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Thief Encounters

By Nicola Mody
Page 3 of 3

Vila Restal lay listening to the snores and mutters (and occasionally worse) of the sleeping convicts around him. They were all out like lights due to the drugs in the evening meal; now was his chance. He slid noiselessly out of bed, dressed, and tiptoed through to the other room and up to the door out of the prisoners’ quarters. Just as he thought—there was no guard there at night. Once again his resistance to drugs had come in useful; he just hoped they didn’t have it on file and there wasn’t a guard on the other side waiting for him. He removed the two fancy clips from his jacket (the ones that snotty Avon had said looked like swizzle-sticks dipped in cheap gold paint), and carefully pulled out the lockpick and probe concealed in each. He took the panel off the hand-print lock and disabled it—easy as falling down drunk—but he wasn’t going to let on to Blake or anyone else. They’d only want him to do something dangerous, when profitable was much more preferable. Vila cracked the door and put an eye round it. The corridor was empty. He slipped into it and headed for the holds.

The key to getting on with a hard bunch like this, and Vila had learned early how to survive, was threefold, and even had its own acronym: HUG. H for harmless: non-threatening and incompetent, U for unstable: act it up a bit just to keep them on their toes, and G for generous: make them like you. He’d covered U and H with that fellow Blake very neatly, ensuring they all now thought he was badly-adjusted (literally) and a bumbling idiot.

Now for G.

A little later, Vila re-emerged from the storage hold, pockets bulging. He’d filled most of his shopping list and more besides, but some of the items he wanted were a little more difficult. He would have to check the crews’ quarters.

***

Irritated, Roj Blake yanked his fingers through his tangled curls. It appeared that large cakes of coarse yellow soap were considered sufficient for the hair as well as the body on the London. He had never considered himself to have lived a soft life, but this was an eye-opener. He had just one outfit for the whole eight months, which had to be put into an ancient dry-cleaning machine every day while he shivered in his underwear. At least they had allowed him several changes of that. He looked at Jenna sitting opposite him, eating her breakfast. She was as well-groomed and beautifully made-up as ever, which only served to make him feel worse. The damned woman had a bag full of vials and bottles, including, Blake suspected, a decent shampoo and conditioner.

“Morning,” Vila said brightly, sliding into the seat next to him. “Or should I say virtual morning? Mm, tasteless mush again. Can life get any better, I ask myself?”

Blake turned and glared at him.

Undeterred, the thief grinned back at him. “Having a bad hair day?”

Across from them, Jenna laughed. “You’ll have a bad body day if you keep that up.”

Ignoring her, Vila continued, “You need some nice calendula and aloe vera extract on that.”

“I thought you didn’t like personal violence,” Blake said, leaning towards him.

Vila edged back and opened his jacked, smiling ingratiatingly. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist. Here you go.” He put two plastic bottles on the table.

Blake’s eyes widened and he grabbed them eagerly. “Where did you get these?”

“Ah, well. Been on a convict ship before, and I know what’s in short supply. I came prepared.” Vila held up a bright orange ‘afro’ comb. “This’ll get through that mop, and give you plenty of volume too.”

Blake took it, and looked quizzically at Vila’s own fine straight hair.

Vila shrugged. “Don’t need it, do I?”

“Obviously not. And what do you want in return?”

“Nothing.” Vila’s brown eyes looked back at him guilelessly. “You’re a friend.”

Blake smiled. “Thanks, Vila.” He got up, checked his watch and wallet were still there, and left purposefully for the showers.

 

Jenna Stannis, who had been highly amused by the exchange, looked speculatively at Vila. He tipped his chair back, put his hands behind his head, and smiled back at her.

“I thought I was the smuggler,” she said. “A little free-trading? A few gifts in return for what—protection?”

Vila looked hurt. “Just friendship.”

Oddly enough, that was believable from him. Still, it never paid to take anyone on trust. Jenna put her chin on her hand. “And you want mine.”

“I’m naturally affectionate.”

“Everything has its price. And I have a very good stock of cosmetics already.”

“Yes, I can see that.” Vila leaned across the table conspiratorially. “I have just the thing for you though. Insurance.”

“Against what?”

“’What’ is the right word. That bastard Raiker.” Vila slid some photographs across the table, face down.

