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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Monday, November 30, 2009 20:27 EST



    One of the nicest things about Pausert as younger man. Goth decided, was that he looked to her for leadership. Not that she wanted him to all the time, but she could see how their roles would change as they grew older. Now, he was very trusting of her. If she’d said to almost any other person, “‘I need to sell this miffel-fur coat,” they would have wanted to know why, and formed opinions about her because of that. Pausert had just smiled and said that there really was only one place to sell that kind of thing, and that he’d show her the way straight after school. Now she just had to survive school.

    The new uniform prickled and scratched, especially on her Makemake stung parts. The boys and the girls stared. And talked. Taking Pausert’s mother’s advice, she did not punch them for doing so. She just smiled politely. She did, during the recess on the large quadrangle, ‘port a frog from the biology dissections in among a gossiping bunch of them who had been studiously ignoring her. It was foolish of them to assume that she couldn’t hear them or it didn’t matter if she did. She was able to sit, demurely, hands together on her lap, through the screaming and subsequent fight with the boys they thought responsible.

    She went to ad.math class and carefully made two mistakes, just enough to be good but not as good as some of the boys. There’d be time to move soon. Once again Pausert’s mother’s survival course on ‘how to be a social chameleon at school’ made that rite of passage possible. Only Pausert seemed in the slightest suspicious — possibly because she’d done one of those problems with him yesterday. Or possibly because he knew his mother. The teacher put her to sit beside him, plainly intended as a punishment, a social solescism. It was the sort of punishment she was happy to endure. He didn’t seem too put out by it either.

    They left the class with a sea of homework… and smiles on their faces. Goth was aware of the reaction from the other children. The looks. It was a steep learning curve, this. She’d followed the captain, and observed Hulik do Eldel and Sunnat with the captain. She’d of course seen other Karres teens, and the interactions between them. But in a society of klatha-users, with adult teaching patterns resident in their heads, interactions were more restrained and yet more advanced and mature. This was different. She was indeed learning a great deal on her ‘very important year’. She hadn’t anticipated learning it from ordinary school-children, but from deadly dangers and the defense of Karres and all it held dear.

    That would have been easier, really.

    Later, with the miffel-fur coat, Goth and Pausert set out for the narrow streets of a poorer part of town. This was plainly one of the first areas settled here on prosperous little Nikkeldepain — back when there had been neither prosperity nor much in the way of building materials. Grik-dogs had bigger kennels. It was the kind of area that spacers avoided, unless they were looking to sell something they shouldn’t have or, equally, to buy something stolen or illegal. Goth had to wonder just how come a boy like Pausert knew his way down here. She asked. He shrugged. “We have had to sell a few things. Some of Great Uncle’s souvenirs. We’re not supposed to do that until the will is finalized, even though all of it has been left to my mother, and they’re things he left sitting in Ma’s house for her. So we had to sell it down here. And, well, this is Nikkeldepain. You won’t get kidnapped or anything.”

    Goth wondered if she should tell him how wrong he was, but decided it wisest to keep that part of the story to herself, for the next few years. They arrived at an unremarkable doorway — unremarkable except that it had a small surveillance camera hidden in the archway. Goth, well trained by both Hulik and Vezzarn, professional spies, spotted it at once. Seeing as Pausert was knocking and absorbed in this task, Goth did a little light-shift on both of them. One never knew just who was watching.

    The door, obviously controlled by some kind of remote locking device, creaked open. They went inside, up a flight of stairs into what, unless Goth was very much mistaken, was a room that would make the the local flatfeet almost ectatic to find — if they were not fooled by the appearance of a small second-hand junk-store. They might be pleased to find the proprietor too. Franco was a lot less pleased to find Goth staring at him. His mouth fell open, and the second or two’s shock gave Goth the opportunity to reach over his desk and slam his fingers in the drawer.

    Franco clutched his hand and stared at her in naked terror. “How… did you find me?”

    “Followed my nose,” said Goth. “You should bathe more often.”

    “She made me do it,” protested Franco weakly. He wasn’t, sadly, referring to the bathing.

    Goth nodded. She’d already got her own back on him, her Toll-pattern said. He could be useful. But she needed him scared. “I think you know who I am,” she said in a steely voice. “So don’t make me angry. Or you’ll suffer the consequences.”

    “Uh. Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Franco, wringing his fingers. But Goth noticed his eyes flicker towards the far door.

