Journeys of the Mind

 

Chapter 10

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

Spider’s Web

 

   

Erik Richards led them to one of the casinos, where they played 10 and 11 for a while, then after Wilma and Maria’s luck ran out, they watched him play for an hour, encouraging him and cheering his wins.  Afterward, they moved to a table where Erik deftly threw the dice.  Wilma was amazed.  Erik seemed to have a golden touch, winning almost every hand and every throw.  Wilma remembered Marla telling her how Buck had won most of his 10 and 11 hands on Sinaloa.  There were so many similarities between the two men and Wilma found herself thoroughly enjoying the company of this Mendalisian man.  “Erik,” she said between games.  “You remind me of someone I know.”

“Oh, really?” he asked, his brown eyes curious.  He took a drink and favored her with a smile before picking up the dice again.

“Oh, yes,” she said.  “He has the same kind of smile and like you, an incredibly wicked sense of humor.”

Erik laughed. “Someday, I’ll have to meet this man.”

“He plays a wicked game of 10 and 11, too,” Wilma added, laughing with her companion. 

“Then I must definitely meet him,” Erik said.  “And see who is the best player.”  He threw the dice, winning yet again.  Then he looked at the empty glass in hers and Maria’s hands.  “It’s getting crowded here.  Shall we go somewhere a bit more quiet?”

“Oh,” Maria said, a bit of disappointment in her voice.  “I was so hoping to meet Erik Kormand.”

Smiling, Wilma thought of the information they had received telling them of the mythos that had so grown up around Erik Kormand that women would go to the Fylos sector trying to find the man.  The rumor was that if they did find him and he liked them, the women were set up in luxury for life in his mysterious and hidden compound.  At that bit of information, Buck had sarcastically commented that it sounded like some sheik’s harem.  Wilma had not had any idea what a harem was, but it didn’t sound desirable to her.   Regardless, it was definitely a well founded rumor that Kormand like the companionship of lovely ladies and they were here hoping to capitalize on that fact.  Considering that he was not a government official, but a private citizen under suspicion of gun running, inciting riot and murder, it would simplify things greatly if she and Maria could capture him quietly and question him on the Searcher or at the headquarters of the Galactic Council.   What she had seen and heard while on Mendalis had both disturbed her and made her uneasy.  The quicker they were off planet, the better she would feel about this entire operation.  She brought her full attention back to Erik. 

Erik almost purred.  “I happen to know that he doesn’t usually show up until after midnight.  We have a few hours.”  His words were slightly slurred, as though he had had too much to drink.  Wilma had already noticed that the liquor here was not synthetic, making her very glad Dr. Goodfellow had given her and Maria something to offset the effects of the alcohol and anything else harmful they might eat or drink.

“Really?” Wilma asked.  Maybe this Erik knew something or maybe he was just trying a come-on.  “Or do you say this to all the women you meet?”  She asked.  Wilma was feeling slight tendrils of alarm, but she knew that she and Maria could handle one slightly inebriated man.  Easily.  And he did seem to know about Kormand and about finding him.  Whether it was true or not….  But they had to take a chance.  It was the only lead they had right now.  She shook off the negative feelings.

“No, only the ones I like,” he quipped.  “I promise, I will bring you back down and let you see how well you attract Mr. Kormand.”  He held out his arms for both ladies.  “Although I suspect it won’t take you two very long.”

“All right, it’s a deal,” Wilma replied with a smile at his compliment.  She and Maria linked arms with their host and strode purposefully out of the casino. 

   

 

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As soon as he left the inn, Buck was glad he had not brought his jacket.  He wished he could go shirtless as some of the residents were doing already.  This southern hemisphere continent was in the throes of summer and like some of its Earth counterparts was not only hot, but steamy.  You can fry eggs on the pavement, Buck thought.  No, you could poach them.  He just shrugged and continued wandering through the center of the provincial town, surveying the various people, the activity and his surroundings.  Most of the people, either openly or surreptitiously, stared at him, some with suspicion.  Buck pointedly ignored such looks, concentrating on acting the role of a new colonist or a somewhat quirky tourist.  Would have to be quirky to spend a vacation in this steam bath, he thought wryly. 

“You’re new here, mate,” someone behind him said, laying a hand on his arm.

