"Good morning," he greeted with mock cheeriness. She threw him a look that at any other time would have been a prelude to his death. Instead, she collapsed into a chair and laid her head on the table. Her dark hair spread around her in disarray. A moment later, Jayne strode in, looking no worse for the wear from last night. Simon had a glare for him, too.
"Mornin' Doc," Jayne said, nonplussed. He spotted River and grinned. "Looks like someone's got suzui," he addressed her. She flashed him an obscene gesture without raising her head. Jayne laughed.
"This really isn't that funny," said Simon.
"Oh, right, like you ain't been in her place before?" Jayne scoffed. Simon scowled. Certainly he had, but that was beside the point. "Look, ol' Dr. Jayne's gotta cure for ya," Jayne went on. River sluggishly raised her head, closing her eyes and wincing in pain. "What you need is a little hair o' the dog," he prescribed. Reaching into a cubby, he pulled out a cup and filled it with a draught of his own whiskey. He slammed the shot, then refilled the cup and placed it in front of River. She stared at it for a second, face greening. Then she made a gulping noise in her throat, clutched a hand over her mouth, and tore out of the dining area. Jayne relished a chuckle.
Coming down from the bridge, Mal sidestepped River, giving her a backward glance as she disappeared into her bunk in a hurry. "She okay?" he asked as he entered the mess.
"Just a hangover," Simon pronounced with a chilly look.
"Don't look at me like that," Mal retorted. "I said I'd take care of her. Brought her back safe and sound." "You have an odd interpretation of what 'taking care of' means, Captain."
"Well I ain't gonna hold her hand at every turn. I'm not her daddy."
"That you're not," Simon growled with controlled anger. He rose from the table and stormed out. Mal shook his head and smiled.
"Jayne," he turned to the big man. "Ving just sent a wave. Meet's set up with our client in three hours."
"Shiny. Who is it?"
"Don't know. Only name I have is the Gangster of Boats."
"That supposed to be intimidatin'?"
"Who knows. But you know the drill. Discretion the better part of not gettin' killed and all that."
"What d'you want?"
"Small arms. Somethin' concealable. Don't wanna invite trouble, but don't wanna get caught with our trousers in the sand." Jayne nodded. "Meet me in shuttle two. We got a long flight ahead of us. Best get goin' as soon as possible."
It took every bit of the three hours to reach the floating casino, even with Mal pushing the shuttle to the limit in terms of fuel. They landed on a rooftop pad and were met by two well-dressed, well-muscled guards who escorted them inside after a pat-down. Mal was less than comforted by his holster hanging empty at his side, but he was in someone else's house, and he had little choice but to play by their rules. Their path through the boat's halls did not take them past the gambling floor, much to Jayne's disappointment, but the rich carpet, finely crafted lighting fixtures, and the occasional piece of artwork was evidence enough that this was a proper establishment, not a backwater bordello masquerading as such. The Gangster of Boats certainly had done well, if Ving's tale was true. The passage they were in ended at a set of double doors which security thugs thrust open before them, and Mal and Jayne were ushered into a well-lit office. Three walls were solid panels of glass, providing an unobstructed view of the ocean surrounding them. Jayne whistled low.
"Nice digs," he whispered as the guards closed the doors behind them. Mal would have agreed but his eyes and his attention were on the high-backed chair behind the desk, facing away from them. He could not see who was in it, but had not doubt it was the Gangster himself. The chair swiveled slowly round.
"Welcome, gentlemen," the occupant spoke, and Mal's eyebrows went up in surprise and he shared a sidelong glance with an equally surprised Jayne. The Gangster of Boats was a woman. She was diminutive, coming up short even compared to Kaylee, with long, straight blond hair and a cute button of a nose. She wore a simple white blouse, black slacks, and glasses. She looked more like a pretty secretary or accountant than a hard-bitten casino hustler. Her smile told of some inside joke that she was taking in at their expense. "You'd be Captain Roberts," she stated, looking at Mal.
"And you must be the Gangster of Boats," he replied smoothly. A charming laugh bubbled out of her slender throat.
