Chapter Eleven

 

Skyplex Reno was one of dozens of similar stations that dotted the ‘Verse, they provided fueling points, entertainment, lodging, and places to pick up mail at the post facility. The crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost would avail themselves to many of those services, but the most important service the facility floating in deep space could provide was not formally listed on the Cortex or on any official guide to the station. Skyplex Reno, like almost every station of its kind in the ‘Verse was the place to find items the Alliance considered illegal. Their locations on major trade routes made the stations perfect venues to serve a highly transient clientele that needed the services of a black market.

“Station time is 2004 hours 17 May 2518.” A voice carefully chosen for its friendliness intoned and the bulk of the crew of the Lattimer’s Ghost exited the ship’s airlock and entered one of the main corridors to the station.

“Do you think Willis gets tired of being left behind all the time?” Li Ming asked no one in particular.

“Not much at a skyplex for man like Willis, unless you count the chance to spread the word to them as are most in need of it.” Cindy replied absently. “Besides, he loves tinkering with the systems on the ‘Ghost more than any man has ever loved a woman.”

“Well, I for one am glad to have his services. I know the captain does as well as she would not have survived that Mister Toad’s wild ride of a race without the work he did getting that hand-me-down sled ready.” William added.

“Absolutely right, if our mechanic was even slightly less competent than he is, you’d be calling William captain now.” Chan responded as she glanced at her multi-band. “Okay, you all know why we are here. I want to be undocked in no more than six hours. We go in pairs as Skyplex Reno is not place to be wandering alone. Who exactly is with whom”?

“Li Ming is with me Cap, she wants to clean out some of the locals and I am going to watch her back,” Marsh all but leered. “… and front.”

“Xavier is with me.” Cindy replied rolling her eyes at the pilot. “We’re going to see if we can score some of those specialty items she lost on Athens.”

“Then that leaves William with me to hear what there is to hear and to see what there is to see. Remember everyone six hours.”

Everyone nodded their understanding and the three sets of pairs split up to accomplish their assigned tasks.

 

Four hours later, Chan and William were already aboard the Lattimer’s Ghost and carefully stashing the fruits of their efforts.

“All and all not a bad deal considering the markup for doing business off the books and in a place such as this.” Chan said closing up the panel she’d just hidden the half dozen grenades she had just purchased.

“Twenty in coin struck me as a bit much.” William replied absently. “Each and every coin we have has gotten to the point where they are even more precious than their face value.”

“That’s not something that has changed all that much since we got our selves in a bind. Besides, I’ve been wanting to replace those pearls of joy ever since we ran into those xi niu[1] Reavers.” Despite herself, Chan shuddered at the memory.

“They were what spelled the difference mei mei and I am glad you had those then and these now. I just don’t like having to deal with the black market element.”

“Not always my first choice either, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”

“As we all must. I just hope the others are as successful in obtaining what they need as you were. What do you think bout those Lassiter rumors? I can spot a pile of da bian from a sector away, but that guy sounded like he was serious about the thing being available.”

“William, I believe it was you that taught me to believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see. How could a low rent piece of work like Walker have a line on an Earth-That-Was antique? I mean the Lassiter is one of a kind.”

“Actually there are two known copies of the Lassiter in the ‘Verse. One’s on Londinum and the second was supposed to be in the hands of some nameless collector. Guess it slipped through those hands, hope he had insurance.” William chuckled.

“I want to meet the guy or gal that had the gao wan[2] to steal something like that from the sort of security an artifact like that is going to have in the first place. I can only hope they get a gorram mint for the thing.”

“Fencing something so rare and so well known is going to be difficult, but I agree, I hope he, she, or they for that matter get enough to retire on after a score like that.”

“What kind of score?” Cindy asked as she and Xavier joined the other two of her crew in the cargo bay.

“Somebody is supposed to have snagged one of the two known Lassiters in the ‘Verse and is looking to unload the thing. At least according to Freddie Walker a go between I know and ran into while we were out and about.”

“I hate to sound stupid, but what is a Lassiter?” Xavier asked.

“A laser pistol from Earth-That-Was, the prototype for all laser weapons since, priceless” Willis said as he entered the cargo bay. “Are you saying such a relic is on this station? I must see it before we go.”

“No idea where it is or even if it is, just a story we heard.” William sighed in obvious envy.

“Since my joining this crew, such stories are surprisingly common in the Black. I guess the residents in such regions wish to entertain themselves with such fables.”

“I’d like to have my hands on such a fable though, but I guess a legend is all it will ever be. How did the repairs go?”

“Exceedingly well Mister Lemont. I was able to coax a ten percent increase in fuel efficiency out of the pulse drive, for a while at least I have. Such fine adjustments will not hold without the parts we already need.”

“We are working on getting you what you need Willis. As soon as we can change our situation, I promise, we’ll get the ‘Ghost everything she needs.”

“That will always be the dream any way.” Xavier replied with a look of skepticism.

“True enough, but makes for a good story anyway. Any luck?” William changed the subject with a hard look directed at the younger woman.

“Fifty-fifty.” Cindy snorted in disgust.

“Which fifty did you find?” Chan asked.

“Got the iron picks, good set too, but no one was admitting to electronic picks.” Xavier answered. “Damn United Reclamation and their trickery.”

“Guess they could say the same about you, but I get where you are coming from. We’ll just have to keep looking.” Cindy said grimly. “Any word on the shaved orangutan and Li Ming?”

“Got a short wave from Li Ming couple hours ago that she was on a hot table, but that they would make the departure regardless of how the cards were going.” William grunted.

