Part XII—Fault Line
Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.
Summary: Conclusion. River uses her own brand of persuasion on Shultzer, and Eve's release comes from an unexpected source.
"So, you plannin' on killin' him?" Zoe asked, watching Howerton walk out into the crowds of the Eavesdowne docks.
"Can't kill him right now, without everyone knowing it was me," River said slowly, turning over the idea in her head. "Need to get Mal and Simon free first."
Zoe sighed. "Killin' 'im would be easier," she said.
River looked at her with huge brown eyes. "True, but not as effective for what we need done first."
"So, what's the plan?" Zoe asked.
"Stay here and guard the ship, the children," River said. "I can handle Shultzer alone."
"Don't think that's the wisest course," Zoe replied blandly.
"Less messy," River responded, walking out into the morning light of Persephone looking for all the 'verse like a young woman out on a leisurely stroll. "I'll be back soon."
Shultzer sat back with a satisfied belch, his stomach full of the five course breakfast he'd ordered at the little café. Today was the day, he thought happily, the day that he would retrieve his errant wife from the garrison and do as he wished with her. Crenshaw was dragging his feet for some reason, but it was nothing Shultzer thought he couldn't handle, if he applied the right amount of pressure to the man.
Savoring the taste of the real coffee in his cup, Shultzer thought about the lawyer who'd tried to talk with him earlier. Though the man was persistent, Shultzer was determined to make the hundans who'd deprived him of his fun pay for their indiscretion. Snorting at the idea of dropping the charges, he sat back in his chair to relax a bit.
Suddenly, as if by some magic, a pretty young woman was sitting beside him at his table, smiling softly at him as she gracefully poured herself a cup of coffee from his carafe. "Well, hello there," he said, smiling wolfishly as his eyes raked across her nubile form.
"Hello yourself," she said, sipping daintily.
Amused by her bold manner, Shultzer leaned forward. "You in the habit of stealing a man's coffee of a morning?" he said, smiling.
She quirked one eyebrow up, as if considering her answer. "Not usually," she said leaning forward so that her nose just barely avoided brushing his own. "I think that thievery is more your line of work."
Shultzer blinked slowly, puzzled by that response. "What?" he asked.
River smiled, sitting back and taking another sip of coffee. "You heard me," she said softly. "I know what you're doing back on your little world, Mr. Shultzer. Know that you've been skimming the medical supplies from the Alliance shipment and selling them through that little man Mason." She paused for a moment, pinning him to the chair with her stare. "Of course, now that's you've killed him, I suppose you'll have to find some other way to get the stolen merchandise off Ita."
Shultzer swallowed thickly. "Look woman, I don't know what you're talking about, but…"
"Yes, you do," River replied calmly, the tip of her blade pressed against his inner thigh beneath the table.
Shultzer sat very still, all too aware of where her blade rested. "What do you want?" he asked, his throat suddenly dry as he pictured losing his lucrative sideline as well as certain portions of his anatomy to which he was very attached.
"I want many things," River said, increasing the pressure of the blade slightly. "But most of them are beyond your grasp. So, I will make it very simple for you." She smiled as if she were discussing the weather instead of threatening a very nervous man with a wickedly curved knife. "You are going to talk with the lawyer named Howerton. You are going to let him convince you to drop the charges against the two men you have wrongly imprisoned in the garrison, and then you are going to go away. Dong ma?"
Shultzer nodded, unable to speak as the blade pressed more insistently at his groin.
"And if you do not do exactly as I have stated," River said, leaning in to brush his ear with her lips, "I will be back. And I will bring my sharper blade next time." Pulling the blade quickly along the seam of his pants, she stood up. "Good day, Mr. Shultzer."
He sat for a long while, his heart hammering in his chest as he watched the woman disappear into the crowds. When finally he thought he could move again, he looked down into his lap at the thin line of blood along his thigh and the long cut in his best pair of trousers.
"And this is legitimate?" Crenshaw asked in amazement, looking at the signed statement of Alan Shultzer. "Because I saw Shultzer again not two hours ago, and he didn't say anything about it."
"It is," Howerton replied happily. "It would seem that Mr. Shultzer just needed time to think about the situation. He was quite eager to speak with me the second time I approached him. Seemed like a different man, in point of fact."
Crenshaw nodded. "All right then. Seems I owe you a drink. I'll have your clients released right away."