"That is what most people call me, although they usually don't know it's me they're referring to. I've made quite an effort to keep it that way. And from what I was, or rather wasn't, able to discover about you, I'd wager you've taken the same pains as well." She fixed Mal with a knowing look and he stiffened immediately. A knot of apprehension tightened in his gut. "Relax, Captain," the Gangster of Boats smiled at him again. "I'm not interested in who you really are. I understand the need to operate under an assumed name from time to time. Makes business run more smoothly in many cases. Wouldn't you say so?" Her grin took on a conspiratorial edge.
"I'm of a mind to agree," Mal's acknowledgment was even and neutral, not letting on that she had rattled his nerves. Easy, he told himself. It was no surprise that she had tried to vet him. That was the whole reason for his cover as Captain Roberts, and by the sound of it, it had worked. She had not figured out anything about him. Unless she's lying, the thought popped into his head unbidden. Gorram it! he shut it down before it could gain any traction. He did not need paranoia throwing off his intuition while he was trying to suss her out. She was obviously intelligent and resourceful, which meant that if he did not keep his wits about him, it would not take much of a slip to end up humping himself.
"Shiny," the Gangster went on. "And since it's clear I know that much about you, and because addressing me as the Gangster of Boats tends to get cumbersome, you can call me Chrysabel," she stood from her chair and extended a hand.
"Pleased to meet you," Mal took it with a firm grasp.
"Have a seat, if you don't mind, and we'll talk," she indicated to the two chairs arranged in front of her desk as she retook her seat. Jayne and Mal sat down. "Now, I venture that Ving explained some of my problem to you." Mal nodded, noting that her convivial manner upon their introduction was gone now, replaced by a brusque, business-like demeanor. "Good. Then I won't burden you with more details that you don't need to know. What you do need to know is that I run four casinos, all of which need food, flowers, linens, and all manner of goods to reach them on time every day. Right now, that is not happening. If I contract with you, you understand that is my expectation, regardless of what you're carryin' for me. I don't care what other jobs you do in between, as long as they don't directly conflict with my interests. However, I do require that my cargo takes priority over any others you might be haulin' for, no exceptions. Excuses did not help me to build up the most profitable gambling franchise on the planet. I don't accept them from myself, and I don't accept them from those who work for me." Her eyes bored into Mal and Jayne each. "If you can accept that, then we can deal."
"What're you offerin'?" Mal asked, pointedly not addressing any of her stipulations.
"Fifty platinum per run," she stated. Mal considered that number without expression. It was lower than he had hoped for, but not entirely unfair. "Although, if I find your performance satisfactory after a number of jobs, the rate will go up accordingly," she added.
"And if our performance ain't 'satisfactory', as you say?" Mal inquired, noting her intonation on that word.
"You won't find work in this quadrant again," she said. It was not a threat, just a statement of fact.
"I see," he replied. He let silence hold the space between them while he pondered her offer, tacking ruthless and calculating on to his initial assessment of her character. All in all, those were a dangerous combination of traits in someone whose business was all about stacking the odds in her favor, but as far as he could tell she was shooting straight with him. She needed a reliable runner and she was willing to pay for one. It might not be the sweetest deal in the Verse, but it was work, and that was near impossible to say no to in his situation. A few jobs for her might go a long way towards returning some stability to the lives of him and his crew. But neither did he trust her. She may have said that she did not care about his real identity, but that was likely just for appearances. Anyone as shrewd as Ving had talked her up to be was going to want to know every detail about who was working for her. Depending on what she did with that information if she ever found it out, it might mean trouble down the road. Of course, the same could be said for any number of other folk he had dealt with in the past, and that had hardly stopped him from taking jobs with them before. It was a risk inherent in his way of life, and nothing that had happened before or since was much going to change that. If he turned this job down, he might get lucky and have another one crop up, but the only luck he trusted in was the kind he made for himself. So the real question before him was not if he was going to accept the offer, but how much he could squeeze out of the Gangster of Boats to make the deal more favorable to him.
