The Dealer

By Tiro

The dealer slowly took his eyes away from the scope and looked at me.

“Are you serious?” he asked quietly.

“I’m afraid I am,” I told him. There was a moment of silence as he continued to stare at me. If I’d been the suspicious sort, I might have assumed he was weighing me up and trying to decide whether he’d be able to pull one over on me. I put on an encouraging smile. His eyes widened, just slightly, in surprise. This was a good reaction: I’d found this little trick served me well. Inquisitors weren’t known for warmth. Smiles from us told different people different things, and their reactions could tell us much. The simpler types would take the expression at face value and perhaps became a little more relaxed and talkative – always useful, even when they’re technically innocent. The cynical ones assumed it meant I was simple, and they tended to get complacent, no matter how careful they’d set out to be. Which was also good. That only left the cautious ones – the ones used to deceit and dissembling – who could probably keep a leash on their little tells. Even if my man here was in that category, then there’d more than likely be quite an interesting reason for him developing the skill.

The slave dealer’s eyes continued to scan my face. His own gave little away. Hmmm. Not a pushover, this one. Maybe that was down to a career spent trying to outmanoeuvre business rivals – there were relatively few slave traders in this region, and fewer yet licensed, but the business was still intensely competitive. Perhaps that was all this was; perhaps it was something deeper. After a moment more, he turned back to his scope. I had to give him points for keeping his cool. Most people get decidedly twitchy when we talk to them. We have a rather grim reputation; but the truth is it’s not as well-deserved as you might think. We rarely actually put people to the question, and even more rarely for routine enquiries. Which is good: those procedures are a lot of effort, not to mention how it would cut into the budget, shipping all that equipment out to this backwater.

The dealer kept concentrating on his monitor scope, checking the feeds from the lev-cams sweeping back and forth over the holding pens outside on the plain. Packed into the large, communal cages were slaves gathered from several worlds around the Empire; but beyond the slaves there were also large cages and corrals holding animal livestock. Everything from the domesticated cattle, goats and horses, all the way up to the exotic and dangerous predator animals used in arena games and hunting expeditions. I had to admit, his range of merchandise was impressive. The dealer watched the feeds for a few moments. Then he spoke again.

“Anyway, what makes you think I’d be involved in something so stupid? I’ve spent a long time building up this business. Trade licences don’t come easy, you know.”

“Indeed they don’t,” I replied. “But this is just a routine enquiry. You know we have to ask you the questions. As far as we know, based on the records we have, you’re a model citizen.”

I watched him carefully for any response to that. Again, the amiable approach was a useful tool. Tell your average drone that they’re a ‘model citizen’ and they’ll fair glow with pride. But watch for the flinch. That shows you that this is a person who doesn’t trust, or doesn’t like, what they’ve heard. Subversive elements don’t like being congratulated on their obedience – even when they know it’s not true. I assume it either goes against their anarchistic grain; or maybe they’re just cautious about what the sugar’s coating.

In this case… Yes – there was, I’m sure: the slightest twitch. Barely anything. If you weren’t looking for it, it’d have passed unnoticed. But I was looking, and I saw it, and he knew I was watching, and he knew I’d seen it. He tried to cover it up with a display of gruff modesty.

“Hmph,” he grumbled. “Well, yes.” Grudging agreement: play the part, play the part… “I’ve always tried to do my bit.”

“I’m sure. And very successfully, it seems.” Which way would you like to interpret that, Mr Innocent Slaver? I looked around the room, and wandered over to some shelves at the back. It held rows of files, and I ran my hand along their spines absently. Took an orange from a fruit bowl on the desk, idly tossed the fruit up in the air a couple of times, made sure he saw me concentrating on it: up, and catch; up, and catch. All very casual; all very unthreatening. But my attention was still on him, and… yes, sure enough: now I’d moved aside, there was the quick glance towards the door. A moment’s calculation. Was I really watching him closely enough? Could he get that far before I could react? A moment, the smallest, tensest moment in his mind – and he made his decision. I saw his silent sigh of resignation as he turned his attention back to the scope. Good. I put the orange back in the bowl. I never did like it when people tried to fool themselves – they so often succeeded.

“You can look at all my papers, if you like,” he offered, though he couldn’t surely have imagined we hadn’t already seen them. “I think you’ll find everything’s as it should be.”

“I’m sure we will,” I assured him. “As it happens we will need to go through them. You know, just for formality’s sake.” He nodded silently.

Through the half-open door, I saw shadows move. Large, well-equipped, well-armoured shadows, moving quickly and quietly; taking up positions on either side of the door.

“And you know,” I said to the dealer, “It really would make go far more smoothly if you’d agree to come along with us and, you know, just help us get through all the details. Admin, you know. The bureaucracy in this job is just endless.”

Again, the glance towards the door. He knew, I think. Admittedly, he’d probably seen the movements himself. He looked back at me, that same mixture of tension and acquiescence: hope struggling internally with futility. In the end, futility won out. He slumped back in his chair.

“Whatever you say,” he whispered.

“Thank you. You’re being most helpful.” I reached out an arm. He took it, and I helped him to his feet. Began to guide him towards the door. Halfway there, he paused.

“Can I ask one thing?” he said.

“Of course.”

“Would you tell my wife what’s happened to me?” I looked at him. At his eyes. And I imagined his wife; pictured her anguish. And I must admit, I felt for her.

“Please,” he asked again. “Can’t you do that at least? She’s your sister-in-law.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “You know I can’t.” And I led him into the light.

(More about Tiro)

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