Howerton smiled. "I took the liberty of filling out the necessary paperwork before I came. If I could persuade your guards to let me bring in my briefcase, I can save us all a lot of time. Just need your signature on a few things."
Crenshaw grinned. "I like you better by the minute, Howerton," he said, thumbing the comm button. "Sargeant Hicks, bring the lawyer's briefcase to my office immediately."
Mal and Simon stepped out into the sunlight, where River was waiting. Mal kissed her deeply, heedless of the eyes of all the people passing by on the busy street. "Love you, bao bei," he whispered into her ear. "Good job not gettin' anybody killed to spring us."
River smiled. "Wouldn't have been the efficient way to achieve the desired result."
"S'pose not," Mal said, linking his arm with hers as she squeezed Simon's hand.
"Thank you, River," Simon said. "Don't know how you managed it, but…"
"And don't want to know, I think," River said.
"Probably not," Simon said, grinning. "You're such a brat."
Mal laughed, relief making the sound almost merry. "Well, now that that's over, maybe we can…"
"Not over yet," Simon said, stopping in the middle of the street to stare back in the direction of the garrison.
Mal turned to follow his gaze, and a low string of Mandarin flew from his lips. Eve stepped out, blinking in the sunlight. Shultzer walked beside her, holding the chain that wrapped around her waist and led to her hands and feet. Four Alliance guards from the garrison surrounded them, and they moved forward toward the docks.
Mal gritted his teeth, looking at the sorry sight. "Hundan just doesn't give up, does he?" he muttered. Reaching for the gunbelt that wasn't there, he swore again.
River took his arm, pulling him toward Serenity. "Can't do it," she said shortly. "You nor Simon. Can't get involved."
Simon hissed, "You don't expect us to just let him take her?" he said. "Not after all that's happened."
"She's right," Mal said, reading his wife's thoughts as if she'd spoken aloud. "We need to be elsewhere."
"But Mal," Simon balked.
"We'll send Jayne," Mal said, pushing him forward toward Serenity.
Shultzer walked toward the small vessel he'd purchased for the return trip to Ita, eager to be aboard. Eve walked sluggishly, her chains weighing her down and slowing her step. She thought wildly of anything that she could do to escape her fate and could see nothing. The guards walked with her and while they mercifully did not push her forward, they did cause her to move ahead inexorably to what she knew would be her end.
Once aboard, the lead guard turned to Shultzer. "We'll be needing those restraints back, sir. Do you have anything here to bind her?"
Shultzer nodded enthusiastically, opening a chest with various ropes and ties. "Give me just a minute to get her settled in, and you can have your chains back."
Pushing Eve into the co-pilot's chair, he quickly tied her wrists and ankles down. "Lean up," he commanded.
She complied, her body recoiling at his nearness as he pulled the chain from around her waist. She shuddered, the movement causing pain to ripple across her back.
Shultzer handed the chains to the lead guard. "Thank you, gentlemen, for your diligence to duty," he said, ushering them toward the door of the craft. "I'll be sure to send a note of recommendation along to your commanding officer when I return home."
"Yes sir," they said in unison, as they stepped out of the craft.
Shultzer watched them for a moment, until they were lost in the crowd. He turned back to the interior of the ship, licking his lips in eager anticipation of the pleasure that awaited him on the bridge.
Swiveling Eve's chair around quickly so that she faced him, he got down on his knees to look into her terrified eyes. "So, Evie, it's just the two of us, at last," he said, his fetid breath hot against her skin. He ran his hands along her thighs as a light sob escaped her trembling lips. "Don't cry, Evie," he said. "Not yet."
Eve jerked against her restraints, determined to fight this horror. Shultzer grabbed her hair, twisting her head around mercilessly. "You're a very slow learner, Evie," he spat out. "But that's all right, because I'm a very good teacher."
As his free hand moved to her breast, he felt the cold steel of a gun barrel at the back of his neck. "Stand up," a flat voice said behind him.
Shultzer tried to turn his head, but was stopped by the barrel of the gun. "Seems that you're a slow learner too," the voice continued. "But I'm a good teacher myself."
Shultzer stood slowly, his hands raised in the air. "Who are you?" he asked, barely breathing.
"Cut her loose," the voice continued, as if he had not spoken. Shultzer stumbled toward the chest, pulling a small knife from its scabbard. "If you so much as nick her skin, I will end you right now," the voice said calmly.
Shultzer nodded silently, bending over to carefully saw through the ropes that bound Eve. "You all right?" the voice asked her gently.
