It was just as I set my saucer down after supper that my old schoolmate knocked upon the door, in some urgency. My niece rose from her place at the table—we always dined just the two of us at the round table by the fire—and opened the door to reveal the slender figure of Sanderfrause hurriedly lighting a pipe and wagging his eyebrows in greeting. I sat back and unbuttoned my trousers; we were in for a ‘conversation.’ My old friend slid his nickel-plated lighter into his breast pocket and in a fluid motion stepped jauntily in the door, reached out to pinch Carley’s shoulder, and winked. Sanderfrause never did anything singly. He accompanied his own actions with contrapuntal expressions of the face or finger or a swivel of the hips or a dancer’s pivot. Not terribly surprising as we first made each other’s acquaintance in theatre classes. He’d been the principal rival to my brother, the now famous actor Freeley Croud.
I wondered if Carley approved of the shoulder pinch as typically she shied away from all physical connection. I suppose Sanderfrause determined the seam of her frock neutral territory upon which their disparate proclivities might compromise. I stood from my chair enough to be embraced by his gaunt arms.
“How I love the Osterran Quarter! The scrape of rubber against stone! Most of my clientele these days are Estran, and as such I’m obliged to remove my shoes. Fidelio! A roiling fire by which to smoke a pipe. May I?”
I shook my head at him as he flung his limbs across the stuffed leather arms of my sitting chair. “You are the most dramatic person I hope to ever encounter. And this from the brother of the most celebrated thespian in the galaxy.”
“The known galaxy, dear chum. The unknown galaxy is lousy with Sanderfrauses.”
Oh dear, I thought. It was destined to be one of those conversations. “Let me cover the leftovers,” I said, clearing the table, “before we begin splitting hairs.”
“Try as I might,” he said staring into the fire and sucking on his briarwood pipe, “I cannot uncover the satisfaction others have professed in hookah. Have you given the habit a fair trial, Yardley?” I carried the dishes on a tray to our tiny kitchen and returned to find him just as unmoved by my lack of response as he would have been by my most eloquent. “I believe it’s the attachment of the hose to central stand. A pipe is free, compact, total. I can whip it around, cradle it, tuck it away, or toss it over my shoulder.”
“Please don’t,” I said.
“I’m repulsed by the notion of stasis, I believe.”
“And yet, I wager, in the next two hours you won’t move so much as an elbow.”
“But should I need to, I could carry my pipe along to my next recreation. And it is that prevalence of mobility that allows me the comfort of repose.” And then he whipped his head around, “I’m not intruding, am I? You would have objected?” His eyes searched Carley’s and mine. She shook her head, and I mine. Carley stripped her shoes and stretched long wool socks over her feet. She liked to lay in front of the fire with her heels up on the brick. I only had the one sitting chair before Carley moved in and seeing that she preferred to spend the majority of her life sprawled on the floor I never procured a second. I turned my dinner chair to face the fire and the three of us reposed for a spell in utter silence.
“Brandy?” I asked. Carley with her eyes closed and her fingers laced across her chest nodded. Sanderfrause swiveled his chin, “If you would.”
I poured two and a half glasses from the credenza and distributed them accordingly. Carley liked to take a sip into her mouth and roll it around her tongue interminably. She only ever took the one sip, but she liked to hold the snifter and bring her nose to its brim now and again. I presumed that a half glass provided the same aroma as a full glass. A touch impecunious of me, I know. Furthermore, the girl was in her early teens.
“Are you still of the interrogative profession, Yardley?”
Carley opened one eye, the eye on the side of her face nearest me, met my eyes, and then closed it once again.
“I’m of no profession, my friend. That is, if I am not thoroughly misguided, the chief pursuit of retirement,” I said.
“Nonsense. You are an artist. Artists and malcontents can never abandon their passions.”
“I wouldn’t say I ever had a passion for my work. I just couldn’t stand to see it done poorly.”
“You deny your passion for justice?”
“I’ll allow others their preferred interpretations. I had no yearning for law, only order. But a peculiar, lowercase ‘o’ order. Unlike my colleagues, I never deluded myself with morality.”
“Equivocal, equivocal man. How high you might have risen in the corporation!”
Again, Carley’s near eye spied me and closed.
“He may be after your time, but in your career, I’m curious if a certain name ever entered your dialogues.”
