I learned my trade at a desk in Miser Mumster’s counting house. It was an excellent apprenticeship. He made sure his clerks wrote clearly with a fair hand, and woe betide any of us who wrote anything illegible or smudged! I wish that he would stand behind those students of poetry who present their scrawls for me to decipher. A rap across the knuckles with his walking cane would concentrate their minds!
But I intend to take this opportunity to celebrate an achievement of a friend of mine. A lady who combines a sharp mind with a winning way when it comes to desserts. She was good enough to be taken on as an auditor with the celebrated forensic accountants, the ladies Marisol and Chesini Clogchipper.
Madi was trained by the Miser in person. Indeed she is reputed to have several times coxed an increase in remuneration from him merely by hinting that she was contemplating leaving. When she had her first child, her employer merely had the work dropped off at her house for her to tackle.
Still when the old man finally retired, she also decided it was time for her to contemplate a move to advance her career. Thus she ended up working for the Clogchippers.
Unusually for one of their people, she rarely went onto the premises of the clients, but instead would remain in the office, running an eye over sets of accounts which had been brought back for her to peruse. I remember seeing her at work. I had been asked by a patron, Madam Hael, if I knew a discreet lady who could check some figures from her soon to be ex-husband. He was a merchant with considerable interests but like many of
his kind, he often worked with other business partners. These figures seemed to comprise the accounts for at least the last three years.
When I arrived at the offices, Madi was working on another set of accounts
at the time. She pointed at the page.
“Look what this fool has done.”
I studied the page. On the left hand side of the page there were perhaps thirty entries. On the right hand side of the page there were perhaps twenty figures which related to them, plus five numbers entered in an informal column down the centre of the page. There were at least five figures missing. This I spotted immediately. Not only that, but the digits were indistinct. Seven and one looked remarkably similar, whilst in some cases
numbers seemed to fade into text!
She took the bundle of papers off me. “I hope your patron has a more interesting case than this one I’m working on. In all candour, any even half competent clerk could unravel it in an afternoon.”
Still she glanced through the bundle I had handed her and promised to contact me the following day. Next morning I got a brief note. “Tallis, it’s interesting, it should take me another week.”
Later that week I got another note. “Tallis, I love you like a brother. This case is a joy to work on. Give me three months.”
It was at least four months later when I got a note asking me to visit her to collect the documentation and receive her report. But I was not invited to her office, I was invited to her home. When I arrived I was ushered in by a maid. She led me through to a parlour where Madi sat, but with her were the two Clogchipper sisters.
As I was shown to my place at the table, Madi explained. “Tallis, you have blessed us with a fascinating, and strangely profitable investigation. So we thought we would explain it over a light lunch.”
Whilst I was still pondering over her words, a soup was served. Mock squid, served with bread drizzled with balsamic vinegar. “So what have you discovered.”
“A bookkeeper of some competence for a start. The accounts were immaculate. Everything balanced, everything was accounted for. It was beautiful work. The whole thing hung together perfectly.”
I was enjoying the soup too much to interrupt, and she continued. “The accounts were complex, but even that had been made plain. It was only as I worked through the various annexes and appendices that I began to suspect something. There was an investment in Partann. To be honest such things are always slightly suspect.”
I allowed myself to nod wisely. In all candour much about Partann is suspect. Merely being slightly suspect shows that everybody is on their best behaviour and is striving to meet higher standards than they normally aspire to.
“There were ‘staff costs’ associated with several vaguely described enterprises. There was ‘investigating possible investment opportunities,’ followed a month later by ‘moving people onto the scene to exploit the opportunities.’ Then a month after that was a larger entry, ‘consolidating investment opportunities.’ Given that these were the public accounts, I could understand a certain reluctance to go into too much detail. Then I
noticed that whilst the accounts showed the money being paid separately, it had actually all been transferred to the same account at the very start of the enterprise and in reality had been paid out in one lump. Also the total figure seemed familiar. That niggled at me all that evening until I remembered where I’d seen a similar figure. I had recently been through the accounts of Cavalier Qualan, the condottieri captain, and had seen an
identical figure. It was for the hire of three hundred lances for six months.”
Our soup bowls were taken away and a plate of lightly grilled fish on a bed of spiced rice was served in its place. Madi continued. “So I just had to check with various people and it was comparatively easy to trace the passage of that sort of money, once I knew what I was looking for. Your patron’s husband, Master Hael, effectively took the money that his partners had introduced into the business and with it hired his own mercenary army. They took a small keep in Uttermost Partann, and this he has now garrisoned.”
“But why? I cannot see him wishing to live as a Partannese warlord. And what about his business partners, what do they think?”
“True I cannot see him wanting to live down there, whilst he would be entirely at home in the moral atmosphere, I think he would find the lack of civilised amenities trying. As for his partners, they have nothing to complain about. He is paying them a decent dividend on their shares.” She chuckled.
So I asked, “How exactly is he doing this. I cannot imagine there are enough tenants paying rents to the lord to cover the expenses.”
“True, Tallis. But he is indulging in the most traditional of Partannese activities, piracy. And not just simple piracy. He has his pirates attack his shipping and the shipping of his partners. So effectively he sells each cargo twice. Once when he claims the value off those who insure his cargo and a second time as he sells it to dishonest merchants who habitually deal with pirates. Plus I assume his men attack other ships as well, but this
side of his enterprise is less lucrative.”
“So he’s little better than a pirate?”
