Four of a Kind
Part I—Opening Bluff
Author's Note: This story was co-authored by just-slummin. Takes place within the framework of her continuing Mal/River storyline, after the events of "Journey's End".
Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.
Summary: The Captain of the Hit or Miss has a meeting with Easy Mercury and later finds himself in a revealing situation.
Marcus Hazzard moved easily through the crowded streets of Persephone, mindful of the fact that having a man as large as Bear Macaphee walking beside him tended to clear a path. Bear, long accustomed to being given a wide berth by most people, took no notice of the uneasy glances he received as they wound their way through the small streets.
"Looks right much better than it used to," Bear said, eyeing the street that led to Easy Mercury's office.
Marcus nodded. "Easy's been upgrading lately. Told me that it's easier to let some of his men patrol the neighborhood than to let the riffraff in to be cleaned up later. They keep the peace, and the local merchants don't mind giving a little percentage to Easy on the side. Works smooth enough, and everybody's happy."
"Wouldn't have figured Easy to be that invested in the neighborhood," Bear said.
"Profitable to him on both ends," Marcus said, stopping to look into a particularly interesting store window. "Merchants give him a cut, and tourists feel safe to walk on the street looking at the pretties. Quite enterprising, when you think about it."
Bear shifted restlessly as Marcus seemed to be meandering a bit. "You wouldn't be just stallin' for time, would you?" he asked.
Marcus frowned. "Can't a man take a minute to window shop now and again?"
"Not when you know we gotta get back to the ship to interview the last few folks applyin' for the doctor's position," Bear reminded him. "And you know sometimes these little visits with Easy last awhile."
"If the folks applying can't wait for me to get back, I'm fair certain we don't want 'em on the Hit or Miss," Marcus replied.
Bear sighed. "You've managed to turn down everyone who's applied so far. A few of them before they even set foot on the boat. What's the problem?"
"Problem is they're all….stuffy," Marcus replied. "Well, except for that one that was drunk during the interview. And I want somebody who'll fit in."
Bear snorted. "Good luck finding someone that will 'fit in' with the four of us."
"It could happen," Marcus said defensively, walking on toward Easy's office. "Just might be hard to find them, that's all."
"Well, it's fair obvious we need to find a doc quick," Bear continued.
"And why is that?" Marcus asked, looking sideways at his friend.
"Well, we never know when you're gonna get shot in the butt again," Bear pointed out evenly. "And I, for one, don't want to be the one fishing out the bullet."
"That only happened the one time," Marcus said. "Why does everybody keep bringing that up?"
"Maybe 'cause it was hilarious," Bear said, grinning widely as he opened the door of Easy's outer office to allow Marcus to enter.
"Glad I could provide the high quality of entertainment that you enjoy," Marcus said wryly as one of Easy's men came to greet them.
"Never a dull moment," Bear said just loudly enough for Marcus to hear.
Scowling at his mercenary, Marcus allowed Easy's man to lead them into the labyrinth of corridors that led to Easy's office. "Captain Hazzard," Easy said, turning from the window of his office to look at his guests. "Didn't know you were on Persephone."
"Just finished up a delivery and thought I'd come and pay you a visit," Marcus said, crossing the room to shake hands with the man.
Easy nodded distractedly. "Glad you did. Always a pleasure," he replied, though it was obvious that something was not quite right. "Won't you have a seat?" Easy said, motioning to a table in the corner of the room. "I was just about to have some lunch. Care to join me?"
"Temptin' as that…whatever it is looks, I think we'll just pass," Marcus said, pulling his chair up to the table as Easy sat down and poked at his food desultorily. "Wouldn't mind a drink to settle the dust though."
Easy nodded, motioning to one of his men to bring a bottle. Looking at the label, he smiled proudly. "Think you'll like this stuff. Aged to perfection. Some of the finest whiskey available in the Core."
Marcus nodded, taking the glass Easy proffered and sipping slowly. A pleasant fire slid down his throat and he thought briefly that the next time his travels took him to Osiris, he would have to see about securing a bottle of the fine, amber liquid for himself, assuming he could pay for it, or steal it.
Easy smiled as if he could see the wheels turning in Marcus' head. "Good stuff, huh?"
"Hits the spot," Marcus acknowledged. "So, setting that aside for now, I was wondering if you've got a job for us, bein' as how we're here and all."
