Chapter Three: Strictly Legal
Dita filled her shopping cart with carrots and potatoes.
“We need garlic too, Mama,” Hope reminded her.
Her mother looked at the list she had put together while they were still out There. Now on Freya, here in the CentraPro Produce Depot some of the staples seemed like luxuries. Why was salt so expensive?
Sugar -- cane/beet
Hot sauce (Barbados style & Sribachi)
“At least we can buy the canned foods in bulk,” she muttered.
“We can get salt on Octavian, mama. They have an ocean!”
“You’re right, baby. But I don’t know if the price will be lower. The salt beds are owned by CentraPro too.”
“They paid for terraforming that world, so they own a lot of the resources. Same all over. Sometimes they did the terraforming, sometimes they bought out the corporation that did it. They own a lot of resource worlds.”
“Is that why we ship so much...”
“Hush, child. We don’t talk about work in public.”
“Well, blimey, if it ain’t the beautiful and dangerous Dita Aglukak.”
Dita turned swiftly, pushing her daughter behind her and backing both of them against the wall.
“Didn’ know Bluebell was in town, sweet’eart. You an Rand gonna be droppin in on me?”
“Let Rand know that I’ve got a simple two way deal if he’s innerested. Cargo out, and cargo back.”
“An’ who’s this wee pearl? You lil Hope, darling?”
Hope looked nervously at the tall, skinny man. He seemed friendly enough, but she didn’t like him.
“I’ve a brickie ’bout your age, too. Stepchild. Wife Sandy’s kid.”
“You’re married?” Dita exclaimed.
“Four years back. We’re five, Two other men and another woman, plus assorted kids. Like your family.”
“We’re not polyamorist.”
“Best thing I ever did. Nothin like family to keep a man healthy and focussed. An good for business. Sandy’s got a house on the docks that c’d support us all, if necessary. We’re expandin ex-pon-en-tially. Tell Rand to get in touch, we can work together. An bring the kid, I’ll innerduce er to our Vickie.”
Snake left, pushing a cart filled with expensive imported oranges.
“I don’t like that man, mama. Do I have to play with his stepdaughter?”
“No, honey. He’s just business, not a friend. You’ll probably never see him again.”
“There are dried mushrooms and sea vegetable in Aisle Four, mama. Are those on the list.? And noodles.”
Rand was amused by Mamie ’s sentimental reaction to Snake’s marriage.
“C’mon, babe. He found true love. Four times over! Ain’t that sweet?”
“Just amazing that even one person would consider that grubby creep that way.” Rand shuddered melodramatically.
“Says he has work for us, though.” Dita reminded him.
“Reckon we should call on him then. We don’t really need the money but always keep options open.
“We always need the money, bossman. Kids need shoes, Dita didn’t have enough for her whole list at the Produce,” Marco the supercargo reminded them.
“And I missed my allowance this week. And last.” pointed out Hope.
” ’Lownse” babbled Derry.
“You, sonny me lad, don’t get an allowance until you can form sentences, ’kay.?” Rand swung his tiny son over his head.
“Lownse! Lownse! Cap’n!” cried the toddler.
“So what’s this job you need doin, Snake?” Rand demanded.
“I gotta load of glass cannin jars to move to Herschel. Then you pick up canned goods, and bring em back here. All nice and legal.”
“So why us then?”
“Yer here, aincha? It’s harvest time and the cannin plants is runnin low. Had a bumper crop of ... whatever they grow there. They gotta can it or bury it.”
“Herschel’s off Elijah.,” Dita noted.
“Look, there’s no reason to fuss about that. Yeah, you had a little run in with M’goyo a while back.”
“Run in, fuck, Snake, he killed me!”
“And brought you back!”
“Just so’s he could kill me again more slow-like!”
“No reason he should ever know yer in the vin-cin. Safe as ’ouses.”
Snake found himself at the end of two Death Glares.
“An’ they got governance now. The Feds has appointed a new Governor and they’s a IAV ship patrollin with two squadrons of SREVs for enforcement. M’goyo’s time is gettin short.”
“Legal cargo, remember? You’ll have all your paperwork clean an clear. Look, Rand, I ain’t gonna lie, this ain’t a big cargo for me, or for you, but it could lead to more legal work. And legal money is easy money.”
“We got kids on board.”
“I met Dita’s brickie. You got more?”
“Got a boy, too.”
“Congratulations to both of you.”
“He’s my boy, not Dita’s.”
“We got six kids in our fambly. An one of mine on the way.”
Dita suppressed a shudder at the idea of Snake reproducing.
