“I hate to interrupt your thieving,” YJ said from where he was leaning against the primary cargo hold entryway, “but we’ve got a problem.”
“What kind of problem?” Jonah said.
“Financial,” YJ said. “I just received a sternly worded wave from Wes Ferris on Beaumonde wondering why we were two months behind in our ship payments.”
“Hey,” Jonah said defensively. “I set up an automatic debit account for our debt lord McKittrick!”
“That you did, and one payment was debited automatically almost three months ago before our account ran dry,” YJ replied. “That last haul from Greenleaf to Persephone put us out of reach for some time and now we’re overdue.”
Worth grunted. “Uh, I haven’t exactly had any extra coin sitting around to do proper maintenance on this boat either.”
YJ shook his head. “We’re through the last of our score from that job on Regina,” he said. “It was a fun ride while it lasted.”
“Well we’ve got that sack of coins from Badger, right?” The Doc said hopefully.
Jonah shook his head. “McKittrick and Ferris want their payments in credit. Guess they figure we’re a good source of traceable loot.” He frowned. “We’ll have to hit a moneychanger, and it won’t help near enough.”
“So what are our options?” Doc asked.
YJ smiled. “Well we’ve almost got a full tank of gas, for one. There’s got to be someone on this backwater moon who needs a job done.”
“We could take on some passengers, sell some of Cutter’s salvage equipment, or try to fence those Alliance bars.” Jonah said.
“Hmmm, passengers, eh?” YJ scratched his chin. “They say a fool and his money are soon parted, and I think that also applies to someone desperate enough to sign on with us.”
“Let’s find a settlement here and I’ll rustle up some contracts.” Jonah said confidently. “Watch a professional at work.”
A few hours later, YJ and Worth stood at the open cargo hatch and made no effort to hide their amusement as Jonah strode back on board, one eye blackened.
“Any luck?” YJ smirked.
Jonah shot him a look that would have gotten him five to ten on the penal moon were it not for the raging shiner. “Apparently they’ve got a rather protectionist business outlook here on Renao.”
“Let’s go back to Persephone,” Worth said suddenly. YJ and Jonah stared at him.
“You’ve gotten tired of life that quick?” Jonah asked.
“We’re looking at a hefty fine for an illegal takeoff, not to mention the highly-likely probability of being ushered into Alliance custody immediately upon landing.” YJ said firmly.
“Look, it’s a big planet,” Worth contended. “I’m not saying we go back to the Docks or anything like that. Let’s find another port, take the shuttle down to the surface, and get down to business.”
Jonah took inspiration from Worth’s confidence. “Okay, we keep a low profile, and see if we can find a job that takes us to Beaumonde. It’s close, it’s big, and we have an in with Fanty and Mingo. They’ll have the kind of job we’re looking for.”
“Oh, this is going to go great,” YJ said, shaking his head.
And so it was that Worth, Jonah and the Doc landed back on Persephone, as far from the slums of the Eavesdown Docks as they could get. Jonah immediately went to work on the locals, scoring a legitimate run consisting of several pallets of bagged cement bound for Beaumonde.
Jonah subcontracted the local owner of a dilapidated Wren-class transport to ferry the bags of cement up to orbit, where Shenmue waited patiently.
“Now let’s see about passengers,” he said as he typed his ship’s vital statistics into the landing pad’s electronic display placard. “Firefly transport departing immediately, destination Beaumonde.” He took a look at the spaceport crowd, figured they were a notch or two above the denizens of the Eavesdown Docks, and priced the passenger dorms accordingly.
Not far from the shuttle’s berth, gambler and con artiste Quinn Matisse was inwardly cursing his luck while outwardly projecting his usual aura of self-confidence. He was in the company of some very angry men, men who up until a few hours ago had been on the hook for some prime beachfront property on an idyllic border moon.
