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  1. Night -- on the Street Fleet Street Donnie lounged under an awning that extended a few feet from the entrance to Flanigan's Market. Across the street the clock located in the 2nd National Bank tower chimed the hour -- 4:00 am. The market, like the other legitimate businesses in the area, was closed. Donnie had no known surname. The Fleet Street moniker came about because he was generally to be found haunting the gin mills of that infamous West End street. A beefy man ambled out of the drizzling rain and greeted Donnie with a mumbled, "Whazzup, man?" He pulled out a dirty handkerchief and wiped at his face. "Stayin' outta the rain, eh?" "Tryin' to, Joker. Tryin' to." Donnie didn't comment on Joker's fine sense of the obvious. The muscular thug didn't understand sarcasm. In fact, and in spite of his name, he was confused by any humor not involving whoopee cushions or pulling fingers. When people laughed in his vicinity he naturally assumed they were laughing at him. Anyone with half and ounce of sense stayed the hell away from Joker. When that wasn't possible, they talked about the weather. The two men stood under the awning staring into the falling rain. Neither looked at the other. Joker produced a pack of cigarettes, lit two, and passed one to Donnie. It was accepted without comment. Wherever he went along Fleet Street, people handed him things. Booze, food, small bills. Few could stand to meet his glance. For one thing Donnie was hard to look upon. More importantly he was known to be Mr. Dude's eyes and ears in the West End. Guilty looks might be reported back to the crime boss, resulting in a visit from Joker or one of his lowbrow peers. "Seen any of Spectre's bunch?" asked Donnie. The bruiser frowned, as if his reply required heavy duty thinking. "Nope." Joker was, in an odd way, Donnie's only friend. As friendships go it wasn't one that would ever be celebrated in legend or even mentioned in dispatches. It was also dangerous for Donnie. When in possession of information he judged to be of little or no use to Mr. Dude, he retailed that knowledge to the highest bidder. Joker, friend or not, was Mr. Dude's favorite enforcer. He'd happily break Donnie's legs or even provide him with concrete overshoes, if ordered to do so. The trick for Donnie was to accurately determine what information Mr. Dude might consider important. Sadly, no one had ever accused Donnie of good judgment, beginning with his birth. His mother was a whore at Madam Grundy's. He spent his early years in the Sisters of Mercy Military School and Daycare located across the street from Grundy's. The Sisters. a female religious cult, relied on stern lectures, a rigid code of behavior, and shock prods to enforce discipline. Repeat offenders were sentenced to The Tank, a surplus starship fuel chamber. Donnie collected a large number of burn scars and spent much of his time in solitary, exacerbating the effects of residual radiation in the metal of the tank. His skin turned a light shade of gray with darker spots scattered at random. He developed a prominent nose, bulbous eyes, and pointy ears. His hearing became acute and he could see better at night than your average owl, though bright light caused him considerable pain. All in all, he looked like a cross between a spotted frog and a maddened ferret. Donnie also developed a strategy for dealing with Authority. He became a snitch. And not just a run-of-the-mill tattler, either. Informers, if they are to survive, must develop a fine sense of Who in Authority they should divulge their damning information. A good stool pigeon also strives to be unobtrusive. Few men and no women looked at Donnie twice, if they could help it. People ignored him, which may be better than being invisible. His relationship with Mr. Dude guaranteed him access to virtually any place on Fleet Street or in the warehouse district and dock area to the west. Donnie flicked the cigarette butt into the gutter where it smoldered on the carcass of a dead rat. "Gotta go." Suiting action to words, he pulled his hat down and shuffled up the street. Joker stayed where he was long enough to smoke a second coffin nail, then headed for an apartment building on Commerce Boulevard, a block east of Fleet. He had doors to kick down, arms to break. An airship on final to the spaceport descended out of the low clouds, running lights aglow in the misty air. Joker paid no attention to the thrum of propeller blades, the rumble of diesels running at reduced power. Few things interested the enforcer, other than his work, cigarettes, and a blonde amazon named Fifi. Donnie stopped on a corner and watched the airship pass to the west. It would parallel the waterfront docks to Point Sorrow, then turn directly east into the airship landing area at the spaceport. A creature of dark alleys and dimly lit rooms, Donnie had no real interest in flying machines of any type. He noticed airships because the whine of electric propeller drive motors played hob with his oversensitive hearing. At takeoff power, the howling noise would drive him deep into the tunnels, head throbbing. Hunched against the light rain, Donnie headed north along Fleet Street. He liked to take breakfast in the Alien Menace Bar & Casino. Once