Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 15


By the time Woetjans and I got back to the Sunray, Captain Leary and the senior personnel who’d served with him on the Princess Cecile — the former Sissies — had gone off to dinner. Woetjans went to her cabin to change before joining them.

Lieutenant Enery was the duty officer. When I entered the bridge, she asked, “Were you able to get most of what we needed?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “All of it.”

I checked for incoming messages on Officer Mundy’s station since it was the one I’d used in the past. The minute of agreement from Apex Outfitters had arrived, along with a delivery schedule beginning at 0900 hours and concluding at 1800 when the last items arrived from a warehouse west of Breckinridge proper.

I forwarded the file to the command console, addressed to All Personnel, though the common spacers didn’t have access to it except for the stations on the bridge, stern, and Power Room. “They had everything and in the quantities we needed.”

“And quality?” Enery said as she brought up the file.

“See you at 0600!” Woetjans called from the corridor as she entered the down companionway. Her boots crashed on the metal treads as she jumped down the helical stairway.

“Well, we won’t be able to tell that till the lots are delivered,” I said. “They can be rejected for quality, of course; we won’t pay until you accept the goods. The samples in the showroom were satisfactory to Chief Woetjans.”

Enery rotated her couch and looked at me. “Olfetrie, these prices are very good. Very good,” she said.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. “I, well, my father was a chandler before his business expanded. And the other things that I’m sure you heard about. But he really was a good businessman.”

Enery smiled at me. The stiffness of the right side of her face distorted the expression, but I’m pretty sure it was meant to be wry regardless.

“Captain Leary has the devil’s own luck,” she said. “No two ways about that. And it looks like he’s been lucky again when he signed you on, Olfetrie.”

“Ah, thank you, ma’am,” I said. Glad of an excuse to change the subject, I said, “Lieutenant, do you know what restaurant Captain Leary is going to? I didn’t think to ask Woetjans.”

“He’s at Rustermann’s,” Enery said. “I know in case there’s an emergency.” After a pause, she said, “You’re joining them, Olfetrie?”

“Good heavens, no!” I said, more forcefully than I would’ve spoken if I hadn’t just understood why her tone had suddenly frozen. “I just figured that where he is, there’ll be other decent restaurants around. I didn’t want to eat on the Strip if there’s a reasonable choice in walking distance.”

“Ah,” said Enery. “Yes, I see. I believe Rustermann’s might be on the pricey side; but yes, the district should be far enough away from the harbor to have restaurants that don’t cater to spacers.”

“I don’t have a lot to spend my pay on,” I said, smiling. “I just thought I’d treat myself to a decent meal.”

The first one since Dad’s death.

I went back to my cabin and changed into a set of the civilian clothes that I’d gotten out of pawn: tailored slacks and a jacket of hard fabric with a patterned weave. I’d kept them because they’d be proper office wear if I were ever promoted to an office job at Petersburg Chandlery. They weren’t fancy, but they were too good for the scut work I’d been doing there, though.

As I dressed, I thought about Ferrante’s offer. He’d been joking, of course, but it wouldn’t have been a joke if I’d showed interest. If he’d offered the opening on the afternoon before Captain Leary knocked on my door, I’d have taken him up like a shot.

“Good night, Lieutenant,” I called to Enery through the bridge hatch.

“Good luck to you finding dinner, Olfetrie,” she said.

I thought I heard something wistful in her voice, so I paused at the head of the companionway, looking toward her. The ship was nearly deserted. Besides us, there were guards in the boarding hold, and a few personnel in the stern and the Power Room.

“I don’t grudge Captain Leary his good luck,” Enery said musingly. “It’s what he’s done with it that made his career, not the luck itself. But” — She gave me her awful smile again — “sometimes I wonder if there’s just so much luck in the universe, and he’s gotten all of my share too.”

“I hope not, sir,” I said and escaped down the companionway.

In the boarding hold, Jablonsky — playing cards with Merritt, his fellow guard — said, “You’re getting a late start, sir. Want to catch up with some spirits?”

He offered a clear flask. It appeared to be working fluid cut — slightly — with grape juice.

“You’re confusing me with my brother, Josip,” I said. “He was the drinker of the family.”

I walked to the quay and up it, thinking about Junior. Everybody’d liked him. He was always the life of the party and went off, not necessarily home, with the prettiest girl. He’d had a brilliant career ahead, if the partying hadn’t caught up with him in a few years.

And of course, if a missile hadn’t gutted the Heidegger when she was a hundred feet in the air. I thought about what Enery had said about luck.

Rustermann’s was on Third Street, but the first of the two blocks was a long one because Harbor Street followed the shoreline. I had the chance to buy pretty much anything the locals thought a spacer might want, including some that I hoped to heaven no spacer on any ship I was aboard did want.

Third Street straight back from the water was apartments, shops and bars that catered to locals. It wasn’t fancy, but I didn’t see any dives as bad as the one I’d lived above in Xenos. I turned left and found, as I’d hoped, that the neighborhood was becoming increasingly respectable.

