Lexi was annoyed to find that a day had passed, and she had no sense of having accomplished anything of value. She had wandered around the estate grounds, and read most of a book, and soaked in a bath until she was positively waterlogged, as well as eating lunch, but she hadn’t done anything. Not that there was anything she needed to do. But she felt useless, which wasn’t much fun.
When she finally decided that it was time to go for a drive, as evening approached, she couldn’t find Dobie. Victor was gone as well. Lexi found Kira, who told her that Dobie had gone into town for dinner. “Without even telling me?” she asked. Kira was tremendously apologetic, but didn’t have an answer for that. She knew it was kind of a silly conceit anyhow; it wasn’t as though Dobie was obliged to tell her his every move. It wasn’t as though they were dating, or anything.
She ignored the peanut gallery in her head when that comment was made.
“Where’d he go?”
“I know that. But where?”
Kira considered. “I think he is supposed to be at the Earl Khorbin Inn and Golf Club,” she replied.
“Easy to find?”
“I suppose so. Why?”
The keys to the big ’61 Cadillac were still in the ignition, so Lexi took that car out again. The staff were sufficiently used to her now that no one tried to stop her from going; in fact, Kira handed her a note with directions as she was leaving. Lexi blew her a kiss and hit the road.
About an hour later, it was full dark and Lexi marched into the Earl Khorbin. She told the maitre’d she was there to see Dobie, and he took her directly to a private dining room. Victor was sitting by the door, and nodded with something like amusement as she was led in.
Dobie didn’t even look up. “Goodness. I hadn’t thought you’d arrive before anyone else did. And you had to drive farther, as well. Although I can’t say that I’m impressed by your choice in fashion. There are rules, you know.”
Lexi looked down at her T-shirt and cargo pants, then gave him a dirty look. “You didn’t tell me you were going anywhere.”
“I was supposed to?” he asked, glancing up at her. “I’m sure I’d remember our sleeping together.”
“You might’ve had a chance, if you hadn’t gone running off tonight,” she said absently.
Dobie shrugged it off with a practiced ease that actually hurt her feelings, though she didn’t let it show. “I had some people to meet. I’ve been out of town for quite some time, after all. Please, sit, since you came all of this way.” He nodded to her, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to have some kind of business meeting with a guest at the table, and then stood, smiling as the door opened again. “Richard! Helen! And Mr. Jenoretzke! So good to see you!” Handshakes were exchanged.
“Cary Grant was politer,” Lexi muttered, dropping into a seat and feeling like a sulky teenager. She smiled when the unfamiliar suits introduced themselves, though. That was what Audrey would’ve done, after all.
It didn’t take her long to get preliminary impressions of Dobie’s dinner guests. Richard was Richard Telton, an ex-pat Brit who ran an import-export business which had all but built a third of the major cities on this, the largest of Ile du Soleil’s three islands. Telton had silver-white hair even though he was about Dobie’s age, a big, heavy British jaw that was prone to insincere grins, ice-blue eyes that looked predatory and a suit that Lexi really wanted to pour mayonnaise on, just to ruin it and make him look halfway human. Him, she didn’t like.
Helen was Helen Vandenberg. She was icy all over, from her blond hair to her two-inch heels that looked painful, but if they were she didn’t let on. Her business suit looked fancy at first glance; at a second glance Lexi realized that it was couture, and probably custom made. Helen herself looked rather custom made, thanks to a carefully managed tan, high-dollar manicure and hairstyle, and a face that had seen its fair share of maintenance in thirty-odd years. Yet in spite of all the add-ons, Helen was self-confident in a way that had nothing to do with elective surgery. She wasn’t intimidated by Dobie or Telton (in fact the opposite was frequently true). She gave Lexi a glance that wasn’t dismissive, but measured her as a potential competitor. No, that wasn’t right either, there was something else in that look. Helen wasn’t competing with anybody. She didn’t offer insight into what she did, and had an air as if she’d invited herself to the dinner. Lexi didn’t mind her too much; she reminded her of Molly’s mother.
Mr. Jenoretzke was just Mr. Jenoretzke. He was in his seventies and hadn’t even so much as nodded to Lexi and no one used his first name. He was too old and skinny to be a bodyguard, and he talked too much besides, but Lexi had no idea what he did. It was something political. She thought maybe he was in Ile du Soleil’s governing council somehow but wasn’t familiar enough with the way it worked to speculate. He also seemed, somehow, too old to be a politician. If anything, he was like that old retired Mafia guy in the gangster films who didn’t have any official duties, but whose advice was never disregarded. Yes, that was the feel she got from him. Lexi thought about what Dobie had said about being called a criminal.
Their conversation veered quickly into business and political concerns, and Lexi listened with half an ear, choosing instead to watch Victor, who was just visible through the open door. She wondered what Cygnet saw in him. Actually, she knew the answer after a moment’s thought; big shoulders and a tasty butt. Cygnet wasn’t a particularly complex girl, when you came down to it.
