The jar of ingredients in her hand dropped to floor with a clatter. That forced smile melted from her face once she got a good look at the man in her doorway. With the sunlight behind him, it was hard to see details too clearly, but his silhouette was enough. He was a short man, bent with age and leaning heavily on a thick, gnarled cane. A narrow, furry tail twitched listlessly between his legs. Margie could see those skeletal legs and knobby knees, but most of his form was lost in a heavy greatcoat. "C-can I help you?" she stuttered.
The old monkey hobbled forward, his cane thumping on the wooden floor. His face was lost in flyaway hair and a long, white beard. A black tricorn rode low on his forehead, resting just above bushy eyebrows. His eyes were a clear blue, but they were crazed and wild, like a cornered animal.
"Aye, me cully, I think you can do me a pretty favor or two," he said in a silky voice that would have been sexy if paired with a younger body. His lips twisted into an insane grin. Margie saw rotted teeth and imagined she could smell equally foul breath. "I'm in need of a few provisions," he said, "but, to put it civil, I'm not of a mind to be spending me coin."
"You mean to rob me?" she asked. Margie's eyes were fixed on the trained pigeon that sat cooing on the man's shoulder. White streaks of bird droppings stood out against the red of his coat.
"Aye, you are a clever lass. Toothsome, too," he added, wagging his eyebrows lewdly.
"Aaack, toothsome!" mimed the pigeon.
The monkey's mad cackle made her skin crawl. "Seems Mr. Kuja's smitten with you, lass." He pulled a pistol out of his coat and trained it on her. It was one of those little hand cannons that would blow up in your face more often than not. "I hope you weren't thinking that you were more clever than old Captain Tribal. Try anything, cully, and I'll likely blow those pretty red locks right off your head, and your brains with 'em."
Visions of daring heroics had entered her mind, but Margie didn't dare with that iron dragon in his hand. He was just a feeble old man, after all. She wasn't particularly strong but could probably defend herself in a struggle. Now, the old lunatic was likely to kill them both if she tried to get away and summon help.
He waved the pistol toward an empty chair in the far corner of the store. "Won't you take a seat?" he asked. She complied immediately.
From here, Margie could no longer see the doorway. Still grinning, the man took a few steps back and called over his shoulder, "Come on then, Mr. Smee! This hold is ripe with booty!"
Someone else must have been waiting outside. Margie heard the steady thump like that of a cane, so she expected another senile old man. Her expectations were proven wrong for a second time that day once Mr. Smee came into her field of view.
He wasn't an old man at all, but a tonberry with a peg leg. A dirk gleamed in one hand, and the other hand held an empty canvas bag. A red and white striped bandana was tied around the dome of his head. Mr. Smee glanced once at Margie, made a few squeaks that might have been speech, and then turned his attention to the shelves of potions.
"Arrggh, you'll have to get your jollies at the brothel, Mr. Smee. Unless, of course, the lass misbehaves."
"Aaack, jollies!" cried Mr. Kuja.
Mr. Smee gave his captain a bemused look and squeaked again. Margie had an idea that Captain Tribal didn't understand the tonberry anymore than she did.
"What are you waiting for?" the old pirate asked. "Load up the goods! Leave the coin though," he said with a wink to his prisoner. "We've no need for that."
It was only by chance that they passed down Peridot Street during the robbery. Their official patrol route took them to the other side of the district and back before Peridot. On this particular day, though, Liese had begged for a stop by the Trick Sparrow, a little bar and restaurant that made one mean glass of lemonade. Wedge couldn't blame her. It was a hot, humid day. The heavy armor they wore on duty made the heat even worse. He'd decided to humor the rookie, and this bit of charity had put him in a pleasant mood. She could have her lemonade, and he and Biggs could have a few pints of ale. Strictly speaking, they weren't supposed to drink on patrol, but Liese would keep quiet, and it would make the miserable hours easier to bear.
The Trick Sparrow was only a few blocks away, but they'd have to make another stop first. There was no mistaking that crazy laughter.
"Looks like we may have a serious situation on our hands," Wedge said gravely, but he winked at Biggs.
"Yep," Biggs agreed. He'd heard the laugh, too, and knew Wedge had some plan in mind. He'd play along. "If I'm not mistaken, old Captain Tribal is in Margie's store, and I doubt he's just buying his medications."
Liese's eyes were wide beneath the visor of her helmet. "Who's Captain Tribal?" she asked. "Some criminal?"
"The worst kind," Wedge explained. "The captain doesn't do much more than theft in his old age, but back in the day he was one of the wildest airship pirates in the skies. Plundering, raping, murdering; you name any fiendish deed, and I'd bet a month's salary that the captain's done it fifty times or more. He and his crew were the scummiest criminals you could imagine." Ah, how he loved that look of terrible fascination! Liese was eating it up like all the other rookies before her.
