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Some Golden Harbor: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Saturday, May 13, 2006 17:05 EDT



Charlestown on Bennaria

    Daniel was whistling a tune from the production number that'd climaxed the show at the Diamond Palace. The dancers were only a slender cut above what he could've found on the Harbor Three Strip and the comedians' jokes hadn't gotten any fresher for having traveled across galaxy, but live entertainment never came amiss to a spacer.

    There were any number of recordings aboard the Sissie, music and dance, comedies and dramas, but human beings on a stage of boards and chintz drew Daniel as surely as they did the riggers and motormen. Perhaps their greatest virtue was that a live performance proved to the audience that they were on firm ground in sidereal space once more.

    "Little white snowdrop, just waking up!" Daniel caroled, giving each word a hammered emphasis very different from the saccharine blonde who'd sung the piece half an hour before. "Violet, daisy and sweet buttercup!"

    Besides, the strength and quality of the Palace's cider made up for any deficiencies in its performers. "That was bloody good cider, Hogg," Daniel said. "Bloody good."

    "And you drank enough of it to float the Sissie, so you did, master," Hogg said, "but fortunately there was some left for me. And since you bring that up…."

    They'd walked past the mouth of an alley. The street was crowded with pedestrians and slow-moving vehicles, but the only lighting was the garish mix of colors on the building fronts. A couple paces back from the entrance, the alley was dark as a yard up a hog's backside.

    In practiced unison, Daniel and Hogg reversed course and strode into the alley. Daniel was already fumbling for the fly of his third-best set of Grays, the uniform he wore when he was looking for entertainment at harborside instead of in the parlors of the wealthy.

    A cat or a dog–or perhaps a drunk–scuttled into the deeper darkness. Daniel wasn't worried. A mugger foolish enough to set on him and Hogg together would just be more entertainment.

    Judging they were far enough in, Daniel turned to the wall–the back of the Diamond Palace, he supposed–and relieved himself with a feeling of enormous relaxation. He really had put down a lot of that cider….

    "You know, Hogg," he said, "I've often thought that the simplest things are the most satisfying. Somebody should write a book–"

    A car turned into the alley from other end, its headlights filling the passage with a blue-white glare. Trash cans, downspouts, and short flights of steps up to back doors sprang into harsh silhouette.

    "Always said wogs didn't know squat about courtesy till you knocked it into 'em," Hogg muttered as he tied his fly shut. He sounded amused rather than really put out by the incident, though.

    The closed car pulled up just short of the steps near which Daniel'd been standing. The car's front door opened and an attendant in magenta livery got out, lit by the headlights reflecting from the concrete steps.

    Four men came quickly from the building, metal in their hands. "Bugger off!" one growled, but as he spoke he clouted the attendant over the ear.

    The attendant shouted, staggered, and ran down the alley toward Daniel and Hogg. The side of his head was bleeding. A thug came around the front of the vehicle; the driver got out and ran the other way.

    "Hold up!" said Daniel, grabbing the attendant. The man had a baton as long as his arm. It might've been intended for show but it made a good weapon regardless. He shrugged free, bawling with fear, but he left the baton in Daniel's hands.

    "You lot!" Daniel shouted. "Sheer off!"

    "You want some of this, you Cinnabar spaceturds?" said the thug who'd struck the attendant. He stepped toward Daniel, waving a knife with a long, curved blade and a knuckle-duster hilt. "Here it is, then!"

    Daniel broke the fellow's knife wrist, then lifted the baton in a quick backhand that smashed his jaw as well. The thug had been clever enough to recognize Daniel's accent, but it didn't seem to have occurred to him that a Cinnabar warship in harbor might mean people who knew how to handle themselves in a brawl.

    Daniel went left, toward the steps. There was no slowing down now. The thug who'd pulled open the car's rear door turned toward him. Daniel lunged, using the baton like a foil. The fellow got his hand up in front of him, but the tip of the baton rammed through and punched him in the chest. His breastbone was broken if Daniel'd read the crackle under the impact rightly.

    It was good Daniel'd ducked as he lunged because a bwee! passing his left ear meant that Hogg had swung his weighted line at the thug standing at the top of the three concrete steps. "Bloody–" the fellow shouted, then screamed in disbelief as Hogg jerked back.

