"How much longer are we going to keep lying to people about this?" Director Lalynda Dupree sought out the faces of the six men and three women who, along with her, formed the governing board of the Ashton district. "Surely we can acknowledge here, at least," she said, sweeping a hand to indicate the board's well-furnished chamber, "that the situation has deteriorated exponentially over the past year?"
Director Stanton Petroska steepled his fingers. One dark, heavy brow arched in inquiry. "Yes, we have problems to face, Director Dupree, but I hardly see the need for this...this melodrama. This is hardly the first time those who guide Grand's Hold have faced -- and overcome -- serious difficulties. That's a tradition of which I am justly proud. I hardly believe our minor difficulties with these self-proclaimed 'blood runner packs' warrant anything approaching panic." He favored the rest of the Directors seated around the oval table with an indulgent smile.
Dupree felt her face flush with rising heat. Clenching her hands on her lap kept them hidden from view. Unfortunately, she could not disguise the emotions leaking from her voice. Inhaling deeply, she fixed her narrow-eyed gaze on the thin face of the lead Director. His amused expression faltered only briefly.
"You know as well as I do, Stanton, that other district capitals are afraid the pack phenomenon will spread to their communities. In Nightshade's last official communique, they reported some deaths suspiciously similar to those of pack origin. Rand's Ridge, Gold Rapids, and Carrero all tell us of similar concerns regarding the blood runners."
"And we estimate that here in Ashton, the number of separate packs has reached at least twenty. Perhaps even as high as twenty-five or thirty," another board member said.
Dupree nodded and added a quick smile of thanks for Director Ginny Barwick, one of her three allies on the board. The other two men she could usually count on to side with her -- Rami Suhn and Vilmos Jackson -- had kept their own counsel during the current debate. Dupree had not yet decided how to evaluate that silence.
Pushing aside such distracting thoughts, she said, "If each pack averages fifteen to twenty active members, we may have three to four hundred very angry and very vicious criminals to contend with. There are also the women and children who have drifted to their strongholds. Who knows how many that might be? Given the fear the packs have instilled in our citizens, obtaining arrests -- let alone convictions -- will prove troublesome. The victims are reluctant to come forward to testify. And our own forces are simply not able to anticipate when and where the packs will strike next. The patrol is essentially reactive rather then proactive."
Petroska leaned forward eagerly and pressed his palms against the polished top of the table. "Then you'll reconsider my request for additional patrol officers and increased procedural latitude to deal with these thugs?"
Damn! Dupree hated being herded into a corner. At least tonight's meeting did not qualify for public scrutiny since no votes had been scheduled. Petroska's query and her refusal would not be officially broadcast to the city. Her luck would not hold, however, should he call for another vote on his appropriations bill. How could she explain in open session so the general populace would understand that her rival's suggestion might appear worthy but in the long run would not only fail to accomplish its stated goal. It would, in fact, lead to abuses far worse than what any blood runners might inflict -- though perhaps not so immediately or so obviously?
Therein lay Petroska's skill: the ability to exploit any short-run crisis for his own gain.
"I hate to disappoint you, Stanton," she said evenly, "but I don't care to give your own thugs any more leeway than they already enjoy. Your way is not the best to handle this situation."
As soon as she had uttered those words, Dupree realized her mistake. The two swing votes on the board who had previously sided with her against Petroska -- Wagilia Pickly and Harod Swarting -- frowned their displeasure at her characterization of the patrol.
Lalynda knew that something once said could not be unsaid. That did not mean she could not wish it were otherwise.
Petroska's eyes widened in feigned shock and indignation as he sank into the plush cushion of his chair. A faint grin flickered across his lips.
"Well! 'Thugs,' is it? That's quite a charge you level, Director. Perhaps you have proof of what these 'thugs' have done which warrants such a gross and inaccurate generalization? Or at least sufficient evidence which would justify launching a full investigation to bring these alleged miscreants to justice?"
