Roberts Space Industries

Serialized Fiction

Short Stories

ID:

17101

Comments:

15

Date:

June 4th 2019

One Last Job: Part One
By: Amanda McCarter
Writer’s Note: One Last Job: Part One was published originally in Jump Point 3.9.

The bar stank of sour beer and ship fuel. It was a favorite dockside watering hole, though Jonah couldn’t figure out why. His feet squelched on the sticky floor and a crusted piece of God only knew what crunched beneath the toe of his boot. The lighting was poor and the bartender gave him a dirty look as he wiped a greasy towel on a dirty glass.

Jonah took a seat in a wobbly plastic chair made up to look like wood. The table had a large scratch down the center of it, likely made by a knife or broken bottle.

The bartender’s eyes jerked to the entrance and his nostrils flared as the door slid open.

Jonah only came here when he had to meet someone, and there was only one person who ever wanted to meet him here. And at this moment, he owed that person money. A lot of money. In fact, he was behind on payments. Jonah sank into the chair as an uneasy feeling settled over him. The man he was about to meet took late payments personally.

This was going to hurt.

“Ain’t you a sight,” said Mickey “Gills” Black. He slapped Jonah on the back. Mickey’s right eye bulged and his skin was splotchy and purple. The story was, Mickey survived being sucked into space without a suit. Granted, it was only for maybe a second at the longest, but it was enough to permanently disfigure his face.

Jonah wished Mickey had stayed in the vacuum. It would have made his life so much easier.

“Mickey,” said Jonah. He tried to sound cheerful, but his voice still came out sour. They had a long-standing arrangement, but Jonah’s opinion of Mickey Black had not improved with time.

Mickey snapped to the bartender who gave him just as dirty a look as he had given Jonah and stalked off.

“No respect,” said Mickey. “His bar wouldn’t even be open if it weren’t for me. Gonna have to remind him, but not till I’ve had a nice chat with my dear old friend Jonah.”

Jonah swallowed. “Dear” and “friend” were not the words he would use, but he bit his tongue.

“How ya been, Jonah? Business good?”

“As good as can be expected,” said Jonah, trying to keep his voice even.

“Fair ’nough, fair ’nough,” said Mickey. “S’pose it could be better though, yeah?”

Mickey leaned in closer, careful to turn his half-ruined eye to Jonah. Jonah backed away and Mickey only grinned and fell back into his chair with a laugh.

Jonah gave him a small smile. “It can always be better.” He chose his words carefully. He didn’t want to give too much of an opening. This was a dance he was used to, one he and Mickey had played out dozens of times in their dealings over the last decade.

The surly bartender plodded over and thumped two beers on the table. Jonah tried to tell him he didn’t want any, but the man had already walked away, shoulders hunched and muttering to himself.

Mickey took a big swig and slammed the mug down. “If that ain’t the biggest glass o’ sewage water I ever swilled.” He spat on the floor and the bartender looked daggers at him. Jonah squirmed uncomfortably. The man either had a short memory or a death wish. Anyone else would have hidden under the bar or scurried to wipe up the mess. Jonah began to fear for the man, but Mickey just laughed.

Jonah shivered and sipped at his beer. He grimaced. It was sour with a moldy aftertaste.

“I assume you have work for me?” said Jonah. He really hoped it was work and not a collection.

Mickey took another swig of beer, sloshing it down his front, and sidled his chair around the table to lean on Jonah’s shoulder.

“As it so happens, I do,” he said.

Jonah felt his shoulders sag with relief. A knot at the base of his skull unwound. Maybe this wouldn’t be so painful.

“Very, very simple,” said Mickey. “Just run some light cargo, supplies and such. You’ll take it out on your next run, divert your course, meet with the client, drop it off, then go about your merry way. We’ll take, what, five thousand off what you owe me?”

Jonah’s stomach squirmed. Five thousand was very generous for simple work. But usually when Mickey said simple, it was anything but.

“What’s the catch?” said Jonah.

“No catch,” said Mickey. “Just a drop off.”

Jonah’s thinned his lips. “Who’s the client?”

“It really is just a simple drop off,” said Mickey. “I swear on the life of me mother.”

