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Author's Chapter Notes:
tagging along
At first, they were pretty sure Roxy was gone for the night again, but when she turned out on deck in the morning, Shades could only guess that she had slipped aboard quietly last night.

As she headed for the gangplank, Shades and Justin had to hustle to catch up with her.

“What do you want?” she demanded point-blank. “If it’s about the ship, I dropped the kid some coin for the room last night. I’m a bounty hunter, not a cleaning service.”

“No, it’s not about that,” Shades assured her, “we just want to tag along.”

“Yeah,” Justin added, “We wanna see what it takes to be a bounty hunter.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me…”

“Actually, I’m quite serious,” Shades elaborated. “You know that I’m searching for two old friends of mine, but I’m starting to reach the limits of what my own investigative skills can turn up. The only way I can think of to move forward is to learn some new methods.”

Both of them had to keep walking to keep up with her as she continued her stride toward the port town.

“I see…” Roxy replied, appraising him. After a moment of contemplation, she appeared to have a change of heart, instead asking, “And I suppose your friend is just in it for the money?”

“Come on,” Justin shot back, “just because I used to be a streetrat, doesn’t mean I only care about the bottom line. And if it happens to put a few outlaws out of business, I won’t complain about getting paid.”

“I hope you paid attention during our voyage here,” the bounty hunter cautioned, “because this sort of work isn’t for just anybody. And what of Max? Does he want to be a bounty hunter, too?”

“I don’t think so,” Shades answered. “Now that the Excelsior is more, shall we say, presentable, he’s trying to help the Young Master search for some new clients and crew.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Roxy commented. “Of course, a kid like that can be a real trouble magnet. If we don’t find any good leads today, I might just have to see who he hires next…”

“You just said we,” Justin pointed out, “so does that mean we’re in?”

“Not so fast.” She held up a hand as they turned to a nearby shack with a mouthwatering fried aroma wafting from it. “This place has excellent seafood and reasonable prices for it. Since we’re not stranded in the middle of the ocean, perhaps we should discuss business the old-fashioned way.”

And so they sat down to lunch, ordering a variety platter the place called the Catch of the Day.

“Let’s start with the tools of the trade,” Roxy began. “I’ve already seen most of your arsenal, and while it could use some improvements, it’s a decent start. After all, some bounties are wanted dead, and others alive, so it’s good to have some options, especially for capturing and holding prisoners. The most important thing with any weapon, though, is being able to use it effectively.”

She then reached into her hip pouch, fetching out a small datapad they had seen her consult a couple times during their voyage.

“While it’s not an absolute necessity, I don’t know how I ever got along without it,” she explained. “Not only can I download updates from anyplace that has a relay beacon, but I can also enter and organize any information of my own about people, places or events, and it can even cross-reference it. You, Shades, would definitely benefit from a tool like this.”

“You’ve already sold me on it,” Shades answered her, making a mental note to look into it later.

“So tell me,” Justin piped up, grinning ear to ear, “would that thing have any info about a fella called Rude Bones?”

“Probably not,” she snorted, “not anymore. I told you before, he’s been out of the game for many years.”

“So, seriously, you’ve heard of him?” Shades remarked.

“Only by reputation,” she reminded them. “Back then, he was known as the Madman of Kimo Daji. Probably had one hell of a bounty on his head back in the day, but that was before my time. After all these years, I doubt anyone cares enough to front a reward for him now.”

“I see.” Justin nodded.

“Kimo Daji?” Shades cocked his head. “I wonder why he never talked about it, given how proud he always seemed of his pirate days…”

“For the same reason a lot of pirates and outlaws don’t make a habit of dropping details,” she pointed out. “Even if no one’s offering a reward anymore, there’s no guarantee someone somewhere doesn’t still hold a grudge, or how far they might go to have their revenge. And Kimo Daji is a place full of dangerous people. A pirate port, run by a loose coalition of gangs and Pactra, far away from the authority of other governments.”

“I’ve heard the name,” Justin commented, recalling some hushed talk about it around Benton seaport during his years in the Triangle State, “but only in passing.”

“Anchor Point has clearly enjoyed a long period of political and economic stability,” Roxy reflected, “but some places don’t have that luxury. Other pirate haven ports may come and go with the political climate, but Kimo Daji seems to be stuck in a situation where it can never go legit, as the whole island chain of Kara Danjo has been a lawless realm for as long as anyone can remember. According to most locals, even the name ‘Kara Danjo’ means ‘Chain of Troubles’ in the ancient native tongue of those islands.”

Danjo… Shades filed away a mental note to ask more about that name when they weren’t discussing business.

“You sound like you’ve been there before,” Justin mused.

“Once,” she snorted, “years ago. Though even I’d need a damn good disguise to ever set foot there again…

“Whichever group is in charge always charges a toll keep their own enforcers on the street. Being a criminal enterprise, the top dogs come and go with the tide. Black Market Bazaar is an open marketplace— unlike most black markets— that deals in drugs, arms and other hot merch that’s varying shades of illegal in most realms. Unlike most places, they maintain an Above Board trading policy, and prefer their clients to be only minimally armed, as the entire island is considered neutral ground. No coalition wants a gang war, as it’s bad for business. Those who cause trouble are no longer welcome without paying blood fines or reparations to wronged parties, as well as a cut for the bosses.”

“Sounds almost like government by mafia…” Shades concluded. “I wouldn’t have thought that could function for long without the law to keep its own tendencies in check.”

