Malina Kharobochka finished, closed the snaps on her suitcase and stood it on its edge. She looked through her dormitory window at the clock at the top of the administration building. Still three hours before she had to be at the bus station. She looked at the last piece of paper, a to do list, pinned to the cork board over her desk. All the items on the list had neat little ticks against them.
She was going to miss the desk, with its dozen little slots across the top, and its six fussy little drawers underneath them. She had found it when she was working at the demolition of the old secret police station her first year here, and she and four of her friends had a great adventure getting it here and up the stairs and into the room. She had found someone else who liked it, and she was due in half an hour with some of her friends to take it away. It was the last thing of hers in this room that had been hers for four years. It had stored all her index cards, notebooks, letters, and textbooks in precise order. Now it stood empty. As much time as she had spent there, the emptiness of the desk was somehow more desolate than the emptiness of the small closet and the bare shelves next to the mirror over the dresser.
She sat down and looked into her purse. Wallet, bus ticket, a woefully small amount of cash, passport, transit visa through Bosnia, address book, a packet of letters, and one last letter from her father. Back when she was very young, he had been a machinist at the mine. After independence he had become mayor. His letters combined the fussiness of a workman making parts to the smallest possible tolerance and the pomposity of a senator launching a battleship just a little larger than his ego.
"Dear Sweet Malina!" he wrote. (Her father loved alliteration, and Sweet & Malina in Croatian were only one letter different)
"I am excited at the news of your graduation with high honors from the institute. I am very proud of your dedication, hard work and excellent results."
I also note that finding a job in your field in these troubled times is extremely difficult. There are many new teachers and no new teaching jobs this year. However, I have talked to Agafna Petrovna and she agrees that the school needs an English teacher, and that since Mosei Abramovich is nearing retirement, we could use another math instructor. If you agree to come back and teach here, we can give you the normal salary for teachers here, a 25 square meter apartment (the apartment over the castle gate is available) and a garden plot near the school. The plot available has four apple trees, three grape vines and is next to the pond.
While I understand your desire you see the wide world beyond our town, a girl must eat, so this position is available to you.
Malina reflected over here choices. There were few options. Several of her friends had gone to Italy and Austria to work there.
As far as the Italians and Austrians were concerned, the pay was awful, but by Croatian standards, it was princely. She unfolded her money... barely enough for a kilo of sausage and some apples, which was all she would have to eat on the trip. She had never been profligate. But neither was the student stipend here.
There was a knock at the door. Malina looked at the clock through the window again. The girl was here for her desk exactly on time.
Mayor Kharobochok straitened the paper on his desk as he waited for the other members of the civic committee to settle in their chairs for the meeting in his neat spare office. The desk had little cubbies for papers, each with its precise label. The pen set was exactly in the center of the desk and every other item on the desk had it precisely appointed spot. The file cabinets behind his desk had neat labels in precise script in the exact center of each drawer.
The other members of the Civic Committee were seated at the table that had been aligned with the MayorÕs desk. Four chairs were on either side of the table, each with a small carafe of wine, a glass, and a dish of raisins and dates. Along the left side were Tyumenova, the director of the high school, Mostich, the city engineer, Arkakyovna, the city clerk and Rasvetovich the director of the electrical plant. Along the right side were Stukholov, the chief of police, Rinokin, the chairman of the city market, Nalevni, the city attorney, and Razpetrov the director of the copper mine.
Stukholov looked up from his notes. "I understand your daughter got her teaching diploma. My congratulations." Mostich, Arkakyovna and Nalevni started to applaud, while the rest murmured their congratulations.
Razpetrov asked "So what are her subjects?"
Mayor Kharabochok said Literature, English and Math. She is due home next week, and I hope to have a position and a place for her when she gets back.
"Sergei Ivanovich, what is the latest word about repairing the Kostomost bridge?"
