EP554: Captain Drake Learns His Lines


AUTHORS: Amy Sisson & Kate Suratt

NARRATOR: Christopher Cornell

HOST: Alasdair Stuart

  • Captain Drake Learns His Lines is an Escape Pod original. It is the first story in the short story series The Misadventures of Captain Drake.
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about the authors…Author photo. Copyright 2004 by Wendy Sisson

Amy is a writer, reviewer, librarian, and crazy cat lady. Her work – including the “Mr. Featherbottom” series – has appeared in numerous anthologies and publications, including Abyss & Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Toasted Cake, and Podcastle.

Kate Suratt

Kate Suratt is a flash fiction author, novelist, and NASA program analyst. Her short fiction has appeared in Splickety Prime magazine.

about the narrator…_sdc_hs

Christopher Cornell is a writer, musician (no, not that one) and software developer in Northern California. He is also the producer and co-host of the Unreliable Narrators podcast and creator of the upcoming audio drama series, E’ville. Also a film buff, foxhound wrangler and occasional editor. Skeptical of real estate shysters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Captain Drake Learns His Lines

By Amy Sisson and Kate Suratt

So I was sitting there minding my own business and trying to choke down the rotgut Rick passes off as whiskey, when who should come sailing through the door but Jeanne Bixby –- yes, the Jeanne Bixby, the biggest telewave starlet this side of the galaxy. She’d covered that famous red-gold hair with a gauzy green scarf and wore sunglasses, but she had to take them off because the bar was so dim she nearly tripped over the Candalubian dozing on the floor just inside the doorway.

Candalubians can sleep anywhere.

Anyway, I knew it was her the minute she took the glasses off, but I couldn’t figure out what the hell she was doing in Rick’s Bar. She didn’t even have her contingent of red-carpet bodyguards with her, just a single H’Rak’tin wearing brass knuckles on all four hands.

On second thought, maybe that was enough. H’Raks are famous for what they can do with brass knuckles.

Rick came out from the kitchen and stopped, surprised. “J,” he said, talking to her but glancing at me. “Long time no see.”

I made a show of studying my drink, but inside I was reeling. Rick knew Jeanne Bixby?

“Hi, Rick,” she said. She looked around and apparently decided that none of the half dozen people in the bar, myself included, were a threat. “I need a ride. My usual pilot is indisposed. I know it’s short notice, but….”

“Oh hell, Jea– J,” Rick said. “Practically every pilot I know is booked taking fares to what’s-it-called, that festival on New Cannes.”

I coughed discreetly.

“Every good pilot I know,” he amended.

I glared, less discreetly this time.

He went on, a mean little smile on his face. “I mean, the trustworthy ones, the ones you can really count on, those guys are all booked up.”

Well, that hurt. I swear, you accidentally release a couple million tons of hydrachromazine into the atmosphere of a new colony planet and you never hear the end of it. On the other hand, at least Rick still let me in his bar, which is more than I could say for most of his competition on this dusty rock.

“Please, Rick,” she said. “I have to get there.”

“To the festival?”

She nodded. “Before the opening ceremonies.”

He wiped his hands on his apron and pondered. “Okay,” he said. “Let me make some calls. You want a drink while you wait?”

“Antarian fizz,” she said. “Make it a double.”

“That bad?” he said.

“That bad,” she said, with a tired smile. Rick pulled out a bottle of butterscotch-colored liquid that shimmered in the bar’s dim light, and poured her a generous tumbler.

“Thanks, Rick,” she said. “I knew I could count on you.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” he said. “I can’t promise anything.”

“I know.” She looked around for a seat, and the H’Rak pointed to a corner table from which he –- she, it, don’t ask me –- would be able to see anyone approaching from a mile away.

Well, you don’t have to tell me twice when opportunity comes knocking. The second Rick went into the back, I got up and walked towards her table. Hell, I needed a job, and Jeanne Bixby showing up was like a rare tropical bird flying into my window, right past the pigeons that were crapping all over my balcony.