    Escape? Or backup? “Unlike you, I really have got friends,” she said as Pausert looked on in puzzlement. “A friend who knows exactly where I am, and who I am with.” Goth neglected to mention that he was also standing next to her, but under the circumstances not even the captain could have felt that was dishonest.

    “Uh…” He suddenly must have realized that Goth must have at least heard Marshi deciding to kill him. “What can I do for you?”

    Pausert provided him with a wobbly smile, trying to smooth over whatever the hidden undercurrent was. “We’ve brought in this coat to sell.”

    Goth could literally see Franco’s mind jumping to the wrong conclusions, as he looked at a previous seller. He thought Pausert was selling it, not her. That she was accompanying him, not the other way around. “From your mother,” he said, attempting a false smile too.

    “That’s for him to know. Not you,” said Goth sternly. “It’s not hot property. That’s all you have to know.”

    “As if I would touch stolen property…” He withered under Goth’s gaze. “It’s not new…”

    “It’s in good condition and it has a collar of gold-tipped lelaundel. The collar alone is worth as much as the coat. I put that at about four thousand Maels.”

    “You must be jo… uh, yes. A very fine coat. But not new.”

    “New would be twice that. Or more.”

    The fence swallowed. “It’s a lot of money.”

    Goth just stared coldly at him.

    He sighed. “Four thousand it is, then. And, uh, no… no comebacks?”

    Goth smiled her nastiest smile. “Not about the coat. Give him the money, Franco.”

    So the fence did. Pausert of course tried to pass it to her. “Hang on to it,” said Goth. “I might need a free hand or something. I’ll be seeing you, Franco. Don’t go anywhere.”

    The fence’s imagination was obviously a vivid one. He started to sweat. “Look…”



    “Later,” said Goth. “I have to go now. You behave yourself.”


    “Open the door, please.”

    And they were out in the dingy street, walking away.

    “Quite soon,” said Goth quietly, “we’re going to run. ‘Kay?”

    Pausert nodded. “What was that all about?”

    “I’ll explain sometime.”

    “He gave you really good price,” said Pausert, plainly surprised.

    “He’ll do that for you in future too. His conscience just started working.”

    Goth didn’t mention that she was Franco’s new conscience. And that she’d being going back, later. She just said: “Let’s do some running.” So they did. Whether it was necessary or not, Goth actually enjoyed the exercise. She was going to have to see Pausert got more of it by the way he was panting. He was walking fit, but he needed more running! And he needed get more to eat. She began to vaguely understand how her mother felt!

    Once they got back towards the better part of Nikkeldepain city Goth called a halt. Panting they stopped. Pausert fished out the bundle of money and handed it to her. Goth immediately toyed with the idea of giving half of it back to him. Regretfully she had to shelve that idea. Firstly getting him to take it would be an enormous effort. Secondly he’d probably give it to his mother. And that would make a whole new layer of explanations that Goth did not want to deal with. She’d have to do it more indirectly. “I need a drink, and something to eat. And before you say anything, it’s my treat — you’ve earned it. Commission. That’s business, see. You took me to a place which I would never have found on my own and got me a fair price for the coat.”

    “I am worried about that,” said Pausert. “He’s not usually very generous, you know, but at least he pays. Some others didn’t. Took us a while to find out about him.”

    Goth resolved to quietly find out about those who had plainly taken Pausert’s mother to the cleaners. She wasn’t into general retribution, but this… this was family. “That was a good price, more than Thr — my father paid for it new, but this is a different planet, I guess. Now, let’s get some food.”

    Pausert looked around. Looked up at the building they were standing in front of. His face twisted with fury. “Not here. Unless you want to eat paper and excuses.” That was not an expression Goth had seen on his face before. Also she could feel the rising klatha energy, that he certainly didn’t know he was putting out. She noted the name of the building, something called the Nikkeldepain Central Records office. She’s better get him out of the area, before he, or it, caught fire. “Let’s run a bit more,” she said.

    “Yeah. I got the energy for it now,” he said, tersely.

    So they did. A little further on they came to a small deli, out of sight of the building. Goth had it figured now. The records office that refused to declare her father dead. A little spurt of laughter nearly made her choke on her pastry. They didn’t know how right they were.



    Later, back in the apartment, preparing supper and with her homework behind her, Goth got back to thinking about just how she would straighten up Pausert’s money problems. And quite what to do about Franco. Once she’d eaten, she decided, she’d go back there. In no-shape.

