The Moth and the Flame
A Yoelin Thibbony Rescue
By Tyree Campbell
At an outdoor café in Rodheim on Zarzamura, Yoelin Thibbony settled onto a white wicker chair and awaited the arrival of her latest client. Already she had inspected the meeting site and its surroundings—Rodheim stood athwart a wide creek, and the café fronted the south bank—and had ordered coffee and rolls. She was still smarting from the serving girl’s response of, “Very good, mum,” to her order. At thirty-three, Yoelin scarcely thought of herself as old enough to qualify for mumhood. Her long hair, black enough to have blue highlights, had yet to issue a single gray strand, and not the slightest wrinkle betrayed her smooth, pale tan skin. At the moment, she was wearing just a puff of cosmetic foundation; a touch of eyeliner accented her gray eyes. Mumhood, she snickered, as the shadow of the serving girl fell over her.
“Will there be anything else, mum?” the girl asked, after delivering the order.
Yoelin sighed, smiled faintly, and shook her head. A moment later, while she stirred cream and sugar into her coffee, she returned her attention to the boardwalk that passed in front of the creekside shops. Although Zarzamura’s white dwarf sun shined almost directly overhead, marking lunch time, as yet few people had come to patronize the various eateries. She wondered whether they were deterred by the cool weather—she herself was wearing a dark blue outsuit made of flannel—and by the prospect of rain later in the day. Most of the cafés had indoor options where patrons might retreat to finish their meals. But four people? She counted again to be sure. Yes, three men, one woman. None paid her the slightest attention.
Sensing the approach of the appointed time, Yoelin glanced at her Palmetto on the table top. Her eyes widened just a little as she realized her client, one Ellis Darden, was already two minutes late. In their previous communications, punctuality had been emphasized on both sides. Swiftly Yoelin looked around her for signs of anything amiss. Making planetfall left her vulnerable to location and entrapment. Lately those fears had begun to erode—she had just spent almost a month more or less in one place, posing for Stefan Coppenrath, the artist—but they had not vanished altogether, and she doubted they ever would. Vigilance remained her watchword.
So where was Ellis Darden?
She knew what to look for: a corpulent man of her own height, which was a meter eighty-three, with a round and florid face made larger by a receding hairline that he refused to correct with follicular stimulation. What hair he had was reddish brown. In their two preliminary visual communications, he had worn clothing that coordinated with that hair. She saw no one about who even approximated that description.
Two of the men got up and left, leaving a few crumpled thalers on their table. Yoelin watched them until they reached the main path of the village and turned to pass out of sight. She gave them a full five minutes; when they did not reappear, she shunted them to the back of her mind.
Ellis Darden still had not shown.
At a quarter past the hour Yoelin gathered herself, deposited money for the bill and a tip, and started to get up. A flash of movement in the gap between the café and the next kiosk caught her eye, and she turned to see Ellis Darden stagger out and totter toward her. She caught him as he spilled against her, and eased him onto a chair.
His head lolled. Bloody saliva drooled from the corner of his mouth and onto his copper-colored outsuit. Automatically Yoelin searched for a wound in his upper torso, and found it just above his left collarbone when she nudged his collar aside. It looked like a knife wound, but there was relatively little blood.
Unable to catch his breath, Darden made weak sounds as he wheezed. “Nome,” Yoelin heard, and, “Sing.” And finally, “Addusion.” With that, he stopped moving, and stopped breathing.
Already Yoelin was looking around her for any sign of who might have done this to him, her fingers locked around the butt of the Kreisler Energo at her right hip, ready to bring the sidearm to bear if need be. The only other people on the boardwalk—the man and the woman—were regarding her with expressions of horrified curiosity. The woman scooped up her Palmetto and began to speak into it.
Yoelin had no choice now but to flee before authorities arrived on the scene. She dug out her own Palmetto and spoke quickly. “Abby, there’s an open field fifty meters west of my position. Dock down there now, please,” she said, hoping her computer was not in an argumentative mood today.
Yoelin gave Darden’s body a once-over, but turned up nothing of interest except his communication device, which she confiscated. Then she dashed off to the nearby field, where the black and ultramarine Sequana, her spaceskiff, awaited her arrival. She scrambled up the extruded ramp, ordered Abnoba to secure the skiff and get her into null-space, and made for the bridge.
Safely ensconced in N-space, Yoelin relaxed in the port captain’s chair on the bridge, and stretched her legs. Even with the internal temperature set at a mild 290K, she felt warm, and considered whether to change from flannel to some lighter fabric. But she recognized the topic of attire as a diversion, to keep her from thinking about the events that had just transpired on the boardwalk in Rodheim.
Seeking to engage her in a Rescue, Ellis Darden had been murdered while trying to meet with her. He had set the arrangements in Rodheim, though it remained unclear to her whether he in fact resided there, or even on Zarzamura. He had indicated to her that she was to look for someone—a vague task that failed to interest her until Darden pointed out that the individual in question had not been seen or heard from for a good three months. But he’d given her neither name nor gender, explaining—again vaguely—that he had concerns about being overheard.
Slouched in the chair, Yoelin gazed up at a monitor. “Abby, where are we?”
