Inbound – silk, linen cloth. linen shirts, gems, processed foodstuffsfine finished jewelry, butter, quinoa, buckwheat
’Surprised it’s an open port, ’said Zoe.’ The locals wouldn’t be too Alliance friendly.’
“All the better for us,’ said Mal.
At the spaceport, the crew split up. Kaylee and River immediately took the three children to a nearby public park.
Borrowing the mule, Simon and David were heading for the Azure Botanicals plant, where they expected to sell the last of their bales of herbs purchased on Dyton Colony.
Zoe and Mal planned to set out on foot for the terminus where they would catch a transit car for the neighbouring market town and their contact.
Jayne would stay with Serenity, but expecting no trouble he had asked permission to have ‘a friend’ over while the crew were scattered.
‘What’s the friend’s name?’ asked Mal.
‘Don’t know yet. Ain’t had time to check the classy ads for callouts.’
‘Hey, I’m just looking for some hot company. I’m surrounded by all this prime tail and its hard on a healthy man.’
‘That’s my sister!” ‘And my wife!’ And me!’
“iI ain’t gonna shit in my own woods.I know the crew is off-limits,but c’mon Mal.’
‘Keep her in the public areas, not in the cargo bay. Or in your bunk.’ I got no objections, but keep security in mind. We still got a few warm cargo aboard. Don’t let yer floozie get any ideas.’
“I ain’t plan on letting her outta my bunk.’
Zoe rolled her eyes. Always an impressive display.
‘You know where the sheaths are, have fun.’
He revved up the mule and, with Simon riding shotgun, drove down the cargo ramp.
‘Use yer best judgement. The kids’ll be back in about five hours. If you’re done and the woman is acceptable, you can introduce her to Kaylee and River. And when they’re back you can go off duty. Zoe and David can help load the cargo, if it all works out.’
‘That seems to be the place, sir.’
‘No zactly prepossessin, but we’ve seen worse. We ‘re just the delivery boys on this’n.’
There was a very high chain fence topped with razor wire surrounding the dusty square tithe several galvanized steel quonsets precisely set at angles to form a hexagon. Although the road had been lined with bamboo bush and a few small copses of trees as well as green meadows dotted with sheep, llamas and other grazers, the square was clear of vegetation in either bare earth or concrete.
A short man in war surplus body armour, green paint flaking off the purple enamel, trotted over, a shotgun at the ready.
Mal and Zoe raised their hands.
‘We got appointment. Delivery for yer stores man.’
‘Reynolds and Washburne, offa Serenity, with a delivery from CCWong and Family back at Prospect Ridge. We comm’d we was was in port.
The guard pinged someone then shrugged. He opened the gates wide enough to allow the mule and its tagalong through, then slammed them suit and locked them.
Three more men trotted out from the furthest quonset. from their equipment, all were obviously stevedores . They surrounded the tagalong and pulled back the canvas cover. Seeing the sealed crates they relaxed. The oldest stevedore pinged with his comm. All clear.’ He nodded at Mal and Zoe.’Go to Building Five. They’ll process payment for your sender and pay your delivery fee.’
‘Delivery fee’s already paid by the Wongs. Building Five’s that one?’
Building Five was, oddly, located between Building Seven and Building Three, but they found it on their second try. The door was opened by an armed guard, who took their paperwork and checked it carefully. Zoe and Mal exchanged puzzled looks.
’ A lot of security for machine parts.’
The guard grunted, making a hand signal to someoneinside the building. Then he grinned, showing a striking set of stainless steel teeth.
‘We have has some problems, he said in a warm rich baritone.’Sorry for the delays. We’ll get you unloaded faster than the cat had kittens.’
The stevedores from the gate rolled up the dock gate and started moving the bamboo crates into the quonset.
The guard wave Mal and Zoe to a bench by the door. Obviously they were not going to be asked inside out of the noon heat.
‘What do you fellas produce here?’ asked Mal amicably.
The guard looked wary. ‘Why?’
‘Sorry, just makin conversation. None of our business, right?’
‘Right,’ agreed the guard.’I’m not trying or be unfriendly , but we’ve has some troubles, industrial espionage, vandalism, some of it petty, some downright nasty.’
