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After the Fall

By Harriet Bazley
Page 3 of 7

“You can’t do that.” Blake stared at him. “We paid twenty days in advance for the use of this —” he bit back the word ‘hovel’ — “of this building, paid well over the odds. You won’t get that sort of money from anywhere else at this time of year. Who do you think you’re going to get to take it on? We’ve done well by your town, brought you good business —”

“We can do without that kind of business.” Arun had planted both feet squarely in the mud, returning stare for stare. His face was grim. “Get out now, Blake. Not tomorrow, not in half an hour — now.”

Blake read implacable decision in the councilman’s eyes and leaned down, trying to hold the man with his gaze. “Councillor Arun, will you believe me at least when I say that I don’t know why — I don’t know what we’ve done or how we can set it right, but —”

“You’re no gambler, then. You weren’t down in the town two nights past.”

“No,” Blake said slowly, trying to remember where he had been. It was the night before Jenna left. She’d crash-landed their last ship a few weeks before, trying to run the blockade, and he’d been concerned enough about the state of her reflexes to keep her back from the regular drinking-party that had set off that evening for more convivial company to christen the start of the journey. The icy hauteur of silence that lasted between them for the rest of the evening had been almost enough to cover the sound of the others coming back, slurred and somewhat subdued.

He hadn’t asked what had happened. He hadn’t taken the trouble — hadn’t wanted — to know.

“What went on?” he said now, helpless under the sharp flick of the contempt in the other man’s eye. A cold trickle of rain, wet and clinging, made its way down the side of his cheek. Another followed.

“Murder. Gambling and murder.” The town was small and well-run, by the standards of this planet. Arun and his fellow councilmen had a lot to do with that. His gaze was flat and unforgiving. “Money changed hands, and there was talk of cheating — more than talk, by what I hear. And one of your men took a knife to the belly of one of ours, and he’s been two days dying. Two days of an ugly death, with a lot of friends gathering round to swear vengeance.”

He laughed suddenly, mouth twisting without humour. “You think I’m here to evict you? You were an honest man once, Blake — I came to give you warning, for what it’s worth. Get out now, before they get here. Get that rabble of yours out into the rain, or get burnt out by the mob that’s coming.”

A glance over his shoulder, back along the valley. When he turned back, his face was bitter. “And get out of our lives — all of you — and never come back.”

Two days past. “Who was it?” Blake asked softly, knowing the answer, feeling the icy rage grow. Cold enough, dark enough, to numb him as it fed, blotting out the words that rang like a blow to the face. You were an honest man — an honest man, once....

“Who used the knife, Arun?”

For a moment he thought he wouldn’t get an answer. The other stared up, bleak in the falling rain. “Maybe you’d know better than I would. A little man. A little man... with a limp.”

 

Soaked and shivering later that night under a screen of dripping brushwood, high up on the hill, Blake lay awake and thought again of murder. And this time, with the fuel of hate behind it, if they were to survive, Felak’s death had begun to seem the only way.


“There’s a hut up here we could use, just short of the summit....”

After one of the longest nights of Blake’s memory, the morning had dawned mercifully bright. Mace, putting the rest of them to shame, had begun clambering up and down the hillside almost as soon as the first warmth had crept back into the sunlight. Busy calculating just how long it was going to take to wring some back-payment out of their last employer, Herrera, Blake had left the old man to his fancy. He stood up now in a hurry, dislodging a cascade of stacked bags. Maybe Mace had had the right idea after all.

“Are you sure it’s empty, Mace? We don’t want some woodman coming back and arguing possession — let alone some kind of wild beast —”

“Empty for a while, I’d say,” the old man’s voice floated back, made thin by distance. “Could use some work, but there’s most of a roof, which is a start.”

“Well, we’re used to that, anyway,” Blake observed for the benefit of those near enough to hear him, and managed to get a laugh. He raised his voice, trying to pull the remnants of the group together. “All right — get everything packed up again. We’re moving. Put your backs into it and we’ll be under cover in an hour....”

He wasn’t sure that any other prospect would have been enough to overcome the almost visible disaffection all around him; but with shelter on offer up ahead, it was possible to get at least a semblance of co-operation out of them. It was considerably more than an hour before the last of their shared possessions were finally hauled up the last slope and dumped in the doorway of the rough hut that awaited, with Fossett and Barsad, the strongest, conscripted reluctantly to tally on behind. But for a miracle Terson had actually listened when he’d told him to get the kitchen unit going, and someone had heated up a few pouches of their reserve supplies, and things had begun to look more cheerful than he’d feared.

They were still stuck halfway up the foothills of a mountain range on a planet infested with bounty-hunters — Blake had never asked, but he doubted that he was the only one among them to have a price on his head. But Herrera owed him ten thousand. That should be enough of a bribe to get them all off-planet, barely. He’d counted on that money to finance a better deal with the Santangelo depot, but after last night he wouldn’t have put it past their loving neighbours below to have notified the planetary authorities of their presence, in spite of anything Arun could do. In Gauda Prime’s quest for a new, respectable image, Blake thought, his group typified precisely the sort of undesirables the authorities were only too eager to dispose of. And anyone who wanted to turn his coat and inform on the rest of them could be certain of a generous reward on the other side of the fence.

