A Rake by Starlight

A Rake by Starlight: Chapter 19

A Rake by Starlight, by C. B. Wright

WHEREIN Our Hero Embraces the Nobility of Retreat

“He wanted to offer you a job?”

Grif lay on one of the couches in the Wardroom, face covered by a damp cloth, a half-empty bottle in one hand, a half-filled glass in the other. Amys, Morgan, and Cyrus sat in chairs pulled up close, each staring at him in astonishment. Ktk stood nearby, fidgeting.

Grif reached up with the hand holding the bottle and pulled back a corner of the cloth, exposing one eye. He focused on Amys.

“No,” he said, voice muffled slightly under the cloth. “He wanted to offer me employment. That’s very different.”

“Don’t see why,” Morgan said, scratching his beard thoughtfully. “Basically, he wants to pay you money to do a thing. Isn’t that pretty much what we do anyway?”

Grif sighed, pulled the cloth off his face without spilling the drink in his hand, then carefully topped off the glass. He took a swig from the bottle.

“Morgan, when someone pays you money to do a thing once they’re a customer. When someone pays you money to do a thing all the time, they stop being your customer and become your boss. I don’t want a boss. And even if I did, I don’t want a crime lord as a boss.”

Morgan shrugged again. “A customer is a customer, right? That’s what you always say.”

Until Morgan had met Grif he’d been a law-abiding scientist, and while he’d adapted to his new life better than Grif had expected, he still tended to gloss over some very important distinctions. Grif reminded himself of this as he tried to find a way to explain the difference without mocking him.

Fortunately, Amys was one step ahead of him.

“We can say no to a customer,” she said. “We do it all the time. We don’t smuggle slaves, no matter how much they pay us—if someone offers us money, we say ‘no’ and that’s that.”

“Oh…” Morgan looked sheepish. “I get it. Messhik is offering a job with a lifetime contract.”

“With a termination clause that is very literally enforced,” Grif added. He looked between the full glass and the bottle, trying to choose. He settled on the bottle again.

“So how bad is it?” Cyrus asked. “Did he make the offer we can’t refuse?”

“No,” Grif said. “It was a pretty soft sell, all things considered. Mostly carrot, with just a nod in the general direction of a closet which, I assume, is full of sticks.”

Ktk wondered why Messhik would show so much interest in them. Cyrus didn’t even hesitate before answering.

“The Varkav job.” The big man nodded once, as if it explained everything.

“Yeah,” Grif said. He chose the glass this time. “The damned Varkav job. Steal one lousy alien artifact from an impregnable fortress guarded by psychotically religious telepaths and suddenly organized crime wants to talk about your long-term career plans…”

“Two things,” Cyrus said. “The anagathics, too.”

Grif and Amys exchanged a knowing look.

“Someday,” Grif said, “I’m going to tell you the whole story behind that. You’ll probably cry.”

Ktk chittered something that wasn’t quite a question. Morgan raised an eyebrow, staring at Grif thoughtfully. Cyrus chuckled, shaking his head. Grif chose the bottle again.

“So what do we do?” Amys asked, voice brisk. “Obviously joining Messhik’s outfit isn’t something we want to do, but it looks like he’s thinking of coming after us. I don’t expect it’ll be easy to get out of it once he does.”

“No,” Grif agreed. “We’ve got a little time—he’ll play coy for a while—but eventually he’ll make us an offer and insist we accept. When that happens it’s either sign on the dotted line, run like hell, or declare war on Yidoc Messhik.”

Ktk voted to run.

“I agree with the bug,” Cyrus said. “We can’t win a war against Messhik. Might as well declare war on a Trade Baron.”

“Running sounds good to me,” Morgan said. “I don’t want a lifetime contract with a crime lord.”

“I agree,” Amys said. “Running is our best bet. Assuming we have a place to run to.”

Everyone turned back to Grif. He set the bottle down on the floor next to the couch, straightened, and took a drink from the glass. “Running sounds great. Amys is right, though—we need a place to run to. Nothing comes to mind just yet.”

“How much time do we actually have?” Amys asked.

Grif shrugged. “Some. Like I said, it was a pretty soft sell. He’ll wait a while before dangling the carrot again.”

“With more sticks next time?” Amys asked.

Grif winced. “Probably.” He took another drink. “I’d like to be on our way before we see any of the sticks. I have a bad feeling about the sticks.”

“They’re sticks,” Morgan said. “I don’t think you’re supposed to have good feelings about them.”