The fact that the moon had not yet been terraformed was a small detail that had been overlooked until one of his marks decided to dig a little deeper into the Cortex for details on his real estate project. Thankfully, the marks were not blessed with an overabundance of brains, and now they wanted to see the official deeds up close before committing. He already had four hundred of their credits locked in his briefcase, but it was becoming increasingly clear that if he could not produce the titles, his new friends were going to use his head as a briefcase-opener. And that would be bad for business.
“Listen, fellas, I swear, my friend Martin has couriered these documents right here to Persephone.” Quinn said as the two burliest marks frog-marched him down the boulevard. “It’s just a matter,” he continued, desperately scanning the lineup of disreputable ships, “of finding the right landing berth.”
“You’d better not be shining us on,” the tall mark said, squeezing Quinn’s shoulder menacingly as he propelled the gambler through the crowded street.
Quinn felt a flood of relief as he took in the sight of a small shuttle preparing for takeoff. “See, there’s Martin now!” he pointed to the wheelchair-bound man puttering about in front of the shuttlecraft.
“Martin!” Jonah heard the unmistakable sound of someone yelling in his direction. He turned the chair to take in the well-dressed gentleman and his entourage of stone-faced oafs. “Martin, so glad you’re here! My investors have been waiting for you quite patiently, as you can see.”
Worth poked his head out of the shuttle hatch. “Wha?”
The sharply dressed squire was gesticulating to his coterie of musclebound ogres. “See, I told you there wasn’t a problem! So what if my courier was two days late?”
“What’s going on here?” The Doc said bemusedly.
“Never fear, just a little misunderstanding regarding land deeds.” The stranger said reassuringly. Turning to his companions, he said, “Please, gentlemen, let me deal with my associates for a moment.” He struggled free and turned to face them. “Remember, this case is code-locked against the transfer of our titles, so there’s absolutely no problem, your investment is guaranteed.” He strode confidently into the shuttle, a curious Jonah hot on his heels.
Quinn turned to the shuttle crew. “How soon can you leave?” He flashed them a winning smile.
Jonah smiled back in understanding. “If you’re paying up front, we leave immediately.”
Quinn pressed a button on the security case and let the credits fall out onto the deck. “How far does four hundred square get me?”
Jonah bit back a shocked exclamation. “Anywhere you like, so long as it’s Beaumonde.”
Quinn grinned. “As far as I’m concerned, there are two places in the Verse – Persephone, and anywhere else.”
“Pleasure doing business with you,” Jonah said as he fired up the shuttle’s engines.
Quinn was ushered into one of the ship’s Spartan passenger dorms as the Doc finally got around to fishing the last of the buckshot out of Jonah’s stomach wound. Worth squared the cargo pallets away while YJ laid in a course for Beaumonde.
Once he was officially on the mend, Jonah sequestered himself in his quarters, working on a forged press pass for the fictitious “Action Cortex News,” intent on digging through various media morgues to make more connections between Wild Sky and her previous life as an Alliance war hero.
Meanwhile, Matisse soon tired of his simple living quarters and wandered out into the ship’s common area, absently rifling a deck of cards. It was a two-day journey from Persephone to Beaumonde, and he was intent on winning some of his money back.
Worth strolled through the common area on his way back to the engineering room. He eyed the new arrival.
“What’d you say your name was?” he ventured gruffly.
Matisse paused for the barest instant before answering “John Samuels.” He expertly shuffled his deck. “You a card player?” he offered.
“Well, I do gamble,” Worth responded.
“Fair enough,” Quinn said. “So where are we headed? Beaumonde, was it?”
“Yup,” Worth replied. “So what’s your beef with Persephone?”
“Well, strictly speaking I’m just not a fan,” Matisse said. “But it was a business misunderstanding.”
“I know what that’s about,” Worth said almost wistfully. “So, you from Persephone, originally?”
“No, I hail from New Madrid,” Matisse lied smoothly. “So, are you a card playing man or aren’t you?”
