Previously: To Hell
Themesong: Killing Me Softly by Frank Sinatra
Three years, 213 days elapsed between that case and our next lead. With nearly 5 years in the Verse, I’d managed to establish quite a reputation in the field of specialized recovery and mystery solving. My name wasn’t known to many, but those who had need for my skills could usually find me. Many of them contacted me through Mr. Universe, who monitored everything one the Cortex or through Tophat, Badger’s replacement on Persephone. What I’d done to Niska had made me both friends and enemies when the video feed leaked out, and what I’d done to those enemies had made me more friends and given me a reputation that few in the Verse dared face without a small army at their back.
Unfortunately, that also put a bit of a target on my back, as well as the backs of those who helped me, though few were brave or foolish enough to cross the crew of Serenity, who’d become (thanks in part to my association with them, but also from me arranging for them to handle many of the more straightforward of my jobs) something of a memetic Crew of Crews. The fact that I’d made certain they were all, more or less, outfitted as best as I could arrange without making them overconfident might have gone a long way towards forging that rep, though I never let on just how much I was helping them out.
Part of that was letting them get into their own trouble and only saving the day when absolutely necessary. Part of it was making sure they had havens to hide in when the heat got too heavy. I also had to cover for Kaylee when she managed to let Simon (a little tipsy from celebratory wine after a particularly good heist) knock her up. It wasn’t that she wasn’t able to do her job, but as her belly swole, there were more and more places she couldn’t get into… which wasn’t much fair, seeing as how I’m not exactly dainty in this form… I’m taller and more built than Jayne… who is, in reality, even more adorable than Adam Baldwin.
Still, it’s nice that fifth crew cabin is getting some use, since they had to convert Simon’s cabin into a nursery. River turned out to be decent with the kids… twins, of course, fraternal. They named the boy Booker… though Milly seems to be the most “aww babies!” of the lot of us. Mal, I think, is scared of the rugrats, and keeps hinting that maybe space ain’t as being the best place to be raisin’ little’uns. But he didn’t push the issue, especially once Inara mentioned she found it made the place more homelike.
Good thing I upgraded the atmo-scrubbers. Babies and cowboys… both need so much seeing to. At least Inara and the Captain were treating each other with a little more respect. At this rate, they’d get together for good right around the heat death of the Universe.
But that’s neither here nor there. I wasn’t here to fix up their love lives. I was here for the key. And so it was that, on the 283rd day of the 4th year PI (post insertion), as we laid over at a space station in Georgia space picking up mail and supplies, I found myself looking at a 56 second long piece of footage from a bank’s high security lock up, which showed six relatively young men, in their 30s and 40s, looking down at a 7cm wide eye in stained glass or crystal, before wrapping it up in a satin cloth and sealing it in a box and, one by one, they entered their biometrics and a passcode, then placed the box into a safety deposit box.
There wasn’t enough information to identify the bank or the individuals. All there was was a computer generated message that asked “Do I have your attention?” and had a contact number. I dialed it… of course I did.
When the shape of a person without features appeared on the screen, dark blue on a lighter blue background, I said “You do. What do you want?”
“You’ve been looking for something like this for a while. You 100,000 platinum for the information. 200,000 more when it pays off.” said the machine generated voice.
“Not until I know who I’m dealing with.”
“Not part of the deal.”
“50 up front, show of good faith. 150 when I’ve verified.” This would test the broker’s bonafides. If he was on the up and up, he’d ask for the missing hundred after… if He wasn’t, he’d raise the up front price. Or he could just be greedy bastard and raise both, which wouldn’t help at all.
What I wasn’t counting on was him saying “Done.” That set off some weird bells, but maybe I’d hit on numbers he’d been hoping to settle on in the first place.”
“What do I call you?”
“You don’t. Bring the cash to Triumph, Pitt City. There’s a hotel called The Woods. Tell the concierge you’re in town for the Marigold Wedding and that you need to buy a Gown and you’re worried no place will have a dress in your size.” the line went dead.
