Chief Hoya returned early the next morning. Kaylee had fabricated new extender mounts overnight at the captain's urging, and was at the bottom of the ramp welding them onto the hull. She flipped up the visor of her welding mask for a breath of fresh air, noticed the crowd parting down the street, and saw the police chief striding briskly along with half a dozen of his men, headed straight for Serenity.
She backed into the hold and punched at the ship's com. "Cap'n, we got company."
"I know," Mal said. "He called ahead. I'd have been expectin him anyway. Tell him I'm on my way."
She said, "Are we in trouble?"
"When ain't we?"
The police chief appeared at the bottom of the ramp. "Fetch your captain, girl," he said.
She swallowed, hoping she didn't look as nervous as she felt. Mr. Hoya didn't seem nearly as friendly today, and Kaylee thought it a very bad sign that he wouldn't step aboard, demanding instead that the captain come outside to meet him and his squad. "He's on his way, sir." She couldn't help adding, "We don't know anything about it, honest."
The constable's blank face and silence told too much. Passersby hesitated; when Hoya and his men took no notice, they stood at a short distance, watching.
Kaylee's eye was pulled to the street by the sight of Badger, one hand on his derby, slipping through the crowd unescorted to join the group. He gave Hoya a quick bow, and started to speak, but Hoya stopped him with an upraised hand.
The captain strode through the hold, eyes on the police chief. He wore work clothes but no gun belt. As he drew even with her, he gave her shoulder a little squeeze and stepped down. He raised his hands even with his bottom ribs, waiting for a sign to raise them further or drop them.
Hoya said, "Put your hands down, Captain. I'm quite sure you're harmless, at present." When Mal hitched his thumbs in his waistband, the man went on in a voice easily heard by all the gawpers nearby, "Captain Reynolds. Are you in possession of a Westus ATR or equivalent? Say, an Osawa, Mark Seven or Eight?"
Mal said gravely, "Sir, we're tradin folk, not mercenaries. We bear arms to protect ship and crew and cargo, that's all. We got a decent assortment of small arms, true. But we got no use for crew-served antitank weapons."
"An Osawa wouldn't necessarily need a second man. You could do without the backpack power cell if you had a large stationary source near enough to run a cable to. Say, the main bus of a spaceship."
Keeping his voice level and patient, the captain said, "Maybe so. But, even if I could lay hands on one, the cost of it would keep us fueled for a year. An Osawa's not something you buy in case you got a use for it someday."
"Badger," Hoya said. "Do you have access to any such weapons?"
Badger glanced at the silent crowd. "I might be able to lay hands on one."
"Have you done so, or enabled anyone else to do so, in the recent past?"
"No. And I don't know of anyone who has."
Chief Hoya's expression didn't change, but his next words were a lot less stern. "Let's all go inside, then. There are things that need be discussed." With a gesture, he bade his men remain behind and walked up the ramp, Badger and the captain following. Since nobody had told her not to, Kaylee decided to tag along.
Badger said, "Thank you for that, old friend."
"For all the good it will do," Hoya replied.
Mal's brow wrinkled. "Eh?"
Badger gave him a look Kaylee recognized: the same one River gave Simon when she was making small of her brother's intelligence. "Those aren't the kind of questions you ask a suspect out in the street unless you're already sure of the answers. The Chief just told all of Eavesdown that our word's good enough for him."
They reached the catwalk stairs. Mal said, "If you don't mind a little climb, we could do this at table in the galley."
The police chief put a hand on the rail. "Lead on, Captain. Do you have coffee?"
"Uh, we're tea drinkers, I'm afraid."
Mostly, Kaylee thought, because it was a good deal cheaper. She split off and took the passage leading to the starboard shuttle.
