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HOENIX

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 4
 

Aramis yawned and stretched lazily, his feet dangling off the end of the short bed. Despite the firmness of the mattress, and that he was longer than the bed itself, he had slept peacefully and felt reasonably rested. After he had showered and groomed his fur, Thorne had stretched out on the bed to relax before finding something to eat. Despite his hunger, sleep enticed him and he hadn't resisted.

His slumber hadn't been without dreams. He had dreamed of a lovely red wolf in a soft white dress, with a red scarf about her neck and a yellow flower tucked behind her left ear. She stood at the bottom of a large underground shaft of rock with walls carved in relief of canine kings. She sang softly in words that echoed in the chamber and moved her hands in the air as if to accentuate her message. A bright beam of light shone down from the high ceiling beside a falling river of crystalline sand that fell into a circular pit ringed with fitted stones in a knee-high wall. Thorne walked down stone steps carved around the perimeter of the shaft.

The vision of beauty beckoned him to join her, and when he had reached the bottom and moved to her side, they had touched their fingers, entwined their tails and nuzzled one another gently. He felt calm and peaceful, and the soft scent of cherry blossom perfume was strong in his memory. They hadn't kissed, but nuzzled and touched in gentle caresses as she sang.

When he finally awoke, Aramis could remember neither the song nor its words. As he lay in the small bed contentedly, he mulled over the dream and tried hard to burn it into his memory so he wouldn't forget it. He couldn't remember who she might have been to him, nor even her name, but he felt certain it was a remnant of the elusive memories somewhere in his mind. He didn't feel she was merely a phantom of a random dream, but felt strongly that he had really known her.

Some time later, the grey wolf sighed and finally sat up. Dwelling on the dream hadn't satisfied his hunger and his stomach was making rude noises at him. He stood up, walked to the small water closet, and then reached for his clothing that hung from the shower curtain rod. He felt of the material and was satisfied they had dried completely during his sleep. They had been dirty from travel and he had washed them in the sink after he had cleaned his fur in the shower. He would need more than one set of clothing and decided to buy some the first chance he got.

He dressed quickly and fluffed up the fur of his right cheek that had flattened during his nap. Without a watch, he didn't know how long he had slept, so he opened the window shutters and peered out into the alley. From the position of the shadows on the ground below, he surmised that it was late afternoon and was confident he should have no trouble getting something to eat at this time. He looked around the room to make sure everything was in order and then opened the door after slipping into his cloak. He stopped abruptly and gripped the doorknob. Sitting on the bench seat right outside his door was the coyote he had seen in the hotel lobby, dressed in baggy purple pants and a white tank top. He looked up from the paperback novel he had been reading and gave the wolf a smile as he stood up.

“Good afternoon,” he said with a slight accent.

“Hello…” Thorne replied cautiously, locking the door behind him.

“May I speak with you a moment?” the coyote asked. “My name is Goro Harada.”

“Not now,” Thorne answered. “I am on my way out to eat.” As if to validate his words, his stomach growled loudly.

Harada chuckled and gestured toward the stairwell. “If you don't mind a little company, I can talk as you eat,” he said.

Thorne sighed. “Very well, then. After you.”

Harada instantly recognized his companion's caution by not letting him behind him. With a nod, he led the way down the stairs and was pleased when the wolf followed him into the small hotel restaurant. Dark wood paneling covered the walls and ceiling, but the indirect lighting in recessed grooves in the upper walls kept the place well illuminated. The room was practically deserted, but they took a table in the corner anyway.

The coyote kept his silence as Thorne picked up a menu from the table and began to look it over. A short beagle in a cook's apron came through the kitchen's swinging door and whipped a pencil and a small notepad from his pocket. “Tyler?” Harada asked, “Where's Lady Margaret?”

“Hi, Goro,” the beagle said with a smile before turning to face Thorne with a short bow. “She had to leave early today, so I'll be taking your orders instead.”

“What happened?” the coyote asked. “Did she trip and drop more dishes?”

“No,” Tyler said with a chuckle. “Calvin's principal called again. It seems he deliberately set fire to the science classroom again.”

“That's three times this term!” Harada exclaimed with a shake of his head. “Either that boy's going to be a pyromaniac or a mad scientist when he grows up. His father should—”

Thorne brought his hand down hard on the table, making Harada and Tyler jump. They both looked over at his look of impatience and the beagle cleared his throat. “Uh, right then,” he said. “What can I get you from the kitchen?”

Thorne picked up his hand from the table and revealed an old golden coin. “How much of a meal will this cover?” he asked in a low voice.

Tyler's eyes grew wide with a wagging tail as he reached for the gold, but Harada snatched it up first. “Hey!” the beagle complained.

Harada closely examined both sides of the coin and then whistled in surprise. He held it out to Tyler and then looked over at the wolf as the cook took it from his hand. “Where'd you get this?” he asked in amazement. “Is this the same thing you gave the desk clerk this morning?”

Thorne narrowed his eyes at him, but didn't reply. He looked back at the beagle when he set the coin back down on the table. “I am sure this would cover everything in the kitchen,” Tyler said, clearly impressed, “but we aren't set up to handle this kind of currency.”

The wolf sighed. Eating would have to wait a little longer, it seemed. He pocketed the coin and then got to his feet. “Where is the nearest exchange?” he asked.

Tyler gestured toward the front door. “There is a bank two blocks to the left outside our door, but I don't know if they can help you.”

“Isn't there an antique shop near there?” Harada asked the beagle.

“I think so,” Tyler replied.

“I will try the bank first,” Aramis said. “I will be back to eat shortly.” Harada started to get up, but Thorne shook his head. “You can wait for me here,” he told him as his stomach growled again. “I will be easier to talk to once I have eaten.”

The coyote sat back down and exchanged glances with Tyler. “Right, then,” he replied.

Ten minutes later, Thorne stepped up to the door of the Eastland Street Bank and then went inside. The lobby was small. There were only three teller windows on the left side of the room and two loan offices on the right. Two of the windows were busy with customers so he walked to the third. A pretty Border collie looked up at him with a smile, but the expression faded when she took a good look at him.

“Ohmigosh!” she said aloud. She backed away and hit a button; metal shutters came down quickly to block the opening. The other tellers looked over at him suddenly and then shut their own windows in a panic. One of the other customers grabbed his money and ran out the front door, while the other, a rotund orange cat, merely fell back against the counter, his knees week and his eyes wide in fear.

Thorne narrowed his eyes in frustration, but made no move to accost anyone. Instead, he turned and walked back to the door without a word, his hands in plain sight of the frightened manager who watched him from behind the safety of his office door.

When he stepped back outside in the late afternoon sun, he sighed and looked up and down the street. He wasn't angry with anyone and he hadn't intended to rob the bank as everyone seemed to think, but he was getting awfully tired of the apparent fear he presented everywhere he went.

Who had he been to invoke such responses?

He half-expected guards to come out of the bank after him, but no one seemed to be moving inside, no doubt because they could still see him through the glass door. He tried to ignore the rumbling in his stomach and began walking.

Moments later, he looked up at a fluttering brown cloth banner that hung from the doorway he approached. Antique Trader declared the sign in gold letters. Hoping against hope, Thorne opened the shop door and stepped inside. Small jingle bells on the inside of the door announced his arrival, but he saw no one behind the glass counter. He assumed someone would come out of the back momentarily, so the wolf decided to look around.

Most of what he saw appeared to be little more than junk, but that was the thing with antiques. The items were probably valuable to somebody, or had been at some point in time. He saw ornately carved wooden flutes, chipped cups and saucers, jewelry, paintings, old slateboard units and lamps. Inside a glass case was the preserved tail of a ringtail cat attached to the back of a cloth belt. He assumed it had belonged to a pure human wishing he'd had a tail of his own. No Fur would wear something like that.

He picked up a blue and white nautical captain's hat and placed it on his head. If he was supposed to have been a captain, perhaps he should get it. He walked over to a wood-framed, full-length mirror and looked at himself.

“While I would love to sell that to you,” a voice said from behind him, “I don't think it really suits you, sir.”

Thorne turned to look at a short badger wearing a short-sleeve plaid shirt over black pants, with a pair of round-rimmed glasses on his nose. He smiled at the elderly proprietor behind the counter and removed the hat from between his ears. “I think you're right,” he admitted in a pleasant tone. “People who wear them generally look stupid.”

“Some folks can wear them just fine,” the badger countered with a grin, “but mostly I have seen them worn by tanker skippers and freighter captains. So, how may I help you this afternoon? My name is Tavish.”

Thorne walked over to the counter and then pulled one of the gold coins from his pocket. He set it on top of a red velvet mat next to a pencil and a small pad of paper. “I have a few of these,” he said, “and wondered if they were of any value.”

Tavish picked up the coin and examined it with interest. He made a few grunting noises, but Thorne couldn't quite make out the guy's attitude. The badger took the coin to a lighted magnifier at the end of the counter. He held the coin beneath its light and peered at it closely.

“My, my…” he said after a moment, sounding impressed.  “I didn't think I would see one of these in my lifetime.”

“You recognize it, then?” Thorne asked.

“Just about anyone in this city would recognize the image on the coin's reverse side,” Tavish explained. “It is a depiction of our planet and its two moons, Tomalos and Chelan.” The names stirred some memories for Thorne, and they sounded right. “They've been stamped upon every major coin on this world ever since the Terran Furs first colonized here, but I have never seen the images on a coin from the early days.”

“How old?” Thorne prompted.

“Three hundred years, I would guess,” Tavish muttered as he turned the coin over to examine its other side. He didn't see the wolf's nod of agreement. Thorne had found them in an ancient city, so their approximate age hadn't exactly surprised him.

“I can't read the symbols, but the image on the coin's face is interesting… interesting indeed…” the old badger continued.  “I would probably have to do some research, but if I am not mistaken, I think this is King Chaaq, first true ruler of Hoenix.”

Thorne looked at him sharply. Hoenix had been the name that had surfaced in his memory when he had seen the city in the sun. Until that moment, he hadn't been sure that it was the actual name of the place, but now he had no doubt.