“Look. I need this cargo. I’m prepared to be generous about pay. An I’ll make sure the Security knows yer in the neighbourhood so’s they can watch for you.”
”Security? Sounds familiar.”
“They’ve been around the outer worlds for years. Actually a fairly easy bunch to deal with long’s they don’t think you are connin em. The captain’s got a stick up his ass about smugglin and salvage, but like I said, this is a legal cargo.”
“Whatya think, Dita?”
“We’ll have Federal protection, sir.”
“That a yes or a no, Dita?”
“Just sayin, sir.”
“You’re gonna take us to Elijah, Randolf?”
“Mamie , sweets, it’s not as big a worry as it seems. It’s not Elijah, it’s Herschel. It’s legal cargo, both ways. And we’ll be watched by government ships while we’re in system.”
“Is that achulley a benefit? War’nt Security the one that arrested us all, when Hope was a babe in arms?”
“That was a misunderstanding about salvage licenses. We walked. It’ll be fine. Don’t fuss.”
“Snake, I’m getting hot tongue and cold shoulder over this job. Not so sure we can follow through.”
“Look, I’ll give you my word. I’ll do better n that, I’ll send my stepdaughter along with you. Would I do that if I thought there was any danger?”
“I’m truly hurt, Rand. I love that kiddie like she was my own. Which, legally she is, since I married her mother. An she’s about your kid’s age, so they can be company for each other.”
“Hope don’t need company. She’s got family”
“Well, Sandy is tired with bein preggers and Vickie could do with a holiday from her, an I’d like her to learn my business as well as her mum’s.”
“Her mum? Thought her mum run a brothel? How old is yer Vickie?”
“An she knows how to run a brothel?”
“Well, not ever’thin. Her sums ain’t too good. But she can make pointments and do a work rota like nobody’s business.”
Rand was both impressed and appalled. “So you want me to teach her the finer points of movin cargo ?”
“Yep. Start em young. An this is a simple job. Legal. Easy.”
Vickie came aboard with a small rolling case and a large doll. Hope shook her hand, then showed her to the passenger dorm where she would sleep. Vickie looked nervous.
“Do you have your own room at home?”
“No, I share with my little brother. He’s four.”
“I share with my momma. She’s a widow woman. I’ll share with you, if you like, while you’re here,” Hope told her.
“I have three daddies and two mummies. ”
“I have aunties and uncles, but never no daddy,” explained Hope matter of factly.
The two girls went to inspect their room, apparently satisfied with the arrangement. Rand and Dita returned to supervising the stowing of the pallets of glass jars.
“The last two pallets are metal lids and rings,” said Snake.“Dita still pilotin?”
Rand did not reply to that. “I ain’t completely comfortable with this run.”
“Lookee. Here’s the call code for the Security. And this here’s the code for the commander, his own self. You run into any problems, scream for help.”
The trip to Herschel was quiet. The girls decided they liked each other well enough and spent much of their time playing with their dolls, occasionally pressing Derry into service as an extra baby. After helping change his diaper, Vickie decided that it was time he was toilet trained and the girls harassed him first into reporting wet pants, then the need to pee.
This necessitated having many pails and bowls scattered about the ship just in case. Marco was disgusted by this because the girls did not think it necessary to empty the used containers and it was Marco’s week on honeywagon duty.
At Herschel, the cargo was unloaded and the canning factory staff expressed delight at the fast delivery of their order. They helped smooth the paperwork at the customs office, easy enough since as Snake had promised, everything was legal and the paperwork was clean. The manager of the plant invited the crew out for a drink to thank them.
Dita and Marco accepted, but Rand and Mamie stayed behind to take care of the kids and to have a private date night.
Leaving Derry asleep in their shared bunk, Rand and Mamie had watched a vid cuddled on the common area chesterfield and then retired to an empty passenger dorm where they could make love without worrying about waking the baby.
Bluebell was closed up for the night, but the side door was unlocked to allow the revellers access on their return. The comm unit in the cargo bay was open so they could notify the captain when they got back. Everyone on the boat was in bed, if not asleep, before darkness had fallen.
“Why are you stoppin, Rand? Please... harder now.”
“No, sweets. Was there a funny noise? ”
“I don’t hear anythin. Just you breathin. And yer heart beatin.”
There was a clanking noise from the comm. Then the sound of cursing.
“That’s not Marco. Someone is on the boat.”
Rand grabbed his pants and gun. Pulling away from Mamie , he buttoned his pants on the run. Barefoot he rushed through the galley to the cargo bay, in time to see two men leaving the ship each carrying something slung over his shoulder.
Rand fired at their backs and ran after them, but lost them in the Madonnas of the dockyard.