“That girl is our primary bread winner these days. Well her and the captain here. Maybe you can make a career out of being a wind sled racer.” Xavier smiled.

“Not on your life and in any case, that race only happens once a year. I plan to be someplace other than Verbena when the next one runs.” Chan growled in mock anger. “Anyway, we got some nice eats earlier as we didn’t have time for a proper Lift Day feast and I aim to have one on the way to Greenleaf.”

“Sounds like a plan captain. You got any intentions of making that potato salad of yours this time William?” Xavier asked coyly.

“That might be arranged my dear, that might just be arranged.”

 

“Fellahs, this is going to be my last hand. I’ve got a ship to catch.” Li Ming purred after a glance at her multi-band said she had less than an hour before the scheduled departure. She had found what she liked to call a ‘hot table’ at a place with the unlikely name of the Bent Spoon Tavern and had done very well for herself.

Deng yimiao[3] there sweetcakes, you waltz in here all fine and sassy like and as soon as you’ve got your fancy painted claws knee deep in our wallet you want to just up and leave without giving us a chance to reclaim some of our coin? Doesn’t sound like a square deal to me, does it Scar?” The stocky man with a sweating shaved head sitting to Li Ming’s left said without a trace of friendliness.

“Nah it doesn’t Jocko. Although I’m sure I could be convinced to let her keep some of what she took if she is willin’ to share some of what she’s got, and I don’t mean money for a change.”

A taller even more disreputable man with a prominent souvenir of an old burn marring the left side of his face that had given him his nickname replied.

“Now gents, the lady won that there cashy money straight up, so no need for unpleasantness or hard feelin’s.” Marsh said with an edge creeping into his voice, stepping to the gambler’s side.

Scar looked at the pilot and began to laugh in earnest before standing in a rush, using his greater height in an attempt to intimidate the smaller man. “Shut it little man or I’ll hang by boot so far up your pi gu you’ll choke on it and then I’ll take what I want from this ji nu[4] right in front of you.”

Marsh’s eyes flashed and caught the scarred man by surprise with a lightning fast left cross to the mid-section despite him obviously being ready for a fight igniting a flurry of motion as Jocko and Scar lunged at Marsh.

Li Ming was already on her feet as were the other four members at the table who had all reacted the same way when Scar unexpectedly had lurched to his feet. When Marsh moved the other two men at the table bolted free of the fight, the gambler took a step toward the man named Jocko, but caught motion in the corner of her eye and wheeled to face a hard looking woman trying to waylay her from the side. Li Ming slammed her flat palm at the woman’s nose, but the woman saw the blow coming with just enough time to duck and take the blow on the forehead, which left her staggered, but had spared her a broken nose. Not about to give the woman a chance to recover, Li Ming stepped back and delivered a bone crushing spinning back kick that flattened the woman before she could even think to defend herself.

Marsh charged in fast and low throwing a punch at each of the two thugs. The toughs were so unimpressed by the small man that neither even bothered to try and block his attacks, choosing to ignore the punches in favor of the chance to close on and crush their smaller opponent. Scar proved to have a gut like stone completely shrugging off the quick jab that Marsh threw at him leading Marsh to immediately adjust his left jab lower and with his smaller stature allow the punch slid under the Jocko’s guard to deliver a punishing impact to the stocky man’s universal weakness. Jocko came to an immediate halt with his eyes crossed and at least temporarily out of the fight. Scare flailed wildly in response, but the nimble pilot easily spun clear of the poorly aimed haymaker. Furious and hurting, Jocko’s face went even harder as he drew a knife with absolute murder in his eyes.

Li Ming spotted the knife and, with her excess of confidence, charged Scar so Marsh could concentrate on defending himself from Jocko. Li Ming’s first punch rocked the man slightly, enough for her to think she could repeat the spinning back kick again. However, while no where near the most brilliant man in the ‘Verse, he had been in more fights than he could remember. Anticipating what the gambler had in mind, he feigned being more staggered that he was and when Li Ming’s attack came, he timed his counter move perfectly catching her foot and using his brute strength to pull her completely off the ground, failing wildly as she hung upside down in shock at the sudden reversal of fortune.

Marsh faced Scar and for the first time began to wonder if he might have gotten himself into something he couldn’t handle as it was obvious that the other man had made what should have been a simple bar fight into something personal. When Scar slashed with his knife in a move that would have disemboweled him had he still been standing where he was when the thug started his attack,  Marsh side stepped to his right of the thrust and hammered the tall man’s weapon arm with both fists sending the knife flying. Not to be completely out done, Scar’s left hand whipped across the pilot’s face in a powerful backhanded blow that made Marsh see stars. Fortunately, for Marsh, Scar’s rage led him to choose to take the time to recover his knife rather than following up with continued punches on the staggered pilot.

 “Not quite what you had planned there is it dumplin’?” Jocko crooned as he admired his prize. “I’m going to enjoy breakin’ that feisty spirit you got.”

Jocko’s taunts meant nothing to Li Ming, she’d been hearing comments about her anatomy since her teens, but being upside down triggered the terrifying memory of dangling over the railing at Darius Nightblade’s casino and she, as then, literally used that terror to swing into violent action. Snapping forward almost double at the waist, then arching her back, she gained enough momentum to execute an acrobatic back flip that wrenched her free of Jocko’s grasp and back onto her own feet. The dimwitted thug managed to track her move and attempted to grab her again, but the quicksilver fast gambler easily deflected the off balance attempt and dance back out of reach. 

Livid at losing his prize, Jocko roared forward like a charging bull. Not willing to directly confront a man that outweighed her by 80 pounds, Li Ming rolled onto her back and drove both her feet into the man’s gut crushing the charge right out of him. Staggered by the unexpected attack, Li Ming had time to roll back onto her feet and strike back in an all out attempt to knock the staggered man out while she had the chance. 

