SINBAD’S LAST VOYAGE
Indian George kicked the big sorrel into a grudging gallop. The animal was old and fat and didn’t like to run, much less travel along a mud-rutted dirt road. A slow, drag-hoofed amble was its preferred speed. He should have taken the Jeep. It was rusty and antiquated, but it would have gotten him to his destination quicker. Like most Naturals, however, George never used the vehicle if he could keep from doing so.
The Jeep was for long distances and emergencies, and while this was an emergency, the Talltrees’ farm was next door to his and the sorrel could take the road much easier than an ancient contraption like George’s automobile, with its primitive internal combustion engine. Its wheels—that actually touched the ground—would hit every pothole and dip in sight.
He gave the sorrel’s withers a slap with his hand. “Git, you nag! Or it’s the processing plant for you.”
The sorrel didn’t move a bit faster, as if aware that horses were an Endangered Domestic Species and knew it was totally safe.
Only an hour earlier, George had heard of Tran’s arrest. In the three days since an Albegensian warship had fired upon a Terran deep-space freighter, blasting it to micro-particles with all hands on board, all Albegensi in Earth residence were being taken into custody and detained for questioning in accordance with Standard Procedure in times of Global Martial Emergency. Tran had been one of the unfortunates.
George was old enough to have lived through two wars between Earth and its neighbors and he was aware of what might happen to Tran now, and he knew none of it would be pleasant. At the moment, however, his concern was for the welfare of Tran’s wife and son who were alone at the farm.
He turned the sorrel’s head, guiding it through the gate, and pulled it to a stiff-legged and grateful halt in front of the house. The animal snorted and stretched its neck against the reins, attempting to reach the short grass growing in the front yard, to make up for the meal it had been forced to miss by taking its owner on this sudden trip.
The Talltrees’ home was a small wooden building, every plank and nail placed by hand over 100 years before by Ramon Talltrees, great-grandfather of Tran’s wife, Andrea. Like the other inhabitants of the Valley, Ramon had been a Natural, choosing to live as his ancestors had centuries before, with as few contemporary conveniences—and their accompanying pollution—as possible.
On the top step of the porch sat a boy, arms resting against his knees. He was slim and dark. At first glance, he might have been mistaken for one of George’s people, but the blue-black sheen to his braided hair as well as the slight slant to his brown eyes marked him as Albegensi—Tran’s 14-year-old son, Acashi, suddenly finding himself head of the house and in charge of the farm. He didn’t look up as George scrambled off the sorrel’s back and dropped the reins, but stared listlessly across the field beyond the fence.
Leaving the sorrel munching on Andrea’s daisies, George looked up at the boy. “Cash?”
He had to call twice before Cash turned from his contemplation of the field. There was a hopelessness in the young face that made the old man want to cry.
“Where’s your mother?”
“She’s inside,” the boy said, gesturing behind him. As George started up the steps, he reached out and caught the old man’s arm. “I’m worried about her. She hasn’t eaten since they took Dad away.” He was holding an oak leaf, and began to shred it into strips as he spoke. “She just sits there. I practically had to carry her upstairs to sleep.” He threw the pieces of leaf to the ground and looked across the field again, tears in the voice but they wouldn’t show in the eyes. Tran’s son wouldn’t allow that. “I-I’m scared. I’ve lost Dad--I don’t want to lose her, too.”
The old man patted the boy’s shoulder and went through the front door. Though the Naturals’ teachings allowed the use of electricity, it was not the solar power utilized by the rest of the world, but the hydroelectric kind supplied by a small generating plant set on the falls of the river that wandered through the Valley. Fuel lamps were the usual mode of illumination, although no one had turned on the lights. It was so dim inside George thought the room was empty. Then, he saw Andi, sitting beside the fireplace.
The room was cold for an April day, but no fire had been laid. She was in the old rocker—handmade, like the rest of the furniture—staring into the emptiness of the hearth. She didn’t look up as George came in, didn’t even acknowledge his presence. Huddled in the rocker, hands clutched against her chest, she sat blank-eyed, like someone’s ancient grandmother. Only one hand moved, twisting her wedding ring around her finger. She was wearing a sweater, a long skirt, and knee-high suede boots—all handmade, all products of the farm. Her hair, thick and honey-yellow, hung in a single braid over one shoulder.
Seeing her tear-stained blondness, George once again marveled that she was mother to the dark-haired, dark-eyed child who sat on the front steps. She looks so young, he thought. Like Cash’s older sister, not his mother.
