Diana Santee #13: Durell

Chapter One

I woke up feeling sluggish and slow, the feeling I was most used to having after having been drugged. Sitting up was something of an effort, but at least it was now possible to look around me.

I sat on a wide bed with very soft linen and quilts, obviously top quality to match the rest of the room. To the left was a cozy arrangement of two chairs in front of what looked like a window showing a beach during a heavy rain. The waves in the ocean beyond the beach threw themselves against the shore with agitation, almost as if they resented the addition of water brought by the rain. I could even hear the distant crash of surf, as if the room's soundproofing wasn't quite perfect.

It actually took me a minute to understand that it was a vu window I looked at, not a real window. The vagueness in my mind was dissipating, faster and faster as the minutes passed. A vu window instead of a real one… Did that mean I was on board a liner?

That was when the rest of the memories returned, about how I'd escaped from Gralling only to be snagged by my "friends." Ames and Reever, two men I'd thought I might actually be able to trust. Trust, right…

I pushed the fingers of both hands through my hair, also remembering what Ames had said about his background. He and Reever were pirates, and now I could remember what I'd heard about them before leaving the Federation. They'd been making a lot of trouble for the Council, and had even managed to take a liner and keep it. The people who had been traveling on the liner were found on various orbital stations, but the liner never turned up. Now I was obviously on that liner, in a VIP cabin usually reserved for those with the proper position in life as well as the proper credit balance.

But I wasn't furious or feeling trapped or even mildly annoyed. That realization brought my head up, a very faint disturbance trying to form before it faded away to oblivion. I knew I ought to be angry at the very least, but I couldn't even come up with disappointment over the way my two "seconds" had betrayed me. Something was really wrong, but even understanding that point didn't cause agitation. It was almost as if something wasn't letting me be anything but calm and -

Calm and mellow. Thinking those words brought my hand to my throat, and sure enough there was a linked necklace closed around my neck. The necklace wasn't very tight and was so light that I hadn't noticed it until now, but it was definitely there. It was a therapeutic device used by shrinks, to keep violent patients from losing their tempers and exploding. Violence of any sort was impossible with the device present, not even in the privacy of the patient's mind. It suddenly came to me that the last thing I remembered was Ames saying he had to find a way to make me safe. That lousy, rotten, back-stabbing -

"Well, I'm glad to see you're already awake," a voice came from the now open doorway directly ahead and to the right of the bed. It was a very jolly voice, and it belonged to the man I knew as Ames. "I knew we would have you back with us at any time, so I brought you something to wear to breakfast. You must be really hungry by now."

In point of fact I felt downright hollow, but as I turned my attention to the man who now approached the bed I hated more the hollowness of my emotions. The furious anger that had tried to start a moment ago was completely gone, and that lack brought the urge for anger of its own. But nothing but calm and mellowness was permitted, so I didn't even frown.

"Here we go," Ames said, still sounding as if he spoke to a child as he unfolded the item he carried. The piece of clothing turned out to be a white terrycloth robe, and Ames immediately began to put it on me. "You'll feel a lot better once you're dressed and have some food inside you, and then we can talk."

It took no more than a minute for Ames to slip my arms into the robe, and then he knelt behind me to close the thing and belt it. He closed it the wrong way, of course, to the right instead of to the left, but he never noticed. I just let him take care of his chore, finding it impossible to struggle even the least little bit. No violence of any kind, the necklace insisted, and even refusing to let the robe be put on would have been a sort of violence.

"Okay, now let's go get you filled up," Ames said as he straightened off the bed. His hand on my arm urged me to my feet, and once again I couldn't refuse to do as he asked. There was a distant but definite interest in bloody mayhem at the back of my mind, but when the necklace made the feeling disappear I simply let it go. I really do hate wasting my time, most especially since there's more than one way to skin a - dog.

Ames "helped" me to the door and out into the next room which, unsurprisingly, proved to be a large sitting room. A table had been set up not far from the bedroom, with three chairs arranged around it in cozy fashion. Ames took me to the nearest chair and eased me down into it, and Reever, who had been watching my arrival, stepped closer to smile broadly at me.

"Glad to see you up and around, boss," Reever said as he set a cup down in front of me. "Here's your coffee, just to get you started right. You can sip it while you decide whether you'd rather tell me what you'd like to have to eat, or leave the decision to me the way you did on Gralling. If you let me decide, I promise you won't be disappointed."

Reever stood there practically quivering with eagerness, but all I did was stare at him. The necklace tried to turn me "reasonable" enough to accept the coffee I really did want, but making someone do something isn't like making them do nothing. Ignoring the urge to be reasonable wasn't hard, and not moving or speaking was even easier.

"You know, that's the first thing we can talk about," Ames said in a very hearty way after a long minute of silence passed and Reever's smile faded to nothing. "We can't keep calling you 'boss,' but we don't have another name for you. Why don't we start our talk with you giving us your name."

