Payment in KindBy Jean Graham
Page 1 of 4
|"Bets down, please. All bets on the table!"
The croupier's strident cry seemed to follow Del Tarrant as he turned away from the lighted table and tucked his meager winnings into a pocket. He passed clusters of eager gamblers squandering their ill-gotten gains on various games of chance, and eventually found an unoccupied booth in the bar section, where he slid into the padded seat and looked for the cocktail waitress. She materialized almost immediately, a brunette vision in feathers and silver-blue spangles. Minda. Yes, that was her name. He'd made it a point to ask her that last week.
"What can I do for you today, Adair?"
Tarrant smiled faintly at her familiar use of his chosen alias. "Gorlan ale, I think. Straight up." He dropped a single gold coin onto her tray. It was more than six times what the drink would cost. "And..." He saw refusal in her eyes and realized she had misinterpreted the gesture. "...some information," he finished innocently, and flashed her his most disarming grin.
A knowing laugh accompanied the coin's disappearance into some unknown fold of her sparse costume. "Same thing you asked Linni about yesterday, and Serete the day before that?"
"The same," he echoed, never turning off the grin. "You never know. One of these days, I may get lucky."
"They all say that around here." She vanished back into the milieu of flashing lights and gamblers, leaving Tarrant to contemplate the scratch-worn table top. Two weeks. For two weeks he had roamed the casinos, the bars, the "pleasure houses" of Regis Spaceport, waiting for some word. He'd hoped -- probably unrealistically -- for at least a message from Dayna or Soolin or Vila. He knew it would not come from Avon. But surely one of the others would have tried to find him, or at least contact him? Unless Avon hadn't told them...
Tarrant scowled suddenly. That would be just like Avon. Carry a grudge to the bitter end and refuse to let the others interfere. And only Avon knew where he'd abandoned his pilot. Two weeks ago.
Haunting the landing field had gained him nothing. The berth Scorpio had briefly occupied had hosted a dozen ships since, but never his.
Odd, how he'd come to think of her as "his."
Though he hated to admit it, Tarrant had been harboring the frail hope that Avon might somehow put aside their little... disagreement... and return for him. It was a futile hope, of course. Above all else, Avon's disposition certainly did not include a forgiving nature.
As ever, he chided himself angrily, you opened your big mouth and put your foot full in. Only this time you went all the way to amputation. Rather more than you intended, wasn't it?
Still and all, given the circumstances, Tarrant wasn't at all sure he'd have done it any differently... Scorpio had very nearly been forced to crash land on Regis' open field. Only Tarrant's consummate skills had saved her; he did not consider it immodest to point out that no other pilot in the Federated worlds could likely have brought her down safely with the damage she'd sustained. It had by no means been an easy feat.
But Avon, being Avon, had not only refused to appreciate the accomplishment, he'd insisted on blaming Tarrant for their having been forced to land at all.
The storm hadn't broken until well after the fact, of course, and that was also typical of Avon. Tarrant might have recognized the danger signals, but he'd been too involved in trying to repair the crippled star drive at the time. As a free port on an unaligned planet, Regis was safe only to a point -- every moment they remained increased the risk that Scorpio might be recognized. That time constraint had been Tarrant's only concern when Avon had quietly entered the engine compartment. Without looking up from his work, Tarrant had asked, "Did you reach Base?"
Avon's reply was hard-edged. "Even if the communications links were working, that would hardly be wise."
Something in his tone made Tarrant stop working. He stared hard at the drive's burned and pitted relay circuitry and kept his voice level with an effort. "All right, Avon. You came in here for a reason. Let's have it."
"How long before the primary drive is operational?"
"We'll have full recharge in two hours at the outside." For the first time, Tarrant looked up. His fist tightened unwittingly over the laser probe he held. "Is that all?"
Avon moved closer, visually examining the damaged relays. "We'll need at least half power in order to achieve primary orbit."
"Thank you," Tarrant rejoined acidly. "I might never have worked that out on my own."
"That I don't doubt. Just as you failed, up there, to work out a simple evasive maneuver. We might have avoided landing at all if you had listened--"
"I did everything I could," Tarrant interrupted hotly. "And I did it correctly. I can hardly be held responsible for the actions of a trigger-happy Federation pursuit ship captain, can I? I'm a pilot, not a clairvoyant."
"A debatable issue, on either hand. If you had changed course a mere two degrees starboard and cut in the main drives, we would never have tangled with him in the first place."
"You're out of your league, Avon." Tarrant made a derisive sound that was not quite a laugh. "He'd have flown straight down our throats."
"He managed that anyway."
