Previous Chapter: Six
Summary: Love, silk, and memory, in shades of cold and dangerous blue.
Author's Notes: This is being written for cathica as part of the 2007 OT3 ficathon wendymr . With any luck it'll soon also be up on Teaspoon. For those who've maintained their interest and want to read further, here it is. As always, Dr. Who and the Whoniverse belongs to the BBC, Uncle Rusty and various other brilliant people. I earn no coin, and do this out of love.
Jack coughed involuntarily as he entered “Cheap Eats Here.”
Why can’t one dive, in the whole of space and time, avoid smelling of piss, cigarettes and stale beer, he thought, readjusting his smile while he loosened his shirt collar. It was time to go to work.
As a time agent, he’d had basic training in most of the humanish root languages, at least the ones that had survived Earth’s cyclical civilisation-ending events. He definitely knew neo-Portuguese, because anyone who’d worked assignments in the First Empire got nowhere without it. Still, he was grateful for the TARDIS’ linguistic enhancements.
Not that he needed them at the moment. The hum of conversation fell away raggedly as the clientele took in his presence. The silence wasn’t – quite – hostile, but judging by the attitude of the hard-faced and threadbare men comprising the majority of his potential audience, only weariness precluded that.
Jack wasn’t surprised; he’d chosen this bar for just that reason. He wasn’t going to find unhappy citizens in upscale dining locales, that was for damned sure. As unobtrusively as possible he marked the back exit and confirmed to his own satisfaction that the back bar area was easily accessible, too. No windows, but that wasn’t really a surprise.
Without seeming to pay attention to the watchful bar patrons, Jack moved toward the bar. He found and slid onto a stool, then caught the bartender’s eye. “D’you have ouskash?”
“How much you want?” the woman said, her initial flat-eyed gaze brightening slightly as she took in the totality of Captain Jack Harkness.
“How much will five credits get me?” he asked.
“Here’s 20,” he said. He hadn’t the slightest intention of drinking all the shots that he'd bought, but it was always good to keep a herd of glasses in front of you in places like this. For one thing, onlookers tended to assume you were a drunk waiting to happen, always a useful misapprehension. For another, you could make friends by handing out the extra drinks. And a shot glass was an effective little weapon; pitched hard into the average goon's forehead, it could dissuade him for a moment or two.
For the next 15 minutes he established himself, making sure others noticed him tossing two shots back in quick succession, then nursing the third for another 10 minutes. Now for the second step; time to look sad. He stared morosely at the top of the bar, and waited.
“So what’s got you down, Ser Serious?” The bartender smiled at him. She had adjusted her tunic so that it pulled tight across her breasts.
“You don’t want to know,” he said, knowing she would.
Jack finished the last of his third shot, and grabbed for the fourth. “I’m four systems away from where I started, down 20,000 credits and my ticket home because I believed some bastard’s story about easy living on Lizhbau, and I’m trying to figure out how to get off world with more in my wallet than pocket lint. That good enough for you?”
“Someone told you Lizhbau was good living?” The bartender snorted.
Jack shrugged, putting the fourth shot back on the bar untouched. “The bastard told me a lot of tourists on Lizhbau were looking for companionship.”
“Oh. Fancied yourself a bit of cowboy, eh?” She eyed him openly. “You got a license?”
Now the woman laughed, gravel in her throat. “You tried to work without a license? In this town? Boy, they raise ‘em stupid where you come from.”
“Yeah? Well they raise them mean here,” he said. “I tried to register uptown, and damn near got my backbone redesigned by those gorillas you’ve got as police here. What’re they called, Maldads? They’re bastards, too.” Jack turned back to his review of the bar, slackening his jaw just the slightest. “Told me to get out of town or get silked, whatever the hell that means. Swear to god.” Then he allowed himself an unwilling laugh. “Guess I can’t blame you for laughing, though. My ma’d do the same.”
He waited a second, then looked up. “Say, what’s your name?”
For a moment, her eyes narrowed. Then she laughed. “You trying to keep in practice?”
“Oh, probably. You mind?”
“Not in the least. I’m Hilda. Hilda Ghildau. You?”
“Captain Jack Harkness, at your service,” he said, letting the smile blaze as he shook her hand.
