Authors: Robert Asprin,Linda Evans
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Adventure, #Science Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Time travel, #Historical
Skeeter Jackson was a scoundrel.
A dyed-in-the-wool, thieving scoundrel.
He knew it, of course; knew it as well as anyone else in La-La Land (at least, anyone who'd been on Shangri-La Station longer than a week). Not only did he know it, he was proud of it, the way other men were proud of their batting averages, their cholesterol counts, their stock portfolios.
Skeeter was very careful to rub shoulders with men of the latter type, who not only boasted of large 'folios, but carried enormous amounts of cash in money belts declared through ATF at Primary (so they wouldn't be charged taxes for any money they'd brought with them). Skeeter rarely failed to get hold of at least some of that money, if not the whole money belt. Ah, the crisp, cool feel of cash in hand ...
But he wasn't just a thief. Oh, no. Skeeter was a master con artist as well, and those skills (ruthless cunning, serpentine guile, the ability to radiate innocent enthusiasm) were among the best.
So-in honor of Yesukai the Valiant and for the very practical reason of survival-he worked hard at being the very best scoundrel he could make himself. Once he'd arrived (freshly scrubbed to get the New York filth off his hide and out of his soul), it hadn't taken Skeeter long to create a life uniquely his own on a time terminal unique among time terminals.
There was only one La-La Land. He loved it fiercely.
On this particular fine morning, Skeeter rose, stretched, and grinned. The game's afoot, Watson! (He'd heard that in a movie someplace and liked the sound of it.) The glow coming in beneath his door told him Residence lights were on, not in their dimmed "night" mode. That was really the only way to tell, unless you had an alarm clock with a Pm indicator light; Skeeter's had burned out long ago, the last time he'd heaved it at the wall for rudely awakening him with yet another hangover to regret.
Showered and shaved with minimal time wasted, he dressed for the day-and the next two glorious weeks. After some of the things he'd worn, the costume he now donned felt almost natural. Whistling absently to himself, Skeeter-working hard as ever on his chosen vocation-contemplated his brilliant new scheme. And the one gaping hole in it.
Surprisingly, the station's excellent library hadn't been much help. To minimize information leakage, Skeeter had searched the computers, gleaning bits of valuable information here and there (and managing to tot up more than a week's worth of earnings against the computer-access account belonging to a scout currently out in the field). That little scam was actually worth the otherwise wasted effort, as the scout had once maligned Skeeter in public-wrongly, as it happened; Skeeter hadn't even been involved. Skeeter, therefore felt free to indulge his natural urge to cause the scout the greatest amount of distress possible in the shortest amount of time, all without leaving behind any proof the s.o.b. could use to prosecute.
Irritatingly elusive, the one piece of the puzzle Skeeter needed most just wasn't in any pilfered file.
The only place to find what he needed was inside someone's head. Brian Hendrickson, the librarian, would know, of course-he knew, just as sharply as though he'd learned it mere moments previously, everything he'd ever seen, read, or heard (and probably more-lots more), but Brian's dislike of Skeeter was La-La Land Legend. After ruling out Brian, who was left?
Just needing one more piece of expert advice, Skeeter was running out of time to find it-and had never had many friends to find it from. Well, hell, folks with his chosen vocation wouldn't have many friends, now would they? Trust just didn't come with the territory. Having accepted that years ago, Skeeter continued to mentally rummage through the list of people he might be able to ask, tossed out all scouts, most guides (Agnes Fairchild was willing-mmm, was she ever!-she just didn't know). He hesitated -- again -- on Goldie Morran. She'd be motivated, all right, and she'd probably know, too; but he wasn't about to share potentially enormous profits by confiding his plan to any of the other scoundrels who made La-La Land their permanent home. To make the score himself, Goldie-the-heartless-Morran, TT-86s leading authority on rare coins and gems, was out.
What he needed was someone who'd been there, firsthand.
Other than a handful of rich visitors who'd been through the Porta Romae multiple times-most of whom Skeeter had "liberated" from the burden of their cash and were therefore to be avoided at any cost, Skeeter finally came up with a single, qualified man in the whole of TT-86: Marcus.
