Tales of the Grand Tour
By Ben Bova, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2004 Ben Bova
All rights reserved.
SAM AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN
I ushered her into Sam's office and helped her out of the bulky dark coat she was wearing. Once she let the hood fall back I damned near dropped the coat. I recognized her. Who could forget her? She was exquisite, so stunningly beautiful that even irrepressible Sam Gunn was struck speechless. More beautiful than any woman I had ever seen.
It was more than her big, soulful eyes. More than the almost frightened way she had of glancing all around as she entered Sam's office, as if expecting someone to leap out of hiding at her. She looked tragic, lovely and doomed and tragic.
"Mr. Gunn, I need your help," she said to Sam. Those were the first words she spoke, even before she took the chair that I was holding for her. Her voice was like the sigh of a breeze in a midnight forest.
Sam was standing behind his desk, on the hidden little platform back there that makes him look taller than his real 165 centimeters. As I said, even Sam was speechless. Leather-tongued, clatter-mouthed Sam Gunn simply stood and stared at her in stupified awe.
Then he found his voice. "Anything," he said, in a choked whisper. "I'd do anything for you."
Despite the fact that Sam was getting married in just three weeks' time, it was obvious that he'd tumbled head over heels for Amanda Cunningham the minute he saw her. Instantly. Sam Gunn was always falling in love, even more often than he made fortunes of money and lost them again. But this time it looked as if he'd really been struck by the thunderbolt.
If she weren't so beautiful, so troubled, seeing the two of them together would have been almost ludicrous. Amanda Cunningham looked like a Greek goddess, except that her shoulder-length hair was radiant golden blond. She wore a modest knee-length sheath of delicate pink that couldn't hide the curves of her ample body. And those eyes! They were bright china blue, but deep, terribly troubled, unbearably sad.
And there was Sam: stubby as a worn old pencil, with a bristle of red hair and his gap-toothed mouth hanging open. Sam had the kind of electricity in him that made it almost impossible for him to stand still for more than thirty seconds at a time. Yet he stood gaping at Amanda Cunningham, as tongue-tied as a teenager on his first date.
And me. Compared to Sam I'm a rugged outdoorsy type of guy. Of course, I wear lifts in my boots and a tummy tingler that helps keep my gut flat. Women have told me that my face is kind of cute in a cherubic sort of way, and I believe them — until I look in the mirror and see the pouchy eyes and the trim black beard that covers my receding chin. What did it matter? Amanda Cunningham didn't even glance at me; her attention was focused completely on Sam.
It was really comical. Yet I wasn't laughing.
Sam just stared at her, transfixed. Bewitched. I was still holding one of the leather-covered chairs for her. She sat down without looking at it, as if she were accustomed to there being a chair wherever she chose to sit.
"You must understand, Mr. Gunn," she said softly. "What I ask is very dangerous...."
Still standing in front of his high-backed swivel chair, his eyes never leaving hers, Sam waved one hand as if to scoff at the thought of danger.
"It involves flying out to the Belt," she continued.
"Anywhere," Sam said. "For you."
"To find my husband."
That broke the spell. Definitely.
Sam's company was S. Gunn Enterprises, Unlimited. He was involved in a lot of different operations, including hauling freight between the Earth and Moon, and transporting equipment out to the Asteroid Belt. He was also dickering to build a gambling casino and hotel on the Moon, but that's another story.
"To find your husband?" Sam asked her, his face sagging with disappointment.
"My ex-husband," said Amanda Cunningham. "We were divorced several years ago."
"Oh." Sam brightened.
"My current husband is Martin Humphries," she went on, her voice sinking lower.
"Oh," Sam repeated, plopping down into his chair like a man shot in the heart. "Amanda Cunningham Humphries."
"Yes," she said.
"The Martin Humphries?"
"Yes," she repeated, almost whispering it.
Mrs. Martin Humphries. I'd seen pictures of her, of course, and vids on the society nets. I'd even glimpsed her in person once, across a ballroom crowded with the very wealthiest of the wealthy. Even in the midst of all that glitter and opulence she had glowed like a beautiful princess in a cave full of trolls. Martin Humphries was towing her around the party like an Olympic trophy. I popped my monocle and almost forgot the phony German accent I'd been using all evening. That was a couple of years ago, when I'd been working the society circuit selling shares of nonexistent tritium mines. On Mars, yet. The richer they are, the easier they bite.
Martin Humphries was probably the richest person in the solar system, founder and chief of Humphries Space Systems, and well-known to be a prime S.O.B. I'd never try to scam him. If he bit on my bait, it could be fatal. So that's why she looks so miserable, I thought. Married to him. I felt sorry for Amanda Cunningham Humphries.
But sorry or not, this could be the break I'd been waiting for. Amanda Cunningham Humphries was the wife of the richest sumbitch in the solar system. She could buy anything she wanted, including Sam's whole ramshackle company, which was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. As usual. Yet she was asking Sam for help, like a lady in distress. She was scared.
"Martin Humphries," Sam repeated.