Mal waited for a few minutes. ‘There a resto or gastro I could take the missus to here? She been cooped up fer two weeks and think she needs a break.’
The guard grinned at Zoe and suddenly started singing.
‘She may be weary, women do get weary, wearing that same cotton dress….’
Zoe blinked at him. His singing voice was as attractive as his speaking voice. Then it was Mal’s turn at surprise when she joined in,
‘But if she’s weary, try a little tenderness…”
‘I ain’t heard you sing since Emma was a babe in arms, Zoe. Right pleasant.’
‘Thank you, sir. My daddy used to sing that one to my mum.’
The guard nodded.’ My pa did the same.’ His steel teeth glinted in the sun. ‘Where you from, m’am?’
‘Good cabin fever song.’
‘Well, if the lady like red meat I’d recommend Wah Fatt. Good lamb and terrific Curry Goat. For fresh salads and the like, I’d take her to the Green Door. It’s a vegetarian buffet and they haves lots of different greens as well as some good casseroles.’
‘Which do you think Kaylee would prefer, Zoe?’
‘The one with the best desserts, sir.’
Mal was searching his comm and found both eating spots.
‘Looks like the Green Door then.’ He walked off to make reservations.
‘So he’s not your man?’
Zoe shook her head.
‘Would you like to try Wah Fatt’s with me?’
Zoe blinked again. “I’m usually in charge when the captain is on shore.’
‘Sorry I didn’t mean to…’
Zoe looked at him. ‘Usually, ain’t always. Does Wah Fatt mean dressing up?’
The guard laughed. ‘You get a nicer table if you do.’
Mal returned with a satisfied face. ‘Looks like we’re about done, then?’
The stevedores were folding the tarps back on the mule.
‘Looks like , I’m Kwame Rogers, by the way, pleased to do business with you’
Mal shook his hand.’Mal Reynolds.’
‘Zoe Washburne. See you tonight about 1830?’
They were halfway back to the shipyard before Mal broke the silence. “Go another contract for us, Zoe?’
‘So I should shut up then.’
‘Seems like, sir.’
Kwame was prompt to pick up Zoe. He wore a very handsome grey silk evening coat which David remarked matched both his eyes and his teeth, making Simon giggle.
‘We’re going to Wah Fatt, Emma. I won’t be late.’
Emma nodded and kissed her mother, followed by a Death Glare at her mother’s beau.
Zoe swept out on Rogers’ arm in a flurry of red silk chiffon.
‘I don’t think I’ve seen that dress before,
‘It’s one of the ones we got from Nara.’ explained Kaylee, ‘On her it was ankle length. On me too, but on Zoe and River it’s cocktail length.’
‘You ready , bao bei?’ Mal asked Kaylee, who was giving some last minute instructions to Emma.
‘Take me to the salad bar, capt’n.’
The next morning when Jayne returned from his shore leave, he passed a tired young man that River had brought home leaving.
‘How come I gotta get permission and lil moon brain kin bring home anything she scoops up?’ he complained to the crew at breakfast.
‘She’s a better judge of character than you.’
‘That Kelly was kinda sketchy. He tried ta roofie y’all.’
‘We got a good contract outta him, after all was said and done, though. It went pretty smooth.’
Simon and David had stayed home with the children the night before, but today they were invited to visit the local drop in clinic. Kaylee was heading for the used parts warehouse, famous sectorwide for its wideranging stock. Mal spelled Jayne off as her body guard.
‘The folks yesterday were skittish about security, keep alert.’
Jayne looked offended that such notice was necessary, but promised to be ready when he had eaten and showered.
‘Rogers was telling more about his troubles at dinner, sir.’
‘Any thing we need to know?’
‘Seems the magistrate died sudden last year. Alliance sent in an interim governor and he’s a problem.’
‘On the take?’
‘More like takin on. He’s been buying out all the business, at first makin low but fairish offers, but more and more , he moved to making doing business difficult.’
‘Yer boyfriend seems to worry about force.’
‘Hasn’t come to that yet., but he’s not the only one who’s upped security. Mostly the magistrate slows down import/export permits.’
‘We likely to have trouble leaving?’
Mal pinged Kaylee and asks her to find out from the scrappers if they could confirm the problems with the new governor.