Inara didn't do much business on Persephone anymore. She got plenty of offers, but politely refused almost all of them; she'd told Kaylee that she found her increased celebrity among the Persephone upper class embarrassing these days, since much of it was generated by a perverse fascination with the Wing affair. "One gets so tired of smiling at the same ridiculous comments and questions," she'd said. Kaylee thought maybe it was just harder to pretend among this particular pack of zang shang liu after Wing had dropped his mask. Whatever the reason, their Companion was presently parked in the shuttle bay instead of out fattening her bank account.
The heavy airlock was open; Kaylee knocked at the thin decorative panel that closed off the inside. "Nara?" She slid it aside without waiting for an answer.
"Kaylee?" Inara appeared from the curtained opening separating the pilot controls from the rest of the interior. "What's wrong?"
"Can you spare some coffee?"
The galley provided seating for eight: a heavy plank table surrounded by an assortment of mismatched chairs. Only one had arms, and Chief Hoya settled into it immediately. "Captain, is there anyone else you wish to bring to this meeting? Anyone else with an interest in this affair?"
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a crowd appeared at both entrances: Zoë, Wash, Simon and Jayne from the forward hatch; Kaylee and Inara from the aft, bearing trays with a fancy tea service and a number of packages. Mal said, "Ah, we're shy a seat. Maybe…"
"No need," Inara said, gliding towards the food prep area. "Coffee in a few minutes, Commander. I'll be serving, not sitting." She glanced at Mal. ""Assuming I'm privy to the conversation."
"Ship's business is your business," he said, even though it wasn't strictly true: he generally tried to insulate their Ambassador from the shadier aspects of their efforts to make a living. But whatever was about to be palavered didn't look to be something any of them should be in the dark about.
Hoya watched Inara assemble her makings. "Lady. You brought your own water?"
"Nothing against Serenity's recycling systems. I use ship's water for tea. But coffee is a rather less forgiving brew, and requires a certain amount of artistry. Water quality is just one thing that affects its flavor."
The policeman smiled. "Such as the fineness of the grind, and the temperature of the water."
She paused. "Commander, are you a connoisseur, then?"
"As the saying goes, I don't know art, but I know what I like. I have a friend who is knowledgeable, and pours a fine cup." He looked over the assembled crewmembers as they took seats. "Two missing."
Kaylee said, "The Shepherd's still in his cabin. I could call."
"No need," the policeman said. "I'm sure he's weary from yesterday's … exertions. What about your sister, Doctor?"
"Wherever she is, I'm sure she can hear us if she wants to."
Hoya raised his eyebrows at that, but just folded his hands and began talking. "After the attack here, I ordered a squad to the Peregrine, Captain Bien's ship. They surrounded it and prevented anyone from entering, but that was all." He looked at the captain. "My people are competent peacekeepers, but I wouldn't want to send them in to take a ship by force that was defended by experienced killers. I had good reason to believe the ship wasn't going anywhere, so I thought it best to let things develop."
The air filled with the smell of coffee grinding: Inara stood behind the cooktop with a hand grinder, smoothly turning its crank. The mood in the room lifted somewhat from the pleasant aroma, and Mal silently thanked her. To Hoya, he said, "Why would you think he wouldn't skedaddle?"
"Because I've interviewed the survivors from Peregrine's raiding party. Their accounts of the fight are a bit disjointed, but they agree in the important details and are supported by their injuries, which lends credibility to the rest of their testimony. They told me that they'd eaten nothing but hardtack from the emergency locker on the trip to Persephone." He leaned back and crossed his arms, waiting for it to sink in.
Mal said, "He didn't provision the ship before he left port."
The police chief nodded. "So I guessed. I made inquiries, and learned that Captain Bien ran into serious misfortune at Foundry One. The authorities station-locked his ship as soon as it docked and took him and his people into custody. His accounts were seized, and I'm sure he'll have to petition a court and show where the money came from to get them released."
"Which means he'll never see those credits again," said Badger.
"Likely. He left dock as soon as he was released, without fueling or provisioning his ship. Buying his way free emptied his cash box, I surmise. He came back to Persephone on fumes, looking for revenge and quick cash. You see, he thinks his troubles are your doing, Eaton."
