|"I'm a Lumberjack and I'm OK!"|
-Traditional Gezirahan folk-song|
"That was quick." Tanda commented with a raised eyebrow.
"Well, it doesn't really matter.." I added, but inside, I admitted that the idea of getting out into the woods appealed to me, since it reminded me of my time with Garkin. I wasn't terribly happy then, but somehow those long dreary months were now tinged with the rosy hue of nostalgia..
"Gezirah to Skeeve." Aahz waved a hand in front of my face and I snapped out of my contemplations. "Kid, pay attention for once, OK?" He turned to the others. "Skeeve and I will go buy ourselves some plaid shirts. Tanda, you and Chumley get the mining." The brother and sister team nodded. I tried to picture Tanda and Chumley crawling around in a mine with pickaxes and miner's lanterns strapped to their heads. My imagination wasn't up to the task.
"Gus, you'd better check out the textiles."
Chumley abruptly spoke up, looking thoughtful. "You know, perhaps we should go back and talk to that Dierack fellow again."
"Chumley? You feeling OK?"
"If we want to hook up with these union blokes, then our Mr. Dierack would presumably be able to point us towards the places where there is the most union activity, perhaps even obtain us some jobs. If we go charging in blindly, it might take months before we find a way into this union."
Aahz wavered, clearly torn. Finally he shook his head. "No. Skeeve reminded me that we're dealing with Deveels here. We'll just have to do it the hard way. It's better if we keep Dierack out of the loop for now." Tanda and Gus nodded their assent to this point.
Chumley shrugged. "Righty-ho. Come along, little sis. Let's go find us some miners, shall we?"
"Big strong burly ones, I hope." Tanda grinned.
They and Gus started off. Aahz called after them. "Meet back at the hotel this afternoon, and we'll swap notes!" The other three waved an affirmation, and then we were alone on the street.
"So what now, Aahz?"
"Now, we go join the local cattle call."
Locating the lumber hiring hall wasn't terribly difficult- it was one of the largest buildings in town, apart from the hotel, and built from the same type of bricks. For some reason, this fact struck Aahz as hilarious.
"A lumber hiring hall made out of bricks. Only the Deveels would do something like this." Privately, I wondered, and filed the fact away for future contemplation.
There were more native Gezirahans in and around the hall than in the other parts of town we had seen, although still not what you'd call swarms of them. Most of them looked tired and dispirited as they trooped in and out of the doors. At Aahz's prompting, I slapped a quick Gezirahan disguise on both of us. I wondered how the others were going to deal with this particular problem, but it was too late to start worrying about that now.
We walked into the building. It was a large, windowless barn-like structure, with Deveels seated behind little glassed-over windows, and row after row of plain wooden benches, mostly empty. A few Gezirahans loitered around. An incredibly wizened Deveel sat at a battered black desk near the entrance, under a large sign written in two languages, one presumably Gezirahan, the other Deveelscript, which I could now read fairly well. There was only one word:
Aahz looked around for a minute, and then strolled confidently over to the table.
"Excuse me, my good..."
"Take a number." The Deveel didn't even look up from the flimsy-looking book he was reading.
"We want to know..."
"Take a number." Still not looking up, the Deveel pointed at a pile of wooden cards hanging on nail on the front of the desk. Written on the top card was the number "42".
"Take a number."
Seeing Aahz's expression, I grabbed his arm, pulled on it and hissed in his ear. "Aahz! Beating this guy up will not get us anything. They'll just throw us out. We'd better just take the number."
"Gaaaahhh..." Aahz snapped up the top card and skulked off to one of the benches. I stood for a minute, looking up at the sign and then down at the Deveel. I couldn't resist.
"What are orenberries made of?"
To my immense surprise, the Deveel looked up and studied me levelly for a moment. Finally, he spoke. "You really don't want to know." He returned to his book.
"Uh. Thanks." I backed off and sat down next to the scowling Aahz. I peeked over at him, then carefully plucked the card out of his clenching hands before he snapped it in two.
One of the Deveels at the window suddenly called out "28!"
Aahz growled. I knew then that it was going to be a long afternoon.
A sudden thought occurred to me, and I swiveled on the bench so I was facing Aahz.
"Yeah, Kid?" There was a dangerous note of weariness lurking in Aahz's voice, but I pushed on.
"How come you didn't offer me a job in textiles?"
Aahz looked over at me, evidently surprised. He must have thought I was going to ask if we weren't supposed to be taking that number somewhere, but some merchants in the Bazaar use a similar system, so for once I knew the drill.
"You've never been inside a Devan textile mill, have you?"
"How can I put this? The reason I sent Gus to check out the textiles is that stone doesn't corrode or melt as easily as flesh."
"Exactly. They use things in those places that I'd find a trifle uncomfortable."