‘What’s his name capt’n?
Zoe leaned in. ‘Wing, but I dunno anything else.’
‘Kay, we’ll ask around.’
When Kaylee and Jayne returned they both confirmed Rogers’ complaints. The scrapyard had a new ‘tax’ on off world purchases and there was talk of requiring salvagers to show their salvage licenses or buy new ones which -unlike the rare and expensive Federal licences— would only be good for Highgate. ‘Governor is telling the scrappers that a Highgate license would be cheaper than Federal one. The guy was sayin that they are gonna be about a quarter the price.’
‘But only good for Highgate?’
‘He’s goin after whorin licences too. Gal I rented yesterday was saying his troops stiffed a couple of the whores on party rentals and when they complained to Wing, he start talking about special business licenses. ‘
‘Restraint of trade, new taxes on his own. That’s a parliamentary prerogative.’
‘So what kin we do? Sides hope we don’t get landlocked.’
‘First star to the left and straight on to morning.’
‘Yeah, River, we probably should leave as soon as possible.’
Simon looked at Mal quizzically.
‘You and Crazy on the same wave again, Mal?’ asked Jayne.
‘Someone’s gottta be. Wish we could do something to help these people.’
River got up and swayed rhythmically around the galley.
‘Nope not getting that suggestion.’
Rogers had put out the word that Serenity could carry off world shipments and was not too particular about paperwork. The crew found themselves visiting cafes and taverns ranging from cheery fast food family spots to scary dives, arranging clandestine contracts and pickups from a dozen nervous factory owners.
’I don’t like doin this,’ muttered a heavyset canner of processed meats.”But the new taxes are killin my export trade.’ He dandled Beege on his knees and glanced at Kaylee. ‘Ti’m just hopin you all are as honest as Rogers claims.’
‘If we was completely honest,’ smiled Kaylee,’We wouldn’t be bending local law like this, hey?’ She laughed and the older man gave her a rueful smile.
Zoe got a similar message from a high strung matron, owner of a celluloid factory, who met with her and Emma at a dress shop.
Jayne heard it heard it when he arranged a contract in a dive so low, he confessed to waiting until he was well down the road before finding an alley to piss in.
Simon heard that medicines were becoming expensive due to new duties being imposed.
Everyone they spoke with was worried about complaining, concerned that they would be overheard by spies. There were rewards for informing on manufacturers and merchants who were not paying the new fees, taxes and duties.
But it was Kaylee who found the most surprising news.
‘I saw this new governor everone’s complaining about, an you’ll never guess.’
‘Guess you’re just a good man,’ River laughed. Simon sighed. Jayne grunted in irritation.
‘The new governor, we’ve met him before.’
‘When?’ asked Mal. ‘Oh shit. Wing. On Persephone.’
‘Atherton Wing.’ confirmed Kaylee, who had seen him parading the lovely Inara Serra on his arm at a ball on that world. She had attended with Mal, wearing the most beautiful dress she had ever imagined, then been hustled back to Serenity, when Mal inadvertently challenged Wing to a duel over the Companion’s honour.
‘What’s he doing out here running a Rim world?’
‘Probably has ambitions in politics. He’s want to have some experience in the field before standing for election.’ said Simon.
‘Do Lords need election?’
‘He’s inherited a title and probably a fortune. But serving in Parliament, even in the House of Lords… well, there are 70 billion souls in the ‘Verse. Two and a half billion on Persephone. Not everyone with a title can qualify. I’m not sure of the situation on Persephone, but on Osiris, the aristocracy elected Members from their own to serve on Londinium in the Lords.’
‘But if he’s got money, why bother draining the lifeblood outta Highgate?’ asked Kaylee, accepting the bowl of rice Simon passed to her.
‘Because he can, reckon.’ replied her husband. ‘He was a bully on Persephone and now he has a new bunch to push around.’
‘And no one to push back,’ said Zoe.
There was a quiet moment while everyone filled their bowls with rice and Canh Thit Ca rot Khoai Tay, pork stew with vegetables. Simon had bought sweet buns for dessert and there was cow’s milk and almond milk on the table, as well as pots of tea.
‘We could,’ remarked Mal.
‘Saw that coming,’ said Jayne.