“What in seven hells could they have taken? There’s no cargo on board yet.”
Mamie could hear Derry crying, woken by the gunshot. Nothing from the girls. She ran to check on them and found their room empty.
“Hope! Vickie! Come out! No foolin, now! REPORT!” she cried into the comm.
Rand had run out the side door and looked for any trace of the intruders. Now he returned and spoke into the crew radios. “Get back here right away. Don’t stop for anything. And if you can bring helpers, do it.”
While checking on the baby, Mamie had redressed. Now she joined Rand on the bridge and, carrying her sleeping son, watched tensely while Rand called the Dockyard office
“No response,” he reported. “Either they’re closed, which they are not supposed to be, or they are not able to respond.”
“Call the Hershel police,” suggested Mamie .
“I’m thinkin the kids were grabbed by M’goyo’s men. And the Hershel police are like to be his bought men.”
Mamie looked appalled.
“Why would anyone grab little girls?”
Rand just looked at her. Mamie shuddered.†
“If it’s M’goyo, he’s not after the girls. He wants us.”
“Call the Security.”
“Donít want the government-- they know us.”
“Fuck that, Rand. M’goyo is too big for us to handle. Call.”
She could see Rand fighting with himself over asking help from the hated Feds. Then he called , not the Security, but the personal code of the commander that Snake had given him.
“I ain’t gonna mess around with no paperpushers.”
Although it was late evening on Hershel, it was apparently still the work day on the great ship city. The commander responded immediately.
“This is Rand Hudson, captain of the cargo ship Bluebell. Got this call number from Freya/Barsoom ColonyHonest Traders. I’m reporting the kidnapping of two children.” The commander snapped to attention on the tiny screen.
“We’re parked at the Hershel Central Dockyard. We’re transporting a cargo of glass to Hershel and canned goods back to Freya for the Freya/ Barsoom ColonyHonest Traders. We have three children on board and while the boat was closed up for the night, the two little girls was snatched.”
Mamie could see the Commander waving officers over to the cortex screen. He had also punched for a recording.
“We need descriptions of the girls and if you saw the kidnappers.”
“Our girl is Hope Aglukak. She’s five, about a metre tall, blonde hair in cornrows, brown skin, brown eyes. The other girl is Vickie Pollard, seven, about a metre twenty, a little pudgy, pink complexion, straight blonde hair. Sheís not our crew, she’s a friend from Freya, daughter of one of the Honest Traders.” said Mamie .
“That information is now with every foot and car patrol on Hershel. Oberman, could you put a landlock on all the ships at the Hershel dock?”
“Done, sir” came a disembodied voice.
“That won’t help with shuttles parked away from the docks.” said Rand grimly.
“No. But we watch the sky constantly. Just traffic cop stuff, but useful in emergencies too. Now, you saw the kidnappers.”
“Just their backs as they left. I’m ashamed to say we were not locked up. Some crew are on shore leave and we wanted to make it easy for them when they got home.”
“Both tall, both men. Probably. I saw them outlined against the dockyard light as they left. They carried one girl each over their shoulders. The girls were not moving. Can’t tell you hair colour, clothing, except that one wore darker pants than the other.”
“Have you notified the local police?”
“We’re not convinced that they would be ... We’ve had some run-ins with M’goyo in the past.”
“And you think this might be payback?”
“Have you dealt with M’goyo?”
“Understood. We’ve been building a case, several cases, actually, against him for more than three years now. I will give your information to the Hershel force, but frankly, you were right to call us first.
“I just got word that two SREVs are on their way; one has already landed at the Yard, actually. Please give them your fullest cooperation.”
Rand and Mamie heard noises in the cargo bay. Locking Mamie and Derry on the bridge, Rand headed down with his pistol drawn. He hit the lights, blinding Dita and Marco as they pounded into the bay.
Rand quailed at the idea of telling Dita he had lost her daughter. Then he pulled himself together and, still barefoot and shirtless, descended to meet the crew.
His news was greeted by a shocked growl from Marco,and a roundhouse punch from Dita that knocked him to the floor.
Marco, thinking like a tracker, had run to the girls’ stateroom and was looking for clues. The girls had been painting before bed and coloured paper and wet brushes were scattered on the floor. Marco found a torn corner in the hallway.
“They might be tryin to leave a trail. But they won’t have much paper and it’s a little windy. Y’heard a clankin noise?”
“Yeah, that an some cursin made me realize there was strangers aboard. Thought someone was fixin ta rob us.”
Marco was sniffing the air. “There’s yer clankin. Those creeps tripped on a bucket of baby piss. That might be useful.”