She didn’t move, but when he got nearer, she spoke in a low monotone.
“They took him away, George. Arrested him on ‘suspicion’—what does that mean? Suspicion of what?” When she looked at the old Navajo, her eyes were bleak with despair, lashes wet with the tears that Cash wouldn’t shed. “How could they think Tran’s a spy? It’s preposterous!” She shook her head and turned to stare at the hearth again.
“Come on.” George put his arms around her, pulling her to her feet.
“Where are we going?” she asked, mildly protesting being moved, and clutched at his hands for support.
“To the kitchen.” He steered her through the open doorway at the back of the room and pushed her toward the trestle table. “Cash says you haven’t eaten. That isn’t going to do anyone any good.”
She sat at the table while he put the kettle on to boil. Luckily, Cash had stoked the cast-iron stove earlier, and it was still hot. George added another log and turned to look at Andi. She was pale, as dazed as someone abandoned, and he didn’t like it. The Andi he knew was a feisty little thing, who could lick all of her 110 pounds in wildcats, and took no guff from anyone. This docile, apathetic creature was totally unlike her. She was in shock, he decided. Turning back to the table, he pulled out a chair and sat down.
“What will you do, Andi?” he asked, thinking frantically of something to say, anything to get her talking and take that lost look from her face.
“Do? I…” She looked across the table at him. “George, I don’t know. What can I do?” She made a vague gesture with one hand. “If I knew where Tran was taken, maybe I could petition the local headquarters, get affidavits from our neighbors saying he’s no spy, somehow get him released, but I don’t even know where he is.”
George had a good idea where Tran was, but he hated to tell her. He also knew she had little chance of freeing her husband on the strength of some names written on a paper, even if she was lucky enough to find anyone unafraid of signing it. Only two times in the past 300 years had the United Terran Federation relinquished a prisoner because of public demand.
“He’s probably been taken to an intern camp, and if that’s so, you may never see him again. Those places are deadly, Andi.”
“An intern camp? Oh, George, I never thought that something like that existed, not on Earth.” Her voice rose, becoming shrill. “Things like this just don’t happen, not here, not now! This isn’t the twenty-first century. They can’t just come in and take a man away like…”
One hand went to her mouth, stifling whatever she had been going to say. She shook her head and closed her eyes. George didn’t argue. He just nodded in sad agreement, and they both sat in silence for a long time.
Even after four world wars and two interplanetary ones, many people had no idea what happened to alien nationals during wartime, and many didn’t want to know. There were four internment camps, and only the Federation Marshals knew where they were. George had had the misfortune to be a guard at a camp during an earlier war. The memory of the things he had seen made him take refuge in the Valley when his enlistment was over. It had been years before he ventured from its safety again.
How could he help Tran? He was just an old Navajo. Though chosen hataalii to his people, to those Outside, he was simply an anachronism…like the Naturals themselves. What could he possibly do?
With sudden surprise, he knew. It had been hovering in his mind since he heard of Tran’s arrest, but would Andi accept it? Did he want her to accept it? He looked over at her.
“Andi, if Tran is in one of those camps, I…may…know someone who can help you. He could find out which one so you’d know who to get in touch with.”
He tried to sound optimistic, and failed, his own doubt preventing him. It didn’t matter who she wrote or went to see. The UTF didn’t give up political prisoners, but at least it would keep her from feeling so helpless.
“Who?” She looked up eagerly.
“S-Sinbad?” An uncertain smile hovered at the corners of her mouth, as if he’d made a joke she didn’t quite understand. She stared at him. “But that’s just a fairytale. A story you used to tell me when I was little. Sinbad isn’t a real person.”
“Oh, this one’s real enough,” George assured her. “He’s Felidan, a smuggler--has his headquarters in Old Town.”
“George! Where did you meet a smuggler?” Her smile was real this time. “Is there a side to you we don’t know about?”
He shook his head and returned her smile. “Some of the natives of Felida have the Eyes-that-Seek-the-Spirit. When I heard there was a Felidan in Old Town, I went to see if he had the gift. It would've been a great help to me in ministering to our people.”
“No.” He shook his head again. “He’s a half-breed. His genetic heritage had diluted what little ability there was, but we kept in touch. I patched him up a couple of times when he got too close to the Coast Guard and needed a medic who'd keep quiet.” At Andi’s disapproving reaction to this statement, he shrugged and tried to look nonchalant. “In a way, he’s a friend.”