Mostich opened a folder in front of him and picked up some papers and passed them to the other committee members. "We got another estimate from a firm in Korea. It is the same as most of the other estimates. A four lane bridge across the gorge that will support a 50 ton load will cost 17 million US dollars. It is actually a cheap price, as they assume they will be using mostly local labor, but even so, the iron work will have to be done in specialty shops in Korea, and the iron work will either have to come in through Bosnia, and pay a duty when it comes in there, or we will have to pay for specialized trucks to bring the steel along the coast road, and the road is to narrow and twisty to the north to get the framework through. That will raise the price another three million dollars either way."
Rinokin slammed the table and glared at Razpetrov. "I still don't see why we need to be so greedy about a four lane bridge and a 50 ton load. Two lanes and 20 tons would be ample to get our produce out, and allow the farms from across the Kost to access our market."
Stukholov leaned over and said "I want the four lanes because I remember the chaos from market days when the old bridge was still standing."
Mostich added "Really, the extra strength and width donÕt add much to the cost. A smaller bridge would still cost 12 million, and we would still have the problem of bringing in the materials."
Razpetrov sighed "The extra capacity is going to be academic anyway. We are going to have to shut the mine again soon. The toll has been raised for the ore trucks by 9 cents a ton, and the smelter has lowered the price by 6 cents, and Andre Petrovich told me there is going to be a price increase in " natural gas"
Rasvetovich sat up "3 cents per thousand cubic meters. Mikhail Josefivich and I figure each cent increase increase in the price of gas increases our expenses by 1/2 cent per ton."
Razpetrov continued "Last week our net revenue per ton was 2 cents. When the new prices go into effect on Monday, we will be losing 14 cents per ton. We canÕt lower wages any more. And if we canÕt get a better price from the smelter within a month, we will have to let the mine go."
Nalevi folded the estimate in a neat square. "We have been through this before. They need our ore, and they need the tolls from our trucks. They usually relent after a couple weeks."
Razpetrov looked at his notes. "Maybe yes, maybe no. They have a new source of ore from Turkey that comes in by barge and has a bit more metal than ours. They have never needed us to supply them all that much, and now they don't need us at all. Plus, the price they get for the finished metal has been declining as well."
Rinokin put his chin in his hands. "Is there any chance the UN will relent and fund our bridge?"
Nalevni shook his head. "They are adamant that they want the persons responsible for KinderfriendÕs death 'brought to justice'"
Tyomenova leaned forward and glared at Rinokin "I Believe It Is The Opinion Of Ev-Ery-One That In The Case Of The Criminal Kinderfriend, Justice Has Been Done"
Rinokin patted the air "What about the Americans? They are usually annoyed at the UN for something or other all the time"
Nalevni tapped the table. "Kinderfriend was an American national. They also are annoyed."
Stukhalov shook his head. "I don't understand why they are being so stupid about this. We showed them the children's bodies, and it is pretty clear that after Kinderfriend died, the disappearances stopped."
Arkakyonva stopped doodling "He had important relatives in Washington. They make a great deal of fuss over there about impartial justice, but Kinderfriend has relatives who pass money out in Washington, and we are foreigners who want money. In cases like this..."
Tyomenova interrupted "The Damned Bridge Is Not Worth Thirty Pieces Of Silver. We should never let the UN in here, with their rapes of our girls and the murders of Kinderfriend"
There was an electric silence for several moments.
Stukhalov said "We couldn't have stopped them. Plus they did slow down the deaths from the Bosnians for a while. That was a horrible horrible time"
Stukhalov picked up his pen "The mine will continue the usual arrangements?"
Razpetrov took up his papers. "As you know, this mine has never been profitable. We got a small subsidy in the days before independence, but with Independence, the authorities in Skopjie couldnÕt continue the subsidy, and no private buyer wanted it, so the town has continued operating it. During most of the troubles it was possible to keep the pumps going. It was felt that after the troubles were over, we would still have a market for the ore. But with the dynamiting of the Kostomost, we could no longer send the ore north for refining, where we got a good price for it, but only could send it south, where the price, as you know, is lower, and there are the tolls in addition. Also, we have to face the fact that the quality of the ore in mine has been declining for years, It would have been nice to have a refinery here, but pre independence the planners liked to have the high value processing done in Serbia, or over a national border so as to encourage national unity. Now that we are part of the EU, and subject to EU environmental rules, building a refinery would be prohibitively expensive. I don't believe we can continue to operate the mine anymore. "
"Just keeping the pumps going with no ore extraction would cost 250 euros per day. I don't know if we can afford that, but if we don't do that, the mine will flood, and re opening it would be prohibitively expensive. We stop the pumps, we close the mine for good."