"Well, Miss Chrysabel," he threw her a disarming smile, "you're a right generous woman. Now if I understand you rightly, it seems that you're lookin' for someone who's good at bein' discreet 'round the authorities. Lucky for you, we're particularly skilled in that field, as I'm sure Ving has testified in our good stead. However, that service don't come cheap. Our normal fee would be a hundred per shipment, but since I know we'd be doin' you a favor, I'd be willing to cut you a discount. Seventy-five, in advance," he locked eyes with her, though his smile did not waver.
"Hmpf!" Chrysabel chuffed without flinching. "Ving did his best to convince me you're worth as much, but I'd be a fool to believe him without proof myself. Fifty-five," she countered.
"I'd barely break even at that rate," Mal shook his head. "But I'm willin' to go as low as sixty-five, with half up front."
"Fifty-five," Chrysabel repeated. "With twenty up front. That's nearly half."
"Twenty'd barely get us enough fuel and supplies for a week, and I got a crew to pay as well. Thirty up front."
"Twenty-five," Chrysabel shot back.
"You're sure makin' it rough for a man to earn an honest livin'," Mal lamented.
"As should any business owner worth her mettle," her lips twisted into a slight smile with her response. "If you prove my investment worthwhile, then maybe we can renegotiate. But you're not going to wring a better deal out of me at this point," her voice hardened, and Mal was fairly confident that she was not bluffing.
"Well, it's a pittance," he started, "but because I'm sympathetic to your plight, I'll take it."
"You're a diamond in the rough, Captain," Chrysabel smiled at him with mock gratefulness. "Now, I already have a shipment that has been waiting on New Melbourne while I sorted out this luan qi ba zao. Here is the pertinent information, as well as my personal wave code," she scribbled on a slip of paper and handed it to Mal. He pocketed it after a brief glance. "When should I tell my contact to expect you?" she asked as Mal wrote down a wave code for her, using one of the dozen or so counterfeit codes he still had from Mr. Universe.
"With a day to get prepped, call it eight days," he said.
"I was expecting perhaps a bit more in terms of speed," Chrysabel frowned at him.
"Might be able shave a little off. Got a whiz of a pilot, good at that sort of thing. We'll get your stuff here," Mal assured.
"Very well. But if you don't, you can expect I'll be in touch." She pressed a button on her desk and the security thugs outside opened the doors again. Then she reached into a drawer and slid several casino chips across her desk. "This is your advance. My men will show you to the cashier. Or, if you prefer, feel free to try your luck at one of the tables."
"No thanks. It's against my beliefs," Mal said as he snapped up the chips.
"You have a moral issue with gambling, Captain?" Chrysabel raised an eyebrow at him.
"No. I just don't believe in throwin' perfectly good money away. It's been a pleasure, Miss Chrysabel," he rose with a slight bow to her. She nodded in dismissal and he turned and followed Jayne out.
Once the two men were safely beyond her office doors, Chrysabel returned to her seat and brought up her com station. She entered in a code and pressed the send button.
"Yeah?" The man answering on the other end had his back to her and did not turn around immediately. "Ving." Ving's bald head whipped to his screen when he heard her speak his name.
"Oh… beg pardon… what can I do for you, Ma'am?" he asked, both apologetic and solicitous.
"I just finished meeting with your friend."
"I see." Ving's eyes shifted nervously, uncertain of what to make of her statement.
"Don't worry. 'Captain Roberts' was exactly as you made him out to be. He was quite easy to deal with. I'm much obliged for your efforts to bring him to my attention. Now, what's the situation with the target?"
"They're right outside Hawthorne. One o' mine went over there last night, and she said she saw 'im."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Pretty sure."
"You have to be positive, Ving. If you're not, you're wasting my time."
"I understand, Ma'am. I'm positive."
"Good. I'm going to make a report right now. If everything goes smoothly from here on out, I'll be sure to express my appreciation to you in a much more material way."
"Th…Thank you, Ma'am," Ving blinked in mild surprise and stuttered. Then a slight smile spread across his lips as he no doubt began to imagine the possible magnitude of his reward.
"Wave me immediately if anything changes."
"I'll stay on top of it," Ving assured. He bowed deferentially to her in parting and she ended the wave. Then she logged into the Cortex and brought up the latest Alliance security bulletins. At the top of the list was the one she wanted. She typed in the wave code listed and waited for a response.
