"Weapons on the ground!" the voice shouted. "Now!"
"Do it," Mal said. He shot a look at Jayne, whose expression of disgust tended to be indistinguishable from his expression of being about to lose his temper. Slowly, Mal, Zoe and Jayne all laid their guns on the floor.
"Put that package on the floor too, preacher," said the voice.
Book put the crate down.
"All right, face the crates."
"Put your hands on your head."
"Stand on your left feet and recite the first stanza the Alliance anthem!"
Mal glanced at Zoe. "Uh, what?"
Now the voice burst out in laughter. "All right, turn 'em off," he said. The floodlights all shut off, and the light returned to the dim of the warehouse overhead lamps. Mal turned toward the source of the voice to see a stocky man dressed in old army fatigues approaching. The man was bald except for long, stringy hairs that hung from the back of his head; he had a thick mustache and three days' growth of beard. He gave Mal a gap-toothed grin as he put his hands on his hips.
"Ahh, Mal, what am I gonna do with you?"
Mal and the others glanced around at the 'lawmen', and saw that they weren't lawmen at all. They were a motley bunch of thieves. Not unlike themselves.
"Jonas," Mal said. "Fancy meeting you here. I never figured you to be on Ariel. Kind of a rich world for your tastes, isn't it?"
"Gotta go where the money is, my boy," the man named Jonas said as he lit a cigar and took a few puffs. "'Sides, ain't planning on being here long. I'm guessing you weren't either."
"Not really," Mal agreed. "Can we put our hands down? I don't tend to find this posture conducive to friendly chat."
"Ain't so sure we're being friendly," Jonas said. "But sure, let your hands down. Don't make a move toward those weapons, though."
"Of course not," said Mal. "After all, we're just bein' friendly."
"I suppose we are," Jonas replied as Mal and his people lowered their hands. "So, Mal, what are you doing here?"
"Same as you," Mal said. "Doin' a job."
"And what would be the nature of that job?"
"Well, we're purchasing the contents of this crate right here and going with them to a...client on Haven. Easy enough."
"Sounds easy. Haven's a piss-poor world...wait, did you say you were purchasing the goods?"
Mal shrugged. "Yeah, we're doin' it the honest way this time. Wanted to see what that was like."
"Really. Honest. Dumpin' a box of coin here and taking the box? That's a new version of honest. Sounds to me like you've found a way of stealin' that ends up costin' you money."
"Yeah," Mal said, shooting a look at Shepherd Book, "I guess we didn't really work all the kinks out."
"Well, Mal, I can't let you have this box. See, we need it, too. I'm doing a job, myself, and there's a cantankerous old woman out on Whitefall that could use some of what's in that box."
"Whitefall?" Mal laughed. "You're planning on doing business with Patience?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"Oh, no reason," Mal said. "Just make sure you plan for her to try to shoot you."
"Nah," Jonas said. "Patience and me go way back. I was the one who told her that she should shoot you if she got the chance."
"Well that was nice of you," Mal said. "She got the chance. Twice. I'm still here, still flyin'. Counts for somethin'."
"Yeah, I guess it does. But I can't let you take this box, coin or no. You see, Mal--"
"Hey, Captain!" It was one of Jonas's men. Jonas rolled his eyes.
"What is it, Randy? I'm trying to be threatening here, and you're interrupting."
"I know, Cap, but this ain't the box we're here for."
"Look!" The wiry man named Randy held out a PDA for Jonas to look at. "See, that's the number of the box we want. It's the next one over. That one."
"Yeah. That one's got the farming seed and fertilizer in it. See, the one we want is in slot number 29-94-77. This slot is number 29-94-75."
"Oh," said Jonas.
"Well, this changes things a bit, doesn't it?" Mal said.
"I think it does, Captain," said Zoe.
"You see, Jonas, there's no need to make this deal confrontational. Instead of goin' that way, we can go another. We're not even here for the same crate. We'll take what we want, you'll take what you want, and everybody's happy."
"Seriously, Mal? You're after this crate? What's in it?"
