Chapter Seven

THE WRONG LANCE

@2020 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter Seven

Surebleak

Jelaza Kazone

“Who?” Miri demanded, pushing back from the desk, and directing her comments toward the ceiling. “These–” she waved a scornful hand at the screen–“these’re the hired help. What we need to know is who paid ’em!”

“Working,” Jeeves said, sounding particularly machine-like, which she guessed she’d bought and paid for. Wasn’t any kind of good sense to yell at your info-source while he was working–or when he gave you info you didn’t like, either. Data was data, but, still–

“I know you’re working,” she said. “I’m in a temper ’cause there’s nothing for me to be working on.”

“Understood,” Jeeves said, his voice warm–even sympathetic.

Miri got up and walked over to the window. She stood there, hands behind her back, staring out at the inner garden and Jelaza Kazone’s enormous trunk. Daav and Aelliana were in the Tree Court, though she couldn’t see them from this window. Jeeves had reported Emissary Twelve in a trance or coma, her palms flat against the Tree, and Miri’d sent them to cope, once she came to.

“Just don’t let her remove you from Surebleak,” she said.

“Korval,” Daav had responded, with a formal bow. “We shall contrive.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she’d told him, and waved the pair of them off.

Now, she sighed, and closed her eyes, reviewing the mental Rainbow exercise, to achieve calmness and distance.

The colors spun behind her eyes; she took a deep breath, and sighed it out.

As bad as the news was from all over, she thought; it could have been worse. Much worse. It looked like a planned attempt to have lots of little things going bad all over–out back of Melina Sherton’s turf; Shan’s peninsula; in the city; on the port–sowing confusion and dismay, like Luken would have it, though he was usually talking in the context of card games. That was. . .good tactics. And to a degree, confusion and dismay had been sown.

They had a handle on what had happened where–in the city, windows had been broken, small fires started, loud arguments erupted spontaneously, drawing shopkeepers out on the sidewalks, so that the third partner could slip in and perform petty theft. . .

On the port, gas had been deployed at the main entrances of the Emerald Casino, the Portmaster’s office, Tantara Floor Coverings, Andy Mack’s repair shop.

The Road Boss’s office was unique in hosting an actual enemy action involving sleepy gas, and guns. Not a good combination, and Miri was inclined to think that it hadn’t worked quite according to plan.

One of the invaders through the front door had been killed by Nelirikk, who didn’t go down quite as fast as he would have, had he been Val Con’s size. He’d gotten two shots off–killed one, maybe winged the other, or maybe just convinced her to run away.

Nelirikk himself had taken a hit, besides getting his lungs full of sleepy gas. He’d been taken to the Port Trauma Center and placed in an autodoc. According to papers found on the body, the deader was Malapat See, first mate on the small cargo ship Zindel.

Val Con and Theo had managed to get out the back door, and here was where the story turned scary. . .Val Con was also in a ‘doc at the Port Trauma Center; the three deaders all carrying papers identifying them as crew on Teramondi, out of Waymart. Naturally.

Theo was, according to Bechimo–and who was she to doubt a ship on the matter of the whereabouts of his captain?–Theo was located on that same Teramondi, against her will. So Bechimo insisted, and she wasn’t going to argue that point, either.

The port was locked down, which was good, as far as it went. A determined captain–or a crazy one–could lift despite the niceties; she might even be able to dodge whatever weapons the port could bring to bear. But if she didn’t dodge with skill and luck, her ship was dead–and so was Theo.

So far, Teramondi was playing nice, which made sense. If she was a hostage, then Theo was the captain’s payday, and no reason to put her in harm’s way.

Miri turned away from the window, walked back to the desk, and frowned down at the screen.

Penn had ID’d a couple slackers from his streets, and had sent a vid of their questioning. Miri scooped Fondi off the chair and sat down, putting him on her lap. He jumped down, naturally enough, and she leaned forward to tap up the vid.

The two slackers were Jewlz Abnety–tall, ruddy, and balding–and Peet Forsh–short, with unkempt dark hair and a scraggly beard.

They cheerfully admitted to taking money to do mischief.

“Why wouldn’t we?” asked Jewlz, with a shrug. “Just bidness, Penn. Can’t blame us for doin’ bidness.”

“Dunno,” Peet said, shaking his head over the question of who exactly had hired them. “Never seen ‘er before, and no, we din’t ask who she was. Lady wants us to have ‘er name, she’ll offer, right? Figured ‘er for a newbie, but what’s to worry. ‘er money was good.”

It turned out her money had been good–plain and serviceable Surebleak cash, which they took out of their pockets and put down on the desk with visible reluctance.

“C’mon, now, Penn, we earned that cash,” Jewlz said; “an’ it ain’t likely we’re gonna get the rest, now you decided to butt in.”

“That’s not all of it?” Penn asked, eyeing the considerable sum they’d dug out of their pockets.