“I won't ask you how you came in possession of this,” Tavish said in a quiet voice without looking up, “but knowledge of the existence of Hoenix has been long sought-after.” He nodded to himself and then switched off the magnified lamp. He held the coin in one hand and silently weighed it against his fingers. “You said you had more?” he asked with genuine interest.

“That's right,” Thorne admitted. He pulled more coins from the pockets of his breeches and gently set them on the velvet mat. Tavish licked his lips and then set the coin in his hand on the counter next to the other nine.

“I tried to exchange them at the bank down the street,” Thorne said, “but…”

“You were not successful. I'm not surprised,” the badger scoffed. “Most banks wouldn't know the exchange rate for such a rare coin. That you have ten of them is a tremendous find!”

“I never got to show them to the bank,” Thorne muttered. “They closed up their windows as soon as they saw my face.”

The badger wrote down a figure on the paper pad on the counter and then realized what his customer had said. He squinted through his glasses and leaned toward the wolf. “Captain Thorne!” he said with a sudden intake of breath. The short proprietor dropped his pencil and backed away from the counter until he was up against the display case behind him.

Aramis sighed and leaned casually on the counter. “Relax, mister,” he said with an amused expression. “I am here for your expertise. Just do your job.”

Hesitantly, Tavish took a tentative step toward the counter. “Wh-what do you want of me?”

“I am here to sell these coins, if you will have them. I need usable credits.”

The badger swallowed. “Please don't hurt me…” he said in a quiet voice.

Aramis stared at him for a long moment, but there were no wisps of recognition here. “Have I hurt you before?” he asked in an emotionless tone. The old guy shook his head slightly. “Your family, Mr. Tavish?” Thorne pressed further. Again, the badger shook his head. Aramis gave him a patient look and then stood up straight. “Give me no reason to do so and you'll be fine.”

The proprietor swallowed again and then picked up his pencil from the countertop. He gave Thorne a furtive glance, marked out the number he had written earlier and wrote another one below it. “T-twelve hundred credits for each of your coins,” he said nervously. “That's ©12,000 for the set, but I don't have that much cash on the premises. I will have to run down to the bank.”

Aramis plucked the pencil from the badger's hand and shook his head. He leaned over and circled the number that had been marked through. “Nine hundred fifty credits for each coin, as you originally figured, Mr. Tavish. ©9,500 for the set will be satisfactory.”

The badger blinked twice and stared at the note pad. He licked his lips and then looked up at Thorne with appreciation in his eyes. “Are you sure?” he asked in a near whisper. Aramis nodded quietly and then Mr. Tavish heaved a sigh of relief. “Right, then,” he said in a business-like tone. “If you will wait for me, Captain, I will jaunt down to the bank and make a withdrawal for you.” He locked the coins in his register and picked up a small briefcase from under the counter.

“Mr. Tavish.”

“Yes?”

“Tell no one,” the wolf said with a low rumble in his voice.

The badger saw the look in Thorne's eyes and nodded. “Not a word,” he reassured him. “I will be right back. The bank is only a few doors from here.”

Tavish pulled a floppy hat from a hook on the wall behind the counter and then departed through the front door with a jingle of tiny bells. Aramis put his hands into the pockets of his trench cloak and idly walked around the small room, again examining the oddments scattered about the counters and shelves. Inside a glass case was a pair of throwing knives with alabaster hilts, very similar to the handgrip of his pistol. Each had a blade the length of his hand with a tooled leather scabbard lying beside it.

As he looked into the case, the glass reflected movement behind him. Moving nothing but his eyes, Thorne saw a red fox and a terrier slink by the storefront window. They hadn't seen him; their attention was up the street in the direction that Tavish had gone. The expressions on their faces told Aramis they were up to no good, and as soon as they had gone, he moved across the room to the door and picked up what looked to be two heavy wooden bowling pins from the floor.

Stepping outside, he draped his cloak around his shoulders, hiding the pins in his hands. He quietly watched the progress of the two guys as he leaned against the building. The fox and the canine stopped outside at the bank entrance and pretended to be engrossed in a newspaper the terrier pulled out of his back pocket. They stood there for several long minutes until the door to the bank opened again.

A lithe Irish setter stepped out with her toddler and she smiled at both when they looked up at her from their shared newspaper. The fox gave her a polite nod and then went back to his paper. The mother and her son turned and walked away along the sidewalk, but the males' apparent innocence didn't fool Aramis.

Several minutes later, the door opened again; the terrier put away his paper. Mr. Tavish stepped out with his briefcase and looked up in surprise when the fox jumped him. He tried to get back through the bank door, but the fox wrapped his arms around the old guy's shoulders as the terrier stepped up to him and put an elbow into the badger's middle.

Tavish dropped to the ground, the wind knocked out of him, and the terrier snatched the briefcase from his fingers. He and the fox ran back the way they had come, straight toward Thorne.

Aramis watched patiently as the pair of thieves approached, but when they were past him, he threw back the edges of his cloak and whipped up the bowling pins. He hurled both of them hard at the same time with both hands. One pin hit the canine just beneath his left ear and the other struck the fox near the base of his skull. Both guys tumbled to the pavement and came to rest in a heap against one another.

Thorne walked quietly to the dazed pair, picked up the briefcase, and then both pins. He nudged the stunned fox with the toe of his boot and nodded with satisfaction. He left both of them where they lay stunned and then moved quietly back to the antique shop. He set the pins and the briefcase inside the door and then went to check on Tavish.

Helping the old badger to his feet, he saw that other than having the breath knocked from him, he was okay. Tavish coughed several times and allowed the wolf to walk him back to his shop. The terrier began to stir, but he was still dazed and held his bruised head in both hands as he sat back on his tail.

Tavish locked the door behind them when they were back inside and turned a sign on the door to read Closed to face the outside. He then turned a thin rod at the display window and closed the blinds. When he turned around, Thorne leaned against the counter with the briefcase beside him.

“Thank you for helping me back there,” Tavish said gratefully as he returned his cap its wall hook. “Those two have harassed me before.”

Thorne raised an eyebrow and stared at the badger with a piercing gaze. “It was my money those two tried to steal. I was protecting my interest.”

Mr. Tavish frowned and nodded wearily. “Right,” he muttered. He pulled the briefcase around to face him and then thumbed the small dials of its combination lock. He lifted the lid and then turned it to face the wolf. Inside were several rolls of local coins, a few straps of bills and a small metal device no larger than a stubby cigar case with one end flattened into a computer interface.

“Not everyone around here trades in PA Credits, so here is a combination I thought would be helpful to you,” the badger said in a renewed business tone. “There is a thousand credits worth of bills and change in jules of local currency, with the remaining eighty-five hundred secure on the credicard.” He picked up the device and plugged it into a slateboard he pulled out from under the counter. He tapped a green button and then turned its readout toward Thorne, who could see “Credit Balance: ©8,500” on the display screen.

“Excellent,” Aramis said with a nod as the antique dealer unplugged the credicard and handed it to him.

“Good,” Tavish replied. “Your personal code is 90215.”

Committing the number to memory with a nod, he took the cash from the briefcase and divided it up among the pockets of his shirt and breeches. “Captain,” Tavish said after a moment, “if you… acquire… any more of those coins, I know someone who might have an interest in buying them – likely at a higher price than I can afford myself. I know a gentleman who has in interest in all things related to the Hoenix civilization. He lives on Earth, but has contacts here in Castelrosso.”

Aramis looked up at him and twitched an ear. “I will keep that in mind,” he said in a neutral tone. “I appreciate your help, Mr. Tavish.”

“Glad to do business with you, Captain. Please let me know if I can do anything more for you.”

Aramis glanced around the room and his eyes fell upon the glass case he had peered into earlier. “How much for those two throwing knives?” he asked.

Mr. Tavish brightened at his words and moved quickly to the case. “Those are very fine quality antiques.” He sounded as if he were in awe of them himself. He pulled them out of the display rack and set them in a tray on top for the wolf to examine. “They're made of Damarian steel from Hestra, and will retain an edge even under a lot of abuse.”

Thorne picked up one in his left hand and was surprised at its weight. It had a good balance and he had to resist hurling it toward the opposite wall just to watch its flight through the air. He tested its edge with a ginger fingertip and found it remarkably sharp. He set it down and picked up its brother. A brief examination gave him the same impression of its quality.

He looked down at the badger as he set it back down in the tray. “Very good,” he said. “How much?”

Tavish licked his lips and suddenly became nervous. “Well, they're worth a… no, they… I was, uh, I mean…”

“Relax, old badger,” the captain said with a disarming smile, his amber eyes twinkling. “Pretend you don't know who I am and make your sales pitch.”

Mr. Tavish swallowed and nodded. “Due to their rarity and exquisite workmanship,” he said in a voice that was still a little shaky, “I really can't let them go for less than ©500 each.”

Aramis nodded and held out his credicard. “I will take them both,” he said calmly. Tavish looked at him in surprise and gratitude. He nodded with a sudden smile and took the credicard to transfer the funds. The transaction was completed moments later; Thorne slipped the blades into their scabbards and then hid the knives in separate areas on his person.

“Thank you,” Mr. Tavish said.  “Was there anything else I can get for you?”

The wolf shook his head, but then stopped.  He reached beneath his cloak and pulled the pistol from his waistband. The fear immediately returned to the badger's face, but Aramis shook his head set the gun gently upon the counter between them. “Do you have a holster?” he asked calmly.

Tavish licked his lips. Thorne had not threatened him with anything since walking into his shop, but just knowing the wolf had been armed sent a shiver down his spine. He swallowed back his fear and nodded.  “I have several,” he said hoarsely.  With a furtive glance at the firearm, he walked around the counter to a case on the far side of the room.  He picked up three holsters from a small shelf near the floor and then returned to the counter.

“One of these may fit,” he offered.

Thorne picked up his automatic handgun and one of the leather holsters. The fit was too deep, so he tried another. This one was too shallow, having been made for a smaller pistol, but as the final option seemed to have been made for his gun.  The leather was worn in places and could use a good cleaning, but it fit snug without binding.