She was thoroughly attentive now. “And you think this…Sinbad…could help me? Why would he?”
“He was in a prison camp once. If he can do anything to thwart the UTF, he will. He…”
The teakettle’s high, shrill whistle was a welcome interruption. George stood up and quickly poured water into two cups, adding spoonfuls of herb tea and sweetener. Then, he brought the cups to the table with a flourish.
“Here you are, blackberry tea with honey. Just the way you like it.”
Andi took the cup, sipping slowly, savoring the taste. When she was small and something went wrong—whether it was a skinned knee or bad grades in school—George always made it better with blackberry tea.
“You’re so good to me, George. I think you’re the best friend I have.”
He looked down at his cup. Praise always discomfited George. He stirred his tea with great attention. Andi took another sip. She looked better, he thought. There was more life in her eyes…and hope, too, but he was sorry his words had put it there. Abruptly, she set down her cup.
“Where can I find this Sinbad?”
George continued to stir his tea. Now, he was having second thoughts. It was dangerous to seek out a known criminal, especially for the purposes of obtaining classified information. He was urging Andi toward treason, and if she were caught--
“I heard you. Uh--just forget what I said.”
“Forget it?” She looked surprised. “But, George, if he can help…I mean, you said he doesn’t like the Federation…”
Her voice trailed away at the look of concern he turned toward her.
“He doesn’t. But he dislikes Terrans even more.” He reached across the table and placed a hand over hers. “He’s dangerous, Andi. He’s a criminal, and…I-I’m sorry I mentioned it. I don’t want you to have anything to do with Sinbad sh’en Singh.”
Gently, she withdrew her hand from beneath his. He knew by the stubborn tilt of her chin that she’d made up her mind, and nothing he could say or do would change it. George’s heart sank.
“Where can I find him, George?” she asked quietly.
Andi paused at the swinging doors of the Asteroid Cantina. The building was a little better-looking than those surrounding it. At least, it had recently had a fresh coat of paint. From inside came the sounds of voices raised in laughter, a faint smattering of music, and the clinking of glasses.
Shifting her pack to the other shoulder, she placed one hand on the weather-beaten synthetic planking. Everything a Natural might need when away from the Valley was in that pack: money, a medicine bag filled with herbals to treat everything from headache to snakebite, and her identification card. She was never without the pack, and though there were no weapons inside, just having it with her made her feel safer.
“Go to the Blue Owl Café,” George had told her, reluctantly. “If Sinbad isn’t there, the bartender can tell you where to find him. And, please, be careful.”
The bartender at the Blue Owl had directed her to the Asteroid Cantina with even more hesitation, and an ominous warning.
“Sinbad doesn‘t like Terrans, especially the women. He‘ll eat a little thing like you alive.”
At that, a blue-haired Abydian socializer sitting at the bar looked Andi up and down with heavily-painted eyes and snickered into her red beer.
"Be interesting to see how much is left of her after he gets through."
"Shut up, Saydee!" The bartender went back to polishing his glasses, shaking his head.
Andi would have been startled if she could have heard his thoughts.
She's such a pretty little thing. A lady, a real lady. What does a woman like this want with that Felidan smuggler?
Now, thinking about the bartender’s warning, Andi looked around quickly. This wasn’t a place she’d like to be in late at night. She knew very little about Felidans—not even what they looked like—except that, 35 years before, their planet and Earth had been at war. The history books had generously said that the Felidans were ferocious fighters, but Terra cleverly brought the war into the Solar Sector where they were able to recuperate on the worlds of the Federation while the enemy forces, far from home, had no allies to aid them. In spite of this, they fought 11 bloody years before surrendering.
The Federation showed no mercy to its conquered enemies. All the adult males of the Royal House, and its commanding officers, were arrested and brought before a military court. Some were executed, some sentenced to life in military prisons scattered throughout the System. No occupying troops came to Felida, the planet was quarantined from outside communication as part of its punishment.
Bereft of their ruling family, the clans were in chaos, when the Pride chiefs stepped in. Within eight years, negotiations with their conquerors brought about the reinstating of a Felidan leader to the throne—though he was to remain a Terran figurehead for 10 more years—and the release and pardon of all the surviving members of the Warrior caste.