"Y-y-yes," she answered, stepping quickly away from Shultzer.
"Go on outside," the voice commanded. "Jayne's out there waiting for you. He'll get you back to Serenity safely."
Eve nodded, her eyes wide as she stepped off the small craft.
"Listen," Shultzer said, turning around to look at his captor. "I don't know who you are, and what you think you're doing, but that woman is a fugitive, and I was merely returning her to her rightful place."
"And her rightful place was where exactly?" Jim said, his voice filled with bitterness. "Tied to a whipping post? Or maybe on her back beneath you whilst you took pleasure in her pain?"
Shultzer swallowed, seeing the flinty determination in the man's blue eyes. "She's my wife," he said finally. "I have a right to…"
Jim silenced him with a glare. "You have exactly no right to harm her. Marriage gives a man a license to love a woman, but nothing in the 'verse gives him license to treat her like you've treated your wife."
Shultzer noted the way that Jim's gun was wavering slightly, and saw it as an opportunity. He quickly threw the knife that he still held, hitting Jim in the shoulder as Jim's gun thundered in the confined space. For a moment, both men swayed on their feet, hit with the force of the other's weapon. Shultzer took a halting step forward. Jim fired again and Shultzer dropped to the floor, a vague look of surprise the last expression he would ever make.
Jim lowered his gun, the weight of it in his hand suddenly heavy as lead. Looking down at his shoulder, he pulled the small knife out, grimacing at the pain that shot through his arm with the gesture. He dropped it to the floor where it landed a few inches from Shultzer's corpse. And stepping out into the sunlight, Jim headed back to Serenity.
"She gonna be all right?" Jim asked.
Simon nodded, concentrating on stitching the wound on Jim's shoulder. "Should be," he said slowly. "She's with Kaylee and Inara right now, finding a few things she can wear."
Jim nodded, feeling a little sleepy from the pain meds. "That's good," he slurred.
"Mind telling me what happened back there?" Mal asked from his position at the counter.
Jim opened one eye. "Rather not, if it's all the same," he replied groggily.
"Hundan gonna be comin' after her again?" Mal asked.
"No chance of that," Jim replied, closing his eyes.
"Good to know," Mal replied, sharing a glance with Simon. "Best we let River take us out of the world then." So saying, he turned on his heel and left the infirmary, thinking that he would find out exactly what happened the next time he and Jim shared a bottle of whiskey deep in Serenity' sleep cycle.
"So, you got any idea what you're going to do when you get there?" Mal asked, smiling at Eve.
"Kaylee says that Mrs. Frye has some definite plans for my future," Eve replied, smiling up at him.
Mal thought how beautiful she looked, now that the haunted expression had lessened somewhat. "I don't doubt that Mrs. Frye will have everything in hand," he said. "Kaylee's mama is a right…determined woman."
Eve laughed. "So Simon has warned me. Though I think it's very kind of Kaylee's family to hire me on. I imagine I can be quite useful on a farm, if not in the machine shop."
"Would have thought you might rather try your hand at Inara's suggestion," Mal said lightly. "Teaching those young girls at the Training House how to stitch as fine as you do."
Eve shivered slightly. "Don't think I'd really fit in at the Training House," she said. "A farm's more my speed."
"Nothing wrong with that," Mal said, examining the shirt she'd just mended for him. "Though we'll miss you around here. Got plenty more shirts with holes of one kind or another."
"Maybe I can get to them before we get to Harvest," Eve said, standing up and patting her skirts down. "I do seem to notice a large number of them are bullet holes however."
Mal shrugged, grinning at her. "Person's gotta do what needs doin' to get by."
"So we do," Eve replied calmly, her eyes alight with hope for her future as she watched the Captain of Serenity walk toward the bridge, whistling as he went.
Author's Note: So ends another tale of Serenity's crew. This will be my last posting for awhile, as real life seems to be encroaching on my Firefly time in a most distressing way. I'll be stopping by to read all the wonderful stuff here, but will not be posting anything for some time. Hopefully, I will be able to tell more tales of the 'verse again some day in the not too distant future. In the meantime, I'll still be collaborating with the exceptionally talented Midnight Obsidian for another look at the crew of the Hit or Miss in "Four of a Kind". Thank you for taking the time to read this tale, and a special thanks to the few brave souls who have taken the extra moment to provide feedback! Happy reading and writing to you all!