People often ran to the West to be free from confrontation, to escape their old lives, only to discover that it’s the confrontation that sets them free. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Caitlin Murphy’s heart was pounding as she raced backstage, ignoring the applause coming from the main room of the saloon.
“Big crowd, Miss Caitlin. Mr. Sullivan will want you to do an encore.”
Caitlin looked up to see the puppy-dog eyes of Hank, the saloon’s janitor, who also doubled as the theater’s stagehand. Past middle age, Hank was as gentle as a child and on the simple side. Caitlin did not like playing the gentle soul for a fool, but she was desperate.
“If he comes looking for me, would you please tell him that I have a headache or something.” She would have said womanly troubles, only it would have embarrassed the stagehand so much he would not have been able to talk.
“Well, alright Miss Caitlin. But he’ll be awfully sore.”
“You’re a dear, dear man, Hank.” She went on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. No harm done, as she would not be staying in the saloon another night. “Oh, and if anyone else comes looking for me, I’m not receiving any callers.”
Without waiting for a response, Caitlin picked up her skirts and ran up the stairs. She slammed the door behind her, her eyes scanning her room frantically for Molly, her daughter.
The eight-year-old’s emerald eyes looked up from the book she was reading. Homer. In the original Greek. The surprise on her face faded in just a moment.
Caitlin nodded. Somehow Molly always knew. “You know where the travel bags are. Get Momma’s out. We’re going on a trip. Maybe to San Francisco this time. I bet there are a lot of books there you haven’t read yet.”
Molly simply nodded, and began wrestling a carpetbag from the closet that was almost as large as she was. She was beaming again by the time she got her own bag out of the closet and onto the bed. “Oh! I may get to practice my Cantonese. That could be fun.”
“Good girl.” Caitlin ducked behind her dressing screen and willed her pulse to calm enough so she could change from her stage clothes to traveling clothes. Stupid. She was so stupid. Just because they had had a few months of relative security here in Cottonwood Falls, she shouldn’t have started hoping that David would have given up his hunt for Molly. David thought of Molly as his, and he always said he took care of what was his.
Caitlin struggled with a final hook on her dress and then went to the cashbox on the nightstand. Good. Enough to buy two tickets to anywhere. They might even be able to change trains once or twice to throw off the scent. If they had time. Caitlin stuffed a third of the money into a purse and then divided the rest among her garters and the front of her dress.
“Now then, a few final things for me and a note for Mr. Sullivan asking him to sent the rest when we’re—”
A knock at the door. “Miss Caitlin? Caitlin Murphy?”
Caitlin bit her bottom lip so hard she drew blood. No denying it now. No one in this town knew her by that surname. Maybe if she let Molly out the window, she could stall long enough for her daughter to get to safety. She didn’t think David had anyone in the street watching the alley.
The knock sounded again. “Miss Caitlin? I am very sorry to disturb you, but it’s most important that I speak with you. It’s about your daughter.”
Caitlin clenched her fist, about to smash the window when, Molly moved forward. Before Caitlin could react, her daughter opened the door. Caitlin was there in a shot to pull her daughter away, but the damage had been done.
The man standing in the doorway was the same one who had spooked her in the audience with the way he had been studying her. He was incredibly short, just shy of being a dwarf, and dressed in a very new, very expensive brown suit. A golden watch chain gleamed from his vest. Pudgy hands played with the brim of a bowler hat, which had uncovered dark brown hair neatly combed, parted on the right. The lamp in the room glistened off eyeglasses so thick that they obscured the color of the man’s eyes.
He ignored Caitlin completely at first, and instead offered Molly a profound bow. “Salve, puella bela.”
Molly laughed and gave a little curtsey. “Salve, magister animarum.”
The little man chuckled in turn and looked up at Caitlin, to find her Derringer aimed at his head. Caitlin watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. “Madam—”
“Your specs. Take them off.”
The short man’s Adam’s apple bobbed again. “My eyeglasses?”
The Derringer made a cold figure eight in the man’s forehead. “I’m not joking, mister. Take them off. Now.”
With a quick glance aside to Molly, the small man did as he had been ordered. He blinked up at Caitlin with watery eyes. Eyes that were a perfect chestnut brown.
Caitlin felt her legs relax, but she kept her gun fixed on the man. “State your name and your business. Quickly.”
“Smith. Mr. John Smith, esquire.”
It was Caitlin’s turn to be surprised. “You’re a lawyer?”
“Indeed. I’m here about your daughter, Miss Caitlin.”
Caitlin’s fingers tensed against the Derringer. “I told her father that he would never get his slimy—”
“You misunderstand me, Miss Caitlin. I am indeed here about Molly. But as her advocate. And yours. I, or should I say, certain parties who have contracted my services, want to ensure that you have the complete and legal custody of your daughter. In perpetuum.”