A bullet-headed regular at the other end of the bar shouted in Hilda’s direction. He caught Jack’s eye and scowled, then held up an empty stein.
“Hold on, I gotta pull a couple of brews. Be right back,” she said. He watched her grab the mug from the man, fill it and hand it back with a brief conversation. She looked over the man’s head to Jack and grinned.
Jack was satisfied; she was on the hook, if only so she could laugh at a rube off-worlder, and maybe take him home for a romp later.
He looked at his watch. This was the frustrating part. He desperately wanted to move, to act – simply to scream out, ask for answers, for help. But baldly asking Hilda or one of her customers would silence them and probably earn him a one way ticket to the street, courtesy of people who wouldn’t mind roughing him up. Patience, patience ... better an hour’s preparation than a lifetime of regret, he reminded himself with one of his old instructor’s bromides.
If he wanted to save Rose and the Doctor from whatever the hell they’d fallen into, he needed to avoid panic whilst getting his ducks – general information, plus an indirect and non-threatening call for help from potentially sympathetic natives – in a row. He was reasonably sure they weren’t dead (yet), not judging by past adventures. He refused to think about the gut-wrenching passage he’d read in the history book.
Two hours later, he’d drunk one more shot, handed a couple more to some newly-acquired bar buddies, and wandered off to the head, twice, glass in hand, to dispose of the rest and get a better lay of the land. He’d chatted and pleaded ignorance, and asked for directions, and made jokes at his own expense, and learned as much about Abela Fort’leza as one could in apparent drunken conversation.
He’d shaken his head at the vagaries of the bureaucrats who wouldn’t grant his license, routed that conversation into complaints about the Maldads, been shocked about the rotten laws that made them untouchable, disgusted and frightened at what they liked to do with young working women, disbelieving and horrified about the disappearances.
Jack knew when to break the conversation up with a song, or a quick peck on Hilda’s cheek, with another round of the rot-gut house ouskash; but he always steered the conversation back to what he needed to know, including the location of what seemed to be the city’s main prison, the number of Maldads holding it and Bohlver’s adjacent palace, court schedules and such.
When he caught Hilda looking oddly at him, he abandoned the various matters at hand and went back to flirting with her full time. He was pleased with the results; in addition to cementing his reputation as a charming, slightly self-pitying loser with the men who paid attention, he appeared to have won the right to a night’s attention from to Hilda. He could use that.
He hadn’t the slightest intention of bedding her, (Why’s that, bright boy? You think you have a chance with either of them? Is that why you want to rescue them?) but if his information fish was successful, he might have to look for help. Bartenders often knew the kind of help he’d be looking for, so keeping on her good side was good policy –
“ – you hear me? You want another before last call?”
Hilda touched his shoulder proprietorially as he brought himself back to the present. The place was still crowded, but a few patrons were starting to grab for their coats. At least those who weren’t in that sodden condition that was one room-whirl from unconsciousness.
“M’good, thanks,” he told her. “Closing up soon?” The bullet-headed regular who’d scowled at him earlier was still down at the end of the – no, wait, he wasn’t, he was three seats closer. And he was looking at Jack and Hilda.
Mother of pearl, he isn’t her man, is he? Jack had planned to pull her closer to him, but changed his mind. “If you’ve got something resembling caffeine ... I’m feeling a little the worse for wear, y’know?”
“Sure thing, cowboy.” The bartender ruffled his hair as she turned away, and he felt a split second of irritation. It was drowned in a rush of adrenaline when he saw Hilda give an all-but-invisible nod, apparently to no one in particular. Should have seen that coming, he thought. Here we go ....
One of the previously-sodden table dwellers got up and wandered over to the bar, taking a seat next to Bullet Head. The seat closest to Jack. Out of the corner of his eye, the Captain saw a second man cross the dirty floor from the other direction, walking purposefully around tables toward the bar. Toward him, he realised with the usual uncomfortable mix of elation and dread that always came over him at the engage point of any mission. Was this going to go well, or would he have to pay for help with contusions?
No matter. When locals coalesced like this on the new guy, they had things to find out, or hide. Either way, he was very close to some possible help. If he didn’t get killed. He smiled at Bullet Head, who returned the smile with an unblinking stare. So did the man beside him. Tall, where Bullet Head was squat, and with clothing that, while worn, didn’t look like workingman’s wear.
