Here's Chapter One
Chapter Two: What do you do for Money, Honey?
No matter a population’s size, location, or cultural norms, a seedy subset of humanity always establishes itself within. For the Delta V space station, that subset had taken hold within a section known as “Bangkok”. Decades ago, the station council admitted they couldn’t clean the place up, so they tolerated the illicit activity— to a degree.
Vagabond’s own illicit activity exceeded those tolerance levels tenfold. Katomi reminded herself of this as she passed through border control and headed for Bangkok. Circumnavigating the outer ring, she attracted several side glances from the locals. It wasn’t often a beautiful young woman in a red dress sauntered through their space station. She wished she had a widow-maker dagger strapped to her thigh instead of the stupid plastic garter Rat had given her. She did her best to smile away the attention, but breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the Bangkok segment. The spacers here were not as surprised by her appearance. Perhaps someone in top brass had sent for a high-end escort from the inner colonies. No big deal.
The Hilton’s entrance sat between a tobacconist stall and a VR peep show booth. Two heavyset bouncers flanked the double doors, and both reached for a door handle as she approached. No questions asked.
Katomi stepped inside and absorbed the scene before the doors closed behind her.
The interior fanned out in a V shape. Booths lined the sides, tables occupied the centre, and a long bar stretched the length of the back wall. Strung above the bar, a banner with faded letters proclaimed, “In God We Thrust”. In a far corner, a naked white girl danced around a pole on a tiny stage. Opposite, a wide viewscreen streamed live mining operations out in the ring.
Her trained eye scanned the area to identify any threats and all escape routes. The odours of stale beer, smoke, and that universal fragrance, “lingering vomit” didn’t register with someone who’d spent months cooped up inside a space freighter.
The place was less than half full and she remembered it was only mid-morning, station time. Scruffy patrons looked up, recognised her as being out of their league, and went back to drinking and chatting. Satisfied she was safe, she made her way to the third booth on the left and sat down, facing the door.
A tablet set into the wall displayed a very short menu of drinks and a message that table service cost an extra twenty percent. Katomi considered it a small price to pay in order to remain discreet in a booth. She selected a large glass of the local tap beer and let the tablet scan her iris for payment. She cringed at the low balance remaining in her account.
Back at the entrance, a tall, thin man in brown robes seemed to have trouble gaining entry. A heated conversation with the bouncers had him quite worked up. She added a couple more beers to her order and repeated the eye scan. So much for staying discreet. This guy must be her contact from the church, and she’d have to help him out.
The beers arrived courtesy of a topless girl that looked a spitting image of the one hanging upside down by her ankles on the pole.
“Yes, before you ask, she’s my twin sister,” the waitress said, setting down the plastic mugs. “We have a great two-for-one deal if you want to unwind for an hour upstairs.”
“Thanks. But I’m on business.” The reply carried a genuine note of disappointment.
She stood up, slipped her fingers through the handles of two beers, and smiled at the girl. “Next time.”
Walking back to the entrance, she announced, “He’s with me, boys.” Resting her free hand on the nearest bouncer’s shoulder. “Need a drink? Must be hard work, standing guard all day on the dry side of a pub door?”
She proffered the sloshing mugs. And the first deal of the day was done. A monk had been admitted into one of the solar system’s seediest bars.
“Katomi. I believe?” the monk spoke as they sat opposite each other in the booth. A soft, but somehow menacing, voice. It suited his gaunt features. She noticed a small sheen of sweat on his forehead and gathered he was out of his element here.
“Yes,” she replied. There wasn’t much point in denying your name to a stranger who already knew it. “And you are?”
“Brother Jacob. Order of the Second Coming. Here to parlay with you over some carriage terms, if my instructions prove veracious.”
It was no wonder he hadn’t been able to talk his way past the bouncers.
“Excellent. Nice to meet you, Brother. Your instructions align with mine, so we should enjoy an agreeable meeting.”
It was the best she could do to match his pompous vernacular. She hoped he didn’t interpret the attempt as an insult. “Can I get you a drink?”
“No, thank you. I can make it through a simple negotiation without requiring any additional sustenance, or…” He raised an eyebrow. “Stimulus.”