Peet threw his partner a frown.

Nah, ain’t all of it,” he told Penn, sounding aggrieved. “Half up front; half after we done the job. S’posed to meet ‘er at Jimstin’s hour gone. Were on our way over there when the sleet-eatin’ patrol picked us up, and dragged us over here to you, like you din’t know who we was! All us growed up t’gether, right here on these streets, din’t we?”

“That’s right,” Penn said. “I figured you two would know what going on. Always got your ears on the street. I know that.”

Peet actually looked mollified.

“Anyhoots,” he said with a shrug, “prolly there’s no payday, now we’re so late.”

He was, Miri thought, probably right about that.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Penn said. “Tell you what. You pick up what’s already been paid, and go along with Joey here, and his friend Kyan from the patrol.”

Peet and Jewlz exchanged a look. A very wary look, for which Miri didn’t exactly blame them. They both looked over their shoulders at Joey Valish, Penn’s head ‘hand, who was keeping an eye on things from the rear. Joey gave them an easy nod.

“Go where?” Jewlz asked, turning back to Penn.

“Just step down to Jimstin’s. Could be the lady waited for you. If so, I’d like a word with her, that’s all.”

Peet’s face rumpled behind the beard.

“Ah, c’mon, Penn! You’re gonna blow our cred! How’re we gonna do bidness, after rattin’ a customer?”

Penn considered him.

“Might be you’ll hafta find some bidness other than wrecking my streets,” he said mildly, and Miri saw Jewlz take a step back from the desk.

“But, sleet, have it your way,” Penn continued, still in that too-mild voice. “We grew together on these streets, like you said. So maybe you’d like to leave that money right here, and step along with Patrol Officer Kyan to the Whosegow, an’ keep your cred.”

“Hey!” yelled Peet.

“Or, you can keep the money and take Joey and Kyan with you down to Jimstin’s and point out the lady, if it so happens she’s there.”

Peet looked at Jewlz.

Jewlz looked at Peet.

They both looked at the money.

“Thunder an’ ice,” Jewlz muttered.

“Yeah, yeah.” Peet leaned forward and grabbed a handful of money, shoving it into his coat pocket.

“So, Joey, you gonna buy us a drink?”

“Figured you two’d stand me,” Joey answered. “Bein’ as you just had a payday.”

Jewlz finished stashing his money, and nodded at Penn.

“Good luck, Boss,” he said, and the look on his face was downright ugly, Miri thought.

Joey might’ve had the same issue with the tone of voice. He looked over Jewlz’s head to Penn, who moved his right shoulder in a shrug so slight it took somebody used to dealing with Liadens to see it.

“C’mon, you two!” Joey said, nice and loud. “I got a bad thirst comin’ on, just listenin’ to the pair o’you. Let’s pick up Kyan and hit Jimston’s, what say?”

“Sounds great,” Peet muttered, as him and Jewlz followed Joey out.

Penn stood up from behind his desk, and the vid ended.

Miri sighed. No doubt but Peet was right; the newbie lady’d gotten off the street well before trouble started, and was intending to stay low, if she hadn’t left planet by now.

Granting Penn had dibs, Miri wanted a word with the lady, herself.

“Not much chance of that, either,” she muttered, shaking her head. She raised her voice slightly.

“Port’s on lock-down,” she said.

“Yes, Miri,” said Jeeves.

“Right, but here’s what–she didn’t have to come down at Port. Could’ve taken a rough landing back in the beyond, past Melina’s boundaries, so she could get out fast.”

Bechimo and I have been analyzing traffic, with just such a scenario in mind,” Jeeves told her. “Thus far, we have not found evidence of any unauthorized lifts. Nor have we found evidence of any ship, saving Bechimo, landing in districts other than Surebleak Port, going back six local months.”

Which, Miri thought grumpily, could just mean that the shielding on Ms. Newbie’s ship was that good. On the other hand, she could be one of the several agents of the Department of the Interior they knew to be lurking in Surebleak’s population.

Or she could not be a newbie at all, but a ‘bleaker from another turf, who happened to be a member of Take Back Surebleak, and wanted to stir things up.

Trouble with you, Robertson, she told herself, is you married into trouble, and the list of people unhappy with Clan Korval and its doings just keeps getting longer.

She sighed and moved over to the buffet to draw herself a cup of coffee.

The dust-up in the city, now, that did look like Take Back Surebleak. Knocking out windows and setting fire to small business–that was a page, or even two, out of the former Bosses handbook on how to intimidate streeters.

On the port, though. . .

On the port, they’d hit the Portmaster’s office, and the Emerald– owned and operated by Boss Conrad, the conqueror of Surebleak, himself. Luken bel’Tarda’s Tantara Floor Coverings displayed the Tree-and-Dragon right in the front window–the same front window that’d been knocked out. Andy Mack, who’d been on Surebleak the whole time was a vocal supporter of the changes, the Council of Bosses, and the new ordering of everything.

