Mr. Zarkeries’s private docking station was right next to his garage hub where he kept the transporter, eight floors down from the clients' reception counter.
With the help of newly installed thrusters and Timothy’s steady hand, they landed slowly, a centimeter at a time, then sealed the freighter's emergency exit to the docking gate.
The old man was there waiting by the entrance door, looking at them all exiting the freighter.
“Is it still with you?” he asked Timothy as soon as he saw him.
Timothy affirmatively nodded his head, gave an old man a wide grin, and padded a rucksack he threw over his shoulder.
The old man growled. “And who is he?”
Timothy's grin got only wider. “He’s a captain.”
The old man's eyes narrowed. “You brought a union’s Captain here?” he asked in disbelief.
“Well,” Timothy suddenly looked confused, looking at Slicky as if it was the first time he saw her. “Are you Union’s Captain?”
“No, Sir,” Slicky answered instantly, scared completely at the site of the frowning on the old man’s face and the tone of his voice.
“So, who is he then?”
“He’s a captain!” Timothy shrugged the shoulders and just repeated himself, not understanding why it was so difficult to understand. “Nice to see you too, old man.”
The old man growled incoherent sounds, and Timothy approached him, saying words to himself. “Old bastard.”
Mr. Zarkeries decided to pull Timothy by the sleave of his duster before he passed him by. “Let me ask you this again in a way that I may be understood better, is he or is he not a Union military captain, the one that was running the Frigate ER3000 just a month ago before being promoted to serve on the class one battleship that you just raided?”
“Oh, yeah, he’s the same dude, all right.”
“You always tell me to be exact. Well, he ain’t Union captain. Now, he’s an ex-Union Captain. Like, I’m no fuckin’ five-star decorated Special Forces Lieutenant now, am I?”
“No, you certainly are not,” the old man said taking it in “But, still, tell me please, what the hell is he doing here?! What the hell-”
Timothy swiftly turned around, the rage flashing in his face. “You wanna kill him?” he asked the old man sharply, throwing the duster behind his back, and pulling the six-shooter out before the old man had time to blink. Then he flipped the side of the gun, holding it by the barrel and offering the old man the handle. “You go ahead and do it yourself then.”
The eyes were locked between the two of them for a moment where not even a breath could be heard. Then Timothy frowned at the old man and said, “Well, actually, you can’t. We were in a tough spot. I offered to spare his life,” he said and flipped the handle of his gun back, placing it back in its harness with one slick move. “And I,” Timothy said as he approached the old man and pocked him in the shoulder with his finger. “Do not break my word. Not for you, not for the love of the space, or my life. Understand?”
Jammie was all nervous, just like the rest of them, but she rushed to stand right next to them, offering to deescalate the situation. “I scanned him. He’s bug-free.”
The old man growled, not taking his eyes from Timothy’s, “I will deal with you later,” he told her. “But now, give me that fucken vase, and you,“ the old man said, suddenly pointing his finger at Slicky. “You come with me. Now!”
Slicky swallowed the ball of saliva and looked them in the eyes, looking for support. But nobody cared to return his pleading stare.
“What’s going to happen now?” Slicky asked, looking uncertain, trying to find Timothy's eyes.
“Don’t worry, he just wants to talk to you,” Timothy answered, unsure of that himself, still not meeting his eyes. Then he padded him on the shoulder as he was passing him by, and said, “He’s the boss, man.”
Before they made it through the exit door, Marv decided to call the old man “Hey, old man, don’t appreciate you sending my kid to do your work! Next time, you get in that fucken’ transporter!”
“Yeah,” Timothy said, then whispered in Marv's ear, “You brave now ‘cause he’s already on the way out, huh?”
Marv grinned and nodded his head in affirmation, then raised his voice even more. “His name is Slicky, and he’s a momma’s boy. So, be gentle with him.”
The sound of a violently shut door was the only answer that came from the old man.
“Well, that went well,” Sornia said, not daring to smile.
The gang knew their way around the warehouse and took the stairs up, turned the corner, and then entered a small elevator, so small they almost did not all fit in. Jammie followed them, seeing parts of the Mr. Zarkaries property she did not know even existed.