Nalevi asked "We close down the mine.. how will the workers eat?"
Razpetrov replied "Very much the same way as always. The wages never have been great. Most of the workers have their own place, and there is always a garden attached. I understand even most of the other city workers like the school teachers and the police have gardens to supplement the pay. And that 250 euros a day it costs to run the pumps, that comes out of some other fund. The town here without that bridge is slowly becoming a ghost town. The children are moving away. Most of the commerce here in town is selling each other stuff out of our gardens."
There was a silence for a while. Rinokin said, "Well, the question is, who wants to close the mine, any hands?" Tyumenova, Akakyevich, Rasvetovich, Rinokin and Mostich raised their hands.
Kharabochok looked around the desk. "Motion carried. When do we close it?"
Razpetrov said "This Friday is payday. We can shut down at the end of first shift at 15:30. That gives us time to do all the safety checks and so on as we close down. It will take till friday to do that anyway. Why don't we call in the priest, have a service on it or something? Sort of a funeral?"
Stukhalov asked "Wouldn't you rather keep it secret till then?"
Razpetrov shook his head. "No, with a mine you don't just pull a switch to shut down operations. The word would leak out anyway."
Rinokin asked, "Who here wants the service?" No one raised their hand for a moment, then all hands slowly went up. "Fine, I will get with the priest and Stukhalov and we will make arrangements for a service to start around 14:00 on Friday."
Kharobochok said "Fine, the decision of the council is that we close the mine on Friday and have a service when it closes. Rinokin and Stukhalov are a committee to organize the service. We don't spend any more money on the mine."
"Next item. I have a new schedule from the advertising firm about the Castle. We have been spending 500 euros per month advertising the castle as for sale. Our agents have yet to advise us of a single response. We have cut the price twice. Do we still advertise? Do we change schedules? I have put their new schedule in your papers. I have to admit I think I made a mistake in promoting this idea. It is more of a fort than a romantic castle that some mad millionaire might want to buy. Plus there is the reality that when people think of this region all they think of are the wars going on around here."
Tyumenova asked ÔWhy are we advertising so heavily in Europe? We should probably spend more of our money in America where they don't have castles."
Nalevi said "American prices are a bit higher. But I agree, there is no one interested in our castle in Europe"
Arkeyeveich added "Plus there is that 'dot com' thing going on over there. Lots more millionaires there nowadays. Most of them young and a little naive. "
Stukhalov chuckled. "I remember back in the pre independence days that there were quite a few wealthy idiots running around here on their father's bankroll. It is a big country. Somewhere there is an idiot with a lot of money who would buy a used castle."
Mark Howe sat in the waiting room of his lawyer's office leafing through a magazine. He was the one incongruous note in the reception area with its plush carpet, rich paneling, abstract art, pretty receptionist typing at a pace of 90 words per minute. The person sitting in reception are of Dewey and Howe should have been wearing an expensive suit rather than jeans and he should have been carrying a briefcase rather than a bike helmet and a backpack. The Dewey and Howe offices were set up for rich corporate clients rather than scruffy bikers.
Of course, all offices where you have to wait in the ante room for a meeting, the personnel office, the dentist, the doctor and the lawyer all subscribe to the same set of magazines that no one, but someone stuck in an office ante room, ever seems to read. They are about golf, sailing, hollywood celebrity diets, gardening and real estate. Mark leafed through a real estate magazine offering luxury properties, until he found one add that intrigued him.
