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“So now what?” Annie brushed at Liza Jane’s mane to calm the skittish horse. “Do we just hunker down and keep a low profile?”
Dhabi checked the inventory to be sure the manifest matched his digital records. “No, we are going to be on this ferry for days. We can’t hide away in the ship. We have to get out and meet some people. If we don’t make some connections while we’re aboard here, we won’t be able to arrange any more shows.”
Cody stood between Nero and Stubbs, checking their vitals and assessing their nerves. “There’s more than enough to do here for a while. And I’m still not sold on the idea of Annie singing for strangers while we’re wanted by the law.”
Annie kissed Liza Jane on the nose and turned her attention to Jefferson, her prized quarter horse. “Well, I think you’re both right.” She decided to go with the honey approach. “Cody, I think you should stay here and take care of the animals while Dhabi and I check out the place and see what kind of opportunities are available.”
Cody shook his head. “Absolutely not. I don’t want you off gallivantin’ all over this ferry. If anyone is going out, it should be me.”
Annie smiled. She was determined to stay in her brother’s good graces, but she was still sure she could have her way. “Okay, you and Dhabi get out and see what’s goin’ on. I’ll stay here with the horses. There’s a ton of m’nure to shovel, and they are my horses.”
She watched as Cody’s mouth twisted to one side and then the other. “You can’t stay here alone.”
Annie struck a pose between the two smaller horses. “Do I look like I’m alone? Besides, I have my shotgun loaded with salt, and I know how to shoot. You can’t call me helpless.”
“I ain’t ever called you helpless. But if someone boards us and gets after the animals, I have credentials. It may not prevent them from commandeering them, but it would go a little further than rock salt.” Cody turned to Dhabi. “You promise to look after my sister?”
Annie pressed her lips together to suppress an ear-to-ear grin.
“I won’t let her out of my sight.” Dhabi shook his head as he glanced at Annie. “Put on something nice. Like what you would wear for a show.”
Annie kissed Jefferson and then her brother. “Thank you, Cody. The shovel is hanging right over there.” She bounced into her quarters and quickly changed into her polka-dot dress and her red cowgirl boots. As she tied her hair ribbon and linked her locket chain, she stared at Buffalo in his stasis tube. The lights still blinked yellow. “I need you back, Buff.” She hugged the cylinder and placed it carefully back on her berth. In half an hour she was at the hatch door.
“I’m setting a message notice for anyone who might drop by, but I don’t expect we’ll have company for a while.” Dhabi punched at a panel by the main exit. “If anyone does call, I’ll know about it immediately, and we’ll head back right away.”
Cody faced the captain with squared shoulders and a low stern voice. “Are you sure there aren’t folks waiting to turn us in?”
Annie stepped to Dhabi’s side and placed her hand on Cody’s shoulder. “Brother, he can’t make that kind of promise. But we’ll be fine.”
He frowned at his sister. “You can’t know that.”
Dhabi offered his most confident smile. “When the ferry master defied Authority and approved our passage he put himself in the same column as us. That tells me a little something about our fellow passengers, too.”
Cody shifted his gaze to Annie. “Yeah, that no one on board can be trusted.”
Annie nodded and shrugged. “Just like us, right?”
Dhabi and Annie left Cody with the horses and headed through the hatch toward the ferry’s main facilities.
“It’s like its own city,” Annie said with a gasp of wonderment. “I had no idea.”
Dhabi gestured toward a map display on the wall. “We need to get our bearings first. Have you never been on a ferry?”
Annie shook her head. “I ain’t never been off Earth before. Cody’s been to First Station a few times, but I hadn’t ever breached the borders of Texas before this week.” She studied the map and determined their ship was docked on Ring 14, Section J. She looked over the mazes in the diagrams. Blue rectangles were shops, orange squares were food and beverage establishments, pink were hotels, gray were medical facilities, and green diamonds were law. She saw small red dots placed in the corners of various rectangles but couldn’t find a corresponding explanation in the legend.
“What do the red dots mean?”
Dhabi laughed. “Red dots are entertainment.” He looked right and left from where they stood, and then went back to studying the map.
“So we need to go to one of those places to set up a show, right?” Annie tried to see what Dhabi was looking for on the legend.
