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Rita King needs rest and relaxation. Lots of it. She heads to Harmos. Old Earth blues and jazz clubs, fresh seafood, and best of all, Rose’s Bath House. When Rita finds Rose unconscious and bleeding Rose will say only one thing: ”They’re back.” The next day Rose disappears. Join Margarita King as she faces a deep-seated fear to uncover the secret of the mysterious “they.”
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Books By Charley Marsh
About the Author
Margarita King settled her sleek, bullet-shaped ship into Wayland’s docking bay with smooth assurance. She released a relieved sigh and shut down the engines when the dock’s cradle gently snapped onto the hull of the Junkyard Dog with a soft thud.
She sat for a moment, unmoving, listening to the pings and ticks of cooling metal—the sounds of the ship settling around her. This was something she did every time she shut down the Dog’s engines. A pilot could tell a lot about their ship by the way it shut down.
Did it stutter and lurch? Or sigh and gasp and shudder? Or did the engines quietly, smoothly, cease running?
Margarita prided herself on keeping her ship in top-notch form. She knew the small, fast ship inside and out, had crawled through its guts numerous times, and could dismantle and rebuild every component on it by herself.
Few of the Specialized Pilots took the time or made the effort to learn their ships as thoroughly as she had. It wasn’t that the others were lazy—they just weren’t interested. They only cared about the flying.
Margarita cared about surviving. If she didn’t, she would be dead by now.
She took a moment to examine that ugly truth. At some point she knew she would have to return to Mars Base and find the people who had sabotaged her ship and then sent her out to die.
But not today. Today she was about to visit one of her favorite cities on one of her favorite planets. The place she always came to lick her wounds and recharge her soul.
She released the belt that held her to her pilot’s chair, stood and stretched. Her backbone cracked with loud pops in the now silent cabin. The body-molding, gel seat was as comfortable as a seat could possibly be, but after long hours of immobility even it became uncomfortable.
With her arms stretched over her head, she touched the ceiling of her cabin. At six foot, two inches tall, she could look most men straight in the eye. A dainty miss she was not.
She groaned and folded her upper body down until her head touched her knees, then stood again and shook the kinks out of her arms and hands.
Are we here?
A triangular shaped face and ears, like that of an Old Earth large cat—a tiger, or a lion perhaps, popped up over the edge of an open waist-high drawer, a makeshift berth for her new cabin mate.
“We sure are. Check it out, Darwin. Have you ever seen an ocean before?”
Margarita’s companion, a telepathic shadow-creature she had rescued on planet B4629 and named Darwin because of his bizarre looks, hopped out of his drawer and raced over to her.
She examined his movement critically for any lingering sign of the broken leg she had set and was pleased to see none. He looked like a normal, frisky youngster.
Darwin’s chunky dog body had two tails—one short and curly, one long and feline. Coupled with his cat face he made an odd-looking creature—a creature that made her smile.
She scooped him up in her arms, smoothing his gray, wiry fur, and carried him to the ship’s clear nosecone. Darwin’s amber eyes were bright with curiosity and his long tail flicked and curled over her arm.
The city of Wayland, backed by the rose-purple peaks of the Maxima Mountains, stretched before them along the crescent-shaped shore of the Columbia Ocean. The turquoise blue ocean sparkled with reflected shards of sunlight. Fishing boats of all sizes plied its waters, some heading out, others docking to unload their catch of the day.
The planet Harmos had two moons, so the vast ocean, which covered ninety percent of the planet, had several daily tides, and Wayland’s citizens fished around the clock, depending on which guild they belonged to—either the Day Fishing Guild, or the Night Fishing Guild.
Different species were active at night than during the day in the ocean; larger, more dangerous species: species that were considered delicacies, were in great demand, and commanded astronomical prices.
The Night Fishing Guilders justified much higher prices for their catches because of the great demand and the extra dangers they faced. It wasn’t uncommon for a night fisherman to go out and never return. Survivors told tales of monsters rising from the deep and capsizing even large fishing vessels.
