Once everything with the station security agent was cleared, and Lucky knew that in spite of them being let go this was not the last she would hear about it, the two ladies resumed their walk to see Aces. She was a little surprised to be taken to a flop house, little better than the coffin sized cells in the detention center. His ordinary place of residence was quite a bit more upscale. This was a good place to lay low though. They didn’t cost much, spacers where the typical residents and Bifrost didn’t encourage ones with little money to stay any longer than necessary. They weren’t exactly picky about getting your right name so long as you had a method of payment, Finally they charged by the hour so if you did have to leave in a hurry you only paid for what you used.
Each unit was one meter high, one and a half wide and two meters long. They were double stacked on each long hall and there were three floors in this unit. Over all there were six hundred units. She knew there were permanent residents that lived here too. She couldn’t imagine it herself, though if all you needed was a place to crash and maybe heat up a meal or watch something on the station net, there were worse places to live. They were clean, though somehow everything managed to feel grimy.
Kim led her to a top unit on the first floor. A red light on the outside indicated that the occupant was at home, telling the cleaners to skip it and letting any potential thieves know the same. Lucky nodded at her to let her know to push the buzzer. She did, and after a few seconds the door popped open. A pleasingly aromatic smell wafted out. Aces had been cooking. He slid out of the hole and landed feet first on the deck.
Dave “Aces” Minkus was well dressed in a navy and white suit. His jet black hair was a little sleep mussed and his slightly slanted eyes had that fresh from a nap look. He and Kim were close in height, be Aces was almost painfully slight. Lucky knew that was a little deceptive. The man could take care of himself in a scrap, though he preferred to talk his way out. At first he only had eyes for his lady, but then he noticed Lucky.
“Uh… hey there Lucky.” He nodded a little sheepishly and rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand. “Good to see you.”
Lucky stood there quietly. She found that silence was a wonderful tool for softening someone up. After a slightly too long pause, she spoke. “Hi Aces. I think you’re forgetting something. Don’t you mean it’s good to see me… alive?”
Aces looked from her to Kim and then back to her. His glance toward his betrothed was a little peevish. When met with a ‘what do you want me to do?’ shrug, that look melted. He knew Lucky better than quite a few people and understood. “I’m not gonna deny it Lucky. It is good to see you alive and unhurt. When you left I had no idea…”
Lucky cut him off. “That’s part of the problem. You should have had some idea. And if It was that sketchy you should have let me know. I recall the words ‘piece of cake’ and something about babies and candy’. I should have smelled something off at that point, but I trusted you. Was that a mistake?”
He rounded on her, hackles raised. “Now look here, we’ve worked together for years and never, not ever have I steered you wrong.” His anger didn’t hold. “At least not on purpose.” He knew as well as she did that this wasn’t the first questionable call he had made. It was, to his credit, the first time in a long time though.
“Look me in my eyes and tell me there were no warning bells in this deal for you.” Her dark eyes widened, demanding honesty.
His own gray irises locked on her and stayed there for a full fifteen seconds. Then they slid to the ground. There was a loud thud and he listed to one side briefly. His hand flew to his right shoulder and he turned to look at Kim. “Owww. What’d you do that for? That hurt.” It wasn’t a whine. For his faults, Aces wasn’t a whiner. There was some genuine pain there though. She had gotten him in a good sucker punch.
Kim’s voice was sharp. “You know damn well why I did that. You put your friend in harms way. If you treat her that way, how’re you going to treat me?” The question ended on a hurt tone.
“Now Kim,” Lucky couldn’t let her beat up on him too badly, “in his defense and to steal his next words from him, I’m an old pro. I should have asked a few more questions. I’ve been in this business in one form or another since he popped out of his mother. I think he’d take care of you as well as any of us are truly able of taking care of someone else.” She backhanded him on the other shoulder, eliciting another yelp of pain, more surprise really. “But I’ve taught you better than that. You communicate to me any reservations you have about a job. At least give me a chance to do some of my own intel.”
Aces stepped back, well out of reach of either woman. His eyes were resigned. “You’re right, of course. I was stupid. I thought that this one would be an easy one. The money was good, really good, compared to what it seemed to entail. That did set off an alarm, but I needed the money.” He took another step back.