Caitlin looked over at Molly. “He means I’d be yours forever, Momma.”
The Derringer trembled. To be free of David. To stop living on the run. It sounded too good to be true. “The girl’s father… I’m not sure he sets much store by courts or laws.” Caitlin studied the small man carefully before she continued. “He certainly doesn’t recognize the authority of any judge around here.”
The lawyer smiled and replaced his eyeglasses. “Trust me, Madam. He will recognize the jurisdiction of this court. Or the penalties will be far more severe than a fine or a few nights in jail.”
Trust. So easy to ask for, so hard to give. Molly’s father had asked Caitlin to trust him. And then he had shown his true colors. Literally. Oh, there was something compelling about this Mr. Smith, but Caitlin had learned long ago to put no stock in the words men said in the upstairs rooms of saloons.
A tug at Caitlin’s skirt. “Momma.”
Caitlin pressed her daughter against her hip. “Yes, my heart. What do you think of Mr. Smith’s offer?”
“I think we should go with him.”
Caitlin sighed and looked down into her daughter’s shining eyes. Still, Molly had a skill at reading people far beyond Caitlin’s own. She had never been wrong before. The Derringer disappeared back into Caitlin’s dress.
“Alright, Mr. Smith. We’re already packed. Where’s this court of yours, and how long will it take to get there?”
Smith took out his pocket watch and opened it. The device looked impossibly large in his small hand, and Caitlin had never so many dials and hands on a watch before. “Just a moment or two, Madam. If you would take my hand, and Molly yours.”
Well, she should probably shake on the deal, even if she still had her doubts. Why that meant the man couldn’t answer a simple question, she didn’t know. But Caitlin grasped Smith’s right hand and made sure Molly had her left. Her girl was staring up at the ceiling, almost as if she were trying to see something above the roof in the night sky beyond.
A faint tingle ran up Caitlin’s spine, and her eyes went wide. “What—”
She didn’t have time to finish. Smith did something with his watch, and it felt like a trapdoor opened under Caitlin. Her stomach sickened as if she were falling, falling, falling. Only the trapdoor had opened above her. She was surrounded by a million spinning stars. And she cursed all men and all lawyers under her breath.
The falling sensation stopped suddenly in a cool burst of blue light. It took Caitlin’s eyes a moment to adjust to the dimly lit chamber. The black of the walls was so intense that it hurt the eyes to look at them for too long. The room was so high that Caitlin could not see the ceiling. Directly in front of her was a rounded podium at least twice her height, at which sat three robed and hooded figures.
The centermost of the three began to speak in a flowing language with too many sibilants. Mr. Smith stepped forward and interrupted the speech.
“With all respect, your Excellencies, it would be less prejudicial to my client if this proceeding were to continue in a more familiar language and venue.”
Caitlin’s eyes went wide as the room around her began to shimmer and then to melt away like wax. Before she could blink, a small town courtroom stood before her, furnished in rough-hewn wood but clean. The three figures at the front had transformed into a judge, a sheriff and a circuit-riding preacher such as could have been seen in hundreds of towns in the West.
“Rightly spoken, Mr. Smith.” The circuit-rider’s lips did not appear to move as he spoke, and Caitlin could still hear the sibilant language as a kind of after-echo. She stared at the three individuals and felt a slight shiver, in spite of the preacher’s smiling face.
The sheriff was not smiling. In fact, Caitlin received a definite sense of disapproval from him. “If these…preliminaries are complete, we should begin.”
The judge nodded slowly, his face completely impassive. “Very well. Let the plaintiff in.”
In the back of the courtroom a door opened that Caitlin could have sworn was not there a moment before. Caitlin’s breath caught in her throat as a figure stepped through. It was David, Molly’s father. Or at least that had been the name he had used… Mr. Smith’s gentle touch on Caitlin’s wrist let her know that she had been clenching her fists.
“It will be alright, my dear,” the lawyer whispered. “Trust me. Trust Molly. And above all, trust yourself.”
Caitlin nodded though her eyes were fixed on David. Damn him. Still as devilishly handsome as ever, his fire-red hair combed in a rakish part. And she still felt the hypnotic power of his stunningly purple eyes. Not lavender, not even violet, they were a deep purple with flecks of black lightning. Caitlin forced her gaze elsewhere, focusing on his long, strong limbs, and those surprisingly delicate fingers. Each with its extra joint. An abnormality of his birth, David had said. Caitlin should have run that first night, or at least should never have looked back into the depths of those eyes.
Molly clung to Caitlin’s legs, burying her face in her skirt. She knew who this was alright. She knew what was at stake.
