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The Astoundingly True Tale of José Fabuloso

This chapter originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue.

Chapter 8

In the end it was over three days before their second passenger made her appearance. José added to his bottle collection, the old man to his prescriptions, Squirrel got to look in hundreds of shops and O’Riley thoroughly outwore his welcome with the dock hands.
“Lady Chemmanoor? Lady Sundarshina Chemmanoor?” asked M’Elise in doubt. She handed over her passport and M’Elise looked from her to the document and back. “I’m sorry” she stammered. “I expected you to look more like your sister.”

Chemmanoor laughed easily. “We’re only sorority sisters.” She had a finely chiseled face the color of delicate porcelain. Her almond eyes were framed by a razor-straight fringe of black hair. She wore a single sheath dress of very supple animal skin, pierced in a radiant pattern, the lining forming the contrast. It was dyed black, as were her lips and nails. A matching wheeled case accompanied her in the airlock.

“Is there more to come?” asked M’Elise.

“No. I travel light.” M’Elise smiled, a little puzzled and escorted her to the guest cabin, picking up Squirrel en route.

“My Lady Vasweswaran. Your sister has arrived.”

She leapt up from the chair. “Sundarshina darling!” Then paused, on her face a frozen expression of graciousness.

Chemmanoor parked her bag in a corner. “Vanilika. It’s been… so long.”

“Yes,” said Vasweswaran, deadpan. “I hardly recognize you.”

“Oh, ha ha.” She stroked her hair. “I met the most amazing surgeon in Coventry!”

“Splendid! Splendid. I can see we have a lot of catching up to do.” Their eyes flashed like daggers.

M’Elise took this as a departure signal. “We leave within the hour. Dinner will be served two hours after transition or when you ring for it.” They smiled a dismissal in her direction without taking their eyes off each other.

“That was weird,” said Squirrel to M’Elise as they left, closing the suite doors behind them.

M’Elise shrugged. “Rich people are. Not our concern. Let’s just get off this expensive dockside.”

“Um, M’Elise?” asked Squirrel hesitantly. “I’ve wanted to ask… Are you and José…?”

M’Elise looked at her quizzically, drawing the awkwardness out, and then laughed. “No, no. We aren’t lovers, or brother and sister, like the universe seems to think. He’s just someone who needed someone to stand up for him. And I guess I’m just someone who hates to see someone taken advantage of.”

“You’re kidding, right?” said Squirrel. “I thought you were all about taking advantage of the rich man.”

M’Elise shook her head. “They deserve it, for being stupid and smug and superior. José… would never say a bad thing about anyone. Never complained about doing the crap duty of a whole ship. Yet he’s the one that got beat up all the time. It wasn’t fair.”

“I guess I see your logic. He is kind of sweet, when he’s keeping his hands to himself.”

M'Elise pointedly looked at her neckline and raised an eyebrow. “Remember your last profession was all about making people want to touch and not letting them.”

“I did it for the dancing. I love to dance!” she said defensively.

“I’m sure you did. I’m sure you do. But I’m sure that’s not why they slipped silver talents into your g-string.” Squirrel looked annoyed but didn’t say anything. “We all do what we need to do to get by. God knows I’m not proud of what I’ve had to do to make a living.” She gave her a sympathetic glare.

“One more thing” Squirrel asked. “Can I sit on the bridge? I’d like to learn a bit about how the ship works?”

“No screaming?”

“No screaming.”

“OK, then. We’ll give it a go. You can run dialog with station control.”

The work helmet they gave Squirrel had its own earphones which filtered out the blare of the proximity sensors. The narrow view also blocked enough of the view screens that she did, in fact, make it from launch to transition with only a few yelps.

Dinner was served without incident and when her shift was over M’Elise took her duffel down to Engineering and got about slinging another hammock. “How’s she cutting?” asked O’Riley.

M’Elise shrugged. “Our sorority sisters are getting on like Loki’s children at a family counseling session. But at least they are occupied with each other and not us. José apologizes for burning out gimbal twelve. He’s still discovering the limits of the ship.”

“No problem. It’ll give me something to do” said O’Riley cheerily. “New ships are boring that way. Nothing goes wrong.”

“Then why do you sleep in a pressure suit?” asked the old man. “It’s not the most reassuring when your chief engineer is afraid of explosive decompression.”

