"Good!" Lucy says by way of greeting. "Come on in and sit down. We gonna use the living room."
"Jeez," Rosa says, grinning. "Must be something important going on." Lucy makes a snorting sound and heads into the kitchen to tend the coffee. Her living room walls, what Rosa can see of them under and around the baseball memorabilia, are bright yellow, and the furniture mostly matches. Over one armchair lies a knitted throw in black and white – the Bears' colors, and Lucy's handiwork, Rosa assumes. Rosa and Yosef sit down as the front door buzzes again.
"I gonna get it." Lucy emerges from the kitchen. "Probably be just them."
"Them" turns out to be Aunt Lucy's one actual genetic niece, Bobbie Lacey, and a lanky blond Blanco that, Rosa realizes, must be Jack Mulligan. At the sight of them Yosef repeats his imitation of a frozen rock, though he does murmur something in response to the round of hellos. Every sentient in the Republic knows Bobbie Lacey's face, with its big blue eyes and triangular smile. It was all over the three-dee some eight months previously, when she got herself mixed up in the crisis surrounding the Republic's first contact with the Enzebb species. As for Mulligan, he has a certain reputation himself, as a semi-pro-ball shortstop, and, it turns out, Yosef knows him.
"Hey, Joe!" Mulligan says. "Give 'em hell tonight!"
"Hey, Jack! I'm planning on it." Yosef finally moves, getting up to shake Mulligan's hand. "Good to see you again."
"Again?" Aunt Lucy comes out of the kitchen with a tray full of coffee mugs.
"Met him when we did that benefit game for the Porttown scholarship fund." Mulligan helps himself to a mug. "Just cause I play lousy semi-pro ball dunt mean I dunt, like, get asked to stuff like that."
"You don't play lousy ball even if it is semi-pro." Yosef seems to be about to say more, but all at once his eyes get wide, and he sits down fast. No doubt he's just remembered why the major leagues never signed Mulligan.
Aunt Lucy passes out coffee, then waves her hand at the various chairs.
"Get comfortable, will you? I dint ask you here for old home week. Bobbie, like I told you on the comm, we got a serious problem."
When Lacey sits down in a ratty armchair, Mulligan sits on the floor between her feet, crossing his long legs and leaning back. Aunt Lucy sails the tray into the kitchen, winces at the crash it makes, then takes a wooden chair nearby. She sits on the edge and cradles her coffee mug in both hands.
"Yosef here got a little secret," Aunt Lucy begins. "Got a blackmailer on him."
"Gamblers," Lacey says. The word is not a question.
"That what I thought too, but he say no. Tell her, chico."
Yosef hesitates. When Rosa elbows him in the ribs, he starts talking.
"Well, uh, you see--" Yosef pauses for a sip of coffee. "It was a couple of nights ago, and this guy came up to me when I was waiting for my cab home. Or wait, no, I forgot about the letters. For a couple of weeks I've been getting these letters. They kept saying someone knew my secret, and I'd be hearing from him. So when he came up to me, I figured it was the same guy, and it was." Another gulp of coffee, and he goes on. "He shoved himself into the cab with me. He told me he knew what I was hiding, and so I'd better do him a favor."
"Wait a minute," Lacey breaks in. "This guy, what did he look like?"
"Kind of ordinary. Skinny, as dark as me, dreadlocks. He was wearing a nice suit, looked like a businessman."
"Ah. Not a lot to go on."
"No." Yosef sounds apologetic. "I've never seen him in full light. But he wants me to take something to Sarah, smuggle it in, I mean, in my luggage. And I don't care what he says, I can see myself getting caught. What would that do to the team?" He glances at Rosa.
"Get everyone mad as hell or depressed, or both," Rosa says.
"Yeah. So I figured it'd be better if I got put on the DL."
"The what?" Lacey says.
"Disabled list," Aunt Lucy puts in. "Dint you learn nada in school?"
