The Family Trade
|Series:||The Merchant Princes: Book 1|
|Sub-Genre Tags:||Alternate/Parallel Universe|
|Avg Member Rating:||
Miriam Beckstein is happy in her life. She's a successful reporter for a hi-tech magazine in Boston, making good money doing what she loves. When her researcher brings her iron-clad evidence of a money-laundering scheme, Miriam thinks she's found the story of the year. But when she takes it to her editor, she's fired on the spot and gets a death threat from the criminals she has uncovered.
Before the day is over, she's received a locket left by the mother she never knew-the mother who was murdered when she was an infant. Within is a knotwork pattern, which has a hypnotic effect on her. Before she knows it, she's transported herself to a parallel Earth, a world where knights on horseback chase their prey with automatic weapons, and where world-skipping assassins lurk just on the other side of reality - a world where her true family runs things.
The six families of the Clan rule the kingdom of Gruinmarkt from behind the scenes, a mixture of nobility and criminal conspirators whose power to walk between the worlds makes them rich in both. Braids of family loyalty and intermarriage provide a fragile guarantee of peace, but a recently-ended civil war has left the families shaken and suspicious.
Taken in by her mother's people, she becomes the star of the story of the century-as Cinderella without a fairy godmother. As her mother's heir, Miriam is hailed as the prodigal countess Helge Thorold-Hjorth, and feted and feasted. Caught up in schemes and plots centuries in the making, Miriam is surrounded by unlikely allies, forbidden loves, lethal contraband, and, most dangerous of all, her family. Her unexpected return will supercede the claims of other clan members to her mother's fortune and power, and whoever killed her mother will be happy to see her dead, too.
Behind all this lie deeper secrets still, which threaten everyone and everything she has ever known. Patterns of deception and interlocking lies, as intricate as the knotwork between the universes. But Miriam is no one's pawn, and is determined to conquer her new home on her own terms.
Ten and a half hours before a mounted knight with a machine gun tried to kill her, tech journalist Miriam Beckstein lost her job. Before the day was out, her pink slip would set in train a chain of events that would topple governments, trigger civil wars, and kill thousands. It would be the biggest scoop in her career, in any journalist’s career— bigger than Watergate, bigger than 9/11—and it would be Miriam’s story. But as of seven o’clock in the morning, the story lay in her future: All she knew was that it was a rainy Monday morning in October, she had a job to do and copy to write, and there was an editorial meeting scheduled for ten.
The sky was the color of a dead laptop display, silver-gray and full of rain. Miriam yawned and came awake to the Monday morning babble of the anchorman on her alarm radio.
"—Bombing continues in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in business news, the markets are down forty-seven points on the word that Cisco is laying off another three thousand employees," announced the anchor. "Ever since 9/11, coming on top of the collapse of the dot-com sector, their biggest customers are hunkering down. Tom, how does it look from where you’re sitting—"
"Shut up," she mumbled and killed the volume. "I don’t want to hear this." Most of the tech sector was taking a beating. Which in turn meant that The Industry Weatherman’s readers—venture capitalists and high-tech entrepreneurs, along with the wannabe day traders—would be taking a beating. Her own beat, the biotech firms, were solid, but the collapsing internet sector was making waves. If something didn’t happen to relieve the plummeting circulation figures soon, there would be trouble.
Trouble. Monday. "I’ll give you trouble," she muttered, face forming a grin that might have frightened some of those readers, had they been able to see it. "Trouble is my middle name." And trouble was good news, for a senior reporter on The Industry Weatherman.
She slid into her bathrobe, shivering at the cold fabric, then shuffled along stripped pine boards to the bathroom for morning ablutions and two minutes with the electric toothbrush. Standing before the bathroom mirror under the merciless glare of the spotlights, she shivered at what she saw in it: every minute of her thirty-two years, in unforgiving detail. "Abolish Monday mornings and Friday afternoons," she muttered grimly as she tried to brush some life into her shoulder-length hair, which was stubbornly black and locked in a vicious rear-guard action against the ochre highlights she bombarded it with on a weekly basis. Giving up after a couple of minutes, she fled downstairs to the kitchen.
The kitchen was a bright shade of yellow, cozy and immune to the gloom of autumn mornings. Relieved, Miriam switched on the coffee percolator and made herself a bowl of granola—what Ben had always called her rabbit-food breakfast.
Back upstairs, fortified by an unfeasibly large mug of coffee, she had to work out what to wear. She dived into her closet and found herself using her teeth to tear the plastic bag off one of the three suits she’d had dry-cleaned on Friday—only to discover it was her black formal interview affair, not at all the right thing for a rainy Monday pounding the streets—or at least doing telephone interviews from a cubicle in the office. She started again and finally managed to put together an outfit. Black boots, trousers, jacket, turtle-neck, and trench coat: as black as her Monday morning mood. I look like a gangster, she thought and chuckled to herself. "Gangsters!" That was what she had to do today. One glance at her watch told her that she didn’t have time for makeup. It wasn’t as if she had to impress anyone at the office anyway: They knew damned well who she was.
