Three for the Money
A Sequel to "The Faithful"
The car was waiting in the circular drive when they stepped outside. It was a little silver thing, brand new and polished to a high shine. Looked like a skate. A young man approached them and immediately held the key out to Riddick. He took it and Jack cleared her throat.
“You driving?” he smirked.
“You don’t have a license.”
“Neither do you,” she shot back.
The young man pointed out the car -- which struck Riddick as funny because it was the only one there -- and made a hasty exit. Probably eager to avoid getting caught in the middle of a lover’s quarrel. Lover’s quarrel. Holy hell.
He held the keys over Jack’s hand.
“Got a point there. So you wanna drive?”
She grinned. “No.”
Riddick opened the driver’s side door and slid in. There was more space inside than had appeared at first, though he couldn’t quite stretch his legs out without sitting in the back seat. He started the car and eyeballed the dashboard, set his hands on the steering wheel. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d driven a car. How hard could it be?
Jack dropped into the passenger seat and set the flowers in back. She reached over and scooped the puzzle out of his lap, giving his crotch a firm rub with the back of her hand.
“You did that on purpose.”
“You’re damn right I did.”
He shook his head and put the car in gear, stepping gingerly on the accelerator. They made a slow turn out of the driveway and pulled onto the street. What little traffic there was flowed smoothly but Riddick stayed in the far left lane, cruising along just below the speed limit.
“C’mon, Granny,” laughed Jack. “Put your foot down.”
Riddick snorted. He sped up and was almost immediately forced to stop for a red light. The car jerked and Jack frowned at him.
He smirked. “I think I’m getting the hang of this.”
She worked at the puzzle, sliding the pieces over one another and setting the ones that came loose in a pile on her lap.
“What’s the deal with that thing?”
“There’s a hollow spot in the middle,” she said. “Grandpa used to hide stuff in here for me all the time. It’s kind of like a maze, though. If you go the wrong way, you have to back up and start all over.”
Jack popped a few pieces back on and began to rearrange them.
“I loved this thing when I was a kid. Don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Light’s green.”
“Hope the last thing he put in there wasn’t a hamster or something.”
She rolled her eyes.
He turned onto Seaside Drive and fell in behind a delivery truck.
“This goes through, right?”
Jack looked up and pressed a button on the dash. A little screen lit up and filled with a series of lines and street names. A green dot moved along Seaside.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“That’s a good question, actually.”
“Oh, well, so long as you’ve got a plan.”
“We need to get some sleep,” he said.
He could feel the lack of it beginning to drag at him. Adrenaline had come and gone several times in the last twenty-four hours but a state of alertness had stayed throughout. It had allowed an uncomfortable tenseness to creep into his limbs. Worse was the way his mind kept wandering away from matters at hand to the way Jack’s shirt hugged her slender form. And how since he was tall enough he could see straight down her shirt if he leaned over just a little.
“Are you watching the road at all?”
“Does it hurt?” She continued to pry at the puzzle, which was now short several pieces and bore no resemblance to its original shape.
“Everyone’s under guard, under wraps or under surveillance. Now might be a good time to go back to the hotel and log a little sack time.”
“No one’s watching Malcolm Stroh,” she replied.
Good point. Riddick wondered if the man had had time and suspicion enough to bug the car. He sure as hell had the interest. Harmless as he and Jack had tried to come off, Riddick could tell that Stroh was wary of them from the moment he’d entered the room. Stroh’s outward calm had masked an underlying tension that Riddick hadn’t needed the roses to see. A life outside of society had ruined him for modern nuance but he knew the eyes of another predator when he saw them.
“We’ll need a hell of a lot more than we’ve got to prove he’s involved in anything.”
“Prove shmoove,” she said. “We know he’s up to something and that means we need to keep an eye on his office-stealing old butt.”
“Fair enough,” he chuckled.
Jack smiled triumphantly as the puzzle split down the middle. She reached in and came up with something small that flashed silver in her hand.
“Mini disk,” she said. “Should I play it in here?”
“Better not. I don’t suppose it’s labeled.”
“Wait,” he said. “Just in case.”
Riddick snorted a laugh. “I just realized that I have no idea how to get back to the hotel.”
“Directions,” Jack said, leaning toward the dashboard.
“Go ahead, please.”
The voice that came from the car speakers was utterly androgynous. A good move on the part of the designers that would allow the consumer to perceive it as either sex. Riddick sighed. Blissful unconsciousness would stop these sorts of thoughts from forming in his head.
“Sunrise Suites Hotel,” said Jack.
A red line appeared on the map, running down the street in the direction they were headed and then out of sight.
“Just follow that.”
Jack put the disk back in its sleeve and tucked it into her pocket. She stared out the window, quiet for a long time. He thought about asking her what was wrong but he was afraid she would tell him.
“What Mackey said about Marty...” she began.
He swallowed loudly and fixed his eyes on the road.
“What if some of it was true?”
His jaw muscles clenched and unclenched as he ground his teeth.
“If there’s a ‘but’ coming here, Jack, get to it.”
He didn’t want to be angry with her. He had no right. Still, besides Scary Terry Yarborough, Martin Bender had been the only steadying influence on his life. When a guy was already sitting on a two-legged stool the last thing he wanted was for people to start hacking away at one of the legs. But that wasn’t true anymore, was it? He had Jack. She brought out the urges he’d been working so hard to contain but tamed them just as easily and turned them into something useful. Violence in the name of protection was still violence but it felt different. Gratifying. Society wouldn’t approve. But Jack did. Balanced at last and he didn’t want to lose it.
Where the hell you going, brother?
“Could he have known you were on that ship?”
“He would have said so.”
“So you’re sure it’s just coincidence that you two ran into each other?”
He took a deep breath and thought about it. Hard.
“Yes. I do.”
Jack smiled and nodded. “Okay.”
“I trust your judgment,” she said.
His fingers were cramped around the steering wheel hard enough to turn them white. He loosened up and stretched them out.
“You didn’t seem sure is all,” Jack continued. “I could tell. And if you thought maybe, you know, then I had to wonder, too.”
“To me,” she replied. “I don’t know about anybody else.”
He shrugged. Damned if talking about this wasn’t like taking the first shower in a prison -- he felt awkward and vulnerable but he damn sure needed it.
“The Death Maiden trawled that area for years before we passed that way. He was with it for the last three or four. I ran into him. Not the other way around.”
“There’s something else, though, isn’t there?”
Jesus but that hurt to say out loud. But he’d done it without hesitation. Was this what always happened when you slept with a woman and she stuck around after? Shit you didn’t want to say just came spilling out when she asked? He glanced at her and realized that she was watching him, waiting for him to explain.
“Marty’s never had a lot of friends,” he said. “He’s had soldiers. Followers. Worshippers. I was all of those things, too. But then one day I realized that, unlikely as it was, we were friends. He told me shit he’d never told anyone and it always seemed like a relief to do it. I can say without a doubt that I know him better than anyone. Anyone. We understand each other, just like you and I do, Jack.”
Her face lit up but she didn’t smile. She knew something was coming up. She usually did.
“Mackey was right about at least one thing. Marty might not have been directly involved in anything but he sure as shit knew what it was.”
Jack didn’t say anything at first, just nodded and let it soak in. She began fiddling with the puzzle, putting it back together with trembling fingers.
“We need to talk to him,” she said finally.
“Going to be kind of tough just now.”
“Then they really were going to kill him,” she said softly. “Because of something he knew. Something that he didn’t bother to tell us.”
“Maybe he didn’t think it was important,” Riddick offered.
“He damn well should have if it was going to put us in danger, too!”
“He wouldn’t do that,” said Riddick. “Not on purpose. And he’s not the type of guy who does anything by accident. There’s another explanation. There has to be.”
She nodded and wiped at her eyes with the back of one hand.
“Sorry,” she said. “Not dealing well with disappointing father figures right now.”
Jack went back to the puzzle and left him thinking. He wondered if there was a pill to cure that, or at least relieve it temporarily. He snorted. There were probably lots of them.
By the time they pulled up in front of the hotel the little factory was whole and seamless, different than before.
Riddick snatched the roses from the back seat and tossed the keys to the valet.
The guy, who Riddick pegged as a little long in the tooth to be working the job, nodded and slid into the driver’s seat.
Jack moped up to the room, hugging the puzzle tightly to her chest. He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t sure he should say anything at all.
The room was smaller than the suite at the Galileo. For starters there were only two bedrooms. Jack’s stuff was piled in one, Marty’s in the other. Riddick’s bags were next to the couch, waiting for him to make up his damn mind. He set the flowers on the table by the door and dropped onto the couch, only remembering that they needed something from Marty’s room when his ass hit cushion.
“I’ll get it,” said Jack.
She carried the puzzle with her but lost it somewhere on her way back. In its place was the black case that held Marty’s little computer. She set it on the table in front of her and turned it on, then pulled the disk from her pocket and sighed.
“What if it’s something I don’t want to know?” she asked.
Riddick shrugged and chewed his lip. A thought occurred to him.
“Maybe it’s just goodbye.”
She sniffed a little and he gave himself a swift mental kick in the ass.
He nodded and stood.
“Yeah,” he said. “Take your time.”
He set a hand on her shoulder as he passed, then picked up his bags.
“You can put them with mine,” said Jack.
Smiling, he hitched the bags up higher on his shoulders and headed for Jack’s room.
Jack yawned and stretched without opening her eyes. Her fingers brushed Riddick’s face and he shifted with a slow, sleepy growl. It was a good feeling, waking up naked under the sheets beside a warm body. She lay with her back against his ribs, her cheek on his arm. He’d gone to sleep on his back and hadn’t moved. They’d done alright for two folks not used to sharing a bed with anyone. No elbows thrown, no blankets stolen. He didn’t snore. Some life to make a guy sneaky in his sleep.
The utterly unselfconscious way he’d stripped in front of her had momentarily knocked her for a loop. That and the sight of him in nothing but the dim green glow of the clock. Jack had found herself overwhelmed by urges she had no desire to control and they’d made so much noise the neighbors complained.
Now her whole body thrummed with a dull, pleasant ache and her mind was oddly at ease. It felt right and natural and good. She grinned. It felt really, really good. Never mind that only hours ago she’d managed to get turned on in a blood-splattered hotel room. It was weird but not enough to shock her, anymore. She smiled into the darkness.
Whaddaya know? I’m kinky.
She cracked an eye open and saw nothing but black. All the lights were off in case someone decided to do to this room what they’d done to the last one. She remembered Riddick disabling the lights in the living room before they went to sleep. If the bad guys busted in here they’d get a faceful of hurt before they saw a thing. The clock was covered, too. As her eyes adjusted she could tell that the light from the big, glowing numbers was muted by her bra and panties. Points for creative use of undergarments.