Remind me not to lean into that sort of thing next time. I’m gorram lucky not to have lost any gorram teeth with that last one.” Marsh muttered groggily to himself as he shook off the effects of the punch that had almost knocked him out, focusing in on Scar now that the other man had reclaimed his knife and was clearly out for blood again. The scarred thug slashed viciously in an attempt to separate the annoying little man from his head, but failed miserably now that Marsh had gotten his wind back.

“Stand still and take what you have comin’ to ya miserable little turd!” Scar roared in frustration and lunged in savagely.

Choosing not to make the bloodthirsty goon’s job any easy, Marsh ducked low and lashed out knocking Scar’s knife arm to the left. However, at that precise moment, Li Ming struck with two rapid chops that drove the nearly unconscious Jocko to her right. The two blows caused the thug to stumble into Scar’s path and the two thugs collapsed in a pile. Marsh stepped forward to ensure the troublemakers stayed down and was thus standing over them when station security finally arrived.  

“Stand down gorram it, stand down!” Pointing at Marsh the sergeant hollered in an attempt to restore order.

“No problem Ossifer. These here tough guys started the whole thing anyway.” Marsh replied sardonically, his hands on his head and waiting for things to get figured out. When the security officers got Scar and Jocko apart, Scar discovered, to his horror, that his comrade had his knife buried to the hilt in his chest and was clearly dead. 

“He did it, that little feller! No account traveler done kilt my best friend! He needs to be bound by law before he tries to skips!” Scar howled in something approaching actual anguish.

Bi zui All three of you are bound by law until the magistrate can sort this out!”

Li Ming was about to open her mouth, when she saw a subtle signal from the pilot.

“Officer, this lady had nothing to do with the fight with these thugs. They set on her cause she’s pretty and alone and beat them fair in cards. I was the one that threw the first punch, you can ask anyone here!” Marsh said forcefully and with obvious sincerity.

One of the other officers had a frown on his face having thought he’d seen something pass between the smaller man and the dazzling woman, but Li Ming noticed his glance and chose that moment make a motion with her left hand that drew attention to a far more interesting part of her anatomy and the officer’s train of thought was derailed by other more base notions. Pressing the slight opening Marsh had given her, Li Ming poured on the charm with the sergeant. “This gallant man came to my assistance when these two brutes took exception to my doing well in cards. Why if not for him, I shudder to think what might have happened to me. I guess daddy was right about traveling outside the Core Worlds.”

“What about this broad?” The sergeant asked about the unconscious woman lying in a heap on the floor.

“Sergeant, this…this…well I can’t say what she is, but she jumped me as the hero fought the two men. It was clearly self defense. Ask anyone.”  

The sergeant was clearly not up to trading wits with a better-armed opponent and fell back to a standard response that always worked, “Tell it to the magistrate”.

The four survivors of the brawl were taken to the detention facility.

 

“…and that your worshipfulness was the whole story.” Marsh finished and waited to see if he’d managed to sound believable for a change.

“He’s lyin’ ya yu ben de hou zi de pi gu![5] This broad was in the fight start to finish!” Scar roared at the magistrate and received a vicious rap in the ribs from one of the bailiffs for his trouble that forced the miscreant to his knees in pain.

“I don’t like trouble on my station.” The magistrate growled after several long and painful seconds, fixing Scar with a withering stare, but just as quickly dismissing the man. “But I do like simple. Multiple witnesses confirm that you did throw the first punch and that Miss Wong Li Ming did not, I’m willing to accept your story Mister Marsh.” The magistrate then fixed the gambler with an even more baleful glare than the one he’d used on Scar before continuing. “Miss Wong, you have four hours to get off of Skyplex Reno. If you are not gone by then, I will have you bound for trespassing and disorderly conduct. Is this understood?”

“Yes your honor.” Li Ming replied with a carefully crafted pose of complete submissiveness.

“May you never stand before me again.”

“No your honor.” She replied as she hurried from the court room, pausing only long enough to sign for her belongings.

“No such luck for you Mister Marsh, your trial will start in twelve hours, but I suppose you already know, that manslaughter carries a sentence of ten years in a penal colony. Yes I’m quite sure tonight’s little activities are far from your first run in with the authorities. Maybe not as many run-ins as this Scar reprobate, but enough that I’m sure you understand the trouble you are in. Bailiff take them both to the lock up.”

 

“I’m on my way back to the ship now, but Marsh is in deep niu fen Captain.” Li Ming said into her multi-band as she used every trick she knew to avoid contact, the last thing she needed was any kind of encounter with anything that would result in her being in front of the magistrate twice in one night.

“I knew he’d get himself pinched with that short fuse of his sooner or later. What’s done is done, we’ll work up a plan as soon as you get her, Chan out.”

This had better be one hell of a plan.” Li Ming thought to herself and found a way to pick up the pace.

 

“I guess killing him would be counterproductive.” Chan said when Li Ming reached the ship and joined the rest of the crew in the dining room.

“He might have thrown the first punch Chan, but it wasn’t his fault. Those goons were dead set on getting their money back. No one else on the crew would have done anything different and to tell the truth, I’m glad he was there.”

“Well that is a kindness, but we’ve got to see what we can do to rescue the little twit.” Chan snapped irritably. “What is your status?”

“The magistrate said I had four hours to get off the skyplex. Don’t see how I can meet that.”

“You are reading too much into the magistrate’s direction. He said you had to be off this station and you will be, you’ll be on this ship.” William chuckled.