“Price?” he asked calmly, strapping it around his waist. It would still be hidden beneath his cloak, but the pistol would have a better home than in his belt.

“You may have that one free of charge,” Mr. Tavish said with a smile. “If you look closely, it's not in the best of shape, but it's the only one I have that will fit your firearm.”

Aramis looked up at him. “You don't have to give away your merchandise. I'm willing to pay you for it.”

Tavish chuckled, pushing his round-rimmed glasses up onto his nose. “I appreciate that, Captain, but I'm serious. I would have likely tossed that one in the dustbin during my next inventory, so I'm not losing any money by giving it to you. Please, take it.”

Aramis gave him a smile. “Well then, I'll not refuse a generous gift. Thank you.”

“You're welcome, sir.”

His business completed, Thorne turned toward the door. His stomach was growling again and he finally had some cash in his pocket to buy enough to feed his appetite. He put a hand on the doorknob and turned back toward the badger before opening the door.

“I will remember your help, Mr. Tavish,” he said with a nod of his head.

“Have a good day, Captain. Your transactions are confidential with me.”

“Thank you.” Thorne opened the door and then stepped out into the evening sun. The fox and terrier were nowhere in sight. He didn't think either of them had actually seen him or knew who it was who had beaned them senseless, but he had no doubts they would go after Tavish again at some point to make up for the small fortune they lost today. He felt no particular loyalty to the old badger. The antique dealer was only doing his job, but he would rather not see him roughed up because of him. He decided to keep an eye out for those two.

He made his made his way back to the Crusty Barnacle without incident and then walked inside. There were a few more people seated around the tables in the restaurant than there had been earlier, and every one of them looked up at him as he entered the room. He did his best to ignore them and walked to the table where the coyote still sat.

Harada looked up at him and closed his paperback novel when the wolf sat down. “Have any luck?” he asked.

Thorne nodded quietly as he picked up a menu and gazed around the room. He saw the beagle Tyler taking the order of a female Papillion dressed in a pair of red shorts and a red and white striped top.

“Do you know everyone around here?” he asked.

Harada smiled. “Not everyone,” he replied, “but I'm familiar with a lot of the faces of those who frequent the area. That gal Tyler is talking to has been in here a number of times. I've heard her name before, but it's something I don't know how to re-pronounce.”

Thorne looked at her curiously and then back to Harada. “Her name is a tongue-twister?” he asked.

“Not really, but it's longer than she is,” Goro said with a chuckle. “I just don't remember it. I think she's a nurse.” Tyler touched the female's hand gently as he gave her a short bow and then turned away from her table. He darted into the back with his pad to put in her order. Harada gestured toward a canine Chow across the room that appeared to study each bite of his food disapprovingly. “That's Hugo,” the coyote continued. “He's an out-of-work mechanic, but a good one. If you ever need someone to work on either atmospheric or interstellar systems, I would put my money on him to go a good job for you.” He started to point out another individual just as Tyler came out of the kitchen and walked over to the table.

“Good to see you again,” the beagle said with a grin. “May I feed you now?”

Thorne looked at him in amusement and nodded. “I do believe I'm ready, Mr. Tyler,” he said in a light tone.

“Tyler Ringo,” the cook said with a chuckle as he pulled out his order pad and a pencil from his apron pocket. “I'm not a “mister” – I'm just Tyler, Ringo or Tyler Ringo, sir.”

The wolf nodded again with a smile. “Okay, Tyler, here is what you can get me.” He named off several items he had chosen from the menu and then sat back in the seat when the beagle had finished writing everything down. “Make it extra spicy,” Thorne added. Tyler gave him a short bow and then moved back to the kitchen.

Once he had gone, Harada started to point out others he knew, but Aramis shook his head. “You wanted to talk to me?” he reminded him.

Goro looked over at him and nodded with a serious expression. “That's right,” he said as if he had forgotten and suddenly remembered. “I wanted to let you know that my services are available if you need them.”

Thorne looked at him with suspicion. “What kind of services?” he asked warily.

“I'm one of the best pilots you'll find in Castelrosso,” Goro said as he straightened up in his chair. “I can fly anything ever made, aircraft or spacecraft, from any world in the Planetary Alignment, whether I've even been in one or not!”

The wolf stared at him dubiously. “That's quite a claim,” he stated.

Harada nodded, but didn't seem taken aback. “I have quite a knack for figuring out piloting controls and I've rarely ever been wrong.”

“That's interesting. Why would you think I need a pilot?” he asked. “My own pilot is pretty good,” he lied.

Goro raised his eyebrows. “Really? I thought Duster was killed when you lost the Silverthorne.”

Thorne tried to maintain a neutral expression. Duster? Silverthorne? Aramis could remember neither of these names and he was growing frustrated. Did he dare admit to Harada that he had no idea what he was talking about, or that he may not be Captain Thorne at all? The wolf was beginning to suspect that the canine skeleton in the Hoenix pit might have been the real Thorne that everyone seemed to know about. Harada apparently knew more about Captain Thorne than he did.

He might have been tempted to do something to disprove everyone's assumptions that he was Thorne to avoid further trouble, except that without even revealing his borrowed name, the tellers and customers in the bank had mistaken him for Captain Thorne, as had the proprietor of the antique shop. Until he could find an actual photograph of this Captain Thorne, Aramis doubted he would be fully convinced on whom he really was.

The wolf didn't know who Duster was, nor what the Silverthorne might have been, although he suspected it might have been a ship and Thorne had been her captain. He liked Harada, even if he had only met him a couple hours ago, and he knew that he needed a friend. Without his memories, a friend could be handy indeed. However, could Harada be trusted with the truth?

Tyler returned with a tray of food, sparing Aramis from a quick decision. The coyote graciously let him eat and remained silent even after the cook returned to the kitchen. The wolf had to force himself not to make a spectacle of himself. He felt as if he wanted nothing more than to bolt down his food as quickly as possible.

Fifteen minutes later, Aramis pushed away his empty plate and reached for his glass. He glanced over at Harada, who had entertained himself by reading his novel. He was about to speak when Tyler approached the table.

“Was everything satisfactory?” he asked.

Thorne nodded and said, “The portions were smaller than I would have liked, but the food was excellent. You're a good cook, Tyler.”

Ringo grinned widely and gave him a short bow. “Thank you very much, sir. If you like, I can make you another order, free of charge.”

Harada glanced up from his book in surprise. So did Thorne. “I appreciate the offer,” the wolf replied cautiously, “but why would you do that? I can pay for the food I eat.”

“Because I want you to know that if you're in need of a cook for your ship, I want to sign up.”

Thorne looked at him strangely and then shot a quick glance at Harada. “For my ship…” he muttered. Tyler nodded and continued to smile at him. “Why would you want to sign up to my ship? Do you even know who I am?”

Tyler and Harada both chuckled at the same time. The beagle continued grinning as he leaned in close to the table and lowered his voice further. “I've heard the rumors,” he said. “Everyone thought you were dead, but now that you're back in Castelrosso, some think you're about to start a war.”

The wolf was finding it harder to keep surprise out of his eyes. “Start a war…” he repeated.  “Who do you think I'm out to fight?”

Tyler gave him and wink and then sat down in the seat opposite him without bothering to ask permission. He put his elbows on the table and leaned forward with that ever-present smile. “Well…” he began with a glance at Goro, “I would wager it's Randon. It was one of his men who boasted that you were gone for good.”

Randon… Aramis mulled over the name. Something about it seemed familiar, but nothing surfaced. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a bill of local currency, and then set it on the table in front of the cook. “Where is Randon?” he asked in a low voice.

The beagle flashed another grin at Harada and quickly palmed the money. “I knew it!” he said excitedly. He leaned forward conspiratorially and lowered his voice further. “He's no longer on Brandt. He and his crew launched from the spaceport two days ago for a rendezvous on the mainland before heading to Earth, but the scoop is he will be back in Langlop's Outpost over on Lone Island in four months. I figure that if you're going to prepare to fight him when he gets back, you'll need a cook on your ship. I have other skills besides cooking that could come in handy,” he added in a whisper. “I'm fairly versatile. Let me crew with you.”

“Me, too!” Harada interjected. “I want in.”

Aramis stared at Tyler long and hard for several minutes. The beagle's smile began to fade and he started to get up. Thorne held up a couple of fingers and motioned him to sit back down. Until he knew more, the wolf decided to play along.

“I don't have a ship,” he said quietly, “but I will consider your requests if the situation changes and I find myself in command.”

Harada nodded and replied, “Tyler and I know several others who would jump at the chance to work under your command, Captain. All you have to do is say the word when you're ready and we'll help you hire a crew.”

“Right!” Ringo agreed. “You can depend on us!”

Thorne gave both of them a dark look. “Say nothing to anyone,” he said with an underlying growl in his voice. “I don't want anyone else coming to me for a job unless I have something for them to do. I will choose to trust you two with this for now. If I find a way to get my chance at Randon, you two will get your chance if you don't cross me.”

Harada sat back in his seat and nodded soberly. “Nobody crosses Captain Thorne,” he quoted. “As Tyler said, you can depend on us.”

Aramis returned his nod and then looked over at the beagle. Ringo replaced his grin for a serious expression and merely gave the wolf a nod of his own.

“Very well, then,” Thorne said and he sat upright. “Tend to your lady's needs across the room and I will accept your offer of another round of food. Extra spicy.”

Tyler glanced over his shoulder at the Papillion and saw that she had been trying to get his attention to refill her drink. He flashed a wide grin to her and then gave Thorne and Harada a quick bow before he stood up and left.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Goro asked the wolf. “You said you didn't have a ship, but if there's anything else I can help you with, don't hesitate to ask.”

“If I need something, where do I find you?” Thorne asked before taking a drink from his glass.

“I have a room here at The Crusty Barnacle, same as you,” the coyote replied. “I'm in room fourteen.”

“Convenient,” Aramis commented with a twitch of his ear. “Tell me something.”

“Anything you wish to know,” Goro answered.

“Tyler said that there are rumors going around that I'm back in town. I have only been in Castelrosso a few hours, so how is it that everyone seems to know about me?”