He had to get them out of here. Jenna would be back tomorrow — or the next day. They’d pull out as soon as she arrived. He’d borrow against Herrera’s credit if necessary — he was owed that money, no matter if the man could be bothered to pay off his tools or not.

Felak, too, would be returning in Jenna’s wake. He’d have his own plans for their future; ruthless and profitable, no doubt. It had been Felak, come to think of it, who’d made the deal with Herrera.

Yes, Blake considered calmly, Res Felak would have to be dealt with before they left. He was a dangerous loose end that couldn’t be permitted to unravel Blake’s plans any further. And it was long past time that Jenna and the rest learned who was in command around here. The thought had a smooth, persuasive logic to it.

He finished the bowl of thick soup someone had handed to him and stood up, glancing automatically over the remaining debris strewn across the trampled grass in front of the hut. Wrappings, broken straps, empty supply pouches, a few stray garments dropped or discarded in the heat of the climb; he stooped almost instinctively to retrieve a fallen datapad — no doubt Jenna’s again —

Blake froze, staring down at the mud-smeared casing in his hand. It was Jenna’s, all right. That was to say, it was the same unit he’d found hastily stowed among her possessions the previous night. But in the innocent sunlight of noon, it was all too recognisable as one of a set he’d seen dozens of times before... in Felak’s grasp. Res Felak, and his constant secretive scribbling. His notations, always, everywhere they went, at every plan they made; — as much a part of the persona he cultivated as the jangling of the grim trophies in his pocket, so that none of them really noticed any more. None of them questioned what he was setting down. And then his disappearances off alone, pad in hand, or clutched close to his breast....

And Felak, who had always guarded the most hostile of silences on the subject, had passed that information to Jenna, it seemed. Who hadn’t said a word.

Without thinking, Blake had thrust the betraying datapad deep into his tunic pocket, as if to shut it out of his mind. He turned, abruptly, and plunged up the hill, away from the others, in great ground-eating strides that jarred his thoughts, until the slope itself compelled him to slow to a more sedate pace.

This thing had fallen by chance into his possession. He had not searched through Felak’s own bags in his absence — he could have, but he had not. In the enforced intimacy in which they all lived, such an invasion was prevented by the most basic codes of privacy, and he had respected that need. No man opened another’s belongings, at least not while Blake was there to see, and even Winata and the boy Jassiom, nearly as light-fingered, respected that. He could not break that rule to fuel his own suspicions without destroying what little unity the group had left.

But he hadn’t needed to do so. Because Felak, who had stone-walled Blake’s every attempt to question him with a croak of a laugh, “no harm to anyone” or “none of your business”, had shown to Jenna — Jenna, whom he’d once known long before she’d known Blake, back in that time of which neither of them ever spoke — had shown to Jenna what he’d shielded so carefully from everyone else.

Or, Blake told himself, his breath forced out of him in great gasps by the final steep climb, or Jenna herself had found it, in an investigation of her own. That was easier to accept, even now, than the possibility that Jenna herself was mixed up in this. That she’d reverted to type, to the gun-runner’s and profiteer’s life now led by so many of those she’d known. Free-traders, they called themselves. Free to sell anything to anyone, anyone to anywhere, and profit on the deal. The sort of deal that Felak knew so well.

The great rocks that crowned the hill-top loomed above him, sunlit and grey against the mid-day sky. Blake leaned against the nearest slab to catch his wind, feeling the autumn chill strike deep despite the sun-warmed surface of the stone, and then began to follow the little winding path that led away among their feet. Someone — or some creature; after almost two months he still wasn’t clear about the local wildlife, save that most of it was Earth-derived and hence edible — had been up here before. Probably whoever it was who had used the cabin last.

He had pulled the datapad out again, and was turning it over and over in his hands. He had to know. He had to know what it said, how it had come to be hidden in amongst Jenna’s clothes. He had to know what his rival was planning, by fair means or foul.

And if, whispered the nightmare that had haunted him of late, and if it proves to be nothing more than an intimate exchange? If the best pilot and the best gun-hand in your group are beginning to establish a bond more simply natural than professional?

That crooked little runt.... She could not, Blake had told himself again and again. A woman like Jenna... she could have had her pick among the best and bravest in the galaxy, and yet he’d never known her other than level-headed about men. He’d trusted her — valued her — as much as anyone he’d ever known. No matter how that freighter crash and its new-healed burns had hurt her beauty, scarred her pride, she could not have chosen for herself now a limping, narrow-faced killer....

His feet had taken him into a little bay among the rocks, a natural lookout point where the clear ground fell away below, with great ledges of stone receding in slabs above his head. For the first time, now that he had cooled from his climb, he became aware of the freshness of the breeze.

At the back of the bay, fallen rubble had raised a gentle mound of turf. After a final moment’s hesitation, Blake stepped between the sheltering walls and turned to sit down, looking out a little blindly across the panorama of the valley beyond. Then he laid the datapad face-up across his knee, unlatched the cover, and switched it on.

 

It wasn’t — what he’d thought. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It wasn’t what he’d thought at all — and it wasn’t some kind of trick, by the look of it this was real....



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