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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter One

       Last updated: Sunday, January 14, 2018 10:33 EST



    “Now watch that you don’t take this corner too short again!” Cady snarled as we approached the entrance of Bergen and Associates. “If you knock the gate post down, the repairs come straight out of your pay!”

    “Yes,” I said, not shouting, not mumbling, just speaking in an ordinary voice. If I didn’t say anything, he’d keep shouting at me, and I was already nervous about turning into the shipyard.

    I had clipped the corner of the Petersburg warehouse yesterday, the first time I drove the chandlery flatbed. There was no real harm done: paint smeared on the side of the truck, and wood splinters bristling on the edge of the building.

    I’d sanded the corner off and repainted it on my own time; not even Cady could claim that the battered old truck was damaged so that it mattered. You could’ve used it for a gunnery target and it wouldn’t look any worse than it did already.

    Still, it saved Cady from finding something else to ride me about. Though he’d have managed regardless, of that I had no doubt. Cady didn’t have any real rank at the Petersburg Chandlery, but he’d married old Fritzi’s daughter. Any time Fritzi wasn’t watching, Cady acted like he was the boss.

    I downshifted into the creeper gear and started hauling on the big horizontal steering wheel. I was trying to watch in both side mirrors while Cady kept yammering at me. I got the nose through and stuck my head out of the cab to shout at the watchman: “Petersburg to pick up three High Drives for reconditioning?”

    The watchman was missing his left ear and the sleeve on that side was pinned up. He squinted at his display and called back, “That’s Bay One, to the left. Back right up to the dock. I’ll let ’em know you’re here.”

    Bergen and Associates was big for a private yard. A trio of four- to six-thousand-ton freighters were being serviced now, and the docks could hold vessels much bigger than them. I was facing Bay 2 in big red letters across a trackway two hundred feet wide. I turned left, keeping close to the administrative buildings along the back fence, and pulled up when I thought I’d gone far enough.

    “If you’ll get out and guide me,” I said to Cady, “I’ll back up to the loading dock.”

    “Who do you figure you are to give me orders, Academy boy?” Cady said, leaning against the cab door to face me. He was a big fellow and not as fat as he was going to be in a few more years of beer and fried food.

    “I’m not ordering you, Cady,” I said. I wished I’d come alone, but this really was a two-man job. I unlatched my door. “Look, you back her up and I’ll guide you, I don’t care.”

    “Well, I bloody care!” Cady said. “You don’t need a guide. Just do your bloody job!”

    I hopped out of the cab and walked toward the admin building. An old spacer came out the door, calling something behind him. “Hey, buddy?” I said. “I need a ground guide over to Bay One. You got a minute?”

    I wasn’t going to back through the shipyard without a guide. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, but a lowboy was trundling past behind a tractor right now.

    Besides, it’d just be stupid. I couldn’t help that Cady was being a jerk, but he wasn’t going to make me stupid.

    “Yeah, sure,” the spacer said. “You’re here for those High Drives I want rebuilt?”

    I opened my mouth to agree when the door opened again, and I recognized the girl who’d come out behind him.

    “Roy!” she said. “Roy Olfetrie! It is you, isn’t it?”

    “Hi, Miranda,” I said. “Gosh, I hadn’t thought to run into you. What’re you doing at Bergen’s? Working in the office?”

    Miranda was dressed pretty well for a clerk, but she and her mother could sew like nobody’s business. She’d never looked out of place when our families got together after her father died as an RCN captain, leaving his widow and two children on a survivors’ pension.

    The woman in RCN utilities who followed Miranda out of the office was six and a half feet tall. Her open left palm looked like she could drive spikes with it, and the expression she gave me made me think that I’d do for a spike if I got out of line.

    “Not exactly,” Miranda said with the laugh I remembered from the old days. “My husband owns the yard. I’ve come up in the world, Roy.”

    I smiled, but I guess there was something in my face because Miranda suddenly looked like I’d started sobbing. Which I hadn’t done, even when it first happened.