Badger's eyebrows rose. "Me."
Hoya shrugged. "You didn't part on good terms. And you did threaten each other, so I hear."
"So he thinks I peached on him," Badger said, mouth twisting. "That's two people on Persephone think I'd sink that low. You're in fine company, Reynolds."
Unfazed, Hoya went on, "Very shortly after Peregrine landed, Captain Bien sought news of your ship, and learned that the three of you had disembarked and taken a shuttle out of Eavesdown." Hoya raised his eyebrows at Mal's scowl. "It wouldn't have been difficult, Captain. You know how crowded Eavesdown is during daylight hours - and well into the night, in certain parts at least. A hundred people must have watched you leave. It was just a matter of asking around.
"Once he realized – believed, rather," he said with hooded eyes, "that all of Serenity's crew capable of putting up a fight was off to town, he saw an opportunity. He assembled a team and breached your ship. Once inside, he sent the rest of his men aft to secure the passenger quarters while he took the catwalk stairs to the bridge. His part in the plan, I'm told, was to disable your com and lock passengers and crew in their quarters from the bridge."
"Wouldn't have worked," Mal said. "We cannibalized a lot of unnecessary gizmos on the bridge. I never did see a need to manage the lights and door locks from there."
"Well, he'd have done for your wave equipment, anyway. Then his men would take the back stairs, secure the engine room, and move forward to meet him. Very smooth. With the ship in hand, he could take what he wanted and be gone without any alarms being raised. But I'd guess he heard the fighting in the lounge and knew his surprise was gone, and had second thoughts about a one-man assault on the upper level."
Mal shrugged. "Why take over the ship? Why not just snatch Simon and River and go?"
Hoya shook his head. "They weren't after the Tams, Captain. Bien and his men were here for your mechanic." He glanced at Badger. "You see, this was meant as an attempt to squeeze your patron by kidnapping his sweetheart."
Badger exploded. "Gor! We just talked in the gorram street."
"And exchanged gifts," Mal said, trying hard to keep a straight face as the little fixer turned scarlet, and Kaylee stared at the table, and Simon's face turned to stone. "Bout all it takes to end up married, some places."
Inara appeared beside the seated policeman with a laden tray. "Ladies and gentlemen, coffee." She set a cup in front of Hoya and filled it. "Honey? Sugar? Or some cream, perhaps?"
Before Mal could truly wonder where she'd laid hands on said dairy product, Hoya said, "Thank you, just black." He sipped. "Excellent."
The Companion smiled and began to deal out the other cups; Mal noted that she passed him by to serve Badger second.
Hoya took another sip, then went on. "I'm sure you know that Peregrine was attacked last night. Just before midnight, their bridge was fired on by someone with a very heavy microwave laser rifle. A single shot, probably, but it was enough to drill a hole right through her hull and out again. And the EMP caused an overload that fried all her external input-output devices – rather spectacularly - and a great deal more. My men report the ship went dark and silent before the fire on the bridge went out, and has been so ever since."
Wash spoke up as he accepted a cup. "No fan noises from the vents?"
"No. Their climate control isn't functioning. And the datalink to their 'parking meter' was severed as well. That leads me to believe all the ship's electronics are slagged."
Kaylee said, "What about the reactor? Did the failsafes-" She stopped. "Guess they did, we're all still here."
"I've prevailed upon a ship parked near Peregrine to use their instruments. From what we can tell, the reactor is on standby. There are no hot spots or other evidence of power use detectable anywhere on board. Peregrine is a hulk."
"Must be mighty uncomfortable in there," Mal said. No fresh air or water, food gone, isolated in the dark... Even after the fire, Serenity hadn't been hurting half as bad as Peregrine was now; someone had done a fine job on the pirate ship. He sipped his coffee, and frowned at the black liquid. He didn't understand what all the fuss was about; his cup tasted like coffee, the same as he boiled up himself on the rare occasions they were prosperous enough to stock coffee powder.
