Annie followed Dhabi through the docking bay. He strode with a long gait as if he owned the whole space station. McKenzie was originally established as a jumping off base to the rest of the galaxy, much like First Station, but built by civilian contractors. It became known as a sin station, because Authority allowed just about any activity on McKenzie, as long as the appropriate taxes were paid. Annie wondered whether the residents had declared their independence to free themselves of the financial burden or to enjoy even more depravity.
“Is this place far?” she asked. She looked all around them as she walked. Ships of every size and shape nested in the different docks of the huge bay.
“Just inside the main base,” Dhabi said with a gesture to the glowing doors ahead. He glanced over his shoulder and nodded, pausing for the girl to catch up to him. “Are you frightened?”
“Not sure what to expect is all,” she answered. “I’m just s’posed to sing, right?”
“That’s all.” Dhabi led her to the doors and pulled on the silvery green handle, stepping aside to let her pass. “After you.”
“Thanks,” she whispered as she stepped through the brilliant glow of the doors and into a grand but dimly lit reception hall.
A long steel desk blocked their way. “Name and business.” A young man in a dark green uniform greeted them without looking up from the digital display in his desk.
“Dhabi Ramal and Annie Birchfield. We’re expected at the Garden Bistro and then to perform at The Quail afterward.” Dhabi held his clean-shaven jaw parallel with the floor, giving him an air of importance.
“Garden Bistro is under quarantine as of fourteen hundred today. All reservations have been canceled. You may proceed to The Quail immediately.” The man never made eye-contact but shifted his shoulder a quarter of an inch in a gesture of dismissal. The far end of the steel desk retracted, and a door beyond it slid open.
“Thank you.” Annie smiled at the man. He ignored her.
“You don’t have to use manners here,” Dhabi explained. “It’s not expected.”
“You held the door open for me back there.”
“It was… I just do that kind of thing. Besides,” he said, “you don’t know where you’re going. Look at this place.”
They peered through the industrial grating that barred entrance into the foyer of the Garden Bistro. The vestibule of the restaurant was dark and empty. A sign at the door flashed the notice: Quarantined for Unknown Bacteria until Further Notice.
Annie studied the sign and shrugged. “Maybe we’re lucky.”
“More likely that someone was expecting a payment they didn’t receive.”
Annie swallowed hard. “What kind of folks are we dealing with here?”
“Mostly corrupt, some criminally so, others just doing what they must to survive.” There wasn’t a twinge of judgment in his voice. He held another door open for her. “Just like us.”
Annie raised her eyebrows and slowed her pace as she entered the establishment known as The Quail. The dark room was filled with clouds of every odor and color. The lights that flashed from the corners were only for ambiance, providing no direction for newcomers. Annie waited for Dhabi to take the lead, and then grabbed the fabric of his jacket sleeve so she wouldn’t lose him in the crowd.
People pressed close from all directions. They smiled and laughed. A few looked her up and down. She felt light tugs at her skirt and her hair. This was too much, she thought. She wanted to scream, but stifled the urge. I have to do this. We have no other choice.
“Dhabi, I don’t…” she began, but stopped when she realized that her voice couldn’t be heard over the din of the electronic music that pulsed through the room like lifeblood.
Looking past Dhabi, Annie could see a heavy-set man dressed in a shiny suit coat waving both arms overhead. “My friend!” the stranger called. “Come and sit!”
Dhabi led Annie through a narrow door held open by the other man. When the door closed, a light clicked on above them and all the noise of the main hall immediately stopped. It took several seconds for Annie’s eyes and ears to adjust to normal.
The man with the jacket scooped up Annie’s right arm and began shaking her hand vigorously. “My name is Andre Grieg. I am the owner of The Quail, and I welcome you, Annie.” His accent was different from any she had ever heard before—sharp and bitter sounding.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” Her own voice still sounded loud in her ears. “Your place here seems real popular.” She figured that was as close as she could come to a compliment without lying.”
Dhabi grinned and edged himself between the other two. “Andre, old friend, I have brought you a treasure in this girl. I hope that you can accommodate our needs.”
By the tilt in Dhabi’s head, Annie could deduce he was negotiating for payment. She clasped her hands behind her back and stared at the bare concrete floor.
Andre smiled, trying to keep the upper hand. “Would I let you down? Sit, both of you. The Garden was closed this afternoon, but I managed to get a tray sent over for you. You must be hungry.” He directed Annie to a metal chair in front of a white plastic table covered with fruits and bread. “Eat; sit and eat,” he said.
Annie started toward the food, but Dhabi held her back. “When I see payment we’ll eat. I don’t want to be beholden to you for even a crust of bread.”
