Business with bad people is a fact of life. Most people live their lives never having to deal with them. Many of those who have to like to think there’s no compromise with them. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that you can’t get rid of them all. The best you can hope for is a negotiated compromise with the least worst, even as you do your damnedest to remove the ugliest.
My client knew that too. He didn’t tell me anything, of course, but he didn’t have to.
The driver dropped us outside a restaurant. Barely legible Chinese characters scrawled across the glowing neon signboard. It took me a moment to recognize the ideograms; they read ‘Shanghai Bund Eatery’. A long line of customers waited more or less patiently outside. Most were Thais and assorted Westerners; of actual Chinese there were none. Probably not authentic Chinese cuisine then. A bespectacled dwarf monitored the queue, ducking inside every now and then.
Two people flanked the door. Both were orcs. While they were dressed in the restaurant’s uniforms, they were not tending to the queue. They simply stood and watched the street. A brave soul walked up to one and asked something. The orc growled at her, and she retreated back in line. As we approached, I noticed they wore low-profile lapel mics and earpieces. Their shirts were oversized, their pants loose, and they had low-cut boots with reinforced toes. They also wore what looked like a bangle on each wrist; common orc jewelry, even for make, but in my Second Sight, what was left of it, the bangles glowed with mana. The orcs kept their hands low, near their waist, and the one on the left absently patted his hip.
The one on the right stared at my client as we approached. The client stared back. The orc snorted, moving from a stare to full-on mad-dogging.
“Mr Allondir,” I said loudly.
“What?” he asked, breaking away.
“Do you have your invitation?”
“I don’t need an invitation. I have an appointment.”
“Yes, which means you are a guest.” I lowered my voice. “I know it’s uncomfortable to be stared at. But we’re not here to start a scene, all right?”
Elves weren’t common in Thailand. Officially the Thais maintained a studious policy of non-discrimination, but between the climate and preponderance of species that preferred more humid climes elves preferred living elsewhere. The Cataclysm that conjoined the worlds and mixed the races may have been over four hundred years ago, but racism bloomed still.
The elf sighed, and brushed down the sleeves of his navy blue business suit. “Fine.”
At this point, I would have walked away, stashed my toys somewhere safe. But Allondir just had to march up to the waiter. Before I could say anything, he said, “I have a reservation here.”
The waiter smiled obsequiously. “Yes. Name please?”
“One moment, khun Vandoss.” The waiter gestured in the air, his fingers flowing through a series of practiced motions. His spectacles had to be augmented reality glasses, displaying apps only he could see. “Yes, I have your reservation. Follow me, please.”
This time I took the lead, entering the bustling restaurant before Allondir. More uniformed toughs stood in nooks and crannies, watching me watching them. I kept my gaze easy and light, like a tourist people-watching. Like the guards outside, they wore overly large clothes, with some displaying odd bulges. Some of them paced the floor, others glowered in their corners. Every now and then, clueless civilians yelled “Nong!” over the noise and waved them over, oblivious to their actual function. Those who weren’t ignored got a very firm talking-to.
The dwarf led us to the second floor. A huge red-skinned orc guarded the staircase to the top floor. The waiter handed us over to the orc, who brought us upstairs.
The third floor was quiet. Completely and utterly empty. Tables and chairs were folded and stacked up along the walls, leaving the hall bare. Three more security goons awaited us.
“Stop,” the orc said. “We must search you.”
I nodded. “Go ahead.”
I did. The orc patted me down, working the armpits, my waistband, and my pockets. In no time, he pulled a baton from my pants pocket.
“What is this?” He smiled, exposing a mouth full of dark yellow incisors. “This is illegal, you know.”
I nodded at a prominent bulge at the front of his hip, where a human would have an appendix. “So is that.”
He chortled. So did his minions. “This is not America, yes? You cannot just carry weapons everywhere.”
“Sure. I have to protect my boss, though. Just like you.”
The orc waggled a finger, pocketing the baton. “We can look after him very well.”
“Sure, but Bangkok at night isn’t a nice place for us farang. Also,” I nodded at Allondir, “no offense, but I don’t think my boss likes you enough to take you back to the hotel.”
Allondir sputtered, blushing a deep red. “What?!”
The security team laughed as one. The orc actually giggled.
“I keep for you,” he said. “When you leave, you take from me.”
“I keep your scroll too.”
I unsnapped it from my wrist and handed it to him. “Anything else?”
There were. He extracted my flashlight and pocket knife from my pants pockets.