“I had no clue there was a second elevator here,” she muttered to herself as they rode it up.
“How long have you been working here?” Sornia asked.
“About a month,” Jammie answered. “But I’m not truly working for Mr. Zarkeries, I’m actually-”
“Neither are we,” Marv interrupted her, sounding all ironical. They chuckled at it. “Man, once he puts his greedy old fingers around you…” he sighed, not ready to finish the sentence.
They ended up in a Mr. Zarkeries kitchen where something delicious was being prepared.
“Hello, Mamma Ree,” Timothy called on to the big woman in her late fifties, frying something by the eight-burner stove.
“The boss already called. He wants you all in the office.”
It was the first time Jammie had seen her, was ready to introduce herself, but the woman met her with coldness Jammie did not expect. Not even a hello.
“Don’t worry,” Timothy said, noticing that. “She’ll warm up to you in like ten years or so. Right, Marv?” As they all looked at Marv, Timothy grabbed what seemed to be pieces of fried chicken, and threw one to Sornia, and one to Marv before offering one to Jammie.
She politely declined, so he decided to stuff it between his own teeth.
“Good chicken!” he announced happily. "Gooood chicken!!"
“You guys, get out of here! Out of my kitchen!” Mamma Ree screamed, but then her face completely lighted up and melted into a smile.
“Hi, my baby,” she said to Rummy who stumbled into the kitchen from behind. “Look what Mamma Ree is making for you. Your favorite!”
Rummy suddenly appeared even more awkward than normal, but Marv turned around and grabbed him by one hand, and placed him in front of himself to the oncoming big woman’s embrace. “Save some chicken for us, Rummy, baby,” he whispered to him as the woman gave Rummy a warm, motherly hug.
They found Slicky sitting in the chair next to the office, white as milk.
Timothy stopped by him and asked before going into the office. “Still wishing I did not pull that trigger?”
Marv had other encouraging words. “You think with time it might get better. But, it doesn’t.”
Slickly’s chin just dropped down to his chest, his mind somewhere else.
Inside they unexpectedly found the old man to be in a very good mood. He even gave them one of his winning, tooth-missing, crooked-as hell smiles.
“Well, gang, all in all, I’m glad you are all back. And good job done!” he said with satisfaction, sitting behind his table and staring at five identical vases that were placed in front of him.
“What is that?” Timothy asked.
“I’ve already sent the scans to the printer. Mr. Zarkeries wanted to make a few copies,” Jammie explained. “I guess finished them even before we came here.”
“Yes. Why lose the time?” the old man said, still in a good mood. “The client will be here shortly, and we’ll all be a bit richer, won’t we?”
They all looked old, identical. “So, which one is the original?”
The old man’s eyes passed over the painting on the wall that Timothy knew was concealed safe, and he knew the answer without the old man having to say anything.
Now that Mr. Zarkeries was all relaxed, they could relax as well. “The ship was gunned down rather bad,” Timothy said. "The repairs will have to be extensive, and expensive, and..."
“Ah… we can fix that. What is important is that you are all safe and back.”
Timothy, Marv, and Sornia exchanged quick glances.
Something is off here, they all shared the same thought.
“And I hope,” the old man said, “We can all forget about that ugly episode… down at the dock."
Something is way off here.
“Yeah. I don't even know what you're talking about,” Timothy said and grinned. "Now the expenses-"
“I mean, I understand.”
Timothy shrugged his shoulder, now not really caring if the old beast is going to jump out of this nice old man any moment now. “Yeah, I mean, he proved very useful,” he imitated the voice of someone not very bright. “Asked to come. What was I supposed to say? No?”
The shadow passed over the old man’s face and his eyes blinked a few times. But he did not lose the smile and said in the same caring and understanding tone. “Because he proved to be useful. Yeah, I understand. Now, tell me what happened? It does not take a genius to see that the damage to the freighter was not done by a battleship.”
“What happened?" Timothy asked and took in a deep breath.
Sornia was faster to answer. “We ran into… Shadow men.”
