last Lowe gestured for the wait to leave the brandy. In the stillness
that followed, the old man slowly turned his glass stem between a strong
finger and thumb, watching the reflections thrown by the fluid within.
"And what of you, Garth?" he said finally. "It has been
a while since you graced my establishment."
"Here and there," Garth replied,
hazarding a grin. "Norwood most recently."
"A very quick trip. You intend to
find another ship heading that way?" Keen grey eyes raised to meet
icy blue innocence. "I can save you some looking. A transport left
a few days back there won't be another until next month, at least."
Probably true . . . it was too easy to
check the story. Was Lowe actually going to hire him for something? But
the old man preferred experienced free-traders Garth knew his own
training was still too meager to satisfy Lowe.
"Let us dispense with fencing. I take
it you are still searching for Hank Edmonton and Silver Meath?" Lowe's
voice was very quiet; Garth did not remember it as so quiet.
"Silver Meath. Hank Edmonton is dead."
He tried to keep the reply simple as he concentrated on the heady vapor
of the brandy.
"People die," Lowe said conversationally,
almost as if agreeing with something.
Garth acknowledged the unasked question.
"Natural causes, apparently. He pushed FOY as far as it would go,
and his heart finally gave out. I think he left free-trading not long
after dad died." Tell only the truth; Lowe had a nose for ragged
tales, and it was said he could smell a lie at ten paces.
"I noticed during your absence that
a century had passed since the unfortunate demise of your parents. A hundred
years is a long time to follow someone merely to ascertain your father's
last emotions before death claimed him." Lowe's eyes had not swerved
from his face.
That was essentially what Garth had told
Lowe. No one knew the entire story good luck and a glib tongue
had kept all secrets safe. But an uneasy feeling traced his spine; Garth
had a feeling his luck with secrets was about to run out.
"Rumors still surface about that job
. . . about the aftermath. Almost five hundred bars of gold vanished from
that vault. Must have been, oh, 150, 160 a piece for them. You certainly
don't need to work. Is your only goal in life to find this woman?"
Lowe's eyebrows lifted slightly at his
emphatic tone of voice. "A hundred years, and only a few months for
you. . . . Any chance you might tell me the entire story this time?"
"Are you calling me a liar?"
Very soft; Garth felt muscles starting to bunch and fought it.
Lowe's expression softened. "No, you're
not lying. You're simply not telling me all you know or suspect
it's quite a different thing." His gaze dropped to his brandy snifter.
"I can't help you unless you tell me what is going on. And this is
probably my last chance to help you. Information is my lifeblood, Garth
why have you never used the best source at your disposal?"
"Because you always tell me to give
it up!" The return to normal volume sounded like shouting, but Garth
couldn't help it. Old resentment mingled with new pain, as the old man
obliquely confirmed earlier guesses. Time was running out for Lowe . .
. there would be a new pillar of information on Caesarea Station the next
time Garth passed through. "I'm going to find this woman if it takes
a thousand years! All your meddling to keep me on false trails
has only made it harder it hasn't changed my mind."
"You think I've tried to stop you?"
Lowe looked up once again. His face was intent then Garth thought
he saw a trace of humor. "I haven't done anything more than keep
a vague eye on your travels." Lowe reached absently for a piece of
the cheese the wait had slipped onto the table. "Do you really think
someone has muddied the waters? Beyond what Hank, Silver, and your father
did after the job," he added.
Garth remained silent. He had been so sure
Lowe was trying to stop him. . . . So. Was there someone else planting
false clues, or was he merely paranoid about the whole thing?
"Are you going to kill her, Garth?"
Lowe asked pleasantly.
Like a conversation about the latest live
band, or interactive show . . . Garth thought deeply. "What makes
you think that?" he said finally.
"I can't think of any other reason
why you wouldn't question me about that job," Lowe answered.
"Why would you know anything?"
"It's my business to know things.
I know what the prime minister of Caesarea had for breakfast before it's
digested. I have heard every rumor ever attached to any free-trader, any
job. Yet you have never questioned me. It seems I will have to question
Garth felt his thin face tighten. Before
he could speak, however, Lowe added: "I know where Silver is."
As his fingers curled, Garth released the
snifter in his hand for fear of fracturing it. "Now?"
Lowe smiled. It was odd, seeing that smile
. . . Lowe hardly ever smiled. "If she still lives, right this moment.
And if you tell me what I wish to know, I will tell you where she is.
You are . . . twenty-five years behind her, what with this added delay?
I can put you one trip behind her."
"Why?" What he really wanted
to ask was: What do you want in return? But Garth knew Lowe would
get around to that eventually.
"I was very fond of your parents.
They did me many . . . services. I feel I owe them what little I can do
for their only son." Lowe refilled the brandy snifters. "Now.
Your father was involved in his latest scam. It was with two other people,
neither of them your mother. . . ."
