Three for the Money
A Sequel to "The Faithful"
Outside the window of room 217 the view was of the rather unattractive back of the adjacent building, so close that a small running start would be enough to jump from one balcony to the other. On Earth, it would have been a parking lot and while a small piece of it was, indeed set aside for vehicle storage, only a few made use of it. He hadn't much cared for his hometown, but as a native son of Detroit, Riddick felt obligated to be offended. He liked cars, always had. Only the antiques had personality, though. These days, everything looked the same.
That made him laugh. Things hadn't looked the same for months.
Jack sprawled on the couch, remote control in hand, flipping through channels on the muted television set. She looked completely at ease, but he could sense the tension beneath her skin; the non-lethal fight-or-flight ready to engage at an instant's notice. The morning had been awkward as all hell, so far, but less than he'd imagined, given the night that came before it. For something so small, that quick and unexpected kiss hung between them like a ton of lead waiting to drop on the first person to mention its presence.
He'd spent the early hours sitting awake in Marty's room, telling himself it was because his friend needed him but knowing full well that he needed a place to think. Things had tried to complicate themselves with thoughts of consequences and responsibilities, but he didn't let them. The truth of it was that for a good thirty seconds, none of that had entered his mind and he felt remarkably less guilty than he'd thought he would. Fleeting as it had been, that moment was something he'd never had before and now he was forced to wonder if he, not Jack, was the one caught up in the novelty of something happening between them.
The idea certainly had appeal, though reservations still tweaked the back of his mind. Would his inner bastard, tucked neatly away during their time together, surface and lay waste to his carefully constructed illusion of normalcy? The thought of having something indicative of an ordinary, healthy life thrilled him. But his near-giddiness began to erode before a seething tide of suppressed violence and anger; clawed at by the bleached-bone hands of the dead. The things he hadn't let her see weren't gone, no matter how much dirt he shoveled on top to keep them down.
For fuck's sake, he thought. If you can't control yourself you don't belong out here in the first goddamn place.
He shook his head and turned his attention back to the vidphone screen where the words "please hold" spelled themselves out over and over again in blocky, yellow letters over the faded-out logo of Quivers, Hessler & Moore; the law firm handling Jack's inheritance. At the bottom of the screen, images of tranquil, terrestrial settings faded in and out. He'd turned down the sound ten minutes ago when the accompanying music had finally gotten to him.
"Might as well turn it back up," he said, breaking the silence. "I'm on eternal hold."
Instead, she tossed the remote on the table and stood, stretching. She made a show of it, reaching for the ceiling with both hands until the white lace of her bra peeked from underneath her shirt. He caught himself smiling
and wide-open, bare-assed staring I might add
and covered it behind a hand and a subtle clearing of his throat. Smirking, Jack sauntered up and set both palms on the table, leaning forward until he could see straight down the front of her shirt. Riddick raised his eyes quickly to meet hers, brandishing a smirk of his own. Her gaze wavered for an instant, then fixed him firmly.
"Caught you looking," she said in a low, decidedly un-Jack-like purr.
Sure as hell looked to him like he wasn't the only one who'd done some thinking last night. He swept aside his mild surprise and let the smirk become a smile as he regarded her. Jesus, she was young. Reminders lay in everything from the smooth lines of her face to her narrow figure still blooming into curves. But she wasn't a kid, and there was no convincing himself otherwise, anymore. He'd tried like a son-of-a-bitch to keep his first vision of her fixed in his mind; lanky, clumsy, hair dyed mouse-brown, wearing too-big clothes and half-shuffling around in too-big shoes. No good. She'd been a boy, then, even to him, but it didn't take the impromptu peep-shows of the last couple of days to make him realize that things were different, now. Really different; as though last night's simple encounter had sent tumbling the last chipped and ill-fitting bricks of the wall he'd put up between them.
Yeah, like you both haven't been picking away at the fucker for months.
Only he seemed to have been using a spoon while she'd taken to it with a pickaxe and high explosives.
"That mean I'm in trouble?" he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
Circling the table, Jack leaned on its edge and gazed down at him, her eyes narrowed into glistening, catlike slits above her smile.
"That all depends," she said, tracing a finger slowly across the top of the vidphone monitor.
"On what?" The undisguised seduction in her expression both unnerved and excited him, and like any good fighting man, he readied himself for anything.
"On how you feel about me."
Except for that. Sucker-punched like an amateur. Where the hell did she learn stuff like that? Oh.
"How I feel, huh?" he asked, rubbing the side of his jaw with a thumb. Riddick didn't want to embarrass her with a flippant reply, or confuse her with any of the half-thought-out truths that had been bouncing around his head. Instead, he recalled Marty's former advice, which he was almost certain had been given seriously. "Why don't we talk about it over dinner?"
"What, like on a date?"
He almost burst out laughing at the exact repetition of his own, previous words.
"Yeah," he nodded. "Like on a date."
Jack looked suddenly very pleased with herself. "Yeah? Cool. Almost like normal folks, huh?" she said with a lopsided smile.
"Almost," he agreed, returning the smile. A change on the monitor caught the corner of his eye and he turned back to it, relieved to see that the hold message had vanished in favor of one that said 'connecting'. He turned the sound up again and sat straight in the chair, smoothing the snazzier-than-usual shirt he'd donned for the occasion. At Jack's puzzled look, he said, "I'm supposed to be your secretary, remember? How's my hair?"
She laughed loudly and shook her head, grinning. As the screen announced the imminent connection to a real, live person, he took a deep breath and cleared his throat, preparing. An older woman faded into view, thin lips stretched into a polite smile and her dark hair pulled into a bun so tight that Riddick guessed it must be holding up her eyebrows. Behind her was a blue-gray wall hung with a large, shining, three-dimensional representation of the logo that had graced the vidphone screen for the last twenty minutes.
"Thank you for holding, sir." He didn't think she meant it. "How may I help you?"
"I'm calling on behalf of my employer," he said, at least an octave higher than usual. "I'd like to make an inquiry."
"Case number," the woman replied dully.
"Four-five-four-nine-dash-T-one-one. Estate of Jackson G. Weller."
Suddenly, she focused on him, her lazy eyes widening and her shriveled countenance taking on new life. Shitload of money and property. Must have been one hell of a payday for Q,H&M. "Whom do you represent?"
"Jackie M. Weller," he replied, tapping the fingers of one hand on the table. "His granddaughter and single largest beneficiary. She would like to fill out the forms in advance and have a copy of all up-to-date paperwork if poss--"
"I'm terribly sorry," she interrupted, fiddling nervously with a light pen on her desk. "But all properties, assets and monies are being held until the resolution of another pending case."
Riddick pursed his lips in a look of almost feminine annoyance. What the hell was this? Just out of sight, Jack slapped a hand over her mouth, shoulders shaking with laughter.
"What case would that be?" he scowled.
"Another beneficiary has filed a suit disputing the disbursement of--"
"Another beneficiary? Who?"
"I'm terribly sorry, sir, but I cannot divulge that information."
Sure as hell would divulge it if I jammed that light pen up your--
"I think she's got the right to know who's delaying disbursement," he said.
"If you would like a copy of suit, with all of the details outlined, Ms. Weller must show up in person, with two forms of identifica--"
"I'll have to call you back," he said, and thumbed the 'disconnect' button, making her disappear. "Motherfucker."
"Has to be my dad," said Jack.
Riddick nodded thoughtfully. Ordinarily the answer would have been simple. Break the fucker's legs and make him drop the case. But despite her outward animosity toward her father, he had the feeling Jack wouldn't approve. Then he glanced up at her, noting the fire in her eyes and angry furrow in her brow and thought she might at that. Regardless, something else was happening here, and it stunk. Maybe if they just leaned on him a little.
"We should go have a talk with good old Virge," she growled. Then Jack roared in frustration and pounded the floor with her feet. "I knew that asshole was up to something! Son-of-a--" She stopped abruptly, making calming gestures to the air. "I'm good. Okay, now what?"
"We go have a talk with good old Virge."
"Should we wait for Marty?"
"That could be a long wait, kids."
Riddick turned to see Bender propped against the wall, leaning heavily as though he were using his weight to hold it up instead of the other way around.
"You look like complete shit," he said, then regretted it. In the state he woke up in after a spell, Marty couldn't take a joke or sometimes even get it. To Riddick's surprise, his friend offered a weak smile and a mildly obscene gesture.
With a look of resolve, Martin fixed his sights on the couch and leaned away from the wall. They both watched anxiously as he made his way there and eased onto the cushions with a heavy sigh. Riddick studied him as he slouched, looking pale and small, nearly swallowed by a mound of pillows. The glassy look he'd come to expect was absent. Marty just seemed...tired. It occurred to him then that someday he'd probably look the same. Worn out and worn down from lugging around an immense weight no one else could see. Jesus H. but he was an introspective bastard, today.
"How you feeling, boss?"
Marty tilted his head at an image on the silent television screen, and for a moment it looked like he wasn't going to answer. Finally, he said slowly, "Been worse."
He surprised Riddick by going on, the look of concentration on his face almost painful to watch. "You crazy kids do what you've got to do," he said. "If y-you're worried about trouble with your old man, Jack, just arrange to meet in a public p-place. In a good neighborhood. You'll do fine. If you n-need me..." His voice stuck a little on the last bit and he let it drop, gesturing toward the vidphone.
Jack nodded her understanding. "You'll be okay?"
"Right on, then," she said. "We'll jump the bastard when he gets off work. If we call first, he'll have too much time to think. I want to catch him off guard. Makes it easier to tell if he's feeding us a line of bullshit or not. I want to know about the lawsuit, I want to know where grandpa's card key is, and I want to know what the hell Marlene Castor is up to. If we have to use force, fine."
Bender shook his head gingerly and smiled. "She's starting to s-sound like one of us," he said.
The broad grin that burst onto Jack's face sent a jolt up Riddick's spine. One of us. It was clear the idea pleased her. He wondered if she'd still like that gift once she saw what was under the wrapper.
Traveling strips of stark, white light passed through the cab, washing out colors already dimmed by Terra-luna’s perpetual night. Jack held the cloth-bound diary closer to her face as she flipped through its time- and tear-warped pages. Her handwriting began as sprawling, loopy letters at the front of the book, changing gradually to tight, tiny characters that made her squint. Once, she’d considered this rare gift of cloth and paper to be thoughtful, even sweet, on her father’s part. Now that she was older – and wiser, she hoped – it struck her as incredibly selfish. Doubtless he’d purchased in it hopes that it would save him the trouble of trying to crack into the kind of digital, password-protected diary most kids her age kept. She scanned, mostly, stopping now and then when she got caught up in her own writing and wondering at the things that were important to her only a few years ago. Cute boys on the block. Math finals. Her hair. Oh man, her hair.
The same set of words stood out with astounding frequency. Lied to me...lied to me...lied to me. She scowled and continued to scan. I'll spend more time at home...I'm working late...you can go visit your mother...Every promise that had been yanked out from under her was dutifully and, more often than not, angrily, recorded here. Had it really been that bad?
