Chapter 578: The Wine Merchant
Operation Dragon’s Blood.
Thales frowned, trying hard to forget the discomfort of that particular night.
He looked at Morat, who was lost in thought, but could not help but think of Prince Midier whom he had never met.
It was difficult to imagine how that man who was also in a wheelchair, who was highly-praised by Gilbert, Jines and even the Black Prophet, was able to strategize effortlessly and completely change the rules of the game in the Kingdom of the Great Dragon.
But then Thales recalled the stone urns in the Tomb of Constellation.
As a prince and heir to the kingdom, he could not save himself.
At that moment, at the other end of the interrogation room, the door was shoved open.
Thales snapped out of it. A splendidly dressed man, who was in shackles and had a black hood over his entire head, was forcefully escorted into the room by two burly men to face Raphael.
“Whoever you are and whatever you want, we can talk it through…” The man was in a miserable state as he staggered along, but still attempted to persuade his captors.
Unfortunately, the burly men were unmoved. They forcibly sat the man down in a chair then fixed the chains attached to his shackles onto a ring on the desk, but did not remove his hood.
“Who is that?” Thales wondered in a whisper.
But Morat raised a finger, indicating for him to be patient.
The escorts left the interrogation room without a second look. Only the man’s nervous gasps could be heard in the room.
Until Raphael ominously approached him from behind and yanked the black hood off his head.
Suddenly exposed to light, the detainee squinted and tilted his head, cutting a sorry figure. It took a whole minute for him to adapt.
He looked towards the only other person in the room, Raphael.
“Where am I? Who are you?”
The man was middle-aged and had unkempt hair and a bruise on his face. Clearly he had been subjected to a less than pleasant treatment prior to this.
Being able to see again made the man less anxious. He observed his surroundings and cleared his throat. “But I highly recommend that you release me—before things turn ugly.
“I’m too big a fish for you to eat.”
Raphael did not respond. He took a seat across the man and stared at him with a pair of cold, red eyes.
The man snorted in laughter and tugged at the shackles, causing the chain to rattle.
“Hah, you look like quite the enterprise…
“Tell me buddy, are you the Blood Bottle Gang or the Brotherhood?”
Thales looked confusedly at the Black Prophet, but the latter was stoic, seemingly disinterested in the interrogation.
Even though he looked miserable, the detainee began to recover his bearings. He spoke confidently, “If it’s the Blood Bottle Gang, I am an old friend of Catherine’s. We were familiar even when we were at South Coast Hill, and not just any regular kind of “familiar”, hehe…”
Raphael remained silent.
The man toned down his smile.
“If it’s the Brotherhood…”
The detainee leaned back in his chair, shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Then all the better.
“I know Cenza. He is a good man, battle-hardened. And ‘Alpha Wolf’ Lazans. I knew him since the days he peddled goods on the streets. We almost became business partners. I have dealings with Fat Morris too…”
But the Barren Bone man seemed determined not to speak. His eyes were fixed on the man.
“If it’s neither…”
The man contemplated as his expression changed.
“That means you’ve come after me specifically.”
The detainee sat up and met Raphael’s gaze solemnly. “Who do you work for?
“Let me guess. Fragrance Trade Association? Union of Woodworkers? Or some noble with a misunderstanding? Or some airheaded bandit from the countryside?”
But the man thought of something and his gaze shifted. “I know.
“Were you hired by those bumpkins under me?”
He leaned back and chortled.
“They thought that by doing this they could… Fine, listen up. Those people who hired you are poor as church mice. Whatever amount they paid you, a hundred, two hundred, a thousand, two thousand, I’ll pay you double.”
The man raised his hands casually and gestured at Raphael by tugging his shackles.
Raphael was unmoved.
The man frowned.
“If you’re not doing this for money, if you’re doing it, for example, as a favor or out of loyalty or for a relative, then allow me to give you some advice: it’s not worth it. You may have helped them, but you’ve implicated yourself…”
Although he was in a terrible situation, there was a habitual commanding tone in the man’s voice.
“No,” Raphael cut him off in a hostile tone, “This is not a gang robbery, nor revenge on behalf of another family, let alone a hit job for money.”
The Barren Bone man placed his hands on the desk and leaned forward, glaring at the detainee. “We serve the kingdom.”
Receiving an unexpected answer, the detainee was taken aback.
“Serve the kingdom…”
The man muttered the phrase a few times, then with an “aha”, burst into hearty laughter.
“From the state?
“Very well. You may not know it, but I am the most law-abiding citizen of the kingdom and a major taxpayer.