“Dhabi, you injure me.” Andre fixed a sad frown over his thick lips. “I have your payment here.” Andre pulled a translucent green envelope from his inner breast pocket and slipped it to Dhabi.
Dhabi counted the money. “Wait,” he said, pulling Annie another half-step back. “This is not what we agreed upon.”
Andre shrugged. “I thought you would like this better.” He raised his palms.
“This is only half, Andre. Why would I prefer half?”
“I give you half now.” A bead of sweat formed just below Andre’s hairline. “Then after the performance, we get tips from the audience. I split them with you, fifty-fifty.”
“And what if the tips don’t match our agreement? I don’t like uncertainty,” Dhabi muttered. “I like guarantees.”
“My patrons are generous.” Andre smiled at Annie. “And of course, they will love her. She is good, no?”
“Yes, she is very good.” Annie watched Dhabi consider the proposition for a few seconds. He held a firm grip on her arm. “I will agree… so long as the split is seventy-thirty to us.”
Andre raised his chin, expecting a counter-offer. “What if you take the portion of the tips to match this amount,” he said, tapping on the envelope, “and I will keep the rest?”
Dhabi and Annie exchanged a glance, knowing that this offer had already been planned by Andre. Dhabi scoffed. “I think I would prefer seventy-thirty.”
“But with my offer, you have your precious guarantee. I promise to make up the difference if it falls short.” Andre chewed on his bottom lip.
Without thinking, Annie blurted out, “What if we split the tips three ways? That’ll give me plenty of motivation to sing my best for everyone?”
Dhabi scowled. “I am the manager, Andre.”
Andre smiled and nodded. “Perhaps you are, my friend, but she is the talent. Her suggestion is almost as you say.. I will even give you the extra one percent, if you like.”Dhabi exhaled sharply, and Annie could feel his laser stare boring into the side of her head. After several seconds of tense silence, he offered his hand to Andre. “I accept your offer.”
Andre laughed and slapped him on the back, causing Dhabi to release her arm. Annie moved swiftly to the table and snatched up a wedge of melon and a slice of brown bread.
“Don’t make yourself sick before you sing,” Dhabi warned.
“Promise I won’t,” she replied. “I jus’ need a little something to keep my stomach from rattling.”
Andre smiled and pointed to the food. “Eat as much as you like. You will perform in fifteen minutes. Whatever you don’t finish, I will send with you after.” He nodded to Dhabi, who returned the gesture. The large man bowed to Annie and then left by the same door they entered.
Annie ate quickly and drank a small glass of flavored water. “So how’re you gonna accompany me if you don’t know any of my songs?” she asked between swallows.
“I have a great talent of improvisation.” Dhabi sounded confident. “You just begin, and I can follow.”
When Annie had eaten as much as she wanted, she stood and brushed away any crumbs from her dress. She raked her slim fingers through her hair and squared her shoulders, forcing herself to take long, slow breaths.
“Don’t throw up. That’s the big rule out there.”
Annie tried to decide whether Dhabi actually said that out loud, or if she had manifested the instructions with her imagination. When he laughed, she decided he had actually spoken.
“No vomit, no passin’ out.” She smiled and nodded.
Both of them jumped at the sudden knock at the door. “You’re up,” a voice called.
Annie opened the door and followed a lanky, thin man from the quiet room to a raised platform in a nearby corner. There was a tall stool centered on the stage, with a spotlight shining straight down upon it. The loud pulse of music from before had been stifled to a dull hum. The atmosphere had cleared to a light haze, and Annie had no difficulty seeing her way through the crowd.
The slim man helped her up the steps and directed her to stand in front of the stool. The Quail’s patrons hushed and turned to face her. Dhabi joined her and set his case to the side.
“Do we need to plug anything in?” he asked.
The thin man shook his head. “The whole stage will be amplified. I’ll run it from down here.” He pointed to a small desk at the base of the steps. “If you’re not good, I’ll turn you off, too.” He didn’t smile. He faced the audience and took Annie’s hand, raising it above her head as if he introduced a winning prize-fighter.
A green light appeared at the front edge of the dais, and the man raised his voice. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced with a sarcastic laugh. “It is with great pride that The Quail presents the talents of Miss Ann.”
Annie took a split second to process the introduction, long enough for Dhabi to sit on the floor and position his sitar. The crowd clapped, but Annie recognized it as a purely obligatory reaction, without enthusiasm.
“Thank y’all so much,” she said. She cleared her throat and stretched tall, trying to keep down the acid that slowly climbed her esophagus. “My first song is one that my momma taught me when I was a baby…”
“Don’t talk. Just sing,” a voice yelled from somewhere in the back of the room.
Annie smiled and nodded. “Yessir.” She looked into the darkness of the room, able to make out almost nothing beyond the tip of her nose illuminated by the bright light overhead. She drew a deep breath and began.