“Easy fix!” Li Ming beamed. “What will you want me to do to help?”

“You can be standby pilot if we have to bolt out of here in a hurry, Willis will keep the old girl spooled up for the same reason. The rest of us will be on the skyplex to help young Marsh.” William said taking over the simple part of the planning as he knew Chan well enough to tell by the set of her jaw that she was too focused on the next phase to want to speak at this point.

“Who wants to go with me as I access the station’s network?” Xavier asked.

“I will, we made a decent enough team earlier and we might as well stick with it.” Cindy replied grimly.

“The Captain and I will see what we can find out about these Jocko and Scar jokers, any questions?” Said William.

“Any chance you can pull the same trick for Marsh that you did for me on Athens?” Xavier said scratching between her eyes.

“A jailbreak? I doubt it, but we’ll know more in an hour. I need you two to check in via wave by then. Dong ma?” William replied and got nods from the two women in response and nodded back as they exited the airlock. They were already out of sight by the time he and Chan left the ship moments later.

“You okay Chan Juan?” William asked gently.

The use of her given name broke the captain out of her brooding silence. “What happened to mei mei? Not like you to be so formal my friend.”

“I could tell you weren’t all here, so I figured you might need a bit of a nudge to help you rejoin the space-time continuum that the rest of the ‘Verse uses.”

“Yeah, I guess I did have that thousand meter stare thing going. I’m just more worried than usual. The boy has got himself in deep this time and I’m not sure we can help him. That Athens jailbreak working was a fluke and I don’t the Buddha will be kind enough to give us a second fluke so soon. We burned a lot of karma that last time.”

“Don’t buy trouble mei mei, we’ll have something to work with in an hour. Stick with that and we’ll take it from there.”

“William, you are the heart and soul of this ship.”

“One thing at a time mei mei, one thing at a time.”

 

An hour later, after the promised wave, the two teams met outside a closed teahouse that just happened to have a secluded alcove.

“Captain, either the security on their network is the biggest piece of gos se in the ‘Verse, or I’m even better than I remember.” Xavier said smugly. “Not only was I able to tap directly into the central computer, I was able to access the central access database for the entire station.”

“Ego aside, she was brilliant captain.” Cindy confirmed. “We were able to read the official arrest report. The basic news isn’t good. As far as the magistrate is concerned, this is an open and shut case and he has all the evidence he needs to convict Marsh. There isn’t going to be any other investigation or follow up by the skyplex security, but going by what I got from talking to the locals that is actually to our advantage as the ‘Plexies are considered worse than useless. The are essentially the magistrate’s personal leg breakers and probably wouldn’t know real evidence if it could bite them on the pi gu.”

“That checks with what we could find. Having a high conviction rate is all that matters to the magistrate, the guilt or innocence of the suspect being completely secondary to anything else.” Chan said with a somewhat less grim expression than what she had an hour ago. “We did find that there wasn’t anyone that was sad to hear that Jocko was dead. He and Scar have had a long run of petty and not so petty crimes on the station for several months, but they’ve managed to intimidate anyone that might be able to get them bound by law from talking.”

“Great, inept and corrupt security, a hanging judge, and a kangaroo court waiting to lower the boom on our boy, just what we don’t need.” William growled in frustration. “Since you looked at the official report, I take it there wasn’t an autopsy?”

“Not even close. This place doesn’t even have a real morgue. The body is currently in the office of one of the doctors on the station. I figured you might be interested in checking the stiff, so I added myself to the list of all access personnel in the central computer database. Remember I was brilliant you know?” Xavier mugged in total conceit.

“Right brilliant.” Chan rolled her eyes and managed a small chuckle. “If I had money to pay you at all, you’d get a little extra something in your paycheck as a bonus this week, but, well you know how it is.” She shrugged. “But you did good Xavier, damn good.”

 “I take it our next step is the obvious one?” William asked and got an emphatic nod from the captain, on seeing the nod, he continued. “Cindy are you up for a bit of unauthorized, late night cutting?”

“Absolutely.” The medic responded with her eyes glittering wickedly.

“Some how I knew you would say that.” Chan smirked. “Okay then, William and I will return to the ship to eliminate any additional complications and we’ll let you two ladies work your magic again. When you report back after your autopsy of the unlamented Jocko, we can see what our options will be. Good luck.”

Moving out without looking back, the four members of the Lattimer’s Ghost left the alcove and vanished into the ever present foot traffic of Skyplex Reno.

 

Entering the doctor’s office proved to be every bit as easy as Xavier thought it would be. Having an entry code that the central computer recognized as valid made the task trivial.

“What was it you called it again?” Cindy asked after entering the doctor’s office.

“What did I call what?” Xavier replied absently.

“That thing you call it when you feel you can do no wrong on the Cortex?”

“Oh that, um…for lack of a better term, I call it a fusion state.”

“Well I hope you keep it up. This being able to slip in and out without having to run on a high pucker factor is something I could get used to.”

“I’m as good as they get Cindy, but don’t go getting all that used to a fusion as I never count on them myself. Skill is only part of what I do. Luck still has more of a say so than I like.”

“Fair enough, now let’s find us a dead guy.”

As soon as Cindy figured out the layout of the office and had located the corpse, she went to work.

“Well kiss me and call me a monkey’s uncle.” Cindy said after nearly thirty tense and silent minutes.

“If you insist, but I don’t see how that will help.” Xavier replied with a snort.

“What? Oh sorry, didn’t realize I was speaking aloud. Hang on for a minute and let me copy this information to data crystal. Looks like we hit the jackpot. Big Time!” The medic beamed as she set about making her copy.