Worth shook his head. “No, right now I’ve got better things to do than gamble.” He turned on his heel and headed towards the crew quarters.
“Hey,” Matisse shouted after him as he strode up the foredeck. “When it’s cards, it’s not gambling!”
“Enjoy your stay,” Worth called over his shoulder as he descended the ladder to Wild Sky’s quarters.
Matisse shrugged, pocketed the deck, and began a self-guided tour of the transport ship. He was particularly interested in the cargo bay. Ignoring the pallets of dusty cement, he examined the Newtech salvage gear stacked along the cargo bay’s walls. This doesn’t add up, he said to himself. A rustbucket rattletrap Firefly carrying equipment worth almost as much as the ship. What’s the angle here?
Once inside Wild Sky’s quarters, Worth gave the room another careful once-over, flipping the futon mattress and checking the seams. He was rewarded with the discovery of a small hard bump he could feel just under the mattress fabric. Flipping out a jackknife, he cut what looked like a memory stick. “Bingo,” he said triumphantly. He pocketed the stick.
YJ stayed at the helm most of the time during the journey. He was a little wary of Beaumonde, having gotten into some trouble there during his wild youth, but it wasn’t like he was banned from the planet or anything. That was Worth’s department.
Feeling lucky, Worth finally let himself get drawn into a card game with Matisse and Jonah, who had surfaced for mealtime on the second day of the journey. Matisse made chitchat and won a few hands, but restrained himself from cleaning out the crewmates. All in good time, he told himself.
It didn’t take long for the crew’s money troubles to become the topic of conversation.
“So, I’m picking up that you guys are a little short on funds,” Matisse said off-handedly.
“You sure if you want to make an assessment on that?” Jonah snapped.
“Well, I only say something because I think I could help you guys out on that front,” Matisse replied smoothly. “You’ve got some primo salvage equipment on hand, but you could be making money hand over fist if you could find the right angle without so much as warming the gear up.”
“What, some kind of scam?” Worth asked.
“Well, all you’d need to do is find a group of investors with more money than brains,” Matisse explained. “Get them to invest with the promise of a lucrative return on an upcoming salvage run, then, well, sorry, the Alliance showed up and we had to cut the run short, something like that, hmmm?”
“A con, you mean.” Jonah said admiringly.
Worth grunted. “Yeah, we’re real familiar with the ol’ salvage scam.”
Matisse flashed his winning smile.
Jonah shook his head. “Well, we’re under a bit of a tight schedule unfortunately, so there’s no time for a side deal like that. There’s work to be done, and we usually come by dishonest work honestly, if you get my meaning.”
Now it was Matisse’s turn to shake his head. “I tell you, you guys are just throwing money away.”
YJ called over the ship’s intercom. “We’re coming up on Beaumonde, everyone.”
“Speaking of throwing money away,” Jonah said. “We’ve got to see a guy about a thing.”
“Mind if I tag along?” Matisse asked.
“Well, you’re sure as hell not staying on board while the rest of us are running around off the ship!” Worth said sharply.
While the Doc departed the ship to find supplies with which to restock the infirmary, plus his own private stash, YJ, Worth, and Jonah made their way through the crowded streets of the Atoll Plaza towards the offices of Wes Ferris, Esquire. Matisse followed along doggedly, interested despite himself in the affairs of the ragtag crew.
The foursome was made to stand outside of Wes Ferris’s vault-like office above the steaming cacophony of the downstairs noodle hut for an uncomfortably long time before the heavy door hissed open. The office was as they remembered it from their last visit to Beaumonde; spare save for a heavy desk near a window overlooking the busy streets of the Atoll Plaza. Muted clicking could be heard from behind the walls, where hundreds of rackmounted abacuses were waiting for the wild-haired accountant to give them attention.
The accountant in question was reading a Chinese newspaper, seemingly oblivious to his visitors, from the wan light cast by the banker’s lamp, the desk’s only adornment. Then, he quickly folded the paper, and cast it down on the desktop.