As expected, the H’Rak was on its feet and growling before I closed half the distance to the table. I stopped and held up my hands in the universal I-don’t-want-any-trouble sign.

“Miss B–, uh, Miss,” I said. “I couldn’t help overhearing that you’re looking for a pilot.”

She drained her cocktail and looked at me like I was a bug in need of squashing.

“What do you fly?” she said. Right to the point.

“An Arrow 470, name of Redemption.”

She snorted in a rather unladylike fashion.

“I know, I know,” I said. “It’s not the newest bird in the sky. But let me tell you, the Arrow line is seriously underrated. It’s fast and reliable, but still has a decent-sized cargo bay.”

“So it’s reliable,” she said. “Are you?”

“Sure, ask anyone,” I said.

“And whom shall I say I’m inquiring after?”

“Smith,” I said, and mentally winced. It was the first name that popped into my head. I should’ve held out for the second. “Brandon Smith.”

“Well, Mister Smith,” she said. “Why don’t I just ask Rick for a reference, then? He knows every pilot that touches down in this port. Although I notice he didn’t ask if you were available even though you were sitting right in front of him.”

“Must’ve slipped his mind,” I said. I gestured to an empty chair. “May I?”

She hesitated, then sighed. “Why not?” Glancing at the H’Rak, she said, “It’s fine, Mok. You can sit down.”

The H’Rak pointedly folded both pairs of arms and leaned back against the wall, staring at me with unblinking eyes. I mentally resolved to keep my hands on the table at all times.

I pulled out the chair and sat down. “So you’re going to the Phineas Festival,” I said. “PhinFest, I hear they call it. Are you an actor looking to break in? A journalist? Just a fan?”

“Cut the crap, Mister Smith,” she said. “You know who I am.”

“Sorry, Miss Bixby,” I said. “I was just trying to be discreet. But hell, there’s nobody my age — no human, anyway — who doesn’t know who you are. I’ve been watching your films since I was knee-high to a dust-scuttler, and those have been obsolete since….”

Her face darkened.

“‘Course, it wasn’t all that long ago,” I said quickly. Too late, I remembered some of the headlines I’d seen in the last few years. Jeanne Bixby Struggling for Roles: Time to Retire? JB’s Husband Spotted with Rising New ‘Wave Star. That sort of thing. Come to think of it, she hadn’t had many new films lately.

Rick came out from the back room and stopped short. “Dammit, Drake, stop bothering my customers,” he snapped. So much for my alias.

“You didn’t find another pilot, did you?” I challenged.

He ignored me, looking at Miss Bixby instead. “I’m sorry, J. I called everyone I could think of. Can’t you take a commercial liner?”

“No,” she said. “If word gets out that I’m coming….”

“Wouldn’t the crew keep the fans off your back?” he asked. Then he realized what he’d said.

Miss Bixby brushed it off. “It’s okay, Rick, he knows who I am.”

He relaxed. “So, a commercial flight?” he asked again.

She shook her head. “It’s not the fans. There’s someone going to the festival, someone who’s usually … unavailable. He’s skittish, hates the whole circus, you know? And I have to see him. But we didn’t part well last time I saw him, so if he hears that I’m coming, he might change his mind.”

“A producer?” I said, trying to be helpful. “Are you trying to land a big role? Going to the festival’s a great idea; I’ve heard that every producer in the galaxy will be there. All except what’s-his-name, that guy who quit and said he never wanted to see another CGI ‘wave in his life.”

Miss Bixby looked at me with something approaching loathing.

“Butt out, Mister Drake,” she said.

“I prefer Captain…,” I started, but trailed off as the H’Rak growled in my direction.

“As it happens, I’m not trying to ‘land a big role,'” Miss Bixby said. “I don’t have to panhandle for parts. I’ve won two Starbursts, you know.”

“So why do you need to see this guy?” I asked.

“Why doesn’t anyone want to hire you?” she countered. “Any chance it has something to do with hydrachromazine?”