“Not that type of entertainment, dear.” He shook his head. “You keep your clothes on while you sing.”
A hot blush spread over her face and down her neck. “Oh. Yes, well then not those places.” She took a deep breath and looked around. Hundreds of people walked all around, but no one seemed to see them. “Have you been on a ferry before?”
Dhabi took a step back and offered Annie his elbow. “Yes. Not this one, but others. You should stay close to me, and don’t talk to anyone. I know where we’re going.”
Annie walked at Dhabi’s side from the map kiosk to a mezzanine overlooking an open shop area crowded with travelers. At the entrance to the lift stood a dozen men and women, eyeing the pair as they descended. Annie smiled, but Dhabi scowled.
“Who are they?” she asked.
“They’re employables. They hang out looking for jobs. They had enough money to get on the ferry, but not enough to get any farther. They trade work for travel.” Dhabi sounded as though the explanation left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“That’s okay, though. Right?” Annie glanced back over her shoulder. The employables were already staring at the next person on the lift.
Dhabi wrinkled his nose. “Most of them are cons. They get aboard your ship and then steal from you, or worse. I’ve heard of groups who say they just need passage, but then once you’re out on the edge of space, they mutiny and take everything. It’s not a good idea to hire more than one person at a time. I wouldn’t even do that.”
Annie raised her eyebrows and sighed. “I guess I got a lot to learn out here. I’m sure glad you know what’s what.”
Dhabi gestured to the pair of doors just ahead of them. “Let’s try this one.”
Annie followed him into the lobby of what Annie guessed was some type of casino. Just beyond a wide archway were rows of tables, each circled by six or eight people doing something she couldn’t make out. Dhabi approached a cheerful-looking woman at a desk.
“Good day, Miss.” He winked at the woman and offered his hand.
Her mood seemed to sour. “No soliciting.” Her voice was flat. She didn’t move to take his hand.
“You misunderstand. We are performers. We are looking for…”
“All employables must wait at the designated areas near the lifts.” The woman made a motion with her hand as though she were shooing a fly.
“Oh, no, my dear. We are not looking for passage. We are here to speak to your stage manager. This young lady has the voice of an angel, and she would like to offer her services while we travel.” Dhabi smiled at the woman and made a flourish over Annie’s head. “Her last station performance brought the audience to tears. In a good way.”
Annie smiled at the woman, who leaned over her desk to take a closer look. “Are you all right, sweetie? Is this man forcing you to do things against your will?”
Annie almost laughed. “No ma’am. He’s right honest. I’m a singer.”
The woman cast a suspicious glare and then sat back in her seat. “We aren’t looking for entertainers at the moment, but I know of a place that is.” She ran her finger over a panel on the desk and contact appeared on the plexi-display in front of Dhabi. “This is a reputable stage I’m sending you to. If you aren’t on the ups, don’t bother calling. Do you understand?”
Dhabi quickly grabbed the info with his data-com. “We’re much obliged, Miss…?”
The woman twisted her lips from side to side. “My name is Loretta, and you can tell Bartholomew I sent you. He’ll give you a fair wage for your talent.” She looked at Annie and back to Dhabi. “And if you aren’t on the ups, he’ll have you in a cell before you can sing a note.”
Annie reached out and took Loretta’s hand from the desk. “Thank you, ma’am. Thank you. You’re a real blessing to me.”
Dhabi nodded and led Annie back out into the market area. “Looks like this Bartholomew is at the other end.”
As they walked the length of the bazaar, Annie studied the faces of the people she passed. Most carried a look of exhaustion or sorrow or both. What was out here that wearied and worried them so? Mothers held their children as though everyone else was a predator. Couples walked single-file with their heads down as much as possible. Everyone seemed to avoid eye-contact. Annie felt sad just seeing them.
They reached the end of the market but didn’t see anything that looked like a theater. Dhabi asked a man about Bartholomew. He pointed overhead.
Annie looked up to see a blinking sign on the side of the mezzanine above. Bart’s.
“Upper level,” was all that Dhabi said as they maneuvered through the crowd to the nearest lift.