Jenna cautiously lifted the corner of one, then picked them up, fanning them like cards close to her chest, and gaped in disbelief. They showed Raiker with another man, in each case someone different, in somewhat compromising positions. Their surprisingly buff bodies were clad only in oddly-placed leather straps and metal buckles, but their heads, each one turned to look blankly straight at the camera, did not match in skin-tone or expression. She snorted. “A bit amateur.”

“Yeah, I thought so,” Vila said. “Looks like he used ID photos. Don’t know who most of them are, but I recognise the captain and a couple of the others like the guard on the door today, so I’d say the rest are crew too.”

Jenna put them back down, frowning. “If he fancies that lot, why was he after me, then?”

“Catholic tastes? He had lots more with girls in them, but you don’t get that many on a penal colony run. Anyway, I thought these were more...negotiable.” Vila looked innocent. “From what I saw of the captain, I don’t think he’d be very impressed if he knew. Raiker would not want this to get out.”

Jenna grinned and stood up, putting them under her arm. “Thanks, Vila.” She paused curiously. “Where did you get them? Bribe a guard?”

Vila looked offended. “You have your professional secrets, I have mine.”

Jenna watched him wander off. He was definitely much cleverer than he let on, and really rather sweet. He had been the nicest one in the holding cells at the start, and if Blake hadn’t turned up, all power, passion, and charisma, things might have been different.

 

Olag Gan was concerned. His nails were starting to get a bit long and out of shape. This lot would laugh at him for such vanity, but on Zephron, a farming world, soft hands and clean well-looked-after nails were a sign of one’s success in escaping the soil. But when they had searched his belongings before embarkation, they had taken his manicure set. What did they think he was going to, file his way through an air-lock? Gan sighed. The clippers they had let him keep were all very well, but they were no use for cleaning under the nails, and he was damned if he would gnaw at them like that fellow Blake did.

His woman, his beloved Lubov, had always admired his hands. Gan steepled his fingers together, and looked at them, remembering her.

“Hello, me old mate.” Vila dropped into the chair beside him.

“Hello, Vila.”

A nice friendly lad, Vila, and he had beautifully kept long-fingered hands which any Zephronian would admire.

“How’s it going?” Vila sprawled back in his seat, and took a small metal emery board from a pocket, and began to file his nails.

Gan sat up. “Where did you get that?” It was just what he wanted, with a sharp end for cleaning, and a blunt rounded one for pushing back cuticles.

“Found it.”

Gan looked at it with longing. “I couldn’t borrow it sometime, could I?”

“Go ahead, you can keep it.” He handed it to Gan, who sat stunned.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Think nothing of it. Got another one.”

Gan felt guilty. The lad obviously had no idea of its value. “What can I do for you in return?”

“We had a deal, remember? Said we’d look after each other.” Vila waggled a finger at him. “Thought it was one-sided, didn’t you? Just keeping my end of the bargain.”

It wasn’t until Gan had finished one hand and started the other, that he realised that Vila had known exactly what he was doing. He chuckled to himself in appreciation.

 

Kerr Avon had rarely found himself with a less prepossessing lot. The thought of eight months spent in two rooms with people who thought being able to burp a short sentence was the height of intellectual achievement made the death penalty seem preferable. There were two Alphas besides himself, but one was a curly-haired idealist who wanted to escape and bring down the Federation, not the most fascinating of conversational topics, and the other, a free-trader, was the sort of bold brassy blonde that Avon found slightly unnerving.

That brute Raiker had referred to this room as a recreation area, a misnomer considering the prisoners only had several packs of grubby dog-eared cards, an incomplete scrabble set, something called draughts, and three battered book-pads loaded with detective stories and porn. The fact that both were popular among these hardened criminals was of slight interest, (some had indeed come to blows over the premature disclosure of a murderer’s identity) but Avon was disinclined to pursue it further.

“Fancy a game of chess?”

He looked up at Vila, the incompetent pickpocket whose one feeble claim to the notoriety required to be on the London seemed to be his resistance to ‘adjustment’ as the Federation called it. The man had a likeable, friendly, open face. Obviously a complete fool.

“If I did, it would be somewhat useless as both equipment and players seem to be lacking.”

Vila produced a small box and opened it to reveal a folded board which he opened with a flourish. Under it was a set of new chess pieces, which he rattled, grinning.

“Are you suggesting I play with you?” Avon asked with disdain.