‘The governor sets the laws, sir. We can slip around, but we can’t change that.’
‘But we know people who can,’ said Simon.
‘Dortmunder. We did them a favour and made a few friends there. And they are the law in this sector.’
Mal whistled. ‘But the governor makes the law.’
Simon shook his head. ‘ Not exactly. The magistrate enforces the law within the guidelines of the Parliament. I am fairly sure that these new duties and taxes are not within the guidelines. And it would be interesting to have an audit of the books.’
‘You have the makins of a fine criminal mind, doc,’ said Mal. ‘How do we go about takin Wing down? Again.’
First they had to get off-world. Serenity had been parked at the Highgate dock, which was mostly an open field, so lightly used that it was also common pasture for some of the local ranchers.
This meant that loading cargo was a very public affair, although few workers were employed at the dock. The crew assumed they were Wing’s men.
Jayne learned differently. ‘I was … visiting a friend… and got to talking to some of the dockworkers. They ain’t too pleased with Wing neither. They was unionized and Wing broke the union, bought out the executive and ain’t enforcing the safety protocols. The boys ain’t too happy with him.’
‘Reckon they would notice if we was loading a lot more cargo than was on the manifest?’
‘They ain’t gonna risk that. But if we was to come and go a few times, they might not be looking into the cargo bay every time.’
‘We can use the shuttles to pick up smaller cargos and load them somewheres quiet,’ suggested Zoe. ‘I’ll look at maps on the Cortex.’
’There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us. Peace and quiet and room to share…Latitude:48.428613°
Longitude:-123.364912°’ warbled River.
‘Okay, I guess I can skip the search.’
River’s ‘place’ was a dry gulch, not far from town but across some rough unsettled desert where terraforming had produced hot sulphurous springs. The springs were something of an attraction, or would perhaps one day be, when the economy was stronger. In the subsistence economy of Highgate few went there. But that off-worlders would investigate was not unusual.
Several of the larger cargoes were delivered over the course of the two days the ship was there.
Simon and David took samples of the water, to investigate them for medicinal properties.
‘The most therapeutic value is likely to be the relaxing effect of the hot water,’ Simon grouched.
’Therapeutic springs have a long history of use in natural medicine,’ David argued. ‘Even if all we do is encourage a tourism industry here for the springs, it would be worthwhile.’
‘Encouraging superstition and placebos,’ said his husband. ‘But it gives us a cover story, not that it would do any good if anyone looks in the hold.’
Mal took Kaylee and the children exploring the countryside around the town. He hired a horse and went riding alone and when Derry expressed disappointment, hired another and gave him some basic lessons.
Zoe met with Kwame Rogers once or twice during their few days at Highgate She smiled a lot and sometimes was overheard humming.
On what was planned to be their last day, she was having lunch with Rogers at The Table, when there was a little stir at the door. A handsome man, with striking blue eyes escort eda much younger woman, dresses extravagantly for daytime on this Rim world. His jacket was simple enough but was topped with a scarlet sash.
LADY CABOTT WING
“Lord Atherton Wing, ‘ murmured Rogers’ And that’s his wife, Cabott, back in the world from Shinon. Looks like she’s been shopping.’
Wing overruled the maitre d’s choice of a quiet table, choosing instead a seat by the window, where he and his beautiful young wife could see and be seen by passersby.
Zoe watched the couple as they looked at the menu and ordered. It appeared as if the young woman had very specific wishes for her meal. Wing watched her with a doting eye.
‘It’s supposed to be an arranged marriage, but Wing is also supposed to be the one who worked on the arrangement. She brought a lot of money into the marriage.’
‘She’s a pretty thing. Lot younger than him.’
‘He’s over forty. She’s probably older than she looks. Core people usually are. Young enough for children anyway.’
‘You know he’s on the Companion Guild blacklist?’ asked Zoe. ‘He insulted a Companion and was dropped from their client index, going on ten years ago.’
‘Well, that’s interesting,’ Kwame replied.’Makes me think he my deserve anything that minx dishes out.’
Cabott Wing was pushing a plate away with a cute moue. Atherton summoned the server and the plate was whisked away. There was a quiet conversation near the kitchen door.
‘Dunno the problem. I think I had the same thing, tofu and salal berries with udon noodles.’