Uh oh. Something else was going on here. “You needed the money, why?” Lucky’s eyes narrowed to slits.
He took another step back. “There was some trouble.” He took another step back.
Lucky didn’t move forward an inch. She saw what he was doing. She squatted and looked at the ground between Aces’ feet. Her forearms rested on her thighs. She could have her baton out and extended in a flash. She didn’t want to assault a friend, but there were to many things at stake right now, not the least of which was her neck. His too probably depending on who was behind all of this. “So talk to me about this trouble.”
Kim looked back and forth between Aces and Lucky. “Yeah baby, tell us about the trouble.” She moved toward him, intending to comfort him.
It was too much. Aces took a double step back. He wasn’t cornered. The stairs where only a few meters away. Beads of sweat popped to the surface of his skin. His eyes darted around. Then, realization seemed to come to his eyes. His shoulders slumped and then his body followed. He was on his knees in the next second. His hands cradled his head and his fingers splayed in dark hair. He wasn’t crying, at least there were no sobs or visible tears.
Lucky stayed where she was and watched Kim move to comfort her man. After a minute or two of shushing, platitudes, petting and patting, she came to her feet. “Tell us about the trouble Dave. It’s important to know why you put me, your fiancee, yourself, and everything you and I have worked for in jeopardy.”
Kim’s eyes flashed over to her. She was now in full on ‘defend my man’ mode. “You’re not interested in me or in him. All you care about is your reputation.”
Lucky hated to be wrong, but she was really beginning to reassess Mae’s hiring process for these new girls. The ones that had come on in the early days were generally bright and hard workers. Maybe that had colored Lucky’s perception of this particular one. Because she wasn’t all that bright. “Kim. I’ve know Mr. Minkus there a lot longer than you and I could argue a lot better.”
“No, no, no. He’s not my type. I just mean when you’re in a partnership that’s based on the sort of business we’re in you get to know a person pretty well. He has to know what I’m capable of so that he can pick the right jobs for me. I have to trust that he has my best interests at heart so that I feel comfortable letting him find jobs for me. So far it’s been a very lucrative partnership.” Her eyes went to the suit. It was a little thinner and threadbare than the clothes the man usually chose. He had always been a flashy dresser. He was also missing some of his favorite jewelry. She took in her surroundings and then cast her mind over what Kim had said. “Money trouble. Dave, what have you gotten yourself into?”
She took four long strides forward, stopping short of the couple. “Help him up. I want to look in his eyes again.” She wasn’t angry. Okay well that wasn’t entirely true. Emotions were complex things. She was certainly angry that he had done something so incredibly stupid as to put money troubles in front of their respective reputations and well being. So yes she was angry, but more than that she was concerned. If he had money issues why hadn’t he come to her for help. He knew that she had plenty. It was probably nothing more than stupid pride, something she herself certainly wasn’t immune to. Still, she wanted to hear it from his mouth.
The tone wasn’t to be ignored. Kim helped him to his feet and Aces stood, damp faced and managing to meet her gaze.
“Tell me Dave.” Her tone was softened. The haunted look in those eyes demanded it as much as her own had earlier demanded answers.
“It’s stupid.” He stopped. A firm squeeze form Kim got him started again. He nodded. “Gambling. I started gambling about six months ago. I had this system all worked out and rolled most of my savings into it. It worked the first few times and then the bottom fell out. I panicked. Borrowed some money and tried to get back on top. Then that was gone. This job came along. No questions asked and there was a lot of money. It would have been enough to pay off my debts and restore some of what I lost originally. I jumped at it.” He spewed the words out and would have deflated had his substantially endowed girlfriend not kept him up.
Gambling was certainly pretty stupid, Lucky nodded. “How much are we talking here?”
“A million.” His eyes went through the floor.
Lucky’s moth dropped open. That was certainly substantial. Mid six figures was usual and then they would split it. After expenses she managed to put away a comfortable amount and as far as she knew so did he. That didn’t make sense though. He had told her before she left that her cut on the job was going to be two-fifty. They always split fifty-fifty. That meant he was holding out on her in a major way. Another thought occurred to her. “You were going to skip out on me, weren’t you? Collect the money and jump before I got my cut?” She balled her right fist.
He nodded slightly.