“You know I cannot discuss my investigations, even closed cases.” For two and a half decades, I served as an ombudsman for the corporation. My specialty was fraud; tax, insurance, real estate, etc. Without disclosing this to my superiors, my trick—or as I called it, my golden egg—was that most fraudsters were first-timers, and more importantly, terrible liars. I found that I was useless interrogating career criminals. A preposterously harsh critique of my own c.v. would expose this trend. Or perhaps I’m being still too hard on myself. My superiors didn’t care if I played with a handicap. My golden egg worked when it worked and my reputation aggrandized once they let me choose my own cases. Alas, that did a number on my conscience. I feared I was taking the easy cases, and that angst was never ameliorated by the fact that my colleagues didn’t share that opinion. Only in retirement have I allowed myself some positive self-regard. Perhaps I did have a gift. Either way, I can now appreciate that I was appreciated by those that paid for the work.
“It’s a off-kilter name,” he said. “If you’d heard it, you’d remember it.”
“I will allow you to speak the name and I promise I will be forthright in my response. I’ll say ‘Yes, I have’ or ‘No, I have not,’ but that must be the end of the topic.”
“Fair,” said Sanderfrause. Carley’s near eye opened and studied my face. She wanted to observe my reaction to the name. “Ready?” asked Sanderfrause.
“How could I be unready?”
I guffawed, evidently unready. “Yes. I have. End of topic. Gelato, anyone?”
I cleared my throat, unable to meet Carley’s open eye. “Gelato, then?”
“He’s costing us an incredible amount of money.”
“Don’t be daft, old friend. You’re not the only one who’s spent a career culling falsehoods.” Both Sanderfrause and Carley stared at me; the cavalier gentleman and the concerned child.
“Why is he back?”
“We know why he’s back, of course. The question is why he was gone so long.”
“Does he have a new ship?”
“Clever. I always appreciated the sophistication he imparted on the craft. We impounded the Brief Candle. Whatever his investment in that vessel, he suffered a total loss. Perhaps he was desperate all these years to raise funds for a new enterprise.”
“Did you ever estimate his earnings? Of the operations we knew he ran, and only in the years we knew he operated, did you put together a figure of what fortune he might have gathered for himself?”
“Weren’t we supposed to have abandoned this topic already?”
“I don’t believe his obstacle was the funding.”
“Unlike me, he may have grown bored in his retirement.”
“Sanderfrause, Carley has been perfecting her rhubarb pie recipe recently, and there’s a fresh sampling in the oven. Shall I fetch you a slice?”
“I apologize.” He dropped his head down off the arm of the chair. “Carley, where are you procuring rhubarb?” Carley whirled a finger in the air. “I see. I just can’t imagine the commissary standing in his pantry scratching his head and asking, ‘What am I missing? What would make this old berth feel more like home?’ and striking upon rhubarb as his answer. But then again, for the zillionth instance in my life that I can recall, my immediate presumption is proved inaccurate, because surely somebody did lust enough for the sickly sharp tinge of rhubarb to transmit the order from beyond the wormhole to intercept us at L5 Station. The untouched expanse of the galaxy and we are pinioned to Terra 1 by the bitter flesh of a root vegetable.”
“You’re stalling,” I said.
“Prevaricating,” I said.
“Okay, now you’re stalling.”
“Which inevitability am I stalling? Around what centrality am I prevaricating?”
I rolled my eyes and Carley winked at me. Her presence—though silent—has been an utter joy. How serendipitous that her father’s tour departed around the same period that my career settled. I cannot imagine these last eighteen months without her. I foolishly hope that she’s as satisfied with my companionship as I am with hers. But one can never guess at the thoughts of a teenager. And to an unmarried, childless retiree, the opposite sex is doubly perplexing at that age. She studies her schoolwork, I read all of the books I never had time for, and all the while some roast or dessert suffused the quarters with a hearty aroma.
“If not funding, what? Do you believe you can flatter me into thinking I damaged his reputation sorely enough that he lost a decade of opportunity?”
“No, I don’t believe his reputation was hurt by you. On the contrary, my old friend.” He struck me with his statesman smile. “And yes, to put it succinctly, I do believe I can flatter you. How long have you been retired?”
“Shy of two years.”
“And how do you feel about coincidence?”
“Ribaldly skeptical. Why?”
“The Hereafter was commissioned sixteen months ago. Not under his name of course. We only recently heard his name. Actually, Larkmont heard his name six months ago but didn’t report it.”
“Larkmont? He’s in charge of the investigation?”
