|"Wrong? What could possibly go wrong?"|
Aahz's booming voice penetrated through the walls of my bedroom, making me wonder whether the Deveels had lied to us when they said the place was soundproof. Either that, or Aahz's voice was one of the few things throughout the dimensions that simply could not be stopped. Probably the latter, I groaned.
Needless to say, I was still sleeping off the effects of yet another after-hours bout of drinking with Aahz and the guys over at Gus's. They always held it better than I ever could hope to. File it away as another object lesson, I guessed.
"Kid, what are you doing?" Aahz bellowed as he burst into my room. "Don't you know today's the big Huffball tournament over at the Geek's?"
"I do," I shot back at him, "and our match isn't until evening!" My head started vibrating painfully, and I just shut my eyes tightly. That seemed to help.
"Yeah, but Gus's singles' match begins in two hours! We've got to be there to pull for him!" He strode over to my bed and lowered his voice, "Besides, I've got a five spot on him. Now get up!"
Not willing to let me go at my own pace, Aahz grabbed me and pulled me out of bed.
"Okay, okay," I said shakily. "I'm up. I'm up."
"C'mon. Chumley and Tananda are getting breakfast together." He let me go and turned back toward the door.
I sighed heavily and rubbed my eyes. Aahz reached back and grabbed me, pulling me out the door.
Aahz strode into the dining room ahead of me. Chumley's face was buried in a newspaper, which apparently he read intently. Tananda was going through some forms while she spooned herself something out of a bowl. The table was covered with platters of bagels, meats, fruit and other assorted breakfast foods.
"Well, we're all up now," Aahz said. "What's good today, Tanda?"
"Well, I thought the..." she began. She stopped suddenly as Chumley shrieked. We all looked at him as he looked at me. He was wearing his trifocals again.
"Gads," he exhaled, as he looked at me again, "it's only you, Skeeve. For a moment I thought a giant eye was following Aahz into the room."
"Take those damn things off," Tananda scolded him.
"I need them to read the funnies," he said, gesturing with his Financial News of Deva. "Besides, the troll who invented them also invented democracy. If that's not a good endorsement I don't know what else is."
"He should have stuck to governments," she mumbled. She turned back to Aahz. "I did the bacon today, and the grapefruits are very nice."
"All I needed to hear," Aahz said. He then went into the kitchen and got himself some Pervish nasties, slurping them greedily from their carton as he came back into the dining room. Tananda narrowed her eyes at him but simply went back to her forms.
"Well," Chumley said disgustedly, "the Family Circus sucks again today."
"The FND picked it up?" Aahz spit some of his food across the table.
Chumley nodded from behind his paper without looking up. "It's everywhere!"
I grabbed a orenberry bagel and started chewing into it. I just stared at the fruit on the table. "Hey, just where do orenberries come from?" I asked, gesturing with my bagel.
Aahz and Tananda looked at one another for a moment.
"Skeeve," said Tananda carefully, "there's really no such thing as an orenberry."
I just looked at her.
Aahz laughed. "Let's just say it's a creative euphemism."
"For what?" I asked, puzzled.
"For something that'd never sell if they were straightforward about it," he finished, grinning.
I chewed for another second, then spit the whole thing out. I tossed the bagel on the table and felt ill.
"Hey, relax, kid. It won't kill you. We Pervects love 'em." He grabbed my half-eaten bagel and started to mop up the juice from his carton with it. Chumley reached for his glass of juice, but he fell a few inches short. He kept grasping at it vainly. Finally, Tananda nonchalantly pushed it toward him until he grabbed it. He glared at her as he took a draught from the glass.
"Don't say anything," he said. Tananda just looked at him. "I can tell you're just sitting there smugly with your bloody perfect eyesight and all, just mocking me. Don't try to hide it."
Instead of responding, Tananda picked up a honeydew and set it in front of her. I grabbed some bacon and poured myself a glass of juice. She picked up a chopping knife and sliced the honeydew in half as I chewed my bacon. She held up one half by her head and looked contemptuously at Chumley.