"I don't think that really matters," said Mal. "Haven's not a big farming world, so you can bet I'm not looking for farming seed and fertilizer. Let's just take what we all want and be done with it."
Jonas kept his gun aimed at Mal as he considered things. Then he nodded at the Shepherd.
"Sure, Mal, we can do that. But I want the coin, too."
Mal shrugged. "Give it to him, Preacher," he said.
"Really?" asked Book.
"Yeah, really," Mal said. "Plan was to leave the coin here anyway. But if you're gonna take the coin, least you could do is have your boys load our crate onto our hauler for us."
"I suppose I could do that," Jonas said. His men grumbled, but he hissed them quiet. "A friendly gesture, right?"
"Yeah," Mal said. "If we promise not to shoot you, can we pick up our guns now?"
"Sure," Jonas said. "But we'll still be coverin' you until this is done."
"I figured," Mal replied as he picked up his pistol. The others followed suit.
"How'd you get in here, anyway?" Jonas asked.
"Door was open."
"Well, I suppose you can thank me for that," Jonas replied. "Paid the guards to leave it open and make themselves scarce. All right, boys, you heard the man. Let's get these boxes loaded! Remember, this one here goes with them, that one down there goes with us. With the Shepherd's coin."
Book handed the box of coin to one of Jonas's men, four of whom turned to the work of loading both crates while Jonas and Randy kept their pistols aimed at Mal and his people.
"Somethin' here ain't right," Jayne said. "We're gonna get screwed on this deal."
"Well, Jayne, the screwing was built into the deal, so at least we're not surprised by it." Mal shook his head. "This is a weird damn job, though."
"Nah," Jayne replied. "There's still some way this is gonna go south. You watch. Always happens to us."
Mal rolled his eyes. "Not all our jobs end in disaster," he said.
"Name one," Jayne said.
"Well, there was--"
"You ended up drunk and with a con-woman pretending to be your wife."
"Yeah, but it was good up to then."
After about ten minutes, they were all outside and both crates were loaded onto their respective haulers.
"Well, Mal," said Jonas, "I'd prefer if you'd drive off first. And try to stay out of my way in the future."
"Pleasure doin' business as always, Jonas," Mal said. "But I wouldn't mind pointin' out that just because we were in the same place, doesn't mean I was in your way."
"Even so. I don't want to get your luck on me, Reynolds. You have a history of taking on work that doesn't leave you much of a profit. One day you're gonna realize that 'Just keep flying' isn't a great strategy for life."
"Thanks for the wisdom, Jonas. Got some for you, too."
"Yeah? What's that?"
"Patience is gonna try to shoot you."
Jonas grinned. "Let her try." He gestured with his pistol, sending Mal and his people off.
"I'm tellin' you, this is gonna be a bad deal for everybody," Jayne said as they neared Serenity.
"Calm down, Jayne. Your opinion is noted."
Mal drove the hauler back onto the ship's cargo hold, and Kaylee closed the hatch behind them. Simon and River were there waiting; Wash was on the bridge, and he called down on the intercom.
"Captain?" Wash said. "I'm ready to lift."
"What are you waiting for!" Mal responded. The ship shifted beneath their feet as the engines roared and Serenity lifted off. Book and Jayne were offloading the crate from the hauler and securing it.
"You see, everybody?" Mal said as he took off his overcoat and tossed it at the foot of the stairs. "Nice, simple job. No big worries, no big fuss. We're out some coin, sure, but we've got a big crate full of nice, shiny toys that will make all the children in an orphanage on Haven happy."
"Everything went all right?" said Simon. "No hiccups?"
"One little hiccup," Mal said. "But it didn't amount to much."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that, Captain," said Shepherd Book.
"Hey Mal," Jayne said. "We got a problem."
Mal glanced at Zoe. They walked aft, to where Book and Jayne were both staring at the crate, which Book had opened. Zoe took one look and let out a string of expletives in Chinese. Mal did the same, only with a string of completely different expletives in Chinese.
The crate was full of farm seed and fertilizer. They had the wrong crate.