And now, she was on her way to meet one of those men. Andi wondered if Sinbad had been an officer in the Felidan Pride. Though the idea of facing someone who had been a war-leader frightened her, it never occurred to her to abandon her plan. For Tran’s sake, she had to do what she could, even going into the Thieves’ Quarter at Old Town.
Come on, Andi! Faint heart never freed imprisoned husband.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed open the doors and stepped inside. The room was dark and crowded, and there was a bluish haze in the air, mingled with a sweet, smoky smell. Trying to breathe without coughing, she started toward the bar, only to find her way blocked as a man walked in front of her. Quickly, she stepped back.
“Excuse me.” She tried to go around him, but he got in her way again.
“What’s yer hurry?”
Andi looked up at him. His hair was long and clubbed at the nape of his neck, shipman’s-style, and he was wearing a uniform with a red insignia on the sleeve. She stiffened, then relaxed as she realized he was Merchant Marine…or at least, someone off a space freighter.
“I-I…I’m looking for someone.”
She clutched the strap of the pack tighter and looked past him as if trying to determine which, of all the smoke-blurred faces in the room was the one she wanted.
”Ain’t me, is it?” He raised his glass, swallowing loudly, and leaned toward her, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
A wave of whiskey-smell floated over her.
“Not unless you’re Sinbad sh’en Singh,” she snapped, and was startled to see him blink and take a step backward.
“Sinbad! Well, if he’s the one yer looking fer, he’s here somewhere.” He jerked his head in the direction of the bar. “Jake can tell ya!”
He stepped aside, but as Andi brushed past him, he called after her, “Whaddaya want with that Felidan, anyway? Ain’t Terrans good enough fer ya?”
At the bar, she had to wait several minutes before the bartender came down to where she had wedged herself between two men, ignoring the curious looks they gave her as they moved aside.
“E-excuse me…Sir?” He looked over at her and stopped, waiting for her to continue. “I’m here to see Sinbad. The bartender at the Blue Owl sent me.”
Jake—if that’s who he was—gave her a long, assessing stare, combined with a little surprise, before nodding to a table at the far side of the room. Following his glance, Andi saw two figures, one standing, the other seated in the shadows. With a smile of thanks, she hurried to the corner, dodging people, skirting tables and chairs until she was near enough to hear what they were saying. The standing man was dressed in typical dockworker clothing: a black pea jacket, dark jeans.
“I’ll see ya at th’ shuttle dock tomorra, then.” The seated figure waved an acquiescent hand, as the other turned, nearly bumping into Andi who was standing behind him. "'Scuse me, Miss."
He stepped aside and hurried toward the swinging doors. Quickly, she came up to the table, putting her hands on the back of the chair the man had vacated.
“Hosteen Sh’en Singh?”
“Who’s askin’?” questioned a gruff voice.
It was hoarse and raspy, as if he was recovering from a bad chest cold. If he was surprised by her use of the Navajo word for mister, he didn't show it.
“My name’s Andrea Talltrees,” she began. “Al at the Blue Owl sent me…”
“Yer a Milky, ain’t cha?”
She was too startled to be insulted by that belittling nickname, derived from the name of Terra's galaxy, the Milky Way.
“Well, yes, but what’s that…”
“Al knows I don’t like Earthers. Sorry, Sweets, ya won’t do.”
Do for what? she wondered, feeling she’d doubly been insulted, and not really knowing why. He leaned back in the chair, tilting it against the wall, so that his upper body was hidden in the shadows, one knee-high boot braced against the side of the other chair. In the half light, she saw that he was wearing black leather trousers and a leather vest secured at the waist and neck with straps adorned with polished studs. His arms were bare, one hooked over the back of the chair, while the other rested against the tabletop, hands encased in short, black gloves. In the hollow of one shoulder, she could see a scarlet slash of a tattoo. There was a generous amount of bare chest and curly, coppery hair showing in the open front of the vest and Andi glanced away, studiously trying not to stare. Before she could say anything more, he reached into the pocket of the vest and produced a coin, flipping it across the table.
“Here’s an Eagle fer yer trouble.” It spun around and came to rest near the edge of the table as the other hand waved imperiously. “Now, go away.” Andi stared at the coin. It was a gold piece, very old, with a flying bird engraved on one side. She’d never seen one like it. “Go back to Al,” the deep voice went on, “an’ tell him I want an Androsan.”
Picking up the coin, she leaned forward, and taking one of his hands, carefully placed the Eagle on his palm, and closed the gloved fingers around it.
