Oleg Leveton, Jesse Cook, and Douglas Smith sat around one end of the Council’s meeting table. Pieces of parchment were scattered between them, clogged with figures, and an abacus sat before Oleg.
“So, what does this all mean?” Jesse asked.
“It means we cannot approve the budget increase you asked for,” Oleg said.
“Doug, we’ve talked about this,” Jesse explained. “You agreed with me.”
“I still agree with you, but I can’t give you what isn’t there,” Doug replied. “To give you everything you want would mean a total re-budgeting. I have a certain amount of discretionary budgeting that I can move around under my sole authority, but it’s very limited. This goes way beyond what I have left.”
“Exactly,” Oleg added.
“A re-budgeting means a full Council vote,” Doug explained. “Do you really want to try and convince Kesten and Dave that you deserve a larger budget than they do? Do you see what I’m saying? I may agree with you, but I’m just one vote. I’d be surprised if you could get even one more…maybe Jason.”
“It gets worse,” Oleg said.
“Well aren’t you just full of good news,” Felkik complained. “What is it?”
“You’ve been overspending,” Oleg said. “I’m sorry, but you’re the one who insisted on accounting methods with as little detail as possible. Had I a complete ledger of activities, I might have been able to foresee this and warn you months earlier.”
“Not this again,” Jesse said with a sigh. “I’ve explained before. It’s to protect my sources. A piece of paper can be stolen, accidently viewed by someone else if lost. The information in my head cannot.”
“Unfortunately, your head is proving less accurate than my abacus,” Oleg explained. “Numbers don’t lie.”
“You just said that I still have…” Jesse began, rifling through papers on the desk.
“Yes, that is what you have left, but look here,” Oleg said, sliding another document in front of Jesse. “This is what you have been spending on average each month. You don’t have enough remaining to continue that level of spending through the budgeted year.”
Jesse looked at the numbers, squinted, counted in his head and on his fingers a few times.
“Crap,” he finally said. “I hate when you’re right, Oleg. So, how much will I be able to spend each month?”
Oleg began flicking away on his abacus and making notations on a small piece of parchment. He slid the document over to Jesse, passing it front of Doug at the same time.
“This is what you can spend,” Oleg said. “It’s about fifteen percent less than what you’ve spend over the last eight months.”
Jesse rubbed his temples.
“You’re going to have to really pour on the old Jesse Cook charm,” Doug said.
Less than an hour later, Jesse walked past a butcher shop in the way to Oakmoor Tavern. A vase of fresh daisies hung from a rope next to the door. Without a change in his stride, but still a quick look around, he snatched most of the daisies from the vase, and gathered them in his hand into a bouquet.
He quickly reached Oakmoor Tavern and entered through the wide door. It was small, but clean, and had surprisingly good food. The back door led directly to its neighbor, the second largest brothel in town. Jesse had been through that door many times, but the woman he was after was no whore.
He approached the barkeep. He was a thin man, older than Jesse, short cropped grey hair. He had a completely foreign accent, and usually a look on his face that there was a stink. Inextricably, his name was ‘Bob’.
“Hey, Bob. Serina in?” Jesse asked, waiting patiently for a reply that was bound to be caustic, possibly sarcastic.
“Aye,” Bob answered. “Bet she ‘as no tim fer da likes o’ yer scarny becksid.”
“Helpful as always, Bob,” Jesse replied. “I’ll just show myself up.
There was a steep staircase at the back that led up to the apartment of the owner, one Serina Oakmoor. Jessie climbed the stairs and scanned the room below as he walked toward her door. In the middle of the room were the Carpenter brothers. They were quick tempered, but not bad sorts. They worked hard, and there was plenty of building going on, and played hard. In a corner watching the door were Pearl and Annie. They were two girls from the brothel looking to stir up some new business. Serina had a good relationship with the brothel, taking a small cut of whatever business her tavern might send their way, and selling a few drinks to gents ‘waiting their turn’. Finally, in another corner sat Caldus Baggert. He was a traveling merchant, mainly trading goods bought in Restov to more distant venues. He came through every two months or so. He was a snob, never drinking with his men, who were presumably at another tavern, but he was a good source of spices and quality fabrics.
Jesse reached the door and knocked louder than usual. It was not a visit she was expecting. There was a slight scraping sound, and a green eye peered out through the one-inch eyehole, which then closed back up. The door opened.
Serina Oakmoor was Jesse’s height. She had long dark hair, usually tied up, a fair complexion, and was slightly older than Jesse. She looked at everyone suspiciously.
“This is unexpected,” she said. “An actual social call?”
“No,” Jesse replied. “It’s….look, can I come in?”
She gave an emotively flirtatious smile for anyone watching and opened the door wide for Jesse to enter. He did.
As soon as the door was closed, her expression changed to curiosity.