“Fine, I don’t need to know,” I said, annoyed. Christ, she was as prickly as a dawn cactus. I tried to steer the conversation back where it belonged. “I’m actually very discreet, like I said. My fares never have to worry about unwanted attention. But some captains can’t keep a secret for two seconds. They’d just as soon blab to the customs goons that they’re carrying contraband. Or,” I said pointedly, “they’ll tell everyone they met a famous starlet who was traveling incognito and looking for a ride.”

“Mok,” she snapped. The H’Rak was in my face in a split second. It grabbed my shirt, lifted me out of my chair, and set me down none-too-gently at the bar’s front door, barely missing the Candalubian. Then it insulted me by turning its back, to show that it didn’t consider me a threat.

Dammit, I’d pushed too hard. I thought about making one more appeal, but the light glinting off the H’rak’s knuckles changed my mind. I cursed, and went in search of another bartender who would serve me.

#

The next morning, I was nursing a hangover the size of a supernova. You’d think that a space-faring civilization that’s mastered FTL travel could come up with a decent cure for a hangover, but no such luck. It didn’t help that I’d spent the last half hour arguing with a security guard who wouldn’t let me in the port, let alone anywhere near my ship.

“Sorry, pal,” he said, not looking sorry at all. “Only pilots and crew are allowed in this area, and according to my records, you don’t have a ship anymore.”

“I do have a ship,” I said for the twentieth time. “Just because she’s in impound due to a clerical error–”

“My, what a run of bad luck,” drawled a voice behind me. I turned and saw Miss Bixby. In addition to the scarf and sunglasses, she wore a shapeless tan jumpsuit that somehow still managed to show off her killer figure.

“Oh, you,” I said to her, as the security guard wandered off. “Let me guess, you still can’t find a pilot and now you’re desperate.” An inner voice told me that antagonizing a potential fare wasn’t the brightest idea, but my hangover told that voice to shut the hell up.

“No, Mister Drake, you’re the one who’s desperate,” she said calmly. “I’m willing to pay a fair price, but you will take me. One, you can’t afford to turn me down. Two, if you could’ve left already you would have. I believe you’ll find your impound notice has just been lifted.”

How the hell had she–?

“Three,” she went on, cool as a cucumber, “Rick told me all about your outstanding warrant, which he says you like to call yet another little ‘misunderstanding.’ I’m sure that officer over there would love to hear about it. Any questions?”

“Yeah, who’s the blackmailer now?” I said.

“You started it, Mister Drake.”

Captain Drake. And I did not.”

“Did too.”

“Did no– Oh sweet Christ, never mind,” I said. “Alright, Miss Bixby.” I looked around. “Any luggage?”

“Mok has my bags, thank you. He’ll be here momentarily.”

Great, the H’Rak was coming along for the ride. Oh well, at least now I knew he was a “he.” And I finally had a fare, so technically the day was getting better, even if it didn’t feel like it.

It didn’t help when Miss Bixby insisted on poking her nose into everything while I went through the pre-flight checks. To be fair, her questions were pretty spot-on for a dirt-sider, but I didn’t appreciate having to explain some of my more creative patch-up jobs. Finally I just said, “Look, Miss Bixby, I’m the pilot. I’ll get us where we’re going. How do you know so much about cargo ships, anyway?”

She straightened up from examining a couple of cables I’d duct-taped to the hull, and tried to brush the grime off her hands. “My grandfather was a design engineer for VG’s Lightfoot line,” she said. Great, one of Arrow’s direct competitors. “I liked to watch him tinker.”

I sighed as I flipped on the comm and requested departure clearance.

“Hey Drake, Buzz here,” came back. “I’ve got good news and bad news. Good news is that your impound was lifted — how’d ya manage that?”

“Long story, Buzz,” I said, trying to ignore Miss Bixby’s smug expression. “I’ll fill you in next time.”