the hangout of deep space sailors, the place now catered to airship crews and passengers. Jericho hadn't seen a starship for nearly ten years. Most of the old port had fallen into neglect. Only a single terminal and a couple huge airship hangars were in regular use. Jericho was one of the few relatively large cities on En Gedi, a world of low landforms and more or less constant mist and rain. The system star, One Way, was so-named due to its location inside the folds of the Ripple Nebula. One FTL tramline in and out. The star location put En Gedi well off the main trade routes. When disaster struck the Federation, star travel became a low priority item and the planet went on a list of destinations To Be Contacted Later, When Things Are Better. Arrivals -- and Departures Gunny Morgan stood in the shadows a few steps inside the debarkation port. A thin stream of passengers trickled through the port and across a carpeted gangway into Jericho's main terminal area. Since the airship was moored inside the spacious terminal, the two meter wide gangway did not have the canvas roof common at other airship facilities. Beneath his feet Gunny could feel the thump of luggage being loaded onto a moving beltway suspended beneath the gangway. He turned away to light a slim cigar, then resumed his surveillance of the terminal. He'd been in and out of the Jericho air station at least fifty times in the previous fifteen years, first as a Federation Marine, then as an unwilling citizen of En Gedi. The cessation of interstellar trade had left a small Marine contingent stranded on the planet. He'd never felt this degree of unease on any previous visit -- even during his time as a mercenary. It wasn't just that the terminal area was too open. It had always been that way. Warning senses honed by combat began sending vague alarms even as the big airship eased into the hangar. Save for a few women, none of the debarking passengers took note of the tall, rugged man lounging in the port. Even the women passed on without a second glance. Gunny's brooding features promised nothing but trouble and the not-quite-healed scar running from the center of his forehead, across the bridge of the nose, and diagonally down his left cheek provided proof that the trouble could be of a lethal kind. Gunny picked up his black valise and descended to the next level down in the gondola. A few crew members were trudging across a narrow catwalk into a terminal sub-level housing airship company offices. A short, heavy woman wearing a baggy Omega Lines singlesuit stood with one large bag slung over a shoulder. She cursed luridly and jerked at a carryall with one wheel missing. He stopped at a non-threatening distance. "Let me help you with that." The woman looked up, frowning. Gunny wasn't in any kind of uniform but his dark clothes and military style jacket, along with the close-cropped hair and erect stance, lent him an air of officialdom. As she hesitated, he stepped forward, lifted the carryall with one hand and nodded toward the catwalk. "After you." He followed her across the walkway and down a corridor lined with mostly darkened offices. She halted in front of the Omega operations office and dropped her shoulder bag on a cart half-filled with similar bags. Gunny laid the carryall on the cart, nodded, and walked away. The woman stood for a moment, watching him go, then shrugged and went into the office. Gunny ambled around the perimeter of an open area echoing with the sound of machinery. Luggage spilled from the beltway and thudded into a vertical lift system. A handful of workers lined the beltway, pulling an assortment of boxes and crates off onto the floor. Freight, he surmised, to be handled separately from ordinary luggage. On the far side of the handling room he climbed a metal stairway, pausing halfway up to rotate the holster under his left arm forward. If he had to draw his pistol even a half-second might be critical. The stairwell ended in a dimly lit space between two steel girders. He stepped behind a stone block sprouting half a dozen lengths of rusty re-bar. Whatever the block was built to contain had never been installed -- probably years before. Gunny put his bag on the floor and surveyed the interior. People stood around a baggage carousel. Some, having retrieved their luggage, walked toward the doorways leading to transportation. A pair of bored security guards stood on the opposite side of the room. One smoked a cigarette. The other glanced at his watch. Shift change, mused Gunny. He saw no one obviously watching the passenger gangway or the crowd. To his right a small coffee shop catered to a few tired travelers. The man he was to meet sat at one of the tables. He was in the act of finishing what was apparently his second piece of pie. Gunny shook his head and laughed. Mr. Dude, the crime boss of West End and one of the nastiest creatures in Known Space, had a sweet tooth of epic proportions. He was also one of the skinniest men Gunny had ever met. Where Mr. Dude went there would be security. One bruiser occupied a table at the far side of the coffee shop. Another held up a pillar four or five meters from Gunny's position. A few minutes observation convinced him that at least two more of Dude's hirelings were in the area. A short guy in working