“So where is this? Which police station? Are you a plainclothes officer? What’s your name? Where do you work?”
He relaxed entirely and titled his head to appraise Raphael, then chuckled dubiously. “Most importantly, who is your boss?”
Raphael’s face was expressionless. “You wouldn’t want to see my boss.”
On the other side of the glass, Thales could not help but glance at Morat.
The man squinted; shrewdness oozed from his eyes. “Oh. You never know.”
Raphael’s lips twitched. He ignored the man and opened the stack of documents on the table. “Your name?”
After having an idea who the other party was, the man became comfortable and his attitude was lax. He disregarded the Barren Bone man’s question. “I have a lot of friends in the police force, many of them big names. The de facto director of Western City Police Station, Lord Lorbec Deira…”
Raphael let out a sigh.
The Barren Bone man closed the files silently and took them off the table in an orderly manner, then repeated loudly, “Name?”
The man shook his head. “I am also the honorary director of the Central Territory Liquor Merchants Association…”
In the next second, Raphael’s left hand flashed across his chest!
He grabbed the chain that bound the man to the desk and yanked it.
The detainee had clearly lived a sheltered and comfortable life. Failing to react in time, he was pulled off his seat. His waist hit the edge of the desk, and his nose proceeded to slam onto the desk.
The man howled in pain. Blood flowed from his nostrils.
He wanted to get up, but Raphael grabbed his hair and pushed his head firmly down onto the table.
Raphael smiled contentedly.
The man struggled. His expression was twisted and flustered. “Why you damned little—”
Raphael pulled the man’s head back, aimed his nose at the table, and slammed his face downwards again.
The man started to tremble and groan through gritted teeth.
Raphael was still smiling.
The man was sniveling and his face was stained red, but he was more dogged than expected. “I know this process. Start with simple questions, have the criminal get used to answering…”
Before he could finish, Raphael tilted the man’s head and pressed his bloodied nose onto the surface of the desk, grinding back and forth.
The man made horrifying muffled sounds.
Witnessing all this, Thales frowned. The Black Prophet, on the other hand, gave a low chortle, causing the black-veined vines on his lap to tremble.
Raphael’s next word was uttered in a laid-back manner, like a lover’s whisper, “Naaame…”
But the man’s response was different this time.
“Ahhh f*ck f*ck f*ck—Moss! Moss!”
Under the intense pain, the man cursed as he answered straightforwardly, “Dagori Moss!”
He groaned in protest, “Come on! Why so serious? Did they pay you overtime?!”
Raphael grinned. The Barren Bone man looked sinister.
He let go. The detainee called Dagori was able to sit back in his chair. He covered his nose, gasped in pain and moaned, “F*ck! Damn it!”
Raphael picked the documents back up. But when he saw the pool of viscous matter on the table—a mixture of blood, snot, and tears—he frowned.
He moved his stool and finally put the document down in the corner of the desk. “What do you do for a living?”
Dagori, covering his nose, replied with a death glare, “What do you do for a living? Are you the new temp? Hey, wait wait—”
Dagori’s expression changed as he hurriedly halted Raphael, who started to tug on the chain again.
“Answer me.” The Barren Bone man was smiling cheerfully. He swung the half-taut chain in his hand. “Or you’ll have to answer it.”
Dagori took a good look at Raphael and finally acknowledged the latter’s gaze.
“Liquor,” the detainee exhaled as if resigning to fate and answered straightforwardly.
“I’m a wine merchant. I make and sell wine—I sell wine in the capital. Many of my clients are officials and nobles…”
Dagori gulped; his gaze was fixed on the chain in Raphael’s hand, “You know, buddy. Overstepping and abuse of power is normally nothing. But if someone internally wants to mess with you, those would be good reasons for being expelled from public office…”
“Mr Moss.” Raphael completely ignored him and opened the file. “Many of the orchards, wineries, warehouses and shops in your name, including other related estates, have recently closed down?”
Dagori’s eyes darted towards the document to catch a glimpse of its contents, but when Raphael looked up, the man quickly looked away.
“If you’re trying to find some fault in my taxes, you can give up now.”
Dagori cleared his throat. Back in familiar territory, he again became smooth and at ease. “Town Hall, the police, the Department of Finance, the City Defense Team, the Department of Moral Standards, and all the departments in the capital can prove that I am a law-abiding citizen and a generous donor to public infrastructure reparation funds. If this goes to trial, I will be able to hire the best lawyers, and many nobles and officials will be willing to make guarantees and testify on my behalf.
“In fact, not only have I paid my taxes in full, I’ve even paid a lot ‘more’. You get what I mean, ‘more’.”