Nodding inwardly, she let the book fall shut and dropped it on her lap, then turned her eyes toward the passing scenery. It wouldn't do to look at Riddick and let him see the tears of rage forming in her eyes. And her dad was still doing it, the son of a--
She thought of her dear, sweet old grandmother and changed mid-epithet.
The idea of barging in and letting the big guy take revenge made her lips twitch into what she imagined was a wicked smile. She could ask Riddick to break a finger to go with each broken promise, but even if they did a knuckle at a time there wouldn't be enough to go around.
Jackie, sweetheart, why don't you stay for dinner? I'd love for you two to get to know each other...
"I'll bet you would," she muttered. She felt Riddick's eyes on her but he didn't say anything. Jack wondered if he was being polite or was just used to her talking to herself. She glanced over, pointedly avoiding his eyes as she took him in and turned away. Riddick was stretched out as far as the back seat would allow; relaxed, like a big cat in a small but comfortable cage. One arm rested on top of the seat behind her head; close, warm, familiar. She tried to remember the moment her idea of him had gone from exhilarating fear and fascination to comfort and…that other thing he didn’t seem to want to talk about, and couldn’t. One of her previous thoughts grabbed her and caused her to ask, "Have you ever lied to me?"
Almost immediately, he answered, “Yes.”
Jack gaped at him and let out a loud burst of surprised laughter. One corner of Riddick's mouth quirked up into a lopsided smile as he watched her.
“Jeez Louise, did you have to answer so damn fast?" she said, frowning the laughter into submission. “So, what about?”
He shook his head, straight-faced and unreadable. "You know, just maybe there's a reason I lied in the first place."
Jack went quiet for a while, thoughtfully studying the drab patterns on the back of the seat in front of her. This wasn't what she'd expected at all. The idea of him dashing her hopes with casual falsehood made her shiver. Should she be angry with him for lying before or pleased that he'd chosen to be honest now? Couldn’t he have just lied and said “no”? Oh.
"I don't want things to be like that between us," she said.
"I don't want you to lie to me, even if it's--" she almost choked on the phrase. "For my own good." Gesturing in the air between them, she added, "I want this to be a bullshit-free zone. No little white lies, no lies by omission, none of that stuff. Besides, if there's something you don't want to tell me, it's probably something I should know, anyhow."
His expression still refused to give anything away. She tried to force hers to mirror it, but he’d had far more practice. Had she asked too much and pissed him off? Too late to take it back, but she decided to pause and give him a chance to say something. When he didn't speak, panic tightened her throat. Nice going dipshit. Now he’s gonna clam up.
Riddick's hands began and aborted half a dozen gestures before he gave up and let them drop into his lap. "The truth is overrated," he said finally.
Her will to argue wavered as she watched the motion of his long, strong fingers. "I don't think it is," she countered, cursing mentally when her voice caught.
"Too much honesty and you forget how to tell when people are lying. Because even if I don't, Jack, chances are somebody else will."
Jack shifted in her seat and tried not to scowl at him, knowing full well how miserably she was failing. No matter how often he baited her, she always fell for it. Willingly, even. But it didn't feel like he was playing, now. He was serious. Well, so was she.
"Look, I'm not asking you to cut off your--"
He shot her a mildly cautioning look and she stopped, lips pursed.
"You're afraid you can't do it," she challenged. Ha! Take that!
I'm what? his look stated clearly. But the sentiment didn't carry into his voice, which remained level as ever. "Given much thought to what you're asking?
"We've spent a lot of time together."
Dammit, why did he always do that?
"And after everything I've seen and heard, I think we should be capable of being honest with each other," she said. There, that sounded...almost reasonable.
He looked thoughtful for a long moment, pale globes of light dancing in his eyes.
"You're right, I can't do it," he said flatly.
Jack almost growled in frustration. "Why the hell not? Have you been feeding me bullshit this whole time or something? Are you really just a file clerk from Poughkeepsie? Were you wanted for a shitload of unpaid parking tickets? What?"
He chewed on his lower lip and regarded her through narrowed eyes.
"I've done things I'm not proud of," he said. "And you don't need to know about them all."
"That's different," he shot back.
"Why, because he's a guy?" Jack winced at the lowness of her reply and the rising defensiveness in her voice. She knew damn well that had nothing to do with it but she was running out of arguments and wasn't about to fall back on the bald truth that her indignant glare disguised.
"Because he's done them, too."
Bingo. Jack turned away and drew her knees up, resting her heels on the edge of the seat. The lower corners of the diary bit uncomfortably into her legs but she ignored them. It was easy to forget exactly how much her two men had in common. Despite his calm and generally sweet disposition, Marty was just as much a killer as Riddick, though the authorities sanctioned his work. Business, not personal. The two had, in fact, killed together; an intimate act the thought of which gave her twinges in odd places. So, what did she have to do to make him think she'd understand? Kill somebody? She was about to ask when he continued.
"If this is because of something between you and your dad you need to work it out with him," he said. With a small, reassuring smile, he added, "I'll keep."
Jack opened her mouth to let him have it but the last bit stopped her cold. Or rather, warm. She let the unpleasant implications of what he’d said fall away in favor of the one that made her go gooey in the middle. "Yeah?" she asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
"You're willing to wait around while I work out my issues, huh?"
"Hunh," he replied. "I'll be working mine out until I have to gum my food, anyhow."
"You're a raging romantic, you know that?" said Jack, laughing.
For a few blocks, they were both quiet. Jack unfolded herself and stretched out her long legs, letting the diary slip off of her lap. It reminded her of what had started the conversation in the first place.
"Still," she began. "As your employer..."
"Maybe someday," Riddick sighed. "I will get very, very drunk and maudlin, spill my guts, and let you pick through them as you please, but until then? I’m going to lie. Like a rug." He shrugged, looking vaguely apologetic, and for a minute she wasn't sure he was going to say anything more. But then, "You're right. There’s been a lot of…stuff between us. You know more about me than any--" He paused, eyes flashing in the passing light. "Woman ever has. Damn near more than anybody."
Her heart fluttered wildly and she worked hard to suppress a broad, bliss-filled grin. It quickly became pointless, however, as she felt her skin flush all over. Maybe the light, varying between dim and harsh, would manage to hide the sudden color.
"You mean that?"
He smiled at her. "Which part?"
"No shit," she nodded.
Absently, Riddick reached over and traced a quick line on the back of her hand with the tip of one long, smooth finger, then withdrew with a sudden, self-conscious jerk. Despite the thrill that ran through her at his touch, Jack made herself be still.
"Your dad lied to you a lot?" he asked. Jack stopped just short of glaring in shock. She wondered what was really going on in his head today. Not that he'd been truly callous toward her for quite some time -- and she suspected that even what had come before was a huge crock of tough-guy posturing -- but this attentive, sensitive thing was starting to make her suspicious. What had changed in the last couple of days to make him act so strangely? For the love of God, a date?
"Whenever he could," she nodded. She picked up the diary and placed a finger on opposite corners, spinning it idly as she talked. "The biggest problem, the thing that pisses me off the most, is that I was too young and stupid to realize it for a really long time. I actually believed the 'something came ups' and the 'maybe next times' for much longer than anybody with half a brain should.”
"You were young," he shrugged.
"I'm still young," Jack pointed out. "And I don't believe it now."
Riddick knit his fingers over his chest and tapped his thumbs in no discernible rhythm. "You've had some, ah, life-altering experiences," he said. "Sometimes those can make you see things more clearly."
"Amen to that," she said. On a whim, she added, "Though figuring out what you're thinking is still a righteous pain in the ass."
He flashed a small smile, perhaps in appreciation of his own ability to drive her batshit. "Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?"
"No. See, you're the man," she replied. "You're supposed to be straightforward and easy to read. I'm the woman. I'm supposed to be mysterious and complicated and always keep you guessing."
"So fall into line, man!" Jack said, giving him a playful smack on the thigh.
He shook his head and grunted. “You wish.”
Jack tilted her head and narrowed her eyes, considering. Banter. Yes, that's most certainly what this was. It wasn't as though they hadn't done it before, but this time there was a subtle difference she couldn't quite put her finger on. They'd been tossing around double entendre and innuendo almost from the start, nearly to the point of ease and comfort while making remarks about acts and anatomy that she, at least, had an extreme interest in. This was almost like a...a mating dance. All the better, then. She just wished he would quit trying to make her lead.
"How about this?" asked Riddick thoughtfully. "No new bullshit. The other stuff will take care of itself in time, but for now, since you're the boss and all--"
She was nodding before he even finished. "Deal."
Riddick took the hand she offered and shook it. His palm was warm and dry, soft against hers. She wondered what it was like to touch the rest of him.
"And now, in this spirit of newfound honesty," she began. "There's something I'd really like to know."
"Uh-oh." The little-boy tone with which he said it almost made her laugh, but she wrapped it up in a soothing smile and continued.
What the hell was she doing and where had she conjured up the nerve to do it? Of course, the worst he could do was say no. No, not true. The worst he could do was laugh in her face.
"Did Marty put you up to asking me out or was it your idea?"
"His idea," he replied. Jack sagged inwardly. A mercy date?
The look on Riddick's face didn't make her feel any better. His eyes were dark and focused, any expression they held masked by an utter lack of color or light. Jack considered quitting right here, but the wondering was driving her to distraction and she needed to focus now if she was going to cut her dad and his thundering herd of bullshit off at the pass.
"Would you have asked?"
"Probably not." Riddick shifted in his seat, looking distinctly uncomfortable with this line of questioning.
Her sagging became something more like seeping into the floor mats. They would have to bring in the industrial-grade hoses to get her out. Maybe she was going about this all wrong. No, obviously she was going about this all wrong.
"Are you just answering the bare minimum to chap my ass?"
"I figured," she said, praying that her smile looked satisfied instead of maniacal or giddy. It must've passed, at least, because the one he returned held the sort of fond charm that made her feel eight feet tall whenever it was directed at her. She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. Time to play with you for a while, big boy.
“So, what made you think I would be interested?” she asked, pursing her lips and raising her chin defiantly.
Now it was his turn to look gob-smacked. Jack fought hard and suppressed a victorious smile. Hah! her mind shouted. Riddick gnawed at his bottom lip and his tongue flicked out to moisten it before he caught himself and started to smile. She smiled along with him, but didn’t stop.
“I mean, what’s it been, months? How long is a girl” – woman, dammit, woman – “supposed to wait? How many hints is she supposed to drop before she gives up and runs off with her hot, hunky South American masseuse, Enrique?”
“Enrique, huh?” The smile faded from his lips, but his eyes still held it.
“Yeah,” she grinned. “He talks dirty to me in Spanish. Real steamy stuff.”
“He ever say anything like this?”
In a swift, smooth motion he leaned forward, across the back seat of the cab and pressed his lips to her ear. Startled at first, Jack twitched away but quickly found herself with her back to the window. His breath warmed her neck and made her skin prickle all over as he softly whispered a few choice phrases she’d only heard him utter in her sleep. He retreated to his side of the car, looking for all the world like a little boy who had yelled out a dirty word at the dinner table in front of his prudish grandma. It took a moment before she regained enough sense of herself to consider praying that he didn’t notice her nipples standing rigidly against the thin fabric of her shirt. By then she was sure he had.
