Legal Ground by Gregg Chamberlain




Gregg Chamberlain

Details. Details are everything.

The Voornung regarded me with multi-faceted eyes. “Have we an accord?” it fluted.

I nodded, and also signed to denote mutual agreement. “I understand your request and will deliver on the contract within the stipulated time limit, or else accept a reduced fee according to the late-penalty clause.” I myself had stipulated that particular conditional detail of the contract. Not that I was concerned about failure. It was a rare thing when I did not fulfill a commission.

The Voornung signed its satisfaction, and slipped away down a corridor to attend to some other business of its own. I took out my pad to check shuttle sites for flights to New York City.

Details are always important.


Sebastian Sandoval had an office in a building one block down along one of the smaller streets that intersect Park Avenue. It allowed him to represent himself as part of a “Park Avenue” neighbourhood firm without having to suffer the exorbitant leasing costs of an actual Park Avenue address, assuming one was available. A small detail but key to the overall public image he presented.

On my left, a raging King Kong climbed the Empire State building, Faye Wray, drooping in a faint, clutched in one of his mighty simian hands. Beside him, Frankenstein stared at me with sullen eyes.

To my right, Shirley Temple’s dimpled smile shone out at me. Beside her, in ghastly contrast, were the slavering fangs of a wolfshead grin. I recognized that poster as belonging to a made-in-Vancouver-straight-to-video low-budget supernatural thriller product of the early Hollywood North period. Strictly promotional. Something that would have been made available to video store dealers for their wall décor.

There was something wrong. Frowning, I took a closer look at each movie poster from where I stood, just inside Sandoval’s faux-Park Avenue office. Then I realized. The frames for each of the “posters” were too big. Each one was deeper than needed for housing a vintage paper movie poster along with its protective glass cover and backboard.

None of them were real. All holographic reproductions of the originals, right down to any crease marks or wrinkles from past foldings. There was even what looked like faint traces of tearing across the werewolf’s snout, a pseudo-small hole taped-over shut again, a simulated souvenir of past mishandling.

Perfectly good holo reps. Too good. Designed to give the average person viewing them the impression that Sebastian Sandoval was a true collector of expensive, and rare, vintage 2D movie memorabilila. But they were too clean in appearance. That one detail betrayed them to an alert subconscious that the entire setup was all fake.

As fake as the smile spreading across Sandoval’s face as he stood up from behind his desk to greet me. He gestured to one of several stylish and comfortable chairs arranged in front of the desk.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Dorval, asseyez-vous, as they say.” He sat back down himself and waited for me to select and settle myself into a chair. I choose the one most closely positioned in a direct line facing him. A necessary detail.

Sandoval waved an arm, encompassing his office wall décor. “Nice, eh? Noticed you admiring my little collection.”

I nodded. “Very nice replicas.”

A brief frown flickered across Sandoval’s face. “Well, you know how it is,” he said, shrugging and smiling once more. “If it looks good, that’s what really counts. Appearance is everything.”

I shrugged. “I’m more into details myself. I often find success in my business depends on the one detail everyone else overlooks.”

Sandoval nodded as if he understood. “And your business is, M’sieu Dorval? When you made your appointment with my secretary you were, understandably, vague about what exactly it was you wanted to see me in person about. Am I right in assuming it involves something… special?”

I reached inside my coat. Noting, as I did so, a slight tension now in Sandoval’s person, until he saw the memory crystal that I produced. “Legal claims.” I reached over and deposited the crystal on the desk in front of him. “I deal in legal claims.”

He picked up the crystal, regarded it briefly with curiosity, set it down again. “And what might this be?”

I reached inside my coat again. No tension on Sandoval’s part this time I noticed. Out came a single sheet of paper, folded. I set it down on the desk beside the crystal. Sandoval let it sit there, perhaps now realizing that I might not be a typical “customer” for his stock in trade.

“I represent k’Ahl ha’Akon, an attaché at the Voornung Embassy in Ottawa. You engaged in a business arrangement with the honourable ha’Akon at the embassy during a recent trip to Canada.”

Sandoval nodded, still smiling. “I was in town on a family visit at the time. Normally, I do all my business transactions by phone or email. I have a worldwide clientele and it is more convenient, and efficient, that way. But when I found an email query from the Voornung embassy, well, I figured why not add a more personal touch this time? How often does a chance come along to go inside an actual alien embassy?”

His smile broadened. “I’ll tell you something, M’sieu Dorval, those eyes of theirs are, well, unsettling, if you know what I mean.”