A slightly older version of Mark came into the reception area. This one looked like he belonged. He had the expensive suit and the Italian shoes. Mark saw him come in. "Hey Ethan, you ready?"
Ethan Howe nodded his head. "I hope you made a huge bit of time for this Mark. It is going to take all day. Plus we have to go to the courthouses to get the judges to sign off on it." Come on back. You know the way.
Mark and Ethan walked back into the warren off offices. Ethan rated a window near the corner, but not in the corner. Mark said "I found something in this magazine I am interested in. Do you mind if I keep it?"
"No, I don't know where they come from. I never read them. They must come from some weird alternate universe. Are you still doing SCA?"
"Sure, we have a wedding for Bill Campbell and Naomi Fredricks on Saturday. I hired a bagpiper."
"Sure. It is an SCA wedding of course. He will do the reception. After the reception he is going to serenade their hotel room."
" A bagpiper doing a serenade?"
"Sure. After they get settled in he is going to play some music for them. I suggested 'The Campbells are Coming.' "
"Your friends have an interesting friend."
"They put up with it. I hired most of them for Medisource."
On Ethan's desk was a huge stack of folders. Ethan sat behind his desk and grabbed the top one as Mark settled in the chair in front. There was a bottle of water and a pen in front of him. Ethan opened the first folder.
"Kind of a weird thing. You set up a corporation, make it a multi million dollar player and have it pulled out from under you before you graduate college"
"Well, I did drop out for a couple years to run it before they grabbed it."
"Anyway, an amazing run while it lasted."
"I just got lucky. Naomi was working for Dr. Francis, and he needed help, so I built this little database application for him. He liked it and told a whole bunch of buddies of his about it, and suddenly we were a good size business. It was also lucky on our part that you helped to the corporation. What was really lucky was that Naomi was such a marketing maven. The suits made a huge error when they canned her."
"Too bad about the advice on brining in the suits."
"Not really, it wasn't fun anymore, I was in way over my head and we were loosing control of the product anyway. We were just a bunch of college kids who started out with a kitten and are suddenly dealing with a tiger."
"Well, now it is time to deal with the tiger's cat box."
Ethan looked into the first folder.
"Ok, first up is the IRS. We had a long hard battle with them over this, but we prevailed in court. The sale was capital gains at 28% rather than ordinary income at 35%. A difference of about four million. Here is the judges order, sign there, there and there. We can just file your acknowledgment this afternoon. Usually they want the paperwork done the same day, but the judge was understanding about you finishing up your finals for your degree. Do you want to hear all the gory details? No, didn't think so. That means your tax returns for 1997,1998 & 1999 are, as far as the capital gains issue is concerned, exactly as you filed them. Agent Alucard still had issues with depreciation and a few other issues, but since he lost of the capital gains issue, and we were pretty sure we would prevail on this too, he agreed to split the difference on 1999, and we have a clean audit for 97 and 98. Alucard wanted to go back to 96, but since your income was less than 15,000 that year and most of it came from Burger Barn, I think his boss slapped him down. There is also the value of the no compete clause, and amortization on that. If you look at your billing records, that about 70 hours of meetings with Alucard. Anyway, Alucard has signed off on all returns from 96 to 99, so you just need to sign off on them too, and we can file that. That finishes the IRS matters. Sign here, here here and here, for each year. Don't forget to date them too. "
" Ok next is the paternity cases. There were six of them. We did DNA on all of them. They have been tossed out. Did you even meet the Robinson girl? In three of the cases we got summary judgments of abuse of process. And in one of them, the lawyer is up before the Bar Association. Anyway, just sign there and there on each form, and don't forget to date them."
" Next is the SEC. It is a good thing we did the sale through this office, and that the sale happened after you were dismissed from the board. There is a lot of precedent and case law on the whole issue. It happens to lots of folks, but it is rare that the stock tanks so precipitously after a board change. We showed the SEC that the stock price went up after you and the others left, so you weren't selling into the downtick. We were also able to show that the sale wasn't related to any non public information. The firing made the Wall Street Journal front page of the third section. We also got all the suits brought here and made into a class action, and the judge dismissed everything that concerns you and the other founding members of the corporation. As far as the rest of the board, there are other issues and the case lives on, but it no longer involves you. So here is the SEC judgement, sign and date there. And here is the judges order consolidating the cases. This is just for your records. This is your dismissal notice on the inside information issue. Sign and date there and there."