“Okay, bad news is that you’ve got forty-seven ships in front of you, and we’re running behind. First cargo departure slot is in twelve hours, and that’s probably gonna slip.”

Well, crap. It would’ve been tight to get to New Cannes in time for the festival’s opening ceremonies as it was.

Miss Bixby leaned forward and flicked the comm switch by the co-pilot’s seat, where she had no business sitting, by the way. “Mr. Buzz,” she said. “Port Regulation 135B Subsection 2 allows small cargo ships without cargo to temporarily re-register as small passenger transport for arrival and departure purposes. How’s the passenger ship queue?”

I broke in. “How do you know I don’t have cargo?”

“Impound report — they seized it,” she said.

Double crap.

Buzz came back on the line. “Passenger queue is only two ships,” he said. “Everyone else left yesterday for some big shindig in the Califf system. But 135B isn’t in effect anymore. The new armored alloys make most cargo ships too heavy for passenger struts even when they’re empty.”

“Lightfoots and Arrows were grandfathered in, weren’t they?” she said. “They’re still light enough.”

We waited half a minute while Buzz checked. “Good call on the grandfather clause,” he said. “You’re third in the passenger ship queue, Redemption. Proceed to Launch Strut 13-Alpha for departure in 53 minutes.”

“Thank you, Mr. Buzz,” she said.

“My pleasure, Miss …?

“Barrett,” she said. “Jeannie Barrett.”

“Well, Jeannie Barrett, you watch out for that snake what calls himself a pilot,” Buzz said. “Half the dockworkers have laid bets that he’s gonna steer himself into a black hole one of these days.” Traitor.

“Not to worry, Mr. Buzz, I can handle myself,” said Miss Bixby.

Buzz signed off and I leaned back in my seat, arms folded. “Regulation 135B, huh?” I said. “Any more surprises? Want to fly the ship while you’re at it?”

“Are you offering, Mr. Drake?”

Captain,” I said. “And no. That’s called sarcasm.”

“And this is called making a graceful exit,” she said, getting up to leave the cockpit. “Wake me when we get there.”

Maybe I would. If I didn’t dump her out the airlock first.

#

Fortunately Jeanne made herself scarce, because I had to spend the first half of the trip to New Cannes recalibrating my proximity detectors and disabling an alarm that the port crew must have reset to code standards during impound. For my money, there’s no need for three separate ear-splitting sirens unless you have a hydrachromazine leak, in which case split ears are the least of your worries.

It was less fortunate that for a guy with four hands, Mok was not at all handy. In fact, he seemed about as mechanically inclined as a Thragen with no thumbs. I’d ask him to hand me a sonic driver or a mag-wrench, and all I got was stared at by those hostile, unblinking eyes. Whatever.

By the time we got to the second transfer point, I finally felt a little less jumpy — tinkering does that for me, even with a grouchy H’rak looming over my shoulder. I adjusted our course to take the old Kralen route instead of the new bypass, and headed to the galley to fix myself a snack.

“This isn’t the fastest way to the Califf system,” said the voice I’d been hoping not to hear again until the person who owned it was handing me a fat wad of cash.

I stopped in my tracks. “It is the way I fly,” I said. I started ticking off on my fingers. “One, you said you wanted to stay under the radar, and there’s only one checkpoint on this route as opposed to four on the bypass. Two, there’s a lot less traffic this way, so we won’t get bottle-necked behind tankers and liners. Three, on a route as backwater as this one, the speed limits and directional constraints are really more like guidelines. Four–”

The proximity alarm interrupted me just as I was winding up. I turned it off and opened my mouth to continue, but Jeanne cut in.

“Four,” she said, folding her arms, “it will be a lot easier for pirates to find and board us on this route. You know, pirates? Whom you may or may not have tipped off that we’d be coming this way.”

“I resent that,” I said. “In spite of that little misunderstanding –”

“Arrest warrant.”