“That’s why you were bugging Kent so much. You wanted to know the second I got back, right?” The temperature of her voice dropped several degrees.
He shrugged. “I had to Lucky. But there’s … more.” He looked up.
“Go ahead.” She said it through gritted teeth. Any matronly feeling she had for the man were an icy ball in the pit of her stomach.
“Well you know how we’ve got insurance on you, right?” His eyes went back down. “I tripled it a few weeks ago. I figured either way I’d be covered.” His last words were barely audible.
It was Lucky’s turn to step back. “You double crossing son of a …” If she didn’t step back she would hit him. They had both agreed in light of no real family or significant other that he should be her beneficiary. It didn’t hurt her feeling any. She’d be dead and he would benefit. Besides, it hadn’t been a whole lot of money. Then she heard his last sentence for real. “You bumped my insurance up to?” She whipped around and planted her fist into the nearest metal wall. Thankfully it was pretty cheap construction and was really low grade synthetic covered by even thinner metal. The resounding crunch didn’t come from her hand, thankfully. His face wouldn’t have faired any better than the wall had. It had been quite awhile since she had taken her anger out on an inappropriate inanimate object or against a friend. She felt like she made the right choice.
Kim let Aces go and ran off the way they had come from.
Aces just stood there, looking for all the world like he was awaiting the noose.
“Well I’m back and I’m alive and the cargo is under the control of the Vregonians. I’m guessing that you didn’t negotiate for us to get paid even of the cargo was lost?”
He shook his head so weakly, she wasn’t sure she really saw it.
“So we get no money and you’re still in the hole for at least a million?”
He swallowed thickly. “Well we might see some money If the ship’s insurance comes through, but that would just be a per diem for you. Wouldn’t amount to much. Our real payment was based on delivery.”
She walked over to him and grabbed his jacket. It threatened to give away. She hoisted him to a near attention posture and put her lips inches from his face. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to pay your debt. I am going to forget for the moment that you were a complete fool and we are going to continue to work together. Once we get past this mess, we are going to reevaluate our personal and professional relationship. That may be a painful experience for both of us. Do you understand?”
He nodded, looking completely bewildered. “But… but… Why?”
She let him go and he worked hard to stay upright. Looking down on him literally and figuratively, she answered his question. “Thanks to this little job that you set up, the whole crew is being held by the Vregonians. I barely managed to escape.” She was sticking with their cover story for now. It pained her, but there was no way she could trust her ‘partner’. “I need two things. One I’m going to restore my reputation after this little escapade. Two I’m going to figure out a way to get that crew rescued. So here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to tell the people who we did this job for that their cargo was compromised. Please tell me you didn’t know what it was?”
He shook his head.
“I was guarding a shipment of their eggs or embryos or whatever through their space. They were not happy. So we’re going to tell the people you got the job from that we know. We’re going to see if they have any other shipments for us to guard. You are going to do whatever you need to to make that happen. You’re also going to find out who they are. Here again I’m guessing you don’t know that either?”
He shook his head again, looking more miserable and a little confused. “Why would you want to do another job for them? Especially knowing what you know now?”
“Oh, I have an angle. You let me worry about that though. I’m guessing that these people will have another shipment.”
He nodded, looking grateful that he knew something useful at least. “I was in touch with them recently. They wanted a status update. I was able to bluff them off. It didn’t surprise me that your ship was running silent. I didn’t know what the cargo was, I swear.” He swallowed again. “But I figured it was illicit, somehow. Don’t know if they’ll know you’re back, but since I don’t know who they really are… There’s no way to be sure.”
“Fine, whatever. Make contact. Make the deal happen. Just tell me who you owe the money to and I’ll settle your debt. Once you’ve got the deal hammered out, you come meet me at Mae’s.” She paused and looked at him meaningfully. “And this should go without saying Dave, but don’t run. Do this thing and we’ll be square. Make me have to track you down again and I’ll remember what I’m trying very hard to forget.” She didn’t think he’d be able to make it off the station without her hearing about it. She’d talk to Kent as soon as she got away from Dave and tell him to keep an eye on all outbound for the man. She hoped that fear or remembered friendship would make that unnecessary.
“Okay. Lucky. I… I’m sorry. And thanks.”
