Thief EncountersBy Nicola Mody
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|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.”
“’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.
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.
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.
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