Harada leaned closer again and replied, “Five fennecs were found out on the plains two days ago by a passing private aircraft and brought back to the spaceport. They said you had accosted them and took their supplies. According to them, you were heading toward Caplan Pass into Castelrosso. Since Randon's lackey had already claimed to have killed you, word of your return has spread quickly.”

“How easily details get twisted. I asked the fennecs for water and they jumped me; I merely fought back.” He mused for a moment and looked at his companion again. “Does Randon know?”

“I don't think so,” Goro replied. “The Cliffhanger was gone before the fennecs got back with their story.”

Cliffhanger?

The coyote looked at him oddly. “Randon's ship.” Thorne didn't respond to his expression, but just nodded and drained the rest of his glass.

“May I ask you something?” Harada queried.

Thorne gave him a steady gaze with his amber eyes for a moment before responding. “I am not open to revealing my thoughts right now,” he said carefully, “but go ahead and ask your question.”

Goro swallowed. The wolf's piercing gaze made him uncomfortable. “What did Randon do to you?” he asked quietly. “Despite all the boasting this guy made, no one could get him to detail just exactly how he had supposedly killed you.”

Aramis thought about that for a moment. He wanted an answer to that question as well. Even with the sporadic memories that seemed to flicker in his mind, he had no recollection of an actual fight. Everything prior to waking up in the pit was a mystery. He looked up at the coyote and shrugged his shoulders. He decided to give him a small bit of the truth.

“I don't remember, exactly,” he told him as he peered into his empty glass. “I woke up three days ago in a… uh, among the mountains with a pounding headache and bruises all over. I don't remember the fight itself, but they must have hit me hard enough for them to think I was dead.”

“How do you feel now?”

“Stiff, sore and in need of some exercise,” Aramis admitted, “but still well enough to fight if someone tries me.” He looked at a clock on the wall and frowned. “I need to buy a few things before the shops close, basic supplies and several changes of clothing. I've lost everything and have to start from scratch.”

Harada sat up straight and pulled a small ink pen from his pants pocket. He grabbed a paper napkin from the table dispenser and then looked up at the wolf. “Tell me what you need and I'll get them for you.”

Thorne hesitated, but then nodded. He named off the things he wanted, including items of personal hygiene for grooming his thick fur, and was about to give the coyote his clothing sizes when Tyler returned from the kitchen with another tray of food. “If you will get those things for me,” he said of the items already listed on Goro's napkin, “that will get me started. I need some extra clothes, but I will need to try them on myself first. I always seem to have trouble getting the tail-flap to fit right.” He reached into a pocket for his money when Tyler set three plates on the table, but Harada held up a hand.

“You don't have to trust me with your money,” the coyote pilot said as he stood up. “I'll pay for these things myself and then you can reimburse me when I bring them to you.”

Thorne looked at him thoughtfully and nodded. “Very well, then. If I am not in the hotel by the time you return, hold them in your room until I send for you.”

“Right, Captain,” Harada said with a smile. He patted Tyler on the shoulder and then departed to attend his task.

“Is everything all right?” Tyler asked as the wolf watched Harada cross the room. He filled the captain's glass from a pitcher on his tray and then set it on the table next to a plate of food.

Thorne looked over at him and nodded. “You two have given me some things to think about,” he said as he reached for his fork. “It looks like I have some careful planning to do.”

The beagle glanced at the clock on the wall and wrote down something in his notepad. He ripped out the page and set it on the table. “My shift ends in an hour,” he said. “If you need anything, Captain, this is the number where I can be reached. I live in an apartment complex just a few blocks away.”

Aramis glanced at it with a frown. “My room here at the hotel doesn't have a com unit,” he said, “but if there is a house terminal, I can—”

“I'll talk to Gus and make sure he provides you with a unit,” Tyler said with a grin. “After that coin you gave him this morning, I am sure he'll be willing to help you out any way he can.”

“Gus is the fat cat at the hotel desk?”

“Yeah, he has more fat between his ears than anywhere else on him,” Ringo laughed, “but he's basically a good guy.”

Thorne started to eat and didn't reply to the beagle's last comment, so Tyler picked up his tray and turned back toward the kitchen. Before he had taken two steps, Aramis cleared his throat after taking a drink from his newly refilled glass.

“Where is the closest library?” he asked.

Tyler looked up in thought and then smiled. “That would be the McClellan Library up on Dakota's Ridge. It's two blocks north and then six blocks to the East. You can't miss it. It's the largest building in that area.”

“How late is it open?”

Tyler frowned as he looked back at the clock. “I think it closes in a half hour. I don't think you have time to eat and make it there in time to find what you might be looking for.”

Thorne nodded. “Are there any bookstores open late?”

“There's one called Another Word across the street from the bank I sent you to earlier. I believe it stays open later.”

“Thanks,” Aramis mumbled around another mouthful of food.

“I'll leave you to eat,” Tyler said with a short bow. “Let me know if I can get you anything else.” 

*** 

Aramis looked at himself in a trio of mirrors and nodded at his reflection. He had tried on several shirts and trousers in the first clothing shop he saw and had been pleased with most of what he'd found. He doubted he could disguise his face from those who seemed to know him, but he figured that if he didn't dress like Captain Thorne, he wouldn't get as many stares. The tan desert breeches and shirt covered by a dark grey cloak was rather conspicuous, so he had chosen garments in varying shades of green, light grey or blue in light and airy fabrics. He stared at his reflection and nodded again.

He wore a pair of light grey walking shorts that had a tail flap large enough for his brush, and a nondescript, dark-green short-sleeved shirt. In addition to the soft-sided boots he had picked out earlier, he'd also chosen a comfortable pair of sandals. It hadn't been easy finding them to fit his large feet, but the Spaniel helping him had located some on a top shelf in the back that were just his size. He picked out two more pair of regular shoes to go with his other garments and then left the store after an hour of browsing.

When Thorne stepped outside, he glanced up at the evening sky and frowned. With the library already closed, he decided to visit the small bookstore Tyler had told him was across the street from the Eastland Street Bank. He hefted his garment bags over his shoulder and took his time walking up the avenue. The tropical night was cool, but comfortable.

As he approached the bookstore, a voice called out to him when he passed an alley. “Hey, mister!”

Thorne turned to see three young bulldogs that looked as if they were all barely over twenty. The trio stepped out toward him and Aramis set his packages on the ground. “Yes?” he asked with the hint of a smile.

“Hand ova yer credits and jules,” one of the canines said in a menacing tone. Thorne stood motionless and didn't do anything more than look at him with an amused expression. Two of the bulldogs looked at one another and then bunched their hands into fists.

“You 'eard 'im,” said one of them. “Empty yer pockets onto da sidewalk, rat now.”

Thorne made no move to comply, but his ear twitched at the sound of footsteps. He turned slightly and saw another bulldog rushing him from the shadows. He whirled around and snared the canine's wrists just as he lunged toward him, and then hurled him over his shoulder. The would-be assailant flew past his cohorts and bounced off the brick wall of the alley behind them, where he collapsed to the ground with a groan. Enraged, one of them brandished a knife just as another of his buddies rushed the wolf with a growl.

Aramis barely dodged the canine's fist and put one of his own in the dog's stomach for his effort, but then had to twist sideways to evade a gleaming metal knife blade that had gone for his ribs. He brought his arm down hard and drove his elbow into the knife-wielder's chest, and then lashed out at the remaining canine that had just grabbed him around the neck.

He stomped on the fellow's foot to a satisfying crunch; the bulldog yelped in pain, but didn't let go. Thorne stepped on the injured foot again and then twisted around when the guy's pain forced him to release his hold. One of the others jumped up on his back and began to bite his left ear, just as another belted him in the jaw with a fist.

Thorne growled loudly as he decked the guy in front of him with one hand and reached up for the throat of the dog on his back with the other. He whirled around quickly and the flailing legs of the guy on his back struck the first fighter's shoulders hard, knocking him to the ground. Aramis moved backward quickly as the bulldog tried to squeeze his windpipe. He slammed him into the corner of the building fronting the alley and the canine fell stunned to the ground. The knifeman got to his feet, took a quick look around at his fallen friends, and then turned to face Thorne again. Without waiting for an attack, the wolf rushed forward and slugged him hard. The bulldog's eyes rolled up into his head and then collapsed to the ground.

Aramis panted as he looked around. Those who had fallen, but were still conscious, merely looked at him with grimaces of pain. He snorted at each of them in turn and straightened his clothes before he picked up his garment bag. Thorne continued on his way, assured that none of them would come back for more.

He stepped inside the bookstore to a gentle electronic bell tone and closed the door behind him. The room was silent, the outside noises of the evening blocked out by the building's construction. Polished wooden shelves lined the walls and towered up to the ceiling, all stocked with books of various sizes and color bindings. Electronic books were the standard, but some of the worlds across the Planetary Alignment still preferred printed text. Many of the paper leaves were synthetics, though some still used wood pulp depending upon the publishing houses.

Small round tables in the center of the room displayed popular or new releases, and softly padded carpet covered the floor. Comfortable looking chairs were here and there for customers who wished to browse. Soft music turned so low as to barely be audible came from a small multimedia unit behind a compact checkout counter topped with a computer screen. An aromatic candle burned dimly beside the monitor, gently tickling Thorne's nose with its floral scent.

“Hello?” he asked. He startled himself, his voice sounding loud in the quiet of the room.

“Hello,” replied a muffled voice from a back corner. Aramis walked around the displays until he saw an elderly Siamese cat sitting on the floor amidst a stack of books.

“Are you okay?” he asked her in concern.

The feline smiled up at him and nodded. “No problems here, friend,” she replied as she slowly got to her feet. She pushed her half-moon glasses in place over her nose and then straightened her dress patterned with blue periwinkles. “I rarely get any customers this late in the evening,” she said, “so I was doing a bit of sorting to pass the time. It was easier sitting on the floor since all of these go on the bottom shelf.”

“Ah,” Aramis said with a smile.