“– misunderstanding, I’ve been on the straight and narrow for years now. All of my fares are legit these days. And I haven’t seen a pirate in–”

Mok grunted and pointed to the forward window, so we crowded back into the cockpit to look. A small vessel with several wicked-looking gun mounts was docking with a sleek passenger liner more than twice its size.

Jeanne looked at me, mouth grim. “You were saying, Mister Drake?”

“Not a problem,” I said, scrambling back into my seat. “They can’t chase us if they’re busy boarding someone else. We’ll blow on by and they’ll never know we were here. Besides, a liner full of rich passengers is a much better target than a thirty-year-old cargo ship that’s probably only carrying pipe fittings.”

“You were saying, Mister Drake?” she repeated.

“What?” I said, exasperated.

She pointed at the window. My stomach dropped as I watched two more pirate ships come out from behind the liner and sidle up to the Redemption, one on either side.

#

It took some scrambling, but we managed to stash two of Jeanne’s four bags in my double secret cargo hold before the pirates boarded. This wasn’t my first rodeo, so I had her leave her biggest bag in her bunk, and we put another one, filled with the least valuable of her valuables, in a “secret” compartment that I hoped would be just hard enough to find to be believable. Then we waited for the pirates at the airlock, as instructed.

When the door slid open, I groaned inwardly. Seriously, of all the pirates in all the galaxy….

“Drake, buddy!” said Turo, the tall, blue-skinned leader. Huh, he must have spent the last few years working his way up through the ranks. He pounded my shoulder so hard my knees almost buckled. “What’re you doing out this way?”

I gritted my teeth. “Hey Turo, good to see you,” I said without much enthusiasm. I glanced at Jeanne, who had that bug-squashing look again. Mok flexed his hands, clearly calculating the odds. But with a good half dozen pirates flanking Turo, there was no way Mok could take them without endangering Jeanne.

“So hey, buddy,” Turo said. “I’d love to catch up, but I don’t have a lot of time right now. We’re having some kind of week, let me tell you! Bunch of rich tourists heading to New Cannes, think they’re being smart taking the back way. I ain’t never seen such easy pickings.” His gaze went to Jeanne and he narrowed his eyes, then looked back at me. “So, where ya headed?” he said, all casual-like. Yeah, casual my ass.

“My, um, my associates and I are going to New Cannes ourselves,” I said. No way was he going to believe anything else. “We heard that was the place to get some work on a telewave crew, maybe ferrying sets and actors between locations.” It killed me to say this next bit, but I had to sell it. I lowered my voice. “Since that hydrachromazine thing, I’ve been having a little trouble getting fares, so….”

Turo nodded sympathetically. “I know how it goes, buddy.” He snapped his fingers without taking his eyes off me. His crew sprang into action, three of them training plasma guns on us while the other three fanned out to search the ship.

“Hey, Turo–” I started.

“Sorry, buddy, nothing personal,” he said. “No worries, we can keep this nice and friendly. It’s just I can’t leave empty-handed, you know? In this business, reputation is everything.”

We stood there for what felt like ages, making small talk that Turo seemed to enjoy a lot more than I did. I tried once to casually back towards the bulkhead where I had a small blast-pistol stashed, but Turo gestured me to come forward again, without even interrupting his sentence. In spite of his Mr. Congeniality act, his eyes remained hard and alert.

As expected, when his goons came back, they carried both of the suitcases we’d left for them to find. Mok growled; maybe he couldn’t help himself, or maybe he was trying to sell it too. One pirate, who had an artificial arm with a mean-looking claw on the end, laughed.

“Don’t worry, big guy, we left your sweetheart’s delicates,” he said to Mok. “Most of ’em, anyway.”

“What’s the take?” Turo asked him.

Claw-Arm gestured to the suitcases. “About 700 in cash and a silver holo-frame.” Jeanne’s eyes widened and she pressed her lips together. She wanted that frame. Claw-Arm went on. “A little jewelry that looks real. About three grand altogether, I’d say. Maybe not quite as much as I’d expect from a woman as fine-looking as this one.”

Mok snarled and stepped forward, earning three plasma barrels aimed right at his forehead.

