For a limited time, I’m sharing this short with my visitors. It will be included in a later anthology. Enjoy.
Repo Mo and the Ellie B.
Take one look at Evelyn Morris McAlister, and you forget any joke you might have thought to make about his name. Mo McAlister, fondly called Repo Mo in the business, is a bear of a man. His height is only average, but his breadth is considerable, and only a slight paunch suggests that any of his bulk consists of fat. When he is not smiling, it can be uncomfortable just being around him, but fortunately good humor wins out most of the time with Mo.
When I knew him, he really liked to work with his hands, and if you ever visited his home, you would see tiny, intricately carved figures in wood and stone, so delicately shaped it was hard to believe they had been formed in those giant hands. But in the days I’m talking about, people had gone crazy over imports from the colonies, and he had no luck selling his work locally. Mind you, Mo was a free trade advocate (Mo pretty much advocated freedom of any kind and may have been an anarchist at heart), but when the market bottomed out for fine hand work made on Earth, he had to seek employment elsewhere. And about the only thing he really knew how to do was bust heads and get in trouble.
That’s how he got into the repossession business.
Anything that Lloyds of London wouldn’t touch, could still be borrowed on and insured by someone in those days. Most of these so-called financing companies eventually disappeared, but in that period, one of Earth’s biggest exports was money, thousands of investors with millions of dollars to place, looking for quick schemes to double their money. Businesses commanding amazing sums of Terradollars with little or no reason to exist sprang up like mushrooms and disappeared as quickly.
When such companies went into receivership, the people who had borrowed money from them often hightailed it to the stars in the ships they had borrowed money to buy. Not a bad strategy, since most times it cost more to go after the ship than the craft was worth. Sometimes, though, the ship was worth more, or the company had principles, and when that happened, Mo would be called in. He freelanced his services, finding that left him more freedom. But he had gained quite a reputation for reliability among those people who followed such things, so he never lacked for work.
Though he swears it isn’t so, I think Mo was almost ready to get out of the repo business when Ellie came into his life. One thing is sure, on the particular job he was working when he met her, he was working for love, not money. Love of the ship he left home to repossess.
The Austrastar Company had made the mistake of selling one of its top-of-the-line spacegoing yachts to a con man with faked up credit credentials who had promptly blasted several light years away, outside the jurisdiction of Terran law enforcement. The distance was too great to financially justify anything but a writeoff, but there was a principle involved. They offered Mo no money at all, just a title to the ship and information about its whereabouts. He took the job.
The deadbeat had been traced to New Nevada, a long way from anywhere. He must have known there would be no point in trying to disguise the ship, because when Mo grounded at New Nevada, there it sat, the only ship on the landing apron of the planet’s only starport. The con man hadn’t even changed the name: The Ellie B.
When Mo is in a good temper, he’s very cooperative with authorities. He’s had his share of trouble with them, most often not because of serious violations, but because of his tendency to let the little things in life (like summons to court) go by. But mostly he preferred to stay on good terms with the law.
Accordingly, he wandered around the port a bit sizing up the security arrangements. Apparently, at this time of night, the port could afford only one customs official, a corpulent lump of a man in a sweat-stained uniform. To Mo, this official had the smell of a man who shouldn’t be given any authority, but the repo man always tried to withhold judgment of strangers. Mo struck up a conversation with the official, moving directly, but subtly, to the subject of the Ellie B.
“I swear that’s a pretty ship out there,” he offered.
“Yeah, she’s been here about a month, I guess,” the customs official returned, leaning back in a chair to thrust his pot belly toward the ceiling, “Guy that owns her comes in about once a week to pay on the docking fees. He still owes the port-of-call tax and a couple of other charges, and he’s a little behind on the docking fees. Don’t think he’s going to be around much longer. He’ll probably abandon the ship, and we’ll confiscate it.”
Mo nodded, folding his upper lip over his lower thoughtfully. “This guy seem OK?” In his repo work, Mo always had a dangerous soft spot in that he felt he had an obligation to know the thief from whom he would be stealing. To know the man for a man, rather than just another mark.
The customs official shrugged. “Dunno. I wouldn’t trust him. I think he’s got something aboard that ship, but until he tries to take it on-planet, I can’t do anything yet. He’s got it locked up tighter than schoolteacher’s nickers.” The sleazy official started laughing, and Mo took the cue and joined in, though he wasn’t sure what “nickers” were.
After the official’s belly had quit shaking, he yawned and stretched, the chair creaking under his weight. “But I figure in another month, he’s gonna go over the limit, and there won’t be any way he can buy it out of hock. Not much way to make money here on New Nevada unless you been here awhile or you’re lucky at the tables. Anyway, it’ll probably end up belonging to the port, and if the chief doesn’t want it, I been thinking I might pay the fees and get it myself. I always wanted to learn how to fly one of those things.”