“What happened to you, if you don't mind me asking?” she asked with a disapproving glance at his scuffed and wrinkled clothes. Aramis frowned and shrugged his shoulders.

“I was jumped outside your store a moment ago,” he replied as he held up his garment bag. “I guess they wanted my new clothes, but I didn't want to part with them.”

She looked at him over the top of her glasses. “Are you okay?” she asked. “Your ear has been bleeding.”

“I am in better condition than they are,” he said in a quiet voice as he gingerly touched the ear one of the bulldogs had bitten. She stared at him hard until he began to fidget and then gave him a pleasant smile.

“Well then, now that you're in my store, what can I help you find?”

“Do you have any books on Captain Aramis Thorne?” the wolf asked as he absently rubbed his sore jaw.

Pursing her lips, the Siamese walked around the counter to her computer. She tapped out a few search commands and then nodded. “One moment, please,” she said. Aramis watched the cat as she walked to a shelf near where she had been sitting and then lifted up on her tiptoes. Her fingertips tapped out the spines of several books before it came to rest on one thin volume. She pulled it down and then moved to another nearby shelf. She grabbed another thin book and then moved across the room to one of the display tables near the front display window. The feline woman brought the books she had selected back to the counter and set them out for him to see.

“Both of these,” she said as she indicated the two thin books, Local Celebrities and Castelrosso Today, “only have a paragraph or two on him. If he is all you're interested in, I won't make you buy the whole books. You may read the articles here.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that. What about this one?” Aramis asked as he picked up a thicker volume, Spirits of the Sea and Sky.

“That one was released just yesterday morning,” the Siamese replied with a smile. “There's a whole chapter on him that includes his recent demise.”

“Oh really?” the wolf asked with a smile. “Is your database that detailed on new books?”

“No, but I wish it were,” she replied. “I read all newly published books I receive, and I finished that one about an hour ago. It was the first one I picked up from the new shipment.”

“Speed reader?”

“Yes sir, I am,” the feline answered with a nod.

Aramis briefly fanned the pages of the book and then closed its cover. “I will take this one,” he said.

The proprietor nodded and then moved to her register. “If you don't mind my asking, what's your interest in Thorne?”

“Just curious about his background.”

“No one knows much about him – he was fairly secretive about his personal life, but that one should cover what is known about him. That will be ©15.” Aramis handed his credicard to her and thumbed through the largest book. He stopped at the tenth chapter with the title, “Captain Aramis Argent Thorne”. There was a fuzzy photo of a sleek, flying wing starship with an indistinct wolf standing near the gangway on the first page under the title, but the picture was not very revealing.

“Here you go, sir,” the cat said to him pleasantly. She handed him his credicard plugged into a slateboard for him to enter his code. Once he had tapped in his number, a green light flashed once in response; the Siamese removed the credicard and handed it back to him. Thorne set the book he had purchased on the counter and she put it inside a flimsy yellow bag with his receipt.

“Thank you,” he said to her as he picked up the bag and the two smaller books. He sauntered over to one of the store chairs and sat down to read the entries in the other publications.

“Thank you for your business,” she said to him. He looked up and smiled at her as she added, “Let me know if I can be of further assistance.” When he nodded, she locked her register and then returned to her sorting at the back of the room.

The cover of Castelrosso Today sported a wide-angle photo of Castle Bay, the area of sea the mountains wrapped around as the backdrop for Castelrosso. He flipped past articles and advertisements related to local attractions. Without his memories, Castelrosso was a new place to him and he had no doubt the book could provide other information, but for now he was interested only in the paragraph the bookstore clerk had mentioned.

Near the back of the book, he found an article on the spaceport that listed long-term docking bay tenants. Most were just names, but some had small paragraphs denoting people of interest. Halfway down the page, Aramis saw:

 

“For the past five years, Platform 61 at the Minniti Spaceport has been home to the SS Silverthorne, PA Registry 65559, a Myotis-class cruiser with a crew of eight. Her captain is A.A. Thorne, a Dennieran wolf whose modified LightDrive engines are well known for outrunning the Spatial Police Force and pirates alike. Ship and crew are for hire. Contact Castelrosso-549 for business details.”

 

Aramis raised an eyebrow. The short blurb didn't tell him much about Captain Thorne, but confirmed that the individual was a wolf like himself and had owned a ship called the Silverthorne as he had recently heard. He wouldn't bother with it tonight, but he decided to check if the contact line was still open to see if he could find out more through that source. Goro had mentioned the loss of the Silverthorne and its pilot, someone named Duster, and so he doubted that Platform 61 was still assigned to Captain Thorne. Still, it would be another possible place to pick up clues to his past.

He committed the contact number to memory and then flipped through the rest of the book, but found no other mention of Thorne. He set it on a nearby table adorned with a steaming potpourri pot and then picked up the other small book from his lap. Despite its name, Local Celebrities had even less to say about him.

 

“Aramis Argent Thorne, owner and captain of the SS Silverthorne, PA65559, a Myotis-class cruiser from Brandt. He is currently residing on Castelrosso Island in the Herdantian Sea.”

 

The wolf closed the book with a sigh. He hadn't really expected much, but had hoped for more. Perhaps the larger tome would provide some details, but he would read it back at the hotel. He stood up with both small books and then walked to the checkout counter. He set them next to the register and called back to the Siamese cat. “Thank you for your help.”

“You're welcome, and have a good evening. Thank you for coming to Another Word.”

He gathered up his garment bags and then left the store after taking a quick look out the window for his prior assailants. None of the bulldogs had lingered in the vicinity, likely seeking aid for their injuries. No one else accosted him when he stepped outside, but he remained vigilant on his walk back to the Crusty Barnacle. There were plenty of people about in the evening air, but no one seemed to notice the wolf as he passed them. Castelrosso was far from quiet after the end of a standard workday. He resisted the temptation to go into a lively bar already in full swing and continued back to the hotel.

The sky was red as the sun dipped below the western ridge of mountains and a gentle salty breeze blew in from the bay. The Crusty Barnacle was located too far from the bay to be of convenience to the beaches, but he wanted to get out of his hotel room for a while. The lobby was rather small, but had several comfortable-looking chairs placed about that he might relax in to read.

As he crossed the room toward the staircase, an Afghan behind the check desk motioned for him. Aramis walked over to see what he wanted and set his purchases on the counter. “Yes?” he asked.

“Captain, my name is Jarrett Mohan. I'm the manager here.”

“Is there a problem?”

“No, no,” the canine assured him with a smile. “I wanted to welcome you to the Crusty Barnacle and wish to offer you an upgrade on your room.”

Aramis raised an eyebrow. “Appreciated. What is the reason?”

Mohan leaned forward and lowered his voice. “The coin you gave to my clerk for payment on your room turned out to be worth considerably more than the lodging you were given. I had it appraised today and was quite surprised at its value. If you would consider the full worth of the coin as payment, you may have my best suite in the hotel, paid up for a full year.”

The wolf looked amused. He had actually forgotten the coin he had given the fat cat after discovering its worth at the antique shop. “I accept your offer,” he told Mohan. “I have a few things to retrieve from the other room.”

“I can have someone get them for you,” the Afghan offered.

Thorne's expression grew dark for a moment. “No, I will retrieve them myself and then return the room key to you.”

The hotel manager nodded. “As you wish, Captain.” He grabbed a key from the wallboard and set it on the counter. “You will be in room number one, sir. It's down the hallway beside the stairs and all the way to the back. You'll be next to the pool with a nice view of the bay.”

Aramis pocketed the key and picked up his items from the counter top. He slung the garment bag over his shoulder and gave the canine a pleasant smile. “Thank you, Mr. Mohan,” he said. He took his bags to the new room and found it straight away.

He unlocked the door and pushed it open. He expected a room only slightly larger with more furnishings than the other one, but he was surprised to find a suite of rooms that was spacious and quite nice. Decorated in white wood with dark green trimming, the room was bright and the main room's bay window would let in more light when the sun was up. The front room held an L-shaped couch that faced an entertainment center and two sitting chairs with a floor lamp between them. The tan carpet looked freshly cleaned. There was a small kitchen, if he decided to cook, and a round table that would seat four. He set his book on the table and then walked to the bedroom. Inside was a King-sized bed that looked comfortable and large enough for him. An overhead fan mounted on the ceiling spun gently to circulate the air. He took his garments to a walk-in closet and hung them up in the spacious compartment.

He moved to the lavatory and saw a large, raised bathtub beside the pedestal toilet. Above the sink was an ornate shelf stocked with towels and washcloths. He looked at himself in a wall-mounted, full-length mirror and grimaced at what he saw. His clothing was wrinkled and smudged, and dirt and leaves were in his fur. There was also dried blood on his left ear. He looked like he had been in a fight, but Thorne wanted to retrieve his belongings from the room upstairs before anything else.

He locked the room as he left. A few moments later, he was up the stairs and inside room number nine. After a quick search of the room and lavatory, Thorne knelt down in the closet with his knife. He pried up the loose floorboard and was relieved to see his stashed pack was still in place. He pulled it out with a little difficulty and then strapped the pack onto his back. He worked the board back into place and then stood up. He pulled his cloak from the closet hanger and put it on as he had when traveling. It might seem odd wearing it from one room to the next, but it would conceal the pack from anyone in the lobby who might see him with it on his back otherwise. He picked up the wooden walking staff and then exited the room.

He locked the door behind him and turned around to see Harada sitting on the bench seat outside the room, just as he had earlier. A grocery sack sat next to him on the seat.

“Hello, boss,” he said with a smile.

“Hello,” Thorne replied. He felt ill at ease knowing he carried several hundred thousand credits in Hoenix gold on his back.

“You look terrible,” the coyote commented, looking at the caked blood near Thorne's wounded ear and then at the scuffed clothing beneath the cloak.

“Four dogs jumped me,” Aramis replied.

“Are you all right?” Goro asked. “What happened?”

“I'm fine, but as for the curs that attacked me, they're probably holed up somewhere licking their wounds.”

“Ahh…” mused the coyote. Changing the subject, he said, “I heard Mohan upgraded your room.”

