Romancing the Stone: Stage IV


Darrel W. Beach

Looking for story notes?  You'll find them in Chapter 1.


     Tom wasted little time after dinner to stake a claim on the pool table, and to prepare for the evening ahead.  The crowd in Sandrine's was a bit thin, but understandably so considering the early hour.  As he waited for the bartender to fill his order, Ricki slid up beside him at the bar.  "Care to buy a lady a drink?"
     Tom smiled.  He knew she'd find him soon after his arrival - she always did - but he welcomed the distraction nonetheless.  Her brand of attention was precisely what he needed after the lousy day he'd been through.  "Philippe, pour one for the mademoiselle as well, s'il vous plait," he said, not taking his eyes off her.
     Within moments two drinks appeared on the counter before them.  Without ceremony Tom picked up a glass and drained the contents within.  The artificial liquor pleasantly burned on the way down.  He'd needed that, too.  He promptly ordered another.
     "Something on your mind you'd rather forget?" Ricki asked.
     "There's not enough alcohol in the whole quadrant to do that job," he joked.  "No, I just need a little help loosening up for tonight's action with Harry."
     She chuckled.  "Don't tell me your nervous."
     "Nervous, me?"  He picked up his drink, just arrived.  "Come on, Ricki, I used to be a pro at this game.  What reason would I have to be nervous?"
     "Well, he is your best friend."
     Tom swallowed the last of his drink and plunked the empty glass on to the counter.  "I know - that's what makes this so fun.  Don't look at me like that, I didn't hear you protest too much the night we talked about this."
     Ricki pouted slightly.  "I know, but I still feel kind of bad for him.  He's just a kid who doesn't know any better."
     "Trust me, this'll be a good lesson for him, and who better to learn it from than his best friend?"  In his visual periphery Tom saw Harry walk through the tavern entrance.  "Speaking of Harry, here comes our guest of honour now.  It's show time.  You ready?"
     The hologram smiled coyly, slipping effortlessly into her role.  "I'm always ready...and willing."
     This would be a real test for his friend, who had agreed to take a low-keyed approach to tonight's events.  He leaned a little closer to Ricki and put his hand on her knee, sure that Harry was now close enough to see.  "Well, I might have to take you up on that sometime."
     Harry cleared his throat.  "Hey, Tom."
     He looked up and couldn't hide his amusement.  It looked like Harry was trying to disguise his distress, and failing.  "Hi, Harry.  Is it 1930 hours already?"
     "Uh, yeah.  You've been here a while?"
     He shrugged.  "Must be about half an hour.  Wanted to make sure the table was reserved for tonight."  He turned back to Ricki and pulled her tight against his body.  "I guess time flies when you're having fun."
     Tom looked at Harry again, still looking uncomfortable.  "Gee, Harry, you look a little tense.  Something wouldn't be bothering you now, would it?"
     Harry forced a smile, recognizing the challenge.  "I don't know what you're talking about, Tom.  Nothing's bothering me at all."
     You're a terrible liar, Harry.  Tom grinned.  "Glad to hear it.  The table's all set, whenever you're ready."