"Do you see this?" she asked dramatically.
"Surely," Chumley glared back.
She took the half of honeydew and slowly mashed it into his face. Chumley threw down his trifocals and his paper and surged up.
"Okay, that's blinking it!" he yelled.
"Hey boss!" Guido's voice broke into our little drama. "Someone's here to see you!"
We all looked back at him, the moment completely defused.
"Tell them to come back later," I said to him. "We're in the middle of breakfast."
"Actually, boss," Guido continued, "it's an assemblage of Deveels, representing the Devan Department of Commerce. They're pretty insistent."
I looked over at Aahz. "Our boss," Aahz said. He looked back at Guido. "Give us a minute, Guido, we'll be right down." He looked back at me and sighed sadly. "So much for Gus's match."
Ten minutes later, Aahz and I found ourselves in a very important looking conference room, sitting across a large oval table from three well dressed Deveels. Two more equally well dressed Deveels sat behind them, next to the wall. Those at the table looked just younger than middle age, while one of the Deveels by the wall looked very old. The other by the wall was the youngest in the room, and was leaning slightly toward the elder Deveel.
"We'll come right to the point," said one of the Deveels at the table, the one on the left, "my name's Ollipo, and I'm Department Vice President of the Devan Department of Commerce. With me are Yulleen," he gestured at the Deveel sitting next to him, "Department of Commerce Deputy Vice President for Agriculture and Mining, and Ginghe," he nodded at the third Deveel, "chief negotiator for the Department of Commerce."
The other two nodded at us. "Who are they?" I gestured at the other two.
The three Deveels looked at one another. After a moment, they looked back at me stonily. Apparently that wasn't an appropriate question. Aahz nudged me. He leaned over and whispered at me. "He's got to be the President of the Department. He's holding the bag for this entire dimension. The other guy's his lackey. Deveels are cagey, though. Just talk to these three. They're going to be the dealers. "
"You mean he's in control..." I began.
"Yes," Aahz was suddenly tense. "Keep that in mind."
"If we may begin," Ginghe began testily. We turned our attention to him. "We have hired you as Magician in Residence for the dimension of Deva, and we are now faced with a situation that requires your services."
I looked at Aahz. He glanced at me and nodded. Ginghe continued. "Commerce has run into a problem with our hard labor. In eight of our dimensions, we have discovered a plot by a number of our workers to illegally organize to collectively bargain with the Department. Our efforts to quell the organizing efforts have thus far failed in satisfactorily resolving the impasse. We now turn to you for a solution."
He pulled out a stack of papers, and laid a ream in front of us. It appeared to be a guide. Aahz picked it up and glanced it over. It contained some charts and pictures, but was mostly a text document.
"The primary dimension affected is Gezirah. The operations affected by the movement are seventeen mine systems, nineteen timber subsidiaries and mills, and fourteen textile mills."
"How many workers?" Aahz asked.
"One hundred eight thousand," Ginghe said grimly. Aahz looked impressed. Ginghe continued. "Secondary dimensions include Augaraj, an ocean world: workers from numerous resorts, fisheries and off-shore operations." He slapped another packet in front of us. "Kaymayan," out came another packet, "mining, grain agriculture and exotic timbers. Chirosovo," ...yet another packet... "mountainous and frozen, numerous mining operations and resorts affected. Boukiero, a jungle world, with textile, fruit, gaming and distilling operations affected."
"How many distilleries?" Aahz asked, smiling.
"Fifteen," Ginghe said, humorlessly. He passed over more packets, apparently unwilling to let Aahz continue. "Kabayouran, silk and spice operations and mining of magikal metals affected. Najran, manufacturing facilities for cosmetics and refineries affected. Finally," he passed over the last packet, "there is Toros Daglari, another ocean world, with unrest at resort and fishery operations. Total working population affected numbers seven hundred seventeen thousand."
"Sounds rough," Aahz said, glancing at the papers. "What do you want us to do?"
"You will head out to Gezirah tonight. There you will meet with Dierack, our field liaison. He will fill you in with all the details concerning our operation and counter-strikes. He has more detailed information on the subjects and concerns involved."