“For all I know, you killed your mother,” said Jonah. “Who’s the client?”

“An old friend of yours,” said Mickey. “Pietro.”

A cold sweat broke out on Jonah’s skin. Pietro was an old acquaintance, but certainly not someone Jonah would call a friend. If anything, they were colleagues in Mickey’s network of spies and couriers, Pietro being a spy.

Pietro Marquez was a disgraced Advocacy Agent. His old partner found out he was working for Mickey and things got messy. Most recently, Pietro had left a path of destruction escaping the Advocacy, and he was currently on the top of their most wanted list. His image was everywhere.

“No,” said Jonah, “I won’t do it. He’s too hot right now.” Jonah started to get up and Mickey grabbed his arm.

“Thought you might feel that way,” said Mickey. “Way I see it, you owe me and you’re behind on payment.”

The knot in his shoulders was back and tighter than before. Jonah almost would have preferred the pain of a collection over the mess that was Pietro Marquez.

“I’ll have it for you in a few days. Really,” Jonah assured. “I would have had it sooner, but my oldest girl, she got sick. Had to spring for a medbay visit. You’ll get it end of the week, tops.”

“Such a good father. It’d be a shame for those girls to grow up without you,” said Mickey.

Jonah sank back into his chair, his eyes fixated on the hand that gripped his arm. He couldn’t really back away from a job, and he’d never tried to, but this was too much.

“Pietro knows you,” said Mickey. “He trusts you. And I trust you. We both know you’ll get him what he needs. He requested you. By name. He thinks very highly of you.”

Jonah doubted that. Pietro called him a spineless lapdog the last time they worked together. And considering what Jonah was about to agree to, Pietro was probably right.

“Do this for me,” said Mickey, “and consider your debt settled. You’ll be free and clear and never have to do another job for me.”

Jonah raised his eyes to look Mickey in the face, bulging eye and all.

“You have my word,” said Mickey. “And you know me. I never go back on my word, do I?”

“You don’t,” said Jonah, dejected. Everything inside him screamed that this job was a mistake, but he couldn’t afford to miss the chance to get away from Mickey once and for all.

“Okay,” said Jonah. “I’ll do it.”

A grin spread across Mickey’s face. “Fantastic. Shake on it?”

Jonah nodded and took Mickey’s proffered hand.

“I appreciate this, lad,” said Mickey. “Really.”

He squeezed Jonah’s hand harder.

“Conversely, if you don’t do this, or decide you’re better off running, I will collect on my debt. Do you understand?”

Jonah swallowed and nodded.

“I didn’t hear you,” said Mickey.

“I understand,” said Jonah.

“Good,” said Mickey. He released Jonah’s hand and slapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll send all the details and the cargo to your ship.” He finished his beer and pushed away from the table.

Jonah watched as he walked up to the bar, hopped over it and proceeded to pummel the bartender into a bloody pulp. Several of the other customers pretended nothing was going on, but Jonah watched. He watched every brutal moment of it.

Satisfied that he’d made his point, Mickey stood, washed his hands in the ice bucket, climbed back over the bar without a word to anyone. He sauntered out the door, whistling as he went.

His mouth suddenly dry, Jonah took another sip of putrid beer and pushed away from the table. Slowly, he made his way to the bar. His stomach tied itself in a knot. He peered over.

The bartender lay in a puddle of beer and other fluids. His face was a bloody mess and he’d probably need reconstructive surgery. He groaned and rolled over into a fetal position. The man would live, but he would never forget that you don’t piss off Mickey “Gills” Black.

“You’re grounded, Ardoss.”

Ardoss glanced up from his flight bag to see Junior Director Vami leering over his desk. Her dark hair was pinned back in a tight bun. She wore a dove gray, vintage pant suit with charcoal pinstripes.

He went back to packing. He was used to her melodrama. He took in her appearance only out of habit. An Advocacy Agent had to take in all of his surroundings, no matter how mundane or ordinary.

“Don’t make threats you can’t keep,” he said as he checked his gun.

“This isn’t a threat,” she said. “You’re done. Early retirement.”

She touched her mobiGlas and a form flashed onto his terminal screen.

