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Transition In Three Stages

By Frances Teagle
Page 2 of 13

Hadramut was, as usual, uncomfortably hot. Even weather control could not do more than alleviate the burning sunshine. Dust devils swirled among the buildings and the sparse vegetation drooped dispiritedly. The first thing to do was to buy suitable loose clothing, topped off with the hooded shamiya mantle everyone wore to ward off sunstroke. Very useful as a disguise, too, which probably accounted for its popularity, Jenna thought with amusement. Hadramut must have one of the most populous criminal fraternities in the galaxy.
        Driving into Rabat inside a spaceport cab, Jenna had a pleasant feeling of returning to familiar territory. There were hardly any visible changes in the four years since she was last in town.
        "Drop me off at the Ardakhan Hotel," she said to the driver. She had no intention of staying there, but old habit died hard. One never got out of a taxi at one's true destination, certainly not in Rabat. Business first, then she would find a place to stay. When the cab was out of sight, she turned down a narrow alley which led to the goldsmiths' quarter. She sold five stones at two shops, taking pleasure in the old familiar routine of haggling and tea-drinking. Even more pleasurable was the spending of some of the proceeds in the boutiques. Finally, re-equipped and happy, she strolled towards the main square, carrying her purchases in a lightweight holdall, to look for a hotel. More than once she stopped to admire her reflection in a plate glass window, in her knee-length shamiya of dark blue wild silk, over an ankle-length gabba, lavishly embroidered with gold. She felt good.
        Now, should she find a hotel, or look up an old friend? She tossed a coin and it came down tails - an old friend it was, then. Ronan was probably the nearest. Pulling up her hood, she set off for his apartment.
        The building was very quiet when she reached it. Siesta time. Rabat's inhabitants were taking their afternoon nap. She was not surprised to find herself leaning on the bell-push for several minutes before she heard someone come to the door. It was indeed Ronan, and her arrival was evidently a big surprise.
        "Jenna!" he hissed. "What the hell are you doing here? Are you crazy?"
        Take aback, she blinked at his vehemence. "What do you mean? Why shouldn't I be here?"
        "Haven't you heard? There's a contract out for you."
        "What?!" Jenna was so staggered, she actually stepped back a pace. "Who? And why?"
        "Tarvin. Remember him? The old associate you betrayed."
        "Betrayed?" Indignation almost rendered Jenna speechless for a moment. "That double-dealing bastard tried to sell us to the Federation for thirteen million credits. How's that for betrayal?"
        "Well you can't expect his doting mother to see it that way. There's a million credits waiting for the man who brings her your pretty head."
        "Oh, Zinovia. I can believe that - vengeful old crone. Listening to reason was never a characteristic of hers." Jenna heaved a sigh. "Are there any takers, do you think?"
        He shrugged. "Bound to be. All Tarvin's brothers for a start. The surviving henchman that Blake released told the tale of how you pretended to join them again, then released the prisoners and killed Tarvin."
        "It wasn't me that pulled the trigger," said Jenna. "Not that it matters. I would have done it, if necessary. Damn. Ill-advised mercy was always one of Blake's worst failings."
        "Make no mistake, you can never come back here. Get out of this sector straight away and give it a wide berth from now on."
        Accepting the truth of this, she signalled goodbye with a flip of her hand and slipped out through the door, pulling her hood over her head as she went. This was truly serious. Rabat was swarming with Amagons, and only a fast exit could save her now. She knew better than to waste any time pleading with Zinovia. The old witch was ten times more bloodthirsty than any of her menfolk. Clutching her bag and keeping to the shadows, Jenna hastened back to the taxi rank.
        At least, she now had the money to travel home to Keledon in comfort, but her hopes of rejoining her old colleagues were shattered. Moreover, she still had no papers and dare not contact any of the local suppliers of forged documents. However, she didn't need papers for an internal flight. Mosdar on the other side of the planet should have what she needed, with the added advantage that Amagons generally avoided it. Most of Zinovia's brood had blood feuds in Mosdar where the Saukoshi held sway. What a mercy it was that she had gone looking for Ronan during the siesta. At any other time she must have been quickly recognised. What a mercy, too, that Ronan wasn't an Amagon.
        She found a cab. "The air terminal," she instructed, and sat back to consider her best course of action. The first thing she must do, on arrival, was to buy a wig, or failing that, get her hair cut, dyed and curled. Then she would be ready for the photographer. Maybe she would have to trade another gem. She would certainly have to choose a new name, but what? How about Andrea? She would call herself Andrea. Andrea Vilkonen. She had once lived with Aulius Vilkonen for nearly a year. Plenty of people in Mosdar would remember that legendary womaniser, but she herself hadn't been well-known in those days. She might pass herself off as a relative, and she could easily supply plenty of convincing detail about him to answer any questions. Nobody would be amazed at a Vilkonen freetrader joining in the galactic war and losing her ship in battle. Once she had acquired her papers, she could book a passage to Keledon, two sectors away from Hadramut, and breathe again.