Katomi wasn’t sure if that was a veiled comment regarding alcoholic beverages or her appearance. Was he suggesting that her plans for flirting and seduction wouldn’t work on him? She hoped not. Rat said that most members of the church were horny old men in denial. It would be her luck to encounter one who was pious and proper. But of course, that’s who they’d send to such a meeting. Shit! It would have been much better to use threats and intimidation to secure a deal.
“Well, let’s get to business, shall we?” She tried to regain some composure. “You wish to contract the services of our good ship, Vagabond, to move some delicate cargo. That’s going to be expensive.”
The monk sneered. “And why would you presume our cargo is ‘delicate’?”
“Brother Jacob.” She took a long sip of her beer to relax. “The Vagabond carries nothing else. Our rates are far too high for regular freight. So, let’s leave the dancing to her.” She gestured over her shoulder at the stripper.
Jacob threw a glance at the sinful display before averting his gaze.
He coughed into a wide sleeve and asked, “You go as far in as Mars?”
“We do, but there’s an extra fee. It takes so damn long, makes it expensive.”
“I’m thinking that you’re going to say everything is expensive.”
Katomi smiled and licked the beer off her top lip; still worried that wet, shiny lips might not be helpful here. “Yes, I am. You get what you pay for, though. And what you pay for with us is discretion. And discretion is, well…”
“Expensive.” Jacob finished for her.
“Correct! So, you haven’t told me what this delicate cargo is, but at least we’ve established the destination. Let’s go for two out of three, shall we? How much is the church willing to invest?”
The monk leaned forward and laced his fingers together. “Isn’t it more conventional for the hauler to lay bare their schedule of fees?”
Katomi detected a sly emphasis on the words “lay bare” and her spirits lifted.
Those spirits soared when she realised, he’d leaned towards her to afford himself a better view of her cleavage— not as pious as she’d assumed then.
“For some haulers,” she answered, after allowing him a generous eyeful. “But in our experience, that wastes both parties’ time.” She finished her ale in one long swallow and set it down with a satisfactory thump. “Let me order another drink and I’ll explain.”
Brother Jacob grabbed her upper arm as she leant towards the tablet, stilling her movement. His hand was warm and sweaty. Schoolboy sweaty. Her instinct was to crucify that sticky palm to the table with the nearest blade. Instead, she fought hard to keep up appearances, and the monk mistook her flush of anger for an innocent blush.
“Please, allow me,” he rasped.
An opponent who felt they were getting her drunk would let their guard down. Or agree to unfavourable terms. They’d assume there was no way a drunken bimbo could rip them off. And so, her second trump card joined the play.
With his iris scanned and two more beers ordered; both for her, Jacob explained, to avoid them being interrupted later, she continued her spiel, “In the past, we’ve quoted for a job. And once the client recovers from a sudden onset of space sickness, they pretend the fee seems reasonable, but they need to check back with their boss on some detail. Instead, they search around for anyone else that will carry their ‘delicate’ cargo for less. Meantime we wait. Our captain gets tetchy, and when the client returns to accept our terms, she tells them where to shove their job. If you’ll excuse the vulgarity.”
This time, the drinks arrived via a burly barman in an old ice-mining jacket. A side of his face bore the scar of a thruster burn. It had blinded him in one eye.
Katomi looked over at the bar and locked eyes with the nubile twin who had served her the first round. The girl winked. And the wink spoke a thousand words. She knew the game. Perhaps even better than Katomi— and she would not ruin it for another sister by distracting the monk with a face full of bare tits every ten minutes. Instead, she’d sent the old fella to deliver the drinks this time. In the unwritten rules of the Bangkok Hilton, that booth was Katomi’s turf.
The ex-miner set the beers down without a word and withdrew to the bar. The dancing twin was taking a break from the pole, and this seemed to be the signal for half a dozen patrons to leave. Perhaps they knew she wouldn’t return for some time.
Sad bastards, Katomi thought.
Jacob tried to slide the beer nearest him across the table, to emphasise that both beers were indeed for her. This would have worked if the table’s surface had been shiny and new. It wasn’t. It was old and chipped and grooved. The mug caught in a groove and tilted, sloshing half its contents over the edge into Katomi’s lap.