Triumph… that immediately made me think of Saffron, who’d tricked her way aboard from the nearly Amish world where women were often treated as currency. But the planet, 1st of the Heinlein Protostar’s planets had a population of nearly 33 million and we hadn’t left Saffron there. Maybe I was being paranoid. But being paranoid kept you alive, and I wasn’t about to stop now, especially not as vulnerable as I’d become. With the Banker missing, death might very well be permanent and I wasn’t keen on giving up eternity in the service of a jerk like Mensarius.
Worse… death here might make me somehow beholden to Mensarius. Now that was a scary thought.
I checked my roster, and sighed. Serenity was going the absolute wrong way, heading out system to deliver seed stock to Deadwood in the Blue Star system. But Bao’s Feng Shui however would be at Persephone on the outskirts of White Star in 3 days. If I couldn’t get a transport there to meet him, I’d eat my pretty floral bonnet.
“Hey Scholar, give a lady a lift?”
“Makes me look demure, nǐ bù juéde?”
“Sen… while you look as… fine… as ever, I doubt anything would let you look demure in this incarnation.”
“Flatterer. You got stiffs on board?”
“Family of 8, heading to Dangun to pick up a bride for the young master.”
“Excellent. You’re going to drop me off on Triumph.”
“You’ve got customers. Drop me off, drop them off, come back and get me.”
“Sen… it’s a round trip. They’re just picking up the young lady, then heading back into the Core, míngbái wǒ de yìsile ma?”
“Yes, I do understand, and I hate to do this to you, but this is time sensitive and the Lotus is at Sihnon getting her yearly tune up and Invictus is half way out to Kalidasa and won’t be free of her load for eleven days. So, if I have to inconvenience someone, it’s going to be your passengers. But I promise, I’ll make them smile despite that.” I grinned at him, hard enough to make the warrior-poet flinch.
“You’re the boss.”
I was, and am, indeed, the boss. And the patriarch of the family was clearly not his own man. His mother, a bitter, vicious, and uncompromising woman in her late 80’s was manifestly the one in charge, and I played her vices and prejudices like a fiddle, convincing her that she shouldn’t take the marriage broker’s report as gospel, that she should take a week or two to observe her prospective grand-daughter-in-law in her native environment first, see how well the young lady deported herself before paying the no doubt exhorbitantly over-inflated brideprice.
If you’ve never experienced it… people will do almost anything if you can convince their prejudices that it’s the right thing to do. What a bitch… but then again, I’d just sicced said bitch on a poor innocent girl, so what did that say about me? I justified it as giving the poor dear a sneak peek at what life would be like in her new home… and maybe consider murder. I knew that if I had to put up with the old biddy for months on end, one of us would end up dead… or at least in a coma.
When we arrived at Triumph, Franky and Mini refused to leave me all alone, and had settled which would come with me via the expedient of drawing high card… which is why I sashayed… well… okay, I don’t sashay in this body… but I was still graceful as sin, in my own way… into the lobby of The Woods in downtown Pitt City with Franky, tiny and actually dainty, guiding my luggage and dressed like a pageboy, though the black uniform did little to hide her most excellent curves… or the brace of pistols in a shoulder rig, the two more auto-pistols in the middle of her back, or the various bladed and blunt weapons strapped to her thighs. My coat did little to conceal my curves, but its sleeves were voluminous to hide more than one weapon. I was not, however, carrying 50,000 platinum in coin. Not when I could pull it out of my Warehouse at a moment’s notice.
The concierge, once given the passphrase, directed me to dressmaker on the Street of the Frog. The shop was, of course, a front, and they in turn directed me into the back room where a woman in a black silk cheongsam tried to pretend she was the one who’d called me. I played along… she was very good.
“You have the money?” she asked in broken English.
“You have the information?” I returned with a smile.
“Then I have the money. But I’ll see the information first.”
“I see the money, then you see the information… then you leave with the information and we keep the money.”