"As the SEC matter involved criminal charges being filed, and bail being posted, the dismissal of the charges means that bail is exonerated. Here is the check for that. When you post bail, the court charges a fee for the privilege. That is why it is so light."
"There are a bunch of lawsuits that name you as a defendant after you left the board. There are a total of twenty five over the course of the year, and there probably will be more next year, but we usually deal with them as they come up."
"There are also 10 strike suits out there. These are harder to push since congress passed some tort reforms, but they still come up. We got dismissals on all but two of them, and I don't think they have a snowball's chance. We asked for settlement terms as you asked, but they are still ridiculous. You can sign off on them and get ten more of them, or fight them off and beat them down. I think if we go toward trial, they will make a better offer, and we may get them dismissed too. The lawyers for both of these cases are somewhat notorious for leaving their clients high and dry during settlements. They just want costs. These are the kind of vultures that give the bar a bad name, so even though going to a jury is risky, especially in that jurisdiction, settling with them is riskier yet."
"Now there is the EEOC matter. This is the hardest one to deal with, but I think we got a good settlement on it. The board settled out of court, but there is still the matter of you being the person in charge of hiring for Medisource. That means you are personally liable for the decisions you made that fall afoul of EEOC regulations, and because was a vendor for the state and and several colleges, you have some explaining to do on that. Since you seem to have done most of the initial hiring out of the local SCA chapters, and there is a scarcity of minorities in the SCA in the area, the EEOC argued that you were being deliberately discriminatory in an illegal way. We pointed out that the SCA is in compliance with EEOC rules, and that you are perfectly within your rights to use them as a hiring hall if you wish, they didn't see it that way. We managed to win a quite a few judgments, and they seem to see that they have only a very small chance of winning a judgement, so they have sent us an offer for a consent decree. Essentially, you are saying you didn't violate the law in the first place, and you won't violate in the future, but if you do get in trouble again, you will have contempt slapped on in addition to whatever else happens. They also wanted a small fine, which is about 20% what it would cost to defend against the case. The consent decree also gives you a safe harbor against suits from third parties, so it makes it a good deal. If yo want to settle the EEOC case, sign and date here, here, here, and here."
"As to the strike suits, I have the settlement offers here if you want to sign off on them. I recommend against it. Good, We will just continue on with those."
"Now if you give me your driver's license, I can just notarize all these signatures."
Mark passed over the driver's license card and looked at the stack of files. "I think if Naomi came to me today and asked me to help her out with the office computer today, I would probably tell her to jump in a convenient lake. "
"Come on Mark, you had a lot of fun at the start. And after taxes and fees and all the rest of it, you personally have $45 million dollars and you aren't 23 yet. The rest of the group split about $30 million between them. Not bad at all."
"Even though I have to admit we need the suits, it bugs me that the pulled the thing out from under me like that. "
"Weren't you and Naomi an item at one time?"
"There is that too."
"I need you to sign all these lines here now. And you need to fill in your name and address in all these lines as well. No ditto marks. The problem with Naomi must be especially galling. "
"I don't like it, but I can understand it. She felt I was condescending to her all the time, even though she was producing most of the business for us. I still think she hasn't a clue what we did, but she was the only one of us who could explain it to anybody."
"I remember you trying to explain it to me, and I thought you were talking martian or something."
"Of course, the big blow up was over making the application open source and totally portable"
"More martian already."