Jack rolled over and found the edge of the bed. She crawled slowly out of the warmth and into the cold, dry hotel air. She pulled the top blanket off the bed and wrapped it around her. It was soft and velvety and felt good against her skin. Looking back at the bed, she sighed. Not as good as that did.
Feeling her way along the wall she headed for the main room. The light from the computer guided her back to the table but it didn’t keep her from bashing her shin on the table corner. She cursed softly and shuffled around the table to sit on the floor with her back against the couch.
She flipped up the top and squinted into the screen’s pale glow. Her grandfather’s words were still there. She hadn’t known what to expect. The letter was sweet and fond and full of Jackson’s rowdy sense of humor but it also held words of caution.
The mines are safer than the boardrooms these days, Jackie. Be careful.
Just like Grandpa to leave out the particulars. Had he known something? A disturbing thought crossed her mind. It might have shot all the way to horrible or terrifying once but no more.
“Is it possible to make someone have a heart attack?” she asked.
Riddick padded across the room and sat on the arm of the couch. She couldn’t see him until he was right beside her but she’d known he was there. He wore the sheet from the bed wrapped loosely around his waist. She resisted the urge to peek as he set one foot on the cushions and stretched the other out to set his heel on the table.
“Sure,” he said. “I wouldn’t know the specifics, though. I don’t do subtle.”
“You think he was murdered?” he said flatly.
“Wouldn’t surprise me.”
She closed the file and opened another. A password prompt flashed on the screen. She’d spent a good forty-five minutes before bed trying to figure out Marty’s password with no success.
“What would he use, Riddick?”
The solemn look faltered and he laughed.
“Still not on a first-name basis,” he chuckled. “What’s a man gotta do?”
“I have a hard time calling you Richard.”
“It’s so... ordinary.”
“You don’t look like a Richard, anyway,” she added.
“Huh.” He looked thoughtful for a moment, then his lips hitched into a smirk. “I like what you called me before.”
She tried in vain to force back a grin. “I am not saying that in public and you’re changing the subject.”
“I could change my name to Oh God--”
“Quit it!” She laughed and slapped him on the leg hard enough to make her hand sting.
He settled against the back of the couch and crossed his arms. For some reason his look of resolve prompted her to argue even though he hadn’t said a word.
“If there’s something in here that’ll help we need to know about it.”
He appeared to think about it for a long while and Jack let him. This was a huge deal. Bigger than she’d realized at first. Marty was one of the few people Riddick trusted. Had ever trusted. They were friends. More than that. Marty Bender was the closest thing Riddick had ever had to a father. Hell, he was just about the closest thing /Jack/ had ever had to a father.
Then why the hell was she so desperate to pin something on him? A total stranger had made a suggestion and she’d latched onto it with both hands. She felt suddenly ashamed.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Never mind.”
He sighed. “Try Khadija.”
“What changed your mind?”
“Proving to you that he’d never do anything to hurt you, Jack.”
“I didn’t think--”
But she had and he knew it. Shit.
His expression grew even more pained and she shut her mouth before anything else stupid had the chance to escape.
“Just try it.”
She typed. The computer issued a short, angry sound.
Riddick glanced up at the ceiling and tapped his fingers on his thigh.
“Benchley.” He shook his head even as she hit “enter” and was refused access again. “Too obvious.”
“His middle name’s too short...”
Riddick rattled off a series of words that didn’t grant Jack access but made her curious as hell.
Jack frowned and typed it in.
“Care to explain any of this stuff to me?”
The password prompt disappeared and the file opened.
“Thomas Halley was Sophie Bender’s first husband. He was killed on a relief mission by a stray bullet. Friendly fire. Marty didn’t talk about him much but I know for a fact what happened to the guy bugged the shit out of him.”
He stretched and the sheet slipped, leaving one leg bare to the hip. Jack pretended not to notice. Sort of. She turned to the monitor and started sifting through files as she continued.
Riddick went on without waiting for the next question. “Marty isn’t keen on the idea of civilians being hurt or killed by the military, especially by accident. It’s kind of like asking for an ante from a guy who’s not playing poker at your table. He always made it perfectly clear that he wouldn’t tolerate it from any of us. That’s why I--”
He stopped and didn’t start again and Jack turned to look at him. He scowled into the darkness like he was trying to see something way past the walls of the hotel. It didn’t last for long before he swallowed loudly and nodded at her.
“Huh? Oh. Looking.”
There was an entire directory filled with articles about massive head injuries and their effects on personality and memory loss. She felt like an ass, already.
Employment record. Short. Service record. Long. Medical records. About as long as the service record. She tried not to linger on personal stuff but when the pictures came up she couldn’t help herself.
The first showed six men standing in front of a big, dusty truck. They wore desert pattern camouflage and held the biggest rifles she’d ever seen. Their eyes were covered by goggles with dull, black lenses. All but the guy in the middle, who sported a pair of black sunglasses and a world-class, shit-eating grin. Her mouth fell open.
“Holy shit, that’s Marty,” she said. She raised an eyebrow. “He looks hot in uniform.”
Riddick snorted. She advanced to the next image.
Two men lay on the hood of a low, tracked vehicle, backs against the windshield and arms crossed over their bare chests. Both wore dusty, green fatigue pants and scuffed black boots and decidedly uninterested expressions that said “bad motherfuckers are we” on their tanned, unshaven faces. On the left was a much younger Marty in what looked like the same pair of sunglasses. Beside him was a bald-headed hottie with light brown eyes narrowed against the bright sun.
“You sexy bastard,” she grinned.
He snorted again. Jack took that as her cue to get on with it.
She found a picture of Reggie, smiling and gesturing grandly at the small dorm room behind her. The quality was low, probably sent during one of their frequent quick-burst calls. It cost Marty a fortune for them to talk as long and as often as they did but it made him happy. So happy Jack could see it on him. That was something.
“Remind me to call Reggie when we’re done,” she said. She probably wouldn’t need the reminder. She’d been trying to figure out what to say to Reggie all day. This morning when she’d called from the hospital there was no answer and she’d choked when she tried to think of a message. What the hell could she say?
Hi, Reggie. Jack, here. Marty’s had the crap kicked out of him and we suspect he might be hiding some fucked up shit from us. Any thoughts?
“Next,” said Riddick, nudging her gently.
“I’m not sure exactly what to look for,” she said.
“There.” He leaned forward and pointed. His arm brushed her shoulder and her skin tingled where they touched. “Unclassified.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s used to refer to planets that haven’t been fully explored and opened to the public. Before they receive a rating they’re names are U plus whatever number they’ve been assigned.”
“Unclassified,” she muttered to herself.
The file was packed.
There was a report detailing the salvage of the Hunter-Gratzner. What was taken; what kind of shape it was in; Marty’s notes on the cause of the crash.
“Multiple hull breaches in intact areas of the ship. Condition of entry and exit points indicate that they occurred before reentry,” Jack read. She scanned down the page. “Nav computer is off by fractions. The extreme distance between the departure point and intended destination left room for a considerable amount of drift.”
There were images of the wreckage, inside and out. It looked worse than she remembered. There was an aerial view of the crash site, with cryo-lockers scattered like a handful of pills along the gouge in the earth. Some of the pictures were of pieces of the ship she’d never seen before. At least not as they were, now. The compartments that had been jettisoned before the crash had disintegrated on impact. Some of the crates were still intact.
She shook her head.
“I hope he’s wrong,” she said.
“Because I’d hate to think that all those people died because of something so stupid.”
“Substandard equipment on a junk freighter in an unswept corridor. Shit, if I’d have known that’s what Johns was getting me into I’d have fought harder.”
“Yeah, well,” she smirked. “Just look what it got you.”
“Maintenance records, personnel records...” She scrolled through, not sure what she was looking for. “Two of the crewmembers had criminal records. Not that it matters. I don’t think they would have crashed the ship on purpose while they were still on it.”
“Safe bet,” he nodded. “I’m with Marty. It drifted and it went down because it was a piece of shit. Try the next one.”
Another image menu came up on the left but there were no titles, just numbers. She chose one at random and when it loaded she took a moment to recognize the subject. When she did she felt suddenly sick to her stomach. Most of the flesh was gone and bone gleamed through the dried, darkened meat. A matted, bloody mass of blond hair clung to the ruined scalp.
“Fry,” she said flatly. “He found Fry.”
Riddick lowered himself to sit beside her on the floor and shut the laptop.
“Let me do this.”
“I’m okay,” said Jack. That was a lie. Some things were real easy to deal with until they sucker-punched you in the face. She hadn’t thought much about the other survivors for a long time. Did it make her a bad person that she wasn’t torn up at all about the whole experience until she saw pictures of chewed-on corpses? Probably. Truth was she hadn’t known any of her fellow survivors well enough to justify any major lifelong trauma. Shit, that was cold.
“No telling what else he found.”
“It can’t be worse than that.”
“It can always be worse.”
He lifted the screen again and scrolled to the next image. It was a wide shot of the boneyard, littered with blackened bodies. Some had burned down to their ugly, hammer-headed skulls.
“Good thing this ain’t smell-o-vision,” said Jack. “Why the hell did he take pictures of this sick shit?”
Riddick cycled through screen after screen and finally stopped at an aerial view of the abandoned buildings. He studied it for a moment before looking at the next, a side-shot of the building that housed the coring room.
“He was collecting evidence.”
She leaned in, trying to figure out what had caught his attention.
He magnified the image, centering on the same small, rectangular object. It resolved itself into a worn, metal plate screwed to the side of the building.
GEOTECH RESEARCH, Inc.
Argentina - China - Greenland - Kenya
She spotted a flashing book symbol in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture and pointed it out. Riddick clicked on it and a narrow column of text popped up on the left side of the screen.
GRI -- Founded as an independent survey source. Government contracts and private sector work. Purchased by a private corporation and eventually liquidated. Former subsidiary of the Castor Corporation.
The bottom dropped out of Jack’s stomach.
Riddick chewed his lower lip and stared down the screen. Jack was surprised it didn’t jump up and run away.
“So they came, they surveyed, they got eaten, the whole thing got scrapped. Right?”
He shook his head and tapped a key. The picture changed and the text with it.
“I don’t know.”
“Estimated 45 personnel at survey site A,” she read. “How the hell does he know that?”
“Probably counted skulls.”
“What does that mean, site A?”
“It means...” he said, typing. A search window appeared and he entered “site B”. Five pictures. The buildings were similar, but not the same.
“Site B,” muttered Jack. “Holy crap.”