I shrugged. “As I said, you and k’Ahl ha’Akon entered into an agreement. A purchase agreement for an architectural artifact—”

He waved an impatient hand. “Yeah, yeah, I agreed to help him buy something.” He grinned. “He wanted to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.” Sandoval tried, and failed, to suppress a snort of laughter. “An…alien…wanted to buy…the Brooklyn Bridge!”

I waited until he had control of himself again. I considered, and discarded, the notion of correcting his mistake regarding Voornung gender. “Ser k’Ahl ha’Akon wanted to present the Voornung ambassador, its superior, with a special gift in honour of its name day. It was k’Ahl ha’Akon’s hope that a suitably impressive gift would result in an equally impressive reward, perhaps even a promotion. It’s how Voornung society functions.”

“Sure, sure, I know all that,” Sandoval replied. “Quid pro quo. He told me his boss liked the look of the Brooklyn Bridge, and could I arrange something. We came to an agreement, sure.” He grinned. “I agreed to sell my personal interest in the Brooklyn Bridge!”

I waited until he finished chuckling. I took out my pad, glanced at my case notes, before continuing. “Ser k’Ahl ha’Akon’s understanding was that it had agreed to buy the item in question and that you had agreed to arrange the transaction. One week after your meeting with my client and the conclusion of the purchase agreement, k’Ahl ha’Akon received a small parcel at the embassy. Inside the package was a memory crystal along with several aged photos of the Brooklyn Bridge, taken at various angles and viewpoint positions and at different time periods. A couple of the photos were quite old, judging by the cars and trucks seen driving along the bridge.”

“Family photos. The really old ones my great-great-grandfather took when he was on furlough during the Second War.”

Ignoring the interruption, I continued. “The crystal contained several additional more recent digital photos along with scans of architectural schematics for the bridge. There was also a lengthy text, an essay or personal memoire, by yourself about the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Sandoval nodded. “My personal interest, as a native New Yorker, in the Brooklyn Bridge. As I promised in the sale agreement.”

I thumbed open another document in the pad, started scrolling. “Ser k’Ahl ha’Akon has a different understanding of the agreement between you two, and claims a deliberate misinterpretation on your part of the nature of its wish and intent.”

“Well,” Sandoval said, with a shrug and a smile, “there’s always room for misunderstanding sometimes in these agreements.”

I thumbed open a third document. “You have an interesting history of similar ‘misinterpretations’ and ‘misunderstandings’ with several of your past clients, along with reports of links to the unexplained disappearances of various cultural and artistic artifacts and suspect transactions involving proscribed materials, including animal species or specific pieces of their anatomy. Complaints from various parts of the European Union, throughout the Continental Conglomerate and the Pan-African Confederation, and also several countries in the Pacific Rim.”

I scrolled further. “Interpol records list you as ‘a person of continuing interest’, the Russian Federation has a number of outstanding warrants to serve should you ever by any chance be found within its borders, and there is a reward from a very powerful, and ultra-conservative, member of the Arab League for your head, presented with one particular body part stuffed in your mouth. Then there are—”

Sandoval scoffed, loudly, one hand waving back and forth in the air as if sweeping away everything I had said.

”If anyone could prove anything, then I would have something to worry about.” He folded his hands on top of the desk and regarded me. “Alright, M’sieu Dorval, it is more than obvious that you are not here to ‘arrange’ any kind of deal with me for any sort of goods or services that I might be able to provide. So, what are you here for?”

I put the pad away. “My client—”

“Your client can file a complaint with the Mounties or whoever the local law enforcement is in Canada these days. But I doubt that I’ll ever be seeing the inside of a court room there or anywhere else on this continent or in any other part of the globe. Now or in either the near or distant future.”

He sat back with a satisfied smile. “So,” he said, hands outspread, “are we done?”

I brought out a datacorder, held it up for Sandoval to see. “Just one last formality, Mr. Sandoval.” I pointed the device at him and fired the single air-pressurized plastic microdart concealed inside.

Sandoval jerked at the faint prick of the dart tip striking him in the neck just under his chin. He stiffened, mouth open, eyes staring, one hand still upraised, finger pointing in the air. The toxin was a curare derivative, without the toxicity but with all the quick paralyzing effects of the original substance enhanced.

I stowed away the fake datacorder and tapped out a quick four digits on my wristcom for the brief binary code message agreed on with the local Monitors station for “package ready for pickup.”

I stood up and walked over to examine the Frankenstein holo poster. It really was a very good reproduction. Excellent even. There was a faint trace of simulated age yellowing around the edges of the white pseudo-poster border.

