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Staked: Chapter Six

“More of a problem than someone bombing the Star?”

“Well…” I reluctantly looked up at her. ”Maybe it’s all tied in.”

She nodded as though she already had her suspicions. “Want to tell me why you were so reluctant to go back with your lover boy? When you came out of the flitter, you looked like you didn’t mind him, not a bit.” Her eyes narrowed. “Did he do anything?”

I blushed. “No––I mean yes, but no, that’s not it.” I ran my hand through my hair, working through the tangles as I thought things through. “You still know people, right?”

Pietra shook her head. “Of course I know people. If you’d think about it, you know people too. Your dad’s company wouldn’t let you hang dry.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want to talk to them. Not yet.”

“I don’t know what we’re going to do about the Star. The inspections to get recertified alone are out of our budget, even if we don’t have to do any rebuilding.”

Pietra stood and went to a small cabinet in the corner, pulled out a bottle and two tumblers, and poured us both drinks. “You don’t think the new silent partner will pick up the bill?” she asked, handing one to me.

I sipped it, and the rough taste helped clear some of the fog from my brain. “I don’t think we should trust him to do any more than he has.”

I didn’t want to give voice to my fears, but Pietra should know. “I saw him with Jahal.”

“What? When?” She put her drink down. “Not when…”

“No, at the Star, when we came back. He was talking with her at the edge of the crowd. What if he’s in partnership with her cabal, and this is all a way to get the Star?”

Pietra took a long sip of her drink, considering it. “Maybe. Seems a complicated way to go about it, and expensive for them, too. Would have been easier to let the note come due.”

“But it’s still a maybe?” I was tired and frightened and unsure of my own judgment, but Pietra was one of the most careful people I knew.

If she thought it was possible that I was right, then I really knew we had a problem.

She nodded. “Could be.”

I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself. “Can you check into it? Do you know anyone who could check into him? What’s he been doing since he left?”

“What did he tell you?”

“A story,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s true.”

She shrugged. “I’ll put some feelers out, see what we can find about Mr. Kieran Matthias. But for the time being, you need to sleep.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think I could––too many things going on.”

“Sure you can,” she said. “I slipped a mild soother into your drink. We should get you to the guest room before it hits.”

Any outrage I might have felt was swallowed up by laughter at her deadpan expression. “Really?”

She smirked. “You’ll never know. Why take the chance of sleeping in your clothes?”

I followed her down the hall, still laughing, with only a tinge of hysteria.

The guestroom was more of a closet for sleeping in, with just enough room for small bed that folded out from one wall, a chair that folded out from another, a light panel, and space for my things under the bed.

Of course, I didn’t have any things that weren’t at the Star, so the lack of storage space wasn’t really a problem.

Pietra folded my clothes and put them away as I changed into the soft green pajama set she’d lent me.

I was out the moment I crawled under the covers, either my exhaustion or whatever Pietra put in my drink causing a dreamless sleep.

***

I woke up the next morning to the brightening of the light panel. The room was as calm and silent as it had been the night before, and I took a long moment to stretch and stare up at the ceiling, considering the events of the previous day. They made a little bit more sense in retrospect, but it was still a lot to take in.

Jahal’s ultimatum had been a long time coming, but her arrival in the Star to deliver it had made the threat of losing the Star into an obvious crisis.

I’d been trying to talk it over to with everyone else when Kieran had re-appeared in my life, as suddenly as he’d left all those years ago.

His offer to become a silent partner in running the Star had come out of the blue. And then there was our bet, and the outing that resulted from it––and the shatterbombing of the Star, which, conveniently enough, had happened while I was with Kieran.

He’d wanted a night together as a condition in our deal at first, but I’d convinced him to make it a gamble.

Had he been confident that he could win against me, or had he had a back-up plan to get me out of the Star if he lost?

In this quiet, it was hard to believe that any of it was real, but even after a good night’s sleep I was managing to wind myself up about it again.

Being in debt to Jahal was bad enough, but being at the center of a conspiracy that involved Kieran, of all people, was worse. But worse or not, it was better to know for sure than to try to put it off. I sighed and pushed myself up.

“What time is it?” I asked the room, hoping the comm system would understand a different voice than Pietra’s.

“It is now 1100,” a flat voice replied. I scrambled up––I’d slept half the rotation away. I slid out of the bed, wedging myself between the edge of the sleeping platform and the opposite wall so I could flip the platform back into the wall and clear some space. I pulled my clothing back on and switched the wall display to mirror to rebraid my hair before hurrying out of the room, keying off the light panel behind me.