Bobbie grins at her, then considers Yosef over the rim of her coffee mug. He's sitting slumped forward, staring miserably at the flowered carpet.
"C'mon, Mbaye," she says. "What's he holding over you?"
"Uh well." Yosef looks up, looks away. "I'm, uh, well a an unregistered psychic."
Mulligan flinches, turning his head as fast as if someone had slapped him. "Shit." He whispers so softly that Rosa can barely hear him. "Oh shit. Would be that, huh?"
"Yeah," Yosef says. "And I don't see you playing pro ball like you deserve."
"Now wait a minute," Bobbie says. "Sure, the majors dunt want psychics. They weren't gonna draft Jack because they knew up front he was one. But it isn't like there's a law against it. It's just kinda one of those understood things. Right?"
"Well, yeah," Aunt Lucy breaks in. "But it's one hell of a strong understanding."
"I savvy. But look, Mbaye's already in the majors. He's proved himself. What makes us all so sure they'd kick him out? Blackmail, that's serious trouble. You should go to the police."
"One thing you dunt savvy." Mulligan twists around to look up at her. "When you sign, there's this contract, y'know? And there's this clause. You swear or something-–"
"Attest," Yosef says.
"Yeah, attest. You attest you aint no psychic. So if you are--"
"You just voided your contract." Bobbie shakes her head sadly. "That takes care of the smart way out. Well, look, Mbaye, what's this thing he wants you to carry?"
"That's the damnedest thing about this whole mess. I told him I wasn't going to smuggle any dust no matter what he had on me, and he said, no, no, it's not drugs. It's some old carli thing, an art object he called it. There's a collector on Sarah who wants it, but the duty's going to be way high, so if I smuggle it in, they'll save a bundle. The guy said he'd meet me on Sarah, get the thing from me, and then deliver it himself."
"You dint believe him, did you?" Lacey says. "You dint? Good. For starters, it's got to be stolen goods. You get caught with those, chico, and your contract's the last thing you gonna worry about."
Yosef shuts his eyes and flops back so hard that the couch shakes. Rosa nearly spills her coffee.
"Sorry," Yosef mumbles.
"Something's bothering me about this story," Bobbie goes on. "If the team dunt win, you no go to Sarah. Seems to me he should have waited before he put the bite on you. It's no sure thing, this win. This dude's a real gambler."
"No," Yosef says. "Channel Ninety-Seven, they signed me up for a possible color guy, an extra commentator. I mean, you know how that works – if we lose, I go along with the three-dee crew and talk about the pitching in the Series. If we win, they take the Miners' catcher instead."
"Oh yeah," Mulligan puts in. "I saw that on the news a while ago."
"And so did this dude, I bet." Lacey hesitates, thinking. "You're a psychic whether you like or not, so let's get some good out it. Did you pick up anything else about him? Like maybe his name?"
"Hey, I do my best to stay out of other people's minds."
"Which do you want to do more? Stay out of his mind or stay out of jail?"
"Oh, okay! Well, there was this one thing, and man, it creeped me out. He laid his goddamn hand on my arm, and before I shook it off, I could hear – well, no, it wasn't like hearing him think or anything. I just knew it, kind of." Yosef looks desperately at Mulligan. "Can that happen, Jack?"
"Sure can. They call it direct transmission. You got a lot of talent, if you can do that without the training."
"Okay. Then I guess it's true enough."
"What?" Bobbie snaps. "What did he transmit?"
"Well." Yosef drains his cup in one gulp. "He was thinking about the Hoppers. I don't know why, it was just this feeling."
"Aint that just great?" Lacey looks up at the ceiling as if invoking the Galactic Mind. "Hoppers. That's all we need in the middle of this. Goddamn H'Allevae."
"Told you it was a real problem," Aunt Lucy says. "So, what we gonna do?"
"You expect me to have an answer to that?" Lacey turns toward her aunt.
"Hey, I can hope, can't I?"