“I don’t want your money. I came here to talk to you and I’d appreciate it if you’d listen to what I have to say.”
The hand opened. He looked at the coin, then at her, and returned it to his pocket.
“By all means. Go ahead.” There was a hint of laughter behind the roughness.
She looked around. “I-is there somewhere we can talk…in private?”
The hand gestured. “Step into m’ office, li’l lady.”
“Talltrees,” she told him quietly. “Andrea Talltrees.”
“Mistress Talltrees.” The shadowy head nodded, as if accepting her correction. “An’ speak yer piece.”
Andi didn’t answer. Suddenly it seemed very warm, the smoke from the fuel lamps on each table combining with the body heat of the customers to make the room an uncomfortable contrast to the coolness outside. She tugged open the top two buttons of her jacket, and stood there, uncertain how to begin.
“You said Al sent you?” he prompted, leaning forward to take a slender black stick out of a holder on the table.
He picked up the little petrocandle, a pseudo-relic of an earlier era serving as a centerpiece, and touched the tip of the stick to the tiny flame. For an instant, she had a glimpse of long tawny hair and thick copper brows. Then, the light faded as he replaced the lamp and settled back. A thick cloud of smoke was blown in her direction. She coughed slightly.
“I-Is that a cigar?”
She couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice. He took it out of his mouth and looked at it. She could see the glowing tip reflected in his eyes and that made her uneasy.
“Why, so it is.” There was mock surprise in the rasp. “Chock full o’ nicotine, carcinogens, carbon particles, an’ God knows how many other nasty things.” He shook his head. “My, my.”
“But…but they’re illegal.”
Tobacco was on the List of Unlawful Substances issued by the Surgeon General, was Number One, in fact. She flapped at the smoke with one hand, trying to fan it away. She felt a little dizzy; the smell of tobacco, whisky, and burning oil from the candle was overpowering.
“Lady, I’m a smuggler.” The harsh voice was contemptuous. “I bring in fifty cases o’ these a week, an’ at eight hundred Credits a box, I can afford to let fifty real dollars’-worth go up in smoke.”
“But they’re bad for your health.” It came out before she realized it.
“Don’t you worry about m’ health, li’l lady.” The voice was impatient. “You say ya got business with me? Then hurry up an’ state it. I came here t’ do some serious drinkin’ an’ yer interferin’ with m’ plans.”
She peered into the dimness, trying to see his face. It was like looking at a shadow.
“Can’t we have a little more light? I can hardly see you.”
That brought a short growl of amusement. “So, you want t’ see me, do you? Jake!” The bartender looked in their direction. As did several others. “Bring a bigger lamp. Th’ li’l lady can’t see enough o’ me!”
There was a spout of laughter and a gabble of crude remarks as Jake, grinning broadly, hurried over with another lamp. He set it on the table, whisked away the smaller one, and Sinbad leaned forward, tilting the shade so that the brightness shone on his face like a spotlight.
“There! That better?”
Andi stared at him. Oh, my God. Sitting before her was a cat in human form. His hair, the wildest, curliest stuff she had ever seen, was past shoulder length, a lion’s mane tamed by a leather headband, falling around tapered ears tufted with auburn fur, like those of a lynx she had seen near the chicken pen one Spring. From one nearly non-existent lobe dangled a thick gold ring. Heavy brows hung over jade-green eyes watching her with scornful amusement, slit pupils widened because of the low light in the room. He had high cheekbones and a long straight nose, a coppery Mandarin mustache drooping over a mouth in which the smoking cigar rested.
“I think ya stared long enough.” One of the gloved hands flicked at the shade. “Either shut yer mouth an’ quit gapin’, or open it an’ tell me whatcha want.”
“Please, can’t we go somewhere else to talk?”
With a hiss, he stood up, six feet, eight inches of irritated Felidan, picking up the mug setting upon the table.
“Hey, Jake!” Looking down at her, he took the cigar out of his mouth. “Can I borrow one o’ yer rooms fer a while?”
“Sure! Take Number Three.”
“Bring me a pitcher, then.”
He stalked away from the table, leaving her to run to keep up with his long-legged stride while the men’s laughter burned her ears. He pushed open the door and went in. Andi followed, closing it behind her. The little room was furnished with a table, two chairs, and a small bed against one wall, covered with surprisingly white sheets. Sinbad dropped into one of the chairs and motioned her toward the other.