I thought for a minute more. "So how do the Gezirahans handle it?" I looked at the nearest one, three benches away. He shot back a suspicious glance then ignored me. "They seem to be made of flesh, under all that hair."
Aahz yawned and closed his eyes, seemingly calmer now. "Dunno. Maybe Gus'll find out for you." I made another mental note to ask Gus to do just that if he got a chance.
It was a long afternoon. I read the various posters tacked to the walls, and all of the brochures, handouts and leaflets. Three times. If you ever need a cure for insomnia, I can say without hesitation or fear of contradiction, report immediately to the main Deveel lumbering hiring hall on Gezirah. Surprisingly, after his initial near-explosion, Aahz took it well, sitting on the bench and seeming to doze. I quizzed him and he shrugged:
"Bureaucracies. They exist to drive you mad, and I'm not going to give this one the satisfaction. It's been so long since I had to deal with a real one, I let my temper get the best of me there."
Finally: "42!" We scrambled to our feet and marched over to the appropriate window. The Deveel sitting behind the glass was almost as decrepit as the one manning the information booth. He examined us critically. Before Aahz could plunge into his spiel, he croaked:
"Haven't seen you before." My mind raced, trying to think a quick, plausible lie, even though Aahz no doubt had a dozen stored away for just such emergencies. The Deveel continued after only a microscopic pause: "Good! Always good to get some fresh blood around here." He rooted around in the piles of paper on his desk, then stopped and looked up. "You two have worked in the lumber industry before, of course?"
"Of course." Aahz. Of course.
The Deveel nodded with no great show of interest and resumed digging. Finally he pulled out a piece of paper triumphantly. "Here we are. Two positions just opened up in an outfit a little ways north of here. And you're in more luck! A wagon is headed that way, leaving.. oh.. any minute now. Out back. You interested?"
"Well, actually, we..." Aahz's hand dropped onto my shoulder in the patented 'Skeeve shut up' grip and I broke off.
"Might my colleague and I have a moment to discuss this?"
The Deveel shrugged. "Sure, but the wagon ain't waiting, and it's a two-day walk."
Aahz pulled me out of earshot. "This is perfect! There can only one reason he'd be willing to hire two unknown schlubs right off the street, and why he's trying to get us up there so fast. Also why no one else here.." a gesture at the waiting Gezirahans "..has taken him up on this offer." My blank stare must have clued him to elucidate. "This outfit, whatever it is, must have just experienced labor trouble, and they're looking for some scabs. Unless I miss my guess, we're headed into a hotbed of labor activity, which is exactly what we want. Let's go tell gramps over there that we'll take the job."
I briefly wondered why being turned into scabs was so great, considering Aahz had just said he was trying to avoid getting us corroded or melted, but dismissed that point for the moment and addressed some bigger problems: "What if it's just that this job, whatever it is, is such a hellhole that no one wants it? And what about the others? Chumley? Tanda?"
Aahz grinned. "Don't worry. I know Tanda. They'll catch up with us. And every instinct tells me we're onto something here. Let's go, kid, our cart is waiting." He pulled me back to the window and smiled broadly. It was a good thing he was disguised as a Gezirahan when he did this, or the specimen embalmed behind the glass might have had a heart attack right then and there. "We'll take the job."
The Deveel smiled back, causing my skin to crawl. "Excellent. Now just sign this form... here... and here... and give this to the cart driver.. good.. all right. You're ready. Right out through that door."
I leaned over and spoke quickly before Aahz could clamp down again. "Sir? What's the name of this... outfit?"
The Deveel paused, then said nonchalantly "Camp #251." I was careful to keep my face blank, and he seemed to release a withheld breath. If you weren't used to dealing with Deveels, you probably wouldn't even have noticed either the hesitation or the breath.
Another fact for the file.
"Thank you, sir. Back in a minute, Aahz."
I dashed back to the front of the hall and stopped in front of the information Deveel.
"Um. Sir? Excuse me? Could I ask a favor?"
The Deveel looked up, wordlessly. I realized now he was even older than I'd first thought. How long did Deveels live anyway..?
"If.. some friends of mine come by here later today, could you give them a message?"
"Perhaps. How will I recognize these friends of yours?"
"They're... uh... they're... you'll know them when you see them, I think."
"Ah. And what is the message?"
"Just tell them that... The Kid hopes he found what we were looking for at Camp 251."
" 'The Kid hopes he found what you were looking for at Camp 251.' Very well." He started to look down at his book, then swiveled his gaze back up at me, an odd glint in his eye. "Whatever it is you're doing, my young fellow, you'd best be very careful. Strange things are afoot on Gezirah, and all is not as it seems. But then, it never is, is it?" He winked at me, and returned to his book. I stared at him for a moment, then turned and ran for my wagon.