Sweet saints, guide me. Garth picked
up the tale at that point. "I still don't know exactly what the scam
was, but I think you're right the goal was that big gold shipment
going to Kiel. Did you ever hear what was taken?"
"480 bars of gold," Lowe told
"Well, 160 bars of gold were deposited
in my parents' account at Traders the day after my father died."
Lowe nodded at this statement. Traders' Trust was the bank used by almost
all free-traders, and was considered one of the few institutions off-limits
to scams. Traders handled only precious metals the currencies of
six planets were mere promissory notes to Traders, and were redeemed with
high penalties. It was also the only existing reserve which never surrendered
accounts to heirs without instructions left by the depositor. A trip of
a hundred years was nothing to Traders when a free-trader returned,
his or her metal wealth would be waiting. It had survived recession, war,
and political upheaval; Traders was more solvent than many countries.
"Possibly one-third of the take, then.
No one demanded a planning fee?" Lowe asked.
Garth shrugged. "He didn't tell mother
much, when they talked. From the little she said, I think the group planned
it together. At any rate, we knew how things would finish. His partners
would leave in a hurry, drawing off any pursuit, while dad deposited the
money in Traders."
"What went wrong?"
After a long pause filled by the taste
of brandy on his tongue, Garth said: "I don't know. So much was going
on then . . . Lise had just married, and was shipping out to Gavriel the
day after Dad was due back. She already had new citizenship papers. We
were watching, and waiting . . . and then the police arrived, to say that
Dad's body had been found in an abandoned transpo tunnel."
"No one saw anything?"
"No one admitted to seeing anything.
No one spoke." This was harsh; the memories rising to the surface
were recent in Garth's timeframe. "Lise was frantic, and Mom was
in shock. After pacing the floor all night, Mom insisted that Lise take
ship as scheduled. Insisted on it said it was what Dad would
have wanted. I went with Lise up to Caesarea Station to see her on board
her ship. By the . . . by the time I returned, Mom had slashed her wrists."
"You have no idea why?" Lowe's
voice seemed to come from far away.
"No. Unless it was grief . . . but
I can't accept that. Mom adored him, but she didn't live for him, if you
know what I mean." Garth realized he was drawing patterns in the
air with his fingers, and gripped his hands tightly together. "There
was no message, except except she had given one of her favorite
holos of the family to Lise, before Lise left. I found the copy sitting
on my pillow when I got back, along with 250 cubiz Caesarean. Everything
after that is fuzzy . . . was fuzzy for a long time. I didn't find out
about the gold deposit and withdrawal until several days later."
"Withdrawal?" Lowe said suddenly.
"Yes." Garth finally looked up,
catching the glint of Lowe's eyes with his own gaze. "The deposit
was made that afternoon, probably while Mom was killing herself
certainly while I was returning from station. I don't know if she saw
it or not, it didn't occur to me then to check whether anyone had accessed
the file from our home. The account was emptied that evening everything,
the new gold and everything else my family had as assets."
"But . . . how? Traders is inviolate
if anything is. . . ." Lowe had tilted his head to one side and was
staring hard at Garth.
From Lowe's expression, Garth knew he was
going to have to supply the final puzzle piece. "Oh, whoever cleaned
us out had the proper codes. They even left a message: 'Aesir considers
the debt to be paid.'" He kept his eyes on Lowe's face as he spoke.
There was no flicker of change. Lowe repeated
the last words, his tone almost a whisper: "Aesir considers the debt
to be paid." Then a sip of brandy, and silence.
Instinct told Garth to remain silent; minutes
passed. Abruptly, Lowe demanded: "Tell me everything your mother
said, from when your father died until she took her life."
Puzzled, Garth did his best to reconstruct
the last clear day within memory. Lowe asked questions; he wanted nuance,
tone of voice, any messages or mail received "Is this leading
anywhere except into your private mental vault?" Garth asked abruptly.
"Will you never learn patience?"
Almost testy. Garth was surprised; it was as close to losing his temper
as he had ever seen Lowe approach. "Do you want certainties or supposition?
Very well did the police investigate the possibility of murder?
In your mother's case," he added, as Garth's eyes narrowed in irritation.
It struck him dumb. Never, even for a moment,
had he considered that possibility. "But the coroner said
"They knew your mother was in the
A pause. "I think so. They didn't
seem to think it odd that she'd done it right after dad was killed . .
. or that I knew nothing about it." He did not add that they'd wired
him, just to be sure. He held no anger over it it was all part
of the business.
"They are trained to see anomalies
I know, you children have only contempt for them, but trust me,
the Caesarean Forces are among the best. They find out what is needful
without trampling everyone's rights underfoot. A great skill. On another
world, they would have locked up Hobbs' crew just to be certain they'd
covered all exits. Here, they merely watch and wait. A blessing you obviously
do not appreciate." Lowe shrugged in dismissal. "If they saw
nothing to make them suspicious, it was either suicide, or done on such
a level that they could have proved nothing even if they'd suspected."