There were skeletons half-buried in the dirt, bleached white from years in the uninterrupted sunlight. One view showed a long building with a metal roof and a series of partitions like a giant stable. A rusted-out vehicle stood in one of the sections.
Riddick pointed at a pile of material on the ground beside it.
“Track slipped and busted,” he said. “That’s why they left it there.”
“Whoever came along and cleaned up after all these people were dead.”
“My head hurts.”
“Somebody had to know they were there,” he said.
“If it was Castor, wouldn’t he have gone to a little more trouble to try and cover it all up?”
“My opinion? He either never knew about this because he wasn’t King Shit of Everything yet or he does know and doesn’t realize what a mess they made out there. I’m betting on the second one. Chances are somebody used the equipment because it was already there, part of the purchased company. Cut down on expenses. Question is, who picked up after them and why didn’t they take it all?”
Like a fucking lightning bolt...
“Cappy,” she said. Relief washed over her and she could see the light grow in Riddick’s eyes as he picked up on it.
“The place wasn’t fully recovered, just salvaged. The stuff that wasn’t worth a shit was left behind. The Death Maiden’s been trawling the same goddamn area for years. Motherfucker.”
“It’s not Marty,” she said. “It couldn’t be, he hasn’t been there that long.”
“He knew, though,” said Riddick. “He knew they were hiding something. And I don’t think it was just a bunch of prefab buildings and dead guys.”
He tapped the screen.
“And neither did he.”
“What is that?”
“Notes say it’s a high-orbit photo of a reinforced mine entrance.”
She squinted and made out a group of tiny dots. Riddick cycled the photos slowly. The dots moved.
“People,” she whispered. “Sonofabitch. They’re still there.”
The phone rang and Jack nearly jumped out of her skin. She crawled quickly around the table, snatched it off the chair and hit ‘receive’.
She listened to Mackey’s voice on the other end without saying a word, then hung up and turned to Riddick.
It had taken a lot out of him but he was finally sitting up. His body responded by making him sorry he’d done it but being flat on his back hadn’t felt all that hot, either. His heart pounded and blood rushed in his ears so loudly it distorted the voices of the wall of women trying to restrain him. Three frantic nurses and his mum, who looked ready to club him with his own cast to keep him down. They looked concerned but it was hard to take them seriously when they sounded like they were underwater.
All he wanted was to take a piss standing up, for fuck’s sake. Was that too much to ask?
He hurt. His ribs creaked, his wrist throbbed, his leg felt like a spike had been driven through it. When the drugs wore off it would be just like old times. And old times blew goats, oh yes they did. But he needed to burn off the fog. There was a hint of silly in his head that would have to go. Bad things. Bad things going on. He just couldn’t remember what all of them were.
In the meantime he didn’t think he had the strength to overpower the ovaries so he raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. His mum let go but kept her eyes on him. He could tell she was ready to move if he made another break for it. Very slow break that it would be.
She laid her hands on his and sighed.
“Thank you, Love,” she said. “I don’t think the four of us could have taken you if you’d been determined.”
He returned the smile and she wrapped her arms around him. She didn’t squeeze too tightly, bless her. Over her shoulder he saw the nurses slip out of the room. The last one shot him a warning glance as she disappeared from view and closed the door.
“The doctors said you need to be still,” she said. “Can you humor them for a little while?”
He nodded and patted her back.
The cops had brought a keyboard and screen for him to answer with. He pulled the rolling table it sat on out over his lap and lifted his hands to rest them over the keys. He flexed and bent his fingers over the keyboard before he typed.
A male voice a few octaves higher than his own repeated the words.
--Won’t be easy.--
Sophie let go but didn’t step back. She smoothed his bangs out of his face and looked at him with sad eyes. Her smile had wilted. His mother had never seen him like this before and he wasn’t too keen on her seeing him, now. She was too far away to come when he got shot up the first time and he was glad of it. Bad enough she’d had to see him limping around with a goddamned cane at his father’s funeral. If he’d had his way she would never have known at all but by the time he’d come to his senses it was too late. The brass had all but told her he was killed in action before his buddies intervened.
Well, he might be back to having only one good leg but he was damn sure going to put the foot at the end of it up someone’s ass over this. The cops told him the man responsible for pulling the trigger was still alive. That would change if he could get his carcass out of bed but Mum wasn’t having it.
“I’ve tried never to worry about you,” she said. “You can take care of yourself better than anyone I’ve ever known.”
She touched the patch of gray at his temple.
“I want you to come home with me,” she said. “You can meet your family and stay on the farm and... not do this, anymore.”
That was his mum. To-the-point.
--Shit on toast, Mum.--
"You’ve done your service, Martin. Nearly sacrificed yourself for it. You can’t go on like this forever.”
--Didn’t mean to. Trying to settle down. People not cooperating.--
“They rarely do, Sweetheart.”
--When this is over.--
“I’ve heard that before.”
--Can’t leave now.--
“I know,” she said. She hardly ever argued with him. It was just as pointless as arguing with her. “You’d risk your life for people you’ve never met. I know there’s nothing that will stop you from doing it for your friends.”
--Glad you understand.--
“I don’t.” She laughed softly. “That kind of selflessness is beyond us mortal folk.”
--Not selfless. Just don’t have that many friends.--
“You’ve got your darling mum,” she said.
He smiled. The right side of his face felt stiff. He didn’t remember getting hit in the face. He shrugged inwardly. Maybe by the floor.
“So what can I do?”
--Real food. Please.--
“There’s a reason you’re not supposed to have anything solid, you know.”
Marty gave her the most pathetic look he could muster. It wasn’t hard. He looked like shit and he knew it.
“Alright,” she said. She took his hand and squeezed gently. “You’re a horrible patient, you know.”
--Won’t leave this room.--
He held up a hand in a silent pledge. She knew better but she just shook her head and strode to the door, casting a quick glance back at him as she slipped from the room.
The door swung slowly closed, giving him time to glimpse the Marines that flanked it. They kept their eyes forward. Good. No gaping at the guy in the little dress with no ass in it.
He glanced from the bedpan to the bathroom door. Worth it? Probably not. He chuckled to himself. Better do it quick before the good shit wore off.
The railing went down easy and he dragged his feet over the side. The IV lines tugged at his arm and he grumbled a curse. He pulled the needle out and set it on the table. Thin lines of blood spiraled down his fingers and soaked into the sheets.
He put weight on his left leg first. It shook like hell and his knee nearly let go. He tried to hold himself up with his hands but it wasn’t happening. He could still use his fingers but there wasn’t much strength in them. He started to slide but managed to hook his rear end on the edge of the bed to steady himself. A sharp pain flared to life between his shoulders and stretched down his spine.
He was already sweating and breathing hard, which wouldn’t be that bad if he wasn’t alone. He stretched his right leg to the floor and winced. The stitches pulled at his skin and the torn muscles twitched and burned. Once his ass left the bed again one hundred and eighty pounds was resting on his trembling left leg. It wasn’t going to hold for long if he just stood here.
He paused to consider the very real possibility that if he fell he wouldn’t be able to get up again without help. He’d damn sure try, naturally. But if getting out of bed was this tough...
This was stupid. Stupid macho bullshit that he should have been over, already. He was fucked up. He’d been fucked up for a long time. So, he wasn’t what he used to be. Who was by the time they were forty? Count all the years he’d spent on ice going from one place to another and he was in his mid-fifties.
Yeah, that’s it. Blame it on old age like an asshole. Truth was these days fifty-five wasn’t shit. His mum was in her nineties and she was doing a hell of a lot better than he was.
It had nothing to do with age and everything to do with being stupid enough to flinch and get taken down by a ten-year-old zealot. How many times had he heard it? Fuck, how many times had he said it? No one is harmless. Hesitation will get your ass handed to you in a black plastic bag.
Or it could get you into a world of hurt that called for so many drugs you couldn’t get it up for ten years.
Screw the guys outside and what they’d think of his bedridden ass. Screw the embarrassment of having a nurse empty his bedpan. And screw this shit.
Suck it up, asshole and just piss in the goddamn jar.
The door handle turned and the door swung in. Back up in a hurry? Not a frigging chance.
Jack stuck her face inside and squinted in the low light. He would have raised a hand to wave her in but if he moved he was going down. As it was he was pretty sure he was headed for a dive into the tile. She slipped inside and the door opened wider as Riddick followed her in. Without a word he stepped up and half-nudged, half-lifted Marty back onto the edge of the bed. Marty flashed him a grateful look and scooted back as far as he could to keep from sliding off again.
It was uncomfortable but he left his feet dangling. Maybe he was in the mood for admitting his weaknesses but he wasn’t about to flaunt them by having to lift his legs by hand. Besides he wasn’t really sure he could get himself all the way back into bed without flaunting something else, too.
Riddick dropped into a chair beside the bed. Marty silently thanked the man for allowing him his manly space.
“Let me help you,” said Jack. She stepped forward, her hands hovering uncertainly.
“Don’t even try to tell me that you’re supposed to be out of bed, Martin Bender.” She glanced down and he resisted the urge to grab a pillow and hold it over his crotch. “Oh my god, you’re bleeding.”
He followed her gaze down. The small wound in his arm was still leaking. Blood flowed into the lines of his skin and covered his hand with an intricate, red web. Jack went to the small cabinet across the room and came back with a couple of antiseptic wipes and a box of adhesive bandages.
Marty contemplated waving her off and decided against it.
“They’re not taking very good care of you,” she said. She held his hand and began gently wiping away the blood.
He watched, fascinated by the motion of her hands and the cool sensation on his skin.
“You can’t talk at all, can you?”
Marty held up his thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart.
He nodded and made a rolling motion with his free hand. She gave him a confused look until Riddick responded.
Marty sighed loudly.
“Maybe,” Riddick translated.
“But you’re alright?” Jack asked. She finished with his hand and turned her attention to the bed. She fluffed his pillows and helped ease his legs back onto the sheets, deftly pulling the blanket up to his waist at the same time. The bedside manner made him think of Reggie.
Christ, he missed her.
He just smiled in response to Jack’s question. The look she gave him was skeptical but she didn’t press. There wasn’t much wrong with him that hadn’t been before. It was all just more likely to go off like a fucking bomb, now.
Rough goddamn night all around.
She was still looking at him. Riddick, on the other hand, was studiously avoiding his gaze.
--Cops were here. Told me what happened.--
He tried to keep his hands from shaking and only made it worse.
“We’re okay,” said Jack. She lowered her eyes to the sheets and busied herself smoothing out the wrinkles with her palm.
--What’s on your mind, kiddo?--
“I’m sorry,” she said suddenly.