“She was just a little girl,
Not more than three years old.
When Daddy took her out to meet
The newborn baby foal,
She held her hand out to the horse,
And touched his furry side.
Said, ‘Daddy, he’ll be my best friend,
Together we will ride.
And she said, “Let’s go, Ranger, let’s go.
Let’s find path to call our own,
Somewhere among the trees.
We’ll find a quiet waterfall,
And listen to the breeze.
Let’s go, Ranger, Let’s go…”
Annie was only vaguely aware of the sitar playing behind her as she sang two more verses. As the last phrase of the song faded into the silence, she could hear her own heart beat thump a few times before the applause began. In just a few seconds, the clapping had swelled into a storm. She felt another surge of nerves overtake her, and she reached behind her for the support of the stool. As she took a deep breath, the crowd immediately quieted, anticipating the next song.
Annie sang a dozen more tunes that she had learned as a child. Each was simple, but roused a bigger ovation than the last. She finally turned to Dhabi and shrugged, “What else?” she whispered.
Dhabi smiled and shrugged back. “Pick anything. They love you.”
Annie tried to think of another song, but her mind went blank. As the crowd grew silent again, she struggled for anything. Like a flash, one last song sparked into her brain. She tried to push it down, knowing it was not appropriate for this crowd. It was Momma’s favorite hymn. She’d be laughed at. She’d undo whatever tip she might have earned so far.
The harder she tried to suppress the song, the louder it sounded in her ears. She couldn’t help it.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.”
The audience was completely silent. Dhabi didn’t even play his instrument. Annie could hear her breath wheeze as she started the next phrase.
“I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.”
As she sang the last three verses, she noticed something strange. The front row of listeners slowly stood, and she saw the men clutching their hats over their hearts. As she sang, she grew brave and dared to look the men in their eyes. She could see the glisten of tears. As she came to the end of the song, the crowd didn’t move. No clapping. No yelling. Silence.
She swallowed hard, trying to manage a smile through her own emotions. Dhabi stood behind her, his sitar already packed away, and whispered into her ear. “Sing it again.”
She took another breath and began, “Amazing grace…”
This time the crowd sang with her, their voice drowning out hers. They sang as if it was the anthem of their people. They swayed and cheered and sang with their whole collective heart.
As she began the hymn for the third time, Annie noticed Andre passing a bucket through the crowd. Audience members barely looked down as they poured whatever they had into the coffer. As the final verse ended, everyone in the room cheered.
One by one, people lined up to come and shake Annie’s hand. A few dared to hug her, but Dhabi discouraged such close contact. Andre finished his collection and gestured for Annie and Dhabi to join him in the small room again.
“Genius!” was all he said as they all crowded around the white plastic table. Andre and Dhabi quickly divided the money into three portions.
Annie had finally caught her breath enough to ask, “Are we done for the evening?”
Dhabi nodded. “Yes, we have enough to…”
Andre interrupted. “But when can you come back? This is the best show I’ve had here in over a year. We should make this a regular event.”
Dhabi shot Annie a sharp glance, which was unnecessary; she wasn’t going to make any trouble.
“We can’t do that, yet, I’m afraid. Our little company has an itinerary to keep,” Dhabi explained. “But I do know that you are a man with many connections, friend. If you gave me some names, we might be inclined to contact them – giving you due credit, of course.”
Andre considered the proposal. “I think that could be arranged, Dhabi. But most of my associates will want a bigger show than just a girl with a sweet voice.” He regarded Annie with a smile. “Of course you are lovely, my dear, but many of my friends have venues more like coliseums. They will expect more.”
At this Annie smiled and nodded. “Do you mean a show with animals and tricks and such?” she bravely asked.
“You know where you can get animals? That would be a big show. What kind of animals?” Andre leaned close and raised his brows.
Before Annie could answer, Dhabi interrupted. “She’s just asking if that’s the type of show you mean? It’s not as though we have any animals.”
Andre nodded with enthusiasm. “If you can produce a show with animals – dogs, sheep, whatever you can manage – I can find you an audience.”
Dhabi carefully handed Annie her share of the money, and discretely slipped his portion into a wallet. “Annie, would you like me to carry yours, only until we get back to the ship? I would hate for you to be accosted.”
Annie shook her head and dropped her share into her boot. “Don’t have to worry about me. I ain’t never been ‘costed yet.”
Andre laughed. “She’s a clever girl, Dhabi. You watch her closely. She’s got brains.”
Andre gave Annie the container of leftovers, and then she offered her hand to him. “It was real good to meet you, Mr. Grieg. If I’m ever back on McKenzie, you’ll be the first person I look for.”