“Okay great, you can talk to yourself when you ain’t got anything to say, but when you’ve got real info, you clam up. Spill it sister!” Xavier growled mockingly.

“Sylvie is innocent of murder and I can prove it.”

“You’re starting to get hung up on him aren’t you?”

“What! Not a chance in life I’d want that shaved monkey as my man. He’s a lot of fun in the grapplin’ department, but don’t go reading me callin’ him Sylvie to mean more than that.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll let it go for now, but what did you find out about the dead guy?”

“The stab wound was not the cause of death.” Cindy said matter-of-factly.

“Dammit woman you are starting to work my nerves. What killed him then?”

“Poison. Polyphenyldrine to be exact.”

Ti wo de pi gu[6]! And you can prove that?”

She held up the data crystal. “Sure can. Let’s get back to the ‘Ghost and share the good news.”

“Lead on magic woman, lead on. But first, let’s leave everything as we found it. Not that the Plexies are smart enough to figure out what happened, but no reason to make it easy for them.” Xavier said and began sweeping the office of signs of their break in. Within twenty minutes, the entire crew was looking at what Cindy had found on one of the bridge terminals.

 

“Jocko here was poisoned within thirty minutes of the fight. Polyphenyldrine is powerful, but it is not fast acting when ingested. This means he was served whatever killed him while he was at the table playing cards.”

“Had to have been in one of his drinks, he didn’t eat anything during the game.” Li Ming said after a moment of reflection. “God knows he was drinking like he was on a roll. Now that I think about it he mentioned he was thirsty.”

“Side effect of the polyphenyldrine. Was he sweating a lot?” Cindy said gripping her chin like a college professor waiting for a student to confirm a hypothesis.

“Since I didn’t know the guy, I couldn’t tell if he was sweating more than normal, but beads on that shaved head of his did stand out and he wasn’t like that when we started, only during the last couple hands. I didn’t think much of it at the time because lots of low rent players sweat when they are down that much money.”

“Excessive thirst and sweating. Yep that rips it, Jocko was dead before the fight started only no one at the time knew it.”

“Okay now that we have a means and a time line, the list of who can be trimmed to a very short list - bartender and waitresses.” Chan said nodding as she worked through the events in her head. “And we know these two made lots of enemies since they dropped in. The only question is which one of those enemies was working in the bar that night.”

“Figuring out the who is at this point not the primary obstacle before us.” William said speaking for the first time since seeing Cindy’s evidence.

“Okay, I’m game, what is then?” Xavier asked a little irritably.

“We have irrefutable evidence of Marsh’s innocence, but how exactly are we going to introduce this, obviously illegally obtained, evidence in a court already known to be stacked against Mister Marsh without ending up in a cell bound by law next to him?” William finished.

GOS SE!” Chan snarled.

“My point exactly mei mei. I believe we have reached a point in the investigation where we have to call for some assistance as none of us have the requisite skills for the next phase of this unpleasant situation.”

“Assistance? Who in the south side of Sihnon is going to assist us? Blue Sun has made sure of that.” Cindy sputtered.

“Since we are not trying to obtain work, but engaging someone’s services, our blackballed status should not be a factor. And the service we will have to have is that of a barrister. A good one if he is to beat a stacked deck.”

“I’m on it.” Xavier said dropping into the co-pilot’s seat and bringing up the Cortex index of services for the skyplex. Within seconds she turned back toward the rest of the crew.

“Whole stack of them on the station. It’s too early to try and contact any of them now, but I’ll upload them to your multi-bands and we can hit the ground running in the morning. Well, make that in about four hours” She added after glancing at he own multi-band and noting the time.”

“The lady is making good sense. We can turn in for a bit, then we’ll hit every name on this list and see who we can find to get Marsh’s sha gua pi yan[7] out of jail.” Chan said as she stood up and ended the meeting. “Get as much sleep as you can, we’re going to need everyone as sharp as they can be for tomorrow. Dong ma?”

A chorus of ‘yes captain’ was enough for Chan to head back for her own cabin and try to take her own advice.

 

“Maybe Cindy was right and Blue Sun’s curse is keeping us from finding anyone.” Chan fumed as she left the office of the fourth barrister to turn her down that morning.

“Well if you look at it from a positive aspect, the last one didn’t turn us down.” William said cautiously.

“William, if I didn’t need your help so bad, I would be hurting you right now. Okay right the last guy didn’t say no, but FIVE THOUSAND credits? He might as well have started shooting at us as soon as we walked through the door. At least I know how to handle that!” She snarled in frustration.

“I’m sure he figured you would know how to handle that particular situation and that he had every chance of losing, so I’m sure pricing himself out of the market was a Core Worlder’s way of being polite.”

“Who’s the next guy on the list?” Chan said abruptly changing the topic.

“One Jerry Stoner Esquire.”

“He’s square?”

“No mei mei…e-s-q-u-i-r-e. He apparently is big on Earth-That-Was traditions. An esquire used to be a sort of gentleman of a class known as the gentry. I like him already.”

“You would, but the worse he can do is tell us to go get bent like the others have.”

“A member of the gentry would never say such a thing to a lady.”

“First time for everything William, first time for everything.”

 

“So you say your boy has been framed by the Plexies?” The distinguished gray-haired and bushy-eye browed elderly man aid after listening to Chan’s story.

“That would be the gist of it Mister Stoner. At the time, he confessed to being responsible to keep another member of the crew out of being bound by law not knowing about the poisoning.”