"Ni hao, Fugitive Task Force."
"I'd like to report the whereabouts of a known fugitive."
"Paquin," Chrysabel's eyes glittered with greed as she spoke, roving over the reward amount emblazoned in large numbers on her screen. One million credits. This would be the biggest payoff of her gambling career.
"I still don't see why you wouldn't let me play a few hands. Coulda doubled our money easy." Mal ignored Jayne's mutterings as they climbed back into the shuttle atop the floating casino. Some men might have found the temptation to take a chance and boost their earnings too much to resist, and Chrysabel was most certainly counting on him being one of those men. But he was not being entirely facetious when he told her that he did not believe in gambling. At the very least, he did not believe in gambling with money that was to keep them fueled and fed for the next two weeks. Even then, at only twenty-five platinum, two weeks might be a stretch. Still, if they made good on this and Chrysabel made good on her promise of more work, they might just be able to live normally instead of bouncing from one end of the Verse to the other, barely scraping by. Of course, they had not even done the job yet, so he was not about to jinx the whole thing by letting his guard down. As cynical as he was, though, it was hard not to feel at least a little buoyant with some fresh coin in his pocket and the prospect of more on the way. He reached for the com to wave Zoe as the shuttle lifted off of the landing pad.
"Zoe, start gettin' her prepped. We lift off tomorrow at 0730 for New Melbourne."
"We got a job, then?"
"That we do. I'll give you the details when we're back on the ship. Meantime, I want everything gotten ready to go, and lists of what we need in terms of supplies."
"You got an advance?"
"Yeah, but it ain't much, so keep it tight."
"How much?" Zoe pressed.
"Twenty-five." His first mate did not look much enthused at that number. "Look, I know it ain't the most we've ever been paid, but it's money. And once we prove ourselves with this Gangster of Boats, there's plenty more to come our way. She knows we're a good value. She even called me a diamond in the rough," he boasted.
"Called you a diamond in the rough?"
"That's what she said."
"Remind me never to buy jewelry from her."
"Just get her prepped."
"See you in a few hours."
Zoe closed the wave screen after Mal signed off and strode off the bridge. She worked her way down to the common area where she found everyone except River at the little table playing cards and looking excruciatingly bored.
"Let's look alive," she called, dropping down the stairs. "Cap'n got us a job. Need to be ready for liftoff at 0730 tomorrow."
"Finally, somethin' to do besides lose to Inara," Kaylee grumbled.
"I love you, too, Kaylee," Inara smiled sweetly at the mechanic.
"Enough!" Zoe snapped at them. Her sharpness was completely unnecessary, but for some reason their good-natured banter caused her anger to flare. She immediately regretted it as an awkward silence settled over everyone in the shadow of her rebuke. It seemed that she had been doing a lot of that recently and it bothered her in part because it was so uncharacteristic. She knew she should apologize, but at the moment it felt like just another burden to deal with on top of the work to be done. She would make it up to them later, she promised herself. "Let's get together what we're gonna need for a trip to New Melbourne," she advised, making an effort to return to her usual demeanor.
"New Melbourne?" Inara questioned, her mood changing instantly.
"That's what the captain said," confirmed Zoe. She saw conflict spread across Inara's face, but took little notice of it as she was still working to control her temper. "Kaylee, what do you need?" she turned her attention to the mechanic.
"Well, the fuel cells are pretty low from our trip here. And we lost that vent shield back when we left. Other n' that, she's fit to fly."
"Simon?" she shifted to the doctor."The infirmary could use some restocking. I scavenged what I could, but there wasn't much."
"Well, Captain wants a list. Get it ready, but keep it to necessities only. We don't got any to waste. Where's River?"
"Probably sleeping off last night's xu jiu," Simon uttered.
"Well, as long as she's over it by morning." A banging from within the cargo hold interrupted them.
"What's that?" asked Inara.
"Sounds like someone outside," Kaylee offered.