Andre hugged her shoulder, as Dhabi watched with feigned scorn. “We are friends, now. You call me Andre.”
Annie smiled and nodded. Dhabi took her arm. “We have to go, Andre, but I’ll contact you tomorrow before we catch the ferry out. I would appreciate some names.”
Andre agreed. “Where are you going next? I can call ahead for you.”
“No need. I can make all the arrangements necessary. I promise not to forget you,” Dhabi assured him.
Annie followed the men back through the almost empty club. She said goodbye to Andre and she and Dhabi headed back to the ship.
“What a night.” Dhabi sounded exhausted. “I just hope nobody tries to turn us in to Authority before we can jump tomorrow.”
Annie grimaced. “I think the audience liked the show. If anyone was thinking about turning us in, that went out the window by the end of the last song, don’t you think?”
Dhabi shrugged as he opened the bay door on his own vessel. Cody was waiting for their return. Dhabi patted Annie’s shoulder. “It was a good show. You did well. But it is difficult to read these people.”
“Which people?” Cody asked.
“The people who stood and sang Amazing Grace with me at the end of the set. The ones with tears streaming down their cheeks, with their hands over their hearts,” Annie explained.
Dhabi raised his brow and nodded. “Yes, those people.”
Cody smiled broadly and hugged his sister. “Sounds to me like you had a good night.”
Annie took a deep breath. “We did. And I didn’t throw up. Not even a little in my mouth.”
Dhabi cringed. “Your sister has the strangest manners.”
Cody led the others inside as the door closed. “You got manners?” he teased.
Annie punched him in the arm. “We got some news, too. Andre is sending us some names of his friends who will host us for shows at our other stops.”
Cody shook his head. “Sis, we’re not making a tour of this. We have to get away and keep our heads low for a while. At the very least until we’re no longer wanted by Authority. And besides,” he added. “Dhabi wants to dump us as quickly as he can. He doesn’t want to escort us all over the universe.
Dhabi pulled out his stack of cash and waited for Annie to do the same. Cody raised his brows when he saw the amount they each waved in front of him.
“This is just sixty-seven percent of our take. Well, not even that if you consider we got paid half upfront, and we each made more than double that amount in tips.” Dhabi held up the green envelope too. “I’m beginning to think that the best place for all of us to hide is in plain sight. If we put together a show… a big show… like what Andre talked about, we could make enough to pay off Authority and still buy each of us our own colony.”
Cody shook his head. “We don’t live like that. I can’t let you use my baby sister to…”
“I’m not a baby anymore, and I think a big show could be good for us. I did real good out there tonight. And I had fun.”
Dhabi nodded. “She did very well.”
“And you don’t have to speak for me, either.” She turned on Dhabi in a fever of emotion. “I’m goin’ to bed. Y’all can hash this out however you want. But I want to put on a show. My horses and my dog…” she suddenly realized that she was speaking about Buffalo. She glared at both men and stopped, as a lump of sadness swelled her throat closed. She threw the stack of money at them and ran to the small cabin across the hold.
“I’m sure glad you’re a mature woman about this,” Cody called after her.
Annie went inside and closed the door behind her, as loudly as she could. She picked up the stasis tube and gazed in at her puppy and sighed. “Buffalo, you look like you’re just sleepin’ in there. I half-wish I could curl up and join you. Nobody’s makin’ you do things you don’t want. Nobody’s botherin’ you at all, huh?” She kicked off her boots and stretched out over the small berth. “Funny, though. I thought I’d hate singing for others. Turns out I like it. Turns out the audience liked me. Folks are funny, I guess. They pay for the silliest things.” She hugged the tube tightly and wished…
After a few minutes Cody joined her. “Your horses are fine, by the way.” She could hear the grudge in his voice.
“Thank you for looking after them.”
“I’m not trying to stifle you, Annie.”
He paced the tiny floor space. “I don’t trust Dhabi. I don’t know this Andre character, so I don’t trust him, either. It’s my job to take care of you. I spent this whole night wondering if I would ever see you again.”
“I can take care of myself. I’m not a child.” Annie sat up on the narrow bed, barefoot, clinging to her dog like a baby with a teddy bear. She looked very much like the child she denied herself to be.
“We can’t put on a show.” He assumed the rugged stance of their father, with his feet planted firmly into the floor and his hands on his hips. “I’m in charge of you, and I say no.”
Annie stared into his eyes without flinching. He tried to return the cold gaze, but Annie knew she had the upper hand in this duel. As the seconds ticked away, Cody broke the eye contact and chuffed in anger.
“I’m sleeping with the horses,” he said and marched out.
Annie pulled the ribbon from her hair and focused her attention back to her dog. “Buffalo, we’re gonna be famous.”