"I don't know what you're all worked up about," Tarrant said, exasperated. "I paid him back in kind. There's nothing left but scattering atoms and space debris."
"Precisely," Avon seethed. "An explosion undoubtedly picked up by the planetary long-range sensors. When they learn what it was, every ship in this port will be suspect, every crew questioned. We might just as well have planted a beacon telling them exactly where to find us."
Clutching the probe still tighter, Tarrant slowly rose from the engine, coming level with Avon's smoldering gaze. "We're alive, and Scorpio is reparable," he said, still forcing a calm that he didn't feel.
Avon's eyes were unrelenting. "No thanks to you."
"Anyone else would have lost her, and you know it."
"Any fifth grade ignorant would have had the sense to stay out of strike range in the first place."
Disgusted, Tarrant flipped the laser probe onto the drive housing in front of Avon. "All right. Let's stop mincing words, shall we? My skills and my judgment brought this ship -- and us - - down safe and intact. Whereas your maneuver would likely have got us killed. You may be entertaining some half-mad death wish, but I'd much prefer staying alive a while longer. So if you have any more suicidal strategies to test out on the Federation, kindly try them without me."
Deadly calm, Avon said, "That can easily be arranged."
A more-composed Tarrant might have heard the warning in the other man's tone. But his temper had long since gotten the better of him.
"You could have done better, I suppose."
"So do I."
Fury made the words come sharp and unguarded. Tarrant had no thought to restrain them. "You can't allow yourself to trust anyone, can you? And after all this time I think I finally know why. Are you interested in hearing my theory?"
"Not particularly." Avon's monotone was an omen, but Tarrant ignored it.
"Everyone you ever trusted -- everyone who ever trusted you -- is dead. Anna and Cally and Blake as well, if Servalan's to be believed. They were all stupid enough to let you do their thinking for them, and look where it got them. They may have trusted you, believed in you. I don't."
He'd been unprepared for a violent reaction to the goading. The laser probe had flashed upward off the housing, activated, and come dangerously close to searing through the front of Tarrant's tunic. Reflex carried him backward in time to avoid the short beam, but the fire in Avon's eyes was every bit as threatening. It subsided quickly, along with the beam, and Avon let the probe drop again. Tarrant watched control seep back into the black eyes, almost like a blast shield coming down.
"Finish the drive circuitry repair and get us underway," Avon ordered. The voice still held a toneless threat.
Foolhardily, Tarrant met the challenge. "Maybe I'd rather just see how well you can manage on your own." He strode confidently toward the hatch. "I've got this sudden yen to visit the portside taverns. Came up all of a sudden. Oddest thing."
Avon turned slowly to look at him. "You could be recognized."
"I doubt it. After all, I'm not quite the notorious terrorist you are, am I?"
When the jibe produced no visible result, he lifted the wrist that wore the teleport/communications bracelet and said, "When you need me, just call."
Again, the tone of ominous warning. "Don't count on it."
Tarrant had flashed him a disbelieving smile, and then headed for the outer hatch. The vehemence of those last four words had surprised Tarrant. In retrospect, it seemed such a tame confrontation: nothing at all to compare with the verbal battles he'd often fought with Avon aboard Liberator. But then, Avon had changed of late. Ever since Liberator's loss, and Cally's death...
Morose, Tarrant slouched deeper into the corner of the booth, damning Avon for his unrelenting pride and himself for never knowing when to leave well enough alone.
He could have hired a ship, of course. He had enough money. But there were three insurmountable problems with that course of action that he couldn't resolve. It meant revealing Xenon's location to an unknown party. It was also a surrender that his own pride was not prepared to make. Completely apart from that, however, he was not at all certain that he could trust Avon not to blow him out of the sky. Xenon's defenses were certainly capable of it, and Avon... Avon was probably capable of it, too.
The fact that he wanted to go back also surprised Tarrant. The contentious relationship with Avon notwithstanding, he'd come to think of Xenon -- and Scorpio -- as home. He belonged. He was needed.
Damn it, he was needed. Why wouldn't Avon ever admit to the fact?
Because Avon never admitted to needing anyone. With the occasional exception of Vila, and never then in the thief's presence. The game had rules, and Avon seldom broke them.
The thought of Vila brought a thin smile to Tarrant's lips. Oddly enough, it was Vila he found he missed most, and that was something he'd never have expected to admit to himself. The memory of their last exchange, on Xenon, widened Tarrant's smile. He remembered Vila sitting in the ops room, the omnipresent bottle propped on the console in front of him, regaling Dayna and Soolin with bawdy stories, fabricated exploits and other alcohol-enhanced tales, probably equally apocryphal. Tarrant had turned from his computer checks just as the thief had launched into an entirely new line of illogic.