    Hogg's weapon of choice was ten feet of monocrystal deep-sea fishing line with a two-ounce sinker on either end. He could bring down a running man a hundred feet away or–gripping one end with a steel-mesh glove–use the line as a flexible sword. It was too strong to break and thin as the working edge of a knife.

    The last thug was the one who'd had gone around the front of the car. Daniel stayed low, waddling toward the fellow. He'd seen the damage Hogg's fish line did too often in the past to risk losing a finger–or his throat–to it.

    Something flew through the air, flapped against the car's windshield, and then bounced to the ground. The gun the guy on the steps was holding, Daniel thought; and it was, sorta, but the fellow's hand was still locked on the grip. The muscles must've spasmed when Hogg jerked the monocrystal through the wrist.

    The man on the steps was blubbering prayers; the one Daniel'd punched with the baton had shambled off toward the street; and the one with the broken arm and jaw hunched in the headlight beam, clutching his face with his good hand and moaning. Daniel rose and shoved that last fellow ahead of him, hoping he'd take the first bullet if their remaining opponent had a gun.

    The two thugs collided. One screamed–maybe they both did. The injured man collapsed and the other hurled his spiked club at Daniel before turning to run. Daniel started after him but halted when his intellect took control again.

    Let the silly bastard go. He wasn't a danger to anybody now, and Daniel'd had quite enough exercise. He leaned against the car, sucking air through his open mouth and wondering if he was going to spew up the rest of the cider.

    The car's back door opened, switching on the dome light; a man with delicate features leaned out and said, "My manager, Lonnie. Please, I've got to find him. Is he inside?"

    The fellow's voice was familiar.

    "I'll check," said Hogg. He was gathering his line for further use, wiping it with a patch of chammy.

    "I'll do it," said Daniel, moving toward the steps. "I need to move a bit."

    His shoulder ached from the flung club. Nothing broken, though. A spike had torn the fabric besides him seeming to've split his tunic up the back when his muscles bunched, but that's why he'd worn this uniform.

    Daniel hefted the baton. It was made of dark, fine-grained wood and was a very nice tool for a street fight. If the person using it had balls, of course; which the original owner hadn't.

    The would-be gunman staggered down the alley, holding his stump with his remaining hand and shouting frightened curses. Daniel he patted the baton into his left palm. He'd have broken the fellow's knee if he hadn't run away on his own.

    The outside door opened to a short hallway. The firedoor to the right was bolted shut from this side; directly opposite was an open dressing room with a small light on inside.

    Daniel stepped into the dressing room, the baton ready to block or strike. He recognized the smell; the smells.

    A man was wired to the room's cane chair. He'd been tortured to death, tortured and mutilated. The killers hadn't been trying to get information: they'd taped his mouth shut before they started, judging by the way blood and humors from his eyes coated the gag.

    Daniel backed from the room and out of the building. Hogg was in the driver's seat; he'd turned the headlights off. "Say," he called, "this fellow's the singer we heard, you know? The pretty blonde girl, Elemere. Only he isn't a girl."

    Daniel got into the car. "Your manager's dead," he said to the man in the back seat. "I'm sorry. Hogg, get us back to the ship."

    "Oh, God," said Elemere "Oh God. You've made a bad enemy for yourself, sir. Councilor Waddell sent them."

    "The people who did this aren't folk I'll ever want for friends," Daniel said savagely.

    Hogg turned the lights back on. The man with chest injuries had crawled halfway to the street before collapsing on the pavement. "Ah…," said Hogg. "Should I back, young master, or–"

    "Drive on!" said Daniel, his hands clenching the baton in mottled fury. He was thinking of Councilor Waddell's fat throat.



    The entertainer who called himself Elemere sat at the rotated astrogator's console of the Princess Cecile, facing the gathered officers. He was drinking brandy that Hogg'd borrowed from a spacer just back from liberty. Adele didn't suppose the liquor was of the best quality, but Elemere wasn't complaining. He held his mug in both hands, huddling over it and taking frequent drinks. He was shivering and seemed on the verge of going into shock.