“Is there an emergency?” She asked. “Please don’t tell me I’m found out already.”
“No, no,” Jesse assured her, dropping the daisies into a waste bin. “It’s nothing like that. There’s still not a scrap of paper anywhere with both our names on it. The only person who knows our connection is the Steward, and he knows nothing beyond that it exists.”
“Well, that’s necessary in case you ever meet with an untimely demise. I’d still want to be paid for my services,” she replied.
“Funny you should bring that up,” Jesse said with a smile, “being paid for your services, that is.”
“I don’t know why you’re smiling,” Serina said, sitting down on the stool in front of her dressing table. “You know I usually don’t find conversations about money to be very funny.”
“Oh, I know,” Jesse agreed, “and I know you won’t find this one funny either.”
“I take it the increase we discussed is not going to happen,” Serina said with stern disappointment.
“No,” Jesse replied quickly, and taking a seat on the bed.
“Bramble and Crown are working on expanding their networks on my say so, and they have to pay their informants,” Serina complained. “You told me you could get it.”
“I don’t seem to have quite the flair for accounting that I thought I had,” Jesse replied, “which leads me to the second and related issue. It seems I’ve already been overspending and, at least for the next several months, I’m going to have to cut back from our original agreement. Now, before you get as angry as your raised arms seem to indicate you’re about to get, I’ve figured out a way for you to work with these financial cuts and still maintain your network.”
“Is that right,” she said, forcibly calming herself. “Please enlighten me.”
“You could cut your own overhead,” Jesse said, knowing the backlash was inevitable.
“Is that right?” Serina asked sarcastically. “Even were I willing to do it, there’s barely any overhead to cut. This will affect all of the spies you depend on, now even Acorn too. Frankly, I don’t know if they’ll even stay on or be able to maintain their networks. I don’t know if I’ll stay on. Perhaps I should just move on to somewhere else where my skills and connections are appreciated and adequately compensated.”
“Serina,” Jesse said with a knowing smile, “you and I both know that’s not going to happen.”
“And why not?” She asked calmly.
“I didn’t go into this totally blind,” Jesse answered. “I don’t pretend to know exactly why you left Bardston, but I know it wasn’t completely your choice. The fact that you came to Ingerland, where people come to disappear and leave the past in the past, also speaks volumes. I know. I did the same. You don’t have as many choices as you might pretend.”
“I left Bardston because I refused to rat out an employer,” She said.
“That part I’d heard,” Jesse replied. “That’s why I approached you when I saw you in town.”
“I thought it was my eyes,” she said.
“Well, that, plus I remembered back in the old days,” Jesse said. “Maybe we never met, but everyone used to tell me how good you were. You had connections for every job.”
“It wasn’t so long ago,” Serina retorted.
“Maybe not in years,” Jesse sighed, “but a lifetime still…for both of us.”
“Okay, so you’ve softened me up with compliments and waxing about the ‘old days’,” she said, “and you’ve robbed me of my leverage in the argument to boot. So, let’s get right to it. What sort of cuts are we talking about?”
“Twenty percent,” Jesse said.
“Ten percent,” she countered. “Anything more than that, and I’m paying spies out of my own pocket.”
“Sure you are,” Jesse said sarcastically. “Fifteen.”
“Done,” she replied quickly, “but in four months I expect a raise or I really will commit time to looking for a new home.”
“Fair,” Jesse replied.
They sat in silence a moment.
“Anything new?” Jesse asked.
“You know I don’t get dispatches until tomorrow,” she replied. “That’s why I was surprised to see you.”
“Well, I didn’t necessarily mean about…you know, work,” Jesse explained. “You, your life.”
“Are you trying to talk me up?” she asked, finally smiling again.
“Well, I just thought,” Jesse began, “we’ve known each other a long time, you’ve a beautiful woman, I’m sitting here on this comfy bed.”
“You’re a little randy after winning an argument,” Serina added.
“I’m a man. You’re a woman,” Jesse continued.
“No,” she said flatly.
“Sorry, I…” Jesse began.
“You haggle me down, humiliate me a bit, and now you think I might jump in the sack with you?” She asked.
“I guess not,” Jesse said.
“That is the correct guess,” she said. “Try a pleasant conversation next time. Try bringing a bottle of wine up with you. Try not throwing the damn flowers in the trash. Is all this getting through?”
“It is crystal clear,” Jesse said, standing up, “but should I stay a little longer, just to keep up appearances?”
“I think I have it covered,” Serina replied, reaching into the trash bin.
She pulled out the daisies and walked Jesse to the door.
“Go!” She yelled, opening it.
Jesse stepped out and turned to say goodbye just as the flowers struck him across the face and fell to the ground as the door slammed. Jesse turned and smiled apologetically at the attention he’d just gotten from the Carpenter brothers. He left using the back door.