     He had to credit Harry; the ensign shook off the anxiety in a hurry and played a decent game of pool.  Tom barely had to misplay a shot at all, which suited him fine.  It would make it much easier to sucker Harry if he didn't suspect anything.
     He put his arm around Ricki and watched with interest while his friend lined up the potentially final shot.  Either Harry didn't notice or chose to ignore him, he was obviously too determined at this point to be distracted by anything.  In one quick stroke the black ball slammed into a corner pocket.  The cue bounced off the railing and drifted back towards the middle of the table, out of harm's way.  "Game," he announced, smiling proudly.
     Exactly the frame of mind Tom wanted him to be in.  Time to bait the hook.  "Why don't we make it more interesting this time?  Let's add some table stakes."
     Harry didn't even bat an eye.  "What kind of stakes?"
     A nibble.  "I don't know."  Tom pretended to think for a moment.  "Hmm.  A couple of replicator rations, maybe?"
     "Don't do it, Harry, he's hustling you," Ricki warned, all part of the routine.
     "Wait a minute."  Harry stepped in front of her.  He seemed amused by her suggestion.  Tom couldn't knock his confidence.  On any other night Harry could have almost challenged him.  Almost.  "Are you saying he deliberately let me win?"
     Tom gasped.  "That would be dishonest, Harry."
     By now they had earned a respectable audience, interested in Harry's answer: was it really a legitimate win?  Harry shook his head.  "I won that game," he said, reaching for the ball rack, "and I'll beat you again."
     "How many rations are you willing to bet on that?"
     Harry glanced briefly at the people watching them.  He pointed the triangle rack at Tom in a bold gesture.  "A week's worth."
     The crowd buzzed, but in amusement.  Tom shook his head and plucked the rack from the ensign's hand.  "Harry, Harry, Harry.  Never, ever play with anyone - not even your best friend - if he says 'Let's make it interesting.'"
     Now it was time to reel in the prize.  He tapped the triangle on his palm thoughtfully.  "But you want a little action?  I'll give you a little action."  He set the rack on the table.  "How about an honest game of chance?"
     "Never play with anyone, even your best friend if he offers you an honest game of chance, Harry," Ricki said.  Tom gave her an amused grin while he emptied out the table's pockets.
     He raised his voice to make sure everyone in the bar could hear.  "One replicator ration is all it takes to play and all you have to do is pick a number.  Just predict what the radiogenic particle count will be at 1200 hours tomorrow and if you hit, the pot is yours," he explained as he walked around the table, eventually coming back to Ricki's side.  "Minus a small handling fee for the bank, of course."
     Almost immediately the room filled with the shouts of people eager to make a wager.  "Harry, get a PADD.  Take down these names and numbers."
     "I'm in too," Harry said, hustling over to the bar for a PADD.
     Tom shared a conspiratorial smile with his accomplice as he watched his friend direct the throng of gamblers.  The bait had been swallowed hook, line and sinker.

     A tensely excited atmosphere filled the mess hall.  Tom couldn't help but notice it as he selected a morning meal.  He recognized the feeling from his time spent in the Maquis camps: something was up and it wasn't good.  Leena sat nearby practically inhaling her breakfast, looking as grimly determined as he'd ever seen her.  It reminded him of the first few weeks they'd worked together.  Not a good sign.  In that state of mind she might not want to talk to him, but he decided to risk it.  "You ought to slow down a little.  You could choke if you're not careful, or at least get indigestion."
     "If I wasn't needed back on duty right away, I would," she said, swallowing hard and shovelling more food into her mouth.  "What do you want?"
     Tom used the question as an invitation to sit.  "Listen, about what happened yesterday, I was having a bad day and I blew off my frustration on you.  I shouldn't have done that and I'm sorry."
     Leena kept eating.
     "Okay, I deserve that.  I promise the next time you want to discuss something I'll stop whatever I'm doing and give you my undivided attention."  He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  "Tell you what, just name any night you want to have dinner and I'll make sure my calendar's open.  I'll cancel my other plans if I have to."
     Leena put her utensils down on the table surface and looked at him.  "Tom, I've got bigger things to worry about than a dinner date, but I don't suppose you've even noticed that.  All you've done since you sat down is talk about yourself.  Aren't you even the slightest bit interested as to why I'm in such a hurry to report for duty?"
     "Well, now that you mention it, I did want to ask if you knew why everyone around here is on alert."
     "Ensign Darwin was murdered last night.  Lieutenant Torres found his remains in an EPS conduit just over a couple of hours ago."
     Tom reeled from the news like a sucker punch.  "What?"
     Leena nodded.  "Lieutenant Tuvok confirmed it with the Doctor.  Darwin was apparently bludgeoned to death and disposed of in the conduit.  We're lucky there were remains to be found."  She resumed eating.  "I've been assigned to organize the search teams to locate the weapon, that's why I'm in a rush.  We may think we're a small ship, but you'd be surprised how big it is when you're looking for something hidden inside it, especially when you don't know what you're looking for."
     Tom pushed his tray aside, the conversation curbing his appetite.  "I still can't believe somebody on Voyager would actually kill another member of the crew.  Any leads on who did it?"
     "Maybe.  There weren't many people on duty in Engineering at that time of night.  Aside from Darwin, Crewmen Suder was the only one to see him before it happened.  Lieutenant Tuvok should be questioning him now."  Her brows knitted thoughtfully as she chewed and swallowed.  "I can't believe Suder would do such a thing."
     Tom laughed incredulously.  "What's so hard to believe?  He's a Maquis, of course he did it."
     The noise level in the mess hall all but ceased.
     Even Leena was stunned by his pronouncement.  "Tom, we don't know for certain he did it.  Just because he's a Maquis doesn't automatically make him guilty."
     "Wake up and face reality.  I spent months with these people.  Violence and death is the Maquis way of life.  If they didn't need the manpower to run the ship they probably would've killed all of us a long time ago."
     "You arrogant bastard!" a male voice shouted.  All eyes turned to an angry Kurt Bendera being restrained at a table across the room.  "The Maquis was about protecting the lives and homes the Federation abandoned.  The Cardassians would have wiped out every last colony if we hadn't fought back."
     "Oh, that's right, we were fighting for a noble cause," Tom answered with a sneer.  "That makes it perfectly acceptable to bomb civilian areas on Cardassian colonies, or kill the crews of innocent Federation cargo freighters during raids."
     The fight left Bendera, but he remained angry.  "We did what we had to do to protect the colonists.  Sometimes that meant doing the regrettable, but it was nothing less than what the Cardassians were willing to do first.  I don't expect you to appreciate all we did for the colonists.  You were just in it for the money, after all."
     "Believe me, Kurt, the importance of your 'noble cause' wasn't lost on me at all," Tom said, standing.  "Why else do you think I got captured on my first mission?  I wanted to be caught.  I never would have lived with myself if I'd stayed with the Maquis."  He leaned over the table to look squarely at Leena.  "I really hope Suder did it.  He deserves to be locked away, and so do the rest of these criminals."
     Tom left the mess hall, leaving a slack-jawed Leena Calloway to stare after him.