Dupree frowned. Both she and Petroska knew he and his men covered their tracks far too well for her to root out persuasive documentation of what they had done -- and not done -- during Petroska's tenure as lead Director. And both she and he knew that "thugs" barely conveyed the extent of his minions' true nature.
Ignoring her rival, Dupree looked directly at Pickly and Swarting. "If I overstated my case," she said slowly and distinctly, "then I apologize. My emotions sometimes get the better of me." She shot a glare at Petroska. "Especially when the issue is as serious as this one." She slid her gaze back. "For now I suggest we refocus our attention on the question at hand: should we or should we not reveal to the public the full figures on the death toll attributable to the blood runners?"
"I also believe the amount of lost business revenue and other economic costs in Ashton must be included here," Director Barwick said.
Dupree watched the tight expressions on the faces of Pickly and Swarting slowly loosen and relax. While not totally mollified, they appeared to have granted her at least temporary dispensation for her gaffe. She would have to tread lightly, however, for the near future, lest that conditional forgiveness be as suddenly rescinded.
A corner of Petroska's mouth drew back as he considered Dupree's words. Nonchalantly, he waved a hand. "Perhaps I have been too conservative in my approach," he said carefully, as though spontaneously stepping through a mental maze. "What benefits can we truly hope to gain by concealing the actual figures our staff has gathered? I may have been too hasty in opposing Director Dupree." A good-natured grin lit his features. "I'm sure it is no secret here that she and I...sometimes...fail to see eye-to-eye." He nodded graciously in Dupree's direction.
Petroska's three cronies -- Folbert Staith, Chanfred Oslii, and Vem Blenski -- chuckled at his irony.
Dupree blinked her astonishment. If Petroska agreed with her, then she had some serious rethinking to do. Either her position contained some previously unrecognized flaw or Petroska saw an angle to which her political naiveté had blinded her.
"By all means," Petroska said, "let us share every morsel of information we have squeezed from this supposed emergency. Let the people decide how dire their plight is and what the appropriate actions might be to handle it."
Before Dupree could rally her thoughts and form a reasonable basis for objection, the issue was settled. Part of her rejoiced that soon she could abandon the notion that the board's silence violated the spirit if not the letter of their electoral mandate. Another part of her, though, fretted that Petroska had somehow just managed to bamboozle her by using her own arguments against her.
That he had finessed the situation well, she could readily acknowledge. The implications of that maneuver, however, eluded her.
Vem Blenski rapped on the table for attention. "There's another, related issue I believe we should delve into here tonight."
Warily, Dupree regarded Petroska's yes-man. Setting aside her upset, she fiddled with her silver pen.
"The Xaneeri," Blenski said, as though that explained it all.
Director Swarting knitted his forehead. "What about them?"
Blenski regarded the manicured nails of his right hand. "We've had small gangs of criminals for as long as we've had stable settlements here on Grand's Hold. Yet they only became a true menace --" He glanced at Petroska. "-- or rather nuisance, since the Xaneeri landed. Those bizarre creatures were welcomed with open arms by the more unscrupulous gangs. Especially by...what's his name?...Nahr? Ventin Nahr, I believe. As far as we can ascertain, he was the one who originated this silliness of the 'blood runner' packs."
"Hardly silly to their victims," Dupree muttered.
Ignoring the interjection, Blenski rubbed the side of his nose and continued. "What had been unfortunate though routine cases of murder assumed mysterious and threatening overtones when committed during the Xaneeri 'celebration of life.' People are usually frightened and unnerved more by the inexplicable and the excessive than they are by generally familiar misfortunes. This Nahr exploited that revulsion to increase his power and the success of his thugs." He nodded at Dupree. "Men whom I think truly deserve such a label.
"In any case, nothing breeds imitation like success. Other gangs soon negotiated for a Xaneer of their own. The intimidation seems to be working. Fewer and fewer people are willing to venture out alone at night. Businesses in and near pack strongholds are closing or losing customers. Most have relocated to more desirable areas of the city. With most of the murders committed now for their own sake, for their shock value, rather than as a means towards robbery, the popular image of the blood runners as senseless maniacs increases, as well."