When she was almost sure she wouldn’t stammer, she broke into a broad smile and said, “It takes you a while to get started, but once you do, you sure don’t mess around.”
He looked thoughtful and maybe a bit…relieved? Realization dawned on her suddenly and she hoped to God the surprise hadn’t leaked onto her face before she could stop it. This was not the suave, experienced older man that she’d always dreamed would come to take her away. Not even. Riddick was something entirely different. Better, she smiled to herself. He was older, sure, and experienced, though not in the way she’d imagined her man to be. The notion marched up to her complete with accompanying fireworks and a uniformed marching band. What was shining behind his augmented eyes was not confidence at all but the direct and hopeful look of a nervous man. My god, she thought. He’s as new at this as I am. She almost laughed out loud at the notion, but was afraid he’d take it the wrong way.
Thus reinforced, Jack smiled gloriously for the next several blocks.
v v v
When the cab came to a stop Riddick repressed the urge to pop the door and run headfirst into the nearest wall. A lot. What happened to “take it slow, Dickey”? “Treat her like a lady, Dickey”? “Quit acting like a fucking moron, Dickey”? Where the hell was the Pissed-Off Captain’s voice in his head when he was acting like a horny teenager? He’d half-expected her to slap him. Instead she'd smiled and said something ambiguous. Things were in order after all. She knew exactly what she was thinking and he was confused as hell. And he’d started off so well. He made a mental note to bring to their date the most fantastic gift he could find in order to distract her from his behavior.
He slipped his card through the worn, black reader and waited for the driver to give him a receipt. The card had his name on it, but what it really amounted to was an allowance from Uncle Marty. Riddick had no money of his own, something that had occupied his thoughts more and more often since their arrival on Terra-luna. The hotel, the food, the cab fare, all came out of his former captain’s savings. Martin had encouraged him to live it up – and he had done so, no lying to himself about that – but it felt wrong. Sure, he hadn’t minded living off taxpayers’ money in prison. Shit, he’d have been happy to relieve them of that burden. But what the hell could he do? He’d never had a paying job in his life. Not entirely true, he supposed, if he counted the modest salary he’d earned for his stint in the military. There was always Jack’s promised payday when and if she won her inheritance. Great, taking money from kids, now?
And that’s not all, buddy.
Not a kid, he reminded himself. The fact that she'd stopped staring holes through his chest when he called her one went a long way toward convincing him. She didn't even look like a kid, anymore; a fact he'd noted repeatedly in the last few days. Perv.
As an afterthought, he added a hefty tip to the fare and tapped on the plastic barrier that separated them from the cabbie. The man turned, raising a salt and pepper eyebrow at him without managing to look at all interested. Cabbie training, he supposed.
"We're waiting for someone," said Riddick, his voice carefully neutral.
"It'll run up," the man replied. "Sitting's the same as driving."
"No trouble. We're not going anywhere in particular until I give you an address."
The cabbie nodded and arranged himself comfortably in the front seat.
Jack leaned her face against the window and watched the front door. Scooting cautiously up behind her, Riddick peered out at the Castor Building. It was short, like nearly all of the structures on the satellite, but its rounded corners and spacious, glass-enclosed lobby made it appear far less squat and blocky than the others. Between the shimmering panes were bricks of pale, porous moon stone. The stone was low density and so couldn't bear the weight of entire buildings. It was used most often in facades and ornamentation, as it held detail well and its snowy white surface repelled wear and stains indefinitely. They ground it into detergent, too. Goddamit, he'd had too much time to read, lately.
Reaching behind her without looking, Jack fumbled for his sleeve and tugged on it. He followed her gaze as she pointed. "There he is."
Her hand shot for the door release and Riddick stopped her. "My job, Boss Lady," he said. He glanced around the back seat and sighed. "This would be a lot more impressive if we had our own wheels," he grumbled. "Well, you work with what you got."
Virgil Weller was almost to the street when Riddick slid the door open and stepped out in one smooth motion. Spotting him, the man stopped in his tracks, fingers clutching his briefcase so tightly they turned white. He looked as though he might bolt. Sure sign of a guilty conscience -- or a keen sense of self preservation. Riddick knew exactly how terrifying he looked with his game face on. Hell, he'd practiced in the mirror for this one.
To his credit, Weller didn't run. Instead, he managed a tenuous smile and extended a hand.
"Hello, Mr., um... You know, I don't believe Jackie ever told me your--"
Riddick made no move to take the proffered hand, keeping his own hands in front of him, fingers linked almost primly. He would miss have Marty to bounce off of, but it wasn't the first time he'd had to play the badass solo. Nope, buddy, all bad guy, here.
"Ms. Weller would like to have a word with you," he said flatly. With a short step back from the vehicle, Riddick nodded toward the open door. For a moment, Weller regarded it with something just short of naked terror, then his look of uneasiness was overcome by the kind of bland pleasantness one expected from a used car salesman. With a determined gait he walked boldly up to the door, bending first to peek inside and then sliding in beside Jack. Riddick dropped in after him and pulled the door shut, plunging the back seat into half-light again.
Arranging himself stiffly between them, Virgil lay his briefcase on his lap and regarded his daughter with what looked to Riddick like a raging case of the willies. She'd dressed for this, a cream-colored business suit with pants that hugged her hips and flared at the bottom over low, brown boots. Beneath the jacket was a white knit shirt with a round neckline that showed her pale throat and collar bones without dipping too far. Her hair was swept back and piled loosely on top of her head, held by a simple, metal barrette fashioned after the skeleton of a fish. Her face was set in an expression of careful detachment with the slightest hint of disgust. Riddick almost smiled. Damn, she was beautiful.
"I was hoping you would--" Virgil began. Jack cut him off, her voice low and measured, almost a whisper.
"I don't know what you think you're doing, Virgil," she said, tapping a finger on her knee. "But I know that I don't like it."
Riddick leaned forward and tapped the plastic divider. The driver didn't turn, but the cab pulled forward, dodging around a man stepping out of another car along the curb. Frowning, Riddick turned briefly to watch him through the back window. Son of a bitch looked familiar. He made no move to follow, so Riddick let it go.
"Jackie, Swee--Maybe if you told me what it was I did to upset you?"
"Too long a list," she said. "I'll just pick one thing, how about that?"
The question appeared to be rhetorical, but Virgil nodded, anyway.
"I tried to get some legal information this morning," she began. Realization dawned visibly in her father's eyes, but she continued before he could open his mouth to defend himself. "I was informed that there was a hold put on distribution of my inheritance because someone had filed a suit pertaining to it. Would you happen to know anything about that, Virgil?"
He'd schooled her on the use of her father's first name and the power it had to level the playing field. Looked like it was working, too. Every time she said it, the man seemed to shrink further into his suit.
"I filed it right after you left," he sighed. Adjusting his hands nervously on the briefcase, he continued. "I'm sorry, Jackie. I hoped you would come back, I wanted you to, but I had to protect myself. My business was going under. I didn't have a thing and there was nobody left to borrow from."
"Too bad you weren't thinking about Grandpa's money all along. It might have kept you from being such an ass that I felt the need to leave," Jack replied. Her eyes narrowed and her lips curled upward in a humorless smile. "Or were you trying to behave and just doing a really bad job?"
"I understand how upset you are, Jackie--"
"No, I really don't think you do."
Jack reached forward to pull the clothbound diary from where she'd hidden it in a pocket attached to the back of the front seat. With a flourish, she flipped it open to the last page and pulled down the lining to reveal the card that wasn't there.
"What's wrong with this picture, Pops?"
Virgil's "huh?" was implied by the blank look he turned on Riddick. Apparently realizing there was no help there for him, he swallowed loudly, bit the bullet and faced Jack. His mouth jerked into a nervous smile.
"How about a hint?"
"Fair enough," nodded Jack. Her brows drew together in a slight frown as she tapped the discolored rectangle. "Where the fuck is the card that used to be here?"
Recoiling at the expletive, or perhaps the hint of menace with which it was uttered, Virgil worked his mouth soundlessly for a moment and then managed a drawn out, "Oh, the--I have it. I--" He actually began to redden, gesturing feebly as he continued. "I, well, I went through your things, you know, hoping to find some kind of clue about where you'd gone. Tried your mother's..."
"You called Mom?" Jack asked doubtfully.
"I did," Virgil nodded. "Though in retrospect it was a horrible idea. She laid into me for letting you run off."
"Good for her."
He rolled his eyes at her and relaxed his grip on the handle of his briefcase enough to let the blood back into his fingers. The initial terror had subsided, but, Riddick noted, the man was still paying attention.
"She was worried to death about you."
"Good to know somebody was," said Jack, dropping the book into his lap and making him flinch.
"Jackie, I was worried." With a swift glance over his shoulder at Riddick, he added, "I'm still worried. These people you're with...where did they come from? How well do you know them? I want to know why two grown men feel the need to hang around a girl your age."
A good move on her old man's part, trying to drive a wedge between them. Or it would have been if that were possible. Riddick frowned. Was it? What if it finally dawned on her that she'd been flirting with a confessed murderer? Did she understand what he was as well as she thought she did?
"Obviously it's because I'm hot," Jack replied snidely. "Didn't I tell you before? I'm paying them with sex."
Riddick snorted back a laugh and it made Virgil jump. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. All aboard the Jack Express, no stops here. Maybe he didn't need to worry so much after all.
"Honestly, Jackie, I don't know when you got to be like this."
"Got out, saw the galaxy, learned to talk dirty..." She flashed a look past her father and caught Riddick's eye, making him fight back the fierce grin that threatened to betray his grim facade. "That'll change a girl. Where's the card?"
"My safe deposit box," Virgil said slowly. "I'll--" His look brightened, causing them both to regard him suspiciously. "I'll give it to you over dinner."
"Dinner." It came out much the same way Riddick could imagine her saying 'dog shit'.
"Marlene and I are dining out this evening," he nodded. "And we'd both be delighted to have you join us."
"You both would, would you? By the way, about Marlene..." Jack began.
An alarm went off in Riddick's head and he widened his eyes at her, hoping she would catch the signal before it was too late.
"She seems like a nice girl," Jack finished smoothly. Her emphasis on the last word appeared to immediately draw her father's attention away from the minute pause. "I'd like to meet her."
"Wonderful. We'll pick you up at eight," he said. His smile was broad and genuine, and Jack returned it even as she shook her head.
"We'll meet you there," she corrected.
She nodded toward Riddick. "I'm bringing a date."
"You're bringing a bodyguard to dinner?" he asked, incredulous. "Jack you don't have to--"
"Date," she repeated sternly.
Virgil looked to Riddick and obviously failed to find the sympathy he sought because he sighed and slouched into the seat, defeated. Riddick thought of flashing a toothy grin and making a semi-lewd remark just to shake the man up more, but that would have been a disservice to Jack. She'd nailed the 'in-charge' persona and he wouldn't do anything to jeopardize it, now. Weller scowled and opened his mouth to spew what were no doubt angry words. Then he closed it and sighed again.