“It’s my security blanket. My teddy. It keeps away the nightmares.”

“If you think Squirrel can scream, you should hear Riley,” laughed M’Elise. “Remember that asshole Captain Redpath?”

“He was a nasty piece of shite.”

“Used to think it was funny blowing the atmosphere valves to see how quick we could fix them.”

O’Riley chuckled. “He got his comeuppance though.”

“What happened to him?” asked the old man.

“Died in mid-transition” said M’Elise. “Auto erotic asphyxiation. At least that’s what I put on his death certificate.”

The old man chuckled. “I’ll have to remember that one.”

“The José Fabuloso, mark I” reminisced O’Riley. “What a rust bucket.”

“This gets better” said the old man. “You stole his ship?”

“Nah” said M’Elise. “His will was clear. He left everything to us. All aboveboard.”

“That’s the nicest bedtime story I’ve heard in a long time. Almost makes me forget about the pain in my bowels…”

“Oh, no. He’s off again.” O’Riley slid the faceplate of his suit shut. M’Elise rolled over and tried to ignore the diatribe.

“I’m worried,” said Squirrel. “It’s been twelve hours and they haven’t buzzed us once. Not even for espresso.”

“Maybe they are tired” said José. “Or maybe they don’t know they should buzz for more food.”

“Trust me,” said Squirrel, “they know. They barely left off it for several hours after transition.”

“Hmm. Rich people not clamoring for attention is pretty unusual” said M’Elise. “Unless it’s just a twisted way of clamoring for attention. Let’s ask Riley.”

“How would he know?”

“He’s got spy cams in all the bathrooms.”

“What?!?” said Squirrel in alarm. “The bathrooms?”

“Yeah, he has a thing for girls pissing”. José blushed. “I don’t even pretend to understand. I gave up trying to stop him ages ago.”

“You mean… he…” Squirrel stuttered.

“I just make rude gestures and hold up a sign with ‘pervert’ written on it.”

“I wondered why that was in there,” muttered Squirrel.

M’Elise flipped a few buttons. “Hey Riley. How long since our treasured passengers used the head?”

“Eleven and a half hours” he answered. Squirrel made an incoherent sound in her throat. “Looks like they can really hold it or have a thing for doing it in handbags.”

“Something’s up. I wouldn’t put it past a rich person to lock them in the cabin in some twisted sense of melodrama. However, two women not using the toilet after 12 hours? No way.” She headed toward the cabin, the others followed, Squirrel fuming.

M’Elise pressed the knock button on the door. “Lady Vasweswaran? Lady Chemmanoor? Your breakfast is ready.” There was no answer.

“Do you want me to bypass it?” asked O’Riley, arriving on the scene.

Squirrel turned and slapped his face. “Pervert!”

“Ah,” said O’Riley, holding his cheek. “You told her.”

M’Elise sighed. “File it for later processing. We’ve got wealth in distress. Open it.”

He fiddled with the lock for a few seconds and it clicked open. He stood back for M’Elise. She opened it a fraction. “Lady Vasweswaran? Lady Chemmanoor?” She opened the door a little further and stuck her head in. After a few more moments she slid it full open for everyone.

Vasweswaran sprawled in her chair, a tipped cup of espresso on one armrest. Blood flecked her lips and nostrils and she lay very inert. In her hand was a long, slim and very elegant pistol. It pointed roughly in the direction of Chemmanoor, who lay uncomfortably draped across a side table, stiff limbs with tacky rivulets of blood stuck to them.

“Forty gods on a buttered cracker! They’re dead!” exclaimed Squirrel. “I swear it wasn’t the espresso.”

O’Riley gingerly examined the gun. “I don't think it was the espresso.”

“Hel’s ledger. The paperwork for this is going to be a nightmare” said M’Elise.

“What?” asked Squirrel.

“I’ve processed a death-in-flight before and it was awful. Now two! Or maybe…” she thought for a moment. “The paperwork for transporting dead bodies isn’t that different than for live ones. It wouldn’t be too hard to forge...”

“I can’t believe it” said Squirrel. “Two people have died here and you are more concerned about the paperwork?”

“I thought something like this would happen” said the old man.

“How could you possibly?” shouted Squirrel.