“Mok!” I said. “These men don’t mean any disrespect, I’m sure.” Mok glanced at Jeanne, who shook her head slightly. “Right, Turo?” I went on. “No need to draw a lot of unnecessary attention. You remember that time on Andara II.”

Turo grimaced. He’d done hard time for that one. Piracy is piracy, but outright murder, especially if the victim is someone important? That’s something else.

“No need for trouble,” he agreed. “Still, I’d hate to disappoint the boss….”

“Can I have a word, Turo, on your way out?” I asked.

“Sure, buddy,” he said. “Not sure I’m ready to leave, seeing as we’ve just started catching up, but step into my office here.” He gestured for Claw-Arm to take the cases into the airlock, waved me through, and then followed, the door sliding closed behind him. The rest of his goons stayed with Jeanne and Mok.

“Hey buddy,” I said. “I want to be friendly and all, but I don’t have much hospitality to offer. You know how it goes. Times have been tough.”

“I get it, Drake,” he said. “Thing is, me and my boys have been traveling a while and we’re tired. We can use whatever hospitality you’ve got.”

I sighed. “I’ve got five grand–”

“Cash?”

“No, but it’s secured.” I reached for the p-comm strapped to my belt, tapped my way through a few screens, and brought up the holo-seal showing that I’d just irrevocably reserved the funds for transfer within a week. All I’d have to do was go in person to Novus Pecuniam, the sector’s finance capitol, and provide DNA authorization.

“Twenty grand,” Turo said.

“Christ, Turo, that five grand is all I’ve got! I’ll be lucky if I can refuel, let alone find another fifteen to give you.”

“That’s for the inconvenience of having to claim it in person, which isn’t exactly risk-free for me,” he said. “Carry cash next time.”

“But–” I stopped. If he wanted, Turo could space all of us and take my ship. Worse, he could space me and Mok and take Jeanne with him. I could tell he hadn’t recognized her yet, but if he figured it out, he’d want a lot more than twenty grand.

“Fine, twenty,” I said. I pressed my thumb to the pad. Then I held it out to Turo, but pulled it back as I remembered something.

“One thing, Turo,” I said. He raised his eyebrows. “If you don’t mind, I mean. That silver frame. Take the frame, but leave the cube. A bunch of pictures aren’t worth anything to you, but to her….”

“Sure, buddy,” he said, all magnanimous now. I held the pad out again and watched as Turo sealed the deal, then dug the holo-cube out of the frame and handed it to me. As the pirates filed out past me, I prayed I’d find the rest of the money before the week was up. Jeanne’s fare wasn’t going to cover it all, and if I missed Turo’s deadline, I’d have a lot bigger worries than how to pay for gas.

#

“Now what?” Jeanne asked the minute the airlock door closed behind the pirates.

I ran my hand through my hair and sighed. “We get back underway, what else?”

“That’s it? They let us go with two suitcases full of clothes and a little jewelry?” Jeanne raised her eyebrows. “Seems to me we got off pretty easy.”

I shrugged, not willing to admit to the deal I’d just made. “You heard Turo, we’re old buddies,” I said. I started towards the cockpit, then remembered the holo-cube and turned back. “Oh, here,” I said, holding it out to her. She looked down and gasped, then took the cube, holding it gingerly.

I studied her face. “Judging from your reaction, I was right,” I said.

She looked up quickly. “What do you mean?”

“That isn’t just pictures,” I said. “You’ve got encrypted digital currency on there, don’t you?” She didn’t answer. “I could tell by your face the frame was important, but then why didn’t you put it in one of suitcases we really hid?”

“I meant to,” she said, voice low. “But in the rush…. You’re right, Mr. Drake, this cube is important to me. But it really is just pictures.”

“Well, I’m glad I got them back for you, then,” I said shortly. If she didn’t want to trust me with the truth, fine. I should’ve just kept the cube and hacked it for the currency — she never would have known the pirates hadn’t made off with it.