"Darkside Restaurant, eight o' clock," he said finally. "We've got reservations for three, but I'm sure they can work something out."
"Three? That sure, huh?"
He didn't answer, and instead reached for the diary on his lap and held it carefully in both hands as though it were something precious. Jack watched him for a moment with an odd look before she glanced out the window and spoke.
"Somewhere we can drop you?"
"Home," he said, turning to smile at her. "Got to get ready for dinner with my little girl."
Jack opened her mouth but closed it again without speaking. As Riddick leaned forward to give the cabbie the address, her expression flashed with brief anger before she turned to frown at her reflection.
Mackey almost slammed his coat in the cab door as he watched the white Fargo Cab pass him and pull into traffic. A dozen expletives tried to crowd their way out of his mouth at once, resulting in a kind of incoherent grumble. There was no mistaking the girl's profile. Not for him. Not after the time he'd spent burning her features into his brain. And he sure as hell couldn't miss that big bruiser she traveled with. The surprise was Virgil Weller, sitting between them, stiff as a board. It occurred to Mackey that the trip might not be a voluntary one and he raised his hand to tap on the window of the car he’d just left, but let it drop.
"Lusci?" He cupped a hand over his earpiece to keep out the hum of traffic and trotted to the sidewalk.
“Yes, Garvin?” came her muffled voice from his pocket.
“Hook up and keep tabs on a hack for me,” he said. “Fargo Cab number sixteen. Tell me where it stops.”
“Will do,” she replied. “Are you ready for your meeting?”
“More than,” he nodded, then wondered why. She couldn’t possibly see him, folded up in the dark inside pocket of his coat. Heading diagonally across the small plaza in front of the Castor Building, he continued. “I want the conversation recorded.”
“Are we having trust issues, Garvin?”
“Mmm. Going in,” he said hurriedly. “If they pop you open, do me a favor and try to look like an appointment book.”
She surprised him with a laugh. “But Garvin, I am an appointment book."
The thick, glass door slid aside at his approach. Dodging departing employees, he made his way to the reception desk and flashed a small, conservative smile at the woman seated there.
"Miss Tavares," Lusci whispered in his ear.
"--Miss Tavares," he repeated dutifully. "Garvin Mackey. I have a five-thirty appointment with Mr. Castor."
She tapped a screen and lifted a small hand scanner. "ID, sir."
Mackey handed it over, gazing past the counter as a pair of elevator doors opened in the hallway that stretched out behind it. A thickly built man stepped out, running a hand over his close-cropped, black hair and fixing Mackey with the kind of politely forceful gaze practiced often by bouncers and security men. He stopped beside the desk and paused for a beat, perhaps waiting for the ID to clear, then gave a curt nod.
"I'll show you up, sir," he said in a voice that didn't quite match his impressive frame. He found himself wondering briefly if Castor kept eunuchs. "If you'll follow me."
The ride up was so smooth and quiet Mackey could almost swear the only sound was that of the shoulders of the other man's suit straining at the seams. The doors opened onto a waiting room staffed with yet another receptionist, though the plaque on her desk read "Administrative Assistant". She glanced up as they passed on their way to a pair of oversized, inlaid wooden doors that would probably fetch the price of a small condo up here.
The gorilla that had showed him up pulled a small rod from inside his jacket and ran it over him. Apparently satisfied with the results, he waited for a nod from the woman and opened the doors.
Inside was less an office than a small museum surrounding a desk. Castor regarded him from behind it, silhouetted by the artificial daylight in the windows. The real thing was scarce in Mackey's life and the ice in his employer's gaze made him long for it. He indicated a chair on the other side of the desk and Mackey sat as the doors to the room swung silently closed.
"Good news?" Castor asked simply.
"I'm afraid not," said Mackey. He reached slowly into his coat pocket and set a disk on the table, then slid it halfway across and replaced his hand in his lap.
"I was able to get close enough to observe Ms. Weller with her--" he searched for a word, decided to use the one Castor had provided him earlier. "Kidnappers. I was, however, unable to get close enough to remove her from their custody."
That was a lie. He'd had a window of opportunity big enough to fly a freighter through. Almost ten minutes between the time the men left to when she got off the elevator on the second floor, leaving him behind. But instinct and a realization that had begun to form the moment he saw the three of them together had stopped him from laying a hand on her, or even asking her a simple, "are you alright?"
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Castor. "But I'm glad to hear you've located them. I can send some security men to pick her up."
"I recommend extreme caution, sir," he said. An understatement. "The men she's with, they're not just a couple of con artists who've latched themselves onto a potential payday. They're ex-Marines. 787's."
Castor's gaze intensified. Mackey wasn't sure if it was interest or impatience, but he took the opportunity to explain, regardless.
"When men who receive a particular kind of training are discharged from military service, Special Forces, most of them, they are assigned a nine-digit number to be fixed permanently on their person. Saw a man with it tattooed on his forehead, once." He paused and gave a short laugh, though he held out little hope of lightening the mood, here. "My sources have verified that Ms. Weller's companions are two such individuals."
"I know who they are. It's not important."
Now it was Mackey's turn to glare. "That information would have been helpful to me earlier, sir."
"You're the professional, Mr. Mackey."
He forced himself not to shift in his seat. It kept his mind off diving across the desk and wrapping his hands around Castor's neck until the son of a bitch turned blue. What else wasn't he telling? This job had seemed like a peach when he'd agreed to it; a good way to redeem himself for losing the girl at Port Safi in the first place. Now it was starting to smell.
"Then I'll give you my professional opinion, sir. Ms. Weller does not appear to be held against her will. Her--" this time he used a word of his own. "--companions don't behave like captors, and my guess is that they aren't. Men with prisoners don't sit around drinking in hotel restaurants, they order room service."
"I certainly hope you're not basing all of your assumptions on evidence that thin, Mr. Mackey."
"Temper, Garvin, temper," whispered Lusci. "Remember your blood pressure."
He swallowed the first reply that sprang to mind and kept his voice level as he continued. "She had plenty of opportunities to flee," he said. "She chose not to."
"She may be under the impression that she's in no danger."
The idea that an impressionable young girl could be manipulated by men like Riddick and Bender was more than feasible. What did he really know about her? His original employer had told him she was willful and independent. That hadn't narrowed it down much. Friends? Hangouts? Did she have anywhere to go? How much money had she taken? Virgil Weller had sure as hell known the answer to that last one, but not much more. And what Mackey had found out on his own had served more to confuse than enlighten. But looking at the three of them together he couldn't get over the feeling, unlikely as it seemed, that she was in charge.
He'd tracked her to her passage on the Hunter-Gratzner, a freighter out of Cai-shen modified to take the truly destitute and desperate on a magic carpet ride through scantily mapped sections of free space. Case closed. He'd hopped a fast-track ship to the freighter's first stop but by the time he reached it, the distress call had already beaten him there. There were no available charters and the next ride out was a salvage ship that wasn't due back for over a month. So he notified the port authority as back-up and spent so much time loitering in New Tangier's orbiting docking station that people had started to offer him loose change. When she showed up alive with the crew of the very ship he'd been waiting for, he'd had visions of bonuses theretofore unknown to man. Legalities prevented him from taking her into custody on the station, but the authorities assisted by picking her up planetside.
He never even got to see Jackie Weller, himself, just the surveillance photos of her being escorted out of the Port Authority offices by a guy posing as a lawyer. He'd just pegged that one as Bender, but still wasn't sure which of the men was responsible for the terrified suit they'd found in a maintenance closet, bound hand and foot and gagged with his own tie. They'd risked a lot to get the girl back.
And now they were sharing a hotel room. Made sense if she was a hostage. Made sense for a couple of other things, too. Maybe Castor was right. It wasn't as though Mackey wasn't feeling smugly satisfied at the idea of getting back at the men who'd put him in this position in the first place. Besides, his job was done. All he had to do was take the check and go, maybe treat himself to a vacation on a Mexican beach.
"They're at the Galileo Hilton," he said. "Room 217. I recommend for the safety of all concerned that you try and hold for a time when the men are separated or the girl is alone. It's best to consider them armed but I suggest that you avoid a direct confrontation if at all possible. Stu--"
"Thank you, Mr. Mackey," Castor interrupted. He withdrew a yellow credit chip from his shirt pocket and slid it to the center of the desk to rest beside Mackey's disk. "We can handle it from here."
Mackey stood and reached across to scoop it up into his hand, extending the other toward Castor along with a smile he hoped didn't look too much like a grimace. Or a snarl. Castor didn't stand, but took the hand and shook it, then nodded vaguely toward the door, which Mackey interpreted as his dismissal. The walk from desk to door was an exercise in control. His legs almost ached with the urge to dash.
Outside, he didn't wait for a car, but started walking his way out of the business district. He told himself it was the cool night air he wanted, but that was a crock. It wasn't as stale as ship air but it was just as canned. He was walking something off. Frustration? Anger? In the office, Castor's curtness had only steamed him a little. Now that it had had time to sink in it was beginning to chafe.
"Did you get all that, Lusci?"
"Recorded and saved to remote," she replied. "Are you finished, then?"
"Blessedly so," Mackey breathed. "That guy gives me the creeps."
"He certainly could have been more appreciative of your efforts."
He snorted. "Men like that don't appreciate much."
"Have you received your monetary appreciation?"
"I have," he chuckled, slowing his pace. He fingered the unmarked credit chip in his pocket. "How would you like to spend a week in Acapulco?"
"Wonderful," she said. "I can work on my tan."
A Fargo Cab passed on his left and something clicked in his brain. "Damn," he muttered. "Lusci, where did the hack stop off?"
"Case closed, Garvin."
"Humor me, please."
After a short pause, she replied, "2002 South Sydney. Tranquility."
"A residence? Who lives there?"
She took a moment and he began to wonder if she was processing information or developing a flair for the dramatic.
"The residence is registered to Marlene Castor."
He frowned. "Well, what the hell's up with that?"
"Acapulco, Garvin. Think of Acapulco."
The door shut with a click behind her and Jack waited a moment for her vision to go from black to dim before she kicked off her shoes and started toward her room. Halfway across she found the television and groped for the power switch. With a high-pitched, electronic whine the screen lit up, casting a bluish glow on Marty, stretched out on the couch. Light glinted from beneath his eyelids, not quite closed, and Jack's heart skipped a beat. She paused and waited, breathless, until his chest rose and fell once, then sighed her relief and crossed to her room on tiptoe.
She threw open the closet as though hoping to surprise the clothing inside. The nice things she'd picked up on the trip were hanging, though little else had been unpacked. Five pairs of shoes were piled haphazardly on the floor, and her lip quirked as she spotted the gold thigh-highs. The boom! of her dad's head exploding would be heard for miles if she showed up for dinner in those things. Dressing for dinner was going to involve finding that perfect place between impressing Riddick and looking like she wasn't trying to impress her father. They'd be just right, then, wouldn't they? Tempting, but no. She smirked and tossed them back.