"Well, essentially it means that anybody can look at the code and modify it and upgrade their own system. She thought that we should keep all that stuff proprietary, but I knew from the beginning I wasn't going to do this forever. Its better for the customer that they didn't have to depend on us to do the upgrades. She convinced the suits, but I still think changing to closed source was a bad move. 95% of the what we sold was upgrades from open source. Open source means faster bug fixes and fewer bugs. You can't hire enough testers to make bulletproof code. With open source, you get them for free. No longer my problem anymore. Hers either. I think she also has the idea that I pushed her out."
"Ok, last set of signatures down along here. Also write your name and address along here here again. No dittos. Do you have any further projects?
"I was thinking of buying some real estate in europe. A sort of fixer up castle I saw advertised in this magazine"
"A sudden whim?"
"Sort of. I have been thinking of moving out of state for quite a while. My brother likes working with my dad, and I didn't get along with him ever, so my brother is probably going to get the business. And there is the problem of any time I meet a girl these days, and she finds out who I am, she immediately wants to sleep with my bank account. Makes it kind of hard to meet someone if you are always suspicious of everyone."
"Let me say, professionally, that this is a very bad idea. Personally, as your cousin, it sounds kind of fun. I am pretty sure what with all your SCA friends, owning a castle sounds like a cool idea."
"Well, cousin, if I actually buy the place, You and all my SCA pals have an open invitation. As my lawyer, can you look into this, check the bona fides, and if it is for real make an offer for 20% off the asking price? It says here it comes with a 500 hectare forest preserve, a 50 hectare water meadow, whatever that means, the total estate is 2000 hectares. If a hectare is the same as an acre, this is kind of steep, I think. But land must be a great deal more expensive in Europe.""
You still have to hang around for depositions on those two strike suits, but I think buying land in Europe is even more of a problem than it is here, so the actual closing might not be for four months at the earliest. And two months of that is just the due diligence of checking out the offer. So you should have no problem being done with everything by then. You going to tell anyone else about this?"
"I don't see why I should. I have told most everyone I was planning on moving as soon as I got my degree. No one expects me to get a job just yet. I was thinking of flying over to Italy anyway, and this place is close by there anyway. I might just check it out."
"Well the first thing to check out is to make sure the shooting has stopped."
Malina looked out the widow at the drawbridge to the castle. The drawbridge was over a 8 meter deep gorge and the small stream that flowed down the gorge made a comforting hush from way down below. The drawbridge was also in very bad repair. Several of the planks were rotten and the chains were red with rust. The windows in her apartment were over the gate to the drawbridge, and were relatively small on the street side, but 3 meters long on the bridge side.. The soldiers who had manned the gatehouse had left some amazing drawings on the wall. Her father had provided some whitewash and now the apartment was quite different than the dusty smelly hovel that had greeted her two weeks ago. She had brought some curtains from home, and several hard days of scrubbing had made the windows shine and gave the floors a soft glow. The apartment now had a gas stove, but there were quite a few drawbacks even yet. Water had to be brought up from the well in the square, and the toilet was a garderobe over the gorge, which made her nervous the first several times she had used it. The gorge was full of bushes with berries on them, and there were birds flittering back and forth along the gorge. She had spent the morning weeding her garden and gathering up the first vegetables of the season. Like everyone else, she had put in potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions. With that, you had soup. There were ducks floating around the pond, but she had no idea how one harvested the eggs. She had four chickens to tend to every days as well. She had also planted peppers, tomatoes and radishes. She ruefully reflected that the garden was a large part of her salary, but classes would have to be short in the fall and spring if she were to be able to take advantage of this perk. It was nice to have a garden after her four years in the city though. There had been no gardens available at the college. She just wished she could have planted more flowers.
She moved across the apartment. It was one long room with her bed in a curtained area near the door, with the tiled kitchen on the opposite end. She had a barrel of water next to the stove. It was about half empty. She had time, she might as well fill it. She gathered up her buckets and headed down the stairs.
The bottom of the stairs opened up in front of the great barred gate. There was a tourist standing in front of the gate with a book in his hand. Since it was late afternoon, the street was deserted, except for the tourist, who looked confused. He was long and thin and had a large pack on his back and he was seated on an expensive bike.