Chapter 25

Locke glanced down at the canvas sack he was carrying. It wouldn’t have gotten him past anybody worse than the dumbest guard... if they were looking for him.

There wasn’t anything actually technically illegal about carrying a musket or rifle in Figaro, and in its container, that was kinda what the artifact he’d picked up looked like. Kinda.

Of course, carrying a rifle or musket around in the castle, and trying to conceal it (trying and failing, even), was more than technically illegal.

Fortunately, Locke was in pretty good graces. “Hell, I helped save the world,” he muttered. Yeah, right. For about half the Figaroan soldiers in the castle, mostly the new recruits who had filled out the ranks when veterans got shipped off to lead other units, Locke was an object of more than a little hero worship. Normally, that embarrassed the hell out of him. Right then and there, he sure wouldn’t have minded it much.

Unfortunately, to the veterans who’d been around since before the war with the Empire, Locke was and would remain just a thief - useful, sure, but just a thief.

He’d given up on trying to get them to understand that he was a treasure hunter.

His thoughts were interrupted by the impact of the digging module with its docking coupling. Locke glanced down at the artifact and (carefully) patted its side. “Don’t go off now, little buddy,” he said. With some of the things he’d seen down there, he wouldn’t have been surprised if the artifact could hear and understand him. In any case, it made him feel better.

Getting out of the weird facility had been a heck of a lot easier than getting in. Locke had been worried for a while, but eventually the dull female voice that had been periodically announcing a security alert died down, and the glass door Locke’d come through opened, and even the water was gone.

He’d seen some pretty elaborate security systems, but flooding the whole tunnel was... a little extreme. Either that, or it was a natural tide. Yeah, must have been. That explained the algae and the musty smell.

So he’d gotten lucky there. Luck was about the only thing Locke could count on.

To drive home the point, he was greeted outside the digging module by something, or at least somebody, who he was pretty sure he couldn’t count on. “Welcome back, Mr. Cole,” Ghaleon said. “I trust your investigation went well?”

“Like clockwork,” Locke said. He knew the expression better than he knew how clocks actually worked, but that was beside the point.

Ghaleon looked down at the sack in Locke’s hands. “And this is..?”

Locke followed his gaze. He carefully opened the top of the sack, enough that Ghaleon could see inside but nobody passing by could.

“Excellent,” Ghaleon hissed. “Exactly as I thought it would be.”

“Great,” Locke said dully. Ghaleon was reacting about how Locke’d figured he would. Locke’d also figured on Ghaleon not wanting to hold up his end of the bargain.

When he was working with the Returners, Locke had dealt with a lot more hardened criminals than he himself had ever been. He’d had to, to buy weapons or information out of Vector.

About a third of those deals had ended up with Returners and criminals at each others throats, and about half of those had ended up with plenty dead on both sides. It was luck again that Locke was still alive and kicking.

Ghaleon acted all stuck-up, but at heart, he was probably just like the kind of people Locke had had to deal with. And that meant, as far as Locke could see, he’d want to rub out anyone who knew about the deal.

Locke came to a decision. “There wasn’t much in the way of other treasure there,” he said.

“I did not anticipate that there would be,” Ghaleon said distractedly. “I will give you the locations of other, more... profitable locales soon.”

“Uh-uh.”

That got Ghaleon’s eyes off the artifact. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘uh-uh’.” Locke closed up the bag and pulled it back. “And ‘uh-uh’ means I’m gonna hang on to this baby for a while. You haven’t been holding up your end, and I’m starting to think maybe you just want to get rid of me.”

“If you cannot see anything beyond the most immediate gratification-”

Locke glared. “If I can’t, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Ghaleon’s calm was back - damn, the guy was creepy! “In that case, Mr. Cole, perhaps I should inform the duly constituted authority of our partnership. I have, in essence, already been caught. Because my services are useful, I remain largely free.” From the way Ghaleon said ‘largely’, Locke figured it wasn’t largely enough to suit him. “You do not provide such services, Mr. Cole. I wonder, will friendship be so efficacious as utility? And what is friendship without trust, anyway?”

Locke wasn’t going to back down. Sure as hell he wasn’t going to back down now, not after a threat like that. If he handed the artifact over to Ghaleon, well, he’d get turned in anyway. That was the way things like that worked.

Damn!

“Sounds like we’re at a stalemate,” Locke said.

Ghaleon smirked. “If you will not turn the relic weapon over to me, Mr. Cole, you will lose at the very least your integrity with your friends. Possibly more. I, on the other hand, will lose a useful but hardly necessary tool.”

“Like hell. I saw the way you looked at this thing.” Locke shook the bag, a second later wishing he hadn’t. The last thing he needed was having the piece of junk go off now.

“Did you?” Ghaleon could have been discussing an extra piece of bread for all the care he put into his words. “Go ahead and keep the relic weapon, Mr. Cole. For now. So long as you are capable of hiding it, it is as useful to me in your hands as in my own. Furthermore, I am being watched more closely than you.”

Ghaleon turned and walked back up the stairs from the digging module port.

Locke glanced at the sack in his hands. He’d won, right?

Somehow, it didn’t feel like it.