Another shadow passed over the old man’s face. “And you got out alive?” he asked suspiciously.
“Timothy killed two of them,” Marv added.
“They waited for us inside the battleship,” Timothy explained. "At least they seemed to be waiting for us. Even knew me by my name. And even full name at that."
The words spoken caused the old man's stare to freeze on him. Then, he rubbed his face, suddenly lost in his own thoughts. “Interesting… There was more than one? Could not have been Shadow men then.”
Timothy tried to explain and said, "Humans cloaked in dark robes. No energy could kill them. Weird lighted staffs in their hands, just like in the stories. Green shit coming out of it,” Timothy described it.
“We got away from them. But they located us before we could make a jump. Weird ships too. Wanted to board us, but we made a jump instead. Came close. Too close.”
“I see,” the old man said quietly. “I see. Very interesting.”
“Interesting got us all almost blown to dust. We need major equipment upgrades. And I ain't paying for it!" Timothy finally said it. "If we had a better ship…”
“Yeah, we’ll worry about that later,” the old man said, waving the suggestion to talk about it now off with his hand. Then he stared at the vases. “Why would they be interested in this?” he muttered to himself.
Timothy felt the tension radiate from everyone, Marv, and Sornia, especially Jammie.
“But this is what the client paid for,” the old man muttered to himself before lifting his eyes to look at them again, now examining them in detail.
And when his lips smiled, his eyes did not.
“Now, you guys go and relax. You deserve it. You did great. Give Slicky a quarter next to yours, Timothy. And, Marv, take your wife and kid for a nice dinner,” the old man said, wide smile still there, and threw him a money card. “It’s on the house.”
“All right, Boss.”
They turned to leave, still exchanging glances, not truly understanding what is going on.
“Come back here tonight,” the old man said before they left. “I’d like to talk some more then. And you Jammie, please, stay behind. I have something to ask you about.”
Jammie was left alone in the room, and after a moment of silence, the old man asked her in a calm and sober tone. “What do you think?”
Jammie did not know what the old man was referring to. She took a deep breath and guessed. “The ship would take at least a month to fix up. I have to run the diagnostics to see the integrity of the hub. My specialty is really not rebuilding old ships, but…”
“Well, it is going to be now.”
“There are a lot more skillful and knowledgable people that can do the same job better and faster.”
“Nonsense. You will learn. Give me an estimate of what it would be, and we’ll go from there.”
“Okay,” Jammie answered, feeling a bit more relaxed.
“And what do you think about them?” the old man said, nodding his head toward the closed door.
“They seem to be a nice team,” Jammie answered. “I like them. They seem they can grow on you really fast.”
The old man looked at her soberly and answered without taking his eyes from hers. “Looks can deceive. One of them is not who he or she pretends to be. One of them is a sellout.”
“What do you mean?”
“A union spy. There is a union spy among them.”
“Who?” Jammie asked not believing her eyes. “Slicky?”
“No, he is new. And don’t get me even started on that one.”
“Then who?” Jammie looked at him, not understanding the silence. “Do you know?”
The old man smirked. “Let me put it this way to you, they would not be a gang of four if I did.” Then he took a deep breath before he said, “But I will find out. Sooner or later. All the truth comes out. That I can guarantee you.”
When Marv, Sornia, and Timothy met the old man that evening, he was back to his old self.
He growled at them as soon as they came in and announced. “I’m not giving you any more assignments till you sort these things out with… what you call him...Slicky. He can stay here in the quarter next to yours, Timothy, for a few weeks, but I’m ducking that from your pay, and I want him out by the end of next moon. The client paid, and I had just transferred the promised funds to you. So we are square. But no more! So, you deal with him however you see fit, or that is it with working for me!”
“Fine,” Timothy answered, nonchalantly. “Do you see any problem with that, Marv?”
“I? No, actually, I don’t. I’m actually relieved.”
Sornia took in a deep breath, fully knowing what is coming next.
“I know, I feel relieved too. Have not felt this relieved… in a long time.”
“We finally can get rid of… bad management. Can start looking for a better one,” Marv said as it all suddenly made sense of it.