At that moment, she knew she had the upper hand.
The monk lost what remaining demeanour he had and lurched to his feet. “Goodness me, I’m so sorry, I was…”
“It’s fine. Don’t you worry. But perhaps you’d fetch a towel?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He gathered his robes and made for the bar, shrinking under cruel laughter from the other patrons.
Out of his view, Katomi scooped more of the spilt beverage down her front, soaking as much of her dress as possible. The waitress shook her head with a smile of professional admiration as she handed Brother Jacob a clean towel. She whispered something to him as he took it.
The flustered monk returned to the booth. “The waitress said we, I mean you, can get cleaned up in private. There’s a room upstairs.”
“Oh well, that’s nice of her.” Katomi stood, drained the remaining half from the upset mug and picked up the full one. “I best bring this with me in case it has an accident.” She forced her mouth into a kind smile.
On the way, he kept turning to dab at the wet dress with his towel. They presented a unique piece of theatre for the dwindling audience; the sexy lass in a dripping red dress, being led away by a supplicating monk prancing around with a bar towel. It wasn’t as good as nude girls dry humping dance poles, but it was different.
The room upstairs was as clear in purpose as it was dim in lighting. A subdued scarlet glow reminded Katomi of the Vagabond when Rat was trying to clear sensor alarms. It pulsed like a heartbeat, casting shadows across the crimson double bed and reflecting from a shower stall and mirrors on the ceiling.
“Perhaps I’ll allow you some privacy?” Jacob said from outside as she took a big gulp of the ale and found a bedside cabinet to stow it on. And on the cabinet, another tablet, no doubt to process unseemly transactions. That might serve for their transaction as well.
“No, do come in, quick,” she replied, lest he have second thoughts. But there was no need to worry. His step inside was more of a skip.
“Now if this place is any good…” Katomi mused, inspecting the shower cubicle. “Ah, yes, here we are, a hairdryer.” She uncoiled the device from its wall mounting.
“Help me out of this dress, will you, so I can fire this at it?” She waved the hair dryer as if it were a pistol.
Jacob minced his way behind her, and with quivering fingers, unzipped the dress. She wriggled out of it and pushed Rat’s gadget down her leg with the garment. While the monk took in the sight of matching scarlet panties and bra, she kicked the thing under the bed with relief. She wouldn’t be needing the puke-inducing noise maker.
“Hold this for me, would you?” And without waiting for his reply, she tossed Jacob the wet garment.
He caught it with both hands. Not much of an achievement from three feet away, yet his face beamed with pride. Katomi beamed with him. Her prey was settling into the trap.
Jacob wished he could see more of this wanton young woman. He had to report back to his senior clergy, after all. Every detail, if possible. Damn the woeful light in this place.
“Let’s turn the lights up a notch.” Her voice seemed to grant his unspoken wish, and he uttered a small prayer of thanks. She found a wall touchpad, and the scene brightened, as if heaven had decided he needed to view all that lay before him.
Except she stood before him, rather than lay. This semi-nude woman with a cheeky smile, waving a hair dryer. Her brassiere covered the lower half of pert breasts. The nipples barely. Below a flat, pale tummy, inadequate panties had the devil’s job of hiding the mound of her sex.
The sight rendered Brother Jacob speechless. Katomi pretended she didn’t notice. “Get it up.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The dress. Hold it up so I can dry it.”
“Oh, yes, right.”
Katomi pulled the trigger on the hair dryer and fired it at him.
“As I was saying,” she shouted over the wind noise, “we prefer to hear what the client thinks they can pay. Saves a lot of trouble if we know early that we’re not even playing the same game, let alone in the same ballpark, as they used to say? Hmm... Perhaps that’s from your bible?”
Jacob was sure that was not from his bible, or any holy book. But he decided she hadn’t meant to insult him or his god. Even though, right now, he’d forgive her.
Katomi snapped off the appliance and blew imaginary gun smoke from its barrel.
“So, Brother Jacob, what value does your church place on our services?”