“And going by the way things are done around here to keep Magistrate Reddings happy, I’m sure he was all too glad to have another open and shut case to send to the Core bureaucrats to show how effective a member of the bench he is so he can get a reassignment somewhere other than here. Worthless gas bag.” Stoner harrumphed. “Little lady, I know this evidence you’ve handed me is as hot as the exhaust from a Tohoku-class cruiser’s pulse drive, but I don’t care. I’m not going to let another soul get railroaded to stoke the fire under that overgrown windbag’s increasingly wider ass. I’ll take the case.”

“Er…Mister Stoner?” Chan said with a small voice hoping not to spoil the moment.

“Yes girl what is it?”

“You didn’t mention your price.”
      ”Well…no…I suppose I didn’t. I’ll make you a deal. I won’t mention my price beyond, it will be fair and you don’t mention how you got your evidence beyond it came from a concerned citizen okay darlin’?”

“Mister Stoner you have a deal!” Chan beamed as she stood and shook the older man’s hand.

“See you in court Chan Juan. Now run along, I’ve only got two hours to prepare!” Stoner said theatrically shooing the two of them out of his office.

“Tell me I haven’t just made a ma de pi gu[8] out of myself.” Chan said as the door closed leaving her and William in the bustling skyplex corridor.

“I have a good feeling in my gut about this guy mei mei. And when your gut is as ample as mine, you learn to listen.” William laughed in reply.

“Well that is one thing you do not have in common with most men William my dear.”

“Only one, but I’ll play the straight man. What is that my captain?”

“Most men have trouble thinking with their big head as they let their little head do most of the work for them. You my friend are not driven by your little head, you are driven by the wisdom of your, to use your phrase, ample middle. Not quite the big head, but at least moving in the right direction.”

“Droll Wu Chan Juan, very droll.”

Chan could not maintain her expression and burst out laughing, which in turn got William to laugh as well.

“How about that, I got you to laugh for a change.” Chan was able to say after awhile.

“First time for everything mei mei, first time for everything.”

 

“MISTER Stoner…I will ask you again…how did you come to be in possession of this evidence?” The near apoplectic magistrate all but bellowed.

“I believe you are asking the wrong question your honor.” Stoner replied with an almost beatific expression.

“You dare to tell me how to run my court Mister Stoner! Barrister, you are one wrong word from contempt sir!”

“I mean no disrespect to your august person or the solemnity of these proceedings.”

“Then what do you mean man?”

“I merely wish to state that where the evidence came from is secondary to why didn’t the stalwart investigators of Skyplex Reno did not provide this critical evidence?”

Reddings blinked twice, opened his mouth, closed it, blinked again, and then turned an even deeper shade of red.

“He’s going to have a stroke. I can read his heart rate from here by that throbbing vein next to his right eye and let me tell you it ain’t good.” Cindy whispered to William from one of the gallery seats.

“Maybe that is Stoner’s strategy, to induce the magistrate into incapacitating himself and forcing the Core to send a replacement that might want to see actual justice served. Now hush.”

William whispered back quickly not wishing to miss any of the exchange between the two men that obviously had no love for each other. But he needn’t have worried. Reddings still hadn’t found a way to reply to Stoner’s question without making himself look any worse than he already did.

“Your honor?” Stoner said breaking the long and increasingly awkward silence.

“Given the clear cut nature of this evidence and the resulting impact on Mister Marsh’s case, it is an unfortunately lapse on the part of this facility’s security department failed to discover this evidence the court must rule in favor of the defendant and allow this evidence into these proceedings.” Reddings grimaced as if he had just swallowed something he found floating in waste reclamation.

“I make his heart rate at just under one-eighty.” Cindy whispered with a huge smile.

“We’ll take your word for it. Okay, we’ve seen what we needed to see. Stoner has made a trial out of this farce. Now we have time to go find us the real killer.” Chan added and the three slipped quietly from the gallery.

“First stop is the Bent Spoon Tavern.” Cindy said with her eyes flashing.

“To the scene of the crime then ladies, the game is afoot.” William replied and used his bulk to insert himself into the crowded central corridor of the station.

“He’s been reading that Sherluck Holmes guy again?” Cindy said rolling her eyes.

“Sherlock, Cindy, Sher-LOCK Holmes.”

“Right, that guy.” Cindy responded as she and Chan slipped into the wake William had made with his passage.

 

While not in the best part of Skyplex Reno, the Bent Spoon was not in the worst either. Exiting the elevator bank and turning down the main corridor for this deck showed more than a few less that savory types in the area. The three would-be investigators were clearly not from the area and soon, several tough looking characters closed in to confront them.

“Well looky what we gots here, a tub of lard and two jianhuo[9]. Should make for easy pickin’” A thin teen with a scraggly beard and missing several teeth said as he and four other punks moved in. “Hand over the coin and you don’t get hurt.”

“Son, I can tell the ‘Verse has been hard on you and your…acquaintances, so I’m going to give you something you obviously haven’t had before.” William said quietly, not flinching in the slightest before the street rat.

“Yeah, yer gonna give me yer coin lard ass.” The leader said trying to regain control of the gang’s intimidation racket that wasn’t going to plan.

“No, I’m going to give you a break. You see the two women behind me are Browncoats with a serious axe to grind on how the U-War ended, and I’ve been breaking punks like you in half since before you we born. Now if you wish to walk away from this encounter as opposed to being carried out. You might wish to do something you don’t obviously do much and think about if you have or have not got the juice to take us.” The ice in the big man’s voice had done much to lower the temperature in the area by several degrees, even though there was nothing wrong with the environmental controls.

Clearly not used to objects of his intimidation scam talking back, the teen began to look less certain about the outcome of a confrontation with the three in front of him. William noticed the hesitation. “Yes that’s it son, cognitive reasoning, right now you are experiencing something calling thinking. Take your time, I don’t want you to hurt yourself. I have an idea, how about you take your buddies here off and share in the experience. You’ll go your way and we’ll go ours and everybody wins.”