"I'll see to it. You all get about what you got to do," Zoe ordered, and then she hustled through the cargo bay towards the airlock, relieved to get away from the lingering uncomfortableness of situation. Reaching the outer doors, she peeked through the small, cloudy window and saw a young woman standing outside. Zoe scanned all around as much as the window's restricted view allowed, but she saw no one else, so she heaved on the latch.
"Afternoon, ma'am," the woman greeted her as the door swung open. "I was wondering if I might speak to the captain?" Zoe put her hand on her hip and regarded the woman skeptically.
"The captain's not in right now, miss. I'm the first mate. There somethin' I can do for you?" she asked, purposely not offering any introduction.
"I spoke with your mechanic last night. She said you might be headin' out in a day or two." Zoe held her silence, waiting for the woman to go on. "I was wondering if you might be interested in taking on passengers."
"And my husband," the woman added. "We're headed for the Georgia system, if we can make it." "Georgia system's on the other side of the Verse, well outta the way of where we're goin'," Zoe said, glad to have a ready excuse to turn the woman away. "Might do better lookin' for a vessel that's headed that direction instead."
"We're not particular how we get there, ma'am. Ain't too many ships that come out this far, and we can't afford those in the city. You take us as far as you can and we'll make our own way."
"Can't guarantee we'll have space," Zoe tried another tack. "Don't yet know what our cargo is. Plus there's extra rations and supplies to consider."
"We can pay for our board as well," the woman offered. Zoe pursed her lips. She was persistent, that much was clear, which meant she really wanted to get off this rock. Which probably meant trouble.
"I would have to speak with the captain on it. He'd have final say," she said, but mostly just to get the woman gone. She had no real intention of asking Mal. The woman's eyes lingered on her for a fraction of a second too long, further confirming that there was something suspicious about her request.
"Much appreciated, ma'am," the woman replied, her tone just a note more wary than before. "I'll stop by later, if that's not a problem." Zoe nodded neutrally. "Thank you." The woman turned and departed towards the gypsy encampment.
Zoe watched her for a while before closing the door. She hoped that the woman had gotten the message that she was not welcome and would not make a return visit. Passengers were one thing they could do well without right now. Still, standing inside the airlock, she wondered why she had not just turned the woman down outright. That would have been the simplest thing to do. So why had she not just said no? Maybe she was too used to automatically deferring to Mal's leadership. She shook her head. One of these days she was going to have to break that habit. She put the woman out of her mind and headed back inside to oversee the preparations for tomorrow's departure.
As evening deepened on Paquin again, Mal and Zoe finished unloading their recent purchases from the mule. Spending practically all of the advance on supplies had dampened Mal's earlier enthusiasm about the job, but he tried to think of it as an investment rather than an expense. His original wariness about Chrysabel had also returned to some degree, mostly thanks to Zoe's implacable skepticism, but he was more or less committed now. The best thing to do was to see this through. He was pretty certain that his assessment of the Gangster of Boats was accurate, so now it was just a matter of doing the job and collecting his fee. Engrossed in the work and his thoughts, he did not even hear the approach of someone from out of the dusk until there was a gentle rap on the side of the loading ramp. He glanced around, surprised.
"Evenin' sir. Might you be the captain?" the visitor, a young woman, inquired.
"That's right," Mal confirmed, leaving his crates and coming out to meet her.
"My name is Anna, sir, and I spoke with your first mate earlier today."
"You did?" Mal asked with a glance back at Zoe. She did not meet his eyes, but kept steadfastly unloading. "Well, pleased to make your acquaintance, Anna," Mal offered a business-like handshake, which the woman accepted with some hesitance. Mal found her quite a blossom. Especially alluring were her pale green eyes. She shifted them away from him for an instant, as if embarrassed by his attention on her.
"She said I should speak to you about buying passage for my husband and me."
"I see." Mal's initial appreciation of her quickly faded. "Well, I hate to disappoint you, but we're expectin' cargo, so it's not likely we'll have enough space for you and your husband."
"We don't got much luggage," Anna assured him just a touch too quickly. "Just one duffel each and our instruments. And we can pay, five platinum apiece." That figure gave Mal pause. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Zoe halt in her work as well, watching them both. He regarded the woman closely. Ten platinum would make a nice little safety cushion in case things went sour with Chrysabel. However, the woman's demeanor set his warning instincts alight. Something was off with her request, and especially with her suggestion of payment. Passengers never offered the rate of fare. Plus, she had not even asked where Serenity was headed. So as tempting as it was to take her money, his gut told him it was a bad idea.