“Why didn’t we think about it before?” Timothy asked.
“You ungrateful bastards!” the old man barked at them. “You get the hell out of my sight! And don’t! Come back! Before you sort it out!”
“Oh, yeah, Sir,” Timothy said. “We’ll do it, right away, sir! We’ll sort it out right away, Sir.”
“Right away,” Marv confirmed.
They started to leave, Sornia rubbing her forehead. “Children, I work with children,” she kept on muttering to herself as she tried to get rid of her sudden headache.
Before they left, Timothy turned around and stuck his tongue out toward the old man, blew the air through it to make the funniest of noise.
One of the vases went flying toward him, but he was already behind the closed door when it crashed against it.
“No more assignments for you!” the old man screamed over the sound of a vase breaking.
Four of them went to dinner that night, Marv with his wife and Timothy and Sornia. They drank and ate, talked and laughed, Timothy watching how Marv’s wife just could not keep her hands off her husband. Reminded him to reach out to hold Sornia’s hand. She returned to gaze at him, gently. Spoke even more gently when she said. “I almost lost you there. Let’s not do that again.”
“Fine by my,” Timothy said as he pulled her hand up to his lips and kissed it. Softly and repeatedly. “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
When the ladies went to the restroom, Timothy turned around to stare at Marv.
“So, what do you really think, bro?” he asked.
“I don’t know, man,” Marv said and pulled on the beer. “You think about the old man, the next job. I mean, we are well set now. Won’t have to search for work for a long time now. Can wait. Be patient."
“No, I mean, the old man… he knows us. I mean, he knows us so well…”
“What? You have your feelings hurt?”
“Not that, bro. I mean, what are the chances he would expect us to meet his demand and get rid of Slicky?”
“I see. Probably none.”
“He knew, he himself said how much he valued our loyalty. I mean, he knew we treasured loyalty above anything else and we would not…”
“I mean, we need to fire test Slicky. They have a point there. Sornia had already talked to my wife, I know because she already asked me about the kid. I mean, you know we don’t owe the kid anything. Do not even know him.”
“That’s true, and we’ll deal with him the way we have to, but, I don’t want to… be an ass. You know?”
“I know. But you got to understand them too.”
“I know, but let’s not get off the subject.”
“The subject… the old man. He was weird. He almost wanted to have an excuse to cut us off. You didn’t get that feeling?”
“Now that you say it, it does make sense.”
“Am I wrong to see that?”
“No, you are actually right. That staged Mr. Nice Guy. And then tonight, that staged anger? He never loses the temper unless he wants to.”
Timothy suddenly was not feeling so comfortable in his seat anymore. He twisted and turned, unable to find the perfect spot. “He even paid us on time. Did that ever happen before?"
"It almost seems like... the old Goat wanted us out. He wants us to cool off, not take any more jobs.”
"But we could always run and work for someone else."
"Without a ship?"
Marv nodded his head and then said. “You know there at the end, I got a sense that..."
"What is it?"
"That staged anger... It's almost as if... he was actually spooked. Now that I think about it, I think something scared the shit out of him.”
“Yes. And if the old Goat is scared, and does not even want to tell us about that, how scared should we be? What the fuck is going on?”
A block away, Mr. Zarkeries walked into his room vault, closed it carefully behind him, and then set in the comfortable chair. He placed the helmet mode on his head, and an instant later, the blue cloud engulfed him.
‘Hello, Mr. Zarkeries. Good to see you again.’
“An update please,” the old man said in a flat voice.
‘Timothy the Seventh of Fairline family,
Wanted Dead or Alive.
The Bounty has been initiated at 20 million credits as of two hours ago.’
“Who issued the bounty?”
‘The information concerning the bounty origin is not availabe to the public.’
“This is a super Mode here. I have authorization for you to reveal that information.”
‘Not completely, sir. Not if the issuer of the bounty has a super Mode as well and has requested secrecy.’
The old man twitched, obviously surprised by the answer, then threw the helmet off and started to massage his temples, suddenly feeling the headache himself.