Ardoss blinked. “Retirement? I’ve got two more years.”

“Your last mission turned into a raging gun battle that killed one person and injured eight more. Not to mention the millions of credits of damage you did. I don’t know if that shopping complex will be usable again. I’ve gotten at least a hundred complaints from business owners, the city council, citizens’ groups, you name it. This is a mess. To top that off, your quarry escaped.”

Ardoss licked his lips. “I’m very close. He’s hiding with outlaws; they’ve given him safe harbor. But I know his associates. I know his friends. It’s only a matter of time before I find him.”

“I don’t care if you’ve got him locked in your desk, you’re out. You have your orders.”

“Just like that,” said Ardoss. “You’d destroy my career. Because Pietro was one of us? I didn’t know. How could I know?”

She placed her hands on his desk and leaned forward. “You couldn’t. It’s not about what happened, it’s about how you handled it. Someone died in the crossfire. You ignored the safety of those around you. The higher-ups wanted to fire you on the spot.”

“It’s happened before,” he said, “to other Agents.”

“It happened to you,” she said, “you’re too high profile. Catching Pietro is a priority. It’s a black eye to the Agency. I’m trying to help you, Ardoss. Let someone else take it.”

“You’re gunning for Section Chief,” he said.

Vami pushed away from the desk and turned. She glanced sideways at him and shook her head.

“My concern is for the image of this Agency, the safety of its agents, and the people we are supposed to protect.”

“Right,” he said. “It looks pretty bad that one of your Agents was a rat. You wanna show your bosses you’ve got it all under control.”

“Someone died, Ardoss.”

“And how many people do you think Pietro has killed while he spied on us for Mickey Black?” said Ardoss.

Vami dropped her head. “You’re making this personal.”

“It is personal,” said Ardoss. “Pietro Marquez was my partner. I should have seen it sooner. Let me have this, Vami, just this last capture. If he makes it to Banu space, we’ll never find him again.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “You don’t even know where he is.”

“No, not yet,” insisted Ardoss, “but I screwed up his escape when I found him out. His exit ship was damaged. All he has now is his Agency ship. His regtags are still active and I know he went back to Black. I’ve talked to a few informants. Black’s given him a place to lay low until he can swap out his tags or get a new ship. Trust me, I can find him.”

Vami sank into the chair on the other side of Ardoss’ desk. “Give me all the information you have and we’ll assign the case to someone else. You’re too close.”

“Exactly. I trained him, Vami,” said Ardoss. “Twenty years together. We were side-by-side for hundreds of jobs. I know Pietro better than anyone in this organization. I didn’t see it before, but I know what to look for now. There’s this cargo pilot, Jonah Ruskella, I’ve seen his name a few places.”

Vami shrugged. “So they’re drinking buddies.”

“Nope,” said Ardoss. “Ruskella is a courier for Mickey Black. They’ve been seen together. I got it from three different sources.”

“Okay, so what does that have to do with Pietro?” said Vami.

“They say Ruskella is moving equipment and supplies for Mickey in the next twenty-four hours.”

Vami crossed her arms and thinned her lips. “That’s a lot of speculation, Ardoss. A lot.”

“What else do I have to go on?” he said. “I could stake out the jump points into Banu space, hope I get lucky, or follow a lead.”

“You’re assuming I’m going to let you,” she said.

“Don’t do this to me, Vami,” he said. “Don’t end my career like this. Let me finish it out with one last recovery.”

She dropped her arms. “Even if your information is correct . . .”

“It is,” he said. “These guys wouldn’t lie to me. Not at the prices I pay them.”

She clenched her jaw.

“I need this,” he said.

She sighed. “I don’t want a repeat of the mall. You keep it quiet.”

“I will,” he said. “I’ll board Ruskella’s ship, incognito, follow him to the rendezvous with Pietro, and make the arrest.”

“Just like that?” she asked.

“Just like that.”

“And if the drop isn’t for Pietro?”

He shrugged. “I’ll find another lead.”

“No, you won’t,” she said, standing. “This is it. This is all you get. You board this ship and you look for your old partner. If you don’t find Pietro, you come back.”

He ground his teeth. He knew his hunch was right. It had to be. He didn’t need Vami clouding his judgment. This had to work. There weren’t any other options.