“We could take you.” The tough said weakly enough that even he didn’t believe it.

“Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then, so I wouldn’t say your theory  is completely impossible, but finding out you are wrong would be a painful learning experience and my friends and I are pinched for time. So either step aside or get ready for school time, your move slick.” William smile did not reach his eyes, while his and his companion’s stance showed they were ready to provide the lesson he had implied.

“You talk a good game chum, next time mebbe we do it my way.” The tough grunted.

“Until next time then, good day fellahs.” William answered as they continued on their way, still ready in case the punks thought a sneak attack was a better option, but they did not.

“You have the give of gab William.” Chan said once they were clear of the punks. “If I had done the talking, there would have been a reckoning.”

“I know mei mei and as much as those punks needed a lesson, Marsh needs our services more, so time was of the essence. Ah here we are, the lovely Bent Spoon Tavern, ladies first.” William said holding the door open with great flourish.

 

“What can I get you?” The bartender said with the sound of a man long used to not caring.

“We’d like to talk to the waitresses that were working last night.” Chan said pleasantly.

“Who wants to know?”

“Friends of an innocent man.” William countered.

“Innocent, that’s the best one I’ve heard in a long time.” The man snorted derisively. “Might find an innocent man in one of them right fancy monasteries on Sihnon, but no one worthy of that name has ever visited here.”

“Right said. So maybe innocent was the wrong term for me to use, but how about not guilty of manslaughter?” William asked.

“He started it, he has to live with it.”

“Even if the dead man was poisoned?” Cindy said with a smile. “And that he was poisoned here, I wonder what word of that little detail would do for business?”

“Whoa wait a minute, what do you mean poisoned? That hun dan Jocko got stuck no more than three meters from where you stand, there was no poison. I saw it myself” The bartender responded nervously.

“True he was stabbed, but he was already dying of poisoning and the good magistrate is now aware of that fact, how long before his goons grab you, the bartender for murder?” Cindy added with complete sincerity.

“I’m innocent!” The bartender wailed.

“Odd, you don’t look like a Sihnon monk, but maybe if we were to talk to the waitresses that were working last night, we might be able to convince the Magistrate Reddings that you are not the person he seeks?” William offered kindly.

“LEEANNE! YUTING! SUNSHINE! GET YOUR WORTHLESS BUTTS IN HERE!” The bartender bellowed and the three women entered in a huff, but fell silent when they saw they had company.

“These nice people want to talk to you ladies. If you want to walk out that door with your job, you better answer their questions.”

“Thank you so much…I’m sorry we didn’t get your name.” Chan said with an arched eye brow.

“Franklin Karcher.”

“Yes thank you so much Franklin.” Chan continued. “Now ladies, one of you almost got away with murder last night. Not that Jocko didn’t need some killing, but a friend of ours is taking the fall for your little escapade and we just can’t let that slide. So how about whichever of you is guilty make it easy and fess up.”

Chan froze in place when the woman named LeeAnne produced a derringer and leveled the small pistol at Chan’s head.

“You just couldn’t let it lie could you?” LeeAnne sobbed.

“Not if it means our friend has to take your place.” Chan replied evenly.

“Look Miss, despite what you did to Jocko, you are not a killer, at least not the kind to look your victim in the eyes and take a life. Please don’t do this.” William spoke calmly. “Going by what we’ve heard about this Jocko, I’m surprised he lived as long as he did. What did he do to you bao bei?”

“Wasn’t me was my damn fool sister Rachel. She loved that ben tian sheng de yi dui rou[10] for some dumb ass reason and wouldn’t listen to anyone that said he was a waste of skin.” LeeAnne moaned in anguish, but kept the pistol pointed at Chan.

“She was the woman that came to his defense during the fight!” Cindy exclaimed in sudden understanding.

LeeAnne nodded. “Despite the fact he’d cracked three of her ribs a week ago, she still stood by him.”

“He beat her, so you poisoned him?” William asked gently.

“He almost killed her. Drunken pig said he didn’t mean to do it and like a fool she forgave him again. I wasn’t going to sit back and let him kill her by mistake or for any other reason.” LeeAnne growled as she relived the memory.

“As I said LeeAnne, Jocko warranted some killing, but not that woman you are pointing that weapon at. She is the captain of a freighter and trying to look out for one of her crew, just like you were looking out for your sister. Wu Chan Juan is not Jocko and doesn’t deserve to be at barrel’s end. Please LeeAnne hand me that gun.”

For a moment LeeAnne wavered, but then rallied to keep the derringer aimed at Chan, However, she failed to notice that Cindy had moved silently as a cat while William was talking. When he saw the medic was in position, he took a chance. “LEEANNE!”

The woman started and swung her head toward William and at that instant Cindy struck with blinding speed and knocked the pistol from LeeAnne’s hand with a well aimed karate chop to her wrist, before pinning the woman’s arm behind her back.

“Nice work.” Chan said releasing a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

“You’re welcome.” Cindy and William replied simultaneously and all three laughed as the tension flowed out of the room.

Her spirit broken once she was unarmed, LeeAnne allowed herself to be lead away without resistance.

 

When they entered courtroom, all eyes swung their way. Stoner’s eyes showed relief, while Reddings eyes showed barely contained fury.

“What is the meaning of this? Who are these people Barrister Stoner?” Redding demanded.

“Three of them are friends of the court your honor, the fourth is your murderer.” Stoner answered glibly.

“The murderer? This is a manslaughter case!” Reddings said trying to catch up with events that were going faster than he could keep up with.