I shifted my stare to Ames where he now sat to my right, ignoring the supposedly friendly smile he showed, and just continued to stare. The urge toward cooperation came and tried to strengthen, but it didn't have any more luck than the urge to be reasonable.

"Lomack called her Lathrop," Reever put in when it was perfectly clear that I had nothing to say. "I had a look at the list of area bosses while I waited for her and Harrison to get to where they had to be, and the list showed a Sylvie Lathrop."

"Sylvie!" Ames exclaimed with a smile, acting as if I'd been the one to supply the information. "That's a really pretty name for a more than pretty woman. Reever and I are very glad to meet you, Sylvie, and now we'd like to watch you eat your breakfast. Discussing important matters on an empty stomach isn't very wise, and it's also unnecessary. Reever cooked you something special, so we both know you'll love it."

By now Reever had moved the coffee cup back and replaced it with a plate, but I didn't even glance down to see what the plate contained. The food smelled wonderful and the urge to cooperate had strengthened even more because of the coaxing way Ames had spoken, but once again it was easier to do nothing than be forced to action.

"Reever, this wasn't supposed to be possible," Ames said after another long moment, looking over at the man he spoke to with nothing left of his smile. "The device was supposed to make her open to suggestion as well as keep her from turning violent, but it isn't working. And why hasn't she said anything? I didn't know the device was supposed to silence her."

"I told you this was a bad idea," Reever answered, his tone flat and unhappy. "Trying to control someone like her is always a bad idea, and all the device can do is urge her to cooperate. The thing can't force her to go along with what we want if she's strong enough to know her own mind, and obviously she is. My guess would be that silence is her choice rather than the device's, which means you're really in it hip deep."

"But I'm the one with no choice, so all I can do is continue on with what I started," Ames said as he rubbed his eyes with one hand before returning his gaze to me. "Sylvie, you have to understand why I did this to you. I have two important reasons, and I want you to hear me out before you decide if you will understand. Can I tell you those reasons?"

The fool actually waited a moment for me to answer, but even nodding was out. I'd been given no choice but to listen to whatever he said, and that meant only an idiot wouldn't know that the understanding Ames wanted wasn't very likely to appear.

"All right, here it is," Ames said, obviously deciding to pretend that I'd given him permission to continue. "I think you know that I want to get to know you better, and if I'd let you walk away I couldn't have done that. I want that even more now that we've gotten off Gralling, but there's a more pressing reason for needing you here with us. Those bastards still have my little sister, and there's no telling what they've done to her by now. I have to get her away from them, I have to, and you have to help me do it."

"No," I said, smiling to myself at the realization that the device around my throat couldn't tell that that one word would do more damage than any of the violence it was so firmly against. Ames stared at me with sudden dismay, and then he shook his head.

"You can't mean that," he said, obviously trying to convince himself. "My sister is an innocent who was caught up in my mistake, and I refuse to believe that you'll turn your back on her. You care about the innocent, you know you do, so once you're over being angry you'll help me break her loose."

"You seem to forget that I can't be angry," I pointed out, a statement of fact that did as much damage as the single word I'd used earlier. "As far as I'm concerned you and your sister can both go to hell. If you can't get the girl loose without me, she won't be getting loose."

Finishing that speech had been on the difficult side, but I'd managed to do it. The necklace made me aware of how comfortable the chair I sat in was, how soft the terrycloth of the robe was, how good the food smelled. All positive reactions rather than the negative ones I'd fought to show, but the positive came too late to be of use to Ames.

"But you have to help me!" he insisted, his handsome face really stricken. "I know my limitations, and strategy on the level you use it at is completely beyond me. Okay, I've obviously forgotten to add something, so let me add it now. Once my sister is free, you'll be the same. No matter how much I hate the idea of seeing you walk away, you'll be free to do exactly that if you still want to."

The man had taken on a hopeful look, certain that he'd found the key to getting my cooperation, but he still lived in a dream world. I hadn't been born the day before, and I wasn't brain damaged.

"No," I said again, and this time the word was harder to speak than it had been before. But the satisfaction I felt over speaking that word was acceptable to the necklace, so the emotion wasn't chased away.

"Reever, you talk to her," Ames said, leaning his head back in his chair as he closed his eyes. "I can't let her refuse me no matter what I have to do to get her cooperation."

"Listen to me, boss," Reever said, and then his hand came to turn my face toward his. Nothing of his usual sarcasm or joking was to be seen, only a kind of weariness. "We really do need your help on this, so let me put the question another way. If we promise to take that device off you now, will you first give us your word to supply the help we need?"

"Sure," I answered, doing nothing to avoid his stare. I didn't really believe that Reever was innocent enough to simply accept my answer, and he wasn't.

