SOME GOLDEN HARBOR – snippet 36:

CHAPTER 9: Charlestown on Bennaria

Daniel was whistling a tune from the production number that’d climaxed the show at the Diamond Palace. The dancers were only a slender cut above what he could’ve found on the Harbor Three Strip and the comedians’ jokes hadn’t gotten any fresher for having traveled across galaxy, but live entertainment never came amiss to a spacer.

There were any number of recordings aboard the Sissie, music and dance, comedies and dramas, but human beings on a stage of boards and chintz drew Daniel as surely as they did the riggers and motormen. Perhaps their greatest virtue was that a live performance proved to the audience that they were on firm ground in sidereal space once more.

“Little white snowdrop, just waking up!” Daniel caroled, giving each word a hammered emphasis very different from the saccharine blonde who’d sung the piece half an hour before. “Violet, daisy and sweet buttercup!”

Besides, the strength and quality of the Palace’s cider made up for any deficiencies in its performers. “That was bloody good cider, Hogg,” Daniel said. “Bloody good.”

“And you drank enough of it to float the Sissie, so you did, master,” Hogg said, “but fortunately there was some left for me. And since you bring that up….”

They’d walked past the mouth of an alley. The street was crowded with pedestrians and slow-moving vehicles, but the only lighting was the garish mix of colors on the building fronts. A couple paces back from the entrance, the alley was dark as a yard up a hog’s backside.

In practiced unison, Daniel and Hogg reversed course and strode into the alley. Daniel was already fumbling for the fly of his third-best set of Grays, the uniform he wore when he was looking for entertainment at harborside instead of in the parlors of the wealthy.

A cat or a dog–or perhaps a drunk–scuttled into the deeper darkness. Daniel wasn’t worried. A mugger foolish enough to set on him and Hogg together would just be more entertainment.

Judging they were far enough in, Daniel turned to the wall–the back of the Diamond Palace, he supposed–and relieved himself with a feeling of enormous relaxation. He really had put down a lot of that cider….

“You know, Hogg,” he said, “I’ve often thought that the simplest things are the most satisfying. Somebody should write a book–”

A car turned into the alley from other end, its headlights filling the passage with a blue-white glare. Trash cans, downspouts, and short flights of steps up to back doors sprang into harsh silhouette.

“Always said wogs didn’t know squat about courtesy till you knocked it into ’em,” Hogg muttered as he tied his fly shut. He sounded amused rather than really put out by the incident, though.

The closed car pulled up just short of the steps near which Daniel’d been standing. The car’s front door opened and an attendant in magenta livery got out, lit by the headlights reflecting from the concrete steps.

Four men came quickly from the building, metal in their hands. “Bugger off!” one growled, but as he spoke he clouted the attendant over the ear.

The attendant shouted, staggered, and ran down the alley toward Daniel and Hogg. The side of his head was bleeding. A thug came around the front of the vehicle; the driver got out and ran the other way.

“Hold up!” said Daniel, grabbing the attendant. The man had a baton as long as his arm. It might’ve been intended for show but it made a good weapon regardless. He shrugged free, bawling with fear, but he left the baton in Daniel’s hands.

“You lot!” Daniel shouted. “Sheer off!”

“You want some of this, you Cinnabar spaceturds?” said the thug who’d struck the attendant. He stepped toward Daniel, waving a knife with a long, curved blade and a knuckle-duster hilt. “Here it is, then!”

Daniel broke the fellow’s knife wrist, then lifted the baton in a quick backhand that smashed his jaw as well. The thug had been clever enough to recognize Daniel’s accent, but it didn’t seem to have occurred to him that a Cinnabar warship in harbor might mean people who knew how to handle themselves in a brawl.

Daniel went left, toward the steps. There was no slowing down now. The thug who’d pulled open the car’s rear door turned toward him. Daniel lunged, using the baton like a foil. The fellow got his hand up in front of him, but the tip of the baton rammed through and punched him in the chest. His breastbone was broken if Daniel’d read the crackle under the impact rightly.