The police chief nodded. "I expect they'll give themselves up quietly before long."
Simon raised his cup to his lips. "Was anyone hurt?"
"We don't know, Doctor. I wouldn't have wanted to be on the bridge when it happened, certainly, even if the sniper wasn't aiming at anyone." Hoya cradled his cup, apparently savoring the warmth. "If they have injured, I would expect that will hurry their decision."
Badger tipped up his cup and drained it. "Any idea who did it?"
"Several, actually." The policeman gave Mal half a smile. "Despite the recent hostilities, Serenity's crew was never at the top of my suspect list, Captain. The entry and exit holes in the ship indicate that the sniper's position was at least twenty degrees westward of Serenity's relative to the Peregrine, at a distance of at least fifteen hundred meters, and slightly higher than the bridge as well. I'd guess one of the city towers to the north of the pads. Many are nearly deserted at that hour, and their load panels would be easy to tap to power the gun. Bien has a handful of enemies far more likely to have an Osawa in their gun locker, and I can easily see one of them taking the opportunity to strike at him while official eyes are fixed elsewhere." He sipped again. "However, close-mouthed as they are to outside authorities, Eavesdown residents do love their gossip. Mere facts won't convince them that they haven't witnessed further proof of how unwise it is to fuck with you people."
"Jen dao mei," Mal said. Just our rutting luck.
Badger looked thoughtfully down into his empty cup. "Doesn't have to be a bad thing. Might find a way to turn it to advantage." He smiled as Inara appeared with the pot and refilled his coffee. "Xie xie."
Hoya drained his cup and accepted a refill as well. "I'm pleased to see that you're repairing your ship with all haste. When do you expect to leave?"
Mal shifted in his seat. Something about this just didn't sit right. It seemed as if Hoya was solving his problem by running the wrong folks out of town. Not that Peregrine was going anywhere now, but sending Mal and his people off had clearly been the top cop's intent at first meeting as well. "We'll have cargo by noon. If I know Kaylee, repairs'll be done by then. We'll lift as soon as it's settled in the hold."
"Good. The sooner you're gone, the better." Hoya looked over the rim of his cup at Mal. "In case Bien's new friend isn't done with him."
It hit him then. "You knew somebody'd be coming after him."
"Suspected, rather. As I said, he has enemies, and recently he's made a few more, some by his intentions at Foundry One and others by his failure."
Mal reconsidered. The police chief had wanted them gone before somebody moved against Bien, so Serenity wouldn't be implicated. The man had already made his reservations plain about ship and crew, so he must be doing it for Badger's sake. One more thing to owe him for. If this keeps up, I'm going to have to give up disliking him.
One of Hoya's men appeared at the forward opening, bowed, and approached his chief. He whispered in Hoya's ear for almost a minute, at the end of which Hoya nodded and spoke in Mandarin. When the subordinate left, Hoya said, "Peregrine's crew just appeared at the cargo hatch and surrendered. No fatalities, but Captain Bien is missing a hand." He drained his cup and pushed his chair back.
Jayne said, "What's gonna happen to him?"
"By your lights, nothing much, I'm afraid. Eavesdown has holding cells, but they're only meant for short terms. Our judicial system is unsanctioned and rudimentary, and geared toward settling rather milder disputes. We could turn him over to the recognized authorities, but I doubt they'd show much interest. The Council will probably confiscate his ship and sell it for scrap, and buy passage offworld for Bien and his men." He rose. "I must leave. Pray don't get up. Thank you all for your hospitality, and good fortune in your travels. Come back to Eavesdown anytime." He gave Mal a strange little smile. "So long as it's not anytime soon."
Hoya seemed unsuprised to see Shepherd Book waiting on the catwalk. The priest said, "He's still a danger to them. Will this be the end of it, do you think?"
