Bertram Eaton sighed inwardly as he entered his office to begin his workday. There were days he jumped out of bed to face the morning. This wasn't one of those days. Sometimes, I feel like I'm just the sad little king of a sad little hill.

"Mornin, Badger." Buster's bald scalp was already shining with sweat in the morning sun filtering through the skylight past the shades. The big man held Bertram's 'business suit,' jacket in one hand, sweat-stained derby and wrinkled tie in the other. The sight of the big mook playing butler broke his bad mood. The tatty ensemble had been something the boys had found in a second-hand shop and presented to him as a gift, saying in all seriousness that a man of business needed a proper kit. He'd hadn't the heart to refuse, and had felt ridiculous in it at first, but the way his boys had swelled with pride to see him wearing it on business had changed his mind, and it had become a trademark of sorts. It was also a way of poking fun at their more affluent clients, dandies who'd look right through you anywhere but Eavesdown; it tickled his people to see those peacocks coming for favors to their Badger in his secondhand coat. You want to keep good people, he thought, you have to let them know their worth to you. He slipped the knotted tie on over his tee shirt, adjusting it loosely around his neck, then slipped the jacket on. Buster set the hat on his head and watched him critically as he cocked it back. "Natty."

"Right, then." Badger settled into his rather dusty leather office chair and began looking over reports. "What's on for this morning?"

Ho, his appointments secretary, was seated on the couch nearby. He crossed his legs and consulted his pad. "Hoya's on his way. Routine collection, but you know how they are. He'll want the money from your hand, no one else's."

He nodded. Persephone was a world that styled itself an outpost of Core civilization in the hinterland of the Outer Worlds, but it wasn't all urban bustle and high society. Eavesdown Dock was a freewheeling enclave of opportunists, scrabblers, and generally rude characters scratching a living at the boundary zone between Core and Rim, and between avaricious affluence and simple desperation. It was the only port on Persephone where ships not operating under license from the Transport Board (that is, ships not owned by some large Central World corporation) were allowed to land, and the rest of the planet tried its best to ignore the place. It had its own makeshift unofficial government, a council of sorts that settled grievances and kept everyone's dealings out of sight of the planet's real officials, who were content to let Eavesdown keep its own shabby house as long as none of its problems spilled beyond its borders into the pristine communities surrounding. Its economy ran on cash and barter and favors exchanged, a minimum of credit, and damned few electronic transfers of the sort the Core found so useful for keeping track of its citizens. And the public peace was kept, not by officers of the law, who were given no respect here, but by uniformed gangs, usually Chinese, who collected 'fees' from local businessmen. Hoya was the Chairman of the Eavesdown Protective Society, the port's de facto chief of police. That such a man came personally to Badger for his contribution was a sign of high status. "All right. What else?"

"Brutus landed yesterday. Duffey says they're headed for the outer ring and looking for cargo."

Badger cocked an eye at Kenji, his portly accountant, sitting in his little alcove surrounded by bookwork. "Well, we got a few items sort of fell off a truck uptown. If that's not enough to fill his hold, what else we got?"

Kenji looked up from his antique typer. "Warehouse on Progress Street has a lot of machine tools, including some interdicted ones. Those usually go over big with the prairie dogs."

"Well, then. I'm sure we can make a deal. Have him come to call, first opening."

"Shiia. And… we got word from Serenity." Ho's tone said it all. Serenity's captain set all his people's teeth on edge. Badger didn't care much for the man either, but he'd been handy at the time, and even stick-up-the-arse Browncoats had to eat, he supposed. Badger had needed a capable crew for a fast trip to a blown-out ship that was floating free and unwatched not too far away. He'd arranged that not all the derelict's cargo be removed by the owner's salvage teams, and what was left would fetch a tidy sum, at least a thousand platinum split sixty-forty with the crew he sent out to fetch it.

"And?"

"Say they've got the goods and they're headed in. Must be three-four hours out. But…" He gestured towards Badger's desk.

