“Authorization marker,” demanded a humourless and arrogant Federation Customs official. The man had a severe face with thin lips and ears that seemed large enough to catch any whisper.
Captain Atton slowly reached into his vest pocket, mindful that any unexpected or suspicious moves could result in a few unfortunately placed shots by the unfriendly looking troopers who had rifles pointed in his direction. He pulled out the official verification marker that showed which sectors of space the Raven was allowed to operate in and the types of cargo she was allowed to carry and handed it to the humourless officer.
The Red Raven had run into a Federation customs trap. The Customs pursuit ships were hidden in orbit around a nearby moon and the crew didn’t see them until it was too late. Running would have made them look suspicious. So Captain Atton cheerfully accepted the orders to be boarded, and acted the successful and compliant free trader while silently signalling the crew off-screen to make sure that everything was secured.
Customs Officer Fuller slid the marker into the verification scanner and read the details of the Raven’s charter and her current registered flight plan. “This expires next month.”
Atton said cheerfully, and like a man without a worry, “But we’re fine for now?”
The man read the charter again, as if he was determined to find something to charge them with. With ill humour, he said, “For now. Get it renewed.”
“We’ll definitely do that, officer. Was there anything else?”
The thin-lipped man said to his men, “Search the ship.” Most of the black clad troopers headed off to follow the orders while some stayed behind. The official demanded, “Show me your cargo hold. I want to see what you're carrying.”
Atton caught Jenna's eyes briefly. She joined the group as Atton said, "Right this way, Officer."
In the packed-to-the-ceiling cargo hold, as the black clad Federation Customs troopers conducted a search, opening several of the containers and examining their contents, Captain Atton kept up animated chatter while Jenna stood out of the way, near one of the walls.
Jenna watched Atton's performance with reluctant admiration. The man was very good at inane, friendly conversation that presented a picture of a harmless but successful trader; wearing down his audience with mindless and irrelevant details. She had her own techniques but she appreciated the effectiveness of Atton's. The man was obviously good at what he did. He had the charm of the successful merchant, able to find and tap a person's weaknesses, the ones that made them buy things they didn't want or take things they shouldn't.
Atton said, "We're only carrying luxury foodstuffs. Some fine wines. Vintage. Very vintage. From the vineyards of the Otalia Preserve on Zaskar Major."
The Customs officer's sizeable ears twitched slightly at that news.
Jenna knew that Atton wouldn't have missed the movement, even though he didn't seem to be paying attention. She knew every one of Atton's senses was on high alert. There was nothing casual about what he was doing, even though his manner was laid-back.
Atton continued his friendly Captain routine. "We have some caviar too, straight from Earth. The real thing, not the syntha-garbage they foist off on the lower grades. You must know the stuff, a civilized man like you."
Laying it on a bit thick this time, thought Jenna.
Officer Fuller's ears twitched quite noticeably. It was just the right amount of thickness.
Atton turned his head towards Jenna a bit. They both knew this kind of official. The man was typical of his kind, a Beta, like most Customs officers. A Beta with access and power over some highly valuable commodities.
In their experiences, not many people could resist. It was an age where everyone looked out for his or her own interests and no one could be trusted. The age of the dishonest man, which made it very convenient for people who knew how to take advantage of such qualities.
Jenna knew there were two ways that this could go. It all depended on how greedy the Customs official was and how devious and unscrupulous.
Atton continued listing other choice items as some of the troopers began tapping along the walls and using a hand scanner. Each rap was rewarded with a solid metallic response. Jenna knew they would be hearing that regardless of where they rapped and the scanners would not find anything.
The Red Raven was a specially customized bird with some unusual properties in its cargo hold that extended beyond a secret compartment. If she gained another free trader ship again, Jenna was determined to have these 'special' qualities built into her own.
Fuller was responding so well that Atton said amiably, "Why don’t we make ourselves comfortable and break open a bottle…" He moved towards one of the open containers. Immediately, the troopers turned in his direction, their weapons pointed at him.