Hoya said, "Normally, I would say not. He's not the type to learn from one lesson, even one as forceful as this one. But, in this case, I'm sure I can convince him. I need only hint who's got their eye on him. No reward would seem worth the risk of their further displeasure, not to a small-timer like Bo Bien. Nice touch, shooting off his hand, by the way. The one holding the microphone, I would guess?"
"I really wouldn't know, Commander."
Hoya raised his eyebrows, but made no comment. He passed by, descended the stairs, and marched out the cargo door.
With Hoya gone, Inara quit playing hostess. She set the pot in the center of the table and sat in the policeman's former chair. "I think the Chief already knows who did it."
"Don't doubt it," Badger said. "He's been keeping the peace here as long as I been doing business. He knows all the players, and what they're about."
Jayne reached for the pot. "We had mugs instead of these bitty cups, we wouldn't have to keep fillin em."
The Companion's eyelids lowered. "The smaller cups persuade you to taste it instead of swilling it. And sharing the pot builds a feeling of community, Jayne."
The big merc started to return the pot to the center of the table, then changed his mind and offered it to Simon, who sat beside him. "Huh. A Companion trick, like?"
"It's not a trick, just a reminder. We are a community, after all." She looked right at Badger when she said it, Mal noted, and their 'patron' smiled in acknowledgment.
"Well." Badger drained his cup. "I think that's enough time for the Chief to get clear. Thanks for the lovely." He stood and made for the forward hatch. Mal stood as well, and followed him out onto the catwalk.
Badger turned his head, but kept walking. "I can find my own way out, Captain. 'Tsnot like your boat's big enough to get lost in." He stopped and turned. "Or you got something to say?"
Mal swallowed and offered his hand.
Badger stared at it a moment. "Crikey." He reached for it, and they clasped.
Mal said, "Still don't see this turnin into a friendship. But I've found friends in unlikely places before." Still hanging on to the man's hand, he said, "What is it between you and River?"
"Still on that, eh?" But he was smiling. "Nothing so different from what's between you and her, I spect. I just took a shine to her my first trip aboard, is all. She needed a little help, and found a way to get it to her. End of story. Eh, maybe you should let go my hand now, Sarge."
Mal let go and flexed stiff fingers. "The meds."
Mal huffed. Simon had been so proud that he'd scored that case of expensive medications for next to nothing; Mal had been, too, thinking they'd cheated the little fixer who'd burned their deal on those food supplements. You could buy another ship for the real price of them, Simon had said. "And when she went to your house…"
"To thank me, and offer payment. I accepted a little token of gratitude. Nothing her brother should lose a wink over."
Mal sighed and leaned over the rail, looking down into the hold. "The 'Verse would be a better place on both sides of the Border if the Alliance had left us alone."
"Would never happen. The Core needed the Outer Worlds' raws and foodstuffs, and the people running the Core don't believe in free markets."
"Wish you'd have had a freer hand durin the War, specially at Hera. Things would have gone different."
"No, they wouldna."
Mal turned back. "That so?"
Badger leaned on the rail as well. "Bloke came to me looking for the Tams awhile back. I didn't tell him anything, but he's a persistent sort, so I'm guessing he found you. Meet a man name of Albert Sessions?"
"Our age? Tall, sandy hair, limp?"
"The same. He didn't tell you how he got it."
"Just that it happened during the War."
Badger nodded. "Albert was on our crew, doing the same sort of thing he does now – expediting, you might say. Last job he did for us was a shipment of missiles to Hera, just before the big dustup."
"They never made it to Hera."
"Oh, they did, Sarge." The fixer's eyes were flat, staring out over the hold. "It was the second shipment, actually – the first never made it, ran right into an Alliance cruiser in the middle of nowhere, almost like it was waiting for them. Al saw to the second one personal, he knew we were running out of time. He came with and changed the route after they were on their way, and got to Hera without a sniff o' trouble.