Swarting held up a hand. "Very interesting, Director Blenski, but where do you suggest we go from here? We have only the vaguest estimate as to the number of Xaneeri on Grand's Hold. Even worse, we are clueless as to the location of the Xaneeri home world. We could not register an official complaint even if we desired to. In fact, as far as we know, this 'celebration of life' may be standard fare on Xaneer. We're stymied before we even begin."
"Perhaps not," Petroska said, smoothly interrupting. "While I still believe these packs differ only slightly in degree rather than in kind from other criminals, apparently the general public has begun to exaggerate the danger as has Director Dupree. Thus they create a type of self-fulfilling prophecy." He waved at Dupree. "While I initially hoped that limiting information would contain the spread of rumor and overreaction, Director Dupree seems to have had a better grasp of the people's feelings on this point. My well-intentioned efforts to curtail the scope of the problem have, unfortunately and paradoxically, created the very conditions I sought to avoid." He chuckled in self-deprecation. "The law of unintended consequences, I'm afraid. In the presence of ignorance, people invent worse demons than even reality provides.
"Given that what distinguishes the blood runners from ordinary gangs is the over-wrought imaginations of our dear voters, our most immediate objective would appear obvious."
At Petroska's abrupt silence, Director Swarting leaned forward. "And that is...?"
Petroska shrugged and held his palms out and up. "Why, eliminate the Xaneeri, of course. No Xaneeri, no blood runners. No blood runners, no panic."
Swarting smiled as the simplicity of the idea sank in. "Sounds reasonable to me."
Dupree thrummed her fingers on the table. "As I understand the situation, though, each Xaneer is closely guarded by his pack. First, there's the problem of locating the packs at night when they most frequently leave their strongholds. Second, our patrol officers are trained to deal with isolated criminal elements. This suggestion would amount to full-scale warfare against an armed enemy. Third, our resources are stretched precariously as it is. We cannot afford to mount such a complex operation."
Dupree found herself surprised yet again when Petroska did not react angrily to her. Rather than reflexively lashing out, he appeared unfazed by her objections.
"You have a point, Director Dupree," he said. "I think Director Blenski's analysis of the situation along with your recognition of our strategic and tactical deficiencies suggests that this board reconsider my appropriations bill at our next open meeting."
Dupree started to object.
Petroska forestalled her. "And to address the objections raised during previous debate, I am more than happy to insert a clause into my bill that will automatically terminate these measures in six months or when the Xaneeri have been eliminated. Whichever comes first." He spread his hands in supplication. "What could be fairer than that? I get at least a chance to solve a moderate problem which you yourself believe to be growing beyond acceptable limits. And you receive a guarantee that my approach will be temporary, whether it succeeds or fails. I don't know how much more evenhanded I could be."
Director Pickly nodded. "That does sound like a reasonable compromise." She pursed her lips and gently chided Dupree. "Too much black and white thinking will only freeze us into inaction. In my experience, extreme views rarely reflect the truth." She held her hand vertically and swung it from side to side. "It's usually to be found somewhere in the middle." She smiled to soften the lecture. "As Aristotle said, Lalynda, moderation in all things."
Dupree bit back her first response at the words of the woman she often counted upon to counterbalance Petroska. The "old crone" provided all the stability of a sandbar in a stream. She shifted as the current shoved her. Momentarily, Dupree fantasized how the stuffy matron would respond if someone punched her "moderately" in the nose.
"I think there is a better solution," she said, swallowing her disgust. "An increasing number of my constituents have urged me to bring this matter before the board. Personally, I find this alternative much more palatable than Stanton's proposal. Not only will it go a long way towards reining in the blood runners, it won't require any increased expenditures of funds we can ill afford. We can also avoid any concerns that might arise from...overzealous...pursuit of the Xaneeri and blood runners by newly recruited patrol officers."