He raised an eyebrow
“This would never have happened if we hadn’t left you alone.”
Was that it? Oh hell.
--Not your fault. Big boy. Take care of myself.--
“You were sick,” she said. “You might have needed us. You did need us. And we weren’t there.”
--You had things to take care of.-- He gave her a look he hoped was reassuring. --Important things. It’s okay.--
“I’m still sorry.”
He considered what would have happened if they’d come when it was just he and Jack at the hotel. Would he have been able to protect her? He shuddered. Change the subject.
--So what did I miss?--
“Oh, man,” she said. “I don’t know where to start.”
Her voice trembled and she gave an odd, humorless laugh. He waited for her to continue and noted that Riddick still seemed uninterested in anything but his shoes.
--The important stuff.--
“Okay. My dad screwed me over,” she began. “Or he tried. Still not sure if it was his own idea or because of the leash Marlene’s got on him.”
“Tell me about it. Marlene has denied that she or her father were involved in what happened in the parking lot or in the hotel room. That’s kind of blown, though, because one of the guys that jumped you confessed to working for Castor.”
--Cops told me. Want to talk to him.--
“Talk, huh?” she smirked. “They won’t let anyone near the guy. Least of all one of us.”
--They’re not as stupid as they look.--
She smiled broadly.
“They’ve been helping. They’re keeping an eye on Castor.” Jack leaned closer and whispered softly. “We have Virgil and Marlene. Picked them up after Riddick found out what happened to you.”
He blinked, surprised, and Jack laughed.
Her breath ruffled his hair as she replied.
“Garage not far from here. A couple of Marines went with them.”
Hostages. Holy hell. He could feel Captain Mad knocking on the inside of his skull wanting to be let out. That part of him had been put away but hadn’t gotten rusty. It hated being in the cage. It hated not being in charge. It had ideas for the fuck-nuggets that put him in the hospital.
--Who’s Garvin Mackey?--
“He used to be a cop. He’s a private detective, now. Castor hired him, supposedly on Dad’s behalf. He was supposed to find me and bring me home. He missed us in Port Safi and came all the way back here on our tail.”
“We checked him out best we could.” She pulled a disk from her pocket and slipped it into the drive. “Got a copy of his license and anything else public I could find. I’m not as good at this stuff as you are.”
Her tone suggested there was more to the statement than was readily apparent but he didn’t have a clue. If it was important she’d find a way to make him understand.
A copy of the license appeared onscreen. He knew this guy.
“Do you remember him?” She sounded hopeful.
Blur it up a little and it was the same face that had leaned over him in the hotel room just before things had gone all dark and... away.
“Says he saved your ass.”
The thought of owing that to anyone bugged the shit out of him.
“He also says he’s on our side now because Castor lied to him and he wants to make things right.”
Marty glanced and Riddick, hoping for his input but he didn’t get a damn thing.
“He’s helped us out a lot. But don’t worry. We’re being careful.”
“We went to see the guy who’s in charge of Weller M&D until things get sorted out. Turns out he’s a forty year man who got passed over for CEO-ship in favor of the boss’s granddaughter.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. He offered to buy me out. He also expressed a very strong dislike of the possibility that my dad might end up at the head of the company. He wasn’t keen on Virge’s connection with Castor.”
--Do you suspect him?--
She glanced at Riddick. “We do.”
--Look for connections between the two.--
Jack’s mouth fell open. Riddick made a low, thoughtful sound.
“Holy shit,” she said. “Hadn’t even thought of that.”
--What else have you got?--
She swallowed loudly and her eyes dropped to the sheets again.
“We’ve got this.” She popped the disk and slid in another.
An image materialized on the screen. A wreck. He’d seen hundreds and at first it didn’t register as anything special. Jack stood beside the bed, arms crossed tightly over her chest and an odd expression on her face.
Riddick had turned to look at him, finally. He could feel it. Marty scrolled forward a few pictures at a time.
Fuck me sideways.
They were his. He remembered taking them but not why, exactly. Buildings, people. Shouldn’t be there. Right. Why was that, again?
He was tired as hell and more than anything right now he wanted them to stop trying to buy him a drink and just ask him to bed, already. He turned a questioning look to Riddick. The other man started to turn away but Marty shook his head and shot him a warning glance.
You will not ignore me, motherfucker.
They stared at each other silently for a long moment. Riddick’s eyes were as flat and unreadable as his own but there was something anxious in his gaze nonetheless. Nerves. From this guy. This could only be bad.
“There something you want to tell us, Boss?”
He thought hard. Nothing. Marty shook his head and hot lines of pain shot down his back. His neck was starting to stiffen up, too. With the IV gone the drugs were wearing off in a hurry.
“You put Castor together with that place when you checked out Marlene,” he said.
Yeah. That’s right. Who was that again?
He lifted a hand that felt like it was made of solid rock and cycled through the pictures. The notes hurt to read but he did it, anyway. They were angry with him for this. He needed to remember what this was. Why didn’t they just spill? Didn’t they know what it was like to be this way?
No. They didn’t. Suck it up. Fucking sissy.
Jack’s face softened and she touched his arm gently, just above the cast.
“If it wasn’t important...”
He nodded. His skull felt three sizes too small.
“What did Cappy have to do with it?”
Cappy. Secret. Keep the big secret. Jesus, but that was a hefty paycheck. It would be, though, for doing the jobs nobody else wanted, wouldn’t it? That’s why he got hired on in the first place. He knew how not to talk and he was used to doing things that other people found terrifying and repugnant. No one else would search the bodies for ID. No one else would touch them until they were tagged and bagged.
Keep an eye out. Keep your mouth shut. Look both ways before crossing the minefield...
Jack’s voice brought him back.
He nodded even before his brain caught up. What about the miners? Sure they were in the middle of nowhere. So what? Mines were always in the middle of nowhere. That’s where all the... whatever was.
--Unclassified planet.-- He shrugged. --Maybe unregistered mine.--
Her eyes lit up.
“Are you sure they were Castor’s guys?”
--Wasn’t. Might be now.--
“The stuff... The buildings, the vehicles, all belong to Castor, don’t they?”
--Did. Second hand, maybe.--
“If they were sold to someone then there should be records, right?”
“Sure, those won’t be hard to get a hold of,” snorted Riddick.
“We could take this to the cops,” said Jack. “I really said that, didn’t I?”
--What are we trying to prove?--
“I don’t know, exactly,” Jack frowned. “He’s doing bad things. Maybe. Isn’t that enough?”
“We’ve got something, though, right?”
--Might. Special permission, maybe.--
“Probably wouldn’t be too hard for him to make that happen,” said Riddick.
--Sorry. Didn’t make connections until we got here and started looking around.--
Jack sighed. “Why the pictures, then?”
Sometimes things came back. Sometimes they were just gone. One attack could cause brain cells to die while another might only block them off. Paths in the brain could be reforged over time or through surgery but Marty wasn’t sure there was anything he wanted to remember badly enough to let somebody poke around in his head, again.
He stared back into the hollow eye sockets of a skull wedged under the single metal step of a trailer. Cappy salvaged the place and left the poor bastards scattered all over the ground. Nobody had ever picked them up.
--Dead people. Never reported. Never claimed. Still there.--
“That was before Castor’s time, wasn’t it?” asked Jack.
Marty laughed. --Would have been in his late twenties.--
“Oh yeah. He’s old.” She smiled at him and nudged his knee.
“So twenty some-odd years ago a survey team or two gets eaten. Why would he send more people there?” asked Jack.
“Must have found something,” said Riddick.
“Whatever it was, wouldn’t they have gotten it all by now?”
“Takes a lot longer than twenty years to mine out a whole planet, Jack.”
“Why wouldn’t he just try and get the permits legally? And why the hell didn’t he clean up the mess to make sure nobody saw it?”
Marty scratched his jaw as he thought about it. He needed a shave.
--Good questions. No clue.--
“Place is awfully out-of-the-way. Might not have seemed like a priority,” said Riddick.
“Until we got there,” Jack muttered. “So let me get this straight. In addition to wanting to screw me out of the family company he was trying to kill us because we might have seen something?”
“Or he was told that we sure as shit /did/ see something.”
Jack snorted. “By someone whose name I won’t mention, but his initials are John ‘Cappy’ Saeger. What about Marty? How could they know what he had?”
“Might have just guessed. He was a part of the crew for what..?”
--Seven years, give or take.--
“He left the ship suddenly and showed up here. Might have made Castor a little nervous.”
“What about everyone else?” asked Jack. “Are they in any danger?”
His heart clenched. His hands shook so hard his first try came out jibberish. He forced them to still and tried again.
“Did,” Jack said. Her face mirrored his panic but she made it disappear in a hurry. “She wasn’t in her dorm but her roomie was totally unfreaked. I’ll try her again. Mani and Imam are going to be a whole other pain in the ass but I’ll try them, too.”
The screen wavered suddenly and so did the room. The monitors beside the bed sparked and went out as something twinged in his head; a series of tiny lightning strikes that blinded him and forced the air out of his lungs. His stomach twitched and spasmed but there was nothing to bring up. He grabbed for the railing and got a handful of air. Where the fuck did he drop the IV line and could he have it back, please? He held still and waited for it to go away, his whole being concentrated on breathing. And not throwing up.
When he forced his eyes open Jack was headed for the door and Riddick was on his feet beside the bed. Marty flailed a hand weakly at Jack’s back.
“Okay,” he wheezed. He wasn’t sure why he said it. For one, his throat felt like it was full of broken glass and the effort filled his vision with exploding sparks. For another, he wasn’t sure it was true.
She stopped and turned. The door flew open and she jumped out of the way.
A soldier appeared in the doorway. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. He turned to Marty and his arm twitched in a hastily aborted salute. “Are you alright, sir?”
Marty nodded, anyway.
“What happened?” asked Riddick.
“EMP charge. We’re trying to pinpoint the source now.”
Marty glanced down at the screen. Solid blue and fading away. Mother--
“Thank you,” said Riddick. The soldier took it as a dismissal and ducked out. Sophie charged back in before the door could close and Riddick passed her in a hurry. He grabbed Jack’s hand and squeezed it before disappearing from view.
“Where are you going?” Jack called after him.
“Stay...” was all he heard before Sophie demanded his attention.
“Look at me,” she said.
He did as he was told. Something warm ran into his mouth. He licked at it. Salty.
Sophie raised a finger.
Just like mum not to build up to the hard stuff. He followed for a few passes and then lost track of it. She pulled his eyelid up and he winced. After a quick examination Sophie spun on her heel and headed for the door.
“Keep him awake, I’m going to get the doctor,” she said. “If you need help keeping him in bed just call the men outside.”