He stared at Raphael with a sly and arrogant smile—too bad that bright red broken nose ruined his image somewhat.
Raphael tugged on the chain again. “So then Mr Moss, why have you closed down so many wineries and shops in recent weeks and fired a large number of workers?”
Dagori stared at the chain, looking pale. “Okay, let’s be civil—I’m a businessman. What other reasons can there be for closures? Obviously it was because of poor market conditions.”
Raphael looked up.
“But you are one of the biggest wine merchants in Central Territory, and the liquor supplier for many banquets of noble families.”
Dagori raised his eyebrows and chuckled audaciously, “Hah, so you’re aware.”
Raphael continued to disregard him. “So, the people who work in your wineries and estates—farmers, laborers, craftsmen, employees—as well as investment partners, raw material merchants along the chain of production, distributors and retail wine merchants, adding up to hundreds…”
Raphael stared at Dagori. “They intend to file a joint complaint and send you to trial.”
The wine merchant’s expression changed from indignant to disdainful.
“Hah, I knew it.”
His gaze was fierce as he spat in contempt. “Those bastards. Ungrateful bumpkins…”
On the other side of the one-way glass, Thales looked at the Black Prophet with a frown. “This guy is a cunning old businessman. But I don’t understand why I am here to see this?”
“Relax, Your Highness,” Morat replied softly as he raised a finger to his lips, “Some matters may be small, but may reveal something big. Some characters may be trivial, but may link to a bigger picture.”
Thales was stunned.
At the other end of the room, Raphael smiled slightly. “So, Mr Moss, do you know why they are suing you?”
Dagori seemed to have recovered his confidence.
“You know, the liquor market has been poor recently. Sales have been declining, I’ve been having a bit of trouble with my cashflow. In consideration of costs, I had to divert my assets and make a difficult decision—shutting down some wineries was just one of them.”
Raphael’s eyes narrowed. “Really?”
Dagori did not seem to notice the suspicion in Raphael’s voice, and proceeded to go into detail.
“During this process, I may have had some minor differences with an extremely small number of employees on the issue of salary payments…”
Raphael sneered, “So, the salaries you have long owed your employees, the sums owed to your partners, and the money for stock and cash deposits owed to both ends of the chain of distribution, not to mention the amounts you’ve gained from regular exploitation—all of it should just be voided?”
Dagori’s expression turned cold.
While staring at the chain clutched in Raphael’s hands, he carefully and patiently explained, “Owed? Listen, I admit that I did make minor changes to the calculation method of the amounts, including time periods…”
Raphael interrupted him, “So you plan to make off with the money?”
Dagori frowned and clarified in a justified tone, “Make off with the money? Heh, I was just out of town on vacation—I’ll insist this no matter who’s asking. Don’t try to illegally induce a statement from me.”
Raphael scoffed, “But the people you owe money to, especially the workers, that’s not what they think.”
Dagori stared at Raphael with a frown and replied solemnly, “Listen, I’m responsible for the cost, creativity and distribution network. They come up with labor, skills and time. Work is divided between the boss and the employees as they work in collaboration to produce the best wine and strive towards a common goal.
“So the winery business doesn’t just belong to me. It belongs to everyone. We are like a family.
“When a member of the family experiences setbacks and hardships, everyone in the family should be considerate of each other and work to overcome the difficulties together!”
His beady eyes glowered as he gently tapped the desk with his fingers, seemingly determined to teach the person before him a thing or two. “But some people just don’t understand. They are so narrow-minded that they cannot see the big picture, and can’t bear to endure a little hardship. Just because they get paid a little less, and their life is made a little less convenient, they turn their backs on you. Completely ignoring the opportunities and terms I have provided them.”
Raphael nodded and pouted. “But you’re the boss, and this is your winery business.”
“Exactly!” Dagori concurred aggrievedly, “That’s why compared to them, I am able to see the truth of this industry more clearly, care more about the future of this industry, and am more distressed by the decline of the wine industry, because I’m like a father to them!”
Raphael glanced at the document. “But you closed the wineries.”
Dagori looked sullen, then scoffed, “I had no choice. No matter how loving the family is, how hard the father tries, if the children are rebellious and disobedient, it will always be a dead end.
“And you must be well aware, that some people are just…”
The wine merchant had a look of frustration and resentment at unfulfilled expectations. “Ninety-percent of the reasons I had to close down the wineries was due to the increased wage demands of these lazy workers.
“Them and their type are a cancer to the industry. They are so short-sighted, completely unaware that the most important thing about a job is not wages and treatment, but the opportunity to climb the ladder and the prospects of a better future, as well as the cultivation of value!”
