Authors: Mike Resnick
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
"Get to the point."
"The point is that the bank account the aircart computer okayed was in the name of Danny Briggs, not Dante Alighieri." Bennett smiled. "It seems that the Democracy has issued a 50,000- credit reward for you, dead or alive."
"Bullshit!" said Dante. "That dead or alive crap is for killers. I never killed anyone."
"Sure you did," said Bennett. "You killed Felicia Milan, alias the Duchess, back on Bailiwick."
didn't kill her!" snapped Dante. "The police did!"
"The Democracy says you did," replied Bennett. He smiled. "What's a poor bounty hunter to believe?"
"You're going to believe whoever's offering the money, so why are you wasting both our time talking about it?"
"I do believe you've got a firm grasp of the situation, Danny, my boy," said Bennett. "I always believe the man with the money. That could be you."
"What are you talking about?" demanded Dante.
"A business deal," said Bennett. "A transaction, so to speak." Suddenly he turned to Virgil. "Keep those hands where I can see 'em, Injun!" Then back to Dante: "Before I can get paid, I have to take your body back to the Democracy for identification, or to one of the Democracy outposts, and I think the nearest one is fifteen hundred lightyears away. That's a lot of bother."
"My heart bleeds for you," said Dante.
"It doesn't have to. Bleed, I mean."
"So what's the deal?"
"Pay me the 50,000 credits and I let you walk."
"When do you need an answer?" asked Dante.
"I'm a reasonable man," said Bennett. "If I wasn't, you'd be dead already." He looked up toward the sky. "It's getting toward noon. I'll give you until noon tomorrow. Either you hand me the money then, or I'll kill you and your pal."
"I don't like him very much."
"He hasn't done anything to you."
"No corpse is safe around him. That's reason enough." He turned to Virgil. "I'm going into the hotel now. I think it might be a good idea for you to stay where you are until I'm inside."
He turned and walked through the hotel's doorway and vanished into its interior.
"Wait-a-bit Bennett," said Dante, staring after him. "You never mentioned him to me."
"I didn't know he was in this part of the Frontier."
"Tell me about him."
"There's not much to tell," said Virgil, finally getting to his feet. "He's a bounty hunter. A good one. He's up around twenty kills, maybe twenty-five."
"Then let's go meet Tyrannosaur Bailey and get the hell off the planet before morning," said Dante.
Virgil shook his head. "You're 50,000 credits on the hoof. You don't think he's just going to let you walk just because you can't pay him the reward, do you?"
"He can't watch us forever."
"Forever ends tomorrow at noon."
"I meant that he's got to sleep sometime. We'll sneak out tonight."
"He knows that nobody comes to Tusculum without a reason. He's gone off to take a nap while you take care of whatever business brought you here. He'll be awake by dinnertime, and he'll seek out your ship and wait there until noon, just in case you're thinking of leaving."
"This is ridiculous!" said Dante. "I came here to get
from the Democracy and now they're paying bounty hunters to kill me!"
"The only difference between here and where you came from," said Virgil, "is that out here there are no voters and no journalists to restrain the Democracy's worst instincts."
"Is Wait-a-bit Bennett as good at his trade as he thinks he is?" asked Dante.
"Better," answered Virgil. "You didn't see me move when he told me to be still, did you?"
"How am I going to get 50,000 credits to buy him off by noon?"
"You've got a bigger problem than that."
Virgil nodded. "Even if you get the money, you don't think he's the only bounty hunter who reads Wanted posters, do you?"
Suddenly Dante's stomach began to hurt.
Wait-a-Bit Bennett, calm and cool,
Sips his drink by the swimming pool.
His prey appears, all unaware;
He'll wait a bit, and then—beware!
Virgil Soaring Hawk hit the roof when he sneaked a look at the poem. Here was this bounty hunter who had already manhandled the notorious Scarlet Infidel himself and was preparing to extort money from the poet in the morning or (more likely) kill him, and Dante was actually writing him into the poem.
Even worse, he gave three verses to Bennett—but of course, Bennett was the first man on the Frontier to threaten Dante's life, so Virgil reluctantly admitted that it made sense in a way.
Bennett had threatened a lot of lives, and had taken more than his share of them. Rumor had it that he'd been a hired killer before he started doing his killing for the Democracy. They said he'd been shot up pretty badly on Halcyon V, but he certainly didn't move like a man who was supposedly half prosthetic, and he never ducked a fight.
Somewhere along the way, he'd decided that it was easier to make money for not killing men than for killing them, and from that day forward, he always offered to let a wanted man walk free if the man paid him the reward. And he was a man of his word: more than one man paid the price, and none of them were ever bothered by Bennett again. (Well, none except Willie Harmonica, who went out and committed
murder after buying his way out of the first one. He refused to pay Bennett the reward the second time, and wound up paying with his life instead.)
And now Dante Alighieri had less than a day to raise 50,000 credits or somehow escape from one of the deadlier bounty hunters on the Inner Frontier.
