A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Binary Two
Scene Two: The Old System
By that evening, the Mundredi troop had been hours gone and Denario had talked with everyone of importance in the town except for Mistress Clumpi.
First, he'd found out why the second book keeper hadn't dashed over to greet him when he entered the main doors of the counting house. The fellow wasn't capable of running because the burghers had slapped him in leg irons.
His name was Hummel and he was the quiet, resentful sort. Denario saw it immediately; he'd met many middle-aged men like Hummel among the accountants, physicians, priests, soothsayers, hand-servants, and noble attendants in the Court of Oggli. They were the folks who felt keenly every slight or insult although they never said a thing about it. They just got more quiet, more surly, and slower to offer assistance. This was a classic case made worse by slavery.
Hummel had been an unlicensed accountant in Muntar, the old capital city of all places, before he'd been kidnapped and sold to pirates. They'd shipped him all the way to Angrili, where it was legal to sell him at auction. Fixed up with a haircut to look presentable, he’d fetched a fair price. That had been six years ago. Now he had a thick, curly brown beard, bushy eyebrows, and a mop of tangled hair. His clothes had been nice last year, probably. He'd allowed them to go shabby. Denario suspected that Hummel would do that to anything, even silks. He simply didn't care. He neglected his body, too, which is why he had even less muscle than Denario and a good sized pot belly to carry around.
The man liked to suck on candies at his desk. Gods knew where he got them but the licorice flavors had stained his teeth nearly black.
“This is for otter. This is for yeti. This is for cow.” Hummel's accent was thick. To make it worse, he mumbled. He pointed to his rows of numbers without much interest. Despite how he'd taken charge of the fur and skins trade, he'd clearly done as little work as possible since then. He'd listed twenty-two different types of pelts on the scroll in his tiny, nearly illegible scrawl. “Got another page for the skins. Alligator, giant frog, snake ...”
“You're using the Yullamar accounting system, I see.” Denario tapped the scroll in approval. It was too easy to criticize the man. He needed to find something good to say.
Hummel's eyes opened fully for the first time.
“You know Yullamar?” he said.
“Yes, it's a very sophisticated framework, excellent for valuations. Of course, it shows comparative debts, which is nice. I see that we owe considerable sums to a few of these fur traders.”
“Yes, sir,” said Hummel in a voice approaching enthusiasm, albeit from a long distance. “I told the burghers about that. But they didn't want to hear it. They won't pay the traders because they remember some of them owing us furs under the old system.”
“Got it.” Denario would have to solve that quickly. The town could bankrupt itself if the burghers drove away the caravans who bartered with them.
“Now a few of the ones we don't owe have stopped showing up.”
“Uh-oh.” The town's bad reputation was spreading already.
“That's what I said, too.” Hummel sighed. He'd had time to understand how poor the town could get without traders.
They spent a few hours on the sheets of fur counts and those of the skin counts. Denario gave himself a tour of the corresponding inventory and noticed a few oddities. Most of the bins and stacks were short by a count of one or two. A few small boxes had extra pelts from rabbits or squirrels, which made the problem seem less serious. However, one of the bear skins had been split in an attempt to make reality match the false tally of skins. Denario tried not to suspect Hummel. The culprit could have been a fur trader who was responsible for slipping that one by the miners. But Hummel's vest looked like bearskin. And the bearded, shabby man had not shown interest in checking his inventory. In fact, he'd seemed alarmed to have anyone look through it.
After Denario verified the Yullamar system, roughly, minus those few items, he helped himself to one of the shoulder-high tubes used by the old tile master. At that point, Hummel decided it was safe to join. They sat on the floor to take one apart. The ends were sealed with wax plugs. Denario knifed one out. A few beans spilled onto the dirt floor. Immediately, he saw there were a wide variety of beans, peas, and berries. He sifted through until he'd found thirty types. That was more than enough for Bibbo Clumpi to match the contents to furs and skins.
Reaching a conclusion about the man's private accounting system took longer.
“Is Senli still at the mine?” Denario rubbed his jaw and looked around.
“Yes, sir,” said Hummel.
“She and Mistress Clumpi said these tubes were part of the old master's system, didn't they? But I don't think are.”
“Sir?” Hummel put his hands down on the floor like a drunk trying to regain balance. “What else can they be, sir?”
“They can be temporary count holders, parts for a manual math system, or raw pieces held in stock for a hidden bean-based system somewhere else. But they aren't used for the fur or skins systems themselves. Didn't the women open these and count the beans? Didn't you?”
“They did, sir. And me too, yes. We all spent quite a long time on it.”
“Well, there are too many beans. I just noticed another type, so that makes thirty-one kinds of beans, berries, and peas here. That's a good number for what you do, isn't it?”
“That's what made me believe it was the old master's count of furs, sir.” Hummel's tone was cautious. He seemed to doubt Denario's quick conclusion.
“Right. But the total numbers are wrong. There are thousands of these little brown bean, these little spheres. No trader has got a thousand skins here.”
“Could mean something else, then. A super-total? A weight owed? Senli thinks it's a weight.”
“No, I don't think that's right. The scales and the stacks aren't that big. What's worse, with the number of counters a factor of a hundred too high we could spend a lot of time trying to decipher this when there's nothing to decipher.”
“We already have, sir.” Hummel slumped, visibly depressed.
“That's okay. Time spent getting into the mindset of old Master Clumpi isn't wasted. But I'll need to talk to his widow.”
“Better you than me, sir.”
“Really? Maybe I'd better talk with Senli again first. She's using the Tomaru system, a single-entry tally. But she's put her own spin on it or she learned it a bit differently than I did.”
“About Mistress Senli ...” The curly-haired man shook his head. “Be careful, sir. She's got them bewitched. The burghers, I mean.”
Denario thought about his earlier interview with Senli. She seemed quiet and introspective. She clearly knew her business but she had a just-doing-the-job attitude that was much like Hummel's. That was part of being a slave, Denario knew. If Senli had seemed to bewitch anyone, it was by explaining things better than Hummel could.
“Why are you in leg chains, Hummel?” Denario asked.
It took a long time for the little man to respond. That's interesting, Denario noticed as he gave Hummel time to think, I'm acting like he's shorter than me. He's taller. But he's acting like he's small. Maybe that's why he keeps crouching and hanging his head.
Given that thought, Denario had no more doubts about who had crudely mis-counted and rearranged the fur inventories.
“They might say I tried to run away, I guess,” said Hummel. “But I didn't, not really. I had chains on from the beginning. Never been out of them for more than a few minutes at a time. I just sort of ... wandered around at times.”
“More than once?”
Hummel played with the dirty ringlets at the top of his head.
“No,” he said after the pause. “I go down to the creek now and then. But I'm allowed.”
“Who's responsible for you?”
“The mine headman. Except, this morning, the mayor said no, not anymore.”
“Not the mine foreman? Who, Senli?”
“Of course not!” He looked at Denario as if he couldn't believe anyone could be so stupid. “She's a slave, like me. But the headman can't order us around now. It's you.”
“Me? I'm responsible for you?”
“Of course, sir.”
Next: Chapter Ten, Scene Three