"They put down on a rough field not far from Serenity Valley and offloaded onto a couple trucks was waiting for em. They're just done and ready to roll, when up comes another truck full of men. They were in Independent uniform, but Albert said they looked more like thugs than soldiers. There was an officer with them, a lieutenant, who told him they were there to take charge of the missiles and get them to the launchers.
"Al didn't like the look of them, and they'd shown him no orders. He told the officer that was his job, and he'd see it through. The uniforms could tag along if they wanted, but his boys would be driving the trucks and making the deliveries." Badger turned his head to meet Mal's eyes. "Guess what happened next?"
"Too right. The officer. Just drew his sidearm and put one in Al's leg. I don't understand why he didn't blow his brains out instead, and neither does Albert. Maybe to keep the others from thinking they had nothing to lose. But the troops just forced the rest of Al's crew out of the trucks at gunpoint and drove off, leaving him bleeding on the ground. They got him to the ship's infirmary and tried to wave Command, half sure they'd been highjacked by Alliance spies or some such. But they never got put through, just referred in circles till the assault boats landed. Al and his boys spent the rest of the War in Alliance custody, and not as internees. They was interrogated for months, and the questions they got asked told him someone had peached - someone high up, who knew some names but not many details. And, o' course, the missiles just disappeared."
Badger's jaw flexed. "Shouldn't have been hard to find out who sent those jibas, and who was blocking Al's wave to Command. But nobody seemed interested in finding out, even before the War ended. That tells the rest of the story, eh?" He took his hands off the rail. "Well. It's a new day. Other business. Give my regards to the little wraith, next you see her." He headed down the catwalk steps.
Zoë said, "He down in the hold again?"
Mal said, "Fraid so."
She glared at the open hatch to Jayne's room. "He makes me nervous. Can't you order him to leave it alone?"
"Spose I could. But then I'd have to be extra careful not to catch him at it again." Mal smiled at his mate. "Zoë, he watched em count it when they brought it aboard, and he knows the fellas who come for it'll count it again before they take it off. He just likes lookin at it." He grasped the handle of the ladder down to his room. "Can't say Badger didn't come through for us. Two cargoes in one run. This keeps up, we may be able to afford coffee someday."
She stood at the top of the hatch, looking down at him. "Just not sure we're anybody's smartest choice for an armored-car service."
Jayne knelt over the open box. It was near big enough to stuff a body in, and it was packed to the top with money. Beautiful, shiny money. He drew his fingertips over the tops of the stacks: platinum, credit coins, even those fancy four-color banknotes, some of them in bigger denominations than he'd known were ever printed. He imagined just plunging his arms in and letting it run through his fingers.
"You sound like Wash and Zoë."
He turned his head to look at River, seated on his weight bench, watching him with a puzzled expression. "Eh?"
She tapped the side of her head. "Here. When they're making love."
"I ain't in love with money," he said, embarrassed. "I just … like it."
She smiled. "Just friends." Her smile disappeared. "You hardly even knew what money was, back on the farm. When did you get so fond of it?"
"When I left home, and found out other folks use it for most everything. And I got even fonder of it when I found out I could buy things I couldn't get no other way."
She lifted an eyebrow.
"Not whores," he said, embarrassed even more. He shut the lid and stood. "Well, not just whores. Big soft beds. Runnin water. Entertainment. Food that wouldn't grow on any farm on Halley. All kinda stuff."
She slid off the bench. "I'm rich, you know." She glanced at the strongbox. "When I'm married, my dowry will make Jimmerson Mining's monthly payroll look like a restaurant tip."
"Yeah, but you gotta marry somebody to get it." He thought about the sort of wedding a girl like River Tam had a right to expect. A white dress with a train the length of the cathedral. A million guests, all her friends and family down to sixth cousins. A cake two stories tall. Gifts that filled rooms. A honeymoon trip that spanned the 'Verse.