Mo nodded agreeably, though the thought of this slug seated in the pilot’s couch of his ship (he had the title in his pocket) left him feeling a little cold, and he decided to go with his first impressions in judging the man.
“So how much you reckon he owes?” Mo asked, hoping there was an easy way out of this.
“Oh, I figure about two hundred thirty Terradollars, give or take ten. I’d be willing to pay that much for a ship like that one, wouldn’t you? ‘Course,” his glance hardened and he looked at Mo knowingly, “If the chief don’t want it, I’ll have first crack at it.”
Mo groaned inwardly. No chance of an easy bribe here, unless he wanted to pay the man nearly what the ship was worth. With the opportunity of owning such a ship, the customs official was not about to look the other way for a reasonable sum. So Mo left him sprawled out on the floor, sleeping peacefully, though when he woke he would be in significant pain.
It was a long walk out to the ship, but Mo didn’t hurry. He had been on places like New Nevada before. If they only had one customs official on duty, chances are there would be no one in the tower to notice him around the ship. The noise and vapor would be noticed when he took off, but by then it would be too late to do anything. The Ellie B. could outrun anything this planet could mobilize to chase him. Besides, he had title and had carefully left three hundred Terradollars to cover the fees. The worst they could get him on would be leaving without clearance and assaulting an officer. Since he had left another one hundred fifty in the officer’s pocket, he doubted there would even be that problem.
The sleazy official had been right when he complained about the Ellie B’s being locked securely. Signs of clumsy attempts to force the locking system showed he had spoken from firsthand knowledge. But repo men have to stay one step smarter than their targets, and the system was the standard design for Austrostars, so Mo was inside the ship in a matter of moments.
Once inside, he was surprised to find the passageways lit and the ventilation system on. A profligate waste of fuel for a ship in port. He moved straight for the bridge.
It wasn’t until he eased his bulk into the padded pilot’s couch that it hit him: the Ellie B was now officially his. He grinned as he adjusted the padding on the couch to fit his muscled form. The former owner of the Ellie B had been a much smaller man, and no doubt would have yielded the ship to Mo’s imposing, bulky figure anyway. Mo’s blue eyes glittered with satisfaction as they roamed over the instrument panel. He had only studied the basic specs on the ship, and the sight of half a dozen expensive optional instruments he had not expected filled him with pleasure. The Ellie B. was a ship you could live in while you traveled the universe in safety, comfort, and at a speed fit for an impatient man.
He checked the fuel gauge first. Despite the waste of running life support systems on an empty ship while in port, the fuel gauge indicated enough fuel to get him to Reliable where he could buy more. He began the checklist, flipping switches with one hand and running a finger of the other down the list. Gradually the ship came alive, with pumps whirring up to speed and indicator buzzers starting a muted symphony. Lights flashed from red to green one by one. Mo glanced out the viewport at the terminal building. People were stirring there, and soon someone would find the unconscious customs man or notice the sound of the ship. Mo grinned. It wouldn’t matter, because he was ready to go — now.
The Ellie B. rumbled into the night sky of New Nevada. The flame lit the whole of the apron, only to be partially obscured by the smoke of the exhaust. Then, as the frantic figures poured out of the terminal the sound of the Ellie B. gradually died away.
In freefall orbiting New Nevada, Mo labored over the navigation instruments. Navigation was his greatest weakness, as he tried to link up places he wanted to go with numbers he needed to feed into the ship computer, and he hated it. Nonetheless, he attacked the task with the patience of a craftsman working in his craft, checking and tediously rechecking his figures. Mo did not intend to die of starvation because an error in navigation left him drifting without fuel. Finally entering in the course, he settled back in the couch and watched the ship take over the job of getting him to Reliable.
“Who are you?”
The tiny voice behind him startled him into bounding from the couch, though belts restrained him and sent him into a comical, fruitless struggle. Finally, gooseflesh creeping all over his body, he managed to disengage himself from the couch and sit up to look at the speaker. A little girl, perhaps five or six, floated in the corridor at the entrance to the bridge. Hair of gold tinged with platinum floated out from her head in freefall like a halo, and she wore a nightgown that balooned gracefully out from her body. Solemn gray eyes peered at him from a round cherubic face.
Mo was astounded. A buzzer went off behind him, and he looked at the control board stupidly. “Uh, acceleration in ten seconds,” he said to the girl, “you better get into the copilot’s seat and strap down.” She nodded and pushed off from the hatch expertly, drifting over to the couch. Mo wriggled over to help her strap in and was surprised to see that the couch was already adjusted to her size. So this diminutive girl had been on board quite a while, at least during the ship’s last flight.
