough to rouse him if he is sleeping. He scrambles up immediately, passing a sleeve furtively across his face. He’s been crying again. “Sir?” he says warily.
“Trokh, do you understand what’s going to happen to you?”
“Not really, sir.”
“Sit down, then, and I’ll give you the whole story,” I say.
He does as I ask, regarding me with a countenance whose habitual resignation has shaded off into hopelessness.
“You’ve been sentenced to work as an unpaid servant for all the ladies and gentlemen who spend time at this vacation place. It’s on Tertia, two worlds further from our sun than Prime,” I explain carefully. I have no idea how much knowledge of the Cardassian solar system he’s picked up from his books. “You’ll have food, uniforms and a room provided to you, but nothing else. The tattoos and studs will have to go. You won’t be able to leave the hotel grounds unless you are accompanied by another member of the staff. When you are off duty, you’ll be required to remain in your room.”
“Only this, until I die, sir?” he asks mournfully.
“The indenture lasts for ten years. There’s a chance you could remain on staff as a voluntary employee after that.”
I see that he is struggling to find some comfort in this, and not having much success. “It’s not twenty-hour shifts cleaning out the infectious waste bins at the Central Incurables Institute, in the company of rapists and child molesters. That’s where you were headed, if I hadn’t intervened.”
He looks at me earnestly with those deep blue eyes, “I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful, sir.” He never does.
“I’ll arrange to have some of your books sent to you,” I say. “That will help you pass the time during the hours you’re confined.” At this his expression finally brightens. I think of something that will brighten it even more and hope that I’m not setting him up for later disappointment. “This resort is a place your gentleman has been known to visit. Perhaps he will make arrangements to have you exclusively . . . at his disposal the next time he travels there.”
“I would like that,” he says softly, biting his lip. He takes a deep breath and then adds, “My gentleman, he’s Preloc the writer, isn’t he?”
So, this all too compliant young man is not the total idiot I’ve taken him for. “Why would you think that?” I hedge.
“Two years ago he gave me a book -player with fourteen enigma tales in it. Preloc’s ‘The Tale of Underground Springs and Floating Trees’ was the first of them. The last tale was by Ghes’mola. My gentleman thinks Ghes’mola is a terrible writer. I don’t think he ever would have finished that tale. So he probably didn’t know that they had pictures of all the authors at the very end of the book.” A ghost of a smile hovers about the corners of his mouth. “I never told him that I knew. I would never have told you and the others, either, sir, no matter what you did to me.”
I believe absolutely that this is true. “Why?” I ask.
“I love him.” He hunches up both shoulders as if to say, “It’s absurd for one of my sort, I know that, but what can you do . . .”
“Trokh, which one of Preloc’s books is your favorite?”
“The Never-Ending Sacrifice. Nothing else comes close.”
I laugh. “That’s my favorite, too.”
For the first time he smiles fully at me, a charming, engaging smile. “Oh, I see,” he says.
Only the force field restrains my impulse to reach out and tousle his hair. Like a man in the park with a child.
DISCLAIMER: Paramount Pictures owns these characters and situations, except for the ones I made up.
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