And then a second “David” walked through the doorway. Caitlin felt her legs grow weak as this figure was followed by a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. Somehow she knew these were not brothers, not even quintuplets. No, they were five exact copies of the same individual. As one, they turned their faces toward Caitlin and smiled, their teeth too perfectly straight. The smiles did not touch the five sets of eyes, where black lightning flashed.
“If the two parties would take their places,” the judge intoned. Smith squeezed Caitlin’s wrist again, and then led her and Molly to the table to the left of the judge. Still smiling, the five “Davids” seated themselves on the right. Caitlin found herself staring, wondering which of the five…
“The court is in session.” The sheriff’s voice startled Caitlin from her thoughts, a blush coming to her cheeks. “Close your hearts to all but the Truth.”
“The plaintiff may state his case.” The judge stared at the duplicate Davids with emotionless eyes.
The five Davids exchanged glances, and then all five looked at Caitlin before they turned back to the judge. “We ask only for what is mine-ours, your Excellencies. The child is of my-our genetic material. Therefore she is mine-ours.” A smile curled at the corners of five pairs of lips, and Caitlin found herself wondering how she had ever found the condescending bastard charming. “This backwater is no place for a child of her gifts. She will be a queen among my-our people, not trapped in brothel bedrooms, a little more than a foundling.”
Caitlin felt her rage bristle, but Mr. Smith laid a hand on her arm. She bit her lip but nodded at the lawyer. She would bide her time then, but she couldn’t take much more of this.
The Davids apparently considered their words sufficient, and Smith arose, all four-foot-nothing of him, and hooked his thumbs under his lapels before he began to speak. “Excellencies, the plaintiff speaks of his rights, knowing full well that the Confederation frowns on interference in worlds not yet ready for full membership. This world is certainly not a place for the Scarotti to find breeding stock—”
Smith was interrupted here by an indignant outburst from the five Davids in a language Caitlin did not understand. The judge had to hammer his gavel a dozen times before the quintet quieted itself.
“Such outbursts do not favor your case,” the judge said in his too smooth voice. Caitlin had yet to see his lips move. “Proceed, Mr. Smith.”
“Thank you, Excellencies. I only wish to add that the child has a name ”“ Molly ”“ and it should be up to her and her mother as to whether she is to be a brood queen for the Scarotti.”
The Davids looked like they were about to cause another scene, but a look from the sheriff silenced them. Caitlin tugged at her skirts and gave Molly an encouraging smile. But her Irish was definitely up as she leaned in to whisper to Mr. Smith. “What was that part about a ‘brood queen’?”
“The Scarotti are like honeybees, or ants. Most members of the species are just copies of each other. There are only few females. And they are waited on, hand and foot. Mostly because they are too pregnant to move for most of their lives.”
Caitlin clenched her eyes shut, willing Mr. Smith to stop. Willing her imagination to quit working. As long as she was alive, Molly would never be anyone’s ‘queen’.
On the witness stand, one of the Davids was giving a very biased account of how he ”“ they ”“ had met Caitlin and how they had created a child together. But the creature on the stand used all of these technical words that made it sound like Caitlin had entered into a contract to provide David with a child.
Caitlin wondered how she had ever thought “David” was human.
At last David’s monologue ended. Mr. Smith popped up immediately. “You contend that, given Molly Murphy’s genetic material is half Scarotti, you have legal right to her?”
“Yet your story clearly indicates that Molly Murphy is also half human. Why should that not entitle her mother to the same right of custody?”
The David on the stand blinked, as if that thought had never occurred to him. “Confederation law does not cover primitive species,” he finally said.
“Thank you for your admission. Non-Confederation planets indeed are under a different set of laws. In fact, Confederation citizens are bound to follow local laws in most legal matters when visiting such primitive worlds, are they not?”
Caitlin saw a flicker of anger in David’s eyes. “That is why I-we agreed to take part in this…trial.” Caitlin wondered what adjective he had mentally supplied in the pause.
“So you agree that the matter should be determined by the standards of the overwhelming majority of Earth courts? That is to say ”“ by the standard of what is in the best interest of the child.”
Again the David paused. “If I-we did not, I-we would not be here.”
“And you hold that becoming a Scarotti queen is in the best interest of Molly Murphy?”
The David blinked, again seeming to be surprised by the question. “The genetic superiority of the Scarotti is admitted by all. Plus, as a citizen of the Confederation, we can offer the child the wealth of the Cosmos. Knowledge, power, riches.” He fixed his cold purple eyes on Caitlin. “What can a broken down prostitute offer in comparison to this?”
Caitlin was on her feet before Mr. Smith could stop her. “Love. Kindness. A world of emotions you calculating bastard ”“ bastards ”“ could never understand.”