A squad of uniformed Alliance soldiers appeared at the door.
“Captain Hudson? I’m Sargeant Sheng,” the fresh faced woman said. “We got out orders from the Security. Is there anything you can add that might help my squad?”
“Looks like one of the buggers might smell of piss. He kicked over a pailful when they was takin the kids.”
The sergeant looked disgusted at the toilet habits of spacers.
“I’m goin with you.” said Dita.
“And you are?”
“Dita Aglukak. They took my baby.”
The sergeant looked doubtful. “We usually try to keep the parents away from the search party. You may be more useful here, waiting for the call.”
“Ransom. There is reason to think the bastards were not planning to rob the ship, but had targeted the children.”
Mamie emerged from the bridge, followed by Ditawho had unlocked the door. “Targeted? They were after the girls? M’goyo was after the girls?”
Rand spoke firmly to the purplebelly sergeant. “Marco here is the best tracker I’ve ever met. Includin city trackin. Unless you got dogs, I’d suggest you take him along or give him a crew to work for him.
“And Dita is a soldier. If you allow her along she will follow orders. And she has more reason to find the kids than anyone here.”
Sheng considered for a moment. “Right. You stay here and wait for a call. I’ll leave men on the door. Aglukak, you go with Corporal Mukerjee’s platoon. Do you have weapons?”
Dita pushed back her coat to show her mare’s leg pistol. Sheng nodded approval.
“Marco. You lead Corporal Beatty’s patrol in finding a trail. We don’t think they will be in the dockyard, but they may have a shuttle parked nearby. They have just under an hour on us. Let’s roll.
“And Captain Hudson, I’d advise you to get dressed. It gets cold on Hershel at night.”
Bluebell was lit up like a nova, every light on high, while Rand and some of the foot patrol, checked her for clues about the kidnappers.
Mamie was locked in the bridge with Derry, peacefully sleeping in his travel cot, and Sargent Sheng.
There was a buzz from the comm. Sheng nodded to Mamie to answer it. She shuddered when she saw the kindly smile on M’goyo’s face.
“Ah, hello young lady. I think I do not know you? Do you work for Snake? He has been a very naughty boy. He took something of mine.”
Mamie trembled. What was Snake to M’goyo? They worked together didn’t they? She looked fearfully over at Sheng, who indicated that Mamie should reply.
“I don’t know what he’s done. Do you know something about the girls?”
“His daughter, yes?” M’goyo looked puzzled. “He has more than one?”
“I don’t know. A little girl was travelling with us, a friend of ... of my daughter.” Mamie realized that M’goyo did not know who she was nor that his men had grabbed Hope Aglukak along with Vickie.
“Two girls? Sloppy of my messengers. But more for me to work with. Tell Snake to call me.” And M’goyo closed the connection.
“Can we contact this Snake?” asked Sheng.
“I know the codes,” said Mamie .
Sheng and Mamie were surprised that she got through immediately to Snake’s office on Pentangle, where it was evidently day.
“Well, it’s Rand’s little friend from Pentagle. He finally let you know that I was askin fer you, sweet’eart?”
“I knew. Just not innerested. What have you done to cross M’goyo? What was special about this cargo?”
“Nothin! Strictly legal, like I tol’ yer capt’n.”
“So why has he snatched our Hope and your Vickie?”
Snake’s pasty face turned a little green. “Bloody shite,” he muttered. His oily smile returned. “Nuthin. Strictly legal, just like I tol’ Rand.”
“Then what did you leave out?” Rand loomed over his tiny wife. “Cause we got two missing children and no reason to think M’goyo would be any easier on them than on a grown man.”
In spite of the millions of kilometres between them, Snake quailed at the fierceness in Rand’s voice.
“M’goyo has a lot of straight businesses too. He’s been expandin’ in the strictly legal sector. Could be he wanted to be the only source for cannin’ jars on Hershel. Monopoly-like.”
Rand glared. Mamie ’s stream of invective showed that she had been paying close attention in the rough dives the ‘Bluebell’s crew had introduced her to over the past decade. Snake looked embarrassed by her language.
“You will call M’goyo right now. You will promise him whatever he wants.” Rand said flatly. Sheng looked disturbed. Rand ignored her. “But remember, M’goyo isn’t satisfied with square one. He will want two pounds of flesh. And that better not be Hope.í
He cut off the call.
Then he clicked “return”. Snake’s frightened face appeared, half turned to a dainty blonde woman behind him. “It better not be Vickie either,” added Rand.
Before he cut the connection again, he heard the blonde say,“What was that about rVickie?”