Petroska frowned impatiently. Calculated boredom marbled his voice. "So what miraculous answer have you concocted for us, Director Dupree?"
Dupree inhaled a deep breath. The shaking in her hands startled her. "We should rescind the ban on carrying private weapons in public."
Petroska's mouth dropped open. Amidst incredulous guffaws from his allies, he laughed.
Pushing ahead, Dupree overrode the other Director's response. "The blood runners are bold only because they face no real opposition from their victims. The board feeds that very notion by outlawing even the potential of effective self-defensive force. No blood runner will worry overmuch about threats from our citizens when we've figuratively tied the hands of the Xaneeri prey for them." She tossed up her hands in amazement. "We won't even permit those who merely want to be left alone to carry knives, let alone more potent defensive weapons. The least we can do is allow --"
"The least we can do," Petroska said loudly as he planted fists on the table and stood, "is to allow hysteria to overrule sound judgment. The least we can do is not sanction an arms race that will increase -- not lower -- the blood running through our streets. The least we can do is not abandon good sense and surrender the enforcement of law to a gaggle of untrained, belligerent, and half-educated commoners!"
Director Pickly nodded vigorously. "Such a course does seem rather rash, Lalynda."
Petroska began to pace along the table. "'Rash' is putting it mildly. Foolish, dangerous, criminal springs closer to mind. To foster such license is unthinkable. We must never give our stamp to reckless vigilantism. Putting more weapons on the street can only lead irresistibly to more violence. Surely that is crystal clear to any rational person. We need to encourage fewer armaments, not more."
With his flying arms and hands emphasizing his points, Petroska appealed to the other board members. "Even well-meaning citizens may succumb to the impulse of strained emotions. Giving people permission to seek revenge on their own outside the boundaries of the law can only exacerbate what is already a dire situation." He slammed a fist into a palm. "I will oppose such a move as Director Dupree advances with all my heart. I firmly feel that the most appropriate solution is the one I have repeatedly suggested and outlined: put more trained patrol officers on the street, increase their latitude in dealing with the criminal element in our society, and arm them with a level of firepower which no band of dirty low-lives can or dare oppose. Director Dupree's fears are groundless. No law-abiding citizen need worry about running afoul of those whose sole mission is to protect them!"
Dupree observed Petroska's performance with horrified fascination. The man astounded her. The superficial persuasiveness of his argument, the passionate sincerity he could project on a moment's notice, the calculated spontaneity of his remarks...the baldly asserted contradictions of assessments he had offered only minutes before...all astonishingly skillful.
Dupree scanned the faces of the other Directors. Outright admiration and enthusiasm from Petroska's cohorts. Self-satisfied smugness from the swing voters. Disappointed, outraged, and unhappy expressions of her own supporters. The evidence left her with only one conclusion: Petroska had won this round.
When the open, public vote came to authorize his "compromise" bill, she would cast a loud "No!" With effort, she might even persuade one or both of the "neutral" directors to shift yet again.
But given the beaming yet serious looks on the faces of Pickly and Swarting, Dupree realized Petroska's forces would not be easily defeated.
Yet despite Director Pickly's "reasonable" assessment of the nature of compromise, Dupree vowed not to succumb to that siren song. Petroska's argument from intimidation did nothing to alter the fact that some things were right and some wrong. Period. Others might believe you could compromise between poison and food and come away unscathed. She did not. Long experience had taught her that only one result could occur when you attempted to do the impossible. "Life" did not wait at the end of that road. Her failed marriage provided all the proof of that proposition she needed.
As applause greeted Petroska's plea, he spared a slow, secret smile and a subtle wink for the half-mesmerized Dupree.
A chill coursed through her at that conspiratorial acknowledgement from her enemy.
Fine. She would hold her tongue for now.
With cold fury, Director Lalynda Dupree stared at her foe and plotted her additional countermoves.
Petroska might have the advantage and the victory in this battle. As he would soon discover, however, the war was far from over.