Mo strapped himself in as the acceleration began and the illusion of gravity returned to the ship. The navigation computer would remind him when it was time to secure for subspace, so he turned his attention to his unexpected passenger.
“Well, young lady –“
“My name is Elaine Regina Bixley. Everyone calls me Ellie. What’s your name?”
Mo broke off, understanding immediately that the ship was the child’s namesake. Was the deadbeat her father? What would he do now?
“My name is Ev — My name is Mo McAlister.” Mo studied the girl, her hair now no longer floating, and in need of brushing.
“Are you a repo man?” she asked simply.
Mo was taken aback, but the girl spoke so seriously and in such an adult tone that he could see nothing but to reply on an equal level. “Yes, I am,” he said.
“Uncle Steve said we might see you. Is he with you?”
Mo swallowed before answering. “No, he’s still somewhere on New Nevada, I guess.”
Ellie nodded thoughtfully, and idly picked at the strap with slim fingers. She frowned for a while in silence.
Mo cleared his throat before speaking, “Is your Uncle Steve — does he –“
“Oh, he’s not really my uncle. I just call him that. He’s been taking care of me for a while since Uncle Bernie died. Of course, Uncle Bernie wasn’t my uncle, either. He was taking care of me when Tiny went to jail.”
Mo held up a huge hand to silence her. “Don’t you have a mother or father?”
“Used to,” she sighed, releasing the buckle and climbing out of the couch. The rumble of the engines had evened out and the ship was stable. Mo decided to let her move around if she liked. “I think they died,” she continued, “‘Cause nobody would ever tell me where they were. Tiny was a friend of my father’s, and the lawyers told me I got left to him in the will, sort of.”
She walked over to stand beside him, her gray eyes boring into his blue ones. “Are you going to ditch me?”
“Ditch you? What do you mean?”
She shrugged. “Throw me out a lock, dump me on a planet, teleport me to the middle of a star. I don’t know.”
Mo tore his eyes from her questioning ones and looked at the instrument panel. “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, kid. I can’t take you back to New Nevada. Maybe when we get to Reliable I can get you passage there so you can get back to your Uncle Steve. But I won’t ditch you.”
She seemed relieved at his answer, and turned to go back to the copilot’s couch where she sat swinging her thin legs back and forth. “Prob’ly no point to sending me back. I figure Uncle Steve is just as glad to see me gone. I don’t think he ever quite knew what you were supposed to do with little girls.”
Ellie’s matter-of-fact assessment of her former guardian approached Mo’s thoughts too closely for comfort, and he squirmed uncomfortably in the couch. Then another thought struck him. “So, how long have you been on this ship, Ellie?”
“Since we left Earth, just about. We came to New Nevada and Uncle Steve couldn’t afford two entry passes, so I stayed on board while he tried to raise money to get the ship out of hock. I don’t guess it was working too well. He seemed awfully unhappy last few times I saw him.”
So the little girl was the cargo the customs official had suspected. And the explanation for the active light and ventilation system. “Did you have enough to eat on board?”
“Oh sure, the galley’s full of food, and I’m a great cook for my age. You hungry?”
For the first time since meeting his passenger, Mo grinned. “Yeah, I guess I am. What you got?”
The voyage to Reliable was fairly long, but when they arrived, Mo decided not to send Ellie back to New Nevada and her former “guardian.” (Somewhere, I imagine, there is a con man named Steve who is a little relieved but a whole lot sadder, now that she’s out of his life). Instead, the repo man and his unexpected guest copilot laid in a course for Earth. To see me. The trip from Reliable to Earth is three weeks long, and by the time they landed, I suspect Mo was hopelessly captured by those shining tresses and solemn gray eyes.
Jeannie, my secretary, showed Mo into my office, then went back out to the reception area to entertain Ellie.
“Thanks for seein’ me on such short notice, Judge,” Mo began, sitting on the edge of the leather chair.
“Don’t mention it, Mo. Always glad to repay a favor. Helen loves the figurines. Keeps them in the dining room to show off to all our snooty friends,” I watched the ham-like hand wave deprecatingly and noticed the contrast between this competent, uncomplicated giant and the simpering barristers who usually occupied that chair. “I take it that your visit involves your small friend out there talking to Jeannie.”
“Yeah,” he replied, glumly, “I guess I need you to try to find out something about her. Her name is Elaine Regina Bixley. I was hoping — Well, maybe she has some family somewhere.”
I nodded and wrote the name down on a slip of paper, buzzing for Jeannie at the same time. When she came in, I handed her the paper, and she left. I didn’t need to tell her more. Best damn secretary I ever saw, much less had working for me.