Badger picked up the news flimsy then, a thin sheet of material formatted with columns of text and boxes for capture imagery, updated thrice daily. Most of the information it contained was feihua, directives about this and that that Eavesdown ignored with impunity. But this issue, hot off the Cortex, contained a bulletin about a Firefly that had been interrupted salvaging a derelict ship nearby, instructing all upright citizens to report and contribute, tsai bu shir. Ordinarily, such a scavenger would surrender, be boarded for an assessment of the illegal salvage, pay a hefty fine and get sent on its way. Clearly that hadn't happened, and the strident tone of the Navy officer reporting the crime made clear the Firefly's escape had been accomplished in a way that had made fools of the Alliance Navy – not an incident they'd likely forget soon.

He clenched his teeth as he read. The cargo was imprinted, of course; he'd expected that, though he hadn't mentioned it to his Browncoat errand-boy. Not important, as long as the Alliance wasn't looking for stolen cargo; under present circumstances, however, he'd have to offer it at a discount, maybe a third off. And he'd still have to pay the man who'd left the goods off the salvage manifest and sealed them up; things hadn't gone wrong at his end. Badger was determined that the drop in the venture's net be shared by that arrogant shagua in the brown coat. Still, he and Reynolds would see a good profit for the job, if the man would see reason about the cut in his payment. He relaxed. "All right. We'll deal with that when they get here. What else?"

Buster, not Ho, spoke. "Darcy's here," he said, embarrassed.

Badger felt his ill mood return fivefold. "What does she want, then? Same old?"

"I suppose."

"Tell her I'm busy."

"Did. Says she'll wait. She was camped at the front door, blocking traffic and making a scene. I put her in the storeroom."

Badger took a deep breath and let it out, forcing calm. "Let her cool heels till I've got the time, then."

Not a good start to the day, he decided.

Hoya was a trim-looking Chinaman with short black hair and a goatee, just beginning middle age. Badger greeted him at the door with a bow for all passersby to see. "Greetings and welcome," he said in fluent Mandarin. "You grace my humble place of business, honored sir."

The man made a small dismissive gesture. "You make too much of a visit from an old friend, Eaton." But Hoya was obviously pleased by the public show, which maintained his status among those he served as well as those he thwarted. He entered, leaving his guards outside, a sign of trust and respect.

Badger conducted him to the lounge at the rear of his warehouse, soft comfortable chairs facing each other across a low table, still speaking in Mandarin. "Will you take refreshment? Coffee? Tea? Something stronger?"

"Coffee, if it's no trouble." Hoya always took coffee, and a pot of fresh brew was always waiting when he arrived.

The police chief sipped his beverage. "Eaton, there are only four places in the 'Verse where coffee is grown, and I've sampled every variety. I say most sincerely that the best I've ever had is always under your roof. Have you discovered another location, perhaps?"

Badger smiled over his cup. "I'm told that there is a certain art to coffee's preparation, involving many considerations – roasting, grinding, the temperature and purity of the water, several others. I know little of it. My man Mokey sees to my needs in that regard." He nodded towards the large black man in dreadlocks who stood guard at the door, assault rifle in hand. Hearing his name mentioned and seeing Badger's eyes on him, he gave his boss a brief smile.

"He doesn't speak Mandarin," Hoya observed.

"He curses in it quite fluently."

"You speak it very well indeed." Hoya smiled behind his cup. "Better, I'm told, than your English."

"Ah. Well. They say you can never fully shake off what you learn as a child. I was born and raised on Dyton Colony – excuse me, Titan to those not raised there – and the accent has stayed with me, even though I haven't been back in years. Mandarin, on the other hand, I learned as a young man starting out in business."

The man gave Badger a very direct look. "And business is good?"

"Business is very good, thanks to your protection." He raised his hand, palm up, and Buster placed a shoe-sized wooden box in it. He extended it to Hoya with both hands. "Please accept this as a contribution to help you continue your good works."

Hoya chuckled as he took the box from Badger's hands and set it on the table. "You have style, Eaton. Most of your associates simply pass me an envelope, and draw back their hands as if I might bite."

"Then most of my associates have a poor sense of the costs of doing business, and no notion of the value of your service. I know just how quickly my warehouses would be emptied without your vigilance, and how many more men I would have to hire to guard them. And business is better conducted in an environment where… untrustworthy behavior is actively discouraged."