Biggs picked up with his part right on cue. "They say it's just him and his first mate now. Age has about done the captain in, but he'll go on plundering, airship or no, until he's pushing up the daisies."
"In all these years, nobody has ever caught the old captain," Wedge said. "He's a wily one, that's certain." Wedge really hoped Tribal wasn't giving Margie too much trouble. She was a nice girl.
Liese was staring at the little potion shop on the corner. "If that's really him in there..." Her eyes were lit up with that crazy rookie glow, just like all the others. "We could catch him this time!" she shouted. "We could be the ones to finally arrest him!"
"Don't get too excited," Wedge cautioned. "I stand by what I said: he's a wily one. Still, I think I have a plan." He winked at Biggs again. Liese was too absorbed in delusions of grandeur to notice. "Come on."
Wedge led them up to the door of the apothecary. It was hard to say with all the hustle and bustle of the city around him, but Wedge thought he heard the clink of bottles and the familiar thumping of Tribal's cane. He knelt down on one side of the door, and Biggs covered the other. The rookie was hanging back, unsure of what to do.
Wedge motioned her closer. "Here's the idea," he began as she knelt beside him, bouncing on her heels with enthusiasm. She wouldn't be bouncing tomorrow. "Liese, you're going in there first."
"Alone?" Liese gasped. Her visions of glory all involved a pair of experienced guards backing her up. Just in case.
"Just listen, okay? The captain's no idiot. He'll see right off that you're wet behind the ears, and he'll lower his guard. He's dealt with hundreds of wannabe heroes, so he won't think there's any danger."
Liese was catching on now. "Then, when he tries to leave, you and Biggs will be waiting to jump him!"
"Exactly," said Biggs. "The old coot won't suspect a thing. All you have to do is go in there and make like you're arresting him. He'll laugh it off and walk right past you, thinking he's invincible. We'll clap him in irons at last."
That rookie gleam was stronger than ever. The girl was psyched.
"Go on in," Wedge told her. "Don't keep the captain waiting. Remember, Biggs and I are right here."
"Right." Screwing up her courage, Liese strode forward, threw open the door, and disappeared inside. Wedge pushed the door shut behind her, to keep Biggs and himself hidden of course.
"I do love breaking in the rookies," said Biggs.
It was impossible to miss Captain Tribal. Liese couldn't help but think he looked more like a harmless old man than a hardened criminal, but she wouldn't let that throw her. Wedge had said he was sneaky. He wanted people to underestimate him. Well, she'd fool him with his own trick.
Her entrance had made enough noise to get his attention. His back remained turned to the door, but he stared at her over his shoulder with wild eyes. "And who are you?" he asked. "Another fine lass come to keep an old man company?"
"I'm a Lindblum Guard," she said, brandishing her standard-issue hammer. "Theft is a serious crime. I place you under arrest, sir, in the name of Regent Fabul." Geez, she thought, that sounded so hokey.
The captain only smiled. Turning, he leveled the pistol at Liese. "You'll be dropping that hammer of yours, now won't you, me cully?"
Liese could feel panic rising in her heart. They'd warned her about such weapons at the academy. The miniature cannons were still very new, and most didn't work all that well. No one outside of the government was supposed to have one. If she tried to knock it out of his hand, there was a fifty-fifty chance that he'd shoot her, or he'd blast them all sky-high. She let her hammer drop to the floor.
"Aye, you're a good lass, so you are." He hobbled closer, cane in one hand, gun in the other. The pigeon on his shoulder ruffled its feathers. "Mr. Kuja thinks there's something off about you, dearey. You wouldn't be playing a trick on Captain Tribal, now would ya? I'm afraid I haven't got much patience for skullduggery, lest I be the one pulling strings."
"Skullduggery!" repeated the pigeon.
He'd seen through her ruse with ease! "No trick," Liese reassured him in a voice barely above a whisper. First that death trap in his hand had made her nervous. Now she noticed the first mate, a peg-legged tonberry loading a sack with potions. Surely this was the most absurd situation she had ever experienced.
"I see you staring at Mr. Smee, me dearey. Staring at his little knife, eh?" His crazy eyes bored into her. "At his little toothpick of a leg, eh? Think there's something funny about it, you do. I'll tell you something, me cully. Mr. Smee don't like it when people stare. He don't take kindly to it at all."
If the tonberry was bothered, he didn't show it. With his sack full, he waddled up to his captain's side, ready to leave.