The short hallway led me back to the main room where Pietra was already up, bent over her commtab.

“There you are.” She nodded towards the small kitchen. “There’s a bit of breakfast left. I was going to get you up if you weren’t awake for lunch.”

I grabbed a slice of toast and perched on a stool. “I can’t believe you did that.”

She shrugged. “You needed it. I didn’t want you to spend the entire rotation staring into the dark, wondering about your guy and worrying about the Star.”

I swallowed the dry toast, my throat just as barren. “Did you find out anything about him?”

She flicked the contents of her tablet to the room’s wall screen: lines of text, a few photos. “Not much.”

I skimmed over the entries. “I don’t understand this.”

“These are recorded ports of call for his ship, or the ship registered to his name. As you can see, there aren’t many. There’s a lot of holes here.”

“All right,” I answered, thinking. “Could he be using another name?”

Pietra threw another screen up. “I’ve been asking about that, and things are coming in unclear. Whatever your boy has been doing, he’s been very careful about hiding his activities.”

The knot in my stomach tightened. “What do you think he’s been doing?” I asked.

“The best guess my sources have given me is some sort of smuggling.” She shrugged. Which would be anything from food, to medicine––to humans.”

I felt the blood drain from my face and grabbed the edge of the counter for balance. Human trafficking. Kieran couldn’t be…

Pietra looked at me. “Nothing says that’s what he’s doing. If we had a better record of his ports of call, I could give you a better analysis.”

“But…” I swallowed hard. “Do you think he’s working with Jahal?”

She nodded, face grim. “If he’s actually a smuggler, and I’d say the probability of that is over eighty percent from this data. It would be surprising if he didn’t have contacts with at least one of the cabals on station. Since you’ve seen him with Jahal, it could well be hers.”

The knot turned to lead in my belly, but I shook myself. “So, nothing has changed, other than confirming what I already suspected.”

“Statistically likely––not confirmed,” she repeated.

“Confirmed enough for me.” My thoughts raced. “So what do we do now?”

 Pietra didn’t answer right away, but when I looked up, she was smiling at me––a tight smile, but warm nonetheless.

“Now, we deal with things one at a time and see what we can find out,” she said. “I’ve got a few places I can keep digging, but it’ll take time. For now, my first priority is keeping in touch with the others––they all checked in this morning, but I’m not too sure about Cambrie’s setup. Do you think you could go look in on her and let me know who she has to look after her?”

“Sure,” I said, surprised. “What about the others? Should I check on them as well?”

“They should be fine,” Pietra said. She’d pulled the images from earlier back onto her commtab and was fiddling with something on it, frowning absently. “Shaymarie and Oleg are sticking together for the moment, and I trust them more together than I’d trust either by themselves. Dalla’s friend has been generous enough to take her in for at least the next few days; I already checked up on him, and he seems honorable enough.”

“And Cambrie?” I’d never seen where she lived and wasn’t entirely sure she had her own place. Pietra was the exception, not the rule––most of the others had lived part or full time in the Star with me.

“That’s what I want you to find out,” she said. “I’ll forward you the location she sent me; I want you to ask her about what precautions she’s taken, and more importantly, who knows her in the area and whether they know that she could be in danger.”

“Sure,” I said, then paused. “Ah, actually, could you write it down? I don’t have any of my tech on me.”

“Right,” Pietra said. “We’ll have to see about getting you a replacement.”

***

Outside of Pietra’s apartment, the rotation was going on, people living their lives like nothing had happened, as if everything hadn’t been turned upside down.

And I guess for them, it hadn’t. I shook off my sense of melancholy at the thought and set about trying to decipher the directions Pietra had given me.

Fortunately, she knew how to write directions that worked even if they couldn’t update you if you took a wrong turn, and better still, Cambrie wasn’t far away.

The door I was led to was unlocked and led into a common lobby. It looked to be a flat of either hotels or apartments––I wasn’t sure which. I took the stairs up to the fourth floor and went to door number 408, knocking seven times as the instructions stated. I waited a moment, and then heard a sequence of locks being opened, followed by Cambrie opening the door.

“Ani,” she said, sounding casual, unworried. “Come inside.”

The inside, like the outside, was decorated to look like the midway point between hotel and longer-term living space. There was a small kitchenette that didn’t look very capable of feeding one and a sitting room set up with a couple of older holo-screens.

Right now, they were displaying an overcast, gray-sanded beach, with steel-gray waves pounding silently against the shore and the green ridges of trees in the distance. It was an odd little old-fashioned space, but cozy. Cambrie seemed perfectly at home as she curled up on the couch, pushing her feet under a cushion.