“You realize what this proposal means, don’t you?” Telton was saying as Lexi tuned back in for a moment. “The Greens are spiking taxes for people like us.”
“Which they always threaten to do,” Dobie replied.
“But this time they’ve managed to do it. This legislation is directed at the old-liners.”
“What are old-liners?” Lexi asked, interrupting.
Telton gave her a patronizing smile. “The gentlemen who built this country, of course. The Greens consider anyone who ever had a financial association with King Khorbin to be an ‘old-liner.'”
“Which includes everyone at this table, I take it? Except me, of course.”
“You might say that,” Dobie said. He was mostly letting Telton and Helen bounce conversation off of each other, and sat back as if watching a particularly interesting tennis match even though everyone was ostensibly speaking to him.
“What they’ve done,” Telton said, apparently enjoying explaining things to Lexi, whom he clearly thought was incapable of understanding, “is to change the tax structures to levy debilitating tariffs that will affect the upper class primarily. They’ve directed legislature specifically at taxing high-dollar luxury goods–including those that you already own. Dobie and I could lose millions of dollars with one stroke of the pen.”
“I’ve done that,” Lexi said. “It doesn’t hurt much.”
“Don’t scoff, Richard,” said Helen. “It’s unseemly.” She was clearly taunting him, and he blushed.
“Your assets are on the line here too, I might point out,” Telton said.
“I don’t care. I’ll move to the Riviera. I’ll take my ball and go home.”
“That would be a shame, Helen,” said Dobie. “You’re not only a solid ally, but a wonderful neighbor.”
“My house is three hundred miles from yours, Dobie. We’re hardly neighbors,” she said witheringly.
Lexi tuned out again. They talked about rich-people things, and she ate Dobie’s untouched salad. It was better than average. It had shrimp in it, and chunks of pear.
“Of course I took a beating while I was out of the country,” Dobie said. “All of the ticks come out of the woodwork when you’re not watching. Sometimes I leave just to see who tries to bleed me while I’m gone. It’s easier to find them, that way.”
“What are you talking about?” Lexi asked.
“Oh. The Economist magazine-type stuff?” Now Helen and Telton were looking at her like she was a complete bimbo. Lexi didn’t mind. If they thought she was a twat with legs, they’d pay less attention to her. She was surprised they hadn’t recognized her already, but not disappointed.
Dobie smiled patronizingly. She couldn’t tell if he was falling for her idiot-act also, or just playing along. “Something like that. Corporate politics.”
“And really, is there any other kind worth having?” The door opened again, and Victor ushered two more men inside. “Hey, I know those guys,” Lexi said, seeing Carino Rhoades and Goodman, the guy with the green minivan whose nuts she’d kicked.
“Good evening, Mr. Rhoades,” Dobie said as everyone but Lexi rose. Handshakes and introductions were exchanged. “What a pleasant surprise. We were just talking about you,” he added.
“Indeed. Don’t let me interrupt, by all means. My associate and I were just on our way through, and saw your lady friend coming in.” He indicated Lexi, who felt herself blushing. “There was a bit of a misunderstanding earlier this week, and I thought it would behoove me to stop quickly in and apologize for Mr. Goodman’s actions,” Rhoades said, addressing her. “Although I naturally didn’t have anything to do with it, you have to understand that it’s all part of the political game we play here in Ile du Soleil. We like to have fun with our little rivalries, don’t we Mr. Cassarell? It was a prank, nothing more. It certainly wasn’t personal. I’m sure Mr. Goodman will apologize, and replace your blouse as well.”
“I don’t want another blouse. I want to hit him on the head with a frozen tuna.”
“Is that how you handle these situations in America?” Rhoades asked with some condescension.
“How very interesting. Mr. Cassarell,” he added, “Your new girlfriend’s gotten you into some trouble today, you know.” Goodman smiled. Lexi glared at him, but he showed no emotion or even recognition.
“I assume the car she’s driving is yours? It’s awfully old, don’t you think? It must burn a terrible amount of gas.”
“It’s in good tune,” Dobie said with a slight frown. Lexi could tell he wanted to ask her which car she’d driven, but it wasn’t the time.
“Nonetheless, it’s too old to be on the road. I would have expected an upstanding citizen such as yourself to keep abreast of the new restrictions. They went into effect Wednesday, you know. I doubt that car would earn a new registration.” Rhoades walked partway around the table, and for a moment looked as though he were going to put his hands on Helen’s shoulders. He didn’t do this. “In fact, I’m no expert, but I’m sure that that car is older than a 1985 model, which means, I believe, that it requires a special permit to even be on the road.”
“We’ll drive it home and get it off the road today,” Lexi said quickly, feeling stupid. Dobie had mentioned the new laws, and she hadn’t even thought about it. Bombing around the estate was one thing; driving over the open road into a city was another matter entirely.