My friend shrugged and said, “You retired.” Damn him. I was flattered.
“Without dropping out of retirement, I can give you a nickel’s worth of free advice. If Tomoro’s back on the scene, you’ll want to take Larkmont off that particular investigation. Larkmont’s an administrator.” I said with some bile. “I wouldn’t task him to find his own name in a spreadsheet!”
Our guest disguised his smile. Carley did not. “Have you ever considered, Sanderfrause,” I said, taking leave of the parlor, “that perhaps I am Mister Tomoro? I retire, he returns; hmm?”
I retrieved the pie from the oven and placed it on the mantle of the fireplace to cool. I walked to the window beside the book case and looked out at the stars, disinterested in that moment to sit back down. To my left and right I could see the other towers of the Osterran, spiraling with me through the void. I’d spent my boyhood in Ikago, raised in a high-rise like this. The difference being that when I looked out the window, I saw streetlights and the lake. Even on an ocean liner or in an airplane, there existed a horizon. The sky met the sea, or the clouds, or the crust of Terra 1. The lack of a horizon disquieted me. The lack of a bottom. There was a bottom floor of the Celestrone, but beneath that, there was nothing. I’d requested quarters with an interior view but none were available when I returned from the field. Carley had spent her whole life on star ships. I wondered if my stagnant lakeside bedroom window would be as upsetting to her as the incessantly spinning vault of stars was to me.
“Well, I did wonder on my way over, though I promise it wasn’t the purpose of my visit, chum, whether you would be interested to read the testimonies of his latest victims. I believe I have a portfolio in my attache, unless I emptied it onto my desk this afternoon. He’s advanced his method rather elegantly.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Oh, blather me. I really shouldn’t be so gregarious. These are confidential matters, after all.”
From her closed-eyed, supine position with socked feet elevated beside the fire, Carley grinned.
“You really are a cad, you know that, Sanderfrause?”
I served the pie on three small plates and refilled the snifters. Carley waved her fingers and gave me her sweetest, beseeching eyes. I set her plate on her belly. I do not know how that girl could eat and drink while flat on her back. Sanderfrause joined me at the table, knocking his ash out into the flame. “How delightful to sit by a fire!” he said.
“Other quarters have fireplaces.”
“Fireplaces,” he said, “but no fires. Only you, Yardley Stoot, can I rely on in my time of need.” He took a bite of pie casually, as though the previous statement bore no ulterior implication. I watched him. He endeavored to eat a second forkful of pie but paused with the dessert at his lips. “In all sincerity, while your assessment might prove beneficial to the corporation, it’s not an urgent matter. I wouldn’t want to take you from your comfort.” He relieved the fork of its burden, dropped his eyes from my view, and imparted significance on the remainder of the pie.
“A smell test. No more. Only if you desire. As I said, the files are sealed and all that. You can take a look while I’m here, but I couldn’t leave them behind. You understand.”
He was masterfully beguiling. I felt as though I’d won a debate in which I neither participated nor desired the outcome I’d earned. I glanced at my young ward. She was staring straight up at me, her head tilted all the way back, pie being placed in her open mouth by pink-stained fingers. She gagged in that position and rolled to her belly. Sanderfrause and I leapt up from the table. She held her hand up, kneeled, and drained her snifter. She swallowed heavy and coughed just once. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes spread as wide as the fireplace for a moment. And then she settled.
“Maybe you’ll learn not to eat upside down, child?” Sanderfrause said. He said it smiling, not disparaging, but I slapped his breast—much more painfully than I intended, for me anyway, as my knuckles struck the nickel-plated lighter in his breast pocket.
“Carley is also enjoying retirement, while school is not in session, at least. She’s not taking lectures at the moment.”
“My apologies. Sincerely. Agh, Prepostio! I’ve become an adult, haven’t I? Carley, never become an adult. Agh! I did it again! Another lecture!”
Carley smiled at him, but her head wobbled and her hands moved to her stomach.
“A shock of brandy that,” I said. “Can I fetch you a cup of tea, mug of coffee, some seltzer water?” She nodded.
“How do you know what she’s agreed to?” Sanderfrause asked when I put the kettle on. I ignored him and spooned leaves into a teabag.