“Suppose you tell me all about it,” I said, leaning back in my chair. Mo is a natural story teller, with plenty of interesting events to make listening to him worthwhile. This story promised to be one of his best, and I was not to be disappointed. So he began with the offer from Austrastar and methodically, colorfully described each relevant detail. Halfway through his story, Jeannie came back in and handed me a printed sheet. “‘Scuse me a minute, Mo,” I said, holding up my hand, and Mo quit talking. Jeannie waited while I scanned the paper, then I looked carefully at Mo. “Well, Mo, it looks like there’s no family living.”
The look that came over Mo’s face told me what I needed to know. A man in his position might be expected to show disappointment, frustration, concern, or any number of other negative emotions at the plight of the girl or the problem of his own assumed responsibility. Instead, relief visibly relaxed the worried frown he had been wearing since he came in. I wrote a few notes on the sheet of paper and handed it back to Jeannie. She left without a word.
Mo continued his story up until the point he had sat down in my office. “I’m not sure what ought to be done, judge, but I figured you would know.”
“Well, there are a lot of children out there like Ellie, or at least in her situation. What would you like me to do?”
He just shrugged.
“Normally in a case like this,” I continued, “I would turn Ellie over to child protective services, and they would try to find a foster home. To be honest, with the wars in East Asia, we’ve quite a lot of refugees, and it might be months before she could find a home. In the meantime, she would be well cared for in the city orphanage.”
Horror swept across his face, and he shook his head. “No, judge, I can’t let you do that. She don’t belong in a home.”
I nodded. “If there were family, I would simply assign custody of her to a responsible family member. Without family living, I could do the same with a friend of the family, so long as I was convinced of the quality of the home environment.”
Mo looked uncomfortable at that, and stood up to walk over and look out my window at dirty streets. “What is your interest in all this, Mo?” I asked gently.
“I don’t know, judge,” he replied to the window, “I know I shouldn’t even think about taking her. I don’t have nothing much to offer her. Lord knows I don’t understand myself, much less six-year-old girls. But these past few weeks –” he turned to face me. “You got to understand, she’s like a grown up half the time and like an innocent angel the rest of the time. She shouldn’t be in a home or with strangers. She should be with someone who cares about her.” Words failed him, but his stubby fists were clasped into two white-knuckled balls. I nodded.
“Why don’t you take me out to meet this young lady?” I said, getting up from my chair. He nodded dejectedly and we walked out into the reception area. When we stepped into the room, Jeannie handed me the blue papered document, and I passed it to Mo without reading it. He began puzzling over the legalese as Jeannie introduced me to the young lady that had captured the tough man’s heart. “Judge Daley, this is Elaine Regina Bixley — Ellie.” The blonde-headed cherub thrust a tiny hand out, and I shook it solemnly.
“Good afternoon, Judge Daley. I’m pleased to meet you. You know, you have a very nice secretary.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, too, Ellie. And you’re right she’s a wonderful secretary,” I replied with equal solemnity. “I understand you’ve had quite a trip recently.”
“Yes, in the Ellie B. It’s named after me, you know. She’s really a good ship, and Mo promised to teach me to pilot her someday. Right now I’m only the cook, but I’m a very good cook.”
“Judge, wait a minute,” Mo interrupted, his voice strained. He waved the blue paper back and forth between Ellie and himself. “Does this thing say what I think it does? Are you giving me custody?”
I nodded, “That is, unless you don’t think you should get custody.”
“Oh, no, that’s fine,” Mo said, hastily.
“Does that mean you won’t be ditching me?” Ellie asked him.
“Right, Ellie. It means I’ll never ditch you. We’ll stay together always, or until you’re grown up enough to pick your own ports of call.”
“Well, good,” she said, accepting the news happily, but without excitement. She took Mo’s huge hand in her own small one, “That means that it’s OK that I’ve invited Jeannie to eat dinner with us aboard the Ellie B. tonight. And she’s accepted. She’s really very special, Mo, you’re going to get along with her just fine.”
Jeannie was smiling quizzically after them when they left, but I had an uneasy feeling about little girls’ abilities at prophecy.
Ellie must have been right about Mo and Jeannie, because I never saw my secretary again. A couple of days later, she sent a note with a photograph. The note apologized for her abrupt departure and announced her marriage to one Evelyn Morris McAlister. The photograph was a picture of the three of them, with Ellie in the middle, thin arms around both. I returned a note with absolution, a modest gift, and my best wishes for their happiness.
I almost never hear from them, communications being what they are. But Mo found his solution. In my office is a carving from one of those high-class import shops. I don’t normally buy art imported from the colonies. I still think it’s a silly fad that bankrupts the local talent. But in this case I made an exception. It’s an exquisite piece, carved into a perfect delicate likeness of Elaine Regina Bixley McAlister.