Buck had to steel himself to keep from pivoting around in quick readiness, his laser cocked and ready to use.  Too many hostile worlds, he thought.  “That obvious?” he asked, leisurely looking down.

“I know everybody who comes through town, mate and you ain’t been here before,” the man said, flashing a broad grin, one that showed a lack of a few teeth.  “Where’s the home fire?”  The man was squatty, not quite a foot taller than Twiki, his reddish hair sparse, one eye squinted closed. 

“Certainly not here,” Buck quipped.  “You ever need a fire here in Asher?”

The man laughed heartily and slapped him on the back.  Buck felt the air forced from his lungs with explosive energy.  The short man had a strength that belied his physical appearance. 

“I’m from Earth,” Buck finally said, after he had gotten enough breath.

The man’s good eye widened.  “You’re terran?  Born on Earth?” he said, incredulous, looking him up and down.

Buck laughed good-naturedly and the small man joined him.  “Terrans are that rare?” he asked.  “But yes, I definitely was born on Earth.  Chicago.”

“Well, blast me through a star gate!” he exclaimed.  “Boy, what brings you out here to this provincial hot spot?  I’m Dake, by the way,” he added, holding out his hand.

“Buck,” the terran said, taking the smaller man’s hand.  The grip was strong, too.  “Glad to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Dake said.  “Now what brings you here, if I may ask?” he repeated.

“Wanted a change of scenery,” Buck answered non-committally.   There was something about Dake that he liked.  And there was something that told him he could trust this man. 

“Good answer.”

“Well, folks seem a bit skittish around here.  I felt like a side of beef in the USDA inspection line as I was walking through town.”

Dake squinted up at him in puzzlement. 

“Uh, I was watched,” Buck translated.  “Closely.” He paused and figured what to say next.  Finally, he just decided on bluntness.  “Look, all I want to do if find a few of the aboriginals,” he added softly.  “Find out what’s going on.”

“For good or bad?” Dake asked, gazing thoughtfully at him.

“Not sure how to answer that one, if politics is a touchy subject around here, too,” Buck replied with a slight smile.  Somehow, he felt that Dake could tell him just exactly what he wanted to know, if his instincts were right about him.   Kormand had a greater hold on this planet’s people than anyone in the Galactic Council even imagined.  And Buck was in the outlying areas, the boondocks, so to speak.  What was it like in the cities, he wondered?  

“You already have by simply talking to me, Buck,” Dake said softly.  “I’m kind of different, in case you haven’t noticed.”  Then he laughed.    “Well, since you’ve been corrupted already, might as well go all the way.”  He turned and motioned for Buck to follow him.  “Come, have a bit of refreshment and we can talk.”

“Lead the way,” Buck said. 

The strange man led him through several narrow streets that were filled with shoppers, merchants, locals and those from outlying agricultural settlements.  Buck began wondering if this small, squinty-eyed man was leading him into a dark corner of this rough town so he could be ambushed, but he continued following Dake, still trusting the Mendalisian.  Dake led him to the corner of a small eating establishment, one that also had a bar.  It was like something out of Key Largo back in the old days.  The local version of palm fronds covered the roof, small strands hanging down inside the room.  Buck figured everyone scattered when it rained . . . and for several days thereafter. 

Apparently, Dake saw his perusal of the establishment.  “Cheaper using grish fronds.  Doesn’t rain here good, except for a couple of times a year-- spring and fall.  Then they just push the water out and re-cover the roof.”

Buck smiled, nodded and sat down, his back to the corner so he could watch everyone that came and went.  The nasty thought about some nineteenth century gambler who did that came to his mind.  He couldn’t think of the man’s name, Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson, whoever, the man had been killed in a poker game, his back to the wall.  Sighing, Buck willed himself to relax and brought his attention back to Dake, who had just finished ordering drinks. 

Leaning back in his chair, Dake pulled out a cigar and lit it.  The smoke was acrid and clung in small puffs around the man’s head.  Some things never change, Buck thought.  Cheap cigars in cheap bars.

Dake held out another cigar.  “Want one?”

“No, thanks, I don’t smoke,” Buck declined politely.  

“Wise.  These things can be deadly, I hear.”  Dake laughed at his own joke. 