A startled grin passed across his face. As it happened, Marcus was probably better suited to give Skeeter advice on this particular scheme than all the so-called experts in La-La Land. Should've just gone to Marcus in the first place and saved myself a heap of time and trouble. But he'd been embarrassed, feeling a pang of inexplicable guilt at the thought of conning his best (and practically his only) friend into helping him. Of course, he'd also have missed racking up all those on line hours against that asshole of a scout ....
By coincidence rare and somewhat miraculous, Marcus actually liked Skeeter. Why, Skeeter had not a single clue. Downtimers often came an with the strangest ideas, many of them quaintly useless, others so eccentric they passed beyond the understandable into the misty, magical realm of things like what made the gates work and what did women really want, anyway? He'd given up on both, long ago, avoiding stepping through any more gates than absolutely necessary and taking his flings where he could find them, not very discontented when he couldn't. He didn't feel proud about his ignorance; business, however, was business.
So Skeeter finished the last touches on his "business uniform" then headed for Commons to hunt down Marcus, then meet Agnes and her group for the tour.
Skeeter liked the open airy feeling of Commons. Not only did it compensate (a little) for the loss of vast, open plains of his teenage years, but more importantly, it always smelled to Skeeter like money. Vast sums of cold, hard currency changed hands here. It wasn't too much to ask of the gods, was it, that some small trickle of that vast amount fall blissfully into his deserving hands?
Theology aside (and only the many gods knew what Skeeter's was: he certainly didn't), Commons was just plain fun. Particularly at this time of year. As he strode out into the body-jammed floor, picking his way through multiple festivals and reenactments in progress, Skeeter had to shake his head and grin.
What a madhouse! There were, of course, the usual tourist gates with their waiting areas, ramps, and platforms; ticket booths for those who'd waited to arrive before deciding on a destination-fine, if you could afford the hotel bills waiting for your tour to leave; timecard automated dispensers (hooked into the station's database and set up to match retinal scans and replace the original's temporal-travel data for those idiots who'd lost theirs); and of course, timecard readers (at the entrance and exit of every gate, to scan where and when you'd already been in a desperate effort to Prevent some fool tourist from shadowing him- or herself).
There were also shops and restaurants, on multiple levels, many with entrances by balcony only; bizarre stairways to nowhere; balconies and girder-supported platforms suspended three and four stories above the floor; barricaded and fenced-off areas marking either unevenly recurring, unstable gates or stable but unexplored gates; and-the piece de resistance, multiple hundreds of costumed, laughing, drinking, quarreling, fighting, kissing, hugging, gullible tourists. With fat wallets just waiting for someone's light-fingered touch ...
Just now Commons looked exactly like the North Pole might if Santa's elves had gone quietly mad on LSD in the process of decorating the workshop. He breathed in the smell of celebration and money and grinned up at the whole, gaudy, breathtaking length of Commons, loving every bit of the craziness that always overtook Shangri-La Station this time of year.
"And what," a woman's voice said practically at his elbow, "are you grinning about, Skeeter Jackson?"
He looked up-then down-and found Ann Vinh Mulhaney, TT-86s resident projectile weapons instructor. Ann was so petite she was smaller than her teenaged son. Barely came up to Skeeter's biceps. She was, however, the second or third deadliest person on station, depending on whether Kit Carson had showed up at the range for some shooting practice most recently, or whether Ann had (since Kit's last target practice) hit the gym mats for a series of sweat-building katas and bone-pounding sparring sessions against Sven Bailey, the station's widely known Number One deadliest individual.
Skeeter felt ridiculous, towering over a woman who terrified him down to his cockles. Uh-oh. What do I do now?
Oddly, Ann was smiling up at him, like that famous painting of the Mona Lisa. Like good old Mona, Ann revealed absolutely nothing in dark, knowing eyes. The strange little smile on her lips did not touch them. For a moment, he was actually cold-sweating scared of her, despite at least a foot and several inches height advantage and a good chance at outsprinting her, even in this crowd.
Then something altered subtly and he realized the smile had just turned friendly. What does she want? Does she want to hire me to steal something, maybe, or bring her back a special souvenir as a surprise for somebody? Skeeter not only couldn't understand how Ann's husband could actually live with that deadly little viper, he honestly could find no sane reason why Ann would even talk to him.
