The risks inherent in trade

 

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It’s some time ago now, but there was a fashion for drinking the rare black lichen. I say drinking because they used to dry it over open fires, grind it fine and mix it in almost pure spirit. It was strange stuff; it could give you strange dreams or even stranger nightmares.

Some artists of various sorts claimed it transported them to strange worlds beyond the imagination and the revelations they received inspired their finest work. For myself I merely comment that the time I drank three glasses of the stuff I couldn’t do any useful work for three days after it (and couldn’t see properly for two of them.) Others have told me that the main effect it had on them was to loosen the bowels rather than the chains of imagination.

But still the authorities banned it. Just why is something of a mystery. Personally I was quite taken by the theory put forward by Ingenious Trool. He held that some wished to tax it as a patent medicine, some as a spirituous liquor and others as a poison used for keeping down vermin. Because various coteries within the Council of Sinecurists couldn’t agree, it ended up banned.

Obviously with the ban in place people started demanding it and other people started smuggling it.  Looking back that might well have been part of the reason they banned the stuff, it massively boosted the trade.

To show the amount of money sloshing about in the business, Tackker Jake purchased his sinecure using the profits from his smuggling operation. Strangely enough I was partially responsible for his success and his slow march to relative respectability.

I’d known Tackker reasonably well, he berthed at Fellmonger’s Wharf between times, and in the past he’d been a shore-comber so obviously knew my lady wife Shena. Tackker and I weren’t close but I confess I liked him, as rogues go he was decent enough. You could berth downstream of him and not have to put up with a constant stream of his business rivals floating face down past your portholes. Not only that but the night was rarely disturbed by inexplicable screams.

(Note Shena is looking over my shoulder at this point and has commented that when you see the bodies washed up on the foreshore the reason for the screaming is all too explicable. She also pondered aloud whether the perpetrator was a fool who didn’t know how the tides ran, and was thus a little perturbed that the battered evidence of their wrong doing was spread the length of the Old Esplanade; or an evil genius who wanted to make sure people saw the evidence and took the hint.)

But anyway, Tackker approached the whole smuggling business methodically. He made sure he sold a decent product, Black Lye, which contained genuine black lichen rather than the charred sawdust some of his competitors used. He had it bottled in distinctive bottles, squat with a cork not a lead cap. But his brainwave was to bundle bottles up in raw orid hides. There are a lot of raw hides shipped into Port Naain for tanning so a few more should excite no special interest. Also, no exciseman was going to enthusiastically search through a pile of wet stinking hides at the start of his working day. So in the unlikely event of a search it would be desultory at best. Finally the smell of untanned hide clung to the bottles, proving to his customers that this was the real thing, smuggled in from Partaan. This was as opposed to the floor sweepings from the Spittle Close spice warehouse stirred into cheap spirit that some of his competitors sold.

I was sitting on the deck watching the rising tide lifting the moored boats. It is a pleasant enough way to enjoy the early morning sunshine with the added excitement that there is always somebody who has tied their mooring lines too short. Then, sailing up the river at a fair clip I spotted ‘Storm Wracked’, the boat of Tackker Jake. They tied up alongside us, Tackker leapt over the side onto our barge, thrust a stinking bag sewn from two uncured orid hides at me and said, “Hide this.”

I looked around and could see an Excise schooner sailing up river. I hastily tied the hide sack to our shoreside anchor and pushed the anchor into the water. We don’t normally use it, we’re well secured to the next barge, so we only have the one anchor down. But a second is a reasonable precaution.

Shena came out with a tray and three mugs of glay-blossom and liquorish infusion and we sat and sipped as the excise schooner tied up alongside the Storm Wracked. Obviously the officers wanted to search everything, including our barge. So we sat and sipped infusion as the search went on around us.

Tackker commented on the infusion and Shena explained how she had come by it. One of the shore-combers had found a locked tin chest on the shore. He had brought it to Shena to sell. She’d opened it and discovered that all it contained was the infusion. The infusion they tried and agreed it was pleasant, but it was the chest that impressed Shena, it was so water-tight, with greased leather seals around the lid, that she had purchased the infusion herself, at a reasonable price, and got the box to be thrown in because she needed something to carry her purchase home in. We took to using the box to store papers that might have been effected adversely by the damp. We were drinking the infusion for a year or two after the purchase, there was so much of the damned stuff.

Anyway Tackker was pondering this box and our barge was swarming with increasingly frustrated inspectors. Finally they left and sail off upstream, obviously upset that they hadn’t found anything.

We waited an hour, just to give any watchers time to get bored; and then as the tide turned and started flooding back out again; we finally pulled up the anchor. Unfortunately the orid hide bag was no longer there.

That’s not entirely true, some of the bag was there, and it was still tied to the chain. It’s just that the rest of the bag was missing. The cut edge looked like a set of teeth marks as if some creature had just opened its mouth, swallowed the bag, and had then bitten off what it couldn’t get in its mouth. We looked at the cut edge and I just shook my head.

“Tackker, you use cork to plug the bottles don’t you?”

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“I just hope whatever it was is well out at sea when the corks dissolve in the creature’s stomach and all that Black Lye hits its system. I wouldn’t want it lying in the mud under my barge having weird dreams.”

Shena just snorted, and then said, “I just hope the damned thing is well out at sea.”

Tackker gawked at the cut end. Slowly he got to his feet. “I’ve been thinking, Shena, do you know anybody who could make me a tin box like yours?”

“I’m sure I could find you somebody.”

“I’ve decided it’s time to change the system. I’ll import bottles of the spirit legitimately and even pay duty. But I’ll bring in the lichen in a box like yours which can live in the muck and water of the bilges where not even the crew will know it’s there and no inspector will ever find it. Then I’ll add it to the spirit here in Port Naain. It’ll save messing about with orid hides.”

I tried to cheer him up a little, “You’ll be glad to be rid of the stinking things.”

He nodded, “They’re so low margin it was growing obvious that I could never carry enough to be profitable, which is one reason why the excise were on to me.”

Well Tackker went on to become a respectable trader in spirits, and once he’d bought his sinecure, he joined the Council of Sinecurists. Then he managed to get the ban on importing Black Lichen lifted. Of course this meant that the price of the damned stuff plummeted and most of his previous competitors lost money and went out of business. Tackker on the other hand never looked back.

And then there was Shallack the diver, a ‘recovery agent’. He was an artist with a pair of shears. He fenced his Black Lye wisely, a bottle here, a bottle there, without ever drawing attention to himself.

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