“Why not?” The fellow had the effrontery to sit down at his table.

You can play chess?”

“Well, I know the horsy things can jump and turn corners. And these little things are pawns, don’t know why they named the shops after them.”

Avon gave the idiot his best contemptuous look, which ought to have sent him scurrying away. Instead, Vila smirked at him as if sharing a secret joke, and set up the pieces with the speed of long practice.

“Black or white?” He held out a closed fist.

“Neither.” Playing with a scruffy Delta was the thin end of the wedge.

For a brief moment, Vila looked hurt, then shrugged. “Your loss.” He stood up.

Avon reached out to take the chess board, but Vila was too fast for him. Avon watched, rather annoyed, as he went over to Jenna, and became more so as he watched them play, laughing and chatting. He eventually made the excuse of walking past them to get a drink, and was surprised to find they were both quite good players. Savagely, he pressed the sugar button three times and mixed his tepid, weak cocoa, looking up to see Vila regarding him thoughtfully. Avon glared and took his drink back to the corner.

It was an hour or two later that Vila came over again, this time without the chess board. He sat down opposite Avon and took a chocolate bar out of his pocket, deliberately peeled it, then bit the top off it, all without taking his eyes off Avon’s.

Avon gripped the edge of the table. “Is that—” he stopped, appalled at the hoarseness of his voice, and cleared his throat “—is that chocolate?”

“Mm,” Vila said, closing his eyes slowly. “Mmm-mmm.”

“Where did you get it?”

“From my stash.” Vila pulled out a second bar and held it out, eyebrows raised. Avon reached for it, and Vila put it down on the table, just too far away. “You’ll have to pay.”

Avon shuddered to think what sordid price he would demand. “What do you want?”

“Just the occasional game of chess.”

“Done.”

“And some conversation.”

“You’re pushing it.”

“No, I’m pushing chocolate.” Vila gave him the same open friendly smile he had before, but this time there was a distinct gleam of intelligence.

Knowing that he’d been out-manoeuvred, Avon nonetheless realised that he was enjoying himself for the first time in weeks. “Then do so,” he said coolly.

Vila shoved the bar across the table to him, and Avon unwrapped it with shaking fingers. It might not be the finest Lindor chocolate, but oh, that was good. If he just let each bite melt in his mouth, he could make it last half an hour.

It was sometime before he realised that Vila had gone.

 

Damn, thought Vila. That chocolate was for me. I’ll have to lay in a few cartons tonight.

 

Rik Nova had thought he would spend the trip to Cygnus Alpha in a state of constant fear. After all, he didn’t belong among these career criminals, and he’d assumed they’d put the boot in as soon as they found out. However, that nice thief, Vila, had looked after him. He’d been sent to a penal colony at fourteen—imagine that; twenty-one was bad enough—and said he knew how Nova felt, and the thing was to get into a nice group who’d look after him. And so he was, with Vila, Gan, Jenna and Blake of all people. Fancy meeting someone that famous here.

No, the real problem was boredom. Nova missed his books, even though they were what had got him into trouble.

He had been wandering along a corridor, a harmless Beta-grade technician in his lunch-hour, with a takeaway coffee (decaf latte with vanilla, cinnamon, and the usual suppressants) in one hand and a book-pad in the other, when a rather exciting passage had caused him to spill his drink. There was a yelp, a thud, and a sickening crack, and Nova had lowered his book to see a middle-aged man with curly fair hair sprawled on his back, his head at a horrible angle where it had hit the wall, and rather more than coffee slowly spreading under it. Nova’s legs had folded under him and he fainted.

He had pleaded guilty. What else could he say when they asked him if he had done it? Well, he had, hadn’t he? He was charged with accidental injury (fair enough), causing grievous bodily harm (well, he supposed knocking someone’s brains out counted as that), murder (that was, after all, the law when a lower grade caused the death of a higher one), and treason (his bad luck the man was someone called Denis Tarrant, an important bureaucrat) and sentenced to life exile. He had explained all this to Vila, who had said the best thing was not to mention the coffee and just tell people he was done for GBH and murder. Oddly enough, it had worked. People pretty much left him alone and he seemed to have acquired the nickname of Baby-Face.