The man was holding his stomach now, shaking with mirth. "Please, stop! I'm not a temple warrior, I'm just a flatfoot with a freer hand than most. But I do believe you value what we do. It's why we allow you so many men under arms."

Badger ducked his head. "I find that a show of overwhelming force in difficult situations often prevents unpleasantness."

"As do I." He held out his cup, and Buster refilled it. "You're a strange one, Eaton. No offense."

"None taken."

"And your place of business truly is humble." Hoya looked at the mismatched furniture, industrial shelving, the tarps providing shade and privacy under the plastic construction dome that roofed Badger's offices. "There are men on the Docks making half what you do, and living twice as well."

"It's bad for business to appear too prosperous, my friend. People will begin thinking your cut is too large, that they're being cheated. This place is more than adequate to the conduct of my business. I have a comfortable house not far away."

Hoya looked down into his cup. "Yet you have a taste for expensive luxuries, like real coffee and red meat." He nodded towards the mechanical apple peeler on Badger's desk and the apple inserted in it. "And fresh produce."

Badger's fondness for fresh fruit, especially apples, was part of his business persona, like his coat and hat. He always had some on hand about his office, and could be seen noshing on them all day as he worked. It was an uncharacteristic show of wealth, but he reckoned the little affectation did his reputation no harm. Few people knew the reason behind it. Apples had a special significance to Badger. An apple had once put him in prison and set his feet on the path leading to his present career.

He'd been a typical sixteen-year-old on Dyton, a street kid with few possessions and little education and way too much time on his hands. He'd tasted fresh fruit nine times his whole life, Christmas gifts from his mother and purchased dear. Egged on by his friends, he'd tried to pinch an apple from a local greengrocer and been caught two steps from the display. The proprietor had gripped Bertie's wrist in his big fist, cuffed him about without marking him, and given him a dressing down the like of which the fatherless boy had never had. Bertie had shivered in fear and wonder and promised never to steal again.

At that moment, a constable had stepped in for his daily graft, taken one look at the grocer holding onto the boy with the apple still in his hand, and taken him into custody. The grocer had protested, saying the boy had learned his lesson and he didn't want to press charges.

The copper had scoffed. "He'd tell you anything to get out the front door. And be back in here tomorrow, likely. You're a gullible man, Morrison."

In a holding pen with a dozen other ne'er-do-wells, Bertie had learned that the local judge had ordered a crackdown on street crime in his district, it being election week, and the court docket was packed. And the judge was eager to show the voters his tough stance on crime.

Bertie'd been brought into the courtroom two days later. One glance around the defendants' box had told him that the 'crackdown' was doubly a sham: it had been packed with small-timers and nobodies like him, not a thug or bullyboy or professional burglar in sight. No one's payoff money was being jeopardized by the inconvenient arrest of a 'fish,' a crook who shared his take with the police in return for a free hand. The coppers had brought the judge only bums, jaywalkers and bread-stealers. Oblivious or uncaring, the stern-looking man in the black robes had sent hapless transgressors to lockup in lieu of steep fines they couldn't pay.

Bertie's name had been called. He'd listened to the charges, which had made him sound like a career criminal who'd tried to stick up the store, and had been asked for his plea. Fatalistically, he'd pled guilty, and begun to explain what had happened, hoping against hope for a little mercy from the court. The judge had let him talk for less than ten seconds before he'd banged his gavel. "Enough."

Badger would never forget the look of cool contempt on the judge's face, looking down on him and all the other defendants from his ornate and lofty perch. "The Court has better uses for its time than listening to some lying little weasel trying to win its sympathy. Age is no mitigating circumstance; the defendant obviously feels no remorse and is already well on his way to establishing an illicit career. Society would best be served by delaying the progress of that career as long as possible. Maximum sentence, two years." The gavel had banged again, and he'd been led off. Bertram's resolve to stay right with the law had disappeared with his last look at the judge's face.