"Okay, let's put this a third way," he said, a hint of anger now behind the words. "Will you give us your word to help and keep your word if we take the device off?"

"No," I answered, giving him a faint smile along with the word. Once again the word had been hard to speak, but it looked like I was getting the hang of fighting while in the grip of total calm.

"Damn it, you're not even taking this seriously enough to lie!" Reever snarled, the look in his dark eyes showing how little he appreciated the effort. "If you think we're joking or just going through the motions, you'd better make yourself understand the truth. We'll do whatever we have to in order to get that girl free from the slime holding her, so you'd better come up with a way to convince us that you really will cooperate. And fast."

"No," I said again, forcing the word out past even heavier resistance. "You decided to force me to do things your way instead of just asking, and now you can pay for the mistake. Do whatever you damn well please, but don't expect it to get you what you want."

I expected Reever to grow even angrier, but it didn't happen. He stared at me for a second before pulling out the third chair and falling into it, and then the heels of both hands were over his eyes.

"Well, that does it," Reever said, the words slightly muffled. "I thought it would take longer to reach this point, but it was guaranteed that we'd get here sooner or later. Trying to break her the way I broke Lomack would be a waste of time. She isn't Lomack, and even if she did break she would be useless to us. All we can do now is kill her or let her go, and the choice is yours, Ames. You already know how I feel about it."

"Yes, I do know," Ames said in a dead voice while I wondered why Reever looked … strange. Rather than using his palms to rub at his eyes, Reever seemed to be doing nothing more than holding his hands above his eyes. As if he were watching Ames without letting Ames know…

"You made your opinion perfectly clear, Reever," Ames continued in the same dead voice, and I turned my head to see that his expression matched. "You said that if I used the device and it didn't work I'd have to kill her, that I'd have no choice but to kill her. I remember every word."

He'd been looking in Reever's general direction even though he didn't seem to have seen the other man, and then his face turned directly toward me.

"But I refuse to kill her, even if turning her loose means she kills me instead," Ames stated, his expression now bleak. "Dying will be easier than living with the knowledge of what my sister will have to face until her own death, so I might as well take the easy way out. You can give Sylvie directions to my cabin when she decides she wants to look me up."

He got up then and simply walked to the door and out, making no effort to look back at those he left behind. A moment after the door closed I heard a click, and the necklace opened and slid down into the front of the robe I wore. I felt intense dizziness for a couple of minutes, but once the dizziness passed I could see the way Reever sat and stared at me.

"He was too afraid you'd refuse to simply ask," Reever said, a defeated expression in his dark eyes. "He never got to know you as well as I did, so you can't blame him for making the mistake. Desperation does ugly things to otherwise decent people."

Having the necklace off was an incredible relief, and the whole room seemed to have spread out from the narrowness it had been. There was a couch and chairs around a coffee table to the right of the table I sat at, and closer to the table was a serving cart like the ones all liners had. When I saw a pitcher and cups on the cart I took the necklace out of the front of the robe and put it in a pocket, opened and reclosed the robe the right way, then got up and walked to the cart.

"Of course I can blame him for making the mistake, and I do," I said as I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee and added cream and sugar. "Just the way I blame you for manipulating the situation in an effort to get what you knew he couldn't. Which orbital station are we closest to, and how fast can you get me there?"

I'd turned back to look at Reever by now, and sipped at the coffee while watching frustrated anger chase consternation across his features.

"You can't be serious about letting those bastards keep the girl," he finally stated, a faint growl back in his voice. "Yes, I manipulated the situation, mostly because I knew that Ames's plan would never work. My manipulation got you free, boss, so why can't you return the favor and do the same for the girl?"

"Do you think your friend Ames is the only one in the universe with problems?" I countered, making no effort to keep the scorn out of my voice. "Are you forgetting that you and your friend had a big problem until I came along and solved it for you? I'm not the one who owes a favor, you are, and what I ask - no, demand - is that the favor be returned the way I want it done. Tell me how soon I can get off this tub."

Reever parted his lips to say something, but the words never got spoken. A beeping from his pocket interrupted, and he pulled out a palm comm and activated it.

"What do you want?" he demanded of the tiny face that appeared on the pc's screen. "I'm busy right now, so if it isn't an emergency - "

"Reever, you and Ames need to know about this but Ames won't answer the beep," the voice belonging to the face interrupted to say. "It's a report from that Federation Naval vessel that answered the broadcast we sent out to every planet and orbital station we could reach once you and Ames were aboard. We were able to intercept the report because of the way you rewired the secondary comm board."

"We told everyone in reach the coordinates of the planet that had nothing but kidnapped people," Reever said in an aside to me, intense interest now in his eyes. "I want to know what happened, so I'll be back with you in a minute." Then he returned his attention to the pc and nodded his permission for the man to continue.