A groom who was worlds better than him.
"I really don't think any of that is in my future," she said. At his look, she went on, "Well, if you don't want me to hear it, stop shouting at me." She stepped towards him. "Especially the last part. Is it raining?" She looked up at the ceiling.
His heart sank. "We're in space, Crazy. Ain't no rain in space."
"Maybe a meteor shower, then." She took his hand and tugged him toward his bench. "Exercise. Take your mind off it." She pulled off her boots and stretched her feet, wiggling her toes. "That's what I do, when I can't stop thinking about things. It helps." She started to dance.
And what if the thing you want most is right in front of you? How do you stop thinking about it then? He eyed her keenly, but if she read his thought, it didn't show.
Except for that gorram smile.
Tidying up the upper lounge, Kaylee came across Jayne's treasured stick, the one the settlers on Triumph had given him. She picked it up, and something inside it shifted, hissing like rain on a roof. It was a pleasant sound, and reminded her of rainy days at home. She tipped it once again, listening to it as she trooped up the stairs and into the forward passage. She laid the stick against Jayne's door, where he'd be sure to see it, and wondered why the big merc seemed so fascinated with rain.
The two men pushed their well-dressed captive into a chair and pulled the bag off his head. The disheveled man blinked in the bright light from the overhead lamp, and tried to peer into the darkness beyond the small pool of illumination. "What the devil is this about?"
From the darkness beyond, a voice replied in Mandarin, "I think you know, Mr. Deschamps. You owe a debt, and we have been sent to collect."
The seated man switched to Mandarin as well. "I've lost everything, all I had." His voice rose. "I was cheated, lied to. If you think you're owed something, get it from them. They have all my money now, I'm sure of it."
"Perhaps you were misled, Mr. Deschamps, but it is difficult to cheat an honest man. You knew that you were dabbling in … commercial ventures that were part of someone else's satrapy. Your greed made it easy to convince you that you could get away with it. You thought your wealth and family connections would shield you even if you were caught." The man in the shadows moved closer, but not quite close enough to be revealed. "All your life, you've believed you could get away with anything."
Deschamps swallowed. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"My employers want to see you tied in a weighted sack and thrown in the river," the man said. "But they give me a certain amount of discretion in such matters. For a price, I could be persuaded to impose a lighter sentence."
"But I don't have anything else!"
"Pity." The two men standing on either side grasped his arms.
"Wait!" Deschamps went on, "I… I have an account. It's not much. But it's all I have left."
"About six thousand, I think. I haven't looked at it in a long time. it's not really mine, I'm just the trustee…"
"Yes, a niece, a minor. It's supposed to be hers in three years."
"Six thousand." The voice was silent. "That will do. In fact, I believe it is precisely the sum required." One of the guards stepped into the darkness for a moment and returned with a handheld Cortex link. "Close the account and transfer the credit. My man has the necessary information on the target account. Do this, and you'll leave here a free man."
Shakily, the man accepted the link and began typing instructions. He pressed his thumb to the screen to complete the authorization, and passed it back to the guard, who made an entry and then tossed the unit into the darkness toward the unseen leader. "Once this gets out, I'll be truly ruined. I'll be shunned, outcast."
"Three years, you said? By that time I doubt it will matter to you."
The Cortex link chimed, a completion signal. Suddenly the two men seized Deschamps's arms, pinning them to the chair's. The owner of the voice emerged from the darkness finally: a short man with thinning dark hair, dressed in a conservative business suit. One of the men holding Deschamps said in English, "Are you sure? One of us could do it."
"No, mate," the man said in a pronounced Titan accent. "It's got to be me." From his jacket pocket, he produced a syringe.
Deschamps stared at the approaching needle. "You said you wouldn't kill me."
