Finding myself alone with Vila in the galley next morning, I decided to take the opportunity to persuade him to give me some basic instruction on lock-picking. How to put it delicately?
"Vila," I began, with a hesitation which wasn't all assumed, "where I come from, we don't get any training in certain `handicrafts' of the sort that I hear you're so good at."
He twigged immediately and responded with a wide grin.
"Our instructors would have fainted with horror at the very suggestion they should teach any useful techniques like opening locks."
"Puritanical sort of place, is it?"
"Mmm... Genteel - nice young persons aren't supposed to know these things, or to want to know."
"Well, if you want to learn, you've come to the right man." He gave me a meaningful look. "I take it, you don't want your colleagues to know about it?"
"You're absolutely right, Vila. You see, I'm rather upset that I never spotted anything wrong about Sara. I want to be ready another time. I want to know what's behind locked doors, how things can be tampered with and how to spot that things have been tampered with."
"Yes," he responded, looking remarkably serious, "I hadn't thought of it like that. A lady's got to know how to avoid trouble. It's a rough universe."
Behind locked doors in an equipment store where we wouldn't be disturbed, he produced a collection of locks and tools and proceeded to initiate me into their mysteries. He was quite a good teacher and I'm a quick learner, so we made steady progress. He had made many of his tools himself, a skill at which, he assured me, most good thieves were adept. We scanned all the tools and the dismembered locks, both mechanical and electronic, into one of the computers and transferred the files onto a datadisk.
"It's important to keep up-to-date," he told me earnestly. "I'm always looking for new ones."
We finished up at the strong-room door, which was quite a challenge, but after a few tries I got the hang of it and could open it in less than a minute.
"That's good," said Vila happily. "Now there isn't a door on this ship that you can't open. Which is more than one can say for Avon."
I couldn't help noticing that when he was absorbed in professional matters, he completely dropped his usual rather clownish manner and demonstrated a sharp intelligence, to the extent that even his speech took on a loftier tone. So Vila hid from an unfriendly universe behind the shield of a jester's motley? Not a bad ploy.
Sonnheim was looking positively thunderous when we rejoined the group in the diner. The thought of the woman he loved to hate being on friendly terms with four more men was clearly giving him a pain. Well, serve him right, I thought, if he starts up again with his ludicrous jealousy, he'll get the same treatment as before. I went over and sat beside Gan at the opposite end of the table. We soon started a quiet conversation, mostly about Gan's difficulties with space-flight and navigation, which I normally would have found rather dull, but conscious of Sonnheim's sullen eyes fixed on us, I paid careful attention to Gan's problems and made a point of being as patient and helpful as I could. As I expected, it infuriated Sonnheim to be unable to complain or interrupt. I also became aware that Avon's eyes were also upon us with a dark, unfathomable gaze. What that did betoken? Was he just paying me back for watching him the day before? I couldn't guess what his opinion of me was, but I didn't want him to think me a fool, so I endeavoured to make my explanations as lucid as possible.
"You explained that ever so well," Gan said, as we finished. "I really feel I'm beginning to understand it now."
I gave him a grateful smile. Not only had he shielded me from Sonnheim, but for the first time I felt a teacher's satisfaction with a pupil's breakthrough.
Later on I was conducted around by Jenna - into the crawl-ways in overalls, and up to the drive chambers in protective suits. Finally, tired, flushed and dishevelled, we collapsed into `the pit' for a rest. I think Jenna enjoyed it as much as I did.
"Get Avon to show you the systems in the subcontrol rooms," she advised. "That's his province."
Hearing his name, Avon swung his head round and cocked an eyebrow.
"The subcontrol room systems," Jenna repeated. "Levett would like to see them."
He shrugged. "She might be disappointed with them. They're nothing remarkable, merely complex. Still, no time like the present. Come along."
I got stiffly to my feet.
"Why all this interest in the minutiae?" he asked, as we headed out of the flight deck.
"Why not?" I countered. "I don't mean to just sit around on this voyage. Kendall and the others may be entranced by Blake's political debates, but I'm not. Besides, I shall never have another opportunity to inspect a ship like this."
I didn't add the rest; that keeping busy was the only way to fend off the vile feeling of betrayal, loss and insecurity that I was struggling with. I felt that Avon was hardly the kind of person to confide one's innermost thoughts to, and I was accustomed to keeping my feelings to myself.
"You'd better be discreet about what you've seen," he remarked, opening a door. "If Federation security got wind of your knowledge, they'd kidnap you for interrogation. At least, that's what I'd do in their shoes." And he gave me that smile of his that was both charming and slightly sinister.
"You must be most useful to Blake with your ability to second-guess the Federation," I said sweetly, as I passed through.
"Even more so, if he'd actually listen to me," came the dry response.