Prison was less a reformatory than a finishing school for career criminals. To survive, he'd blended in and played the game, and discovered a talent for it. In prison, he'd heard an inmate say, "Stick ten men naked in the same cell with one credit each for three hours, and when you come back, one cobber will have most of the money." Bertram was determined to be that cobber. He'd traded favors, then goods, and eventually begun making loans at interest. He'd dealt with the prison gangs without becoming entangled with them, established a small group of his own, and become something of a voice among the inmate population. He'd left prison behind forever at eighteen with a number of contacts and job opportunities.

One of those offers had been offworld, on Persephone, working for Howard, an 'arranger' at Eavesdown Docks. The idea of showing his heels to Dyton had been irresistible. Howard, a friend of a friend, had been impressed with him early and had given him plenty of opportunity to learn and prove himself. He'd earned a reputation as a tough little bugger who always came through for his clients, and always came out on top in a pissing contest. Remembering that stick-up-the-arse judge's estimation, he took the nickname of Badger, a sort of weasel that was more likely to steal a bigger animal's food than hunt his own. He'd soon outgrown his patron, and Howard had come to work for him instead, making more money than ever. He'd sent for his family as soon as he was set, setting his Mum up in a better house than she'd ever seen, and his younger brother in a good school far from the Docks.

Flush with his first string of successes at Eavesdown, he'd ordered a crate of apples from a certain store on Dyton, paying more for shipping than for the goods. The container had arrived with the purchase price in an envelope tucked in with the fruit. From then on, Badger had a standing order for the best apples at wholesale plus shipping. They still cost more than buying local, but there was a principle involved, and Morrison deserved an assurance that there were no hard feelings. Badger steered business the man's way when he could.

Badger had learned some important lessons in stir. One was that a man's strength lay in his connections: to recognize your friends and cultivate them, increasing their value as you strengthened the bonds between. Another was the importance of respect between associates who did business without the protection of legal instruments.

Badger smiled at Hoya, a friend of sorts and a man who made business at Eavesdown possible and profitable. "What's the use of making money if you can't buy a few nice things to share with friends?"

"Your generosity is hinted at in certain circles. You'd be a far richer man if you weren't such a soft touch. I know how many old friends and their relatives are on your payroll."

"Trustworthy and talented people are hard to find. It's why I haven't expanded my operation in recent years."

"They're not so hard to find, if you look for them on the auction block instead of waiting to happen across them. Buying your retainers would lower your operating costs, as well."

Badger drew in, grew cautious. He knew full well that all Hoya's household staff were slaves. "I once wore chains, old friend. It colors my perceptions. I don't think I could deal fairly with such servants."

But the police chief huffed and leaned back, smiling. "You can be sure my servants' collars sit lightly on their necks, Eaton. Especially the women's. Sometimes I wonder who's bonded to whom." He sat forward and rose, scooping up the box. "I must leave now. Thank you for your hospitality, and your support. If I can be of help to you in any way, don't hesitate to call."

"Likewise, my friend." As Badger walked Hoya to the door, he said, "I have a question. For almost as long as I've known you, you've called me Eaton, the only person I know who does so. After so long as friends, why do you still address me by my last name?"

Hoya paused at the door, eyebrows raised. "I thought it was your first."

Buster followed him back down the passage. "Darcy's still waiting."

Badger settled in behind his desk. "How long till Serenity docks?"

"She just called for approach clearance. Fast as her pilot drops 'er to the dirt, thirty minutes, no more."

Dealing with Darcy would likely be unpleasant, but it needn't take long. The arrival of Reynolds and his bunch would put a limit to the amount of his time she wasted. He picked up a report and pretended to study it. "Send her in, then."

When Buster and Howard brought her into the office, he nearly forgot to study the flimsy in his hands, so shocked was he at her appearance. In the three months since he'd seen her last, she'd packed on fifty pounds and aged ten years. Knowing the sort she was running with lately, he'd expected her to have let herself go. But looking at her now, it was very hard to see the Companion-class beauty he'd met on his brother's arm seven years before. She'd lopped her waist-length hair, once her best feature, and had traded in her trendy duds for a drab shift. He guessed the clothes had gone to a local pawnshop, and the hair to a wigmaker's. Just goes to show, he thought, none of us is more than a step from the cliff's edge.