Easy sighed, chewing his food thoughtfully before answering. "Don't really have anything in the works at the moment," he finally admitted. "Things have been a little….slow."
"Sorry to hear that," Marcus said, genuinely sorry considering the last job he'd finished barely gave him the coin to refuel the Hit or Miss. "Would have thought things were going well, with the way the street looks now."
Easy let out a deep breath. "Just a temporary slump. Nothing to worry about," he replied, though his tone was not reassuring.
Marcus glanced at Bear, who shrugged his shoulders almost imperceptibly. Leaning forward in his chair, he said, "Come on, Easy. It's fair obvious there's something wrong. What gives?"
Easy gazed at the young Captain for a moment as if trying to decide how much to divulge. Finally, he answered, his words coming out in a rush. "I'm trying to run a decent business here, right? Spending my own coin to clean up the streets, re-investing in the community. Not just living like a gorram parasite." He paused for a moment, obviously agitated. "Providing a service to the community, so to speak. And what do I get for it?"
"A percentage?" Bear said, just a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.
Both Easy and Marcus turned to look at the large man silently. "Just sayin' is all," Bear said.
"Okay, maybe I do take a small….token of their gratitude for the service," Easy admitted. "It's only fair, all things considered. And yet, though I do all this….." He stopped, waving his hands in the air with the nervous energy he had in abundance.
"Though you do all this, what?" Marcus prompted curiously.
"They don't even invite me to the gala," Easy finished, the disappointment in his voice obvious.
Marcus looked at in puzzlement. "What gala?" he asked.
"Only the most prestigious event of the year," Easy replied. "On board the Persephone Queen."
"The gambling ship?" Marcus asked in astonishment.
"The very same," Easy answered. "Three days of sumptuous dining, gambling to one's heart's content, mingling with the cream of Persephone society, all on that gorram boat. I was expecting to be on the short list, but I didn't even make it to the long list. It's a travesty is what it is."
"Well now, Easy," Marcus began. "It's not exactly like you're…."
Easy's glare stopped him from finishing the sentence. "I'm a businessman," he said firmly. "And I've earned a spot there, unlike some of those snot-nosed boys that have inherited their fortunes. And while they're up there floating on a cloud of wealth and privilege, I'll be down here cleaning up their gorram go se for 'em." He hissed in irritation at the thought.
Marcus took another sip of the fine whiskey. "Three days of gambling with Persephone's wealthiest, huh?" he said softly. Bear gave him a warning look, which he studiously ignored. "Just floating up there right above us. Could be interesting."
Easy gazed at him intently, caught by the glint in Marcus' eye. "Be a shame if something were to happen to relieve them of their coin prematurely," he suggested, warming to the idea.
"Would at that," Marcus said, grinning.
Easy leaned forward eagerly. "A sharp man might take advantage of such an opportunity, if he was cunning and of a mind to take a little risk."
""Spect so," Marcus replied. "Would probably need some folks to help 'im get the job done, if he wanted it done right, that is."
Easy jumped out of his chair, energetically pacing around the room. "Would have to find you a way in," he said, thinking aloud. "And set you up with coin enough to make it convincing." Whirling around in excitement, he looked at Marcus. "Can you come back tomorrow? There are some things I need to see to."
Marcus rose from the chair, glancing at Bear with a grin. "I expect we'll still be here tomorrow," he said. "Be glad to stop by around noon."
Easy nodded eagerly. "I'll see you then, Captain." Shaking his hand, he added, "And I'll be looking forward to it."
"Just sounds like somethin' fool enough to get us all corpsified," Bear reiterated for the fifth time as he followed Marcus up the ramp of the Hit or Miss.
Being well and truly tired of listening to the normally taciturn Bear's objections to the potential job, Marcus was by this point in a less than pleasant temper. Finding Pierre in the galley, he instructed his pilot to handle the next job applicant, as it was his intention to take a long, hot shower and relax before beginning to plan the job in earnest.
Pierre nodded, looking at Bear questioningly. But Bear just shook his head and headed to his bunk, figuring he had said all he was going to on the subject already. Mildly curious, Pierre started to follow the mercenary, but he was interrupted from his journey by the arrival of the latest job applicant. "You must be Dr. Striker. If you'll just follow me," he said pleasantly, leading the doctor to the galley for the interview.