Jack undressed as she perused her meager wardrobe. She pulled off her jacket and shirt and dropped them on the bed, then debated with her reflection in the dresser mirror over whether or not to change bras. Finally, she took it off altogether and let it fall on top of the shirt, then turned back to the closet. Black, black, red, white, gold -- oh, hell no -- and more black. Too short. Too stuffy. She separated the 'no ways' from the 'maybes' and stepped back, staring at them without really seeing.
"Dinner," she muttered. "Evening stuff is black, right? Shit!"
With a sigh, she dropped onto the bed and flopped backward. The cabbie said it was a nice restaurant; monkey suits, ties, the whole deal. She pictured Riddick in a tie and nothing else and smiled. Grow up, she chided herself. Sneaking peeks through the bathroom door was no way to prove to him that she was mature enough for a relationship. But oh, mama.
She summoned an image of their arrival at the restaurant. They would get there late to make sure that Virge was there to see it. Riddick would give her a hand out of the car and maybe she'd even give him a pat on the butt for being kind enough to close the door after her. Then he'd offer her an arm and she'd take it with an appreciative squeeze. Everyone, this is my big, bad man. It would drive Virgil nuts. Jack pictured an evening steeped in double meanings and grinned. Can I pop that cork for you, Jack? Why Richard, I thought you’d never ask. She made a mental note that when they took a cab to the Dark Side together – Jesus, what a metaphor – they’d iron things out on the way.
Then she frowned up at the ceiling. Was that any way to start out? Their first date just one big joke played on her father? She sighed. No. Maybe they'd just have a good time and let her dad pick up the bill. They'd already put the scare on him, after all. Still, she would love to see the look on Virge's face when she spent half an hour arranging Riddick's napkin in his lap. Hell, in that case she'd like to see Riddick's face, too.
He was talking to her more. Or rather, there was more to what he was saying. They'd been talking for months, and while she was sure he'd been telling the truth when he said she knew more about him than almost anyone, it still didn't feel like enough. She still didn't know how he felt about her. Was she a pal? A friend? She cringed. A sidekick? The notion that he was sticking with her for the payday had reared its ugly head now and then. She'd brushed it off and done her best to bury it, but it wouldn't stay gone until...until what? Until he pledged his undying love to her? Yeesh. Okay, well, that would be nice.
Problem was, he cared too much about what he'd done in the past. She should have been afraid, and sometimes was. One night, after they'd left Port Safi, the obvious had dawned on her and sent her bolting upright in her bed: Riddick was an honest-to-God killer. The hands she wanted to hold had stabbed men to death. She'd almost sacrificed her own life for a man that had spent years on death row and had even come close to letting her die to save himself. Oh, the fucking irony.
What she really wanted to believe, she realized, was that she'd made it all stop. That he wasn't a killer anymore and it was all because of her.
I've done things I'm not proud of.
Goddamit, hasn't everybody?
The soft light in the hall flickered briefly and at the whisper of feet on the carpet Jack was suddenly reminded of her nakedness. She rolled off the bed and snatched up her jacket, slipping into it and fastening every other button. She caught sight of Marty's broad back as he shuffled down the hall and into the bathroom and smiled to herself as he grumbled wordlessly when the light clicked on..
That's because he's done them, too.
Jack flipped the lid of her suitcase open and yanked out a pair of worn, blue sweatpants, hopping into them as she made her way down the hall. He turned to watch her and she felt suddenly ashamed for thinking about grilling him in this state. But then he smirked around the toothbrush in his mouth and shook his head. He bent out of sight to spit, then straightened, smiling weakly at her with white foam on his lips that put her in mind of the most mellow rabid dog ever. She couldn't keep from smiling back.
"That's, uh, quite an ensemble you've got g-going there," he said.
She glanced down at herself. Bare feet, ratty pants, incredibly expensive jacket open to--
Her smile turned sheepish as she snapped the coat closed at the neck.
"How'd it go?" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then frowned and pulled a towel from the rack.
"It went," she shrugged. "I think we scared him a little, which is fine by me. But then he invited me to dinner. Again."
"Yep. I figure either he's really keen to get me alone or he's always hungry. Not sure which."
"I take it you're going," Marty laughed softly.
Nodding, Jack slid past him and stood in front of the long mirror for a look at her makeup. Still good, she supposed. Her eyes flicked to Marty's back and its starburst scars, beginning to fade. The flesh had come back mottled and unnaturally smooth where it had been blasted apart. He rarely talked about how it happened, for which she was guiltily grateful. The idea of what he must have gone through made her feel incredibly stupid for everything she'd ever complained about in front of him. Didn't seem to bother Marty nearly as much as it did her. It occurred to her that maybe he always seemed so content because he wore his scars on the outside, where they didn't chafe as much. He shifted, crossing his arms in front of him in a wholly unsuccessful attempt to look casual while covering the small, round patches of discolored skin there. She realized she'd been staring and tried not to make it worse by looking apologetic. His expression, bordering on uncomfortable as he fiddled with the pendant of St. Martin around his neck told her it wasn't working.
"We're making a date of it," she said, nudging him gently.
He raised an eyebrow. "Dickey step out for a c-corsage or something?"
"Said he was going to get his hair done."
He laughed and Jack felt better, then remembered why she'd followed him in here in the first place and sagged. Start small.
"I don't know what to wear," she said. At least it was true.
"That black thing with the roses is nice."
Jack dropped her hand from messing with her hair and stared at him. "Marty, are you sure you're not gay?"
"P-pretty sure," he nodded.
"I don't know. Pillow fights, fashion advice--" she couldn't hold her face straight and a grin burst onto her lips. "Stockings. Black or nude?"
"The little strap heels?"
"You're pushing it, kid."
She leaned over to close the toilet lid and sat on it, dropping her hands into her lap. He looked so tired. But she trusted the advice of a brain-scrambled and drug-addled Marty more than her own intuition just now.
"Am I doing the right thing?" she blurted.
Marty pulled himself up onto the counter and put his back to the mirror, wincing once at the touch of cold glass against his skin before settling against it.
"In regards to what, Honey?" he asked.
"Where to start?" Jack sighed. "God knows I've had all kinds of time to think about what I was going to do with my dad when we got here. I've sat around just...hating him so much that it could actually be considered a hobby and picturing all sorts of extremely unpleasant scenarios." She couldn't hold back a giggle and, watching her, Marty cracked a smile.
"But now that I'm here and he's being so nice to me and--" She stopped, trying to recollect her thoughts and focus them. If she didn't, poor Marty would end up just as confused as she was. "I don't want to trust him. I made a promise to myself that I would never trust him again as long as I lived because he's already suckered me too many times."
"And now that you've seen him it's not that easy."
Jack threw her hands up and made a small, flustered sound. "Why is that? He's an ass. I know that for a solid, eye- witnessed and freaking notarized fact. The jerk's done nothing but lie to me my entire life. Most kids don't have to deal with anything worse than finding out that the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus aren't real. Not me, boy. Hey Marie, did you know your dad is a bookie? Hey Marie, do you know your dad's sleeping around? Do you know that when I was four the asshole actually left me on a bus stop bench for five and a half hours while he went to some woman's house? He paid the lady at the ticket window twenty bucks to keep an eye on me and told me that grandma was coming on the bus and I had to stay put or I'd miss her. He's got no fucking--" she groped for the word. "Scruples! Shame! Brains! Whatever!"
He listened silently as she ranted. His gaze was sympathetic but thankfully without an ounce of pity. Jack waited for him to say something, but instead he drew his legs up on the counter and leaned his elbows on his knees, considering. Then he sighed and nodded.
"I used to think my d-dad was a real dick, too," he said finally. "People always told me that he was strict for my own good, that he only wanted what was best for me, but I wasn't having it. He was the biggest bastard that ever lived and I wasn't going to change my mind. Then I grew up and went out on my own, joined the Marines...And you know what?"
She shook her head mutely, dreading the answer.
"I discovered that I'd been absolutely right. He was definitely a dick. No question."
A loud "Ha!" burst from her before continuing into helpless laughter. Marty smiled at her and his eyes, tinted from their native green, narrowed into crescents that shined with the warm, yellow light from above the mirror. She wondered what they'd looked like before they'd been altered and decided that they were probably spectacular.
"So you're saying I should go ahead and break his legs," she smirked.
"I know it's old, tired advice, and I can feel myself drying to a crust as I say this, but you don't need to sink to his level. You're better than that."
Her heart did a little dance at the compliment, but at the same time, she couldn't help but wonder what had instilled her boys with this inflated opinion of her worth. Well, what the hell?
"How do you know?" she asked.
Was that the look of a man caught off-guard? Had to be a trick of the light.
"I know," he shrugged. Funny thing was, she believed him. "You're a smart lady. Besides, it takes a good heart to take in the strays everyone else has passed over."
"Okay, maybe you do know," she grinned.
"You're a survivor, Jack," he said. "You'll do fine."
She shook her head. "That was Riddick's doing, not mine. I would never have made it this far on my own."
"Doesn't make you any less alive," he replied. She could hardly argue with that. He opened his mouth as though to continue, but it took him a moment to get the words out. "He thought you were worth saving. Take that as you will, considering the source."
Was that worth saving like a soul or like a dollar? Moment of truth. I can trust you to be straight with me, Marty. I know I can.
"How would you take it?"
His look seemed to turn inward for a moment, and Jack was afraid she'd lost him. They'd never talked about Riddick so directly, and she was sure there was a reason for it. Ice filled her belly. Did they talk about her when she wasn't around? Of course they did. She swallowed and hoped Marty hadn't noticed her brief bout of anxiety.
Eventually he sighed, and spoke. "Considering the skewed view on the value of human life with which he's been instilled, I'd take it as a compliment. But to tell you the truth, I don't think even he knows why he did it. Not at first."
"And now?" she encouraged.
Jack wondered if it was reluctance or his usual post-seizure haze that made Marty slow to answer.
"Now I think he does," he said simply.
She looked up at him hopefully, but feared he might be done. With a quiet grunt he shifted his weight away from his right hip and straightened his legs, then let them hang over the edge of the counter. For a time his attention seemed focused entirely on his feet and Jack stayed still and quiet, afraid to interrupt whatever thoughts had so consumed him. She prayed they were in her favor.
"I think you represent something to him," he said slowly. Before she could ask, he added, "What that is...he's going to have to tell you."
"Then why hasn't he?" she half-shouted. It echoed loudly in the small room and he winced. Jack cringed in sympathy and hoped she looked as sorry as she felt when she continued more quietly. "He's certainly had the time. And it's not like I haven't been painfully obvious that I'm interested in him. He says these...things, and then he beats around the bush and I can never tell if he's serious or not... What's wrong with the man?" She paused to catch her breath. "Is it me? Is he embarrassed or something?"
On the verge of begging, Marty's distressed look made her stop. For a horrified instant she thought she saw the too-familiar haze creeping into his eyes -- not now, not while we're alone, please! -- but it cleared and the gaze he turned on her was tired and a little bloodshot but very much aware.