“This is beautiful,” I told her honestly, looking around. “I’m glad you were able to find a place to stay. It’s not costing you too much, I hope––”

“It’s fine,” Cambrie interrupted me. “I know the people who run this place. They’re friends of mine––they offered me a pretty steep discount as long as I agreed to help them out. When I asked them about it, they said one of their employees quit recently without warning, or at least they haven’t seen her for several weeks.”

“It sounds like something could have happened to her,” I said, shuddering.

“Bad things do happen sometimes,” Cambrie said, not ungently. “Which is why I can understand why Pietra’s worried, but can you tell her that I’m fine, please? I know the people that run this place and several of the regulars as well. They don’t want to lose any more employees, or me, for that matter. And I’m perfectly capable of being careful.”

“I believe that,” I said, relieved.

Cambrie had a level head and enough quiet confidence to get her through anything that might get thrown her way. If she said she would be all right, I believed her. “Just remember that it’s fine to contact me or Pietra if you need anything.”

“I will.” She rested one elbow on the arm of the couch and set her chin on it, looking me over pensively. “I’m more worried about you, honestly. How is everything holding up?”

“No real changes, for the moment,” I said ruefully.

“Any leads?”

“Well…yes and no,” I started. I didn’t know how much I wanted to try to explain, but somehow her understanding, patient expression had me explaining everything over to her almost before I could think twice.

“I see,” she said when I was finished. Then she shook her head. “I knew that guy was bad news,” she said.

“Really?” I asked. “Everyone was so eager about getting me to go out with him before…”

“I hoped he might be the good kind of bad news.” Cambrie was smiling––a teasing smile, but somehow sad. “You should’ve seen yourself. You were sparkling, just being around him. Anyone could tell the two of you had history.”

“Well…yeah,” I admitted. “We were friends when we were younger.”

“Do you mind if I ask what happened?” The question was gentle. “You don’t have to share if you don’t want to.”

“No, maybe it would help.” I paused, trying to think of where to begin, find the point in the times we’d shared when we were kids that was bothering me now. “Kieran’s father was the only family he had, at least that he knew about, and he was horrible. He never liked to talk about it much, but I know he was a drunk, and that he beat Kieran. That much was difficult to hide.”

Cambrie made a soft sound of sympathy. “That can’t have been easy for either of you.”

“It wasn’t. And I think it only got worse as he got older.” I remembered how worried I’d been about him back then, how it had twisted up in the games we’d played and the odd childhood flirting that had turned up regularly, even then.

“There were days when he was so angry he would hardly even talk to me, but he still came to visit. We got together for a little while, but before we could go much of anywhere with it, he just disappeared. No warning, no note, not even a single clue of where he went. I thought his father had…” I swallowed. “I was never sure what happened, so I tried not to think about it much. That’s what it means to live out here, right? That everyone knows someone who’s had that happen to them. Or worse.”

“You’re not wrong,” Cambrie said.

We sat in silence for a while as I thought about what I’d said, trying to figure out where it all fit with what I was feeling now. “He…when I went with him for that night, he was…different,” I said eventually.

If Cambrie had been waiting for the conversation to get around to the gritty details of my and Kieran’s night together, she didn’t show it. “Different how?” she asked.

“I never quite knew what to expect. There were times when he seemed…really angry, and then he would suddenly be…something else.” Amazing, if I was being honest, but it was all a little bit frightening, too. “I just get the feeling that there’s so much about him that I don’t understand yet. I’m worried about what I’ll find when I do.”

“That’s understandable,” she assured me. “But…if you had to guess, go off your gut, what would you say? Did you feel safe with him?”

I thought about it. “When I was with him…yes,” I admitted. “I was definitely nervous at first, but by the end––or I guess until we were interrupted––I felt almost like I was starting to understand something important.” I laughed bitterly. “Of course, that was before I suspected him of conspiring to blow up my bar.”

“I imagine that would change your perspective a bit,” she said.

“Just a little,” I deadpanned. She chuckled lightly.

“Do you think there’s still a chance that he’s good?” I asked. “It…really doesn’t look good for him, at the moment.”

“He might be, and he might not.” Cambrie didn’t sound too worried about either possibility. “Nobody’s completely good or completely bad. The real question is what you’re expecting as an answer…and how much of the bad you’re willing to live with.”

That was true enough, I supposed. “I wasn’t expecting for him to show up in my life again at all, to be honest,” I grumbled.

“That’s understandable, too,” she said, smiling at me. “But most things in life are unexpected. You’ll figure out how you want to come to terms with it sooner or later.”


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