    "I have a galactic reputation," Elemere said. "I've sung to the rulers of a score of worlds. My family's of the Pleasaunce nobility, you know."

    It seemed odd to Adele that the fellow didn't sound as though he were bragging. He must've repeated the lie so often that in a crisis his brain went back to it by rote. Adele had tapped a background check in the files of Waddell House, showing to her satisfaction that Elemere had been born Albertus Mintz on Planchett, a minor planet. Nobody on Planchett qualified as 'noble' by the standards of Pleasaunce, and Albertus' father had been a watchman at an open-cast copper mine.

    "Bennaria wasn't on the planned tour," Elemere said, "but Bestin, the owner of the Diamond Palace, caught my act on Pellegrino. He  offered us a bonus for a one-week engagement. I said this place is already Hell's sewer but Lonnie said, 'Come on, kid, for this kinda money we can hold our breath a week."

    His eyes shut; he was crying. "Oh, God," he whispered. "Lonnie's dead."

    Woetjans was on shore. Vesey, the two midshipmen–Cory wide-eyed, Blantyre stern but lacing and unlacing her fingers–and Pasternak listened with Adele and Daniel; Hogg and Tovera had left the ship on business they considered important; Adele was willing to accept their judgment.

    "Go on," said Daniel, standing at Parade Rest with his hands crossed behind his back. That Elemere would be shaken was only to be expected, but Adele didn't recall ever seeing Daniel in such a state as he was at present. His torn uniform showed he'd been in a fight, but in the past that'd exhilarated him. Now he looked as though he were ready to chew through the pressure hull.

    "We took the offer," Elemere said in his dead voice. He paused to empty the cup. Pasternak held the bottle ready, but the entertainer didn't signal for a refill. "It was Lonnie's idea but I said, 'Sure, why not? At worst it'll make Cranston look good.' Cranston was the next stop on the tour. A stinking place. They process wood pulp there."

    Adele glanced at her display, shifting and sorting. Elemere was no nobleman, but he really did have a reputation. The accounts of the Diamond Palace indicated his salary was 40% of the theater's talent budget for the week.

    Elemere shook his head in despair. He'd worn a hooded cloak when he boarded the Princess Cecile, but he'd taken it off inside. Now his hair, blond and as fine spiderweb, fell to his waist.

    "So the first two nights were all right," he said. "Good houses and the theater, well, I've played worse."

    He raised his mug and found it empty. Pasternak made a slight gesture to call attention to the brandy bottle. "Yes!" said Elemere, holding out the mug. "Yes, for God's sake!"

    He drank deeply again. "After we closed the second night," he said, "there was a man waiting for me–Councilor Waddell. I could tell by the way Bestin treated him that he was a big deal–on Bennaria. Which is a mud puddle, is nothing. But I was polite and when he asked me out to his country estate, I said I'd talk to my manager and let him know. Oh God."

    Elemere's hands began to shake, spilling a little of the brandy. He leaned forward to set the mug on the deck, but he'd have dropped it if Daniel hadn't squatted beside him and taken the mug.

    Daniel held the brandy. His face was that of an angry statue.

    "I've had arrangements like that in the past," Elemere said. "It's a matter of how good the money is. Waddell was a fat pig, but that's not unusual either."

    He looked around the compartment, obviously prepared to respond to an expression of disapproval. I, with as many lives as I have on my conscience, should judge you? Adele thought; and perhaps the others had similar reactions. At any rate, all the faces were still.

    "But Lonnie checked with people," Elemere said. "Not just Bestin. Bestin said it was a wonderful opportunity, that Waddell would bring me back and forth in his aircar, but others–there were whispers that some of the people Waddell took to his estate didn't come back at all. Some men, but women too. And when he came to me the next night, I told him no, that I didn't want to go."

    Elemere reached out for the mug; his hands were steady again. While he drank, Daniel said quietly, "I've met Councilor Waddell. Perhaps I'll meet him again when I'm not representing the Republic."