‘You demolished it,’ laughed Kwame. ‘I do like to see a woman enjoy her food.’
The server brought another dish for Lady Wing. As she passed, Zoe saw it was something quite different, a sort of patty garnished with an edible flower salad. It was acceptable and the server returned to the kitchen looking relieved. The maitre d’ brought a bottle of wine to the Governor’s table.
Kwame and Zoe relaxed over their dessert and espresso. They had enjoyed each other’s company although they knew they were ships passing in the night. Now they were saying goodbye, probably forever.
‘I’ve been lucky,’ said Zoe reflectively. ‘I’ve only had a few men n my life, but they’ve been good men.’
‘He made me laugh so much. And Mal is a rock with a heart of custard. There was a boy in the war….,’ she sighed. ‘But one gave me my daughter and one gave me a job. And I have some sweet memories.’
Kwame was about to speak when the Wings stood and prepared to leave. The maitre d’ hurried over with their bill, but quailed at the Governor’s frown. They swept out.
The server looked close to tears.
‘Mercy has two kids in school and depends on her tips. Cheap ass trick to stiff the server,’ Rogers muttered. ‘Huh, time for us to go too.
He summoned the moist-eyed server and paid their bill, then tucked a ten credit note under his coffee cup. ‘I know the service charge is divided. The cash tips the server can keep.’
Outside, Rogers took Zoe’s arm and turned left. Zoe stopped him. ‘I guess you was planning for us to go back to your flat again, but, well, thank you. We’re leaving as soon as all the crew gets aboard.’
’Sneaking out of town?’
‘Yep. Like scaredy little pussies.’
‘I wish your pussy could be back in my bed, but… it was fun. I really liked the time we’ve had together.’
‘Like I was sayin, I’ve been lucky with the men I’ve chosen.’
Kwame moved to kiss her. ’Not on the street.’
‘May I walk you back to the dock? There may be a quiet corner before we get there.’
‘I gotta go pick up my kids at school,’ the dockyard manager told Mal. ‘Here are your papers. If you’d be kind enough to fill in your cargoes, I’ll calculate your export fees when I get back.’
‘Sure,’ said Mal, with his most charming smile. ‘Could we pay our docking fees now? Save us all some time.’
The manager blushed a little. ‘Sure. Oh geez, I shouldn’t’a signed that until the cargo fees were paid too. I’ll be back in about an hour. Don’t leave before I do that.’ She smiled back at the handsome captain.
As he left the office, she took a moment to admire how nicely those tight pants clung to his very fine ass. Then she grabbed her bag and headed off to the school.
As soon as River saw the manager’s fastcar leave the shipyard, they took off for the Black.
Mal spent a few hours sweating over his report for the inspector they had met when they were stopped for inspection in the Black by IAV Dortmund. As much as possible he described the effects of the new, possibly illegal fees and taxes Atherton Wing had slapped on the citizens of Highgate. He added copies of expropriation papers and purchase agreements that unhappy businesses had shown him.
Simon read over his work and corrected a few terms. ‘I ain’t written anything like this since I left school,’ Mal told him. ‘Don’t think I’ve actually written anything longer than a page in years.’
‘I think you covered the basic points, and more importantly, you pointed the inspectors where they can confirm your claims, ‘ Simon replied. ‘Now, how do we get this to Dortmunder without having to be inspected ourselves? I doubt our paperwork would hold up to hard scrutiny.’
‘Don’t look like nobody’s chasin us from Highgate, though. Maybehap we could just send the report by Cortex. We got a private ping for anybody on board?’
‘Well, for that Pat in the engineering, but I dunno how interested she’d be. Or he. Never did work that one out,’ mused Kaylee.
‘We do need a few more pronouns,’ laughed Simon. ‘How about the inspector who came on board?’
‘He hailed us, but that means we should be able to hail him. I’m coming down with another case of the stupids.’ said Mal.
Jayne muttered something, but was ignored.
Mal sent his report to the inspector and got a polite note back with a private addendum, ‘This kind of feudal behaviour is not what Parliament expects of its appointees. I give my word that it will be looked into.’
‘Well, we done our duty as nice little Alliance citizens. For whatever good it may do.’