"I think," he began. "I think what worries him is that what he's trying to hang on you is too heavy. That--" he paused, glancing ceilingward as though the right words were written there. "That rather than being lifted up, he'll pull you down, instead."
Jack opened her mouth to reply and promptly shut it again. Every answer that tumbled, disorderly, from her mind dried up before it could reach her lips.
Gingerly, Marty slid off the counter and set his bare feet on the tile. Jack stood as she heard a loud, angry buzz at the outside door and he moved to let her by.
"I'll run interference for you," he said. "Go get dressed."
She looked up at him in stunned silence and watched as a smile stretched his lips and the light in his eyes took on a hint of amusement. He put an arm around her and pulled her into a soft, warm embrace, whispering, "You'll do fine." Then he released her and gave her a gentle nudge toward her room before shuffling off down the hall.
Jack watched him go and swallowed around a sudden lump in her throat. Why couldn't you have been my dad?
v v v
Riddick shifted the long box from one arm to the other, straightened his jacket and swept his key card through the electronic lock. Nothing. Mother... He swept it again and was promptly chastised with a flashing error message and a buzz that echoed in the hall. On his third try, the door came open and he stepped inside, half-expecting Jack to be waiting right there, dressed and ready to go. No such luck. What he got was Marty, lounging on the couch with the remote control balanced on his stomach. He glanced up at Riddick and gave him the kind of cool perusal one would expect from
no, no, no, he is not doing this to me
an overprotective father checking out his sweet, virginal daughter's young punk of a suitor.
"Have a seat, brother," Marty said without looking up.
"You have got to be kidding me."
"She'll be out in a bit," he shot back evenly. "You know how girls are."
"No I don't," snorted Riddick. "And neither do you." He dropped into an overstuffed armchair and set the box across his lap. Marty turned off the set, which Riddick guessed had just been turned on, and laid the remote on the low table in front of him. "What are you doing?"
"What's in the box?"
"I asked you first."
Riddick shot him a look but his friend's facade didn't crack. He sighed and let it go. No point trying to break the Cap. That was a no-win situation.
"So what's in the box?" Marty repeated.
"Present for Jack."
Bender nodded approvingly and Riddick felt a spark of frustration but quickly stamped it out. He thought instead of the considerable aggravation he'd saved himself by being arrested at such a tender age. No high school. No high school girls. And none of their overprotective fathers, either. Part of him wanted to go off on the man for making this harder than it needed to be. But he wouldn't. He knew how Marty felt about Jack. About kids in general. Never mind that she wasn't a kid, anymore.
"Jack said things went alright."
Recognizing a prompt when he heard one, Riddick nodded, grateful for the change to a subject they could both relax into.
"We had a nice ride," he smirked. He shifted in his seat, fingers idly toying with one of the box's corners. He was downright itching to give it to her. Finding it had been a stroke of luck, but buying it had been a stroke of genius. "She's right. The guy doesn't walk, he oozes. There's no telling exactly how much of what he says is bullshit but an early estimate puts it at around eighty per cent."
They both chuckled and Marty eased his feet up on the table. Riddick would have joined him in slouching, but his suit was already suffering minor wrinkles from the day's cab rides. It was the best suit he had. Shit, the only one he had. He hadn't figured an actual social life into his wardrobe selection.
"Is he going to give us a hard time?"
"Not sure," he shrugged. "I'd say he was genuinely concerned about her."
"Wouldn't you be?" Marty sighed, gesturing between them.
"Confused as hell by her, too." He smiled suddenly. "Jesus, Cap, you should have seen her. Handled him like a pro; would've brought a tear to your eye."
"Sorry I missed it. Anything new on Marlene Castor?"
Riddick shook his head. "Hoping to score something at dinner," he replied. "That was kind of the whole idea behind us going in the first place."
"Hell, she is good. Hooked her old man and you at the same time."
He answered with a "hmpf", having had the same realization while he was out. "Man-eating monsters and guys armed to the teeth I can handle. A teenaged girl with an agenda is completely out of my league."
"Sure you'll b-be alright doing this solo?" Bender flinched as he stuttered and Riddick almost did the same, but caught himself. "You know, handling social graces and security at the same time?"
"I think I can manage not to eat the soup with my fingers, yeah," said Riddick.
"Okay, well, the shrimp fork's the little one. That's about all I know."
"There's a shrimp fork?"
"Sometimes even if you don't order shrimp. Figure that one out."
They fell quiet, and Riddick began to fiddle absently with one corner of the box on his lap. Finally, he glanced self-consciously around the room and leaned toward Marty to whisper, "How do I look?"
"Oh, shit," said Marty, snorting laughter.
"I'm serious," Riddick hissed. He stood, setting the box down to smooth his jacket and straighten his tie. He looked back to Marty for an opinion to find him rolling his eyes emphatically toward the hall.
He followed Bender's gaze to Jack, outlined in the doorway by light from her room. She was wearing a little black dress with an asymmetrical pattern of red roses that she'd picked up on the way through Cai-Shen station. It was off the shoulder but held up by a pair of thin black straps. The long sleeves started level with the low, straight neckline and ended in flared cuffs that made her slender wrists look even more delicate. The dress came to the knee, ending in a black fringe that shook as she bounced nervously on a pair of black heels held on by two simple, narrow straps. She fiddled nervously with a small, black purse as she stepped out and shrugged.
"So?" she asked. "You guys'll tell me if I look like a dork, right?"
Riddick noticed that she'd let some of her hair out of the swept-up, businesslike arrangement she'd worn before. Golden strands hung down in strategic disarray, the longest ones settling on her shoulders. He didn't realize he'd been standing and staring until Marty stood and nudged him not-so-gently.
"You look fantastic," he smiled, groaning inwardly at the lameness of his reply.
It was true, though, and she smiled, so he figured he must have done good. She crossed the room to stand beside him, and the three of them shared a short, awkward silence before Marty made a show of glancing at his watch.
"Better motor," he said. "Or you'll be late. You got protection?"
Jack gaped at him. "Marty!"
Riddick reached into his jacket to withdraw a small, dull black handgun and waggled it before checking the safety and returning the gun to its holster.
"Oh," said Jack, blushing. "Silly me."
"Oh," Riddick echoed. "I brought you something."
Her smile widened as he picked up the box and held it out to her. Jack handed her purse to Marty and started to reach for it, then seemed to reconsider and pulled the lid off, instead. Her eyes lit up as she lifted the roses from their paper and beamed at them for a moment before holding them to her nose.
At her touch, the pale petals flushed with color, darkening from a hint of pink all the way to deep red. Startled, she almost dropped them, then giggled nervously and held them away from her face to inspect them.
"How'd they do that?" she grinned.
"They're intelligent," explained Riddick. "They're uh, artificial, with a small processor in the bud. Sensors on the stems take readings to determine the mood of whoever touches them and then interprets it into an assigned color. There's a little card that came with them, has the key on it."
There, he sounded just like a goddamn genius. Marty looked impressed. Two for two.
"Wow," Jack whispered, examining them closely. "So what's red mean?"
"Not sure," he lied, pretending to look thoughtful as he quickly tossed the empty box back on the chair.
"Well, let me see the--"
"Gonna be late," he interrupted. "We'll have a look when we get home. Here, Marty'll find something to put them in, right?"
Marty nodded, but made no move for the roses. Riddick glowered at him but couldn't put a dent in the other man's shit-eating grin. He smiled at Jack over the flowers as he took them, cringing as they flared an even more intense red. Biting his lip in an obvious effort to contain laughter, Marty took them from Riddick and cradled them with one arm where they promptly faded to a subdued blue.
"They're beautiful," said Jack, standing on tiptoe to plant a kiss on Riddick's cheek. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Riddick replied, bursting suddenly into a raging case of thrilled.
She turned to Marty and he leaned down for his own kiss. "And thank you, too, Marty," she said. He straightened and winked at her, making her laugh. What was that all about?
"You need us..." Riddick held up the small, silver comlink he kept in his pocket.
"What, no hot babysitter?"
"Service is in the book, under 'E', you can order your own."
Riddick put his arm out and Jack took it, reaching back to get her purse from Marty before they headed for the door.
"You'll be okay, right?" she asked.
"Fine," Marty nodded. "You crazy kids go out and have a good time."
Rain pelted the high canopy with a sound like applause as seven men in faded, muddy fatigues picked their way slowly through close trees and tangled brush. Heavy boots squished softly on a mat of rotting leaves and wet, spongy soil, leaving shallow, temporary puddles where they stepped. The air was hot and thick with moisture that gathered as an ankle-high mist hugging the bases of the trees and as sparkling droplets on everything else. They trudged with heads up and rifles ready in a premature twilight brought on by the heavy, black clouds overhead.
A man walked at the center of their loose formation, his rifle slung and his attention held by the dimly glowing screen on the small device in his hand. He made his way with only an occasional glance at the terrain, skirting trees and overstepping exposed roots with supernatural ease.
"Tree, Wilco," said one of his companions helpfully.
"Don't think so, wiseass," Wilkins muttered in return.
"Hey, Kelly. You know he can see through your clothes with that thing?"
Kelly looked vaguely nervous, then scowled at his companions, struggling to keep their faces straight. "Fuckers," he grumbled amiably, though his accent made it come out more like "fookers".
Captain DeOliva made a small, cautioning noise and they fell back to walking in silence. They came to a cut in the ground where a small stream had chewed its way deep into the soft earth, to form a natural trench. The point man, Cochran, had already jumped it and gone on. Wilkins paused to look down at the shallow water that swirled fallen leaves on its surface and lapped gently at its narrow, muddy banks. After a moment, he leaped across, wavering as his heels sank into the loose dirt on the opposite edge. His arms flailed as he tried to preserve his balance and maintain his grip on the scanner. Finally, he righted himself and sighed his relief as the other men burst into quiet laughter.
"If I get shot in the arse while you jolly bastards are chuckling..." Wilkins looked back to see who was guarding that particular part of his anatomy and saw the vague yet reassuring shape of the XO bringing up the rear. He turned back to the screen and his breath caught.
"Shit! Ten o'clo--"
Gunfire erupted from the trees ahead, kicking up chunks of turf and grass and splintering red-brown bark. The men scattered, seeking cover behind trees and diving into the trench. A shot struck the scanner squarely and glanced off of Wilkins' body armor. He staggered backward and lost his footing, falling in a heap at the edge of the cut where the captain and Kirwan pulled him in.
They squatted with their backs to the dirt and Wilkins lifted the scanner, relieved when he was met by its comforting glow. The bullet had left a considerable dent in the case, and he wondered briefly what kind of dent it would have left in him.
The captain fixed him with a stern gaze. "Wilkins?"
"I had nine contacts, Cap. Twenty-five meters, between ten o'clock and one." He shrugged and added. "Then they fucked the FIU. Need a sec to reestablish."
"You in one piece?"
He paused to take quick inventory as he worked to get a hold on the previous contact. Finally, nodded, "Five by."
"I think we just ran into a bunch of guys doing the same thing as us," said Kirwan.