Grif laughed sharply. “Still, we’re stuck here until we close the deal with the Baron, so we need to let the crew know to be… you know. Alert.”

He took another drink.

Amys nodded in agreement. “Cyrus, let Cutter and Hari know. Ktk, you tell Gurgan and Vod. Morgan…” Her brow furrowed slightly. “Tell Mac and his people.”

Cyrus nodded, grunted as he got to his feet, and left. Ktk scuttled off behind him. Morgan nodded to himself, lost in thought. A moment later he looked up and found both Grif and Amys staring at him expectantly.

“Er. Right. You meant now.” Morgan chuckled. “Guess I’ll go look for Mac, then.”

He stopped at the bar before he left, picking up a bottle of Stellis Blue and a few glasses on his way out.

“Stellis,” Amys muttered, clearly disapproving of his choice.

“Some of us like the stuff,” Grif said.

“You shouldn’t be able to chew your alcohol.” Amys turned her attention back to Grif. “Now… tell me the other part.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Grif didn’t put any effort into the lie, and Amys didn’t bother reacting to it. She lounged back in her chair, watching him, waiting.

Grif drained the drink in his glass, set it down on the floor next to the bottle, then picked up the bottle to take a swig. “He knew we worked for Alef Halge.”

Amys’ eyes widened slightly.

“Called him out by name. Said they ran in ‘similar circles.’ I sort of shrugged it off at the time—I was busy having a conversation with a crime lord, you know? But it’s been knocking around in my head and it won’t settle anywhere. Why would Messhik know about him? I can’t think of a single reason that makes any sense.”

Amys mulled it over. “Maybe they worked together.”

“They…” Grif stared at Amys, then drifted slowly back to the bottle. “They what?”

“Just a guess.” Amys got up, walked over to the bar, and grabbed another glass. “’Similar circles.’”

“So Messhik’s a spook?”

Amys laughed sharply. “I doubt that very much.” She returned to her seat, set the glass down on a small end table, and grabbed the bottle out of Grif’s hand. “He’s a crime lord. That pays a hell of a lot better than being a spy.” She filled the glass half way, then motioned with the bottle to Grif’s glass, still sitting on the floor.

Grif fumbled absentmindedly for his glass, leaned forward, and placed it on the table.

“But,” Amys said, filling Grif’s glass halfway, “what if Messhik got tired of espionage, and decided to retire into organized crime?”

Grif just stared at her. “What?”

“Drink,” Amys said, and raised her own glass. Grif drank mechanically as he tried to sift through this new idea.

“I’m pretty sure everyone in the intelligence community knows about everyone else in the intelligence community,” Amys said. “At least, the ones worth knowing. It can’t be too much different from any other community. We don’t know all the smugglers, slavers, or pirates, but we know about the big ones. We know, or at least hear rumors about, the more colorful things they do. So would make sense that Messhik would know about Halge if we assume they have that common background.”

Grif nodded slowly. “Yeah. I guess it would.”

“It would explain something else, too,” Amys said. “Messhik’s operation wasn’t really upended by Baron Tylaris’ assassination. He actually gained some territory after it, if I remember my rumors correctly. Almost as if he’d had some time to prepare.”

Grif shook his head, as if the action alone could clear the feeling of stunned lethargy that had settled over his brain, and forced himself to start thinking again. “Right. That… actually makes sense. If you think about it, working through organized crime is the perfect way for a top secret black ops organization to go.”

“I don’t know if it’s perfect,” Amys said.

“Almost perfect,” Grif insisted. “If I were going to start a black ops organization—no plans, just in case you were wondering—I’d want to set it up as a crime family. That’s what I’d do, most of the time. It’s the perfect cover. It explains why you have people who are highly skilled at doing illegal things. It explains why you occasionally murder people in cold blood. It explains why you routinely dodge the law and bribe officials. And the best part is, you don’t have to bribe people to betray their nation—you just have to bribe them to break the law. People tend to see those as distinctly different things.”

Amys thought it over. “OK, that’d be pretty good cover. So what are you saying? That Messhik is actually working for Halge?”

Grif made a sour face. “Well… no. He didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who took his marching orders from anyone. But if he and Halge have a past, one or the other is going to try to exploit it. Maybe both. Maybe they’ve agreed to mutually use each other since they figure that’s how it’ll work out anyway.”

“Hm.” Amys drained the last of her glass and reached for the bottle again. “So if we run from Messhik…”

“…we might have to factor in running from Halge, too,” Grif finished.

Amys shook her head, sighing as she looked down at the bottle in her hand. “I think we’re going to need a few more of these.”

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