Stepping out of the shuttle terminal into the gentle sunshine of the southern Keledonian spring, Jenna couldn't repress a chuckle of delight. If any place felt like home, it was this one, the refuge of her nearest kin after the catastrophic dispersal of sixteen years ago. Here, if anywhere, she would find a breathing space among friends. She felt no need for security precautions. The immigration official who passed her through the barrier had been more interested in her person than her papers, and she rewarded him with a saucy smile as she headed for the exit.
        She crossed over to the nearest information booth and activated a journey planner terminal. Her cousin Margit lived along the coast from Pontus, nearly four thousand kilometres away. How best to get there? Evening was coming on and the next airbus would deposit her at an inconveniently late hour. She chose instead to take the overnight land cruiser which would get her to the city centre by mid-morning. Also, the last stretch along the coastal track was famous for its stupendous scenery. Swiftly, she booked a first class cabin.

At this time of year, Pontus was bustling but not yet overwhelmed with holidaymakers. Jenna ambled along the boulevards until she found herself in the artists' quarter. Selecting a pavement cafe in a small square, she ordered coffee and pastries and consumed them in a leisurely fashion as she watched the painters at work; to be watched in her turn by many appreciative eyes. Eventually, she enquired for the network booth and retired to its privacy to find Margit's number. There it was, listed under the name of her cousin's third husband, Yanos. Jenna hit the key and the connection was made.
        A pleasant-looking woman of about Jenna's own age answered. "Oh, Margit?" she said, with a little smile. "She doesn't live here anymore. She and Yanos decided not to renew their marriage contract about two years ago. I'm Lizbah, Yanos's current wife."
        Jenna chuckled. "Moved on, has she? Any idea where?"
        "Ping is here," said Lizbah cheerfully. "He knows. I'll call him."
        Ping, otherwise Olivier Torbus, Margit's son by Yanos, must be in his early teens by now, Jenna reckoned. Soon she heard adolescent feet clattering on the stairs.
        "Cousin Jen, wow! Haven't we been hearing things about you!" An excited young face beamed at her.
        Jenna did not particularly wish to discuss family affairs over the network, so she said, "Why don't I treat you to dinner tonight? Then we can catch up on all the news. You choose the place - somewhere discreet, with private booths."
        "Oho! `The Burrow' on Engelstrasse." Ping turned his head. "How about that, Aunt Lizbah?"
        "Very good. Expensive though," said his stepmother's voice off-screen.
        "That's OK," returned Jenna. "After all, it's years since we met. Shall I pick you up in a cab, Ping?"
        "Certainly not. I will do the booking and I will meet you in the foyer around eight."
        Jenna smiled to herself. Ping was very conscious of his dignity. However, she would see that he was dropped off at the parental home no later than midnight. "Is The Burrow a formal dress sort of place?" she enquired.
        "Oh definitely." Lizbah's face reappeared on the screen. "By the way, have you contacted the Brands? They're in town."
        "No. Thanks for reminding me. I should get in touch."
        Jenna logged off, deep in thought. Mikhail Brand, one of her late father's business associates, and Margit's uncle, was a man of power and influence. She knew he generally wintered at his villa in the hills, but she had not expected to find him here at this time of year. She would not contact him today, however. First she would talk to Ping.

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Frances Teagle

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