"Tonight?" Aahz looked askance at him. "We've had other plans..."
Ginghe wouldn't let him finish. "Need we remind you of the contract you signed with us? It explicitly stated that you would provide any services we deemed necessary. That is what we are paying you for, after all."
"Look," Aahz said bluntly. "We'd love to help, but we've got other plans. How 'bout we arrange to hire..."
Ollipo broke in. "The contract stated that no subcontracting was allowed. We hired the Great Skeeve, not the people hired by the Great Skeeve."
"But it said that if you were asking on behalf of a private entity..."
"These are State-run operations."
"Oh," Aahz's face fell. "But we can contract with third parties to aid in our effort."
Aahz closed his eyes as if in great pain. "And that means that the rate we'll be paid is a fixed rate." I now understood what pained him.
"Three percent of the annual profit of the effected operations."
"And how much are we talking about?"
Ginghe, Ollipo and Yulleen looked at one another for a moment. Ginghe looked back at us.
"Thirty eight point six million gold."
They looked at us for a moment. Aahz's face was frozen in a half smile, half sneer.
"Sounds good, gentlemen," Aahz said smoothly. "But let's just say I wasn't born yesterday." The three Deveels' stare began to waver. I noticed the elder Deveel leaned over and spoke briefly with his lackey, and shifted in his seat, folding his arms and staring at Aahz. Aahz continued. "You're talking about extensive operations in eight dimensions, concerning nearly three quarters of a million workers. Either you're feeding me a line of crap, or you're three turnips short of a picnic and this is all some bizarre hoax."
He leaned forward against the marble table and looked fiercely at Ginghe. "So you're going to tell me exactly what the figure is, or we'll let you solve your own problems. You may have gotten a lot on us in that contract, but I made sure it'd require you to play ball with us. You spill, or we walk."
The three looked at each other nervously. Ginghe shot an anxious look over his shoulder at the elder Deveel. The elder nodded at him. Ginghe looked back at us and licked his lips. Aahz just smiled at him, intimidating him right out of his tailored pants.
"Profits..." Ginghe stammered, looking at the notes he had before him, "...profits from the last year totaled six hundred eighty billion."
I froze, wondering if I had sullied my drawers. That was nothing compared to Aahz, however. He screamed and in reflex smacked his head clean on the table hard enough to almost crack it. His head bounced off the table and he flew right out of his chair onto the floor. He pulled himself back up and braced himself on the table. His tongue was hanging out, and apparently, he wasn't aware of it. He just jabbered incoherently. We just looked at the Deveels. Ginghe looked over at Yulleen, then looked at Ollipo, and looked back at us.
"You shall not receive payment until after completion of the job. So, as we said, we would like you to start right away. We will provide room and board for you and any agents you feel are necessary for this undertaking. You shall leave for Gezirah tonight, and you will meet Dierack tomorrow morning. The concierge will give you more detailed instructions when you reach the hotel."
"That is all, gentlemen," Ollipo concluded grimly.
Aahz was still choking as we made our way back to our tent. "I can't. I just can't believe it."
"I'm worried, Aahz."
"What?" he gasped incredulously. "What's the problem?"
"Why would the Deveels hire us for a job of such magnitude?"
"Why do you think they hired you as resident magician in the first place?" he retorted. "Besides, it can't be that extensive, or else they would have given us a massive staff right there. We've got to see what this Dierack person has to say before we can truly appraise what's going on. It's labor, though, Skeeve. They can be tricky, but you'd be surprised how easily they'll fall apart once you get going, and we're even going to get an all expense trip to the Toros Daglari out of the deal. Kid, that's the poshest, most exclusive resort dimension in the universe. It's amazing!"
"But Aahz, if it's that easy, wouldn't they have already taken care of it?"
"Get out of my way!" Aahz yelled at a gaggle of old women that stood before us. "I'm a gonna holler!"
He ran off toward our tent, hollering in delight. I couldn't even muster up a smile.