The captain glanced back at Margie, who was still seated in the corner. "It's been me pleasure, lass! As for this other one, bind her hands, Mr. Smee," he said to his first mate. "She'll be enjoying our hospitality."
The tonberry shook his head and squeaked.
"Arrggh, what's this?" the old pirate cried. "Refusing me orders, Mr. Smee? That's mutiny, so it is!"
Mr. Smee rolled his beady little eyes. Ignoring the look of rage on the captain's face, he waddled off to the storeroom in the back and returned a few moments later with a bit of string. If the captain disapproved of the meager bindings, he didn't say so. With a squeaky mumble, Mr. Smee bound Liese's hands behind her back with the thin twine. He looked up at her and cocked his head, as if to say, "Play along, will ya?"
Liese didn't struggle as the tonberry guided her out the door at knifepoint with the good captain shuffling along behind. Biggs and Wedge were still crouched on either side of the door, but they made no move to help her. Biggs gave her a weak smile, and Wedge just shrugged.
Their destination was the air cab terminal across the street. Obviously the attendant saw them coming, and all he could do was gawk.
Captain Tribal pointed the pistol right at the attendant's gaping mouth. "We'll be borrowing this vessel, cully, if you've no complaints."
"None," the attendant answered and stepped aside.
"Such clever folk in this port," the captain said. "To the ship, me mateys!" Mr. Smee slide the door open, then prodded Liese until she boarded first. He pointed to the seats in the back before climbing into the pilot's chair. The captain and Mr. Kuja got on last. The step up from the pavement to the ship was a bit high for Tribal's old legs and bad back, but he managed it in the end. He sat heavily on the padded seat beside Liese.
"Plot your course, well, Mr. Smee!" he cried. "Our business is with the palace tonight!"
Wedge surveyed the interior of the shop. Nothing was damaged, but a fair number of potions had been stolen. "Crazy old monkey," he murmured. Margie hadn't moved from that chair in the corner. She looked worried over her stolen property and rather spooked. "Sorry you had to go through that, Miss Margaret. The coot's mostly harmless. I'll bet that gun wasn't even loaded."
"I'm fine, Wedge." She stood and ran her hands down her sides, trying to collect herself. The old man had taken quite a bit. It was money lost, and the rent would be due in a few days. "It's just-"
"Don't fret, Margie." He produced a scrap of parchment and laid it out on the counter. "Standard procedure. Just figure out how much the good captain took, and the palace will cover it as usual."
"Why would they-" Her voice trailed off, and her eyes grew wide. When she'd first heard the captain's name, it had sounded familiar. She hadn't been able to place it, though, but that nagging sense of familiarity had remained like an itch in the back of her mind. Suddenly it all clicked. "Is it really him?"
"Yep," Wedge answered. "Every time the Alexandrians come calling, they bring him along. Every time he gets out of the palace and raises a little hell. I'd just leave him at home, if I were them."
Margie's face still revealed her wonder, but she'd started figuring her financial losses, too. Her mother always called her the practical one. "It's sad, really. To see him so, I mean." She shook her head. "Imagine what it must be like for her, to see him so every day. I'd heard a rumor or two before, now that I think about it. They say she still looks after him, night and day."
Wedge could only nod. The royals weren't inclined to talk about old Tribal, but the rumor mill did more than enough talking in their place.
"She must really love him."
"I reckon so," Wedge said, but just to be polite. He didn't know much when it came to matters of the heart. His love life began and ended with a few dates in his earlier years, all bad ideas if you asked him. The only woman in his life was his widow sister, who had moved in with him a few years back. He supposed he cared about her, but most days he would have been happy to be rid of her. The old captain was just so much baggage now. They ought to give him a nice, quiet place to spend his days and just let him be.
"Well, take care of yourself, Miss Margaret." He took the scrap of parchment that now bore a scribbled total.
"You, too," Margie said, watching him leave. Her thoughts were lingering on the sum she'd written. The captain had taken many of her most expensive items. If the palace really compensated her, she earned more today than she usually did in six months. If Barnabus had stalked in at that moment, she would have laughed in his beaky-nosed face.
The sun was low in the sky when Captain Tribal finally dozed off for his afternoon nap. He'd been insufferable, making lewd remarks at every opportunity. At least he kept his bony hands to himself. Mr. Kuja had demonstrated his immense vocabulary of swear words. Now both pirate and pigeon rested peacefully in the corner of the air cab.
Mr. Smee dropped her off at the next street and gave her a vial of sleeping draught to apologize for the trouble. While not too familiar with this part of town, Liese was confident she could find the way back. Should she go back to headquarters, or just go home? No, neither of those would do. Her course was for the Trick Sparrow, and it wasn't lemonade she was after.