Before he could speak, she stepped forward and her breasts squashed against his scrawny chest. She raised a finger to his lips. Her own mouth a mere inch from his nose. He could smell the beer on her breath, and to him it smelt like warm honey dripping from heaven.
“And remember,” she whispered, “we’re talking the transportation of illicit cargo, across the inner system, through countless checkpoints, borders, waystations and autonomous drone scans. All the while risking life, limb, and prison sentences, yet protecting the church’s identity. You WON’T find another carrier, period. So, whatever number your bosses told you was the bottom line, it won’t cut it. But let’s hear your number.”
And with that, she shoved him onto the bed. He sat there, looking at her belly button. She leaned over him without shifting her footing and retrieved the beer glass, draining it in one chug.
Fine ale they serve here. We’ll have to get some kegs loaded onboard the Vagabond if this deal goes through.
Brother Jacob somehow kept his faculties together and reminded himself that this brazen hussy knew nothing of his organisation’s wealth, nor its motivations. If he could keep his sinful thoughts in check, he could go under his boss’s budget and return home to worthy praise— and a very long, cold shower.
“Sev… sev… seven point five,” he stuttered. “That’s as high as we can go.”
Katomi took a second. Her brain, behind the buzz of the beer, worked on this revelation. Seven and a half million system credits. The Vagabond would need at least a dozen high-end jobs to earn that. Sol station to Saturn and back. Those kinds of jobs. It would take them years.
She broke down her potential share. The captain took the standard fifty percent from all earnings, but paid for ship upkeep, fuel, supplies, tariffs and bribes. She and Rat earned twenty-five percent each, but living expenses, and accommodation on the Vagabond, were covered. It was a good gig. Anyway, her quick math had her earning over a million credits from this church deal. Easy.
She told herself to keep her cool. To look a little, but not overly, insulted.
“Really? That’s what your superiors figured was a reasonable fee, eh?”
The monk nodded.
“And tell me, Jacob, did they give you the authority to make any kind of down payment? You know, the usual protocol is to pay half before loading, and the remaining on delivery.”
This was a blatant lie. Nobody would cough up that early. Clients wanted to see their cargo loaded on board the freighter first. They’d take some nice incriminating pictures of the smugglers with it, as insurance, before they parted with a single credit. But she banked on Jacob not knowing that, or not caring, at this point.
He nodded again, and she felt her pulse quicken.
“Well, let’s make sure, shall we, before we talk REAL numbers?” She swiped the guest tablet. Yes! It had a universal banking app. She iris-signed into the app as the payee and had the horny monk do the same, but as the payer. All that remained was the actual amount to transfer and a final sign-off.
She determined how far to push it. It had to be pushed, after all. Nobody accepted the first figure. It would show the client they’d bid too high. They’d try to claw some back, or renege on the deal somehow. No matter the size of that initial bid, you didn’t accept it. Everyone knew that, ever since sharp tools had been bartered for ripe fruit.
She decided that while she was ripe fruit, this man was not a sharp tool. So, she was going to push. And push hard.
“You know, after my last deep space haul, and being groped by Delta security, and sitting in that smoky bar… I could use a wash. You wouldn’t mind, would you?”
“Eh?” was all Jacob could manage.
“If I took a shower?” she asked again, smiling. “I’d feel safer with you in the room. Once I’m all clean and refreshed, we can talk through the final number.”
“Oh. Yes, of course, of course. Please, as you wish. I will, um, protect you.”
Katomi unclipped her bra and handed it to him, as if handing him a rag. His eyes transfixed on her bare breasts.
“Unless…” she said, slipping her thumbs between panties and hips and drawing them down an inch.
Jacob took a while to comprehend that the show had paused.
“Unless wh… what?” he stuttered.
“I can take that offer to my boss now? It’s quite low, but maybe she’ll accept it, and you’ll have a deal. We can be on our way, and I’ll clean up back on my ship.”
“No!” Jacob squeaked. “Have your shower. I might be able to, to… do something with that figure.”
Brother Jacob ended up increasing the offer to nine million and making the down payment of four and a half. His dreams of returning home covered in glory had been replaced by memories of Katomi covered in soap suds.