...And Back Again
A Sequel to "The Faithful" and "Three for the Money"
They were set up before the cloud of dust kicked up by the Tolliver started to settle. Riddick stood next to Jack in the Vagabond Queen’s shadow, waiting to meet up with whoever approached. Only two men came down the Tolliver’s side ramp. One was Jasper Aldous, Cappy’s first mate. Riddick didn’t recognize the other one. Big guy. Muscle. Neither of them looked to be armed. Ballsy move, but Riddick figured they weren’t here to fight, that they’d come for their people. He also figured they could go fuck themselves.
The big guy squared up with him. Eyed him. It was mutual, though Riddick had much less to worry about. They were surrounded at a distance by men with rifles looking for an excuse to plug someone.
Jasper’s hands stayed in plain sight, away from his body, palms up. The muscle clenched his fists and glared straight ahead. Riddick hoped the guy would start shit. He felt like breaking someone’s face.
“Hands out, turn all the way around,” he said. “Slow.”
They did. Riddick looked them over. They weren’t dressed for concealing. Probably by design. Good for them. “Okay.”
Jack started off easy.
“What the fuck do you want, Jasper?”
“My crewmembers,” said Jasper.
“You can’t have them,” Jack shot back.
His face didn’t change, but there was a hint of surprise in his voice that almost made Riddick smile. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me, Jasper. You can’t have them.” She nodded at the big guy. “And if that’s all you’ve got to take them with, you’re shit out of luck.”
Jasper nodded thoughtfully, as if she’d given him a choice to mull over.
“What would you like in exchange?”
She tilted her head, tapped her fingers against the sides of her legs. “I want you to come with us.”
Jasper frowned. “To what end?”
“I’ve got a problem, Jasper.” She took a step toward him and Riddick twitched. Barely kept himself from reaching.
Mercer whispered in his ear. “Easy, Dickey.”
“Right now, you’re part of the problem. But you’re not it.” Jack’s hands stopped their motion and hung at her sides. Loose. Ready. “You come with us, you help me solve my problem...”
“Out of the question.”
Jack smiled. “See now, what you’re assuming is that we are unable or unwilling to just take what I want from you.”
“You bet your ass.”
“Martin is with you, yes?” asked Jasper. “Let me speak to him.”
“I don’t think so.”
Jasper looked to Riddick. Jack lifted a hand and snapped her fingers.
“Me, Jasper! You’re dealing with me!” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Riddick. “You don’t want to deal with him, trust me.”
Her voice went flat and cold.
“Because I know what he wants to do to you.”
Riddick smiled. Hoped his eagerness to demonstrate came through. The big man with Jasper shifted his feet, wiped his hands on his pants, looked at Jack like she was something that needed to be defused. Showing his nerves. Riddick smiled at him. He didn’t return it.
“Give me John and you’ll never see us again.”
“Give me one reason why I should do a damn thing for you, Jasper. I mean, you were nice to me once, but this whole covering up mass murder and shooting people...” She shook her head, heaved an exaggerated sigh. “It kind of makes me not want to be nice back.”
“You owe me, Ms. Weller.”
Jack folded her arms over her chest and scowled. “How do you figure?”
“I saved your life. And yours, Mr. Riddick.”
“Cappy picked us up when he did because Reggie offered him a chunk of her take, Jasper. Besides, Cappy fucking shot me. Can we call that even?”
“Then explain it to me.”
“When John informed his employer of your rescue, we received a message requesting that you and the other survivors be killed before we reached Port Safi.”
“His employer,” she snorted. “We know who he is, the son of a bitch. We were on the ship for weeks. Why didn’t Cappy do it then instead of going through all this trouble?”
“Someone erased the message before he saw it.”
She blinked. “Marty.”
Jasper shook his head. “I don’t approve of murder, Ms. Weller.”
“Right,” Jack snorted. “Cappy thought it was him, though, didn’t he? That’s why they tried to kill him before.”
“That’s entirely possible.”
Riddick pressed his lips together to keep from cursing out loud.
“You didn’t do anything to change his mind so you could save your own ass, and now you think I owe you?”
“My crewmembers’ lives in return for the three I spared, yes.”
Jack’s hands balled into tight, white-knuckled fists. “How’s this for an idea? No!” Her voice cracked, but gained volume as she continued. “You already took one, and he was worth fifty of you assholes!”
Jasper frowned. Riddick could see him working on it. Wondering who she valued so much if not the big dumb bastard standing behind her.
“I’m here to stop this, Ms. Weller.”
“Only one way to do that. You come with us. You testify. Then maybe it’ll stop.”
“And the alternative?”
“The invisible man with the fifty caliber sniper rifle and the urge to commit homicide puts one in your brainpan,” she said flatly.
Jasper didn’t look. The big guy did. All around. No more pretense of cool.
“Is she serious?” he asked.
Before Jasper could answer him, a fountain of dirt shot into the air less than half a meter from their feet. The muscle cursed and jumped back. His head whipped around wildly, searching. Riddick knew for a fact he wouldn’t see shit. He’d been looking at Mercer as the man jogged away from the ship and had still managed to lose track of him. Jasper finally looked rattled, but he stood his ground.
“What are your terms, Ms. Weller?”
Jack seemed to like the sound of that. She straightened, lifted her chin. Set her hands on her hips.