“Ah yes, Mssrs. Johnson, McGavin, Evans, and you are…?” Ferris inquired.
“Sev Devmar,” Matisse replied.
“At any rate, so good of you to drop by,” Ferris said evenly. “Mr. McKittrick was starting to wonder when he’d be hearing from you again.”
“Yes, well,” YJ said. “We were out on a couple of long runs, and your place was our first stop after we hit port.”
“Indeed,” Ferris said, his eyes narrowing. “Mr. McKittrick was concerned that you were avoiding making payments on the ship he had generously leased to you.”
“Perish the thought,” Jonah said quickly.
“Did you receive our wave on the subject?” Ferris asked.
YJ shifted his feet. “It must have gotten lost in the Cortex,” he replied. “We were pretty far out in the black, after all.”
“Well, by our calculations you owe thirteen hundred and twenty-six credits and change,” Ferris said, “eighty-eight microcredits, to be exact.”
“Well, we have eight hundred eighteen on hand right now,” Jonah said, indicating a sheaf of bills held together with a rubber band. “And we have a proposition for the remainder.”
“Do you now?” Ferris said, his eyes narrowing as Jonah handed the money over. He counted the cash, then stood up and walked over to where the abacus representing the crew’s debt was hidden behind the wall. He pulled out the rack and flipped through the abacuses until he found the one he was looking for.
“We have in our possession some gold and platinum bars,” Jonah began, “that have an inconvenient Alliance stamp on them.”
Ferris said nothing. The only sound was the clattering of abacus beads.
Jonah continued. “We were thinking that Mr. McKittrick may have the means to fence these bars, and the profit should more than cover our outstanding debt.”
Ferris made a few adjustments to the abacus. “Naturally I will pass along your offer to Mr. McKittrick at my earliest convenience.” He said as he pushed the rack back into its recessed housing. “In the meantime, you are still in arrears to the tune of five hundred eighty-eight, eighty-eight. I trust you will forward the balance as soon as you are able, or else the character of Mr. McKittrick’s relationship with you will undergo a certain modification.”
“Well, ah, we wouldn’t want that,” YJ said.
Ferris straightened his glasses, inadvertently leaving them slightly askew, then went back to his chair and picked up his newspaper. Sensing the dismissal, the group shuffled out into the drab hallway.
“Time to see Fanty and Mingo,” YJ said firmly.
The Maidenhead was an underground establishment in every sense of the word; the main barroom was two stories down a flight of dodgy-looking stairs and the place looked like it had been carved out of solid rock.
Standing between the crew and the rest of the Maidenhead was a guncheck staffed by a burly bouncer. They couldn’t help but notice the outsized neon sign that proclaimed “NO FIREARMS. NO EXPLOSIVES. NO ACIDS.”
The group fell in behind a lineup of would-be patrons navigating past the bouncer and his guncheck. The bouncer watched impassively as anyone packing heat surrendered their firearms into a rack of metal bins that rotated after each deposit.
Jonah couldn’t help but check out the guns as they were hauled out and put away. The man in front of him, a high-falutin’ gentleman with a deliciously underdressed consort hanging on his arm, pulled out a fancy long-barreled revolver from a studded leather holster on his hip and placed it in the guncheck drawer, pocketing a chit in return.
That’s a nice piece, Jonah said to himself. However, it would look nicer in my collection. He made a mental note to keep an eye on the pistolero and see if an opportunity to relieve the well dressed mark of his guncheck chit would present itself.
Not wanting to cause any more trouble than they had to, the crew locked their weapons away and started to descend the staircase to the bar.
As he stomped down the stairs, Worth spotted the overdressed twins holding court in a booth off to the side of the main room, their attention focused on a pair of equally-overdressed ladies hanging off their arms, and by the look of it, their every word.