    It was twilight and the narrow streets of old Nikkeldepain were beginning to come to life. Goth was glad to be invisible. Compared to some of the places she’d been it was very mild. But she’d been to them with the captain or with her sisters. She waited until a ‘customer’ knocked at Franco’s door, and slipped in through the door behind him.

    The fence had added a bodyguard to his room furnishings. He was also nervously holding a blaster just out of sight, below the edge of his desk. Goth ‘ported away the charges out of both it and the blaster of the low-browed heavy he had watching over him. Then she had a quiet snoop around. The interior of this room merely held what any small dealer in second-hand goods might possibly have in their possession. Goth waited. She’d had to wait a while for the ‘customer’. Business for a fence on Nikkeldepain was not brisk, it seemed. The small packet of jewelry of dubious provenance was dealt with, then the bodyguard saw the man out. Goth waited. The bodyguard came back, and the still nervous Franco took the packet through into the next room. It was a storeroom, to all appearances. But Franco carefully locked the heavy door behind him, pushed his handkerchief into the key-hole and moved to the fireplace. The mantel-shelf held a clock. The fence adjusted the time and a piece of wall slid away. Inside was yet another door, which the fence unlocked to give access to his stash-hole. He put the packet into it, and locked it again.

    Goth considered her options. The hidden safe was easy enough for her to access. Yet she’d bet that the fence would get really nasty about defending it. No point in that. She wanted answers, not his loot. So she let him leave again, locking her in there. Then she investigated the locked room. It had a bathroom, which was in the sort of state she should have expected from Franco. But that had once had a window, and that window had been welded shut with a steel plate and some bars.

    Goth quietly ‘ported bits of the weld elsewhere. It fell away with a clang that Goth just had to hope wouldn’t be noticed. It did let some welcome fresh air into the place. Then she sat down on one of the second-hand chairs Franco claimed to deal in, and took a school set-work out of her pocket and did some studying while she waited.

    Franco did eventually return. Goth was actually quite relieved. Why didn’t they choose books that anyone might wish to read for set-works? He went through his process of locking himself in and poking his dirty handkerchief into the keyhole before Goth interrupted him.

    “A decent spy ray could work out what you’re up to anyway.”

    He started like a frightened bollem and nearly knocked himself out trying to run through the sturdy closed and locked door, and then fumbled for his weapon.

    “I wouldn’t do that,” said Goth. “I’d hate to have to shoot you, even if you were planning to shoot me.” Goth held his blaster — the one he’d lost back in the apartment — pointed steadily at him.

    “That… that was her. It was her idea, I swear.”

    Goth shrugged. “You were part of it.”

    “She’d have killed me otherwise. She tried.”

    “I’m not really interested in your excuses. Or even in you,” said Goth. “I just want some answers. If you co-operate I’ll let you live. And unlike you, I have nothing to lose by doing so.”

    “You’re not really a young girl… are you?”

    “What do you think?” asked Goth, her tone chillier than the methane glaciers of Metrone III.

    “I mean… you can’t be. How did you get in here?”

    “That’s for me to know. I’m here to ask the questions, not you. Now start by telling me all that you know about Marshi and Mebeckey.”



    “But… you’ve just sentenced them to forty years in the Kaba mines.”

    Ah. He was rather mistaken as to who Goth was. Well, she wasn’t going to change that. “The locals did that for us, yes. But I haven’t — yet — told them about you. So: you tell me all you know and I’ll leave it that way.”

    Franco nodded eagerly, and started to spill his guts.

    “See I get things, some things that are just too hot, or too distinctive to sell here. I got a contact from my days on the freight run…I send stuff to this dealer on Arc’s world. In the Republic of Sirius, see. He also ships into the Empire worlds. Different laws and not a lot of talk between their police and ours. I sell things he can’t get rid of because their cops have a treaty with the Imperials. It’s mostly small stuff. He’ll take gems and he pays top Mael for antiquities. Not many of them come my way. But I got some bits from the kid’s mother. He was happy to take stuff like that off my hands. And then there was this odd-shaped goblet.”

    Franco chewed his lip. “About three weeks after I sent it through with my usual courier, I got a long-distance subradio call. They needed me to track that seller. They said the information was worth a lot of money to me. I knew who it was, of course. It wasn’t a secret. So I told them I could find the seller for a fee, see. Money for old rope. Next thing Mebeckey and his ship came here. And Mebeckey wasn’t shy about parting with a cool ten thousand Maels for that information. I thought I was onto a good thing. I don’t make that much of a living at this,” he sniveled. “Not a lot of hot stuff here.”