It was good Daniel’d ducked as he lunged because a bwee! passing his left ear meant that Hogg had swung his weighted line at the thug standing at the top of the three concrete steps. “Bloody–” the fellow shouted, then screamed in disbelief as Hogg jerked back.

Hogg’s weapon of choice was ten feet of monocrystal deep-sea fishing line with a two-ounce sinker on either end. He could bring down a running man a hundred feet away or–gripping one end with a steel-mesh glove–use the line as a flexible sword. It was too strong to break and thin as the working edge of a knife.

The last thug was the one who’d had gone around the front of the car. Daniel stayed low, waddling toward the fellow. He’d seen the damage Hogg’s fish line did too often in the past to risk losing a finger–or his throat–to it.

Something flew through the air, flapped against the car’s windshield, and then bounced to the ground. The gun the guy on the steps was holding, Daniel thought; and it was, sorta, but the fellow’s hand was still locked on the grip. The muscles must’ve spasmed when Hogg jerked the monocrystal through the wrist.

The man on the steps was blubbering prayers; the one Daniel’d punched with the baton had shambled off toward the street; and the one with the broken arm and jaw hunched in the headlight beam, clutching his face with his good hand and moaning. Daniel rose and shoved that last fellow ahead of him, hoping he’d take the first bullet if their remaining opponent had a gun.

The two thugs collided. One screamed–maybe they both did. The injured man collapsed and the other hurled his spiked club at Daniel before turning to run. Daniel started after him but halted when his intellect took control again.

Let the silly bastard go. He wasn’t a danger to anybody now, and Daniel’d had quite enough exercise. He leaned against the car, sucking air through his open mouth and wondering if he was going to spew up the rest of the cider.

The car’s back door opened, switching on the dome light; a man with delicate features leaned out and said, “My manager, Lonnie. Please, I’ve got to find him. Is he inside?”

The fellow’s voice was familiar.

“I’ll check,” said Hogg. He was gathering his line for further use, wiping it with a patch of chammy.

“I’ll do it,” said Daniel, moving toward the steps. “I need to move a bit.”

His shoulder ached from the flung club. Nothing broken, though. A spike had torn the fabric besides him seeming to’ve split his tunic up the back when his muscles bunched, but that’s why he’d worn this uniform.

Daniel hefted the baton. It was made of dark, fine-grained wood and was a very nice tool for a street fight. If the person using it had balls, of course; which the original owner hadn’t.

The would-be gunman staggered down the alley, holding his stump with his remaining hand and shouting frightened curses. Daniel he patted the baton into his left palm. He’d have broken the fellow’s knee if he hadn’t run away on his own.

The outside door opened to a short hallway. The firedoor to the right was bolted shut from this side; directly opposite was an open dressing room with a small light on inside.

Daniel stepped into the dressing room, the baton ready to block or strike. He recognized the smell; the smells.

A man was wired to the room’s cane chair. He’d been tortured to death, tortured and mutilated. The killers hadn’t been trying to get information: they’d taped his mouth shut before they started, judging by the way blood and humors from his eyes coated the gag.

Daniel backed from the room and out of the building. Hogg was in the driver’s seat; he’d turned the headlights off. “Say,” he called, “this fellow’s the singer we heard, you know? The pretty blonde girl, Elemere. Only he isn’t a girl.”

Daniel got into the car. “Your manager’s dead,” he said to the man in the back seat. “I’m sorry. Hogg, get us back to the ship.”

“Oh, God,” said Elemere “Oh God. You’ve made a bad enemy for yourself, sir. Councilor Waddell sent them.”

“The people who did this aren’t folk I’ll ever want for friends,” Daniel said savagely.

Hogg turned the lights back on. The man with chest injuries had crawled halfway to the street before collapsing on the pavement. “Ah…,” said Hogg. “Should I back, young master, or–”

“Drive on!” said Daniel, his hands clenching the baton in mottled fury. He was thinking of Councilor Waddell’s fat throat.