She advanced to the desk and stopped. "Hello, Bertram. You're looking well."

She might have lost everything else, but she's still got her manners. "Hullo, Darcy. You look like bloody hell. What do you want?"

She clasped her hands, trying to maintain her poise. "I need a loan. For medical bills. I don't have any money for doctors, and they won't extend me credit."

Badger dropped his eyes back to his paperwork. "Too right. Who in their right mind would let you run a tab? I paid your debts twice already since Bernie went in. Don't ask."

Her clasped hands trembled. "I know I've been irresponsible and, and, unappreciative. Taken up with a bad crowd. But it's been so hard with him gone. I've been all alone, and you weren't around after the trial…"

"I wasn't around much between the wedding and the indictment, either, Darcy. Never even saw the inside of that fancy house before you lost it. You didn't want your friends to see where your husband came from. And you surely didn't want to risk smudging your fine clothes rubbing up against Eavesdown riffraff. Least, till the money ran out." Badger forbore to say that it had been his money that had provided the education that had been his brother's ticket out of the Docks. A chance that Bernard had squandered by living beyond his means after graduation and his entry into 'legitimate' business, trying to keep up with his friends and hang onto his high-bred wife. Badger was sure the woman standing on the other side of his desk was the reason his brother had raided his clients' accounts. "Where's your old friends now you need help? Or your new ones, that matter?"

Darcy's hands were white from the tightness of her grip. "I'm done with all that. I've changed, Bertram, I really have. I'm off drops, have been since you saw me last. But I'm sick now, and I…"

Badger considered the extent of his obligation. His brother was halfway through a six-year sentence. Early on, Bernard had asked his brother to look after his wife till he got out, and brother Bertram had reluctantly promised. Badger made full use of his monthly visitation allowance, but Darcy had only seen her husband twice in three years, always with legal papers to sign. Darcy was a touchy and seldom-discussed topic during visits, but Badger had a feeling Bernie was out of love. But he hadn't released Badger from his promise. "How much do you owe them, Darcy?"

"What? I-"

"Don't try to play games with me. You can't get credit anywhere because you owe everybody. You're up to your eyebrows with the sharks, and they're circling, or I miss my guess. How much?"

In a small voice, she said, "Six thousand."

The room stirred. Badger stood. "Six thousand. That's more than you'd fetch on the gorram block, Darcy." He looked her up and down elaborately. "Maybe not three years ago, but your days as a trophy wife are over. And you've got no other skills. I'd be surprised if you know which end of a mop to hold. Thought of selling an organ or two? Before the people you owe take them for their payment?"

"Just a loan." Her voice rose. "Till I'm well again. Then I'll find work somewhere and pay you back."

"You won't find a job," he said, as if instructing a child. "You won't pay back any loans." He slowly stepped behind her as she stood squirming. He stood at her back for a few moments, pretending to study her shabby clothes until he spotted the characteristic itch reflex he was looking for. It pushed him into a decision. God knows what Hoya will think when he hears. But it's the only way. "Three years indenture. Take it or leave it."

She stiffened, some of the old haughtiness returning. "You can't mean that."

"You expecting a better offer today? A lifetime contract wouldn't pay me back for what I've already spent on you, little girl. But I don't want you around any longer than it takes my brother to get out of stir and take you off my hands." Assuming he'll still want you after a good look, which I much doubt.

His sister-in-law's lower lip trembled. "You bastard."

Too right. A stupid one. But you'll be dead in a week if I don't pay your debts, or dead in a month if I do. "And when the contract's signed, you'll keep a civil tongue in your head in reference to your master, or it's lashes for you. And to my mother, who'll be giving you your orders."

Badger's mother lived with him in a largish house just outside the Docks. Mum refused the hired housekeeper he'd offered, and kept the place herself. But she'd never thought much of her youngest son's snooty uptown wife, and might enjoy making a competent domestic of her. Three years of Mum's tutoring would enable him to find Darcy a job, at least – maybe scrubbing floors for one of her old society friends – and would be fitting revenge for years of the woman's snubs and slights.

Darcy stood motionless. In a still, small voice she said, "Please don't do this."