    “Ma’am?” the spacer I’d first spoken to said to Miranda. “I need to get back to the Pocahontas. And kid?” This to me. “I figure Chief Woetjans can guide you as well as I could.”

    “Look, kid!” Cady shouted from the truck. “We got work to do. Get your ass back in here!”

    “In a bit!” I called over my shoulder. I felt hot because of what I’d done to Miranda, or anyway how I’d made her feel even though I hadn’t meant to. “Look, Miranda, the problem was nothing to do with anybody but Dad himself. I couldn’t be happier that you’ve been doing well. I don’t know anybody who deserves it more.”

    “I heard about the trouble,” she said, turning her eyes a little away. “I was very sorry.”

    Everybody on Cinnabar had heard about “the trouble,” I guess, at least if they paid any attention to the news. That was just the way it was, same as if I’d been caught in the rain. Only a lot worse.

    “Well, it’s not so bad,” I lied. “I dropped out of the Academy and got a job with a ship chandler for now. After things settle down I’ll look for something –”

    “Watch out!” Miranda shouted, looking past me.

    I hunched over. Cady’s big fist grazed my scalp, but he didn’t catch me square in the temple like he’d planned to do.

    I punched him twice in the gut, left and right. I’d boxed at the Academy. I didn’t have the footwork to be welterweight champion, but the instructors said I had a good punch. A bloody good punch, and I was mad enough to give Cady all I had.



    I stepped back as Cady dived forward on his nose. He’d been trying to grab me with his left hand and just overbalanced when I doubled him up. He wasn’t hurt bad, but he’d remember me every time he sat up for the next few days.

    Cady got his feet under him but didn’t stand. “Cady!” I said. “Let’s quit now and it won’t go any further!”

    I wasn’t sure what to do next. Hitting Cady on the head wasn’t going to do anything but break my knuckles, and there was no way I could keep punching him in the gut without him getting a hand on me. Then it’d be all she wrote: It’s not like there was a referee to call him for fouling me, after all.

    Somebody’d been opening crates at the edge of the loading dock. When Cady finally stood up, he had a crowbar in his right fist.

    “Hey, kid!” called the big woman with Miranda. I let my eyes flick toward her. She tossed me the length of high-pressure tubing that she must’ve been holding along her right leg. I hadn’t seen it behind Miranda.

    “Hey!” said Cady as I caught it. I cut at his head. He got his left arm up in time to block me, but I heard a bone break when I caught him just above the wrist.

    Cady swung the crowbar in a broad haymaker that would’ve cut me in half if it’d landed, blunt as the bar was. I stepped back and smashed his right elbow so his weapon went sailing into the trackway, sparking and bouncing on the packed gravel.

    I guess I could’ve stopped then — yard personnel were swarming around, most of them carrying a tool or a length of pipe. I had my blood up, though. Cady’d given me a chance to get back not just at him but at the way the world had gone in the past three months.

    I cracked him on the forehead with all the strength of my arm. He went down on his face, bleeding badly from the pressure cut.

    I moved back and hunched to suck in all the air I could through my mouth. People were talking — shouting, some of them. I could hear them, right enough, but it was like hearing the surf: There was a lot of noise, but my brain wasn’t up to making sense of it. I started to wonder if Cady had connected better with my head than I’d thought he had.

    The big woman walked up beside me and shouted, “All right, spacers! Two of you get this garbage out the gate and into the gutter, all right?”

    I straightened; I was all right now. “Wait!” I said. “He’s been injured.”

    “You got that right,” chuckled a man holding a ten-pound hammer. “Nice job, kid.”

    “Look,” I said, not sure how to say what I meant. For that matter, my brain wasn’t as clear as I’d like it to be. “He needs medical attention. This yard’s got a Medicomp, doesn’t it?”

    It must. Bergen and Associates were too big and successful not to.

    “Yes, bring him in,” Miranda said. “That’s all right, isn’t it, Master Mon?”

    “If you say so, Mistress,” said the man in a suit who’d come out after the fight started. “Tapley and Gerstall, get him into the unit.”

    He looked at me, friendly enough but sizing me up just the same. He added, “It looked to me like he was getting about what he deserved, though.”