"I can't spend all day working on the poem," he announced after giving Bennett his third verse. He put down his quill pen and got up from the desk in the corner of his room. "Let's go visit your friend."
"I've been ready for an hour," remarked Virgil.
"I had to write those verses," explained Dante. "Who knows if I'll be alive to write them tomorrow?"
"Son of a bitch doesn't deserve three verses!" muttered Virgil, ordering the door to dilate.
"Kill him tonight and maybe I'll give you four," said Dante, stepping through into the hallway.
"Mighty few people out here can kill him," answered Virgil. "And I'm honest enough to admit I'm not one of them."
"I saw what you did to those three guys in the bar back on New Tangier."
"Those were two miners and a gigolo. This guy is a professional killer. There's a difference."
"He didn't look that formidable."
"Fine," said Virgil. "
"I'm no killer," replied Dante. "I'm a poet. I can out-think him, but I have a feeling that won't help much in a pitched battle."
"Look around the galaxy and you'd be hard-pressed to prove that intelligence is a survival trait," agreed Virgil.
They reached the street and walked out of the hotel, turned right, and headed to Rex's, which was the name Tyrannosaur Bailey had chosen for his establishment.
"Anything else I should know?" asked Dante as they reached the door to the casino.
"Yeah," said Virgil. "No dinosaur jokes."
"I don't know any."
"Good. You'll live longer that way."
They entered, and Dante was surprised at the level of luxury that confronted him. From outside, Rex's seemed like every other nondescript Tradertown building. Inside it was a haven of taste and money. The floors gripped his feet, then released him as he took another step, and another. The gaming tables were made of the finest alien hardwood, meticulously carved by some unknown race, while the matching chairs hovered a few inches above the floor, changing their shapes to fit each player's form—and the players were not merely men, but giant Torquals, tripodal beings from Hesporite III, Canphorites and Lodinites and a couple of races that Dante had never seen before.
Atonal but seductive alien music filtered into the casino, and nubile young men and women dressed in shimmering metallic outfits ran the tables.
Sitting alone in the farthest corner was a huge man, easily seven feet tall, muscled like an athlete. His hair was the color of desert sand, and tumbled down to his shoulders. His nose had been broken at least twice, maybe more, and looked irregular from every angle. One ear was cauliflower; the lobe of the other was stretched enough that it was able to hold an unwrapped cigar that had been placed in an exceptionally large hole there. When he smiled, he displayed a mouthful of ruby and sapphire teeth, all carefully filed to dangerous-looking points.
His shirt was loose-fitting, which added to the impression of enormous size. Dante couldn't see his legs or feet, but he managed to glimpse the tops of three or four weapons stuck in the man's belt.
The man looked up, saw Virgil, and smiled a red-and-blue smile.
"Virgil, you corpse-fucking old bastard, how the hell are you?"
"Hi, Tyrannosaur. I've got a friend who'd like to meet you."
Tyrannosaur Bailey studied Dante for a long moment. "You're the one that Wait-a-bit Bennett is after?"
"How did you know that?" asked Dante.
world," answered Bailey. "Not much goes on here that I
"Then you know who I am and why I want to see you," suggested Dante.
"I know who both of you are," laughed Bailey. "You're Danny Briggs, a thief from the Democracy, and you're Dante Alighieri, the self-proclaimed successor to Black Orpheus." He gestured to a pair of chairs. "Have a seat. You too, Virgil."
the one who wants to speak with you," replied Virgil. "I could go spend a little money at your gaming tables, if you wish."
"You don't want to gamble," said Bailey.
Bailey shook his head. "No, you don't. What you want is to get my Stelargan bar girl into the sack while I'm paying attention to your friend."
"What a thing to suggest!" said Virgil with mock outrage.
"Virgil, the last time you were here, two of my human girls and one of my Tilarbians had to seek psychiatric help to get over the experience. Next time it happens, you pay the bill."
"It was worth it."
"That's it!" snapped Tyrannosaur. "You sit here or you wait outside. There's no third way."
"I thought we were friends."
"We are—but we're not close friends. Now make your choice."
"I think I'll get a breath of air," said Virgil with all the dignity he could muster. He turned and slowly walked out into the street.
"Have a seat, poet," said Tyrannosaur after Virgil had left the casino.
"Thank you," said Dante, sitting down opposite the huge man.
"I approve of what you're doing," continued Bailey. "That poem is all the history we've got—and there's tens of millions of us out here. It's time someone added to it. I'm just as loyal to the Frontier as all those people we left behind are to the Democracy."
Dante didn't quite know what to say except to thank him again, so he remained silent.
"Interesting friend you've picked up," continued Bailey. "They're going to have to write two or three books just to cover the new perversions he's invented." He paused. "How many verses did you give him?"
Bailey nodded thoughtfully. "Who else have you written up?"
"Not too many," said Dante noncommittally. "I'm still getting my feet wet, so to speak."
"Well, assuming you live past tomorrow, you should find it a pretty easy job."
"Being the only historian for a third of the galaxy isn't all that easy. I suspect it can be quite a burden from time to time."