“Fair enough.” I waved Franky forward and she handed over the case. It was, of course, empty. I opened it… that is I opened a portal to the warehouse and allowing one of the robot butlers to slide in the cash, then placed it on the table and spun the case to face the “broker”, opening it slowly to reveal the coins. “Fifty Thousand.” I said lightly, “Untracable.” My voice hardened a little. “Now my information?”
She slid over a printout, a short stack of documents. The footage was from 35 years earlier, taken at a bank in the Core, on the moon of Shiva.The individuals, all aged between 30 and 42 at the time, were a tantine… a death pact… or wager. In a Tantine, everyone left a special package sealed, like a time capsule… and the last living member of the tantine got to open it. It was often a form of duty, perhaps a bottle of fine brandy with which the survivor would toast the others, but sometimes it was a secret, something that could be disastrous if it got out, but for some reason was important to reveal in the proper time… that time being once everyone else was dead. The practice started as a form of pension scheme long ago in France-that-was… although it had been invented by an Italian by the name of Lorenzo de Tonti… hence the name. It operated much like the social security system in the old United States of America-that-was, but stopped paying out once the last shareholder died.
According to the information, however, there were two remaining members of the Tantine alive. A retired alliance colonel and the mayor of the town of Bakersfield. All I had to do was to somehow kill one of the two and convince the last survivor to give up his code, thus allowing the box to be opened. Seemed easy enough. I nodded to the woman and asked “Shall I return here after it’s done?”
“Why would you do that?” She asked, slipping up for the first time.
“To provide proof that the job is done, of course.”
She nodded “Ah. Yes. Do that.”
I nodded once and left, saying nothing until we were out of even the most extreme of surveillance range, then scanned myself and Franky for bugs. “She had no idea what was in the documents. She’s a cutout… and this doesn’t feel right. But I think the information’s on the up and up… something just rings wrong here.”
“So what do we do now?”
“We find these two… Colonel Dashel Christie and Mayor Howard Poe.”
“Where are they… and what do we do once we’ve found them? We’re not really going to kill some harmless old guy just to steal his treasure… are we?”
“Poe’s town, Bakersfield, is on Triumph’s very own moon, Mycroft.” I pointed up at the sky where the crescent of the sub-sub-planet (Heinlein, being a Brown Dwarf was, strictly speaking, still a planet, just one that had been converted to a star… which meant that Mycroft technically orbited a moon. Just one of the many ways the stellar-cartography of the Verse was… let us say… improbable.) hung in the fading daylight sky. “Colonel Christie lives… on Ariel, in the Core. Well then… this is going to take some time. Lets go meet the good Mayor and find out if he’s a good man or not. I might, just might, take a page from Saffron’s book if he’s a big enough jerk.”
“I… don’t understand. You’re going to trick him into helping you steal a laser pistol?”
I showed her the profile on the man, tapping where it said, in big bold letters ‘Marital Status: Divorced’. “Not quite. I was thinking that, perhaps, I’d get him to marry me.” My little Franky just stared at me in horror as I chuckled my way down the street.
A week later, having made the trip to Mycroft and, by dint of a little social engineering, managed to finagle an introduction to the mayor, and by interviewing more than a few town locals, I’d determined that the man, while not the scum of the Earth-that-was which would have been enough to seal his fate, was a womanizer, a cheat at cards, and a scoundrel. I liked him immediately.
He cracked ribald jokes, drank if not too much then too well, and treated his household servants with the respect so few of the gentry show those of the common throng. That he was now in his late sixties but still fairly spry spoke well for him and he was both well groomed and polite, if not punctiliously so. He was neither grotesque nor overly handsome, but had the definite appeal of a mature man who knows who he is and what he wants out of life. His town liked and respected him, considering him responsible for the law and order that comes from being a little bent but not too corrupt. By the end of the third week we were engaged, and the wedding invites were sent out… including one to his old friend the Colonel.
Bao’s passengers were, no doubt, rather astounded to receive their own invite as well, but I insisted that the old lady had made such an impression on me during the crossing that she had to be there.