“All right, we’re private. Now talk.” When she didn’t answer, he demanded. “Why did Al send you?”
“Well, he didn’t…”
She dropped the pack into the chair. It was just as close here as in the outer room. She felt dizzy again.
“Then who in th’ name o’ God did? Is this some kinda joke?” He pushed back his chair, putting both feet on the table and stared at her, his scowl turning the heavy brows into a copper vee. “Listen, woman, I ain’t got much patience, an’ I’m fast losing what little I do have.”
With a deep breath, Andi said, in a rush, “George Windrider said you could help me,” and waited for his reaction.
“Indian George?” The harsh expression softened. “Well, what’s th’ problem George thinks I can fix?”
“I want you to find my husband. He’s…”
“I’m no tracer, lady. Ya need t’ go t’ th’ Federation’s Missing Persons Section fer that.”
“I can’t.” She leaned forward, hands on the table. “It’s the Federation who’s taken him. You see, he’s an Albegensi.”
“You sure know how t’ pick winners.” The cigar had gone out. He relit it from the lamp on the table, and leaned back to regard her, his green eyes speculative. In the bright light of Number Three, his pupils were narrow black crescents. “Don’t tell me, let me guess…since th’ whole world is afraid o’ th’ Big Bad Federation, an’ no one else’ll help, you want me t’ find out where they’re holdin’ him. Right?”
She was sweating. She nodded and wiped her forehead with one hand.
“As a member of a group that has—no doubt foolishly—engaged in a military action against Terra, he’s probably been taken t’ th’ Black Mountain Reservation.”
“Black Mountain? But there’s nothing in that region.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone thinks. There’s an internment camp there, very secret—an’ very deadly. Few prisoners ever come back from Black Mountain.”
He seemed totally unconcerned of the effect his words might have on her.
“Can you help me?” she persisted, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice.
“Well, I could find out if he’s there. Is that all you want?” His tone indicated he considered her just short of insane to want to know where her husband was.
“Yes,” she assured him. “Just find out where Tran is, and I’ll do the rest.”
“Tran. That his name?”
She nodded. “Tran Day. He’s a farmer. He couldn’t possibly be a spy. The whole thing’s a stupid, stupid mistake.”
“They all say that,” he replied, unsympathetically.
He fell silent and Andi stood there, gripping the back of the chair, squeezing the wood so hard her fingers hurt, waiting for him to go on. The silence grew longer and quieter, until she wanted to scream. His nostrils crinkled as if he had scented something.
”Are you afraid o’ me?”
“Should I be?” She was, terribly, but she’d never tell him so.
“Maybe.” He fell quiet again, but just when she was ready to grab her pack and stalk out, he sat up, letting the legs of the chair strike the floor with a loud snap. “All right, I’ll do it, but it’ll cost.” The cigar, held in the gloved hand, pointed at her like a dagger, as the green eyes regarded her unwaveringly. “An’ I don’t think yer willin’ t’ pay th’ price.”
“How much?” she asked. “Tell me. I’ll pay it. I love my husband.”
“You might not love him that much.”
“I’ll do anything to free him.” She flung the words recklessly. “What do you want?”
The cigar stabbed at her again. “You.”
“What?” She hadn’t heard correctly. She couldn’t have. “W-what did you say?”
“Ya heard me. I want ya as m’ payment.” He blew a smoke ring into the air. “Yer good-looking’ fer a Milky. I like yer scent, even if ya have tried t’ hide it under that nauseatin’ perfume. Here’s m’ offer: stay with me tonight, an’ if I’m satisfied, I’ll find your mate fer ya.”
She stared at him, stunned into disbelief. This isn’t happening. This creature didn’t say that. He didn’t.
“Look on it as a business arrangement. Ya gimme me what I want, I give ya what ya want.” He spread his hands and shrugged. “What say?”
“Wait just a minute.“ She startled herself by saying exactly what she was thinking. “W-what’s to stop you from just kicking me out after you…get what you want?”
“Good point.” His look indicated he was surprised she had thought of it. “Okay, we do it, an’ good or bad, ya get th’ location o’ th’ camp. Fair?”
He leaned back again, studying the ash on the tip of his cigar before flicking it onto the floor. Waiting. Confident. Enjoying her indecision.
Andi’s thoughts were frantic. Was this what George was warning me about? Oh, God, Tran, I love you, but I can’t do that. Not even for you.