The police had found the dockyard office abandoned and locked. They opened the door by judicious use of a targeted explosion and were able to switch on all the lights over the parked ships. The yard was brighter than day.
“M’goyo should be able to see us from his satellite,” Mukerjee, the police officer leading the party muttered.
“You’re familiar with M’goyo?” asked Dita.
The officer grunted. “He keeps out the random crooks and grifters, but his own riffraff are probably worse. They are as nasty and vicious as ...”
“Pirates? Slavers?” another officer interjected.
“We’ve arrested them for both,” said Mukerjee. “But we arrest them for murder, rape, assault and the next thing they’re back out on the streets. Orders of a Chene judge.”
“Muk!” called a policeman,“I think I saw some movement down this way.”
Dita was pounding down the narrow passage between a Dasher II and a Milspec Intruder before Mukerjee could give orders to his crew.
The other police party had dropped slightly behind Marco, recognizing his tracking expertise within minutes of leaving the ship. With little light, Marco was using his nose to follow the faint scent of baby urine that clung to the invader’s shoe. The path took him towards the back of the shipyard, where a drydock serviced breakdowns.
Halfway there, the lights came on and Marco, blinking in the sudden flash, was able to see bootprints that might have been a little deeper and longer than most on the dirt paths between the randomly parked spacecraft.
He beckoned the police leader. “Keep it quiet. They might think they outsmarted us by goin’ for the drydock. They’ll have a workin’ ship there.”
The leader, Beatty, nodded. She signalled her crew to be silent and they nodded acquiescence.
As they approached the drydock, there were fewer footprints but the bootprints continued. The ships here were parked farther apart to allow workcrews scope. There was no actual boundary between the parking area and the repair area.
“Most of these ships are cold, but Frenchie’s getting a heat signal over that way.”
“Goes with the bootprints.”
“Ií’ll lead with the heat seeker.”
Marco dropped back. He didn’t mind following when someone could do the job better. Besides Frenchie had a great ass in those tight uniform pants. Marco considered asking for a date when this was settled.
The squad approached and surrounded an apparently derelict Streak, a small shuttle suitable only for in-atmo transport.
“Do the landlocks extend over here?”
“Hope so. Sheng might have assumed the station was smart enough to think of it. She’s an optimist.”
“There an escape hatch?”
Beatty looked unsure. One of the squaddies whispered, “I had one of these back home. The hatch is on the other side. And it can be opened from either side. There’s no airlock on it.”
“Good for us, though.”
Beatty made up her mind. “You know the craft. Get over there quiet and open the door. Keep your face shield down and all your armour in place. Don’t go shooting. You got your knife?”
The squaddie pulled out his weapon and reholstered it fast enough to impress Marco.
“What do you want me to do?” Marco asked.
“You’ve got no body armour, right?” Marco nodded. “Then stay put near the main entry. Be the familiar face when we pull the girls out. If the bastards manage to flee, stop them, but try not to kill. We want evidence.”
“Findin them with the kids ain’t evidence?”
“Evidence against M’goyo. Bastards ’ll be safer on Security telling us all than going back to thier boss as failures.”
Dita and Mukerjee’s crew arrived just as the girls ran out the entry and Beatty’s crew grabbed M’goyo’s men.
Hope clung to her mother while plump Vickie launched herself at Marco, gripping him tightly around the neck. Unsure of what to do with a frightened child, Marco patted her back tentatively and muttered,“There, there”
Frenchie, the soldier with the glorious buttocks, flashed him a grin from under lowered eyelashes. Marco grinned back.
Back on Bluebell, the girls were bedded down in Dita’s cabin, whose steel walls and lockable door made them feel more secure.
Rand struggled with the painful task of thanking the soldiers.
Sheng stopped him.
“It’s our job. Peace Order and Good Government. We can’t do much about the last, but we can work on the first two.”
“Think you’ll get much from them about M’goyo?”
“They’re pretty low on the food chain, but we can get their bosses and maybe their bosses’ bosses. M’goyois running out of underlings and finding it harder and harder to recruit. But the Federated Worlds has lots of people and believe it or not, we want things out here to get better. Some of us even are from the Outer Worlds,too.”
“Don’t look like that, Captain.” said Sheng. “But we think, well, I suppose some are just in it for the paycheque, but a goodly number think that the easiest way to be free is to know what the rules are and to know that everybody has the same rules.
“Someone like M’goyo, he ain’t the real thing, for all he crows about freedom. You’ve run into them tinpot dictators with big talk about freedom and silence about the slaves working in their farms and factories.
“It’s our forces that will put those creeps out of business. Eventually. If we work together.”