"Don't do what? Save your life? Or rub your nose in it? I know full well what sort of people you're into for six grand. You're not off the drops, Darcy. But you will be."

"No. No. I'm clean."

"Well, we'll see in a couple days, won't we? So what's it to be? Three years indenture, or turned into spare parts by next morning, is my guess."

She closed her eyes, and her lower lip trembled. Tears leaked from under her lids. "Yes."

He dismissed her show of misery as pure self-pity. "Right, then. Go to wherever you're staying and pick up your things. George and Yuki will go with. Only take what you can carry alone. They're not your pack mules." He turned to Howard. "I don't care what she leaves behind, but tell them to go through the kit she picks out, every bit of it. If they find drops or anything like, they're to leave her there." He turned back to Darcy, who was wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "They'll take you to my house, and my mother will see to you. I'll have the papers drawn up and I'll bring them home tonight to sign." And if Mum says the word, the deal is off and you'll be on the street instead, so you'd better be on your best behavior with her today.

Why am I doing this? I don't owe her a thing. She's been nothing but trouble for this family since she married in. I could leave her to swing, and three years from now Bernie'd thank me for it.

But, for a little while, when he first met her, I thought she might be the best thing ever happened to him. And she could have been, if she'd showed him a little more love and a lot less pride.

Pride has been the undoing of better than her.

She turned away, shocky but composed.

"Wait," he said, suddenly uncertain. "Let me see your teeth." Buster and Howard stood by, ready to hold her fast. Badger squeezed her cheeks, exposing her teeth. They showed the faint mother-of-pearl iridescence of heavy drop usage. "Yes," he hissed, and sent her on her way.

He turned to see Reynolds and his usual shore party waiting behind Mokey's outstretched rifle. He nodded, and the guard raised the weapon, allowing the three to enter.

Badger said to Reynolds, "You're late," intending to add, if you were trying to beat the news.

"You're lyin."

Badger's vision shrank to a tunnel ending at the tramp captain's face. He saw no hint of friendliness, not even grudging respect. Clear as day, Malcolm Reynolds saw Badger as something to be got around or used, nothing more. The captain was a head taller, and suddenly looked very much like another man who'd looked down on him from a high place without really seeing him. "What did you just say to me?"

*

"Wheel just keeps turning, Badger," Reynolds said as he and his departed under the guns of a dozen men.

Badger smiled at the futile threat. "That only matters to the people on the rim," he answered, thinking it sounded very Hindu. After they disappeared, he looked about at his crew, proud of their quick reaction when he'd made his move. His eye fastened on Kenji. "You got bullets in that thing?"

"Don't know," the bookkeeper said, returning the piece to its drawer. "Hope not. I might have shot somebody. By accident, I mean."

"When did you start packing?"

When you started dealing with that bunch. They make me nervous. They don't pay attention to the rules, you know? You done the right thing, sendin em packing without a deal."

"Oh, he'll be back. Once he asks around and sees his chances of unloading that cargo without getting shot for payment." Badger returned to his desk and finished peeling his apple. "Hat in hand."

Howard watched him with troubled eyes. "You wouldn't sell them to the Feds."

"What d'ye take me for? Half the people we deal with got prices on their heads. I start selling them out, we're done around here." Badger felt the muscles under his ears jump. "But he thinks I would. He thinks I'd sell me mother. That's why he was ready to cheat us. He wouldn't have tried that on one of his old Army chums, even a hwundan who'd steal his clean socks. But his conscience doesn't extend to the likes of us."

"The big one looks like trouble," Mokey said. "He might come back. Maybe we should deal with him first."

Badger waved a hand dismissively. "He's a big dog on a short leash. He can growl all he wants. Reynolds will keep him in hand. And they'll be back in three hours to deal, or I miss my guess."

*

"Badger." Buster pushed into the office. "Serenity's-"

"I got eyes." The office brightened and the walls shivered as the tramp freighter passed a hundred meters overhead. Badger watched the twin stars of its drive pods dwindle as it rose towards the Black. "Guess he's gone to try his luck elsewhere, the crazy barstid." He made a show of interest in the manifest he and Duffey were going over. "Pride has been the undoing of better than him."

19