“Fine,” he said.

“I want to make something very clear,” she said. “Any deaths, accidental or otherwise, any damages, any complaints and you can forget about retirement. You’ll find yourself in a cell.”

“Understood,” Ardoss said, nostrils flaring.

With that, she left his office. She didn’t even look at him.

So that was the way it had to be. He could live with that. All he wanted was Pietro Marquez. He wanted to ask him why. He wanted to understand. He didn’t think he ever would.

Jonah stared at the manifest, his hands shaking. It was just supposed to be cargo. No passengers this time. But there they were, four passengers.

He went to his boss, the dock master.

“There aren’t supposed to be any people on this flight,” he said. He slapped the manifest down on the man’s desk.

Dock Master Haru gazed at him through rheumy, wrinkled eyes. A WiDoW addict who didn’t bother to hide it, he was tall and wiry. The stained black veins made his arms look infected. The spider tattoos didn’t help. Jonah had only ever seen a spider once, but the memory of it was burned into his brain. It had gotten into some cargo from Earth. He’d seen other insects from other planets, but that spider was the one that crawled into his nightmares. Too many legs. Char, his co-pilot, told him he should see a centipede sometime. Jonah didn’t like the sound of that.

Haru placed those frightful hands on the rickety desk and pushed himself up. He licked his lips, which were thin and papery. “You have passengers when I say you have passengers.”

Haru was a bully. He had a reputation of withholding payments, grounding ships, and suspending pilots just because someone pissed him off. Jonah had to tread carefully.

“I leave in four hours,” he said. “I don’t have time to prepare.”

“Then leave in five,” said Haru. “I really don’t care when you leave as long as you leave with what’s on the manifest.” He raised a hairless eyebrow and stared at Jonah.

He couldn’t leave in five hours. He had a schedule to keep. Haru wouldn’t care, and Jonah didn’t want to have to tell Mickey why his shipment was late.

“I’ll leave in four,” said Jonah, his shoulders sagging. “I’ll keep the schedule.”

Haru smiled. “Excellent news. I’ll tell the drop-off port to expect you at the normal time.”

Jonah gave his boss an uneasy smile. Haru was almost as bad as Mickey. The only difference was, Haru wouldn’t beat you to a pulp or shove you in a vacuum for defying him.

If Jonah had the money, he could go into business on his own, then he could tell Haru if he was taking on passengers or not. As it was, all his spare cash went to Mickey or into a trust fund for his kids. It wasn’t much, but he wanted them to have a better life than he did.

That would change after this job. Jonah could start building his business and break away from Haru and Mickey.

Provided, of course, that Mickey kept his word.

He turned away from Haru and hurried to his ship, Open Sky. He had a lot to prepare before they left. Secure the airlock, clean the passenger area, arrange for food for the trip. These things took time. Normally, twenty-four hour notice was standard for passenger manifests, but Jonah couldn’t be too surprised since Haru was always pulling shit like this. Give the man enough Credits, and he’d pretty much ignore any protocol.

He boarded and went straight for the cockpit.

“We have passengers,” he said, catching his breath as he pushed through the doorway.

“I know,” replied Char, not looking up from her pre-flight check. Her long dark hair was pulled back loosely. A few gray strands escaped the mass and blended in with her silver flight suit.

Jonah sighed; she always knew. After well over a decade flying together, he struggled to think of a single time his co-pilot had been caught off guard.

“Some pop-off, low-level politician was in here about an hour ago making a big fuss about his arrangements,” she said. “Demanded private quarters and shoved his mobiGlas in my face trying to show me some sort of document for preferential treatment.” She laughed. “Like we’re a starliner.”

A bureaucrat, no matter how low-level, was just the type Haru would bend over backwards to please. That explained a lot. Jonah still didn’t like it. It made the job harder.

“What did you tell him?” he said.

She laughed again. “I sent him to our ‘VIP lounge’ and told him to come back when we called for boarding. If all he can get is a little ship like ours, he gets what we give him.”

“We don’t have a VIP lounge,” he said.

“He knows that now,” she said. “He’s probably still sitting in that break room.”