“It’s not that simple,” Rhoades told her, smiling. “Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is the point. If Mr. Cassarell drives this big, American car all the way back to Marjori, that’s not helping us much. It’ll have to be impounded and scrapped, right here in Hamilton.”
“No!” Lexi wailed, horrified. “You can’t scrap it!” She was halfway on her feet. Dobie put his hand on her arm, and she shrugged it off.
“I most certainly can,” Rhoades said. He was focusing on Lexi now, and probably aware of the discomfort he was causing Dobie as well. “The new vehicle code states specifically that vehicles in violation can be removed from the road by any official and–“
“Were these regulations intended to be used as political harassment?” Telton asked. “Or is that just a side benefit?” Lexi was surprised to find herself annoyed that he was taking her side.
“Political harassment, yes. That’s the sort of thing your kind would say, I suppose. Oppression is a fine tool for the wealthy, until they find it turned upon themselves. But before you run to your pet parliamentarians crying harassment, I’d advise you to consider that ‘harassment’ is exactly what you and your ladyfriend have been up to. Vandalizing my private property and assaulting my associates is certainly not standard parliamentary procedure.” Rhoades looked extremely satisfied with himself. “You can leave the car here, at the club,” Rhoades said. “We’ll take care of it. And in honor of your compliance with the new regulations, I’ll waive the fines, as well.”
“You unctuous shitcake,” Lexi said. She climbed out of her chair, found that she couldn’t get around Telton, and got up on the table, walking down it toward Rhoades and Goodman. She stepped deftly between the plates and centerpieces and she had a buttered roll in her hand. “You’re not going to squash it.”
“Lexi, don’t,” Dobie said softly. He knew that she was only encouraging Rhoades, and that the new de facto head of the government could do plenty more if he wanted to. He also had a good idea of what she was going to do with that dinner roll, and how much of a public scene that would create. The natural assumption would be that he had encouraged Lexi toward civil disobedience because she was a foreigner, so everything she did was assumed to carry his tacit approval.
Dobie nodded to Victor, who dutifully grabbed Lexi’s wrist as she got close and pulled her toward him. As she stumbled off-balance and started to fall, Victor grabbed her around the neck with one big hand. He didn’t choke her; the hold merely allowed him to pull her off of the table, shifting his other hand to her belly to support her weight, and keep her from falling on her head. When her feet touched the ground Victor spun her around so his arm was across her collarbone, her back to him, and locked her tight to his chest. When she began to squirm, he lifted her off the ground.
“Ox!” she shouted. “Buffalo! Put me down!”
“Outside?” Victor asked Dobie, ignoring Lexi’s backward kicks at his shins. Dobie nodded.
“No, Victor!” she cried. “No, the car, they’re going to crush the car, put me down, don’t let them do this!” She struggled and kicked to no avail, and Victor bundled her out the door, closing it behind them.
Lexi’s shouting was muffled as Victor hauled her out of the restaurant, but still audible to Dobie and Rhoades. “Quite a display,” Rhoades said.
“She has her moments,” Dobie replied.
“It is a shame about the car, I suppose. But I wouldn’t have expected the new regs to blindside you. Did they? I know you’re quite the collector. Doesn’t seem like you’d have ignored the updated vehicle code, even for a day.”
“I’ve been keeping up with the new rules,” Dobie said defensively, and immediately realized he’d fallen for a choice bit of bait.
Rhoades’ predatory smile grew. “Let’s be honest, I could use the support of your community, small though it may be. Why don’t we do this? I’ll send some of the Motor Vehicle Compliance people to inspect your collection, and we can then report your agreement and compliance with our new environmental policy. It’ll be a chance to show some of the other folks who are nervous that it’s possible to have your expensive toys, even under the new rules.”
If he refused, Rhoades was going to send the inspectors anyway. Dobie’s entire collection was subject to the same fate as his Cadillac, according to the Greens’ lightning-fast environmental policy changes. And there was only a grace period if an appropriate official granted one, after an appeal. The only response was to feign agreement. “I would be honored,” Dobie said, the words burning in his mouth. “We’ll be staying in Hamilton for the next day or two, however. Some time next week, perhaps? Whatever fits into the inspection schedule best.”
“If you’ll be back home on Thursday, we should plan for this Friday,” was the response. “Don’t you worry about the scheduling.”
Two days. Great. He could feel Helen’s eyes on him as he shook Rhoades’ hand and bade the politician a polite farewell. He realized that he was clenching his teeth, and forced himself to stop. How many cars did he have that were less than twelve years old? He didn’t know for certain, but it was surely less than twenty. Most of his collection was going to be destroyed, unless he could get it out of the country in two days. Scratch that–unless he could get it indiscreetly out of the country in two days. Rhoades’ satisfaction at watching him scramble was not something he wanted to be party to.