Mok started to follow me back to the cockpit, but Jeanne stopped him. “Mok, get some rest,” she said. The H’rak started to protest, but she persisted. “I mean it, Mok, you’re not going to be any good to me on New Cannes if you’re exhausted. Get some rest.”

Muttering, Mok stalked back towards the tiny cabin I’d assigned him when they came aboard. Jeanne turned to follow him.

“Thanks,” I said grudgingly.

“No problem, Mister Drake.”

#

I spent the next few hours trying to rustle up a quick job, anything to make up the difference between what I had and what I owed. Not a small sum, and a rolling snowball if Jeanne decided to charge me for what the pirates had taken. But half my old contacts had my messages permanently blocked, and the few who deigned to reply said no, using language that I personally thought was uncalled for.

By the time we got within an hour of New Cannes, I knew we were in a pirate-free zone, so I went to pull Jeanne’s remaining suitcases out of their hiding place. Jeanne and Mok were still in their cabins, which was fine since I didn’t like having an audience when I opened the secret compartment.

Just as I pulled the second suitcase out, it spilled open; one of the latches must have gotten damaged when I’d thrown everything back there in such a hurry. Most of what fell out was clothes — beautiful flowing scarves and the softest sweater I’d ever touched, in a shade of mossy green. But then something glittery fell out of a velvet pouch and clanked on the floor. I picked it up and recognized it immediately: a gold hair comb set with dozens of tiny emeralds and sapphires, looped in intricate swirls.

A hair comb she’d been wearing the night she won her first Starburst award.

And she’d been breathtaking. I could still picture her famous pose from that night, in front of the serpent sculpture at the Starmark Theatre. That holo had been beamed all over the galaxy. She was wearing a dress like liquid gold, with a tantalizing slit up to her mid-thigh. Her right hand reached up and lightly grasped one of the serpent’s fangs, while her other hand reached back, seeming to caress the snake’s flaring hood. The light glinted off her dress, her eyes, and especially the hair comb, the very one I was holding in my hands.

It had to be worth, what? Millions? At least several hundred thousand. Even if it weren’t glowing with the light of Jeanne Bixby’s fame, the jewels alone had to be worth a small fortune. More than enough to pay Turo and a few other debtors, get the Redemption a complete overhaul, and maybe find a way to clean up my reputation after the hydrachromazine incident.

I turned the comb over in my hands. It would be so easy. If I put the cases back in the hold and made a show of retrieving them later, when she or Mok was there to see it, she wouldn’t even know the comb was missing until I was hell and gone from New Cannes.

But no. I was desperate, but that was a line I wasn’t willing to cross. I pictured her back at the port, when she’d smugly informed me that my ship was out of Impound. She’d enjoyed the moment, but she wasn’t cruel. And it wasn’t her fault my ship had been impounded in the first place, or that I’d been dumb enough to take a route known for pirate activity.

Jeanne Bixby had been breathtaking the night that famous photo had been taken, but now she was real. She wasn’t a doll in a holo-image but a person, one that had experienced glorious success, sadness, and probably everything in between. Maybe she’d even become herself again — what was the name she’d given Buzz back at the port? Jeannie Barrett. I could see her as a Jeannie Barrett, without the make-up and jewelry but looking just as lovely.

I sighed, tucked the comb back into its pouch, and stuffed it and everything else back in the suitcase. Then I straightened up, picked up both cases, and turned around to see Jeanne staring at me.

“Any problems?” she asked, her eyes flicking briefly down to my pockets.

“No,” I said, flushing. “I mean, the case spilled, but I got the latch working again.”

“I see,” she said, and held my gaze for several seconds. “You don’t need to lug those, Mr. Drake. Mok will see to them.”

“Fine,” I said, and dropped the cases with a thump. “Just trying to help.” I stepped around her, then called back without turning my head. “We’ll be starting landing procedures soon. Not much of a queue. Most everyone’s here already, I guess.”