In spite of some verbal fencing, which I found rather enjoyable, we had a good session until he announced that he was due on watch in fifteen minutes.
"Come back tomorrow morning and I'll show you the battle computers," he promised, evidently tolerating the role of instructor quite well.
I promised I would. Actually, wild horses wouldn't have kept me away. I was beginning to find his company intriguing and attractive, maybe too attractive.
Watch that, I told myself. You could make an awful fool of yourself over the likes of him.
"Ah, there you are, Levett," said Dr Kendal, entering the galley where I was sleepily munching some food. "I've been getting rather anxious about you."
"No need," I replied. "I'm getting on fine."
"You're not avoiding us, then?"
"Well, to a certain extent I'm avoiding Sonnheim," I admitted, "but it's nothing to worry about."
"Then why do I have the feeling that you're far more upset than you're letting on? Pasco and Grovane are obviously miserable about the loss of the Ortega and all the deaths, but you seem as cool and self-possessed as ever." He looked at me earnestly and sympathetically. "I don't believe you're a callous sort of person, so you must be licking your wounds in private behind that facade."
This was uncomfortably near the mark, I hung my head and stared at the table.
"It does no good to parade your feelings," I said wearily, "especially if you're a woman. I shall get over it. I'll pick myself up and start again."
I looked up again. "What about you? You look as if you're coping well enough."
This seemed to take him rather by surprise and it was his turn to look a bit downcast.
"I'm terribly shocked that my own assistant should have done such terrible things. I trusted her implicitly, you know. But, as to coping, maybe it's a function of middle age that we don't suffer as much as the young. We learn to withstand the shocks. Our problem is to avoid becoming hard and indifferent."
He patted my hand encouragingly. "Well, I won't press you to confide, but don't bottle everything up. Cally is a most sympathetic person, maybe she can help you." He stood up to leave. "And don't worry too much about the loss of the ship. I'm going to insist on the government giving adequate compensation, and also pensions to the families of the victims."
What about Sara's family? I wondered, as I watched him go. Did she have any? How would they feel when the tale of her treachery was told?
As to unbottling my feelings, somehow I didn't see myself consulting Cally, however much empathy she might generate. I'd carry my own can of worms, as usual.
That night the worms came wriggling out of the can with a vengeance and I slept very badly. As soon as I shut my eyes the flashbacks began - brief jerky episodes of bloodstained bodies and menacing guns, incongruously punctuated by Avon's slight smile as he decoded the puzzle.
Eventually I couldn't stand any more and got up to go to the galley for a drink, passing through the flight deck on the way. Gan was on night watch again, but Cally was also there, bending over some equipment. A moment later she followed me into the galley.
"Can't sleep, eh?"
"Bad dreams," I acknowledged.
"I can give you a sedative," she offered. "That might help."
"What about you?" I asked, curious. "How do you feel about bodies dropping on your head? Or are resistance fighters thoroughly used to that sort of thing?"
"It gave me a terrible fright," Cally admitted. "And Sonnheim sneaking up behind me like that - I nearly jumped out of my skin. Looking back at it though, I mostly wonder how Sara got the corpse up there in the first place."
"Oh, there's some lifting gear - we all know how to use it," I said. "What I'm wondering about is when and why she killed Dortmun. Before or after she killed Rafford? His eyes were open, remember? Did he see her kill Rafford, perhaps?"
"I suppose we'll never know," Cally said slowly. "Maybe Dortmun was in the store when he was overcome by the drug and she found him as he was recovering and decided to kill him and fake his escape in the pod - stalling for time whilst her pirate friends arrived."
"If I were them, I'd have killed her and taken the neutrotope for myself," I speculated. "I wonder if that occurred to her?"
"Possibly. Yes, I think she'd be ready for a doublecross. Was she a partner in the ship like you?"
"No. She was Dr Kendal's personal assistant. She was the person who recruited Mandrian and Sonnheim as bodyguards when the government insisted on extra security cover when they chartered us. And, of course, there was nothing dishonest about them."
"Oh, I though you were all crew members, except Dr Kendal perhaps. You were all wearing similar clothes."
"It was a very secret mission, you see," I explained. "The ministry party were travelling in disguise and took the places of Trissa and Bly, our other two crew members. They went on leave because we didn't have cabin space for everybody. Sarah and Co. did general duties and made themselves useful, and we were sworn in as temporary special agents. Thank goodness it wasn't one of us that turned traitor." I yawned. Perhaps I could sleep now.
"Come with me to the infirmary," Cally ordered. "I'll get you the pills. You've probably got a post traumatic stress disorder. It should go away quite soon, but if it doesn't, get professional help. Don't let it mess your life up."
Back in my cabin I took half a tablet of soma and set the alarm buzzer.