    "He got… threatening," said Elemere. "It worried me. I think it worried Lonnie too, though he said it was just the usual thing, the sort of business we've shrugged off a hundred times. You know. But Lonnie said he'd get us passage off-planet tomorrow night, that's tonight. We'd go before the last show, and if Bestin didn't like it when he learned, well, he had the second half of my fee to console himself."

    The entertainer drank, paused, and drank again before lowering the mug. "I cut my last performance tonight and went straight to the harbor," he said. "Lonnie was supposed to be waiting with a boat. We'd pay off the car and attendants that we'd hired here and go straight over to the Varta. She was a tramp. She'd make two more planetfalls in Ganpat's Reach, but she was leaving tonight. I just wanted to get off Bennaria."

    He lowered his head. "Oh God," he whispered. Tears were running down his cheeks. "Oh God."

    Vesey turned to Daniel and said in a quiet voice, "The Varta lifted for San Felipe an hour ago, sir."

    "Yes?" said Daniel. He shrugged. "Chances are their captain was the one who informed Waddell anyway. Nobody who trades regularly to Bennaria is going to want to get on the wrong side of Waddell."

    "Lonnie wasn't at the waterside," Elemere said thickly. "Nobody'd seen him tonight. I turned around and came back. I thought maybe he'd gotten confused so he was waiting back at my dressing room."

    "They brought him back," Daniel said. His tone was quiet but not calm. "I believe they expected to find you there. They waited when you weren't since they knew you didn't have anywhere else to go. And found ways to occupy their time."

    "Sir, I'll stop liberty," Vesey said. "Should I call the port watch back, too?"

    "Yes," said Daniel. He rubbed his forehead with both hands. "They recognized my accent, though they probably don't know it was me in person. Waddell's likely to decide that grabbing a couple Cinnabar spacers as hostage'll convince us to give him Elemere."

    The entertainer looked up from his chair. "Will you…?" he said. His voice rose to a squeak that choked off any additional words.

    Daniel stared at Elemere. "No," he said, enunciating clearly but not raising his voice. "I won't. I'll burn this city down before I do that."

    The private security force patrolling the Charlestown entertainment district hadn't had time to make a written report on the murder in the Diamond Palace, but Adele'd made a text crawl of their excited calls to their supervisors. She looked up from reading how the manager had been mutilated.

    "Yes," she said, speaking very distinctly. "We will."

    "Blantyre and Cory?" Daniel said. "Take our guest to your quarters and show him how to lock the hatch. You'll bunk with your watches until further notice."

    Adele noticed that he wasn't pretending Vesey was really in command any more. Vesey had the active cancellation field up around the command console, but that didn't affect Adele's ability to overhear, of course. She was sending armed parties ashore to roust the spacers on liberty back to the Sissie.

    Cory helped Elemere to his feet. As they shuffled to the hatch, Pasternak held out the brandy bottle. Blantyre turned toward Daniel with a worried look; he nodded. She took the bottle before closing the hatch behind them.

    Pasternak let out a deep breath and knuckled his ear. He was flushed; his rosy scalp clashed with the color of his thinning red hair.

    "Look, sir," he said, looking at the floor. "The hull's my business. What you want to do with it's yours, I know that. But I swear sir–"

    He met Daniel's eyes with a shame-faced expression.

    "–if that fellow's aboard any length of time, there's going to be trouble. I'm not saying it's his fault, but… bloody hell! You know what I mean."

    "Yes, I know what you mean," Daniel said heavily. He seated himself at the console that Elemere had vacated; he looked very tired. "That's one of the problems I'll be working on until I get it solved."

    "Sir?" said Vesey. "You and Mistress Mundy were planning to go to the Council meeting tomorrow morning? Maybe that isn't safe now."

    "It doesn't matter if it's safe, Vesey!" Daniel said. "It's our duty so we'll do it."

    Adele didn't let the frown reach her forehead; Daniel wouldn't have spoken like that–his tone more than his words–under normal circumstances. He was remembering the manager's body.

    "I believe we'll be safe, Captain," Adele said, bending her lips into a smile as she looked at Vesey. She tapped her tunic pocket. "At any rate, we'll be safer than the first twenty of Waddell's men who try to hold us."

    With the words came a rush of what Adele could only describe as bloodlust. Her forced smile became quite real.

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