And the Road Boss. . .

The Road Boss hadn’t exactly made themselves the friends of the streeter on the street. First problem was that they followed the rules and regulations put down by the Council of Bosses; imposed and collected fines for improper use of the Road, and weight limit violations.

Not only that, they didn’t sell exceptions to those who were willing to pay up to half the cost of a legitimate fine as a bribe for the Road Boss to look the other way. Worse, they’d done nothing more or less than made a zample of the used-to-was chairman of the Citizens Heavy Loads Committee, for trying to get the exceptions gig working like it was BBC–Before Boss Conrad.

Sure, Take Back Surebleak had a grievance against the Road Boss.

But, Miri thought, sipping her coffee, did they have a grievance big enough to justify taking a hostage? The Old Bosses hadn’t done much in the way of hostage-taking–more efficient to kill trouble-makers, or burn ’em out.

Add in the hiring of off-worlders to do the street’s dirty work–it just didn’t scan like Surebleak.

The Department of the Interior, now: hostages and mind-games was their home turf. If it was the Department, the the next thing they could expect would be an offer to trade–Theo for Val Con, and Val Con knowing just a little too exactly what they’d likely do to Theo if he refused the deal.

“Courier at the gate,” Jeeves said; making some effort to keep his voice soft. She jumped anyway, and spilled her coffee.

By the time she had mopped up, the front door bell had rung, and Jeeves reported Mr. pel’Kana going to answer.

She stepped to the desk to watch the live feed.

Mr. pel’Kana opened the door to a Surebleak kid ID’d on the screen as Jilanne Alami. She handed him a bag.

“Customer said it’s for the delm of Korval, but if the Road Boss was to home, that would be OK, too.”

“Thank you,” Mr. pel’Kana said solemnly, and put a couple bits into the kid’s hand.

“Thanks!” she responded, and swung onto the back of a bright red duocycle, of the sort that were showing up everywhere all of a sudden. Miri blamed the Scouts.

She executed a showy turn, nearly putting the cycle flat down on its side, and zoomed off for the gate.

Mr. pel’Kana closed the front door; the screen flipped back to the news queue. Miri put her coffee cup down on the desk, and there was a knock at the office door.

“Come,” she said, and Mr. pel’Kana and the bag entered.

“This arrived by courier, your Ladyship,” he said. “For the delm of Korval or the Road Boss.”

“Thank you, Mr. pel’Kana.” The bag was heavier than it looked, and Miri felt a shiver go down her spine.

“Would you care for a tray, ma’am? Mrs. ana’Tak has just taken some sweet rolls out.”

“Thank you, but no,” Miri said; and Mr. pel’Kana bowed and went away, closing the door quietly behind him.

Miri carried the bag to the desk and opened it.

Black space leather unrolled across desktop and keyboard. She didn’t need to see anything more than the pattern of wear on the left sleeve to know whose jacket it was.

Even knowing already that Theo had been taken, and exactly where she was being held. . .it took her breath to see the Jump pilot’s jacket that Theo would part with only at the cost of her life. . .

Deep breath, Robertson, she told herself.

She put her hands on the leather–well-worn, supple as silk–and methodically went through each and every pocket, no matter how secret, putting what she found in each on the desk.

When she was done, she had a tidy little pile–three cantra pieces; a lesser amount of Terran cash; a sleek little hideaway; a multiuse tool; a snap-knife; a GPS; a data-key with probably her PIC, and guild info on it. . .

Exactly the sort of things you expect to find in the pockets of working pilot, except for one thing.

Pilot’s license.

Miri searched again, making sure of all the pockets, public and private.

No, whoever had taken Theo had kept the license, too, and that definitively took this part of today’s business off Surebleak, and put it into DOI territory.

Funny, she thought, looking down at the jacket, and the little pile of Theo’s belongings–funny, there wasn’t any note. Or maybe not, given her reaction to the jacket’s arrival. Maybe they were meant to stew for a while, softened up by worry, before the DOI made its proposal.

Miri took another deep breath, closed her eyes, and ran the Scout’s Rainbow, seeking calm, and distance.

“Jeeves,” she said, when she was done; “what’s the update with Emissary Twelve?”

“She remains in communion with the Tree.”

“Got a lot of catching up to do,” Miri said. “Aelliana and Daav?”

“They are following local events via hand-held.”

Miri nodded.

“Ask Mr. pel’Kana to take them a tray, please. I–“

She put her hand on Theo’s jacket; looked at the things she had taken from the pockets–and the one thing that she hadn’t.

“I’m going to take a nap. Please see that no one disturbs me for the next hour.”

There was a small pause, as if she’d startled him, which, she might’ve done, at that. Peculiar time for a nap, somebody might think.

In most cases, it would be true.

In this case, she needed to talk to a man about a jacket–a man who was currently in an autodoc at the Port.

* * *

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