I walked around behind Sandoval’s desk, pulled out his chair with him still seated in it, took a moment to tuck up his legs and cross his feet at the ankles behind the main chair leg, then rolled him and the chair out from behind the desk. I left him and the chair in the middle of the room. A glance at the wristcom for a message check then I swung open the door and signaled for the receptionist’s attention.

“Two Monitors will be arriving shortly,” I told her. “Do not interfere with them. I would suggest, instead, that you begin sending out your resumé to any potential employers you might know of, and also start posting your CV at Careers-R-Us,, Workopolis, or whatever your preferred online employment agent or agents may be. And if you know of anyone who might be the alternative financial signing authority for Mr. Sandoval, then you had best arrange for your final paycheques plus any allowance allowed for unexpected termination. Mr. Sandoval’s business is shutting down now.”

Back in Sandoval’s office, I stopped and studied the Kong holo poster. Yes, another excellent reproduction. But I think I preferred the Frankenstein. The Kong looked too new, too much like a reproduction of a reproduction. Returning to Sandoval, I brought up my chair and sat down to face him.

“As I said before, Mr. Sandoval, I deal in legal claims, usually as a last resort for many of my clients in settling them, whether by retrieval of lost property, credit or actual currency or by apprehension of the person who absconded with any of those items. In my line of work details are important. Details like the specific location where an event takes place. Now, it may be true that my client would experience difficulty in bringing any legal action against you in either a Canadian court or even the World Court’s civil claims division. Assuming that the honourable ha’Akon might choose that route. This is where the detail of location becomes important.”

I leaned forward, looking deep into Sandoval’s eyes. He could see me, he could hear me. He just couldn’t interrupt or argue with me.

“Indulging your curiosity was your one real mistake. You and Ser k’Ahl ha’Akon concluded your agreement inside the Voornung Embassy building. All embassies, by both international and interplanetary law, are considered to be extensions of their home countries, or home planets as the case may be. Thus, any legal contract between you and my client took place on Voornung, and may thus be subject to a Voornung court for resolution.”

I wasn’t sure but it almost seemed as if there was a slight twitch of one of Sandoval’s eyebrows. Maybe I would have to check with my supplier about the expiry date on my last order of paralytic. A detail I would see to as soon as I had concluded my current case. The Monitors would be here soon to take Sandoval into custody for transport to Voornung, so there was no urgency at the moment.

“Voornung, like Earth, is a probation-status member of the Commonwealth of Worlds,” I explained to Sandoval, just so he would fully understand the situation. Details, after all. “But Commonwealth policy is that all member planets, whether full-status or probationer, have extradition rights with each other. The memory crystal and the paper document on your desk? If you had bothered to look at them you would have seen that the paper is a plain-English extradition order, with authorization from the Voornung Embassy and the U.N.’s E.T Affairs office. The crystal contains electronic copies of that along with translations in Voornung and the main Terran languages. Details, Mr. Sandoval, details.”

I sat back. “So, you, Mr. Sandoval, will be going to Voornung to face my client before a legal claims tribunal there.”

I stood up to go. “One final detail you might like to know, or not, Mr. Sandoval. Voornung is a probationary member of the Commonwealth because its legal system is still considered outdated by the standards of most other Commonwealth worlds. On Voornung all legal matters are subject to trial by ordeal to determine guilt or innocence. And incarceration in a Voornung detention centre may be brief but always includes a regular, and thorough, regimen of corporal punishment”

Yes, definite eyebrow twitching. Also a slight widening of the eyes, and some perspiration now gleaming on the forehead.

“Good-bye, Mr. Sandoval,” I said, walking past him to the door. “For your sake, I hope you have a high pain threshold.”

I closed the door behind me. The door of the reception room was just opening. I glimpsed the anonymous black armour of a Monitor.

Details are the key to life.

Food for Thought

Every society and civilization has rules and guidelines for behaviour, both for the individual and for the group. Those guidelines include sanctions against behaviour deemed unacceptable or harmful, both to an individual and to the society as a whole. There may be a clash of cultures when the actions of members of one culture infringe on what is deemed proper to those belonging to another culture. The question then becomes how to moderate cultural interactions where the social mores are poles apart, and how does one seek justice in such matters.

About the Author

Gregg Chamberlain has a background in criminology and a long-time love for crime fiction and non-fiction. He also enjoys watching some “legal dramas” from old Perry Mason shows to latest adaptation of The Firm. While he enjoys reading action-adventure stories featuring vigilantes and anti-hero types, he hopes he never meets one in real life. Also his actual court experience is limited to criminal court as part of his newspaper reporter duties. He and his missus share a house in rural Ontario with four cats, who allow their humans the run of the house. For now.

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