“That's right,” Aramis said uneasily. Without waiting for further talk, he headed toward the stairs. Puzzled at the wolf's aloofness, Harada picked up the sack and followed him down the stairs and through the hallway.

Outside room number one, Thorne turned to face the coyote. “Is that my stuff?” he asked in a stiff voice. Harada nodded quietly. “Let me see the receipt.”

Goro dug in the sack and pulled out a plastic slip. He handed it to the wolf. Thorne examined it and reached into his pocket for his cash. The purchases had come to twenty-eight jules in local currency. Aramis counted out forty jules and handed them to Harada.

“Thank you for getting the stuff for me,” he said as he took the sack of items, “but I want to clean up and rest a while. I will talk to you later, Harada.”

“Oh, okay,” the coyote replied as he looked at the extra cash in his hand. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

“There is one thing.”

“Yes?”

The wolf set his staff against the door and then dug into a pocket. He removed the key to room number nine and handed it to Harada. “Give this to Mr. Mohan.”

“Right away.”

Thorne unlocked the door to his suite and moved inside quickly. He set the walking staff in a corner beside the door and then bolted the lock behind him. He then moved into the bathroom, switched on the light and closed the panel behind him before he removed the cloak. He pulled off the pack stiffly and set the heavy bundle on the floor beside the tub. The flooring in the room was tiled and he doubted he would find anything loose to hide the pack beneath, but the air conditioning vent in the ceiling looked like a temporary cache. He stood on the lid of the toilet and worked loose the grating over the vent until it came out in his hand. He was tall enough to put his head up inside the duct and examine the area. The rectangular duct was too small for anyone to crawl into, but large enough for his pack without completely blocking the air flow. Until he could secure a safer hiding place for his gold, he would conceal the pack there.

A half hour later, Aramis exited the bathroom feeling much better. He hadn't felt like having an immersion bath, but the old tub was equipped with a showerhead on a stem so he had cleaned up using the provisions the coyote had bought for him. He toweled himself dry, thankful for his double layers of fur, and then walked to the closet. He selected a pair of blue swim trunks and a large, matching blue tee shirt. He was starting to feel slightly hungry again, but didn't feel like going out. His curiosity needed satisfying, so he grabbed his book from the table and took it to one of the reading chairs with an ivy motif on a beige background. Before he sat down, however, he walked to the door that faced the pool and opened it to allow fresh air inside the room.

He glanced out at the lighted patio and saw two laughing teenage Labradors swimming in the pool. A Siberian husky lay on her stomach on a lounge chair near his door, dressed only in a pair of blue shorts similar to his own. The sun had already set, but the air was warm and pleasant. The land between the hotel and the shoreline sloped downward from the mountains so that he had a nice view of the city and the entire bay. Sparkling illumination of all colors denoted the areas of congregation, and spots of light out in the bay marked seafaring vessels.

The wolf changed his mind and took his book outside. He selected an empty lounge chair beside his room's window and then settled in to read within the light. He immediately turned to chapter ten and studied the fuzzy black and white photo of a sleek, flying wing starship that he assumed was the Silverthorne. The indistinct wolf standing near its gangway could have been him, but there was no way to tell from the grainy photograph. He was anxious to read what the book had to say about Captain Thorne, but curiosity prompted him to flip through the chapter to see if there were any other pictures associated with the article.

He turned several pages of text without actually reading them, but when he leafed past the fifth page, he stopped still. A full-color photo filled an entire page and there was no mistaking the personage. It was him. It was his picture. Captain Aramis Argent Thorne. It was like opening the book only to find a mirror.

He sat there for a long while and examined the photo, letting the realization sink in that he actually was Aramis Thorne, not just a name he borrowed from a tailor's tag found in some clothing. Finally, he closed his eyes and let his head rest against the back of the chair. The discovery lifted some of the burden of uncertainty from his mind, and while his memories still eluded him, he now felt satisfied in knowing who he was.

He still had a lot to learn about Captain Thorne, but that would come in time, hopefully the return of all his memories. His current dilemma was deciding what to do about this person called Randon who had apparently tried to kill him. He assumed the two had a history of hostilities, but unless he knew the situation between them, he couldn't know how to react. All he knew is that when Randon found out he was still alive, the faceless enemy would likely come after him again.

Aramis wanted to be prepared, but he couldn't even remember what species Random was, let alone knowledge of any weaknesses he might have. He opened his eyes and looked out toward the bay, letting his mind continue. He was reluctant to admit his memory loss to anyone. Thorne apparently had an infamous reputation, judging by the reactions that he had gotten just on this one day in Castelrosso. He likely had other enemies who would greatly take advantage of his current situation, and he figured his lifespan would be considerably shortened if word got out. He would have to be very particular with those he might decide to trust.

The wolf sighed inwardly and set his jaw. Until he knew more about the person he had been, he would have to remain guarded at all times and try to portray someone of authority. As strange as it may be, he would have to assume the identity of his own personality until it came back to him naturally.

He looked up when the two young labs swam closer and clung to the side of the pool near him. Both were looking lustily at the Siberian husky and one of them even crawled out of the water to sit on the edge.

“Hey baby,” the young canine said with a grin, “why don'cha turn over and let us see the other side of the mountains?”

The husky opened one pale blue eye and stared at the lab in annoyance. “Go back to your momma, pup,” she muttered.

“Aw, c'mon,” said the other youth. “If you're out here without a top, you must not mind others seeing you. Let us see you too.”

“Yeah,” replied the first lab. “The big wolf probably wants to see you too.”

Thorne kept his expression completely neutral when the husky's eye looked around until she spotted him in his chair with his book. Her eye widened briefly, but then she snorted and closed it again. The Labrador on the side of the pool got to his feet and walked over to her, dripping water with each footstep. He knelt down next to her lounge chair and put a hand on her fluffy tail.

Thorne was not exactly sure what happened next, as it had been so quick, but the lab suddenly splashed down in the shallow end of the pool. He hit the sloped bottom, lost his air, and came up gasping and sputtering. The husky was sitting up on her chair, her expression cold as she mentally dared the other lab to come forward to examine her now-bared chest. The youth swam away quickly to check on his friend, muttering obscenities under his breath.

 Aramis watched the exchange in amusement, but he suddenly dropped his smirk when she turned toward him. Unexpectedly, she walked over to him with a smile and then sat down in another chair beside his.

“Hello,” she said to him.

Thorne surreptitiously flipped a page of his book with a thumb to hide his photograph. “Good evening,” he replied with a simple nod.

“I would like to ask you something,” she said in a pleasant voice.

Despite her topless state, Aramis found himself fascinated by her pale blue eyes. “What's your question?” he asked.

“Are you hiring for your new crew yet?”

Thorne's eyes darkened. “A lot of people have been asking me that today,” he replied after a moment. “I have not put out the word that I am looking for a crew.”

The husky looked at him in surprise at his response. “The word out is that you're back from the dead and are without a crew,” she said. “I want to sign up. My name is Karla Crandall. I'm an experienced gunner.”

“Crandall, I have no need for a crew,” he told her. “I don't have a ship.”

“Yeah, I heard about the Silverthorne,” she replied, “but I've heard you always provide for a backup.”

Thorne stared at her for a moment. “For most things, yes, but not this time.”

“Okay, what's your agenda, then?”

“My agenda is my business,” he growled irritably.

Both of them looked up at the sound of wet footsteps. Both Labradors had crawled out of the pool and approached Crandall looking quite put out. The one she had thrown leveled a finger at her angrily.

“Listen lady, now you're gonna –”

He suddenly slipped on the wet pavement and stumbled over his own feet. He sprawled rather ungracefully onto Thorne's chair that collapsed beneath them both. The lab rolled off to the side and Aramis discovered that the wet canine's fur had drenched his open book. Several torn pages lay in puddle water and the wolf felt a growl deep in his throat.

Thorne got to his feet and grabbed the canine by the neck and shoulder. Without warning, he picked him up with both hands and then hurled him at the other Labrador. Both hit the deck hard and then slid on the wet pavement back into the pool with a splash. With another growl beneath his breath, Aramis retrieved his book from the puddle and then stormed back to his room without a look back.

The husky watched him shut the door to his room behind him with a frown, and then looked back at the sputtering dogs as they resurfaced. She gave them a dark scowl and then moved off toward her own room.

Back inside his suite, Aramis cursed under his breath as he tried to dry off his book with a towel. He daubed at the pages gently so they wouldn't tear, but the book had been open to his chapter so it had received most of the moisture damage. He grabbed the floor lamp and removed the lampshade. He plugged it in near the table over the book and then held the bare bulb close to the paper. The bulb was a low-heat variety, however, but steam rose from the pages after a time in close proximity, though it was difficult to read the pages with blending type from both sides of the paper.

Thorne growled and cast dark thoughts back toward the door that led out to the canines in the pool. He had potential information about himself that he couldn't remember there in a book before him, but he couldn't read it now.

He made sure the lamp would remain stationary and then moved to the com unit. He keyed up the number for room service and placed an order to have some food brought up to him. While he waited, he returned to his closet and changed out of his dowsed clothing.

There was a knock on his door just as he was clipping the tags off a new pair of trousers and he heard a small voice call out “Room service, sir. I have your order.” He opened the door and a short brown rabbit smiled up at him nervously. “Y-your order, sir?” she said again as she offered him a receipt.

Aramis gave her a pleasant smile and took the small slip from her hand. He dug the price from a pocket that included a decent tip and then handed it to the teen bunny. “Thank you,” he told her.

“Y-you're welcome, sir.” She looked up at him with wide, round eyes as she reached down and picked up a white paper sack on the floor at her feet. She handed it to him, but continued to stare up at the wolf.

“Yes?” he asked in a quiet tone. The doe was just a little too nervous and he didn't want to startle her, but he was starting to become suspicious.

“May I a-ask you a question?”

“You just did,” he quipped, but then gave her a nod. “What is it you wish to know?”

She swallowed and then asked, “Are you really the famous Captain Thorne?”

Aramis chuckled and put on his best innocent expression. “I'm not sure,” he said with a grin. “Everyone seems to think so.”