In spite of this, openings in the Night Fishing Guild were fiercely fought over.
None of that mattered to Margarita. She liked to eat fish, but had never been out on a boat. She found the ocean beautiful and loved the city built of ivory-stone that lined its shore. Rose-purple mountains, ivory city, blue ocean—Wayland was a feast for her eyes after long weeks spent in the dull black and gray of space.
Besides the fishing industry, Wayland was also a popular stop-over spot for weary travelers in need of fresh food, sunken hot-tubs, and live music. Margarita intended to partake of all three.
“I think a hot bath at Rose’s is in order first, Darwin. Then fresh fish at Twilda’s Fish Food. You’ll like that I know. Twilda does a mean spiced fish.”
Margarita’s mouth watered just thinking about Twilda’s. She turned away from the window and hurried back to her bunk through the neatly put-together ship.
The design of the Junkyard Dog’s interior had been based on the ancient sailing ships of Old Earth. Not an inch of space was wasted. Numerous cabinets and drawers fit together as exactly and tightly as a fingernail to a fingertip.
She pulled her spare bodysuit from the narrow closet at the foot of her bunk. Specially knit from gossamer fine spider-silk threads that were stronger than steel, the suits had protected her from harm on more than one occasion. She would have Rose clean both of them while she bathed.
She held the spare suit to her nose, sniffed and grimaced. It had been too long between cleanings.
Other than Margarita, only Rose was allowed to handle her bodysuits. The suits had cost her several year’s wages apiece, and were highly coveted by other pilots. They weighed next to nothing, but protected her body from the elements and any weapons attack. She never left the safety of her ship unless dressed in one.
Placing the spare mud-brown suit in her backbag, she set the ship’s alarm and paid the dock master for one week’s worth of berth.
The alarm would electrocute anyone who tried to break into the Dog while she was away. An extreme measure perhaps, but Margarita believed in protecting what was hers.
Without a ship she would be stranded. Just another landlubber—a fate worse than death for a woman who had spent the first fifteen years of her life dreaming of piloting a ship, followed by seven grueling years of studying and testing before she had been handed the controls.
She had been ecstatic when she graduated top of her class and signed on with the Mars Base Red Barons—an elite group of deep space pilots who enforced galaxy law—but the last nine years had been as grueling as her training years. Maybe even worse.
The competition among the Barons was fierce and often ugly. She stayed on top because she never let up with her studies and training.
None of that mattered now. Since the sabotage of her ship she no longer belonged to the Red Barons. She had repaired her ship, renaming it the Junkyard Dog to reflect her new attitude, and had started a new chapter in her life as an independent pilot.
Just what this chapter in her life would bring she didn’t know. Hopefully it would be less harrowing than her time in the trobium mine.
“Right now, Darwin, I need a bath and some of that rest and recreation I told you about. Let’s go.”
Darwin trembled with excitement, his head swiveling side to side as he tried to see everything they passed on their way to Rose’s. Margarita kept her arm wrapped tight enough around his body to keep him from jumping, but not so tight that he complained.
She had been astounded to learn firsthand that the cuddly little shadow-creature morphed into a scary-mean, deadly fighter when angered.
Darwin had saved her life once, and she felt reasonably confident that he would never attack her. Still, she was careful to be gentle with him. One did not poke a gatorsnake with a stick if one wanted to live—a lesson every child learned early on.
Rose’s Bath House lay on the mountain side of the city, partway up the foothills and away from the bustle of the waterfront, close to the hot springs that erupted from the volcanic Maxima Mountains.
Rose’s great-grandfather had constructed the bath house on top of one such spring many decades before, when Wayland was still a tiny frontier town. When they died, Rose took over the business.