Here we go, thought Jenna, as she prepared for the next stage.
Atton froze with his hands up. "Wait…" There was the proper amount of fear on his face.
Fuller dropped his greedy Beta-official demeanour and became the severe, too-deadly-to-be-crossed Federation functionary. "What are you doing?"
Atton had a nervous smile on his face, "I was going to be hospitable and offer you some wine."
Fuller sneered, "Do you think I'm a fool?" The previous, simply arrogant and humourless bureaucrat had also been a façade, just like Atton's friendly Captain routine. Fuller had dropped his act and just shown his true colours.
Jenna wasn't surprised at all. She hadn't liked the look of the official since he had boarded the ship. Now it was only a matter of finding out how unpleasant the man really was and how much they would have to do to distract him from finding their secrets.
Atton cautiously put his hands down and said in a placating voice, "Of course not. I don't think you're a fool."
Jenna thought to herself, He just knows you are. Or at least, he hopes. She came forward with a smile and said in a smooth, seductive voice, "No one thinks you're a fool, Officer Fuller. We wouldn't dare. You're obviously smart and…"
Fuller backed up as if she was someone carrying a concealed weapon. Either that or women made him nervous. "Don't come any closer."
Jenna looked at him with interest. The man seemed to be overreacting. Was he expecting something? Or was it simply a case of being wary of women?
A little test was in order. Plus it would add a little more distraction. Jenna did not go any closer but she had her best, suggestive smile on her face. "I'm not going to hurt you, I promise."
Fuller remarked coldly to Atton, "You're pathetic, both of you. How could you possibly think I could be fooled by such an act? And as for you…" He eyed Jenna slowly from top to bottom, in a very insulting way. "…it's obvious he didn't hire you for your brains…or your looks."
Jenna's smile was only maintained by gritting teeth now. Inside, she was fuming at the affront and already had ten ways of making this man beg for mercy. Fuller was obviously after something and he enjoyed the power he yielded; far too much.
Everything was still working perfectly. The Customs official didn't realize that he was the only one who was being obvious. Atton and Jenna were ready for this kind of challenge.
Atton's eyes widened, just a touch, not enough to be noticed by the Federation official but it spoke loudly to Jenna. The soldiers were not only tapping on the walls now, they were carefully feeling their way along several panels. They had never done that before. Tapping and scans were their normal procedure. They were boringly and reliably predictable in their lack of creativity. Until now. Had someone tipped them off?
Jenna had her first feelings of apprehension. They had not anticipated this. If the troopers discovered the minute indentations along the wall that activated the secret panel…if they were just a little too curious…
She had to do something. Deflect their attention somehow.
Jenna took a step towards Fuller and said, "The Captain was only trying to be hospitable…"
Fuller drew his gun and pointed it at her. "I said, don't come near me. Step back."
Jenna sighed. "I was only trying to explain. No harm done." She backed away, walked over to the far wall and leaned back against it; just a tad too nonchalantly but not too obvious. Just enough to draw attention to herself but not point out why, unless you had some intelligence and the Customs official did. Jenna was counting on it.
Fuller looked at her suspiciously. "What are you doing?"
Jenna asked, "What do you mean? You said to get as far away from you as possible. That's what I'm doing. If it's not far enough…I can't help you there. I could leave the room..."
Fuller said forcefully, "Step away from the wall."
"Why? I can't do anything to you. I can't even smell you from here."
"Step away or I will have my people make you step away."
Jenna did as directed.
Fuller felt along the wall where Jenna had stood. He ordered the troopers, "Check this wall. Every centimetre of it."
All of the troopers stopped what they were doing and concentrated on the wall Jenna had been leaning against. There were excited sounds of anticipation as they ripped open several panels, but they soon became disappointed. After every panel had been removed and nothing found, the lead trooper reported, "There's nothing, sir. It's clear."