    “Concentrate on going on living,” said Goth.

    “Well, see, I knew where the woman works. I just had to ask a few questions and it turns out she’s the niece of that Threbus — the explorer-captain who caused a lot of uproar here. They had me follow up the ships he’d used for his voyages. So then they wanted to get hold of the logs. I got scared. Said they could do the digging themselves… That Mebeckey told me I’d be digging my own grave. And he came up with more money. Gave me some rough dates — about twenty imperial years back. Turned out he was using an old pirate chaser — a ship called the Venture 7333, back then. So then they wanted to break into to the ship registry, and try to get hold the ship’s logs that way. But turns out the boat’s been moth-balled and was sitting in that old crook Onswud shipyards, and Patham alone knows what had happened to her log.”

    “And then?”

    “They pretended that they wanted to buy her. Onswud was all over them. They had their ‘engineers’ check out the ship — which was just me and Mebeckey and two of his crew. They searched the ship from stem to stern, but they never found what they were looking for. They wouldn’t tell me what it was back then either. But when they couldn’t find anything there they dropped out of the deal. Onswud was spitting, offering them a cut-price deal. The old shark hadn’t had a lease on the ship since Threbus last used it. But they sloped off and started on checking out Threbus’s niece, seeing as that was where the goblet-thing came from. I don’t see how any human ever drank out of it… Anyway, they tell me to find them a cat-burglar. So I got Mirkon for them. He isn’t the best, but he was available for a bit of rough stuff — and I wanted him involved see. He owes me. And I thought maybe, seeing as they’re looking this hard, it must be really valuable, see. Only now Mirkon’s doing ten to twenty in Kaba, so I guess I am not going to get that money,” he said disgustedly. “Anyway up to then, they’d been being very cautious. Ruthless but cautious. And then this woman arrives. Marshi. Seems like it was Marshi, not Mebeckey, that was in charge. And once she got here… well, she stopped at nothing.”

    “Not at first. She was cautious at first.”

    He nodded. “Scary woman. Even before she tried to kill me. Almost not human. There is a sort of desperation to her, like I’ve seen with drug-addicts who can’t get their drug.” He shrugged. “I wouldn’t cross her. She didn’t really care about anything else. She just wanted that map.”

    “My organization has a history of dealing with desperate and dangerous people,” Goth had reassured him.

    He’d looked warily at her. “How did you get in here?”

    He’d earned some sort of misleading comfort — which would help to protect her too, Goth decided. “Your bathroom window.”

    He’d actually looked faintly relieved. “So… What are you going to do to me?” he asked warily, the little weasely eyes looking for a way out.

    “Tie you up and leave. You have told me what I wanted to know. Or rather confirmed it. We’ll deal with the rest of them. But just one word of warning. You take one step out of line with Pausert or his mother, and…” she drew a finger across her throat. “He has some very powerful relations.” That was the best word she could come up with on the spur of the moment.

    Franco took “relations” as meaning something entirely different to the grand-nephew of Captain Threbus. “Oh. I didn’t know,” he said sweating anew. There were some powerful crime families in the Empire. The Shinn-Borozo were almost a law unto themselves.

    “Now you do. Leave him alone. We’ll be watching. Now turn around and put your hands behind your back.”

    He did. Goth tied his hands with some rope from his own stock. She did a good job of it, and gagged him with a piece of cloth, before tying his feet. She then went through his pockets. By the way his eyes bulged he assumed he was going to be robbed, but all she did was to remove his blaster and the key. She unlocked the door. “You should be able to wiggle your way over and kick it,” she said. “At the moment you are worth more to us alive than dead. Better hope neither I nor my friends have come to see you again, because that may mean that that has changed.”

    She stepped into the noisesome bathroom and assumed no-shape. Franco was already frantically wriggling his way across the floor to the door.

    It took a little while to get clear of the building — she had to wait until the bodyguard left to go and fetch someone to repair the bathroom window — and then she still had to walk home. But she felt that it had been an evening well spent. And she had got part of the way through the set-work book! Tomorrow she would be the good little school-girl Vala again. But for tonight, she was back to being Goth of Karres. All that was missing the captain.

    Then… she’d have to brave the Nikkeldepain central records office. She had a feeling that dealing with that creep Franco might be easier. She was getting some idea of Nikkeldepain’s obsessive bureaucracy by now.

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