The judge banged his gavel. “The defendant will be silent until it is her turn to speak.”
“With all due respect, your honor, this whole trial is bullshit.” The preacher frowned, but Caitlin did not back down. “I’m sorry, but it is. Molly is my daughter, and I’m going to fight for her.”
The courtroom fell silent. Everyone, including Mr. Smith, stared at Caitlin. The being in the form of the preacher finally asked in a soft voice, “Does the defendant understand what she is saying?”
Before her lawyer could respond, Caitlin said, “Damn right.”
The sheriff turned to the Davids. “Is this challenge acceptable to you?”
The five men were grinning like wolves that smelled fresh meat. “Yes, Excellencies.”
“Excellencies!” Mr. Smith’s voice broke through, and then he paused, as if he were thinking something over.
“We consent to the change of venue, and agree to Scarotti trial by combat.”
Caitlin’s eyes went wide, and she tugged on Mr. Smith’s sleeve. “Trial by combat?” Her whisper hissed in the small man’s ear. “Are you crazy? It’s five against one!”
“Not exactly.” Mr. Smith wore a lopsided smirk. “Group being. Think of the Corsican brothers.”
Caitlin blinked, and then turned to look at Molly. Her daughter was smiling too. A few years back when Molly was learning French, she had read a story about two brothers from Corsica, and she had shared the tale with Caitlin. Something about one brother sensing the pain of the other… Caitlin found that Mr. Smith’s grin was contagious.
“If the defendant is quite done getting coached by her lawyer…” The words dripped coldly from the lips of one of the Davids. Oh, Caitlin was going to enjoy this.
The Davids stepped into the open area before the judge’s bench. Caitlin joined them. The judge looked from the five men to the woman. “Both parties have agreed to trial by combat, according to Scarotti law.” The sheriff and the preacher remained silent. “Begin.”
Predictably, the Davids surrounded Caitlin. Like a pack of wolves, toying with an injured lamb. But Caitlin was through being a lamb. She waited until the first David rushed her, pivoted in the direction of his run, and kneed him in the groin.
All five went down instantly, rolling on the ground. Caitlin kicked the other four for good measure. She had to make sure she got her licks in on whoever had been with her that night.
“Say uncle, you sons of bitches.”
A few more well-placed kicks were all it took to get the Scarotti to give in. As Caitlin looked up, she could have sworn she saw even the three judges grinning at the outcome before they resumed their Stoic expressions.
“The trial is over. Caitlin Murphy is granted custody of her daughter, according to the laws of the Scarotti and the Confederation.” The words were spoken by the three figures in unison. “Justice and the law are satisfied.”
The room went dark, and Caitlin suddenly found herself and Molly and Mr. Smith standing in a field, with the lights of Cottonwood Falls beyond. The lawyer was beaming.
“Well played, Miss Caitlin. Very well played. The arrogant bas—, err, so-and-sos.” The lawyer smiled mischievously down at Molly. “Too many people…out there were starting to take all the Scarotti propaganda seriously. Especially the Scarotti themselves. Fundamental flaw in that group mind of theirs. That will make the Scarotti think twice before they visit a frontier world again.”
A thousand questions swirled in Caitlin’s head, but there were more important things at hand. She scooped up Molly in her arms, and kissed her daughter. Then she bent down to give the lawyer a kiss on the forehead. Molly did the same. Caitlin could see the little man’s blush even in the starlight. “I don’t know how to repay you, Mr. Smith. I would never have been able to do it without you.”
“No need, Miss Caitlin. My fees have already been paid in full. You’re fortunate. Very few humans know of the existence of the…visitors among us. Much less the nuances of Confederation law. But I must say, rarely have I found my job such a pleasure.”
The lawyer turned away from the town, as if he were about to head off into the east, where the first streaks of color were showing. Caitlin rested a hand on his shoulder, and he looked back. “I have to know before you go. Who hired you for us?”
Mr. Smith’s eyeglasses twinkled. “Not all of our visitors are as…crass as the Scarotti, Miss Caitlin. Some have in fact become quite fond of us as a species. While I must be careful not to breach confidentiality, you may want to have a word with Hank back at the saloon.”
Hank? The handyman? Was he a human, or another creature from Beyond? Before Caitlin could ask any more questions, she realized that Mr. Smith was gone. Molly stirred in Caitlin’s arms, and she looked down to see her daughter yawn.
“Argellian. Let’s go home, Momma. I’m tired.”
Home. Someone you love. Those were things worth fighting for. Caitlin kissed Molly again and headed toward town.
Other works by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
- Command Performance (Jan 6, 2008)
- Command Performance by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt (Jan 6, 2008)