“Hey, you.” From his left, an unfriendly baritone grunt.
“Yeah?” Jack rolled his shoulders and extended his hand as he swivelled on the bar stool. Keep a hand out for friendship, and to slap down any bladed or projectile weapon ... “Captain Jack Harkness. What can I do for you?”
“You talk a lot,” the man said. He was short and skinny (That voice came from this guy?), although Jack amended that to ‘lean and muscled’ when he got a closer look at the man’s arms. He also had pale brown eyes, a tight throat, and the unmistakable air of someone who wanted to get into a fight. Not good.
“Yeah, my ma always said my gob was big,” Jack said. He kept the smile on as he stood up. Let Short and Mean notice his four-inch height advantage.
“You also ask a lot of questions,” Tall Boy said from behind him. He’d gotten off the stool next to Bullet Head, and walked over, putting himself between Jack and any access to the front door. Tall Boy’s voice was mellifluous, and the accent was definitely educated.
“Can you answer them?” Jack asked, wincing to himself at how rubbish that sounded but not turning his head, because Short and Mean merited constant eye-contact.
When Bullet Head grabbed him by the shoulders and swung him around to face the tall man, Jack willed himself not to respond with an uppercut. “Hi. Captain Jack Harkness. My question stands.”
“But you’re going to sit, if you don’t mind. Jao, make him comfortable,” Tall Boy said.
“Jao would be this muscular gentleman with both his hands on me. Who’s the ... ah ... compact one behind me – ”
The tall man smiled slightly. His voice was still gentle. “My friend, who I presume from your expression has placed his knife in the small of your back, is Salvha.
“I’m Nico.” He searched Jack’s face, but apparently didn’t find what he was looking for, and raised both eyebrows. “That’s interesting. I don't think you know who I am. And most people who ask the questions you have would definitely know me."
Jack desperately searched his memory of the quick once-over he’d done of the alarming library books. No, no major names beyond the Emperor's and the Governor’s. “I’m off-world, remember? I need –” This time his wince was visible. “Look, can you maybe ask Salvha here to pull the blade back a quarter inch?”
The Bullet Head, Jao, hissed; the first noise Jack had heard out of him. “Nico, he's Maldad. Let me and Salvha deal with him, eh?”
Jao and Salvha looked to Nico (that can’t be his name. It sounds too much like a nom de guerre) for direction. Jack decided he’d better move now.
“I need,” he said quickly, “to find out where some friends of mine might be. They came to Lizhbau with me, and they’ve disappeared. I’m afraid they’ve been taken by your Maldads, and–”
For a second, Jack couldn’t place the dry, sharp sound. By the time Hilda’s alarmed expletive was drowned out by thuds, metallic clashes, and patrons’ shouts, he’d identified it as the front door being smashed in by a battering ram.
A static roar overwhelmed the other voices with its own mechanical litany: “This establishment is under embargo; do not attempt to leave. This establishment is under embargo; do not attempt to leave. This estab– ”
“Nico!” That was Hilda, dodging around the bar and heading towards them. “Back door!”
The dry, cracking sound again, from another direction. Hilda stopped and looked over her shoulder, her dismay clear.
“Back door’s cut off,” Jack said directly to Nico, before calling to the bartender. “Hilda, back bar!”
Before Hilda could respond, an older woman sitting just off the main bar area broke and ran at the front door. Tactically it was a bad decision; the door was blocked by a confusion of uniformed figures, masked with black-visored helmets.
The air seemed to pop near the panicked woman. She collapsed, her eyes wide and surprised as blood flowered above her temple.
“Attempts to break embargo will be sanctioned. Attention: attempts to break embargo will be sanctioned. Attention: attempts to– ”
“Shit!” Jao dropped Jack, and Salvha made as if to dash towards the casualty. Jack whirled and slapped an arm across the little man’s chest. “Save it. She’s dead. Behind the bar, into the storage cellar.”
“Cellar entry behind the bar,” Jack repeated, pushing the little man in front of him and towards one end of the bar. He guessed that they had less than 45 seconds, at best, to evade the incoming forces, to disappear before things went completely pear-shaped (Why now? Why this bar? Nothing’s ever a coincidence ....)