"So I did." The guards were gripping Deschamps's arms hard enough to make the blood vessels stand out. The leader selected one and stuck the needle in. "You ever hear of slam? It's a specialty item, not too easy to find. It's a special sort of drops. The buzz is the same, but it's even more addictive. One dose of this, it's like you've been on drops for a month." He pressed the plunger home just as the man began to struggle. The struggles ceased immediately.
"Ohhh," Deschamps murmured, his pupils opening to hide the color of his irises. "That's…"
"All better now?" Badger nodded to his men, and they let Deschamps go. "Off you go, then. Enjoy it while it lasts."
Deschamps rose, swaying. He looked at Badger with a mildly puzzled expression, and then wobbled towards the door.
Darcy, sitting in the dark in a rather more comfortable chair than the one under the light, pressed her fists to her mouth and tried to hold down her last meal. She'd accompanied Badger to this warehouse and ordered to sit quietly. When the man had been led in and unmasked, Bertram's eyes had been on her. He must have seen what he'd been looking for in her face, because he'd nodded and begun to talk to the prisoner. She'd felt her shock and horror increase as the parley went on, and she realized what was happening. But when Bertram had produced the syringe and put it in the man's arm, her horror had turned inward, at her own hunger. She'd stared at that syringe, marking every drop, and pitied and envied its recipient at the same time. His moan of pleasure had made her shiver with desire. I'll never really be free.
"Rough?" Bertram stood looking down at her.
"Yes." She shivered again, and said unsteadily, "Bertram. You didn't have to do this for me, truly."
"No. Not for me either." He took a knee in front of her and took her clenched hands in his. In a low voice, he said, "Bernard knows it was him. He told me. That's why I've got to ruin this gan ni niang, wreck him, push him off the edge of the world and out of sight before your husband gets out. Else Bernard won't go a fortnight before he's back in custody. That being the case, sooner it's done the better, so maybe by the time he walks free, he'll have forgot Niles Deschamps ever existed." He gave her hands a little squeeze. "Both of you, praps." He stood and reached into the waist pocket of his jacket. "Here. Been looking for a proper time to give you this. Now I'm thinking I waited too long already."
Darcy stared at the tiny jeweler's box in Bertram's palm, while half a dozen thoughts clashed in her head. Gifts of jewelry were governed by strict customs on most Core Worlds, and among the gentry of Persephone as well. A woman of breeding would never accept a gift of jewelry from a man not closely related to her, and one intended to be worn against the skin was the exclusive prerogative of a husband or lover. The box was too small to contain a relatively impersonal gift like a brooch or hatpin. A ring, even one not for a piercing, would be considered a scandalously intimate present to accept from a brother-in law. But a slave dare not refuse her master anything.
"Take it," he said, in a voice that allowed no protest or argument. "Man's got every right to dress up his favorite little slave girl, don't he?"
She took it gingerly from his hands.
Holding her breath, she lifted the lid. She beheld the contents and gave a little gasp. She clutched the box in both hands. "Where did you find them?"
"Right where you pawned em. Had a bit o' luck there. Dear Uncle thought telling every prospect their history might make them worth more. Guess he didn't think it through."
"Too right," she said, unconsciously adopting one of Badger's expressions. She stared down at her wedding rings. What suitor, even one who'd buy a wedding band from a pawnshop, would want to touch this one? Knowing the last man to slip it on a girl's finger was in prison, and the girl cast out of her family? She closed the box gently, intending to put it somewhere safe. Instead, she found her hands lifting the box to press it against her heart. "Bertram, there … I don't have any words."
A smile touched the corner of his mouth. "You, stuck for something to say? That makes them worth every penny."
Unsmiling, she said in a very low voice, "If we were alone, I wouldn't need words to tell you how I feel."
After a short silence, he cleared his throat. "Well, then. Aren't you going to put them on?"
"When Bernard is released, I'll meet him at the gate with them. If he'll put them back on my finger, I'll never take them off again." And until then, I'm yours to command. And for the asking.
He nodded, smiling. "You'll do. Seems he picked the right girl after all."