She looked him up and down, then met his gaze. "Heard you were going through the Porta Romae."
Uh-oh. He answered very carefully, "Uh, yeah, that was sorta the plan. Me and Agnes, you know."
She just nodded, as though confirming the cinching of a wager with someone about what Skeeter Jackson was up to now.
He relaxed. Settling a wager was all right. Ann was certainly entitled to ask him questions if the answers won her a tidy sum in some bet.
But she was still smiling, friendly-like. The Christmas season, maybe? Manifesting itself in a determined "do unto others" even if it killed her?
She took the initiative once again. "So, what were you grinning about? Misadventures, schemes, and scams downtime?"
"Ann! You wound me!"
She just laughed, eyes and the twist of her mouth clearly skeptical.
"Honestly, I was just taking in all of... that."
She followed his gaze and her eyes softened. "It is; um, overwhelming, isn't it? Even crazier than last year's contest."
Skeeter grinned again. "At least I don't see any three-story, arm-waving Santas to catch fire this year."
She shared his laugh. "No, thank goodness! I thought Bull Morgan was going to fall into a fit of apoplexy when he saw the smoke and flames. Good thing Pest Control's good at putting out fires, too."
"Yeah. They were good, that day. You know," Skeeter said thoughtfully, "I think the holiday season is my very favorite time of year on station. All of that," he waved a hand toward the insanity surrounding them, "cheers a guy up. You know?"
Ann studied him minutely. "So, the holidays cheer you up, do they? Rachel's hands are always full this time of year with half-suicidal people who don't do holidays well. But with you, well, I think I can guess why."
"Yeah?" Skeeter asked with interest, wondering how transparent he'd become since leaving Yesukai's camp.
"Let's see ... I'm betting-figuratively," she added hastily, "that the holiday season is usually the closest you ever come to getting rich. True or false?"
He had to laugh, even while wincing. "Ann, with triple the ordinary number of tourists jamming Commons, how can a guy lose? 'Course I'm happiest this time of year!" He didn't add that the pain of five missed Christmases-holidays that had nothing to do with the expensive bribes his parents piled under the tree each year-were also responsible for his determined merrymaking as he caught up on all the childhood holidays he'd been alone.
Ann just sighed. "Skeeter, you are an irrepressible scoundrel." She caught his gaze, then, and shocked him speechless. "But you know, I think if you ever got caught and kicked off TT-86, La-La Land would be a lot less fun. You're ... intriguing, Skeeter Jackson. Like a puzzle; where all the pieces don't quite fit right." With an odd little smile, she said, "Maybe I ought to ask Nally Mundy about it." Skeeter groaned inwardly. Not too many people knew. Skeeter's had been a fleeting, fifteen-second sound-byte's worth of fame, timmed between a triple homicide and a devastating hotel fire on the evening news, years ago. But Nally Mundy knew. Skeeter hadn't quite forgiven him for discovering that juicy little tidbit to hound him about.
Before he could lodge a protest, though, Ann said, "Well, anyway, good hunting-whatever you're up to. See you 'round in a couple of weeks."
She left before he could open his mouth.
And Ann Vinh Mulhaney wishes one good hunting, no less. La-La Land felt like it had turned upside down.
Skeeter glanced up, more than halfway expecting to see crowds of people thronging the Commons' floor, rather than the distant, girdered ceiling.
"Huh," was his only comment.
Skeeter glanced at the gate-departure board suspended from the ceiling and whistled silently. He would have to stretch his legs if he wanted to catch Marcus before he went off shift at the Down Time Bar & Grill. But he still had several minutes' leeway until he had to catch up with Agnes for the Porta Romae Gate departure.
He picked his way cautiously through a horde of "medieval" damsels, knights in handcrafted chain-mail armor, and throngs of pages and squires, even "authentic" vendors and friars, all headed for Tournament down the newest of TT-86s active gates, the "Anachronism" as 'eighty-sixers called it after the name of the organization that used it most. It led, of all places, to North America prior to the coming of the paleo-Indian population that would eventually cross the Bering Strait and settle. two empty continents. Several times a year, hordes--masses-of medieval loons flooded IT-86, every one of them just dying to step through the Anachronism to play at war, medieval style.