“He’s right,” from Nico. “Go. Now!”
The four men scrambled behind the bar and Hilda, a quick study, followed them. “Get your damned heads down!” she hissed. “Over here.”
The cellar hatch was flush with the floor, and Hilda scrabbled ineffectually at the depressed handle for a desperate moment before she got purchase and tugged it open.
“ – outworld visas. Attention: present outworld visas. Attention –”
Jack filed that away, and watched as Nico forced a still-bewildered Salvha down an extremely dodgy-looking stair, more ladder than anything. Jao, for all his bulk, was more nimble.
Fifteen seconds at most now. He jerked his head in Hilda’s direction. She nodded tightly, scraped past him and slid down the ladder, not even bothering to use the rungs.
Just as Jack copied Hilda’s descent mode and used his own weight to pull the hatch shut above him, the inhuman recorded dictates stopped. He heard something new, a liquid and evil hiss followed by the sound of falling bodies. Not good; he didn’t like his timing to be quite so accurate, especially when he didn’t know what was happening to make it so.
He took as much stock of his new surroundings as he could in near complete darkness. There was undoubtedly a light, but Jack was willing to forgo it for the moment. The space smelled the way any bar store room did; years of spilled booze and the old wood it spilled onto. Jack smelled stone underneath that, from the floor, and felt the cool of it in an unseen wall close to his shoulder.
“Does the hatch lock?” he whispered, turning to where he thought Hilda was.
“Not from the inside,” she whispered back. “But we can pull the ladder down. That might slow them.”
“No.” That sounded like Nico. “No, they'd just jump down, and we'd have no way to defend ourselves. We need to run. Hilda, is there a way out?”
“Well, there’s the delivery lift. We could try that, push off the grate, but the lift’s been broken for months, so we’d have to haul ourselves out, and that's eight feet ....” She trailed off, and there was silence until Salvha, his baritone oddly querulous with fear, asked "Why're they here? The Maldads, why are they here?"
“Very possibly because they want me,” Jack said softly. “Or at least they’re looking for offworlders. (I will not think about how they might be treating offworlders they already have.) and I fit the bill.”
“Hilda, where does the lift come up?” Jao asked.
“On the south side of the building.”
That was far from the front door, Jack thought, running over his reconnaissance trips to the head. And it was almost equally far from the back entrance, if he wasn’t mistaken. It was worth a try; the Maldads might not have figured on a third exit, and they’d also be busy going through the people upstairs.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he said. “Hilda, where’s the lift?”
As quietly as possible, they followed Hilda’s voice. The lift area was small, but open to the sky, save for the sidewalk grille. It would have admitted a fair amount of light during the day. Tonight, it provided a lessening of the dark.
“Who checks?” Hilda was admirably calm, given the fright he could hear in her voice.
“I’ll do it.”
“You will not,” Nico rejected Jack’s offer. “Jao. Check.”
They made room for the big man and he reached up to grab at the grille's iron rungs then hoisted himself up to look through it as well as he could without actually pushing it aside. After a moment he dropped back to the floor.
“Can’t see anyone, but dislodging the grill could attract attention.”
“We’ll have to chance it.”
The next four minutes turned into a tense and silent cooperative effort as Jao and Jack somehow slid the grate out of place almost silently, and eased it down into the store room, then boosted Salvha, Nico and Hilda up onto the sidewalk. They pulled themselves out, all the while waiting for the shout that heralded discovery, capture and failure. It didn't come.
Once they had all regained their feet, Hilda looked at Nico. “The bolt hole.”
The tall man nodded. Even in the dark, Jack could see the weariness in his eyes. “You. Harkness. Come with us.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
“Be careful of what you hope, Ser Captain. Jao, watch our backs. Let’s go.”
Sometimes being in poorly lit slum areas came in handy. Shadowy streets made for excellent anti-Maldad camouflage, Jack thought. Now all he had to do was convince his unexpected companions to help him.
Easy peasy, eh, Captain? He bared his teeth in a mirthless grin. The dark hid it, and he followed Nico further into the night.
To Chapter Eight