David Brett-Andrews

1

"Funny. I was expecting someone older."

The pirate's gruff tone was accompanied by acrid puffs of smoke from the noxweed cigar clenched firmly between his rusty metal teeth. I fought back a coughing fit as I took a seat across from him.

"Funny," I replied as bravely as I could manage with my heart hammering a classical techno beat in my chest. "I was expecting someone uglier. Seems that's not possible."

He scowled at me from under bushy, hooded eyebrows, and I met his gaze evenly. From here, I could just make out the image of a cracked skull where his iris should've been. It was unnerving, sure, but it wasn't like I hadn't been expecting it: his ugly face was plastered on wanted posters and holoboards throughout the systems.

"Huh … so, you think you're funny, kid?"

I shrugged. "You tell me, seeing as how you managed to choose the name 'Skull-Eye Sinclair' all by yourself. You must be so proud," I added, forcing a thin smile. "And I'm not a kid. I'm thirteen."

Skull-Eye swiped up his wine glass and leaned back in his seat. "Oh-ho, thirteen is it, boy? My mistake, then. Why, when I was your age I'd already killed three men."

There went my heart again. Badabadabada …

"R-Really?"

"Oh, aye, lad: one for stealing half a million credits from a local backdoor casino. The second was a witness," he added, sloshing the wine around the glass. "I was sloppy back then, y'see."

"And the third?" I asked the question before my brain had a chance to catch-up with my curiosity.

Sinclair smiled. "Hmm …? Oh, the third was the manager of that very casino."

"What?"

Skull-Eye frowned, his one good eye drifting to the steel briefcase on my lap. "You sound surprised, lad," he said, ashen dreads cascading over his shoulder as he cocked his head to one side. "The manager had wised-up to the fact that I was the actually thief all along. Come to think of it, boy, I had to scratch-out him and everyone in the casino at the time. Implosion grenades under the roulette wheel, quick an' clean. So, that's roughly … twenty-six dead in all."

I knew what he was doing by this point, of course. Typical scare-tactics, and nothing more: by filling my head with tales of his dark past, Sinclair obviously hoped to throw me off-guard. He wanted me to believe every word of it, that he'd only improved with all the years that had passed (all fifty of them, it seemed), that he was more than capable of killing me if he wanted. Whether it was true or not didn't matter. What mattered was that I made him believe he had me where he wanted me, that he had all the power,

"Twen … Twenty-six, huh?" I repeated a nervous laugh.

"Yes, indeed. Good times, lad, good times. Oh, but I must be boring you, young master." He tilted the glass towards me before knocking it back in one loud gulp. Gasping , he licked his cracked lips with a bloated tongue. "Ahh … now, to business!"

"Finally." I sighed, my grip tightening on the leather-bound handle of the briefcase. "I was starting to doze off, there. What, did you go from imp-grenades to boring people to death?"

Yep, I was pretending to be a scared boy pretending to be brave. I oughta get an acting award for this.

Skull-Eye grunted. "Oh, no. I still use 'em. Take 'em everywhere with me, and I mean everywhere."

I hardly needed the emphasis or the tap of his glass against the table to get the picture. The scumbag had rigged the place, as I'd half-expected him to. Had it been the over-zealous act of an aging pirate, or did he know more than he was letting on?

Fighting back the lump clawing its way up my throat, I fixed him with a steely glare. "I thought we agreed, no weapons?"

He laughed at this apparent naivety, a raucous, eyes-screwed-tight belly laugh. I took the opportunity to dart my free hand under the table. My fingers instantly brushed against a cold metal cylinder and I snatched my arm back.

He wasn't bluffing.

Hoo, boy …

By the time Skull-Eye had calmed down, my hands were back to the briefcase. Opening his crusty eyes, he looked at me with what I guessed was a mix of contempt, amusement, and even more contempt.

"Oh-ho-ho-ho! No, lad – you demanded we didn't bring weapons. I decided not to listen to a thirteen year-old spug. Besides," he grunted, leaning forward to tap his cigar ash into my empty glass. "The grenades are more tools than weapons. And your 'rules' said naught about tools. Now … To business."

It was clear from his cold tone that the time for stalling had passed. Clearing my throat, I pulled the briefcase up to the table. Setting it down facing me, I looked back to Skull-Eye. He was already slavering at the thought of the case's contents.

"Alright," I said as I slowly turned the tumblers on the combilock. "But I don't see the datasheet you promised. I hope you're not thinking of double-crossing me?"

"Me, a notorious pirate captain, betray and outwit a thirteen year-old upstart?" Sinclair rolled his one good eye and dug a hand deep within his oilskin waistcoat. My breath caught in my throat, my grip tightening on the case. When he pulled out a rolled out datasheet, it was all I could do to stop myself from laughing with relief. "I wouldn't dream of it, lad. To be honest, I'm a little insulted."

My fingers hesitated halfway along the tumblers. "That's it?"

"Yes, Sir." He nodded, his leering smile adding to my suspicions. "A list of every notable pirate, gangster, murderer and otherwise un-gentlemanly scoundrel within seven systems – yours, if the money's right."

"It's all here, Sinclair," I promised.

His eyes narrowed. "It's Skull-Eye to you, spug."

"Whatever." I shrugged, adjusting the penultimate tumbler on the combilock. "I gotta ask, though: why is the mighty Skull-Eye Sinclair willing to sell-out dozens of guys who'd probably gut him the moment they discovered his betrayal?"

"You've got the answer in that briefcase," he answered with an unsettling grin. "Or, 'least you should have, unless you're planning any tricks?"

"No tricks," I assured him. "So, money? That simple?"

"That simple." He grinned. "One can never have enough credits, lad, or too few contenders for those credits. So, y'see, I benefit twice from this little endeavour."

"I see …"

"I highly doubt that," he grunted, crossing his hairy arms over a heaving chest. "But I wonder something myself; what use is such a list of scum and villainy for one as young as your good self?"

"That's none of your concern, Skull-Eye," I said, sliding the briefcase around so the combilock faced him. "You just stick to wondering how you're going to be spending twenty million, okay? Are we done here?"

He glowered at me, the datasheet crumpling slightly as he clenched his fists. I tensed, preparing for the worst. The a smile stretched across those cracked lips, and he dropped the sheet onto the briefcase. The exchange.

"But of course," he murmured as we both snatched up our respective prizes. After a few seconds of fumbling and banging, he looked back up at me with cold malice. "It won't open, boy."

I snorted derisively. "Of course it won't. I left the last tumbler unset. Soon as I check this sheet, I'll tell you the last number – and I wouldn't bother trying to randomly find the answer," I added as his blackened fingers drifted to the last tumbler. "It's a directional-lock combination, too. Spin it the wrong way, and the entire thing resets. Just give me a second …"

I unrolled the datasheet and glanced at it. Surprise, surprise – the thing was blank.

When I looked up again, it was into the business-end of an antique flintlock pistol . I cocked my head to one side, but the gun just followed me. "Really … bit old-fashioned, don't ya think, Sinclair?"

His upper lip twitched. "What can I say?" he growled. "I'm an old-fashioned pirate. Now, boy – the last number. And no tricks. Keep your hands where I can see them."

I glanced from the barrel of the flintlock to the briefcase, then down to the table (and the implosion grenade stowed underneath it). The next few seconds would be critical. One mistake, and I'd be dead – we'd all be dead.

No pressure, then.