I stood there, with my hands gripping the lip of the oak wine barrel. My eyes fixed on the cleverly hidden button. “Maggie, that button calls to me something powerful! I want to push it. I want to, Maggie.”
“You know what Brigid says about the cargo, Swei. You no touchey the cargo!” I stayed silent.
Maggie sighed loudly and walked over to me. “Let me see this button of yours!”
I pointed to the knot hole just below the lip of the barrel. “See how the lines meet and diverge? That ain’t the way wood grain should lay. Ain’t natural like for it to be that way. That was when I knew. Well, I never trusted that Sellers feller. He was a little…. moist for my taste.”
Maggie snorted. I went on, encouraged. “Clammy old handshake, sweaty brow. And the way he went on and on about how that there was our barrel to drink……” My voice trailed off. “What if there’s bodies in here? Huh, Maggie? Bodies.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake, Swei!” Maggie reached past me and pressed the button.
But I’m ahead of my self in the story, ain’t I? We had a good little haul from the scrapyard. We haven’t found a buyer for that little specimen slide from the locked cage, but otherwise we unloaded all the salvage we gathered. With the money we were able to have a serious celebration of our victory over the Reavers. Miss V was careful to make sure we didn’t blow all of our money on whiskey and w00ting. “I’m going to put some of the earnings into a no-load index fund for you, Swei.” I’m pretty sure that’s what she said. My hearin ain’t so good.
Soon enough we’re off to another job. Greenleaf is a mite of a planet known for its medicinals. Miss V wanted to drop off and pick up and promised us a few more days of relaxing. The main town is like a huge market and the main commodity, as they say, is wine. I like me some wine, so I was happy to help get us there.
The only place to stay is the Sour Grape. A nice enough place, I think. Waitresses were quick enough with the food, but a mite hard to understand. What with the piano player pounding on the keys and the folks chattering on with each other, well a soul can’t hardly hear herself think, much less understand what some old waitress gal is yellin in your ear. I got the special number 2. That’s what Roark told me.
I was concentrating on eatin and drinkin, what with the 3 drink minimum. Miss V was whirling around like a, like… a butterfly. Dancin and laughing. Prudence, as has become her way, was wanderin through the crowd asking folks if they’d seen Crane.
Mags hitched her thumb towards Miss V who was flirting with the piano player. “There’s the boss lady.”
The man approached Miss V and I could see him gesturing and her smiling and they went off together. I started to get up and Roark laid a hand on my arm. “I got this, Cookie.”
“Don’t call me that!” But he was already halfway acrosst the room and didn’t hear me.
Soon he was back. “We got us a job. And it’s a humdinger. We’re bringin wine to some hotshot’s gaullah.” Maggie cocked her head. “A gaullah? Is that some sorta chieftain or somethin?” Roark snorted. “I swear you can be such a hick sometimes! A gaullah is a fancy dress party where nobs rub elbows with other nobs and eat pate and petit fours and the like.” A light went on in Maggie’s eyes. “Oh! A Gay-lah. Yep, I know what that is and how to pronounce it!”
Prudence came up to the table. “Why’s Brigid going into the cellar with some dude?”
“What?!?!” Roark and I both yelled at the same time. He took off towards the bar.
Everything was fine, of course. He was just a desperate merchant needed transport for his goods. At least that’s what he said. We got a good bargain and extra for fuel being so gorram expensive here. The wine was for a fancy dress ball on Osiris, eight days travel and the fancy ball? Nine days away. We had him over a barrel, as they say and we got a good price.
Me and Mags set about transporting the barrels to D-VA. Mags ain’t much of a drinker and well, I didn’t feel comfortable in that inn. Like a long tailed cat in a room of rockin chairs, I guess you could say. Dark and loud and not a mine shaft? Not to my taste, really. We left the inn with the merchant in tow. Name’s Sellers, he told us. He was skittish and sweaty.
Unbeknownst to our knowledge, Prudence saw a man slip out of the inn behind us. She is a mite clumsy and we heard a clatter behind us. It was Prudence accidentally stumbling into the man. We went back and helped sort out the tangle of arms and legs.
The man brushed himself off and swept his black hat off his head. “Maggie! I thought that was you!” On seeing the puzzled look on her face, he said “Harold. Harold Lim. From Persephone…..?” Prudence straightened her jacket. “Harry Limb? Ha! That’s funny.”
The man whirled on Prudence. “Harold is my name and if you want to live — you will call me Harold.”
“Harold? Harold Lim?” Maggie shook her head. “Persephone? I know lots of people from the old days. Were you with Badger or Breaker, maybe?” He rubbed his face with his hand. “Ah, as happens, a lovely lady doesn’t remember one of the many men vying for her attention….. We were on the Slaughton job together. I’d love to catch up with you. You are staying here, yes?” Maggie’s manner changed. “Yes. Yes. Let’s catch up…. Right now we have to go.”
As we walked away, Sellers leaned in to Maggie. “We’re not being followed, are we? Wait! That man was following us, wasn’t he? Are we being followed? Was he following us? He was. We’re being followed.”
“Calm down. Jimminy Cree! It’s not a big deal. An old hoss thief from Persephone. That’s all.”
When we got the barrels stowed, Sellers pointed to one barrel. “I know how it is, out in the black. You will be tempted to tap one of my casks and drink. Here’s a barrel just for you. Just this one though. You see that the others have the Baron’s seal? He knows how many barrels to except and he is…. a hard man if crossed.” Maggie nodded. “Our barrel. Gotcha.”
He walked toward the ramp and turned suddenly. “You will guard them? The barrels? If anything were to happen.” I waved him away. “We got it, mister. No one is getting at this here wine. Go on.”
When he was gone and Maggie had shut up the bay, I got down on my knees to examine the barrels. “Something ain’t right here.”
“What do you mean? He’s a squeeker all right, but there ain’t no harm in him.”
“No, Mags, there’s somethin here. Something is wrong about these barrels. They shaped funny and they carry funny and I don’t like his handshake.” My fingers traced across the staves of the barrel. “It’s like there’s something –” And then I felt the button.
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