Once the doctor was seated, Pierre sat down and looked briefly at the resume provided. "This is quite impressive," he said, his eyes widening at the long list of letters after the doctor's name.
"Thank you, I…." The doctor's words were cut short by the arrival of Murdocke into the galley. Taking one look at the situation, Murdocke winked at Pierre, silently imploring the man to play along.
"I've come to take you to the Captain," he said, smiling like the Cheshire cat. "He's ready to see you now."
"Oh," the doctor said, slightly confused. Looking at Pierre, she said, "I thought you were the Captain."
"No," Pierre said smoothly, thinking that Murdocke was indeed an evil man. "I am the pilot. Captain Hazzard was unable to meet with you, so I was just filling in temporarily."
"But you can certainly see him now," Murdocke said, his eyes twinkling merrily at his own private joke.
"Good," she said, rising gracefully from her chair to follow the smirking man. As they left the galley, Pierre wondered briefly what kind of punishment Marcus was likely to extract from him for his role in the whole affair. Thinking that the Captain's reaction would more than likely be worth whatever the repercussions might be, Pierre smiled slightly beneath his mask.
Murdocke turned to look at the doctor with a wide grin. "He's right in there," he said, pointing to a door at the end of the corridor.
"Thank you," Dr. Striker said, wondering fleetingly why the man looked so positively gleeful. Pushing the heavy door open with a bit of effort, she stepped into the steamy room.
"The gorram ship had better be on fire if you're coming in here now," Marcus growled, annoyed that anyone would interrupt his shower.
Elizabeth Striker stood motionless for a moment, taking in the sight of the man's long, lean body. His back was turned to her, and she could see the smooth delineation of the muscles of his back and shoulders and the satisfying curve of his buttocks leading down to long, perfectly defined legs. Fine beads of water glistened on his skin, and she found herself licking her lips in appreciation.
"And close the gorram door. You're letting out the steam," he bellowed.
She jumped at the tone of his voice, coming back to reality with a sudden jolt. "Of course," she said, closing the door quickly. "I'm sorry."
Hearing the soft, feminine voice answer, Marcus jumped and scrambled for the nearest towel to cover himself. Losing his balance on the slippery floor, he fell hard, jarring every bone in his body and managing to strike the side of his head against the shower fixture on the way down. Sprawling into an untidy heap on the floor, he forgot for a moment that there was a woman in the room and lay holding his head and muttering darkly.
"Here, let me see that," Dr. Striker said, kneeling beside him on the rapidly cooling shower floor.
"Rather you didn't," Marcus murmured, getting his first real look at the woman.
"For goodness sake," she said, prying his hand away from the cut on his temple. "I'm a doctor. Let me look at it."
Marcus submitted to her examination reluctantly, surreptitiously pulling the towel around to cover himself as she prodded gently at the wound.
"Doesn't look too bad," she said finally, sitting back on her heels. "Just needs a weave and a little antibiotic cream. Can you stand?"
"Um, yeah, if you'll turn around," Marcus said, a blush rising on his cheeks.
"Oh, of course," the woman said, trying to ignore the brief feeling of disappointment as she turned away from the man. "I wouldn't have just barged in like that if I had known this was a communal shower. It's just that your man…."
"Let me guess," Marcus said, toweling off quickly. "Short guy named Murdocke?"
"He didn't introduce himself, but he didn't seem all that short to me," she replied, looking studiously at the wall and trying hard not to imagine what the man behind her was doing.
"Guess not," Marcus said, observing her short stature and figuring that she could be no more than about five feet tall. Catching himself before he made a further comment about her height, he cleared his throat and walked around to face her. Holding out his hand, he said, "We weren't properly introduced. My name is Marcus Hazzard, and though you might not guess it from our first encounter, I'm the Captain of the Hit or Miss."
The woman smiled up at him, her blue eyes shining warmly. "And I'm Elizabeth Striker. It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain."
Feeling a small trickle of blood make its way down his forehead, Marcus smiled wryly. "Think we could make this a working interview? Seems I'm in need of a doctor."
"Absolutely," she said. "Just lead the way to your infirmary, and we can get you fixed up in no time."
Walking toward the infirmary, Marcus thought that he very much liked the sound of that.
To be continued