Annie could see another group of employables at the head of the lift. She started to look away, but then she noticed that Dhabi was staring at one of them. The woman was blond, probably in her mid to late twenties, slim and svelte, as Annie’s daddy liked to say. She wasn’t sure what svelte meant, but from the looks of the women Daddy had labeled with the word, she assumed that it meant tough enough to knock any man over.
Not only was Dhabi staring at the woman, but the woman was staring back. And both of them were smiling.
Annie expected Dhabi to stop and speak to her, but he just kept walking to Bart’s. He glanced back as they went inside.
Bartholomew was a short man with slick black hair and sideburns that curved and pointed to the center of each cheek. He wore a pale blue suit with a darker blue scarf at his neck, and Annie noticed that his eyes matched the silk knot precisely. The man studied Annie from head to toe, squinting as he looked back at her polished red boots.
“Loretta said you would come.” He raised both hands over his head and motioned with his fingertips for them to follow him. “What is your name?”
“My name is Dhabi Ramal.”
The man turned around so fast that Dhabi almost ran into him. “Are you the one with the angel’s voice?”
Dhabi shook his head and regarded Annie.
“Then she is the one I want to hear.”
Annie smiled and blushed. “I’m Annie Birchfield, sir. Miss Loretta spoke mighty highly of you and your place here.”
Bartholomew’s face crackled with a thousand creases that merged into one big smile. “And what do you sing, my darling? Opera? Calliope?”
“No, sir, just songs.”
Bartholomew and Dhabi both laughed at her, and she couldn’t decide whether to laugh with them or be offended. She figured it was always best to laugh if she could.
“Charming.” Bart turned to Dhabi. “I assume she is the little girl who performed at The Quail this week?”
“I’m not a little girl.”
Bartholomew’s smile grew broader, and Annie wondered if that was even possible, as it now seemed to extend beyond his face. “And when can she audition? I assume you manage her.”
Dhabi nodded. “She can sing for you tonight if we can come to an agreement.”
Bartholomew raised a brow. “I have a standard contract for all of my players. It’s a simple scale for every individual on stage. I just need the name of each performer. That’s agreeable to you both?”
Dhabi nodded. “For how many nights?”
Bart turned to face Annie. “Sing something for me, dear.”
Annie blinked at the man and took a deep breath. “Umm. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
Bart’s expression turned serious. “Hymns. Well, your voice is lovely, yes. We’ll try you for one night and see how it goes. If you can get the audience to their feet, I’ll guarantee you a second. Do you play anything or dance? My crowds like a show with energy.”
Dhabi grinned. “I accompany her. And she can certainly dance as she sings. You won’t be disappointed.”
“I hope not. My stage is known for the finest performers on the circuit.” The man took Annie’s hand and patted it. He and Dhabi worked out the details, and they were soon heading back to the ship, with one quick stop.
“I need to speak to this woman for just a moment.” Dhabi gestured to the employable blond goddess who was already moving toward them.
Annie almost laughed. “I thought you said that you never hired them.”
Dhabi shot her a warning glance as he offered the woman his hand. “I am Captain Ramal. What is your name?”
“I am Ingrid. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain.” Her emerald green eyes never shifted from their entrancing gaze.
Annie admired the woman’s confidence and poise as she spoke with Dhabi. Her honey blond hair was pulled straight back into a tight knot at the nape of her neck. She wore a simple white dress with no sleeves or embellishments. The only notable thing about the sheath was the way it fit her body. It flattered her well-proportioned curves without a hint of tightness. Everything about her was simple and elegant.
Annie looked at the other employables, who dressed in layers of clothes that didn’t particularly go together at all. Ingrid didn’t belong with any of them.
“You’re a cook?” Dhabi looked surprised. “Well, my ship is in great need of a cook. And where is your final destination?”
Ingrid moved her sculpted shoulders a fraction of an inch in what Annie assumed was meant to be a shrug. “I have no particular destination, Captain. I enjoy the journey. I do not expect compensation. Just a place on your ship, and a share of the adventure.”
Annie worried that Dhabi would mock the poor girl for saying something so silly. But he didn’t. Instead, he offered his hand again. “Well, Ingrid, I’d say you’re just what we’re looking for. Gather up your things, and I’ll escort you back to my ship.”