man's clothes slouched at a video game console, idly feeding fresh tokens at the end of each session and hardly paying any attention to the game itself. The other carried a knapsack suspended from one shoulder and strolled slowly around the room. She had a blank, bored expression, like a woman waiting for a cab. That one has to be a Listener, thought Gunny. Psi sensitives weren't nearly as capable as breathless Tri-D vids made out, but they were often effective in sorting out the thoughts of a person bent on attacking a specific target -- like Mr. Dude. Gunny slung his bag over his left shoulder and walked toward the coffee shop, taking care to keep his hands in view. The video game player spotted him right away. The psi kept strolling. Neither of the bruisers made him until Mr. Dude looked up and smiled. "You're late. Sit down." "This is too open for a meeting," said Gunny. Both bruisers were eyeballing him now. "The place is clean. Sit down." Dude signaled the waiter. "Coffee. My friend drinks his black, but I'll need more sugar." Gunny eased into a chair. "I don't like the feel of this." The bruisers relaxed. Video man fed another token into his machine. "You a Listener? Mine hasn't gotten a whiff of danger." "I'm alive," replied Gunny. "In spite of efforts by various aliens and other bastards. I've had a bad feeling since we landed." Mr. Dude nodded. "That's why you didn't come across with the other passengers?" He glanced at his Listener. She was standing motionless, head down. "Maybe you're not just a crazy old Marine. I think Ruth is on to something." Dude held up a fist, index finger extended. The two bruisers and the video player stood up. Pistols materialized in their fists. Gunny slid to his knees and touched the butt of his weapon, but did not draw it. The other customers went suddenly pale and dropped to the floor. The Listener raised her head, just in time for it to disappear in an expanding cloud of blood and brains. Mr. Dude swore and slid down beside Gunny. The ex-Marine had his pistol out, but his eyes were on the floor near the dead woman. As she collapsed and flopped to one side, he shouted loud enough for Dude's men to hear, "On the other side of Baggage Claim!" People at the carousel were beginning to notice the sprawled body and the blood. In a moment the herd began running in all directions. Screams and curses filled the air. A meaty thud announced the arrival of another projectile. The bruiser crouching on the other side of the coffee shop let out a groan and tried to stand. One hand clawed at a bloody splotch in the middle of his back. He went down, scattering chairs. Mr. Dude sank down behind a metal trash can. "Come on, Gunny. Do that Marine thing and get us out of this -- alive." Gunny slid across the floor and knelt behind a pillar. "I think this one is almost -- ." Bruiser #2 went over backwards, breath rasping in the mangled remains of his throat. "-- over." Gunny glanced down at Mr. Dude. "Or -- maybe not. Somebody really hates your guts. Either that or Spectre's gotten suddenly brave." "Not a chance. Let's worry about that later. What now?" "Now we skedaddle. Do you know a way out of here that doesn't involve sprinting across an assassin's sight picture?" "Ski - daddle? I suppose that means a tactical retreat?" "No. It means we run like hell. Start crawling toward the back. Pray there's another way out of this place." "I don't have to pray. We came in that way. Follow me." "What about your other guy? The video game player." "He's still alive? Holler at him. But let's not hang around." A man brandishing a scoped slug rifle bounded across the luggage carousel and ran toward the coffee shop, screaming. Gunny and the video player fired together. The attacker did a back flip and thumped to the floor. A smear of blood marked his last slide. The weapon cartwheeled through the air and smashed into a pillar. Gunny grabbed his bag. He and the thug sprinted through the coffee shop and out the back way. Mr. Dude's guy knew the way from there. They exited the terminal at a walk and climbed into a gray sedan. There was no pursuit. "That was not what I wanted to talk to you about," said Mr. Dude as his driver pulled away from the curb. "By 'that' I assume you mean your near death experience?" "Oh, it wasn't as close as that. You were there." Dude patted his gunman's shoulder. "Archie was there. You did kill the attacker? Right?" "We shot someone, that's for sure." Gunny lit a fresh cigar. He'd lost the other one somewhere between sitting down at the table and running out the back door. "Trouble is, the guy we zotzed wasn't the shooter." Mr. Dude regarded Gunny with an amused look. "What makes you think that?" "That clown was blitzed out of his mind. He couldn't have put a bullet into an elephant at point blank range." "And you know that because -- ?" Gunny glanced at Archie. "The guy was shouting nonsense. Hardly intelligible." Archie nodded agreement. "He's right, boss. That guy was screwed up." He grinned at Gunny. "How'd you know where the first bullet came from?" "Spatter. The shooter was firing explosive rounds. The first shot did a neat job of decapitating your Listener. I just watched where the goo landed. The shooter was above the crowd. Probably on one of the catwalks across from the