“Physically or metaphysically?”
“Abnoba,” sighed Yoelin.
“The Sequana is in null-space in the vicinity of Zarzamura. You did not specify a course, so I set none.”
“Metaphysical? Belay that. Run through Records and find out where Ellis Darden was staying, or living, on Zarzamura.”
“He was not staying or living on Zarzamura.”
Yoelin’s dark eyebrows arched. “So quickly?”
“It was an easy search. There is no one of the name Ellis Darden on the planet.”
“I should have guessed he might use an alias,” she muttered. “All right, Abby, expand the search to include the worlds of Corporatia.”
“There are eight such individuals. Give me a description.”
Yoelin did so.
“None that match.”
The response disquieted Yoelin on several levels. It meant, for one thing, that Ellis Darden would be virtually impossible to trace unless she somehow acquired more information to work with. For another, it meant that her best source of advice on how to proceed was Dannik Exeter, Director of Corporatia Security, and her former boss. The drumming of her fingers on the console said that she did not relish the prospect of a meeting with him.
On a third level, Abnoba’s response suggested sinister forces at work. Someone had killed Ellis Darden. One of two possibilities, therefore, was true: either the killer had not known Ellis Darden’s true identity, in which case the killing was probably random, perhaps a local thug seeking loot; or the killer had known it, which meant that a motive had existed for Darden’s removal from the equation, whoever he was, and whatever that equation might be. It also meant that the same motive might engender action against herself, for the killer might not know what Darden had already revealed to her.
Yoelin felt a chill between her shoulder blades.
“I haven’t even accepted the Rescue,” she muttered, “and already someone wants to kill me.”
Even as she said it, she knew it was untrue in one respect. Whatever the Rescue involved, she would decipher it and carry it out. Ellis Darden had died under her auspices. She might have paid closer attention to his security concerns, and arranged safety for him. Now she owed him; it was that simple.
“Abby,” she said, getting to her feet, “I’m going for a shower. Set a course for Providence and get us going.”
“Do you want me to raise Paul Wroclawski?”
Yoelin had already taken two steps aft. Shocked by the question, she spun back around. “What? Why?”
“So he can watch you bathe again.”
Yoelin rolled her eyes. “Abby, that was just for . . . never mind. No, don’t raise him.”
“Shall I restore him to your ‘do not raise him under any circumstances’ order?”
“Ye gods,” said Yoelin. Memories flooded her, of the kind young man who had arranged her liberation from her career as an adolescent courtesan, and without taking advantage of her himself. They had spent three months together; on the last day she realized he had fallen in love with her. But the relationship was impossible; he was the son of a corporate hierarch, trapped in an arranged marriage from which the only acceptable relief was the occasional contact with a sexual substitute. Yoelin had been his first such . . . and, she rather supposed, his last. He had a kind heart that his needs could not overwhelm.
Over time she had managed to shunt him aside with most of the rest of her dark past, forcing herself to forget him. But his name had cropped up during a recent Rescue, and they had communicated; she had been in the stateroom shower at the time.
“No,” she whispered. “Let him be.”
“But before you said you never wanted to—.”
“Abnoba Jane!” snapped Yoelin, her contralto now harsh. “Let it be. Is that clear?”
She stalked off toward her stateroom, Abby’s stiff “Clear” ringing in her ears.
In the stateroom, Yoelin fairly tore off her outsuit, wadded it, and slammed it against a bulkhead. It dropped onto her bunk, and she flopped down beside it, still fuming. For some time now, she had allowed Abnoba to develop her own personality, and it was beginning to dawn on her why she had done so: she was not just alone, she was lonely. With a personality, however abrasive or querulous, Abnoba was at least someone to talk to. The recent interlude with Stefan Coppenrath had assuaged some of her loneliness—but it could not endure, for he continued to regard her more as his Muse than as his lover. Moreover, she was the zephyr to his oak. He would stay in one place, while she might never find hers.
Abnoba’s mention of Paul Wroclawski reminded her once again of what was possible and yet impossible. Not for the first time did the notion of killing Paul’s shrew of a wife cross her mind. But it was violence she might entertain with impunity. She could kill someone—had killed on several occasions—but not as a specific, planned action. She had even come to regret one or two of the deaths, although not to such an extent that they affected the way she carried out her Rescues. But she could not—would not—kill Paul’s wife.
With a sigh that was a dark mix of frustration and sadness, she dragged her fingers through her long black hair, and shucked it forward over her shoulders. It took an effort to stand up and divest herself of undergarments. She trudged toward the shower, engaged the voice-controlled temperature, and started to step inside when she paused, head tilted to one side, thinking.
She had seen something. Distracted by her mood, her computer, and her past, it hadn’t registered, but now it was clamoring for attention. A spot . . . no, a smear. Dark red, now that it had dried. A smear of blood.
Darden’s blood. On her outsuit.
She marched back to the bunk, snatched up the wadded garment, and opened it up. There, on the right sleeve. She recalled that Darden had clutched at her arm as he fell. There must have been blood on his hands. Presumably it was his own.
She had something to give to Dannik Exeter. If he could identify it . . .
She hummed as she returned to the shower.