The edge of the rabbit's mouth curled up in the beginning of a smile and her eyes lightened up. “You're teasing me! Are you really him?” she asked again.

“What do you think?”

“You sure don't act like the Captain Thorne I've read about,” the rabbit said with a finger up against her chin, “But you sure look like his pictures.”

“What's your name?” he asked.

“Nita,” she replied.

“Well, Nita,” he said, “maybe I'm him and maybe I'm not, but I am hungry and would like to get to the supper you have brought me.”

She looked embarrassed. “Of course, sir,” she said. “Good night.”

“Good night, Nita,” replied. The bunny gave him the short bow that seemed to be a local practice, and then she turned and walked back up the hallway. He shut the door, locked it, and then took his food to the table.

Before he sat down, however, he saw a scrap of napkin on the table among the things he had removed from his pockets earlier. He moved to the com unit to call both Harada and Ringo, but was only partially successful. Goro didn't seem to be in his room, but when the beagle answered his line, Aramis spoke quietly to him for a moment before hanging up. He returned to the table and began to unpack his meal. 

*** 

An hour later, Aramis locked the door behind him and walked up the hall toward the hotel lobby. There was no one else in sight, not even the coyote. A short female raccoon tended the check desk and watched him with interest when he came in to view. He wore a pair of dark green trousers and a tan short-sleeved shirt with epaulets on the shoulders and double pockets across the chest. The wristwatch that Harada had purchased for him was a simple design in colors of silver and blue and was on his left wrist.

He walked out the front door and then looked up the street. Goro hadn't been in his room so he had arranged to meet Tyler at Cohan's Pub, a personable little place five blocks from the hotel. The Crusty Barnacle was far from downtown Castelrosso, but close enough to an entertainment district to keep folks occupied.

Although late in the evening, Thorne was unmolested on his long walk to the pub. He arrived at the door and was greeted by a dingo lass in matching jeans and blouse. Live music issued from the room and cigarette smoke filled the air.

“Hello there, stranger,” said the dingo with a smile. “Looking for some company?”

Aramis smiled down at her but shook his head. “Sorry, I am meeting someone,” he said.

The dingo winked and turned back toward the main room. She looked at him over her shoulder with a grin and said, “If you change your mind, handsome, just ask for me. I'm Lily.” She sashayed across the room to the counter and struck up a conversation with the barkeep, a rotund black bear in a white apron.

Thorne stepped into the room amidst the music and quiet conversations and looked around. The place was dark with polished wood everywhere and indirect lighting gave the place a soft glow. Lit candles were on every table, and despite the live music and a full house of customers, everything seemed quiet. No one seemed to notice him, but he detected movement against a back wall and recognized the waving hand of Tyler Ringo, the cook from the Crusty Barnacle's restaurant. He was dressed in denim jeans and a bright yellow, flowered shirt. Thorne made his way around the tables to the back and then sat down in an empty chair across from the beagle.

“Hello, Ringo,” he said pleasantly.

“Hi, Cap'n,” Tyler replied with a smile. “Thanks for inviting me to join you.”

Thorne nodded and moved his chair so that his back was to the wall. “I needed to get away from the hotel for a bit,” he said as he motioned toward the barkeep. The ursine bartender nodded and then gestured toward one of his waitresses. “What are you drinking?” he asked.

Tyler lifted his mug and took a sip of the pale amber liquid before him. “Ganisan Brew,” he said. “It's not very strong, but I like to keep my head clear.”

Thorne tilted his head slightly. “Good thinking,” he said.

The waitress stepped up to their table and Tyler's face brightened. He had served the Papillion earlier in his restaurant. She wore a casual blue dress with a short skirt and a white apron. “Dallas!” he said gleefully. “I didn't know you were working here.”

The short waitress looked embarrassed. “I needed some extra money, so I'm moonlighting. Please don't tell anyone at the hospital!”

Tyler shook his head. “No worries, your secret is safe with me.” He looked at Aramis and gestured toward him. “Dallas, this is Captain Thorne. Captain, this is Elsaniti D'allesantarino. She is a nurse at the Quantel Hospital.”

“Pleased to meet you, Captain,” she said timidly.

Thorne gave her a pleasant smile. “Nice to meet you as well, uh… Elsa…”

The Papillion grinned at him, apparently used to people stumbling over her name. “Elsaniti D'allesantarino,” she said. “Elsa, if you like, but nearly everyone calls me Dallas.”

“Well then,” the wolf said as he leaned on the table, “it is nice to meet you, Dallas.”

“What can I get you from the bar?” she asked.

“Let me try the Ganisan Brew,” he replied.

“I'll have it out to you in a moment,” she answered. She gave Tyler a smile and then headed toward the bar, her tail wagging gently.

After she had gone, Aramis sat back in his chair again and studied the others in the room. “Is she your girlfriend?” he asked the beagle.

Tyler grinned, but shook his head. “No, we're just friends,” he said. “She's treated me a number of times at the hospital.”

Thorne looked at him in amusement. “Are you accident prone?”

The beagle chuckled. “Not really,” he replied after he took a sip from his mug, “but when you're a small guy like I am, you naturally get picked on and harassed… especially when you live in the section of Castelrosso I do.”  Dallas brought Thorne's drink to him with a smile and then moved across the room to attend another customer.

The wolf picked up the mug and held it up to his nose. He sniffed the liquid and was not sure he liked what he suspected. He set the glass on the table without tasting it.

“Something the matter?” Tyler asked.

“It just occurred to me that I seem to have plenty of enemies who would take an opportunity like this to poison me,” Thorne said quietly.

The beagle looked shocked. “I hadn't thought of that,” he said with wide eyes. He looked at Aramis for a moment and then reached across the table. He picked up the wolf's mug and then took a large gulp from it. He set the glass container down and then looked back at Thorne with a solemn expression. Aramis' lips parted in amazement at what the small cook had just done.

Tyler's face took on a strange expression and he leaned forward slightly. He put both hands on the edge of the table and curled his fingers beneath his palms. Then he opened his mouth and his eyes wide as if he were trying to say something.

“Ringo!” Aramis exclaimed. He started to get up, but the beagle held up a finger. Aramis froze in a half-standing, half-sitting position and then Tyler let out a loud, drawn-out belch. Customers at other tables turned to look at them in amusement and annoyance, but then went back to their conversations.

The beagle took a deep breath of air and then leaned back in his chair, his eyes partially glazed over a silly grin. “Cool…” he wheezed, “I haven't had one that good in a long time!”

Aramis laughed and sat down in his chair. He picked up his mug and wiped off the edge where his companion had drank from and then took a sip of it himself. The amber liquid tickled his throat down into his stomach and gave his head a slight buzz that lasted only a few seconds.

Tyler looked over at him and grinned widely before picking up his own mug.

“You're either very brave,” Thorne told him with a smile, “or you're very foolhardy. How did you know my drink was safe?”

Tyler shook his head. “I didn't,” he admitted. “I was testing it for you.”

Thorne leaned forward on crossed arms and shook his head. “I appreciate it, my friend, but what if the drink had been poisoned?” he asked.

“Then I suppose Dallas would be trying to resuscitate me about now, probably without much success,” Tyler said in a serious tone. He looked at the wolf with a steady gaze, his deep brown eyes clear and alert.

“I keep finding out that there are a lot of people in this city who know I'm back in the vicinity,” Aramis said with a look around the room. “I suppose I should probably avoid public places like this for a while.” He looked back at Ringo with interest, fully realizing what the beagle had done for him. “I've been thinking about your request,” he said in a low voice. Tyler's familiar smile returned, but he remained silent. “I don't have the Silverthorne anymore, but I may be in the market for another ship very soon. If you're still interested…”

“Count me in!” Tyler said in an excited, but hushed voice.

Aramis studied him for a long while. “I think you have just proven that I can trust you,” he said in a whisper almost too faint for his companion to hear. “I have some things I would like to tell you, but not here, not now.”

“Ringo!”

Tyler and Thorne turned at once to see who had shouted. It was a large German shepherd. He pulled a long-barreled pistol out from under his black jacket and leveled it at the beagle, even as he stormed across the room. People at tables scattered, and several bolted out the front door, no doubt using the distraction to skip out on their tabs.

There was an audible click as the shepherd released the safety on his gun. He shoved its blue barrel up against the beagle's nose and snarled at him. “I warned you to stay away, you mangy cur!” he shouted.

Thorne was suddenly standing next to the shepherd, his left hand gripping the newcomer's wrist, forcing it up toward the ceiling. “Careful,” he growled with a dark expression. The shepherd glared at him, but the wolf didn't release the grip on his wrist. “Now,” Aramis continued, “what is this about?”

“Shove off, you idiot! It's not your concern!” Aramis tightened his grip, his claws beginning to break the skin beneath the guy's fur. The canine grimaced, trying not to drop the gun. “Let go of me!” he squawked. Thorne tightened his grip further, but then released the fellow's wrist. He reached up and snatched the firearm from the assailant's numbed hand before he had a chance to recover. The shepherd pulled his aching hand to his chest and glowered at Thorne. Faces around the room watched from behind tables and counters.

“Ringo's my friend,” Aramis said in an almost casual tone as he set the pistol on the table beside him. “If you're going to harm him, I will make it my concern. Now that I am involved, tell me what is going on.”

“Captain…” Tyler said in a small voice, shaken from having a gun shoved into his face.

The wolf's eyes didn't leave those of the shepherd who began to squirm under his penetrating gaze. “Yes?” he asked.

“I don't want to be shot, but Mr. Feeney has a right to be angry,” said the beagle in a subdued voice.

“Explain,” Thorne said to the shepherd.

Feeney rubbed his wrist to get the feeling back and faced Tyler enraged. “I told you to stay away from my daughter, ya little squint!” he shouted. “She's pregnant because of you!”

Tyler swallowed, but returned the shepherd's gaze. “That's not my fault! She's past legal age, Mr. Feeney, and she's just as much a part—”

“Don't give me that!” Feeney growled. “You took her innocence!”

Ringo laughed without thinking and said, “Innocence? She hasn't been innocent in years!”