It wasn’t a lavish to do, but it was a lovely party. I moved among the crowd gathered for the rehearsal dinner, meeting all of Howard’s oldest and dearest friends; Mr and Miss Hercules Wolffe, a retired writer and his daughter, from New Rotterdam; a Mister Maury Doyle of Londinium, an actuary; a Sargeant John Caliber of the Rubicon Constabulary (retired); and Harley Dominic Cross, a professor of Antiquity at the University of Osiris.
“Tell me, Professor, I hear the Gates of Tannhauser are beautiful.”
“Indeed. The lightshow they put on every year on Saint Batty’s Day is something to see.”
I’d seen the statue of shirtless Rutger Hauer holding a dove that stood in the square of Tannhauser’s capital city of Orion’s Shoulder, but I’d never made time to climb into the mountains next to the city at pass through the 108 buddhist gates that led to the summit. No one really knew who’d built them, and some said they’d been there since before planetfall, constructed by the terraforming machines in a holy miracle… and clearly the professor had no idea of the existence of an Earth-that-was film known as Blade Runner.
The dinner was quite nice, and I sent Franky to work her wiles on the good Colonel, who was extremely stiff and humorless, as well as being in his early seventies… and had come alone, aside from his almost as aged batsman, a chinese ex-corporal named Jaindai… who was graced with neither looks nor brains, but had an excess of servility. I trusted her to take his measure, though it was a wrench sending my goofball little inamorata off to seduce the man… but she’d voluntarily taken the Companion training and the persona that came with it. It wasn’t emotional, it was a job… and a calling. And hopefully she wouldn’t have to go all the way with the joyless old battleaxe.
As it turned out, she didn’t. She gave him a bath and a massage and he begged off, claiming fatigue from his trip and the late hour, but invited her to accompany him to the ceremony and promised to take advantage of her kind offer after the reception the next evening. That didn’t, as it turns out, happen either.
The ceremony was nice enough, and the vows were written to very circumspectly give me an out (Our time in this Universe do last), while old grumpy chinese lady cried the whole time and kept going on about how nice it all was. Her son looked like he had no idea why he was there, and the grandson (the one who’d been on the way to get his bride) looked as if the entire concept of marriage made him a little ill. His bride to be seemed nice enough, if a little… dim.
Everything was going fine until the reception… at which point, right during his best man speech, the good Colonel suffered a massive (and suspiciously timed) heart attack. It wasn’t a very good best man’s speech, as it contained no jokes at the expense of anyone present, and dying didn’t help at all. That said, I should have cottoned on to what was happening, but… I missed it. These things happen when you get over-reliant on reading people supernaturally… and have been drugged.
So it was that, party mostly spoiled by the spectre of death, my new husband and I retired to our chambers… at which point, consciousness began to fade rapidly. Far too rapidly.
I hadn’t been drugged in ages, literal ages, since I was normally immune to poisons, but that was a supernatural ability I just couldn’t access at the moment. I could, however, access my warehouse and its medbay, so I fell to the floor, rolled under the (thankfully spaciously high) bed, and fell through a hole in the world, gasping “Medic” to the listening robots.
The drug in me wasn’t enough to kill me, but it would have guaranteed I’d sleep for at least 12 hours… It would also completely have metabolized in that time and have been untraceable thereafter. I had the medbay synthesize a counteragent after verifying that such an agent existed in the Verse, then stepped through into my bridal suite… or rather rolled through.
As I’d suspected, my new spouse was likewise drugged, and had gotten a rather larger (and considering he was smaller than me, fatal) dose, though he was still (barely) alive. I have to admit that, for a moment, a darker part of me considered letting him die, but I couldn’t do that and so I injected him with the counter agent. I might have been using him, but murder for profit was never my line of work. Those I killed usually deserved it. If I profited as well, that was incidental.