I saw Rustermann’s just ahead across the street and signs for other restaurants on both sides beyond. Rustermann’s had a narrow patio in front, set off from the right-of-way by a low stone wall.

To my surprise, Woetjans was on the sidewalk, arguing with the two waiters who were barring her from the patio. Another waiter and a busboy came out of the restaurant proper, moving fast. They didn’t jump in immediately, but they were obviously ready to lend a hand if required.

I started over. As I approached I heard a waiter snarling, “Look! I don’t care if the Admiral of Known Space asked you to dinner, you don’t eat here. Rustermann’s doesn’t serve spacers!”

Woetjans was wearing her Liberty Suit: a set of utilities tailored to fit her perfectly and decorated with ribbons with the names of every ship she’d served on, and the fabric embroidered with patches from every planet she’d landed on. Liberty Suits were both labors of love — spacers generally did all the tailoring themselves — and proof of their seniority.

They were also flamboyant proof that the wearer was a spacer.

Instead of getting involved at the entrance, I slipped past Woetjans and the first two waiters. The late-coming staff noted my civilian garments — a very high-quality suit, though I’m not sure their taste was that refined — and let me enter the restaurant without hesitation.

I’d intended to find Captain Leary, but at a good table near the staircase leading to the upper level Artur Ferrante sat with a woman of his own age — or possibly a few years more. That was even better.

“Master Ferrante!” I shouted. Diners had turned toward the voices raised outside the restaurant; I drew their attention to me.

“Will you please find Captain Leary and inform him that the proprietors here feel that his Chief of Rig is an unfit customer for their establishment? He’s probably in a private room.”

A man in dress clothes at the head of the staircase started down. I heard motion at the door, but before I could turn, men seized both my arms from behind. Diners were getting up, and I saw several duck under their tables, or as nearly as their dress clothes would allow.

“Let him go!” somebody shouted. I thought I’d been loud, but Woetjans was in a different league altogether. The waiter released my left arm instantly. The busboy gaped in indecision, but I could turn now.

Woetjans stood with her back to the wall beside the door. She’d gathered up two chairs by the backs on her way through the patio. She held one out in front of her like a shield — or a four-shafted lance, depending on what she decided to do with it. The other was vertical in her right hand, the feet jabbing the ceiling.

I’d known she was big. Now, though, she looked like an avenging goddess. Diners scuttled away like roaches when the pantry light goes on.

The manager reached the bottom of the stairs, but he didn’t seem sure what to do. I detached the busboy’s hand finger by finger; he seemed unwilling to move even that much on his own.

From the head of the stairs Captain Leary called, “Come on up, Woetjans! We’ve saved some of the liquor for you.”

I could see Barnes, Dasi and Sun behind the captain, but to my surprise Hogg and Tovera were shoulder to shoulder with him. Hogg had his hands in his tunic pockets, and the clerk held an attaché case half-open in front of her.

“Yes, of course,” the manager said. “Mistress, allow me to escort you to your party.”

It was a moment before Woetjans lowered the chairs and allowed the manager to take her arm. Her face was as white as chipped stone when she passed me.

I took a deep breath and bowed to Ferrante. “Thank you for your help, Master Ferrante,” I said. “I’m glad no more than your presence was needed.”

Everybody kept out of my way as I left Rustermann’s. I walked across the street to Gino’s, which turned out to be steak house.

* * *

I was most of the way through a rare rib eye and contemplating a second glass of the red wine the waiter had recommended. It was strong flavored, but it complemented the meat — from real Earth cows — perfectly.

I was beginning to relax. It’d been a hell of a day.

A tubby man came over to the table where I sat alone. He wore an open-necked shirt and loose trousers, but he didn’t need dress clothes or a uniform to project authority.

“The meal has been to your taste, sir?” he asked.

“Perfectly,” I said. “I’m never sure what I’m going to get when I order ‘rare,’ but here it’s rare.”

“If I may ask, sir?”

I nodded, wondering what was going to come next. I took the last sip from my glass, holding the man’s eyes.

“My head waiter tells me that you were ejected from Rustermann’s,” the man said. “Was that the case?”

I put my glass down. “Not exactly,” I said. “I had no intention of eating there, but I saw some flunkies barring a shipmate whom I knew to have been invited to a dinner there with our captain. It was a dress-code violation.”

I felt my lips purse as I wondered how to put the next part. I said, “I intervened to bring the matter to the manager’s attention. It, ah, got heated for a moment at the end. If that’s a problem, I’ll pay and leave immediately.”

“Is no problem,” the man said. He set my bill on the table — a trifle early, I thought, but nobody wants brawlers in his business.

I reached for the bill, but the man scrawled something across the face of it with a stylus. He turned and walked off, but I’m sure the words he muttered were “Snooty bastards!”

I looked at the bill. The price was as bad as I’d expected it to be. Over it was written Paid in Full/Gino.

I left a full tip on the table when I left, after another glass of wine.