A not-so-clean bartender brought over two mugs of frothy drink.  Probably the local version of beer.  Buck hoped it was better than the local version of cigars.  It was foamed high over the top of the mug and the terran wondered what the polite way of getting rid of it was.  Dake answered the question by leaning over and blowing the foam on the floor.  Buck stared at the small white mound for a moment and then tried to discreetly follow suit.  Then he glanced around to see if anyone had noticed.  If they had, apparently it didn’t bother them.  He turned back to Dake to see the small man grinning broadly at him.  

“I picked a place out of the way where everyone minds his or her own business and keeps a low profile.  And doesn’t bother people who are different like me.”

“What’s going on here?” Buck asked, even though he thought he knew the answer already.  Kormand.  Everything came back to Kormand.   “Seems tense.  And where are the aboriginals I was told were here a few years ago?  Are you…?”  He leaned forward and spoke much more softly.  “Surely they couldn’t have all been….”

“Why are you here?” Dake asked, leaning forward and restating his original inquiry.  “Why are you looking for non-humans?”  The small man’s voice had lowered to match Buck’s.  To the outside observer, it appeared that Dake was simply spitting into the local version of a spittoon.

“Doing a bit of fact-finding.” 

“For the Galactic Council?”  Dake carefully studied the man before him. 

Buck paused a moment, scrutinizing the man next to him.  “Yeah, but how do you know I’m not lying?”

“You seem very easy with me.  That says a great deal, Buck,” Dake said. “You see, I’m a crossbreed.  It’s not terribly apparent, except when I change clothes and since I don’t do that in public, I am only suspected.”

“Freeosh?” Buck asked.

Dake nodded.  

“Didn’t know it was possible.” 

“Rarely, but it is.”  Dake leaned back and grinned.  “You should see me in the trees.”

Buck smiled and drank his beer, deciding it could be worse.  

“Northwest corner of town.  The edge of the spaceport, where they dump scrap.  That’s where most of my people scavenge scrap metals.  You might even find other non-humans.”

“Thanks, Dake.  I really appreciate it,” Buck replied.   Other non-humans?  

“Be careful, though.  The mayor’s been sending out patrols and I hear he’s going to set out sniffers.” 

“Sniffers?” 

“Patrol animals.  Dogs on Earth, I believe,” Dake explained. 

“Ah.  I understand.” 

“If you see anyone, tell ‘em Dake sent you to tell ‘em to stop scavenging for a couple of months until I get word out that it’s okay to resume.”

“You know, you’re putting a lot of trust in someone you barely know.”

Dake had been studying this human, gauging him against what he had been told.  He decided to play his top card.  “Hell, I thought I knew who you were from the moment I saw you.  Just had to meet you to make sure.  Captain Buck Rogers, right?  From the research and exploration ship Searcher?” 

Buck’s eyes widened in surprise.  “How?” he finally managed to say. 

“I find out things on both sides.  Word is that Kormand wants you.  He wants you very badly.  And he knows you’re here.  What the hell did you do to jerk his knot so hard?” 

Buck ignored Dake’s question, his mind only on the implications of what the Mendalisian had informed him.  “If he is aware of where I am, then he must know about the Searcher’s other operatives.”   Dake nodded.  Buck felt fear course through his body.  Fear for Wilma and the rest.  Kormand had been grossly underestimated.   He had to get back to his ship and send a warning to the admiral. 

“Watch yourself carefully, Buck,” Dake said.  “I’d better go now and you’d probably better do the same.”

“Thanks again, Dake,” Buck said.  “How can I get a hold of you if I need to?”

Dake shook his head.  “I’ll find you.”  He got up and was soon gone.  

Buck was left with his thoughts . . . and the tab for their beer, he noted wryly.  He threw down some coins and walked out, heading in a roundabout way back to his room.  From there he meandered toward the forest, first walking along a well used dirt road that led to an agricultural town several miles to the west, then ducking into the foliage when he saw no one else nearby.  Several times he checked for the sounds of someone following, but after a while Buck felt sure that no one had seen him and he hurried toward his starfighter along a tiny, meandering animal trail.   He chafed at the time it took him to get through the forest, at how careful he had to be to avoid tripping on roots, being scratched by thorn covered vines, and stepping over dead tree trunks.   Each minute that he took getting to his starfighter was a minute that Erik Kormand had to find his friends. 

 

 

 

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