“And what are these?” he asked, exposing all this teeth.
To humans, that would be a smile. To orcs, it was a challenge.
“Tools,” I said, with exactly the same expression. “Never know when you might need them.”
He snorted. “I keep.”
The security team frisked Allondir too, and inspected his briefcase. They poked and prodded at it until they were satisfied it contained nothing more dangerous than brochures and papers, then boxed us in and led us to a private room at the end of the hall.
“What the hell was that about?” Allondir whispered.
“Sir, would you rather them laughing or angry?” I replied.
That shut him up. The security team pointedly ignored our exchange. The orc—evidently the crew boss—knocked on the door twice. It opened, and he led us in.
Inside was a table set for four. A wrinkled Chinese man sat next to a pale elfess. Allondir glanced at her first, then the man. I did the exact opposite, and I bowed at him slightly as the duo stood. That earned a small smile, just before he shook hands with Allondir and rattled off a long string of Mandarin greetings.
“This is Chairman Kang from our organization,” the elfess said. “He thanks you for coming today. I will be your translator. Please, call me Ms Zai.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Chairman Kang, Ms Zai. I’m Vandoss Allondir, Savon-Bissau Biomedical, and I look forward to doing business with you.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr Allondir. And you must be Mr Allondir’s guest?” she asked, turning to me.
“Welcome,” she said, extending a hand. “What’s your name?”
When our hands made contact, a spark raced up my arm and into my brain. Elves are naturally sensitive to mana, but this one was Gifted. She wasn’t just a translator. She was likely part of the security team, providing magical muscle.
“Just Seer?” she asked.
It was likely a deliberate mispronunciation, getting me to pronounce my name properly. Elves like to sing or chant when casting spells. Besides, it’s a bad idea to give away your real name to the underworld when you don’t have to. All the same…Seer was a name from another life.
“He’s my bodyguard,” Allondir added.
The term was executive protection specialist, as I’d explained to him before, but evidently he didn’t care.
I nodded. “I’m not part of his company. Please, carry on without me. Treat me as you would treat your protectors.”
“Do you speak Mandarin?” Kang asked. In Mandarin.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand,” I said.
“Chairman Kang asked if you understand Mandarin,” Zai offered.
“Ah. No, sorry,” I said.
Contempt and pride flashed through his face for a moment. “A Chinese man should know Chinese,” he said. “You should be proud of your heritage.”
“Chairman Kang suggests it would be useful to learn Mandarin,” Zai said.
“I suppose I will. Thank you.”
I sat and watched the security team take up their positions around the room. One man stood watch outside. Two took up positions in the corners behind us. The massive orc was behind our hosts, his expression neutral.
“Would you like some tea?” Zai asked, indicating the teapot in the center of the table. “Or perhaps something stronger? Our meal will arrive shortly.”
“Tea would be fine, thanks,” Allondir said.
Zai filled our cups with steaming tea. Kang stood, his cup raised. “To a successful partnership,” he said in Mandarin. “Gan bei!”
We toasted all round. As I sipped my tea, I saw Kang’s eyes flickering to my hands. He was likely looking for calluses and scars. He wouldn’t find any. The synthskin that covered my limbs were top-grade, resembling smooth untested flesh. Being underestimated is very useful in this line of work. But he saw me seeing him see me, so maybe that didn’t go quite as planned.
Business was conducted the Chinese way, over an extravagant meal. Waiters came and went with plates of food. Over appetizers the trio held a long, spirited conversation about everything from family to the weather to other safe topics. After I refused a plate of salted peanuts and another of xiaolongbao, Zai looked at me and said, “How is your appetite, Mr Cyr?”
“Nonexistent, I’m afraid.” I smiled at her. “Please, enjoy the food for me.”
Sure, the food smelled good, but the principal came first. All the same, my stomach rumbled lightly.
She laughed. “My sympathies.” She looked away for a moment, her left hand discreetly tapping under the table. Maybe she was sending a message to the waitstaff. When the main course arrived, there were only three plates and three sets of utensils. They provided fine ceramic spoons and chopsticks, obscuring the fact that they brought no forks and knives, even though the regular customers downstairs had plenty.
Allondir struggled with his chopsticks, even with Zai’s help. He made do, barely, favoring his spoon. I didn’t help him. I simply sat, watched, and listened.
After another round of small talk, Allondir finally got down to business.
“I heard Chairman Kang is a powerful man with much influence and an upstanding reputation,” Allondir said. “Savon-Bissau is pleased to work with him and the organization if we choose to expand into Bangkok.”