“Will do,” said Jack.
Sophie was gone, replaced by Jack who leaned over him and wiped at his face with a wet cloth.
“You okay?” she asked.
Judging from the look on her face and the way his mother had shot out of the room, he must look pretty fucking far from okay. He nodded, though it was clear she wasn’t buying it. When she pulled the cloth away she held it down, out of his line of sight.
Electromagnetic pulses shouldn’t affect people, just electronics. Computers. His files were gone. He hadn’t had the time to back them up before he got sick. Should have damn well done it right away. So what? Not a detective. Not his job to figure things out. Point and shoot, that was his deal. There are the bad guys, Mad, go get ‘em. He wasn’t dumb. He could figure things out in a hurry. But he wasn’t book smart he was smart like an animal like something that didn’t have to chew its own leg off to get out of a trap but just waited and ate the trapper instead...
He snapped awake to find Jack’s face hovering over him, frantic.
“Don’t do that!” she said.
“Don’t fall asleep. Your mom will be right back with the doctor, okay? Just...”
Don’t die right in front of you. Sure thing, kid. But I don’t think it’s all that bad.
Jack lifted the cloth to wipe at his face again and tossed it away hurriedly but not before he saw the blood. She grabbed another and swiped it under his nose.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
It’s okay, Love. He smiled at her and hoped that would do but she went on.
“Not just for this, though.” She sighed. “I feel like such an ass. I wasn’t thinking about anything except going out on a real honest-to-God date with Riddick and I told myself you’d be fine so I wouldn’t feel bad about leaving you alone. I let my hormones do the thinking and well, here you are. It was stupid and selfish.”
He shook his head.
“Stop being so forgiving,” she said. “I’m going to feel guilty whether you blame me for stuff or not. Besides, it gets worse.”
He raised an eyebrow. Jack shifted uncomfortably and dropped her eyes to the floor. When she raised them again there was real pain in them. He didn’t want to hear what it was that had made her look like that but it was clear she was going to tell him, anyway.
“I... I thought that maybe you were part of all this, in a bad way. That you brought me back here for... not good things. It’s just--things people said, things we found...”
He tried to keep his features neutral but his disappointment must have shown because Jack’s face fell and her shoulders slumped.
“I should have trusted you. I’m sorry.”
Her eyes glistened and he lifted a hand to wipe the tears away before they fell.
“S’okay,” he whispered.
“It’s not,” she insisted. “Things went crazy and what did I do? I freaked out on Riddick and I turned on you.”
“You were scared.”
“That’s no excuse. You guys are the best friends I’ve ever had. Ever. In life. And I wigged. Completely haired out. Choked in the face of danger.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself.”
“Quit talking, Marty,” she said. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
Marty laughed. It wasn’t much more than a quiet wheeze and it hurt something awful but he couldn’t help it. His laughter seemed to startle her at first but then she smiled and let out a nervous giggle of her own.
“That sounded pretty stupid, didn’t it?”
He nodded, still chuckling softly.
“Oh, thanks a lot.” She sat carefully on the edge of the bed and tapped her fingers on the lowered railing. “We okay?”
He nodded again. Jack bent and kissed him on the cheek. When she straightened he pointed at her and gave her a questioning look, hoping she’d understand.
“Yeah,” she said. “We’re okay.”
Riddick blew past the guards at the door and paused in the hall outside. Uniforms had come out of nowhere in a hurry. Cops, Marines, hospital security. He put his money on the jarheads. Or himself.
A high-pitched whine came from the rooms on either side of Marty’s. The screens beside each door no longer showed patient names but instead displayed random lines and symbols. They were cooked. He trotted down the hall until he found one that worked, then did the same in the other direction.
The average EMP charge had a globe-shaped area of effect and a short range. It could be set off by remote, in which case they were fucked because the son of a bitch that did it was probably a kilometer away. Two or three if he spent lots of money. But electromagnetic charges were notorious for shaking off activation by remote. If they wanted to be sure, it would be on a timer. If it was on a timer, whoever set it off might still in the building.
Mackey came down the hall toward him with a police radio in his hand.
“Short radius is downstairs,” he said. “That puts ground zero up here, somewhere.”
He lifted the radio in response.
Marty’s room was slightly off-center of the effected area on this floor. So what was in the center?
“Elevator,” Riddick said simply.
They jogged around the corner. Riddick reached for the button but stopped as Mackey shook his head.
“It’s fried,” said Mackey.
“It’s dead center of ground zero.”
“Right. Floor indicator’s out.”
Riddick worked his fingers between the door and the wall. He strained briefly before it opened enough for him to see in.
“Must have gone off when it was between floors.” He pried the door open further. The elevator floor was even with his chest. No one on board that he could see. Cautiously he stuck his upper half inside and glanced around. The control panel blinked crazily but the casing showed no sign of tampering. The charge could be above it. Or under it. Or he could be way the hell wrong and wasting time.
Riddick pulled himself out of the elevator. Mackey squatted, peering into the darkened shaft. He slipped a gun from beneath his coat and clicked off the safety.
“Something moved,” he said.
Kneeling to follow Mackey’s gaze, Riddick saw nothing but the service ladder and the next door down.
“I don’t see--”
A patch of wall flickered by the ladder and Mackey pointed.
A blur that was shaped like a man fell away from the ladder. A black line played out from it, the other end clipped to the stairs.
Mackey raised the gun and Riddick batted it down.
“Mine,” he growled.
He pushed off of the floor and dove after the loose end of the line. Behind him Mackey shouted something he didn’t hear as he fell out of earshot.
The walls rushed past and the darkness grew thicker. There was still enough light for him to find the blur at the end of the cable and he focused on it. The line might slow the guy down enough for him to catch up. If it didn’t, at least he could land on the son of a bitch when they hit bottom.
He reached out and touched cloth. He twisted his hands into the fabric and jerked the guy toward him, trying to pin his arms to his sides. The man struggled, attempting to dislodge him. Apparently they both knew damn well that the line wasn’t going to be strong enough to slow them both down all the way before they reached the end of it.
The brake engaged and instead of smooth and silent the mechanism squealed loudly, echoing up the shaft. He felt heat through his shirt as the line rubbed against his arm. They slowed, but not enough to make their landing pretty.
They came to an abrupt stop about a meter above the floor. The line snapped taut and bounced both men into the air, then came loose and dumped them on the hard metal. Riddick rolled and diffused the brunt of the impact but he was forced to let go of the other man to do it. His left shoulder took most of the hit and his arm went numb.
He came up on his feet with the wind knocked out of him and no idea where the other man had gotten to.
Something whistled through the air by his head and he raised a hand to bat it away. It bit into his skin and he grabbed for it, instead. He caught the knife by the blade and spun it so the grip rested in his palm. Easy. So long as he didn’t have to catch any bullets.
The guy wasn’t stupid. He hadn’t made a sound and he hadn’t gone for the doors. The fucker must have known he was invisible. Riddick hadn’t seen an Epstein suit in years and suddenly they were all the rage. Maybe the local Asshole Discount Store was having a big sale.
A boot nailed him hard in the face and he staggered toward the ladder. He snatched at a rung to keep himself upright and his momentum swung him into the wall. He grunted and put his back to it. This shit was not working. It was fear of fighting blind that had made him shine his eyes in the first place. Oh, the fucking irony.
He held his breath and listened.
Riddick heard the soft brush of cloth on concrete to his right and struck without thinking. An exclamation of pain told him he’d hit something but his target moved away in a hurry. He stretched a leg as far as he could without throwing himself off-balance and swept the space around him. He held the blade away from his body and dove after the point of contact.
His fingers dug in and twisted. A fist thudded against the side of his head and doubled his vision. The man snarled and writhed in his grasp, nearly slipping free. Riddick had to let go of the knife or risk losing his grip. He tossed it into a corner and grabbed hold with his other hand. He tore at the fabric, exposing the black undersuit beneath.
“I see you, asshole.”
He pushed forward and shoved the man against the wall, then pulled him away and did it again, throwing his weight into it. He swung upward with an elbow and hit bone. Maybe the bottom of the chin. Riddick grabbed at the mask and yanked it up and off.
It was a hell of a relief to find no one special underneath.
The man’s head snapped forward and caught him in the nose. It didn’t break but he saw stars. Riddick took a punch in the ribs. There wasn’t much force behind it but the pain was sharp and he smelled blood.
The blade flashed as the man drew back for another jab and Riddick caught his wrist. He might have been a slippery son of a bitch but now that it came down to muscle he couldn’t break free. He swung with his other hand and Riddick caught it, too. Jerking forward sharply on both arms he raised a knee into his opponent’s stomach.
He twisted the arm with the knife until something snapped and the blade clattered to the floor. The guy kept struggling. He was impressed. Maybe later he’d fucking applaud.
Riddick snaked his left arm around the guy’s neck and squeezed. A few weak punches clipped his thigh. He just took them and concentrated on keeping his hold.
Voices erupted outside the doors and in an instant they were pried open. Light flooded in and Riddick turned his head.
“Hands where we can see them!” shouted a blurred silhouette.
Riddick obliged, dropping the man to the floor and raising his hands. The motion sent sharp pain through his side.
The Marines descended into the elevator shaft. A lieutenant shouldered his rifle and approached Riddick while his men surrounded the gasping heap on the floor.
“Do you require medical attention, sir?”
He glanced down and pulled his shirt, sticky with blood, away from his side.
“Suppose I might.”
“This way, sir.”
He climbed out of the shaft and into a bright hallway. A Marine offered him a hand up but he didn’t take it. He felt good. Stab wounds and all. More than good. That had been a goddamned fuckin A rush. He smirked and followed where he was led.
* * *
“When I called downstairs I could have sworn I heard you say you were alright.”
Jack nodded at the bloodstain on his shirt. He made a dismissive gesture. She glared.
Riddick lifted the shirt to show a pair of small bandages underneath. It didn’t look so bad. /He/ didn’t look so bad. She let it go.
“Seems to be,” she nodded.
“Did you talk to him?”
He crooked a finger under her chin and lifted it.
“I guess so,” she sighed. “I think I really upset him. He said things were cool between us but you should have seen his face.”
She sagged against the wall.
“I tried to give him his necklace back. He told me to keep it. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
Riddick’s fingers brushed her shirt as he lifted the medal and held it in his palm for a moment before he lay it gently on her chest.
“Good, I think.”
Jack kicked at the floor with a toe. She fiercely wanted to change the subject to anything but what a horrible ass she’d made of herself.
“He’ll get over it,” said Riddick. “I think he’s pissed off at himself more than anything.”
“Getting his ass handed to him,” he said.