But now that I was thinking a little clearer… did you know soporifics screwed with your thinking before knocking you out and if you had enough in your system you wouldn’t wake up again? It’s true!… I realized something was amiss. And that’s why I did what I did next.
The local constabulary broke down the door approximately ten hours later, and promptly arrested me for the murder of the mayor… despite the fact that I was, at the time, barely conscious. Unfortunately for the murderer, so was my husband… who I’d told the entire story… or a version of it… when I’d roused him.
“So… an unknown individual approached you, knowing you were looking for…”
“It’s called “The Key”. It’s parts glow with an unnatural and inexplicable inner light and possess strange properties.”
“And they told you that Colonel Christie and I were in possession of such an item?”
“Yes. I ventured here to meet you and, having determined that someone, probably another member of your tantine, wanted you dead, decided to keep you safe. You’re not a bad sort, if I do say so, but even if you weren’t, I don’t like being a catspaw.”
“And the Colonel?”
“I wasn’t expecting the assassin to try anything at the reception. That one’s on me. It’s not like I’m a professional killer. I just wasn’t expecting it. Not then. Later. I’d placed my valet to protect him later. She’ll be most disappointed.”
“And you think this hidden hand plans to frame you for my death? Then claim the prize?”
“I do. And I think we should let him think he’s succeeded. Now, do you trust me enough to tell me which of your friends is the third remaining survivor of your cabal?”
“I… this is all… I should be most cross with you for marrying me for my property… but I’m an elderly man and you’re a young and vibrant woman, and to be honest, I always assumed you were doing exactly that anyway.” I smiled, nodding.
“Not going to lie there. But I had no intention of killing you to speed the process.”
“No. You’re a Ludus Companion. You play the long game, don’t you?”
“Unfortunately, only Dash and I are left of the original group.”
“Huh. That doesn’t make any sense. Did anyone outside of your group… of course… who set up the Tantine? None of you are lawyers.”
“What? Oh… Maury did. He and his partner.”
“Ah. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts, that if all members of your cabal die before the box is claimed, then Maury becomes your executor? Executor of an unknown and undocumented cache of valuables?”
“I…” he blinked, then nodded slowly “I think that’s the case. The documents are in my desk.”
“Well then… I guess we should make him think he’s succeeded.”
“Call your sheriff, tell him that someone has attempted to murder you and frame me, and will be calling in the next few hours to report it. Tell them to act as if you’re dead and arrest me for the murder. Then, assuming he’s not stupid enough to make the report under his own identity, have the coroner call him down to the station as the executor of the estate to verify your death. When he walks in and sees you alive…”
“His expression should condemn him.”
“Indeed. And while he’s there…”
“Sheriff Horatio can search his belongings?”
I smirked “You’re good at this sweetie… Now… I think we have a couple of hours to kill.”
It worked as expected. Maury was a schemer… not a master criminal. He broke in minutes and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to a penal colony before the week was out, barely escaping the hangman’s noose due to a local ordinance that forbade hanging the elderly. A couple weeks later, after attending the young man’s wedding on Sihnon, we ventured to the bank on Shiva and, with solemn dignity, claimed the box.
“We found this on a hiking trip in the wilds of Avalon.” he carefully lifted it from the box. “It was so lovely, so special… none of us could bear the idea of selling it. So we sealed it away, pledging that the last of us would become sole owner. It’s saddens me to think that none of us had an heir to pass it down to.” He smiled wanly, then handed the wrapped package to me. “Take it.”
“Don’t you want to see it one last time?”
“I… I think it’s cursed. All of us were successful in life… but heirless. We should have left it in that cave.” I hugged him as he continued, “And for all that, I can still remember it as clear as the day we found it, its image imprinted indelibly on my memory.”
On the trip back to Mycroft, I considered unwrapping it, but in the end, decided I didn’t need to. I could feel the power of the item, of the fragment of whatever this was, even through the cloth, and so, eventually, I put it in my sanctum without ever looking upon whatever they’d found in that cave. Call me superstitious.
Next: The White Ride