Fuller said with frustration, "It can't be…there's got to be something. I was sure…"
"Unless it's invisible, we can't find it, sir. Should we check the rest of the walls?"
Jenna unconsciously held her breath. Would this work?
Atton said, "I told you that you wouldn’t find anything. We're a harmless, if very rich trading ship. All we have are some fine comestibles, nothing more. But by all means, please check them. You must be a thorough man, Officer Fuller. You wouldn't be doing your job if you didn't check everything."
Fuller said angrily, "Don't tell me what my job is."
Atton said in a mollified voice, "I wouldn’t dare to presume, but as your men are going to check, why don't we follow my earlier suggestion and make ourselves comfortable. Break open a bottle of wine. It looks like very thirsty work."
The trooper who made the report asked, "Sir, what do you want us to do?"
Fuller's angry face took on a crafty look. He addressed Atton, "As you're being so hospitable, you wouldn't mind benefiting a poor Customs official with a few containers of wine and caviar, would you? Say five of each?"
Jenna let out a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. They were back on track.
Atton smiled. "May I?"
Fuller nodded and Atton walked over to one of the opened containers. He reached in slowly, drew out a stack of interconnected caviar boxes, and came back with them. Atton handed them to Fuller with a flourish, "It's the best."
Fuller looked down at the boxes, "What's this?"
"You asked for five…"
"Are you dense? I said five containers. Of each."
Atton looked outraged. "You're not serious?"
Fuller said with a dangerous snarl, "I could always confiscate your entire cargo and still have my men continue with the search. I will have them rip open every panel in this hold. Plus a few choice ones on your flight deck. And perhaps your engineering room as well. I can't guarantee that my men won't do any damage. They do tend to be clumsy. Of course, it isn't my ship."
Atton became panicked, "Wait a minute…let's be reasonable here. I'm barely breaking even if you take five of each. What if you take two of the wine and three of the caviar?"
Fuller mused, "Two and three? I might be willing to if you…" He glanced over at Jenna. "…include her in the deal."
Jenna took a step forward, "Wait just a minute…" A trooper held her back.
Atton stared at her, as if he was considering the offer. "She is new…and…" He seemed to take a long time to deliberate. Far too long for Jenna's taste. Atton's jaw tightened. "Alright, five of each. And leave Jen out of it."
Fuller smiled cruelly. "Done. Six of each."
Atton said angrily, "You said five!"
"I lied. But you get to keep the woman." Fuller directed his men to take the containers and return to the ship.
Before Fuller entered the airlock back to his craft, he said, "Your ship has passed inspection, Captain Atton. It's been a pleasure and don't forget to renew your charter."
The hatch clanged shut and the bolts slid into place.
Jenna said angrily, "If I see that man again…"
Atton chuckled, "I'm sure you'll do something suitably painful to him before you kill him, and I'd like to watch."
"Don't worry," she said fiercely. "You'll have front-row seats."
Atton said appreciatively, "Very well done by the way."
"We've had a lot of practice, haven't we? Two old hands."
"The trick with the wall?"
Jenna grinned, "Why try to protect a wall that has nothing worth protecting?"
"I knew there was a reason why I brought you with me."
"You wanted to see how good I was?"
"You've lived up to your reputation, Jenna Stannis."
Jenna nodded. "You have too."
"We make a good team."
"What was that comment about 'she is new…'?"
Atton grinned, "I had to give it a little drama, or it wouldn't have been convincing. I am supposed to be a greedy free trader, after all and a very successful one. "
"You were very convincing." Jenna wondered how convincing he would have had to be if she was of no use to him. It was a good thing that she didn't have to find out. She hoped she would be long gone before she did. There were already too many Avons in her life. She didn't want to spend the rest of her life chasing after them and making them all pay.
"Some wine?" Atton offered as he went to one of the containers and picked out a bottle.
"I thought you'd never ask."