She nodded wordlessly. She certainly did not look happy about being married to Martin Humphries.
Sam swallowed visibly, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down twice. Then he got to his feet again and said, as brightly as he could manage, "Why don't we discuss this over lunch?"
Sam's office in those days was on the L-5 habitat Beethoven. Funny name for a space structure that housed some fifty thousand people, I know. It was built by a consortium of American, European, Russian, and Japanese corporations. The only name they could agree on was Beethoven's, thanks to the fact that the head of Yamagata Corp. had always wanted to be a symphony orchestra conductor.
To his credit, Sam's office was not grand or imposing. He said he didn't want to waste his money on furniture or real estate. Not that he had any money to waste, at the time. The suite was compact, tastefully decorated, with wall screens that showed idyllic scenes of woods and waterfalls. Sam had a sort of picture gallery on the wall behind his desk, S. Gunn with the great and powerful figures of the day — most of whom were out to sue him, if not have him murdered — plus several photos of Sam with various beauties in revealing attire.
I, as his "special consultant and advisor," sat off to one side of his teak-and-chrome desk, where I could swivel from Sam to his visitor and back again.
Amanda Humphries shook her lovely head. "I can't go out to lunch with you, Mr. Gunn. I shouldn't be seen in public with you."
Before Sam could react to that, she added, "It's nothing personal. It's just ... I don't want my husband to know that I've turned to you."
Undeterred, Sam put on a lopsided grin and said, "Well, we could have lunch sent in here." He turned to me. "Gar, why don't you rustle us up some grub?"
I made a smile at his sudden Western folksiness. Sam was a con man, and everybody knew it. That made it all the easier for me to con him. I'm a scam artist, myself, par excellence, and it ain't bragging if you can do it. Still, I'd been very roundabout in approaching Sam. Conning a con man takes some finesse, let me tell you.
About a year ago I talked myself into a job with the Honorable Jill Myers, former U.S. senator and American representative on the International Court of Justice. Judge Myers was an old, old friend of Sam's, dating back to the early days when they'd both been astronauts working for the old NASA.
I had passed myself off to Myers's people as Garret G. Garrison III, the penniless son of one of the oldest families in Texas. I had doctored up a biography and a dozen or so phony news media reports. With just a bit of money in the right hands, when Myers's people checked me out in the various web nets, there was enough in place to convince them that I was poor but bright, talented, and honest.
Three out of four ain't bad. I was certainly poor, bright, and talented.
Jill Myers wanted to marry Sam. Why, I'll never figure out. Sam was — is! — a philandering, womanizing, skirt-chasing bundle of testosterone who falls in love the way Pavlov's dogs salivated when they heard a bell ring. But Jill Myers wanted to marry the little scoundrel, and Sam had even proposed to her — once he ran out of all the other sources of funding that he could think of. Did I mention that Judge Myers comes from Old Money? She does: the kind of New England family that still has the first nickel they made in the molasses-for-rum-for-slaves triangle trade back in precolonial days.
Anyway, I had sweet-talked my way into Judge Myers's confidence (and worked damned hard for her, too, I might add). So when they set a date for the wedding, she asked me to join Sam's staff and keep an eye on him. She didn't want him to disappear and leave her standing at the altar.
Sam took me in without a qualm, gave me the title of "special consultant and advisor to the CEO," and put me in the office next to his. He knew I was Justice Myers's enforcer, but it didn't seem to bother him a bit.
Sam and I got along beautifully, like kindred souls, really. Once I told him the long, sad (and totally false) story of my life, he took to me like a big brother.
"Gar," he told me more than once, "we're two of a kind. Always trying to get out from under the big guys."
I agreed fervently.
I've been a grifter all my life, ever since I sweet-talked Sister Agonista into overlooking the fact that she caught me cheating on the year-end exams in sixth grade. It was a neat scam for an eleven-year-old: I let her catch me, I let her think she had scared me onto the path of righteousness, and she was so happy about it that she never tumbled to the fact that I had sold answer sheets to half the kids in the school.
Anyway, life was always kind of rough-and-tumble for me. You hit it big here, and the next time you barely get out with the hide on your back. I had been at it long enough so that by now I was slowing down, getting a little tired, looking for the one big score that would let me wrap it all up and live the rest of my life in ill-gotten ease. I knew Sam Gunn was the con man's con man: The little rogue had made more fortunes than the New York Stock Exchange — and lost them just as quickly as he could go chasing after some new rainbow. I figured that if I cozied up real close to Sam I could snatch his next pot of gold before he had a chance to piss it away.
So when Judge Myers asked me to keep an eye on Sam I went out to the Beethoven habitat that same day, alert and ready for my big chance to nail the last and best score.
Amanda Cunningham Humphries might just be that opportunity, I realized.
So now I'm bringing a tray of lunch in for Sam and Mrs. Humphries, setting it all out on Sam's desk while they chatted, and then retreating to my own little office so they could talk in privacy.
Privacy, hah! I slipped the acoustic amplifier out of my desk drawer and stuck it on the wall that my office shared with Sam's. Once I had wormed the earplug in, I could hear everything they said.