“These dames don’t look like any sorority sisters I’ve ever seen. And who would be dumb enough to pay the ridiculous price you put up for this ship unless they had ulterior motives?” said the old man. M’Elise glared at him and bristled.

O’Riley, who had been going through their luggage, held up a few choice armaments. “It looks like they were expecting trouble. Live by the sword. Die by the sword.”

José stroked Squirrel’s arm. “You have never seen a dead person?”

“What are you, nuts? Of course not!”

“She’s young,” muttered the old man.

“It’s OK” said José. “Someday we will be dead too. As long as we lead good lives we’ll be OK.”

“José,” said M’Elise quietly. “Take Squirrel back to the galley and make everyone some espresso. Then stitch up some body bags from the sheets. Riley, go through all of their stuff. See what you can find useful and any hint of a next of kin, preferably far away, that we can ship them to. I’ll… prepare the bodies.”

“What about me?” asked the old man.

“Clean up the mess.”

Late that evening Squirrel nervously served everyone espresso.

“The stiffs are all bagged and cooling their heels in the closet this ship calls a cargo hold. The temperature is low enough that they should keep till we port,” said M’Elise.

“It’s creepy how you know these things” said Squirrel.

She shrugged. “I read it in the hazardous substances almanac three hours ago. You don’t need to know everything, just where to look things up. Riley, what did you find?”

“The Sundarshina chick traveled so light I’d marry her if she weren’t dead. Her bag just had some skimpy ultra compressed clothes and a make-up kit.” He raised a finger. “But that makeup kit sent the toxicology scanner into the deep end. I had to recalibrate it twice with bleach. She probably was a killer kisser.”

“Well at least she’s out of the dating pool” said the old man.

“Seriously,” said Squirrel.

“Vana, on the other hand, was carrying enough arms to outfit a small army. Pistols, rifles, grenade launches, microwave stingers, you name it. All small, compact and silent. And her clothes, all voluminous and stylish, but more pockets then a kangaroo. I’m always wanted to meet a woman who could carry her own keys and now she’s dead.”

“More material for you, Squirrel” said M’Elise.

Squirrel hesitated. “I’m not sure about messing with some dead woman’s stuff.”

“Consider it a down payment for the amount of grief they caused us.”

“But why did they kill each other?” asked José. They all sat in silence for a bit.

“They look like assassins,” said O’Riley.

“Or government agents,” said Squirrel.

“Then why would they kill each other?” asked José.

“Maybe someone got the paperwork wrong” said M’Elise. They looked at her askance. “What? The whole point of organized crime is that it’s organized. You can’t have organization without paperwork. With paperwork comes bureaucracy and with bureaucracy the inevitable occasional glorious screw up.”

For some reason the old man found this completely hysterical.

“So it was a mistake?” said José.

“It certainly was a mistake at some level. I can’t see it really accomplished much,” said M’Elise. “Other than make our lives more complicated.”

“Isn’t that the goal of the universe?” asked O’Riley. “Oh, wait. Belay that. I found this,” he handed over several small calling cards. M’Elise passed them around.

“The Harmonious Sorority House with an address on Tufts”, read M’Elise. “That’s a good eight jumps from here. Great! We can ship the bodies there.”

“It doesn’t sound like any sorority house I've heard of on Cincin” said Squirrel.

“It sounds more like a brothel” said O’Riley. “Then again, that doesn’t differ much from the sorority houses I’ve been to.”

“It sounds like a secret society” said José.

“I didn’t see any identifying tattoos on the bodies,” said M’Elise.

“You guys watch too many movies” said the old man.

“I knew I should have volunteered to strip the bodies down” said O’Riley.

“How’s the cleanup?” asked M’Elise.

“The carpet is bleached, the walls sanitized, the linens changed and the pillows fluffed” said the old man. “Of course I’ve strained my back, and will be in pain for days. Not to mention what the fumes from the cleaning agents do to my breathing…”

“Good job,” said M’Elise, quickly cutting him off. “Do you want to move back in, José?”

“Yes, please!”

“Ugh!” said Squirrel. “How could you? Someone died in there?”

“They said in school that all our parts are made from dead suns,” said José. “Maybe something good will come of it.”

“Great” said M’Elise. “I can move out of engineering. Sorry pops, your nocturnal flatulence would turn Thor’s stomach.”

“And people say I'm crazy sleeping in an environment suit,” quipped O’Riley.

To be continued...