Forty minutes later, I met Jeanne and Mok at the ship’s door. The scarf and glasses had reappeared, but she pulled the latter off when I approached.

“Your fee, Mister Drake,” she said, holding out her p-comm. I pressed my thumb to the sensor pad and heard the chime signaling the transfer. When I opened the door, Mok stuck his head out and glanced around, then turned to Jeanne and shook his head.

“I appreciate that there’s no paparazzi waiting for me, Mister Drake,” she said.

Still with the Mister. “Told you I was discreet,” I answered.

“Mok, will you take my bags and wait for the limo?” she said. Mok picked up the cases, grunted at me in a slightly less hostile fashion than usual, and walked down the ramp.

“You thought the holo-cube had money on it, but you gave it back when you could have just pocketed it,” Jeanne said to me. Still straight to the point. “I was telling the truth when I said it only has photos on it. But they’re worth a lot to me. They’re the only pictures I have of my father, from when I was a baby. My mother destroyed the rest when he left. She couldn’t believe he would walk out, but he did it because she — well, never mind. Thank you for saving the pictures.”

“Your father,” I said. “Darren Bixby. I thought–”

“Darren was my stepfather,” she said. “He married my mother when I was two years old. He was trying to break in as an actor, and one day a talent scout saw him playing with me on the beach, and–”

“Lemme guess, the scout was interested in you, not him.” I shook my head, feeling kind of sorry for the guy. But actors are a dime a dozen, and fate is fate.

“So I became his daughter,” Jeanne said. “Nobody but my parents and my grandfather knew otherwise, and my mother threatened to keep me from my grandfather if he let on. So he told me the minute I turned eighteen, when he knew my mother couldn’t do anything about it. Don’t get me wrong, Darren was a decent stepfather — well, other than using my fame for his own advantage. But it was quite a shock when I found out my last name was Barrett, not Bixby.”

Barrett. So she had given her real name to Buzz back at the port. But it also rang another bell. Something about a producer.

“Holy shit,” I said. “That producer guy, the recluse. His name is Barrett, isn’t it? He’s your father?”

“Yes,” Jeanne said. “And thanks to my mother, he’s under the impression that I knew all along and chose not to contact him. But until I turned eighteen, I didn’t know there was anyone to contact. And then, well, I wasn’t sure what to do. My people said the scandal would….” She shook her head. “Anyway, when I finally tried to get in touch with him, it was too late. I’ve sent him dozens of messages, but he probably assumes I want money or a favor. I don’t know exactly what my mother told him, but he obviously thinks I have no interest in an actual relationship.”

“So you’re going to corner him here,” I said.

“What else can I do? This is the first time in years he’s gone anywhere where I might get to see him. He would have cancelled if he heard I was coming, so….”

From outside, we heard a short bark, and I jumped.

“It’s just Mok,” she said. “The limo must be here.”

I held out my hand. “Good luck with your father, Miss Bixby.”

She took it. Her hand was all softness over a steel grip, just like the rest of her. “Call me Jeanne,” she said.

“Good luck, Jeanne.”

She stepped through the door, then looked back with an impish grin. “Oh, and I wanted to thank you for one other thing. My bags have sensors — they may look like beat-up old bags but they’ve got top-of-the-line tech. Every ounce is accounted for. That’s why I accidentally put the holo-frame in the wrong case; I was trying to reset the sensors without you seeing me and I got flustered.”

I don’t know what kind of panicked expression she saw on my face but she laughed. “Don’t worry, I know you put everything back. And I appreciate it. I’m sure you were tempted.”

She rummaged in her purse and tossed a small bundle towards me. I caught it without taking my eyes off her face. It felt like a small velvet bag with something heavy in it. Something precious.

She was already at the bottom of the ramp. “Goodbye, Captain,” she said with that famous grin. Finally, Captain instead of Mister. “And by the way,” she called back. “My grandfather worked for the Lightfoot line, but he flew an Arrow, just like you.”

And that’s what I call a good exit line.

– End –