"You know, in one of my past lives, on Old Earth, I'm sure I was a knight." At Dayna and Soolin's titters, Vila had drawn himself up indignantly. "No, I mean it. I distinctly remember dying valiantly -- for a lady's honor."
Tarrant had not been able to resist intervening, maliciously aware that he was treading on Vila's punch line. "Don't tell me," he'd said, eyes glittering. "She wanted to keep it."
While the rest of his erstwhile audience had been reduced to uncontrollable giggles, the thief had merely glowered at Tarrant, snatched up the bottle and with an exaggerated weave, left the room. Watching him go, Tarrant had broken into a laugh of his own.
The arrival of his drink startled him out of his reverie. The befeathered Minda slipped a note into his hand, and made a show of holding the grip for a long moment.
"Enjoy your drink." She squeezed his hand, and her green eyes smiled. They were filled with the unmistakable promise of something more now.
Tarrant returned both the smile and the look. "Thank you."
"Will I see you later?"
Contemplating the unopened message, Tarrant said pleasantly, "I'll let you know."
When she had gone, he turned his full attention to the note. In hastily-scrawled script, it read simply, "Landing Field 12G."
So Avon had come back after all. Or Scorpio had. Tarrant wasted no time on speculation: it didn't matter who had come, only that someone had. Leaving the unfinished drink on the table, he went in search of landing field 12G. A hundred mismatched ships littered Regis' huge landing area. From meteor-scarred freighters to battered planet hoppers, they had all seen far better days. At least, Tarrant noted with relief, there were no Federation pursuit ships in evidence. Scorpio could easily blend in with this lot. Perhaps Avon had decided he still needed a pilot after all. More likely though, Dayna or Soolin had somehow located him, and had come in spite of Avon.
He rounded the hull of an ancient starliner and checked abruptly at the sight of field 12G.
The ship that occupied it wasn't Scorpio.
Confused, Tarrant double-checked the number on the concrete marker. 12G. He looked again at the rumpled note, pulled hastily from his pocket. 12G.
The small cruiser's grey hull sported the peeling blue legend "Perseus." Tarrant had never seen her before. Not likely that Soolin or Dayna would have come after him in that. So the only other possibility...
He started, and turned with his hand already inside the pocket concealing his clip gun. He checked when he saw her, surprise and disbelief both superceding his instinctive caution.
She smiled, gold-red hair framing a too-perfect face. The last time he'd seen her she'd smiled that way, too; sad and a little wistful. That had been... how long ago? The last night they'd spent together, before he'd left for Space Academy...
"You're not an easy man to find, love," she said demurely.
"I try not to be." His flippant answer did little to conceal his tenseness. "But then, if I'd known it was you looking..."
Her dazzling smile never wavered. "I wasn't, actually. I saw you last week at the Pearl & Ring and couldn't believe it was you. But then last night I saw you again at Zak's, and I knew."
"Impressive," he said guardedly. "And perhaps just a bit too much of a coincidence?"
Her laugh was the same as he remembered, deep, melodic, infectuous. "Is that what becoming an outlaw does for you?" She raised her hands. "I'm not armed. If you'd care to search...?"
Her words carried an implicit dual meaning that was hardly lost on Tarrant. He grinned in spite of himself. "Same old Corinne."
But he kept his right hand resting lightly on the hidden gun.
"You haven't changed, either." She lied as prettily as ever, too.
"You just wanted to say hello, was that it?"
She nodded. "And a drink, if you want it. Aboard the Perseus."
Tarrant eyed the waiting cruiser. "Your ship?"
Her green eyes caught the light as she repeated the nod. "Truce?"
"I wasn't aware there was a war."
"But you don't trust me. I'm crushed. I thought we were old friends."
"Old friends have a habit of changing... when there's potential profit involved."
She chose to ignore that, turning toward the Perseus instead. "Come on aboard," she invited. "We'll... talk over old times."
He didn't move to follow. "Who else is aboard?"
"No one." At his dubious look, she added, "Well there isn't. You want search and seizure privileges? Be my guest. I've nothing to hide."
His laugh came easier now, the sheerest hint of a more relaxed tone just beginning to edge his voice. "You never did," he said.
Her query was soft, almost playful. "Trust me?"
All flippancy aside, he drew the clipgun slowly and deliberately out of its pocket, though he didn't aim it at her. "I'll let you know."
Corinne gave a cavalier shrug, wheeled and headed for Perseus' open hatch. After a prolonged moment, Tarrant followed her.
* * *
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