“Suppose Mackey hadn’t gotten the bug up his ass to be a good guy.”
She thought about it.
“Marty would be dead.”
“And maybe we would have found him on the floor when we got home and maybe they wouldn’t have left us that much warning.”
She shuddered. Riddick might have been quick enough to keep them from getting their heads blown off and then again he might not. That’s what.
The ladies’ room was empty except for the two of them. It was more private than the waiting room and everyone but Sophie had been kicked out of Marty’s room. Give the man a break. Too much excitement for one day.
“So you caught somebody?”
Riddick nodded but he didn’t look as pleased as she thought he would. It crossed her mind that he may have killed the guy but she didn’t know how to go about asking.
“Had to give him up to the cops,” he said finally. “The FSMC has no jurisdiction here unless a war breaks out or the incident occurs on their own base. The charge of disrupting hospital equipment and endangering patients won out over the fact that one of the patients happened to be a retired Marine.”
“You don’t think the cops are going to take care of it,” she said.
“Depends on whether or not it was a cop that led them here in the first place.”
She must have looked as confused as she felt because he went on without prompting.
“The guy was wearing an Epstein suit, most commonly used to bypass a lot of older or low-grade security systems. They’re also good for not being seen by eyes that have been shined.”
“Like the shmucks that jumped us in the parking lot.”
“Exactly,” he said. “It might be coincidence but at this point that’s pretty fucking doubtful. Now you’re probably asking, ‘what the hell does that have to do with the cops?’”
“What the hell does that have to do with the cops?” she smirked.
“Thank you. Maybe nothing. But we’ve given them a hell of a lot of information. What I don’t know is how anyone knew about what we brought here.”
“Think Marty’s room is bugged? He said they were in there.”
“Could be, but the son of a bitch that fried us had to be there even before we came back.”
“Somebody watching us, then?” asked Jack.
“Pretty fucking close, too. Who’s been with us nonstop since the first time we came to the hospital?”
“The cops,” she groaned. “Shit, man. We finally decide to trust them and they’re hosing us?”
Riddick looked thoughtful but he sure as shit didn’t look surprised. He gave a short, humorless laugh.
“Life of crime don’t sound so unreasonable now, does it?” He lifted a hand and made as if to count off on his fingers. “Alright, lets try this again. What have we got?”
“Not that again,” she said. “We’ve got an assload of things that may or may not have anything to do with anything else. That’s what we’ve got.”
“Castor surveys a planet and finds something he likes. He doesn’t want to share so he keeps it quiet, dead geologists, ugly-assed critters and all. It’s no problem because the area is unexplored and given the shitty neighborhood it’s in, not likely to be looked into anytime soon. Not hard for him to get the kind of information that would keep him ahead of anyone who decided to sniff that way.”
“Who would he get that kind of information from?”
“Planetary exploration teams. Usually with government funding. Military scouts, sometimes.”
He shifted his feet and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Military scouts?” Jack raised an eyebrow.
“Certain units specialize in hostile or potentially hostile environments. Sometimes they serve as primary landing parties.”
“You sound like you know what you’re talking about.”
“The Nebulas are one of those units. Have been since they were still called the Dark Stars.”
Jack’s jaw dropped but Riddick cut her off before she could speak.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They haven’t shown up yet so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“What about the guys you beat the snot out of?”
He shook his head. “Uh-uh.”
“That just pride talking or are you sure?”
“We’d be dead, Jack. No question.”
“So, Cappy starts salvaging the area, either because he knows the hazards will be good business or because Castor recruits him. Either way, Cappy’s on the take to keep the shit happening out there a secret. Anything happens out there, he cleans it up before anyone notices. Ain’t nobody going to haul their asses out into the sticks to investigate the loss of the kind of ships that take the back roads, anyway. They’re glad to have Cappy to take care of it for them. Pretty decent arrangement all around. Then the Hunter-Gratzner drifts off-course, gets nailed by one of those hazards and you and I land in a heap of shit that was already stinking.”
“I could have been a fucking English professor. According to Marty’s notes the Castor Corporation has always been behind Weller M&D. Late start, couldn’t get any of the big, fat, stinky contracts. So, they make up for it with illegal mining and funnel the profits through... something else. Haven’t figured that part out yet.”
“So if he’s trying to keep all this quiet, why would he kill my grandpa?”
“Could’ve been him. Could’ve been Stroh. Could’ve been no one at all.” He shrugged. “Maybe he found something out.”
“Then why didn’t he use it?” Jack frowned. “He could have royally fucked up the competition. Of course, he wasn’t a raging asshole. That could have factored into it.”
“He might not have had enough, Jack. Look at what we’ve got and it’s doubtful we can prove anything.”
“You mean what we had.”
“So it’s coincidence that I was on that freighter and Marty was on the Death Maiden?”
“Near as I can tell.”
“Didn’t Cappy used to be in the army or something?”
“Or something. He flew for the Air Force before he went into business for himself.”
“We should look and see if Donald Castor was ever in the military.”
Riddick nodded. “Good idea.”
“Marty said to look for connections,” she said. “Might as well scope everybody.”
She pulled herself up on the counter and slumped against the mirror. Riddick lifted her leg and rubbed her calf in slow circles.
“This is not helping me think, you know.”
“That mean you want me to stop?”
“No,” she smiled. “Alright, here’s what we do. We form a line of everyone in town and ask them if they’re dirty.”
Riddick glanced into the mirror and ran a hand over his head.
“Got a hair sticking up,” said Jack.
He chuckled and patted her leg, then lowered it.
“We’re still stuck with the same problem,” he said.
“Which is, ‘what the hell do we do now?’”
“So, what the hell do we do now?”
“We need a solution to the immediate problem. That being how to get Castor and/or Stroh off our backs. Far as I’m concerned they’re both up to their necks in this shit, maybe together. It won’t be easy, whatever we do. They’re pillars of the fucking community. They’ve got power and they’ve got connections and they’ve got money.”
“What have we got?”
“For sure? We’ve got you, me, Marty and a bunch of angry Marines.”
“When you put it that way it doesn’t sound so bad.”
“We’ve got information. It’s not proof but if the idea that someone knows what’s going on is enough to make people nervous then telling Castor some of what we know to his face might scare him stupid.”
“Stupid enough to whip out a gun and shoot us, maybe.”
“We’ve also got Marlene,” he said. “Let’s see what we can get for her.”
“You have five minutes to release my daughter and leave the area before the police arrive.”
Riddick stood beside Jack, arms loosely at his sides. The pose let him look relaxed but still left his right hand within easy reach of the gun tucked in his waistband. he was wearing the tightest shirt he owned, at Jack’s request. She wanted him to show off his muscles. And the string of numbers tattooed around his arm.
He flexed just a little. Castor’s bodyguards shifted nervously. Riddick was itching to make them earn their paychecks.
“And here I thought he was going to play it cool and pretend he didn’t give a damn if he got her back or not,” said Jack.
Her voice was even and her words held just the right hint of smartass. Good girl.
“I came here to make a deal, Miss Weller. Don’t waste my time.”
“Okay, Donald,” she replied. Castor cringed at the emphasis on his first name. “Did you bring what I asked for?”
Riddick could tell by the way he held himself that the answer was no. He got ready for things to go down the shitter sooner than he’d predicted.
“Unfortunately,” Castor began. “I was unable to locate the item you requested.”
“Unfortunately,” Jack repeated. “That really upsets me.”
Castor’s face reddened and his fists clenched. He took a deep breath and regained some of his outward composure before he spoke again.
“I’ve brought something I think will do just as well.”
“You’d better hope so.”
He didn’t like that. Riddick didn’t give a shit.
“First, you show me my daughter.”
Jack nodded to Riddick. He reached out and knocked three times on the garage door. It began to rise slowly and silently, prompting a twitch from the men that flanked Castor. Wisely, they chose not to draw.
“You want Virgil, too? We’ll throw him in for free.”
“I don’t care what you do with him,” Castor said flatly.
“Ooooh,” Jack purred. “That sounds like permission.”
The door had risen far enough for them to see Marlene and her escort, Mackey. Riddick had argued against including him in this. If there was a real shitty time for him to turn out to be a bad guy, now would be it.
Mackey stood behind Marlene, one hand on her shoulder and the other concealed behind her back. Castor eyed him and Riddick tensed. But no signal passed between them, not that he could see. Mackey maintained the unassuming stance that seemed to be his default and Castor turned his attention back to Jack as she spoke.
“There she is, safe and sound. Now, what do I get?”
Several seconds of silence passed. Riddick watched as Castor shot a sidelong glance at the rooftop to his left.
“Let me guess,” said Jack. “Somebody was supposed to shoot us by now?”
Castor held up the cool front but Riddick could sense the decidedly not-cool behind it. The bodyguards reached for their guns but only one of them managed to clear the holster before the muzzle of a rifle pressed against his head.
An open hand reached around and he set the gun into it, butt-first. The other man did the same.
If he hadn’t been shined, Riddick wouldn’t have seen them coming, either.
“Mr. Castor,” Jack began. She stepped forward and Riddick moved with her, keeping Mackey firmly within his line of vision. “I strongly suggest that you stop jerking me around. Your men have been neutralized, your transmitter has been jammed and I think we both know that the police aren’t coming.”
The man had the presence of mind not to stammer. Riddick had to give him that.
“Standing behind you are several members of the Free Space Marine Corps, all of whom are under the impression that you sent the men who did bad things to their brothers. I don’t know if anything you say will convince them otherwise but if you’re planning to try, now would be a real good time.”
“If I may?” He slowly lifted a hand and stopped just short of reaching inside his coat.
“Two fingers,” said Riddick.
Castor lifted his coat open with one hand and extracted a disk from his pocket with two fingers of the other. He held it up, offering it to no one in particular.
Jack closed the space between them and snatched it out of his hand.
“Is this going to make my day?”
“It holds evidence of the real culprit behind your... recent misfortunes. Perhaps after you’ve seen it we can meet in a more agreeable setting and conduct business like civilized people.”
She handed it to Riddick. For a brief instant, he considered dropping the disk and grinding it to powder under his size thirteens. He didn’t care if Castor had irrefutable proof that the fucking Easter Bunny was responsible for everything because he would still know it was bullshit.
“Civilized?” asked Jack. “You sent your own daughter to seduce a guy more than twice her age so you could get first dibs on some company stock. If that’s civilization, pal, I’ll do without it.”
“Marlene makes her own business decisions,” he replied.
She shook her head and whispered, “business decisions”.
“Well, Donald,” she said. “So do I, and it’s safe to say that I won’t be doing any business with you.”