"The only thing I can maybe do is call Chief Bates. He owes me a favor, big time. Maybe he can hush up Yosef's secret, promise the blackmailer a short sentence or something if he keeps his mouth shut."
"I can't go to the police." Yosef sounds as if he's strangling. "Not now, not when the team--" He breaks off and stares at her with begging eyes. Bobbie shrugs, turning her hands palm-up. Rosa feels like kicking something or maybe just screaming in frustration. She doesn't need psychic talents to see that Bobbie has no intention of getting involved in Yosef's troubles. She leans over, sets her mug on the floor beside the couch, then stands up, motioning to Yosef.
"C'mon," she says. "We need to get out to the park."
"Yeah. Guess so." Yosef meekly follows. "I...uh well thanks."
"Roberta Jane Lacey!" Aunt Lucy balls her hands into fists and sets them on her hips. "I no can believe you gonna sit there and not do one goddamn thing for the poor panchito!"
"Look, I feel sorry for him, yeah. He dunt deserve having his career ruined by some low-life smuggler. But I swore up and down after that last little adventure that I was no getting involved in politics ever again."
"Huh. Wonder what your Aunt Maureen gonna say to that?"
"You wouldn't dare!"
Since Mulligan is still sitting between her feet, Lacey has to untangle herself before she can get out of the chair. By the time she does, Aunt Lucy is across the room and reaching for the comm unit.
"Dunt!" Bobbie snaps. "I'll think about it for a while. Okay?"
Aunt Lucy sets the unit back down.
"But honest." Bobbie walks over to face her. "I bet there's nada I can do."
"Huh! Plenty of things you can do. You just aint thought of them yet."
"Yeah, and all of them mean big trouble."
Lucy's about to say something more, then pauses. Bobbie can hear Mulligan getting up behind her.
"Aunt Lucy? How about you, like, make some more coffee or something? Y'know?"
Aunt Lucy opens her mouth to snarl, then suddenly smiles. "Good idea, I gonna go do that."
Bobbie feels Jack's hands on her shoulders. Until her aunt has left and begins making unnecessary noise in the kitchen, he keeps quiet, merely rubs her shoulders in a way that always makes her feel like melting into his arms. Instead, she takes a deep breath, turns around, and braces herself for an argument.
"No." His voice is perfectly calm. "I no fighting about it. Bobbie, you no can do this. Specially right before the Series. It'd be kinder to just shoot him, y'know?"
"Why does it matter to you so much? It isn't just the baseball game."
"No, it be Yosef. I no can stand it, I no gonna be able to stand it, watching what gonna happen to him. I mean, like, I gonna feel it all."
"Yeah? Well, how are you going to feel if you and me, and my aunt and everyone else, we get into deep trouble with the law?"
"Ah come on." Jack grins at her. "You can pull it off. I know damn well you can."
With a feeling close to shock she realizes that he's speaking sincerely, not flattering her.
"Besides," Jack goes on, "I know you. You dunt do nada, and this dude, he gets hauled in by the cops, and his life gets ruined, y'know? You gonna be sorry as hell. Bet you dunt sleep right for weeks, man."
For a long moment she looks up into his solemn gray eyes. At times she realizes how well he knows her, and it's terrifying. He smiles, the shy little-boy smile she never can resist.
"I mean, like, hey, Bobbie. Please?"
"All right!" She lets out her breath in a sharp sigh. "I'll be goddamned if I know why I'm doing this, but I won't say anything to Bates. We'll figure out a way to make sure no one ruins your pet pitcher's career. But you owe me one, man!"
"You bet! I gonna, like, never forget this." Jack suddenly frowns. "But how we gonna let Mbaye know? Can't call him up over the public comm lines."
"I gonna tell him." Smiling in raw triumph, Aunt Lucy stands in the doorway.
"I got a locker room pass and a ticket." She holds up a thin slip of paperboard. "Thanks to Red Wallace."
"Okay," Lacey says. "And on my tombstone, you guys can write: 'Here lies the biggest sucker in Polar City.'"