“What do you think, Carley? Should I assuage Sanderfrause’s desperation just this once and peak at that portfolio?” She was around the corner, by the fire. I was standing in the kitchen. I couldn’t see her face nor she mine. I was indeed stalling now, putting on a show for my old schoolmate. I knew though that she wanted me to. She had an inquisitive mind. When she first moved in, she opened the spine of every book on my shelf, read for a few minutes and then replaced them. A few of them she placed on the shelf spine up, instead of out, reminding herself which she planned to return to.
The real ponderer was whether I wanted to satisfy Sanderfrause and my own curiosity, which that slender snake knew would be whetted by the name Tomoro.
Did I want to expose my restful mind to that vile world? I’d passed my sixtieth birthday in high spirits, the celebrated servant of a not-too-eventful career. I’d interrogated dangerous players and investigated treacherous organizations, and all without making too many enemies. Tomoro was the least violent of the most awful men whose names were uttered in my studio. If he were any more clever, I wouldn’t even know his name. And there was no proof he was back. Some copycat could be using the moniker to drum up intrigue for their own casino.
I handed Carley her tea. “Well, Sanderfrause. She wants me to. For her sake, not for yours nor for my own ego, I’ll peruse the testimonies.”
“Sure,” said Sanderfrause. “I’ve got the evening free.”
I settled into my reading chair. Sanderfrause and Carley studied a puzzle at the table. Within five minutes I slapped the portfolio against my lap. “He’s triplicated the registry!”
Sanderfrause swiveled ever-so-smoothly in his seat to face me. “I thought you’d like that,” he said with a half-moon grin.
Carley raised an eye brow, so I explained to her. “In short, we’d have to get the cooperation of the other two sectors before we could even launch an investigation.” She lowered the eyebrow and semi-shrugged. “That’s a lot of bureaucrats, a lot of paperwork, a lot of business days, a lot of transmittal notaries. He only needs one mole in any one of the three sectors to catch it. Before we can sign the warrant, he’ll have vanished again.”
Sanderfrause looked at Carley, feigned confusion, and asked me, “Then how could he ever be caught?”
“Legitimately? Legally? Impossible. You’d have to go outside the TriCorpe.”
“Like a vigilante?”
“Don’t be daft, Sanderfrause. No. A private ombudsman. A singular registrar.”
“And which of those that you’ve encountered in your career would be daring enough to go after Tomoro?”
I laughed. “Absolutely zero. Tomoro would see them coming a mile away. They’d be scattered into some foreign atmosphere.”
“So we’d need somebody working outside of the TriCorpe, who wouldn’t need a signatory, who’s already a licensed investigator, who’s never been seen in the Xero Belt, who can’t be bought off, who’s clever enough to catch a game master in his own casino, and who’s willing to risk his life to make the known galaxy a significantly safer place?”
I grimaced. “You’ve just described yourself, my friend.”
“I had somebody else in mind,” he said.
“They would know me in the Xero Belt.”
“Criminal executives would recognize your name in the proper context. Any of them who have ever seen you has done so in your interrogation studio.”
“Where they stared at my face for hours, days in a row.”
“How many of them are not locked away?”
“My specialty was plea deals.”
“Ah,” he said. “So nobody still operating in the Xero Belt will want to claim to recognize you because that will expose them as a snitch!”
I chewed on my lip. “My license would have lapsed by now. November, I believe was the month.”
“I checked into. The corporation accidentally auto-renewed all licenses. Some administrator in your department forgot to uncheck the box next to your name.” He grinned. “Larkmont, hence promoted to Chief Ombudsman.”
Carley shook her head. “It’s too dangerous,” I said.
“It’s exactly as dangerous as it needs to be,” he said. “But, you would have to shave your mustache.” Carley nodded her head. “You look like an ombudsman.”
The fire began to die down. The hefty lower log split in two and the others sagged. It was getting late, we’d have to retire to bed sooner than later. We’d all drunk our second glass of brandy. Carley hadn’t quite filled the gaps in her puzzle but the pie was gone. There’d always be more puzzle pieces until there was only one and that last piece lost all mystery. That was one of those habits that disturbed me, puzzles. Maddening for the first half, then the satisfaction mounts for the second half until suddenly the solution is so obvious you can’t bring yourself to plunk the shoddy pieces into place. Or at least that was why I was always an ombudsman and neither the auditor nor the attorney. The auditor would discover the gaps, I’d lay them all out and find the connections, and then pass them off to the attorney for the tedious work.
“Oh what the hell,” I said, and placed a clean wedge of timber on the diminishing blaze.
Story writer, game creator, puzzle spinner