Jack reached into her pocket and slipped out a slender silver case. She opened it and held the drive opening toward Riddick with a wry smile. He smirked in return and slid the disk slowly into the slot until it clicked. She watched the screen in silence for a few moments, cycling through files and frowning at the screen. Finally, she snapped the top shut and slid the whole thing back in her pocket.
Mackey came forward, nudging Marlene along in front of him.
“Turn her loose,” said Jack.
“Yes, ma’am.” Mackey took his hand away and stepped back. “Walk slowly, please.”
She did as she was told and moved to stand beside her father. No words, no hugs, no tearful reunion. No big surprise.
“Sorry guys,” Jack said. “Looks like you’ll have to hold off on the target practice.”
“Don’t need any practice,” said one of the men.
At last Castor’s nerves began to show. He fingered his tie and smoothed his jacket, his eyes shifting from Jack to Riddick to the looming figures of the Marines.
“The authorities have received a copy of the same information,” he said. “It will enable them to obtain a search warrant--”
“Which will undoubtedly lead to them finding whatever evidence they need to convict Malcolm Stroh of all the nice things you’ve set him up for, is that right?”
“Mr. Stroh also makes his own business decisions, Miss Weller. He has no one to blame but himself if they were poor ones.”
“My grandfather make any poor business decisions?”
Her voice was flat and cold and so was her stare. She slipped an arm around Riddick and he felt her take hold of the gun. His expression didn’t change. No giving her away. He could stop her if he wanted to. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. Not for Castor’s sake. He might not have done it all, but he’d done enough.
“The only thing he did wrong was misjudge Mr. Stroh’s character,” he said evenly.
Jack nodded and released the gun. She gestured at the limousine at the end of the small lot.
“Guess we don’t have anything else to talk about, then, do we?”
He started to turn.
“Oh wait, yeah. There’s this.”
Jack gripped the gun again and jerked it from his waistband. She didn’t raise it but Castor froze at the sight of the weapon in her hand.
“You ever fuck with my friends again and things will not turn out like this,” she said. “I might forget to be polite.”
She pointed at the car’s front tire and fired. The civilians jumped. The tire blew out and the car began to lean to the right.
“Corner of Founders and Harmony,” said Jack, pointing out toward the street. “You can catch a cab.”
Clearly sensing the opportunity to get the hell out, Castor responded by taking his daughter by the arm and heading quickly toward the street. The Marines lowered their own weapons and handed the bodyguards back their guns after letting the clips and the chambered rounds fall to the ground.
Jack handed back the gun and Riddick tucked it in the front of his pants.
“Well shit, Jack,” he said, unable to restrain a grin.
“Do you think that worked?”
A Marine glanced at her as he slung his rifle over his shoulder and shook his head, grinning.
“Sure as shit convinced me not to fuck with you, lady.”
In 1944 an American soldier named David Chapman went to Australia on leave with a group of his buddies. He loved the place so much that he returned after the war for a visit. While he was there he married a cattleman’s daughter, got into the family business and never went home.
The place had started small but now the Edge of Heaven ranch was a sprawling property in the Northwest Territory. At its center were a pair of long, white barns and the modest, two-story farmhouse built by Sophie Chapman’s grandfather after the last house burned.
Since the death of her older brothers the ranch had passed to Sophie and her sons. The cattle business had become more a family tradition than a necessity but she kept the place running. When people asked why she still worked a ranch at her age she explained that it kept her out of the bars.
She sat on the top rail of the fence by the north barn, laughing as Jack bounced around the corral on a little, red mare. Jack held onto the saddle horn for dear life, letting go with one hand just long enough to wave at the three men sitting in the shade of the porch.
They returned her wave in unison and shouted words of encouragement. She grinned and let out a whoop as the mare’s jarring trot rolled into a smooth canter.
“Good!” Sophie chuckled. “Keep your feet in the stirrups!”
“And your bum in the saddle!” Curtis added helpfully. He nodded in Jack’s direction, smiling. “Have her out in the field chasing after strays in no time.”
“Been spending a lot of time out here on the farm, mate,” said Marty. “You a cowboy, now?”
Curtis shrugged and let out a nervous laugh.
“Summers, holidays,” he said. “Anytime I can get myself out of the city. Your mum’s always made me welcome. I reckon it’s got a bit to do with how much she’s missed you.”
“Well, she’s got me for a bit now, doesn’t she?”
Curtis flashed him a sympathetic smile.
“I missed you, too, mate. Been a long time since I had a partner in crime.”
Riddick raised an eyebrow.
“We were a pair of right little bastards, once,” laughed Curtis.
“Once,” Marty snorted.
Curtis’s eyes sparkled and he leaned forward in his seat.
“I was the book smarts and he was the cleverest little son of a bitch ever lived,” he grinned. “We changed the hold music in the school office to a song regarding the principal and an attack of explosive flatulence.”
Marty smirked and as Curtis went on he began to laugh.
“We fixed the train stop announcements so that instead of giving the destination they would spout the foulest words we could think of.”
“Asshair Square,” chuckled Marty.
“Remember the blackout?”
The words sent Curtis into fits of laughter.
“The camera...” he gasped. “We sent a tiny little robotic camera into the girls’ locker room after a track meet...”
“And naked Marcy DeMarco picked it up and held it at chest level for about ten minutes trying to figure out what it was.”
Riddick was looking at him with an amused expression.
“Hell, Cap,” he said. “And here I thought you were born wearing starched skivvies.”
“No,” said Marty. “I had to earn those.”
“Do you miss it?” asked Curtis.
“Every damn day,” Marty replied. It had just come out and when he thought about it he realized it was true. “Suppose I’d be upset about anything somebody took away from me before I was finished with it.”
He pried at a small, splintered piece of the chair with one fingernail, suddenly very conscious of Riddick watching him.
Not bitter. Swear to God.
He didn’t want to talk about this. Curtis seemed to sense something was wrong and let it drop.
Marty’s voice was still rough but it no longer hurt much to use it. The cast was off his wrist, which pleased him no end because the itching had nearly driven him screaming up the wall. Crutches had finally been replaced with a cane that he tried as often as possible to leave behind. His leg still didn’t take well to having all his weight on it but there was less weight now, at least. He’d lost almost twenty pounds eating shitty hospital food and sitting on his ass. At least his limp wasn’t any worse than it had been to start with.
The nightmares were back and he hadn’t been sleeping more than four hours a night. He still hadn’t regained enough grace to get out of bed without waking Reggie so most of the time he just lay there, staring at the ceiling. Or watching her sleep, which was infinitely more soothing. She’d taken a fast-track ship to get here and blown the rest of her savings. Didn’t matter. He was prepared to give her every last cent he had, which despite all the recent expenditures was still a damn lot. Thirty years of decent pay and nothing to spend it on could mass up quite the wad. She took good care of him. She smiled whenever she looked at him. Smiled and kissed him like she meant it and he knew she did. No girl had ever looked at him the way she did.
He glanced at Riddick, who was watching Jack ride with an expression of contentment Marty couldn’t recall seeing on him before. Riddick had become uncharacteristically poetic over her, which had spared him a beating when Marty found out they were sleeping together. That and the fact that he would have been lucky to lay a hit on a small, fluffy bunny at the time. It really wasn’t one bit of his damn business. Jack wasn’t his daughter. She’d made it clear, though, that she didn’t mind him thinking of her that way. She said it was comforting. And cute. Hell.
She was taking well to the corporate life. One of her first decisions as head of Weller Mining and Drilling, and inheritor of Jackson’s fortune had been to name as her sole beneficiary one Richard B. Riddick. He joked that it was the first time his name had been on a legal document in a good way. It was an enormous act of trust and they all knew it. It wasn’t the only one, either. In the absence of Malcolm Stroh, Jack had promoted from within. She put Sheryl the administrative assistant in charge of the head office until she was ready to take over herself.
Jack had even given Marty a job while he was laid up, which was a shitload longer than he’d wanted and not nearly as long as the doctor had suggested. The challenge was finding the information she wanted without setting off any alarms. Curtis had helped. He’d had a part in designing half the systems they were searching, anyhow. What they’d found had raised as many questions as it answered. Probably more.
The Death Maiden had a salvage record for two small craft found drifting in the area. Both matched the specs of the one they’d picked up with the survivors of the Hunter-Gratzner. There was no mention of whether they’d been crewed when they were salvaged but they sure as shit hadn’t gotten up there by themselves. So, people had escaped. Question was, had anyone survived? The emergency ships weren’t meant to go far and they hadn’t been found until years after the eclipse that had caused the surveyors to flee in the first place. Sounded like a big “no” to him.
It was possible that a smaller ship had picked them up, one that didn’t have room to store or haul the shuttles. But there was no record of the rescue and besides, the presence of short-range drifters in that part of space would have raised all kinds of suspicion. No, chances were they’d taken off and traveled until they ran out of fuel. From the location of salvage it looked like they’d picked the wrong direction, anyhow, which suggested blind panic, inexperience, or both. Civilians.
Had they sent a distress signal only to be ignored or intercepted to avoid discovery? If their escape had been cut off, it suggested that there was someone prowling the area before Cappy took over the task.
Acting on what they already knew was a dangerous proposition at best. Castor’s pursuit of Weller M&D stock had quieted in the wake of Malcolm Stroh’s convenient arrest. Castor was legally, if not truly, cleared of all wrongdoing and he was smart enough to avoid doing anything that might change that for awhile. The evidence he’d provided pointed the finger at Malcolm Stroh for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit fraud and any number of illegal stock-related activities.
The short notice with which the disk had been prepared and the necessary evidence planted within the walls of Weller M&D suggested to Marty that this had been brewing for some time. When he was taken into custody, Stroh swore up and down that Castor was to blame for all of it. If he had to guess, Marty would say they’d been working together and had tried their best to screw one another. Castor was just better at it. Short of stringing the man up by his balls until he talked they’d probably never know for sure.
Handing proof of what they knew to the authorities would probably be enough to throw another sack of shit into the wind. If Castor got word of an evidence-gathering mission chances were he would do one of two things: clean up his mess before they got there or clean them up before they got there.
It could be done, though. They could wait a little while, then sneak away and travel fast off the beaten path. They wouldn’t even necessarily have to get close enough to prove the stuff was Castor’s. But if they did... Going down there and replacing the evidence they’d lost up-close and personal would take more than just he and Riddick. A ship, men, equipment, an actual plan of some kind -- the Captain perked up and started salivating at the thought.
He was too old for this shit but he was beginning to realize that he might not be able to stop until he was too dead for it, too. The idea of settling down had occurred to him and been hammered repeatedly home by his mother’s not-so-subtle suggestions. The thought of sitting here on this porch watching the sun go down every night seemed nice and tranquil and... boring.