    “Yeah,” I said, “but I don’t want to kill him. I didn’t even want to fight him.”

    I’m out of a job. The sudden realization almost made me vomit. Knocking Cady out wouldn’t hurt me for getting another job particularly, but I’d had trouble enough getting in with Petersburg. Maybe being out of the news for three more months would help this time.

    Men were hauling Cady inside to where the Medicomp was. I started to give the length of tubing back to the woman who’d loaned it to me, then realized the tip was bloody. I wiped it on the leg of my trousers — I’d have used Cady’s shirt if I’d thought about it soon enough — and handed it to her. “Thank you, ma’am,” I said.

    She chuckled. “I guess I’d have done more if it seemed like I needed to,” she said. “Which I sure didn’t.”

    “What’s all this about?” said the fellow Miranda had called Mon. He must be the boss, because most of the folks who’d come over to watch were going back to their work.

    “Sir, nothing, really,” I said. “We’re just here to pick up three High Drives for Petersburg Chandlery and, well, Cady took a swing at me because I was chatting with Mistress Dorst.” Which she wasn’t, but it was too late to change even if I’d known Miranda’s married name.

    “That’s right, Mon,” Miranda said. “Roy and I are old friends. Our mothers are cousins, you see.”

    Mon shrugged. “No business of mine, then.” He looked at the workmen still present and added, “Raskin, get this truck to Bay One and load it up. Weiler, Jackson, you give him a hand.”

    Then to me again, “You just sit for a bit, Master. Come into the office and we’ll find you some cacao — or a shot of something if you’d rather. I don’t want you driving until you’re doing better than you are right now.”

    “Thank you, sir,” I said. “I’ll be all right by the time they’ve got the truck loaded, but my throat’s dry, that’s a fact.”

    “Roy, I’ve got to run now,” Miranda said, “but drop in and see me some time soon, please. Miranda Leary at Chatsworth Minor in the Pentacrest District.”

    She waved and went off with the big woman — Miranda’s bodyguard, obviously. She looked able to do that job, no question.

    I followed Mon inside and down a short hallway to his office in back. There wasn’t a clerk or receptionist. “So…?” he said, pouring cacao for both of us. “You know Mistress Leary pretty well?”

    It was obvious that there was a right answer and a wrong one to that question, at least in Mon’s mind. I took the mug and said, “Her twin and my older brother Dean Junior were best friends right up and through the RCN Academy. They were both killed in action. I don’t think I’ve seen Miranda in two years.”

    That was the truth. What I say is generally the truth. When I was a kid I learned that I’m not a good liar, and I’ve never tried to get better at it.

    Mon gestured me to a couch and sat behind the desk. I drank. I figured I’d finish the cacao and go out to the truck. They’d probably be finished loading it by then, and if not, it’d still give me a chance to work off some of the tremors.

    “Six always had an eye for the ladies,” Mon said with a nostalgic smile. “He sure picked a different one to marry, though. Mistress Leary is sharp as sharp. Not that she’s not pretty too, I mean.”

    “I’ve always thought that about Miranda,” I said. “At any rate…”

    I look a long swallow; the cacao had been sitting awhile and wasn’t over warm.

    I stood and set the empty mug by the pot. “At any rate, she was too smart to let my brother get any further than good friends. A lot of girls weren’t. Junior was a fine man and a fine RCN officer, but he wasn’t the marrying kind.”

    Mon chuckled as he walked me out of the office. “To tell the truth,” he said, “I’d have said the same thing about Six. But he found a good one when he changed his mind.”

    As I crossed the trackway, I noticed that the Bergen yard seemed a happy place as well as a busy one. I was pretty sure that if I asked Miranda to have me put on here, she’d make it happen.

    I’d rather swab latrines than do that. I hadn’t tried in two years to see her. I wasn’t going to show up as a beggar now.

    But the rent was due at the end of the week, and I wouldn’t bet Fritzi was even going to pay me for time worked. He didn’t treat Cady like much, but Cady was still family.

    Oh, well. One thing at a time.

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