"Sorry, Miss Anna," he put on an apologetic face. "But I just don't think I can accommodate you. I reckon you'd probably do better to find somethin' outta one of the ports in the cities."
"I understand," she murmured, though as her pale eyes swept over his features, Mal could read in them something clandestine that made him even more reluctant to accept her fare.
"Well, good luck to you," he offered without much feeling, happy to be sending her on her way.
"Thank you, sir," Anna lowered her head in acquiescence. Then she turned and disappeared into the night while Mal's gaze lingered after her, both curious and chary.
"Who was that?" Kaylee came down the stairs just in time to see her leaving the cargo hold.
"Someone lookin' to buy passage," Zoe responded, her tone not at all pleased.
"Really? Who was it?" Kaylee asked, intrigued.
"Some local woman," Mal said.
"Oh, I wonder if it was the gypsy I talked to last night," Kaylee mused. "Did she have red hair and really pretty green eyes?"
"That's right. What did she want with you?" Mal turned to his mechanic.
"Oh, um… she just asked about what we were doin' here."
"What'd you tell her?"
"Just that we were lookin' for work and we might be leavin' in a few days."
"Yeah," Kaylee nodded.
"You sure?" pressed Mal.
"I ain't dumb, Cap'n," Kaylee countered Mal's suspicion with an unappreciative glare. "I was just friendly is all." Mal relaxed somewhat at her remarks. "Still," she went on, "it woulda been nice if she could've come with us. She had such a lovely voice. You shoulda heard her."
"I think I heard enough of her as it is," Mal commented. "Now, get on with you. Make sure everything's ready for tomorrow, then off to bed. We got an early day." He hurried Kaylee along and then turned to close up the loading ramp. "You didn't tell me she stopped by earlier," he mentioned to Zoe as the ramp retracted, sealing out the Paquin night. His tone was casual, but he knew she would get his drift. Zoe frowned, not meeting his gaze while she went back to work.
"Just didn't think it was important, sir," she answered, voice cool but edged with restraint.
"I knew we weren't lookin' to take on fares, and I tried to make that clear to her so she wouldn't come back. Obviously she didn't get the message. Besides, she's trouble, mark my words. It's not like we haven't had enough problems with passengers as it is."
"What, you mean the Tams?" Mal asked, surprised at her insinuation. "What's wrong with them?" Zoe glowered at him. She dropped the last crate off the mule a bit harder than necessary and hopped down.
"See you in the morning, sir," she clipped, bitterness seeping throughout her words. Mal, confused, watched her stomp up the stairs to the catwalk.
What's her issue? he wondered. Sure, things had gone rough the last few months… well, maybe rough was an understatement. But did she really put all of their troubles on the Tams? He was to blame as much as anyone for what had happened. He had decided to keep Simon and River on board when he could have left them behind. If he had put them off, Serenity never would have gotten involved in uncovering the secret of Miranda, and Wash and Book would still be alive. That consideration had crossed his mind many a time since, but it could not be changed no matter how guilty he felt about it. They had gotten involved, and they had all agreed it was the right thing to do. That was why he had given his crew a choice. He knew that taking a stand always came with a price. He had learned that during the war. So had Zoe. But this time the price was nothing so abstract as an ideal or principle. Maybe she would have chosen differently if she had known what it would cost her. Maybe she needed someone to blame to help her cope with what happened. But it was not like River had chosen to be the Alliance's guinea pig for their sick little experiments, either. She had not chosen know the secret which terrorized her already fragile mind. Hell, she had not even chosen to become a fugitive, or to come on board Serenity. Simon did that for her when he broke her out. In fact, through all of it, River was the only one who never had a say in what happened to her. He hoped Zoe realized that and would not take her anguish out on the girl. That was the last thing he needed, to break up a fight between the two most dangerous people on his ship. Shaking his head, he finished stowing the remaining supplies before heading upstairs himself.