“Ah but it is not entirely that simple. In law he isn’t a pirate. He, and his partners, lease the Keep and its piratical denizens to a separate business. This separate piratical partnership pays a fee to the original partnership which guarantees all the partners a good return on their investment. It was tracking down this separate business which took so much time. Effectively it is wholly owned by Madam Hael, but is administered for
her by her husband. All the profits are fed directly into her account. Whilst Madam Hael thinks that her husband pays her an allowance, in reality he pays her nothing. He has given her a business, and the profits from her business cover her costs.”
This took a lot of thinking about. I had to assume that Madam Hael had no idea of this scheme, otherwise surely she would not have asked me to place the matter in front of accountants.
“So Madam Hael is actually a pirate, or at least profits from piracy?”
Madi sighed. “Ah but if only it were that easy. There are any number of interesting moral dilemmas for various people. Let us take the Master Hael’s partners, they can rest assured that they are engaged in a legitimate business venture, renting a keep to a local warlord. If we did the research I have no doubt he is morally superior to his predecessor in every way.”
“Master Hael is on more dubious ground. But as a partner he shares the same defence as the other partner, whilst as the administrator of the business belonging to his wife, he is merely an agent and in theory could be ignorant of any wrongdoing. Indeed if it ever came to court, we might be accusing him of supporting his wife from her own immoral earnings.”
I thought carefully. “But he set the whole scheme up.”
“Yes, and when you analyse it he deposed a Partannese tyrant and has replaced him with somebody he may claim as an honest tenant. He will doubtless admit to shock, indeed astonishment, when we show him what his tenant is doing.”
“But people are being robbed.”
Madi corrected me. “Insurance companies are being robbed. But they recover their losses by putting up the charges to everybody. But the profits go to Madam Hael. Madam Hael does seem to get through considerable sums of money.”
Here I sighed. “Yes.”
Madi continued, “So the system set up by Master Hael takes money from the purses of wealthy merchants, and pays it over to dress-makers, purveyors of fine foods, wine merchants, those who dress ladies’ hair, poets, and similar. If Master Hael hadn’t set up his system, I suppose the money would end up in the same place, he has merely changed the route some of it follows.”
I pushed away my empty plate. “So what about Madam’s plans to divorce her husband.”
“She would be a fool. I regularly come across cases where merchants embezzle money so that they can afford to support a mistress in a manner to which she feels she should become accustomed. This is the first time I have come across a merchant who did this and signed everything over to supporting his wife.”
With this Madi gestured to a maid who placed a small tray in front of me. “I know you like raspberries, Tallis. Let your morale scruples be swept away with cream.”
Almost pathetically I asked, “But are you going to report this to the authorities?”
Chesini Clogchipper spoke for the first time. “There is nothing to be served by going down that path. If we leave things alone, in a few months, a year or two, then some other Partannese adventurer will seize the keep, the arrangement will end, and Master Hael will have to find more conventional ways of supporting his wife. It’s a very clever scheme, but too clever for Partann.”
I decided that at times like this the wise man just obeys orders. The cake was a delight, the raspberries perfect and the creams complemented everything to perfection. My moral quibbles seemed nugatory in the presence of such culinary excellence.
And now a brief note from Jim Webster. It’s really just to inform you that I’ve just published two more collections of stories.
The first, available on kindle, is ‘Tallis Steelyard, preparing the ground, and other stories.’
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing,
from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.
The second, available on Kindle or as a paperback, is ‘Maljie. Just one thing after another.’
bnce more Tallis Steelyard chronicles the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. Discover the wonders of the Hermeneutic Catherine Wheel, marvel at the use of eye-watering quantities of hot spices. We have bell ringers, pop-up book shops, exploding sedan chairs, jobbing builders, literary criticism, horse theft and a revolutionary mob. We also discover what happens when a maiden, riding a white palfrey led by a dwarf, appears on the scene.
Maljie: Just one thing after another
I am a fan of the writing of the very English, Jim Webster. Although his books are set in the fantasy Port Naain, there is a strong and delightful flavour of the best of English life and humour that flow threw in all of this author’s works.
Poor Laxey finds himself firmly entwined in the objectives of Maljie, and everything he does and every punishment that comes down on his surprised head as a result of his foolish actions, is exploited for personal gain by the dexterous Maljie.
Maljie, a strong and determined woman, who lets nothing, with emphasis on that nothing, stand in the way of her achievements, has taken ill. The ill fated, Laxey, who just cannot keep himself out of trouble, is tasked with travelling to a distant mountain monastery in the Aphices Mountains in search of a therapy for her ailment. Laxey’s journey is full of surprises, the greatest one being what happens when he arrives. He does, however, make it back to Maljie to enjoy another day. He brings her a tonic wine from a monk, but this does not stop Maljie from seeking her own interesting cures, including covering her painful area with a concoction made from a hot spice, called The Devil’s Pomatum. Having applied this exotic mixture, she sets off to attend a public hanging with rather unexpected consequences.
Maljie is a fascinating character as she manipulates her way through life, taking advantage of unexpected accidents and career opportunities to progress her goals. This is the first book in the Maljie series and I thoroughly enjoyed this new and spicy character, all the more because she is female and keep everyone, male and female, who crosses her path very firmly in their place. She is not past resorting to getting rid of unwanted people and disposing of their remains in the most peculiar places. Building alterations take on a whole new purpose when Maljie is around.
I recommend this highly entertaining short read for people who enjoy fantasy and a jolly good laugh and the lighter side of life … and death too.