"The naval vessel was nearby, but it wasn't the first ship on the scene," the man on the pc reported while I wondered about the rewiring Reever had done. "A big private ship had gotten there first, and it was a damned good thing the private ship had armament. A smaller private ship had shown up right after the first one, and the smaller ship tried to destroy the transport that everyone was being ferried up to. Someone on the transport had been smart enough to put up screens in between loads of people, so when the second ship opened fire the transport was only slightly damaged. Then the first ship did its own firing, and the second ship was wrecked."

"I'll bet that second ship was sent by the bastards behind the whole Gralling mess," Reever growled, fury in the words. "We should have known they'd pull something like that to keep what they did quiet… So what did the sons of bitches on board that second ship have to say to the navy?"

"They didn't have anything to say to anybody," the man on the pc replied. "When naval personnel boarded their ship they found nothing but dead bodies, and the damage the ship had sustained had nothing to do with the bodies being dead. At first no one knew what was happening, and then another contingent of naval personnel landed at that headquarters place to find that everyone who had worked at the headquarters was also dead. One of the workers from down on the planet reported hearing a funny sound just before the headquarters workers fell over."

"They were all given a compulsion!" Reever snarled, and suddenly the report had a lot more of my attention. "Anyone who had the least amount of possible knowledge was fitted up with a compulsion that stopped their hearts if a certain chord was sounded. Now there's no one left who can say of their own knowledge that those bastards were involved!"

"Except for you and Ames," I just had to point out, drawing Reever's immediate attention. "Or, at the very least, just Ames, since he not only saw the people involved he said he talked to them. Is it likely that they'd cover everyone else involved and not do the same to you?"

"Nothing was done to me because I didn't see or talk to them," Reever denied with a headshake. "But you're right about Ames, and we're going to have to take care of the problem before he and I go after those bastards."

"The captain of the naval vessel said in his report that he thinks the attacking ship would have gone after the people on the ground after destroying the transport," the man on the pc put in. "He recommended that no effort be spared to find out who was behind the situation on Gralling, and I'll bet that his recommendation is taken."

"Big deal," Reever growled, obviously still wrapped in heavy anger. "The owners of that planet are a matter of record, but all those bastards have to do is say they had no idea that their planet was being used like that. With nothing in the way of witnesses left to call them liars, they're bound to get away with it! Is there anything else you need to pass on?"

The man on the pc must have shaken his head, because Reever grunted and then broke the connection. I'd been sipping my coffee while fighting an inner battle, the kind of battle I was used to winning. I did have to get free from these people and continue on my own way, but I'd promised myself something down on Gralling. After all the pain and misery and death I been thrown into the middle of I'd promised myself that the ones responsible for what had been done to me and everyone else would pay, but I'd been expecting the authorities to hand the bill to the lice on Gralling's "committee." Now, though…

"How long will it take us to reach Kedrick?" I asked, abruptly no longer interested in inner battles. "I know someone there who can get the compulsion out of Ames."

"Why would you care?" Reever came back, heavy anger still twisting him around. "Or is Kedrick O.S. the place you intend to catch a ship elsewhere? I thought you were willing to take any orbital station - "

"That's enough," I said, letting some of my own anger show. "There's no longer a chance that those bastards of yours will be taken care of by the law, so now it's up to me to even the score. I've had to take too much crap in my life until now, but from now on there's no reason to take any more. I'm going to get those people, and if you behave yourself I might even let you help me do it."

"You've changed your mind about going after them?" Reever said, his tone suggesting he wasn't quite up to believing in anything that good. "You'll help us free Ames's sister?"

"Reever, I know Ames can't stop thinking he can free his sister, but you'd better get more closely in touch with reality," I said after taking an impatient breath. "Chances are good that the girl isn't even alive any longer, and if she is still alive she's probably been changed beyond recognition. People like the ones behind the Gralling mess don't keep those in their power untouched, and I'm not talking about simple rape. There are things that can be done to people that are a lot worse, up to and including bringing the girl around to their side and against yours and Ames's. If you can't - or won't - understand that, I'll be better off going after those people alone."

"No, you don't have to do it alone," Reever said very quietly, tragedy in the dark of his eyes. "I've been keeping up hope for Ames's sake, but not because I really believe there's anything to hope for beyond Elli's death having been fast and easy. What do you want to do first?"

"As I said, get us to Kedrick," I answered, relieved that Reever was back to his usual practical self. "The person I know isn't exactly a legal practitioner, but that doesn't matter. When he's sober he's better than all the rest who still have their licenses."

"I'll get our heading changed," Reever agreed with a nod as he stood and started for the door. "And while I'm gone, it won't kill you to eat something. You're skinny enough already…"

I closed my eyes for a moment as I shook my head, but I had no complaint coming. Using this ship and the people on board would make the coming hunt easier, but if I hadn't had so much of a burning need to start getting even with everyone who thought they could take advantage of me…