Lowe fixed Garth with a hard stare. "Your mother would not have killed
herself unless there was something to be gained by it."
"What could possibly be gained by
"There are things," he said vaguely.
"But that doesn't matter, now. I have heard of Aesir, but I can no
more tell you what it means than I can change the rotation of this station.
Secret and deadly, that is what it means. I don't know if Silver can tell
you any more, but it would not hurt to ask. If you ask politely, you might
be amazed what she'd tell you. A generous woman." He sipped at his
"You'll tell me where she is?"
Garth finally said.
"I can tell you where she went, last
time she was here, ten years ago Terran. She was finishing up a job, and
about to start something with her old mentor, Halsey."
That name caused Garth to straighten.
He had heard of Halsey. Probably the richest free-trader still living,
he was older than memory. Most people in the business could trace their
line of learning back to him. So Silver was one of his own students .
. . no wonder she left such a sketchy trail.
"They were heading to Nuala."
Lowe's voice was ridiculously calm, considering what he'd just said.
For a moment Garth was blank Nuala?
A country on Emerson? Then the name gathered meaning. Nuala? Holy
Virgin, was he cursed? She'd gone to that radioactive slag heap? "Why?"
he heard himself whisper.
Lowe allowed amusement to slide across
his face. "Because she's a free-trader, Garth. Nuala is the wealthiest
planet in the Axis Republic. Between the myths surrounding it and the
dangers threading it, it's the biggest challenge imaginable short of charting
a new star yourself." Lowe reached for the plate again, and nibbled
at another piece of cheese. "She's a gypsy, the best of our breed.
The scam is half the fun."
You call this fun? Garth kept the
words to himself, wondering if his face gave him away. He began to despair
of learning this game. What could be worth going to Nuala?
An unreadable expression crossed Lowe's
face. "I do remember one thing about Aesir . . . but it may
not apply in this case. Weren't the Aesir the warrior gods of ancient
This thought gave Garth pause. "Maybe,"
he said at last. "My people remember them only in story and song
their worship was dust long before we left Mother Earth."
"I don't see a connection not
a direct one. But Silver was born on Gavriel . . . perhaps she can find
a link. Surely it cannot be coincidence."
Lowe pushed his empty glass to one side.
"The ship you seek is one of the Tiger fleet, called Crowned Tiger.
It leaves for Nuala in about three days. They need crew, and pay profit-sharing
as an incentive. I'll send word to the captain that you're interested.
It's a safe ship; no need to have someone timelock your Freeze tube."
The last words were brisk, but well-meant
they would save him inadvertently offending the captain of the
long-hauler. In them Garth also sensed dismissal, and realized it was
time for good-byes.
"Thank you," he said aloud, unable
to comprehend that he finally had what he wanted Silver's direction.
Lowe had turned out to be a better friend than he had hoped.
"You may pass in transit, you know."
"But I'll only be a trip behind, and
that's worth anything." A strange combination of excitement and dread
began to knot beneath his sternum.
"Almost anything," Lowe said
Garth found his response puzzling, and
knew his own expression had changed.
Lowe was watching his face. Something he
saw there did not comfort him. Shaking his head slightly, Lowe said: "Be
careful out there. And always think through your actions to their ultimate
conclusion. You'll live longer." Pausing, he finally added: "I
hope I have done the right thing."
There was nothing to say to such fatherly
concern, so Garth gravely extended his hand. Lowe touched his wrist lightly
in farewell and remained at the table as Garth moved off into shadows,
heading into the bowels of the restaurant.
Hesitating at the elbow of the corridor,
Garth turned back toward Lowe, prompted by a moment of unease. He saw
the man pull a small device out of his pocket and point it at the blank
wall beyond the table. A huge screen flared into life, flickering in communique
"2618ABD," Lowe said quietly.
In moments the line was connected, and Lowe said: "Yes, this is Lowe
for Captain Morse of Crowned Tiger. Tell him I've found him crew."
Even an introduction . . . Garth considered
waiting, but decided to move on; it was not courteous to eavesdrop on
a friend, and Lowe was merely doing as he had promised, insuring Garth
a smooth transition onto Crowned Tiger. Long strides carrying him
through the bar, Garth headed out toward the bag drop to retrieve his
bakit. This time he could feel it, the closeness, the rightness.
Lowe had finally told him the truth, and he was going to find Silver.
Any thoughts about the mysterious planet Nuala were kept firmly in the
back of his mind.
His people called it wergild, the price
owed to blood kin upon the death of a valued relative. Garth suspected
Silver owed him wergild, a large one now there would be a reckoning.
In the meantime, Captain Morse had finally
answered Lowe's call. "Morse, I'm not the only one who needs to get
to Nuala I found you that last hold man I promised you." Lowe
was not smiling . . . but then, he rarely did.