“Make no mistake,” she cautioned him, “it can be a very dangerous place when things get heated. The original Striker was once known as the Queen of Kimo Daji, but she was eventually ousted by her rivals, and her Pactra instead took to the high seas, which is where most people have heard the name. The other islands of Kara Danjo have little enough control over their own territories, so intervention in Kimo Daji is rare, and never ends well for whoever sticks their nose in. From what I’ve heard, they are mostly impoverished mining and fishing ports, that sort of thing.”

“Sort of like the Konas…” Justin thought aloud.

“But we’re getting way off topic,” she resumed. “Timely info is critical, as most criminals are on the move, and constantly looking over their shoulder. If you’re always one step behind, you’ll never catch up with them.”

“And then when you do catch them,” Shades tried to imagine the next step, to find that the law, at least in his world, didn’t really offer much in the way of options, “do we actually have any legal authority to arrest them?”

“That can go very differently from one realm to the next,” Roxy cautioned them, “but a lot of places will honor a publically posted bounty, just to get dangerous criminals off their streets. You’re gonna want to stow that Fair Play mentality of yours if you plan to hunt outlaws. It’s one thing to fight when your back’s against the wall. It’s a whole other business when you go out looking for a fight. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.”

“So you just capture them?” Justin scratched his head.

“It’s not always that simple. Unless they’re already wanted for something in that place, you’ll need proof. Like when we showed them Mercer’s contract and cargo manifest. Even then, it helps to have a reputation, as some places don’t seem to mind jailing criminals, but will try to weasel out of paying the bounty if they think they can.”

From her tone, they guessed she was talking as much from personal experience as anything else she’d told them.

“Just keep in mind,” she continued, “the people we’re after are anything but innocent. No one would’ve put a bounty on them if they didn’t do something to someone.” Turning to Shades: “These are the sort of folks someone like you has always gone out of your way to avoid and keep out of your life, and you,” taking in Justin, “probably steered clear of whenever you could, so never let your guard down out there.”

Good advice, Shades reflected, even when you’re not looking for trouble. As he learned a long time ago, even when you’re minding your own business, sometimes trouble comes looking for you.

“Now, there’s one last thing to go over before we get down to business,” Roxy pointed out: “The pay. Since you’re apprentices, I’ll keep half the reward, and you’ll each take a quarter.”

She could see Justin trying to suppress a scowl.

“And as long as you don’t trip me up, we’ll talk about even thirds next time.”

“Very well,” Shades agreed.

Justin nodded silently.

“Remember, this is a limited partnership,” Roxy warned them, “so if you screw this up, there won’t be a next time. Now it’s time to start talking about the case. I have a couple leads on someone selling illegal salvage here in the seaport, but it’s not going to be an easy investigation. These people are as secretive as smugglers, since their game is also Black Market.”

“Illegal salvage?” Justin cocked his head. “What’s that?”

“This inlet sits on a shelf, just off the edge of a deep trench,” Shades fielded this one. “Combined with the sudden storms that can come from out there, a lot of ships have been lost over the years. You remember the Seeker, from our stay in the Konas? Well, the local authorities charge a salvage fee to fund their Port Authority, to keep pirates and smugglers in check.”

“Exactly.” Roxy nodded. “Because of the potential value of some of this cargo, the last thing they want is to have pirates prowling around. The licensing fees and registrations also allow them to regulate the surface vessels most salvage operations work from. This helps keep the salvage market itself manageable, but it also means some parties will pay under the table to get their hands on certain kinds of salvage.”

“Like gold?” Justin suggested.

“Now you’re catching on,” Roxy told him. “While the scrap metal market is pretty tame, there are plenty of other things down there that will draw the criminal element if the price is right.”

“So you’re thinkin’ maybe three sets of eyes and ears will be better than one?” Shades intoned.

“Only if those eyes and ears are discreet,” she pointed out, “and have some idea what they’re looking for. Because of our situation, my reputation precedes me here, which mostly works against me in an investigation, as a lot of this town’s troublemakers already seem to be avoiding me. Shades, you’re not very… approachable for seedy types, so you’re probably better off just fading into the background and keeping an eye out for anything amiss, since you seem to be fairly observant. Justin, you seem a lot more at home on the streets— no offense— so you’re better positioned to talk to people who’d go out of their way to avoid me, or your friend, so see if you can’t strike up some interesting conversations out there.”

“Out where?” Shades asked.

“Oh yeah, I forgot to mention,” the bounty hunter added, “all of my leads are in a rough part of Anchor Point called the Cyexian Quarter, so stay sharp.”

“Cyexian… Quarter?” Justin mumbled.

“It’s not all Cyexians,” Roxy assured him, “but all of the island’s Pactra operate out of there, so watch your step. And keep in mind, not all Pactra are criminal groups. A few are also more legit, like social clubs or civic groups, so you’d do well to pay more attention to activities than people if you’re not familiar with the local Pactra. And naturally, it wouldn’t do for all of us to go strolling in there at the same time, so meet me at the Timbers Lodge in a couple hours. I’ll approach you when the coast is clear.”

With that, she tossed a few coins and bills on the table and turned to leave with a flutter of her cloak.

“Hey! What about the rest of the bill!?” Justin blurted.

“What about it?” Roxy asked. “I never said I was going to treat you, did I?”

“She’s got a point.” Shades shrugged, reaching for his wallet.

“And that will be my first lesson,” the bounty hunter informed them: “There’s no such thing as a free meal, and never trust anybody who offers you one, because there will always be a catch. No matter what they say, they always want something from you in the end.”

The two of them just turned and looked at each other for a moment as she strode away, the whole thing putting Justin in mind of an old saying from the Triangle State: If wishes were fishes, beggars would feast.