"I'm worried about him, Julie.  He's been acting strange the last few days."
     Strange how?  Ensign McCormick's voice was slightly pinched as it piped through the comm system.
     Leena checked her tricorder readings for traces of Darwin's DNA, which would tip off the location of the murder weapon.  Nothing.  "Like that argument we had yesterday, and this morning in the mess hall he publicly condemned all of the Maquis crewmen for Mr. Darwin's death.  It's like he's going out of his way to pick fights with anyone.  At first I thought he was just trying to weasel out of our relationship by making me break it off, but now I'm not so certain."
     You think his brief excursion into Lizard Land affected his brain?
     She shook her head.  "It's a possibility, I guess, but I don't think so.  The Doctor may be a hologram but he knows what he's doing.  I'm sure he would have detected any abnormalities in Tom's neural patterns.  No, something else is going on.  Just wish I knew what it was."
     Well, at least your relationship problems actually involve one.  Marshall doesn't seem to have a clue that I'm interested in him as more than just a friend.  He's been talking about missing his wife and family again since the Threshold experiment flopped.  It's discouraging - and depressing.
     "Why would you chase after a married man, anyway?"  Leena came to a junction and turned right as instructed by her search pattern.  "That could result in some serious complications.  Suppose you two finally get together and a month or two later we find a way to get back home?"
     I'll worry about that bridge when I cross it.  There's no point playing 'what-if'.  I like Marshall.  We share a lot of common interests.  As long as we're way out here, why not take the opportunity to be happy?  We could be out here a long time.
     Leena absorbed her friend's argument.  "I hadn't really thought about it like that."
     Lieutenant Tuvok's voice cut into the comm line.  Security teams one through three, proceed to Deck 7, Section 24 immediately.  Crewman Suder has provided me with information regarding the location of the murder weapon.  It is a two-kilogram coil spanner, hidden behind a comm line access panel.  Check in as soon as you have located the object.  Tuvok, out.
     Julie's voice was sober.  I guess this is a good time to close our conversation, huh?
     Leena started sprinting toward the nearest turbolift.  "Agreed.  See you on Deck 7.  Calloway, out."

On to Chapter 5...

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