“What about the other passengers?” he said.

She shrugged. “I think one is a businesswoman. I haven’t met her, but nothing alarming on her documentation. Another one is some nineteen-year-old kid. He’s probably headed out looking for work or visiting family.”

Safe enough. They’d probably stay out of the way.

“What about the fourth one?” said Jonah.

“A retiree,” she said. “Old codger on vacation most likely. It should be a cake run. I’ve already got the food packs ordered and I managed to requisition some cleaners from one of the bigger ships. We’ll make the schedule.”

“What would I do without you, Char?” said Jonah.

She gave a wicked grin. “Die in a vacuum, most likely. Or get murdered by a pirate.”

That was still a possibility.

“I picked up some packages for you in port,” he said. “Looks like some stuff from your sister.”

“Ugh, what does she want now?” Char said.

Jonah shrugged. “Guess you’ll have to open them. Oh, also found some licorice in the market.” He dug in his satchel and pulled out a small, plastic sealed packet.

Char’s eyes lit up. “Wonders never cease.” She tore open the package and took out a piece. She popped it in her mouth and closed her eyes.

“So good.”

He made a face. “If you say so.”

She grinned. “More for me.”

“We need to take a detour before our last stop,” he said.

“Got another side job?” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. He’d never told Char about Mickey, didn’t want to cause her trouble. She was ex-military, so she could probably handle herself, but Jonah admired her too much to dirty her hands. After flying together for sixteen years, Char was his oldest and dearest friend. And there were just some things you didn’t do to your friends. Mickey Black was one of them.

They finished the pre-flight with some help from a couple of day laborers and started to board the passengers with half an hour to spare.

The politician, a man by the name of Nickolas Thrumm, was just as bad as Char said.

He was an oily man, with slicked back hair, well-manicured hands, and an expensive suit. He carried leather luggage and smelled like wood. Char said it was sandalwood, some kind of rare tree or such.

Thrumm gave one look at the ship and frowned.

“It’s so small,” he said.

Char shrugged. “It’s a small ship.”

He glanced at the passenger area.

“And cramped.” His voice took on a nasal quality that made Jonah wince.

“Where are my quarters?” Thrumm asked.

“There are no private quarters,” said Jonah.

“The passenger area’s not so bad,” added Char. “The seats are fully reclining and you get your own stow space for luggage. There’s even sleep netting for zero-g.”

“I have to sleep out here?” said Thrumm.

Char shrugged. “It’s the best we have. If you don’t like it, you should have considered that when you pushed through the booking on such a small flight. Now, if you don’t mind, we need to finish boarding.”

Thrumm moved on in a huff and they welcomed the remaining passengers.

The teenager, a young man who only went by Mitt, grunted at them and took a seat at the back. The businesswoman, one Winona Crim, sat next to the teen. She didn’t even acknowledge Char or Jonah. She sat down with a sigh, dug in her bag and pulled out a bottle of pills. She downed a handful and laid back with a pinched look on her face that said she’d rather be anywhere but on that ship.

“Not an easy flier,” said Char.

Jonah nodded in agreement.

The last passenger, the retiree, was a gnarled looking man. He had white hair and was missing part of his left ear. The name on the manifest said Tom White. He sat across from Thrumm.

“That’s everyone,” said Jonah. “Strap in folks. We’ll be leaving just as soon as flight control gives us the all clear.”

The passengers were silent as Jonah and Char settled into the cockpit. Everything was good to go and they got the signal for take-off shortly after. They pulled out of the space dock and keyed in the jump point. Jonah switched over to the nav computer and turned to see if the passengers were buckled in.

Thrumm was staring at the retiree, White.

“You look familiar,” said Thrumm.

“I just have one of those faces,” said White. “I get that all the time.”

“No,” said Thrumm, shaking his head. “I’ve seen you before. You weren’t in a vid, were you?”

White smiled. “If only.”

“That’s it,” said Thrumm. “I saw you on the news. You’re an Advocacy Agent aren’t you? Ardoss, isn’t it?”

Jonah felt all the blood drain from his face and he turned back to his console. Ardoss. That was the name of Pietro’s partner. He was screwed.

To be continued

End Transmission

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