“Make up yer mind, Talltrees.” The raspy voice cut into her thoughts. “I ain’t got all day, an’ neither has yer mate.”
What am I going to do? He’s right. No one else is going to help me. They’re all too afraid. Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Tran will never know. Her hands clenched into fists. I-I’ll just pretend it never happened. She forced her hands to relax, took a deep breath and tried to speak. She had to swallow twice before any sound would come out. Even then, it was a bare whisper.
“Good!” He stubbed the cigar into the ashtray on the table. “Well? Go ahead…strip.”
“What? Here? Now?”
He smiled, the light sparkling off long incisors, flashing a fanged leer. “Right. Here. Now. Th’ day ain‘t getting’ any younger, an’ there‘s an empty bed yonder just waitin’ t’ be used.”
Mouth set in a determined line, she took off her jacket and dropped it into the chair. The hand-knit sweater had four buttons at the neck. She got them open and pulled it over her head. Underneath, she wore a long-sleeved cotton shirt. As she began to open the dozen, tiny buttons down its front, frowning in concentration, he gave an exasperated growl.
“Good God! How many clothes’re ya wearin’? D’ ya think it’s winter?”
“It’s still cold in the Valley,” she answered defensively, watching her hands.
Don’t look at him. Don’t think about it. She got the shirt off and heard his groan as he saw the sleeveless undershirt. He was getting impatient, the gloved fingers tapping a loud tattoo on the tabletop. She was afraid he would walk out if she delayed any longer. Quickly, she pulled the tank top over her head and reached for the catch to her bandeau.
The door opened. Jake came in carrying a pitcher of beer, a blast of sound following him into the room. Gasping, Andi snatched at the undershirt and held it against her chest. Her chin quivered. Jake looked from her to Sinbad.
“Sorry, Sin. I-I didn’t think you’d be this far along.”
The smuggler tapped the table with one finger. “Put it there, Jake. Thanks. Now, get out.” There was barely controlled anger in the low voice. The bartender did as he was told and hurried toward the door. “An’ Jake--” He paused and looked back. “Make certain we’re not bothered again.”
“Right. I’ll put up the Do Not Disturb sign.” He went out, slamming the door.
With a shaky sigh, Andi dropped the undershirt. She was dizzy again, feeling the way she had the day her horse ran under a tree and she had hit her head on a limb: lightheaded…sick. There was a roaring in her ears.
“We’ve wasted enough time, woman.”
A gloved hand reached for her and Andi went limp, falling without a sound into a crumpled heap at the smuggler’s feet.
With a groan, Andi opened her eyes and stared into Sinbad’s green ones. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, wiping her face with a damp cloth. She pushed it away and sat up. The room tilted crazily.
“Wait a minute. You’re not ready to get up.”
As he bent over her, she was aware of the smell of smoke and beer surrounding him, and something surprising and odd, a clean, sweet smell: the scent of apples.
Her hair was wet. It was sticking to her forehead and neck in damp strands. The thick braid was dripping. Even her shoulders were sodden. He must have poured the water over her.
“You fainted. Did the idea of going to bed with me scare you that much?”
The harsh voice was thoughtful and she realized there was an odd change in it. His pronunciation was more precise, sounded more educated, the slurring of the syllables and swallowing of letters vanished. He stood up, tossing the cloth onto the table, and moved away.
“Get up when you feel like it.”
She sat up and swung her feet over the edge of the bed. Her skirt was twisted above her knees, revealing pale thighs, and she caught at the hem, wrenching it down, fear crawling through her.
“Don’t worry,” the deep growl reassured her. “I didn’t take advantage of you while you were unconscious.” He practically spat the words. “I like my females wide awake and in full possession of their senses.”
Feeling a little comforted, Andi attempted to stand. The room stayed right side-up, and she took a tentative step toward the table, and then caught at the chair, waiting for the tiny spots before her eyes to fade away.
“I-I wasn’t afraid,” she defended herself. “I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday, not since Tran was taken.”
“Huh!” His grunt was skeptical. “Starving yourself isn’t going to help your mate. You’re going to need strength before this is over.” He turned to her, the expression on the feline face unreadable, and then pushed the half-filled mug toward her. “Drink that.”
“I can’t.” She studied the clear liquid. “Naturals aren’t allowed to drink alcohol.”