“You and Cappy will accompany us to Terra-luna and present yourselves to the authorities as witnesses to the criminal activities of Donald Castor. On the way your people will make no transmissions. You can find yourselves a lawyer when we get where we’re going. If what you have to say results in legal action I will do whatever I can to get you as far off the hook as possible. If you claim that you were forced to testify, or fuck us in any way, we will take all the proof that we’ve got and use it to screw you so hard you’ll never walk straight again.
“I will put some of my people on the Death Maiden to make sure Cappy goes where I tell him to go. If this arrangement looks like it might be a problem, everyone will be transferred to my ship and the Maiden will be abandoned. The best way to avoid that is not making it a problem.”
“What about the rest of our crew?”
“They stay with us until we reach Terra-luna. Then they can go wherever the hell they want.”
Jasper nodded thoughtfully. “Let me speak to John.”
“It looks bigger.”
Riddick took in the field of overwhelming green criss-crossed by lines of asphalt barely wide enough for two cars to pass. At four intersections the paths formed wide circles and monuments depicting men and machinery rose on pedestals at their centers. White stones like worn, rounded teeth stood in even rows as far back as he could see. He scanned them, picked out the spot with his eyes. Noted how many stones had sprung up in the year since he’d seen it last.
“There were people,” he said. “Blocked out the view.”
“Not that many,” Jack replied. “Not as many as there should have been.”
“He wasn’t much for crowds.”
“Just seemed like there should have been… I don’t know. More.”
Riddick stayed quiet. Listened to his shoes tap and scuff on the road. Barely a dozen people had come to the funeral. Family. A few retired soldiers. Jack. Him. He’d never been to a funeral. He knew plenty of dead people, sure. But never a marked grave to go with them. No place to remember them. A spot to decorate in their honor. He shifted the green plastic bag he carried into his left hand and held out his right. She took it and flashed him a close-mouthed smile.
“You going to tell me what’s in there?”
He looked at her, flicked his tongue over his lower lip. Felt himself grow hot in the face.
“Don’t most people bring flowers?” asked Jack.
He led her onto the grass and past the stone markers with neat lines of lettering carved into their clean, white faces. Most of them bore symbols. Some he could identify, most he couldn’t. He read names to himself. Parsons. Chinua. Steadman.
The stone had been added since their last visit. There were a bunch of yellow mums at its base. Still fresh. They hadn’t missed Reggie by much. He was relieved she’d already been and gone. Felt a pang of guilt for thinking it. But her grief made him uneasy in a way nothing else could. At the funeral, even after, looking at her had hurt worse than staring into the sun. Sophie Bender had attended with the practiced grace of a woman familiar with the process. Not untouched by it. He’d seen plainly on her face how much she’d loved her son. He tried to stop, too late, from wondering what his own mother’s face might look like at his funeral. Would have helped him to know what it looked like in the first place.
Jack squatted beside the stone, brushed the top off though it was pristine white like the rest. She left her hand on it for a long while. Staring silently at the words. He’d been with Jack to her grandfather’s grave. Had watched her gently pat down the snow with both hands to make a bowl and set the flowers inside to keep the fierce wind from getting to them. There was something almost ritualistic about her movements as she slid her hand down the stone and picked a bit of dirt from inside a letter with her fingernail. She smiled as she flicked it away into the grass. Simple, considerate gestures for dead men.
He turned away, suddenly aware of how intently he was watching what should have been a private moment. Behind him, she whispered something too softly for him to make out. Louder, she said, “Happy birthday, Marty.”
He heard her shift her weight and stand.
“You didn’t have to turn around.”
He turned back to her. Thought of wiping the moisture from under her eyes. Decided to leave it.
Jack smiled a little. “Leave you two alone for a while?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“’Course not.” She touched his arm lightly, then stepped past him and wandered off among the stones.
Riddick lowered himself to the grass. He thought about kneeling and settled onto his ass instead, relieved that the grass was dry. The idea that he gave a shit about getting his pants wet made him laugh out loud.
“The price of being civilized,” he said. “I worry about crap like that. Haven’t completely gone over, though. Still got no clue which one’s the shrimp fork. And I don’t give a fuck, either.”
He put the bag down on the ground beside him and took out two brown glass bottles. They clinked together as he set them in his. He wiggled the bottle opener out of his back pocket.
“This is good shit. German.”
Riddick opened them both, dropped both caps in the bag and tucked it under his leg. He leaned one bottle against the stone and tapped the other to it with a quiet clink.
“Cheers, Cap.” He drained half the beer, leaned forward and set his elbows on his knees. He held the neck of the bottle with two fingers and swished the contents around. “Things are good. Legal shit’ll probably drag on forever but at least most of it isn’t pointed at us. New thing for me.”
He chuckled, took another sip. “I got myself a real job. Security consultant. Yeah, I know. Technically I’m an independent contractor, but I do most of my work for Jack. Boss is kind of a hardass, but it pays. Thought I might ask some of the guys if they want to throw in. Make a company of it. I’m thinking Kelly, maybe. Which ought to get me Wilco, too. Mercer would be good. He’s got the rep, but I don’t think he’d take to working for The Fucking Convict.
“Not like that anymore, though. Not saying I’m a brand new man, because that would be bullshit. I haven’t forgotten about what’s past. Don’t deserve to.”
Riddick fiddled with the bottle. Tapped it on his foot. Worked the bottom into the grass. He was stalling in a one-sided conversation. Christ.
Just fucking say it, Dickey.
He glanced over his shoulder, watched Jack as she leaned close to one of the monuments, squinting at the plaque mounted on the side. He smiled, turned back to the stone.
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