Matisse’s attention, on the other hand, was drawn to a poker game that was taking place in the opposite corner. His companions immediately forgotten, he strolled over and put on his winningest smile. “Mind if I join you gentlemen? I see there’s a spare seat at the table.” He indicated a chair that looked as though it had recently been smashed across someone’s back.
“I don’t mind at all,” the dealer said in a low, smooth voice. Matisse took in the man’s dark skin and shorn scalp, his fancy duds, and most importantly, the large pile of winnings arranged in front of him. This guy’s a player, he thought to himself.
“Excuse me for saying so, but you look familiar.” He said to the dealer.
“Of course, where are my manners?” the man said. “I’m Jack Leland.”
”The Jack Leland?” Matisse said, unable to hide his surprise. “You won the El Dorado Grand Championship last year! I watched the game on the Cortex, it was a real nail-biter.”
“Always nice to meet a fan,” Leland replied, obviously amused. “And who might you be?”
“Garret Hine,” Matisse said without breaking his smile.
“Well Mr. Hine, the game is five-card draw.” Leland said.
“Looks like our twins are engaged for the evening,” YJ observed as Worth pointed Fanty and Mingo out to the others.
“I know how to get their attention,” Jonah smirked. He sidled up to the bar and ordered two of the girliest drinks on offer, and then had the waitress send them to the twins’ dates on their behalf. It didn’t take long for Fanty, or maybe Mingo, to crane his neck in annoyance to see who ordered the frou-frou beverages. Jonah and Worth waved back.
The ladies were summarily dismissed as Jonah, Worth and YJ were invited over.
“Didn’t think we’d see you boys again so soon,” Fanty said.
“Badger didn’t send you here to settle a score, did he?” Mingo added, half a smile on his face.
“Not at all,” YJ said. “Things between us and Badger have kind of cooled as of late.”
“Well, Badger’s loss is apparently our gain,” Mingo said. “So what brings you to Beaumonde?”
“We’re looking for work, and wanted to take you up on your standing offer.” YJ continued.
Fanty and Mingo shared a brotherly glance. “Fanty, it is as if these poor souls have been guided to us by some unseen hand, isn’t it?” Mingo said, a Cheshire cat grin spreading across his face.
“I’d reckon that’s so.” Fanty replied. He turned to YJ. “If you’re looking for a quick score, look no further, friends. We’ve got just the job for you.”
“Sounds good,” YJ said.
“Your pilot got a steady hand?” Mingo asked.
“The steadiest,” YJ replied.
“Well then,” Fanty began. “We know this fella. A business acquaintance by the name of Whitaker. Capital “C” connected, if you catch my drift. At least, he was connected until recently. That’s when he called us.”
Mingo grimaced. “This fella, see, needs a quick trip offworld. Got some hard cases on his trail, heaven help him.” The gangster explained. “Now ordinarily we’d let him twist, but we can’t let it be known that we don’t even make so much as a token effort to help out a local who’s in trouble. Also, he’s willing to pay handsomely for the extraction. That’s where you come in.”
“This man’s on the run, yeah, figures he’s only a couple of steps ahead of those who want him dead,” Fanty said. “We tell him, look mate, at least see the sights before you go. We buy him a ticket on a high-class tourist train, the Oceanic, which runs between here and the other side of the world. Three-day ride, all the scenery a man can take in for a hundred square. Only the best for our man Whitaker, see.”
“Only every backbirth knows he’s making that trip,” Mingo picked up the tale. “Someone very mean and nasty’s going to be waiting for him at the other end.”
“And that’s where we come in,” Jonah said in understanding.
“We want him off that train somewhere between the Plaza and the tour’s destination, New Dunsmuir. You do that, and then take him wherever he wants to go. Drop him off, and forget you ever saw him. That’s the job.”
“So as long as we’re talking about unseen hands,” Jonah piped up, “where does the Almighty Alliance Credit factor in? How much is he willing to part with?”
“It’s our understanding that Mr. Whitaker is a cash and carry sort of gent,” Fanty said. “Be prepared to negotiate with him, and all we ask is for forty percent of whatever he offers you when you meet him.”