As the town had grown up around Rose, bigger and fancier bath houses with specialty spas had been built closer to the town center, but Margarita still preferred the old-fashioned simplicity of Rose’s place.
She worked her way along the crescent-shaped bay, inhaling the unique, briny smell of a saltwater sea. She loved it all: the salty air, the fresh, and sometimes not-so-fresh, smell of fish, the stink of baitfish, the pungent odors of water-logged timber, paint and tar—and a hundred other odors found only on the edge of a working waterfront.
Men and women—the Fishing Guilds made no distinction and awarded membership to anyone who could meet their stringent entrance exams and high fees—shouted back and forth as they loaded and unloaded their boats, mended nets and reset harpoons, ribbed their neighbors and argued good-naturedly over favorite fishing holes.
Wayland was a prosperous and essentially happy city with a low crime rate. On occasion some bad-ass would arrive on the planet and upset the peace, but they were always dealt with quickly and quietly.
Margarita stopped a moment to watch a trio of white, billowing sails streak across the bay. Heavy lines creaked as moored ships rocked gently in the onshore breeze. A roving blacksmith’s hammer rang out as he fashioned a replacement tip for a harpoon.
She stopped so Darwin could watch the sparks fly from the glowing red metal as the smithy turned and shaped it. She laughed when the smithy dunked the hot tip into a nearby bucket of seawater. The hot metal sent up a plume of steam with a loud hiss that made Darwin’s eyes widen and his fur stand on end.
She turned right toward the mountains when they reached Wayland’s central road. Mountain Way bisected the city north to south, running from the water’s edge, through the exact center of the city, and up into the rose-purple mountains.
Crowded shops lined the first dozen blocks of Mountain Way. Boutiques and specialty shops sold goods local and foreign. Restaurants and music halls broke up the monotony of vendors.
Margarita skirted the tables and benches set outside each eatery and stopped to read the billboards for the music halls.
Waylandians took their music seriously. The venues were large, clean, and well-lit, with comfortable seating and roomy stages for the performers.
NO DRINKS OR FOOD ALLOWED signs were posted on their entryways. In Wayland, a person entered a music hall for the sole purpose of listening to music, not to eat and drink with music in the background.
She made a note of the acts performing during her stay, excited to see that one of her favorite performers, Jagheart, a grizzled old blues master from the island of Santos, would be playing at the Tribute House over the next few days.
As Margarita and Darwin left the commercial area and the road began to climb, the businesses gave way to private homes. The houses were mostly built in the typical Wayland style: long and narrow. One room wide and one or two stories tall, the ivory-stone buildings stood shoulder to shoulder and extended back out of sight of the road.
Their front windows were shuttered against the heat of the day, their brightly painted entry doors closed. Later, when the sun had descended to meet the ocean, the shutters and doors would be flung open to allow the cool night breezes inside.
As Mountain Way climbed the foothill, the carefully fitted stones gave way to packed rose-colored dirt. Margarita’s boots made no sound as her long legs ate up the ground.
As she climbed, the houses grew larger and double-room wide, but still no more than two stories tall. The height of all buildings was governed by an early Wayland decree. Nobody, no matter how wealthy, was allowed to construct a building that blocked another’s view of the ocean.
Where the mountains sloped sharply down to the edge of the sea, the neighborhoods were tiered in the manner of old sports arenas. Every home with a second story could see the reason for Wayland’s prosperity—the Columbia Ocean.
Rose’s Bath House was set halfway up the enormous foothill of Kilmartin Peak on a side street two blocks off the main road. The single story, double-wide, ivory-stone building sported ornate rose-purple trim around the doors and windows, courtesy of Rose’s brother, a gifted stonemason.
The front door, painted a deep pine green, stood open. The shutters were all pulled closed.
“Rose? It’s Margarita. Where are you?” Margarita set Darwin down on the front stoop as she called to the bath house owner. There was no answer from inside.