Dagori sounded indignant. “And they don’t know how to look at things from a more elevated point of view. When have bosses like us cared about our own wages…
“Make noise. All they know to do is make noise. But when they are making noise, why haven’t they thought of what will happen if the winery has to close down because of their demands? What will happen if the entire industry is disrupted? By that point, aren’t they the unlucky ones who will have to pay the price?”
Exhausted, Dagori took a pause.
He exhaled through his nose and continued in a regretful tone, “Now, all I can say is that they asked for it. They have only themselves to blame.”
“Enough.” Raphael was clearly annoyed at his speech. “We don’t care about your business.”
The Barren Bone man leaned forward and went on indifferently, “Much less whether you are another shameless and unscrupulous employer.
“We only care about one thing.”
Dagori exhaled. There was a “here it is” look on his face as he grinned coldly.
“Fine. Let’s speak frankly,” the wine merchant said contemptuously, “What indicators have you received from your superiors?
“How much. How much money for you to release me?”
Raphael glared at him with a frosty gaze.
He said coldly, “I want to know the real reason why you shut down the wineries and quit the wine business.”
Dagori was puzzled. “Wha, what?”
Raphael sneered, “Before you closed down, you mentioned at a private gathering of the Liquor Merchants Association that the future of the wine industry is dim?
“So you would rather withdraw your funds and bolt before it’s too late?”
Dagori was taken aback. He retorted indignantly, “I’m not bolting. I’m just going abroad for a vacation…”
But Raphael repeated without emotion, “Answer me.”
Dagori froze for a long time, but finally he shook his head.
“I have answered all your questions… And to be honest, this is potentially interrogation under torture…”
Raphael smiled and opened the next document calmly. “Actually, I have a list of bad debts that you have accumulated over the years by taking out new loans to repay old ones.”
Dagori’s expression shifted.
With an eye on Dagori’s watch, Raphael continued, “And a list of your assets outside the wine business: six real estates in Central Territory, two long-voyage merchant ships docked at Maiden Harbor, a large plantation in South Coast Hill, salt flats in Land of Cliffs Region, a large piece of farmland in Blade Edge Hill, two foreign noble titles bought with a tidy sum, your wife’s private garden, the positions of your two sons, along with the assets of your three mistresses and eight illegitimate children…”
Observing the changes in Dagori’s expression, Raphael squinted, “If I sent these lists to the Department of Finance and the Department of Justice…”
Dagori gulped, but still said willfully, “Go ahead then.”
Dagori sat upright, propped himself against the table, and said through gritted teeth, “I can guarantee that no matter where you go, you will only get one answer: That those are my legal earnings, all formalities were complied with, and the property rights are clear.
“If you dared to blackmail, illegally misappropriate private property, and do such a vicious thing to a powerless civilian businessman in the name of a public official of the kingdom?
“Wow, that would be a serious crime, and would go against the kingdom’s policy of encouraging markets and supporting businesses for the past dozen years.”
The wine merchant glared at Raphael, as if determined to get revenge for his broken nose. “You would look bad if this news got out. With someone of my caliber, I guarantee that many trade associations will petition in protest, including many just and righteous bureaucrats and nobles, and influential people everywhere. They will all speak out.
“When that time comes, it will be your boss who doesn’t want to see me.”
Dagori said threateningly, “Because you’re not messing with me, but with the cheese of many influential people behind me.
“Do you understand?
“Now, whether it is labor disputes or tax issues, you have no grounds to detain me.”
Raphael closed the file in his hand and began to appraise Dagori again, seemingly recognizing for the first time how difficult this person was.
The latter stared back at him coldly, rattling his shackles.
After a few seconds, Raphael smiled.
He was handsome to begin with. This warm and bright smile made him look even more pleasant.
The Barren Bone man stood up, took out a key, and unlocked the shackles for Dagori almost flatteringly. “Don’t worry, Mr Moss. These evidence won’t be sent to the Department of Finance nor the Department of Justice. We wouldn’t want to trouble the people behind you either.”
Seeing that his strategy worked, Dagori, who was free from the shackles, was elated. His tone was even more obnoxious now. “Well done. In my opinion, you are young, you have a good future in front of you. You seem like part of a promising new generation—what’s your name?”
But Raphael did not answer. He merely continued what he was saying earlier, “I will just pack all these materials and documents and send them all to Jade City.”
Dagori was shocked. “What?”
Raphael’s responded with a refreshing smile. “Yup, I’ll send all this over to Iris Castle, to the ruler of South Coast Hill, to the desk of Duke Zayen Covendier.
“What do you think?”