She slid behind the wheel of her four-year-old Saturn, and thankfully it started first time. But traffic was backed up, one of her wiper blades needed replacing, the radio had taken to crackling erratically, and she couldn’t stop yawning. Mondays, she thought. My favorite day! Not. At least she had a parking space waiting for her—one of the handful reserved for senior journalists who had to go places and interview thrusting new economy executives. Or money-laundering gangsters, the nouveau riche of the pharmaceutical world.
Twenty minutes later she pulled into a crowded lot behind an anonymous office building in Cambridge, just off Somerville Avenue, with satellite dishes on the roof and fat cables snaking down into the basement. Headquarters of The Industry Weatherman, journal of the tech VC community and Miriam’s employer for the past three years. She swiped her pass-card, hit the elevator up to the third floor, and stepped out into cubicle farm chaos. Desks with PCs and drifts of paper that overflowed onto the floor: A couple of harried Puerto Rican cleaners emptied garbage cans into a trolley laden with bags, to a background of phones ringing and anchors gabbling on CNN, Bloomberg, Fox. Black space-age Aeron chairs everywhere, all wire and plastic, electric chairs for a fully wired future.
" ’Lo, Emily," she nodded, passing the departmental secretary.
"Hi! With you in a sec." Emily lifted her finger from the "mute" button, went back to glassy-eyed attention. "Yes, I’ll send them up as soon as—"
Miriam’s desk was clean: The stack of press releases was orderly, the computer monitor was polished, and there were no dead coffee cups lying around. By tech journalist standards, this made her a neat freak. She’d always been that way about her work, even when she was a toddler. Liked all her crayons lined up in a row. Occasionally she wished she could manage the housework the same way, but for some reason the skill set didn’t seem to be transferable. But this was work, and work was always under control. I wonder where Paulie’s gotten to?
"Hi, babe!" As if on cue, Paulette poked her head around the side of the partition. Short, blonde, and bubbly, not even a rainy Monday morning could dent her enthusiasm. "How’s it going? You ready to teach these goodfellas a lesson?"
" ‘Goodfellas?’ " Miriam raised an eyebrow. Paulette took the cue, slid sideways into her cubicle, and dropped into the spare chair, forcing Miriam to shuffle sideways to make room. Paulie was obviously enjoying herself: It was one of the few benefits of being a research gofer. Miriam waited.
"Goodfellas," Paulette said with relish. "You want a coffee? This is gonna take a while."
"Coffee." Miriam considered. "That would be good."
"Yeah, well." Paulette stood up. "Read this, it’ll save us both some time." She pointed out a two-inch-thick sheaf of printouts and photocopies to Miriam, then made a beeline for the departmental coffeepot.
Miriam sighed and rubbed her eyes as she read the first page. Paulie had done her job with terrifying efficiency yet again: Miriam had only worked with her on a couple of investigations before—mostly Miriam’s workload didn’t require the data mining Paulette specialized in—but every single time she’d come away feeling a little dizzy.
Automobile emissions tests in California? Miriam squinted and turned the page. Failed autos, a chain of repair shops buying them for cash and shipping them south to Mexico and Brazil for stripping or resale. "What’s this got to do with—" she stopped. "Aha!"
"Nondairy creamer, one sweetener," said Paulie, planting a coffee mug at her left hand.
"This is great stuff," Miriam muttered, flipping more pages. Company accounts. A chain of repair shops that— "I was hoping you’d find something in the small shareholders. How much are these guys in for?"
"They’re buying about ten, eleven million in shares each year." Paulette shrugged, then blew across her coffee and pulled a face. "Which is crazy, because their business only turns over about fifteen mill. What kind of business puts eighty percent of its gross into a pension fund? One that bought two hundred and seventy-four autos last year for fifty bucks a shot, shipped them south of the border, and made an average of forty thousand bucks for each one they sold. And the couple of listed owners I phoned didn’t want to talk."
Miriam looked up suddenly. "You phoned them?" she demanded.
"Yes, I—oh. Relax, I told them I was a dealership in Vegas and I was just doing a background check."
" ‘Background check.’ " Miriam snorted. "What if they’ve got caller-ID?"
"You think they’re going to follow it up?" Paulette asked, looking worried.
"Paulie, you’ve got eleven million in cash being laundered through this car dealership and you think they’re not going to sit up and listen if someone starts asking questions about where those beaters are coming from and how come they’re fetching more than a new Lexus south of the border?"
"Oh. Oh shit."
"Yes. ‘Oh shit’ indeed. How’d you get into the used car trail anyway?"
Paulette shrugged and looked slightly embarrassed. "You asked me to follow up the shareholders for Proteome Dynamics and Biphase Technologies. Pacific Auto Services looked kind of odd to me—why would a car dealership have a pension fund sticking eight digits into cutting-edge proteome research? And there’s another ten like them, too. Small mom-and-pop businesses doing a lot of export down south with seven- or eight-digit stakeholdings. I traced another—flip to the next?"
"Okay. Dallas Used Semiconductors. Buying used IBM mainframe kit? That’s not our—and selling it to—oh shit."
Copyright © 2004 by Charles Stross
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