“Forty!” Jonah’s eyes widened. A slanted glance from YJ stopped him from continuing.
“So, why’s this guy on the run in the first place? Does he have the Alliance after him?” Worth asked.
“Alliance trouble?” the twins snorted in unison. “Whitaker wishes he had Alliance trouble,” Fanty said.
Mingo shook his head sympathetically. “Nah, this is a whole different brand of worry.”
Fanty leaned forward over the table. “Now this isn’t an ordinary cargo train full of hobos and peasants, see. It’s a top class affair. Our boys would stick out like a sore thumb. You’ll have to look the part or the bad guys are going to be on you like flies on cow pies.”
“Oh, I fully expect to be shot at,” Jonah said blithely.
Mingo continues. “There’s newtech gun scans all over the station, so no firearms allowed. The heavies have got to play by those rules too if they want to ride, so breathe easy.”
“Trust me, we’re going to get shot at.” Jonah replied.
“We’ll give you Whitaker’s berth number, and get you on board the train. The rest is up to you.” Fanty said. “So, you interested?”
“When does the train leave?” YJ asked.
Fanty and Mingo smiled at one another. “It pulls into the Plaza tomorrow morning.” Mingo said.
Across the barroom, Matisse couldn’t believe his luck. Within a few hands it had become clear that the game was going to be between Matisse and Leland. The famous itinerant rounder was by far one of the most skilled players Matisse had ever encountered. However, he had won more than his fair share of hands against Jack Leland, and had forced two of the players out of the game entirely. His pile of winnings was almost as big as the famous gambler’s by the time he noticed that the meeting between the twin gangsters and his ride was starting to break up. He sighed inwardly. Luck of the draw. he thought.
As YJ collected a handful of train tickets and other bits of job-related info from the twins, Jonah checked to see if his well-dressed mark was still buying drinks for his date, and then decided to make his move. Buying a tall glass of rotgut, he ambled over towards the big city dandy and promptly spilled the beverage all over the man’s expensive duds.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Jonah exclaimed, producing a handkerchief and doing his best to dab at the stains with one hand while reaching for the man’s pocket as smoothly as possible.
“I say,” the target of Jonah’s drink attack said. “I do believe that’s your hand in my pocket.”
“Just trying to clean you out – I mean clean you up,” Jonah fumbled, and then bolted in a fit of self-preservation clouded fueled by professional embarrassment.
Meanwhile, Worth moved in on the poker game and leaned heavily on the table. “We’re on our way out, so wind things up,” he growled, while at the same time making sure his hand was pressed atop Matisse’s winnings. When he lifted them, several bills were stuck to his sticky palms.
Matisse looked at Worth, then peeled the wet bills from his hand before Worth could make them disappear, and then handed him a dry low denomination one in return. “You get points for effort, friend.”
Leland snorted in annoyance, then laid down a winning hand that Matisse had not seen coming.
“Well,” Matisse said. “It looks like I’ve been summoned, and none too soon apparently.”
Leland gave Matisse a curt nod of respect as he collected the pot. “Perhaps we’ll pick this game up another time, then?”
Matisse grinned. “Any time, any place, Mr. Leland.”
YJ, Worth, and Matisse met up with Jonah outside the Maidenhead.
“Well, looks like we’ve got ourselves a train job,” YJ said.
“Sounds like fun,” Matisse said.
“Could get hairy,” Worth said.
“Oh yeah? Four hundred credits kind of hairy?” Matisse replied. “By no means have I received my money’s worth from you guys yet.”
YJ narrowed his eyes at the gambler. “You’re welcome to stay in your bunk, passenger.”
Matisse grinned. “No, it’s been a while since I’ve done any train work. I’ll tag along, and see what happens.”
“Yeah,” Jonah said, cracking his knuckles as he stared off into the distance. “We’re totally robbing that train.”