“Your honor, as the autopsy clearly showed, the decedent actually died of polyphenyldrine poisoning. While the knife wound inflicted during the fight did not help matters, the decedent was already essentially dead. Mister Marsh would have been guilty of manslaughter if the cause of death was indeed sharp force trauma. However, the wound inflicted would not have been fatal and the only thing Mister Marsh could be charged with would be aggravated assault. In this case, the actual cause of death was the deliberate administration of polyphenyldrine poison. This was a deliberate act and this woman here, a waitress at the establishment where the crime took place is responsible for murder.” Stoner grasped his lapels and waited for Reddings to try and dispute his logic.

“I’ll grant she had the means and opportunity, but I have yet to hear a motive.” Reddings said after a long pause.

“If I may address the court?” Chan said stepping forward.

“And you are?” Reddings scowled.

“I am Wu Chan Juan, captain of the Firefly-class mid-bulk freighter Lattimer’s Ghost and I know the woman’s motive.”

Redding leaned back in his chair wiping his forehead in frustration. “Why not, this case has had enough irregularities that what is one more.”

“The motive is a simple one your honor. This woman, I only know her as LeeAnne, has a sister, her name is Rachel. The decedent beat LeeAnne’s sister severely last week. I’m certain you will find record of her medical treatment, but there were no charged filed as Rachel refused to press charges. The woman that came to Jocko’s defense during the fight was Rachel, but she did not know that her sister had had enough of seeing her be beaten and had already taken steps to ensure Jocko would never raise his hand to her again.

“It pains me to have to ask that LeeAnne be bound by law as Jocko was clearly a man that needed killing, but the situation is what it is. The murder of this worthless human was at the hands of this woman, not that man. I ask that charges against Sylvester Marsh be dropped.”

Reddings took his time as he worked through all the twists this once open and shut case had taken and sighed. “Wait open and shut! That’s my way out! Okay the guy didn’t commit a bar room brawl manslaughter, this woman committed first degree murder. A murder conviction has more status than manslaughter! This will make me look even better on Osisrus, yes this isn’t a bad outcome after all!” He smiled and addressed the court.

“While the nature of how the facts of this case came to light have been highly irregular, the actual findings are completely within the bounds of our great legal system. It is therefore, the findings of this court that the charge of manslaughter against Sylvester Marsh be dropped. He his however found guilty of misdemeanor vandalism for stabbing a dead body. He is sentenced to time served and remanded to the custody of Captain Wu Chan Juan of the Firefly-class mid-bulk freighter Lattimer’s Ghost.

“The woman LeeAnne is hereby bound by law for the murder of the decedent Jocko and is ordered to stand trial tomorrow 19 May 2518. That is my finding. Bailiff, release Mister Marsh, detain this LeeAnne woman, and clear the court. This case is adjourned.”

The crack of the gavel brought a huge smile to Stoner’s face as he joined William, Chan, Cindy, and the newly freed Marsh. “Have any of you considered a career in law?” He asked with a grin, still grasping his lapels.

“No sir, I don’t think the Alliance is ready for the likes of us. Well sir, you have done us a service, it’s time for us to settle up what do we owe you?” Chan replied.

“Seeing as how you all but handed me a chance to rub Reddings nose in the bovine fecal matter and did some first rate leg work, how does a hundred credits sound?”

“That would fall in the category of fair, can I impose upon you to accompany us to our ship. That is some serious money in the circles we travel and our banker is going to have to cover our debt for us.”

“Banker?”

“Long story, we’ll explain on the way.” William said leading the way out of the courtroom.

 

“Okay Cap we are finally on our way.” Marsh said as Skyplex Reno receded behind the Lattimer’s Ghost. The pilot’s face took on an unusually pensive expression. “Captain…Chan, I’m sorry I screwed our departure. I know I get in lots of fights and…”

“You hush up Marsh. For one you weren’t letting that battleship mouth of yours overload your rowboat ass. That hun dan Jocko would have hurt Li Ming and you did right standing by her. Our schedule wasn’t something that had life and death stamped all over it. Things actually worked out well for a change and that is all that matters. It’s not like we are even sticking to our schedule now, what with the real cargo we’re carrying. Now you go on back to the helm and get reacquainted, I think she missed you while you were gone.”

“Yeah a real cargo, doesn’t seem possible.”

“It’s real. I saw it loaded my own self with my own eyes. Now you’re keeping a lady waiting and I need some sleep.”

“Well I certainly can’t keep a lady waiting, oh and captain?”

“Yes Marsh?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome Marsh.”

Marsh watched the captain as she left the bridge and for a change it wasn’t to admire her figure. He plopped back down into pilot’s station and swung the chair back and forth a couple times to make sure everything was as he had left it.

I guess I should be grateful that Li Ming won the money that she did, cause she had to spend all of it to pay off that Stoner guy. Cap and William been harpin’ on me about fightin’ for as long as I’ve known ‘em and if not for them, I’d be crushing rocks or somethin’ on a penal colony by now.” He sat absently watching the controls and thinking. “Maybe they might know more than I gave ‘em credit for knowin’.”

Marsh then straightened up in the seat and resumed actively piloting the ship and monitoring the ship’s sensors. He hadn’t realized that his short bout of introspection had set him on the road to wisdom by finally admitting, for once, that he didn’t have all the answers.

 



[1] Cow sucking

[2] testicles

[3] Hold on a second

[4] whore

[5] Stupid monkey’s butt

[6] Kick me in the bottom

[7] Idiot ass

[8] Horse’s butt

[9] cheap floozies

[10] Stupid inbred stack of meat