He had even been able to get one of the book-pads the day before, but the contents had not appealed. Nova liked adventure, and if the truth be known, romance, and he’d given it to Arco, who now sat intent, his lips moving, and his tongue licking them every now and then.

Nova sat in one of the flight seats, looking out the window at the stars, and wishing that the circumstances were different, that he was on a cruise on a luxury passenger liner like the Space Princess, or was a brave space-commander in the fleet, or a dashing pirate like Jenna.

“Here,” Vila said, sliding into the seat beside him.

Nova stared at the shiny new book-pad Vila had slung onto his lap, then at the golden data cube being twirled in front of him.

“More than a thousand novels on this,” Vila said. “Every genre you can think of. Download what you like and come and get some more when you’ve finished.”

Overcome, Nova blinked hard. He hadn’t expected such kindness, even though Vila had said he liked to read too. “You can’t give me this. What about you?”

Vila held up another pad. “Got me own, and put some good stuff on it too. I’m an escape artist, me, and my literary tastes reflect that. Sword and sandals, fantasy, magic realism, you name it. Even science fiction.”

“I’ll pay you back,” Nova said fervently.

Vila looked embarrassed. “Don’t have to. Know what it’s like, don’t I?” He stood up, patting Nova on the shoulder.

“All the same, I will,” Nova called after him.

He wondered if there were any tunic-rippers on the cube. Oh, good. There were.

***

That night, Vila made three trips to the storage hold. As well as chocolate bars for himself and Avon, he lifted cartons of every other snack, sweet or savoury, he could find. He hoped something might appeal to Arco and Selman, who didn’t seem to like him very much. It put a crimp in his style to hear Arco cracking his knuckles every time he told a joke.

Vila hid his booty behind a bulkhead panel in the rec area, and climbed happily into bed with his torch, a supply of chocolate, and a ripping yarn set during the Second American Civil War. The East had won, but Vila had a fondness for the underdog West.

***

“Mr Raiker.”

“Sir.” Raiker waited with little patience for the old fool to catch him up. What the hell was he going to witter on about now?

Captain Leylan paused to get his breath. “Artix tells me that there have been thefts from the stores.”

Typical of goody-two-shoes Artix, always poking his nose into things when it wasn’t buried in a book-pad studying for promotion. Leylan’s little pet. Raiker sometimes wondered about those two, but they were both far too strait-laced. Pity. Anyone looked good on these long trips, even Leylan.

“Mostly food. A few other things,” Leylan went on. “I got Klein to check the prisoner’s rubbish before it was ejected today, and I found a lot of chocolate wrappers and empty snack packs. Someone is dealing with the prisoners.”

Normally, Raiker would have shown his contempt for such petty attention to regulations, but that same someone had lifted some of his private collection and given it to the Stannis woman. Remembering her smug smirk as she said she’d let Leylan know, if he tried anything, including searching the convicts’ quarters, he clenched his fists.

“A guard.”

“Not necessarily, Mr Raiker. Records show entries into the prisoners’ area at night, sometimes up to three, but that lock’s an old one, no IDs logged. All we know is that it’s someone with access.”

“Are you including me?” When he caught the bastard, he’d make him pay—he’d have to wait for things to quieten down again before he could cream any more unofficial officers’ perks from the stores.

“Not at all. But I am putting you in charge of setting up a night guard. Three shifts around the clock, Mr Raiker. And station them inside so whoever it is won’t know.”

“Could be one of them.”

“Well, if things continue to disappear, we’ll investigate further.”

His only consolation, Raiker thought, was that it would be fun assigning the rubbish detail. A little power went a long way.

***

Vila flattened himself against the wall and edged back through the doorway, heart pounding. They’d put a guard on the door. Lucky the man—Klein he thought, difficult to tell in the gloom—was slumped on the floor asleep, but he could hardly pick a lock right next to him, especially one on the door the great lummox’s head was resting on.

He needed more chocolate bars for Avon, and Selman had become quite friendly now Vila was supplying him with cheesy nibbles, annoying though it was when Selman crunched through them. Arco was uninterested in food and toiletries and Vila had given up on him, suspecting that he got more pleasure from intimidation anyway.

Nothing for it. He’d have to take an alternative route. Vila carefully removed a panel from the bulkhead and peered nervously in, shining his torch around the narrow space. Space. He shuddered. Not much of it here, and a damn sight too much of it on the other side of the hull which he was looking right at. Vila sighed and climbed in. Might as well find out where this went.