“You’re welcome. And I’ll forward you a few hundred to get some decent clothes and a real place to stay. You’re not going anywhere until this whole thing’s over and while I’m away you need to line us up some real, legit jobs so that we can get your money back to the right place. You’re gonna make that Kim and honest woman.” A smile tried to crawl back on her face and almost made it.
He looked at her, uncertain. “Do you think she’ll have me?”
“I don’t know why she would. I know if I were her I wouldn’t. Then again, at you’re best, you’re handsome, charming, and apparently good in the bunk. That’s enough for some women. And I’m forgiving you, though I know I shouldn’t. So who knows. What I do know is it’s gonna take a long time to get anything like the trust you had before back up again. Think on that while you’re getting this straightened out.”
He nodded. “Thanks. I will.” His voice was low, thoughtful without being cowed. Then his face shifted. There was a look about him that Lucky didn’t much care for. “Now, on to the unpleasant part. You want to know who I borrowed the money from.”
She nodded and steeled herself for the news. Whatever it was she doubted she would like it any more than he apparently did.
Lucky unleashed a particular colorful swear. After a pause she repeated it, letting it roll off her tongue.
Mike Plested was the boss of Bifrost. The station was by no means a democracy. He was the company’s representative and was equal parts mayor and chief executive officer. She and Mike had a history. He didn’t like anyone that didn’t kowtow. She didn’t like his disregard for what she had begun to hope was common human decency.
Thankfully she had friends on Bifrost, influential friends. They couldn’t really keep him off her back entirely, but if he pushed her too far or kicked her off the station, they could make life difficult for him. Mae’s establishment was popular among the visiting dignitaries, kept the miners happy, and brought a fair amount of jobs and revenue. Kent knew where some major bodies were buried, literally and figuratively. Lucky didn’t want to use them and she never pushed things so far that the two had to get involved, but their presence was a diffusive buffer between the two powerhouse personalities.
It made sense really. Plested was the only person on the station that really had the liquid cash that Aces needed.
She shook her head. “It’s okay, Aces. You did what you had to do.” And it was. She would go and pay him the money. She wouldn’t like it one bit. The thought of lining his pockets with the usurious interest he was charing was only balanced by the notion that she was helping a friend. “And I’ll do what I have to do.”
The use of his nickname broke a little bit of the ice that had formed in the air. He held out his hand. “I will. I’ll see you tomorrow at Mae’s.”
Lucky took his hand and the two friends hugged. It was brief, broken early by Lucky. She ordinarily wasn’t one for extended displays of affection, particularly in public.
She nodded. “Alright.” And with that she turned and walked down the steps to street level.
A few mintues later and she was about halway back to Mae’s. She picked up the tail quickly. A combination of light foot traffic thanks to the lateness of the hour and absolutely no vehicles made it easy. Of course the person wasn’t really doing anything to conceal himself. It could be done by a pro.
She stopped and spun on one heel. She wasn’t terribly shocked by the person her quick movement revealed.
“Lucky.” The tall dark haired man nodded at her. Blue eyes, hooded by the respect of one predator for another, bored into her searching her for any obvious weapons. He wore a long black coat at least three hundred years out of style. She knew that he also wore at least two slug throwers and a beamer, along with a hadful of other weapons underneath it. Jeff Hite was Mike Plested’s right hand man. He did any dirty work necessary and probably a piece or two of unnecessary work as a hobby.
“Jeff, I can’t tell you how good it is to see you.” Her tone was actually legitimately pleasant. She had wanted to get back to Mae’s and get some sleep. Tackling Aces’ money problems in the morning had sounded really good. Seeing Mike tonight though might be just like ripping off an old bandaid, painful but satisfying.
He was a little taken aback by her attitude. “Good… to see you too.” As he nodded again she could see the silvery scar. It was a memento of their first run in. She had certainly earned her name that night. “The Boss would like to speak to you about something. I need you to come with me.” It wasn’t a request. When Plested wanted something it usually happened.
“Sounds good to me. I have a thing or two to talk to him about myself.”
He held his hand out, gesturing for her to take the lead. She did, certain that he wouldn’t shoot her only because the Boss wanted to see her. If he wanted her dead it was likely she’d already be cold. Jeff had no qualms about shooting someone in the back and once the business with Mike was concluded she wouldn’t be so cavalier about letting him have the advantage.