Crawling through the frigging jungle looking for somebody to shoot, thought Wilkins. Likely.
They'd begun charged by their altruistic purpose, but after 327 days of crawling through the rainforests of Myenshe's northern continent and fighting to pry these sons of bitches out of the woodwork, they were running on frustration. The continent was about the size of Mexico on Earth and thanks to the melting glaciers that formed it, the only good-sized piece of real estate above water on the planet. Central to main corridors and far more attractive than it's larger neighbor, Bolshier, it was being eyed by more than one developer. The men they faced were hired soldiers, contracted by an off-planet interest to keep Myenshe free from settlers until the effort and expense could be spared to develop it for themselves.
Posing as harmless squatters, the mercenaries had revealed their purpose once licensed colonists began to arrive. Settlers were massacred and millions of dollars in equipment destroyed before a distress call reached the authorities. They responded with a division of the Free Space Marine Corps, a descendant of the US Marines that had evolved to include a conglomeration of regulations and men from the military forces of several nations. The aggressors were forced to retreat from the populated eastern coast toward the rocky, inland mountain range, where they took to fighting in the jungle and staging frequent raids which served to remind that they were still intent on their purpose. But nobody was more intent than the 25th.
They all stood and fired into the brush as Kelly and Doc dropped in beside them. Boots splashed in the shallow water and they crouched, balanced briefly between keeping their heads down and their asses dry as they regrouped.
"Cochran and Bender?"
"Up there keeping an eye out, reckon," said Kelly, wiping mud from his eyes and grinning. "You know how they are, yeah? Nothing left for us."
"They should be right here," growled the captain. He paused and passed his stern gaze over each of them, then added, "Spread out and fire at will. Wilkins, work faster."
"Got it," he said quickly. A series of images flashed on the screen and resolved themselves into a picture that, seen through the grids and figures projected inside the matching eyepiece, gave him an accurate view of the enemy position. Chips carried by the other men in the squad pointed out their wayward brothers. "Cochran is three meters in front of us at two o'clock, so watch your fire. Nine contacts, three of them down..."
He activated the linked systems in their helmets and fed them the information. Two at ten; two at twelve; one at one and another at two, a few meters past where Cochran was crouching. The situation here was more severe than the usual small skirmishing between rival squads. The presence of these people could mean that the concentration of their forces, or some part of it at least, was nearby. If a man got away, or the jamming function of the Field Imaging Unit was damaged or deactivated, the enemy would know they'd been located and might pull up stakes before reinforcements or an air strike could be called in. On the other, no less disturbing hand, the enemy was likely jamming them as well and couldn't let any of their number survive to report their location.
Bursts of fire continued and contacts kept dropping until the last two began to move away in a sudden burst of speed.
"They're bugging out!" shouted Kelly, already half out of the trench.
"Catch a live one!" Bender's hoarse voice reached them as he hopped the cut and tore after the retreating mercs.
They dove out of the cut, the captain bellowing orders as Wilkins tracked the fleeing enemy and directed the others after him. It wasn't long before he heard three shots and Bender's voice again, a gruff not-quite-shout.
"Don't run, asshole. You'll just die tired."
Wilkins watched as the enemy contact on the screen came to an abrupt halt. By the time he caught up with the action, the men had surrounded and disarmed the merc, who stood at the center of their circle, hands in the air as Kelly patted him down. In addition to the rifle they'd already confiscated, he turned up two knives with broad, single-edged blades and a pistol in a holster at his ankle. He was still, but not calm by any stretch, though it seemed like he was trying awfully hard to look it. His raised hands trembled and his eyes darted from man to man as his lips moved ever-so-slightly in what Wilkins thought might be prayer.
The captain circled in like a vulture, pointedly muscling past Bender to take his place in front of the prisoner. That drew a look from the XO that made Wilkins almost painfully nervous, and it was clear from the glare he returned that the captain didn't much care for it, either. Nearly twenty-three, Bender was one of the oldest guys in the squad and unlike DeOliva, possessed an effortless, natural charisma that bound men to follow him. Rumor had it he'd been passed over for a command primarily because of his training at backwater Fort Benchley, which to hear most guys talk, wasn't much past a ring of pup tents and a latrine. Wilkins wasn't sure if it was fighting the reputation or the hard living it implied, but Benchley turned out some of the meanest guys he'd ever come across. And he was looking at one right now.
Bender let it drop and let him pass, just as he'd done with every instance of dick-waving, blatant and subtle, since DeOliva had been assigned to the squad. They'd been together for months before, this bunch. DeOliva, though, was new; the third commanding officer they'd had since the action on Myenshe began. The difficulty, Wilkins thought, lay in the fact that HQ insisted on assigning fresh grads with the most advanced training but no experience in the field. The result was often fatal, as evidenced by the alarming turnover rate. They couldn't be expected to stretch themselves to protect these tenderfoot commanders, though sometimes they tried. The result was that only six men of the original squad of thirteen remained; himself, Cochran, Kelly, Kirwan, Doc Adam and the XO, Bender. Yessir, captains came and went -- and went and went -- but they were stuck with Marty Bender. That was fine by him. The guy was luckier than a rabbit's foot and tougher than a fifty cent steak.
"Where is your base of operations?" the captain demanded.
"Subtle," muttered Kirwan. If DeOliva heard he gave no sign.
The man's dark fatigues were well-worn but relatively free of fresh mud. Chances were he hadn't come far to get here. Wilkins swallowed and widened his scan.
"That way," the prisoner nodded west. "About three klicks."
Too easy, said the look exchanged by the men. But then, the conflict had dragged on long enough to leave the enemy low on supplies and probably morale, too. Men captured were returned to HQ and eventually shipped off-planet to discourage rescue attempts and to reduce the number of men required to maintain them. The guy almost looked relieved despite the tremors in his hands.
"Focus your scan, Wilkins. West."
He nodded and did as he was told, encountering the usual forest signals -- trees; the thin blue line of the stream; signs of small animals. Then he frowned. How in hell had they not seen that before?
"Big blue line, Cap."
"The cut leads to a river," he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. "Big one, too. Between the weather and the tweaky atmosphere, we must have missed it."
"A river?" Kelly asked. "Entire river? Were goes it, then?"
"South, genius," said Bender, smirking.
"It turns southeast, then it's out of range."
DeOliva leaned in to study the imaging screen, though without the accompanying equipment, the picture was less than whole. "That's how they've been moving," he said.
"Air support?" offered Kelly.
The captain shook his head. "Weather on the coast has them grounded. Reinforcements will be sent from HQ 2 on my request."
"This bites," grumbled Adam. "There's no point to action on the ground. We find 'em, leave beacons and get the fuck out of here. Then all we have to do is wait for the weather to clear and drop something on them. Game over."
"Oh, hell no," Kirwan piped up. "It'd ruin the property value."
"Some contractor from Babbatunde Corp has to build condos here," threw in Bender. "Wouldn't want to make his job tougher by filling it full of holes and making it glow. Hell, we're probably sitting in the middle of a fucking golf course right now."
"The purpose of our mission," DeOliva snapped. "Is to locate and extract the enemy with as little damage to the environment as possible."
Kirwan opened his mouth to reply but Bender waved him off, then turned a cautioning look on the others as well. The captain continued, either not noticing or ignoring the near-argument.
"We'll follow the cut to the river and have a look. This is now an intelligence-gathering mission, so we'll avoid offensive action if we can."
Smirking, Kelly extended his middle finger. "Does this count?"
"What do we do with this guy, Chief?" Adam jerked a thumb at the prisoner.
DeOliva handed his weapon to Wilkins, who shifted the scanner and slung the rifle beside his own. Pulling a length of plastic band from his belt, he bound the man's hands behind him.
"Head due east. Someone will pick you up."
" Captain, we'd do better to pick him up on the way back," said Bender.
"This is procedure, Lieutenant."
"I understand that, Captain, but given the possibi--"
"Stow it, Bender. Just because we're out in the bush doesn't give you the authority to pick and choose the regulations you follow."
To their credit, the men didn't gasp out loud, and Bender, to DeOliva's good fortune, didn't simply raise his weapon and plug the man. Wilkins could hardly think of a worse time for the tension that had been simmering between the two to come to a boil. He had no doubt who the other men would side with, and thought of leaping to the captain's defense in a futile attempt to even the odds.
The officers eyed one another in silence until DeOliva broke it. His voice wavered only slightly as he gestured toward the prisoner and said, "Get moving."
Bender's weapon twitched and Wilkins thought for a moment that he would end the debate by removing the captured merc from the equation. But the man walked away unmolested, crunching over the fallen leaves at a steady but wisely not-too-hurried pace. After a moment, the captain found his voice again.
"You're on point, Bender," he said, less steadily than before. "We'll head back to the trench and follow it downstream."
"Whatever you say, Sir." Emphasis on the last word made it sound like anything but a term of respect. DeOliva's eyes narrowed, but let it go. Bender hustled to the edge of the cut and dropped in, then called back. "Y'eard th'man. S'go."
Christ, thought Wilkins. It's never good when he stops fucking enunciating.
They all followed, splashing into the shallow water and forming up single file. Staying low, Bender trotted downstream and out of sight. Wilkins, paired with the captain, watched the XO go with a touch of disappointment. It wasn't that he had anything personal against DeOliva. Okay, that was a lie, he had plenty. The guy was full of combat theory -- and more -- but it was Wilkins' guess he'd never once fired a weapon in another man's direction. He'd been stamped out on the officer assembly line of a traditional academy, handed a promotion for being the best boot-polisher in his class, and assigned to the 25th for reasons that Wilkins couldn't begin to fathom. He maintained a distance from the men, the running joke being that it was hard to tell whether or not he was talking over the radio, even if he was standing right in front of you.
Eventually, the streambed meandered briefly northward. As they rounded the curve, there was no sign of Bender. Wilkins almost jumped out of his skin when the man reached down from above to touch him on the shoulder.
"What are you doing, Wilco, checking for snipers?"
"Eat shit, Bender." He tried to scowl while breathing a sigh of relief.
"Two guys and twenty minutes, Cap," said Bender.
It seemed that DeOliva might protest, but finally he nodded and waved Cochran and Kelly out of the trench. Wilkins bit back his frustration at being passed over once again. He dared a peek over the edge to watch as they moved off, fading into the twilight and the dense, tangled forest with a sigh.
Slipping off his helmet, he placed it on the firmest patch of mud he could find and sat. For a long while he watched the water flow lazily around his feet, surrounded by the wet smells of damp earth and rain. A breeze ruffled the grass at the fringes of the ditch and dipped down to cool the sweat in his hair. Wilkins sighed and looked up through an opening in the canopy, watching the last hint of light slowly fade. He fitted his night vision goggles around his head and adjusted them to the current light level, then pushed them back down around his neck and turned back to the field imaging unit. An image flashed briefly on the screen before the whole thing turned to static.
"What the fuck?" he muttered.