“And so are we,” Zai said. “Savon-Bissau is a world-renowned pharmaceuticals company. We look forward to doing business with you.”
Allondir proposed a toast. The hosts accepted. I joined in too—there were only so many rules of etiquette I could breach today.
“We are eager to open the Asian market,” Allondir said. “By opening a manufacturing hub in Asia, we hope to drive down production costs and make medicines cheaply and widely available. By cutting out shipping costs and hiring local labor, we will be able to ensure better living for more people. We have a list of prospective locations, and Bangkok is high on that list.”
He handed out flashy brochures, printed in English, Thai and Chinese, to reinforce his point.
“With that in mind,” he continued, “we have concerns about patent enforcement. Not to protect our profits, you understand, but to look after our customer’s interests. We can ensure the quality of our products, but we can’t say the same for knock-offs, can we?”
“Sad but true,” Zai said. “The black market doesn’t care about lives like you do. Only profit.”
“Exactly. I was told Chairman Kang has many friends. I was also told he is the man to turn to for such matters.”
“You are very well informed. Chairman Kang is not without influence with the authorities. Our organization can ensure the security of your patents and ensure your customers receive quality medicines.”
The rest of the conversation revolved around buzzwords and thinly-veiled euphemisms.
The triads had wrested control of the Bangkok underworld from Burmese and local crime syndicates, and were now in firm control of the local drug trade, and a goodly chunk of the international narcotics market. When the drug decriminalization movement swept the world, the triads retooled their labs to manufacture bootleg pharmaceuticals. Allondir and Kang weren’t negotiating protection from pirates. They were negotiating protection from the triads and their manufacturing base.
Over the rest of dinner, they talked at length about terms and conditions, local business environment, affirmations of respect for local culture and the economy, promises to provide jobs and other such disguised phrases. Eventually they worked out a fairly elegant agreement. Savon-Bissau’s local branch would agree to hire local labor and source for goods and services from certain recommended organization in exchange for local patent protection. Left unsaid was that the employees would never show up for work, the goods would not arrive, and services nonexistent.
The actual details would, of course, be left for another meeting. Allondir had to check in with his bosses and Chairman Kang needed to see which of his many business partners would be willing to help. Few details are ever sorted out in a single business meeting. It was very Thai in that aspect. They signaled the close of dinner by exchanging business cards and gifts.
As we left, the orc returned my scroll, followed by the flashlight. Then he stared at me for a bit.
“May I have the rest of my tools back?” I asked, finally.
He smirked, and handed the baton over. “Nice piece. Where did you get it?”
It was a cheap knock-off of an Autolock 16-incher, but I didn’t bother correcting him. “A street vendor.”
“This too?” he asked, holding up my knife.
“Funny thing about Bangkok. Legal to sell knife and baton, illegal to carry them. Be sure police don’t see you with it.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
The baton disappeared into my right pants pocket. I had my front pant pockets customized with a hidden tubular extension for exactly this reason. I clipped the knife to my left pants pocket.
Outside the restaurant, I brought Allondir aside. “Mr Allondir, I respect your company’s confidentiality, but if we’re going to meet gangsters, you have to tell me first.”
“I told you were meeting a local business partner.”
“Yes. Not an underworld dragon head. Look, I know this is how things are done over here, but I needed to know that. We were lucky they didn’t take the tools as an insult.”
The client frowned. “You shouldn’t even be armed here.”
“You hired me to protect you,” I said evenly. “This means I make all the security decisions.”
“Chairman Kang has a lot of security.”
“Yes, but it does not extend to you.”
“Bangkok is a civilized place—”
“And meanwhile, crimes against nonhumans in Bangkok are twice that of those against humans. Against elves, it’s three and a quarter. You hired me to protect you, yes?”
He sighed. “Yes.”
“Exactly. It’s easier to do that with a tool. If I can’t have one, I need to know beforehand so I can adapt. I can’t protect you effectively if you don’t let me know where you’re going and who you’re going to meet.”
“Look, I…” he sighed. “Fine. I’m tired, and I haven’t gotten over jet lag.”
I nodded. “Yeah, it gets to everyone. Just let me know next time, okay?”
“Okay.” He pretended to yawn. “Look, it’s been a long day and I’ve got nothing else tonight. I want to go back to the hotel.”
I nodded, unfurling my scroll and calling the driver. “Let’s go.”
If you enjoy blending sci fi and fantasy, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.
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