“SKELETON CREW”The four of them sat in a posh lounge room in Vandenberg Manor, a room that might not accommodate them for much longer, depending on how today’s hearing went.
Bandit sat sprawled in the late afternoon sun streaming through half-parted curtains as he watched his human companions discuss how they lost their previous home.
“So that really was Striker’s crew?” Justin asked.
“ ’Fraid so,” Shades replied, sharing what he had learned from the harbor authorities earlier this morning. “Showed up a couple days after we went down into the Undercity.”
“Cruel and Unusual.” Unlike the others, Max recognized that name, heard Mousy call it out as the Brazen was sinking. “That was the name she said.”
“But I thought Rawne’s men had seized our ship,” Justin pointed out, “so how could anybody steal it?”
“He did have men sitting on the Maximum, as we feared,” Shades answered, “but don’t forget how long we were down there. Rawne was even paying off our docking fees to keep the harbor authorities out of it. But a couple days ago, they just up and left. Most likely, the money stopped coming, along with any word from either of their employers. By then, the Assembly was running its own investigation, so they were probably worried about how it might look if they were still hanging around on the Vandenberg payroll…”
“Took the money and ran,” Justin snorted.
“But that still doesn’t explain what Striker was doing here,” Max remarked, reaching down and scratching Bandit behind the ears, right where it always hit the spot.
“What I imagine she does everywhere she goes,” Shades shrugged: “being a pirate.”
“I suppose we’ll never know now,” Justin muttered, “seeing as how they never came back.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Shades quipped. “But still, I can’t help but pity whoever took our ship…”
“Did they find out who stole it?” Max asked.
“Nope.” Shades threw his hands up. “Too chaotic, too much shooting. Nobody got a good look at any of them.”
“And it’s not like we could catch up with ’em anyway…” Justin nodded, “but now we’ll never…”
He trailed off as they heard the echo of the doors out in the Great Hall beyond. A long, expectant silence, gradually filled in by approaching footsteps as Maximilian and Sebastian entered.
“So, uh, guys,” Justin chimed in, “how’d it go?”
Even his enthusiasm quickly faded in the wake of Maximilian’s haggard face, looking somehow older than he had before his excursion into the Lower Ruins, to say nothing of his butler’s weary expression.
“That bad, huh?” Shades intoned.
“Bad doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Maximilian sighed as he slumped into one of the empty armchairs. “We were gone so long, the other investors had pushed the hearings through even without Freedan, and the result was that he completely ruined me. The Vandenberg Trading Company is going to be disbanded, and its assets sold off to pay my father’s debts.”
“So you basically spent the whole day in a room full of poisonous snakes?” Shades remarked. “No wonder you look so beat.”
“Most of them have already divided up what pieces they wanted… It wouldn’t have mattered if I was there a week ago,” Maximilian muttered. “And here I was hoping I could just buy you a new ship. I mean, I know it wouldn’t be the same, but I figured it would be the least I could do for all your help… Instead, I’m not even sure how many more days I’ll even be able to put a roof over our heads…”
“Well,” Justin offered, “at least we kept that bastard Freedan from getting his hands on it.”
“That’s just the problem,” the Young Master told them. “He did. We know now that he’s been cookin’ the books for years, but it’s even worse than we feared. Instead of hoarding most of the money somewhere here in Alta— where we might’ve recovered it— he started wiring more and more of it to an untraceable holding account in New Cali. He also must’ve committed the account numbers to memory, because no one could find any information in his office either.
“Maybe it’s for the best…” Maximilian sighed. “I’m starting to think Freedan was right about one thing all along. After an entire day of learning just how little I knew about this company, I really don’t think I have any business running it…”
“Young Master…” Sebastian shook his head as if it really hurt.
“But why was he sending it all to New Cali in the first place?” Justin wondered.
“It appears to have all been part of some scheme for Freedan set himself up back in New Cali, probably with the city’s underworld, using the embezzled monies,” Sebastian elaborated. “But now that it’s all there, we can’t get any of it back.”
“Wired?” Shades raised an eyebrow. “How?”
“With a Quantum Relay Beacon,” Maximilian answered. “I have no idea how it works, but some company— Camcron, I think— outfits some realms with them for direct communication, but our newest one was damaged in the earthquake, so we’re stuck with the older model until someone from there comes out here to replace it, and who knows how long that might take…”
Hearing this, Shades figured that must have been how that mobile phone back on Adnan’s Island was connecting, and again he vaguely wondered where to.
“But there must be a way,” Max insisted.
“I’m sorry, truly, I am,” Maximilian said, looking more and more shell-shocked as he recounted his own ruination. “There aren’t any long-distance protocols for this sort of thing, not with the older model relays, and I’d bet my last credit Freedan knew it, too. On top of that, his and Rawne’s deaths leave too much unaccounted for to get any cooperation out here. The only way would be if I traveled all the way there and made my appeal directly to the First Municipal Bank of New Cali in person…”
He trailed off at the thunderstruck expression on Shades’ face.
“First Municipal Bank of New Cali…” Shades mumbled, whipping out what was left of his wallet. Past his driver’s license, past his school ID, past his photo of John that he had already trotted around the harbor earlier, past his mom and his friends, past the washed-out remains of his video rental card. A flip-book documenting his entire life up to the night he wandered out of it. At last arriving at and whipping out the FMBNC card he had stumbled upon at the threshold of his current life, almost surprised it was still there after all he’d been through in this world.
“The Card…” Max gasped.
“What is that?” Maximilian demanded, after getting a good look at it. “How can this be?”
“Young Master,” Sebastian piped up, “you recognize this account number, too, don’t you?”
“It’s the card I lost after the earthquake, isn’t it? Stolen, wasn’t it? But how…”
“It’s a long story,” Shades told him, deciding to save the details for another occasion. “But seriously, this was yours?”
“I guess that would explain why there was so much money on it!” Justin laughed.
“But what was it doing in place like that?” Max wondered aloud.
“Wait a minute!” Maximilian snapped, “If it was stolen, why does it still work? Didn’t Freedan… report… it…”
“Based on what we know about him,” Shades sniffed, “I’ll give you three guesses.”
“This account might be how he was embezzling all that money,” Sebastian hypothesized, “but from there, it was somehow being transferred to another account we don’t have any access to here.”
“Sebastian.” Maximilian looked up, sounding more like himself than he had since the battle in the Lower Ruins. “I know it’s late, but would you send the Assembly one more message? I want to make one more appeal before I decide what to do next.”
“Young Master, do you think they’ll listen to any more pleas at this point?”
“I think they’ll listen to this one,” Maximilian answered. “If I’m right, I just solved one of their leftover problems, and solved our most pressing one, all in one stroke.”
“How?” Justin perked up.
“You’ll see,” Maximilian replied, “but it’s getting late, and I’ve got another long day ahead of me. It looks like they’re going to let us stay here for another day or two, and hopefully this new plan will help you guys out, as well, but I need to make sure I have my pitch straight before I deliver it.” He then turned to Shades. “I know the usual rule of the high seas is Finders Keepers, but I take it I can trust you to give me my card back, can’t I?”
“Of course,” Shades told him, handing it over. “I never quite felt right about using it, but I was all out of options back then. I haven’t used ever since I stopped needing it.”
“Thank you,” Maximilian replied. “I promise I will make this worth your while. All of you.”
Not long after Maximilian turned in, they did as well.