"I just lost the signal." He kicked himself for letting himself be spoiled by technology. Soldiers had functioned for centuries without it, and even these days it was sometimes rendered useless by naturally occurring circumstances or in this case --
Don't like this
"Heads up, it's been jammed."
"They know we're here," grumbled DeOliva. "The forward team blew it."
"No way in hell," said Adam, shaking his head.
Wilkins scowled as a familiar, acrid scent reached him. He couldn't place it, or even pinpoint it's source. It seemed to be coming from all around.
"You guys smell that?"
Nods all around. "What is that?"
He glanced at the scanner and then back up to their questioning looks. "I got shit, here."
"Gasoline," said Kirwan suddenly.
"Well where the fuck's it coming from?"
The hair on the back of his neck began to prickle, and Wilkins had the sudden, almost certainly suicidal urge to leap from cover and run. Apprehension formed a leaden ball in his stomach as he turned up the scanner's mild glow and faced the screen toward the water at their feet. He tried to swallow but his throat went dry as he spied the ribbons of color swirling on the shallow stream's surface.
"Wilkins, what the fu--?"
"Get out!" he shouted. "Get out of the w--"
A wall of fire rushed through the narrow trench, engulfing the men as they dove for the sides. Wilkins frantically clawed at the dirt and hauled himself over the edge, then rolled to put out the blaze that flared briefly on his pant leg. Hoarse cries rose over the roar of the flames and he staggered to his feet, squinting to find the others through the bright pinpoints of light bursting in his vision. The initial, brilliant flare had subsided and he was able to make out dark shapes moving on both sides of the furrow.
Something whistled close past his ear and the trunk of a sapling exploded, showering him with splinters. He scurried toward cover, wincing as erratic gunfire disintegrated branches overhead. Drawing up behind a tree, he put his back to it and fought to catch his breath. He shook bits of bark and dirt from his hair and cursed as he realized he'd left his helmet behind, and his radio along with it. The night-vision goggles still hung from his neck, but they wouldn't do much good until the flames died down.
"Wilkins!" Adam's voice. The man materialized out of the darkness, grabbed him by the arm and shouted, "Where the fuck's your helmet, Wilco?"
"Left it," he hollered back. "Who's shooting?"
Adam shook his head, which did nothing to answer the question. Then he clarified. "No shooting," he said. "Ammo blowing. We're getting the fuck out of here!"
"We can't leave--" he began, gesturing vaguely in the direction the scouts had taken.
"They're coming," Adam assured him. "C'mon, this isn't the best place to be."
Wilkins holstered the scanner and took up his rifle, enjoying the familiar weight of it in his hands. His weapon had been slung so long it was starting to wear a groove in his shoulder. As the scanner tech, Wilkins always traveled at the center of the group, leaving him free to do his job without dividing attention between his equipment and a weapon. Now that the field scanner was useless, he was just another grunt. Hell yes. Bring it on.
They hurried through a darkness tinted green by their night-vision goggles, Adam tilting his head periodically to concentrate on the voices of the comrades Wilkins could no longer hear.
"Fuck me, all hell's breaking loose."
"We compromised?" Frankly, if there was a merc within miles, Wilkins couldn't see how they couldn't be. A nagging voice in the back of his head told him that that son of a bitch they'd turned loose had something to do with this.
"I don't know, but it sounds like DeOliva calculated precisely the wrong moment to lay into Bender and then followed up on it."
"For fuck's sake, now?"
Adam nodded and picked up the pace. Deprived of both the FIU and the helmet that had linked him to the other men, Wilkins simply followed, a wary eye on the forest around them. "Right over there, somewhere."
The others weren't nearly as hard to find as they should have been. Approaching cautiously, Wilkins felt a knot forming in his stomach. Bender and DeOliva stood a few feet apart, speaking in harsh whispers while the other men hung off to the sides, nervously handling their weapons, their attention riveted to the officers. Wilkins noticed the undone snap on the captain's sidearm holster and tried to remember if it had been that way before.
"You compromised yourselves and gave us no warning!" snarled DeOliva.
"Bullshit," Bender returned with disturbing calm. "The only reason anyone knows we're here is because that fuck you let wander off set your ass on fire."
"You don't know that!"
Bender nodded at Cochran, who produced a small, handheld radio. It wasn't one of their own.
"Bet I do."
Fists clenching and unclenching, DeOliva fumed. "You're lying."
"Why the fuck should I lie? Who do I need to convince that you're a posturing prick?" He gestured at the rest of the squad. "These guys?"
"You are way out of line, Lieutenant!"
Wilkins waited for Bender to blow up and tear the guy a new asshole. But it didn't happen. Instead, he took a deep breath and nodded, his shoulders relaxing into a near-slump.
"You're absolutely right, Sir." He tensed suddenly and raised the muzzle of his rifle even with DeOliva's head. The captain's eyes went wide as he jerked his sidearm from its holster and they both fired. Bender's shot went wide, but DeOliva's caught him square in the chest and he went down. At the same time, the captain pitched forward as the men to his right were hit with a thick, sticky spatter that turned black under the moonlight.
They all seemed to put it together at once and, turning their weapons into the trees and darkness beyond DeOliva's body, they saw a single, lifeless form crumple to the ground.
"Holy shit," muttered Kirwan, shaking his head in disbelief.
Adam started to drop to one knee beside Bender, but wound up giving him an arm up instead. Just left of center of his body armor was dented and marred. Had the shot gone through, both of them would be dead. Whole but still wheezing from the impact, Bender wavered on his feet for a moment before he steadied and his eye fell on DeOliva.
"Oh, fuck me," he gasped. "Nobody's ever gonna believe I didn't kill that dipshit son of a bitch."
"You've got us," shrugged Cochran. When Bender snorted a laugh, he added, "Okay, shit, even I wouldn't believe us about that."
"We're fucking up the river," he said suddenly.
"You said it, man."
"No, asshole," Bender said slowly, rolling his eyes and letting out a poorly suppressed chuckle. "We're going to find a way to block it somehow. There were boats in the river, a ways upstream. They're moving slow, loaded down. Not good. Go now. Got it?"
"We're fucked," said Kelly gravely. "Must've landed on his head."
"Shouldn't we wait for reinforcements?" asked Wilkins hopefully.
"What, so they can slap us with another asshair like that?" replied Bender, gesturing at the captain's corpse. "Uh-uh. Guys like that have gotten enough of us killed, thanks. With me?"
"Fuck yes!" Kelly nodded. Cochran stepped up to stand beside Bender without a word and the others followed, though with more vocal enthusiasm.
"This is nuts," muttered Wilkins, knowing full well there was no talking them out of it.
Bender took a step toward him and clapped him on the shoulder. "Wilco, my man, it only looks that way because you're rational."
Smiling, Bender formed them up with a gesture and they all started back toward the river.
"Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense."
Wilkins, resigned, jogged after them. He felt his nerves begin to unwind as the smell of sodden, rotting vegetable matter was replaced with the odor of clean water.
"Over that rise," said Bender. "Doc, call HQ 2 and fill them in."
"What if they give us orders to stop and fall back?"
"We pretend we didn't hear 'em."
Ducking low, they mounted the small hill and dropped onto their bellies. Wilkins stared, dumbfounded. The river was narrow, but the slow-moving flotsam on top suggested depth. So did the convoy of boats sunk in it almost to the rails. The two in front carried large, deck-mounted guns with long strips of heavy-caliber ammunition dangling from the sides. Men stood on the near side of the leader's deck, making it lean dangerously. Unaware or unconcerned, their attention was focused on the flames rising into the sky.
"No exhaust," whispered Cochran.
"Prolly 'lectric," said Kelly. "Harder to notice that way."
"No chance they'll all just electrocute themselves, eh?" Kirwan added.
"Nope," said Bender. Wilkins watched him set his rifle for single shot while beside him Cochran did the same. He considered the possibility of a bad day getting worse. Or better. He shrugged. "They might die of shrapnel poisoning, though. Going loud--"
"Now." He took aim at the deck gun on the lead boat and fired once. A spark flashed before fire erupted from the ejection port with a brief, thunderous bang. The air whistled with bits of flying metal that burnt into the deck and sent the merc manning the gun stumbling backward with a strangled cry. He fell and stayed down. Some of the men crowded near the bow clutched at themselves and dropped as well, though Wilkins couldn't tell who was injured and who was seeking cover. While they scrambled, Cochran took the longer shot at the second boat, with much the same effect.
The return fire was frantic and disorganized, hardly what they'd come to expect from the men they'd been up against for the better part of a standard year. The mercs ought to be scraping the bottom of the barrel by now, with all the guys that had been captured and shipped off-planet. Wilkins wouldn't have been all that surprised to find their base of operations only to discover that it was empty except for a mess cook and a private with a pocket knife. These guys had them outnumbered at least two to one, but they also couldn't come any closer without making their way through the water. If retreat became necessary, they could certainly do it. On the other hand, they also had--
"Grenade!" shouted Adam.
Wilkins quickly calculated the arc and realized the thrower's aim was dead-on. But before they could retreat from their position at the top of the hill, Bender jumped up, counting quietly to himself as he snatched the hurtling hunk of metal out of the air and side-armed it back across the river. It bounced once on the deck of the first boat and dropped into a view-slit cut into the protective window covering. The plating channeled the explosion downward to the relatively unprotected bottom and fingers of fire blazed from narrow openings in the armor as the boat was rocked and lifted at least a foot in the water. It dropped again, waves lapping over its deck as it went down. Secondary explosions sent water bubbling and spraying high into the air. They refrained from firing on the men forced into the water, instead concentrating on the other boats. Two ships in the rear, unable to turn in the narrow channel, collided and bounced off one another. The second gunship, in attempting to avoid the wreckage of the first, came to a halt as it beached itself. Hindered by their heavy loads, ships spun slowly but steadily out of control.
"Yes!" shouted Kelly.
They took advantage of the confusion to move down the line and cause even more. The few men that made it their side of the river were captured and retained, hands tied firmly behind their backs and rooted on their knees by the dark, watchful eye of Kirwan's rifle muzzle.
It ended with a complete clusterfuck of ships blocking passage down the river and nine men in custody. They secured the position and their chain of prisoners and toasted the new, if temporary CO with a drink from Kelly's flask.
"Fuck me swinging, you threw back a fucking grenade," said Kelly, slapping Bender hard on the back. "You're bloody mad!"
"You're goddamned right I am," replied Bender with a smirk. Wilkins was sure he'd seen as much surprise and relief in the man's look as anyone else's, but didn't mention it. He couldn't fault the man for being either, really. "Never was a problem couldn't be solved with high explosives."
"To Wilco," said Kirwan, raising the flask. "For warning our asses out of the fire."
"Wilco!" they echoed.
Kelly snatched it back. "To Mad Marty!" he said, smiling broadly.
They all looked expectantly toward Bender, awaiting his reaction. He said nothing, but instead grinned and made a vague "carry on" gesture.
"Mad Marty!" they repeated again.
Kelly started to drink, then handed the last swallow to Bender, who took it gratefully. "You're never gonna top that one, Chief," he said.
"Oh, I'm sure I'll think of something."
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