The woman went back to the wall behind the others and picked up a traveler bag. Without looking back, she took Dhabi’s other elbow and the threesome made their way to the ship. Ingrid asked several questions about the vessel and the other passengers. Annie kept thinking that the woman would run away with each answer.
They were on the run from the law. The ship’s hold carried four contraband animals. They were all but broke. But it seemed to Annie that the more honest Dhabi was with her, the more excited she became about joining them.
Annie didn’t know what to think. Dhabi had warned her not to speak to strangers. Not to even look at them. And then he goes and brings one home with him. Annie wanted to dislike Ingrid. She was cool and beautiful. Polished in every way. The opposite of me, she thought.
Annie remembered that Mama had always told her to make friends whenever she could. As they reached the hatch door, Annie turned and offered her hand. “I’m Annie.” She looked into Ingrid’s eyes, expecting the green jewels to be cold and shallow. Instead, she saw a depth of peace that Annie had only seen once before, in her grandmother’s eyes.
“Ingrid,” she answered. The woman grasped Annie’s hand and squeezed firmly. “I think we’ll be great friends.”
Annie stared too long, and Ingrid released her grip and followed Dhabi into the hold. Cody raised his eyebrows at the addition to their party.
“This is Ingrid.” Dhabi’s introduction sounded grand to Annie, but Cody seemed less impressed.
He nodded. “I’m Annie’s brother, Cody.” He went back to his business of cleaning the make-shift horse stalls. “Are you inspecting?”
Before Ingrid had a chance to reply, Dhabi positioned himself between Cody and the woman. “Ingrid is our new cook. We should all make her welcome.”
Cody shrugged and kept to his task. “I didn’t realize we had…” He stopped short. He glared at Dhabi and then shot a pointed smile in Ingrid’s direction. “Welcome, Miss Ingrid.” He went back to work.
Annie could see that Ingrid was not offended by Cody’s attitude. She watched as the blond instead walked into Nero’s stall and began to whisper to the horse. Annie couldn’t make out what she was saying, but by the look in his eyes, the stallion liked her.
“Be careful where you step, Miss. I haven’t finished cleaning out Nero’s space.” Cody’s warning sounded insincere to his sister.
“Nero, what a perfect name.” Ingrid turned to face Cody as though she floated on an invisible cloud. “You’re right to be suspicious of me. You don’t know me, and you’re trying to protect your animals and your sister, as well as yourself. You have every right to question me and anyone else who turns up.” She paused until he stopped his work and looked up into her eyes. Annie watched, wondering if Ingrid’s magical gaze would work on her brother. “I will do my best to earn your trust, Mr. Birchfield.”
Annie saw that there was some reaction when Cody made eye-contact with her. He smiled. It wasn’t his aw-shucks grin. It wasn’t his contented curve. Annie recognized his I-know-a-secret lip curl, and it confused the daylights out of her.
“It’s Doctor Birchfield.” When Cody said it, Ingrid turned away quickly. “You have lovely green eyes,” he added.
Dhabi took Ingrid’s hand and led her to the other end of the hold. “I’ll show you the mess. Though once you take over, we’ll hardly be able to call it that anymore.”
The two of them disappeared down the hall to the common area.
Annie grabbed a brush from the basket on the work table and began smoothing Stubb’s mane. “She’s sure pretty. And she seems to like Dhabi enough. ‘Least he sure likes her.”
“How long will that last?” Cody muttered as he tossed his cleaning tools into the basket. He held out a shovel toward Annie. “Trade you.”
Annie shook her head. “Can’t. I gotta get myself shined pretty soon. I’m auditioning for a sweet little man named Bartholomew in a few hours. He heard about my show on McKenzie.”
Cody scowled. “Can you trust him?”
Annie shrugged. She didn’t know if she could trust anyone beyond her brother and her animals. “I s’pose we can trust him ‘bout the same as we can trust Ingrid.” She liked them both, but she knew that either one might turn them all over to the law if the reward was good enough.
Cody laughed and took the brush from his sister. “Don’t worry about Ingrid. We can trust her.”
“How do you know that?”
“You can always trust a woman with green eyes.” Cody motioned toward Annie’s quarters. “Get to shining, then. I think I’ll go see this audition tonight.”