Feeney roared in anger and grabbed for the gun on the table. Aramis snared the canine's arm, but not before Feeney got his hands on the firearm. There was a deafening Blam! and a cloud of blue-white smoke suddenly appeared over the table. Tyler hit the wall behind him hard, fell to the floor and began to wail.

Thorne slugged the shepherd hard across the temple and then wrenched the gun from his fingers, breaking one. Feeney went down and the wolf scrambled over him to the beagle. People in the bar were shouting and screaming. Someone knelt down next to Thorne.

“Don't move him!” ordered the figure just as Thorne was about to pick Tyler up off the floor. He looked over at Dallas and then moved back to let her work. She did a quick visual check and then unbuttoned the cook's flowered shirt.

Two ursine bouncers flanked Feeney and hefted the dazed canine roughly to his feet. They dragged him toward a back room with only a cursory glance at the downed beagle. Tyler moaned loudly and kept his eyes clenched tightly shut. Dallas looked him over with a worried expression.

“Easy now,” Thorne said in a calming voice when Tyler began to struggle from Dallas' examination. She tsk'd as she looked at his shoulder.

“Hurts… I'm dying…”

Dallas gave him a strange look. “Tyler…”

“Please, avenge my death…” the beagle gasped with a grip on the wolf's arm.

“You overgrown puppy!” Dallas snorted. “You were only grazed.”

“G-grazed?” Tyler sat up slowly and leaned against the wall, his eyes wide.

The Papillion shook her head with the hint of a smile and reached for the medical purse she had retrieved from behind the counter at the sound of the gunshot. Thorne glanced up at the wall where Ringo had been sitting. A splintered bullet hole decorated the paneling near where the beagle's left shoulder would have been. There was no splattered blood, only the slight odor of burned fur mixed in with the smell of gunpowder.

“Clear off, people!” someone grunted to the gathered crowd. “If you're finished with your drinks, settle up with the barkeep before you leave. If not, go back to your tables!”

Thorne looked up at the manager who pushed his way through the spectators. The kangaroo looked at him disapprovingly before squatting down next to Dallas. “He going to live?” he asked her.

“Yes, Mr. Arnett, it's just a flesh wound,” the Papillion replied as she pulled out a small white bag and popped it between her hands to activate the chemicals within. She placed the cold compress up against Tyler's shoulder and he hissed from pain.

“I had to have been shot,” Ringo complained. “My whole shoulder hurts!”

“You probably bruised it when you hit the floor, silly,” Dallas said.

Mr. Arnett grunted and then stood up. “What happened?” he asked Thorne.

Satisfied Tyler would be okay, Aramis got to his feet. “A disagreement got out of hand,” he replied. “I am sure you've seen a lot of those.”

The kangaroo nodded. “That I have. I think you and your friend had better clear out after you've paid your tab. I'll hold onto the other guy for a while to make sure he doesn't follow you.”

“What will you do with him?”

Arnett smiled and gave him a wink. “I'm sure my boys are already convincing him not to fire a weapon in my place again,” he said in a low voice. When he didn't elaborate further, the wolf nodded in understanding. The kangaroo wrung his hands together and then went back to the counter to talk with the bartender.

Dallas pulled out a pair of scissors and cropped the scorched fur around Ringo's wound. Then she opened a bottle of green gel and squeezed a bit of it onto a sterile gauze cloth she pulled from a sealed plastic bag. She daubed the gel onto the burn abrasion and felt her patient jerk at the touch.

“Ouch!” Tyler complained. “That stings!”

“It's just a disinfectant,” Dallas chided as she put away the bottle. She picked up a bandage and began to bind his wound.

“It still stings…”

“The manager wants us out of here quickly,” Aramis said a moment later as he helped Tyler up to his chair. He watched the nurse gather her things back into her small bag and then asked, “If you will tally our bill, we'll be out of your way back down the sidewalk.”

“You're on foot?” Dallas asked.

“Yeah, we don't live far from here,” Tyler said as he buttoned up his shirt. “Just a few blocks.” He glanced at the wall beside him and stuck a finger into the bullet hole. It didn't fit so he tried a smaller finger and promptly got it wedged in tight. Dallas set her medical purse on the counter and then pulled her order pad from a pocket of her apron.

“Seven jules,” she said. “I get off work in fifteen minutes if you want to wait for me out back. I can give you a lift back to your place.” Aramis reached into his pocket to count out his payment while Tyler tugged frantically at his finger; it was now stuck firmly in the bullet hole.

“We would appreciate that,” Thorne replied.

“Good,” said the waitress. “My car is a white Chariot. It's unlocked, so you can wait for me there.” Dallas saw Tyler tugging at his stuck finger and reached out with a smile. She grasped his finger gently and then forcibly yanked it free.

“Yeow!” Ringo exclaimed. He picked two splinters from his finger and gave the nurse a hurt expression.  She chuckled and then turned away.

Twenty minutes later, the Papillion walked out the back of the pub through a narrow hallway, past a closed door through which she could hear the sounds of shouting. One of the voices belonged to Feeney. She walked quickly outside to a small parking lot and went straight to a white, four-door convertible with finned fenders. She wasn't wealthy enough to afford an air car version that levitated on gravity repulsors, so she drove a typical ground car that ran on four solid-rubber tires. The Papillion opened the door and then eased into the seat behind the steering wheel. Ringo was already in the back; Thorne sat in the front passenger seat.

“Where to, guys?”

“I live at the Marco Porco Apartments,” Tyler said. “The captain's staying at The Crusty Barnacle. You can take us both there.”

“That's easy enough,” Dallas remarked. A moment later, the car leaped out onto the main street.

They rode for several moments before Tyler leaned forward onto the back of the front seat. “I don't suppose I was very smart back there, huh?” he said.

Thorne shook his head as he looked over his shoulder at him. “You need to learn some diplomacy if you're going to have a conversation with someone waving a gun in your face,” he said, “or have a backup plan to either defend yourself or to escape.”

“Have you ever run from a fight?” Tyler asked.

Aramis couldn't remember if he ever had or not, but he nodded anyway. “If the odds were against me and I knew I couldn't win, yes. However, all that would mean is that I would come back later with a greater advantage.”

Tyler sighed and looked up at the wolf with a crooked smile. “What's worse is that I'm not even the one who got Eibhlin Feeney pregnant,” he said. “I'm the one who introduced her to the guy who did, however.” He grimaced and held his shoulder when the car hit a rough spot in the road. “I caused you some trouble tonight, Captain, but I still want to crew with you,” he said.

Dallas glanced over at Aramis with a look of sudden realization before returning her attention to the light traffic. “You're the Captain Thorne?” she asked in a raised voice to carry over the rushing wind.

“Is there another?” the wolf asked with a smile.

Aramis Thorne?”

“That's right.”

Dallas fell silent as she drove. The wolf thought she might be reconsidering taking them to the authorities rather than to the hotel, but she stayed on her course. He could see the gleaming lights of the hotel about a block up the stretch of road.

“We appreciate your help this evening, Miss Dallas,” Thorne said when she pulled the car into the hotel parking lot. “It would be my treat in the restaurant if there's something you would like.”

“I would like that, thank you,” she replied as she shut off the engine. “Before we go inside, I have something I would like to ask you.”

Aramis could feel his hackles wanting to rise at her words.

“May I join your crew?” she asked.

Thorne briefly closed his eyes with an audible sigh and then looked down at her again. “It seems like I am going to be saying this over and over,” he muttered. “Dallas, I appreciate you volunteering, but I don't have a crew and I don't even have a ship. I lost my last one along with everyone aboard.”

The Papillion looked at him with hopeful eyes. “But… you will be getting another ship, right?” she asked. “If you're going to let Tyler crew with you, I want to also! You'll need a nurse… and someone to cook for you.”

“Hey, that's my job!” Ringo said indignantly. “The kitchen is mine!”

“Wait a minute, you two,” Thorne protested. “I'm not handing out jobs. I don't even have a car, much less a ship! I'm on foot, remember? Joining me right now would mean absolutely nothing.”

“But you're looking for a ship, right?” Dallas persisted.

Aramis sighed and looked at each of them. “Yes,” he admitted, “I will probably be looking for another vessel soon, but I haven't started asking around yet. There may not be anything available here in Castelrosso, and I might have to buy passage on a transport somewhere else just to look.”

Dallas looked crestfallen and stared at her hands in her lap. “Captain,” she said in a quiet voice, “I want to get away from Brandt, and I am willing to do anything to leave.” She looked up briefly and locked eyes with him. “Anything at all. Anything you want me to do…”

“Dallas, what happened?” Tyler asked gently.

She looked back down and clasped her hands together beneath the steering wheel. “I was a registered nurse on Mainor before the Siilv War,” she explained slowly and reluctantly, “but I was off-world at the time the Kastani destroyed it. I got involved in a bad relationship and was then stranded here on Brandt in pirate country when he got tired of me. I have… I've had to do things I am not proud of in order to survive, but I will do anything for you if you will allow me to join your crew. Anything.”

Aramis didn't say a word for a long while, but finally sighed again and looked up at the stars twinkling overhead. “All right,” he said at last, “you can tag along.”

“Really?” she asked. When she looked up at him, there was moisture in her eyes.

The wolf nodded, but held up a finger. “As I said before, this doesn't mean anything at all right now. Until I have another ship, don't quit your job at the hospital.” He looked at Tyler and added, “Don't quit yours at the restaurant, either. I can't say how long it might be before I need your services. It could be weeks or even months.”

Dallas leaned over, put her arms around his neck, and then hugged him. “Thank you, sir,” she said. “Just having the hope of someday leaving will help.”

“Me, too!” Tyler agreed.

“Just one thing,” the wolf told them. “Don't spread the word that I am looking for a crew, because I'm not! I have already been approached four times today by complete strangers, so don't encourage anyone else to look me up, okay?”

Tyler and Dallas grinned at one another. “Okay!” they both said in unison and then laughed at their blend of voices. Aramis shook his head and looked up at the stars again, wondering if he might have been better off staying in Hoenix.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.