What would the evidence get them? Castor out of the way, for starters. Good business sense but not a good enough motive, even for Captain Mad. He hated getting involved with corporate types and he hated the idea of acting against civilians.
Kester sprang immediately to mind. One of the single largest holders of Free Space government contracts had tried to save themselves some money by supplying the FSMC with substandard equipment. It had led to more than five hundred deaths, soldiers and civilians alike. For his superiors it had been primarily about the expense of replacing the men and equipment. For Marty it had been about avenging his brothers and erasing the image of a settlement blown to shit because a faulty guidance system had routed a missile into town square.
He’d found over a hundred bodies on U4675HBN. Some of them were kids.
He watched Jack cling to the saddle as the horse came to an abrupt halt in front of the water trough. She grinned and patted the animal’s neck.
“I meant to do that,” she shouted. She climbed down to a round of applause and took a bow. “Thank you, thank you. My ass is killing me, thank you.”
Sophie slid down off the fence and took the reins. Jack slipped through the gate and walked, bowlegged, toward the porch. She dusted off her jeans and smiled broadly as she mounted the stairs.
“How was that?”
“Any ride you don’t fall on your ass is a good one,” said Marty.
The front door swung open slowly and Reggie eased her way out, a tray held carefully in front of her with both hands. Curtis jumped up and took it from her. She smiled gratefully.
“Thank you, Curtis.”
She lifted one glass and a small paper cup and handed them to Marty.
He glanced into the little cup and his lip twitched into a lopsided smile.
“Whoo, down to seven.”
She handed him the tea and he swallowed the pills two and three at a time. Reggie patted his shoulder and pointed at the porch railing.
“Put your leg up.”
Marty sighed. He could feel Riddick smirking without looking at the man. He eased down in the chair until he could reach and did as he was told, then grinned and patted his leg.
Reggie looked uncertain but she sat, all her weight balanced awkwardly on his left thigh. He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her squarely onto his lap.
“Martin, be careful!”
“Turn the doctor off for a while and relax,” he said.
She sighed and kissed him on the forehead.
“Sophie was right,” she said. “You’re an awful patient.”
Jack leaned on the arm of Riddick’s chair and dropped back. He caught her with both arms and squeezed her to his chest. She laughed and licked his cheek.
“Get a room,” said Marty.
Riddick stood with her and started for the door. Jack squealed and beat on his chest with her fists.
“You beast! Masher! Masher! Heeeeelp!”
Chuckling, Riddick set her in the chair and lowered himself to sit on the porch planks at her feet. She set a leg on either side of him and he leaned back against the chair. Jack set her hands on his shoulders and kneaded them softly.
“Butt’s sore, huh?” he asked.
“I can rub it for you, later.”
“I’ll have to wash my brain out with bleach now, you realize,” said Marty.
A cloud of dust erupted in the near distance and Marty slumped in his seat as a truck appeared, bouncing along the dirt road that led to the house. It pulled a long trailer behind it. Sophie swung into the saddle and trotted her horse past the house. She smiled and blew a kiss toward the porch and Curtis returned it, grinning. Then he froze and turned an anxious look on Marty, who was suddenly glaring a hole straight through his head.
“Are you sleeping with my mother, mate?”
“I, whu, wooo...” Curtis stammered.
The truck horn sounded long and loud as it pulled into the dirt drive.
“Chris is home,” Curtis said quickly. “I should help Kate with dinner.”
Curtis wheeled to jerk the door open and disappeared inside the house.
“What was that all about?” asked Jack, watching him go.
“A hard right hook when he least expects it, that’s what.”
Reggie laughed. “Go Sophie.”
“She’s old enough to be his mother,” said Marty. “She /is/ my mother.”
“Yeah, and you’re old enough to be my--”
Reggie pursed her lips.
“How is it different?”
“I don’t have any kids to gross out.”
“Mad Logic,” smirked Riddick.
Marty watched his mother dismount and hug the man who stepped from the cab. He was tall and solid, with Sophie’s brown hair and her broad, thin-lipped smile. His face was tanned and wrinkled and sported a friendly look until he cast a glance toward the porch.
“We don’t look alike, do we?”
“Who is that?” Jack asked. She and Riddick had come down from Terra-luna after Christophe left the farm for the auction up north. They’d missed the touching display of brotherly love that had accompanied Marty’s first visit home.
“That’s my brother, Christophe,” said Marty. “He’s a tree-hugging, peace, love and granola pansy ass. He’s convinced that I’m the fucking anti-Christ because his dad bit a bullet and I decided to become a soldier. If he wasn’t a complete pussy he might have tried to kick my ass by now but he knows damn well I can take him with both hands tied and my feet in a block of concrete.”
“Oh,” said Jack.
Reggie glared at him and he shrugged.
“I’m getting it out of my system before he comes within earshot, Love.”
“No you’re not, you’re warming up.”
“Oooh,” said Jack. “Fireworks.
“You promised you wouldn’t start,” said Reggie.
“All that does is let him have the first lick.”
Sophie and Chris headed for the house, walking slowly, no doubt with a purpose. Marty sighed and resigned himself to another night at the business end of Chris’s self-righteous barbs. Might be different this time. Now he had backup.
They reached the porch and Sophie flashed a cautioning look at Marty. He was sure it pained her that her boys had never gotten along. Part of him wanted to try, for his mum’s sake. The other part wanted to pull Chris into a headlock and squeeze until he turned blue.
Of course, that would only prove his brother’s point that he needed to solve everything through violence. He shrugged inwardly. Why fuck with something that worked?
Christophe was older than Marty by about five years, almost all of it real-time. He’d left Earth only once, to accompany Sophie to Simon’s funeral. It was the first time Marty and Christophe had met in the flesh. Marty hadn’t known a thing about his brother. Sophie had sent him to Earth with her family when his father died. He seemed to have taken her putting him out of danger as an attempt to put him out of sight and out of mind while she moved on to another man and another child. By the time they met, Christophe made it clear that they would never be friends and that if he could have helped it they wouldn’t be brothers, either.
“This is Martin’s brother, Christophe,” Sophie said with a tight smile. She looked hopeful. Marty sighed.
Jack offered a hand. “Jackie,” she said.
“Pleasure,” he replied, taking the hand and giving it a gentle squeeze.
“Richard,” said Riddick. He said it with more ease, these days. He’d probably shaken more hands in the last couple of months than in the rest of his life combined.
Chris eyed the numbers circling Riddick’s bicep and his smile vanished as though someone had flicked a switch.
“You one of Martin’s military buddies?”
Riddick nodded. “Yeah.”
“Still in or have you killed your quota?”
Sophie made a small, exasperated sound.
“Best not to mess with that one,” said Marty. “He doesn’t have a sense of humor the way I do.”
He scooted Reggie onto the arm of the chair and shifted his weight in preparation for a quick trip to his feet. No question who he’d have to defend, just a question of whether or not he would wait until Riddick landed a few punches to start defending.
Riddick stood and Christophe flinched back a step. But he only brushed the dirt off the back of his pants.
Marty couldn’t see Riddick’s face but he could see his brother’s and it was clear that Christophe wasn’t afraid. He lived in a world where a guy wouldn’t beat the crap out of you just because you pissed him off. It wouldn’t occur to him that Riddick might actually take the insult and feed it back to him on the end of a steel-toe boot.
“Truth is,” Riddick began. “I made my quota a long time ago. Everybody I get now is extra credit.”
The porch was silent, though nearly everyone seemed on the verge of saying something.
Kate’s voice came from inside the house.
With a grunt of effort, Marty hauled himself to his feet. He wasn’t in the mood for a fight. He wanted to eat dinner. Threatening Chris would only give him more to bitch about and a stronger urge to do it. Maybe if he did it real tactful-like.
“See, Chris, I have to behave myself because I don’t want to upset Mum,” Marty began. “Richard here, he might feel that way, too and then again he just might not give a damn. Now, I’m sure Mum taught you better than to insult guests so just try like hell to be nice and we’ll all get along.”
Christophe glanced from Riddick to Marty and back again, then turned and slipped inside without a word. Marty held the door open.
“See how I didn’t hit him?” asked Riddick.
“Yes,” said Jack. “I’m very proud.”
Sophie stepped between them and stopped at the door to kiss Marty on the cheek.
“Thank you, boys, for not having an incident.”
“No problem, Mum.”
She headed in and Jack and Reggie followed, leaving Riddick and Marty alone. They paused in the doorway, watching the others go.
“You really miss it?” Riddick asked.
“They’d probably take you back, you know.”
They went inside and Riddick let the screen door fall shut behind them.
“Don’t meet the specs anymore,” shrugged Marty. “And I sure as shit don’t want to wind up in some flat-assed, pencil-pushing advisory capacity.”
“Death before the desk.”
Sunlight filtered sideways through a western window, catching tiny, floating motes of dust. There were no complicated filtration systems in the house. Things got clean by being cleaned, simple as that. Everything was simple here. And peaceful for the most part. Nothing wrong with that. But now that Marty finally found himself with his feet on the ground he suddenly couldn’t wait to sail again.
He watched as Riddick entered the dining room ahead of him and took a seat beside Jack. He’d learned in a short time to live with people instead of just among them but there was still a certain social awkwardness that would probably never go away. Marty felt it, too, though he’d had more practice at fitting in.
Once he’d imagined what it would be like to just be. No adventure, no heroism, no particular purpose. The thought had bored him to tears but he’d attributed that to youth. But his youth was long gone and the sense of boredom remained. It wasn’t a desire to go out in a blaze of glory. He’d outgrown that urge the first time it nearly happened. He could only do one thing well. Seemed a waste to not do it.
He sighed. There was no use for men like them in a place like this. The realization came with a hint of sadness. Marty had thought that when the job was done it would no longer define him. The label didn’t help but the differences went much deeper than the tattoo on his side. Here with his family, living among “normal” folks, he’d never felt more aware of how little he was like them. Too much time apart. He didn’t belong, anymore. With a twinge he realized that Riddick had said just about the same damn thing to him the day before.
Riddick glanced up and shot Marty a questioning look. Thinking too loud again. Marty shook his head by way of a reply and limped across the room to his place at the table.
Reggie carried three carefully balanced plates in and set them on the table. She flashed him a small, worried smile. Obviously she’d caught the thoughtful look on his face. She didn’t like it when he thought. It made her nervous. He hadn’t said as much but she knew their days of peace and quiet weren’t going to last. He smiled back. Might as well enjoy them while they did.
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The characters of Fry, Imam, Jack and Riddick belong to USA films.
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