Margarita hesitated on the stoop, undecided. Should she walk in? It was considered bad manners in most cultures to enter a home uninvited, and this was certainly Rose’s home even though the bathing rooms occupied the left side of the building.
Darwin darted into the gloomy interior. Margarita called him back, then followed the shadow-creature inside. She would find Darwin and then wait on the stoop until Rose appeared.
The shutters blocked out most of the light and no lamps had been lit, leaving the foyer depressingly dark. Unusual for a Wayland home. Unheard of at Rose’s.
Margarita knew that Rose had a deep-rooted fear of the dark, and while she was willing to close the window shutters to keep out the day’s heat, she always had multiple lamps burning to light up the inside of her business and home.
“Rose?” Margarita moved deeper into the gloomy room. “Darwin? Where are you, you scamp? We need to leave. Rose isn’t here.”
The entry room was paved with the same rough-surfaced stone that the homes were constructed from, but here the ivory stone had been polished until smooth and shiny. Two tall, narrow windows graced the right wall and looked out onto Rose’s side flower garden.
Several woven chairs were grouped with small tables by the windows to take advantage of the view. Rose loved her gardens. Margarita had enjoyed many a cup of cold redberry juice sitting with Rose and looking out at the mass of wildly colored blooms.
The door in the rear wall that led to Rose’s private quarters stood open. The door to the hot baths in the center of the left wall, surrounded by shelves filled with folded towels, robes, and rope sandals, also stood open.
“Rose? Where are you? It’s Margarita King.”
Margarita’s uneasiness increased. She told herself there had to be some logical reason for Rose’s front door being open and no sign of the bath house owner. Perhaps she had stepped out to a neighbor’s for a quick visit or to borrow something.
Margarita crossed the room to the door that led to the hot baths. She had never seen it left standing open. She knew Rose worried that the steam from the hot springs would ruin her home furnishings if they were allowed to escape the bath house.
The uneasy feelings turned to worry. Something was wrong.
She turned back toward the front door, unsure of what to do. What if Rose was at a neighbors and returned and found Margarita wandering around inside? She really didn’t want to get caught traipsing through Rose’s house.
“Darwin? Where are you? Let’s go. We’ll wait for Rose outside.”
Here. Need help.
“Darwin? Are you hurt? Darwin?”
Here. Rose needs help.
Margarita automatically pulled the connecting door shut behind her as she entered the bath house. Several ornate copper wall sconces cast a soft light over the colorful tiles surrounding the largest of the tub rooms, designed for group bathing.
The lines of hooks for clothing were empty. Lazy tendrils of steam rose from the smooth, clear water that filled the large pool. In the silence, she could hear the outlet motor that directed the steaming water back into the underground river, humming.
Margarita walked quickly through the public room toward the hallway that led to the smaller, private rooms in the rear that she preferred to use.
The first two were empty.
Darwin stood in the entryway of the third room, his fur semi-erect, his long tail lashing back and forth in an agitated manner.
Margarita quickened her pace. She poked her head around the door and saw a woman lying on the rock surrounding the pool.
“Rose?” A quick look told her no one else was in the room. She hurried to Rose’s side and gently felt her throat for a pulse. It felt weak and thready, but it was there. Rose was still alive.
Margarita carefully rolled Rose onto her back and checked her over. The older woman was unconscious, with blood running down her face from a nasty gash on her temple.
“Oh, Rose. How did this happen? Did you slip and fall?”
Margarita could barely make out the whispered words.
“What? Who’s back, Rose? Who did this to you?”
Rose groaned and whimpered briefly but said nothing more.
Margarita ran back to the foyer and grabbed a couple of towels, then cleaned up the gash and checked Rose for further injuries. She folded a towel and carefully placed it under Rose’s head.
“Darwin, stay here and guard. I need to go find a doctor for Rose. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Margarita knocked on the neighbor’s door and asked the woman who answered where the nearest doctor lived. A half hour later she returned with him in tow.
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