coffee shop. Or in a stairwell. I never actually saw him -- or her." "I thought it might be something like that. I couldn't see her from where I was." Mr. Dude sat back. "Well -- if all that wasn't an attack by some whore's father or another kind of crazy bastard, maybe it is related to the issue I wanted to discuss with you." Gunny saw no sign of pursuit. "The guy we gunned down was so screwed up he probably didn't even know where he was. The real shooter took out your Psi and two of your street soldiers. Why not just put that first bullet into your head?" Mr. Dude shrank down in his seat. "Dammit, Gunny, I'm paranoid enough without worrying about why some jerk didn't kill me." He managed a faint smile. "I will look into it. I got a deal going. Someone might be trying to scare me off." "A deal? Your message said you had a job for me. Does it have to do with this deal?" "It does." Mr. Dude smiled. "I'm sending a couple people up to Iron City to pick up a package. I want you for security." "What kind of package?" "No drugs. I know you ain't into that kind of thing -- now that you're a legitimate security professional." Mr. Dude hesitated. He mimed a small, rectangular object. "It's a chest -- about so big -- banded in bronze. A Chinese chest." "A Chinese chest? What's in it?" "I don't know." Mr. Dude shrugged. "No one knows." Gunny heaved a tired sigh. "By 'Chinese' I imagine you don't mean a chest built on one of the Federation planets with large Chinese populations." "No. This one is perhaps five thousand years old. It's worth at least two million Federation credits -- regardless of what might be in it." "Two -- million -- ?" Gunny's surprise was obvious. "But -- we ain't likely to be in regular contact with the Federation for years. What's it worth here and now?" "There are several collectors who would pay at least half a million dollars for it. One paid somewhat more than that." Mr. Dude nodded. "Yeah. Me." "Since when are you a collector of ancient artifacts? Last I knew your interests lay with making money and adding to your stable of redheads." "And pie," interjected Archie. "Don't forget the pies." Mr. Dude laughed, which told Gunny the triggerman had been around for some time. Most of Dude's hired help didn't joke with the boss. He considered the man for a moment. Archie wore dark clothes, including a short jacket of the type worn by dock workers. Like most inhabitants of En Gedi, his complexion was pale. Dark eyes, probably brown, hair a dark shade of brown leavened with gray. A narrow brimmed fedora topped off his outfit. Though shorter than average, the man would blend in anywhere short of a formal affair and his features were the kind few people ever really saw and fewer remembered. Archie had the perfect face and build for a killer. The ex-Marine extended a hand. "Gunny Morgan. I don't think we've ever met." "Archie Blaine. I been around." "Archie has been working in the organization for a long time," said Mr. Dude. "The last couple years he's been my troubleshooter at Capitol." Capitol was a small town with hardly anything to recommend it -- except that the original settlers had designated the place as the seat of Planetary Government. The designation was never intended to be permanent, but when the first immigrants were overwhelmed by floods of convicts, welfare clients, and people whose only crime was being poor, it became a struggle to maintain control over the development of En Gedi. Capitol became the official center of government because no one had the time or energy required to select a different location. Gunny made no comment to Mr. Dude's description of Archie's duties in Capitol. The word 'troubleshooter' was probably used intentionally. Trouble could often be effectively dealt with using a properly placed bullet. "This doesn't sound like a job for me," said Gunny. "Archie could easily handle it." Mr. Dude wagged a finger at the ex-Marine. "I intended to send both of you. A couple of the other collectors have made various threats. There could be trouble." "I can't leave," objected Archie. "I gotta find the scum that killed our people. If it was Spectre -- well, we might have to finish that problem for good." "True," said Dude. "I'll have to keep you and Donnie here." "Donnie? Fleet Street Donnie?" Gunny shook his head. "I figured he'd be dead by now." "Judging from the smell," said Archie, "he's been dead for a long time." "It's all part of his cover," said Mr. Dude. "I was going to send him to Iron City to nose around. Like he does here." "He wouldn't really fit in there," observed Gunny. "Too tall." Archie frowned and shook his head. "Doesn't seem to matter. He sort of fades into the background. Practical invisibility." "His particular method of surveillance might not work well outside of Jericho," mused Mr. Dude. "Besides, Archie will need him to ferret out whoever tried to kill me." "Ferret," said Gunny, chuckling. "If it wasn't for all those spots Donnie could pass for a ferret anywhere." "Careful how you talk," warned Archie. "I got relatives afflicted with spots. They're good people -- mostly -- except for the ones still in jail -- or hanging on gallows." Mr. Dude leaned forward and tapped his driver's shoulder. "Take us to the shop."
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