He hadn’t got far when the ceiling lowered and he had to crawl. Not long after that, he heard noises. He froze. Pull yourself together, Vila. Probably just rats, and they weren’t that bad—he hoped. He’d tamed some as pets when he was a kid, but all the same, savage and hungry ones were another matter. Several pairs of small red eyes gleamed at him in the darkness ahead. Vila gulped.

“N-nice rats. Good ratties”

Squealing, the creatures charged him. Adding his own cries to theirs, Vila threw himself down, covering his head and dropping the torch, as they scrambled over him.

It was silent.

Cautiously, Vila raised his head. The torch had rolled away, but in its dim light, Vila could see two much larger eyes gleaming ahead of him. Going by their size and distance apart, that was the biggest rat he’d ever seen. Vila whimpered and began to back away, then stopped when he heard squeals of fury behind him. Trapped, with no room to turn. Desperately, he fumbled at the wall, hoping to find an access panel.

The thing up ahead yowled hideously, and the rats behind him screamed and fled. As a huge furry shape rushed at him, Vila squeezed his eyes shut and ducked his head. A body weighing at least 10 kilos, landed on his back, sinking its claws in. Vila yelled, shaking himself like a wet dog, and the thing let go. Sweating and shivering, Vila heard the noises of battle recede behind him.

What the hell had that been?

To get back, he had to follow it. He began to crawl backwards, muttering to himself to keep up his courage. “Sod Avon’s chocolate bars, and Selman’s cheesy bits. They can all make do with what they’ve already got. Not going to risk being eaten by giant mutant space rats.”

He could stand upright now. Only a few metres more. There was the access panel, a faint outline of light betraying it. Vila was just feeling for it when he felt something touch his legs, far too high to be a rat. Petrified, Vila felt the thing stand up against him and begin to claw its way higher. He screamed, pushed the panel open, and fell through into the prisoners’ room.

He slammed the panel shut, and with shaking fingers, bolted it in place, then sat there, his hand over his mouth. Had anyone heard him? If they had, they seemed to have gone back to their drugged sleep. Lucky he had nightmares and people were used to it.

Vila leapt into bed and pulled the covers up over his head, shaking so hard the whole tier of bunks rattled, and Gan below him and Jenna above complained and rolled over in their sleep, disturbed.

Nothing would induce him to get in that crawlspace again.

 

Lucky, the London ship’s cat, sat in the darkness, licking his chops after a good feed of rat. He was sorry that human had run off so fast. He seemed nice, just the sort who would be friendly and warm and an easy touch. Lucky had chased the rats away from him, and even eaten one, but he hadn’t wanted to stay. Odd things, humans, always up to some mysterious business of their own. Lucky padded off. He’d go and find Artix, he was always good for a cuddle.

***

Five months later, Vila was sprawled in a chair over in the corner where he and Avon had played chess.

He rather missed Avon. He’d tried to teach Gan how to play, but had to resort to a form of droughts played with pawns. Anyway, it wasn’t the same without Avon’s clever insults, most of which had assumed Vila’s vocabulary was the equal of his. Nice subtle compliment, that.

He missed Blake and Jenna too. He and Gan had pressed their faces to the window and seen the huge alien ship, cheering wildly when they and Avon took off in it. Vila had once, with a group of convicts, high-jacked a Wanderer-class freighter to escape from CF1, but the huge pronged thing those three had made off in gave new meaning to the term ‘grand theft spaceship’. Professionally, Vila was rather jealous.

As for poor Nova, Vila didn’t like to think of him at all.

But just then, as if on cue, there was a scrabbling behind the wall panels. Vila almost fell off his chair, clutching at his heart, unsure what he was more terrified of, ghosts or giant rats. Rats, definitely. No such thing as ghosts. He licked his lips nervously, hoping those things couldn’t get in to attack innocent harmless thieves, then heard a distinct meow.

A cat? It was a cat all along? Vila liked cats.

Eagerly, he leaned down and pulled off the panel, and a large, well-fed black cat emerged, winding itself around his legs, purring loudly. Delighted, Vila stroked it, and it leapt up into his lap, turned around twice, then sat down and looked up at him with extremely satisfied green eyes.

Perhaps the rest of the trip wouldn’t be so bad after all.


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