Which wasn't all that much. Mrs. Humphries was very guarded about it all.
"I have a coded video chip that I want you to deliver to my ex-husband," she told Sam.
"Okay," he said, "but you could have a courier service make the delivery, even out to the Belt. I don't see why —"
"My ex-husband is Lars Fuchs."
Bingo! I don't know how Sam reacted to that news but I nearly jumped out of my chair to turn a somersault. Her first husband was Lars Fuchs! Fuchs the pirate. Fuchs the renegade. Fuchs and Humphries had fought a minor war out there in the Belt a few years earlier. It had ended when Humphries's mercenaries had finally captured Fuchs and the people of Ceres had exiled him for life.
For years now Fuchs had wandered through the Belt, an exile eking out a living as a miner, a rock rat. Making a legend of himself. The Flying Dutchman of the Asteroid Belt.
It must have been right after he was exiled, I guessed, that Amanda Cunningham had divorced Fuchs and married his bitter rival, Humphries. I later found out that I was right. That's exactly what had happened. But with a twist. She divorced Fuchs and married Humphries on the condition that Humphries would stop trying to track Fuchs down and have him killed. Exile was punishment enough, she convinced Humphries. But the price for that tender mercy was her body. From the haunted look of her, maybe the price included her soul.
Now she wanted to send a message to her ex. Why? What was in the message? Humphries would pay a small fortune to find out. No, I decided; he'd pay a large fortune. To me.
Mrs. Humphries didn't have all that much more to say and she left the office immediately after they finished their lunch, bundled once more into that shapeless black coat with its hood pulled up to hide her face.
I bounced back into Sam's office. He was sitting back in his chair, the expression on his face somewhere between exalted and terrified.
"She needs my help," Sam murmured, as if talking in his sleep.
"Our help," I corrected.
Sam blinked, shook himself, and sat up erect. He nodded and grinned at me. "I knew I could count on you, Gar."
Then I remembered that I was supposed to be working for Judge Myers.
"He's going out to the Belt?" Judge Myers's chestnut-brown eyes snapped at me. "And you're letting him do it?"
Some people called Jill Myers plain, or even unattractive (behind her back, of course), but I always thought of her as kind of cute. In a way, she looked almost like Sam's sister might: Her face was round as a pie, with a stubby little nose and a sprinkling of freckles. Her hair was light brown and straight as can be; she kept it in a short, no-nonsense bob and refused to let stylists fancy it up for her.
Her image in my desk screen clearly showed, though, that she was angry. Not at Sam. At me.
"Garrison, I sent you to keep that little so-and-so on track for our wedding, and now you're going out to the Belt with him?"
"It'll only be for a few days," I said. Truthfully, that's all I expected at that point.
Her anger abated a skosh; suspicion replaced it.
"What's this all about, Gar?"
If I told her that Sam had gone bonkers over Amanda Humphries she'd be up at Beethoven on the next shuttle, so I temporized a little.
"He's looking into a new business opportunity at Ceres. It should only take a few days."
Fusion torch ships could zip out to the Belt at a constant acceleration. They cost an arm and two legs, but Sam was in his "spare no expenses" mode, and I agreed with him. We could zip out to the Belt in four days, deliver the message, and be home again in time for the wedding. We'd even have a day or so to spare, I thought.
One thing about Judge Myers: She couldn't stay angry for more than a few minutes at a time. But from the expression on her face, she remained highly suspicious.
"I want a call from you every day, Gar," she said. "I know you can't keep Sam on a leash; nobody can. But I want to know where you are and what you're doing."
"Yes, ma'am. Of course."
Easier said than done.
Sam rented a torch ship, the smallest he could find, just a set of fusion engines and propellant tanks with a crew pod attached. It was called Achernar, and its accommodations were really Spartan. Sam piloted it himself.
"That's why I keep my astronaut's qualifications up to date with the chickenshit IAA," he told me, with a mischievous wink. "No sense spending money on a pilot when I can fly these birds myself."
For four days we raced out to Ceres, accelerating at a half-gee most of the time, then decelerating at a gee-and-a-half. Sam wanted to go even faster, but the IAA wouldn't approve his original plan, and he had no choice. If he didn't follow their flight plan the IAA controllers at Ceres would impound Achernar and send us back to Earth for a disciplinary hearing.
So Sam stuck to their rules, fussing and fidgeting every centimeter of the way. He hated bureaucracies and bureaucrats. He especially loathed being forced to do things their way instead of his own.
The trip out was less than luxurious, let me tell you. But the deceleration was absolute agony for me; I felt as if I weighed about a ton and I was scared even to try to stand up.
Sam took the strain cheerfully. "Double-strength jockstrap, Gar," he told me, grinning. "That's the secret of my success."
I stayed seated as much as possible. I even slept in the copilot's reclinable chair, wishing that the ship had been primitive enough to include a relief tube among its equipment fixtures. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Tales of the Grand Tour by Ben Bova, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2004 Ben Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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