“A little wine for thy stomach’s sake…doesn’t it say that in the Bible?” He picked up the pitcher and poured more beer into the mug, as she looked up at him. “What’s the matter? Surprised I know the Good Book?”
“No,” She gripped the mug’s handle and looked at it, not daring to raise her eyes to his. “If the Devil can quote Scripture, why shouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know if I’m in the Devil’s league…yet. Go on.” He tapped the rim of the mug with his forefinger. “A couple of swallows isn’t going to corrupt you, and I swear I won’t tell your people. Drink!”
Obediently, Andi raised the mug. She swallowed, got more than she intended, and coughed. She didn‘t like the taste. It was too strong, and…nasty…leaving a bitter sting on her tongue. He lit another cigar and blew the smoke away from her. There was a change in his attitude also, and it puzzled her.
“You can get dressed,” he told her, calmly.
She'd forgotten she was standing there half-naked. Why was she arguing about it?
“You don’t interest me. I had thought…” He shook his head, the heavy curls swinging against the leather collar. “No Terran female does. Besides,” he added, in an undertone, “there’s not enough meat on your bones.”
Andi managed to suppress a shiver. “I don’t understand.”
“Maybe I wanted to see how far you’d go to get my help.” The curved fangs showed in a grin. “Maybe I just wanted to watch a female undress.”
“Well? Did you enjoy it?” she asked, acidly.
She picked up shirts and sweater and pulled them on, before he changed his mind. He gave her that toothy grin, took the cigar from between his teeth.
“All right, Talltrees, here it is--six thousand Credits.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Do you need to? Six thousand Credits. I don’t usually take jobs like this, but for you, I’ll make an exception. That’s how much it’ll cost to find out where your mate is.”
He was going to help her. She couldn’t believe it.
“But, I thought…”
“Look. Getting that information will be dangerous. I’ve got a pigeon near Black Mountain who can tap into the UTF computer, but they’ve got ultra-sensitive equipment. Their Alert System can back-trace in ten seconds. If my man makes a mistake, and they catch us, we don’t get a trial. We’ll be lasered then and there.” The leather-encased forefinger tapped the tabletop, punctuating his words. “Six thousand.”
“All right.” He gave her a suspicious, slit-eyed glance, surprised by her quick acceptance. “If that’s what you want, six thousand it is.”
He shrugged. “It’s better than nothing.” Elbows on the table, he was all business. “Get the money as soon as possible. Is it in a bank?” She nodded. “Bad. If the account’s in your mate’s name, the UTF may freeze it, if they haven’t already.” She hadn’t thought of that. “Come back at nine o'clock tomorrow morning. With the money. I’ll have your information for you. Then, you can decide what to do with it.”
“Nine o’clock,” she repeated, and stood up.
She must have looked shaky, because he was on his feet, too, catching her arm.
“Are you going to be all right? I mean, I don’t want you walking out of here and falling on your face. It might be a little damaging to my reputation to have that happen.”
Gently, she pulled his hand from her arm. “I'm fine, just fine. Don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you.”
As they entered the Cantina, a voice called above the noise, “Hey, Sin! Thought you weren’t comin' back! How wuz she?”
There was the wide grin, pointed eyeteeth gleaming. He touched two fingers to his lips, then held them aloft with a flourish that everyone but Andi recognized as an obscene gesture. He looks like a giant cat stuffed with canaries, she thought, resentfully.
“Piece o’ Light, boys!” The speaker laughed, others at the table joining in. Sinbad leaned toward her. “Tomorrow, at nine o'clock.”
Then he was gone through the maze of tables and chairs, back to the shadowed corner, calling to Jake to bring more beer, and leaving her to find her way to the entrance, dodging grasping fingers and ignoring the calls behind her.
The Rover was still at the curb.
Andi threw herself onto the seat, started the engine, and released the brake, sending the little vehicle speeding down the street. She didn’t really watch where she was going, except to keep the Rover on the road, and off the boardwalks. She wanted to get as far away as possible, and when she found herself on the highway again, she pulled over to the shoulder and cried, tears so thick she could barely see.
She‘d been so scared. When he walked toward her… If she hadn’t fainted, she would have gone through with it…pretending passion…anything…to find out where Tran was being held. Now, she didn’t have to, and if she could trust Sinbad at all, tomorrow, she would know where her husband was. Then, she could begin the task of trying to find a way to set him free.
Andi took a deep breath, wiping her eyes with shaky fingers. Now, to find a roadside bank terminal, and get that money.